ChessMaine Interviews: 2010 Maine State Champion Lucas McCain

12.15.10 After three consecutive second-place finishes at the Maine High School Scholastic Championships, Lucas McCain, a former student at Yarmouth High School currently attending Washington University in St. Louis, won the 2010 Maine State Closed Championship played at the University of Maine in Orono on August 21-21, 2010. Lucas gives his perspective on the tournament, on his chess development and on his future goals--chess related and otherwise--in this in-depth interview.

2010 Maine State Champion Lucas McCain at the 2009 Denker Tournament of High School Champions in Indianapolis, Indiana.

ChessMaine: First off, congratulations on winning the 2010 Maine State Championship. Could you walk us through the event and describe what you were thinking and feeling as the rounds proceeded?

Lucas McCain: The first round I faced Aaron Spencer, this year's Denker representative. We had recently played in the first round of the Downeast Open where I scored my first win against him (finally!) in a very interesting game that involved an involuntary exchange sac that actually turned out quite well for me. In the game at the Championship I played some kind of reverse Albin Counter Gambit that actually isn't that good because black can gain time by attacking the bishop. However, he put his queen in a position that allowed me to trap it, helping me win the shortest of our many hard fought battles. It was great to get off to this start, especially since Aaron seems to do particularly well against me in championship tournaments. In the next round, I faced John Brady. We played a very hard-fought game where I tried to resort to traps that he parried quite ably. He made a couple blunders in the endgame though, allowing me to secure the win. For the third round I played my first game ever against Darryl Salisbury. Unlike the other people I played for the first time this tournament like David Plotkin and Steve Abrahams, I was completely unfamiliar with what positions Darryl was comfortable in, so I decided to play aggressively as possible, particularly since I was at my most awake in this evening round. After some opening mistakes by my opponent the aggression paid off and I was able to sacrifice my way to victory. This left me at 3-0, so I put in the obligatory call to my parents but otherwise tried not to think too much about it. In the past I've often started tournaments well but then become too timid in the later rounds which invariably ties me for second place. (Seriously, this is the first tournament I won outright since like Scholastic Chess Day 7. What happened to those by the way?) Anyways, after spending the night in a beautiful Bangor Travel Lodge complete with spider webs and our own personal safe, I headed back to Orono to play David Plotkin. I knew David to be a very solid player who has played and drawn the likes of Sergey Kudrin so I decided that my best bet would be to play an unsound sacrifice for little to no compensation. (I did actually think it was good at the time and it turned out OK, but if instead of 17. Kxf2 (see diagram) he had played Bc1-e3-f2 I would have been in a lot of trouble.)

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Anyways, the game progressed to a point where I was completely losing and getting slowly strangled in a very unpleasant fashion. I had no legitimate resources to defend this position (at least not with my skill level), so I played for traps. Eventually David played the very natural 44. Qf5 in mutual time trouble and I was able to pull off a very lucky swindle. This left me at 4-0 and very nervous. In the past I've always felt a bit of disdain towards people who take quick last round draws to secure prizes, but once I got into this situation, and since I'm not a man of principles, I found it very difficult to avoid the allure of the Exchange French and its very, very high drawing percentage. This game was no exception to that and after 14 placid moves Steve Abrahams and I agreed to the draw. I felt a bit sheepish but I had won the championship and would also finally be able to pay for gas/food for once. Overall, this is certainly the best result of my chess career and I feel quite humbled by the great competitors at this event.

CM: Which game would you consider your best of the tournament?

LM: The game I feel best about was probably my third one, against Darryl Salisbury. Of the games that I won it was also the only one without a blunder by my opponent in the final moves, which meant that it felt a lot better to win. While it certainly wasn't spotless from either player, I got to sacrifice some material, and I actually managed to calculate the winning line, something that I (honestly) rarely do.

CM: You were edged out at the 2009 Scholastic State Championship by Gabe Borland. (Borland scored 4.0 points and you took clear second with 3.5 points.) Did that result bother you and has your state championship title helped to lessen the affect of second at the scholastics?

LM: I played the individual scholastics three times and came in second three times. While I would have loved to have won it once, in no way was I entitled to first place, so I was never seriously bothered by it, more bemused I would say. The fact that Gabe was very understanding as well as generous (when is he not?) in letting me have his spot at Denker made the lack of a first place trophy all the more palatable.

CM: Your USCF Ratings History Graph looks like the north slope of Kilimanjaro. You were USCF 1306 in 2006 and with your recent win at the Maine Championship your rating as of October 2010 is USCF 2011. Congratulations, by the way, on broaching the expert category. To what do you owe this drastic increase in rating?

