After two blog posts about my best tournaments ever, which were probably met with yawns and indifference by most of my readers, it occurred to me that it might be more entertaining to write about my worst tournaments ever.
I don’t know about you, but I have a very selective memory for unpleasant experiences. I do my best to forget about them, often with considerable success. Just ask my wife. Every time she asks me to do a chore that I don’t want to do, I forget it.
But in the Internet era, nothing is ever truly forgotten. It was an easy matter to get on the USCF website, look up my tournament history and figure out what were my worst tournaments ever. The following two malodorous stinkers stood out far above (below?) the rest:
- The 1994 Columbus Invitational, at which I scored 3-6 and dropped 48 rating points (from 2221 to 2173), and
- The 2010 U.S. Open, where I scored 4-5 and gagged up 47 rating points (from 2136 to 2089).
What is the anatomy of an epic fail? Well, for one thing, it helps to play in a LONG tournament. Note that both of the above tournaments were nine-rounders. If you play a five-round tournament and lose 5 points per game, you’ve only lost 25 rating points. That’s bad, but not an epic fail. But if you go into a death spiral in a long tournament and can’t pull out of it, you have the makings of a true rating catastrophe.
The problem is especially bad in a round robin, like the Columbus Invitational. In a Swiss system you will eventually hit your level of incompetence and find someone you can beat. In a round robin, you can keep playing strong players game after game, and if you’re in poor form you can lose a pile of rating points.
In the Columbus tournament I had a couple of things working against me. First, I had just hit my all-time rating high of 2257 earlier that year, and I was probably overdue for some regression to the mean. Second, just a couple weeks before the tournament I had experienced the worst professional trauma of my life, when I was unexpectedly denied tenure at Kenyon College. Being denied tenure is like being fired, only more genteel. So I was absolutely in no state to think about chess. I think that one lesson is that when disasters are happening in your non-chess life, you can’t expect to play on the chessboard as if nothing has happened.
The third thing working against me in Columbus was an old, old enemy — time trouble. In several of my games I had perfectly good positions after 30 or 35 moves and then botched them in time pressure. The worst game of all was the one I played against Chuck Diebert (which I mentioned two entries ago) where I played a beautiful endgame but used up all my time in the process, and then hung a rook on move 83 — “practically the only way to lose,” I wrote in my diary. “It was so impulsive that it was almost as if somebody else made the move for me.” In fact, that was another recurring theme — playing too impulsively. As the tournament went on, I kept taking more and more risks. It was like a baseball player trying to break out of a slump by trying to hit a home run, instead of just hitting the ball back up the middle.
So there’s your recipe for disaster: 1) Play in a long tournament. 2) Be in a poor psychological state before the tournament. 3) Get in time trouble a lot. 4) Try to break out of your rut with heroic moves instead of good sound chess.
As for the 2010 US Open, it definitely had the first two parts of the recipe. I had just gotten to the end of a huge work deadline. Not only didn’t I have any time to prepare for the chess tournament, I didn’t even have time to think about the upcoming trip until about two hours before I left.
Other details were a little bit different. I don’t think that time trouble was much of a factor. A bigger factor was that my opponents played well, especially the three (probably underrated) teenagers who beat me. “I waited in vain for the typical mistakes that class B and A players would usually make,” I lamented in my diary.
I did get kind of frustrated near the end. The last round in particular was a game I wish I could take back, a King’s Gambit where I sacrificed a rook more on the basis of wishful thinking than careful analysis. “Oh, he’s just a class B player, so I’ll figure out some way to win.” Memo to self: Even a class B player can beat you if you give him an extra rook. That game, at least, fits part (4) of my recipe to a tee.
The funny thing about these epic fails is that I’m not sure that any single tournament makes a very big difference in the long run. If I had sat out the Columbus Invitational, would I be rated 48 points higher today? No. If I hadn’t gotten frustrated in the final round of the U.S. Open, would I be a different player now? Probably not. The good tournaments and the bad tournaments are all part of one edifice, and the bottom brick in the wall is just as important as the capstone at the top.