A Traveling Chess Player 6: My Last Good Tournament

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | May 31, 2012

I felt like it was time for a bit of an update to the “Traveling Chess Player” series which led to me getting a column here. As I mentioned at the end of the last article, I had settled in Serbia and was doing very well in tournaments throughout the spring and the summer. In May 2011 I won a very strong round-robin tournament in the mountains of Romania, achieving my second GM norm.

In the following tournaments in the summer I continued to have good results, although they were not quite enough for a GM norm. In Forni di Sopra, immediately after the Romanian tournament, I was in great shape to make my last norm but lost from a winning position in round seven and then fell back. Nevertheless, I gained rating points in that tournament as well as the next ones in Paracin and Novi Sad. The tournament in Novi Sad – the International Championship of Vojvodina – was a smaller tournament where I was the second highest rated player, and therefore it was not possible to make a GM norm there (although the tournament has grown and this year it would probably be possible). I tied for first in that tournament, which took place in July 2011. Soon afterwards, I left for a small tournament in Arad, Romania. There also it was not a tournament for a GM norm. I was playing for the money and for an interesting trip to Romania.

Transportation connections between Serbia and Romania are not so great, so the trip involved taking a bus to the border town of Kikinda, waiting for one of two daily trams across the border to the nearby town of Jimbolia, then taking a train to Timisoara, followed by another train to Arad. This was a long trip, but I had a book of Ray Bradbury stories to keep me company.

At this point I was very happy with the way things were going. I had been having great results in tournaments and had seemingly made a lot of progress. I was filled with optimism and confidence and was enjoying chess. In every position I was finding interesting resources and playing with energy. I had not made my final GM norm in the two tournaments since the Romanian tournament where norms were possible, but still my performances were consistently in the mid 2500-s (by FIDE), it was clear that it would be happening in the next month or two. After all, in the first five tournaments I played in Europe where GM norms were possible, I had made two norms.

As I walked from the bus station in the small town of Kikinda to the train station where I would catch the tram over the border, I thought about what a strange year it had been. After all, if I could have looked into the future and seen myself seven or eight months later, I would even be speaking a language that I did not know at the time. How could I imagine when I set off for Prague in January 2010 that I would end up living in Serbia and be walking along a street in a small town on a way to an obscure tournament in Romania?

In Arad I was leading the tournament after five rounds, with 4.5 points out of 5. But then something strange happened. The next day had two games, and in the morning I lost a rather grim game to a 2500-rated IM. I never got much play, and although I managed to defend and the game was heading for a draw, I made a silly miscalculation and lost immediately. I was inordinately angry about this game, and could not even play seriously in the evening game against a 2250. In addition, I had woken up that day with a bad cold. I played the first part of the game at blitz speed while my opponent thought for a long time. I lost when I collapsed in my opponent’s time pressure – first making a mistake, then avoiding a drawing variation and walking into a beautiful combination, which my opponent found with only seconds on the clock. I was too sick to play any more and withdrew from the tournament. With great difficulty I managed to make the long journey home.

This turned out to be the start of a spectacular collapse. In the following tournament in Bratto, Italy – an absolutely beautiful location – my mental state was horrible. I could not put in the effort to even play and withdrew after seven rounds, having lost around 21 rating points (an incredible amount, don’t forget that when you are over 2400 your rating changes less). In one game I literally tied up my own pieces as if creating a jigsaw puzzle, so that all of them were trapped, and I had to resign before I had even lost anything.

I considered withdrawing from the tournament I planned to play next, the Barclay’s Open in Rome, but ultimately I decided to play. I felt that I had destroyed everything I had achieved that year, and therefore needed to do justice to my trip. That was not to be – I blundered in nearly every game and lost 26 rating points – my worst tournament ever.

After the tournament I stayed with local chess players for a couple of days, since I could not get a flight back to Belgrade immediately. A couple of times I had dinner with one of their families. As I sat in the evening on a second-floor veranda, looking through vines at the streets of ROME – the Eternal City - and enjoying Italian wine, all I could think about was how in one month I had undone everything I achieved in the rest of the year. It is a terrible thing when a bad performance at a board game makes you unable to appreciate such moments in your life.

Since then I have not managed to recover, despite a long break from chess. The last nine tournaments I have played, starting from Arad, have been bad results. During this time my rating went down from a “live” rating of around 2515 to 2440 – an amazing decline for someone who is relatively young. All confidence and ability to concentrate left, and in almost every game absurd blunders and miscalculations intruded. Therefore I have decided to go back to Philadelphia at the beginning of June. I hope that returning to my former life will let me regain my ability to play chess.

