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Saturday, December 31, 2011

NAO 2011 Report Three: The Last Day

Well, the tourney sure ended with a bang. GM Pons won the even clear with 6.0 of 7 rounds, two of which were draws. That guy is a monster at chess! In the last round, he offered a draw to GM Akobian, who said ‘he’d think about it’. GM Pons got up and wandered around for about five minutes, and when he came back GM Akobian stuck out his hand. The game was drawn, and Pons had won $10,000; not a bad Las Vegas trip, if I do say so, myself.

You can see the final standings for the Open Section here:

Was there excitement during the last round? Only over the board excitement, really; it’s hard to find a boring GM or IM game to watch, especially when there’s this much money at stake. There was a lot of fighting chess, and several games were very thrilling. So, when did the good stuff happen? The good stuff came about when the blitz tournament commenced. It was really something, let me tell you.

In between the main event and the blitz tournament, GMs could be seen downstairs at the Nosh restaurant and generally wandering around, talking to each other. How many times a year does one get to see that? Needless to say, it was super cool.

I registered early for the blitz tournament because I know how long the line gets about 30 minutes beforehand. I figured if I was going to throw away $40, I might as well do it comfortably, right? That allowed me time to snack on a donut and a Mountain Dew while I watched the other participants registering. I met quite a few people while I waited, and everyone I talked to was really, really nice. The chess community, as a whole, is a very friendly bunch.

Okay, let’s get to the blitz tournament.

In the first round, I was paired with a guy who beat me badly twice in a row (we were playing two games with each opponent, 5 rounds) with a beer in his hand. I forgot to check his rating but trust me, he didn’t play like an Under 1900. People were complaining after a few rounds that a 2180 and a 2400 had somehow made it into the U1900 category. I’d be real curious to see if my first opponent wasn’t one of these entries, because I was playing a strong game, I had a clear advantage out of each opening, and this cat found mating nets out of nowhere. The rest of my games were so-so, and that’s to be expected for after-midnight blitz.

At first, we were upstairs from the main tourney hall in a small room, boards all set up and ready to go. Each year the event is held in that room, but this year there were too many players for it to hold. So, we were all herded back downstairs to Pacific Ballroom where the main event was held each day. I never got an official count, but if I were to estimate, I’d say 150 entries would be in the ballpark.

Once we finally got settled and playing, it was much later than originally scheduled. I was fortunate enough not to have played in the main event or I would have been brutally tired. As it was, I was full, caffeinated, awake and ready to thump some pieces around. I’m garbage at blitz but I enjoy it from time to time, so I was ready for some battles.

Now for the fun stuff.

The place was so packed that the pairing sheets were hard to get near enough to see. I finally muscled my way close enough to read one of them for the second-round pairings, but it was upside down on a table. I managed my way to the playing tables, set up my board, pieces, and clock, and waited for the TD to announce game start. I noticed that the poor girl adjacent to me had no opponent; it was late, so I figured he or she may have just taken off.

Finally, we could start. My opponent and I were well out of the opening and trying to figure out middle game plans when the TD showed up behind me and asked if I was Derek Odom. I answered yes, and he pointed at the opponent-less girl and said that I was supposed to be playing her. So, I thought, *that’s* why she was sitting alone! *I* was her opponent! I apologized and moved over, played my staple 1. Nf3 and the game was afoot. I won the first one and lost the second on time – she was pretty good!

It was something like 3 A.M. when a large crowd gathered around a certain game. Pieces were banging loudly and the clock was clearly being abused. Two IMs were in extreme time trouble and trying desperately to flag each other without getting mated in the process. One of their bishops got knocked over when it was moved, and was actually laying on its side, off the chess mat.

Thinking he was being nice, the other IM picked the bishop up and placed it back on the board. The other IM informed him, loudly, that the bishop wasn’t on that square. Yes it was, said the other. They went on like this for a few seconds before the first IM picked the bishop up and threw it at his opponent. Luckily, the TD was right there and so no fistfight ensued. I couldn’t help but think of the story where Alekhine threw his king at his opponent after losing. Chess players definitely get weird about their games, sometimes.

