Read this and other entertaining stories at my blog, www.gmhammer.wordpress.com/blog.
Right after I had attended an event in Dubai, I got on a plane headed for London Heathrow. My ultimate goal was St. Louis, Missouri, and the US Chess Championship. Needless to say, travelling half-way around the world is tricky (and tiring) business. That's precisely why I was so happy to see Sam Shankland greeting me at my final destination, the Chase Park Plaza hotel in St. Louis - I would finally be able to sleep horizontally instead of various uncomfortable seats! Hopefully I'll stay clear of 30 hour trips (33 including the delay at Newark) in the near future - at least until I've mastered the art of sleeping on a plane.
I was in St. Louis on vacation. Having spent so much time on tournaments in the spring, it felt really good going to a well-organized chess tournament with lots of fun people, but without the hassle of having to play myself! I did play in the blitz tournament though, and it would seem some 4 days off had done wonders for my game, as I was playing quite well. Unfortunately, I met my match in the last round with black against Hess - a game I needed to draw for untied 2nd, but lost.
To be honest, I expected something extremely extravagant. In reality, the CCSCSL (I still can't manage to put those letter together without looking them up) is cozy and big at the same time. It's extremely well decorated, and it has some fantastic, minor touches, such as the NiC-magazines in the restroom! Here I am with my brand-new very water-resistant Championship jacket, which came in very handy, as there was a lot of rain during my stay. Photo: Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam
My primary goals in St. Louis was to hang out, experience the chess club there had been so much talk about, and, shop! It should be said I had plans to help out Sam with preparing for his games too, but when I booked my tickets, I didn't actually think he'd qualify beyond the primary stage, the 8-man round-robin. As it turned out, I arrived the day before Sam's decisive last game of the RR, in which a draw would secure rapid playoffs. With surprising ease, Sam disarmed Onischuk's white, and two of them got another crack at eachother in the rapid on the very next day. Of course I was happy for Sam, but I was unsure how he would fare in such a pressured situation. To say the least, my fears were unfounded. Cruising through another black game to make a draw, he decided the two-game match in a very exciting final game. As I ran from the analysis room in the basement to the playing hall on the 1st floor, I ripped out the handrail from the wall. Luckily, the good folks at the chess club understood it was an accident resulting from a burst of joy, and to my knowledge, I'm not yet banned from the club! Though I was told not to run in the stairs again!
With Sam qualifying for the final four, it was clear that what I thought would be six quiet days instead would become monopolized by opening preparation and tough decisions. I liked telling people Sam ruined my vacation, but truth be told, it still felt like one, since I actually didn't have to make any stressful decisions on the board. I left that responsibility to Sam, although watching him make them (and especially wrong ones) was fairly nerve-wrecking.
As the tournament progressed, it became clear it would be a huge success. After losing the semi-final to the eventual winner Kamsky, Sam had to play for the 3rd place against fellow junior Robert Hess. Their match became one of the most exciting ones in the entire championship! After two drawn games, the rules stated there would be no rapid, and everything were to be decided by an Armageddon game. In the fascinating system, the players were to bid for the black pieces, with a base time for white of 45 minutes. Sam insisted on bidding very low, whilst I insisted he be prepared for white too. With Sam bidding 20 minutes, and Robert 19 minutes and 59 seconds, Robert got the black pieces with a single second's margin! I was very afraid this extreme circumstance would disturb Sam, and make him lose focus on the game. Yet again my fears were unfounded, and Sam won a very good game - and the reward: a completely unexpected 3rd place!
I did get to do other things than chess too. I went to my first baseball game in 11 years, I bought a great pair of jeans, and had oatmeal at a (breakfast) restaurant. All in all, let's just say I'm tempted to repeat the trip, circumstances permitting!
The organizers generously arranged for an excursion for everyone to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. Fortunately, knowing the rules was not a requirement for tagging along! I got considerably better at the rules during the game, although I must admit I spent more time eating strawberries inside our private quarters than watching the game!
The main reason I understood more of the rules: Maurice Ashley took the time to teach the foreigners (Sabina Foisor and myself) using pieces we'd surely understand - the chess pieces! In the picture, Maurice is explaining the purpose and responsibilities of the first-base-man, here represented by the black rook!
My ego likes to think I speak English fluently, so I got seriously bummed out when this guy approached me and said, "You must be from Norway, I recognize your accent!" In the background, you can see the completely empty stands. Why empty, you might wonder? Due to a tornado warning, everyone was told to go inside! Being unaccustomed to tornados, the warning freaked me out, and with good reason, as the airport was hit the same night, causing serious damage, but fortunately no causalities.
With a tornado outside, it's best sticking to familiar territory! Ray Robson playing Alisa Melekhina, with Yasser Seirawan and Robert Hess kibitzing.
With a medal safely in hand, I was happy to secure myself the biggest ice-cream cone available! Sam was happy with something less extravagant.
You might also want to check out Sam's own account of the event! There you'll also find many of the games I've mentioned, annotated by the man himself.