In this three part series, IM Bryan Smith describes his trip to Europe in search of a better life as a chess player.
Hi, my name is Bryan Smith. I am an international master who grew up in Alaska. I have been writing for Chess.com’s sister site, Chesskid.com, for some time, but this is my first work for Chess.com. I got the idea to write about my travels in Eastern Europe, so here it goes.
The Genesis of the Idea
It is not uncommon for American chess players to travel to Europe. A common destination is Hungary, where they play in the First Saturday round robin norm tournaments. Other players go to big tournaments in France, the giant tournament in Gibraltar, etc. Usually the reasons are to play in tournaments where norms are possible (which are rare in the U.S.), to get the chance to play one round a day, a much more human schedule, or simply to see foreign countries and play in an environment where chess is respected.
I didn’t want to just come for a couple tournaments in Europe, like a tourist. If I were to fail in those couple tournaments it might be years before I could afford a plane ticket back. So instead I decided to actually move to Europe and start a new life there.
Well, originally I was planning to go for just a few tournaments in the summer of 2010. I was planning this trip in the spring of 2010 (to get conditions like free hotel in tournaments in Europe, you need to write far in advance.) I had written to organizers of tournaments in Spain, Greece (where I played in 2009) and the Czech Republic. They all offered me either free hotel or free hotel and food.
I was disappointed, however, that the airfares to Europe in the summer were very high. Around that time my wonderful girlfriend Alice suddenly broke up with me, and I conceived the idea of simply moving to Europe permanently.
At the time I was reading an excellent novel by the Czech writer Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. So it was natural to move to Prague, especially since it is known as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and is also fairly cheap to live there. I decided I would move in January, 2011, and set myself the goal of achieving what I could (in terms of chess progress and saving up money) in the half year before I left.
For reasons I don’t really know, starting in the beginning of July my results in chess precipitously declined. I can say it pretty much started with the second round game of the World Open, where I was up a rook against the eventual winner, Viktor Laznicka, but lost because of severe time pressure nerves. An almost identical scenario occurred two rounds later in the same tournament.
In the tournaments which followed, in multiple games I simply collapsed, losing from winning positions, or after refusing draws –basically throughout the entire second half of 2010. My confidence plummeted; soon when I faced 2300—rated players I expected to lose. I also had severe insomnia and played several tournaments without sleeping at all. During this time I lost to many players to whom I could not conceive of losing earlier. My American rating plummeted from 2572 to 2499.
I think part of the reason for these problems was the uncertainty with my planned move. In any case, they reached their pinnacle in December 2010, when I played one tournament where I simply lost all three games I played before withdrawing, followed by another disastrous result in the Eastern Open. I felt that my nerves were completely shattered and I had forgotten how to play chess. By this time I had already bought a one way ticket to Prague and was signed up for two tournaments, the Prague Open and a round robin in Marianske Lazne.
I had no idea what I was doing. Here I was, going to a city where I knew nobody, on a one-way ticket, to play chess. And I had forgotten how to play chess. In fact, I had no desire to play anymore.
There was no way I could cancel my airfare or withdraw from the tournaments. My plan had been to look for an apartment during the Prague Open (it was a tournament with pretty small prizes and no chances of a grandmaster norm, but I signed up for it because it gave me free hotel and I felt it would be a chance to get to know Prague). I decided that instead I would find one more tournament to play after the first two (to justify my trip), and get a return ticket using my frequent flyer mileage, which can be changed for free. If those tournaments were not successful, I would return to Philadelphia and quit chess.
At first I thought of playing in the Gibraltar Open, which was right after Marianske Lazne. I had originally rejected playing in it because of the enormous expenses involved, and also because there would be no break after Marianske Lazne. The Gibraltar tournament only gives conditions to players rated over 2600 and some other people under “special circumstances”. However, I thought of enrolling in it just to justify my trip.
But then I discovered another tournament, the Georgi Tringov Memorial (also called the Bulgarian Open) in Plovdiv. There was about a week between Marianske Lazne and this tournament, which was the perfect time to relax and recuperate after two tournaments back-to-back. So I called Bulgaria using Skype and told them I wanted to play.
I packed everything I owned (except what I was taking with me to Europe) into my car, which I left at a friend’s house. The next day I left Philadelphia on Lufthansa and arrived in Prague. I felt better almost instantly, feeling that I might have left behind the terrible times in the second half of 2010.
