Saturday, August 13, 2016

2016 Twin Ports Open - The Day I Couldn't Lose

If the awesome views of Lake Superior a block away from the 2016 Twin Ports Open weren't inspiring enough, how about playing just a few feet away from some of the top chess players in the country in the picture on the right? From front to back : GM Alex Yermolinsky (blue shirt with hat), IM John Bartholomew (red shirt back to picture), and GM Bryan Smith (black shirt).

  I had a good night’s sleep in my gigantic room at the Suites Hotel in Duluth, Minnesota on Friday night and woke up at 4am like I do every other day of the year but without any beagles to walk and the tournament starting at a rather late 10:30 I forced myself to take a few naps before heading the Hotel’s excellent and free breakfast featuring scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, and waffles in addition to the more continental breakfast items. I was interrupted during one of my naps when Tim knocked on the door to tell me he was told he had only reserved his room for one day. Luckily my room was big enough for the Brady Bunch to have a reunion show so I had a roommate for the day.

  Each player would have 90 minutes per game at the Twin Ports Open (with the exception of the first round which gave the players 60 minutes each in return for the later start time). I hadn’t played in a chess tournament since April’s Okoboji Blitz and that tournament ended less than an hour after it started. My last long tournament was South Dakota's Sioux Falls Open in September 2015 which was a five round weekend tournament similar to this Twin Ports Open but not exactly the same. Both tournaments gave each player 90 minutes per game but while The Sioux Falls Open had a five second delay before any time ran off the clocks the Twin Ports Open gave each player an extra 30 seconds on their clock after each move. This is called an increment and I'd never played in a tournament that used one before. On the way to Duluth Tim explained that with an increment there was no use in trying to run an opponent out of time because if they got down to even a few seconds a few quick moves could get them out of any desperate time trouble. Another difference between the Twin Ports Open and the Sioux Falls Open was that while in South Dakota the reserve section was for players rated below 1400 (which put me and my 1700ish rating in the Open section), the line of demarcation at Twin Ports was 1800 (with a third section for players rated below 1000). I had no desire to compete against players classes above me in the hopes of scoring an upset so I signed up for the reserve section which meant I would be one of the higher rated players instead of in the middle of the pack like at Sioux Falls.

  I had some meager goals for the tournament. My first goal was to take at least a minute a move once I stopped playing the automatic opening moves I’ve used for years. I was fairly successful last year taking my time but with the increment on top of an hour and a half to start with there was no reason to make any hasty moves.

  I’ve been primarily studying tactics and doing tons of tactics puzzles on (which are timed and objectively hard but repeat themselves on my iPod app) and (which are untimed but do not repeat). In addition I’ve been working through the same Chess Steps workbooks I’ve had my students study from, finishing Step 4 the week before the tournament. I felt like I was as tactically sharp as I’ve ever been which made my second goal for this tournament to play aggressively. It sounds easy but after spending decades playing for the simplest positions possible I continually find myself preparing moves I can make immediately and backing up my pieces instead of moving forward especially against better players.

  My third goal was less meager. I wanted to finish in the top three to earn a cash prize. I cashed at the Jackson Open last year and since that tournament was open to players rated under 2000 and my section at Twin Ports limited to players rated under 1800 there was no reason I couldn’t cash as long as I was playing well. And I felt that I had prepared myself to play well for this tournament.

  I ran into Dane Mattson at the breakfast bar and had a light meal of toast and hash browns with him and Minnesota master Wilson Gibbons while Dane asked us about a weird paring situation he encountered in a recent tournament. Pretty soon Dane had to go run the tournament and Wilson and I discussed a number of interesting directing and organizing points that have occurred in deciding the qualifiers for the Minnesota State Championships and soon enough it was time to take the elevator to the top floor and start playing chess.

  The tournament had over 100 players which was a record. The under 1000 section was on the first floor with the reserve and open sections on the 7th floor. There were over three dozen players in both the open and reserve section. The open section was stacked with two grandmasters (Alex Yermolinsky and Bryan Smith), women’s grandmaster Camilla Baginskaite, international master John Bartholomew and 8 other players rated over the national master threshold of 2200. I was the 7th highest rated player in the reserve section which meant that I should be playing lower rated players in the first two rounds and I needed to play for wins in both these games.

Serena French
  My first round opponent was Serena French, a teenager whose brother was playing in the open section. Every player is different but I always go by the following guidelines when playing youngsters: a) Don’t let them attack because that’s likely what they’re best at, b) Use a lot of time and try to project an attitude of infinite patience because children tend to get fidgety and impatient waiting for their opponent to move, and c) An adult is more likely to outplay the child in the endgame because children tend to win their games with attacks, not endings and will not have the adult’s endgame experience. I wanted to follow these tenets but not at the expense of my desire to play aggressively as Serena and I shook hands and started the 2016 Twin Ports Chess Open.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  A long and difficult game in which Serena played well enough to give herself some winning chances. My aggression in opening up the middle paid off when Serena fell apart around move 25 but I continually missed the c5 break and gave away my advantage when I finally did play c5. With the increment I used well over an hour for the game with my biggest think being 10 minutes on move 14 when I played f4 to open the game up. I was a little rusty but never in any danger of losing. The biggest problem I had was with the playing room, which was arranged with the top five boards having their own tables in the front of the room and the rest of the players in long rows across the width of the room. Without knowing how many players were going to show up on the day of the tournament, Dane Mattson and Dane Zagar were prepared for a record number of players but there was an extra row of empty tables that led to a cramped situation. I was on the end of one the rows so I could easily get up and walk around but the player behind me was plus-sized, leaving me a choice between pulling my chair up and banging knees with Serena or bumping my chair against the player in back of me. Then whenever one of the players down the row wanted to get up they would squeeze behind me to get through with some of the players putting their hands on my back to steady themselves. When I left the room after the game Dane Mattson came up to me to apologize for the cramped quarters before I had a chance to mention it and let me know that they were going to remove the extra tables before the next round.