Near the 4 A.M. mark, there was another noisy dispute, this time between much lower rated players. I lost my final game on time and quickly got up to see what the commotion was. Apparently, there was a brand new player in the event who was not aware that an upside-down rook was a queen, and he neglected to move out of check. He hit the clock, and the dispute was on.

The TD explained to him that he was to continue from the position where he was checked, and the player refused; he wanted to continue from the position *before* the check. The TD insisted, and the player got a little louder. The TD informed him that if he said another word the game would be a loss, and the player said another few words.

“Fine, you forfeit this game, then!” yelled the TD.

After another couple of loud exchanges, the TD told the player that if he kept it up, he’d forfeit the next game, as well (it was his first game of two with that opponent). The guy told the TD no, it wouldn’t be, and the TD announced a double-loss. By then the crowd was so big around them that I don’t know what happened in the end, but it probably wasn’t good for the unrated player. I have to agree with the TD on this one: it’s up to registrants to know the rules if they enter a competition. I believe the TD did nothing wrong. Also, he was an older gentleman and it was four in the morning; I’m convinced he was in no mood for tom-foolery.

The girlfriend and I didn’t wait around to see who won. I believe the last round was scheduled for 1:15 in the morning or so, and the event didn’t end until 4:00; who knows how long it took to decide the winners of each category and cut the checks? We ended up giving a ride to a really nice guy I met at the tournament (we used to work together online) and then heading back to our hotel. I had a quick snack and laid down, dreading the alarm I would hear five short hours later. We live four hours from Las Vegas, which turns into six hours with holiday traffic.

I had a wonderful time, though, in spite of the abuse I put my poor body through. You can bet your bishops I’ll be back next year. Heck, I may even play. Having the freedom to move about and keep an eye on the GM games is really neat, though; maybe I’ll just cover the event and lose the blitz tourney once more.

Until next year, kind readers. :)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

NAO 2011 Report Two - Dec 29th

Well, folks, Day Three ended as exciting as anything chess-related can end. Before I get into that, though, allow me to try and convey how it feels to be in the playing hall at any given moment.

A chess tournament of this size is quite possibly one of the only events in the world where a couple thousand people can be in the same room and yet the only sounds are the occasional cough, and clothes reporting as people walk. One doesn’t realize how much noise clothes make when we move until one is in a setting like that; it’s really intriguing. It made me realize why Ninja wear tight suits.

I noticed this year that there are very, very few analog clocks being used. Just about everyone has moved on to digital. While that is kind of sad in a way, it’s also a sign of the times; digital clocks are far more accurate and they allow for multiple time controls and increments, so they are hard to argue with. Most of the clocks here are either the Chronos variety (touch-sensitive, mostly – push-buttons have all but gone the way of the dodo) or the blue Saitek plastic jobs. Both are very nice.

Okay, on to the good stuff.

So, I’m sitting and watching a game in which two 1940s USCF players are battling it out in an endgame. One player was a male, and had a lot more time on his clock than his female opponent, who had an easily won game. Making sense? I am not very caffeinated yet this morning.

Anyhow, it was king and pawn vs. queen and king – it’s not hard to win that, but it’s technical, and the lady’s opponent was giving her every bit of grief he possibly could. Stalemate threats were all over the place, so she had to be careful with each and every move. She was making a few inaccuracies due to being low on time, but she was generally doing well. Suddenly her cell phone, which was in her handbag on the table, began ringing very loudly. At first I thought it was me, but I’m very careful about muting mine.

She finally got her hands on it and it stopped going off, but it was far too late. The TD came over and announced that she would suffer a ten-minute loss because of the offense.

He picked the clock up, messed with it a bit, placed it back on the table and said, “You now have four minutes instead of fourteen. Good luck.” It was ruthless but again, big props to Continental Chess for sticking to their guns and enforcing the rules. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy but she kept going, neglecting to continue writing moves down due to being very low on time.

Ten minutes later, her phone went off again. None of us could believe it.

She pointed at her purse and continued to look for the correct move on the board because she had almost no time left. I reached in, pulled the offending phone out, and desperately searched for the button that would shut it up. I didn’t find it and after she made her move and hit the clock, she took it from me and fuddled with it. The problem was, she didn’t know how to shut it off, either. Uh-oh.

