The US Amateur Team East is one of the biggest and most exciting chess tournaments on the calendar. The comraderie of playing as part of a team, coupled with the complete absence of cash prizes, makes for a generally mellow experience. Having not played in a year I was a bit worried about some Caissic corrosion, but the first round helped me warm up.
This game was a reminder of how much fun chess can be when your opponent makes little attempt to cut across your plans. As usual we were paired down in the first round, meaning we were playing a team that was substantially lower rated than we are. My opponent was rated around 1600. (My rating is just over 1900).
This came out of a Pirc Defense. I was white. Passive play by my opponent allowed me to build up on the king side. I had already sacrificed a pawn and was looking for the knockout punch. Towards that end I spent a lot of time looking at 27. Nxg6!. In the end I talked myself out of it, especially since it seemed that the more prosaic 27. Qh3 was also winning, but with less risk. The computer agrees that my move is winning, but likes the knight sac even more. My opponent did not choose the best defense, and play continued 27. … Nxg5 28. Qg4 Nh7 29. Nxg6 Rxf1+ 30. Bxf1 Qg5+ 31. Qxg5 Nxg5 32. Rxg5 Kh6, bringing about this position:
There has been a flurry of exchanges and it is time to take stock. White is now up a piece for a pawn. The position is thus winning, but black can still make trouble with his mobile queenside pawns and potentially active pieces. Happily, white has one last finesse that puts down all resistance: 33. Nf7+ Kg7 34. Ne7+ Kxf7 35. Nxc6, and now things really are over.
Everyone plays as part of a team of four. That does not mean that the four of you huddle by the board to decide your moves! In each round your team plays four individual games of chess, with no conferring among the team members. The team receives one point for each win, half a point for each draw, and a goose egg for a loss. Whichever team gets the most points wins the match! Here are my guys:
Starting with the fellow closest to the camera, that’s Ned, Doug and Curt. I’ve been playing chess with these guys for twenty years, since I was in high school. Hanging out with them between rounds is way more fun than actually playing the game!
Another fun aspect of the tournament are all the celebrities you see:
The fellow second from the camera, sitting down wearing a grey shirt, is Jon Edwards, formerly the US Correspondence (postal) chess champion. He’s another one I’ve known for twenty years, ever since we played together at the Princeton Chess Club back when I was in high school. He taught me a lot of what I know about chess. His games anthology is a truly excellent and helpful book, with lots of interesting games and clear annotations. His opponent, the older gentleman in the blue shirt standing by the board, is Arthur Bisguier, who was the U. S. Chess Champion in 1954. Very cool.
After a loss to an expert in the second round I managed a comfortable third-round draw against a Russian gentleman rated over 2300:
I was playing white and it’s my move. This came out of the venerable Dragon Sicilian. We ended up playing one of those lines where all the minor pieces come off the board very quickly. It was tempting to pick off the free pawn with 19. Qxa7, but that would be a serious mistake. Black would reply with 19. … Rc5, followed by placing the queen on f5, or perhaps b5. Suddenly he’s incredibly active, my d-pawn is almost certainly falling, and I would mostly be left to ponder the sins of excessive materialism. Instead I played the sensible 19. Re1 and play continued 19. … b6 20. Qe4 Rc7 21. g4. The position is quite dead, and we decided to call it a day.
Of course, in between rounds it is important to visit the bookstore:
Chess books sometimes have interesting titles. One little volume was called Attacking the Spanish. If you know nothing about chess you could be forgiven for thinking that’s an incitement to ethnic violence. But fear not! We’re talking about a particular opening, the Spanish Game, aka the Ruy Lopez. The book was recommending a method for playing against this very popular opening. Here are some other interesting titles I noticed:
Separate from the bookstore was the equipment store, where you could by sets, boards, clocks and other paraphernalia no chessplayer can live without.
Who knew they made chess pieces in so many interesting colors?
In round four we got paired down again. My opponent was kind enough to blunder a piece right out of the opening, so I got a freebie. The rest of the gang took care of business as well, and our reward was getting paired way up for the dreaded nine AM game the next day. My opponent was rated a whisker under 2100:
This time it was the Accelerated Dragon. I made a classic psychological error in the above position. My opponent had just played 12. … Nd5. I panicked when I noticed that if the bishop moves off the h6-c1 diagonal then black has 13. … Bh6, winning the exchange thanks to the pin of the rook against the king. Moving quickly, I decided I had to go in for 13. Bg5, but after 13. … f6 14. c4 fxg5 15. cxd5 cxd5 16. Rxd5 black is clearly on top. His pawns are pretty ugly, but his slicing bishops dominate the board and his rooks have little trouble joining the attack.
Had I managed to calm down a bit I might have noticed that white is just fine after the natural 13. Bc5. The point is that after 13. … Bh6 14. c4 Bxd2+ 15. Kxd2 black has a problem. If he moves the knight away white wins back the exchange with 16. Bxe7, since 16. … Re8 allows the fork 17. Nf6+. Your classier chessplayers don’t miss things like this, which is one of the reasons I’ve never managed to get my rating much higher than it currently is. Play gets enormously complicated after 15. … f5 16. cxd5 fxe4 17. dxc6, but the computer is optimistic about white’s position.
My opponent did not find the best way of prosecuting the attack, and I managed to bail out into an endgame a pawn down:
Here I felt my best chance was to trade the bishops, since every Russian schoolboy knows that all rook endings are drawn. So I was happy when my opponent played the obliging 23. … Bc4, when after 24. Bxc4+ Rxc4 25. Kd3 Ra4 we have reached a rook endgame that is very difficult for black to win. He still has his extra pawn, but my passed c-pawn and well-placed king provide real counterplay. Black’s pawns are fairly weak, and if he gets too uppity with his king he will find my rook invading and picking off the loose buttons. I think he could have caused more trouble than he did, but in the end I was able to hold the draw.
Everyone is expected to bring his own chess set to these events. Most people have inexpensive plastic sets, but some bring out the fancy shmancy equipment:
Black’s rook looks a little offside there.
Nor can we forget the annual bughouse tournament. Teams of two play two games simultaneously, with the partners having different colors on the boards. If I am playing white, say, then whenever I capture a black piece from my opponent I hand it to my partner. He can then place that piece on essentially any square (their are a few exceptions that need not concern us), in lieu of an ordinary move. The two games are rigidly timed, so that each of the four players gets five minutes for the whole game. Here’s what it looks like.
By the way, your eyes are not deceiving you. That person in the blue shirt is an actual woman.
All in all, I had a great time. It’s always nice to see the old gang, and I think mostly played pretty well. Except for the last round, of course, where I lost to a little kid who was about eye-level with the pieces. Whatever.