Hello, and welcome to the final episode of “How to Make Master In Three Hundred Difficult Steps”. In previous chapters I’ve relived some of my more unfortunate losses, including roughly a half dozen disasters whilst on the brink on 2200 USCF. In so doing I’ve tried to illustrate the frustration that is, for many, perhaps the defining aspect of our Royal Game (or, as someone once called it, "one long regret").
The Best of Times, the Worst of TImes… OK, mostly the Worst of Times
After the Portland Summer Open of 2013 I resolved to quit chess. I had lost too many times when needing to win, had no good explanations, and wanted out before the game became less of a hobby and more of a failed relationship destined to conclude with restraining orders and mace. I tossed my set and board into a dingy garage corner and moved on with life. With school starting again in the fall chess would gradually fade into a distant memory; one that, with a bit of perspective, would recall it for what it was: a pointless pastime for lost souls and intellectual misfits.
This approach lasted roughly two months before deciding to rent a car and drive to Portland for the November Class Championships.
Once More With Feeling
I hate driving cars. I learned in my late twenties and have yet to get used to them. Driving to Portland from California is not fun for me; it takes eight hours and that means that after six you still have two left. Two. That’s too many. I actually wound up having some sort of anxiety attack somewhere near Salem, and anxiety attacks are even less fun for me than driving and particularly not fun when combined. I could go into greater detail about this but I’ve found there’s no simple way to describe panic attacks to those who do not normally experience them. Suffice it to say that they are a bit like existential dodgeball in that one feels as if one is going to die very soon, very randomly, and with a great deal of embarrassment.
After my experiences getting to Portland the tournament was a breeze. I mean, I did rather badly and lost a rating point or two, but was past caring about that after dueling with hot blazing highway death the entire previous day. For those interested in the games, they can be found in an earlier blog that nobody read. Here’s perhaps the most entertaining of them, an absurd swindle against a National Master:
Getting back from Portland was more enjoyable than coming. This was because I took the coastal route instead of the faster inland freeway and saw stuff like this along the way:
I just realized something. Or perhaps I realized it while driving back from Portland but am only now realizing that I realized it then. Either way, what I realized (and, really, am still realizing) is that if there is anything to be learned from my blog, it is that one should always take the scenic route.
The Last Picture Show
And so we come to my last tournament, the 2013 American Open, which took place over Thanksgiving weekend in Orange, California. My participation in it was something of a whim and based as much on meeting some friends of mine as for anything chess related. That said, I must also say that this event was big. Really big. The main hallway was crawling with children who, truth be told, frighten me at the best of times. The wallcharts took up entire sections of the hotel. Finding your board before the start of the round resembled some kind of misbegotten anaerobic exercise.
Beneath the chaos, however, the fates once again managed to manifest in typically quirky ways. First I was accidentally moved from the “Open” to the “Expert” section. Then I was paired with the only chess player I know in Southern California, a fellow pianist by the name of Michael Cooper. Finally, this unexpected encounter would prove my only opportunity in eleven games to play the Pirc, as 1.e4 seems to once again be (as Dr. Breyer famously proclaimed) in its “last throes”...
After this I was moved back to the Open section where the chance to play a Grandmaster seemed reasonable compensation for the lack of plausible prize money. My second round opponent, however, was definitely not against a Grandmaster but instead a strange man with the most terrifying chess set I had ever seen. The board’s topography had evolved past mere lumpiness and into a series of miniature hills and valleys. The pieces looked as if they had either been unearthed from an archeological excavation or used during the final scenes of “Poltergeist”. It was hard to tell the white pawns from the black, and probably even the most grizzled Washington Square hustler would have wanted to wear gloves before handling them. Alas, lacking gloves myself, I was forced to rely upon copious amounts of hand sanitizer and the forlorn hope that whatever was covering the pieces was mostly just dirt.
