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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Odle Middle School Chess Team Succeeds in Nashville

We are on the map

Following its triumph at the State Elementary championships, the Odle Chess Team continued its winning ways both nationally and internationally.

At the US National Chess Championships in Nashville, Odle sixth graders WCM Naomi Bashkansky, Brian Chen, James Lai, Aidan Lawler, and Richard Yang took home a well-earned 5th place in K-6  section, while at the National K-6 Blitz Championships, the Odle team took Second Place in the nation, just edged out by a powerful New York team.

On the international front, the annual Washington vs. British Columbia Scholastic Chess Tournament was held recently.  Each team consisted of two representatives from each grade K-12. Three Odle students helped lead the Washington team to a convincing 29-23 victory: Naomi Bashkansky (6th grade), Richard Yang (6th), and Derek Zhang (7th).

Reprinted from the Northwest Chess blog post by John Lawler and Ludmila Bashkansky

Thursday, May 14, 2015

We will survive

Chess travel is not for wimps.

Out of the 50 most violent cities in the world, we have already visited, or are considering to visit, 6:

Ranked by the reported murder rate:

50. Cuernavaca, Mexico  --  25.45 homicides per 100,000 residents.
38. Durban, South Africa  --  34.48 homicides per 100,000 residents.
23. Goiânia, Brazil  --  44.82 homicides per 100,000 residents.
19. St. Louis, Missouri  --  49.93 homicides per 100,000 residents.
14. Cape Town, South Africa  --  60 homicides per 100,000 residents.
9. Cali, Colombia  --  65.25 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Don't forget our visits to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, São Paulo, Brazil and Johannesburg, South Africa, which somehow didn't make the list, even though they are eponymous with highest levels of murderous violence.

A police officer stands next to various body parts in black plastic bags in Cuernavaca October 14, 2012.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Washington State Elementary School Chess Championships

Now, and six years ago

Now, 2015

On Saturday, April 25, 2015, Washington State Elementary School Chess Championships were held in the Convention Center in Spokane, WA.  We arrived on the eve of the event and met the US Chess Champion Irina Krush, who won this title at age 14 in 1998, and many times since then.  We had a photo-crush on Krush:

Naomi played in the 6th Grade section, as part of her Odle Middle School chess team.  She was mentioned in the opening remarks as the girl who won first place in this championship 6 years ago in the Kindergarten section.

The accelerated pairing by the organizers meant that the highest-rated Naomi got stronger opponents than she would usually get under the regular Swiss system, and had to play harder games, while other good players got weaker opponents and easier games.  Also, Naomi was tired after winning the US National Girls Champion title just a few days before in Chicago.  And she hasn't played short games in a while.

Maybe because of all this strain, Naomi drew a game with the boy in the photo below, and got 4.5 points out of 5.  Another boy got 5 out of 5 (as usually happens in such large tournaments) and took first place in the 6th Grade section, congratulations to him.  Naomi shared second and third  place with Freya.

And, Naomi's Odle Middle School chess team took first place in the state, by overall team points.  Good job!

Here is our Trip to Spokane photo story automatically built by Google+ from my smartphone backup photos:

Six Years Ago, 2009

On April 24-26, 2009 all four of us traveled for the first time to Spokane, WA for the Washington State Elementary Chess Championships.  Ethan played in the 5th Grade section, and Naomi played in the Kindergarten section.  We stayed at the Travelodge Spokane hotel right next to the Convention Center.

We remember being overwhelmed by the size of the event and the amount of players and parents.  Many thousands of people roamed the halls and the corridors.  We tried to balance between the need to be near the kids and the desire to explore the nearby Spokane Riverfront Park, which 35 years ago hosted Expo '74.

Both Ethan and Naomi won first places and champion titles in their respective age categories, 5th Grade and Kindergarten.  Both of them got perfect scores, winning all 5 of their 5 games.  

The most memorable feeling was the sudden reversal of perspective.  From being just some insignificant one thousandth part of the whole chess event we suddenly became its focal point, twice over.  Uniquely, we now had two state champions in the family!  Both our kids both brought champion trophies to the school on Monday.

