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What does it take…?

By Susan Justice

Back in March, I was going through some emails, trying to catch up, and I clicked open an email from the USCF. It read, “Dear Drew Justice, You are being invited to compete in the Fourth Annual ChessKid.com Online National Invitational Championship.” Wow! With excitement, I read out the initial sentence to my family, but then, scrolling down, I realized that Drew was “alternate number 11.”

The ChessKid Online National Invitational Championship (CONIC) is a round robin invitational tournament for the top six players in a given age group. Drew qualified as an alternate for the eight and under section (being alternate number 11 meant that five players ahead of him would need to decline the invitation in order for him to have the opportunity to play). Who was the player on the top of the list for the eight and under section, the top player in the nation for this age group? Yes, you guessed it: fellow Georgian and friend of Drew, Arthur Guo. Arthur is currently ranked number five in the world for his age! When I was asked to write an article about the CONIC tournament and what it has taken for Drew to earn the opportunity to be invited to such an event, Arthur Guo immediately came to my mind.

First of all, let me say that success in chess requires hard work. If I have one piece of advice for an aspiring player, it is that you must practice. A lot. Having accepted that fact, there are a number of questions that one might ask.

How do you get started with chess?
Drew started “playing” chess when he was three by competing against “Stanley the Chimpanzee” on Chessmaster 10th Edition. With the hints enabled, he began to learn how the pieces moved. At this point, he also had the benefit of watching his older siblings play. From Stanley, he moved up to playing chess on my phone when we were out at doctors’ appointments and siblings’ ball games. During this time, I allowed Drew to have “take-backs.” This was very controversial in our house, but I believe that it allowed him to learn from his mistakes and to evaluate a number of different moves in a given position.

When do you start playing rated tournaments?
Players should certainly know all the rules of chess and have a good understanding of check and checkmate before entering a tournament. From our experience, it is great to start young. Drew’s first rated tournament was the MLK 2011, when he was four years old. His three older siblings were playing in the tournament. It was cheaper to pay the entry fee for him to play than to pay a babysitter to watch him at home! I was tired of entertaining him at tournaments, so we decided he would play instead. Drew won two rounds. One year later, at the advanced age of 5, Arthur Guo competed in his first rated tournament, MLK 2012.

What tools do you use to practice?
Children playing chess today have an amazing array of tools available to them including mobile apps, computer software, online training sites, and traditional books. Drew started with chessmagnetschool.com as well as puzzle books picked out by his dad. Currently, he is using chess.com to do tactics, watch videos, and play games, as well as Chessimo (app for the iPad) for overall training. One thing that he has done is to utilize time in the car productively. Primarily during his daily commute to school over the past two years, Drew has completed over 65,000 puzzles on Chessimo. Using a mix of online/screen practice with over-the-board study and play is important. Drew’s coach recommended 10 hours a week of practice to prepare for top competition. While I don’t know the specific tools Arthur uses, I do know that, like Drew, he puts in the requisite 10 hours per week, or more.

So, what about coaching?
Drew did not start meeting with a coach until after winning all seven rounds at Supernationals 2013 to earn the title of K-1 National Co-Champion. At that point, he informed his dad that he wanted a “real coach.” Drew now meets with IM Carlos Perdomo periodically. Coaching sessions include game analysis, tactics and end-game study, blitz competition, and lots of good jokes! Arthur currently meets with GM Alonzo Zapata.

How do you choose which tournaments to compete in and which sections to play?
First of all, playing in tournaments, taking notation, and analyzing your games after the tournament are probably the most important pieces of improving your play. Facing quality competition is important, so selecting your tournaments wisely is crucial to a player’s development. One thing to notice about Arthur’s progress over the past several years is that Arthur and his dad choose tournaments and sections where Arthur has an opportunity to face tough competition–sometimes really tough competition. Losing to a stronger player while playing up a section or two gives you a great game to analyze and highlights areas for improvement.

This past year Drew had a goal of getting his rating to 1900 in order to qualify for the World Youth Chess Championships. He chose not to play in the MLK tournament because, as the highest rated player in his section, he would not be in a position to increase his rating while one loss would have sidetracked him from achieving his goal. After the World Youth cut-0ff date in March, Drew played in the K-8 State Team Championship. He won all five rounds, but his rating did not increase by a single point! Of course, it is not always about the rating; Drew was representing his school, but generally you should put yourself in a position to get good games and improve your level of play.

One more piece of advice: Don’t give up when you lose. Losing games, analyzing those games, and learning from your losses are how you improve. As Jerry Nash, National Education Consultant for the USCF, likes to say, “Win, learn, or draw.” Drew’s lifetime percentage score is 54.5%. He has won only slightly more games than he has lost. What about Arthur’s lifetime percentage score? It’s 47.0%. Think about that. The top player in the country for his age has lost more games than he has won.

 

So, going back to that invitational tournament … Arthur made the decision not to compete. Drew remained an alternate for the eight and under section, and we did not expect for that to change. Ten days before the tournament began, we received another email that one of the players in Drew’s division had withdrawn. Was Drew available? We would still be at the beach for family vacation, but Drew and his dad decided to come back a day early and take the opportunity to face five of the top ten players in the country. Drew played from Whitefield Academy, with Frank Johnson, Ben Johnson, and Fun Fong serving as moderators. He won two games and drew one to finish with 2.5 out of 5 and a tie for second place. (Full results are here. Despite some mistakes in the endgame, Drew’s game against Kevin Pan was his favorite.) It was a tremendous experience, and one we are very thankful that Drew was able to have.

 

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