SuperMasters 2018
photo courtesy of Washington Chess Federation

SuperMasters 2018

WCM mkkuhner
Mar 16, 2018, 11:35 PM |

This tournament popped up on the registration site without fanfare, but people like me who obsessively look at registrations quickly noticed that it was unusual.  Hit "sort by rating" and the numbers that bubbled up to the top were 2700, 2600, 2500.... While Seattle has a strong chess community, we don't have active grandmasters.  What was going on?

At the State Championship WCF head Josh Sinanan gave a brief announcement.  WCF was flying in GMs Andrey Gorovets, Julio Sadorra, and Yaroslav Zherebukh for the event, and they'd each give a talk on Thursday evening, followed by a blitz tournament so we could all have a shot at them.  (You can see at least a bit of all three GMs, along with Josh, in the top picture.  I am looking over my shoulder as if to say "Yikes!  Grandmasters!")

Even my spouse, who is not really a chessplayer, showed up for the talks.  The SCC was clogged with adults and kids, and the kids were overexcited and inclined to be rowdy.  GM Gorovets led off by asking us to solve puzzles, and he had trouble getting reasonable answers--some of the kids thought it was funny to shout out random bad moves.  He challenged us on an attacking tactic, and Vignesh rattled off a long variation.  He asked Vignesh' name, and Vignesh said "Bob the Builder!" to general consternation--the kids then spent several minutes trying to tell Gorovets what Vignesh' name actually was.  The combo was correct, though.  Vignesh has just gone up a hundred rating points in a burst, and you can see why....

The best puzzle was a composed problem in which White's two knights chase Black's king completely around the board, back to the starting position:  it is thus a draw by threefold repetition in 45 moves.  He challenged us to write down the first 15 after seeing it demonstrated once.  The kids struggled mightily with this, though it didn't seem that hard to me (I didn't have a pen, so maybe I'm kidding myself).

GM Sadorra had an easier time getting the crowd's attention.  He showed some nice attacking games, emphasizing basic principles like "Bring all your pieces to the party" and "Don't allow distracting counterplay."  They're not so simple in actual play, as we found when we suggested moves.... I found one key move and was somewhat pleased with myself, but the ability of young players to rattle off whole continuations never fails to dismay me.

For me the best talk was GM Zherebukh's.  He showed his win against GM Caruana, relating it back to Sadorra's principles and letting us wrestle with specific moves.  The kids were getting rowdy at the end, but he shushed them by threatening not to show his debacle against 1200, and they quieted right down.  We all wanted to see that.

His opponents were in fact a pair of 1200 rated girls at an impromptu chess-camp simul.  "I didn't know they were monsters," he said.  They gave up their queen, and he was sure the game was over.  And then...they started to play monstrously well.  They found compensation for the queen:  a LOT of compensation.  In fact, having missed a computer defense, Zherebukh had to give back the queen to save his king.  He was up the exchange, but they started taking pawns, PacMan style.... He offered them a draw, on the grounds that he was up the exchange.  They were delighted to have drawn a grandmaster; but he strongly implied, and my read of the position agreed, that they were winning!

A good cautionary tale.  I wish I'd heeded it in the main event.

We then played six rounds of unrated blitz, with the GMs fixed on the first three boards to give the rest of us as many chances as possible to play them.  Or rather, some of us played 6 rounds.  It was late on a school night, and players kept vanishing.  (Almost like an internet blitz tournament, where I often manage to come in third even when I play badly, because everyone else has dropped out.)  My first-round opponent didn't show up, so I arranged to play my friend David Levine instead, and promptly hung my king.  My second-round opponent didn't show up either, and this time there was no alternative pairing.  I got a great position against an unfamiliar NM and then...hung my king again.  I won a couple games, and then faced Anthony He, who had a low score due to playing two of the GMs.  He eviscerated me in our usual French Tarrasch.  At least with Anthony you know it will be a quick death.

FM Tian Sang was the only player not to lose to the GMs, getting a nice draw versus Zherebukh and almost repeating against Gorovets--alas, he finally slipped and let Gorovets' king intrude, losing on time a moment later.  Evidently part of being a GM is being ice-cold in time pressure.  Tian got a nice round of applause for his feat.

Luckily I got a ride home, because it was very late, with a work day and a tournament round the next day.  I wonder if this excessively long evening contributed to the large number of people who withdrew from the main tournament or skipped the first round.

My rating was too low to play in the Open section with the GMs.  I decided several years ago not to claim to be an ex-expert, even though I am.  Twenty-seven years is a bit too long; I will wait until I hit the rank again, even briefly.  So I hoped to win the Challengers (U2000) instead, though my optimism was dimmed by Joseph Frantz' decision to play in it for the money, as his new expert rating wasn't yet published.

