Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Wonderful Accomplishment: Wisconsin Prodigy Becomes Youngest USCF National Master

Nine year old Awonder Liang just became the youngest National Master in U.S. history, winning his first two games in the Midwest Open Team Chess Festival (MOTCF) to push his U.S. Chess Federation rating to 2206. The average USCF rating used to be in the 1500 range but the recent proliferation of scholastic tournaments that created a large pool of young players who have ratings below 1000 reduced the average rating to less than 1100; even though the average rating has shifted downward, one truth has remained constant: only about one percent of U.S. tournament players ever reach the 2200 level and receive the treasured white and blue National Master certificate.

This is just the latest in a series of impressive records set by Liang. In April 2011, he became the youngest Expert in U.S. history (eight years, seven days old). Players in the Expert class, signified by a rating between 2000 and 2199, are ranked on approximately the 95th to 98th percentiles among USCF members but even though this category is elite from a statistical standpoint it does not carry the cachet in the chess community that National Master does. Liang is also the youngest player to defeat an International Master in a rated game and the youngest player to defeat a Grandmaster in a rated game.

Awonder's brother, Adream, was the 23rd highest rated 11 year old player on the USCF's February 2013 rating list; after gaining 42 points in MOTCF he is within 82 points of becoming an Expert and within 282 points of becoming a National Master.

Bobby Fischer earned the USCF National Master title as a 14 year old in 1957 after increasing his rating by more than 500 points in one year, a phenomenal improvement that vaulted him from being just a very talented young player to setting him on the path to become arguably the greatest player of all time. Fischer later said of this period, "I just got good"; a more precise explanation is that Fischer's rating progress reflected a potent combination of natural talent honed by tremendous determination and a tireless work ethic. In 1958, Fischer qualified for the Candidates matches (the final stage to determine the challenger for the World Chess Championship) and thus became the youngest Grandmaster ever. It is not fair or meaningful to compare Fischer's accomplishments to the accomplishments of the players who came after him; Fischer reached National Master and Grandmaster status without the benefit of training with strong computer engines and at a time when there were far fewer National Masters and Grandmasters than there are now. Fischer was one of the very top players in the U.S. at 14 and he was a world class competitor at 15, while today's record setting National Masters and Grandmasters have not distanced themselves from their contemporaries to nearly the same extent. Fischer's record for being the youngest Grandmaster stood until 1991, when computers had just begun to make their impact felt in chess training. Since 1991, more than 30 players have become Grandmasters before reaching the age of 16, an accomplishment that is still significant but that no longer means as much as it did when Fischer battled for the World Championship as a teenager.

Fischer's record as the youngest USCF National Master stood until 1981, when it was broken by 11 year old Stuart Rachels (Rachels later earned the International Master title and was co-U.S. Champion in 1989-90 before retiring from tournament chess to become a philosophy professor). Rachels held the record until 1994, when Jordy Mont-Reynaud became a National Master as a 10 year old. Vinay Bhat soon surpassed Mont-Reynaud and Bhat held the record until 1997, when Hikaru Nakamura--who is now one of the top 10 players in the world--became a National Master less than three months after his 10th birthday. Nicholas Nip officially broke Nakamura's record in 2008 but there is some controversy about how Nip gained his rating points and it is highly unusual that Nip has not played a single rated game since becoming a National Master. In December 2010, Samuel Sevian became a National Master less than one month before his 10th birthday; unlike Nip, Sevian continued to play tournament chess and he later surpassed the 2400 rating level, becoming a USCF Senior Master (the highest title awarded by the USCF). Sevian's current USCF rating is 2471.

Awonder Liang did not play the final three rounds of MOTCF, ensuring that his rating would not fall below 2200. In an individual tournament a player would be expected to complete all of the regularly scheduled rounds unless he became ill (or was out of contention for a prize) but in a team event it is common for a team to rotate five players among the four boards either for matchup purposes or just to keep the players fresh. Regardless of why Liang only played two rounds, his chess career profile does not resemble Nip's at all; Liang has generally played in strong open tournaments where he predominantly faced Masters and Experts: over the past 12 months, 86 of his 121 opponents have been rated at least 2000, which means he has been facing (and scoring well against) the top five percent of U.S. players.

