By Michael Muzquiz
When it comes to barbecues, I love a good skewer. I’ll make a good kebab with chicken, shrimp, vegetables — delicious! However, when it comes to playing chess against NM Albert Liang, I am much less fond of skewers, especially when I end up losing a rook. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the newly-minted National Master for a quick (perhaps too quick) game, and to talk about chess and a few other topics.
How old were you when you started playing chess?
I started playing when I was 5 years old, in kindergarten. My parents didn’t know how to play chess, but they saw an opportunity at my school, and they took me to the chess club one day, and at first I wasn’t very serious. I had to learn how to play with some friends at school. I also had some friends that helped me get more serious in the game, and then, of course, the mentors at school – alongside my friends – helped me get serious, and then along the way my parents just took me anywhere to play chess. I started getting serious when I got into tournaments, and then later as I progressed on.
Which chess players inspired you?
When I was younger, I’d have to say my first role model was Magnus Carslen. At that time he was a very young player, and I looked up to him. Even now, I still admire how he fights through positions that seem like draws and how he can turn what looks like an equal position into an advantage if you make the slightest mistake. I admire his precision. I also would have to give a shout-out to my coaches, who always inspire me: NM Tim Brookshear, IM Carlos Perdomo, and GM Alonso Zapata.
Do you have a favorite opening?
As White, I used to play d4, and after GM Alonso Zapata became my coach, he encouraged me to try some more dynamic chess, because I was still a young player. My tactics were pretty sharp, so he encouraged me to play more open positions. That’s when I switched to e4, which has helped me so much. He gave me a lot of his opening repertoire, and basically he mentored me. I have a lot of openings that I like to stick to, but especially when I play in Georgia (I know most of the players here, and they know me) I like to switch it up to throw in a couple of surprises.
And as Black?
As Black, against e4, I like to play the Sicilian and the Caro-Kann. Against d4, I’ve been switching a lot lately, but lately I’ve been mostly playing the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. In the past, I’ve tried the Slav and the Nimzo-Indian, but even now, I’m experimenting.
Switching your openings is good for the element of surprise.
I think it’s good to have a couple of opening lines that you’re very familiar with, where you know all the strategies, all the weaknesses. But I also think it’s good to expand, and to not be fixed on one certain line and know all the lines for that one opening. I feel like it’s definitely important to know some lines very well, and to have other lines that you can have as secret weapons.
In your chess study, which areas do you tend to focus more time on?
When GM Zapata became my coach, I didn’t have very good openings, so at first he helped me a lot with that. I can study tactics on my own, which I do just to stay sharp. But I think the main thing that I practice is just to play games, because especially when you learn the openings it’s important to practice those games to get the feeling of the opening and learn where the weaknesses are and what plans you can develop. I think one of the most important things is just to practice openings and tactics. Those two I practice a lot in my free time.
What makes you nervous during a game?
It’s actually before the game that I think I get the most nervous, especially when I was younger. I think I’ve gotten a little better as I’ve grown older, but in the game the only time I really get nervous is when the time gets low. Sometimes when there’s a lot of time pressure, or if you need to make up a certain number of moves in a certain amount of time, that’s when you’ve really got to think on your feet. That’s when I probably get the most nervous, but I feel like most of the game I’m pretty relaxed and I try to play some happy, dynamic chess.
Do you have any pet peeves, things that annoy you during a game?
Usually I try to ignore most things. The only thing maybe is when they hit the clock very hard, but it usually doesn’t happen at the higher levels.
What are your aspirations outside of chess? Future goals?
Aside from chess, I also enjoy playing tennis. I’m on the varsity tennis team at Westminster Academy. Hopefully I can put some more hours into tennis these next couple of years, and maybe play college tennis if I really put in a lot of work. I’m also interested in business and finance right now, but of course I’m still learning. I hope to cultivate more passions that progress with me during these last couple years of high school, and then to college.
What type of career do you see yourself getting into when you’re older?
I’m actually doing an internship right now at a private equity firm in Atlanta, so I’m definitely experiencing and trying out things, but I’m definitely looking in that direction.
What bit of wisdom would you share with younger players?
The point system of pieces is one of the first things everybody learns when they first start playing chess: pawns are 1 point, knights/bishops are 3 points, rook is 5, and queen is 9. I think as you progress and your level goes up, I think you’ll learn that material is obviously important, but you have to consider the pieces as a whole, as a unit, rather than as individual pieces. For example, if the rook isn’t in play because it’s blocked, then the bishop is better than the rook, even if the rook is worth more points. Sometimes, even if you’re a pawn down, your position can still be better if all your pieces are developed and your opponent’s pieces are not. If you’re on the attack and playing dynamic chess, that’s more important. It’s good not to be so materialistic, which was one of my problems when I was rated around 1600 or 1700. It’s more important just to play dynamic chess.
You were recently granted the title of National Master as a result of your performance at the 2017 Chicago Open. How does it feel?
I remember I bought a chess photo from Nationals many years ago and captioned it “Master Albert Liang,” kind of as a huge goal that would be very tough to achieve. Accomplishing this goal is the accumulation of a lot of support from parents, coaches, and friends, as well as hours of hard work. I’m thankful for the support from all of those around me, proud of my work ethic, and inspired for my future. My accomplishment motivates me to climb to the next level.
What would you say to a parent who may be considering introducing their child to the game of chess?
There’s certainly nothing to lose. If your child is not going to be too serious about it, that’s okay. It’s still a great way to engage their mind. If your child does get serious about it, there are infinite possibilities. It can be played as a recreational game just with their friends. If they want to play tournaments, that’s another step. There will be lots of training, but I think the benefits of chess are unlimited. There are unlimited possibilities. The other day I was talking with one of the board members at the company where I’m interning. He was talking about all the possible permutations of chess positions in a game, that it was like 10^120. I think you can say the same thing about the many different benefits of chess, time management, for example, since they may play with a clock, and developing board vision, the ability to think ahead. I really think that playing chess as a child helps you mature. You’ll have better time management, better planning skills, and better strategic views. You’ll be able to see things that other people won’t be able to see.
Yes, like skewers.
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