In round 1 I faced Alex Kaelin, an older teen who has gone from 600 to 1700 in a hair over two years.  The game was a French Tarrasch, a variation in which I've accumulated many painful defeats at the hands of 2000+ players like Vikram Ramasamy and Anthony He.  I played the line I debuted against Vikram, and got to see my lower-rated opponent squirm.  He didn't have Vikram's calm surety that his king was going to be okay.  I wonder how much of the higher-rated players' success comes from being less fretful?  On the other hand, one can be too confident, as we'll see....

In round 2 I faced "Bob the Builder" himself.  Vignesh just came back from the Southwest Open with a brand new 1900 rating.  He's a lively player whose games I always enjoy--later in the tournament we discussed a game two years ago where he, in defiance of all convention, responded to the Stonewall Dutch with a kingside pawn storm and almost pulled it off.  In our current game, to my surprise, he played the French.  (I have the impression that one or more of the kids' GM coaches are on a French Defense kick lately.)  I decided to try a Classical line advocated by Joseph Frantz, but Vignesh seemed well prepared for it, and shortly my center was wobbling....

I was reasonably happy with the result, though it is weird that despite both of us being very aggressive, Vignesh and I have now drawn 2/3 of our games.

We had a long wait for round 3, which was starting at 7 pm.  In general the round times seemed poorly chosen--everyone was finished before 5 pm, and the 7 pm start made the games go too late.  The pairings were put up early and I knew I would play Joseph Frantz, the only player with a perfect 2-0 score.  I was worried about this game, for obvious reasons, and spent the intervening time looking at our State Championship game in the Classical French.  I figured he would probably play a different line--he has a very broad opening repertoire--but I also figured it couldn't hurt.  I'd just seen a Classical French from Vignesh, after all!

Instead, he played something he had several times mentioned wanting to try, the Positional Winawer variation in the French.  This was a strange decision; we study together, and he knows my fondness for the Winawer.   Admittedly we mainly analyzed the Poisoned Pawn Winawers,  which is quite a different beast.  Still, I was very happy to see it.  There's a logic principle that says every player has at least one opening that they play from both sides, and this is mine:  I therefore feel I understand both sides' plans reasonably well.  This is important because Winawers are weird.  (Bobby Fischer bemoaned Black's "crab-like shell.")  It's helpful to know, for example, that Black can castle queenside despite the open b-file because it is ridiculously hard for White to bring a minor piece to bear on the queenside, and the heavies by themselves can seldom break through.  It's also helpful to know that Black can generally win White's a-pawn but is unlikely to profit from it.

I looked up from this game and it was midnight.  No rides were available, so my opponent and I went chasing a late bus.  En route, I told him that I'd been lucky at the end.  "What?!" he said.  "I thought you were calling my bluff!  I thought you knew exactly what you were doing when you took the pawn!  You mean you just dropped a piece?"  Well, I had figured that out--shortly after I took it.  Would have been better to know beforehand.  This is how games like my last-round draw in the State Championship happen....

I was awfully pleased with this game, despite that small detail.  I made sound plans, I seized the initiative as Black, I found a flashy tactic, and most of all I didn't let fear of my opponent hinder my play.

I knew that Vignesh, who had won his game as well, must be tied for first with me; but as we'd already played I didn't know who I would be playing.  I arrived on Sunday morning to find that Frank Fagundes also had 2.5, having had a very good first three rounds.  I'd played Frank once before, a draw in which he seemed laser focused on shutting down any vestige of play I might have.  But the wallchart revealed he had beaten Oscar (1899) and Advaith (1827) and drawn Rushaan (1941), which painted quite a different picture of his current play. I resolved to be careful.  If I could beat this 1700 player, I reckoned, I would have an excellent chance to either win or tie for first with Vignesh.  After all, I'd just beaten the one player I was pretty sure was better than me.

During this round we found out why Fred, who is very familiar with the venue, does not start games at 10:00 on Sunday.  The 10:00 service in the adjacent church is really loud.  My pieces were rattling on the board.  I couldn't help wondering if the GMs would be offended by our venue, which definitely has its flaws.  (The only good thing is, they sing in Thai so I am not distracted by the lyrics.  Music with lyrics would be a disaster for me.)  --I will not, however, blame the music for what happens next, as it was over before the crisis point.

Sometimes when they lose the younger kids go into the back room and cry.  We adults aren't really supposed to do that; but we still feel like it.

