Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Dream Police

There has been a lot of activity in the chess world lately, with the MTel Masters tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria just wrapping up, the U.S. Championships in Tulsa are heading towards the final two rounds and locally, the 11th FIDE Invitational is at the midway point and taking place not 10 minutes from my house! I’ve been tracking each of these events online and even stopped by the FIDE Invitational to watch the action first hand. For myself, I’m getting ready to embark on my own tournament activity for the summer at this weekend’s Chicago Open in Wheeling. All of this great tournament bustle got me to thinking about what it would be like to play fulltime and travel around participating in tournament after tournament. Hey, a patzer can dream can't he? A schedule such as this would be entirely possible by simply overcoming a few, minor hurdles: taking a leave of absence from my job for 3 months and stumbling across a bag full of money. Adjacent to this would be that my wife (who would certainly be thrilled to join me in these travels!) would also need to get a stay of execution from her work as well. So, here is how it starts:

Play this weekend in the 17th Annual Chicago Open in Wheeling - ok, so no real travel involved since I’ll be driving to and from, but we want to start off slow!

I do need to participate in a work-related, nearly weeklong industry function here in Chicago from June 7th to 12th, otherwise I’d get fired. But if this was a true dream scenario, we’d fly out to Las Vegas and I’d play in the National Open from June 6-8. I played in this twice back in the 90’s and haven’t been back to Lost Wages since. Think it’s changed?

The following weekend we’d fly/drive to Ohio to visit with my family AND I’d step away from the barbecue to play in the Cleveland Open from June 13-15!

We’d take a weekend off after that and then I’d drive out to Skokie (ok, so not a LOT of jet-setting travels yet, but it gets better!) for the U.S. Game/30 and Game/60 Championships on June 28-29.

The following weekend is, of course, the 36th Annual World Open in Philadelphia. This poses several conflicts to the dream scenario: first, this is the weekend of my daughter’s birthday (the 4th) AND we already have plans for a family event in Wisconsin for this holiday weekend. However, the World Open offers so many different playing schedules, I’m confident we could do both! Since this IS a pipe dream plan I’ll go ahead and say we’d jet around and get both events in, otherwise I’m filling out divorce papers.

After this, there are enough summertime tourneys that the schedule could go in a few different directions. My preference would have us passing up either the U.S. Class Championships in Houston (July 18-20, Houston in July doesn’t sound pleasant) or the Pacific Coast Open in Malibu (same weekend, Malibu in July DOES sound good though!) and passing up the Chicago Class Championships July 25-27 (which I might actually play in) for this:

From Philly we’d travel on to Mt. Snow, Vermont for the Vermont Resort Open July 11-13 – I’ve never been to this part of the country and the “Resort” part would be enticing for Maureen.

From there we would cross the border and I’d play in the Canadian Open in Montreal from July 19-27. We HAVE been to Montreal before but it was in the icy cold of winter so this would be a great new experience.

After this northeast swing, we’d come back to the Midwest to wrap things up in Dallas for the 109th U.S. Open, August 2-10 – the granddaddy of them all!

The cherry-on-top finale after Dallas would be to cross over the big pond and fly to Barcelona, Spain and play in the Sants International Open, a hugely popular 10-round chess extravaganza from Aug 22-31. Two weeks in Spain after running around all summer? Don’t wake me! don’t wake me!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Off the Board

I had no intention of letting a month go by without posting but I could have predicted it. I’ve been on the road for work three of the last four weeks which left me with little free time to post, let alone play any chess! What I was able to do this past month was read (in airplanes, in airport terminals, hotel rooms, etc.) and I’ve read some really interesting books about chess during that time that have me taking a more introspective look at this game I love.

During my travels I read “King’s Gambit” by Paul Hoffman, perhaps the best book about chess I’ve ever read. I happened upon a review of this book online about a month ago which peaked my curiosity and in shopping around for some birthday books for my wife I stumbled across it and bought it on the spot. All throughout the book I found myself relating to it on many different levels so there was a natural inclination for me to want to enjoy it. Note the subtitle of his book is “A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game” and the author talks throughout about his strange, confusing relationship with his father who introduced him to the game as a young boy. He comes to some honest and revealing conclusions about his father and their relationship which makes for great reading, but this is NOT the aspect of the book I’m referring to when I say I could relate! More so, he’s roughly my age (I’m a few years younger), he started playing chess when he was young, stopped playing and then took the game up again as an adult much as I have done (although I never played competitively as a kid). He use to live here in Chicago and that’s where he started playing tournament chess again, about 8 years ago, playing a few local tournaments at the now defunct Chicago Chess Club, a venue I use to attend regularly back in the 90’s. And while he has had the great fortune to have dined with Kasparov, chat up GM Nigel Short, interview wacky FIDE President Ilyumzhinov and received parting gifts from Gadhafi and I have not, our paths do cross, in a very liberal sense, occasionally. Sure these are anecdotal but hey, I like to share!