I have personally witnessed some of Liang's history-making career. We both participated in MOTCF 2013, the 2012 Indianapolis Open, the 2012 Chicago Open and the 2011 FIDE Americas Championship in Chicago but I have only had the chance to play him once; we squared off on board two in the final round of the 2013 Cardinal Open: a victory would have enabled me to tie for first place in the U2100 section but Liang--who was a half point behind me entering the round--prevailed and finished in a four way tie for second place. If Liang had not beaten me in that game then he would still be a few points shy of 2200, so it literally can be said that he would not yet be a National Master without me! Here is that game, lightly annotated; Liang slowly but steadily outplayed me, eventually winning because of the strength of his connected passed pawns:

David Friedman (2050) - Awonder Liang (2094) [B87]

Cardinal Open (U2100 Section) 1/27/13 Round 5

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 b5 8. O-O Be7 9. Qf3 Qc7 10. Qg3 O-O 11. Bh6 Ne8 12. Rad1 Bd7 13. f4 Nc6 14. Nxc6 Bxc6 (My opponent spent almost 30 minutes thinking about which way to recapture. I thought that I stood well here--not just because he spent so much time on this move but also because my K-side attack looked strong to me.) 15. f5 (A. Sokolov played the text against Gelfand in the 1989 USSR Chmp [1-0, 64 moves]) 15... Kh8 16. Be3 b4 17. Ne2!? (17. Na4 is the correct move, as Sokolov played against Gelfand. White threatens to invade on b6 and also to take on e6.) 17... e5 (I underestimated this move; I did not think that Black could afford to create such a hole on d5 but the point is that White cannot exploit this hole and White's N is suddenly a very clumsy piece.) 18. c3 (This maintains material equality but enables Black to create two powerful connected passed pawns in the center. 18. Qf3 Nf6 19. Ng3 Qb7 did not appeal to me during the game but White should be able to hold after 20. Bd5 Bxd5 21. exd5 Rac8 22. Rd2) 18... Nf6 19. Bd5? (cxb4 offers more resistance than the text.) 19...Nxe4 20. Bxe4 Bxe4 21. cxb4 Qb7 22. a3 Bc6 23.Rd2 f6 24. Qg4 Rg8 25. Ng3 d5 26. Bc5 Bxc5+ 27. bxc5 d4 28. Re1 Qb5 29. Ne4? (29. Rc1 is a better try but it will be very difficult for White to maintain an effective blockade.) 29...Bxe4 (Black will soon have an extra pawn in addition to owning connected passers. The game is over.) 30. Qxe4 Qxc5 31. Rd3 Rac8 32. Rh3 Rgd8 33. Qh4?? (A blunder in a lost position. White must blockade the d pawn.) d3+ 34. Kf1 h6 35. Qg4 d2 36. Rd1 Rd4 37. Qe2 Qd5 38. Rf3 Rc1 39. Rc3 Rf4+ 40. Kg1 Qd4+ 41. Kh1 Rxd1+ 42. Qxd1 Rf1+ 0-1

While the 2013 MOTCF event will always be most remembered for Liang's record, the first place team also has several notable young players who have already made names for themselves in the chess world. Walker Griggs, a 17 year old who earned the National Master title at age 15, led the CCLian Defense team (named for the Columbus Chess Lessons organization) to the MOTCF championship with four match points in five rounds; four teams finished a half point behind (including my squad, Friedman's Fanatics). Griggs' teammates are Maggie Feng, Luke Xie and Vikran Raman. Feng, an Expert, won the silver medal in the 2012 Pan-American Youth Chess Championship in the girls under 12 division; Xie, who is also an Expert, was the fifth highest rated 10 year old player on the USCF's February 2013 rating list.