Here is our 2009 trip to Spokane photo album:

Ethan and Naomi both got first place in their sections

The Fame

The next morning we've woken up in the Travelodge Spokane hotel and leisurely rolled our suitcases to the front desk for checking out.  On the front desk, we've noticed a pile of The Spokesman Review local newspaper.  The front page prominently featured both Naomi and Ethan.

Jody Lawrence-Turner interviewed Naomi and a few other kids during the championships, and then wrote a remarkable piece about the event.  Quote from her article: 'Asked why she likes the game, Naomi said: “I like to win trophies and dollars.”' -- alluding to the example set by her big brother Ethan, who's 5 years older.

Unfortunately, in the printed newspaper version, the list of winners in the beginning incorrectly named the 5th grade 1st place winner as Samuel Meisner rather than the actual winner, Ethan.  We emailed Jody and she quickly corrected the online version of the article.

"Garrett Casey is a killer"

Naomi's last game opponent was Garrett Casey, a young local chess prodigy understandably cheered by the Spokane press.  On May 14, 2009, another local newspaper, The Inlander, printed a story named "Child’s Gambit" about the championship.  It started with the phrase, quote: "Garrett Casey is a killer", then proceeded to inflate his opponent and ultimate nemesis, quote: "machine-precise Naomi Bashkansky", who is, quote: "a remarkably seasoned player".  

Fearsome western invaders are preying upon the peaceful easterners domain, quote: "The seat of chess power in Washington resides on the west side — the area around Bellevue and Redmond, specifically. People have heard about the dominance of players from the area, speaking in awed tones about the ruthless children of Microsoft employees."

The dramatic battle of the tiny chess titans has been described in decidedly Homeric tones, until the climactic end of Naomi's game, quote: "She hovers over the square that will checkmate him", then, quote: "takes her championship and Garrett Casey becomes a little boy again".  We wiped away very real tears while reading this inlander Greek tragedy.  Such a cruel crush by the ruthless coastal aggressor riding her pair of black Trojan horses: ♞♞

In May 2010, this Iliad-envy epic by Luke Baumgarten won first place in the Lifestyles category when Region 10 of the Society of Professional Journalists awarded its prizes for work published in 2009 in a competition of publications in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.  Well, after this Iliad, we are waiting for the Odyssey...

And of course, Garrett Casey is a great chess player.  He took first place next year (2010) in the Kindergarten section.  And then, after a long lull, took first place in the 5th Grade section this year (2015).  Atta boy!  

Ethan and Naomi: greedy ruthless machine-precise trophy-grabbers

Take a look at that first trip's photo album:

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Naomi Wins the US All-Girls Chess Championship Again

Naomi has become the US All-Girls National Chess Champion again!

All-Girls Championship

Chicago is the US girls chess capital.  Every year the Kasparov Chess Foundation organizes the US All-Girls National Chess Championships in the Windy City.

There, on April 17-19, 2015, Naomi has won first place at the US All-Girls Chess Championship Under 12 section, with 5.5 points out of 6.  Here is the championship results cross-table.

Her wins seemed deceptively easy, as if Naomi just steamrolled over her opponents.  There were no exhausting super-long games we've gotten used to see her play at the World Youth Championships.  First place in the USA seems easier than, say, tenth place in the world.  

Naomi's win qualifies her to represent the USA in October 2015 at the World Youth Chess Championship in Halkidiki, Greece (she has already qualified for this by other criteria also).

It's second time she becomes the US All-Girls National Chess Champion.  Her first time was in 2013 in the Under 10 section.

The US All-Girls Championship write-up appears on the US Chess Federation website.

Back home, Naomi's Odle Middle School chess team burst in applause upon learning that she won the tournament.  The teammates said they are proud of her, and wished her keeping the winning streak alive next week by winning the State Championship.