For instance, while he was reporting on the World Chess Championships in Tripoli, Libya, he met and played in a simul against former Women’s Chess Champion Antoaneta Stefanova. Well, I’ve met her too, although I’d bet dollars to doughnuts she doesn’t remember me from Adam! We both played in the Mid-America Class Championships here in Chicago in 1997 (we both scored 3.5/5 as well, although she played in the Masters section and I in the B class, but hey!). This was one of those weekend swiss tourneys where a group of us would book a hotel room or two and all pile in to set up camp for the weekend in the suburban hotel and create a wondrous chessic biosphere for a few days. The late night parties in these smoke-filled rooms were just part of the whole experience, chess performance over the board be damned (who needed sleep anyway?). One night, after the late round had finished and we were all up in the rooms drinking, analyzing and probably acting well below our respective ages, there was a knock at the door and in walked Antoaneta and two other women (players that weekend too perhaps, but I cannot remember their names). They had either heard the ruckus and/or had been urged to join us by either Albert Chow or Emory Tate, the highest rated in our little biosphere and therefore the ringleaders. I’m sure the sight of us and our disheveled surroundings did little to convince them to “hang out” for very long as I don’t recall they stayed longer than a beer, but for a while that night I got to share a cramped hotel room with the future Women’s World Chess Champion!

Another “loose” connection is Lembit Oll, the Estonian Grandmaster who committed suicide by jumping out of a 4th story window in 1999 (the similarities between this and the demise of Luzhin in Nabokov’s “The Defense” are startling). Hoffman writes about him during his interview with GM Nigel Short. Oll came to Chicago to play in the 1995 Chicago Open, staying with Albert Chow. I gave Albert and Lembit rides to and from the tournament that year. I remember him being very quite during these trips, something I accounted to his slim grasp of English. I fell into the typical chess pecking order and didn’t say much to him since it was “an honor” for me to even have a Grandmaster in my presence, let alone in my backseat. Reading about his suicide a few years later was chilling and sad.

Hoffman also writes about Jennifer Shahade, one of the top female players in the country and also former U.S. Women’s Chess Champion. While I’ve played in tournaments with Jennifer, I’ve never met or played against her. I certainly remember seeing her as a teenager at these events and recall her apparent ease with the pressure of playing. So, granted, this is a super loose “connection” with Hoffman’s book but I did just receive an e-mail from Jennifer last week! That’s right; she’s running the Fantasy Chess website for the upcoming U.S. Championships next week and was reminding everyone to pick their teams. Naturally, being the Fantasy geek that I am, I promptly went to the site and signed up.

Hoffman also writes about playing GM Yasser Seirawan in a simul in Las Vegas. I’ve shared a beverage with the kindly GM after rounds at a Chicago Open (or was it the U.S. Masters?) and completely concur with Hoffman’s description of Seirawan as “the perfect gentleman grandmaster, a man who played hard yet remained civil”. Traits I strive to emulate.

There are other loose connections in Hoffman’s book, even looser than the one’s I’ve noted. While reading the book I thought these links were more substantive and profound but now re-reading them they seem slim, at best, so forgive my indulgence. Having a beer with a GM is a BIG DEAL for a patzer like me! Reading about people I’ve merely bumped into at tournaments seems to make the writing much more real to me and I enjoyed every page of the book. What really got to me was Hoffman’s writing about the “obsession” with chess and the knife edge a person can dance along with it: either making it a glorious intellectual challenge or a fatal personal tragedy. Chess can be a very personal endeavor and your play can reveal something about yourself that might not otherwise be apparent. The winning and losing seems to shine a brighter light on this and how much importance you put on it can determine which edge of the knife you dance on.

Another book I read during my business travels was “Game of Kings” by Michael Weinreb. In it he follows the members of the Edward R. Murrow High School (of Brooklyn, NY) chess team through an entire season. An interesting read, shedding light not only on the different personalities of the junior players but also on the school system, the “Chess-in-the-Schools” program, and how playing on the chess team can be the most important thing in some of these kids lives, whether they realize it or not. These kids get a fantastic opportunity to study and excel at chess, receive top-flight training and get chaperoned to scholastic tournaments all over the country! No such apparatus existed when I was their age. My elementary school had a “chess club” for awhile (thinking back this was probably during the “Fischer” boom) and that’s when I first learned to play. Although the teacher in charge taught us the “Giuoco Piano” as our first opening, which is Italian for “quiet game”. Yawn, boring chess. Soon Dungeons and Dragons took over for me! At any rate, at the end of “Game of Kings” the chess team just kind of dissolves after some graduate, some drop-out, and some move to the easy money of online poker. As in “King’s Gambit”, where the author questions why he plays this game and notes that some of the best and brightest American players since Fischer have opted out of chess for other, more lucrative endeavors, Weinreb asks if this chess thing even has a purpose: “So what’s the purpose, really? What possible reason could there be to keep playing this excruciating and exacting and infuriating game, when the only financial rewards to be gained are at exclusive tournaments in faraway places, when no one in your country could give a damn about it, when spelling bees and hot-dog eating competitions get nationwide television exposure but chess tournaments never do?” It hurts to read things like this about the game I love but it’s true. Some guy who can shove 40 hot dogs down his throat gets on ESPN and the fact the U.S. Chess Championships are taking place next week in Tulsa gets completely passed over? They will be using their brains in Tulsa but that effort does not seem to get rewarded in this country. I have asked myself “Why am I doing this?” in the past, usually after a heart-breaking loss, but also after a particularly well-played game. Perhaps I played some inspired chess and want to share my “art” with friends, family, whomever. If they do not know how to play, the “artistry” will be lost on them.

