CONFESSIONS OF A CHESS NOVICE

or, A Weekend At Disneyland's Evil Twin -- My First Chess Tournament. Chess humor by Tom Chandler. First appeared in the November 1994 CHAT, Compuserve Chess Forum newsletter. Reprinted here with permission.


There's nothing like crushing a very cute 10 year-old to make you feel lower than a sidewinder with fallen arches. The fact that I'd beat this happy little kid in a meat grinder of a chess game, and I'd missed a simple mate-in-one in front of a sizable (and appreciative) crowd helped matters not at all.

That's how I ended my first OTB chess tournament -- and strangely enough, it started on an even less thrilling note.

Let me see, how should I begin this journal...?

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY DAY

Really. This is not some cheap journalistic trick. My first OTB game since I was a wee lad in elementary school began on a dark and stormy day in the middle of a drafty meeting hall. Foolishly, I'd showed up early, so I had the not-so-sublime pleasure of spending an entire hour sitting in the corner listening to my heart slowly work itself into a frenzy -- the signs of a "Fight or Flight" response to my stress. As I sat there, a bazillion years of instinct were telling me I should either rip out somebody's lungs or run to my truck and cower on the floor in comparative safety.

Simply put, I was nervous. Real nervous. My palms were sweaty, my hands were shaking, my head was on a swivel, and every loud noise made me jump.

Watching a few of the pre-tournament skittles games made things even worse -- I realized that I couldn't follow the moves at all, committing blunder after blunder in my head. Confidence-building stuff, truly. As someone who hadn't played for over over 20 years before stumbling on to the CompuServe Chess Forum some four months ago, I was starting to have some doubts about my attendance at this little 4-round weekend tournament.

Finally, after what seemed like only few dozen hours, the pairings were posted -- and I found myself facing a woman rated in the upper 1200's on board 32 (of 38). I'd drawn Black and she opened with 1.c4 -- an opening I'd done almost no preparation for. I decided to push 1...g6 as I play a kingside fianchetto against most other opening moves. (After the game, my opponent complimented me on my facility with the King's Indian Defense -- a shocker to me as I had no idea what we'd just played. I just smiled and nodded...)

I played the opening cleanly and felt I had the potential for some Queenside play, although my hands were still shaking almost uncontrollably from the adrenaline, and I was having trouble putting the pieces in place without tipping others over. Several times I'd gone to punch my clock and missed the button entirely. Still, I was playing carefully and I was working according to a plan. Finally, it seemed as though my plans were starting to bear fruit -- I forced White to play d5, placed my Knight on the weak c5 square, and suddenly had a few threats on the Queenside. I was less confident after my opponent traded her dark-squared bishop for my Knight, and it seemed that most of my prospects for Queenside play had vanished with my carefully-placed hopper.

As suddenly as things went flat on the Queenside they got hot on the Kingside. My opponent pushed f4, challenging my e5 pawn. Still, the move seemed a little wild, and I wondered if there wasn't a way to capitalize on it. Sure enough, my opponent had overlooked a little tactical shot and I won a pawn and opened the a1-h8 diagonal for my Bishop. It was at this point in the game that I was feeling good -- too good, really, for someone who was only up a pawn and had just opened a rank to his Kingside, where White's pieces were starting to pile up. Still, I was reasonably sure I could weather the Kingside onslaught if I played intelligently.

Unfortunately, I didn't.

To make a long, painful, involved story short, I made a series of truly bad defensive moves that culminated in the loss of a couple pawns and an exchange. Finally, on move 47, my opponent forced a passed pawn and I resigned in disgust, having lost the thread on move 17 and never having regained it.

It's hard to adequately describe my feelings after losing -- I'd played accurately for half the game, used my clock well, and gained an advantage. Yet I'd also thrown that advantage away, and nothing would ever change the fact that my first OTB tournament game was a loss when it could have been a win. I walked away from the table almost too drained and exhausted to be angry with myself. That would come later. In retrospect, it's clear the real damage was to my already plummeting confidence.

I prayed for an easy win in Round Two.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU PRAY FOR.

In Round Two, I got the "easy" pairing I'd wanted. After my humbling in Round One, they'd matched me with a nice old guy, who told me he was rated "right around 1,000." Normally, his fairly low rating should have helped me enter the game with a little more confidence than I had, but I was remarkably skittish, and all sorts of painful, humiliating scenarios were playing out in my mind when I sat down to play.

Fortunately, I got a break. My opponent pushed 1.e4, and I got to play a Sicilian Defense which -- for no good reason -- I have a lot of confidence in. And in fact, my opponent blundered a Knight before the move list even reached double digits. From there on I just switched it to autopilot as it seemed like my opponent couldn't see the tactical booms being lowered until they were staring him in the face. Less than 10 moves into the game I decided to bypass the normal Queenside Sicilian assault and shifted my attentions to the center. It wasn't pretty but I continued to win material (using the same Knight fork to win two Rooks in four moves) and mated my opponent on move 32.