In this photo Naomi holds her first place trophy, on the podium with the organizer in McCormick Place, Chicago:

2015-04-19 Naomi first place - All Girls Chicago 1 crop.jpg


The Windy City has amazed us before, and it hasn't failed to do so this time as well.  

The championship was held at McCormick Place -- the largest convention center in North America, which covers a large chunk of the Near South Side, next to Soldier Field.  

Through McCormick Place halls, we would venture east to the Lakefront Trail and then would walk north to the Museum Campus.  

Over the weekend, we visited the Field Museum of Natural History, Shedd Aquarium, the Glessner House and the Museum of Science and Industry.  All are superb, just like the Art Institute and the other places went to last time.

Here is our full "Trip to Chicago" photo story automatically built by Google+ from my smartphone backup photos, just take a look:


We flew to Chicago O'Hare airport with Alaska, then took CTA Blue and Red lines to Chinatown Hotel.  It was after midnight on Friday and some of the passengers were rowdy.  Police walked around with dogs the size of a lawn mower, with steel muzzles!   

For the rest of our stay, we decided to start using Uber and Lyft for the first time, and very much liked these peer-to-peer smartphone taxi apps.  We had to shuttle a lot between the hotel, the convention center, and the museums.  For the three of us it felt cheaper, more convenient and safer than either public transit or conventional taxi.  

We flew back with Southwest Airlines from Midway airport.

First Place Trophy

True story: on an earlier occasion someone saw the knight figure on top of Naomi's trophy and hypothesized it must be something related to horses.

People have actually wondered: How did we manage to board the return plane with this golden bazooka of a trophy?

When flying to Chicago, we providently packed just 2 carry-on bags for all 3 of us, so that on our way back we could accommodate this expected spare piece of luggage.

On the way back, all along our way from the airport entrance to the plane seats, people have been constantly stopping to ask Naomi about her humongous trophy.

As we made it to our plane seats, a group of teenage boys in the adjacent seats burst into spontaneous applause upon learning it's the US National Champion trophy.  Naomi bowed nicely to the adoring crowd.

And the flight attendants have been so impressed, they allocated a full overhead bin for the trophy, so that it wouldn't get damaged accidentally.

Shipping it home (for about $40) would delay the time-sensitive boasting, and disassembling / packing / reassembling has been historically shown to be fragile.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014 World Youth Chess Championship in Durban, South Africa

Between the Two Oceans - Atlantic and Indian

The 2014 World Youth Chess Championship was held in Durban, South Africa on September 19 - 29.

Naomi (11) played for the USA in the Girls Under 12 category. She is younger than most other players in this section, which means tougher competition for her. However we couldn't let go of this great opportunity to visit the fascinating country of South Africa!  

Ethan (16) stayed home, since he was starting his studies at the University of Washington, through the UW Academy program.


From Seattle we flew 12 hours to London, where we had a 9 hour layover, put to a good use. From the Heathrow airport we rode a train to the Piccadilly Circus (1 hour).

There we took a Big Bus sightseeing tour (2 hours) non stop through major tourist attractions, then returned to the airport from Victoria Station (1 hour).

Inside Heathrow Terminal 3 there is an hourly-rate micro-hotel, where we crashed for 3 hours before the 12 hour flight to Johannesburg.

Photo album: 2014_09_13 London Big Bus Tour (a nice touristic refresher)

Big Ben, obviously


A modern Gautrain from the airport to the Park Station brought us within walking distance of our Protea Hotel Parktonian, however they still sent a shuttle to pick us up. This is not a safe city.

Despite being 36 hours on the road, almost immediately after checking in we went back to the Park Station (with an accompanying hotel employee for safety) to catch a Red City Tour bus.

Johannesburg has changed many times since gold was discovered there in the 19 century. It had been radically transformed in the last 25 years.

The only stop we made during the tour was at the Apartheid Museum. The museum is impressive, however its confusing architecture and emotive presentation style only emphasize the relative paucity of informative load.  

The high rise cylinder of the Protea Hotel Parktonian offers 360° views of the city. We caught them before sunset and then at night.

