I arrived at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Philadephia late on a Friday evening in January 2006. The next morning I would begin competing in the Liberty Bell Open, a seven-round, three-day event with top section prizes of a thousand dollars. As I waited at the check-in line, I stared across the vast hotel lobby, noting a number of other chessplayers--they can usually be recognized by their portable chess set cases and/or a generally unkempt appearance. Wanting to familiarize myself with where tomorrow's battles would take place, I stopped by the playing area before going up to my room: two gigantic rooms on the hotel's second floor.
I had been looking forward to this tournament for a while. I had just had a couple weeks off from work for the winter break, and I had spent them going over my chess books, studying tactics, and playing practice games online. On Tuesday the new semester would start and I would be very busy, but for now, I had nothing to distract myself from chess.
I tried to get to bed early, but tossed and turned with thoughts of what tomorrow might bring. Eventually I drifted off to sleeep, the mental chess pieces still moving back and forth somewhere in my subconscious.
I awoke the next morning feeling confident and ready for battle. There would be three games today, followed by two each of the following days.
Round 1: My first opponent is an Asian-looking man in his thirties or forties. I have the White pieces, and the game begins as a French Defense. In the early middlegame my opponent misses a tactic and I win a pawn, while keeping control of the position. So far so good. A few moves later, though, I make a mistake and he wins the pawn back. In the process, most of the pieces are exchanged and we have reached a roughly equal endgame. Damn.
At this point both of us are getting short on time. Neither of wants a draw, and so we keep searching for a way to improve our positions, ideally by promoting one of our pawns.
Then, a kind of miracle occurs: my opponent's cell phone goes off.
Cell phones are a major taboo in tournament chess. As you might imagine, the sound of a cell phone is extremely distracting to all the intensely concentrating players in the vicinity. Accordingly, there are strict sanctions for a player's phone ringing during a round: half of your time (up to twenty minutes) can be deducted from your clock.
A nearby tournament arbiter hears the offending noise and immediately rushes to our table, giving a stern look to my opponent. The arbiter informs him that he must reduce his alotted time remaining from four minutes to two minutes. My opponent protests, saying that his phone didn't actually ring, but was merely beeping to let him know that he had a message or a low battery or something. This may be true, but it doesn't really matter.
The game resumes. Having more time on the clock now gives me an edge, but more importantly, my opponent is clearly rattled. He soon blunders, I win a pawn, and proceed to push my advantage and win the game.
Not a pretty win, but a victory all the same.
Round 2: My opponent is a friendlly, college-age guy. I have the Black pieces and play the Pirc defense. He is able to initiate a dangerous attack against my king, but I defend coolly, managing to exchange queens and reaching an equal position. Seeing that he no longer has any advantage, my opponent offers a draw.
I examine the position and see that it is indeed equal, and that if either of us push too hard to try to win, we would easily risk being worse. But I didn't come all the way here to draw; I'm playing to win. I refuse the offer, and we keep playing.
Before long I regret my decision: one inaccurate move and now my opponent is in control, penetrating into my position with his rooks and cornering one of my isolated pawns. I try to shut out the inner voices yelling at me for passing up the offered draw and put up a solid defence, but to no avail. My position crumbles, and the game is lost.
Round 3: I try to shake off the loss and focus on my next game. I have White against a high-school-age girl, who seems a bit nervous and unsure of herself. She plays the Sicilian, against which I play the somewhat unusual Alapin variation, which she is not ready for. Early in the game she makes a big mistake, allowing me to trap her bishop--I win her bishop for two pawns on only the thirteenth move.
Yes! This is more like it, I think to myself. I relax, confident now that my position is winning.
My opponent, though, is determined to put up a good fight. Suddenly focused, she tries to minimize the impact of her lost piece and maximize the power of her extra pawns, slowly but surely advancing them. It takes me a while to realize that her plan is potentially very dangerous. In other words, lulled into a false sense of security, I completely misplay the position. She keeps me on the defensive until I finally collapse, giving up a piece and leaving her with an advanced pawn that will soon promote to a queen. Another loss.
I left the playing area feeling stunned. In the last two games, I had managed to turn what should have been a draw and a win into two losses. What had I done? Had all of my preparation been for nothing? Was I destined to never improve at this game, always squandering these opportunities? And yet, there was the knowledge that I could have, should have, two-and-a-half points now instead of one. That counted for something, right? Surely I was a better chessplayer than I had shown so far.
Unfortunately, with two losses already, I would have no chance of winning the tournament. But I did have an option: I could withdraw and "re-enter" into the 2-day sechedule. The 2-day schedule would have five games tomorrow instead of two: fairly fast time controls for the first four games before merging with the other sections that evening. The tournament organizers, knowing that there would be many disgruntled players after the first day and not missing a profitable opportunity, tacitly encouraged this practice by offering discounted re-entry rates.
I sulked my way back to my hotel room and called my wife to tell her the bad news. I also asked what she thought of the idea of my re-entering, spending more of our money on what seemed to be an increasingly foolhardy venture. "Do what you think is best," she said, but I sensed that she was not at all confident I would fare any better if I did.
I sunk into my plush hotel bed and turned on the TV, trying to forget about the day's disappointments. On Showtime or Cinemax or one of those channels there was a lesbian-themed horror-comedy playing. Eventually I sank into sleep, still not knowing what I would do in the morning.