This is the fifth – and last – part of my series about my travels in Europe to play chess. The first three came out in April of this year, and covered my original trip to Prague, my questioning my identity as a chess player, and several tournaments, including the Bulgarian Open. In Part 4, you can read about my return to Prague from Bulgaria, my struggles to create a life there, and my decision to move to Serbia.
As you know if you read Part 4, I discovered that it would be difficult for me to stay in Prague because of the visa restrictions. Additionally, there was not much for me to do there. I was spending lots of money staying in hotels, and could not find tournaments in which it made sense for me to play.
I had written to GM Sinisa Drazic, who I knew previously, and he agreed to help me move to Serbia. It would have been difficult to move there without knowing someone. Also, with his help I was able to find some tournaments in March and April that made sense to play in. I found that in the Balkans it is much easier to get conditions than further north.
As I left Prague in a bus to Budapest I watched the outskirts of the city disappear and realized I would miss it. I had hardly met anyone there, but I felt a potential in the buildings and the streets. Nevertheless, I was on my way to yet another interesting place. I stopped once again and spent a night in Budapest, to cut my travel in half. Somehow all my travels seem to go through Budapest. I have spent several nice days there on the way back from successful tournaments.
From Budapest I took the train the next morning south, to Novi Sad. The land in that part of the world is almost completely flat farmland. As we got to Novi Sad, the woman next to me asked me to help her take her bag down from the overhead place where it was stored. As thanks, she gave me an orange.
I met Sinisa and his wife at the Hotel Novi Sad, across from the train station. We drove downtown where, since I was hungry from my trip, we went to a shop and got – as he described it “like a hamburger, but better”. This was a pljeskavica (PLYES-ka-vi-tsa), a famous Serbian fast food, which is really delicious. The one thing I did not like about the Czech Republic was the food. The plejeskavica was like a breath of fresh air.
After that, we drove out of the city into the Fruška Gora mountains, about ten kilometers from Novi Sad, where Sinisa's wife owned part of a ranch. Fruška Gora is pretty much the only non-flat thing in the northern part of Serbia, and it is incredibly beautiful, a place where people go for vacations and barbecues. It also has a lot of monasteries.
When we got there, I saw that it was just like the places I had seen when travelling through the southern part of Serbia. It was like a storybook world with green hills and animals grazing. The ranch was in a small valley, whose sides you could walk up in less than five minutes and look down.
There was a small cabin where I would stay until I got an apartment. At that point there was no running water, and when night came it became cold, so we made a fire in the hearth. My neighbor (who owned the other half of the ranch) was a very nice old man who is a FIDE master in chess and a retired professor of mathematics. He lived in another cabin a short distance away.
Sinisa and his wife left, saying they would come back the next day and we would look at apartments in Novi Sad. I was alone in this cabin, with the fire crackling in the hearth and lighting up the cabin. I thought about how strange it was that, just a couple days before, I was in a hotel in Prague, and now I was in this strange but wonderful place in the mountains of Serbia, listening to the dogs howling outside.
In the morning I had breakfast with the neighbor, Dusan (or 'Straja', his nickname). For the next few weeks while I stayed there, each morning we would play several games of chess (and sometimes Sudoku), drink coffee and eat the eggs laid by his chickens. Straja owned two ponies, some donkeys, several sheep, a mother pig and her litter of piglets, chickens, ducks, cats, a dog, and a goat. Usually if you looked outside the window there would be a crowd of chickens, pigs, and the dog, just chilling on the grass. During the day I would make a fire outside and read by it, or sometimes take a trip to Novi Sad by bus or the nearby village of Sremski Karlovici, and wander around. Often Sinisa and his wife and son would visit, and we would have a barbeque. Straja spoke a little Russian and a little English, so we communicated in a strange mixture of languages. As I learned more Serbian, I inserted the Serbian words that I knew.
The next day after I arrived, I looked at an apartment and decided to take it. It was not available until the beginning of April, however, so this is why I stayed on the ranch for two weeks.
A few days after I arrived, Sinisa was planning to go to a small tournament in Italy called “Citta di Erba”. It had a first prize of only 450 euros. Nevertheless, the list of announced players was quite strong, since a contingent of players from Bulgaria were passing through on the way to some team tournament, as well as some other strong players. We would have to travel ten hours each way to get there, so at first it did not make sense. But of course, Sinisa had got conditions for himself and for me, so we would have free hotel and meals in an Italian restaurant. Since otherwise I would just be staying on the ranch, I decided to go.
We would have to leave early in the morning. The night before, a group of Serbian chess players arrived at the ranch, and we had a barbecue. The very nice GM Dragan Kosic was there, who I remembered from a tournament I played in Hungary years before. Also some chess federation officials stopped by. Well, I couldn’t imagine drinking rakija (Serbian brandy) around a campfire with any of the American “chess politicians”, but things were different here!
