Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Weekend's Battles

On Saturday I competed in a one-day chess tournament. Here is a chronicle of the day's events.

I wake up at six-thirty, a half-hour before my alarm is set to go off. I know intellectually that I've slept, but I can't tell based on the way my body feels. Is it really morning already?

After having some breakfast and gathering my chess equipment (set, clock, scorebook for writing down moves, and earplugs), I make the hour-long drive to the tournament site. Tournaments have been held at this location once a month for many years. Unlike large, weekend-long tournaments, in small tournaments such as this one all the players are grouped in one section, from complete beginner to accomplished master. There are four rounds, and prizes to the top two players, as well as two prizes for players in specified ratings groups, the top one of which I am eligible for.

I help myself to some coffee before the first round to try and wake up my mental pathways. As part of the tournament entry fee, coffee and snacks will be provided throughout the day--a good thing, since finding time to eat between games is often difficult. As we await the pairings for the first round, some of us engage in some friendly banter as a way of relaxing our nerves. In a nearby conversation, two chessplayers are talking about another player, and one of them asks, "Can you beat his dragon*?" Another player, who overhears this says, "Wow, that sounded wrong."

*The Dragon--more specifically, the Sicilian Dragon--is a fairly common opening setup for Black.

The pairings for the first round are posted, and we begin.

Round 1: I'm paired against a kid, age 13 or so, rated well below me. Could be an easy first round. I can't afford to be overcondifent though, as some of these kids are tacical geniuses, and their ratings are often wildly inaccurate--they're playing a lot and improving quickly, and it takes some time for their USCF (United States Chess Federation) rating to catch up.

I have Black. My opponent plays a somwhat passive opening for White, allowing me to have my fair share of the Center. My prospects are good. He plays tough in the middlegame though, making no obvious mistakes and forcing me to defend on the queenside, where he has some advantage. However, he commits his pieces rather strongly to that side of the board, and after repelling his attack I launch an offensive on the other side, forcing him to compromise the pawn structure around his king. From there I develop an attack that results in the winning of an important pawn in the center, launch my own central pawns forward and force my opponent's resignation soon thereafter.

A good start.

Round 2: From an easy pairing to a very difficult one: I'm up against a Norwegian master who just got a position teaching at a local university and who is new to our tournaments. I know that I can't afford to let his high chess rating get into my head. I tell myself that all I can do is play my best. I have White this time, and I've been studying a new opening system for White that it's time to try out.

Soon I get a bit confused as to the right move-order for my new opening; I push my e-pawn forward in preparation for a future d-pawn advance but my oppoent's reply, immediately attacking my d-pawn, forces me to make a positional concession. Soon my opponent can claim some advantage in both the center and on the queenside. Still, I manage to trade down into an ending in which I am only a pawn down and the pawn strucuture is locked, making the win a difficult task for my opponent to achieve. But, being a master, he manages to force a favorable trade of pawns that makes my remaining pawns diffult to defend--he soon wins a second pawn and begins to advance them. I, powerless to prevent the coming apocalypse, must concede defeat.

A loss, but a good game nonetheless, and also a personally instructive one.

Round 3: I'm paired against another kid, but this one is considerably more experienced--I'm the higher rated player, but not by much. He's a regular at these tournaments and I've played him several times before, with good success. As a result, I think he's nervous about playing me. Early on in our game he misses a tactic that allows me to win a pawn. From there I'm able to take command of the position's only open file and soon win a second pawn. Yeah, he's rattled. He tries to develop at attack of his own but my position is too strong, and victory seems near.

At about this time I force an exchange of rooks--he takes my rook with his, and I have a choice of how to recapture--with my rook, bishop, or pawn. Originally I'd planned on recapturing with the bishop, but now I look at the board and the rook recapture looks more promising and I confidently take back with the rook. Only then do I notice that this leaves my bishop hanging! Momentary panic ensues, which I do my best to hide. In fact, a second glance reassures me that everything is all right: he can't take the bishop after all, because it would leave his back rank exposed to a quick mating attack. Whew. Perhaps on some level I was aware of this all along, but all the same I silently berate myself for moving too quickly and almost making a major blunder. Why didn't I check my last move more carefully? The answer comes in a sudden realization: I am getting really tired. I help myself to another cup of coffee.

