Up all night to get lucky
While on holidays in Australia in January, I got invited to play a small round-robin tournament in Amsterdam. I get these invitations every now and then, but it's worth mentioning that such invitations are usually not as flattering as they first appear. These events are usually have the goal of providing an opportunity for the local talents to earn a grandmaster norm, the requirements for which involve having a field with at least three existing grandmasters and at least three nationalities represented.
As an Australian, part-time grandmaster with a 'regular' job, I'm thus the perfect
target candidate to get beaten up by the talented norm-hunters. Normally this isn't such an appealing prospect, but unfortunately I was in serious danger of missing the 30-game minimum threshold to apply for the Australian olympiad team. That fact, combined with the invitation coming from my jovial Dutch friend Merijn van Delft, encouraged me to accept. And so, immediately after the 24 hour flight back to Amsterdam, I found myself in a very pleasant bar in the centre of Amsterdam, caffeined to the eyeballs, sitting opposite the latest Dutch junior star, the European under-14 Champion Jorden van Foreest.
Did you notice I said 'bar'? Yes, the tournament was actually held in a bar, and not just any bar. Cafe Batavia is a fantastic drinking establishment, right off the central station of Amsterdam. It's got a very nice vibe to it ("gezellig", the Dutch would say),with a cool, chess-loving owner, and on any normal day you're likely to find a couple of the local patrons making use of the chess sets on offer. During this particular fortnight, in addition to this, the elegant, quiet back room was decked out for the tournament, nicely juxtaposed with the lively main bar next door.
Anyway, in the end I managed to win the tournament, despite losing the last round against the tournament cellar-dweller and my peer, Steven Geirnaert. (Actually, this brings Steven's life score against me to 2/3, with us having played before in India when we were 17, and in Spain when we were 11!)
As fun and enjoyable as the tournament was, it was also the first time I'd tried to combine work and chess on such an intense level. Having just taken a month off work, there was no way I was going to be able to swing another fortnight away from the office. After each afternoon game, I would have to go to the office to work late into the evenings. Then I'd get some more work done in the mornings, do a bit of prep over lunch, play my game - and wash, rinse, repeat. The tournament had one rest day, but in order to catch up, I spent 12 hours in the office, so it was probably the least relaxing day for me of the fortnight.
In hindsight, it was a pretty rough decision. My games were riddled with oversights, and in the last game Steven smashed me so badly that I'm sure I would have struggled to manage a single point if the tournament had've been further extended. Of course, coming first was ostensibly a powerful result, but if you look below the surface, I was really incredibly lucky to get most of my points. Against the Netherlands female number one, Zhaoqin Peng, I managed to swindle a draw from two pawns down. In the game with the top seed, GM Sipke Ernst, my opponent missed a clear win in the diagram with the sneaky 23.Qxc4! Qxg6 24.Qc5, forking my two rooks. And against Merijn, I was clearly worse after 10 moves and had to grovel my way to another half a point.
Lady Luck also manifested herself in more subtle ways. In round 5 I was paired against Twan Burg, my main rival and the eventual second-place getter. Usually, with the white pieces I would be planning to play for a slight advantage out of the opening, and slowly and carefully try to nurse it to a full point.
Unfortunately, I also had a meeting at the office five hours after the round started, so a long game was really not on the cards for me. This made my opening preparation a lot easier, as I chose a line that I could play very quickly and that would most likely lead to a quick draw - unless my opponent fell for one of the traps, in which case a quick win would result. As Caissa would have it, the latter happened, and I could put one hand on the trophy.
In general, I can take away three key lessons from the event. Firstly, despite the result, I'm really not as tactically sharp as I used to be. I don't know whether it's rust, or age, or both, but the blunders are becoming more frequent, and so probably I need to adapt my style to try to cover up this new weakness. Secondly (and perhaps obviously), a full time simultaneous work/chess schedule is ridiculously stupid. I was completely spent by the end of the event, by which time I was enjoying neither the games nor my research. The lesson is trivial after the fact, and certainly my conscience had a good time telling me "I told you so" after the last round.
And finally: the chess culture in Amsterdam is really incredible. I've frequented two well-known chess cafes in Amsterdam, but I didn't even know this one existed. All of the participants were jovial and friendly before, during and after the games, irrespective of the results. As much as I was already homesick on my return, there's just nothing like this sort of chess atmposphere back in Oz. Seriously, you've got to try it. Imagine a warm, crowded bar, packed with chess-loving locals and tourists kibitzing with each other over the fast-paced blitz battles taking place at the tables. Then, listen to Daft Punk.
(All photos courtesy of IM Alina l'Ami)