But I do not want to write about these negative things, so I will do the natural thing – revisit the last tournament in which I was still playing well! This was the International Championship of Vojvodina, held in Novi Sad.

In fact, by that time I was already starting to get a little wobbly. Also earlier, in Forni di Sopra and Paracin – despite having reasonable results – I was not in the best of moods. Many little things irritated me, and I played some bad games. Nevertheless, overall I was still playing well.

The Novi Sad tournament was the championship of the northern region of Serbia – Vojvodina. It was organized by GM Sinisa Drazic. Sinisa has been a great friend since I moved to Serbia last March, and without his help I would not have been able to do it. If any chess players are interested in traveling to Serbia to play some tournaments during the summer, he is once again organizing the same tournament this year, which takes place from June 29th to July 5th. Last year it was a smaller tournament, with only three GMs, but this year the prizes are much higher and many GMs are already registered. You can find information about this tournament on his website, http://www.drazic.co.rs/. This tournament is followed immediately by a very big tournament in Paracin, Serbia (where the prize fund is 8,000 Euros). For those with unending energy, immediately after Paracin you can begin a third tournament in another Serbian town, Senta. In fact, if you are either Superman or simply a chess maniac, I think there is another tournament in Belgrade following Senta. Thus you can play chess all summer in Serbia if you want, and you can connect some of these tournaments with the EXIT music festival which takes place in Novi Sad in July. Sinisa can give you the information about his and the other tournaments.

In the last year I have several times run across the issue of the Vojvodina chess magazine which covers the Novi Sad tournament I played last year. Each time I saw it, I thought about what a complete different universe I was in then, compared to now. While it was not my best tournament ever – my performance was around 2510 – it was like day and night compared to now.

In the first round I played against an old guy, who played the Schliemann gambit. The following position was reached. Black has nothing for his pawn now, but also White has a decisive combination. Try to find it:

In round two my opponent played the English, and the position in the next diagram was reached. It was a little deceptive, because apparently d5 is very weak. However, it turns out that more important was the weakness of White’s e3 and d3 pawns and his more exposed king. Now a breakthrough unleashed the energy of the black pieces.

In the third round, I played against a player named Uros Cvetanovic. He was rated only 2230 at the time, but he was a young and very competitive player. I got some advantage in a Maroczy Bind and was trying to squeeze him, but he held on very well, and after I made an inaccuracy he made an excellent decision to grab a pawn, which equalized the game. It was headed for a draw, which I could agree to at any moment, but I made one last – and rather reckless – attempt to win, which led me to a position where I was on the verge of defeat. An ending with rook and pawn versus rook was reached, with my king cut off. Eventually I was able to keep my nerve and hold the draw, which was a great relief. This kind of terrible practical decision – to recklessly play for a win when there were no such prospects – shows that the cracks had started to appear.

In the following round I again played a young player, Vladimir Lukovic, who had recently played in the Serbian championship. This was another draw. I did get a good position as black, but he held firm and managed to simplify the game. Although perhaps there had been some ways that I could have kept the game going, it is hard to manage these things – the position looked good but was never truly favorable for me.

In the fifth round I won a clean game, when my opponent fell into a kind of position with which he was not well acquainted. I have had a lot of experience in this opening setup.

In the sixth round I found that I was paired with the young American player Erik Kislik, who is now an IM. This was probably the first time in history that two Americans have played each other in a tournament in Serbia! I had the sense that he was very strong in opening theory, and therefore avoided the main variations as black in the King’s Indian. However, it is not necessarily such a good idea to avoid playing in a principled way, and he got a pleasant advantage. He then decided to offer me a draw, which was in some ways a gift because I was somewhat worse with no clear plan evident.

At this point I was not too thrilled with the way the tournament was going. I had not lost any games, but had made three draws against lower-rated players. That evening (the game against Kislik was in the morning) I was in a bad mood and played absolutely recklessly. As White I sacrificed a bunch of stuff and did not have nearly enough compensation. However, my opponent was probably tired and also sometimes one’s opponent’s recklessness can disturb a person, so he made some mistakes. Soon things turned around and it started to look like a game from the nineteenth century, where I had a huge advantage in development and open lines.

I was very lucky in this game and could have easily lost it, which would have probably sent me into a downward spiral. Ultimately that is what happened in Arad and the following tournaments. Unfortunately I failed to heed the warning signs in this tournament.