Gold Reef City casino and theme park

Next morning a hotel shuttle brought us same few hundred yards to the train station, and the Gautrain took us back to the airport. The flight to Cape Town took just one hour.

Cape Town

Cape Town is a truly iconic city. Like in the blog post about Rio de Janeiro, it's hard to explain in words, you have to see the photos!

Day 1

We rode a taxi from the airport to the Waterfront Marina Residential vacation suites, located along picturesque Dutch-style canals near Cape Town's touristic heart: V&A Waterfront.  

Our Waterfront Marina Residential hotel room balcony view

In the afternoon we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, a very nice and intimate place.

African penguin in the Two Oceans Aquarium

While strolling on the picturesque V&A Waterfront In the evening, we've spotted the actor Aaron Paul, who played Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.  He was hesitating over an antelope hide cushion in the Taung Trading Post store.  I'd say, with those iconic $5M bags of money, he should've gone for the $2000 full zebra hide ;-)

Day 2

In the morning, the Red City Tour bus took us through the center of Cape Town to the Table Mountain cable car lower station, where we took the cable car to the upper station.  The Table Mountain top offers incredible views of Cape Town below to the north, Table Bay, Devil's Peak, Signal Hill, Lion's Head, and the "12 Apostles" cliffs to the south.  It's one of those places where a photographer goes into a feeding frenzy.

On the way back, the bus drove along picturesque neighborhoods perched along the Cape Town western coast: Camps Bay, Clifton, Bantry Bay, Sea Point, Green Point.  We rode beyond the Waterfront, back to the city center, and then joined the Bo-Kaap walking tour at 3pm.  Browsing through the Greenmarket Square pavement market we couldn't resist and bought the frighteningly horned and bearded "Zulu King" mask from a street vendor, in what looked like a bargain, after he lowered the price from 3000 to 400 rand ;-)

We rode the Yellow Downtown Tour bus non stop and then the special end-of-day return bus back to the Waterfront. In the evening, we strolled along the Waterfront and enjoyed South African cuisine in Karibu restaurant.

Cape Town panorama from Table Mountain

Day 3

In the morning, we took the Canal Cruise between the Waterfront and the International Convention Centre.  It was foggy with wet drizzle and the Table Mountain was completely hidden by fog and low clouds.  Now we realized how lucky we were yesterday to have clear weather.  

However, for the purpose of today's Blue Mini Peninsula Tour, the wet weather was not a big problem.  The bus drove past Rhodes Memorial and the University of Cape Town to the back side of the Table Mountain.  There we visited the splendid Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and the World of Birds.

From Hout Bay the Blue Tour bus took the familiar road north along the Atlantic coast, then through the Waterfront and on to the city center, where we visited the South African Jewish Museum, and its famous collection of Japanese netsuke.  Like yesterday, we rode the Yellow Downtown Tour bus and then the special 5pm return bus back to the Waterfront.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden entrance

Day 4

This was our grand finale -- the full day Cape Peninsula tour.  However, in the morning the tour van missed our pick up.  After a few phone calls, the tour company sent a transfer driver who picked us up and eventually caught up with the tour van at Hout Bay. We didn't miss much, and the tour company gave us a discount.

Because of the rough weather, there were no boat trips from Hout Bay to Seal Island, but we caught a perfect view of the seals right there on the pier!  To avoid rain, after driving through Chapmans Peak Drive we took left to Simons Town on the east side of the Cape Peninsula.  There we saw whales from afar, and visited the famous Boulders Beach Penguin Colony.  

Hout Bay seal

From the north, through a large nature reserve, we arrived at the picturesque Cape Point -- with its views, funicular, lighthouse on the cliff, crazy winds and friendly baboons. The Cape Of Good Hope is 15 minutes away and presents a nice photo-op, plus a certain sense of geographic exploration rooted in maritime history.

On the way back we saw again the splendid Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and learned about South Africa's national flower, the King Protea.

