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National Tournament of State Senior Champions 2020

mkkuhner
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7

Winning the (online) Washington State Senior Championship qualified me for travel support to the National event, which was scheduled alongside the US Open in August 2020.  I was unsure whether I wanted to go, to be honest, and felt relieved when I heard the US Open and associated events were all canceled.  But then the Senior (and the four junior tournaments) rose from the grave as online events. 

The ramp-up was rather alarming.  USCF wanted two webcams, one on the playing device and another watching from the side.  My laptop was in the shop, and you couldn't get a webcam for love or money in Seattle.  I ended up using my partner's laptop and my housemate's phone.  There was also a litany of the terrible things that would happen to you if they decided you were cheating.  My coach's son kept teasing me about this ("Oh no, you made the best move, you must be cheating!" during our lessons) until it made me quite twitchy.

The junior tournaments were each one weekend long, but us oldsters don't like to play fast, so the Senior spanned 2 weekends with a strange schedule--one game Saturday, two Sunday, then two Saturday, one Sunday.  I got up about 8:30 am for the first Saturday round, figuring I had time for a leisurely breakfast and some warmups, and then realized to my horror that the noon round start was Eastern time and the tournament was starting in half an hour.  Hasty oatmeal, laptop setup, and I was just in time.  (One of the other players quipped that only blueberries were allowed in your during-game breakfast, a joke that definitely dates us--it refers to the controversy in the Karpov-Korchnoi World Championship match.)

Then I sat for an hour, because my opponent (and several others) never showed up.  Wrong time zone?  Technical failure?  I never found out, because the missing players were withdrawn from the event.  That was it for the day--frustrating!  I talked my partner into a long walk to run off the excess nervous energy.

Partway through that long sit there was a HOWL of outrage from Zoom.  IM Elliott Winslow, who was apparently not too familiar with the interface, had tried to castle and instead had played, as premoves, Ke1-Kf1-Kg1-Kf1.  (We think he saw that he hadn't castled, grabbed the king and tried to drag it back where it belonged.)  This is why you don't have premove turned on during classical games!

I slept poorly, not because of chess but due to back problems that sitting at home is exacerbating.  Dragged myself out of bed for the first Sunday round--at least I knew when it was this time--and found myself paired with NM David Carter of Vermont.  I had time to look at his first-found game and his chess.com blitz opening repertoire.  It didn't look as though he cared much for the Dutch, which gave me hope; and I felt I could have done good things with the position his first-round opponent had lost.

There was a definite pause before his second move, both of us in suspense I think--queen pawn opening or king pawn opening?  I don't know if he suspected the incoming Dutch or just decided he preferred a French, but I wasn't complaining--the French is the better-behaved of the two lately.

I have only beaten 7 masters in competition:  one as a young player, and six as a senior.  You better believe I remember every one of them!  This is my second master scalp in the Poisoned Pawn, surprisingly enough.

Of course with 2-0 I was guaranteed a hard pairing:  IM Ronald Burnett of Tennessee.  I played in the US Junior Open in Tennessee when I was 19; at that time there were lots of junior players and almost no adults--and ratings locally were ridiculously low, as the kids had to divide the few adults' rating points among them.  I don't know what the situation is now.

The games started and my opponent was not there:  only a black-screen single webcam.  I had a nice chat with the chief TD while waiting:  she was excited to see a senior woman competing, and told me my previous win was inspirational.  Always nice to hear.  Eventually my opponent arrived, but not on Live Chess.  The TD sent him chat messages, phone messages, text messages, but could not get his attention.  Finally in desperation she changed his screen name to something like FORFEIT IMMINENT CHECK CHAT and we saw him do a double-take.  The game finally started 47 minutes late, though the TD chose to remove only 26 from his clock (reflecting when he arrived).

This was only the fourth time I'd faced an IM in competition.  When I was young I was easily intimidated and tended to collapse when faced with an impressive opponent--my games against IM Donaldson and against US Women's Champion Anna Achsharumova were complete debacles as I cowered until beaten.  This is one way in which my play has improved:  I still lose but at least I don't cower....

