You Only Get One First Tournament…

by admin on March 3, 2019

… Unless, of course, you get three!

I was reminded of this today in a roundabout fashion. Emmy and Ryder P., the sister and brother combo from my chess club in Aptos who came to watch me play a tournament in January, today got their first taste of tournament action. The event was a one-day unrated tournament, called a Rising Star tournament, held at Bay Area Chess in San Jose.

The Rising Star tournaments are a great idea that lets kids experience what a tournament is like without having to jump all the way in and get a USCF membership. Simultaneously they have a seminar for the newbie parents to acquaint them with the chess tournament scene—what is a Swiss system, how do ratings work, etc.

The good news is that both Emmy and Ryder went 3-0, won trophies, and are interested in playing in the state scholastic championships next weekend. That, of course, is a rated tournament, another step up in seriousness for then, but not a big leap. I think they are ready for it.

All of this took me back to the year 1972, when I played in my first tournament … three times. Ordinarily I tell people, if it comes up (which it seldom does), that my first tournament was the Indiana Closed Championship that June. It certainly felt like my first tournament; it was the first time I left home to play chess. But there are two reasons it wasn’t really my first.

  1. It wasn’t actually rated. I don’t know why they held a state championship that wasn’t rated. But this was the Dark Ages of chess in the U.S., and I think that the TD perhaps wasn’t actually a USCF certified tournament director. I thought it was going to be rated, but no rating from that tournament ever appeared. So my first actual USCF-rated tournament wasn’t until July, at the U.S. Booster (i.e., under-2000) Championship in Chicago. What an amazing time that was – the Fischer-Spassky match had just started a week or two earlier, and there were hundreds of people at the tournament, probably a quarter to a third of them unrated.
  2. But here’s the other thing, which I had forgotten. If we’re going to count an unrated tournament as my first tournament, then we really have to go back to April of 1972, when I played with my high school chess team in the South East Indiana scholastic championship. So I really had three first tournaments! The scholastic championship, unrated, tons of fun, very analogous to what Emmy and Ryder are going to play in next week. The state championship, which I have always thought of as my first tournament but wasn’t rated even though I expected it to be. And the U.S. Booster, where I got my first USCF rating of 1226.

It’s fascinating to read my diary entry for April 15, 1972, the day of my long-forgotten debut in the South East Indiana high-school tournament. My school, which was called Park-Tudor, had all sorts of bad luck. Our #1 player, a 1600-strength player, was not able to play that weekend. So I had to play top board. (I was perhaps 1400 strength on a good day.)

Our #3 player couldn’t come either, so our team consisted of our #2, #4, #5, and #6 players. To make things worse, our #4 player got sick after the first round (he was having some inner-ear problems) and couldn’t play any more. So we played round two with only three players. For rounds three through five we got a substitute, the younger brother of our #3 player, but he was way overmatched and lost all three games. So for all practical purposes we really had only three boards for the last four rounds, and they were far from being our three strongest players.

And still, we did pretty well! We won our first match, tied our next two, and won the fourth. I won all four rounds, thus giving me a lifetime tournament record of 4-0 up to that point. So we went into the fifth and final round with an actual chance to finish in the top four, which would have qualified us for the state high-school team championship. We were paired against a team from West Lafayette.

I remember how intimidated I was going into that final game, because their team had rated players. It was probably the first time I had ever heard of ratings, and they were a strange and mysterious thing to me. How do you get a rating? How good do you have to be? Here is how I described the game in my diary: “I lost a pawn early. This lost the game, because it came down to the last pawn!”

Hmm. Well, there was probably more to it than that. Anyway, West Lafayette whipped us, 3-1, and they qualified for the state scholastic championship. The other teams that qualified were North Central, Warren Central, and Shortridge. What happened in that championship is unknown to me. I don’t even know if you could find documentation of it anywhere, as it was not an official USCF event.

In spite of all the bad luck and the ultimate disappointment, my diary entry is just brimming with excitement. Typically for beginner chess, the games seem to have had wild swings of fortune. In round one, “my opponent handled the Scotch Game very poorly. There’s only one defense to it, which people usually see intuitively, but he missed it and I demolished him.” I think what this means is that after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 he didn’t play 3. … ed. In round two I queened a pawn and then “nearly blew a Queen but he didn’t see it!” In round three I won my opponent’s queen with an attack, but “I once again almost blew it. Tossing away pawns like pebbles, I almost let him queen a pawn before mating him.” In round four, “A rook and a pawn down, I desperately pushed my center pawns, my last hope. Astonishingly, he completely neglected my threat, which he could have thwarted with ease, until too late, and I queened both pawns and won! This lucky turnabout gave us the round, 3-1.”

Having seen about a million kids’ games now, I’d say: Not so astonishing, not so lucky. That’s scholastic chess. Fifty percent of the time, if not more, the kids don’t see their opponents’ threats, and often they don’t even look for them. It’s part of learning the game. But certainly, all of these mistakes make for a wild and entertaining battle. You can see why I fell in love with it. Grown-up chess is so boring by comparison! (But nevertheless wonderful in its own way.)

I see some of this same excitement in Emmy and Ryder today, so I am hoping that they will go to the state championship next weekend and make memories that will last forever.

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