The Annex Chess Library is a joint project of the Annex Chess Club and the Chess Institute of Canada. We’ve had a few lots of book donations to our library – most recently a collection of about 40 books from David V. Pearce, who played against IM Lawrence Day back in the day. Thank you to David and to all our previous donors!
We’re still working on getting the Annex Chess Library set up. When we do, the books that have been passed on to us by David Pearce and other retired chess players will be made available to a new generation of players, both ACC members and CIC students!
Dangerously close to an Expert rating (2000), Nicholas Vettese’s current CFC rating of 1956 makes him the top-rated player on the Canadian Under-10 list.
The great leap forward
Last July, Nicholas was rated only 1524 when he earned a modest 17th place at the 2013 Canadian Youth Chess Championship Under-10 in Ottawa. Since then, while some of his cohort appeared in newspaper articles as they prepared for the World Youth Chess Championship at the end of the year, he kept a relatively low profile, playing at local chess clubs and weekend tournaments – mostly in Toronto, but also in Aurora, Guelph, and Campbellville.
I like to play really sharp positions because there are a lot of options for me.
He didn’t win any big prizes playing in and around Toronto, but he racked up a lot of games. Over the whole year, he’s logged an impressive total of 165 rated games, and his rating has shot up over 700 points – from under 1200 at the beginning of January to over 1900 at the end of December.
With a rating gain of over 400 points since the CYCC in July, by December Nicholas had surpassed the players who were representing Canada in his age category at the WYCC – only two of whom broke into the top 50 at the event.
Canada’s 2013 WYCC Under-10 Open Team
Rohan Talukdar (placed 38th)
Luke Pulfer (placed 46th)
Moreover, many of these players have now graduated to Under-12, where they’re competing with the likes of Sergey Noritsyn – rated 2127. Nicholas, who’s just turning 10 this year, still has another, “senior” year in U-10.
Chess whiz kids
His success this past year can be measured against players in his age group, but Nicholas plays a lot of games against players older than himself at Annex Chess Club, at Scarborough Chess Club, and in weekend tournaments. But he says it’s not a big deal to beat adults and older youths at chess because he doesn’t pay attention to the age of his opponent: “I don’t really think about beating adults and older kids. Almost every game I win, it’s the same to me.”
He’s not surprised, either, that young players like himself are better at chess than many adults. “I think it’s easier for kids to learn most things,” he says. “They are quicker and have better memories.”
I started playing CFC tournaments when I was eight.
Nicholas’ favourite players are Fischer and Carlsen: both were prodigies when they were young. American legend Bobby Fischer (the World Champion from 1972) won the US Championship at age 14 and became a grandmaster at age 15, setting a youngest-grandmaster record that stood for over 30 years – from 1958 to 1991. When it was finally broken by Judit Polgár, she was just one month younger than Fischer.
Norwegian Magnus Carlsen (Nicholas’ other favourite player) was 22 when he became World Champion last November, the second youngest Champion ever after Garry Kasparov. And he was just 13 when he became a GM, the then second youngest GM ever after Sergey Karjakin. Karjakin’s record – he was only 12 when he earned his title in 2002 – still stands today.
Nicholas’ attraction to Fischer and Carlsen is not just that they were World Champions and child prodigies; he likes the way they play. He likes Carlsen because he squeezes wins out of draw-like positions, and he likes Fischer because his positions are often unusual and unexpected .
Coaching and training
If kids are becoming stronger and stronger at younger and younger ages, what’s their secret? What does a young chess player like Nicholas do to train? People talk about the role of computers in chess, but Nicholas doesn’t seem to use computers very much. “I don’t know what a chess engine is,” he says.
One thing he does for sure is to play a lot. Besides the two nights a week he spends on the Toronto club scene – at Annex on Mondays and at Scarborough on Thursdays – he puts in about ten hours a week playing online on chess.com. And apart from that? “I read a little bit,” he says. “I don’t really do any other training.”
He does meet with a chess coach – Saša Kulić – once a week. Kulić lives in Toronto, but he’s originally from Sarajevo “where video games didn’t exist,” as he states on his chess teacher website. He says he tries to instill in his students not only a strong understanding of chess, but also an appreciation for “the beauty of the game.” And it’s Kulić who gave Nicholas his book on Bobby Fischer – Garry Kasparov on Fischer: My Great Predecessors, Part 4.
From his teacher’s point of view, the secret to Nicholas’ success is that he is so passionate about the game. “He’s thinking about chess when he doesn’t seem to be working on it,” Kulić says. “And he’s not pushed or told to do it. He works on it when he wants to, and uses his own creativity.”