And for piling on, I happened to read an article on the USCF’s Chess Life Online website this weekend by GM Jesse Kraai of New Mexico called Tulsa Fight Club, about who is and who is not playing in the U.S. Championships this week. The “who is not” playing is his focus on those great American players of the last decade or so who have moved away from professional chess so they could make an actual living. Being a chess professional in the U.S. is a tough row to hoe and many leave so they can do things like eat and sleep under a roof. A great article, but all of this has been some tough reading about my little “weekend hobby”. It puts it all into perspective sure and it’s sad as well. Chess gets no props, as they say, in this 21st century!

For me, I will keep plugging along. The last time I won money at a chess tournament I played chess for 8 hours and won $55. The last time I played poker I played for 2 hours (and drank beer throughout!) and won $130. But the ROI, that psychological or spiritual or intellectual return-on-investment from playing chess was far greater than miraculously flopping a set, something I had no involvement in (i.e. luck). Beating an Expert over the board, however, did more for me as a person, since I felt enriched by it, more confident from it and parlayed THAT experience into other aspects of my life. A pay-it-forward approach.

Coincidentally, that win over the Expert pushed my rating over 1800 for the first time in my life. I am now a Class A player! I found out quite by accident since the Touch Move tournament I played in back in March finally got rated. No fanfare, no tickertape. It’s just a number but I’m proud of it. When I get to 2000 (Expert), I’ll be sure to throw a party!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Highway to Dell(s)

There’s nothing like a solid radio blast of AC/DC on your way to a chess tournament to get the blood flowing. The Aussie boys announce “don't need reason, don't need rhyme, ain't nothing I would rather do”, my sentiments exactly as I cranked up the car stereo on my drive to the Wisconsin Dells for the Arpad Elo Open. I had spied this tournament on the calendar about a month ago and realized it wasn’t too far my in-laws, Neil and Peg in Lodi, so sweet-talking the wife was at a minimum since we are always looking for an excuse to go up and visit. We drove up Friday night and had a nice time chatting and relaxing, Peg made fried chicken (my fave!). Little did I know I wouldn’t be seeing much of them the rest of the weekend as the tournament schedule was packed tight and I ended up playing a lot of chess.

The tournament was in the Wisconsin Dells, a well-known summery tourist destination for families in this part of the country. It has all the trappings: waterslide parks galore, amusement parks, a casino, dinner theaters, events with words like “Xtreme!” or “Ultimate!” in them and the place is absolutely hopping - - in the summer! Early April? Eh, not so much. Can you say “off-season”? Heck, there were still piles of crusty snow on the ground in some places! It actually felt a bit deserted, particularly at the Howard Johnson where the tournament was being held. Outside of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Officers Meeting and “Lunceon” being held down the hall (Hojo’s spell-checker had the weekend off apparently) I’m not sure there were any other actual guests staying there. Empty-ish hotels always remind me of The Shining so I anticipated seeing a creepy pair of twin girls or catching an axe to the chest at every turn of the labyrinthian hallways. Mind you, the site does not a tournament make for me (I’d play chess anywhere!) I’m just trying to paint a picture for you, plus I needed to get that Shining reference in.

A fine place for lunch (and chess!) in the Dells

There were 46 players in the Reserve section and only 12 in the Open section, compared to 35 and 21 from the year before. I was the no. 1 seed in the Reserve section which is nice and all, but I should have stepped up and played in the Open section. As you will see from my result, I did well but lost ground (i.e. rating points) since EVERY one of my opponents was rated lower than me. When you are the top dog like that, you need to post a clean sheet (win all) in order to make any rating gains whatsoever. So why didn’t I play up? Good question. If the tournament I played in last month had ever been officially rated I would have had to, since that “unofficially” put me over the 1800 rating Mason-Dixon line that demarks Reserve/Open. Or I could say I’d like to ease back into tournament play after being out of it for a year. But those are just smokescreens to the real reasons lurking inside me somewhere. Fear to fail plays a part, sure. I think I’m good at this game, better than my rating even, but proving it over the board is a different story and finding out if it’s true or not can be a scary revelation. Finding out means playing stronger competition which means playing in the Open section! I also want to win and playing in the Reserve section gives me a better chance. This is both ego speaking and a negative approach to how I think I would do playing tougher opponents. Heck, the highest rated player in the Open section was 2028 and I just beat a 2026 a month ago! Perhaps I’m just looking for that “right-of-passage” tournament victory in a Reserve section before I move on, to carry that symbolic trophy with me as I leave the house to go play with the big boys. We will find out soon enough.