The Prague Open
I got off the metro in an outlying area of Prague called Chodov where the Prague Open was held, and waited for a connecting bus that went to the Top Hotel Praha, the tournament site. As I was waiting, a bald guy came up to me and started talking in Russian. He was saying “you are playing in the chess tournament, right?” I still don’t know how he knew I was a chess player or that I spoke Russian. There were many other people at the bus stop. Anyway, that guy was IM Alexander Chudnovskih, and we continued to talk throughout the Prague Open and Marianske Lazne.
The tournament began the next day. I was supposed to have a roommate, but there was none assigned yet. The main hotel (where the tournament was held) was very fancy. At the beginning of the tournament it was full every evening of noisy and seemingly very wealthy Russians (not associated with the tournament). But they all disappeared after a few days. The part of the hotel where I was staying was an attached “garni” which was very basic. A spooky, dark corridor lead to the rooms, which consisted of two low wooden beds in a room, and a bathroom. I slept for a very long time the night after arriving.
In the first round I played against a friendly Czech player, rated about 2180. This is a big difference from my rating, but during the fall I had lost to several players rated around there. I would see if anything had changed…
He started out with a surprise: as white he played 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.b4. I had never faced this gambit before in a serious game. Well the great Paul Keres used it, but really it seemed to me that this was one of the worst possible gambits. The Smith-Morra is much more dangerous. I was able to get a good position with an extra pawn and then returned the pawn to get a winning attack. I felt I played pretty well in that game and had the sense that my mind was clear. The finish was rather cute and my opponent actually said “very nice” during the game, and allowed me to execute the checkmate rather than resigning.
Immediately after the game (and after each game for the next two tournaments!) my first thought was “well, when is the next game? I better rest and get some food, it should be starting soon. Oh wait…it isn’t until tomorrow at 4 pm!! I can analyze with my opponent, have a beer, go for a walk, read a book…”
In the evenings I was reading a wonderful book called Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. It was about the earliest days of commercial flight, where pilots braved storms, mountains, and even tribes of natives (when forced to land in certain areas) in order to deliver packages. They flew tiny planes and were closely in touch with the elements of nature, often navigating by the stars; unlike modern pilots who have computer navigators and are insulated from the elements. I saw how some of the romance of flying was lost, and I saw a parallel between that and chess masters grieving over the influence of Rybka and other strong computers, as I have often done. In any case, that book with its beautiful poetic images was helping me to sleep. Also helping me to sleep was the fact that the next round would not be until 4 pm the next day, so there was less pressure to fall asleep immediately.
In the second round I played a friendly FM from Belgium, Fabrice Patuzzo. In the game, he opened the center too early, while the king was still there. I won two pieces for a rook, and finally there was a cute finish.
At this point I was quite happy. In the fall I had been completely unable to concentrate or calculate a single line. Even the most basic task was difficult for me. Now I felt that my head was clearer, and some confidence had returned. The next round was a little upsetting though.
In the third round I played as black against a 2300-rated Hungarian player named Zoltan Racz. In my main opening against 1.e4, the Dragon, he blitzed out the first sixteen moves or so. Of course, if you play the Dragon you run the risk of specific preparation from the opponent. I have generally faced this risk with some confidence. I don’t spend my time memorizing variations—I know a certain amount, but rely on being able to solve the problems over the board based on my experience with the opening.
However, this time I fell into a trap which had already happened many times before. In fact, GM Bologan alone already won several games that way. I was left down the exchange without enough compensation. But after my opponent’s theoretical knowledge ended, he made several inaccuracies, allowing me to get a strong attack. Just as it seemed like the game would win itself, I did not find the best solution to the problem and it fizzled out to a draw.
Well, a draw with black was nothing tragic, but I was disappointed not to win the game. In the next round I won against a 2250 rated German guy. I improved on a game I played earlier, to get a position with an extra pawn where he did not have quite enough compensation. He put up a great resistance but eventually I managed to win.
The next day was the day with two games. For some reason, many European tournaments have one day containing two games—thus the tournament lasts eight days instead of nine. This was the most dangerous night for my insomnia. I would have to play at nine in the morning, which meant that I would have to wake up early.
I managed to fall asleep promptly, but woke up at about 3 AM. At one moment not only did I realize I had woken up, but that the feeling in my throat meant I was getting sick. I couldn’t really sleep the rest of the night.