While this was going on, two IMs were battling in an extremely technical endgame, and they were both terribly low on time. That made for a bad combination, as it’s never a good idea to disturb an IM in any portion of the game, but especially when low on time.

The TD came back over and announced that the second offense was an automatic loss, and stopped the clock. The girl was very upset, and began pleading with him, loudly. One IM stood up and yelled for everyone to go outside. The voices quieted, but not by much. It’s tough to find chess-drama but when you do, it’s highly entertaining.

That’s when something weird and very touching happened.

The female said to her opponent that since she was in such an easily won position, they should have forced a draw instead of a loss – it just wasn’t fair. Her opponent, who had just won the game by forfeit and had the full point, told her he’d take a draw, but he wasn’t sure the TDs would allow it. She brought one over, they discussed it, and the game was drawn. That was definitely one of the coolest, most selfless maneuvers I have seen in a long time.

Once that debate was settled, I went to watch the IMs play, which was the only game still going on. These IMs are very, very young; one of them doesn’t look a day over sixteen and the other maybe eighteen. One IM is just under the 2500 Elo mark, the other just above. These are not patzers. I took a gander at the position and decided that I had no clue how I would proceed, and these poor guys each had less than six minutes on their clocks in which to do so. Oh, boy. I snapped a few silent pictures off as they struggled, which I think turned out real, real good.

Strong move after strong move was made, and a ton of rook checks and double-exclam pawn pushes, all very quickly. I hate to use the term, but this was pure chess porn. I’m a total nerd, and so I’m literally getting chills writing about it and revisiting the moment in my head.

Finally, the lower-rated IM made a fatal mistake and dropped one of his pawns. He had another pawn that would be captured easily and with mate to follow, so he stopped the clock and offered his hand, which his opponent gladly shook. They did a little post-game rehash and got up to wander back to their rooms. It was 12:30 in the morning and the huge ballroom was almost completely empty. There’s nothing like watching a hard-fought game. It really was awesome.

I snapped a picture of the chess clock just before they shut it down: the losing player had 4 seconds left, the winner 7.

That’s chess, ladies and gentlemen, at the highest and most brutal level.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 NAO Report One - Dec 28th

Well, I’m here in Vegas at the NAO (North American Open), held at Bally’s hotel and casino. Is there action? You bet. I have been standing for twelve or more hours each day, bouncing around from strong game to strong game, trying to guess the moves, smiling at people, and wishing I were playing. There aren’t as many well-known players as there was last year, it seems, but there are definitely some powerhouses in attendance.

GM Francisco Vallejo Pons (his friends call him Paco) is batting his opponents around like they aren’t there. I really enjoy watching him because not only are his games extremely strong (he is listed on the tourney roster as 2778 Elo – not a fish), but he dresses the part, too, always looking well-groomed and wearing a suit. There is something I have always enjoyed about titled players wearing suits to play chess; it gives the impression that they respect the game, they care about appearance, and they honor the masters of old, who always wore suits to professional tournaments.

He is tied with GM Ivan Sokolov, both at 3.0 points out of three rounds. When they meet and push wood, it’s going to be a fabulous game. As I type, GM Pons is in a *very* interesting position with GM Ivan Sokolov on the white side of a Reti turned QGD. I’m no GM, of course, but it’s very hard to say how this one will turn out. Pons is super strong, though, and it seems his specialty is coming up with last-minute knockouts. He’s seriously good, and a blast to watch.

The air in the tournament hall is nothing short of electric. Other than the occasional cough or throat-clearing, it’s silent as the tomb. Yes, the occasional idiot’s cell phone goes off loudly, but the directors are extremely vigilant about chasing them out. I’m thoroughly impressed with how well such a big tournament is being run. So far, I have witnessed zero issues. Kudos to Continental Chess and Randy Hough. Major kudos, in fact.

Other strong folks in attendance are GM Var Akobian, GM Josh Friedel, GM Alexander Shabalov, WIM Iryna Zenyuk, and IM Adam Hunt, just to name a few. Needless to say, it’s awe-inspiring being in the same room with these people. At least, it is for me; when a 2778 passes me in the hallway, it may as well be Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt for everyone else. My eyes go wide, I get a chill or two, and I wonder how their mind works, and what’s wrong with mine that I suck so hard at the same game in which they excel.