A quick word about the organizer, Guy Hoffman: I’ve played in Wisconsin before, in tournaments he has run so I recognized him when I got there to sign in. In a word, Guy runs a tight ship. No time for pleasantries here and he can come across as gruff. His rules for cell phones going off in the playing hall are strict (they may even be the USCF rules for cell phones, I’m not sure) as they should be. In the early part of this decade, when cell phones were still “new”, I can remember hearing cell phones ringing in the larger tournaments nearly every 10 minutes (with some players even answering the call!). Noise is usually kept to a bare minimum at tournaments so this is very disturbing. Now there are punishments involved for the unlucky recipient of a call from Mom asking “how ya doing, honey?” They are:

Player’s phone goes off while they are playing – you just lost your game!
Spectator’s phone goes off while they are spectating – you just got banned from the playing hall!
A player spectating other games after his game is done – you just lost your next round’s game!

Brutal, but fair in my mind. It’s a simple act to turn the damn thing off, right? I leave mine in the car, leaving no doubt. There is a loop hole in Guy’s rules: Spectating during the final round! Throw me out? The tourneys almost over! Lose my next round game? There is no next round game! See how my mind works.

What to say about my games? Well, my first round victory came against a young man (20-something?) and he mis-calculated a tactic early on and dropped a pawn, then after a strange 20-move period where I seemingly shuffled my pieces around as if rearranging furniture, he lost another and I traded down into a winning endgame and he capitulated. Notice I said he “lost the pawns” and not “I won them”. These were more of him erring and me noticing the low hanging fruit.

My second game was a real mind-bender and a first for me in tournament chess: an Adjournment! Can you believe that? In 2008? Adjournments are turn-of-the-LAST-century kinds of deals where “hey y’all, I’m tired, let’s pick this up again in the morning, I’ve got to invent the car or learn how to fly an airplane, I don’t have time for more chess today.” With the advent of chess computers, adjourning a game nowadays would mean the players simply punch in the position and have the PC do all/most of the work. It wouldn’t be about the humans anymore. This adjournment scenario was all made possible because of the wacky time-controls used: 40/2, 20/1, SD/1 meaning 40 moves in the first 2 hours, 20 more moves in the next hour, then finish the game in another hour. This gives each player a total of 4 hours to use so a game could theoretically go for 8 hours! And with 3 rounds on Saturday, this would give you a glorious 24 solid hours of chess!! Sweet! Um, no, not sweet, impossible. So Guy tossed in adjournments so any games still going on when the next round is scheduled to start would get “put on hold”, but would have to be finished THAT NIGHT, so I’d be looking at a late night. One player, whose turn it is to move, writes down their next move on their scoresheet but does not play it on the board. The scoresheet and current position are sealed in an envelope until the game can be picked up again. Well, my 2nd round game went deep into the afternoon and started bumping into the 3rd round start time. Guy called for an adjournment. Could someone fetch my horse-and-buggy? I need to run outside and catch malaria, thanks. I played dubiously at many critical points of the game and managed to quickly and efficiently turn a winning position into a losing one. My opponent managed to turn a winning position (for him) into a drawn position and there we sat. Sometimes I just run into an opponent whose mental waves clash or bond with mine in such a way that the board seems to dance to it’s own rhythm, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge did back in the 40’s. In replaying the moves today I can only say “what the hell was I thinking?” I guess this kind of thing frustrates me the most: gaining a winning position over the board and not being able to bring the whole point home. I can calculate variations over the board alright, just can’t seem to evaluate them very well.

With just enough time to wolf down some peanuts, eat an apple and catch some fresh air outside, the 3rd round began and I roasted my opponent in 16 moves. An older gentleman who’s been playing tourney chess since the early 90’s, he walked right into my pet opening and I controlled the game at every step. We went over the game afterwards and I demonstrated some better continuations for him to look at in case he ever faces it again. He was clearly pissed with himself and said “Thanks for the lesson” afterwards!

So now I had to wait around for my round 2 opponent gatherings to finish HIS game so we could finish ours! A nice man by the way who was there with his wife and son (his son also played). While I waited, I only briefly looked the adjourned position over and realized it was dead drawn, much to my dismay. I had let the win slip away. Unfortunately my round 2 opponent was dragging out a terrible position and was clearly losing. He could have resigned about an hour or two before he actually did and I could have gotten back to the lake house and socialized some but that was not to be. When we finally got down to finishing our adjourned game, my sealed move was revealed and we finished things up 7 moves later. I did give him one more chance to lose, playing a cute endgame tactic with my rook, but he saw through that and we shook hands. By the time I drove back it was close to midnight.