Frankly, he was a nice grandfatherly-type guy and I liked him, but he'd played badly and it was hard to be proud of the win.

After the game I drove home nursing a headache and an ugly mood.

THE SECOND DARK AND STORMY DAY

This being a four-round event, I faced two more games on Day Two. Again the rains came, pounding out an uneven beat on the roof of my truck as I drove back to the tournament. Rain always puts me in a philosophical mood and I mulled over the previous day's events in my head. It was hard to happy with my performance, yet I'd somehow emerged even.

Maybe today would be better.

A short time later, I realized I was probably wrong.

My third game was less a study in chess and more a study about hope and despair. I drew another high-1200's-rated woman, this time as White. I normally play the somewhat "foolproof" King's Indian Attack when I get the White pieces in postal play, and I was confident I should be able to reach a playable middlegame with the opening. In this case, that confidence lasted exactly 20 minutes into the game.

At that point, I sat back in my hard steel chair and looked at the smoking ruins of my Kingside. I'd already blundered a pawn, stripped my King of protection, and was facing a lot of threats from her well-developed pieces. For some reason, I had let a couple of completely phantom threats force a deviation from my normal move order. I felt like someone had slashed me to pieces with the sharp edge of a rusty tin can.

For some reason, I couldn't find my way into this game -- I was playing too quickly, I missed obvious threats, imagined others, and calculated with all the ability of wilted celery. I was extremely skittish -- once even changing my mind on a move in mid-lift, when I deposited my Knight on a decidedly inferior square. The moves I was playing carried all the intellectual force of a "Dukes of Hazzard" rerun.

And all this in a supposedly foolproof opening.

Of course, the opening wasn't the problem -- I was. I considered my position a poor one after only 10 moves. And apparently, so did my opponent. I noticed she started spending less and less time at the board, which only served to feed my frustration and anger. I hated chess. I hated this noisy, drafty hall. For the second day in a row, I even hated the obvious imperfections of the USCF tournament set in front of me. (Before Round 4, I solved this particular problem and bought a much nicer plastic set.)

Finally, my opponent made a move (somewhat contemptuously, I imagined) and walked away once again. This time I pulled my rather feeble attentions from the board -- I wondered where the heck she was spending all her time. It was then that I realized that she was meeting her husband, who was playing on one of the top boards of the tournament. They met, and she made what I -- in my angry and paranoid state -- imagined were dismissive hand gestures about the bozo she was playing.

For me, that did it. My paranoia fed my anger and I became well and truly pissed off. Feeling the blood burning in my ears, I turned back to the board and started concentrating. My first impulse was to lash out with a suicidal Kingside attack. I wanted to kill something, and I wanted it dead in a hurry. Whatever my motivation, I started burning time on my clock, looking for the moves that would cause my opponent the most pain. Strangely enough, I started to find them. My prodigious use of time, I came to realize, made my opponent even less happy with me. She already considered the game won and simply wanted it to end.

With my mind finally focused on the game, I made a series of ugly (but effective) defensive moves which managed to dissipate most of her immediate threats. At this point, she was becoming visibly agitated with my long thinks, which for some reason only forced me to take more time and search all the harder for the right move.

Finally, she was still in a better position, but her impatience got the best of her and she started trading down to what she thought would be a better endgame. First the Queens came off the board, and then -- to my astonishment -- she traded a Bishop and Knight for my Rook and Pawn. This left her with two Rooks and a Knight against my Rook, two Knights, and Bishop. She was also up several pawns, however, and I realized that my weak Kingside was going to let me down if she decided to play for a passed pawn on that wing. Still, there were far too many pieces on the board for the pawns to come into their own -- I wondered what she was up to.

It turns out she was up to nothing.

I figured she was planning to win another pawn or two with the Rook pair and sail one of the little buttonheads to the back row for a coronation. Her trades, however, had removed much of the pressure and allowed me to activate a couple of formerly latent pieces.

By now her sighs during my thinks were becoming more audible, although I realized that my extravagant use of the clock was going to put me in time trouble if we went into a protracted endgame. Still, I resisted the urge to rush. I disconnected her Rooks, sending her advanced Rook off into my Kingside corner to hide. Then I made a nice positional move with my Knight that defended a couple of key squares and activated both my Queen Bishop and my remaining Rook.

At this point, all the time I'd spent thinking about the game was paying off. I knew that I was still worse, but I was determined to put up a fight and I had the "view" of the board I needed to do just that.

Then, when she should have been re-connecting her rooks and activating her Knight, my opponent pushed f5 -- a move she made with a impatient flick of her wrist. Immediately, it seemed fishy to me. Clearly, she was willing to give up a pawn in return for a passed e-pawn and the activation of her Knight. After looking at the position, I realized she'd suddenly given me control of two key squares that were critical if her Rook was going to escape the box she'd left it in. I hunkered down and thought... and thought... and thought... finally realizing that with a nice, simple, forced variation only four moves long, I could trap the Rook and trade it for a Bishop or force a threefold repetition and a draw. The former would leave us on approximately equal terms, although in an endgame my rapidly approaching time troubles would clearly favor her.