The next day, I played against a young Czech player named Vaclav Svoboda. It seemed he played rather provocatively as white against my Nimzo-Indian. He got the two bishops, but had to move his king, push some kingside pawns and not develop any pieces. But I overestimated my position—his position proved unassailable and quickly his pieces coordinated. He showed clear class and understanding of the position. It seemed like it could become dangerous for me, but I managed to find some play and the game ended in a draw. I was not too unhappy drawing with a lower rated (he was around 2260) player. I had not slept and had a cold, and my opponent was obviously promising.
In the sixth round I played white against another Czech, rated around 2340. I felt like I got some advantage in a Four Knights Opening, but he played very solidly and held the draw. This was a kind of game I was not used to. Against lower-rated players in America I might lose control of the game sometimes, blunder something, etc; but I haven’t really experienced someone just playing solidly and holding the draw, especially as black.
In the 7th round, I played probably my best game of the tournament against the Polish player, Pawel Szablowski. He was rated only 2340 before the tournament, but within a month after the tournament he gained sixty rating points and two IM norms, so clearly this was a serious opponent. On the black side of an English, I created a gigantic but tottering center, whose ultimate purpose became simply to keep his pieces on the kingside contained for long enough to create play on the other side of the board. In a sharp queenless middlegame I was able to win. The key move was 26…Bb5, which took over the initiative and set White unsolvable problems just as the game was headed for time pressure.
After this I was in a pretty good mood. It doesn’t seem like such a great result—a few wins and a few draws against players mostly between 2250 and 2350—but you have to remember that my results in tournaments in the last six months were simply horrible, so this was a vast improvement.
After the game I noticed that an interesting off-hand blitz match was going on between two “spectators” – GM Sergei Movsesian and GM Simen Agdestein. Movsesian lives in the Czech Republic, but at 2721 was just a bit too strong for the tournament. Nevertheless he came by to watch; while Agdestein was there in his role as a coach of Norwegian juniors (I had also seen him at the Spice Cup in Texas a few months before!)
The next round was crucial for me. It was the first game I would have against a player around my level—IM Pavel Simacek. This was my most interesting game. In the opening it seemed he made an inaccuracy which made his position look very fragile. But rather than taking a simple path which led to a clear advantage, I started crazy complications (which included even such themes as underpromotions, two queens, etc!). I saw the simple method, but could not resist entering the craziness. Finally he found a line where I can give perpetual check or play on down a piece. I decided to continue the game, although it was not enough to win—after many repetitions I had to give perpetual check anyway after a further twelve moves.
That was an interesting game! I was not too disappointed by my mistaken decision. If there were 10,000 dollars on the line, maybe I would feel differently.
In the final round I realistically needed to win to get a decent prize. I had Black against the Ukrainian grandmaster Alexei Kislinsky. While preparing for the game, I saw he had an extremely “unique” (to put it mildly) style of play. Basically every game he played had some strange and crazy idea in the opening.
Because of this I was very surprised that he played completely mildly against me. We both needed to win and he had White. After the opening I already had a slight advantage, but the position was simplified by force into an ending with bishop against knight, where my advantage probably would not be sufficient to win. He offered me a draw, which I declined, but a few moves later I acknowledged that there was no real chance, and the game was a draw.
I ended up with 6.5 points out of 9. First place was a five way tie with 7 points. My roommate, IM Stefen Zilka, ended up taking 1st place on tiebreaks (in many European tournaments the prizes are not shared, so if you have better tiebreaks you actually get the announced 1st prize, just as if you ended with more points). There were six players with 6.5, and a total of ten prizes. Unfortunately, I had the worst tiebreaks of the six players, and therefore ended up in 11th place, and got no prize. It was a little annoying to tie with five other players, all who got cash prizes, while I got no prize. But on the other hand this is how the system works, and for nine-round tournaments tiebreaks make sense, because if you drop your points early you can really end up playing a much weaker field.
There was a nice closing ceremony, and I got some kind of chessbase CD as a “material prize”, which is common in many tournaments. Overall, I was happy. While it had not been an outstanding success (my FIDE rating performance was a little under 2500), I did feel that I was returning to form. I was enjoying chess again. Unlike an American tournament where I did not get a prize, I did not lose hundreds of dollars by playing. Of course, it seems strange to travel thousands of miles to play against lower rated players for seven out of nine rounds, but the point of signing up for this tournament was to get to know Prague and its chess players. It was meant to be just the first of many tournaments.
After the closing ceremony I got a ride from one of the arbiters to the town of Marianske Lazne, where the next day my second tournament would begin. Check out my next article to see my experiences there.