Round-Robin Bliss

by admin on October 22, 2007

Yesterday I played the first round of what will probably be my last tournament of 2007 – the Santa Cruz Cup. This is a delightful rarity in American chess, a European-style round-robin tournament. Most rated American tournaments are run in the (ironically named) “Swiss system” format, which is a great way to take a lot of players and come up with a winner in just a few rounds. But the Swiss system has certain well-known drawbacks: it tends to produce lots of noncompetitive games in the early rounds, followed by grandmaster draws in the final rounds. It is, in short, a great way to run a big-money tournament if you don’t have a sponsor. But it’s a lousy way to actually find out who the best player is.

By contrast, a round-robin tournament can have only a few players, and it takes a large number of rounds to compete. It is only feasible if you have a sponsor putting up the prize money, or if you have no prize money at all. In America, where there are no sponsors for chess (Why??? I don’t know!), a big-money round robin is impossible. But it’s still possible to run the second type, the no-money tournament. That is the Santa Cruz Cup.

A local player, Eric Fingal, began running the Santa Cruz Cup four years ago, inviting eight of the best local players to play a round robin. We’ve tinkered with the format a bit over the years. This year, the round robin phase will be the “qualifier.” After it’s over, there will be a “playoff” round, in which the top four finishers play a quad to determine the 1st through 4th places, while the bottom four finishers play for 5th through 8th. This format will keep the suspense going until the very last round.

I’ve been lucky enough to win 2 1/2 of the last three Santa Cruz Cups. However, they’ve all been extremely competitive. Two years ago I won through a series of absolute miracles. Last year I tied with the top-rated player, Juan Diego Perea, and we went through a grueling round of playoffs. First we split two 25-minute games, then we split two 10-minute games, and then we split two 5-minute games — with Black winning every time! At that point we were supposed to have an “Armageddon” playoff, White with 6 minutes versus Black with 5 minutes and draw odds. But we refused to play it. Given that Black had won every game, it seemed likely that the result of the tournament would be decided by the coin flip! Instead we agreed to be co-champions.

That brings us to this year. My first game was blissfully short. My opponent, a class B player named Ken Seehart, was a little bit rusty and made a mistake in the opening. He tried to make up for it by playing a piece sacrifice that looked dangerous, but really wasn’t. Then he improved his position even further by blundering a queen. Oops! As he said, this move was “rather ineffective.”

Amazingly, this was my fifth game against the French Defense in seven games! Last weekend in Reno, I had White in four games, and every one was a French Defense. I knew that Ken was a French player, too, and so I thought about playing something other than 1. e4, just for variety’s sake. But finally I decided to stick with what I knew. Looks like I made the right decision this time.

I’m glad to be off to a good start, but there’s a long way to go.

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