Washington Open 2018: my path to the top
© Washington Chess Federation

Washington Open 2018: my path to the top

FM ddtru

Last week I found myself in Seattle during a long weekend - Monday was a Memorial Day in the US. I was in a middle of a long business trip that spanned 10 days and two countries, with my work schedule in the US starting only on Tuesday. Initially, my plan was to explore the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest - mountains, forests, islands and all that. However, a few days before the departure I found out that my trip coincides with 2018 Washington Open and I decided that this opportunity was simply too good to pass.

I have never played chess in the US before, so I did not know what to expect. I knew that American tournaments were different. For example, I heard that the players are expected to bring their own board, pieces and clock, but that did not sound like a big problem to me. 

What I did not realize is how intense the American tournaments are. I have a theory that this has to do with the smaller number of vacation days that people generally get in the US. No one can afford the luxury of spending 9 days in a row at a chess tournament if you only get 10-14 days of paid leave for the whole year! And so 2018 Washington Open crammed 7 primarily long-control games into 3 days.

I was uneasy about such a frenetic pace. I imagined thousands of way in which the tournament could spiral out of control for me. I am not that young anymore... I did not play serious chess for several years... and I was supposed to start the tournament the next morning after a grueling 10-hour flight from Korea. But the urge to play chess outweighed all concerns and so I signed up.

Day 1
I arrived to the tournament venue early, when there were still precious few people in the hall other than the organizers. My first impressions were all positive. The tournament was held in a nice hotel in a small town Lynnwood, about an hour drive from Seattle. I was prepared to buy a clock, board and a set of pieces, but the organizers provided plenty of spare ones, so I ended up either using those, or relying on what my opponent brought.

The first round was the only rapid game of the tournament, 40 minutes per game with 10 seconds delay per move. Now that "delay" seems to be a uniquely American thing. I have never seen it in my 35 years of playing chess, and I cannot say that I have completely adjusted to it throughout the tournament. More on that later.

Amazingly, in the first round I was paired with the only person I kind of knew in the field - WCM Mary Kuhner (1894). This and all other ratings quoted in this post are USCF, as not all of my opponents had FIDE ratings. My impression is that USCF ratings are on average slightly higher than FIDE ones. I did not have USCF rating prior to this tournament, so my FIDE rating was used as a proxy.

When I signed up for the Washington Open, I searched for the reports on the past editions and came across Mary's blog post about WA Open 2017. Because of that I knew that she was playing Dutch defense and that she did not feel as comfortable when the opponents played Reti or English setups, so of course I opened the game with 1.Nf3 happy.png Mary still tried to build a Stonewall:  1...e6 2.c4 d5 3.g3 c6 4.b3 Bd6, but once I played 5.Bb2, attacking g7-pawn, the move f7-f5 was out of question. I expected the natural 5...Nf6, but responded with 5...f6? instead. After that I was already happy to commit to 6.d4, reasoning that even if Black plays f6-f5, I would at least be a tempo up compared to normal lines.

Later on in the game Mary surprised me again:

by pushing 9...e5? in the position on the diagram, to which I replied 10.e4. The opening of the game should be in my favor, as my pieces are much better developed. Things were supposed to get easier when Mary blundered an exchange on move 14, but I relaxed too early and made a couple of lousy moves, making the conversion more difficult. Nevertheless, the win was never really in doubt and the game was over by move 47.

After the end of Round 1, I met IM Leslie Leow in the hallway, another person whom I knew only virtually. Leslie is originally from Singapore, the place where I live at the moment. A year ago I was proofreading a book "Singapore Chess: A History, 1945-1990" and many of its pages were devoted to Leslie. I was surprised to find his name in the starting list, as I knew that Leslie quit chess many years ago. But there he was, playing again after a long hiatus. I thought "What are the chances of two people with Singapore connection meeting at an American tournament?!", so I introduced myself and we shared many interesting conversations during and after the tournament.

Starting from 2nd round, the play switched to long control, 2 hours for 40 moves, followed by 30 minutes for the rest of the game, plus that famous 10 seconds delay starting from move 1. I was paired with David Arganian (2051), a man about my age. He played a super-solid fianchetto against my Paulsen Sicilian and came up with an interesting plan, Nc3-e2 followed by c2-c4 and b2-b3. Somehow I have never seen it before and thus started burning time in the opening. I played some reasonable moves and we reached a position that has occurred in many other games before, but I am sure neither of us knew it during the game happy.png

At this point I was quite optimistic about my chances, since White cannot prevent b7-b5. However, my opponent played 14.Nxc6 Bxc6 15.Nf4!? … and for some reason I panicked. I saw that I cannot take the pawn on e4 due to Bxg7 tactics and I convinced myself that White would get a terrible attack if I allow Nf4-h5, immediately or after a preliminary exchange on f6. After long and rather chaotic deliberations, I played 15...Nd7? with a strange idea of meeting 16.Nh5 with 16...g6. During our joint analysis after the game, I realized that White did not really threaten anything special, so I could just play 15...b5 and 16.Bxf6 Bxf6 17.Nh5 is actually risky for White. Black can play either 17...Be7 or even the computerish 17...Bg5! 18.Qg4 Bh6, with good game in both cases.

