Seafair Open 2015: One Year Back in the Game

WCM mkkuhner
Sep 7, 2015, 1:32 PM |

A year ago I decided, almost on a whim, to get back into tournament chess after a 27-year layoff.  So this tournament was an important anniversary.  It's a single-section open tournament, guaranteeing a wide range of opponents against whom to test my newly honed skills.

In round 1 a 1200 player tried the Milner-Barry Gambit against me, or possibly just lost his d-pawn in the Advance French--it's very easy to do.  He made a good try at complicating the game but didn't succeed.

As is the way with Swiss system tournaments, this win was rewarded by being paired with the Oregon State Champion, Nick Raptis, rated about 2399.

The aftermath of this game was entertaining:  Raptis stomped around telling all and sundry how horribly he'd screwed up, and finally turned to me and said, "By the way, nice trap" or something to that effect.  Indeed it was.  I have found Chess Mentor pretty useless for tactics, openings, and strategy, but it has been exceptionally helpful for endgames, and my endgames have actually improved.  This is remarkable because in the 1980's they were by far the worst part of my game and never improved, even when my rating was in the 2100's.

My next game was against a young woman of rating very similar to mine.

The next game, however, exposed a lot of weaknesses in both opening and endgame play. 

This was a painful loss.  Except for one pawn sacrifice which my opponent prudently didn't take, I never had anything all game long and was slowly squeezed to death.  Apparently I have no feeling for the two bishops (frankly, I prefer knights).

In the vagaries of Swiss pairings, I was then paired with a young 1400 player in the last round.  I played the Evans Gambit, and he looked up at his friend with an expression that said as clearly as words "How can this be happening to me?"  I rapidly got a winning attack, so I ended the tournament with 3/5.  Out of the money, but not a bad result.

And as a chance to assess my play?

A year ago I had a 1300 performance rating in the Seafair.  This year it was around 2000.  Getting back into playing shape was not, perhaps, as easy as I'd hoped--a couple of years of blitz and skittles turns out not to be adequate preparation for serious play, and the rust didn't exactly fall off in showers either.  But a year in, I am definitely playing better.  My rating after the Seafair was 1902, and I feel that Expert is not an unreasonable goal.  Master?  We'll see.

"Serious" is maybe the byword here.  Last year in the Seafair I got a sharp lecture from Jacob Mayer about substituting cheapos and "hope chess" for a mature evaluation of my chances.  (Yes, I got a lecture on maturity from a teenager.  It happens.  When I was 19 I got a fatherly talking to about handling the press and its distractions from NM Stuart Rachels, who was 12.)

I think the biggest difference from a year ago is a greater capacity to go deeper in "simple" positions which don't offer me immediate tactical opportunities.  Even though I lost it, I felt my game against Nathan Lee had moments where I was finding out whether I was hazarding my d-pawn, whereas a year earlier I was playing such positions by merely hoping I wouldn't lose my d-pawn.

My endgame play has also improved markedly, not only over a year ago, but over my level in the 1980's.  I am still dissatisfied with how I play complex endings, but at least I have developed some capability to find plans rather than playing aimlessly.  The combination I found in the Washington Open, about thirteen moves for each side, is probably a personal best for endgame calculation.  I am particularly pleased that I calculated the sham bishop sacrifice, saw correctly that it was not winning, and worked out what the prerequisites were to make it succeed.

My teacher shakes his head at my propensity to get into positions where everything is en prise and both players are at risk of being mated; but these are the games I enjoy the most.  I've won a disproportionate number of them--such positions apparently suit me.

Opening play is a problem, and an increasingly apparent one as my overall level goes up.  I've had several games where I flatly lost out of the opening, and more where I got losing positions and managed to complicate my way out.  I haven't found a concrete plan for studying the openings.  Chess Mentor doesn't seem to have much that's relevant to my odd repetoire (French and Dutch as Black, Italian, Alapin Sicilian, Fantasy Caro-Kann, French Winawer as White).  I have bought a few books.  The beginnerish idea-centric books are good for ideas, but at my would-be level I also need variations.  The variations books are daunting.

Playing thematic Online Chess has exposed me to a lot of openings, but there is a risk of coasting on databases until the database moves run out and then not knowing what to do.  Also parrotting database moves turns out not to equal learning the variation, at least for me.

So my goal for year 2 is to learn my chosen openings to a repectable level.  I'm never likely to be an opening theoretician but I need more than I have now.

If I talk about particular problems I'll give my upcoming opponents a hint...but perhaps this'll motivate me to do something about them.  So, specific problems:

I need a new anti-Sicilian line, as the Alapin from this tournament shows clearly.  IQP positions do not suit me.

I learned the Closed Tarrasch to avoid the IQP, but the lines I favor are quite tactical; I need specific variations here.  The same could be said about the Poisoned Pawn Winawer, which I see often as Black and sometimes play as White.

And perhaps most pressing, I need another line against the Two Knights.  My lunch blitz partner, David Levine, beat me in a tournament game after 4. Ng5 and commented that Black gives up a pawn and gets all the chances and excitement, and I'm on the wrong side of the board given my style.  He's exactly right.  I have been playing 4. d4 in blitz against him and doing okay, but I have almost zero experience with these lines and no theory either.  This won't do against strong players.

Overall:  I'm enjoying myself immensely.  I've met some interesting people, have some fun stories to tell, a couple of stunningly exciting games (vs. Hanston in the Seattle City Championships, vs. Vikram Ramasamy in the Emerald City Open), and I've reassured myself that at 52 I am still capable of thinking well, taking risks, learning new things, and accepting failure semi-gracefully.