The next morning I drove back and followed my same routine: parked in the same spot, took my same walk outside the place for some fresh air, etc. I had 2 ½ out of 3 heading into the 4th round. This game went fine in the opening and then I lost track of it which would be a harbinger of my play all day. I just could not come up with a plan! I fell into a “waiting mode” approach, hoping my lower-rated opponent would make a mistake and then I’d pounce. He wasn’t making super strong moves but they weren’t errors either so I ended up slightly worse and had to sit back and defend for awhile. Eventually he got impatient or saw something that wasn’t really there because he forced a trade of Queens followed by some pawn exchanges and we wound up in an endgame where I had the edge. After sitting behind my pieces defending all morning, it was a relief to be “out in the open” and I suddenly saw clear lines and simple plans. The endgame was not his forte and I carefully started putting a winning position together until he finally cracked. He played on past his expiration date, probably sheer inertia or emotion, since he felt he had a better position early, maybe was winning, and had let it all slip away. Been there, done that! I felt bad for him because I can relate and was pissed that he subjected himself to the torture of playing on in a lost position.

So myself and two others have 3 ½ out of 4 and there is only one undefeated player at 4 going into the final round. Admittedly, I had worked myself into a lather the hour beforehand and was a bit nervous going in. This is something I have to work on, there’s no need for this and it just saps my energy. I was paired against a 10-year old kid, the 3rd highest rated 10-year old in the state of Wisconsin and 55th highest 10-year old in the country (I looked this up afterward on the USCF website!). Quite honestly, he turned out to be the rudest opponent I’ve ever competed against. I’ve played against some smelly, wacko nutjobs before, but they had MANNERS. This kid was simply awful at the board. As the game started, presumably his sister (his whole family was there and they did nothing to help, actually, they made it worse) brought him a large drink with straw (slurp! slurp!), a mammoth snickers bar and a bag of potato skins! Right: the noisiest food on earth! I came SO close to saying something to Guy about this, let alone say something to the little 4th grader but I wanted to stay “in the game”. There was also belching and burping and he made his moves sloppily never placing the piece on the center of the square. I was constantly calling “adjust” (“j’adoube” en francais!). Several times I got up from the board in an attempt to stay focused and even from across the room I could hear him munch, munch munching on those potato skins! Lost in my retelling here is that my wife Maureen and her father Neil drove up to see me play as this final round started. It’s always nice to have spectators! Granted, for the uninitiated going to watch a chess tournament can be akin to watching paint dry so I always appreciate the effort! At any rate, he played some weak moves early on which, after reviewing the game, I did not take advantage of. Plus this was my day to not have a plan so he started to march his Queenside pawns at me and I faltered, causing a loss of material for me (a Knight for a pawn, ugh). This brought us to the endgame where I’m probably busted and the computer tends to agree with this assessment. However! It’s very difficult to prove over the board and since I was pissed about his boardside manners AND hate to lose, I was going to make it as tough as possible and make him prove it! Luckily all of my pawns were connected so I could tuck my King in there, build a little fortress and force him to smash it down. Around and around we went like this with him making only the slightest progress. It was around move 60 when his mother came and brought him cheeseburger and drink! This time I promptly told him not to eat that at the table. He let out a sigh of disgust and left with his burger.

Look at the size of that drink!

Later during this marathon he whispered “I like your pen.” This was an odd comment but something that players had been doing all weekend: talking. There’s no talking in chess! You’re not really suppose to converse with your opponent during the game but my 2nd round opponent said to me “you’re a very tough player”, my 3rd round opponent said, after my first move mind you, “ah, the dreaded d-pawn opening”. WTF?

After about move 70, I think the little guy started to get the idea that I was not going to go down easy and he wasn’t coming up with a clear plan to get to my monarch either. On move 83 he offered a draw and I quickly accepted. I had been fighting a headache for the last two hours and was glad it was over.

So in the end I scored 4 out of 5 (3 wins, 2 draws) and tied for 2nd place, winning $45. I also lost 10 rating points which really gets my goat but that’s what I get for not playing up. Consider it a lesson learned! Time to start swimming in the big pond. Like the song says “no stop signs, or speed limit”.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Give 'em enough rope

This idea of blogging is becoming clearer to me now, particularly ‘chess’ blogging. I’ve been scouring the internet for other chess blogs out there and I’ve come to the conclusion there are two basic types: dead ones that people have stopped attending to, now just sitting there like a museum (this blog fell into that category for the last year or so) and highly active, vibrant ones that people post to almost daily! I had this crazy notion mine would fall somewhere in between, perhaps a weekly post that’s extensive, well written, witty. Turns out I’ve been too busy reading the vibrant, daily ones to post myself! Seriously, I find a new, interesting chess blog almost everyday. I’ll update my links on the right with my favorites so keep an eye on that.