First moves in chess
We’ve had some great chess imports in Canada, but Nicholas is a home-grown Canadian chess talent. He started playing when he was six – through a Chess ’n Math lunch programme at his school – and he took to it immediately. “I liked chess right away after my mom signed me up for the lessons at school,” he says. “And I started playing CFC tournaments when I was eight.”
If Nicholas’ meteoric rise to the top of his age group, nationally, has happened somewhat “under the radar,” he’s still managed to pick up a trophy or two along the way. In our interview, Nicholas neglected to mention any chess accomplishments, but his mom is proud to point out that he won the 2013 CMA Ontario Chess Challenge for Grade 3 and, representing Ontario, went on to become Grade 3 Champion at the 2013 Canadian Chess Challenge in Ottawa last May – tying for first in the regular rounds and winning the playoffs.
Nicholas feels most confident in the opening and the endgame, but playing complex tactical middle-game positions is what he likes most about chess: “I like to play really sharp positions,” he says, “because there are a lot of options for me – and I also like a nice tactic that wins the game.”
I think it’s easier for kids to learn most things. They are quicker and have better memories.
Nicholas is more than just a chess superstar; he is also a well-rounded kid. He doesn’t just play chess, but also skis and hikes, plays basketball, and plays computer games. In fact, many of his friends at school don’t even know how good he is at chess. “I don’t know if they know that I play chess.” Chess is an important skill for kids to learn, Nicholas says, and he agrees it would be a good idea for chess to be a mandatory subject in school. “I think chess skills help me with math.”
What does the future hold?
As a short-term chess goal, Nicholas is currently working on a rather obscure but sometimes necessary ending skill: “I would like to remember the bishop, knight and king against king mate,” he says. An example of the piece coordination required for checkmate is shown below:
I think chess skills help me with math.
Will he rise to the top of Canadian chess in the next ten or fifteen years? One thing’s for sure. He’s a strong up-and-coming player at Annex Chess Club, and he’s off to a good start in 2014: Nicholas finished second in our New Year’s Blitz tournament.
For now, he’s still a local player: “I have never played chess outside of Canada,” he says. “My most interesting chess trip was the CYCC in Ottawa.” But he’s got high hopes: “Long term, I would like to become a grandmaster.”
Here’s one of his recent games. (It’s his Round-3 game from the Campbellville Open in November. Campbellville was probably his best tournament of 2013: Nicholas scored 3/5 in the top section, placing 6th and posting a performance rating of 2194.)
Featured Game: Nicholas Vettese (1811) vs. Wenlu Wu (1966)
Teresa Lee learned the moves as a child, but started taking chess seriously only as an adult. “I started playing chess again a couple of years ago,” she says – this after quitting chess in grade 5. She represents a group we try to cater to at Annex Chess Club: people joining the club to become better chess players, even starting from scratch. But taking up chess later in life is not an easy row to hoe. It means devoting regular time to study, and putting up with losing many games to children, or “being schooled by a bunch of nine-year-old boys,” as Teresa puts it good-humouredly.
When I am playing a move that I think will trap my opponent or improve my position significantly, I physically feel cold and start shivering or I have trouble breathing. There are not too many things in life that will do that to me.
Will there be a wave of newcomers to chess in the days and years ahead? Some are predicting the new World Champion, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, may do for the popularity of the game today what American Bobby Fischer did in the 1970s, inspiring a generation of North American players to take up chess. Magnus is a charismatic figure; on the board he’s known as a fighter who avoids theory, spurns draws, and plays for an edge by taking his opponent into murky terrain requiring very precise play. He is, in fact, Teresa’s favourite player (if the choice isn’t “too cliché”). You shouldn’t have to ask her why: “Isn’t it obvious?” she quips.
It is not Magnus Carlsen, though, who inspired Teresa to take up the game. She credits The Immortal Game by David Shenk for kindling her initial enthusiasm. The book, written for a popular audience, mixes the moves of the famous “immortal” game, played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851, with a (quite compelling, evidently) 1500-year history of chess itself. In Teresa’s words, it was “so inspiring that I decided to take up the game.”
On being a woman and learning as an adult
Chess is notoriously difficult to learn as an adult, at least if one expects to reach the top levels – some even say impossible, comparing it to becoming a world-class concert pianist. And yet there are many strong players who learned the game “later in life.” Martin Weteschnik (author of Understanding Chess Tactics) started at 25, and he’s a FIDE master, rated over 2300; Mikhail Chigorin started playing seriously at 24 (not having even learned the moves till age 16), and he played in World Championship matches.
So why do kids have such an easy time, comparatively, learning chess? Some say their brains are different. But Teresa chalks it up mostly to available time: “Kids have so much more time to consistently devote to chess than adults. Most adults have to work and earn a living. I find the hardest thing about chess is playing often enough to improve. Playing once a week doesn’t help me improve.” Her “short term (now becoming long term) goal” is to reach a rating of 1600 (that of an average club player). “I feel like I’m improving although it is not apparent in my rating.” After eight tournaments, her CFC rating is currently 907.