Ehlvest enters the building
With two points (out of two rounds), my next game was liable to be against someone good, or at least someone with a decent chess set. As it turns out, it was on the “podium” with the quasi-legendary Estonian Grandmaster Jaan Ehlvest. I will not ruin the suspense of what happened next and simply show the game. That said, I expect most followers of this blog can confidently predict its course…
After this loss I went into freefall, dropping the next three games and, technically speaking, reaching my lowest ebb yet in an already highly ebby decade. But I can’t say I was any longer upset by such things. Disappointed, yes, upset, no. I had tried my best, fought hard against internationally titled players, visited old friends, made new ones, and tried to enjoy things for what they were and not what I wanted them to be. When all was said and done I remained (to paraphrase an immortal football coach) who I thought I was: an amateur chess player. And, as my Sisyphean labors were slowly teaching me, an amateur in the best, truest sense of the word, is perhaps not such a bad thing:
Amateur (according to Webster): French, from Latin amator lover, from amare to love
Yes, I love chess. I will not deny it. No tossing away of sets, no forswearing of tournaments, no righteous outrage at Caissa’s whoresome ways can change that. No loss to those for whom the game is but a mnemonic exercise can lessen my affection. No blunders against egomaniacs, sandbaggers, or bratty ten year olds can dampen my ardour. The expensive, impersonal hotel venues, the bad lighting, the incessant, anxious sounds of a hundred clocks, all ticking in disjunct rhythm with one another, the whispered most-mortems, the furtive “j’adoube”s, the inescapable odor of, well, chess players, the general dinginess of it all - all of this, and more, are the weeds we who love the game pluck in offertory to a Goddess whose favor is little more than the disdain of our rivals.
So, er, there.
On the final day of the 2013 American Open I decided to participate in a five round side event as a sort of farewell gesture to the game I would be unlikely to pursue much further due to other commitments such as my job and writing the world's worst computer game. I hadn’t played “action” chess (G/30) in awhile, though, and even before the first move things were going awry. For instance, it turns out that, contrary to my former belief, is not really possible for me to shave an hour before the first round with complimentary hotel razors and cream. I also discovered that even players six hundred points below me can find and exploit massive gaps in my opening “preparation”...
For those bothering to play through that last game, I apologize. That said, the next game (against a typically impatient wunderkind) is not much better…
OK, in spite of a concerted effort on my part to blunder my way to oblivion one final time, I’m now at 2/2 and about to face someone circa 2200. We all know the script on this one… or do we?
At this point I’m not sure what to make of things. I’ve blundered in every game so far and yet am three for three and due to face a 2350 player. A win here would put me at… no, don’t think that. Don’t think it! Think about other things. Think about getting some lunch. You have fifteen minutes, and there’s a Wendy’s close by. What to get? Hamburger? No, that’s messy and bad. Do they have orange juice? Yup, they do. OK. What else? Ceasar Salad? Salad’s a novel idea for me, but anything to shake things up. Salad it is. What time is it again? Yikes, already time for the fourth round, will have to eat during the game. Is salad noisy? Right, back at the tournament hall with one minute to spare. Better grab a scoresheet. And pen. Right, grabbing one… oh, hey, yikes, someone is charging through, probably a TD to assign pairings, and… AAAAAAHHHHH.
I just tossed my salad. Everywhere. I half expected the TD to call security but, upon witnessing my flailing attempts to pick up all the croutons, he instead (with the natural heroism that a crisis evokes in the noble and valiant) ushers me towards the ballroom with the immortal words, “Let it go”.
Thus in the wake of flying tomatoes and splattered dressing did my final game of chess begin.
The funny thing about reaching a goal after ten years of frustration, ineptitude, and squandered salad is that I can’t really say I felt anything in particular after the initial shock and joy of winning the game. I simply felt peace. After thanking the TD, I left the hotel, went outside, looked around, and quietly watched the world slow down. I then went for a walk. Upon my return, I looked around some more and, after several relaxing breaths, had a single thought of surpassing vision and clarity.
“Wow, Orange is kind of a dump”.
So ends my series on “How to Make Master in Three Hundred Difficult Steps”. If you are the Tournament Director of the 2013 American Open, I probably owe you a beer. As for everyone else, thank you for reading all this. Sincerely.