Monday, February 13, 2012

Who Was that Guy at State?

Most of the top high school players in Illinois have been playing organized chess for the better part of a decade or more. It is interesting to see that the cross table for the the Primary Section of the 2003 Illinois K-8 Tournament includes the names of almost all the top players from last weekend’s IHSA State Championship: Niles North’s Eric Rosen took first in 2003 followed by Stevenson’s Kent Cen and Josh Dubin at third and fourth, Whitney Young’s Sam Schmakel at fifth, and Hinsdale Central’s Aakash Meduri at seventh. Also participating in 2003 were Buffalo Grove’s Matt Wilber and University Urbana’s George Ruan as well as Denker Tournament invitees Adarsh Jayakumar and Jonathan Kogen. One name is conspicuously absent from that cross table however, 2012 IHSA 1st Place Medalist on first board and Denker invitee, Robert Moskwa of Prospect High School. In fact, despite his 1998 rating, you won’t find Robert’s name in any USCF cross table before December 2010, a mere fourteen months ago.

I first met Robert in October 2009 at the Prospect Chess Club. Coach Don Barrett had the students playing a consultation game with two teams in adjoining computer labs. I first stopped in the lab that held the first board’s team and I saw that their position was rather dicey. Then I went into the other lab where a newcomer was talking about the other side’s weak squares as well as other positional factors. I didn’t agree with all his assessments, but his reasoning was sound and he was clearly thinking about the game at a more sophisticated level than any player we had had before.

I went outside the lab to ask Don who this kid was. He told me that his name was Robert and that he had been playing freshman soccer up until that time. Don said that he was thinking about trying him on fifth board that week. I said “Put him on first.” Don demurred however since Robert had only played chess on the internet and had never used a clock or taken notation before. Robert crushed his opponent that week and again I said “Put him on first,” but Don decided to move him up to third where he crushed his opponent again. Our next opponent was MSL powerhouse Barrington with its 2000 rated first board Zach Kasiurak. Don wasn’t sure whether to put Robert on first or second, but the choice was taken out of his hands when our first board came down with the flu.

Since Prospect was the home team, Robert would be playing White against Zach. I remembered that Zach had played the Kan variation of the Sicilian against our first board two years earlier so I played it against Robert at the Tuesday practice before the match. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about the Kan and I didn’t feel like I gave Robert any insights. On the Thursday of the match, Robert asked me to play a quick game before Barrington arrived. I thought about playing the Kan again, but I decided that playing the Najdorf, which I knew much better, might do Robert more good.  As we played, we  discussed some of the nuances of that variation as well as the Sicilian in general.

As it happened, Zach decided to play the Najdorf against Robert and he found himself in a bind pretty quickly. Unfortunately, when it came time to go for the breakthrough, Robert couldn’t quite pull the trigger and Zach gradually untangled his position. Zach managed to win a piece, but Robert took advantage of an inaccuracy to gain a couple of advanced pawns. Robert still had chances but Zach put on one of the most amazing displays of blitz I have ever seen playing the last twenty or so moves with only one second on his clock. Zach won, but he knew that he had been in a game. (You can see it here).  After the game he expressed regret that he hadn’t played the Kan and he rolled his eyes when I told him I had been playing the Najdorf against Robert.

Robert played first board for the rest of the season and continued to improve. He lost to Palatine’s Shiny Kaur during the regular season match but got his revenge at the conference tournament. He didn’t get a shot at Buffalo Grove’s Matt Wilber because Matt missed the match with Prospect. He had a second shot at Zach at conference but again came up short. At State, he went a respectable 4-3. 

Robert continued at first board as a sophomore where he led Prospect to a best ever 7-2 finish and 1st place in the MSL Conference Tournament where he avenged a regular season loss to Matt Wilber. In February 2011, he went 4.5-2.5 at State with his only losses coming to Northside Prep’s Chengliang Luo and Glenbrook South’s Gauri Manoj. Prospect went 5-2 to finish 18th. Robert showed that he could stay in the game with anyone, but he wasn’t ready to beat the top players consistently.

Robert had entered his first USCF tournament in December of 2010 where he went 3-1 in an U1400 section for an initial provisional rating of 1518. By July of 2011, he hit 1884 after tying for first in B Class at the Chicago Class Championship and he followed that up with a tie for second in A Class at the Midwest Class Championship in October. The wins haven’t come quite as easily for Robert over the last three months as he played in the master/expert section of the Illinois Class, the U2100 section at the North American Open and the open section of Tim Just's Winter Open. Still, against sixteen opponents with an average rating of 2042, he managed eight wins against six losses with two draws.

So while Robert is relatively unknown among the high school players who have been competing against one another for years, I was not surprised when he went 7-0 at the IHSA State Tournament last weekend. His wins over Max Zinski and Kent Cen were enough to give him the edge on tie breaks for the 1st Place Medal on first board over Matt Wilber and Eric Rosen. Next up for Robert is the Denker Qualifier at the end of March where he will compete in a round robin against 2320 Adarsh Jayakumar, 2246 Sam Schmakel, 2151 Jonathan Kogen, 2060 Aakash Meduri, and 2010 Kent Cen. It is probably a bit much to expect him to come out on top of that group, but I have learned not to bet against him.


Bill Brock said...

Amazing story! I was impressed by Robert's play in our game last December: a move like 20...g5!? shows great understanding of the Siclian (whatever its objective merits).

But for someone who's only been playing a short

Vince Hart said...

When Robert was a freshman, I thought about trying to steer him away from the Sicilian because he seemed to shy away from the kind of provocative moves that one needs to be prepared to occasionally play. He has apparently overcome those inhibitions.

Bill Brock said...

So where's the PGN?

Impressive number of 7-0 scores on top board, and board prize tiebreaks are silly in such cases (but necessary in team events)

Vinny said...