Nicholas Nip — youngest master ever!

by admin on March 6, 2008

Today I read, first on and then on Michael Aigner’s blog, that we have a new holder of the title of youngest National Master ever in the U.S. His name is Nicholas Nip, and he is 9 years and 11 months old. Aigner’s blog says that Nicholas has beaten nine masters, including Michael himself! Well, Michael, you can add me to the list. I’m probably not on it because my rating isn’t over 2200, but I am a National Master too, and yes, I lost to Nicholas. The game was so embarrassing to me that I have never showed it to anyone, but now I am not embarrassed any more! I’ll show you the key moments from the game below.

Michael lists the most recent holders of the record for youngest master in the U.S.: Jordy Mont-Reynaud (1995), Vinay Bhat (later in 1995), Hikaru Nakamura (1998) and now Nicholas. The interesting thing about this list is that I’ve played every one of them! This shows what an incredible privilege it is to live in the San Francisco Bay area, where three of the four grew up.

I actually have a pretty good record against these super-prodigies. To wit:

DM versus Vinay Bhat: 2-0 (!)

DM versus Jordy Mont-Reynaud: 1-1

DM versus Hikaru Nakamura: 0-1

DM versus Nicholas Nip: 0-1

Overall record: 3-3

But anyway, enough about me. Let’s take a look at my game with Nicholas. It was in the Expert Section of the 2006 CalChess Labor Day Championship, either the third or fourth round (alas, I don’t remember which). I was paired against this little bitty eight-year-old kid, who at that point was a class-A player rated around 1800, playing up a section. (In fact, there were more class-A players than Experts in the Expert section!) Of course, one always has to be careful against prodigies, but I’ve beaten them before and I wasn’t afraid of this one. In fact, Nicholas (who was White) misplayed the opening and we got to this position:

Let’s talk about this position. Clearly Black enjoys an advantage, with his pieces bearing down on White’s weak pawn on d3. But what can he do with this advantage? The pawn is, for the time being, securely defended, and White has no other weaknesses. The position reminds me a bit of a Hedgehog formation, where the defender hunkers down behind his wall of pawns on the 3rd rank and dares his opponent to come after him.

If I had this position today, I would probably play differently from the way I played in 2006, because I have studied Silman’s books. I would probably think about improving the position of my only piece that isn’t really doing anything — the bishop on f6. After something like 16. … Be7 17. Nc4 Rd5 18. a4 Bc5, the bishop is much better posted.

In any case, I needed to make a clear plan. And the one thing that sticks out in this game, like a sore thumb, is that I never formulated a plan. Basically, I was unimpressed by my 8-year-old opponent’s play in the opening, and I was just kind of mailing in my moves until he made another mistake.

He never did.

The game continued 16. … Qf5 17. Nc4 Re6? (Why give away my control over the d-file? Doesn’t make sense.) I gradually moved my pieces over to the kingside for a kingside attack, and meanwhile Nicholas started pushing his a- and b-pawns. He just pushed them and pushed them, and I had no idea what he thought he was accomplishing. Finally we got to this position, where he has pushed his b-pawn all the way to b6:

Nicholas’s moves confused me enough that they drew my attention away from the center, where I should have been planning my breakthrough. According to the computer, Black has a wonderful game after 27. … cb 28. ab ab 29. Nxb6 e4! White doesn’t have time for 30. d4 because then 30. … e3 descends on him like a load of bricks.

Instead I tried to lock up the position on the queenside: 27. … cb 28. ab a6?! 29. Na5 Bc5 30. Nxb7 Bxb6 31. Rdb1 Ng5 32. Kf1 … (diagram)

I still couldn’t figure out what Nicholas was up to. All he’s gotten for his queenside efforts is a nearly trapped knight on b7, and meanwhile the storm is going to break any minute now on the kingside. Right?

But … I’m getting seriously low on time now. And I suddenly realize that after my intended move, 32. … Qf7, my knight on g5 has no flight squares, and he can win the knight with 33. h4. Panic! I completely forgot, of course, that I’m attacking his knight on b7! After 32. … Qf7 33. h4 the computer suggests the nice little wrinkle, 33. … Nh3! 34. gh Qxb7. Now that White’s kingside pawns have been softened up, Black threatens … Qh1+, and clearly Black has now taken the initiative away.

