A Traveling Chess Player, Part 4
Originally my “Travelling Chess Player” series was going to be a one-time thing – just three parts, and that’s it. But it seems it was well-received, so the editors of Chess.com have asked me to continue the series. For now, I will continue it until Part 5.
I have to thank you for your very kind comments to the earlier articles (parts one, two and three). I have often been very upset about the things people have written about me on the internet or in print. But your comments let me know that there were some people who believed that what I have done with my life is at least not totally worthless.
Back From Bulgaria; A Month in Prague and Poland
Just as a reminder, my three-part series that was published last April dealt with my move to Europe in order to pursue better opportunities in chess and a different kind of life. The first part covered my initial plans, reasons for moving, and the Prague Open. The second covered the Marianske Lazne International and my misgivings about my life as a chess player. The third covered the Bulgarian Open.
After the Bulgarian Open ended, as you know, I was in a good mood. I wandered around the town that evening, looking at some ancient Roman ruins and generally exploring. I was not leaving until the next morning. My plan was to return to Budapest (I had a round trip train ticket there), stay one night in a hotel, and then continue to Prague the next day. After that…I had no idea.
When I got to the Plovdiv train station I found that the train was running an hour late. Because of this, in Sophia, I missed my connection to Belgrade. Since the next train to Belgrade would not leave for something like ten hours, I decided instead to take a direct bus to Budapest. The bus was leaving in a couple hours and would arrive in Budapest – as they said – around five A.M., right after the metro opens.
The bus left some time in the afternoon, and by the time we crossed the border to Serbia it was already dusk. The view from out of the window was amazing – the terrain over there is incredibly beautiful. Unlike the northern part of Serbia, it is very hilly, and very green. Under the glow of the setting sun was this landscape of green hills which seemed so close that you could walk from one horizon to another in a matter of minutes, giving the feeling that I was on another planet. Wooden houses grew straight out of the grass in a spontaneous fashion. There was no concrete there, no billboards, no neon signs.
Throughout the night I slept off and on. Finally I awoke as we reached a big city with signs in Hungarian. I looked at the clock. It was 2:30 AM – were we already in Budapest? It couldn’t be. But we were. I was the only one who got out of the bus at the nearly completely deserted Nepliget train station.
The indoor part of the bus station did not open until 4:30, so now I was stuck in this deserted area, which is far from downtown and far from the train station, near which my hotel was. I was not sure if my hotel would let me check in early, but I also did not really know how to get there without the metro system. I didn’t know the bus routes, I did not see a single taxi (or any other car for that matter). I also did not have any Hungarian forints. To add to this, I had heavy bags (I had taken all the bags I brought from the U.S. to Bulgaria), my computer, and the prize from the Bulgarian Open in cash. And it was incredibly cold. So it wasn’t exactly a pleasant situation.
At the station there were two other people: a woman with few teeth, and a rather shifty-looking guy. The woman spoke a little German and told me that the train station was “just a few kilometers away” on a direct road from the bus station. I thought about trying to walk there, but I didn’t really like the idea of wandering around in Budapest with all these heavy bags at three in the morning. But when the shifty guy started trying to talk to me, I decided that I couldn’t wait for two hours in the cold with these wierdos, so I set off down the street. I hoped I would either get to my hotel, find a different hotel, or at least find somewhere I could get out of the cold. In truth I felt like it was a really desperate situation. There was nowhere at all to go.
I kept walking and walking, not seeing any sign that I was nearing the downtown. Occasionally I saw a hotel, but there was no sign of life or any way to get in. After I had clearly walked longer than the woman had said, I finally found a gas station. Inside the store were the two people who worked there, watching a movie on a computer. Fortunately they agreed to let me stay there until the metro opened. I spent the next hour and a half reading a book of Boleslavsky’s games which I had bought in Prague.
Finally the metro system opened. I got to the train station, and then walked to my hotel, which let me check in, even though it was quite early. Finally I had a place to lay my head!
