Ups And Downs In Life And Chess: Zalakaros Open

Ups And Downs In Life And Chess: Zalakaros Open

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It has been some time since I wrote about my own tournaments or annotated my own games. In general, it seems more legitimate and honest to annotate one's own games. You know precisely what was going on in your head, you remember your emotions, what variations you calculated, and you remember what was the real turning point of the game.

So I have decided to write about my recent trip to Zalakaros: a town in Hungary.

First, some background.

After making my final grandmaster norm in October 2013, my life started to quickly improve. A few days afterwards I quit smoking, and then won a couple of decent-sized tournaments:the King's Island Open and the Eastern Open.

Throughout the first half of 2014, times were really good. It was one of the ecstatic times, when the world carries you along, when everything fits together and you are afraid to touch anything to disturb the perfect harmony.

Especially during the summer of 2014, I received an unprecedented number of opportunities to do respectable chess-related work. Thus, during the summer I did a great deal of traveling -- including a huge road trip which took me from Manhattan, back to Philadelphia -- where I stopped just long enough to put my bags in my car -- to Kentucky, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, and back home to Philadelphia again. It was truly a miraculous time for me, and the income I made from this trip gave me some sort of financial security for the first time in my life.

Most incredible was the month I spent in St. Louis as the grandmaster-in-residence for the club there. I was shocked when I was offered this job out of the blue. I had no connection to the St. Louis club whatsoever; I had never been to St. Louis, nor had I ever spoken to anyone associated with the club besides an awkward phone interview with its journalist shortly after I became a grandmaster.

The times in St. Louis were truly wonderful. I stayed alone in a big Victorian-style house a block from the chess club. My job was to hang out at the club during the day, to interact with the players, teach a few private lessons and some daily lectures, and to do a few other events and some writing. Days were spent sitting outside on the tree-lined street where the club is located, listening to the buzzing of insects and the chirping of birds, perhaps reading a book or playing blitz, with the pleasant aroma of cigars from the cigar bar next door.

I returned to Philadelphia, looking forward to the rest of the summer, vowing to slow down a little, while studying and playing chess more.

However, things soon began -- seemingly for no particular reason -- to change for the worst. Times became very grim. Worst of all, a chronic and apparently intractable neck pain began to develop. In St. Louis I had awoken one morning unable to turn my head, with severe pain. After a few days it went away like most physical ailments and I forgot about it. But slowly throughout the fall it began to return. At first I ignored it, expecting that it would soon go away, but eventually it became impossible to do that. 

Naturally, the neck pain made it very hard to play chess. To play chess well you have to be happy, to have inspiration and a positive attitude; being in constant pain is not conducive to those things.

During the first half of 2015, I was in a struggle with myself. I wanted to get back to playing a lot of chess, like I did from 2008 to 2010, when I would go from tournament to tournament fighting for my livelihood. But of course, the constant pain interfered. Quite often it happened that I would plan to play in a tournament and finally decide not to go at the last moment. I played in some small tournaments, and of course my rating dropped massively as I lost to a number of lower-rated players. In some games, the pain itself interrupted my concentration; but in general, it was the dark mood brought on by it which made it hard to play.

Another dilemma was about where to live. By November of 2014 I had started to think about moving back to Europe. The conditions in the tournaments in the U.S.-- at least many of them -- have declined to a ridiculous level, and it is neither enjoyable nor beneficial for me to play in most U.S. tournaments nowadays. Some changes have made the tournaments even worse than just a few years ago, and I tend to feel like my whole life has been a waste when playing in American tournaments.

And yet, outside of chess, I feel at home in the U.S. During the years I have lived abroad I never quite felt I was living a normal life. This conundrum has been a constant problem for me, and to some extent the decision of where to live depends on whether I will continue to play chess at all. 

In Europe, I knew things would be better in the tournaments. However, the neck pain made it hard for me to contemplate packing up my stuff into storage and moving to another continent, along with an unpredictable future. I spent months literally right on the edge, imagining that I would buy the plane tickets "any day now." Meanwhile, I wasn't winning any tournaments or doing any other work besides writing my articles, while I was spending a lot trying to get treatments for my neck pain, so there was added stress because soon I would have no money left to pay for the travel.

Being stuck in limbo like this was not good -- but I couldn't make a decision.

So throughout the spring I struggled with my future plans. Should I move to Prague, Budapest, Germany, or Serbia, or perhaps to try to make a go of it in a country where I have never been, such as Spain? Should I sell my car and give up my apartment, or sublet my apartment and store my car, thus admitting that I would come back soon? Or should I just stay in Philadelphia and quit chess, partially or totally? Perhaps I should become an electrician?

By the end of April, the pain had gotten somewhat better and less consistent, probably due to appointments with a good chiropractor. There were days when I could say it was not really that bad. Meanwhile, I managed to decide on some plans. A tournament in the town of Zalakaros, Hungary, was where I would start. Zalakaros is a spa town, where people (usually quite old) go to relax and heal chronic ailments with the medicinal spring water and saunas.

I finally admitted that I could not run off "forever." I would not sell my car; I also would not leave my apartment since it would be very hard to find something similar when I returned. I knew that I could not assume that I would move permanently to Europe and just play chess. At the minimum, I would return to Philadelphia in August; if somehow I was ready to move permanently at that time, I would come home, sell my car and leave my apartment. But I hoped the trip would change the status quo. Because I could sublet my apartment in Philadelphia while the cost of living would be less in the places I was going, the trip would not really cost very much.