So to wrap up my first tournament result in over a year (which took place nearly a month ago now, see why I need to get on the ball!) I was sitting at 1 ½ after the first two rounds. Round three saw me paired against an old friend of mine, National Master Albert Chow. I first met Albert back in 1994 at the U.S. Open here in Chicago. He was a friend of another chess player I had just met at the tournament earlier that week, the good Dr. Stitchkopf, Joe Stevens. Albert actually tied for 1st that year, a tremendous result for anyone, an historical marker putting him in with elite chess company. I can still remember seeing him up on stage, during his final round victory over fellow Illinois Master Andrew Karklins, sitting calm and serene in full fu manchu beard and dark as night sunglasses! Over the years I’ve shared the occasional hotel room with Albert and others during big weekend swisses, staying up til the wee hours with the likes of IM Emory Tate, regaling us with tactical wizardry that only Albert dare refute. Ah, the halcyon days of tournament chess for me! It was more about the event than the chess and even though my play back then suffered for it, great memories were certainly created.

Flash forward to early March of 2008 and I’m sitting in a cluttered room on North Ashland facing off against Albert in round 3! I had a few very minor things going for me here: the time-control for starters, Game/45. Albert’s bugaboo over the years has been time management and game-in-45 minutes can get stressful in a hurry. Another thing was my choice of openings: I had black in our encounter and once the clocks started, Albert sat for a minute or two before opening with 1. e4. I was puzzled by this since I figured he knew I play the Scandinavian Defense exclusively as black against e4 and would only play 1. d4 after a think like that. Turns out afterwards he thought I played the Benko Gambit against d4 and decided on e4 instead. Guess I’m not as memorable as I seem to think!

As you can see from the game score link on the right, Albert declined my early opening funny business and we transposed to a French Exchange Variation. So off we go into unfamiliar territory and in all honesty, it felt then and was confirmed by my laptop later that I was slowly, move-by-move getting worse and worse! By move 16 there was the familiar “Isolated Queen Pawn” scenario. I was doing a good job of attacking it, as you can see from the red arrows in the diagram below, but this misses the point of the IQP now doesn’t it? Shouldn’t I be working on controlling the square IN FRONT of the pawn, to restrict its advance?

Such “subtleties” were lost on me at the time, proof of which was my 16. …Na5 move from the diagram. Does anyone have a plan I could borrow? EXCUSE ME, I’m looking for a PLAN over here! Hello, can I get some service? Well, the fun doesn’t stop there; I actually missed luring Albert into a trap a few moves later. Mind you, I’m not saying he would have fallen for it, but I did miss the opportunity of at least allowing him to fall for it! After my 16. …Nh5 he played Ba2, I followed with a6 with the idea of b5 then Nc4 (hey, at least it smacks of a plan). He played 18. Qa4 to stop b5 but I could’ve played it anyway since Qxa5 Nc6 traps the Queen. I didn’t see this at the time, played my N back to c6 and things got ugly from there. However, the sands of time entered the bar at this point, parched as usual. Luckily I was the barkeep. A time scramble ensued and when the dust settled I was staring at mate-in-6, Albert was staring at 0:00. I offered a draw, which he accepted (see the game notes for an explanation of sorts) and I had a drawn a Master! Yahoo! Not how I wanted or expected it to happen but even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally.

The final round saw me with white against an Expert and in all honesty it was a strange game. I actually remember doing something during the game, something I should be doing after EVERY move my opponents take: asking myself “what gem of an idea does THIS move offer?” In other words, determine WHY my opponent made a particular move and plan against or around it. My Expert foe made a curious move at one point early in our game (7. …Nb6) and I for the life of me could not see the plan. One thing I did know was if I simply proceeded with my strategy (the minority attack), his move would not smell so sweet. Turns out this is exactly what happened! By move 16 he blundered, blundered some more two moves later and I spent the remaining time plucking the wings off a fly until mate was delivered. An Expert scalp! Sweet mother-of-pearl, and in my first tournament back no less!

So in the end I finished tied for 2nd and garnered $55 in prize money. On the flipside, sadly, this tournament has yet to be rated so I’m not over 1800 yet, which this result would have done for me. Typically tournaments are rated within days (if not the next day) so I’m not expecting much, nor am I expecting to play at the Touch Move again unless I hear back from IM Young on this. Not trying to be ornery here, but I did enter with the idea this tournament would get rated and I could begin my chess quest again!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Luck be a lady

So naturally my initial foray back into tournament chess was a mixed bag. Much like the halloween sack toted around on a dark fall night (minus the face-paint and ill-fitting superman cape) I stuck my hand in and literally did not know what I was going to pull out. The first goodie I retrieved started off sweet, turned sour, then ended up bland and tasteless, like gum that I've chewed for too long: A draw. Sure it was against a kid rated 1130 but I've learned over the years the ratings of junior players are rarely accurate. I had the black pieces and at one point I had the following position:

