Day one of an eleven day tournament, I walk into the playing hall with a crowd of other kids. Everywhere around me there are kids with their parents or coaches speaking different languages, most wearing shirts or jackets representing their country, some carrying flags on stands, each making their way to their seats. Round one, I am on board five in the Under 12 section. The top five boards are different from all the other boards. They are nice, wooden boards with wooden pieces that are connected electronically so that the games can be shown on the internet. There are 150 participants in my section alone; 1400 in the whole tournament. They have come from 87 different countries, some of which I have never even heard of before.
I had arrived in Greece the day before (nine hours time difference from where I live in Utah). We flew through the night and arrived at the hotel in Porto Carras in the afternoon. And though I only slept a couple of hours on the plane, my coach had told my mom to keep me up until 10:00 pm. By that time, I couldn’t even sit up. I fell asleep on a couch in the lobby. Twenty-four hours after arriving at the hotel in Greece, I was facing my first opponent. He was from Hungary.
I admit that I was feeling nervous. I had never been to a major international tournament before. I had never even been out of North America before. I wasn’t sure how I would do against all these kids from other countries; how would I stack up? I had worked incredibly hard to get ready for this tournament and here I was facing someone that did not even speak my language (or at least not more than the very basics). I had been assigned a USA coach when I arrived in Greece that I had never met before (but was friends with my coach, Melik Khachiyan) and I got 30 minutes with him before the round preparing me for my game. He told us to come prepared with what my opponent plays, but we couldn’t find any games on Chessbase and we had not brought the laptop with Megabase. We spent most of that half hour just trying to find my opponent’s previous games.
But now the time had come, the organizers welcomed everyone and gave some announcements and then they sent all the parents out of the playing hall. It was time to begin!
I was white and my opponent did not play what I had prepared with my coach. I decided to play a line that I had played before in a slightly different position. We ended up trading the pawns off in the center and I thought I had this pretty good move, but I realized that he would have had a nice tactical trick that would have just been losing for me. I wasn’t sure if he would see it, but I was not about to take that chance. So I played something different and the game was pretty equal until he made a couple mistakes that I was able to capitalize on and when it appeared that I was going to go up a rook for two pawns, he resigned.
It felt good to just have the first win!
Two games later I still had not drawn or lost any games. I was 3-0! I had played someone from Lithuania and a FM from Iran. I was becoming accustomed to things in Greece. We had set a schedule (I really like schedules J) and I was becoming much more comfortable with my coach. Going into my fourth round, I was playing someone from India. He played the English. He played one of the lines we had prepared and I had played it before in several games so I felt comfortable with it and had equalized coming out of the opening maybe even slightly better. After that though, I made some slight inaccuracies and it got into an equal and very drawish position. My mom told me later that my openings coach, IM Sam Shankland, told her during the game that there was a 1% chance that the game would not end up in a draw. I like beating the odds!! 1% is good enough for me!! I worked on improving my position a little at a time and by the end of the game, I had the win!!
After eight rounds, I was 7.5/8, I had beaten two more FMs, (one who was the leader of the section), and was now a full point ahead of everyone else in my section. I had seen my mom jump into a freezing cold pool (a promise she made me if I beat the leader, FM Jan-Krzysztof Duda, from Poland), my dad swim laps in that same pool in the rain (that was his promise for the next win) and I was thinking that this would be a really good time to just end the tournament!! That night, there was a really bad storm in Porto Carras. All the power in the entire area was out for most of the day, and tons of debris had washed up from the water. We walked along the beach that afternoon and could not believe all the things that had washed up. We saw a bee hive strewn across the beach with the bees still inside, huge hay bale rolls, all kinds of garbage, and sticks and bamboo (that was really cool because we do not have bamboo where I live). Where we had been playing and swimming in the water just two days before was now covered in sticks and debris. They weren’t even sure if the Under 8 and Under 10 sections were going to be able to play their games that day because they could not get power to their playing areas. Shortly before the round was suppose to start, however, the power came back on.
Ninth round, I was playing Yi Wei from China. He had started ranked 3rd (ahead of me). When we looked up his games, he seemed to play all kinds of different things. We prepared several different lines, but what he played was different from what we had prepared that day. I knew that we had gone over that line a few days before, but I couldn’t really remember the move order (we had run so many lines since then). I wasn’t sure what to do so I kind of made it up as I went along (not a very good idea). The power went out again for just a second during the game and it affected what showed up online so that it looked like I resigned after 15 moves. That was not the case, but unfortunately, I did lose after 41 moves. I lost my one point lead and was now tied with Yi Wei for the lead.
This made game 10 a crucial game. If I lost, I was out of the top three medals. I was playing a 2211 from Ukraine. Surprisingly enough, I felt pretty calm about it. Maybe a little bit nervous that is until he played b4 on his second move! Armen (my USA coach) and I had gone over that exact line. He said that he would be crazy to play that line, but luckily we went over it anyway. Many have told me that this was their favorite game of all the ones I played, and I have to admit that it was my favorite too. I just felt like I was better through the whole game. It was a nice win and guaranteed me at least 3rd place.
Final game! I was still tied with Yi Wei of China and, unfortunately, got his teammate. My mom spent until almost 1:00 in the morning trying to find games that he played against d4, but there were none to be found. Without knowing what he plays and it being the Championship round, we made the decision (after talking long distance to Melik) to go back to one of my old openings that I know very well all sidelines (the one that got me to Master). The risk was that it is a very drawish line and if played correctly on both sides, it will end up as a draw. We hoped to catch my Chinese opponent by surprise, but to his credit, he played it better than Armen thought he would. Yi Wei had won his game very quickly. Some said that might have affected my game, but I didn’t feel like it did. Looking back now, I would not have played the Torre. Once Duda drew his game, I was guaranteed the Silver Medal whether I lost or drew so it would have been nice to play an aggressive line that I could have had a better chance of winning. But hind sight is always best and we had no way of knowing what Duda would do or how my opponent would play.
Going into this tournament, I think few believed that a kid from Utah (who has ever heard of Utah in the chess world) who has never been to a major International tournament would really have a shot at a top medal in the World Youth Championships. This kid from Utah wasn’t quite sure himself. As I started winning more and more games, people started to see the possibilities. Kids from lots of different countries started coming up and asking me the best they could (often with a thumbs up sign and a questioning look on their face) how I had done in my game. After 8 rounds when I was up by a full point, people started to really think it was going to happen. I admit that I was slightly disappointed in the end because I was so close to the gold I could almost taste it (actually I am pretty sure that I would not like the taste of gold), but it is hard to be too disappointed coming home number two for my age in the world. Overall, it was a great tournament! I enjoyed seeing Greece and being around so many different cultures and people. And I loved hanging out with the USA team (playing ping pong and trying to throw each other in the pool) at night.
I want to thank the organizers for putting together a great tournament. I especially want to thank the USA coaches. I don’t think I would have done what I did without them. Thanks mostly to Armen (I don’t remember his last name) who spent extra time with me before really crucial games and is a great prep coach and to Aviv for making sure I was always smiling. And thanks to everyone who supported me and cheered me on back home and around the world!
This year the silver…..next year….who knows!!