Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Greatest Chess Triumph, Part II

I woke up well before my alarm went off feeling strangely awake. The deadline for re-entering was still a couple of hours away.

What did I want to do?

After a moment's reflection I knew the answer: I wanted to re-enter. I wanted a fresh start and the chance to win the tournament. But should I? This was already an expensive trip--could I really justify making it more expensive?

I'd re-entered a major tournament once before. That time I had lost the first two games, decided to re-enter, and then lost the first two games the next day as well. How would I feel if something similar happened here?

I also hoped to be able to see something of Philadelphia this trip. If I re-entered, I'd be playing five games today instead of two, leaving no time for any activity other than playing chess.

After showering and getting dressed I wandered outside the hotel. It was quite warm for January, but also very windy, so windy that even walking down the block was difficult. I'm not going to be doing much exploring of Philadelphia regardless, I thought. I halted my steps and stood there, still, feeling the wind rush past me, listening to its voice.

And then somehow I knew: I was going to re-enter.

An hour and a half later I was sitting down for my first game of the day--now officially my first game of the tournament. The first four games today would all have a (relatively) fast time control to catch us up with the other schedules, before they all merged for the fifth game tonight. Usually I liked playing with the slower time controls, with plenty of time to ponder over each move, but I resolved to concentrate extra hard and avoid time trouble.

Round 1: My first opponent of the day is an African-American gentleman who seems a bit nervous. Before the start of the game he asks to use his chess clock, which is an old-fashioned analog clock, rather than my digital clock. The newer, digital clocks have a five-second time-delay feature that makes time trouble less of a problem late in the game. They are also the preferred, default clocks now, which means that I could insist on using my own clock. But something tells me that I should agree to his request, that I might be able to use his own clock against him.

I have the White pieces. Like the first round yesterday the game starts as a French Defense, but it quickly becomes very unusual: on the second move I move my queen's pawn forward one square (rather than the usual two), trying to reach the King's Indian Attack, and he responds by moving his king's pawn a second time. The position now resembles a double king's pawn opening. As play progresses I provoke him into making some weakening pawn moves, giving me a slight edge. I fail to take full advantage of this, though, as my opponent succeeds in exchanging off several pieces and we reach an equal endgame in which each of us has a queen, knight, and several pawns.

At this point both of us have only a few minutes remaining on the clock and the game becomes a race: can we continue to make good moves, or at least avoid making any blunders, while not losing on time? The pace of play becomes faster and faster. Somehow the queens and many of the pawns get exchanged, and I end up with one extra pawn in the process--I have just a knight and one pawn, while he has just the knight. All he has to do now is sacrifice his knight for my last pawn, and the game will be declared a draw, with neither side being able to mate the other. A couple more moves and he will be able to do this, but then, just in time, his flag falls. I immediately claim the win on time.

An even uglier win then yesterday's first round, but again, a win. I reflect on the amazing correctness of whatever instinct led me to agree to use his clock. I can't reflect for long, though, as soon I have to get ready for the next round.

Round 2: My opponent is a young man of Middle-Eastern descent. He has White and opens with his king's knight rather than one of his pawns; this is a somewhat unusual opening that I am not really prepared for. We end up in some sort of Queen's Gambit position in which my opponent has an isolated queen's pawn that is vulnerable to attack. I am able to tie up his pieces in defending this pawn and take over the initiative. Soon most of the pieces are exchanged and we reach a rook endgame; I am a bit better because of the pawn structure, but will it be enough to win? Objectively my opponent should be able to draw, but I have all the winning chances.

He soon finds himself unable to defend all of his weak pawns and gives one up while activating his rook. After he checks my king and I interpose with my own rook, my opponent has a big decision: exchange the last pair of rooks and enter a king-and-pawn endgame (one pawn down), or keep the rooks on the board? He decides to exchange rooks, which turns out to be a big mistake: in the ensuing position, my extra pawn becomes decisive. Soon he is unable to stop the advancing of one of my pawns down the board, where it will eventually become a queen.

Two for two.

Round 3: I have White against a friendly Indian man who plays the Petroff Defense. The line I choose to play leads to a fairly simplified position in which both sides have time to maneuver their forces. As the game progresses I grab more space on the queenside but he has some advantage in the center, which he skillfully exploits: soon I am on the defensive. Just as I think I have successfully repelled his attack, I overlook a simple tactic and lose a pawn.

I try to stay calm and defend my inferior position, but I am already getting low on time and my prospects are not good. Soon my opponent is able to win a second pawn, and I can do little but watch as he skillfully converts his material advantage into victory.

A definite setback. Still, I have two wins in three games, and am certainly better off for having re-entered the tournament.

Round 4: I have White against a Caucasian kid who I think is in high school. He plays the French Defense but makes some strange moves early on, allowing me to develop an attack on the kingside. I am able to capture one of his kingside pawns with my bishop, but at a price: my bishop may well became trapped where it is. The outcome of the game hinges on whether I will be able to rescue my bishop and keep my extra pawn.

I maneuver my queen so as to join my other pieces on the kingside. In the process I give him an opportunity to corner and capture my bishop, but he misses it: now it is too late, as my knight hops deep into his position and attacks both of his rooks. He does manage to capture by bishop but I am able to grab a knight and another pawn. More importantly, my pieces are still aggressively posted around his king. He tries to fight back but misses a tactic and I win the game in style, sacrificing my knight by checking his king and winning both of his rooks, prompting his resignation.

Round 5: The fast time control games are all over now. I try to mentally adjust myself to the slower time control. I'm getting tired, so the change is probably a good thing. My opponent is a high-school-age girl, just like last night, and I resolve that the similarities between the two games will end there.

I have Black and play the Pirc Defense. She plays an active line that involves immediately exchanging my dangerous dark-squared bishop and castling queenside. She tries to attack my king but in doing so leaves her central pawns under-defended. As a result, early in the middlegame her position completely collapses, and I win a whole piece.

This is an absolutely fantastic start, but I remind myself of how I blew my winning position in last night's game and tell myself not to relax yet. Indeed, my opponent seems determined to try to make a comeback. I develop my remaining pieces and try stay on the offensive, continually focusing on the center of the board. I manage to force the exchange of queens and both pairs of rooks, effectively ending her attacking chances. My opponent chooses to play on well past the point where most players would resign, but her position is hopeless: I use my extra piece to win a pawn, then another pawn, advance one of my pawns to where it transforms into a queen, and deliver checkmate.

The day had been a great success. Four wins in five games, and only two games left to play tomorrow. I felt a strange mix of excitement, fatigue, and contentment. I treated myself to a drink at the hotel bar (as a sleep aid, I told myself) and went to bed eager for the next day's challenges.


  1. I am again struck by the poetry of chess. "dangerous dark-squared bishop," "castling queenside." So beautiful. Congratulations and I hope you enjoyed your drink! What is a good post-chess tournament drink? Mead?

  2. Oh good, I'm glad something of the poetry of chess is coming across here. Nabokov once published a book (Poems and Problems) consisting of both poems and chess problems that he had composed, and claimed that they sprang from the same creative source.

    Alas, my choice of beverage that evening is one detail which has escaped my memory. I doubt they had any mead at the hotel bar, but that would certainly be a good choice.