Optically, this looks OK for black. White's pieces are jumbled and passive and I have a decent pawn presence in the center that's clearly pointing me towards the white King. It's like my pawns are saying "Psst! Go here! Go this this way!" Yet chess is not always so clear cut. My own pieces are nothing to write home about, as a matter of fact, I'm not even developed! And white can start chipping away at my big one way sign with f3. Being "new" to this thing all over again, my plan from this stage didn't go over so well and I barely escaped with my life. Ten moves later I had just taken his c-pawn fully aware I was losing a pawn right back. Can you see the win of a pawn for white in the position below? There's actually two ways to do it, although only one keeps white in the game:
The "good" way to win the pawn back is 1. Nxf7 Qxf7 2. Qxf7 Kxf7 3. Ne5+ forking the Bishop.
The "bad" way to win the pawn back is 1. Nxf7 Qxf7 2. Qxe6 Qxe6 3. Rxe6 and now black has Bxf3 4. gxf3 cxb4 5. Rxa6 Rb8 which looks winning for black.

Check out the game score in the annotated games section for how it ACTUALLY went down.

Round two brought a wolf in sheep's clothing since my 1365 rated opponent played much stronger than that. He came out swinging for the fences and I had a chance early to refute his attack and proceed with a better position. I missed the chance though. Sobering when you go over your games later and (with the aid of our silicon friends, i.e. chess-playing software) find very simple, straightforward moves that, quite honestly, I didn't even comtemplate over the board. My rust is showing! After black plays this Queen sortie to the H-file (Nh5, 0-0 Qh4, g3 Qh3 was the sequence) I'm thinking this is all very bold of him. What does he take me for, some patzer? Turns out I more than obliged that thought as you can see from the game score. At any rate, I missed the calm Nd1-Nf2 manuever which would trap the black Queen:

But did I see this over the board? Noooo, of course not. I attacked the Queen with the N to f4 which is just awful. I ended up paying the price for this and losing material. By move 30 I'm just sitting back defending, defending, defending, waiting for the final blow. Oddly enough I had this weird fortress constructed and black had a hibernating bishop on b7 that he didn't know what to do with. Thus entereth the fatal disease of thine class player: "HOW TO WIN A WON GAME". My opponent did not get this memo luckily. Not that I've ever read the missive myself, mind you. While my opponent was busy just being busy (he did not seem to have a clear plan after winning the exchange. Like the one-hit wonder rock star, he came and played his hit and then it was "Thank you! Good night!"), I was busy missing ACTUAL tactics that would have gotten me back in the game! For example, after his Ra7, the point of which escapes me, I missed d5! uncovering an attacking on the R at a7:
Apparently I left my x-ray glasses at home. The juicy continuation of that is in the annotated game on the right. Later on in the time scramble, with the rest of the games finished and everyone huddled around our board waiting for my demise, my persistent chipping away for any kind of activity paid off, my opponent hung his Bishop (the same one he didn't know what to do with) and I escaped with a win.

I'm post the final two rounds tomorrow. I've played in a second tournament since this one and have plenty more chess to share. Stay tuned...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Getting the band back together

OK, so I took a 573 day break from posting! I’m back now, ready to fire this old blog up and see what we can make of it. I’ve been getting back into chess lately and actually played in my first tournament last weekend in, well, 567 days! Yep, I haven’t been over the board since the 2006 U.S. Open. Didn’t play in a single tournament in 2007, quite a drought for me. The stars finally aligned last Sunday and I was able to slip away to the Touch Move Chess Center and play a 4 round, Game/45. But before I get into that, let’s recap, since I never did post any thoughts on my final round at the U.S. Open oh so many moons ago.

I lost. Horribly in fact. I was really crushed by this back then, I can remember sulking around the city at lunch time for days afterward contemplating which bridge would be best for me to chuck my chess set, clock, books, the whole she-bang into the Chicago River. A bridge near the Eastland Disaster site? Fitting. How about the same bridge where the Dave Matthews Band tour bus took a dump on unsuspecting tourists below? Also fitting. I had been paired down and went into it thinking a win would put me at 5/9, a plus-score and possibly a money prize. Counting your winnings before your opponent has tipped his King over is NOT a good recipe for success! I had the white pieces to boot, but passive play against an opponent who was also thinking of finishing strong and soon my position was overwhelmed and it finally collapsed. He went on to tie for first in his section (he won $800, your welcome). I finished in 302nd (out of 543) and put my chess set away for awhile. Looking back now, had I won I would have taken home a cool $28.57, prizes being split among a large group in my section that finished at 5/9. That’ll learn ya.

I actually have not been chess-free for the last 573 days, I’ve played literally thousands of blitz games online over the months. It’s the only chess I have time for, often late at night on the Playchess server based in Germany. I like the software interface they have over the other servers and most of the players are European which, in my mind, means they’re decent players. The FICS site (Free Internet Chess Server) is, well, free, which means the quality of players is, well, uneven and the ICC (Internet Chess Club) server is U.S. based so most of the players are Yanks which means, well, they can be rude.