Cape of Good Hope, obviously


Day 1

As frequent travellers to international chess events we are always a bit anxious about the "organized transportation" from the airport to the chess hotel.  Too often it's a torturous affair: either nobody meets us, or we wait for hours, or both.  However, in Durban they organized it perfectly!  They met us at the arrival hall, brought to the transportation desk immediately and then accompanied to the bus which departed very soon.  This time the "organized transportation" actually was, well, organized.

Upon arrival, we got a nice corner room on floor 5 of the Maharani Hotel, with a stunning view of the Indian Ocean and the Golden Mile beachfront. Together with 3 meals a day, it made the FIDE-mandated price tag of $135/day per person ($405/day for the three of us) just a tiny bit more sufferable during the 11 days of our stay.

View from our room window

Day 2

In the morning we met a family of our long-time friends from the Kazakhstan delegation.  We bump into each other at every World Youth Championship since the first one in Brazil in 2011.  The two mothers developed a strong bond, centered on the child education topics.

The US team meeting, held between the Elangeni Hotel and the Indian Ocean, and led by Coach Michael, was an opportunity to see our whole large team together, with all the kids and their parents, the coaches, and even a USCF official. The kids in each section typically know each other, and Naomi joyfully played with her peers.

US team meeting - parents

The 2014 World Youth Chess Championship opening ceremony was scheduled for 3pm in Durban International Convention Centre (ICC).  It culminated at 4pm with the stunning "Zulu Experience" tribal dance performance.  The dance videos are in the photo album:

It is customary for the players to exchange small souvenirs from their home places before the game starts, like key chains or fridge magnets.

In Round 1, Naomi played white against a South African player, Hlomisa Vuso, and won.  

After each round, post-game analysis was provided by our US coaches: Sam, Michael, Aviv, Ben, Armen, Nick, Andranik, John.  The US chess delegation felt like a real sports team.  

The chess tournament itself is best described by a series of articles written by the US team coach GM Ben Finegold, posted online at the US Chess Federation website.  Here is his opening article, after Round 1.
Round 1: USA's Naomi vs South Africa's Hlomisa Vuso

Day 3

In Round 2 Naomi drew with the last year's World Youth winner Saina Salonika from India, not bad!  
Round 2: Naomi vs last year winner from India, Saina Salonika

During her play we ventured by taxi to the Durban Botanic garden, the oldest in South Africa.  It was an awesome experience, the best botanical garden by far we ever seen.  They have a walking tree, a sunken garden, an orchid house, and much more.

Botanical Garden Orchid House

In Round 3 Naomi lost to a girl from Poland, Honorata Kucharska.  I went for a swim in the roof pool on floor 35 of the Maharani Hotel, crashing an Afrikaner family picnic.

Day 4

In the morning, I took a swim in the Indian Ocean.  Actually, it was more of wave jumping, restricted to the lifeguard area.  It was reassuring that they have nets against sharks along the Golden Mile.  

Sand sculptures along Durban's Golden Mile beach

Starting from Round 4, the organizers provided continuous online video coverage from the playing venue.  Try watching 6 hours of kids playing chess, like many parents actually did from the galleries...

In Round 4 Naomi won over a girl from Turkey, Sude Hereklioglu, while we strolled leisurely along the beachfront.

Round 4 vs Turkey's Sude Hereklioglu

School children organized trip to beach water attractions - see the video!

Day 5

In Round 5 Naomi was almost winning, but then lost to a Slovenian Zala Urh, after making a mistake in time trouble.  In Round 6 Naomi lost to a fellow player from the USA, Chenyi Zhao.  There is a day like this in every tournament...  The stormy weather matched our mood.

Severe mood at the post-game analysis
(US coaches left-to-right: Sam, Michael, Aviv, Ben, Armen, Nick, Andranik, John is missing)

Coach Ben has posted his mid game chess tournament report on the USCF website.

Day 6

This was the only free day on the tournament, and some people went for a safari.  However, to actually see the animals you have to wake up at 5am, arrive to countryside at 7am to meet a guide, who then drives you into the wilderness before most animals start to go to sleep around 10-11am.  With many chess games ahead, we decided to keep our sleeping habit and opted for the uShaka Marine World instead.  