The Dayton Chess Club hosted MOTCF; the DCC has existed since 1959 and is thriving thanks to the leadership of club owners Riley and Sharon Driver. DCC Vice President Chris Bechtold did a great job promoting MOTCF and helping put together several of the teams. Michael Schauer deserves credit not only for serving as MOTCF's Tournament Director but also for running the club's weekly Quick Chess events that attract players from as far south as Cincinnati and as far west as Indiana.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Wit and Wisdom of Casey Stengel

Casey Stengel had a solid 14 year playing career, posting a .284 batting average, leading the National League in on base percentage in 1914 and winning two World Series titles (he did not participate in the Giants' 1921 World Series victory but he hit better than .400 in both their 1922 World Series win and their 1923 World Series loss)--but he made his name as a manager and as a quipster. Stengel led the Yankees to 10 AL pennants and seven World Series titles in a 12 season stretch from 1949-60. Stengel was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, nine years before he passed away at the age of 85. 

Here is a sampling of the wit and wisdom of "The Old Professor":

"Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It's staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in."

"Don't cut my throat, I may want to do that later myself."

"Don't drink in the hotel bar, that's where I do my drinking."

"Been in this game one-hundred years, but I see new ways to lose 'em I never knew existed before."

"Managing is getting paid for home runs someone else hits."

"They say Yogi Berra is funny. Well, he has a lovely wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank and he plays golf with millionaires. What's funny about that?"

"You can't go out to the mound, hobbling and take a pitcher out with a cane."

"They examined all my organs. Some of them are quite remarkable and others are not so good. A lot of museums are bidding for them." (comment made after being hospitalized for two weeks)

"You have to go broke three times to learn how to make a living."

"I broke in with four hits and the writers promptly declared they had seen the new Ty Cobb. It took me only a few days to correct that impression."

"All right, everybody line up alphabetically according to your height."

"You got to get twenty-seven outs to win."

"The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided."

"Mister, that boy couldn't hit the ground if he fell out of an airplane."

"I couldn't have done it without my players."
(comment made after his Yankees won the 1958 World Series)

"They told me my services were no longer desired because they wanted to put in a youth program as an advance way of keeping the club going. I'll never make the mistake of being seventy again."

"My health is good enough above the shoulders."

"The team has come along slow but fast."

"Well, that's baseball. Rags to riches one day and riches to rags the next. But I've been in it 36 years and I'm used to it."

"Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice-versa."

"The trick is growing up without growing old."

"The Yankees don't pay me to win every day, just two out of three."

"You have to have a catcher because if you don't you're likely to have a lot of passed balls."

"When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed and when you're older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out."

"Now there's three things that can happen in a ball game: you can win, you can lose, or it can rain."

"You can't get into the Hall of Fame unless you limp."

"They got a lot of kids now whose uniforms are so tight, especially the pants, that they cannot bend over to pick up ground balls. And they don't want to bend over in television games because in that way there is no way their face can get on the camera."

"Son, we'd like to keep you around this season but we're going to try and win a pennant."

"The trouble with women umpires is that I couldn't argue with one. I'd put my arms around her and give her a little kiss."

"Johnny Sain don't say much, but that don't matter much, because when you're out there on the mound, you got nobody to talk to."

"Sure I played, did you think I was born at the age of 70 sitting in a dugout trying to manage guys like you?"

"The Mets are gonna be amazing."

"I was such a dangerous hitter I even got intentional walks in batting practice."

"I was not successful as a ball player, as it was a game of skill."

"If we're going to win the pennant, we've got to start thinking we're not as good as we think we are."

"If you're so smart, let's see you get out of the Army."

"I would not admire hitting against Ryne Duren, because if he ever hit you in the head you might be in the past tense."

"I don't like them fellas who drive in two runs and let in three."

"They say some of my stars drink whiskey. But I have found that the ones who drink milkshakes don't win many ball games."

"I don't know if he throws a spitball but he sure spits on the ball."

"Lefthanders have more enthusiasm for life. They sleep on the wrong side of the bed and their head gets more stagnant on that side."

"It's wonderful to meet so many friends that I didn't used to like."

"The way our luck has been lately, our fellas have been getting hurt on their days off."

"If you're playing baseball and thinking about managing, you're crazy. You'd be better off thinking about being an owner."