Frank played just beautifully in the middlegame (after, admittedly, a terrible opening).  He deserved his win.  But I was infuriated with myself, because I KNEW I was thinking about the game in a dangerous and distracting way--and that knowledge didn't save me.

A wise therapist told me the following story:

Progress is like this.  You're walking down the road and you fall into a hole.  The next day, you're walking down the road and you fall into the hole again.  Then one day, you walk down the road, you see the hole--and then you fall into it.  But eventually, you're walking down the road and you see the hole and you don't fall into it.

Someday, you walk down a different road.

Philosophy isn't that much comfort, but sometimes it's what we've got.


I had scarcely been able to watch the GM games, but here I was able to join the huge crowd watching the end of Zherebukh-Sadorra (shown above, Sadorra on the left).  Both players had between 1 and 2 minutes on their clock for quite a long time, playing on the 30 second increment.  The position had that "grandmasterly" quality where pieces and pawns seem to be strewn about in no familiar configuration.  There were advanced passed pawns, mating threats galore (despite the absence of queens), and a general air of chaos.  Both players were intent, but Zherebukh was calmer:  icy calm, no twitching, no sidelong glances at the clock, no hesitation when making his moves.  He chased Sadorra's king all the way across the board and suddenly the situation clarified into a mating threat that could not realistically be parried.  The spectators got their money's worth on this one.

Before the final game I broke out my laptop and looked at some games with the kids, which was fun.  Vignesh and I analyzed our 2016 Stonewall, though he kept saying "I was a 1600 then!  That's why I played like this!"  Gosh, he has learned more in the intervening year and a half than I have....

I knew was out of the running for the place money--some combination of Joseph, Vignesh, and Frank were likely to take it all.  But there was a $150 prize for Best Woman in each section.  (Megan Lee got to start the tournament knowing she would win at least $150!)  In Challengers it was clearly between me and WCM Sophie Velea:  the older two Veleas were not playing, and while Abby Wu played gamely, she was a bit overmatched.  So it seemed fitting that Sophie and I were going to play each other, winner takes all.

Sophie did not seem happy to be playing me.  The laptop database revealed that we've only played once, a weird skirmishing game which I only won in the endgame.  My notes on it were mainly about eschewing "hope chess."  I resolved to work very hard on eschewing hope chess, to avoid a catastrophic repeat of the previous game.  Did I succeed?  Well, probably not.

I really think the kids should resign when they have given up.  I'm fine with continuing to play on the thinnest thread of hope, but when you stop calculating and just make moves, it's time to go home.  I think the younger two Veleas might enjoy the game more that way.


 Having beaten both Gorovets and Sadorra, Zherebukh had nothing left but to play Aaryan Desphande.  As you can see in the picture, Aaryan was apprehensive.... The game was short and brutal and left Zherebukh the Open winner with 5/0.  Apparently 2700 players really are better than 2500 players:  it staggers the imagination.  Gorovets and Sadorra drew each other in the last round--the game was very short but, I hear, not dull--to tie for second.  That draw of Tian Sang's in the blitz tournament was the only GM blood we ever managed to taste.

I overheard Zherebukh talking about the event afterwards. People like to wish him luck with his chess, he said, but really he needed luck on his exams, as he hadn't studied all weekend.... (He is a grad student in economics.)  What a role model for our kids, who sympathized--they hadn't either!

Ignacio Perez and Megan Lee picked up the Open U2300, women's, and senior prizes.  Sinanan, Fagundes, Anand, and Frantz

In the Challenger's section, Frank drew Vignesh in the final round, leading to a three-way tie for first between Frank, Vignesh, and Joseph (shown above with Josh Sinanan).  This must have been the tournament of Frank's life--1709-1853.  I won the women's prize, exactly paying off my entry fee; Frank won the senior prize and the best upset prize.  (He thanked me for it, but he'd still have gotten it for his wins over Oscar and Advaith!)

What to say about this tournament?  It was really fun, despite some ups and downs.  I was furious at myself over the error of judgment versus Frank--so much worse, somehow, than a calculation error, though I made plenty of those too.  But I liked my other games, and the opening of that one.  I found plans and played pretty well.

I too often find myself thinking about game outcomes, ratings, and tournament standing during a game.  This leads to a kind of "uncertainty fatigue" where I'm worrying about my standing when I should be playing my game, and start wishing it would just be over already so I'd know the result.  If possible, I need to stamp out this line of thinking.

As a chance to learn from the GMs, the tournament itself was a bust.  I was far too busy with my own games.  But it was certainly exciting to have them around, and doubtless educational for the players who actually got to play them or sit next to them.   I wish I'd gotten to see Anthony He's game with Gorovets, if only to see someone who invariably beats me get a taste of his own medicine.