Giving Up On Chess? -- The Zalakaros Open

Giving Up On Chess? -- The Zalakaros Open

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After six rounds of the Zalakaros Open in Hungary, I had four points -- which was not a bad score, since the average of my opponents' ratings was high. Earlier in the tournament, I was sure that it was time for me to give up chess, or at least give it up as a profession and an identity.

I have loved the game for many years, since I was young, and the mysterious world of chess was entrancing. I cannot claim that chess has given me nothing. In recent years, however, the thing I once loved has brought me only darkness, with few exceptions.

Can you give up the central part of your life after so many years, even if it is logical and even necessary to do so, and admit that those years had been wasted?

I began to see that I could.

But the tournament was going on, and I had played OK so far. My performance rating was slightly under 2600.

In the seventh round, I played GM Vladimir Burmakin.

This was a player I had faced some years ago in a tournament in Zagreb, Croatia. This time he had the white pieces and played in a quiet kind of way, in a London System. Although the position looked harmless there were some slight problems for me to solve, and after some of my mistakes he could have gotten a clear advantage. But then he erred, and the game headed towards a draw.

I felt very lucky after this game, because not only could the position have been unpleasant for Black, but also it was exactly in my opponent's style.

There were two games left, and in the next I had the white pieces. It was likely that I would need 1.5 out of two to get a prize. Such a result would also be a very successful tournament.

In the next game, against GM Gergely-Andras-Gyula Szabo, I managed to gain a big advantage, and made a decisive piece sacrifice, but finally blew the win by ultimately just one careless move.

This was a disappointing game, since winning would have put me in great position before the last round, and it would have been a nice game.

Gergely-Andras-Gyula Szabo via Wikipedia

But I had plenty of reasons not to complain about my "score" of luck. I dropped a half a point in this game, but I had been lucky not to lose against Burmakin in the round before, not to mention the first round game where my opponent could have simply claimed a draw at multiple points.

Additionally, I had once won a game against Szabo -- in a tournament where I made a grandmaster norm -- where I was simply down a piece.

So came the last-round game. I figured I would have to win in order to make a prize, unless I got some fortune with the tiebreaks. But even that prize would not be more than a few hundred euros. I had the black pieces against a solid grandmaster, and while I clearly wanted to win and gain a prize (which was more of a moral victory), I also did not want to go out with a loss.

Nevertheless, I decided to play the King's Indian. The question of playing for a win or not was settled fairly quickly when I got a risk-free advantage. However, the advantage was not big and with my opponent's accurate defense I was left with no chance of winning.

An interesting question occurred to me after the game. Clearly Magnus Carlsen has won many games against grandmasters from positions such as what I had in this game, after move 21, for example.

Once can surmise that he would win perhaps 50 percent of the time against a player rated 2550 from this position. Maybe the percentage would be more or less than that, but in any case, he would win some of the time. After all, he frequently wins dead-even positions against players in the 2700s.

But how exactly would he do it? I cannot see where I missed any chances or made any concrete mistakes in the ending, and in the final position I really have no advantage left at all. Or perhaps I am wrong, and there really is no chance for anyone to win this position.

The tournament was won by Igor Kovalenko, who lost the first game and then went 7/8 to take clear first. In the eighth round he won a critical game against Avital Boruchovsky, who had been leading throughout the tournament and had a tremendous result despite that loss.

I finished tied 13th to 21st place, which was not a bad result in such a strong tournament. I had a performance rating of 2570, which meant I played a higher average of opponents than all but one of the players in the same score group, but the tiebreaks put me at 17th place, and thus I did not get a prize.

Clearly this tournament was not a tournament solely for prizes, since it required a much higher performance than usual to get the same prize as would some other tournaments. I think it was strong beyond what the prizes would indicate (there were 26 grandmasters and only 14 prizes available to anyone), due to the fact that it was the open championship of Hungary.

So I think many of the players' participation was sponsored by their clubs -- which was not the case for me, of course. Additionally there were big prizes only for Hungarian players, which made the tournament stronger than the overall prizes would otherwise indicate. Thus it was the kind of tournament to learn, to enjoy chess in a good atmosphere, not the kind to make a living.

Coming to the tournament, I had no idea what I would do afterwards or where I would live. There was a big tournament in Sarajevo which I was considering playing, but I was pretty sure that I would not make myself play more chess at the moment, especially with my neck pain not improved. By the end of Zalakaros, however, I had settled where I would live for the following month, before a tournament in Paracin, Serbia.

With the help of the other American player -- Kazim Gulamali, who made an IM norm in Zalakaros -- I was able to find an apartment to sublet from another chess player in Budapest.

I had reserved my hotel in Zalakaros for one extra day.

The day after the tournament I spent in the saunas with the husband of the hotel owner. Zalakaros is a spa town with medicinal water, many unusual pools, and saunas. In particular, there were scheduled sauna "séances" with a sauna-master, who carefully controlled the room. In one of them, he gives guests honey to spread on their skin; in another, ice.

I don't know if these things can improve a person's health, but it is definitely enjoyable and also interesting. Later I met with both owners of the hotel and their son for some dinner and wine. The next day I left for Budapest where I would stay for nearly a month, knowing practically no one.

I frequently resolve that I must take the practical route of quitting chess for good and finding a different path far from some of the noxious elements of chess society that have troubled me for years. Nevertheless, times come where I dream of becoming completely healthy again, able to handle the stress of playing -- and of chess meaning the same thing to me as it did for so long. I dream of beginning once again to study the mysteries of the King's Indian or of rook endings.

Well, we shall see.

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