Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Great and Not-So-Great Games

  This is the height of chess season in Europe and Russia. In January the super-GM Tata Steel championship at Wijk aan Zee took place with Magnus Carlsen winning in record fashion over a field including World Champion Viswanathan Anand and 2800 rated Levon Aronian. Overlapping this tournament was the Gilbraltar Chess Festival, an open tournament with dozens of grandmasters including 2700+ players VasilIy Ivanchuk, Michael Adams, Gata Kamsky, David Navara. Even though this tournament didn’t have the star power of Wijk Aan Zee, it had the advantage of a compelling finish with a four way tie and a rapid chess playoff won by Russian Nikita Vitiugov over former championship candidate and defending Gibraltar champion Nigel Short.

  The very top players don’t often play in the big open tournaments because the invitations to the elite tournaments come with guaranteed appearance fees and superb playing conditions, while the open tournaments only pay for victory, all but the top boards (and sometimes even those) play in long rows of tables, and when a top player gets upset or even held to a draw by a lower ranked player it is worldwide news, as evidenced by this Gibraltar story highlighting Short’s upset in round 2 to a ‘mere’ 2400 rated player and Kamsky and Ivanchuk’s round 1 draws to even lower ranked players.

  This week while World Champion Anand, former world champion Vladimir Krammnik, 2012 championship challenger Boris Gelfand, and current golden boy Fabiano Caruana battle in a special four player double round robin tournament in Zurich, Switzerland coincidentally named the Zurich Chess Challenge in which the appearance fees presumably dwarf the prize fund and accommodations are paid for, many of the world’s top players are in Iceland for the 2013 Reykjavik Open and a top prize of around $4,000 US dollars.

  I’ve been casually following the action of all the tournaments, but I’ve especially been following the Reykjavik games of International Master John Bartholomew. I’ve met John twice when he played in the Okoboji Open that I’ve directed for Jodene Kruse. I’ve written before how impressed I am with him not because he is a great player but more because of how friendly and accessible he is. John writes about his chess travels on his blog (you can read it here) and I’m looking forward to seeing his Reykjavik post. Here are a couple of the outstanding games John has played in Iceland over the past 10 days (International ratings shown).
pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  I know these games are not against grandmasters, but I’m really impressed with how John just demolishes players that are at the US master level that can routinely demolish players that can routinely demolish me. He has also drawn two and lost two games against grandmasters. I kind of understood these last two games, but this win against a strong FIDE master was beyond my understanding and 3 days later I still don’t know how he pulled the win off except with some sort of chess jiu-jitsu.
  While the players in Wijk aan Zee and the Zurich Chess Challenge have the luxury of knowing weeks in advance who their opponents will be and what colors they will have, the players in the Gibraltar and Reykjavik tournaments are subject to the Swiss system parings and don’t know who their opponent will be until the night before the next game. Knowing the pairings in advance is something most players appreciate. I know almost all the players were very happy when the state chess association in Iowa decided to make the closed championship pairings known in advance. I’m sure most of the top players in Reykjavik research their opponent’s games on the internet hoping to find a hole in their opening preparation in order to spring a surprise on the next day. Even this level of preparation is more than American weekend tournaments allow since multiple games in a day means one’s opponent isn’t known until minutes before the game begins.

  Even in the world of one minute chess, it helps to know who you are playing in advance. I wrote last month how I hit a new high on one-minute chess on the Internet Chess Club. While I’ve fallen off my peak since then, I started playing bullet chess, which is chess at two minutes or less and has a separate rating than one minute chess.

  There are a lot of differences between one minute chess and bullet chess aside from the rating and time limit. In one-minute chess, you are placed in a pool of other one minute players with no control over who you play and once you are paired there is no way to abort the game so if the game starts at the same moment your pet beagle decided to jump on you for some pets, you will probably lose the game. In bullet chess, if you get off to a late start you can just let your time run out without making a move and the game is listed as too short for a rated result. The other big difference is that you can refuse to play your opponent and perhaps even more important, offer a rematch.

  On Sunday, I was playing one minute bullet chess on the Internet Chess Club when I got to within 50 points of my all-time high of 1546. I ran a player named pratique who was around my rating. Pratique made 14 moves in nine seconds, dropped three pawns and disconnected. I instinctively hit the rematch button and to my surprise pratique had reconnected and we played again. Pratique outplayed me and won a piece but ran out of time before he could win. We played a third time and my opponent again got disconnected in an even position.

  This got me my rating to 1543 and pratique again responded to my rematch challenge. I played my best game yet and was within sight of a personal best when I inexplicably fell apart:
  What a blunder! We played again and I won when pratique disconnected for the fourth time in five games and then with my rating at 1539 my rematch request was accepted. Just like a few minutes before when I got so close to a personal best I got a winning endgame but unlike the time before, I held on for a new high rating of 1552.
  It was good to use the differences between one minute chess and one minute bullet chess to my advantage and even though my bullet rating is barely in the top half of all the players on the Internet Chess Club and I was certainly lucky to run into a player who kept on disconnecting I'm still thrilled at my new personal high rating. It’s not Wijk aan Zee or Reykjavik, but at 52 years if age, it’s good to know I’m still hitting new heights.