After walking the Golden Mile there, we very much enjoyed the spectacular dolphin show, the "sunken ship" aquarium, the penguin feeding presentation.  Naomi was ecstatic about the seal show, which continuously made a big laugh of a "random" spectator.  

uShaka mascots

Day 7

In the morning, we walked on the beach all the way north to the stadium, and in the afternoon the US team gathered for a team photo in the ICC.


In Round 7 Naomi won over a girl from exotic Madagascar, Miah Raveloson.  Earlier this year Miah represented Madagascar at the 41st World Chess Olympiad in Tromsø, Norway.

Round 7 vs Madagascar's Miah Raveloson

Day 8

In Round 8 Naomi won over a fellow teammate from the USA. Now she had 4.5 points out of 8.  

Round 8 vs fellow USA's Sanjana Vittal

At that point, Coach Ben has written his pre-endgame chess tournament report.

Day 9

In the morning we rented bikes for a ride on the Golden Mile beachfront.  Naomi took a regular bike and we tried quad bikes, but I switched to a regular one in the middle.  It was fun!
Quad bike ride on the Golden Mile

In Round 9 Naomi drew with a girl from China, Xue Bai.

Round 9: USA vs China's Xue Bai

Day 10

Most tourists in Durban spend their time within the Golden Mile, close to the beachfront.  However, the city experience wouldn't be complete without a sightseeing bus tour.  I ventured out on the Ricksha Bus Tour this drizzly morning. The tour rode the Golden Mile, then turned to the port and the wharf, to the city center, markets, churches and mosques the City Hall, the ICC, and on to the affluent neighborhoods up the hills.  Durban displays a unique mix of Zulu, Afrikaner, Indian and British influences.  From a viewpoint in the hills one can see a great panorama, from the Umgeni River, through the stadium, the Golden Mile, to the port.

Durban panorama from the hills

In Round 10 Naomi beat a Czech opponent, Julie Vilimova. Now she's got 6 points out of 10.

Day 11

In the last Round 11 Naomi lost to a Canadian player, Maili-Jade Ouellet.  With 6 points total, she was 30th out of 80 international players. Here is the final results cross-table.

In the afternoon, we three went to the beach in front of our hotel.  For hours we jumped in the big waves of the Indian Ocean, washing away the stress and suspense of the last 10 days.

The closing ceremony started at 7pm with speeches and dance performances.  Unexpectedly, the organizers spent very long time with the (run in parallel) Grandmaster Tournament awards.  The World Youth Chess Championship awards started late, and only at 9pm they reached Naomi's Girls Under 12 category.

The GU12 category top award was the US team's triumph worth waiting for!  Jennifer Yu from Ashburn, VA won the first place and got the gold medal!  

3rd - Olga Badelka, Belarus 1st - Jennifer Yu, USA! 2nd - Elizaveta Solozhenkina, Russia

Coach Ben's endgame article about the WYCC elaborates on Jennifer Yu's great success and draws some conclusions from the tournament.  The Washington Post - Jennifer's local newspaper ;-) wrote a proud article about her.

Out of our fellow Washington State players, Jason Yu was 11th in U8 section, Bryce Tiglon 11th in U14, Naomi 30th in U12 Girls, Eric Zhang 34th in U8, Tendo Lumala 64th in U10.

The most memorable part of the closing ceremony has been the Zulu Experience tribal dance performance:

The Long Road Home

After dipping our feet in the Indian Ocean for the last time, we started the long road home.  The Durban - Johannesburg flight was delayed, but arrived in time for the Johannesburg - London connection.  Overall, South Africa is a great tourist destination, everything related to international travel and tourist transportation is safe and efficient.  The long flight to London left us tired and mentally unprepared for the absurdly long, invasive, and overzealous hand baggage security inspection at Heathrow.  USA's TSA actually seem sane in comparison.

The three-hour rest and breakfast in the same familiar micro-hotel room has been a welcome respite.  The flight to Seattle completed our 39-hour journey home.