Winter Not-So Classic 2018
Winter Chess Classic, FM Perez vs. WCM Kuhner. Photo courtesy of Washington Chess Federation.

Winter Not-So Classic 2018

mkkuhner
WCM mkkuhner
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Yes, this blog is nine months late.  Work has been making me crazy, and also I found these games particularly difficult to annotate--or indeed to look at.  I've decided to present it with incomplete annotations, as otherwise it might be another nine months....

The intention was for the Winter Classic, scheduled for five days starting December 26, to be a two-section, nine-round FIDE rated Swiss tournament.  I browsed the online registrations on and off during December, and at first this looked plausible, but as time went on, while there were enough players in the lower section, the top section looked very sparse.  On the first evening, I arrived to find only five players in my section:   one or two more had shown up, counted heads, and departed again.  The registration site hinted at a few more--maybe they would arrive the next day?

This left me playing FM Ignacio Perez.  Quite a difficult first-round pairing, though Ignacio's high-risk style means he occasionally loses to lower-rated players:  he once tried so hard to mate me that he overlooked my own mating threats and was forced into a losing endgame.

At the adjacent board, Joseph "Joey" Frantz flagged his opponent in a completely lost position and offered a draw; the opponent accepted and then withdrew from the event.  We therefore seemed to have exactly four players:  me, experts Joey Frantz and Joseph Truelson, and Ignacio.  When next morning's round arrived and this was still the case, the TD decided to make the event a seven round double round robin (seven rounds being needed as Joey had played someone no longer in the event) and skip the last two rounds.  Meanwhile, the lower section would go on as planned.

I have as a point of pride that I have never lost every game in an event.  (Admittedly in my teens I once went 0.5/6 in a junior event, saved only by a mercy draw offer in the last round.)  I sometimes think I ought to go ahead and bomb an entire event, just so I wouldn't worry about it anymore.  Well, this looked like an excellent opportunity:  a double round robin against three players rated 150-300 points above me!  I confess I thought about withdrawing, as I didn't feel in peak playing form and thought it would be a brutal experience.  But that would really have left the section in the lurch, so I resolved to do my best.  It would be my last chance in 2018 to beat a master, after all.  (In 2017 I managed to beat four, but 2018 did not live up to that--though in part because I played too many class tournaments and not enough open ones.)

In round 2 I played Black against my study partner Joey.  I always find this awkward as my opening repertoire has big holes and my study partners tend to be well aware of this.  I expected some well-researched line of the French, as Joey is much more of an opening theoretician than I am.  Instead came a surprise:

Afterwards Joey said that he wanted to see how I would handle the reversed Dutch.  I think he planned to play a Polar Bear--a color-reversed Leningrad.  I'm not unhappy with my decision to try the From Gambit instead--it got us both out of book and made a real fight.  But my attacking mojo has not been with me lately.

In round 3 I played Joseph Truelson, whom I'd beaten a couple of years ago, but who has improved by leaps and bounds recently despite not being as young as most of our leapers and bounders (I think he's a high school senior).  The beginning of this game demonstrates clearly why Joseph is an expert and I am not, but then....

"I don't know what to say," said my opponent.  "Damn."  That's how I felt too.

Before the next round we had a lengthy and bizarre argument about whether it was really necessary to play seven rounds.  I wrote pairings on shreds of paper and pushed them around the table while the other players and TD argued, increasingly loudly.  They all ignored me.  Eventually we realized Ignacio just wanted to play, never mind the structure of the tournament, and found it silly that he and I would skip a round while Joey and Joseph played.  I offered to play a third game with him, and thought I'd be taken up on it, but a bit later the TD told me it wasn't happening.  I was half disappointed--Ignacio is a consistently fun opponent--and half relieved, because I was tired and FMs are tough.

So I had a bye, and then I had to play Joseph Truelson again.

Joey, Joseph and I went out to dinner.  I learned that Joseph has never had a coach, which makes his sudden improvement all the more impressive.  By this point there was little question that he would win the tournament, only whether or not he would make NM.  (In fact he drew his second game with Joey and had to wait for three more months, and several misadvantures, before doing so.)

I was quite frustrated with my play: I could have beaten Joseph, either time, and here I was at zero.  Furthermore Joseph was leading the tournament, and while he really has improved that still didn't seem quite right, at least with the way he'd played against me.  He said that I'd been more trouble than either of the others, which was a nice compliment but not exactly consolation.

So it was in that frame of mind that I sat down to play Ignacio again, for what turned out to be my game of the tournament:

I left the club not knowing whether or not I was right to allow the repetition.  I looked at it with a friend but was too tired to correctly interpret what the engine was saying, or maybe I just didn't want to know.  But in fact the final position is a win.  I learned a valuable new idea from this:  when a queen is checking your king from two squares away on the rank or file, interposing a knight stops the checks cold.

I am torn between being sad that I didn't win this game, and happy that it was so exciting and fun to play--I love positions with unbalanced material.  I think, however, that Ignacio should have declined the queen:  it was another case of "I earned this material and I'm going to take it" like my surprise win against Vignesh Anand.  Even if you have totally earned the material, think twice before you take it, that's the moral of the story.

By this point I was not at all sorry that we'd be skipping the last day of the tournament.... One game to go, against Joey again.

So I have still not lost every game in a tournament.  But it was frustrating to play so erratically.  When I was "on" I was a worthy opponent for the much higher rated field, but this was interspersed with moments of C-player reasoning that cost me a couple of points at least, and dropped my rating to 1907.  However, there was one humorous piece of payback.  The tournament had been planned for 20 players in each section, but USCF requires that you must pay out at least 50% of each advertised prize as long as the event happens at all.  The top section had prizes for 1st-4th places, so I won back essentially my entire entry fee for my 0.5 result!  (The club has gotten wise about Top Woman and Top Senior prizes, however, and now requires 5 qualifying entries, so Ignacio and I didn't walk off with those.)

I resolved to avoid tournaments in January, as my work situation was not getting any better--I taught a new graduate course January-March, which was fun but stressful, as well as turning in yet another grant proposal.  I hoped to be in shape for the State Championship in February, assuming I qualified. 

Partway through January I did get enticed into a blitz tournament at PNWCC, 11 rounds of rated blitz in a field led by Super GM Bu Xiangzhi (who gave an extremely interesting lecture on his two wins vs. Magnus Carlsen). I found, alas, that 11 rounds on a workday evening was at least 5 too many to be fun.  I was nearly the only player who didn't get to play Bu, and when the TD offered an extra round at the end so that I wouldn't miss out, I was completely out of juice and declined.  I'd already hung two kings and a queen...the first few games were okay and then it just got worse and worse.  I had 3.5/11, and 2 of those courtesy of playing the same D-player twice.  (No, I can't explain the pairings.)  My best moment was sacking the exchange against FM Anthony He in a French Tarrasch and actually making him think for 30-40 seconds before eviscerating me.

GM Bu Xiangzhi vs. NM Jason Yu. Photo courtesy of PNWCC.

If I am ever to be an expert, let alone an NM (which is still my goal, just as it was in my teens) I have to do one of two things:  learn to play well even when gravely stressed, or find a way to make my life less stressful.  Those both seem very hard at the moment.  After musing on advice from my coach, I did adopt some lifestyle changes, mainly meant to enhance sleep.  I hoped that would help with the State Championship.