Coming Back to Life!

by admin on May 22, 2022

My chess calendar is finally starting to get busy again! Next weekend I will play in my first chess competition since February 2020, the last month of the Before Times. I’ll be playing in the 2021 CalChess Open State Championship, and yes, you read that right.

Salman Azhar, the founder, mastermind and guru of Bay Area Chess, had the brilliant idea of copying the organizers of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. As you might remember, the Olympic Games didn’t happen that year because of the pandemic, so the Olympic committee held them the following year, but still called them the 2020 Olympics. Similarly, the CalChess State Championship was never held last year, so Salman is organizing two of them this year. The 2021 championship will finish up on Memorial Day of 2022, and the 2022 championship will take place (*) at the normal time, Labor Day of 2022.

(*) The asterisk, of course, is because any plans made 6 months in advance during the COVID era are subject to revision.

But that’s not the only event on my chess calendar! This weekend Atlee Halderman, one of my students, is playing his first rated tournament in three years. This one is the 2022 CalChess Grade Levels Championship, also organized by Bay Area Chess. So yesterday I got my first glimpse of over-the-board tournament chess in the COVID era. I also had a chance to chat with Salman about the changes.

My first impression was wow, there aren’t many people here. In the 10th-12th grade section, which Atlee is playing in, there were only four entrants for a six-round tournament. They decided to combine that section with the 9th grade section, which had five registrants. There were more players in the younger sections, but still it was a far cry from the last scholastic tournament I went to with Atlee. The 2019 state scholastic championships had 1000 players, with a gigantic ballroom for parents and teams and vendors and another gigantic ballroom for the tournament games.

Salman, a perpetual optimist, said that the change was not as dramatic as it appeared. Yes, the book vendor is gone; he moved back in with his mother. (What a COVID thing to do!) But the grade levels championship (in May) is not the same tournament as the scholastic championship (in March). To compare apples to apples, I should compare the 2019 grade levels championship to the 2022 grade levels championship. Salman said that the turnout had dropped from 500 players to 400, which is really not a bad dropoff. He thinks that we have lost one “generation,” the players who would have started as 1st or 2nd graders during the pandemic and would have been 3rd to 4th graders now. “They’re gone and they’re not coming back,” he said. But he sees this as a temporary setback. We’re back to the levels of attendance maybe three or four years before the pandemic. Bay Area Chess built up before, and it can build up again.

I asked Salman if the growth of online chess during the pandemic was translating into a surge of in-person players now. He was much less optimistic about that. He says that kids who start out playing online, and even more so their parents, do not understand why you should shell out money for entry fees and travel and memberships, when you can play for free online. So it seems as if the chess world is fragmenting into two worlds — online and OTB — and the two worlds meet only at the top of the rating chart.

The other thing I was very curious about was how Atlee would do after his long layoff. As you know, I’ve been playing a regular series of training games against him, almost one game a week for the last several months. Would these games help him or hurt him? His official rating is 1077, but I feel certain that his true playing strength is at least 1500. Am I right, or am I just deluding myself? This weekend I’ll actually get some answers.

The first day was a moderate success for him. In the first round, he had the bad luck to be paired against the highest-rated player in his section, a 1900 player. Atlee lost his way very early on and his opponent won a piece very nicely with a cross-pin motif (a pin in two different directions at the same time, something I have rarely seen in a real game). Because there were an odd number of players, Atlee got a full-point bye in round two. That was definitely disappointing — you come to your first tournament in three years and you can’t even play!

But round three made up for it. Atlee won a long, hard-fought game, one that I’m sure tested his nerves and his patience. He won a piece in the opening, thanks to a discovered attack. But then he just sat and traded pieces and played passively. Meanwhile, his opponent relentlessly pushed for an attack, and so even after 40 moves Atlee was still not in the clear. Just as it looked as if his opponent might be able to pull out a draw, he made a tactical error and Atlee was all over it, playing a pseudo-sacrifice of his rook to draw his opponent’s king to a square where Atlee could fork his king and rook. The result was that Atlee won a pawn and his opponent’s counterplay evaporated.

If it were a boxing match, you would say that Atlee’s opponent won 10 out of 12 rounds on points. But Atlee won the other two rounds with two big knockdown punches, and that was enough to win the fight.

Both games, his win and his loss, will give us lots of material to talk about in our next training session. Meanwhile, Atlee has three more games coming today. I hope that the momentum and positive attitude generated by last night’s epic victory will keep him going today.

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