Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Agony And The Thrill

Robert Pearson jokingly described his 2007 Western States Open as an epic. Tournament chess, in my experience, is an ordeal. Alekhine said, “During a chess competition a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk.” It’s quite unnatural to sit in intense concentration for six hours at a time, twice a day, for three days straight, but this is what I paid $120 for. As I get older, my major problem is maintaining proper body functions so that my mind can concentrate. I predictably get a dehydration headache if I don’t drink enough. Perhaps I’m diabetic and I don’t know it yet, but I generally pour myself a large cup of water, swig it from every three moves or so, and then frequently visit the bathroom on my opponent’s move. Headaches bothered me on the first day of WSO2007, but luckily they faded in the last two days, paralleling my better results. Eating is a challenge, too. Sugary shocks hurt my performance as do heavy fatty meals. I try to eat a simple sandwich or a salad, but burgers and fries are hard to avoid on the road. I lost about five pounds this past weekend. Insomnia is so bad that I typically get four hours per night. While I lie in bed, my mind obsesses over the positions I had before me, especially those in which Fritz tells me I played a pivotal mistake. Sometimes the music is the worst. I don’t listen to music on earphones during chess; I hardly listen to music outside of chess. While calculating variations during a chess game or revisiting them during my nightly insomnia, songs get stuck in my head. During the 2007 Western States Open, my mind had an endless loop of Leann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance”, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3, and Jerry Weikel’s rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round The Mountain” which he used to kick off announcements before each of the six rounds.

The title comes from an old commercial back before remote controls and VCRs. ABCs Wide World of Sports had a commercial with striking footage of a skier crashing and burning down the slopes. This reference is especially apropos since I had my own ski accident this year, the recovery from which I attribute a decreased energy level for tournament chess.

I started the 2007 Western States Open castling early. This is not to say that my king was placed into relative safety in a game. Rather, I learned recently that castling long tournament-wise means going 0-0-0 in three consecutive rounds. I started the Western States Open castling short with 0-0 and I began having an internal argument about whether I should just withdraw from the tournament. Since this was the latest in a string of disappointing results, perhaps I would quit chess altogether. I have never withdrawn from a tournament, but this was looking like the one. Both of my games were with White against 2100+ Experts. In both games, I achieved some advantages out of the opening or early middlegame, but by the late middlegame or endgame, I had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This technique of frittering away advantages is unfortunately becoming a regular in my repertoire. I made a deal with myself that if I lost the third game, I was going to withdraw and think about quitting.

Then luck found me. If anything we strive for in life lacks luck, it would seem that the outcome of a chess game should be as deterministic as anything, but despite that, there’s plenty of luck in chess. Round 3 was against a fellow tail-ender. My opponent sacked the exchange in a position he didn’t need to and then resigned just a few moves later when he probably could have set up a fortress. In round 4, I played black against an A player playing up. We equaled out in a Panov-Botvinnik Attack and soon there was a nearly symmetrical knight ending. Since I lost an equal knight ending in round 1, I decided not to tempt fate, so I offered an early draw and my opponent rapidly accepted.

Round 5 was the climax. I played a Bay Area expert who’s apparently fallen on hard times. Two and a half years ago, at FWO2005, he handed me my head on a platter by busting me up out the opening. I had a chance to swindle him in the middle game, but I blew it and lost miserably. This time, I had White, but that was little comfort since White lost the three decisive games so far. From the early middlegame, I had him rocked back on his heels defending against a central-kingside attack. There was only about one move possibility that he surprised me with. Outside of that, I saw pretty much everything including the final checkmate that he walked into. I was ecstatic after winning this one. The thrill of victory was a much-needed reminder of why I play this game. When I get around to annotating individual games, I’m entitling this one “Love Rekindled.”

Round 6 was a tactical slugfest with me on the worse end of it, but I kept my head. My opponent adopted some of my style and didn’t capitalize when he should have so we ended up in a dead drawn rook ending. So after starting off loss-loss, I finished with win-draw-win-draw and a respectable 3 points out of 6.

I didn’t win any money, but I gained a lot more important things. I was reminded that Experts make mistakes, too. I can and must work hard to hold my mistakes down to a lower rate by actually looking at the position and analyzing as thoroughly as a master would. I won the confidence that I CAN hang with the experts, I just have to stop my bad habits and find the good moves that are waiting for me. And I learned that sometimes, I really do love this game.

6 comments:

ChargingKing said...

Ernie....that last game was interesting to look over at the club on Thursday. The attack was superb. I'm hoping I can play up to your level someday!

SamuraiPawn said...

Welcome to the chess blogosphere!

chessloser said...

SWEET!!! it was great meeting you, and now i can read what you have to say...

rock on with the chess blogging!

chessloser said...

oh, and, even after i want to throw all my books out and never play again, i find that i still love this game as well..

Wahrheit said...

Isn't the chess blogosphere a nice, friendly place? Rock on, Soapstone.

Eric Shoemaker said...

Hi Ernie, Eric here. I was wondering when you would get around to this. It's kind of fun, even when we bloggers don't always agree with each other. I have found that when I "objectively" blog, it helps to keep me focused.