This is the second part of my three-part series about my travels while playing chess. In Part 1 I described my decision to move to Prague, my troubles last fall which led to me feeling like quitting chess, and my first tournament, the Prague Open, in January 2011. Although the fall of 2010 had been about the worst slump I had in chess, I started to feel somewhat better in the new circumstances.
The afternoon that the tournament ended in Prague, I got a ride with one of the organizers to the resort town of Marianske Lazne, where I had signed up for a round-robin tournament. The location of the Prague Open, in the outskirts of Prague, was not so thrilling. Mostly just communist-style apartments and some industry, and you had to walk about twenty minutes just to get to the nearest restaurant outside of the hotel. But Marianske Lazne was different - there was snow on the ground and it looked like a fairytale winter village.
I checked into my hotel room. This time I had a room to myself, which I strongly prefer. I used to share rooms sometimes at tournaments, but I rarely do it nowadays, even with friends. I just prefer to be alone. The room in Marianske Lazne was very cosy, with very high, roundish ceilings that looked like they were made of clay, and a balcony. Eastern European hotels, especially the less expensive ones, somehow feel more “real” than American hotels. You feel like you are actually in a house, something which presumably the American hotels are trying to avoid. But I like it.
That evening I turned on the TV and saw some sort of strange Czech claymation short movie without words, but with old-fashioned French music in the background. It was a surreal story of the adventures of a doll that sort of looked like a rabbit. In the end he was trying to push a cabinet against the wall and a cup fell from the cabinet onto his head, killing him.
The next day was the drawing of the lots, where the players find out who plays whom and with what color. So I would not know my first-round opponent until an hour before the round.
It turned out to be Frank Zeller, a German IM, and I had white. I checked his openings real quick, not having much time for any extensive preparation.
In the game he went into a sharp line which I think is dubious, and which he had played before. I was very happy with this. But as happened so many times in the fall, I got an attacking position (which I overestimated) and then could not find the best continuation. At some point I missed his very next move, castling kingside (which I completely forgot was possible). As it so happened, this oversight changed the evaluation from "unclear" to a clear advantage for Black. I spastically lashed out a few moves later, worsening it still further, but fortunately for me he accidentally allowed a threefold repetition! After the game we soon found the simple way for Black to get a winning position.
This was a lucky escape, although it did not feel so lucky. I had thought I had a very promising position in the opening, and the time between my blunder and the end of the game was not long.
In the next round, I played the top seed, Alexander Danin from Russia, rated 2538. He was also an IM, which is a more dangerous opponent in this kind of tournament. The GMs, who are paid to play, are less ambitious and do not try as hard as the IMs, how have paid an entry fee and are trying to make a norm.
I did not prepare so much for the game, just checking some lines he had played against the Dragon before. Unfortunately, though, I did not prepare at all for the line he ended up playing, although I could have easily predicted it. As a result, the unpleasant situation arose after fifteen moves where my opponent had not used any time on his clock (in fact he gained time, because of the increment) while I had already used half my time or so. Nevertheless I came up with a piece sacrifice and a crazy game ensued:
What an incredible game! It shows that Danin fully deserved the GM norm he got in this tournament. If you want to practice your analysis, go ahead and try to figure out what was going on there.
Normally I am not too upset to lose a fascinating, creative game. But… after the game I was under the impression that I missed a chance to win a beautiful game with the queen sacrifice on move 24. If I had done that (and the resulting positions where two pawns beat a queen and bishop occurred) it could have been one of my best games, not to mention a win with black against the top seed. Of course, at this point I did not yet know that the queen sacrifice would not work (when we analyzed after the game we agreed that it won for black). So I was quite upset. Missed opportunities are one of the worst emotions in chess. So when some Czech players playing in the open tournament which took place alongside the various round robins invited me to go out and have some drinks, I accepted, to distract myself. After all, the next round was not until 3 pm the next day.
So we went to some bar. I drank some Czech “welcome drink” – I don’t know exactly what it consisted of, but it was quite strong. Some shots followed, as well as many beers. We were playing bughouse. The next few hours were a blur of pieces passed back and forth, exciting time scrambles, surprise checkmates and demands from teammates (“strelec!” “dama!” – “give me a bishop!”; “give me a queen!”). By the way, I think it is interesting how most chess pieces have similar names in various languages, but the bishop has many different names. In English of course it is a bishop, in Russian it is an elephant, in French a joker, in German a runner, and in Czech – an archer.
