What a Chess Tournament Looks Like


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.


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A friend posted this article on his Facebook page. You can imagine my surprise when I realized your fifth round opponent was me!

Your description of the game is accurate. In retrospect, I should have avoided the rook endgame but I like endgames and despite what Tarrasch and the Soviets have said â they aren't all drawn. I've even won a few when I am a pawn ahead.

My plan on entering the endgame was to keep you distracted by my outside passer and slowly encroach on the King Side. What I had underestimated is how distracted I would be by your passed c pawn.

Even with the aid of my computer it is hard to find clear mistakes made by either of us after the opening debacle. (Be careful about aiming for a Yugoslav attack against the Accelerated dragon).

Winning the a2 pawn may have been my biggest mistake. It was better to keep the two bishops. Then your position would have been awkward. I could have avoided trading the 2nd bishop on move 23 but it is hard to see how I can win the B+R vs. B+R endgame without eventually trading down.

So it is comforting that the mistakes were of the instructive kind rather than the 'how could I be so stupid' kindâ and congratulations on your accurate defense.

P.S. if you have any ideas of how I could have 'caused you more trouble' I'm all ears. Please Send the analysis to my email address. I couldn't find anything with the computer or after consulting a 2400 rated friend.

By Brian Karen (not verified) on 23 Feb 2011 #permalink

The team receives one point for each win, half a point for each draw, and a goose egg for a loss.

Eggs? Mmm⦠sounds like an incentive to lose!

Hi Brian. Thanks for stopping by. It was nice to meet you at the tournament. Incidentally, the photo of my teammates was taken during round five, when we were playing your team. If you look carefully, I think you can just make out your hand.

I have poor results on the white side of the Accelerated Dragon, so I really have to hunker down and study it a bit more. I've even lost the exchange on d2 before. Along those lines, I think you're right that the B+R endgame is not objectively any better for you than the pure rook endgame, but you need to factor in my sometimes appalling tactical vision. More pieces means more things for me to overlook!

In the pure rook endgame, I was thinking that after 30. Rb1 e5+ 31. Kd3 Ra3+ 32. Ke4, maybe 32. ... Rc3 wasn't the best move. During the game I thought this was your chance to get the a-pawn rolling with 32. ... a5. It seems that 33. Rb7 Rc3 is quite strong for you, so I was getting nervous. Objectively it's probably still drawn, but I felt it gave me more to worry about.

Then, after 33. Rb4 Kc5 34. Rb7 Rxc4+ 35. Kxe5, I thought that 35. ... Rh4 wasn't so hot. The a-pawn looks very scary to me after 35. ... a5 36. Rxh7 a4, and the computer seems to think you're winning, though maybe it would change that assessment if I gave it longer to analyze.

Thanks for the interesting game. Perhaps we'll play again some time.


Thanks for the feedback. I did look at those lines during the game. I can see how they would have worried you but they were worrisome to me as well! My general conclusion was that even if I was fortunate enough to queen the A pawn you would be in time to sac your rook and either force a draw or even win with the passers on the other side. I had to take into account my time pressure which resulted from looking at similar lines which were hard to assess without the computer. Even with the computer it is not so easy :).

It was a good fighting game. You certainly deserved the draw.

I entered the variation after 35.a5 36.Rxh7 a4 into stockfish and it did think I was winning but only because it did not understand that white is willing to sac the rook. So when I changed some of white's move it could only draw as Black. For example 32..a5 33.Rb6+(an important move as it allows White's king to take e5 and avoid be shutting in by an eventual Rc5) Kc5 34. Rb7 a4 35. Rxh7 Kxc4 36.Rc7+ Kb3 37. Kxe5 Kb2 38.F4 Rh3 39. Kf6 a3 40.Ra7 Rxh2 41.Kxg6 and White will sac his rook and draw with the other pawn.

By Brian Karen (not verified) on 24 Feb 2011 #permalink

Sorry, I crossed lines. The variation I entered above is after your suggested 32..a5

For the line with 35. a5 Stockfish and I found 36.Rxh7 a4 37 Rg7 a3 38 Rxg6 Kb4 with a draw This is exactly the line I was worried about. I knew White could draw and worried that there might even be a finesse whereby he could sac one pawn and win with the other pawn. It looks silly to think that White can win that I have the position on my computer but I had to visualize this during the game with about 5 minutes on the clock. So I decided to go for the simplest variation and resign (pun) myself to a draw.

So the main point I can take from this game is sometimes its better to avoid capturing a free pawn and keep the two bishops. No doubt, I will play a game in the future which teaches me it is better to give up the two bishops and go for an extra pawn in the rook ending. That is what makes chess such a challenge :)>.

By Brian Karen (not verified) on 24 Feb 2011 #permalink

I enjoy the game but never took it to this level. Sounds like a lot of serious fun.

It would be interesting to see how chess is approached by the various player mindsets. Is it abstract to the degree that any one method can be used securely against certain others, or is it purely mechanical? Any suggested reading out there that might cover this? (I've read 2 or 3 chess books and they tended to be mechanical.)

Brian --

Thanks for the additional variations to ponder. During the game I considered the possibility that, if you allowed me to eat the kingside so that you could push your a-pawn, I might still be able to draw by sacking my rook. I was finding those lines hard to calculate at the board, though, which is why I was nervous. The whole game certainly provides a lot of food for thought!

Colin --

I'm not sure if it's the kind of thing you have in mind, but last year a book was published called Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind by Diego Raskin-Gutman. It's been sitting on my shelf ever since it came out, but I haven't actually read it yet.


I am curious--can you give a rough estimate about what percentage of time a player rated 1900 will defeat a player rated 1600? I have no idea if it is 75%, 90%, 99.9%, ...