In the eighth round, I won my best game of the tournament. My opponent was Aleksander Indjic, a very nice young man who is the junior champion of Serbia. By now he is a strong IM and is probably higher rated than I am (after my massive decline). But that time he had a bad day. It was a King’s Indian where he exchanged early on e5. I got a good game and built a strong attack. Here was the combination that ended the game:

After these two wins, I had recovered and the tournament was almost over. I was paired against Sinisa in the last round, and decided to agree to a quick draw, since it guaranteed me a tie for first, and I had good tiebreaks. In the end I finished in third place by tiebreaks, with GM Boban Bogosavljevic winning first and IM Peter Bodiroga in second. A news crew showed up and I did an interview in the Serbian language. I tried unsuccessfully to find the video of the interview online, although someone told me this year that he had seen it on TV. Later that evening I played happily and with energy to win the rapid (game in fifteen minutes) championship of Vojvodina.

Almost a year later, I am now headed back to Philadelphia. Although my total collapse in chess is very upsetting, I am hopeful that I will be able to regain my ability. I hope that returning to the country where I grew up and where I do not have a language barrier will make it easier to live a full life, as I did in the first part of 2010. If anybody knows of a position teaching in a chess camp during the summer, or is interested in lessons or a lecture/simul in their club, let me know by sending me a message on here.


  • 4 years ago


    great article Mr Smith, wish you a quick but a full recovery

  • 4 years ago


    Great article,I love to read about your trials and tribulations,we all have them.Keep trucking along and good luck!

  • 4 years ago


    I really love your articles. You always pick instructive games that help broaden my chess knowledge. Your article on space was a big eye opener for me.

    My advice (although I really am not in a position to give any) is that you should study the games of Leonid Stein. There is a book called Leonid Stein: The Master of Risk Strategy. He might provide you with the inspiration you need to improve. He also played many of the same openings you do.

  • 4 years ago


    IM, I think you just put too much pressure upon yourself and cracked, which is the most likely outcome in this situation. I remember a recent similar article by IM DRensch where he went astray after a previous very succesful performance.It has happened even to stronger players, like Ivanchuk or Morozevich. Ivanchuk plays about 120/150 games per year, it's difficult to perform consistently at this rate. Gelfand, in the other hand, has shown the power of wise planification. Focus in two shots, World Cup and Kazan and bang!!, made it for the WCC although he knows there are quite a few more stronger players in the actual field than him.

    My humble advice would be:

    - Rebuild your chess from scratch. I think that the difference between a GM and IM is not calculation, but playing solid chess. They perform consistently above 2500. Enterprising chess is energy consuming. GMs know when to take risks and when not to. They rely in their present "feel", not in past achievements.

    - Wise tournament management. Don't play for the funds, try to make a living coaching, articles (you are a great chess writer!!) or anything, but only join tournaments when you feel in form.

    - Don't think about ratings but just playing good chess. If you don¡t make for GM is not a drama.You can still enjoy the game in multiple forms.

  • 4 years ago


    Thanks for your interesting stories- well written and honest!

    Loving travelling and chess (on a faaar lower levelWink) - I can relate to your experiences a bit...

    Wish you all the best  for your "recovering" and please continue to write for chess.com !! 

  • 4 years ago


    When facing a "big" chess problem, it helps to put chess tournaments  away for a while...Undecided

  • 4 years ago


    @dzekaj2012 - Congrats! You officially won the award for the most insensitive, mean, nasty comment on chess.com. The next time you have a serious struggle in your life you should try very hard to remember the comments you made here. 

    Bryan, thank you for telling your story. I think almost everyone is inspired by your honesty.

  • 4 years ago



    Chess psychology and dealing with losing, managing your ego, etc, is a legitimate chess skill (it may even be the most difficult chess skill to master).  Treat it as such and come up with ways to deal with it. You will lose chess games, you will blunder, you will experience disappointments - prepare for them.

    What you are suffering seems remarkably similar to what poker players refer to as 'going on tilt'. I would look that up. You need to resist external influence creep. Once you start to think about you past performances, your opponent's past performances, prize money, your girlfriend's bust dimensions, instead of the positions presented on the board, you will start to get into trouble.

    Peter Leko mentioned in the commentary to the recent Anand-Gelfand match that he went through a period of difficulty at the top level where he was constantly finding himself in bad positions and having to squeeze out ugly draws. He became known as the King of Draws, or words to that effect, but he thinks this period made him a much better player.

    What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, as they say. Don't let this episode kill your chess career. Live, learn, grow.