So, yes, I did finally play in a chess tournament again! I had contacted IM Angelo Young, proprietor of the Touch Move Center Chess, via e-mail earlier in the week about needing to re-up my state and national memberships in order to play. He replied asking me to show up prior to the start of the tournament to get this settled. Two things are humorous about this: um, I was planning on and, if you really think about it, REQUIRED to show up prior to the tournament wasn’t I? Also, it’s the 21st century Drew, both organizations allow online signup these days. I could have hopped online and re-upped my memberships at any time. Duh.

Being mentally buried in the late 90’s, I arrived at the club about 40 minutes early. Turns out it’s only 2 ½ miles from my house! Well, I was the first to show up, even prior to IM Young so the doors were locked and the club empty. I went back and sat in the car for awhile until I saw activity in front of the club via my rearview mirror. I hopped out and went across the street only to find out it was another player waiting for the doors to open as well. I milled about on the street for another 15 minutes or so, the tournament was scheduled to start at 9:45 and it was already 9:40. I was thinking the whole thing was a bust and visions of the murky greenness of the Chicago River filled my head until IM Young appeared from down the street, opened the doors and away we went. The bridge launch will have to wait.

Only 11 players showed up, an Expert or two and two Masters, one being NM Albert Chow a friend of mine from chess days past. With a field this small, the likelihood of me being paired against an Expert and/or Master was high so I’m figuring “welcome back, Kotter” After a 19-month tournament hiatus I was going to get thrown right back into it. “You’re dreams are your ticket out” indeed!.

I’m in the process of analyzing and annotating the four games I played for posting on the blog so keep checking back over the next few days or so to see how I did. I was rusty and played some gruesome chess, let’s be honest. I was lucky, too, in that each of my opponents was a human, so the gruesomeness has that way of affecting both sides of the board! I’m excited about chess again, I’d love to drive up to Wisconsin tomorrow and play in the “First MCA/SWCC FIDE FUTURITY” tournament but let’s not get hasty here. My schedule doesn’t permit it and I could use some study. The Chicago River will always be there for me if my chess turns south again but I’d rather not have to load the trunk up with chess paraphernalia for that sad drive just yet. Chess clocks do float, don’t they?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Groundhog's Day

So this repetition of my days is starting to get to me. Making the same drive out to the 'burbs at 5:30ish, walking into the playing hall at 7, playing chess 'til midnight, driving home at 1:00am and waking up sleep deprived the next day to do it all over again! It's grueling and yet I don't really want it to end today. Sure, I won't miss the late-night lane closures that cause heinous backups in the middle of the night, or the sketchy on-the-road diet or the chessfunk, but I'll miss the competition and the chess. Hammering out this blog everyday has been a challenge as well, I'm not use to writing in the "first person" mode, very foreign. Another repeat that happened yesterday was the appearance of another Noteboom Variation in my game! Yep, paired against another Expert for round 8, I had looked up his games in the bulletins before the rounds and saw he opened with Nf3 but transposed into Queen's Gambit setups. I thought the Boomer might be in the offing again and sure enough, we went right into it. Having recently reviewed this from my game two nights previous (against the Master), the main attacking motifs were still fresh in my mind. However, my opponent played a few inferior moves and I quickly obtained a winning position! Being a sharp opening though, he fought back and in the time scramble, my advantage slipped away and we settled on a draw at move 42. Another Expert draw! It sucks though, that I left a 1/2 point on the table. I need to practice on winning won games and bring the point home to Papa.

They had a lot of announcements prior to the start of the round and I noticed that it was uncomfortably warm in the playing hall. Many must have complained, because shortly after the round started, the AC kicked in with a vengeance and it soon become an icebox in there. Naturally, being Saturday, I had decided it was a good day to wear shorts! I was shivering as I shook my opponents hand for the draw, a shaky shake.

In my report for round 5, "Bloody Hell", I mentioned my opponent just walked off after our game. I happened to talk with him brief last night and he turned out to be an amiable fellow, funny in fact. In describing his loss the night before to a Master, he summed up the idea of chess improvement succinctly with "Ya gotta do the hard work" No doubt! That's how you win won games! And save lost ones. It's fun to play instinctively, chess is an art that way, but there are times when you have to buckle down and calculate it all out. Blind me with science, baby! And chess is a game, too, of course, making it all three at once. The trifecta of hobbies.

Leaderboard: Illinois' own GM Yuri Shulman bested GM Shabalov to take sole possession of first with one round to go. He's alone at 7 1/2, with IM Cordova and GM Fedorowicz (both of New York) and National Master Aigner from California tied for second with 7. One of them will get a crack at Shulman for the title while the other two will play cautiously, waiting for a result to happen on board one. There are 16 players at 6 1/2 who are playing for prize money, but the winner of the 107th will be one or more of the four I've mentioned.

Standings: I'm in 259th overall and 14th in my section. There are 4 money prizes for my section and I need to win and have some things go my way to get a piece if it.