I was going to leave for Prague the next morning, but I was slow getting going, so I decided to leave on the afternoon bus. I spent a wonderful day wandering around Budapest. That evening I got to Prague. Again I was lugging my bags through the darkened streets, but at least this time I knew where I was going. As I got near the hotel (in the Žižkov area) the roads were cobblestoned and hilly. It was a really beautiful place.
So now I was in Prague. I had decided I would stay there. After the Bulgarian Open thoughts of immediately quitting chess had gone. My first goals were to get a cell phone (which was clearly a necessity) and to find an apartment. This needed to be quick, because my hotel was around fifteen euros a night, so I couldn’t stay there for long. I knew nobody in Prague except for Maren (a girl I had studied with in Russia years ago). Well, I probably knew some chess players, but I did not have a way to contact them.
Fortunately I had a lot of practice in this situation – especially from the time I was trying to move out of Alaska. That was really difficult, but this time I had more going for me – I knew more about the world, could talk to people better, and had more savings than those days. If I could have gotten out of Alaska when I was 22 (instead of losing two years working there as a dishwasher, unable to play chess) I could perhaps have come closer to realizing my potential as a chess player.
Soon I started calling advertisements for rooms. I decided that it would be much more practical to live with roommates. Because of my financial situation as a professional chess player in the U.S., I have almost always had to live with roommates. But some bad experiences last year convinced me that I never wanted to do it again. But clearly it was the only practical choice in Prague. Since I was not entirely sure what I was doing, it seemed best to keep it simple at first.
The first place I looked at was the home of an American girl named Rebecca and a Czech guy, whose name I forgot. They seemed quite nice and the apartment was good. I told them I was interested in renting it, but they still had an appointment to show it to one more person, so they said they would tell me later.
That evening Rebecca called to offer me the room. I told her I wanted to look at one more place. It seemed like I should not immediately take the first place I looked at. I wanted something to compare it to, to see if it was a good deal or not. She said, ok, but they needed to find someone fast, so I should decide quickly, because someone else was interested.
The next morning I texted Rebecca that I would take the place, but she had already promised it to the other guy. Surprisingly though, she offered me to stay there until I found a place, since the guy was not moving in for a week or so. So the next day I moved once again. That was Valentine’s day, and the three of us went to some local bar that evening, where we met another of their friends. They were really nice and I really regretted not taking the apartment.
So I spent the next few days answering ads and looking at rooms. Finally I decided on a room in the area of the city called “Vinohrady”, sharing the apartment with a friendly scientist named Jakub. I moved in there in the evening, and was going to pay the deposit and sign the contract, but he said he needed to write up the contract and we would deal with it later.
Finally I had an apartment, a place to put my bags, and a steady existence! But somehow at that point things shifted a bit. Perhaps the constant travelling, the constant needing to solve problems and experience new things – which had to inevitably end – was keeping me distracted. But once I had settled into the new apartment, things crashed down a bit. It was very cold outside, so I didn’t really want to leave the apartment, Jakub had left for work the day after I moved in and did not reappear for the next several days. Now that I had an apartment, my next priority was to set up my schedule of tournaments – to find some tournaments where I could get conditions, or at least where it was economically reasonable for me to play.
Somehow, I was not finding many tournaments at all during that time period. And surely it was too late for me to get conditions for any tournaments in the next few months. Quickly it dawned on me that I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew hardly anyone – Maren showed little interest, and I also didn’t hear from the people I had stayed with, who I now suspected only let me stay there as “insurance” in case the other guy flaked out.
The coming months began to seem incredibly long. Half of February, March, April…no reasonable tournaments at all. The only conditions I was able to find was a very small tournament in the Czech Republic near the end of May and a one-day rapid tournament in Poland (which would require an incredible journey). Not only did I not have any idea what I would do all this time, but I also didn’t know how I would make a living. The few writing jobs I had over the internet would not be enough, and Maren had told me that getting a work visa was incredibly difficult.
