Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It's Hard to be a Champion

The spoils of victory.

  At Saturday’s youth chess tournament, Chandler, the high school kid I brought from Marshalltown to help me set up, ended up winning the tournament. It was only a mild upset since he was the 3rd highest rated player there. I was bringing Jaleb Jay to the youth tournaments and he was far and away the highest rated player. Jaleb won the first 3 tournaments outright, gave up a couple of draws in the fourth and had to settle for a 4 way tie for first, and then skipped the next 2. It’s too bad he stopped wanting to play in them since I always like to have some strong players on hand as an example to the younger players, but it is understandable that Jaleb wouldn’t want to play with a target on his back time after time.

  It was good to see Chandler be a champion. I introduced him to the players of the afternoon adult tournament as the youth chess champion. After the tournament was over, Chandler said it wasn’t a big deal that he won the tournament. I said, “Man, I’ve been playing chess for over 40 years and I’ve been a champion maybe 4 or 5 times. Enjoy being a champion because it’s hard to do!” Most of the rest of the players nodded in agreement.

  When I was driving to work this week, I got to thinking more about the times I’ve been and not been a champion. One year in school, we would have these monthly spelling bees and I never won one even though I also never misspelled a word. I would forget to say the word before or after I spelled it and get called out, never mind that I did spell the word correctly. I’ve always hated spelling bees for that reason. Maybe they should call them saying and spelling bees. I would probably have done pretty well if they had math bees but they didn’t exist back in the day.

  I’ve never been a championship athlete or even been on a championship team, but there have been times when I’ve been a chess champion. Maybe that’s the allure chess holds on me. It’s been the only time I’ve been able to call myself a champion. I started playing tournament chess in 1982 and used to go play in the monthly quads in Somerset. At Somerset there would be between 100 and 200 players who would be divided into groups of 4 players by rating into an all play all mini tournament where you would either play for money or a trophy depending on the entry fee you paid. In 1984, I finally managed to win a quad and took home a handsome trophy I still have to this day. After that, I always played for the money. I’ve run quads myself and seen a lot of adults want the trophy more than the money the first time they win a quad. I won another quad in 1985 and used the $25 prize to buy the 1953 Zurich Tournament book by Bronstien (which I also still have). I remember how happy I was both times to have won a quad. I won some cash prizes after that but never a first place finish. I stopped playing tournament chess in 1987, but when my kids got old enough to play in tournaments, I got the bug and started playing in tournaments again in 2002. It took a few years to shake off the rust but I eventually got back to my old playing strength. In July of 2006, I took Matt and Ben to Joliet to play in the US Game/30 championships. There were only 40 players there, and I got lucky to be able to play (and defeat) the 2 lowest rated players there. That and 3 draws plus a loss got me a tie with Ben and another fellow for the top Class C score. Matt won the Class B section. We were all super happy win the cash and I figured that as long as it was a USCF national championship, we could say we were national champions.

  We went back to Joliet the next year and I had one of the best tournaments of my life. I should have lost my last round game, but my opponent missed the winning move to let me escape with a draw. I managed to win 2 games and draw 3 others without a loss to share first place in Class B with 2 other players. There were 50 players and I was one of 3 undefeated players. I also found out from another player that if you asked nicely, the US Chess Federation would send you a certificate noting your first place finish in a national championship. I called them and asked nicely and they sent me my certificates. They are framed on my wall and even though the 2007 certificate says I won the Class C and not Class B it does not diminish the good feeling I get looking at them.

  I tied for first with Kushan Tyagi in a 3 round CyChess tournament in 2008. I was elated to win a tournament in Iowa, even though it was kind of flukey since I never had to play a higher rated player (Kushan had to beat 2 players higher rated than me), but it was a great feeling to join the list of CyChess winners. I play in the CyChess every chance I get but have yet to get back to the winners circle.

A pair of champions. Chandler(l) and Dan Vasto, who won the adult quick chess tournament in the afternoon.

  I’ve won my share of Thursday Night quick chess tournaments at the Marshalltown Chess Club and I feel good when I do manage to win the tournament, but it has been 3 years since I’ve won a championship outside of these quick chess tournaments. I came close at last year’s State Fair and I catch myself daydreaming about past victories and the next time I will feel the high of being a champion. When the Yankees were winning the World Series 4 times from 1996 to 2000, some Yankee fans started treating the championship as something to be relieved over winning and not as a cause for celebration, but I always enjoyed each one since I can remember 18 straight years of not rooting for a champion. I still have a good feeling about the 2009 champions and am well aware that it may be the last Yankee championship I see for a long time. For all except a lucky few, championships are few and far between and should be savored and not be taken for granted.