The 2016-2017 Albany Chess Club Championship came to a close on Wednesday, February 1. The runaway victor was, once again, Jeremy Berman. Congratulations Jeremy!
This year a trophy was offered to Second Place as well, providing the rest of us something to vie for beyond “mere” rating points.
I’ve been playing rated, competitive chess for over twenty years, starting when I was in high-school. My first rated games were in a scholastic trophy tournament, run by the ubiquitous CCA Tournament Director, Steve Immitt. That started a 500+ games journey through the D-A rating classes.
In my youth I played every tournament I could possibly get to: a 12-round US Open in Virginia; consecutive World Opens in Philadelphia; multiple team championships in Parsippany; too many NYS Championships in Saratoga; random CCA tournaments all over New England; all-night tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan; and countless games cutting my teeth at the Vassar-Chadwick Chess Club, in Poughkeepsie, NY, my hometown. I had some decent wins, but mostly mediocre results. As an under-employed student, I got caught up in trying to win money over rating points, stunted my chess growth, and saw a high-school rating peak of 1770 foolishly brought down to the 1600’s. So I walked away from the game to focus on life.
And I did. But I missed the game. Even more so, I missed the carefree days of youth, when the young conscience is free of those pesky adulthood burdens – careers, bills, marriage. It’s not easy justifying playing chess as an adult. “How can you take time away from what’s important in life to play a game?” – is how the responsible-adult rationale goes. So now, I’m down to less than ten rated games a year. But I know this all-work-no-play attitude ultimately can’t compete with Caissa, my first love. If you’re reading this blog, then you too have been seduced by her. She’s my lifelong affair; no matter how determined I’ve been to leave her – and I’ve tried – she enchants me back.
I decided to commit to playing in the Albany Chess Club Championship. But I quickly regretted that decision. I lost my first game. A close, contentious battle with Jeremy Berman, being ultimately decided on one move: if I make the right move, I gain a solid positional advantage; if I play incorrectly, then I’m saddled with a losing disadvantage. I missed the strongest move, and didn’t recover. I say there’s no luck in chess – just weak moves. He who makes the final weak move loses the win.
My first round opponent (Berman) and last round opponent (Dean Howard) were the only players rated higher than me entering the tournament. So sandwiched between those two games, I’d be playing rating-roulette: anything can happen in these late-evening midweek battles. My starting rating: 1998. Two points away from achieving the Grandmaster-equivalent-for-club players, the elusive rank of National Expert. So after that loss, I began the tournament instantly down 12 points. But I slogged my way through the next ten games (dropping a game to Gordon Magat, who simply outplayed me), and entered the last round 9-2, to Dean Howard’s 9.5-1.5. I’m now up eight rating points: sitting unofficially at 2006. The battle is on not just for Second Place, but also to secure my rating. I need a win to earn Second Place, but would also be happy with a rating-saving draw. A loss would be horrific. Twelve games, around 36 hours of intense chess, all for naught rating-wise. A loss would mean zero rating points gained, and a fitful night of chess-loser-regret tossing-and-turning. The reward from five months of laborious chess-work is earned or lost with this one game.
In prepared openings, it takes two to stay on course, and only one to go off trail. I always joked I’d make it to Expert without knowing any opening theory. Every game is a new adventure – I ignorantly blaze my own path, and quite often enter thorny thickets. One can say this is the hallmark of a chess swindler – frequently fighting back from losing positions.
My game with Dean predictably soon had me in the briar patch, and we arrived at the following position.
Playing for equality, I decided to trade down. I should have exchanged queens first. Instead, after a good think, I play 16. Nc5. Which immediately turned into 16. Nc5??
WHAT DID I JUST DO!!!??
Only now, AFTER I played the move, did it become clear: he can simply take my knight, and my planned recapture of 17. Rxc5 utterly fails to black simply moving his queen to c7 or e7. If I play 17. QxQ first, after 17… RxQ, I’m basically forced to play 18. RxR, and then black recaptures with the knight, solidly protecting the hanging bishop. There is no recourse. I’M LOST! JUST. LIKE. THAT. Of course, Dean takes the knight. 16…Bxc5.
I saved my worst move of the tournament for my last game. Quite possibly the worst blunder I’ve made in three hundred rating points. Completely unforced. No tricks. No tactics. No traps. No zaps. A wholly unnecessary move with zero advantage gained, and no saving grace. I’m down material and position, with no counter-play. This is resignable. Just put your hand out; abscond; soothe your sorrows with Wendy’s; go home and kick the dog.
Now I’m staring at the board, suffering through the five stages of grief. Is this REALLY over? I’m searching and analyzing the position. There’s nothing. My clock is ticking down. Ahh, ok. Forget it. I’m done. I’m going to resign. I’m not going to sit here and play hope-chess, where one hopes their opponent sinks to their level. I’ll spare myself the humiliation.
But Dean isn’t at the board. He’s walking around. Predicament: how do you resign with no opponent? So I sit there and keep studying the position, accept it’s hopeless, and have a full-on internal dialogue, that goes something like this:
What just happened? I made a horrible move. Why? Because I’m an idiot. Ok, but you ARE rated around 2000, which means you’re a good chess player. True, relatively speaking, I am a good player. I just made a bad move. So if I’m a good player, and I’m capable of making a bad move, then logic says my opponent, who is also a good player, is also capable of making a bad move. Good point. Wait. This is just like the Superbowl from a few days ago. The Patriots are a good football team – had the best record in the league, but they played a horrible first half. Then the second half, they played great, and the Falcons played weak. So just because the Patriots played a weak half first, doesn’t mean they are the weaker team. The Patriots were down 28-3. Down 25 points. In the third quarter. That’s a loss. But somehow, they came back. They didn’t give up. They didn’t quit. They waited for their opponent to make weak moves.
But I’m not the Patriots and this isn’t football. But okay, I’ll let myself make ONE move, then I’ll resign. What move gives my opponent the best opportunity to make a weak move? I exchange queens. 17. QxQ. Dean comes back to the board.
He makes his move. 17…Bxf2+. WHAT THE??? UNBELIEVABLE! I’M BACK IN IT! JUST. LIKE. THAT. I felt like the Patriots.
Forget the pawn. I KNEW I’d get it back. Suddenly it’s a game. And just like the Superbowl after regulation, it was a tie score, stopped one move before bare kings. Draw.
But really a win-win.
Dean earned Second Place in the ACCC, and I finally, on game 543 of my chess life, became a National Expert.
LESSONS FOR THE NOVICE
1) No one has ever won or drawn by resigning. If it’s a draw, then the game will play to a draw. The endgame experience gained playing until the very end is worth the effort. If you make a blunder, don’t give up. Weak moves can be contagious.
2) Stay at the board. Think on your opponent’s time. We’re not grandmasters, calculating while we wander the aisles. The more you look, the more the board reveals. In post-game analysis, I’m always amazed to see what I missed. “How did I not see that??” Also, you never know when your opponent will prematurely resign.
3) Study tactics. I use chesstempo.com. Solving tactics puzzles is the most efficient way to study. You can make Expert without knowing deep opening theory. Patzers love openings. Makes them sound like a chess player. They’ll show you all the sidelines. Then they’ll drop a piece to a tactic.