Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Chess Career

Lately I’ve been seeing chess autobiographies, namely chessboozer and Tim Krabbe (or in the zip archive), so I’ll take my turn at it.

My dad taught me the moves when I was about ten years old. Then he proceeded to win game after game until the tears in my eyes obscured my view of the board. A few years later, I joined the chess club in sixth grade and played first board for my team at state. I think my success at the scholastic level was attributable to the fact that I was very cautious. I also played in the individual Oregon State Championship and finished tied for second among sixth graders. In seventh grade, I lost badly at regionals in one of the few games I remember from that era. I played black in 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 g6? 3.Qxe5+ followed by 4.Qxh8 and quickly went down to defeat. Also in seventh grade, I discovered computers and that scholastic chess players really didn’t have a chance against them, so I gave up the game for a while. In ninth grade, there was a chess club, but we really only had one tournament in which I lost to the eventual winner.

There was a long hiatus until junior year in college when my buddy and I decided to have a one-move-a-day game. I went to a bookstore and discovered they have books to help you improve your chess. My first book was MCO-12 edited by Walter Korn. From then on, I was hooked on chess and chess books. I studied the books and soon my friends no longer were within my league. Still, I remember a 1500-rated tournament chess player coming over to play me. He was bored between moves while I analyzed simple counting procedures (I take him, he takes me, I take him, he takes me). Simple exchanges of two pieces on each side took forever for me to count. I think this didn’t improve until a couple years later when I began to play blitz.

A year after I bought that first chess book, in January 1991, I played my first tournament chess in the Chicagoland Chess & Games club. I lost my very first game to a 1500 player but went on to win the next three games against 1100, 1488, and 1617 and I took the third place trophy for that small tournament. My first rating was 1641. After dipping down into 1549, my rating steadily climbed until by April 1993, it was 1832. (Not coincidentally, I almost failed out of school that year). My motto then was “2000 by the year 2000”.

My most fun tournament was the 1991 Evanston Fall Open, when I was rated at my nadir of 1549. In a 5-round swiss, I beat a 1711, beat a 1900, drew a 1954, beat a 2235, and lost to a 2147. Afterwards, I learned that the 2235 was really just a TD-assigned rating for an unknown, unrated, foreign player. He eventually was rated about 2000, but even with that correction, my performance rating was still 2100.

One of my best tournaments was the 1993 Illinois Open after I had just broken into Class A with a rating of 1832. I beat 2152-rated Erik Karklins, and then I beat 2227-rated Kevin Bachler. In round 3, I made it to a drawn queen ending against 2403-rated Andrew Karklins (Erik's son), but blew my draw right after time control. My first three rounds’ games are contained in the ChessBase 2003 Big Database. I finished by losing to a 2137 and then beating a 2045 for my highest performance rating in a swiss of 2273.

One of my luckiest tournaments was the 1994 Mid-America Class Championships. Against my fellow Class A’s, I went D-W-D-W-W for a performance rating of 2154. The final round is a story unto itself which I plan to tell soon. My score of 4.0/5 was good enough for 3rd-6th place in the 60-player section and won $150 which was my biggest chess payday until 2004.

In the 1998 Gresham Open, I started with a pre-tournament rating of 1986. I beat a 1326 and then a 2316, which remains my biggest scalp to date. I should have withdrawn right then because I proceeded to lose the last three games (castle long) to a 2230, a 1584, and a 1599. But it would have been hard to withdraw with 2.0/2. Transiently, my rating was over 2000, so I count that as having reached my goal of “2000 by the year 2000”. More career and family changes and suddenly, I had been a Class A player for a dozen years, 1993-2004.

In the spring of 2004, I played in the Far West Open. In round 3, I won my Two Towers game against a fellow club member, but I went on to castle long again in the final three rounds. The tournament organizer asked me to put together the games bulletin which I duly did, putting far too much work into it, but also learning a few things in the process. I’d like to say that the bulletin work allowed master level chess to seep into my subconscious and affect my game in ways that I didn’t understand. From June 24, 2004 until February 13, 2005, I went on a 40-game no-loss streak, winning 29 and drawing 11 against competition with a rating range of 750 to 2204 with an average rating of 1696.

In the fall of 2004, I tied with one other player for first atop the 77-player Class A section of the Western States Open. I had five wins and one draw, beating both #1 and #2 on the rating chart with black. I took the 1st place trophy on tiebreaks and won $1,087.50.

That was the pinnacle of my chess career. The USCF assigned a floor that prevents my rating from going below 2000. I have mixed feelings about the floor. It is true that I deserved the floor based upon the USCF rules as written back in 2004. Since that time, they have changed it so that winning $2,000 is now the trigger for a rating floor that protects other players from you sandbagging into too much chess money. The floor takes away quite a bit of rating risk. But without the danger and the hunger, perhaps some edge has left my game. Is reward without risk really a reward?

