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WA State Championship 2019
Seattle Snowpocalypse 2019. Photo courtesy of Ani Borua.

WA State Championship 2019

mkkuhner
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7

The Washington State Championship is a two-weekend, nine-round tournament, with four sections of ten players each.  I had watched anxiously for over a month to see if I would even get in, as my rating was near its low-water mark and the competition looked very stiff.  Closer to the date, however, an even bigger problem loomed, namely a massive snowstorm predicted to arrive the evening before Round 1.

Seattle has significant snow only one year in three or four.  It's a very hilly city and full of people who don't own snow tires, don't own chains, and don't know how to drive in snow; and there aren't enough snowplows.  (Some years ago Greg Nichols, who seemed set to be Mayor for Life, was finally unseated when it was discovered that he had used up the limited snow-removal budget plowing his own street.) As a result, what would be a modest storm elsewhere is paralyzing here.  The organizers none the less insisted that the tournament would go as scheduled, and furthermore that anyone who was not present at the start would forfeit.  This touched off an email firestorm (snowstorm?) and was eventually rescinded at the last moment.  So we rescheduled for the following weekend and hoped for the best.  Of course, not everyone could accommodate the new schedule....

Snowpocalypse duly arrived, with 14 inches, and shut down the entire region.  There was no way the tournament could have gone on; I'm not sure Microsoft (the event venue) was even open.  Three sessions of my graduate course were canceled, including the midterm exam, which added to my stress level.

On the first weekend of the rescheduled event I coordinated with Joey Frantz to meet up partway to the event--it's three buses to Microsoft from my home in Seattle.  But when I got off the first bus, I found that the bridge just beyond it was closed for repairs, cutting me off from the second bus.  Had I known, I could have slipped through on foot.  But I couldn't determine that from my stop and didn't want to waste more time.  So I ran back to the reroute stop, caught a meandering bus through a neighborhood with trees still down from the storm, and got to the second bus stop well after the bus had left.  The next one wasn't due for an hour.

This happens from time to time when you rely on public transit, and I have a fairly good working knowledge of the system.  So I took a bus to South Kirkland, asked a driver there for advice, and took a bus from there to Kirkland proper, and a bus from there back towards Microsoft.  "Southwest corner of Microsoft," I said to the driver of that last bus.  I was not quite late yet.

He took me into familiar-looking territory--I caught a glimpse of the B line, my usual route to Microsoft--and then crossed a highway into an area where the snow was still piled up in deep drifts, and told me this was my stop.  I dutifully got off the bus, looked around and realized I had no idea where I was.  On the Microsoft campus, yes, but where?

It turns out that, having been asked for the SW corner, he had left me at the NE corner of a very large campus, near Building 88. 

Courtesy of Google Maps

Despite not knowing where I was, I almost duplicated the blue route shown above.  I made use of a principle that also applies to chess:  I guessed a direction, knowing that if I was wrong it would be a catastrophe, because staying where I was or going back to Kirkland was guaranteed failure.  The chess version of this:  if all other moves lose, you play the one that might not lose, and hope.

Anyone who passed me probably wondered why the old lady was swearing under her breath the whole time. Would Joey have told the TD that I was coming, or had I already been removed from the event?  Was I ever going to find it, anyway?  I knew I had only an hour before I forfeited--not just the first round, but the entire tournament, as we'd been warned that any forfeit meant removal.

I arrived thirty-six minutes late, apologized to my opponent, and sat down to play--exhausted, cold, and completely overstressed.  I was also, as it turns out, playing the eventual winner of the event, Brandon Jiang, shown front right in the photo below.

Players in the Challengers' section: front row Stephanie, Sophie, Brandon; back row Brent, Dan, Damarcus. Photo courtesy of the Washington Chess Federation.

Well, okay.  Not a good game, but I was really not in shape to play.  Now I had an evening round to prepare for.  I think I ate a sandwich from my backpack, drank a lot of tea, and looked at the wall charts.  To my surprise I was actually close to the top of section 4 (Challengers) due to many withdrawals; also, we had not found enough alternate players to fill all the spaces, so there were only nine of us and I would have a bye Sunday morning.

That evening I was to play Damarcus Thomas, whom I'd drawn the previous year in the same event.  I had played over our game in preparation, but it didn't tell me much as the colors were opposite this time.

Not good at all.  But the way the day had started, no wonder.  I bummed a ride home and comforted myself with the fact that I didn't have to play until afternoon so could rest and recover.  Unfortunately I was tired to the bone, not something that a half-day off was going to fix.

Sunday evening I played WCM Stephanie Velea, the middle of the three Velea sisters.  We have a long history, and I reviewed our previous games before the match:  apparently so did she.

