Last weekend I had an opportunity to attend a class for masters (and a few experts) that was led by grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian. Akobian was teaching kids at the Berkeley Chess School last week, and my friend Robin Cunningham, who also works at the Berkeley Chess School, asked an obvious question. “If we have him here giving classes to kids, why not a class for grownups?”
The price seemed a little bit steep at first. It would be $50 a person IF we could get 10 people to sign up. But when you compare it to, say, a chess tournament, it’s not that outrageous. A typical weekend tournament costs $100 or more for two days of play. Many times you can play a whole tournament without having any games where you learned something you will remember forever. Alternatively, for $50 you can getÂ a whole day (well, 6 hours) of instruction from a grandmaster, which is guaranteed to make a lasting impression on you. Which is a better deal?
Fortunately we did get ten people to sign up. I told Gjon Feinstein from Santa Cruz and Mike Splane from San Jose about the class, and both of them were eager to attend. Robin found six other people from the San Francisco Bay area.
Perhaps the most interesting participant was Uyanga Byambaa, who is originally from Mongolia but now going to college in the San Francisco area. She has been recruited by John Donaldson to play for the San Francisco Mechanics in the US Chess League! Her rating is still in the expert range (perfect for a fourth board in the US Chess League) but Robin tells me she is improving rapidly. Specifically, he said, she loves to attack. “If you ever play her, trade queens,” he advised.
So, what did Akobian cover in the master class? Well, I feel as if I should not tell you too much because, after all, I paid $50 for it. But I can give you the general outline. He started with two of his recent games. First was a victory against Kacheishvili in the last round of the 2011 National Open (held just a week earlier!) which gave him first place. (He tied with GM Loek van Wely but came in first on tiebreaks.) This game featured Akobian’s improvement on Black’s play in a recent game between Nakamura and Ponomariov; suffice to say that Akobian’s play rehabilitates the line for Black.
Next up was a game Akobian played in a very similar situation against Laurent Fressinet in the 2009 National Open, which he also won. This game especially impressed me because Akobian reached a position where I would have tried to play a flamboyant sacrificial attack. Instead, Akobian played a series of calm positional moves — all the while ducking a series of traps laid by Fressinet. The motto of the game would be “Keep it simple.” If you can win by quietly strengthening your position, that’s better than risking it all on an unclear attack. This game also showed that tactical mastery involves not just playing your own combinations, but also anticipating the combinations of your opponent. A deeply impressive game reminiscent of Capablanca.
Then came the most surprising part of the workshop. Akobian went over several endgame studies with us. Akobian said that solving studies formed an important part of the Soviet approach to training, and he personally solves about five or six studies a week. Mike Splane (I hope he doesn’t mind my saying this) seemed skeptical that such studies were really relevant to tournament chess, because the positions often look a little bit contrived. Akobian replied that studies build your imagination and creativity. They open your mind to new possibilities.
I would add that the motifs of checkmate and stalemate, which occur so often in studies, actually pop up more often than you would expect in actual tournament play. I can think of two games I’ve seen in the last month — one of my own, and one grandmaster game — where a reminder of those themes before the game would have been really useful. Perhaps I will give a ChessLecture on this topic.
Finally, after solving a few studies, we looked at one more game by Akobian. This was his game against Yuri Shulman that won a Best Game of the Year prize in the US Chess League. If the second game resembled a performance by Capablanca or Karpov, this one was more like Alekhine or Kasparov, with an intuitive piece sacrifice that gave Akobian complete domination over the board.
My only slight complaint about the workshop was not entirely the fault of Akobian. His plan originally called for a period where we would play rapid games against each other and then he would comment on them. I am not sure how this would have worked, with ten people playing five games. How could we have time to play the games and then have him make useful comments on each one? Still, I would have been very interested in getting grandmaster commentary on one of my games, even if it was a 25-minute game or a 10-minute game.
Unfortunately, what happened was that at the suggestion of one of the participants, we had a round of introductions. This was not a bad idea, but they went on way, way too long. Instead of a quick “My name is Dana Mackenzie and I live in Santa Cruz,” the introductions turned into a discussion of each player’s personal chess issues and foibles. Although Akobian did say some interesting things, I would have much preferred the time to be spent on playing games, as per the original plan.
All in all, I felt that it was worth going to Akobian’s workshop this time but I’m not sure that I would go to a second one. It would be wonderful to get some more personalized instruction from a grandmaster, with game analysis … but of course, that’s something you would generally have to pay much more for.