Winter Chess Classic 2017

Winter Chess Classic 2017

WCM mkkuhner
Jan 7, 2018, 11:45 AM |

The Winter Chess Classic (first of its name) was a 9 round USCF/FIDE tournament held at the very end of 2017.  Many NW players chose to go to the National Open in Vegas instead, but the field here in Seattle was still pretty strong.  We had a surprise 2400+ entrant, Howard Chen, who hadn't played since 2012, in order to spice up the inevitable contest between FMs Steve Breckenridge and Anthony He.

I had been looking at preregistration and trying to predict my pairings for weeks.  Generally speaking I came up with playing Ignacio Perez, with occasional digressions into playing Viktors Pupols or Jason Yu.  Evidently it was going to be a tough first round.  (In fact I ended up playing all three; it was a tough tournament.)

When I arrived on site I found I couldn't possibly have predicted the pairings as several players took first-round byes and there were some on-site registrations; but I was playing FM Ignacio Perez anyway.  He's locally famous for a hyper-aggressive, sacrificial style, and in our one previous game dug his knights into my kingside like claws.  My one hope, I felt, was to find a flaw in his inevitable attack--now and then he plays a sacrificial line and finds at the end he's simply run out of pieces.

My first FM!  I spent the rest of the week telling anyone who would listen, including my non-chessplaying relatives, about this game.... This didn't at all follow the pattern of the win I imagined.  At the time I figured that Ignacio, not wanting a draw, had pushed too hard in the endgame.  This is probably true, but after analysis I also think he neglected the important preventive move 25...Kg7 after which he can preserve his dark-square bishop and likely develop a strong attack against f2.

The next morning I arrived feeling quite psyched for my game with Oregon expert Matthew Wilson.  I could have guessed he was from Oregon, because when he was excited or anxious about a move, he held his hand high and then swooped down to pick up the piece--a widespread habit among the top Oregon players. (Due to Nick "the Raptor" Raptis?  Maybe, or maybe Oregon commentators just like the pun and the habit comes from somewhere else.)

I played the opening terribly, but I have to give myself credit for exceptional tenacity after losing the piece.  My opponent withdrew from the tournament after this game.  Having been on the wrong side of such positions, I know how he felt.

In round 3 I got to play the WA Women's Champion, veteran player WFM Chouchanik Airapetian.  Her style is similar to Ignacio's, though with more of a slow buildup in the opening.  To my delight, I got to play my personal main line of the French Winawer, my most theoretical opening; but my joy was short-lived.

Tenacity almost paid off again, but not quite.  I was upset over the tactical error, and also over the sense that I must have missed a save somewhere after she lost the bishop (which turned out to be true, though I didn't find out until after the tournament).  But I was pleased with how hard I'd made it for her.

The next morning I was not overjoyed to find I was playing expert Jason Yu, the #7 11-year-old in the US.  I've played Jason a number of times.  Several years ago--an eternity at his age--I beat him in an Evans Gambit where he allowed a knight to be stranded on the queenside and couldn't defend his king without it.  A few months later I managed to swindle him in an utterly lost position, getting a draw and winning the event.  In our third game he won two pawns in the opening, dropped the exchange shortly thereafter, but managed to win the endgame anyway.  Reviewing this history suggested that being tenacious yet again might pay off....

Jason attracts nicknames like "fidget boy" and "skips-a-lot" because he is very restless at the board, leaping up to roam the tournament hall after nearly every move.  On the other hand, I recall that after dropping the exchange to me he sat stock-still for 20+ minutes working out how to recover, and then played flawlessly.

This was actually fun, as losses go.  I like to have the initiative and make threats; and the interval between knowing I was lost and resigning was mercifully short.

Ignacio asked to see the game and I ended up analyzing it with him and Viktors Pupols.  They make a great analytic team due to the difference in style; Ignacio will rattle off a dizzyingly fast and sharp variation, and Uncle Vik will say gruffly, "And then I take your rook, and what do you have?"

It did not seem entirely fair that having lost to Jason, I had to play Eric Zhang, who also appears on the top 11-year-old list (#19).  I have also beaten Eric, a hyper-sharp game in my first State Championship, but again that was years ago.  He crushed me after an opening mistake in the FIDE Round Robin (which he won).  In our last outing, at the State Championship, he made what he described as a desperation bishop sacrifice which turned out to be entirely winning. 

Ouch.  I knew Eric would likely beat me but I didn't expect to be crushed so summarily.

I was quite late getting home because as I packed up to leave the tournament site I happened to glance at Steve Breckenridge's game vs. Howard Chen, and ended up watching the entire game.  It has to be one of the most exciting games I've ever seen live, and I hope he publishes it.  I was predicting Howard's moves rather consistently, so got to share his shock at Breckenridge's near-endless stream of combinations.