I realized that when Jakub got back I would have to sign a lease for the room and pay the deposit – after that, it would be very awkward to leave before at least six months. I started to think about just taking my stuff and going back to the hotel, before he got back. After all, I had not paid anything or signed any lease. At first I was very guilty for thinking that, but then I realized that if I left a decent amount of money to pay for the time I stayed there and the time it would take him to find a new roommate, then it should be ok. So I left sixty euros and a note, gathered up my things quickly (half expecting him to walk through the door any moment) and headed off to stay in a hostel.
For the next few days I stayed in a hostel in the historic quarter, where I shared a room with a few French tourists. The weather was absolutely freezing, and so was my life, it seemed. I could barely summon the will to go anywhere in the incredible temperatures; I spent most of the day in the room or in some café, trying to find out what to do next.
Eventually I decided to leave the hostel and go to a hotel, since I could no longer stand the lack of privacy. My wish to stay in Prague came back, and I began to look for an apartment again.
However, about a day later I stayed up all night reading about visa requirements on the internet. Originally when I made my plans to move to Prague, I was under the impression that there were no real visa issues. Like many people, I thought you simply leave the E.U. once every three months and that resets the clock. However, Maren had told me that actually you are only able to stay for ninety days in a 180-day period – i.e., you have to leave for ninety days. But, she assured me, “everybody breaks this rule” and nobody gets in trouble. Nevertheless, I was reading many stories on the internet about people who had been fined or even banned from the E.U. for violating these rules. Since I would be crossing borders a lot, I would be at a much higher risk than someone who, for example, simply stays in Prague and teaches English. Eventually I decided that I could not simply break this rule.
By this time, I had got conditions to a nice tournament in the summer in Spain. I knew I could play lots of tournaments in the summer. So I decided I would simply return home to the United States and come back near the end of May. Of course, the alternative was to move to some country outside of the Schengen zone, such as Bulgaria, Ukraine, or Serbia. But how could I really do that? Was I supposed to pick some town by throwing a dart at the map, arrive there and get an apartment, knowing nobody and not speaking the language?
Just before buying the ticket back to Philadelphia, I decided to try one last thing. I remembered GM Sinisa Drazic, who lives in Novi Sad, Serbia. Back in 2005 I had been planning to play in a tournament he organized in Serbia. In fact, I had even bought plane tickets and everything, but decided I could not spend so much money (back then times were very difficult for me). Later I had met him when I played in a tournament in Greece, and it seemed likely that he would help me get an apartment in Novi Sad. So I wrote to him, and waited.
This was around the twenty-fourth of February. Only two weeks had passed since I arrived in Prague, but it seemed like an eternity. In fact, all of this time was very magical. When you are experiencing new things and are in a new environment, your focus goes outward rather than inward. You stop dwelling on yourself and you instead see the outside world.
Sinisa answered me, and agreed to help me to move to Serbia. Not only that, we would go to some tournaments together. Additionally, I could get conditions for tournaments in Serbia during the summer. Finally I had a plan. In another couple weeks I would be moving to a more “exotic” location. I felt great relief now. Everything had been up in the air – time was ticking away against my ninety days which I could stay in the Schengen zone, and my money was disappearing each day. There is only so long you can live in the altered reality of the lost traveler, before you start to get nervous.
My birthday was a couple days later, and on that day was a rapid tournament I had randomly discovered on some Czech website. It would take place in a town called Dobrovice, about an hour from Prague. I had written to the organizers, and they had connected me with some other players who were driving in the morning from Prague. It was a fairly small tournament, with – it seemed – three prizes; first was about three hundred dollars. That night as I walked back to my hotel from my excursion to a random restaurant, I passed a guy juggling torches in incredible fashion.
The next day I arrived at the tournament. It was quite different from the typical small American tournament! When I walked in the room at around nine o’clock, several guys were already holding mugs of beer. There was a table on the side of the room where some attractive girls were selling food, such as sausage, sandwiches, and coffee. The room was a large auditorium, with banners announcing the tournament. All of the boards and clocks were provided by the organizers, who also had a microphone to make announcements.
