Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Painful Return to Tournament Play

The US Class Championships in Boca Raton was my first weekend tournament in some time. I was using it primarily as a tune up for the US Open, and while the tournament was great for that purpose it was a competitive failure at +0=4-1. This was my first time playing in the 'A' group, and I must say that it was extremely tough going. I was repeatedly outplayed in the middle game, though I must say that my openings and endings proved up to the task. This was very gratifying since I've been working on both a great deal, but the pattern of getting a better position, becoming much worse in the middle game and then only saving the position due to superior technique was not encouraging.

I really shouldn't be so hard on myself, I suppose. In some senses I performed well: I overcame one of my worst habits, namely giving up (or at least becoming extremely pessimistic) upon realizing that I was worse. In this tournament, each time I recognized that I was worse I pulled myself together and resolved to hold the ending. In each case, I was able to do so, though not without considerable help from my opponents. The one game I lost I lost due to tactical oversight, certainly not from giving up.

It is interesting how even players of ~1900 not only seemed to play the ending very badly, but almost seemed to stop trying when they reached winning positions. It's as if the prospect of playing out a better ending was enough to sap their energy and resolve. I don't know why they expected the win to just happen, but that seemed to be a consistent mindset of my opponents throughout the tournament. Here's an example. I was so lost in the first round that at least three times I resolved to resign if my opponent played the best move. These were not terribly hard moves to find, mind you. Each time however, he let me off the hook. See for yourself.


Not an auspicious start, but at least I hadn't given up when faced with a difficult (in this case truly hopeless) defense. Garrett once told me I needed to become an 'old school scrapper from way back', and while he was half joking he was still completely right. The more I've come to see chess as a battle (as opposed to a display of skills and knowledge developed away from competition) the more successful I've been. The better I get, the more the psychological aspects matter. Toughness, resolve, these qualities can't be overestimated.

The second round was unlike the first in pretty much every way, apart from my playing badly in the opening. This was the first time I'd trotted out the Russian variation in response to the Grunfeld, and I knew there was a very real possibility that I wouldn't be prepared from a theoretical standpoint having only studied the most critical lines. My opponent in fact deviated early, but I didn't handle it correctly. What followed after was a mistake that indicative of my whole tournament, as well as all my chess as of late.: a tendency to enter complex positions merely for the sake of complexity, even when I had better 'solid' options available. I too often sacrificed a win in hopes of creating a brilliancy. While I got away with it here, mostly because I was white, it led to some really bad positions in later games against stronger opponents. I guess I've read too many Bronstein and Shirov books...but I just couldn't resist the urge to sacrifice my queen for three pieces once in my life.


I have to say, playing in this manner may not be solid but it is admired. I had several people (including my opponent) tell me that 'that's how chess ought to be played'. I assume they mean sharply, creatively...hopefully not dubiously. As neat as it may have been, it was still a dubious continuation and I'd have had a better chance of winning if I'd played more simply. While flights of fancy aren't bad, they should be at least not worse than other continuations; a discipline I wasn't able to enforce upon myself, as you'll see as you look through the other games.

The third round was an English that I couldn't resist spicing up, much to my dismay. Again, I chose complications over what I knew to be the best continuation. I was again lucky to draw, based upon the poor endgame play of my opponent.

De Luca-Rampley.pgn

The fourth round was the worst for me, being my only loss. I came in ready to kick some ass, expecting a white. Instead, I was given my third black out of 4 games. My parents were coming in to town that afternoon, and I had actually hoped to play my white and then withdraw to meet them at the airport. After this game, I was unable to withdraw because I had to get some self respect back.

A short digression...I have to say I had about the toughest draw this tournament that I've ever had. Here were my pairings (with color and opponent's rating)

Round 1 Black vs 1960
Round 2 White vs 1812
Round 3 Black vs 1940
Round 4 Black vs 1975
Round 5 White vs 1870

My only 'easy' game in the 2nd round he played an opening which I had just started working on a new system against. I do feel like I was a bit unlucky. For what it's worth I had the highest tiebreak score (due to average opponent rating and performance) or any player other than the winner. Enough whining, here's the fourth round game: a flight of fancy by my opponent this time catches me unaware and I go down in flames.


Couldn't save that one in the ending, as it never got there. Needless to say I was frothing at the mouth for my fourth round game. First however, I had to go through a little bout of self hatred and an attempted withdrawal before manning up and driving back to the tournament site to play the last round. The last round was much like the 2nd...I chose complications over a slightly better position. After dominating the opening, I felt an obligation to try and keep the initiative by entering a crazy line that I was pretty sure was dubious. Why did I play it anyway? Who knows. This is the big takeaway for me from this tournament: if you know (or even suspect) a move is bad, don't play it, regardless of how beautiful the conception is. Throwing away a better or equal position isn't beautiful, ti's stupid. It's not going to look like a stroke of genius when you just blundered. A valuable lesson, especially since I'll probably play down some at the US Open and really shouldn't take chances in games that I'll almost certainly be able to win from a better endgame position. Here's the game.


So that was my tournament. Good as a tune up, horrible as a competitive outing. I'm glad I played, but hopefully I won't have to repeat the same psychological mistakes again. Knowing one's own self destructive tendencies is the first step to correcting them. In the future I know to ask myself upon considering a crazy move: 'are you considering this because it's the best solution in the position, or just because it's crazy? Is it even playable, or are you about to do something dubious because it has a veneer of creativity?' If I can do that, I think I'll add some stability to my play and justify my ~1900 rating. As a post script, my tournament performance was about 1860, which I suppose I should take heart in since I was around 1700 in January. I've come a long way. See you at the US Open.