So finally, near the end of April, I bought the plane tickets to Budapest. I had made plans to play in Zalakaros, as well as the tournaments in Paracin, Serbia, and the Czech Open in July. But within a day of buying the tickets, I already began admitting to myself that I would probably change the return date for earlier.

I arrived in Budapest and immediately felt I had made a good decision to come. I had booked a hotel right downtown. The room was basically like a coffin within what looked more like an apartment than a hotel in one of Budapest's typically gigantic, solid and somewhat dismal stone buildings. But it was perfectly fine for one night.

During the course of flying and arriving in Budapest the pain was almost non-existent. Of course I understood that this was due to the change in surroundings and the outward focus that this generates, and I guessed it would come back soon enough. But as I sat outdoors in a cafe, having dinner in the cool, evening air, I began to hope that some fundamental change could occur. Whatever happened, I had left that limbo and had finally made a decision.

The next day I took the bus to Zalakaros, passing through the countryside, past Lake Balaton, through various small villages.

I arrived to the guesthouse where I would be staying, which was slightly up a hill from downtown of Zalakaros. This was a tranquil and peaceful place. I met the owners briefly, who let me in to the room. Later I wandered back down to the main road, where I went to a park the bus had passed on the way here. This park, in twilight, was really a magical place.

stock photo

It was obvious that Zalakaros was a town where one could easily become bored, but upon first arriving it looked like heaven -- especially after the tumult of packing my things in my grim, miserable apartment, hurrying to finish everything that needed to be done, worrying about forgetting something, and flying across the ocean.

I arrived in Zalakaros four days before the tournament began -- partially so that the guy subletting my apartment could move in closer to the beginning of May, but also in the hope that a few days' rest would help my neck problem. Thus I spent those days relaxing in the medicinal spring waters or the sauna, or reading in the sun.

On the second day I was there I met the owners of the guesthouse in order to pay for my stay. We ended up staying up late talking and drinking wine. The lady was a language teacher who spoke good Russian and German as well as passable English, while her husband spoke only a smattering of English, Russian and German.

So, to his wife's amusement, he created sentences featuring words of all three languages, in addition to Hungarian sometimes. As it turned out, he had a connection to chess, having been involved in the organization of a Hungarian senior rapid championship.

As the beginning of the tournament approached, so did my deadline for deciding how long I would stay in Europe. While I had a return ticket for August 5, I already knew I might pay the change fee and make it earlier. I had to decide soon, though, if I would accept the conditions for the Czech Open, which was at the end of July.

In the first round, I played against a player rated 2238. Since the top section was supposed to be limited to players over 2300, he was one of a handful of players for whom an exception was made.

The tournament was fantastically strong -- although my rating had gone down a bit, it was still unusual to be ranked 33rd at the start of the tournament. In all, there were 26 grandmasters, in addition to a few international masters with ratings near 2600 (whose titles had simply not been confirmed yet).

The first game was pretty unpleasant. As has often been the case, I was not able to make myself fully care about chess, and, in keeping with my recent times, thoughts such as "what am I doing with my life?" and "well, chess is really over for me" intruded on my concentration.

Nevertheless, I won the game with great luck, as my opponent kept avoiding drawish lines. The first time he rejected a drawing variation I was surprised, but his decision was correct. The second time I was again surprised, but again his decision was okay. But the third time, he started to get into trouble, and I developed a strong attack. Finally, with all practical chances on my side, my opponent failed to find the defense.

The game was hardly a satisfying win, but at least I was a bit relieved. I still had not made my decision about whether to stay in Europe the entire three months or change my flight to earlier. However, over these days I started to really admit to myself that I was not a chess player anymore -- that chess has little to offer me at all, and that quitting it and finding another path would be necessary, even if just for long-term survival.

I grew up in Alaska where there were practically no tournaments or strong players, somewhat before computers and online chess made it possible for players in remote locations to become strong. Additionally I learned the rules of the game at the late age of 13, and have never really had any teacher. I don't think anyone has become a grandmaster with such a background in recent times.

So I made a lot of sacrifices for chess, but have gotten very little in return. It is hard to throw all that time away, but sometimes the position has to be reassessed and plans have to change.

So when I came to the second-round game with GM Gabor Papp, I hardly cared at all about chess. I did not prepare for the game at all, just deciding I would play 1.Nf3, 2.g3, and 3.Bg2 - which, by the way, I had never played before.

It would not be true to say that I was not upset about losing this game. But I was not so devastated. It is also not true that I didn't try my hardest, and I don't want to detract from GM Papp's play, but somehow, the passion was not there. I didn't want to have a bad tournament, but on the other hand I knew I had to leave my identity as a chess player.

In the next round, I played against a somewhat young player, rated 2176. He had upset an international master in the first round. Again I didn't prepare for the game. In fact, it was a surprisingly easy game where I used only about 20 minutes. I think my opponent was affected by the fact that, as I saw later, he had never played a grandmaster before.

After this game, I decided it was time to change my plane tickets. The months before me stretched out interminably, and I knew that I could not just wander from tournament to tournament for three months. My neck pain had come back to full force after the first round and was affecting me badly.  

I decided to make my return ticket for the middle of July. Although I didn't plan to play much chess besides Zalakaros and the Paracin tournament, I hoped that staying away from home for a bit longer would help the make things better when I got back.

Next week, I will continue with annotations of rounds four to six in Zalakaros.

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