  • 4 years ago


    I love these articles and their honest depiction of the struggle even more than the chess. Kudos to IM Smith for the courage to spell out the tough life of many fine players and to bare his soul. My own (occasional) instructor is in a similar position (IM Smith may, in fact, know him). It's not for a patzer to opine as to whether you should invest any more of your life in this pursuit but, if not, you make a fine writer!!

  • 4 years ago


    What drew me to chess in the first place were the decisive and brilliant combinations that embody creativity on an 8x8 checkerboard; your articles never fail to highlight such brilliancies, and my appreciation for that is beyond words.

    Your tale is a tragic one, and makes me wish that chess was a bigger deal in the US. It might not be my place to say this, but from an outside perspective, it seems as if an income independent of tournament results would relieve much of the stress involved, so taking risks for the imaginative attacks you seem to yearn would be more affordable. On the other hand, if your sustenance realistically does depend on your tournament performance, I would agree with davidmelbourne that taking draws in a Petrosianic manner may be the way to go, as the world championship seems to suggest.

    In any case, I wish you the best in your life endeavors!

  • 4 years ago


    Thanks for sharing your story Mr. Smith. It takes a lot of courage and tenacity to do what you did (moving overseas) for something you believe in (chess). I can't help but think that the difficulties you have recently faced and the humbling experience(s) you have endured have only set you up for your next big breakthrough in your chess career (where ever you may be in the world). You will likely have a moment in the not-too-distant future when you have an awakening experience and then your chess will take a dramatic leap forward. It's most commonly known as 'the dark night of the soul' experience. I'd encourage you to look into these events which have been experienced by many of the most influential people in history.

    Best wishes on your life journey.

  • 4 years ago


    Peanut gallery comments, Bryan.

    I thought the Anand Gelfand match was deeply instructive for excellent players like yourself. They played the truth of the position and if that meant a draw, then a draw it was. Whereas I sense, as a loyal reader, that you strive for artistry and wins, and temprementally avoid the kind of chess played in Moscow.

    The conumbrum is: play to not lose, first, and 'suffer' lots of draws, and slowly climb rankings, or play for wins, and associated high risks, and associated high swings in rating points?

    My gratitious advice: aim to achieve 20 draws in the next 20 games, allowing only wins which present themselves. This is the equivilent, in running, of LSD: Long Slow Distance training. 

    Though I will also be sad not to see the great combinations you often achieve from unbalanced positions:) 

  • 4 years ago


    Best wishes.  We are all rooting for you!

  • 4 years ago


    Maybe the solution lies outside chess. Maybe pick up jogging or swimming or something. Just an idea. I hope you get your form back

  • 4 years ago


    Interesting and frankly column... But It is ethical possible to withdrew a tournament?

  • 4 years ago


    Bryan tells a great story and his ups and downs are no different than those pursuing similar careers in trading for a living, or playing basketball in Europe, or playing poker, as a professional blackjack or backgammon player, et al.

    People criticizing him for not being Kasparov, or not being polyanna-ish Mr. Super Happy Fun Guy all the time are either teenagers/or live in a very sheltered world.

    The joy of creativity in any pursuit is a worthy one, and we all get down on ourselves when we feel like we cannot create anymore, although I'm sure he still can and will get that GM title soon.

    And welcome back to Philadelphia!

  • 4 years ago


    I have loved reading about your travels and the ups and downs of a life dedicated to chess.  Maybe it is a board game, but is it any less worthwhile of a life pursuit than anything else we do?  Chess is a sport that demands intellect, creativity, and an appreciation of beauty.  I think it is an amazing way to spend your life.  I certainly hope you overcome the adversities you have experienced lately and get back on track.  Many of us are pulling for you to achieve that GM title. 

  • 4 years ago


    Great Article!

    And great post ericsin. I agree Life throws some curveballs sometimes, but if everything would come to you easy and with no effort would it be worth it? :-)

  • 4 years ago


    I'm sorry for what happened to you, but it a way I'm glad that at least one great player knows what it's like to be the rest of us.

  • 4 years ago


    very nice article, and honestly probably more worthwhile than stories where the hero always wins and lives happily ever after.  the truth of the matter is, life is just like this sometimes -- not fair, not easy, and doesn't always go according to plan. this lesson is one I believe we don't teach our children enough. 

    there's nothing vaguely pitiful about someone doing what they love and enjoy and dealing with adversity along the way.  it does sound like the author wasn't very well prepared to deal with adversity, and didn't do it very well, but that's part of the journey.  it's easy to write about our victories and conquests, and not so easy to write about the bad times, but I salute the author for doing it. 

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