A Hard Fall
I haven't written a blog entry since the Seattle Classic. This one will focus more on chess-readiness than the actual games; I hope to get back to normal entries for the November Quad and December Masters tournaments.
Fall 2017 was a difficult time for me. We finally found a company to remove asbestos-contaminated flooring from our kitchen and basement, which was a good thing but meant constant interruptions and crises. The company removing the asbestos and the company laying the new floor disagreed on whose problem certain things were; we found this out because after both teams had left there were just gaping holes where the baseboards and doorframe had been.
A bigger problem, however, was the NIH grant due at the start of November. I had scheduled a lot of chess in the summer with the intent of then working hard on the grant starting in August. But for August and most of September I couldn't seem to do anything. I wasted a lot of time poking at the project and making no progress.
Finally I realized what was wrong. This was a second try at a grant which had been rejected the first time. The reviewers complained that it was not clinical research: the sample was too small and the clinical implications too nebulous. I was trying to find a way to rewrite it to meet these objections. What I realized late in September was that it couldn't be done. The project was not clinical research and there was no way to sell it as such. I nervously presented this conclusion to my teammates at the Cancer Research Center. To my surprise they agreed. I called NIH and asked for the grant to be moved from clinical research to basic research, and suddenly it became possible to make progress.
But in the meantime I had arranged to play in the Oregon Open and the Washington Women's Championship. I had enough time, in theory. (I don't usually work on weekends anyway.) But as it turned out, I did not have enough self-discipline, patience, concentration, or energy.
I would probably have skipped the Oregon Open except for the train and hotel reservations. I wasn't looking forward to it. But having gotten there, I was excited to play NM Jason Cigan in round 1. Our previous two games were perhaps my two favorite games ever--complete sacrificial bloodbaths. I had hopes for this one.
Well, okay. A disappointing game, but he's a master, and I can't expect to beat him every time.
In the next round I finally got to play WFM Badamkhand Norovsambuu, the WA Women's Champion, regrettably on her way down to California for a new job. It was good to get to play her--oddly, I never had before. But over the board I provoked her into an unclear piece sacrifice, which is not a good way to play against someone as tactical and aggressive as Bada, and I got mated.
In the round after that I played 1900-rated WA teenager Joseph Levine, who confidently played the French against me. We were evidently still in book when I fell into a prepared trap and lost two pawns. He then miscalculated and made his win much more difficult, so we played on for several hours and 67 moves before he managed to win it. Apparently he studies with the same GM as Roland Feng. Josh Sinanan, on seeing this game, suggested I should try Bird's Opening against the whole cohort.
Having lost three games in a row I was pretty depressed. I actually thought about withdrawing, which I've never done. But I have also never lost every game in a tournament and didn't want this to be the first one. Also I was pretty sure to be paired down....
This is a pretty interesting game and deserves notes; maybe someday. I felt I had a strong attack, but it fizzled. Looking at it with my teacher later we felt my mistake was 22. Rxe5, which is very natural but gives Black a key tempo. Well, at least I didn't lose!...
In the next round I played a very low rated player who was experimenting with playing in a section over his rating, and finding it very tough. He took a poisoned pawn from an otherwise decent position and I mated him. So that was at least a win, but beating an 1100 player did not restore my morale.
In the last round I played Andrea Botez, a strong young woman player from Oregon. In the early middlegame of a Dutch Defense I saw a chance to win a piece. A couple of moves in I realized to my horror that she had set an insidious trap (she confirmed this in the post-mortems) and I'd be toast if I took the piece. I backed out, but had damaged my kingside pawns, and she eventually took advantage of this and won.
So that was a painful tournament, 1.5/6 with a lot of poorly handled games. I would have skipped the next one, but the WA Women's Championship is a once-a-year opportunity--and I want to win it some year!
Not this year. I don't have the game scores: sometime after the tournament I apparently misplaced them, which is a Freudian kind of mistake.
I beat 1400-rated Sophie Szeto in a very difficult game that did not look at all like 1900 vs. 1400. I lost to the youngest Velea sister, WCM Sophie Velea, when my attack went sour. I beat another 1400 player, Alison Xiao, in a fairly credible game, and then lost to 1800-rated Sophie Tien. I kept pushing for wins but lacked the patience, or perhaps the intuition, to find them. Also I was very, very tired by this point.
In the last round I was paired with Felicity Wang, who is about 8, provisionally rated 1078 at this event (though it said 800 on the wall chart). Before the game I overheard her saying to Josh Sinanan, in evident distress, "What do I do? She is rated 1100 points above me!"
"Just play your own game--don't change anything--and do your best. That's all you can do."
She played the Exchange French against me--an excellent choice, alas--and I got nothing out of the opening. Unwilling to accept this, I tried for a kingside attack and got into bad trouble. I managed to dredge up some trace of chess skill and exchange into an endgame which was only moderately bad for me. Who said this was an 800 player?! (Later I found she is rated around 1600 in the local scholastic system. While failing to beat 1600 is no treat, it's better than 800 anyway.)
She offered me a draw. I thought about it for a while and said honestly, "If I don't draw I'll lose" and accepted.
We showed the game to her mother--Felicity was very happy, and deserved to be. She was so cute it almost took the sting out, for a while.
Josh Sinanan found me in the skittles room afterwards, holding my head, and said, "Brutal tournament, Mary, but you have to realize these girls are professionals."
So those were my fall chess adventures. My rating ended up at 1877, the first time in 3 years it had been below 1900. I decided to stop playing in tournaments until things improved. I did not really enjoy the Women's Championship, and not just because I performed poorly.
Lessons from these events:
(1) Chess takes energy, discipline, and focus. If those things are lacking, skill and experience do not substitute.
(2) It is no good thinking that you should beat someone because you're much higher rated than they are. Every experienced player knows this, but we do it anyway. (Memorably, Vladimir Kramnik pressed too hard against Oregon GM Jim Tarjan, and lost to him--it was the talk of the WA/OR chess scene. It's fascinating to note that Kramnik's rating is about as far above Tarjan's as Tarjan's is above mine. It staggers my imagination that it is possible to be so good.)
(3) An offhanded comment from another player is not a good enough reason to play an opening variation you haven't studied, even if he is an IM. That was, not to put too fine a point on it, unprofessional. Which comes back to discipline and willpower.
In the past I have been able to power through, sometimes, when I came to a tournament a bit over-tired or stressed. But this fall was a whole new level of stress and I couldn't do it. It's not just the results--losing to players like Sophie Tien or Andrea Botez is the sort of thing that is going to happen now and then--but my play was scattered and undisciplined, full of hope chess. I need to learn to tell the difference.