The past three years have been about trying to find my footing among experts. You may envy my rating starts with a ‘2’, but I am here to say it’s no picnic. People at this level are really hard to beat. It’s gotten so that I have been in some bad slumps lately. In “Searching For Bobby Fischer”, Josh Waitzkin’s mother and father argued about Josh being caught in a vicious cycle of a slump that caused fear that in turn caused more losses. I have been AFRAID that I’ve already reached my peak and all I’ve got to look forward to is the slow decline of age. I have been afraid that those young kids and up-and-comers with their low ratings will humiliate me. For Class players, playing an Expert might have an “intimidation power”, but in the end, being beaten by an Expert is no big deal. From where I’m standing, the Class player’s rating has “upset power”. Josh Waitzkin’s character said, “If I win, they’ll say ‘Well of course he won. He’s the top ranked player.’ But if I lose…”

I both envy and admire the lower rated players. I envy them because they must really have an unabashed love of the game that goes beyond the ego of high ratings. I also envy the chances they have of upsetting higher rated players like I used to in my Class C days. I admire them when they demonstrate the fortitude to soldier on through the continual beatings in the hope that they’re actually learning something and getting better. I hope it doesn’t sound condescending, but I want to say to them, “Sail on, dreamers. We all need a little unfounded hope sometimes to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”


chessloser said...

that was way more than just some autobiography. super well written, interesting. i think you don't always need a risk to justify the reward, and i think there is always at least a modicum of risk. i understand how you would envy us guys at the bottom, but we still wish we could be up there with you at the top. you look great holding that cash next to your trophy by the way...

Unknown said...

Hi Ernie, here's a thought for you since you have made reference to your rating floor twice now:

What the USCF did was not ethical nor was it even right. There have been plenty of players who dominated their opposition in a single event.

In my opinion, you are probably not a "2000" player, but even that opinion is hard to guage as being correct or incorrect because your style kind of clouds the issue.

In my opinion, you would have made it to "2000" anyway, but like many of us A-players, you show both tendencies as an A-player/Expert.

When is solidity reached? I do not know that answer.

But I wouldn't worry about it too much, because at a time when you least expect it, you'll be there and more solidly, just as long as you keep working on your game, as you have been.

In some ways, you could be in a position as many of the A-players...very close to the 2000 mark, but sometimes not up to standard as far as consistency.

One thing is certain in my mind and this comes from facing a great many 2100 players when I lived in San Diego. The only player that reminds me of a 2100 player and at that level is Terry Alsasua, even though he is probably in decline.

The rest of the A-players and so-called experts are not there yet. Not Bill Case, Not yourself, not Ryba when he was playing. Straver was at that level, but he seldom visits the club.

There's a much tougher difference between 2000 and 2100 and you can feel it at the board.

Naturally, I hope we all make our chess goals, but I do understand that many of us are fighting a never-ending battle with demands on our time.

I can't wait for the Class and Club Championships as I feel that a few of us are going to break through this time. And during this event, you may solidify yourself and your 2000 rating, so I wouldn't beat yourself up too bad over it.

What I worry most about is that if many of the A's become Experts and alongside the other Experts, there will be a huge vacuum or void between B's and lower and experts that no one yet is able to fill.

I personally think it is only a matter of time for Gafni, Shoemaker and Fischer. But if Peterson and Fleming make it as well, that void I was worried about becomes reality very fast!

Thanks for upgrading my blog link.

Robert Pearson said...

A very well-done post, Ernie. I enjoyed it and linked to it last night.

Eric, I'll do my best in 2008 to move up in rating and help fill that gap!

Anonymous said...

chessloser - Thanks for the compliment on my writing. It really means a lot to me coming from you. You could say I look like a million bucks in my picture, or, at least 0.1% of a million.

eric - Thanks for your thoughts. Please don't misunderstand that I actually petitioned the USCF to enforce it's own floor rule; they didn't floor me on their own. In effect, the floor was my own doing, but my feelings are mixed. I agree with the USCF's "not ethical" policy of preventing unethical players from sandbagging into repeated big money. If a strong Expert was able to manipulate his rating so that he repeatedly won the $5000 Class A prize at the National Open, I would think that the USCF would have a Class A riot on its hands.

Wahrheit - Thanks for the compliments. Positive feedback helps for me to figure out what "the people want to know." :)

Unknown said...

Hi Ernie, it's funny you mention MCO-12. Years ago, I practically had the Queenside Openings in the latter half of the book memorized. I think that's where I got my positional sense from.

These days, I concentrate more on tactics and endgames.

Unknown said...

Hi Robert, you and Kesti could probably fill this gap as well as Vernon Young, but all three of you would have to play more than you do. Your study habits are good, but practical experience may be lacking.

Naturally, time is very important to have and none of us seem to have as much available time as we would like.