Just when I pressed the clock, I noticed 16.Nd5!, which is of course exactly what my opponent played. It took me a while to accept that I am worse. Fortunately, once that adjustment was over, I started to play faster (I only had only 20 minutes left until time control)… but better! It would be a recurring pattern in this tournament - when I was getting down on time, I started playing with less hesitation and generally did better than in the first phase of the game. I wish I could do that with more time on the clock! 

The game continued 16...Bxd5 17.exd5?! (both of us did not seriously consider 17.cxd5!, but it actually promises more for White, since the control of h3-c8 diagonal secures him c-file) 17...e5 18.f4 f5. At this point I was afraid that White can open the position for his bishops, while my pieces (Qb8, Rc8, or even Be7) are out of play. However, the more I looked at the position, the more confident I got about being able to keep it locked. And this is exactly how it played out: 19.g4 exf4 20.gxf5 Ne5!? (computer notes that Black can even sacrifice the pawn with 20...b5!? 21.Rxf4 Bg5 22.Qg4 Bf6 23.Bxf6 Nxf6 with ample compensation). Here my opponent decided to release the pressure: 21.Bxe5?! dxe5 22.Be4, but after 22...Bc5+ 23.Kh1 Qd6 Black was already out of danger. In fact, computer starts to assess the position as much better for Black, which I struggled to appreciate even when seeing the evaluation. The position is completely locked and the game was agreed drawn several moves later.

I was not particularly happy with my play in this game, but there was no time to dwell on this, as there was still one more round to go! I was playing with Viktors Pupols (2204), who is sort of a legend in the US. His main claim to fame is beating Bobby Fischer, in 1955 US Junior championship. Yes, you read that right, it happened 63 years ago! Despite crossing into octogenarian territory, Mr. Pupols is still going strong. He had the same number of points as I did prior to last round (you can see him in the top picture of this post, he is playing Black on the next board from me), with a convincing victory over IM Leslie Leow in Round 5 among other achievements.

Fortunately, I knew none of that going into the game happy.png I tried to get on offensive early and just as in the previous game, this unmotivated aggression scared Black:

Day 2

I finished first day with 2.5 points out of 3 and hoped that I would be finally playing against stronger opponents. There were 3 Grandmasters participating in the tournament and my personal goal for this tournament was to meet one of them over the board, but that was not to be. 

At the end of the previous day, I asked organizers whether they are publishing the pairings for the next round in the Internet, but it turned out that they generally don't do that. I arrived to the tournament venue about half an hour before the game, and found out that I had Black pieces vs David Rupel (2090), another veteran player. I was hoping to score a full point in this game and was very close to victory for many moves, but unfortunately, I never managed to land the final blow. On the other hand, I completely bungled the early middlegame and found myself in the same situation as Round 2 - on the defensive in a worse position, with barely any time left.

This is a good moment to talk about that delay time control. In Europe and Asia most tournaments are played with various forms of increment, such as 1.5 hours + 30 seconds per move. If you are like me (i.e. not great at time management), you might find yourself in time trouble rather often, but it would never require you to blitz out 20 moves in 2 minutes, as regularly happened in the "good old days" of analog clocks. One might argue that delay is serving a similar purpose, but the differences are many and far-reaching. First of all, 10 seconds is a very, very short time, which does not really give you time to think. I was told that in the past it was even worse, as the standard delay was 5 seconds! Next point is that if you are down to seconds (like I was in this game), then overstepping that 10 seconds means losing the game. Finally, and most importantly, delay does not accumulate time, so even if you are making a move in 1-2 seconds instead of 10, you are still in exactly the same time trouble on the next move!

This becomes especially critical in the "sudden death" mode. Repeating moves does not get you anywhere, and the chances of dropping a flag after even moderately surprising move are very real. Holding a slightly worse position on delay time is next to impossible, as I have witnessed first-hand in several games of this tournament. Fortunately, I did not have to face this particular scenario in "sudden death", but in Round 4 I had to make 10-12 moves with less than 1 minute left on the clock until the second time control and this experience was nerve-wracking. I can tell that it was not only nerve-wracking for me - one of the kibitzers later told me that watching my mad dash to the time control was one of the most exhilarating things he saw in the tournament!