My young opponent does his best to defend a bad situation, but his position is beyod repair, and my rejuvenated mental awareness is not about to give him any more chances. It takes a while, but I win the game.

It's now after 5:00, and I've only eaten the snacks (chex mix, grapes, cookies, thin mints) provided by the tournament organizer. Unfortunately, there's less than fifteen minutes before the last round is scheduled to start, and I'm not sure I have the time for a fast-food run. Besides, I'm running on adrenaline now, and I think if I had a full stomach I'd realize how tired I really am. One more game, then I can relax.

Round 4: My opponent is a veteran tournament chess player ranked just slightly below me. Thanks to my loss in the second round there's no way I can win the tournament, but a win here would at least give me a share of the top class prize. I have White, and employ the same opening I did in Round 2. My opponent proceeds to play the same system as Black as the Norwegian master! After several moves, the position is identical to my earlier game. Now I really wish I'd studied this line more.

A have of exhaustion passes over me and a voice somewhere inside asks me if the effort to keep playing is really worth it. I yell at that voice to be quiet and get one last cup of coffee. Returning to my board, I realize that I can at least avoid making the same mistake that I made in my earlier game. Instead of pushing my e-pawn forward I try to create some play on the queenside, nudging my a-pawn forward in preparation to advance the b-pawn and disrupt my opponent's hold on the center.

It sort of works. I don't get a great position but it's a significant improvement over my second round game. As I'm trying to work out my long-term strategic goals, my opponent makes an unexpected mistake, allowing me to win a pawn! A big break against an opponent of this strength. However, after taking the pawn the game becomes extremely complicated. I may be winning, but my position is hardly safe.

Knowing that if I play passively my opponent will be able to recover, I play sharp, aggressive moves, trying to keep him off balance. But he refuses to die passively, and launches an aggressive attack of his own. He makes a subtle move with his queen, and with horror I see that I am in serious danger of being mated.

How can I stop it? One way would be to give up a piece, but that's a method of last resort. Come on, find another way. I think about the position. And think. And think. Nothing comes. I glance at the chess clock and see I have twenty minutes remaining of the ninety we each began with. Sacrifice a piece it is.

My prospects are bleak, but not hopeless--in return for the piece I have two pawns, and the possibility of advancing my passed pawns in the center. Unfortunately, I'm fighting another disadvantage now: my opponent has a lot more clock time left than me. I defend resiliently for a while, but then miscalculate and launch my pawns forward too soon. He is able to blockade, surround, and ultimately destroy them. My position is now hopeless, and I resign.

After the game another player points out an alternative I had to my piece sacrifice which I totally missed--this makes me feel worse, although my position would still have been very difficult. The truth is that during the game I was too exhausted to play at my best. Note to self: stop staying up late playing online poker. Still, it was a remarkable game, full of unexpected twists and wonderfully complex positions.

And I'll do better next time.


  1. Wow. I hardly understood a word you said but I was enthralled. Chess geeks rock!

    Is there really a thing called a Sicilian Dragon? I may have to take up chess.

  2. Why thank you Ruby. Yes, there is such a thing as the Sicilian Dragon. It even has its own wikipedia page:

    And you should totally take up chess. Seriously. I think you'd love it.

  3. Oh wow. I never thought about how chess players actually think about their game. I think this is a totally foreign way of processing for my brain— might go along with my lack of math tolerance? Like... I have the capacity, but it makes me real grouchy? I like games that let me slip more easily into intuition without heavy reliance on strategy.

    Anyway, I am in awe of your cool headed chess skillz.

    Also, I went back and figured out that I am a 4 and an ENFP. I did think I was a 7 for a brief period of high school (I found the journal entry) but that was really just my adolescent survival personality.

    AND I have a new blog. So the mutual blog updating challenge can continue!