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”.