Ultimately, chess is a game of war, which I think is inherently more appealing to boys than girls.
If Teresa is in the minority for getting into chess as an adult, she’s in another minority playing chess as a woman. Participation rates for women in chess tournaments are often 10% or less. (Our last tournament had 5 women participating, out of almost 70 players; the Hart House Holidays Open last weekend – even though Hart House Chess Club has a female president and a half-female executive – had 9 women registered, out of 150 players)
Some say it’s the game itself that is less attractive to women. Others say it’s the culture that has built up around tournament chess that is a barrier to female players. Teresa is in the former camp: “Ultimately, chess is a game of war, which I think is inherently more appealing to boys than girls. I try to raise my kids as gender neutral as possible – I don’t buy my son toy guns yet he manages to cut a gun out of his breakfast toast.”
Playing at Annex Chess Club and beyond
In terms of chess culture – at our club at least – Teresa describes us as “very welcoming and open.” She says all the people at Annex Chess Club are “amazing,” but our founder and current Chair of the Board, Ted Winick, she singles out for special mention: “Ted is one of the nicest people I have ever met.” Indeed it’s our friendly club that got her over the hump from a casual to a tournament player: “I played for a year in the casual section before mustering the courage to play in a tournament – I’m not sure I would have ever played in tournaments if the people at the club weren’t so friendly.” When she won her first tournament game against a 1200-rated player, it was “the peak of her chess career” – and she hasn’t looked back since.
The weekly Monday-night tournament game at Annex Chess Club is her “main chess event,” but she “squeezes in” a game here and there, wherever she can: “I play a little chess at lunch sometimes, and I started a chess club at my work to try to get my colleagues in the game. It’s amazing how many people are willing to play chess if you offer free pizza.”
Still, she admits that chess is not really a great social game: “When I play chess with my friends, we don’t end up talking a lot. There’s been a few times where I played chess with a friend at a party and ended up ignoring everyone else. The host was not very pleased with me.
Teresa has even been on a “chess vacation” to New York City. She went with her friend, Anna, “to play chess in Washington Square Park. Every day we’d play chess against each other at breakfast, do a bit of shopping and then go to the chess park for a few hours.” It sounds like a great vacation, but she says Annex Chess Club remains her chess home: “It was pretty cool playing with the hustlers. I drew my first game which made me pretty happy. I prefer playing at the Annex Chess Club, though.”
There’s been a few times where I played chess with a friend at a party and ended up ignoring everyone else. The host was not very pleased with me.
Coaching and training
Teresa learned the game from her family: “My dad and my brothers were my first chess teachers” – but she continues, now, with a professional coach: “my friend Andrew Pastor, who sporadically comes to Annex Chess Club.”
She describes her playing style today as “methodical and conservative.” While hasn’t memorized many chess openings – “I’m not good at memorizing specific move orders and the proper response to each opening. It’s not the way I learn (and not the way my chess coach thinks I should learn)” – she prides herself on being an imaginative defender: “I think I play better defensively than offensively. I surprise myself with my imaginative moves when I am clearly losing but give up advantage quickly when I’m in the lead.”
On her road to becoming a better chess player, with the limited time available to her as she works full time and has two kids, Teresa makes sure at least to devote five minutes per day to chess tactics on chesstempo.com.
Her current chess book, which she’s just finished, is The Amateur’s Mind by Jeremy Silman. “Now I’m starting to go through specific chapters again where I am particularly weak.”
Here’s one of her most memorable games, where she was winning, at a certain point, against a much higher-rated player.
Featured Game: Jean-Marc David (1397) vs. Teresa Lee (887)
Finally, here are Teresa Lee’s top three reasons to love chess.
Beauty and geometry: “Aesthetically, I think chess is beautiful. I would love to own a really nice, wood chess set one day. I love the feeling of a well carved, heavy chess piece in my hand and the way it slides across the board. I love the symmetry of the board.”
Symbolic richness: “I like how chess symbolizes and reflects life. I love that a pawn can become one of the most important pieces on the board. Or that a good opening or start in life is important, but is not the final determinant in the endgame. Or how easy it is to get lost in tactics and forget the long term strategy of the game. Or that a game well played can be more satisfying than winning. I see a lot of parallels in life and chess.”
Thrill of the game: “Mostly I love the challenge of the game. I find chess emotionally exhausting. When I am playing a move that I think will trap my opponent or improve my position significantly, I physically feel cold and start shivering or I have trouble breathing. There are not too many things in life that will do that to me.”