Western States Open, day 1

by admin on October 18, 2008

While Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik are battling it out for world supremacy in chess, 245 chess players have come to Reno with a more modest goal — supremacy in the Western U.S. This is a very modest turnout by the usual standards of the Western States Open; usually they draw at least 300 players. Tournament director Jerry Weikel blamed it on the bad economy. I hope he’s right, because this is my #1 favorite tournament of the year and I would hate to see it get in trouble. It seemed to me that the crowds were smaller than usual everywhere I went. My wife, Kay, even commented on that as we ate dinner last night at the Silver Legacy Casino: “Where are all the people?”

Before the first round I chatted with Vinay Bhat, who is both the newest grandmaster in the U.S. (hooray, Vinay!) and also one of the newest chess bloggers. (You can take a look at his blog by clicking here.) He is also the latest recipient of the Samford Chess Fellowship, which motivated the name of his blog, “An Unemployed Fellow.”

Vinay said that it’s definitely a change to have chess be the one thing that you are supposed to do every day, instead of something that you fit in around your other responsibilities. So far he doesn’t have a particular training program, but he has been working on firming up his openings. In the past, he said, a lot of his opening preparation has been for specific opponents, so that he knows certain lines very deeply. But if his opponent plays some other variation, he has to kind of make it up. He does not yet have a coach or trainer, but of course he is working with the Mechanics Institute brain trust of John Donaldson, Josh Friedel, and David Pruess quite a bit as part of being on the San Francisco Mechanics chess team.

One of the great things about the Samford Fellowship is that it makes it very much easier to travel to chess tournaments. Vinay explained how it works. The fellowship pays you a flat salary of $1500 per month ($18,000 per year), plus it pays for up to $18,000 in expenses (travel, books, coaching, you name it). So Vinay is planning to hit the international circuit next year, playing in the Gibraltar Telecom tournament and also probably the Aeroflot Open in Moscow. He’s looking forward to that, although Josh Friedel and David Pruess had a less than pleasant experience there and won’t be going back. Part of the problem they encountered was too many strong Russian players. But also I think there was a bit of culture shock. Vinay mentioned one incident where a restaurant would not allow David to take his coat to the table, and David eventually walked out in protest. I can completely imagine how this would happen. It’s not as if Russia is a police state that is looking to pounce on anybody who wears a coat at the dinner table. It’s just part of their culture. You always check your coat when you go to a restaurant, a show, or any public place. Eating with your coat on is simply nyekulturno (uncultured), and no maitre d’ in his right mind would allow it. Vinay has a much more realistic set of expectations, I think, and he says that he is not going to let non-chess things bother him.

The last thing I asked Vinay was whether being a Samford Fellow and a Grandmaster were going to make his attitude towards chess more “professional,” in the sense of not being as excited about wins or as discouraged about losses. He said no, the highs and lows are still just as high and low as before. I was very glad to hear that emotion is still part of his game.

So… after this pleasant conversation, guess who I was paired against in the first round? That’s right–Vinay Bhat! So it goes.

The game was fairly interesting, but unfortunately I don’t have my laptop here so I can’t show you any of the key positions. As part of my own commitment to playing more solid, mainstream openings (at least part of the time), I played an Exchange French as White. I don’t think you can get much more solid than that. I looked at it a little bit this week, and I think that its reputation as a drawish opening is a little bit undeserved. If Black wants a fight (and, of course, in this game Vinay did) there is no reason that it has to be a draw.

Interestingly, Vinay and I have played twice before, when Vinay was a teenager, and I won both games. Unfortunately, this meant I couldn’t “sneak up” on him, the way I can against most IM’s or GM’s. He played, I think, a very grandmasterly game. We got into an isolated queen-pawn position, which I was not very familiar with, but then he surprised me by playing a bishop-for-knight trade that I really had barely looked at. It made my d-pawn no longer isolated, but I had very scattered and weak pawns on c3, d5, and f4, and he correctly assessed that it would be hard for me to hold them. I tried sacrificing a pawn for activity, but he wouldn’t bite! He did a very nice job of taking all of the tactics out of the position, so that I was just left with crummy pawns and passive pieces. Then I missed a small tactic in time trouble and lost a piece, but by then my position was quite hopeless anyway.

After the game I complained to Vinay, “You didn’t take any of my pawn sacs!” And he said, “That’s right, I learned from our earlier games.”

There were no upsets in the first round, but there were a couple of “upset draws.” GM Yermolinsky drew on board one, and GM Sadvakasov (I think) drew on board two. So the tournament is getting off to a good competitive start!

Usually in Reno, when I lose in the first round I get paired down in the second round. And so it happened again. In round 2 I was paired against Luke somebody (I’ll look the name up and put it in later), a boy who appeared to be about 13 or 14 years old. His rating is 1950, so I was careful not to underestimate him.

[Note added 10/21: His name is Luke Harmon-Vellotti, and Michael Aigner points out that he is the highest-rated 9-year-old in the country. I guess I’m not very good at judging ages, but I was right to be careful!]

Around move 25, he played a very clever move that basically won a pawn on the queenside by force. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not as if I had left the pawn hanging — it would take him three moves to attack it — but there was no way I could defend it. Of course, the chess gods couldn’t be that unfair, so I went looking for counterplay, and I eventually found a way that I could counterattack his queenside pawns if he got careless. And basically that is what happened. He said, “Oh boy, I’m winning a pawn,” but then my knight snuck in on his back rank and suddenly his whole queenside pawn formation just came unglued. It was pretty lucky for me. I think if Luke had been just a little bit more like the new Vinay and a little bit less like the old Vinay, I would have been in trouble.

So I’m back to 1-1 and I should get paired up against another master this morning. Time to go!

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