Eventually my friends decided it was time to go. “What time is it?” I asked. “5 AM.” The next day I regretted this adventure. I was playing GM Vladimir Malaniuk at 3 pm, which seems like enough time, but all afternoon I was sick and my head was spinning. I don’t usually drink a lot, but with the bughouse as a distraction, I lost track of time. So I cursed myself for ruining my tournament. I badly needed to win some games to have a chance for a norm, starting, of course, with my game as White against Malaniuk. But now I felt I was not in condition to play, and considered offering him a draw.
When I sat down, I decided to play, for better or worse. It was hard for me to calculate variations, which perhaps worked to my advantage, since I focused on general considerations more. Somehow, I managed to play my best game of the tournament:
That night when I went to sleep I was quite happy. I had got back to 50%, and I had played some of the toughest players it seemed. The game with Malaniuk had some aesthetic points, some very artistic positions of the kind I like. That night I thought “I like chess…”
The next day was the cursed day-with-two-games. That meant I had to wake up and play at 9 AM in the morning. I cursorily prepared for my morning opponent’s inevitable English opening. He was the German IM Jonathan Carlstedt. It appeared he had only ever, in his entire life, played the English. This is perhaps an approach which limits one’s chess, but it is still very dangerous because he should know the themes very well. He was in last place at the moment, and I needed points, so I was definitely playing for a win, despite having black.
For whatever reason I played a simply terrible game. Maybe it was the early hour, or (more likely) it was the dubious variation I selected to “play for a win” with black. I had tried that line out in a simul and some blitz games, but I don’t think I will play it again in a real game. I have to give my opponent credit though. He played excellently and understood the positions well. I was upset after the game, but then decided to analyze with him to learn something, and he showed me how I was lost since… about move 3.
After this I started to wonder why I was playing. That evening my opponent was the Czech GM Vokac, and I needed to win all of my remaining games to get a GM norm. That seemed unlikely, and additionally I was not in the best of moods. Vokac offered me a draw in the opening, but I decided it was simply too depressing to give up without even trying, so I declined it. I got some minute advantage, but not enough to get anywhere, and the game was soon drawn.
So now I had no chance for a GM norm, which highlights one of the things I don’t like about these round-robin norm tournaments. Once a player has been eliminated from contention for a norm, they have little left to play for, other than to avoid losing rating points. You can’t withdraw from the tournament—you have to continue, and you might be playing people who badly need to win.
Meanwhile, I was starting to feel strongly like I should quit chess. I have had this feeling for a long time, and there are many reasons for it. Usually the feeling is stronger after an unsuccessful result, but here it was not as if I was having a catastrophe. Minus one was not a disaster, I was losing a couple rating points but nothing serious. Just the day before, I had beaten Malaniuk, formerly one of the world’s best players. Nevertheless, I felt more strongly than ever that I should quit chess, and the feeling increased in the next few days.
Why? Well it is hard to explain. The truth is that there are many reasons. Some have to do with the social or financial aspects of chess, and some are because of the game’s intrinsic nature. Besides the ups and downs of winning and losing and the nervousness of competition, there is also the tendency of chess to alienate one from the rest of humanity. In addition to this, chess is not so highly respected in my country (the U.S.). So, to some extent it does not provide what a person needs to be happy. It also is very difficult to make a living at it; and to add insult to injury, if you have a bad result you often have to read insulting comments from “chess journalists” who are – by the way – being paid to reproduce the games which you actually played.
Of course the game has some very beautiful elements and many people are very attracted to it, as you can see that it continues to be popular despite the fact that it can also be a kind of torture for players at any level. But sometimes I wonder if the intrinsic aspects of chess are so great after all. There is a feeling that computers are slowly restricting the creativity of chess by opening up parts of it that were once mysterious; and sometimes I feel that one’s creativity is restricted by the necessity of finding the “right move”, rather than being able to do what one wants, as in other arts.
Besides all of this, there are many injustices in the chess world which most masters are angry about (and I don’t want to go into right now). So the possibility of letting it all go and finding another – brighter - path in life is very desirable.
As this decision materialized, I felt relief. Of course, it is hard to give up what has given one’s life meaning for so many years. One needs a replacement, and the lack of a replacement for chess is what has kept me in the chess world so long.
I did not know how that would go. I just knew that I would go home to the U.S., get some job as a courier (a job I enjoy and I have done sometimes), and explore options. I would write, finally apply to graduate school, try out different things…but the main thing is – not play chess anymore, at least not in tournaments.