As someone who has directed over 300 chess tournaments I know not everything goes as planned but taking care of issues as they occur is what makes for a successful tournament. When Dane saw the tournament room was tight on space for the first round in the picture on the left he rectified it in time for the second round as you can see in the picture on the right. The organization of the Twin Ports Open gets the highest marks from this player/director!

Sophia Sheehan
  Tim won his first game also and we headed down the street to the Subway for a light quick lunch since there was less than an hour before the 2pm start time for round 2. The Subway was busy but the workers were plowing through the crowd in record pace. We had our sandwiches within 10 minutes, ate, and were back at the tournament easily by 2pm. Dane was true to his word as the extra row of tables were gone from the tournament room with the remaining tables rearranged to eliminate the spacing problems. It was great that a master level player like Dane who normally gets to sit at the top board tables in chess tournaments was looking out for the playing conditions of the lower rated players. It’s no surprise that this tournament is getting over 100 players with that attention to detail.

  While Tim had a tough game ahead against grandmaster Bryan Smith, I was matched up against another teenager, Sophia Sheehan. Sophia’s mother and brother were playing in the open section. Sophia was rated 100 points higher than Serena and had defeated the lowest rated player in the section in the first round. I recalled my advice about playing against young players and reminded myself to be aggressive as we sat down for our second round game.

  An unexpectedly easy game that only took 90 minutes. After the game Sophia said she hadn’t been practicing and in fact this was her first tournament since last year’s Twin Ports Open and she dropped out of the tournament after a third round loss. I was feeling pretty good after having swept the first two games and still had 3 and a half hours before the 7pm game.

Alex Braun
   Tim was still playing so I took an elevator ride to the ground floor, went outside, and snapped some pictures for my blog and some facebook posts. Then I headed back to the room. I knew my first game had some rough spots and my second game was played pretty well but I didn’t want to cloud my mind with proof positive of my mistakes so I resisted the temptation to run the games through my computer and instead took a nap. A little while later Tim came in. The grandmaster he was playing hung a piece and Tim ground out the win for his second ever grandmaster scalp. Tim's reward for his victory was to play the other grandmaster in the evening round. Tim was more interested in gathering his thoughts instead of celebrating halfway through the tournament so we relaxed in the room until a few minutes before 7 and it was time to head back to the 7th floor for the night time round.

  In the third round I had the white pieces against Alex Braun, a tall young blond haired guy from North Dakota who wouldn’t be out of place in a surfer movie. Alex was the second highest player in the tournament and the two players he beat were a bit stronger than the two players I beat. I had the White pieces and was determined to be aggressive and try to make it a perfect day.

  A very tense struggle that ended around 10:30. At the time I thought I must have missed a winning shot that would have put this game in my personal Mt. Rushmore of chess games but Mr. Fritz didn’t find a kill shot any more than I did. When I got to the room, Tim was already there with former Iowan chess player Nate Adamson who drove all the way to Twin Ports from North Dakota with his friends Scott and my opponent Alex. Tim was going over Nate’s game when Alex and Scott came in. Tim showed us his round 2 grandmaster scalp and then looked at my game with Alex, knowing instinctively that there was no kill shot but showing us both how we could have scared up extra attacking chances.

  All in all I am very pleased with this game. It was silly to trade off my bishops but I played a long evening game with a stronger player less than half my age and more than held my own instead of wearing down and wearing out. When I compare that with how I was so tired after two games in the 2012 and 2013 Jackson Opens that I withdrew I’m thrilled at my increased energy and stamina.

  After we had gone over the games I was starving since I only had a couple of apples since my Subway sub 10 hours before. Just like the Okoboji Open players gather on Saturday night at a Mexican restaurant for a group dinner, the Duluth crowd got together across the street at Grizzly’s Wood Fired Grill to eat, talk, and play chess. Tim and I headed over, I treated myself to a big steak, had a great time hanging out, and wandered back to the hotel fat and happy and full of steak around 1am, undefeated in Duluth and having a chance to win the tournament with a good Sunday performance.

What do chess players do after a full day of playing chess or directing chess tournaments? Play chess of course! Except for this chess player who you might see on the left relaxing with a steak after a Saturday of 2 wins, 1 draw and zero losses.
*Pictures courtesy of Dane Zagar, Dane Mattson, and the 2016 Twin Ports Open.