So that was a tough day.  I had taken two byes for rounds 6 and 7 to attend my family's holiday party; the rest sounded like a good idea but, despite the losses, I was sad not to get to play more games.  A good sign, I think; I wasn't burned out despite having played a normal-length tournament already. 

After boring my family with tales of my win vs. Ignacio, I was back on Sunday for the last two rounds, and found I was paired with LM Viktors Pupols.

Uncle Vik is the grand old man of Seattle chess; he won his first State Championship before I was born and still regularly competes in it.  He loves closed positions:  Josh Sinanan, advising another player, said "The most important move vs. Viktors is PxP."  I had played him three times previously.  In the first game I got up a whole exchange and could not penetrate his pawn wall.  In the second, I passed up a chance to win a pawn, and he retaliated by promoting it for the win.  In the third, just a few tournaments ago, I managed to bamboozle him in a position too open for his tastes and got a drawn rook endgame out of it.  I hoped to do at least as well this game....

The fourth loss in a row, and quite painful.  Uncle Vik is a strong player to whom it's no shame to lose,  but I didn't feel I'd played well.  On the other hand, I'd now played two masters and four experts (actually Chouchan turned out to be in the high 1900's but is normally an expert) so the result wasn't totally unexpected; and if I had to win just one of those games, beating Ignacio would certainly have been my choice! 

In the last round I played Brent Baxter, an older player whom I'd faced several times.  We always play at the tail end of tournaments when we're both tired, so the games tend toward weird swings and strange positions.  Like Uncle Vik, he seems to favor closed positions (he often opens 1. b3 with f4 coming soon after).  I was surprised to see the Scandinavian from him.  It's locally rare; the only tournament game in it I recall was in Vegas.

A frustrating game as I felt I was much better and firmly in the driver's seat, and then it fizzled out to nothing. I had a game in Reno with a similar structure and result, and got chewed out by IM Donaldson for spoiling it with a premature attack; it's not clear I learned my lesson.... On the other hand, I didn't lose!  For the unimpressive score of 2/7 (3/9 counting byes) I ended up picking up one rating point.

FM Breckenridge won the tournament despite a stinging loss to Ignacio.  There were a number of noteworthy games, including a very tense last-round draw between Uncle Vik and Joseph Frantz, and a win by Anthony He over Jason Yu in what both of them agreed was a drawn endgame.  In the lower section Melina Li and Stephanie Velea had excellent tournaments, Melina in particular picking up a lot of rating points, but Davey Jones recovered from his loss to Melina to win it.  In such long tournaments the lead can change hands many times!

After the last round we played a New Year's blitz tournament (midnight actually arrived between rounds 4 and 5).  I polished off a 1200 player in round 1 and then made a complete fool of myself in the rest of the games, ending with 3.5 out of 10.  Ignacio in particular amused himself at my expense; in our second game, rather than capturing my hanging queen he worked around her to organize a king hunt, driving my king from g8 to d1.  It tells you something about the tone of the tournament that I yelled "Touchdown!" when I arrived.... We also got the Velea sisters' father to play, which meant that someone could have played 4 Veleas in a row, but alas, no one did.  He got bumped off by two of his daughters in quick succession.  I told him my parents had learned early on not to play against me.... Ignacio won the tournament, with Anthony He in second. 

On a more somber note, we had many player discussions over a reported episode of touch-move violation with the opponent away from the board.  I will pass on what TD Fred Kleist said in a public statement, which is that if you witness an irregularity, you are not allowed to tell the opponent or offending player, but you can and should tell the TD.  You do not have to decide what, if any, action should be taken; that's his job.

Lessons from this tournament:

(1)  Tenacity can really pay off!  But you have to stay very alert and spot the save when it appears. If you give up looking for it you might as well resign.

(2)  While I was focused during the tournament on problems involving my ignorance of various openings, and it's true I need to work on the openings, thinking errors will actually a much bigger problem:

--Against Chouchanik I did not consider whether I could survive if I stopped checking, nor did I calculate out all the way to see if my checks were going to pay off.  This combination of laziness and assumption blindness cost me half a point that was well within reach.

--Against Matthew I played the sacrifice without working hard on understanding his possible responses, and again suffered greatly for my laziness.  The same was true of the last few moves of my games with Eric and Jason (though against Jason I was already lost by that point).

--In several games my assessment counterbalanced clearcut advantages for my opponent with a nebulous "but I'll have a kingside attack of some kind" reasoning.  This approach got lucky against Ignacio but led to disasters against Jason, Eric, and Viktors, and did not pay off against Baxter either.  (In the game with Baxter the kingside attack was actually there, but I did not find it, making routine moves instead and losing my advantage.)

I can be a dangerous opponent, as Ignacio found to his cost, but I could be a lot more dangerous if my play were more consistent.  I notice that I had some good results with the Silman "consider the imbalances" approach but haven't been sticking to it.  One positive is that I had the chance both during and after the tournament to analyze several of these games with strong players, including spending a lot of time on the game with Baxter; I hope that I can generalize what I've learned.