Most importantly, there was not the atmosphere of misery and dreariness that is in every single small American tournament. It was clear that the players were there to have fun – because they enjoy chess. In all, there were one hundred and fifty players, including nine IMs and one GM. These rapid tournaments were fairly strong – in a previous one, just a couple months ago in the same series, super-GM David Navara played…and got eighteenth place!
Already in round two I managed to blunder my queen against at 2100. After that I decided a beer wouldn’t hurt. Because of this early loss, I played weak players for quite a while, which helped me to accumulate points (I won the next four) but wreaked havoc on my tiebreaks, which were very important in such a large field. Finally in round seven I played a Hungarian IM. I missed a win, and the game was a draw. I won in round eight, and it appeared that if I won my last round against Ukrainian IM Vitalij Koziak with the black pieces, I could get in the top three, if I had some luck with the results of the other top games.
Surprisingly, he offered me a draw early in the game. He had half a point less, so I figured he had no chance for a prize, while I obviously needed to win. So why was he offering a draw?! Naturally, I declined it. Finally the game ended in a draw anyway, and I was disappointed, assuming that I got no prize. After the game, however, he informed me that there were actually twenty prizes in all. I definitely was not in the U.S! As it turned out, I got sixth place, which was about eighty dollars. Unfortunately, I do not have the score of any of the games I played in Dobrovice, so I cannot include them here; not that I played any good games, anyway.
That evening, to celebrate my birthday I went to some bar with Rebecca and her Czech boyfriend. A few days before I had been concerned it would be one of my worst birthdays ever. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad at all.
A day later was my deadline to accept or decline the conditions for the rapid tournament in Poland. Relieved to finally have sorted out my situation, I decided – what the heck, why not go for a trip to Poland? It was in a tiny town called Trzcianka. After trying many possible routes to get there, I finally saw that I could take a bus to Berlin, and then from Berlin take a train to Poznan, and from there take a local bus to Trzcianka. I decided, against all logic, to do it. I would stay a night in Berlin and then finish the travel on the day before the tournament. It was a crazy decision, because the trip would cost over one hundred euros. While the prizes in the tournament were high, it also promised to be very strong.
I have never been much of a blitz player, perhaps because I started playing chess late, so I don’t have a natural feel. Under certain circumstances I can play blitz okay, but basically I have never had much success in blitz tournaments. But I think when the time control is fifteen or twenty minutes (as it was in Trzcianka) then I am not at such a disadvantage.
I set out for Berlin at the crack of dawn two days before the tournament, storing most of my luggage in the bus station to make it easier. I arrived later that afternoon and made it to the cheap hotel I had reserved. The next day I took the train to Poznan, walked a short distance in the freezing cold from the train station to the bus station, and got on the bus to Trzcianka. The organizers told me they would meet me at the bus station in Trzcianka and told me to take the bus leaving at 3 PM. However, there was no bus then, only at 2 pm. As the bus weaved through the forest, I tried to call the organizers but I did not know how to make international calls on my phone.
I arrived in Trzcianka, and sure enough, nobody was there to meet me. I went to a café, hoping they could help me call the guy. Unfortunately they did not speak any language other than Polish. Polish is very similar to Czech, but I had not learned much of that, so it was very difficult to communicate. Eventually I still wasn’t able to call the organizer. I did manage, though, to have a delicious cup of the typical amazing Polish hot chocolate, which I remembered from my days of living in a Polish neighborhood in Philly.
Not knowing what to do, I went to the hotel listed on the tournament announcements. It turned out that the invited players were actually staying at a different hotel, deep in the forest some ten kilometers from the town, and overlooking a frozen lake. It was a beautiful hotel, very old-fashioned with spiral staircases and old paintings hanging on the walls. I had a room overlooking the lake; I could hear the wind rustling the trees outside the window. I was told that the largest tree in Poland was near the hotel! But I didn’t manage to find it.
