Bittersweet Return

by admin on May 31, 2022

After two years and three months of not playing any tournament chess, I finally returned to action this weekend in the 2021 (not a typo) CalChess State Championship. Short summary: I was glad to be back. My first goal was to say “f you” to the coronavirus. I won’t let you keep me away from chess any longer. Mission accomplished!

A second goal was to see if I could still do this. Am I still physically able to play in a chess tournament, without having the chess ruin my sleep or having fatigue ruin my chess? In some ways, the insomnia that I’ve struggled with for the last few months was a bigger obstacle than the pandemic, because it’s coming from within. I’ve learned to manage it pretty well this year, but I was worried that a tournament might throw off what still seems to be a somewhat fragile equilibrium. The weekend was a success from this point of view. I slept well both nights (but not the night before the tournament).

But when it comes to what actually happened over the chessboard, the results were very mixed. I had a really good day on Sunday, but then a really bad day on Monday. I didn’t win a prize, and I lost a ton of rating points… probably 20 to 30 points, I would guess. I was prepared for that to happen, because I’m so rusty. Also, my chess friends who have returned to action after the pandemic (and posted about it on Facebook) have reported similarly tough experiences. So I was prepared to lose some rating points, and prepared not to care about it. Even so, the last two rounds were quite disappointing. I would have expected to improve as the weekend went on, and I got used to the rhythm of tournament chess again. Instead, it seemed as if I played worse at the end.

Here’s a day-by-day summary.

Saturday: Return to action! This day, especially, I didn’t care what my results were. Just playing was a victory. Round one: Loss against Vincent Qin (expert). Very solid position out of the opening, but in my first game back I did not play very aggressively. This allowed him to take the initiative, and he did a very good (master-level) job of probing my weaknesses. Round two: Back to Dana Mackenzie chess! I played the King’s Gambit. My opponent (Nathan Yan, expert) had clearly never seen the Bishop’s Gambit before, and I got a slightly superior position. He offered a draw on move 29, and I took it. Reasons: I was worried about the time (I had 16 minutes left, he had 20) and I also liked the idea of getting to my hotel and going to bed earlier. Better to take a draw and get a good night’s sleep than to blunder in time pressure and get a bad night’s sleep.

Sunday: Round three: The highlight of the tournament! My opponent, Bryce Yeh (expert) allowed me the rare opportunity to play my favorite opening, the Bryntse Gambit. (1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3 de 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bc4 Bg4?! 6. Qxg4!) Only the fourth time I’ve ever played it in a tournament, though I’ve played it hundreds of times against the computer. Yeh eventually blundered a piece and I checkmated him on move 41. I could tell that he was angry for the last dozen moves or so; from his point of view, it looked as if I was some patzer who blundered his queen on move six and he was furious about losing. I rather enjoyed his anger. I will give this game with full annotations in a few days — it will be the perfect ending to my “50 Years of Chess” series. In round four I drew against Sricharan Pulella (expert), a good draw after I failed to really equalize in the opening. In round five I took a half-point bye, again so that I could get a good night’s sleep.

Monday: Going into the day I thought I had a decent shot at winning a prize if I could score 1 1/2 or 2 points out of 2. I didn’t expect to score 0. In round six, I lost to Conrado Diaz (master — the only master I played in six games in the Master section). This was such an unnecessary loss. I again defended well as Black and got to an endgame with 2R+B versus 2R+B where I was a pawn down but easily had enough counterplay. But unaccountably, I traded one pair of rooks and then the other pair, which was the only way I could lose. The B vs. B endgame, where he was a pawn up, was an easy win for him. This was a catastrophic failure in chess judgment for me. In the last round I played an expert whose name I unfortunately do not remember, and I lost the scoresheet. This game was a complete botch, and I don’t even want to think about it. Final score: 2 1/2 – 4 1/2.

Overall thoughts on the tournament: Chess is still struggling to come back. The prize fund for this tournament was based on 297 entries, with 50 percent guaranteed. The actual number of entries, by my count, was only 115. Doing the math, I’m sure that Bay Area Chess must have taken a financial loss. But I think, when all is said and done, chess will come back and we’ll all be very grateful to Salman Azhar, the director of Bay Area Chess, for being willing to risk a loss in order to keep the chess flame burning.

I think that this tournament shows that the kids are coming back the adults are not, yet. Maybe not ever. In the Master section, there were 14 players, and only 4 of them were adults. It’s crazy when you can’t tell the difference between a master tournament and a scholastic tournament! In the lower sections there was an even greater preponderance of kids, probably at least 90 percent. Kids are great. Kids are the future. But I did miss seeing people of my generation, or even one or two generations younger.

Finally, one problem specific to this tournament may have been that people didn’t realize it was a state championship. The state championship is normally held on Labor Day weekend, but this was a make-up for the one that didn’t take place last fall. I looked at the entries and thought, “Where have all the GMs gone?” Not so long ago, the master section would have players like Walter Browne and Roman Dzindzichashvili and Sam Shankland. It was a real, GM-level competition. This year, in the Master section only 3 out of 14 players were even masters, and the only player with an international title was IM Jack Zhu.

Perhaps a better test will come when we have the “real,” normal state championship on Labor Day weekend. Will the GMs and IMs come out to play, or will the state championship continue to be just a glorified scholastic tournament?

Coming up in my next couple of blog posts: Full analysis of my Bryntse Gambit game. And a surprise opportunity to play against a grandmaster online. Don’t miss it!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Braun May 31, 2022 at 1:45 pm

Enjoyed your article because of the similarities to my own situation. Like you, I’m just about to “celebrate” a somewhat-delayed 50th anniversary tournament next week, the National Open in Las Vegas. Also, my first one in about 2 1/2 years. I agree completely about missing the adults in the higher sections. I used to make lots of new (adult) friends in these large tournaments, and now, after losing to a kid, he/she just goes off with the parents. But hopefully I can still survive 7 rounds (with a few byes) at age 66! And I’m planning to play in my very first US Open later this summer. Good luck!


admin June 1, 2022 at 8:48 am

Good luck, Jason! I hope you do better than I did.


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