Choosing a Coach

Whenever I’m at a tournament, I find myself being asked “Do you think who and who is a good coach? What about this other person?” Usually, I answer with what I know – which is something along the lines of “Yeah, I’ve heard good things about them!” (and I do mean it, I rarely hear negative comments about coaches).

I’ve had four coaches over my chess career thus far – and I can honestly say that each one of them has helped me in one way or another, whether it be furthering my interest in chess, helping me develop my opening repertoire, or even just helping me to understand, embrace, and broaden my playing style. Every coach has something they can add to your play. Honestly, every person you come into contact with in the chess world can help add to your play – whenever I teach, even at the most beginner levels, it forces myself to try and think about chess in a different way, to re-emphasize the basics of chess in my mind and keeping it fresh.

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Fabiano Caruana and Bruce Pandolfini – then and now (a great example of an amazing student-coach dynamic!)

So in such circumstances, how are we supposed to choose a coach? Obviously, it’s different for every player, but I’ve found that finding a coach with a similar playing style as you (usually this means positional vs. tactical player) helps in that the coach will be able to cater your openings to your playing style as they will have a lot of experience in these types of games. Now, of course, it is also important to keep in mind that openings are not all that one needs to care about. Make sure that the coach is also well-rounded in terms of their understanding of endgames and BOTH positional and tactical play. If you’re really intent on understanding and knowing a coach beforehand, there is also always the possibility of looking up their games and seeing how well you understand and agree with their play. And of course, there’s always hearsay!

And above all else: it’s important to have personalities that click well and a healthy student-coach dynamic!

Married to the Game

Right now I’m sitting in the lobby of my resort in the Dominican Republic for my first ever real “spring break” trip – honestly, we didn’t do much of the supposed spring break things (drinking, partying, etc.). Instead, we’ve been having a blast riding ATV’s, jumping from the top of waterfalls, and whitewater rafting. The last couple days leading up to this Thursday, I had been trying hard to figure out something to post. Which, let’s be honest, with all the adventures I’ve been going on is not easy.

And then it hit me. No matter what I’m doing in my life, no matter what college I decided to attend a year ago, no matter what profession I go into… Chess was something that would always be a part of me. Whatever country I find myself in, it would be something for me to bond with others and a way to communicate past the barrier created by language.

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Just as the hustlers in Washington Square park help bring people together, chess plays a universal role in bringing different cultures together

For the last ten years, it has been one of the core defining characteristics of who I am. And that wasn’t about to change just because I started going to college or working.

All the tears, the fights, the late nights, the fast food that I’ve suffered/enjoyed will always be a part of who I am, be a part of how I face the day. While there are plenty of people that like to tell me that chess is simply “just a game” – no. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a choice. For those of us who have devoted so much of our time to it, it is much, much more than just a game.

Our ability to play and understand and love chess is something that’s like riding a bike – it will never go away. It will, truly, be there. Forever & always.

 

Back to the Basics

The most recent tournament I attended was the Liberty Bell Open in Philadelphia this past January. Let’s just say it wasn’t the most successful of tournaments  – now I will admit that compared to my performance at Millionaire’s Open last October, it was honestly a huge improvement. Sure, my results were far from beautiful – just 3/7. But after all these years of tournaments, I’ve come to appreciate my game quality a lot more than my game results.

In the third round of Liberty Bell, I was paired with black against GM Alexander Shabalov. Not only was I black against someone over 400 points higher than me, a GM, but he was also my coach for a time in high school before I realized how bad I was at time management and dropped private lessons to focus on school. I walked into the game with the mindset that I was going to be slaughtered within ten moves and get an early and good nights sleep.=

Right as the game was about to start, I thought to myself “Ok, you’re going to lose. Accept that. Now just play a good game of chess.” Usually, I hate cliche little sayings like that where we’re giving ourselves pep talks (and honestly if someone else had said something like that to me, I probably would have completely dismissed them), but recently with the overwhelming constant movement of college, I’ve realized how important it is to just take a breath and to start over from the beginning. To stop worrying about the result, and to just worry about whether or not each of our moves are preventing the threats that we can see, if each of our moves have a purpose.

