A Bad Day at the UMBC Open (Now Complete!)
A year ago I returned to tournament chess after a 14-year hiatus. My first tournament was the under-1800 section of the UMBC Open, and I won it with 4.5/5. One year later and 160 rating points up, I was happy to play in the Open section of the same event.
Well, sometimes you are a windshield, sometimes you're a bug... and sometimes you're a guy who fell asleep behind the windshield. Last Saturday, I was all three, and in that order.
It turned out I was above the median rating for the field, so I got a lower-rated opponent in the first round. After a solid, but unambitious opening, the position was equal until he made a mistake (18...Nf6) and allowed me to win a pawn. By move 35, the game simplified to an unusual position - completely symmetric apart from my extra a-pawn.
While the game itself wasn't particularly good or exciting, the several moves leading to that symmetric position provided me with some interesting observations about computer analysis. Houdini 3, my standard analysis tool, told me my moves 32-35 were terrible, shrinking my advantage from almost 3 pawns to less than 1. Skeptical, I tried playing out the two positions and had to admit that Houdini was probably right, as I was winning blitz against the computer easily from the earlier position, but it took me many attempts to win from the later one. But then I gave the same segment of the game to Shredder 12, and it came up with a much less dramatic decline, from about 2.5 pawns to 1.7. This is a good lesson that computer evaluations of relatively calm positions, especially in the early endgame, must be taken with a grain of salt.
In the second round, I met the winner of the under-2100 Baltimore Open a month ago, and my highest-rated opponent since I started playing tournaments again. He crushed me in this game, and my first thought was that maybe I shouldn't play sharp opening lines like the McCutcheon without first studying them a bit. Upon further analysis, however, that was definitely not the lesson to take from this game. First, if I had done any preparation for this opening, I would not have looked beyond 7.Qg4. Second, despite the possibly inaccurate 7...Nxc3 and the definitely inaccurate 8...Bf8, I was only slightly worse out of the opening. My position was completely playable until 14...f5?, which reassures me in my minimalist approach to opening preparation.
Why did I play f5? I reasoned that, having exchanged my light-square bishop, which is weak, but also a key defender of e6, I couldn't allow white to push the pawn to f5. This is of course faulty reasoning because white can open up the center either way, and can do it faster the way I played, so if I am able to get my king to safety after 14...f5, I must also be able to do so by ignoring the f-pawn and finishing development with ...Qd7, ...Nc6, and ...O-O-O.
In the third round, I faced a much lower-rated opponent. He is better than his pre-tournament rating (and he gained almost 200 rating points in this tournament), but doesn't seem to have much tournament experience (his rating is still provisional) and plays too fast. Neither of us played well; I missed several chances for a larger advantage, and he missed a chance to gain advantage at move 15 (to which I was equally oblivious). But in the end, I had a clear and easy win, which I managed to squander with one "genius" move and then then lose the game immediately with the very next one!
I had to laugh at my own stupidity as I resigned. What is worse, I had 44 minutes left on my clock, and I made the last two moves with less than a minute's thought each. This reminded me of the worst blunders from my younger days, the kind I thought I had eliminated completely.
I was playing poorly, I was tired, and I had no goal to play toward the next day (category 1 norm was mathematically impossible), so I withdrew from the tournament. This was a good decision, as I didn't feel completely well the following day. Maybe that explains the mental fatigue? I hope so; but still, even when tired, using the available time should always be the first guiding principle. And both of my games with white pieces illustrate the value of looking for the better move even after seeing a good one. Some mistakes can be avoided simply by winning the game before they happen.