Friday, November 4, 2016

The Vacation That Wasn't

  I had it all planned out. I normally use up my vacation time at the end of the year but at my new assignment a person I am backing up is taking the month of December off which left me taking the first week in November off along with Thanksgiving week and a couple of days the following week in order to use up my vacation time. Matt and Ben are coming home from school for Thanksgiving week but Kathy and I planned to take a short trip to Chicago this week. We were going to visit the famous Shedd Aquarium, take a boat ride on Lake Michigan, and visit my friend Wilson. I even found a Tuesday night chess speed chess tournament to play in 5 miles away from the Holiday Inn in Skokie we were going to stay in.

   We had arranged for Daisy and Baxter to stay in the Happy Tails facility in Marshalltown. Happy Tails allows all the dogs to hang out in a large common area and in order to stay there, Daisy and Baxter had to pass a ‘sociability’ test. Kathy and I thought Daisy and Baxter would be rejected since they are always so yappy around other dogs but they passed with flying colors which both surprised and delighted us. One of our friends was going to watch Harry and the rest of the pets and we were on our way or so we thought.

  On Tuesday I was petting Daisy before going to work and I noticed that she had some dark goo in her ears. It looked like when Tuffy had ear mites a long time ago. Kathy took Daisy to the vet, who said that it was just an ear infection and would clear up in a few days with the right medicine. The trip was still on and we were scheduled to leave on Saturday but on Friday morning Daisy had some yellow goo in her eye and was back at the vet. This time the vet said that Daisy had an eye infection and sinus congestion and shouldn’t be boarded because she was contagious. And that was the end of our trip to Chicago.

  I still had the week off and suddenly I had a lot of free time on my hands. I planned to write a couple of blogs, eat at some local places I don’t normally get to, take Kathy to see the Jack Reacher movie 'Never Go Back' (an OK action flick better left for Redbox), and play plenty of 1 minute chess. When I set my personal best on the one-minute chess pool on the Internet Chess Club on October 8th, I switched my attention to the FIDE Online Arena chess site. Why the FIDE chess site instead of chess.com, lichess.org, and the many other chess sites that are available? Since FIDE is the official world chess federation the ratings in the FIDE Online Arena are official and so are the titles they give out for online chess achievements. The titles are called ‘The Lower Rating Band’ which means they are meant for lower rated players like me. I liked the idea of getting an official FIDE title and thought it would be a fitting meager accomplishment to my many other meager chess accomplishments so last month I headed to the FIDE website and downloaded the FIDE Online arena software.

  The Arena software is written in Java by a company called Premium Chess. The software is functional enough even though it doesn’t offer features like chess variants and inspecting other players’ games that seem to be standard on most websites. One inane feature it does have is prerecorded applause that plays at a super loud level after you win a game. I signed up for the free membership and played a few sample games. There are only a few hundred players online at a time as opposed to the thousands on other websites so it is slightly harder to get a game. While playing I noticed I couldn’t premove (make a move in advance to save time). I went to the preferences page to allow premoves and found out saving preferences was restricted to paid members. This is quite a disadvantage since premoving and automatically promoting a pawn to a queen (instead of picking the queen from a menu) saves important seconds on the clock in a one minute game. After a few days of playing with this disadvantage I paid for an Online Arena membership on October 12th and had access to the full features of the Online Arena. Once I was able to auto-promote pawns to queens and make premoves my Online Arena results improved noticeably and with my new membership I was able to play official FIDE games and go after one of the lower rated titles. My rating in the unofficial (or training) games was around 1850 which told me that the level of competition in the Online Arena was a cut below that of the Internet Chess Club where my all time high rating is 1620 and a cut below lichess.org where my one minute rating is nearly 2000.

  I had a bit of trouble figuring out how to get rated challenges and how tournaments worked as far as ratings and when I had a question I would send an email to the Premium Chess company and would receive a detailed response the next day. I quickly found out that the players in the FIDE rated pool are stronger than the training section I was restricted to before I paid for the membership as my 1850 training rating translated to around 1600 in the ‘bullet’ section for games with less than 3 minutes per side.

