Wednesday, February 19, 2014


  Based on the responses I’ve received and my own eyes, the Expert Open, Broken Pawn Reserve, and meet-up chess tournament in Marshalltown last week was so successful I’d put it on the top shelf with the Okoboji Open among the best and most memorable tournaments I’ve ever been part of. I think I did close to as a flawless job as tournament director as I've ever done. There were no mistakes with the parings, an even number of players in every section for every round, the rooms were arranged with enough space for the players, and except for starting the tournament with one player still en route and losing ten minutes off his clock there was no controversies and I didn’t have a difficult decision all day.

It was a great tournament and a successful day, but if I ever get a swelled head about it just mention this scoresheet on the left from the Broken 'Arrow' Reserve...

  A large part of the reason that everything ran so smoothly is that tournament organizer Tim Mc Entee and I have a good working relationship and our styles complement each other. Tim knew what kind of tournament he wanted to attract the expert and higher level players and I didn’t get in the way by making suggestions so I could have my fingers in the process. I trust Tim’s judgment and know he’s been organizing these elite types of tournaments for over ten years. When I offered the idea of having a reserve tournament for non-experts (which was meant for traveling companions), Tim knew I wouldn’t let the side tournament affect the playing conditions for the experts and masters (by putting everyone in one room, for example) or else he would have asked me not to have it.

  There’s also some planning involved in having a smooth tournament. For example, we arranged to have a house player for the expert section to ensure an even number of players and I imposed on Jon McCord from the Marshalltown Chess Club (who has been coming to club for over 12 years) to be the house player in the reserve and sections. Jon was the perfect house player for those sections because while he can play with anyone below the expert level he is equally happy to hang around and watch all the games. Kathy and I arranged the playing rooms the night before so on the tournament day the only thing I needed to do was put tables and chairs in the hallways for parents to hang out and players to go over their games after they ended.

Most tournaments in Marshalltown end up being special (click here for the account of my last one), but when the World 10-year old champion Awonder Liang(l) and the Team Iowa group from (admins Sir Benjamin, Spacebux, and Merlin-Pendragon are shown on the right) have a meet-up, you have a truly memorable occasion.

  I've run plenty of smooth tournaments but for a tournament to be memorable there's probably going to be some luck involved and this tournament got lucky on a number of counts. First, we lucked into the Team Iowa group wanting to have a meet-up dinner and/or tournament and willing to have it with the reserve tournament. Not only did it open up a new avenue of players, it gave me an unrated section which was perfect for some of the players from my club who didn’t have USCF memberships or the ten dollars for the reserve entry or the desire to play in a rated tournament. Ben Tessman and the rest of the guys were great to have around and since a lot of the players in the other sections were also members it gave a commonality between the sections that wouldn't have been there otherwise.

  Another lucky break came 10 days before the tournament when Will Liang told Tim and I he wanted to bring his son Awonder to play in the tournament. I wrote about Awonder at length when was at Okoboji last April. At that point he was the World age 8 and under champion and in December he successfully defended his title and is now the World age 10 and under champion. His participation made the tournament a lot more interesting but the lucky part was that since we were having the reserve tournament Will’s three other children were able to come and play. They all had a great time playing chess and hanging out with the other teenagers and younger children that were playing in the reserve tournament and all the players got a kick out of how pleasant and affable the whole Liang family was.

  I don’t know if having the ten year old world champion at the tournament attracted a lot of players but I know it got the Marshalltown chess players pretty hopped up to come and see him in action. Chris used to come to my club when his mom worked at the Salvation Army and he’d play chess while she was working. When his mom changed jobs eight years ago Chris stopped coming to club but returned two months ago because he’d been playing chess with his fiancée’s 12 year old son and caught the chess bug. Chris played in the tournament but when it ended at 6 he stuck around to watch Awonder’s last game against Rob Reynolds. The game was a fighting draw that lasted until 10:30 at night and Chris stuck around to watch every move. There's an 11 year old player that comes to club but his family doesn’t have a car so he walks. If the Salvation Army building was more than the three blocks away that it is from his house I doubt we would have ever have met. So how cool was it for this kid whose family doesn’t have a car and walks to chess club to be playing in the same building with the best 10 year old player in the world? Pretty cool if you ask me and I know all the Marshalltown players felt it was pretty cool having this champion playing chess in the same building where we have our club every week.

  I’ve seen Awonder Liang play in two tournaments (three if you count the 2009 US Open where I played his brother Adream in the last round) and the thing that strikes me most is he is a fighter who was able to battle his way out of inferior positions in Marshalltown just as he did in Okoboji. I don't know what makes a prodigy or world champion but I find Awonder's fighting spirit and resourcefulness more impressive than if he was some sort of opening book automaton that gains an advantage out of the opening and presses it home for his victories. Will pointed out after the tournament that playing three long games in one day against strong players is a brutal schedule especially for a young player but Awonder went through almost 10 hours of chess only surrendering a final round draw en route to a first place tie. I don’t know what the future holds for this young player but I know almost all the players at the tournament will be following his progress and wishing for his success and won’t soon forget playing with the world champion and his family.

  Among chess players, the predominant images when it comes to chess prodigies is either the Polgar sisters who were trained to be chess masters from a young age by their father or the insular Bobby Fisher who seemed to only live for chess. The Liangs seem like a normal family who just happen to have a super chess talent as one of their members and have embraced that responsibility. I tried to treat him like the rest of the chess players but I fell short when Andrew Potter from the local paper came and wanted a picture of Awonder in front of a board for his story (You can read it here). The only problem was that Andrew came in between rounds so Awonder wasn't at the board. Will had Awonder pose at a chessboard that we set up but he didn’t seem too happy about it and I wasn’t either although I suppose it comes with the territory of being a world champion.

  I have one special memory of the tournament from after it ended. Tim was helping me put away the tables and setting up the rooms for the next day's services and all the Liangs were helping. I had moved two large round tables from the meeting room where the experts were playing over to the lobby where the parents were hanging out. I folded up one of these tables and was rolling it on its edge over to the meeting room. Adream and Awonder were fascinated by the sight of me rolling this five foot round table on its edge and wanted to try it. I didn’t think too much of it since Adream is pretty big and seemed well able to handle the table. We put the table on edge, folded it up, and I watched them roll the table through the hallway. Then I saw the table start to wobble one way and then the other and Awonder was on one side of the wobble. I had visions of the next issue of Chess Life with the headline ‘World Champion injured in Marshalltown’ and ran over to steady the table saying ‘Sorry guys, this isn’t the way you want to get on cover of Chess Life!’ They thought that was pretty funny and started laughing and if Awonder Liang becomes THE world champion I am going to claim some of the credit for not letting this big round table in Marshalltown, Iowa fall on him when he was ten years old.

  Aside from luck and stories to tell a big thing that makes a tournament or event memorable is when people step up and invest their unique talents in unexpected ways. Cliff Yates’ wife works at the Salvation Army and Cliff is a chess player who came to my club once ten years ago. Cliff keeps up with chess and knew about the tournament and decided to get a USCF membership and play in the reserve section after a 15 year hiatus from tournament chess. Cliff is also a photographer and brought his camera (which had at least a three foot lens). After his games, Cliff took pictures of the players and that night assembled this incredible video of the tournament. I’ve never seen anything like it and think Cliff could make a living making videos of chess tournaments. His video captured the main thing of what made this tournament so memorable - a great bunch of people getting together having a good time at a chess tournament!

The first thing my wife told me when she saw this video was 'Where are you?' and then Cliff told me on Thursday that he wished he included a picture of me in the video. I told them both the same thing - 'I'm all over it'.