Instead I looked around for some other place to put my queen, and played 32. … Qh6? instead. I’m not losing the game yet, according to the computer, but psychologically I am now beaten. Nicholas calmly, imperturbably continues 33. Qa2 Kh8 34. Qa4! Rf8? (This is where the computer says I lost my advantage. 34. … Qh5 still keeps things under control.) 35. Qb4! Qf6 36. Rxa6

and now White stands much better. He has won a pawn, his rooks and queens have fantastic lines, Black still needs to watch his back rank, and somehow, even after all this time, Black still hasn’t managed to play his thematic pawn break, … e4. At this point, in time pressure, I cracked and played a wild move, 36. … Ne4?, just trying to confuse the issue. But still Nicholas played with complete calm, 37. Rb2. Black has two pieces en prise, and there’s nothing he can do about it. The game continued 37. … Nxc3 38. Rxb6 Rxb6 39. Qxb6, and White eventually won in about 20 more moves.

The bad thing about losing to a prodigy is that everybody in the tournament comes over and watches you writhe. I don’t know how many people were watching exactly, but it felt as if I was surrounded, and this did not help my frame of mind. Of course, after I lost the piece and it was clear I was busted, the crowd mostly dissipated, but that didn’t cheer me up very much.

This game left a very strange impression on me. First, I could not believe that I had lost to an eight-year-old, someone who was the same age as the kids in the chess club I run every week. It made me marvel at the human mind, and it also made me wonder… Why don’t my kids play like this? What miracle has turned on Nicholas Nip’s brain cells so that he can play such fantastic chess, and why can’t I turn on those brain cells in my students’ minds?

But paradoxically, at first, I was quite unimpressed by Nicholas’ play in some ways. I know this sounds strange. But he botched the opening, and then he played a crazy queenside pawn storm that made no sense to me … So how on Earth did he win?

The more I look at the game, though, the more impressive it is to me. From move 16 on (actually move 12 on), he played with a clear sense of purpose, and he did not make a single serious mistake. Yes, the queenside demonstration should not have worked, but the important point was that he took the initiative. He displayed a better understanding of what chess is all about than I did. No matter what kind of position you’re in, better or worse, winning or busted, you have to fight for the initiative. And he also displayed a tremendous amount of poise in the wild position that arose after move 30. He was able to calmly improve the position of his pieces, while I was flailing about cluelessly.

And finally, even at the risk of repeating myself for the n-th time… he was eight!

I do hope that I will get my revenge on Nicholas some day, but if he follows the trajectory of Nakamura, I will probably only have the satisfaction of saying that I was one of his first victims.

P.S. This weekend I am leaving town for a few days (going to Houston for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.) So it may be a few days before I post any new entries. I will, however, at least log in to see if any of you have posted comments!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Aigner March 6, 2008 at 11:14 pm

Nice article Dana! You really give the reader insight into what it is like to face a much lower rated player who seems to break half of Reuben Fine’s rules even before move 8. I am still too embarrassed to show my own loss to the young monster, but the plot unfolded amazingly similar to Dana’s experience. The only difference is that Nicholas defended better against me in fall of 2007. I lost the game by overextending after I became frustrated with my inability to break into his weakened position.


Robert March 12, 2008 at 9:21 am

Ginsburg and Nakamura both seem to have a little heartburn over the matches that were used to race to 2200…

By the way, my compadre Ernie Hong drew him at the Western States Open–years down the road that may be something to brag about!


Andres D. Hortillosa March 13, 2008 at 7:12 am

I think will carry my column starting this Monday. I will try to do a bi-weekly. I am also planning to play in the US Qualifier but forgot to send the fee ahead of time. I will try to pay with a credit card today if organizers will let me. Otherwise, I am not keen in paying another $100 to be entered. I am looking forward to meeting you in person.



Kele Perkins July 1, 2010 at 7:19 am

Why isn’t Nicholas Nip listed on the USCF Top 100 by Age lists?


Matt December 16, 2010 at 9:21 am

He stopped playing shortly after “earning” his Master title, so he is listed as inactive. There was some controversy regarding the validity of Nip’s Master title, particularly because he played matches against – and “beat” – a number of other strong Masters who later turned out to be family friends. Rumor then had it that Nip’s coach paid off his opponents to throw the matches, thus enabling Nip to gain far more rating points than he should have. Again, that was just rumor… and the fact that he stopped playing chess very shortly afterwards may have been a coincidence. It’s also fairly unlikely that Nip knew about the arrangements his coach allegedly made, though if the rumors are true it does mean that Nip was more likely a strong expert rather than Master strength.


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