The next morning I awoke feeling excited and nervous. Just two games, I kept thinking over and over. Just two games. I had to win them both.
As I generously partook of the hotel's breakfast buffet, chess players all around were discussing their standings in the tournament. Someone asked me how I was doing, and I told him. He was impressed. "Good luck today," he said as we parted ways.
I checked the pairings for the day's first game, and my opponent's name seemed familiar. I then remembered that we had played in a tournament a few months ago. I had won that game.
The knowledge that I had already beaten this player gave me a needed confidence boost as we all made our way to our respective boards. True, in that game I had been White and today I had Black, but I felt a certain psychological edge all the same. As my opponent (an overweight, thirtysomething man) arrived, I sensed that he was not looking forward to having to play me again.
Round 6: My opponent plays an unusually passive opening as White, allowing me to command a fair share of the center. It's not clear to me how best to take advantage of this, though. I try to claim an outpost in the center with my knight, but this only results in some exchanges that leave me with a vulnerable advanced pawn. I can defend this pawn by pushing another pawn forward, but I fear this would leave some dangerous holes in the structure of my position.
We both castle queenside and, as expected, he moves to attack my undefended pawn. This is my last chance to save it, but do I want to? I have a long think and try to visualize the future course of the game if I simply give up the pawn. Apart from the obvious disadvantage of being down a pawn, my position would be fine. Try and hang on to the pawn, and I may be in a weak, defensive position for the forseeable future.
I let him have the pawn, which surprises him. Good. I try to coordinate my queen, bishop, and rook in an attack on his king, but he pushes his pawns forward and attacks my rook, and it seems that I will have to retreat.
Or do I?
If I retreat now, I will likely not get another chance to put any pressure on his position. I enter a long think and meditate on the position. His pawns now form a continuous, solid wall across the length of the board, neatly dividing up out respective territories. His pieces appear safe, hiding behind his wall of pawns.
As I contemplate the position something in my mind crystallizes and I suddently perceive the chessboard in a new way, as a three-dimensional battlefield. My forces are all trapped on one side of the wall. Neither side has any knights left, making jumping over the wall impossible. How am I going to get through?
Can I get him to open the wall for me?
With this thought I hit upon a plan, a shrewd trap that I suspect he will be unable to resist. Instead of retreating my rook I move it to the side of the board, where it risks being vulnerable to the enemy pawns. But if he wants to go after my rook, he'll need to open the wall. And I'll be ready.
I intentionally move my pieces close together so that he can push a pawn to attack my rook, and next move push the same pawn to attack both my queen and my bishop. It works beautifully. I let him think that he is winning material, but then sacrifice my bishop two of his pawns. The wall is now open, and my pieces are perfectly positioned; he can do nothing to stop my from trapping his queen.
Oh, he's pissed at me now. He has to give up his queen for my rook, and now the game is all but over. My queen sweeps into his position and picks up a pawn, and then my remaining rook enters the fray, and together they win another rook.
Yes! I thought to myself as I left the playing area. I had a hard time believing just how well my little trap had worked. For the first time this weekend I actually had a bit of a break: the last game wouldn't start for another two-and-a-half hours. I went outside, and the weather was positively Spring-like. Sunny, with temperature easily in the mid-fifties. In January! I went for a walk around downtown Philadelphia, had some lunch, and stopped by the nearby Franklin Institute. When I returned to the hotel for the seventh and final game I felt refreshed, and peaceful.
Round 7: My opponent is a somewhat elderly man, probably a real tournament veteran. I have White. He plays the Sicilian and I again play the unusual Alapin variation, which he seems ready for. His position out of the opening is fine, and I have to be careful about keeping a strong enough presence in the center, but then he misses a chance to go after my central pawn and now everything is okay. The game becomes open, with all central pawns exchanged, and I claim the open central files for my rooks. Then, he misses a tactic, which I quickly take advantage of: I take his pawn with my knight, and after he retakes with his knight, my bishop can fork his king and knight.
One pawn up.
Will it be enough to win? Maybe, but only if I keep putting pressure on his position. I move my pieces and pawns forward, keeping him on the defensive. I manage to plant my knight firmly on the sixth rank, making it difficult for him to manoeuver.
He's not going to go away quietly, though: he makes some solid defensive moves and keeps me from making more progress. Several moves transpire without either side gaining much. It's about seven-thirty in the evening now, and I try to stifle a small voice in my head reminding me that still have a five-hour drive to make tonight.
He tries to break free from the bind he is in and manages to do so, but at the cost of exchanging more pieces, which should benefit me. Now we have reached a rook endgame where I still have one extra pawn. Often the weaker side can draw this sort of endgame, but I'm determined to do whatever I can to win it. Most of the games are done now, and the playing area is emptying, but I keep trying to manoeuver my king and rook to where they can help advance one of my pawns forward. My opponent plays a bit too passively, and allows me the time to do this.
I manage to advance one of pawns forward to the sixth rank before he can block it with his rook, and on the other side of the board I start to advance another pawn. He stops and captures this pawn with his king, but this allows my own king to march into battle, heading towards the enemy rook. The blockade is broken. To save his rook he has to flee to the side of the board, leaving the path open for my passed pawn. To keep my pawn from becoming a queen he would have to sacrifice his rook, leaving me with an extra rook and a trivially easy win.
Only now did I let my concentration relax. I looked up from the board for the first time in a while and saw that the hall was nearly empty. It was almost ten o'clock. I felt surprisingly peaceful during that last game: intensely focused, but serene. Somehow I had lost any awareness of my surroundings, and it takes a few moments for me to adjust back to reality.
I looked at the standings and confirmed what I thought would be the case: the win puts me in a three-way tie for first place. Sweet. I waited around for another forty-five minutes to pick up my check: seven hundred dollars.
Of course, my expenses for the trip were over half of that amount. Put in perspective, perhaps it wasn't really a lot of money. But I had won it, and with that knowledge came a profound feeling of self-validation.
I finally left Philadelphia at eleven o'clock and made it home at four o'clock in the morning. I napped for a couple hours, then got up and went to work overseeing a math tutoring lab and teaching a class, staying awake and alert on pure adrenaline. Over the next few days as I caught up on sleep and life returned to normal, I was aware that I was different somehow. The experience had changed me in subtle but important ways--I was more confident, more willing to trust my intuition in matters that were wholly unrelated to chess.
You see, my victiories on the chessboard had given me a glimpse of what I was capable of.
They still do today.