Rupel-Terekhov, Washington Open 2018

Here is the game that generated so much excitement:

I was rather upset about the outcome of this game, as I knew that I must have missed more than one win. However, there was no time to stew in the disappointment. My game in round 4 was literally the last to finish, so I only had time for a quick bite before the next round started.

I was playing White vs Michael Cambareri (2060), who is probably in his twenties. He did not have many games in ChessBase, so my guess about his opening was wrong. I thought that he is playing Nimzo-Indian, but he responded to my 1.Nf3 with 1...f5 and then I recalled that I saw him drawing a Dutch-type game against a stronger player in one of the previous round (it started with something like 1.c4 f5 2.Nc3 e5 3.d4). At the spur of the moment, I decided to steer the game into territory that I was hoping would unfamiliar to my opponent. This did not work out too well, so that I started to curse myself for the opening choice as early as move 5! But then on move 9 my opponent got too greedy, trying to punish White with a help of tactical operation that had a major flaw in it, and the game started to swing in my favor. One thing led to another, and the game was over in 17 moves!

Day 3

With 4 points out of 5 going into the last day I was sure that I would be finally playing against a Grandmaster. However, I was to be disappointed again, as prior to Round 6 the tournament merged in the players that followed an accelerated 2-day schedule (which, by the way, is another uniquely American practice; I don't recall anything like that in Europe). The "reinforcements" included a number of strong players, including a IM Orlov and a reigning Washington state champion, FM Feng, who both had higher rating than me.

As a result, I was paired with another youngster, Samuel He (2258). This game was not especially colorful, even though at a certain point I started to worry whether I would be able to hold a draw ...

With 4.5 points out of 6 I was in a good position going into the final round. However, with 78 players in the tournament and only 6 rounds to separate them it was really crowded at the top. Three Grandmasters led the table with 5/6, followed by no less than 8 players with 4.5/6, including myself.

For the first time in the tournament, I was paired against a stronger player, Washington State champion Roland Feng (2492). The stakes were as high as it gets, as only by winning this game one could expect to land in the prizes.

My final round game could be divided into two almost independent parts. In the opening I was playing very passively and slowly drifted into a worse and then set a "trap" that should have lost the game, but somehow my opponent missed exactly the swindle that I was counting on! Two moves later I offered a draw, thinking that an equal endgame was inevitable, but then my opponent came up with a highly creative tactical operation that set the whole board on fire. Starting from move 24 we both walked through the field of landmines, trading a blow for blow along the way, and in the end it was Black who overstepped the limits of acceptable risk. At the end of complications I was a bishop up and managed to convert the resulting endgame into a win.

With this victory I found myself in the lead for the tournament, although it did not last too long. By that moment most games of the last round were over, but the fight on the top two boards, which involved 3 GMs and an IM, was still raging on. The winner in these games was going to overtake me in the standings, so I was rooting for two draws, which would have landed me into shared 1st to 5th place. Alas, I only got a half of my wish happy.png

The GMs and IMs fighting for the top prize in WA Open 2018

In the end, the game Orlov-Sevillano ended up in a draw, but GM Gorovets overcame a fellow GM Sadorra with Black pieces, and thus secured himself a sole 1st place with 6/7. The second place was divided between GM Sevillano, FM Sohal and myself with 5.5/7. This was a clean cut, as there were only 4 major prizes set in the tournament. We were followed by 10 players who scored 5/7.

I was really happy about scoring a prize. As mentioned in the introduction, I did not play for a long time and thus did not have any expectations going into the tournament. In fact, I was seriously considering the option of paying a smaller entrance fee in order to play "for the medals only"!

I waited until the final game in the tournament concluded, only to find out that there was no award ceremony, no speeches and no trophies. Instead, it was all business - the winners were asked to provide their postal addresses, so that the prize check could be mailed to them. In a way, the end of the tournament felt anti-climactic, but it also felt very American. By this point I have already come to terms with the fact that American chess tournaments are totally different from I was used to. American chess culture is not better or worse than the European or Asian ones. It is just different, and reflects the broader cultural differences between "the Old World" and America.

Playing in 2018 Washington Open was an interesting experience and, of course, winning a prize in a strong field was a pleasant bonus. I would like to thank Washington Chess Federation for a very well organized tournament and everyone who read this report to the end for your time and attention!