On Chess: The Grandmasters' Sherpa Shows St. Louis the Way
The title of Grandmaster is the highest a chess player can achieve, a moniker that translates literally as one of the best of the best. These titles are awarded by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, and are without a doubt quite rare: Not more than 1,500 players in history have been officially named Grandmaster.
The St. Louis Chess Club, however, has found someone even more special: The Grandmasters’ coach.
Nobody will remember Phil Jackson for shooting free throws. And similarly, Aviv Friedman won’t be recalled for his chess dominance around the globe. But the two share perhaps an even more exclusive role as teacher and exceptional mentors to superstars.
Friedman is in the Central West End this month as the club’s first FIDE Senior Trainer (FST), the highest title in a five-tiered hierarchy that denotes the world’s leading chess coaches. The global federation began awarding trainer titles in 2004, and fewer than 150 people on this checker-boarded earth wear that of FST. Friedman received his in 2010, recognizing nearly 30 years of chess training by using his students’ international successes as criteria.
And he has overseen a laundry list of success, both in the countless number of international medals earned as well as in the recognizable names that have received his guidance. For two decades, Friedman has been head of the U.S. Youth Coaching Delegation for chess' most-elite international tournaments. Above all others have been the Pan-American Youth Championships, a continental battle of the Americas North, South and Central; and the World Youth Championships, which crowns 12 age-grouped World Champions for both boys and girls annually.
Where some trainers may earn fame from a lone blindingly bright superstar, Friedman has never played primary coach to any one student. Instead, his reputation has been earned from his ability to deliver the goods when his myriad of students need it the most: Right in the heat of battle.
“My role as a coach (at international tournaments) is a bit like an ER doctor. I’m like Johnny-on-the-spot,” he said. “If there is some issue with an opening or playing style or confidence, I’m the guy who has to find some sort of patch, like a quick fix. I would modestly say that I’m good at identifying the weaknesses of someone -- or their opponent -- and coming up with a good solution. I help people find what to play, psychologically. I think that has been my forte.”
Many young players who have crossed paths with Friedman have grown to become America’s leading chess stars. Webster University standout Ray Robson, the record-holding youngest-ever American GM, worked with Friedman in eight world events on his way up. Aleksandr Lenderman, who nearly won the 2014 U.S. Championship this past May, became a gold-medaling World Champion under Friedman at the 2005 World Youth in France. And Jeffrey Xiong, one of the nation’s next promising juniors, earned the silver medal in Greece in 2010.
And America’s No. 1 player Hikaru Nakamura, top-10 in the world, also found success under Friedman at the World Youth Championship in 2000. Like the others, certainly Nakamura entered the world’s elite with his own talents in tote, though Friedman was true in his role as a patchwork expert.
“We both distinctly remember the work we did there,” Friedman said. “I helped him prepare this variation of the Dragon (Sicilian defense) against a Chinese player. I recommended something topical, and he played it -- and completely killed the guy.”
In chess, perhaps more so than other sports, having an inferior-rated player as coach seems nearly oxymoronic. Friedman’s playing career has been dormant since 2002 and was rather short lived: Just a handful of recorded tournament games was enough to earn him the player title of FIDE Master (FM) -- a title still elite in terms of percentages, though less coveted than those of International Master (IM) and above that, GM.
Fully exposing chess’ dirty little secret: In the realm of coaching, those titles can be all for show. Call it a sacrifice: Freidman’s lack of player title might just be the driving force behind his training superiority.
“There is this illusion that, if you are a GM, you are also a good coach,” Friedman said. “That’s not necessarily untrue, but throughout history, many players who have helped even World Champions were not GMs at all.
“Presentation, preparedness, vocabulary, charisma -- many things that you need to be a good teacher can go missing. The truth is many GMs are not good coaches simply because they have reached the highest title and are players. And when they don’t make it as players, they have to complement it with coaching. But for them, that’s just a gig, like a musician who gives private lessons: They’d much rather be playing than teaching rudimentary things. Not many Grandmasters want to teach how the horsey moves.”
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.