The last round of the weekend was Monday night of the President's Day holiday.  As an academic I set my own schedule and often work on holidays--especially ones like this which have no meaning to me--but I decided to take the day off and attempt to regroup.  I studied my several previous games against Brent Baxter, noting that we both tend to play closed openings and this sometimes leads to ridiculously closed things like the Double Dutch.  I didn't feel hopeful, though.

Even for a tournament that had not been going at all well for me, this was a new low.  All I could do was go home, lick my wounds, and tell myself that next weekend was essentially a new tournament.  Also my USCF rating floor is 1700 so it couldn't be worse than that.... (We won't talk about the FIDE rating, okay?)

Next weekend the weather was bitter cold and the snow not completely gone.  In fact, nearly a month after the storm I found a stray drift in a parking lot at Bellevue College.  I don't think I have ever seen such persistent snow in Seattle before.  My road to recovery from the previous weekend's debacle would have to start with tournament leader Jeffrey Yan.  We'd played once before:  I got a very promising position and then lost a whole rook to a bishop fork.  This game would follow the same pattern, except with the roles reversed:

Jeffrey was distraught as he felt his lapse had cost him first place.  (He was correct; he ended up second, behind Brandon.)  I was not entirely pleased with the game, except for the last few moves, but at least I hadn't lost!

My next opponent was WCM Sophie Velea, the youngest Velea sister, whom I had beaten, with increasing difficulty, in all our previous games.  She chose to repeat a long line of the French Winawer that we had played before.  I avoided my error of the previous game, but forgot my preparation and got into trouble.  This is not a good opening for improvisation:  like the Najdorf or some lines of the Spanish, all the reasonable moves have been tried and found wanting, so you have to know your unreasonable moves.

I will sack pieces at the drop of a hat, and I don't mind giving a pawn here and there, but I don't tend to see exchange sacrifices.  I am trying to force myself to consider them, as in several openings I play (notably the French Tarrasch) they're more or less obligatory.  I think this one was obligatory too, and I'm happy I found it.

In the next to the last round one of the Challengers players failed to arrive and was removed from the event.  This meant I would have a last-round bye, which is why I'm not in the group picture above--I decided not to spend the whole afternoon at Microsoft just to get a picture taken.  My final opponent was local TD Dan Mathews, who was trying to help run the tournament as well as play in it--he had not expected to play, but filled in for a player who couldn't make the rescheduled times.  I had lost several blitz games to Dan but never played him in classic chess before. Someone told me he'd play to draw against a stronger player.  I don't know if that explains this game or not.

So that was 2.5/7, or if you prefer, 0/4 and 2.5/3 on the two weekends.  The second weekend, while still shaky, was a huge improvement!  I think beating Jeffrey helped me get back in the groove.

There's another story to tell about this tournament, though it involved me only incidentally.  Two of the high-school players took their between-rounds shenanigans to a level that the TD could not ignore, and were summarily removed after round 2.  One of them was at that point leading the Championship section, so this was quite a shock to the top player group.  IM Michael Lee took an early lead, but his last-round game would have been against the missing player, and FM Roland Feng (the defending Champion) and FM Anthony He managed to catch him for a unprecedented three-way tie.  All games among the three of them were drawn, so it was a fair outcome.  I expect that if they pursue the title, both Roland and Anthony could add IM to their names fairly soon.

Here are two of the co-Champions (Michael, having a bye, did not stay to be photographed):  Anthony has hold of the trophy, and Roland is right of him in a blue sweatshirt.

Players in the Championship section. Photo courtesy of Washington Chess Federation.

The Seattle chess community has an ongoing problem with player misbehavior.  We are generally tolerant, probably much too tolerant:  occasionally a TD's patience will snap and severe penalties will be imposed.  While I think these particular penalties were, sadly, appropriate, I also think we'd be better off not allowing things to get to such a level in the first place.  I recall two instances at the Seattle Chess Club when conditions on the top table were so distracting that players picked up their boards and moved elsewhere in the room--spreading further distraction in their wake, of course.  That should never be necessary.  I've seen players meddle with clocks, pull on chairs, and generally act in ways that are completely inappropriate for tournament play. But as a non-TD, I'm not clear what I can do about this.  Letters to the Northwest Chess editor have gotten responses I'd describe as "kids will be kids."  But in fact, young players (and older players--the problem is by no means limited to youth) can behave themselves, if they are given clear limits and held to them.  We're not doing that.

All that aside, it was a memorable tournament, if a painful one.  I did get to watch some excellent chess in all sections, such as Anthony's desperate save vs. Michael Lee and a wildly tactical match between two of my study partners, Joey Frantz and David Levine.  While I might have saved a lot of rating points by giving up when I missed my first bus on day 1, I'm glad I didn't.