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Sometimes we get so caught up in the results of what we’re doing, we forget that without the basics, without the little tactics that we developed into our intuition, we would be absolutely nowhere in the game of chess.

So just as Isaac emphasize when he first started Chess^Summit, I implore all of you – stop looking at your rating, at your opponents ratings. And just play a good game of chess. It is only then that we can beat the inner us that fights our intuition and logical thinking and blinds us with thoughts of vengeance for a previous loss or paranoia from other games.

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Clearing the Path

After reading Vanessa Sun’s article a couple days back, it struck me how many of the things she addressed that I took for granted. I never realized how blessed I was to have been able to learn chess at a relatively early age, to fully appreciating the people I’ve met, and again – to just how much of a vital role my parents have played in my success.

As much as I relate to everything she mentioned, I feel as though it is also necessary to think of the cons of starting chess at a very young age. Now, I’m not saying anything she said was wrong – I most definitely believe in and benefit from basically everything she says, but as a parent or child is trying to decide whether or not to devote much of someone’s childhood to chess, I believe that it is necessary to also understand the problems and unhappiness that it could create in a child’s life.

Time. Like all things, there are two sides to this. Sure, you have more time for chess, more time to improve, more time to learn, more time to meet people. But on the other hand, weekends don’t exist in your life anymore. Hanging out with your school friends becomes a rare occurrence. After all, your weekends will be you sitting in a chair at a chess board for more than ten hours of the day at a time. Depending on how serious you are, there will also be chunks of your week being devoted to personal study or private lessons. All of this, plus the way the society around you (your town, your state, maybe even your country) will view the fact that you play – either it comes off as a “great! You’re the coolest!” or a “What are you? You play chess….competitively?” All of this unfortunately creates an imbalance in the child’s life. While happy with the game (crossing my fingers that this is true, or at least will be in the future), they also feel as though they are missing out on a lot of school events or really anything non-chess related.

Something that needs to be addressed, before any of us can really talk about chess promotion to the extent that we want to and before we can create as large of a participating population as we can, is how to take away these negative factors.

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At the time of the Girls Closed tournament, I had also been invited to a week long beach trip with my friends – but as much as I wanted to participate in that, I knew that participating in the Girls Closed tournament was not something I could allow myself to miss. 

Personally, I think chess gets a bit of a bad rep when you’re young – it’s a “nerdy” thing to be doing (not saying that’s bad, in fact I pride myself in being a complete nerd nowadays – but childhood me wanted to be “cool”). It takes up your time. Losing, let’s be honest, is never fun – but especially as a child.

So how do we do it? How do we go about making chess a more accessible and yet a not overly dominating factor in our lives? How do we make chess something that can be regarded as an asset to a young child wanting to fit in?

For me, finding that balance was accepting that if I want to be able maintain both friends at school and at chess – I have to work. Never let any single thing take over. It’s not necessary to do a complete chess training ritual everyday – sometimes a single tactic can go a long way. And in terms of making it more of an asset, the only thing we can do right now is slowly introduce it to as many people as we can and be humble and normal about it – if we make chess out to be an odd or special thing to be doing, then that’s how those around us will take it.

 

The Importance of Parental Support

When I was holding my NJ All-Girls Chess Camp about a month ago (article on that coming up!), I had several parents taking time out of their day to wait for when I was not running around trying to organize the girls into the correct room just to thank me for holding the camp, expressing how happy they were that their child could participate.

We see articles about talented children all the time: Jeffrey Xiong, Jennifer Yu, and Carissa Yip to name a few – but rarely do we see an article giving as much credit to the people behind the scenes – the parents – as much credit as they deserve. This lack of light upon the efforts of parents to change jobs in order to locate their kid in a more busy chess community, to drive hours and take days off from work to take their kids to tournaments, to use their hard earned money to find them a coach really struck me me when I was reading ChessLife’s December issue’s article on Jeffrey Xiong: there was a page-long excerpt in the middle of his article about his father!