This is not the first (or second or third) game I have lost to a sudden knight sack or pseudo-sack on d5 in this structure.  Definitely something to work on.  I thought I'd been keeping an eye on it, but I thought that the last time it happened too!

So that was it for the week.  I am not a fan of multi-week tournaments, but I was still fairly well fired up when the next Saturday rolled around.  But when my game should have started, it didn't.  About 15 minutes later the TD let me know that my opponent had been in a minor car accident.  He was okay, but would not make the round.  At least I didn't have to sit for an hour.

The two forfeits, win and loss put me close to the top of the leaderboard.  I knew this meant a hard pairing.  I was hoping to play GM Enrico Sevillano, whom I'd managed to draw in a simul in Reno, several years ago:  and in fact that was exactly what happened.  My first tournament game against a GM!

I did not know how to deal with my opponent's pacing at all.  The tournament was G/90, which is already faster than I prefer; worse, I rely heavily on thinking on my opponent's clock, and there was no chance to do that.  So I had about half as much time as in a usual G/90 and it just was not enough.  The usual advice for opponents who play too fast is to play carefully and punish their tactical inaccuracies, but all that got me was time trouble--if Enrico made any inaccuracies they were too hard for me to spot, and eventually, under pressure, I blundered material.

Still, cool to play a GM!  And I think I managed to avoid being intimidated by his title (it helped that I'd drawn him before, so he didn't seem superhuman)--now I have to work on not being intimidated by his pacing.

In the final round I was paired against NM Sergey Berchenko of Ohio.  Somewhere in mid-opening the game paused, flashed, and then vanished.  Howls from Zoom showed that this was a general problem.  After discussion with the TD we started trying to reconstruct game positions--it turns out I am not the only senior player who likes to keep score even though it is not required in online games.  I understand that Chess.com staff were also working furiously at the other end to try to recover the tournament.  A few pairs quietly took draws at this point.  The rest of us typed our games out as .pgn files and sent them in, and hoped.

The games reappeared.  We played a bit longer, and then...gone again.  My position was quite unpleasant by that point, so I somewhat dishonorably offered my opponent a draw, which he did not take.  The games came back for a second time, and shortly I had to resign.

The other notable bit from that round was another howl from IM Winslow, who had failed to castle again.  He drew the game anyway. In post-event chat we asked his opponent about this, and without missing a beat his opponent said "It was a strong novelty!"

I'm not showing my game--not because I flinch at publishing losses, but because it has vanished from Chess.com's archive!  And my old-lady need to keep score turns out not to extend to putting that score somewhere I could find it again (admittedly, most of a year later as I'm writing this blog).

Those were by far the most difficult pairings I have ever had in my life, driven in large part by the two forfeits.  My actual score of 1 out of 4 was quite a bit above expectations.  However, the constant computer issues did detract from the experience somewhat, and it was a shame not to get to meet any of my fellow players.

The tournament ended in a large tie at 4.5/6, among GM Zapata, GM Kudrin, IM Rohde, my opponent IM Burnett, and GM Kaufman.  Names from chess history!

Lessons from this event:

(1) The advice to deal with a blitzing opponent by playing slowly and carefully and waiting for a blunder has its limitations.  (Not that other strategies would likely have been better.)

(2)  Being a GM presumably means you know some high-quality openings very well.  It doesn't necessarily mean you will play them; I have heard from others that GM Sevillano just likes to go his own way in the openings, as he did in our simul game.  Another good reminder not to take your opponent's opinions as gospel, even if they are a lot stronger than you are.

(3)  Being comfortable online is probably worth around 100-200 rating points in an online tournament--at least, if you are also in good form.  Between the State Senior and the National I played in the Washington Open, and that was just something of a debacle.  (I'll put it in a blog post on debacles, because there were a couple of them, alas.)

(4)  Make sure premove is turned off for classical chess!  (I'm safe as I never turn it on.  But bullet players beware.)  IM Winslow got away with his "novelty" but you probably won't.

(5)  Keeping score in online games is not as dumb as it sounds.

(6)  US states include NorCal, SoCal, and Canada.  It's amazing what you can learn playing chess!  I definitely did not know that.