  The guidelines for getting a FIDE online title are very clear. You need to maintain a rating in Bullet Chess (under 3 minutes), Blitz Chess (3 to 10 minutes), or Rapid Chess (10 minutes or more) for a consecutive number of games. The titles (and ratings) are Arena Grandmaster (2000), Arena International Master (1700), and Arena Master (1400) and the number of games are 50 for Rapid, 100 for Blitz, and 150 for Bullet. It seemed I would easily be able to maintain the level of 1400, need serious improvement to get to much less maintain a rating of 2000, but the 1700 level would be something I could attain. I managed to nudge my rating over 1700 on October 15th and the counter started on my title chase. It looked to be smooth sailing as my rating climbed to 1779 after 27 games. I wasn’t playing especially well but no matter how inept I played my opponent’s surpassed my ineptitude. These two games are a prime example.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net
  One attractive feature the FIDE platform has that the other platforms don’t is the ability to request a match instead of a single game. I found that issuing an open challenge for a 2 game match brought a greater response than a request for a single game, probably due to the inherent fairness of playing both White and Black against the same opponent. I had a couple of instances where lower rated players would win the first game and then cancel out of the match. I just put those players on my ‘ignore’ list and moved on. An added bonus was that a tied match was broken by an Armageddon game where White had 1 minute and 5 seconds while Black had 1 minute but would win the match in case of a draw. The cool thing was while the Armageddon game didn’t count for rating it did count towards the 150 games needed for the title. I was holding my own and staying well above the 1700 mark until I hit a slump thanks to my opponents failing to match my ineptitude like these two games that pushed my rating down to 1731 with 61 games still to go.

  On Saturday morning my rating was at 1734 with 36 games left and with no trip to Chicago on the schedule I started playing more one minute chess. I played a few games in the morning and after lunch got into a bad groove that dropped me to 1706 with 12 games needed for the title. I started a match against Leonardo Datola from Italy who was rated 60 points less than me. I won the first game of the match but lost the second game and after winning the tiebreak game I had lost 2 points to leave me at 1704 with 9 games left. Leonardo wanted to play another match and I agreed. I again won the first game but lost the second game. I lost the tiebreak game and was now down to 1702 with 6 games left. Leonardo wanted another match and I went for it. With no margin for error I managed to win both games on time and got my rating up to 1710 with 4 games left. Leonardo wanted another match and since I was now on a winning streak I agreed knowing a sweep would clinch the title for me.

  Two sloppy games but two wins nonetheless. Leonardo wanted yet another match. I needed 2 more games for my title so I agreed and played my two 'best' games of the day and won both to get my Arena International Master title with 26 points to spare!

  Well, almost get my title. While the lower band titles are ostensibly meant for lower rated players to ‘provide motivation to local chess communities with important activity’ (as stated on the FIDE web site) I suspect it is primarily a money-making idea for FIDE since the price for my ‘title’ was 30 Euros (or $33.73 in US dollars - the price list is here) and there was a convenient link right in my profile to click on. I clicked on the link and 30 Euros (or $33.73 in US dollars) later I was officially a FIDE Arena International Master with an entire week of vacation left.

  I don’t feel very much different with my new FIDE Arena International Master title except for feeling 30 Euros (or $33.73 in US dollars) lighter in my wallet. I don’t consider it a waste of time or money either since by the end of the 150 games I had to stare down the prospect of failure which is always a fun thing to look back on as long as one is successful in the staring down and at least I can say I did something on my vacation. The FIDE title is one of those things like the Broken Pawn’s Chess Journalist of America award that sounds really good in casual conversation with non-chess players as long as I don’t provide too many of the details (like the self-nominated aspect of the CJA award with only 2 nominees). Similarly if the topic of being a FIDE Arena International Master comes up I doubt I’ll be showing off too many of the games I played in the three week journey to the title.