I remember being like, “Wow! He does so much for Jeffrey – even runs with him every single day.” And then I realized that the majority, if not all of the top chess players in the world today would probably be nowhere without the support of their parents. A prime example would be Magnus Carlsen: his father has been his constant companion to tournaments since he started playing and even today, he travels with Magnus and trains with him.

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Magnus Carlsen and his father

Even though I’m not a child prodigy like many of the other players that I have mentioned here, I would still be absolutely nowhere today without my parents support. Having started at a relatively old age compared to many of the other players nowadays at the age of eight, I had a hard time really getting into the game and letting it into my life. In addition, I was often teased in elementary school for being so “Asian” and “nerdy” for playing chess and spending my weekends doing that rather than say, participating in a sport or going to the amusement park. The fact that I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere and that chess had if anything become a sore subject for me led to a period of time where I just desperately wanted to quit. But my parents didn’t let me even though it meant that an childish me was lashing out at them for no apparent reason. Instead, they worked hard to be able too move our family to a better neighborhood where I could start over and where I already knew there was another serious chess player in the area.

So to the parents who thanked me at the All-Girls Chess Camp, and to all other parents who have done everything in their power and more to give their kids the chance to learn how to play: Thank you. Thank you for helping to expose your kids to the beauty of chess, and while there may be many bumps on this path – I promise you, your kids will come to thank you one day as well.

Leading up to a Tournament

Heading into tournaments, I have always been asked how it is I prepare – do I play lots of games online? Memorize openings? Study books? Listen to lectures? Ideally, it would be a combination of all of these… but with high school and now college, time hasn’t really allowed for it to happen.

Before anything else, it is important to understand what is one’s stronger points and weaker points – for me, I tend to be easily drawn to very aggressive tactical plans while I have always struggled with positional games where I really shouldn’t even be thinking about sacrificing a piece. Once you know what your weak points are, concentrate on those. Again, for me that would include looking at examples of strategic piece placements as well as learning and grasping a better understanding of my openings (something else I have always struggled with).

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Webster University’s team analyzing a position during training

Of course, what I have been speaking of so far is the kind of long-term plan that one should always be aiming towards. But what happens if your upcoming tournament is in a few weeks, or even a few days? In such cases, I suggest very strongly that you blitz through as many tactics as you can a day and play blitz games online when possible in order to build your instinct, which will help with analyzing any position you are faced with more quickly in the tournament.

As simple as this may sound, sometimes the deciding factor of who comes out as the victor in a game is who is able to think on their feet better and who is wasting less time simply grasping an understanding of the position.

The Last Leg of the Grand Chess Tour

The final tournament of the Grand Chess Tour is finally upon us: the London Chess Classic. Wesley So, the winner of the Sinquefield Cup, is far enough ahead of the other players in the Tour that the only way for him to not win would be for Hikaru Nakamura to win the London Chess Classic.

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Nakamura vs. So

Oddly enough, So and Nakamura had to face each other in the first round of the tournament – ultimately resulting in a win by So with black. As of right now (after Round 5), Wesley So is in the lead by half a point in front of Caruana, Kramnik, Aronian, and Nakamura. Should things turn around, there is still a chance that someone will take over the tournament!

This year’s tournament has been relatively more exciting than last year’s where there were many rounds of only draws and most rounds were primarily composed of draws. Another point that is very interesting this year is that the World Champion Magnus Carlsen is not competing. Nevertheless, the field is extremely high-leveled and competitive.

The tournament so far has turned out many exciting games – I advise you to explore them all, even the draws! I can’t wait to see who comes out as the victor in this close race towards the finish line and to all those college students out there – good luck on your finals!