The next day I went to the tournament. As expected it was very strong. I was ranked sixteenth at the start! The tournament included such players as GM Bartosz Socko (2660) and GM Michal Krasenkow (formerly over 2700). Like the Czech rapid tournament, it was very nicely organized.
I won the first three games easily. I later saved some of the games: here is the third round game with WIM Ilena Krasenkova:
In the fourth round I again played a lady, WFM Klaudia Kulon, who had knocked off an IM in the previous round. The game ended in a draw. In the next game I played against the eventual winner, GM Orest Gritsak. This time I simply played terribly and lost. I started to wonder why I had taken a two day – and very expensive – trip to play a rapid tournament, when rapid chess isn’t really my forte. However, I won in the next round against WGM Joanna Majdan-Gajewska (against the odds I managed to play three women in the tournament!). Here is the game:
In the seventh round I won a lucky game against FM Wojciech Przybylski, where I was down a piece but managed to complicate it in time pressure. I had 5.5 out of 7; but this was still not enough points for me to be in really good position. To get a good prize I would need at least 1.5 out of the last two.
In round eight I played against IM Kacper Piorun. I kept pressing for a win and managed to rather outplay him from a normal position, but with time on both sides getting low I missed a win and it was a draw. Clearly I would need to win in the last round against against GM Miroslaw Grabarczyk in order to get a decent prize. So I played the Benoni, and here is the game:
The finish was rather dramatic – I was winning by one tempo. With both sides having less than a minute, I nervously reached for the bishop to play 55…h1=B# after 55.a7. My opponent looked devastated by losing, and resigned. I felt embarrassed for picking up the bishop, which would be quite a jerk move, but it was really just because of nervousness, not to humiliate the opponent. Only later when replaying the end in my mind did I realize that if he had played 55.Ka7 (instead of resigning) I would have to control my nerves and promote to…not a bishop, nor a queen (because of stalemate!) but…a rook!
It turned out that I got fifth place, which was about three hundred euros. I finished ahead of such strong players as GM Socko, GM Bartlomiej Macieja, and GM Vladimir Malaniuk, who is a rapid specialist and played in some of the famous PCA rapid tournaments sponsored by Intel. I was pretty happy by this result. Against all odds I managed to justify my trip financially and even make a profit. It wasn’t like this was a huge success (obviously I have won many bigger prizes, even at some routine local tournaments near Philadelphia); but somehow it satisfied me more.
I got a ride with one player and his family back to Poznan, and took a train that evening to Berlin, and checked in at the same hotel as before. Once again I was the anonymous traveler with no worries in the world. I had left my earlier life behind on the other side of the Atlantic, and had not yet built up any worries in my new place.
The next day I walked to the bus station and took the bus back to Prague, where I checked in to a different hotel (the earlier one was sold out). When I got off the metro, I couldn’t find the hotel, which was supposed to be just a few blocks away, according to the map. Finally I realized that it was down a ravine, which was right in the middle of the city. The hotel was in this sort of underworld part of Prague, far below the level of the rest of the city. My room had a window on the ceiling. In the window you could see a huge bridge which spanned the “valley”. It looked like an alien spacecraft was perpetually hovering.
I spent the next week wandering the city alone, and working on the “Travelling Chess Player” articles, parts one and two. I knew I would miss Prague. Around March 13 I took a bus to Budapest, once again spent the night there (to cut the trip in half) and then got on the train heading south, to Serbia.
This month which I spent in Prague was one of the strangest times in my life. It is not easy to explain why. I spent most of the time by myself, or as an anonymous person walking on the street. But so many different things happened during that time, that it seemed to last an eternity. One cannot live forever in hotels though, and eventually some ties to the world have to emerge. To hear about my arrival in Serbia, where I first lived on a ranch in the mountains, and a trip for a tournament in Italy, see “Travelling Chess Player, Part 5.”