Chasing the WA Women's Chess Championship
Left to right: Mary Kuhner, Emma Li, Erin Bian. Photo courtesy of the Washington Chess Federation.

Chasing the WA Women's Chess Championship

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I've wanted to win the WA Women's since I first played in it in 2015.  The closest I came was sitting on second board hoping for a particular result on first board; didn't happen.  Several times I've played exceptionally badly, because September is the start of classes at my university and often a busy and draining month.  (Vivid memories of grovelling for a draw against a little girl rated 1100 points below me....)  But this year I'm not teaching, so maybe?

This would also be my first face to face tournament since early 2020.  I had a discussion with my household about the risk this was exposing them to--most of the players were too young to be vaccinated, school just started here, and while my area is doing fairly well, COVID is still very much an issue.  But I really wanted to play, and the household was supportive.

The weekend of the tournament involved what the local newspaper called the "perfect transportation storm"--multiple closed roads and bridges, multiple major sports events, bus reroutes.  I got on my Friday bus not entirely sure I'd arrive in time.  It was a flashback to my teens when I was first competing--my parents bought me a bus pass and told me to manage my own transportation, and I spent many anxious hours on buses wrestling with pre-game nerves.  I arrived in good time, though.  (Getting home would prove to be a different story.)

All photos in this post are courtesy of the Washington Chess Federation (and thanks to parents and organizers who took them).

Group photo of players
Women's Championship participants and TD

We had 18 players:  three adult women, one college student, and a whole bunch of ambitious and wildly underrated little girls.  The crosstable gave highest of USCF regular, USCF online, and NWSRS ratings, and a good thing too as this gave a bit more information--most of the USCF regular ratings were clearly inaccurate after 18 months with little or no OTB.  I was, on paper, the fourth seed, below two experts and another A player.  (Ratings given in the games are USCF regular, but don't believe them!)

In round 1 I played Michelle Zhang, who ventured a very brave piece sacrifice.  I had worked a bit on the Italian in preparation for this tournament but I still got no advantage in the opening; however, I was able to defend successfully. 

During this game i looked up and saw a whole roomful of women and girls, and pressed against the window looking in from the darkness, a bunch of boys and men.  It was the kind of image you'd put in a movie to make some kind of dramatic point.

Being uncertain about the buses, I'd asked my son to come pick me up.  I got a call from him:  "I think I'm at your address but I don't see you, my phone is about to die, and I'm running out of gas."  Yikes!  WCF President Josh Sinanan graciously offered to drive me to my son's reported address.  We went further and further south, following Josh's GPS, and finally arrived at an empty parking lot and no sign of my son.  "Hm, that's an odd address," said Josh, looking at it:  I put it into my brand-new cell phone and we discovered his GPS had dropped the first digit (036 instead of 4036)!  So we drove all the way back and finally found my son about 2 blocks from the tournament site.  Whew!  I got home late and tired, but it could have been much worse.

(Pro tip:  if you are ever in this situation, one person has to search and one has to stay put.  If you both search you will never find each other.  My son said he just planned to nap in his truck, and if he was still there at sunrise it would be time for another plan.)

Saturday morning I had an accident en route too gross to describe on the blog, and arrived filthy and out of sorts to sit down for the following game:

Oh my gosh, that opening.  Not a credit to either player.  But I am pleased I recovered from the blunder, managed to focus, and played quite well subsequently.

I was worried, though, because that was a serious brain fail, and now I had to play the top seed and previous Champion, WFM Chouchanik Airapetian.  (Her first name seems to be pronounced "Shoo-shnik," or "Shoo-shawn" for short.)  Except for one win in a game where she was badly distracted, I had never beaten Chouchan.  My coach, his son and I had prepared for the tournament by reviewing a game where FM Sang played the Italian against her, and happily I had White.  It felt good to be a little bit prepared, though I'm not sure it actually helped.

WFM Chouchanik Airapetian
WFM Chouchanik Airapetian (left) in round 2

Well, I would have liked to win that, but a draw wasn't bad.  Chouchan was very pleased with the game as well:  our best game ever, she said.  It was certainly wild and full of ideas, particularly pins. 

Erin Bian was at 3-0, though, and clearly the girl to beat.  Being higher rated, Chouchan would play her the next morning, while I had to tackle the #2 seed, Sophie Tien. 

Sophie Tien, Mary Kuhner
Sophie Tien (left) vs. Mary Kuhner; in the background are Chouchanik Airapetian (left) and Erin Bian

Despite knowing Sophie would be in the event I had not prepared for her at all, and she had 1.5 out of our last two games.  She also, it became clear, knew how to annoy a French Defense player.  I was so excited to see a Winawer on the board, and then....

This was my most frustrating game of the tournament.  Josh Sinanan said confidently that the endgame of good knight versus bad bishop must be a win, and I certainly felt it was a win at the time, but I just couldn't find it.  This particularly stung because Erin Bian had upset Chouchan, so whether I drew Sophie or beat her I'd be playing Erin either way.  If I had won, I'd be playing for sole first.  As it was, the best I could hope for was to stop the currently undefeated Erin and tie.

It was also a long, hard game:

Mary Kuhner and Sophie Tien
The last game to finish

The TD, filming snippets of the tournament, asked me how i felt about playing Erin.  I said, "Frankly I'm afraid of her.  But I've beaten people I'm afraid of, so that's not necessarily a problem."  (I was thinking of FM Perez in particular.)  It did not help that I'd heard about her recent trip to the U12 National event--she had 8/9 with a draw against the tournament leader, who unfortunately had 8.5/9.  That is rather a stunning result.  She's not only on the list of top 11 year old girls (#4), but on the overall list of top 11 year olds as well (#42).