"Most ball games are lost, not won."

"We are in such a slump that even the ones that are drinkin' aren't hittin'."

"I feel greatly honored to have a ballpark named after me, especially since I've been thrown out of so many."

"I got players with bad watches--they can't tell midnight from noon."

"You look up and down the bench and you have to say to yourself, 'Can't anybody here play this game?' There comes a time in every man's life and I've had plenty of them."

"All blame is a waste of time. No matter how much fault you find with another, and regardless of how much you blame him, it will not change you. The only thing blame does is to keep the focus off you when you are looking for external reasons to explain your unhappiness or frustration. You may succeed in making another feel guilty about something by blaming him, but you won't succeed in changing whatever it is about you that is making you unhappy."

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Beauty, Wonder, Mystery and Horror of Chess

It takes many mistakes for a basketball team to squander a 20 point lead but a chess player can throw away an equivalent advantage with just one hasty move--and that is the beauty, wonder, mystery and horror of chess: anyone can blunder at any time.

On November 27, 2006, World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik played the second game of his six game match versus the computer Deep Fritz. Kramnik received a $500,000 appearance fee for the match and could have earned an additional $500,000 by defeating the silicon beast. In an equal position, Kramnik uncorked this howler:

Even a rank beginner can see the computer's next move: Qh7 mate. Grandmasters, psychologists and journalists searched for explanations for Kramnik's oversight. Perhaps the best theory in this particular case is that the Nf8-Qh7 pattern is much less common than the Nf6-Qh7 and Ng5-Qh7 patterns, which presumably Kramnik would have seen instantly. However, this blunder may just be one more example of the complex nature of chess--and the peculiar way that the human mind processes chess moves/chess positions: a person who is capable of conjuring up splendid tactical combinations and deep strategic concepts is also capable of missing a one move mate threat. Even "simple" chess moves can sometimes be hard to find because a player has to simultaneously focus on multiple short term and long term considerations. Kramnik concentrated his analysis on trying to trade Qs and force the promotion of one of his Q-side pawns and it escaped his attention that in such a relatively quiet position a checkmate threat could emerge.

Often, when a chess player blunders he realizes it as soon as he completes his move but in this case Kramnik was oblivious; the Chessbase news report about the game provides this account: "Kramnik played the move 34...Qe3 calmly, stood up, picked up his cup and was about to leave the stage to go to his rest room. At least one audio commentator also noticed nothing, while Fritz operator Mathias Feist kept glancing from the board to the screen and back, hardly able to believe that he had input the correct move. Fritz was displaying mate in one, and when Mathias executed it on the board Kramnik briefly grasped his forehead, took a seat to sign the score sheet and left for the press conference, which he dutifully attended."

Here is another example of the world's strongest player missing mate in one. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official World Chess Champion, castled in the following position against H.G. Voight in an 1885 game in Philadelphia, overlooking ...Qxh2 mate and losing in just 12 moves. 

One of the most famous blunders in chess history happened in Ignatz von Popiel-Georg Marco, Monte Carlo 1902. Marco, thinking that he was about to lose the pinned Bd4, resigned--not noticing that ...Bg1! would have broken the pin with devastating effect, threatening ...Qxh2 mate while also discovering an attack on White's Q.

In the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal, Klaus Darga resigned after Levente Lengyel played ...R6xe2+ in the following position; Darga thought that if he took back he would lose material after ...Bxh4+ but he had overlooked that with his R on e2 he could answer the B check with Ke3. Shortly after resigning, a crestfallen and astonished Darga exclaimed, "My God, I have a winning position!"

"Chess is My Life" is the title both Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi--rivals for the World Championship in three contentious matches (1974 Candidates Final, 1978 and 1981 World Championship)--selected for their respective autobiographies. In many ways, chess is life: a chess game and a chess career contain moments of brilliance and moments of stupidity, moments of great joy and moments of aching misery, moments of great sportsmanship and moments of deplorable duplicity. In chess, as in life, the important thing is to savor the good moments but not become dependent upon them and to understand that even after the worst of the bad moments there will be an opportunity for redemption if you are patient and determined.