Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Upset Johnny

  Zach, a 4th grader at our club has managed to pull off some big wins in our last few Thursday night blitz tournaments. Last month, he beat Matt Kriegel (the same Matt Kriegel I barely got a draw against at last December’s CyChess) and last week Zach beat Roger (70+ year old legendary Ames chess coach). Both Matt and Roger are rated 3 classes over Zach and according to statistics should beat him 95% percent of the time but no one told Zach. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always called a player that pulls off wins against higher rated competition Upset Johnny and now Zach is our club’s newest Upset Johnny. High School senior Jaleb Jay is also an Upset Johnny when he plays out of town, but I can’t really call him that at our club now that he is the highest rated blitz player in town with Matt moving to Ames and Jaleb passing by me in rating last month.

  Zach had some help from his opponents in pulling off his upsets, but he also has a lot of chess talent. He reminds me a lot of my son Ben in that they both love to attack and have an innate sense of where to put the pieces for the attack. Zach had winning positions against good players before, but he wouldn’t pull back from the attack and end up losing when he would sacrifice pieces for a checkmate attack that didn’t quite work. A player that gets a lot of winning positions is a lot like a baseball team with a poor closer that throws away games in the 9th inning. As soon as the team gets a new closer and the chess player learns to finish the game it seems as though a massive and sudden improvement has taken place, but in reality a small problem with big consequences has been corrected. Since Zach plays baseball, football, basketball, and the piano maybe he won’t ever become a state chess champion, but he enjoys playing chess and that’s the most important thing.

  I’ve always felt that a player shows their real improvement by being able to beat players at their own level as opposed to being an Upset Johnny for a tournament or 2. I’ve seen a lot of players (including my own sons) who have some great tournament results and skip a rating class or 2 because of their superior results against higher rated competition have a lot of trouble beating the players that are at the rating class that they skipped because they never learned how to beat them as equals in the heat of battle. I see a lot of adult players want to play in the open section of a tournament with a section geared for their current level and even pull off some upsets but the rating points gained generally proves to be temporary.

  At any tournament, you can’t tell who the Upset Johnny is going to be beforehand, but during the tournament you can tell by finding the player with the biggest grin on their face. I played in a tournament in 2004 in Iowa City. I lost my first round game to an expert and then got to play Jacob Uptain from Cedar Rapids, who I outrated by 2 classes. Little did I know I was really facing 'Upset Johnny'.
  I played about as bad as I could in that game, but Jacob beat a player in the next round that was a rating class above me which made me feel less awful. Jacob even beat my son Ben in the High School Championship in October 2005 so it can safely be said Jacob was a player. I won my next game when the player at the next table disrupted everyone around him with his ‘Psycho’ act and I got less distracted than my opponent.

  Normally my best tournaments involve getting draws against higher rated players and taking care of business against the lower rated players who want to be Upset Johnny against me, but I had one tournament when I was Upset Johnny. In 1984, I was rated 1350 and played in the New Jersey Open but in the Open section (the reserve was for players rated under 1800). I was the only player rated under 1600 in the open section, but I beat 2 players that outrated me by 2 classes and drew another to go with 2 losses to masters and I went into the last round with a chance to win the $300 under 2000 prize. Here are my ‘Upset Johnny’ games:

  As you can tell, normally an upset occurs when the higher rated player has a bad day or makes a big mistake (although I did play OK in the second game) and the lower rated player doesn’t make the usual mistakes that a player of their rating normally does, but once Upset Johnny gets a taste of blood, the increased confidence can unlock even greater accomplishments. In the last round of that New Jersey Open, the clock struck midnight and my glass slippers turned back into a pair of old shoes as I played poorly and lost to an expert. I had a lot of trouble for a couple of months when I went back to playing at my own level in quads, but it was fun to be an Upset Johnny for once.

  These 3 games reinforce the 2 things I used to tell my kids (and still tell myself) before every tournament and I think they are as close to a universal truth you can get to in chess. Rule #1: You can beat anyone and Rule #2: Anyone can beat you. As happy as I am that Zach has been beating some highly rated players, I’ll be happier when he consistently beats the people in our tournaments that are currently equal to his playing level.