I also met GM Miroslav Tosic, the 1999 Yugoslav champion, there. Somehow, when I went into my cabin, the position on the chess board I had left sitting on the table was changed each time. I think that was his doing, because he really loves chess. He spoke Russian very well, so it was easy to communicate. Someone said “you know Miroslav was once married to Maria Manakova?" (the WGM who was famous for posing nude in a Russian magazine). I thought they were just pulling my leg, but it turned out to be true. Later he invited me to the town where he lived in the south of Serbia, Svrljig. I did some simuls there and we played an exhibition match in early May.
The next day at the crack of dawn we left for Italy. Sinisa, Kosic, and I were in the car, and just over the border in Croatia, we picked up a fourth passenger, IM Miroslav Pucovski. Before that we visited a leather manufacturing factory where Sinisa was part-owner.
In Croatia we passed through the town of Vukovar, where some of the worst fighting in the wars of the nineties took places. It had been nineteen years since the Battle of Vukovar, but the signs still remained. Many houses we passed were full of bullet holes or were simply bombed-out shells, and looming above the town was the water tower, full of holes from the bombs, which was left standing as a symbol.
We drove through Croatia and passed the border into Slovenia. It became very mountainous – a beautiful landscape. In a Slovenian town near the border with Italy, we stopped to visit one of Sinisa’s friends. It was a strange kind of place with very thin roads between the buildings, which felt like a labyrinth.
After some more time, we finally reached the tournament. It was near Milan, at the edge of the Alps. And the tournament took place in a castle! Soon after arriving, I was playing against Maria Janeva, a player rated around 2000 who is the wife of Bulgarian grandmaster Evgeni Janev. She made some mistakes early on in a Spanish, and I won with a weird reverse knight maneuver:
That game ended quickly, so as I waited for the people I travelled with to finish their games, I wandered around the castle. After they were done playing, we went to our “hotel”, which was actually a sort of monastery. All of the invited players were staying in the quarters where the priests lived. We also had dinner at the nearby restaurant.
The next morning (this small tournament had two rounds a day) I was paired against an Italian player rated 2300 named Dario Pace Pietro. I played a Dragon as black, and took some big risks to avoid a draw around move thirty. My reward for this was merely an equal endgame, but at least I managed to keep the game going. Finally, low on time he made a mistake, and it looked like my persistence would be rewarded after all. We reached the following position, where the win should be child’s play, but I was relieved and careless at the same time:
I was quite disappointed with this, but imagine how I would feel if I had not looked over at the clock, and actually lost on time! After the game I had lunch in the restaurant, and reminded myself that just by being there, getting nice meals for free, and playing chess in a castle, I was already a winner in a way. It sounds kind of cheesy, but I did manage to remind myself that I didn’t need to win every game.
The third round game was an excellent “recovery game”. It is nice if, after you lose (or after a disappointing draw, as my second round game was) you can have an easy win to regain your composure and put some distance from the loss. I was paired with an Italian player rated around 2000, and won in less than half an hour.
The next day I was playing against a Bulgarian IM rated around 2450 named Petar Arnaudov. When I tried to find him in my database the night before (to make some opening preparations) I found one Petar Arnaudov – but he was rated 2200 and, according to the database, 72 years old. It clearly couldn’t be that guy. There was also a G. Arnaudov, who I suspected was the guy, but I couldn’t be sure. So basically I didn’t waste my energy preparing.
Nevertheless, I was totally unable to sleep that night. Like in the U.S., the game would be early in the morning, so it was important that I fall asleep, and hence, it became impossible to do so. When I woke up in the morning, in my sleepless fog I was unable to find the breakfast room, and then when taking the elevator I nearly got some guy smashed by pressing the button as he walked through the door. Only with difficulty was he able to get out from the door, and I felt terrible about that.
The game was a nice King’s Indian. Basically he made a mistake in the opening and 12…Qb6 gave me a big advantage, although I had to find some good moves. I found out later that the game followed a game between Kacheishvili and Bologan until move 16, when Georgi varied with something equally hopeless. Obviously neither of us knew that, but I was happy to see that I played the same as Bologan, who is – after all – quite a strong player.
After this game, considering my sleep-deprived state, I was surprised I won. In the last round I was playing GM Janev with the white pieces. He had a half point less than me, so he clearly needed to win. Meanwhile I decided that I should be happy with a draw, considering my condition. If I drew, I would tie for first, but because of my bad tiebreaks (mostly due to the weak player I played in round three) I might get only fourth or even fifth prize. Fortunately, he needed to win, so this prevented me from making a bad decision and agreeing to a draw. As it turned out I won a happy little game:
As a result, I won clear first with 4.5 points out of 5, ahead of six GMs and six IMs. As I was waiting for the closing ceremony to start, I noticed Janev, who was looking at the game with his wife. I started analyzing with them, in the following position, where he had blundered with 19…Rc8:
Instead he suggested 19…Nd4. I was intending 20.Be4, meeting 20..Ra7 with 21.Qe1, when Black is in trouble. Then he pointed out 20…Bb5, which I hadn’t noticed during the game. Immediately I suggested the spectacular variation 21.Qe1!! Bxf1 22.Qh4 Re8 23.Qh7+ Kf8 24.Nxf7! With a dismissive gesture he suggested 24…Qf6, and I moved on to other things, finally with difficulty managing to find a small advantage for White in some other variation. But during the closing ceremony I couldn’t concentrate, because I saw in my mind's eye the amazing 25.Bd5!!
