Hello, and welcome to the second to last installment of my increasingly epic saga of one man trying to somehow eek his way to 2200 USCF in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. In this episode I detail my experiences at the Oregon Summer Open of 2013, but before we begin I’d like to present a graphic montage of some of my worst blunders so far. Note that in each of these games a win would have given me a Master title: (EDIT: chess.com no longer seems to supported animated GIFs, sorry)
After the debacle of my 2012 U.S. Open, I repaired back to Arcata with the sober realization that I, now in my mid 30’s, might just be incapable of getting through a chess game without federal disaster assistance. Being eternally rated 2190 was a gruesome thought, though, and by next summer I had once again resolved to slouch myself towards Portlandia.
In preparation for this fresh assault upon the battlements of Bridgetown I decided to try a new approach, namely actually preparing. To that end, I visited some of the local clubs and quickly found myself once again pitted against the ever fearsome Nick Raptis for three “action” (G/30) games. Though Nick won this mini-match two games to one, the simple act of playing OTB again against a strong player was a helpful, if brutal, wake-up call. Perhaps even more helpful was talking to Nick afterwards - I’ve never had a chess “coach” but can see why a good one might be invaluable to an aspiring student, regardless of level. Though we chatted for perhaps a half-hour at most, Nick got me to acknowledge some of my more irrational attachments to certain openings, and his hyper-competitive demeanor reminded me that, in addition to technique and creativity, one must also have focus and energy to do well consistently.
Outside (or inside?) of going outside and playing actual OTB with good players, my preparation for the annual Portland Summer Open also consisted of the harrowing task of revamping large chunks of my opening repertoire. This subject probably requires an article or five of its own, but to summarize, my opening philosophy has generally been to play things that are either so old that nobody knows about them anymore or to fianchetto a bishop or two as an “out” against anything unfamiliar. In some ways this has served me well, but of late two of my more offbeat defenses have become significantly less fun in the computer/database era: the Schliemann Counter-Gambit (1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 f5!?) and the English Defense (1.c4 b6). In both cases, the novelty of these systems is these days practically nonexistent (thanks, Radjabov!) and many players now know how to steer themselves away from the complex main lines and into quieter positions while retaining a slight but annoying advantage. Anyhow, deciding upon a new opening is a daunting task, but since I had been recently experimenting with the Modern Defense as a “changeup” opening against both e4 and d4 it seemed natural to develop further along these lines with the Pirc which, helpfully enough, chess.com’s Mackenzie Molner had just done a series of videos about. I have to say that I now rather wish I had adopted this opening earlier and not relied on silly Schliemann tricks for the better part of my chess “career”, as the Pirc features a great many of the things I look for in an opening system: it is unbalanced, tactical, flexible, and, most of all, underrated.
Thus armed with a slightly sounder opening repertoire and some recent immersion into the wacky world of OTB play did I begin my quest to at least do reasonably OK at the Portland Summer Open of 2013. My rating stood at 2175, and a good result might well gain me twenty-five points and a title. As it turns out, that more or less occurred, and yet very much did not. But I’m getting ahead of myself - let’s start, like a Horatio Alger novel in reverse, with the first four games (out of six), all of which I somehow managed to win.
At the end of the second day of play (two rounds a day), I found myself in the novel position of leading a relatively large tournament due the only other player with four points withdrawing after crossing 2200 for the first time. This made me wonder if I had done so as well and went to the USCF’s website to crunch some numbers. The result was unclear, however, due to not knowing what my opponent’s final scores would be (it looked to be about 2199, but, as it turns out, was actually around 2204), but in the end I could not, would not, abandon the tournament at this point, not with the winds of chess fate seeming to have at long last arrayed their forces behind me.
In retrospect, perhaps I should have remembered that things behind me are hard to see...