Meanwhile, I still had a tournament to play. Although I had made my decision, I did not want to lose any games, so the goal was to draw the remaining four games.
In the sixth round, I played against the young Polish player Oskar Wieczorek. He was rated only 2330 and I had white, but he was also leading the tournament and was the only player to have beaten Danin, so I don’t think any of the players had illusions that his actual strength was 2330! I thought about playing for a win, but basically decided that if he got a reasonable position out of the opening I would offer a draw.
He played a Taimanov Sicilian, and went into a variation where I had previously won nice games against GM Vladimir Potkin and FM Tom Bartell. Those games had followed each other until move twenty(!) so I knew something about the variation. But Bartell had later shown me an improvement for black, so instead of following my earlier games I tried some other tricky move. But my opponent neutralized that idea, and the position became equal, and was soon drawn.
The next round was the most dangerous. My opponent was one of Russia's top young player, the IM Vladimir Fedoseev, rated 2505. He needed 3/3 to make a norm, and he had white. A nightmare scenario for someone who has already decided he does not want to play. I figured it was likely I would lose, but I decided not to make it easy. In fact, I quickly took over the game, but made a beautiful sacrifice which… led from a won position to a slightly worse position to me. Then I dug in and defended for 105 moves!
Shortly after this tournament, Fedoseev played in the Aeroflot Open A-section (which is mostly restricted to players over 2550!) and started with wins over GMs Liren Ding and Ivan Cheparinov, and draws with GM Rauf Mamedov and former world champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov; en route to a GM norm!
The last two rounds are not much to talk about. Both were short draws, neither of my opponents having any reason to play either.
After the tournament I talked for a while with Danin, discussing some of the process of finding tournaments and making a living at chess in Europe (including how to get on teams in the national leagues). I felt it wasn’t very important because I was quitting chess. We also went to some place in Marianske Lazne where you could get water from some healing springs. Supposedly the water was fortified with minerals which would help one’s health. When I left for Prague, he advised me “don’t quit chess!”
In Prague I had arranged to meet a girl named Maren who I had not seen for nine years. She had studied with me in Russia in 2002, and we had become re-acquainted because of Facebook. Some time in 2010 I had sent her a message, and as it turned out, she was planning to move to Prague at almost exactly the same time I was. This was quite a coincidence, so we decided to meet.
Meanwhile, during the Prague Open I had made plans to stay with an American chess player named Erik in Budapest after Marianske Lazne. Since Budapest was on the way to Bulgaria, and I could stay for free, it seemed like a good idea.
So on the way to meeting Maren I can say I was the most confused I have ever been in my life. I had no place of residence. I did not know if I was going to live in Budapest, Prague, or return home to Philadelphia. I thought I would quit chess, but was not sure, and did not know what I would do instead of it. I did not know if I would play in the Bulgarian Open, as I had planned. Perhaps I would stay in Budapest and play in the First Saturday tournament, or maybe move my plane ticket to an earlier date and go home? If I was not going to play chess, I was not sure what I would do in Europe.
Anyway, Maren and I did some sightseeing in Prague. Here are some of the pictures she took:
The next day I was going to take a train in the afternoon, but I was late and I
missed it. So I had about eight hours to wander around Prague by myself. It was beautiful, snow was falling and there were so many new places to explore. That evening I took the train to Budapest, passing through the snow-draped countryside. It is easy to fall asleep in a train because of its motion, and each time I woke up there was a new person sitting across from me in my cabin. A kaleidoscope of faces, some of which I can still remember.
Finally I got to Budapest, and Erik met me at the station. He lived with his Hungarian girlfriend in the outskirts of the city. I had assumed it would be interesting and fun to hang out in various places in Budapest, but it turned out that he pretty much just wanted to study chess, which I – you probably understand – did not really want to do. But maybe his enthusiasm affected me, because slowly things started to be clear. I decided I would play in the Bulgarian Open, at least because it might be an interesting adventure. At the same time, I would not study chess and would play it like a game. I would just play some kind of obscure openings where I don’t need to worry about any knowledge. Some things like 1…g6, where you might get a worse position, but in all positions, any move is possible.
So, after a few days in Budapest, I set out for my twenty-hour train ride through Serbia to the city of Plovdiv, the City of the Seven Hills! Check out my next article, “A Travelling Chess Player, Part 3” for the continuation.