Trouble in Paradise

by admin on October 22, 2008

Michael Aigner’s comment on my last blog post jogged a few memory cells for me. Specifically, he felt that he had a fairly rotten tournament in Reno, and he lost rating points, and yet he actually won some prize money. That reminded me of some tournaments I had during the brief period when my rating was over 2200. (I achieved a master rating for the first time in 1988, and stayed there off and on for the next seven years.)

Several things surprised me about being on top of Mt. Olympus. First was that being rated over 2200 can sometimes be a pretty good scam. If you enter a tournament that has an 2200-2299 class prize, there will sometimes be very few people eligible for it, and you can win money even when you have a bad tournament.

The ultimate example of this phenomenon was the 1989 Land of the Sky tournament in North Carolina, where I lost in the first round against a class-A player and spent the rest of the tournament playing nothing but class-A players. I finished with a 3-2 score, which cost me about 30 rating points and dropped me back out of the master category.

As I was drowning my miseries in a restaurant after the last round, one of my friends came up to me and said, “You won a prize!” I couldn’t believe it: I figured that the only prize that I deserved was a booby prize! But he was right. There were only eight people rated between 2200 and 2299. Six of them had been ahead of me going into the last round, but every single one of them drew or lost, and so I actually finished in a six-way tie for first in the rating group!

Do any of you have stories about winning a prize that you didn’t expect, or winning a prize in a tournament where you actually played badly?

There were a couple other surprising things about being a master. The first one is that when you are a master, you actually don’t get to play as many masters as you did when you were an expert! In the typical Swiss System tournament, you’ll get paired down for the first three rounds, and only if you win them all you might finally get to play another master in the fourth or fifth round.

An example of this kind of tournament was the 1993 Roosevelt Open in Dayton, Ohio, where I was one of only three masters who entered (none of them rated over 2250). That time I did manage to get off to a 4-0 start, with wins over lower-rated players in the first three rounds and an expert in round four. So in round five my reward was finally getting paired against one of the other masters, who was also 4-0.

But at this point we both looked at the money, and realized that whoever won the game would get $300; if we drew, we would get $250 apiece (or maybe $200, depending on the result of board two); and if one of us lost, he would probably go home with nothing. It was pretty easy to do the math. We agreed to a draw on move seven or eight — the only time in my life I’ve played a “grandmaster draw.” It was not prearranged, but it was definitely a case of mutual self-interest. He played a Queen’s Gambit Declined, Tarrasch Defense with an early … c5-c4, a variation I had never faced in my life. I sure didn’t want to learn about the opening over-the-board with $250 or $300 at stake.

All my life I’ve criticized grandmasters for making grandmaster draws, but at that moment, it just seemed like the sensible thing to do. Some of the other players were pretty harsh on me, though. (As for my opponent, he departed so fast that they didn’t get a chance to criticize him.) Now all I can say to people who criticize grandmaster draws is this: Let’s see what happens to your scruples and your moral superiority when you actually get in that situation.

One other surprising thing I learned about being a master: Although I played fewer masters, I found myself playing against more experts. And guess what? Just because you’ve gotten your rating over 2200, it doesn’t mean that you have discovered a magic formula for beating experts. In fact, some of those experts are pretty hard to beat! And so pretty soon you find yourself cast out of Mt. Olympus and sweating it out again with the other mortals below 2200.

Obviously, this last paragraph doesn’t apply to those lucky, chosen few who sail right on past the 2200’s and into the 2300’s and 2400’s. They are truly the gods of chess. Obviously, those people have found a magic formula for beating experts. I just wish I knew what it was!

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