Anyhow, I slept in a little (a lot) this morning because I burned the midnight oil (the 4 A.M. oil, as it were), so I’m off to the tourney now. I’ll get there in time to see the conclusion of the first round and to grab a snack before getting back to being a professional gawker. Life, as they say, is good.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chess and Writing: They are Very Similar

I relate everything to chess; I always have. Those of you as obsessed with the game as I am understand such an oddity. Bobby Fischer once said, “Chess is life,” and while that may sound insane to someone who isn’t addicted to the game, it sounds perfectly clear to me; in fact, it sounds reasonable. I suppose that’s a tad scary, but we’ll leave that dog lie for another blog post.

Lately, I have noticed a strong correlation between chess and writing, especially when it comes to fiction. I do write articles and other web content, but fiction is my passion as well as, of course, chess. The two seem to walk hand-in-hand like lovers on a moonlit beach. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

In a chess game, we can make quick and ‘obvious’ moves that may or may not be blunders, may or may not better our position, and may or may not be winning or losing. They are just moves that bounce out of the board to us immediately. Many times, we act on our first-sight moves in blitz, or rapid, chess. That is why it isn’t good to play blitz exclusively; we’ll ever learn much or improve if we always make the first move that jumps out at us. That’s a fact.

It’s much the same with writing. The first draft of our stories can be related to blitz chess: there are glaring errors, it isn’t organized well, people in the story do things that are way out of character, etcetera. Ernest Hemmingway literally said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” I have always liked and respected that sentence. It’s so simple, and yet says so much – like a good chess move.

As a general rule, we get better at something the more we learn about and practice it; chess and writing are no different. However, in order to learn about them, to really learn about them, we have to put in the work. Chess requires many hours of hard study and play if you wish to be competitive, and writing requires hard-core, honest editing and rewriting if you want the story to be excellent, and not just good. A good story is easy to tell, but an excellent one takes work. That’s just the way it is.

What if, in a chess game that we lost, we were able to slowly review each move we made and change any and all moves that we wished? Well, we would win a lot of games, wouldn’t we? So, why not completely review and then rewrite a story that you’ve written? It can only be beneficial, both to you and the reader. Chess and writing are not things that should be cheapened. They are arts in their own right, and should be treated as such.

In the past, I had only heavily edited stories, not rewritten them completely. However, my most recent piece felt disjointed and scattered, like trying to find Waldo in a crowd. Characters were acting in ways they would not, some of the settings weren’t at all what I wanted, and I didn’t shape the personalities and relationships of the people well enough. Oh, sure, it was still a good story, I think, but it wasn’t great. If I’m going to put the time and effort forth to write a tale, I want it to be great, not good.

So, I embarked in a total rewrite. I first made a chronological timeline of events as they should happen, I made character sketches, and I wrote down small reminders of things that I wanted to strengthen or that I had missed completely, and then I opened a blank document. The second time around is a ton more fun than the first, I’m finding. Not only do I get to visit all my characters again, but in a much more personal, real way. I’m doing them justice. The writing is stronger. The flow is nicer. The story itself is much more believable and the ending will be far more intense.

Blitz chess is shit, and first drafts are shit. If you are a chess player or a writer, do yourself a favor and put a little time into your passion; you won’t believe the rewards.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

FIDE Titles for Women

I’d like to talk a little bit about chess titles for men and women. There is a large, gaping disparity between them at the FIDE level, and I have never been a big fan of that. Chess is a single game, and it’s the same for everyone. Women play with the exact same number of pawns and pieces as a man does. Therefore, the ratings for titles should be the same for everyone. Or, should they?

For a male chess player, 2500 Elo marks grandmaster territory, and yet I just saw a WGM today in a ChessBase article who carries a 2214 rating. Really? 2200? Now, don’t get me wrong, here, reaching 2200 is a wonderful feat in chess, and an extremely low number of players ever get close to approaching it. However, 2200 marks the minimum level in which a male chess player can carry a master title, per USCF, and 2300 per FIDE. So, what gives? Do women become masters at 1900, then?

