Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Conversation with National Master Alex Kitsis

I recently interviewed NM Alex Kitsis, author of Chess Step by Step: From Beginner to Champion, Book Two, via email. Here is a transcript of that interview, slightly edited for clarity:

1) How old were you when you first played chess?


2) Which teacher had the most impact on your development and what have you incorporated from his methods into your own teaching style?

I had many teachers. I think the more prominent names and maybe [best] known in the U.S. chess circles are [Vyacheslav] Chebanenko and [Orest] Averkin; the latter was a second of Spassky during his preparation to the match with Fischer. My teaching methods were developed over a long period of time and have incorporated interesting ideas and methods from a variety of chess coaches as well as school teachers I met over my career.

3) How long did it take you to attain USCF master strength (or the equivalent under the Soviet ranking system)? I don't mean when you made USCF 2200, because you obviously were a master strength player prior to arriving in America; how long did it take from when you started playing chess in tournaments to reach master strength?

I am not sure what the right answer is. I learned to play at five while in kindergarten and my grandma signed me to a chess club...later I dropped out and returned to chess in elementary school and played in a few casual tournaments...[then] dropped [out] again and got back again in sixth grade; this time I stayed active through high school and the first few years of university. I guess I played actively from middle school and achieved an equivalent of USCF NM in my senior year in school; thus it took me about five years (we had a 10-years elementary-middle-high school span in the former Soviet Union). I felt that I played at master strength only a few years later after taking second place in a strong invitational tournament, winning against a score of NMs and IMs [International Masters] from the Soviet Union and Europe.

4) What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a player (could be a particular game or one really great tournament success)?

Of course over the years I had excellent tournament results and games filled with tactics and sacrifices. However, chess gave me a much bigger reward than cherishing moments from the past; chess played an important role in developing my character. I recall being a sixth grader I faced a high school kid in a State Championship; I achieved a superior position when he offered a draw adding that if I refuse he will beat me up. It is funny now, yet at the time I had to make a major decision. Also, at another time I was invited, as a promising youngster, to play in an adult tournament. I lost the first four games when everyone started discussing that it is premature to invite young kids in adult tournaments and how such devastating losses will affect youngsters' confidence and psychological state. All such talks suddenly stopped as I won the remaining five games and finished only a half-point shy of achieving the next title, Candidate Master (at the time we did not have a rating system and used an elaborate points' system for chess titles). There were multiple challenging moments that crystallized my makeup and thus continue to benefit my life long after I stopped active playing.

5) What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a chess coach?

Building a training system that allows any student with an "average" talent to steadily grow and improve (arguably to a NM rank) while at the same time allowing students with "above average" talent and work ethic to improve at an accelerated pace.

6) Much has been written recently about the importance of "dedicated practice," "10,000 hours of purposeful study" and so forth. As someone who reached master strength and has coached many players, what are your thoughts on this subject? Specifically, do you think that anybody who is sufficiently dedicated (and starts young enough) can make master? What level is the maximum that a person with "average" talent can reach?

Absolutely. Any dedicated student may and should achieve USCF 2200. Any regular child (if [he/she] starts at kindergarten, uses a systematic approach and is dedicated) should be able to reach a NM rank before graduating from high school. Nowadays it is a norm in the countries of the former Soviet Union, Europe and China and it should become a norm in the U.S.

7) It seems like players from the former Soviet Union learn chess in a logical, systematic way, while American players generally learn the game more haphazardly. Do you agree with that statement and, if so, please elaborate on the differences you have observed in how chess is taught in America compared to what you experienced in the former Soviet Union.

Make up of a strong Soviet Chess School was a sum of many components, including (1) high quality coaches, some with professional chess coaching degrees (from Bachelor and up); (2) good image of chess: "chess makes kids smart" was not a slogan but a proven concept in the Soviet Union. (3) Names of strong players were well known (outside of chess circles) and were heroes of kids. (4) strong governmental support. All of the above encouraged young students of the game and their parents to work hard, etc. Such combination of factors (plus parental patience) allowed for a systematic approach. A number of American chess coaches do not have a strong base (limited mastery level and limited to none chess education) to offer a system. It also takes time for parents to recognize and appreciate a systematic approach and trust chess professionals (without interfering in the process). I think absence of the system in chess training was an important reason why many American children have never grown to the top. However, the situation in the U.S. is getting better. After a period of quiet, chess moves forward (though not as quickly as I would like) and finds its way into schools, newspaper pages, TV screens...parents begin to recognize the benefits of chess on the intellectual development of children. Benefits of a systematic approach are getting recognized and gradually the SYSTEM is finding its way to chess education.

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