Fighting for First:  Spring Open

Fighting for First: Spring Open

WCM mkkuhner
Jul 29, 2015, 10:25 PM |

(Image courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt)

The Spring Open was two sections, Open and Reserve (under 1950).  I asked my husband which he thought I should play, and he said, "You'll learn more in the Open, maybe, but I think you'll enjoy yourself more in the Reserve."  I considered this a while and decided he was probably right.  My rating was 1795 so it wasn't as if I was bumping up against the top of my section....

In round 1 I played Oscar Petrov, a young 1400 player (four months later, as I write this, he is a young 1700 player--watch out for those kids!) whose king got caught in the center in an Alapin Sicilian.  After the game he and I settled into a very nice analysis session, and then his coach joined in.  "Why didn't you castle?"  Oscar explained why, I offered a few supporting points.  "WHY DIDN'T YOU CASTLE?!  What have I taught you?"  It was an interesting contrast to my own first years as a chessplayer.  Many Alaskan players encouraged me in various ways, but by the gods, no one got to tell me to castle! A very different set of cultural expectations than my opponents here, many of whom come from established chess schools.  Would I have thrived in that environment?  I'm not sure.  To some extent I loved chess because my wins and losses were so purely my own.

Surprisingly, even though I'd won I was paired with a 1200 player the next round.  This was a crush in a Dutch Stonewall; it went 42 moves because young players locally are reluctant to resign--I suspect their coaches discourage it.

Round 3 was a 1700 player:

So far so good, but against weaker opposition--maybe it wouldn't be much of a learning experience after all?  But in round 4 I was paired against Carlo del Mundo, the player who beat me in my very first game on my return to competition.  He'd outplayed me easily and conclusively.  Could I do better now?  To my delight I was White in a French Defense, and got to try the Albin-Chatard-Alekhine Gambit, a blitz favorite of mine.

This was very satisfying!  Nothing against Carlo, who beat me fair and square in our first game, but I couldn't help associating him with the painful discovery that I was no longer an A-player let alone an Expert.

So I was at 4-0 going into the last round, and I was the only one:  if I drew I'd win the section outright!  I was paired with Jason Yu, who is now the 3rd best 8-year-old in the US.  I wish I could show the game, but I lost the scoresheet shortly afterwards, and haven't nerved myself to ask Jason for it, for reasons which will become apparent....

It was a French Defense, Delayed Exchange variation.  Jason outplayed me completely in the opening, cracking open the g- and e-files for a withering attack.  I was looking desperately for counterplay and managed to get my queen and rook around for a series of horizontal checks, but I could see that he would walk his king down the board and hide somewhere around h4.  My only hope was that he wouldn't pay too much attention to the king's ideal route....

He didn't!  He knew he was winning and played fast and furious--he spent most of this phase of the game squatting on his chair, shredding used kleenexes in between blowing his nose violently.  He put his king on a disastrous square and suddenly I had a rook skewer.  There was only one escape for him--to force an immediate exchange of queens.

That tamed the attack significantly.  I continued to have trouble, however, because his bishop was dominating my knight, almost trapping it.  In his efforts to nail the knight he traded off the remaining rooks, but despite everything, the knight finally found a refuge square.  It might never move again, but it was covering potential weaknesses and it couldn't be taken.

We both drew in a deep breath and looked at the board.  The g and e files were still open, but there were pairs of blocked pawns on the h, f, d, and b files, forming a kind of electric fence.  No king could ever cross the center of the board.  White could sacrifice his bishop against a pawn, but it was clearly a losing idea.  I couldn't even sacrifice my knight as it was pretty much stuck where it was.

Nothing was ever going to happen.  It was one of the most hopelessly drawn positions I've ever seen.  Unfortunately I had offered Jason a draw much earlier, when my position was beginning to deteriorate--he'd refused instantly, of course.  So etiquette suggested I had to wait for him.

We played on.  Five moves, ten moves.  His king took a tour of the queenside.  I was playing Kf8-Kg8 until he covered one of those squares with his bishop and I had to switch to Kh8-Kg8. 

He had much more time than I did, and the second time control was sudden death.  He could clearly avoid a repetition of position--his king had lots of room to roam.  So it was going to have to be the fifty moves rule.  I came to the conclusion that he planned to run me out of time, so I'd stop keeping score and wouldn't be able to claim, and hope that something happened in the resulting scramble.

All I could do was prepare.  I asked the TD to explain the correct procedure for a 50-moves claim, as I'd never made one in my entire chess career.  I got my opponent a box of kleenex and both of us cups of water and spare scoresheets.  Despite my exasperation I felt some sympathy with him.  When I was 16 I had a tournament where I could win $150 if only I could beat a 1300 player (I was around 1600).  Couldn't do it, and I remember the disappointment to this day.  If it's intense at 16 it must be awful at 8!

We went 23 moves in this dead-drawn position and then my opponent got up and crossed the room to talk to his mother.  I don't know what they said, though he waved his arms in my general direction.  He came back, said "Draw" through tight lips, brushed my hand with sticky fingers, and departed the tournament hall at top speed.

So rather to my shock I won the Reserve with 4.5/5.  On the one hand, a tournament win, and $150!  On the other hand, Jason had outplayed me totally up until his blunder, so plenty of room for improvement still.

My son had infinite suggestions for spending the winnings, but I settled on a chess clock and one book each on the French and Dutch.  My resolution to study the openings still hadn't amounted to anything but talk.