As my variation unwound, I'm ashamed to admit I enjoyed watching the realization that things were amiss begin to dawn on her. Finally, I trapped her Rook and she saw that she had no place to go. She moved her Rook, I shadowed it with my King (just to prove to her I saw the repeated position). Then, without a hint of irony in my voice, I offered her a draw.

She looked very unhappy, but the board didn't lie and she accepted in less than a minute. I could have laughed out loud. A draw! It was only a half a point, but it was a good half a point more than I thought I was going to get.

Later that night I quickly replayed the game. I realized I'd made some very bad opening moves in response to threats which didn't even exist -- and this I discovered while simply leaning over a board and flicking the pieces around the board. It's interesting to note that both my opponent and I considered the game as good as won for her while we played -- yet in my later analysis I'd have to say I was just a lot worse and not lost. Her decision to trade down to an endgame can only be described as disastrous, and while I was congratulating myself for having escaped with a draw, in reality I still had some chances left.

Let's chalk it up to the psychology of hope and leave it at that...

BUNNY STOMPING, ANYONE?

My final game was both a letdown and a potential nightmare. I ended up in a situation where the risks were large and the payoffs small -- I sat down across the table from one of the cutest ten year-old kids to ever walk the planet. He was cute. Really cute. He was cute like a box of kittens are cute and I knew that beating up on him wasn't going to net me any fans -- yet the prospect of losing to one of these whiz kids was even worse.

I'd watched a few of them play and realized that they usually played too fast, and that they're often tactical whizzes but too impatient to suffer through a closed game. I decided to try and steer the game into closed, positional channels where I hoped my opponent's impatience would get the best of him.

Ha!

It wasn't exactly a tactical slugfest, but it was a far cry from the quiet maneuvering game I'd been hoping for. Suffice it to say I had an initial disadvantage but managed to slowly push the kid back -- taking key squares away from him and limiting the scope of his pieces. Finally, in a flurry of trades, he went down a Bishop and a pawn. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a clear road to victory on a board still littered with pieces and I ended up trading everything off into a clearly won endgame.

Without going into all the gory details, suffice it to say that I didn't play the endgame delicately. I did win, but somewhere along the way our game attracted a crowd of six or seven observers, who took audible delight in my crude assaults on my opponent's pawn formations.

It didn't build my self-esteem one bit when I bypassed a very simple mate in one for a rather slovenly mate in four. The gallery, however, seemed to enjoy the event very much. I wanted them all dead.

Beating this kid was a lot like stomping bunnies at Easter -- It's something you don't want to do it unless you're forced to, but if you're going to do it, you don't want a lot of people to witness it.

TIME TO STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES

It was during the final two rounds that I took the opportunity to wander around and watch some of the other games in progress, especially those of the higher-rated players. I saw Jordy Mont-Reynaud -- the USCF's youngest Master -- winning a tough one over on the first table. And in any case, Jordy pegged the "hipness" meter by wearing a beret, a stylish and stark contrast to the uhhh, "comfortable" look sported by most of the rest of us.

In another rather epic struggle, one of the combatants looked exactly like your average grandmother. I found myself rooting for her on general principle.

Finally, the variety of nervous tics was astounding -- grinding teeth seemed popular, although there was no shortage of other highly imaginative facial tics. I decided the one with the most flair was the guy who constantly lifted his eyebrows, as if in continual amazement -- at a rate of nearly 20 times a minute (yes, I timed it). In Round 3 his young opponent committed an awful blunder that seemed plain for even me to see -- and started the eyebrows going in overdrive...

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

As far as this journal goes, we've reached the endgame -- where a witty, urbane writer would normally summarize the text, reiterate the key points, add emphasis where necessary, and wrap the whole thing up with a healthy dose of sage perspective.

Unfortunately, I can do none of the above. It wasn't easy putting my untested and decidedly meager skills to the test, but it was something I wanted to try. I will play OTB again, although I've got a little paint and bodywork to perform before then.

I ended up with 2.5 of 4, which landed me firmly in the middle of the "Booster" section (unrateds and under-1500s).

Despite the fact that I am essentially a four month-old "babe in the woods" when it comes to chess, I managed to hold my own (for a while at least) with people who had been playing for years, and I was fortunate enough -- for a few moments at least -- to get a glimpse of what it's like when your attention focuses like a spotlight on those 64 squares, and you know that you're seeing far more than your opponent does. Of course, I also discovered what it's like to play when your pieces are shrouded in fog, and even the simplest tactical threats can't be found.

On the whole, it was a very good experience, and if you haven't played in an OTB tournament you should consider tidying up your opening repertoire, sharpening those tactics, and taking the plunge.

In most cases, it beats stomping bunnies.

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