I took a meander around Microsoft, trying and failing to learn to use my new GPS, and felt somewhat refreshed going into the final game.  The tension had been ratcheting up in the tiny tournament space each round, as the pairings became more even, and now it was very thick indeed.  On the board next to mine, Iris Zhang and Emma Li, both at 3/4, were fighting it out and rooting for me to stop Erin, which would make whoever won their game Co-Champion.  (Of course a draw would have disappointed them, but there were almost none in this event, as is typical for women's chess.  In fact I think there were only 3, and I was involved with 2 of them.  Very unfeminine of me, but in my defense, I did fight hard to win both games!)

Erin Bian vs. Sangeeta Dhingra
Erin Bian (left) in action in round 3

Erin is very small for her age.  I remember two years ago at the State Championships where she was on the wait-list as a 1600 player, got in due to last minute cancellations, looked wildly out of place, and proceeded to win the bottom section handily despite being by far the lowest rated player in it.  In this game I was watching her play her (obviously well prepared) opening and trying to imagine the mindset of someone that young.  How much was knowledge, how much was raw calculating ability?  Were there any holes in her understanding I could use?    Apparently she was an old hand at winning tournaments:  did it still give her butterflies in her stomach, or was she over that?  How is it even possible to play so well with so few years of experience?

(GM Mishra, who is 12, said "Well, I've been training for 8 years" when asked a question like that.  Okay then.)

Yay!  I get my name on the list of Women's Champions after all!  Frankly I did not expect to win this game.  (I reject the idea that you have to believe you will win.  You have to believe you can win, which is a bit different.)  But sometimes age and treachery can overcome youth and skill; and I do dearly love to sack, given half a chance.

Mary Kuhner, Emma Li, Erin Bian
Co-Champions: WCM Mary Kuhner, Emma Li, Erin Bian

On the board next to us, Emma Li beat Iris Zhang to join the tie for first place.  The title will be shared, so we are Co-Champions.  However, the tournament also comes with a seed into the Premier section (section 2 of 4) of the State Championship.  I won this on tiebreaks, having played the #1 and #2 seeds as well as beating Erin.  I will be eaten alive in the Premier (I'm usually in section 3 or 4 and those are hard enough) but maybe I should do it anyway, for a chance to play a lot of experts and masters.

I was very pleased with myself, though I couldn't help noting that if I'd beaten either Chouchan or Sophie from superior positions I'd have been sole Champion.  I got home late that evening and posted the news all over the place in a fit of excitement....

Kudos to TD Rekha Sagar, who ran a tight, on-time event.  (Admittedly women's events are easier to run--consistent observation from every TD I know.)  Her only mistake was not realizing just how long a G/90 game can take with 30 seconds' increment:  she had to leave precipitously at the end of the last round to make her plane. 

Lessons from this tournament:

(1)  For me at least, scoresheet errors are a symptom of thinking issues.  If I make more than one, I should definitely get up, walk around, eat something, wave my arms--anything to get back on track.

(2)  As usual, fighting ferociously in bad positions pays off--for me in game 2, and for my opponents in games 3 and 4.  It is not enough to just keep playing:  you must keep fighting.  (I thought Erin should have resigned when it was no longer possible to fight, but probably her coach forbids it--that seems increasingly to be the case.  Reasonable in class D but she's in A now, probably Expert soon; she could be allowed her own best judgment on this.)

(3)  I have been playing the Italian for years and years (though not frequently, because locally most male players favor the Sicilian).  But I don't understand it well.  "If Black can play ...d5 without trouble they equalize" says every article ever--but what kind of trouble, and what does White do to discourage an untroubled ...d5?  When does throwing the kingside pawns forward make sense, and when is it just weakening?  Same with the queenside pawns?  Why was my sack against Erin good, and Michelle's sack against me bad?  Maybe now is the time to work on these questions:  I feel like I've gotten to a place where I know my ignorance, if that makes any sense.

(4)  G/90 with 30 second increment is fine.  Josh said, the tournament was divided starkly into a group whose games were over in an hour, and a group that used all their time--both Erin and Chouchan were down to their last minute against me at some point.  I never got that low myself, though I was down to 9 vs. Erin and 6 vs. Chouchan.  Increment is very nice, far more forgiving than delay.  As someone who is trying to learn to appreciate endgames, I like having a bit of time to think about them.

(5)  It's probably better to take one bus earlier than I did, and not to count on rides from people relying only on GPS!  I could have used the extra sleep on Friday night, and each trip to the tournament site was stressful, all the buses being very late due to the region-wide construction issues.  In another couple of years we'll have light rail from my house to the tournament site, and that will be excellent.  Until then, better early than late.

More generally, anything you can do to reduce incidental stress during the tournament--good transportation, food arrangements, sleep, avoiding irritating circumstances--likely pays off in having that much more energy and brainpower to actually play.  Given how sharply my game deteriorates if I am tired or overstressed, this is really important for me.

(7)  OTB is more fun than online.  I mean, I knew this, but it is really more fun than online.  Being around the other players, watching them play, hearing their stories, getting their reactions--it's just so much richer than sitting at home in front of an anonymous screen.  It is not very safe right now, and I sure hope I don't get sick, but...I'm looking at the Fall Open in two weeks and thinking seriously about it.  So much fun.

I am an adult player trying to make a comeback after 27 years away from competition.  This blog mainly covers my tournaments, with occasional forays into other topics.