A Traveling Chess Player 6: My Last Good Tournament

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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.

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