THE BIG DAY
It was with a strange admixture of confidence and nerves that I, upon the third day of battle, woke up, showered, attempted to shave, arrived early to the tournament site, inspected the wall-charts, and found myself paired against my arch-nemesis, Brian Esler, the man who I had lost so painfully to a year earlier upon the precipice of glory.
OK. For those of you out there reading this for whatever reason, everything I’ve written about my quixotic attempts at chess “mastery” over the last several years comes to a kind of climax in this next game. Minutes before it began I already felt as if a dream-like world was unfolding before me as I paced about trying to think of how best to placate my many impromptu superstitions. In the end I decided to drink some tea, buy a banana, wander off a bit to a quiet corner of the hotel, and then, edging past a small crowd gathering in the playing hall, sat down at board one and greeted my adversary.
Amid the always slightly tense final moments before clocks are started I generally find myself, once seated, engaged in a strange ritual involving my scoresheet and chess set. With the scoresheet, it is as if the act of physically writing down my name creates a reality to a situation that was until then somehow vague in my mind; it signifies the transition from an abstract existence to one of action and in so doing my entire world becomes clearer, sharper. Also, I then have to figure out how to spell my opponent’s name and that is often the game’s first great challenge. As far as the pieces go, I tend to expend a great deal of superstitious energy orienting them at this time, especially as I am loath to break either my opponent’s or my own concentration by repeatedly adjusting them after. This is especially true of the Knights - for some reason there is for me a specific angle (roughly 45 degrees) that they seem best rotated to - and the King, which I generally touch once briefly and then leave to his fate. In any event, this OCD OTB ritual of mine is unerring, even if I am late for the game and my clock is already ticking away, but this time the whole thing felt more like an eleventh-hour supplication to Caissa herself, each letter of my name etched with penmanship normally reserved for love letters and bank loan applications.
I have now several times referred to my opponent, Brian Esler, as my arch nemesis. This is something of a joke, as Brian is a very laid-back and likeable guy, but there is also a grain of truth, for Mr. Esler seems quite free of the myriad neuroses and pretentions which plague me both at and away from the board. In other words, Brian’s sangfroid makes him a formidable opponent for me because he can merrily roll along with reasonable/obvious moves (whilst I overthink everything), serenely awaiting that inevitable moment when I finally achieve a winning position only to immediately blunder the game away in time pressure.
I think it’s safe to say the following game went another route entirely.
I have stopped here because in some ways time stood still for me at this point - the position is begging for some sort of clearly/cleanly winning combination and if I find it my long quest comes to a glorious end. Furthermore, given all of the things that had gone so well for me so far (in both this game and the tournament in general), victory was starting to seem almost predestined, if only to karmically balance the countless frustrations and near-misses still freshly etched like gnarled fingernails upon the blackboard of my soul. Finally, as it turns out, I was absolutely right to suspect a “Reinfeld” (as I call them) lurking somewhere in this position, and before we proceed any further I want to challenge you, dear reader, to find it.
Did you find it? If not, don’t feel bad, because whatever move you came up with is almost certainly better than the one played…
It is difficult to describe my feelings upon the end of this game, though the immortal Jan Hein Donner once wrote something that sums it up pretty well:
"After I resigned this game with perfect self-control and solemnly shook hands with my opponent in the best of Anglo-Saxon traditions, I rushed home, where I threw myself onto my bed, howling and screaming, and pulled the blankets over my face."
Unfortunately my tale cannot quite end as Donner’s did, as there was still another round to play and a final round victory would be not simply moral consolation but first prize as well. After numbly eating some nondescript sandwich at a local Quizno’s (anything to get away from the crime scene/playing hall) I returned to my final round board past any care or, really, any feeling at all, and conducted the following game, with hundreds of dollars at stake, with an air of complete apathy. Well, at least at first, for, as it turns out, the game developed into an epic struggle, full of dramatic twists. In the end, however, I believe I could hear Caissa once more cackling maniacally at her own sadistic handiwork.
Thank you for reading my blog. The final installment will appear later this month, here on chess.com.