Despite being a rook down, White has a fantastic attack, with threats of 26.Nxe5 or 26.Nh6. Additionally the rook is still hanging on a8. Note that 25...Bxg2+ doesn't achieve much, because after 26.Kxg2, Black has no good checks. The position is very complicated, but I doubt Black could defend. I began to wish Black had actually played this way!
Now that I had moved to Serbia, and was able to play in tournaments with conditions, the financial situation was a lot less stressful than it was in the United States, or even in Prague. My living expenses were fairly low, and I could play in a lot of tournaments where I would not have to pay any expenses. So unlike in the United States, I did not have to win to survive. Nevertheless, making money in tournaments gives me a feeling that I have done something worthwhile in my life, that the society feels is worth some sort of reward, however small.
We drove back the next day, and I went back to the ranch, where I stayed for another week and a half. I was back to my routine of playing chess with Straja in the morning, reading by the fire, climbing the hill to watch the sunset from the top of the “valley”…
After some time, I started getting bored. I had limited access to the internet, and it was cold and generally I felt like I was camping. Camping might be nice, but after a while you start to long for the comfort of the modern world. I also started to miss the U.S. a bit. I had this feeling earlier, when I was in Prague. Certainly I missed some friends, but it went beyond that, which was hard to explain rationally. My life in the U.S., particularly last fall, was very unpleasant and I was desperate to get out. Nevertheless, I missed something. Around that time I started reading Lie Down in Darkness by one of my favorite authors, William Styron – which, it seemed to me, was a very “American” novel.
The day after moving in to my apartment, I left for a tournament in Skopje, Macedonia; after that I played in the Zagreb open. I have now (at the time of writing this) been living in Serbia for about four months. I won a small tournament called the “Easter International” in Novi Sad at the end of April (ahead of one GM and several IMs); in May I played in the Limpedea Cup in Romania, where I made my second GM norm. It was a round robin which included six GMs, and after eight of the ten rounds were completed I had already clinched the norm and first place (at that point my performance rating was 2780). This made me the first American to ever win a chess tournament in Romania, according to the people there. I have also been told that I am the first American to play in Serbia since Bobby Fischer played his match against Spassky in 1992, although I am not sure about that. But definitely I am the first American to win a tournament in Serbia since then.
Since moving to Europe this year, my results in chess have improved dramatically. Besides the two GM norms, my international rating is now over 2500. I don’t think such numbers matter so much, but it does give one a feeling that you are making some progress. I think I started playing better partially because I am finally able to play under decent conditions, but also because I have a much more positive outlook. While playing in tournaments, I feel like a human being and am able to have respect for myself, something I could not in the U.S.
At the moment I have no plans to move away from Serbia. I speak a reasonable amount of Serbian now, enough to get by without too many difficulties. I find the Serbian people to be really kind. I do miss the U.S. in a way (especially my friends), and am looking forward to taking a trip to visit in the fall. Hopefully I will be able to set up some simuls or lectures to help pay for the trip.
However, I am a bit torn, because I don’t think I can play in chess tournaments in the U.S. anymore. It is unfortunate to not be able to do what you love in the country where you grew up, but if I could play chess only in the U.S., I would prefer to quit chess altogether (as I almost did). When I played tournaments in the U.S., I would wake up dreading the coming day. I only played because it was my “work” (not that I made much money from it). It was the only thing I knew, and I couldn’t quit.
I used to joke with my friend Carl (an FM) that the tournaments in the U.S., particularly the biggest ones (those run by the Continental Chess Association), were like self-torture conventions, where a bunch of crazy people would gather to cut off their fingers with knives. The atmosphere, for someone who has spent his life in chess, is soul-crushing. And personally, the treatment I received from the chess society there has been horrible. Here it is the opposite.
This problem worries me quite a bit. In order to do what I have spent my life doing, which is my profession and my passion, I have to stay far away from my friends, from the place I grew up; to live in a place where I will always be a stranger. Will I be able to do that forever? Chess is not my whole life, and perhaps some day it will turn out that I will have to come home and put away the chess pieces.
[ed note: to the many who want this series to continue endlessly, IM Smith has a post as a weekly columnist now on Thursdays, dispensing advice on the psychological and practical aspects of chess. Next week WGM Pogonina will return to "Preparing for Intl Competition." It has been fun having them trade off, and they may do so in the future.]