LM: I think I owe this increase to two things: first and foremost the coaching of Ruben Babayan. I don't think I could have asked for a better teacher, one who not only instilled in me a love of the game, but also of green tea. My weekly lessons with him were invaluable. If you have the chance to, I would 100% recommend taking lessons with him, particularly if he ever buys an opening book from after 1950. The Second thing is/was my account on ICC. Under the screen name of "therifleman62" and now "robinho" (add me to your notify list!), I have played thousands of fifteen- and five-minute games. While I don't play as much now as I once did, these games provided a great way to develop an eye for tactical patterns as well as the ability to swindle (which many people claim is the only way I ever win games). While the fee for a membership is a bit steep for non-students, if you want a great online chess club you cannot go wrong with ICC.

CM: Can you describe your study and playing habits?

LM: These days I don't spend too much time studying or playing given that I have a lot more work than I did in high school and there is surprisingly a bit more to do in St. Louis than in Yarmouth. Most of the time I get my chess fix every Wednesday at the WUSTL chess club, where I play five- or more rarely fifteen-minute games.

CM: What advice would you give an aspiring player wishing to improve?

LM: Buy a membership on ICC or a similar site and play your heart out. More than any other thing I found just playing chess helped me improve the most. However, it is important to have a good baseline to start from and for that I would recommend three books: Simple Chess by Michael Stean (not the absolute beginner's book the title would imply), Sharpen Your Chess Tactics by Anatoly Lein, and Essential Chess Endings by James Powell. Simple Chess is a great primer on strategic concepts such as outposts, weak squares, etc., and is also very well written and easy to read. Sharpen Your Chess Tactics is around 1,000 tactics problems and while it can be very hard to work through (I haven't finished it), I credit this book as the one that improved my chess the most. Essential Chess Endings is just that, and the examples Powell chooses are both efficient and enlightening. Personally I find it less useful and interesting to look at openings, where I generally play it by ear. Of course you should in general adhere to basic opening principles, but I really don't think it is important to know opening lines by heart until you are some level above expert (I used to believe that with every new ratings class [D,C,B, etc.] it would be necessary to have a good opening repertoire, but that was never the case so I have stopped trying to predict what level openings become a necessity.) Finally, as I mentioned before, Ruben was invaluable to me. If you have access to a chess coach that is around 400 or more points higher rated than you, I would strongly suggest investing in some lessons.

CM: Who are some of your chess heroes? Which player do you most try to emulate?

LM: I'm a big fan of attacking players such as Tal, Shirov, and Nezhmetdinov. I suppose I am drawn to them because I sort of naturally played attacking chess when I started out because that was the only way I new how to win, given my dreadful technical skills. And though my ability to win endgames and strategic battles has improved (slightly), I still have a weakness for swashbuckling chess.

CM: Do you have further goals in chess? Are you gunning for the Master level (USCF 2200)?

LM: I haven't ever really set long-term goals for myself regarding chess, but a master rating is certainly something I'd like to achieve. While I don't think that will happen while I'm in college, I do plan on taking a year off at some point, and improving my chess would be a great way to spend some of that time.

CM: Tell us what you are up to these days? How is school going and what are you majoring in?

LM: So far my experience at Wash U has been fantastic. As of now my plan is to major in both economics and finance, with a minor in Russian. The course load is taxing but presumably worth it, and I also have a great group of friends for support and general tomfoolery.

CM: Do you have an opportunity to play much chess in St. Louis and have you visited the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis?

LM: Due to transportation issues I unfortunately don't get to visit the St. Louis Chess Club (or anywhere in St. Louis) very often. However, they are getting a lot more active on campus lately (such as having Nakamura play a blindfold simul next semester), so I hopefully will be able to get a lot more involved. They've also been quite generous with funding, and are helping out quite a bit with the Pan Am College Chess Championships, where four of my teammates and I will be headed over winter break. Word on the street is we're even going to get embroidered polos, the hallmark of any self-respecting chess team.

CM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

LM: I'd just like to thank the general Maine chess community. While it may not be the biggest or highest rated out there, its members are some of the best people I've had the pleasure of meeting. You guys have made my five or so years of competitive chess completely worth it.

CM: All the best in your future endeavors!

LM: Thanks!



Have you looked at 15...Qh4!? Since 16.Nh4,Nh2 mate white has to think,i.e.: 16.Bg5,Qg5;17.Ng5,Ne6 mate. Black has some real trickiness here. Not looking really deep here but there is smoke!



Have you looked at 15...Qh4!? Since 16.Nh4,Nh2 mate white has to think,i.e.: 16.Bg5,Qg5;17.Ng5,Ne6 mate. Black has some real trickiness here.


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