A long long time ago: US Womens' Championship 1987 (part 2)
Image of Estes Park, Colorado by Nyttend, from Wikipedia.
It was November 1987, around the time of the first snowstorms in Estes Park, and I was living in a huge empty hotel with the top male and female chessplayers in the US. Joel Benjamin and Nick de Fermian would eventually be US co-Champions over a tough field.
I don't think I've ever been around so many high-strung, nervy people for so long. The ping-pong games were full of sudden lunges and loud outbursts. Blitz games went on in odd corners day and night.
Before one of the later rounds a large group of the women went out to dinner together, settling on a diner whose walls were decorated with hundreds of versions of the Mona Lisa. Mona as a cow; Mona in the style of Warhol, Picasso, Monet; Mona in all sorts of different backgrounds.... I recall a weird and intense discussion of whether being amorous during a tournament was helpful or not, reaching the conclusion that it's helpful to women and harmful to men. Too bad if the players are in a relationship--apparently there's a conflict!
In round 5 I played Gina Linn, whom I'm fairly certain I'd played before. I completely botched the opening--even in 1987 I should have known better, but I played more games like this one in 2014-2015 including a horrible loss to Eric Zhang.
It remains true to this day that I am much more likely to see a combination for me than one for my opponent.
I had met Yasser Seirawan a few times before, at the iconic coffeehouse "Last Exit on Brooklyn" in Seattle. Somewhere around here he gave me a lift to town in his car--apparently he'd driven all the way to Estes Park. His fancy seatbelt system grabbed me and tied me up when I sat down, which seemed to amuse him greatly. It's funny what you remember...
In round 6 I played Liz Neely. Just as in the previous game, I botched the opening badly, but this time I didn't manage to recover.
On the day of round 7 I got something stuck in my eye and couldn't seem to get it out. The TD sent me to a local medical clinic, where they determined that I had scratched my cornea and there was no foreign object to remove. I missed the start of my game as a result, worrying the TD and annoying my opponent. (She was right, I should have let her know.) I believe I'd played Sharon before and beaten her, so I had high hopes for this game.
So that was a game I should have lost, followed by two that I actually did lose. Quite a low after the high point of my game with Savereide. It's still the case that in long tournaments I struggle in the later rounds.
The dates I've assigned to these games put the single rest day between rounds 8 and 9, which is weird; maybe it was done to sync up with the US Championship, which was a longer tournament. If I have the dates right (the tournament bulletin is little help), this was my eighth game in eight days.
I quite like this game: White defended fairly well after grabbing the piece.
I must say, though, that in 2017 I would expect on average better games than these from a group of Experts. I get the feeling that none of us knew our openings particularly well, and I at least was flatly terrible at endgames. (I knew it, too, and had made periodic attempts to study them, but could not overcome my dislike of "simplified" positions. That's one thing that has improved since 1987, at least.) I think the standard of play has improved over the intervening 30 years, even at the amateur level.
Speaking of which, it was by this point abundantly clear that unlike the rest of us, Anna Achsharumova was not an amateur. She was 8-0 and had scarcely seemed to exert herself, and now I had to play her. In my teens and twenties I found much stronger players intimidating, and I was completely intimidated by Anna. This is one of the few games in the tournament which I remember, at least in summary form: "I lost a pawn and feebly gave up."
After the tournament several people repurposed the famous line about Bobby Fischer and congratulated Anna on "winning the simultaneous exhibition." This really drove home to me the difference between US players, who tended to muddle through on their own, and Soviet players, who were formally and systematically trained.
Here is the final crosstable, from the tournament bulletin:
So that was my big chess adventure, the closest I ever came to national fame. I went back to Berkeley and graduate school. I played in some local tournaments and, to my surprise, beat a lot of Experts, reaching a lifetime high rating of 2173.
Then my thesis advisor called me into her office and asked, gently but pointedly, why I wasn't getting anything done in the lab. I gathered my courage and blurted out, "Because my project isn't working and it never will work."
"So. It's good that you recognize this. Now, what are you going to do? Because you've wasted at least a year, and if you can't turn things around you are probably in the wrong place."
I abandoned the project and started a brand-new one. I also quit playing in tournaments.
Some decisions are "overdetermined": you can find many reasons for them and all of those reasons are true. I did need to focus on science if I wanted to stay in grad school. I was also not enjoying chess very much. My rating was much higher than my assessment of my own abilities, so each game presented itself mainly as a chance to lose points. What better way to avoid that than not to play at all? Excessive pride in my rating also made playing occasionally, without study, unappealing, as surely I would lose points doing that.
I thought it would be for just a year or two. I finished graduate school and moved back to Seattle in 1991. I was, as it turns out, clinically depressed, a problem it took me until around 1996 to deal with properly. During this time I thought about going back to tournament chess, but I knew that the first thing to happen would have to be a huge loss of rating points. As the games in this article show, my successful games almost all involved sharp tactics and double-edged attacks. This is not a play style that survives a long layoff very well.
And then I became head of my own lab, and adopted a child, and wrote four unpublished novels, and there never was a right time to go back. I did play occasionally, often on the giant chess set at Crossroads Mall. I recall one game in particular, where a tiny Asian boy challenged me. Both of us, it turns out, were thinking "This is going to be easy." We had a ferocious fight--he must have been at least class A if not Expert--and he sacked the exchange against my castled position, but I hung on and managed to win. I never did find out who he was. But that was, likely, my closest brush with the tournament world until 2014.
Around 2012 I started playing online as a distractor from work and family problems. I found I really enjoyed it, and got a couple of blitz ratings. I must have said "I should go back to tournaments sometime" to my father a few times too many, because for my July birthday in 2014 a card arrived with a check earmarked for USCF and WCF membership. So I signed up for the Seafair Open, and found that playing in just one tournament is as dangerous as one last drink or cigarette to an addict....
I had been right, of course, that the results would be grisly. I had a performance rating of 1300, and had to deal with small kids asking me what was wrong with me. I got lectured by a teenager on my blitz-based bad habits. But gosh, it was fun! How did I manage to stay away so long?