Let’s take Jennifer Shahade, for instance. She is an awesome woman and a great player who has done a ton for both the chess community in general and especially women in chess, and she’s a WGM. Her rating, as of this writing, is 2322. Again, please don’t misunderstand: 2300 is an extremely high rating. However, it isn’t a GM rating. It’s a low FM rating per FIDE, unless you happen to be female. Do you think that is fair? Do you think it’s degrading to women? Do you think it matters?

Jen’s FIDE card:

I would think such handicaps would be extremely degrading to a woman, especially in this day and age of equality. There are some actual female GMs, such as the Polgar sisters and Hou Yifan, China’s rising star. Hou is knocking on 2600’s door, which puts her in a far different league than the average WGM. She’s an actual GM, who worked her way up the classical FIDE ranks, just as any male has to.

So, do you think that it’s insulting that women get their own title categories, and yet are still able to achieve classic FIDE titles, should they earn them? Do you feel that all chess players, regardless of sex, age, race, or religion, should have to reach 2300 to become an FM, 2400 to become an IM, and 2500 to reach GM?

Chess is largely a male-dominated game, but there is no tangible reason for it; that’s just the way it is. There are many theories as to why, as a whole, women aren’t as good at the game as men are, but that’s neither here nor there: the fact is that we are all people, and we all have the exact same chances at a win because we are all playing the exact same game. I’m not known for being very politically correct, and I think that a title is a title; if you can’t earn the numbers, you don’t get to call yourself a master.

Let it be known, as well, that I do not feel that the women’s title system is unfair to men; quite the opposite, really. I feel that it’s extremely unfair to women. I could very possibly play tournament chess for ten more years and not earn a 2200 rating, which would only be a National Master here in the United States. That’s a neat title, but comparatively, it’s only master. GM is still worlds and worlds away. The fact that a woman can carry a 2200 rating and be a WGM is just silly. It cheapens the title.

It’s kind of like when the sheriff pins a plastic golden star on a child, making him an honorary deputy: that’s cool and all, for kids, but in reality it’s meaningless other than to encourage the youth and make him or her feel good. Is that what women’s FIDE titles are meant to do?

Now, I know some of you are reading this and seething, so I’ll offer the other side of the coin, here. USA does not, I repeat, does not, have specialized titles for women. Chess players are either Expert, or they are not; chess players are either Master, or they are not. However, the USA is a *free* country, meaning women have the exact same opportunities in life than men do. They are getting educated, they have choices, they have power. Hell, they can walk into a book store and pick up Silman’s “Reassess your Chess” if they like.

Not so in other countries, and that may affect things greatly.

In some countries, women are still thought of as chattel; they are nothing more than property, like a cow or a dog would be here in the U.S. Now, how can we expect a woman to come from an environment like that and soar to high chess heights? They can’t browse the Internet and watch lectures, they can’t hire a titled tutor, they can’t go down to Central Park and play a few casual games to brush up on their Sicilian Najdorf. They just can’t.

I have big respect and awe for a woman coming out of an oppressed country and playing chess successfully. It must be extremely hard for some of them to do so, and then to blast past 2200 FIDE on top of that is absolutely amazing. Are these particular women, the ones who earn a WGM title at 2200, justified in doing so? Are they the reason FIDE incorporated the title separations in the first place? Is that ever going to change?

You tell me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

North American Open 2011

Gang, it is official: I’m going to Vegas this year again to check out the North American Open chess tournament! I’m giddy.

Last year was a blast, and this year will be even better, because I have a higher-quality camera and the specific intent to do an in-depth write up on my experience. Last year, I took a bunch of pictures with a cheaper camera, and you can’t even tell who the people in them are unless you are really, really in the know; they definitely aren’t worth publishing. I think I got one clear picture of Var Akobian, and another of Irina Krush’s back as she examined a game with a male IM. Weee...

Anyhow, our room is booked and I have butterflies in my stomach. I guess my nerd status goes up considerably when I am excited to go to Vegas for chess instead of women, booze, and gambling. I am definitely an addict and lover of this game. Just the thought of watching a strong GM reach out for a piece gets me excited.

I may have to buy some new shoes this year because last year, my feet were killing me by the second day. I’m just too much of a die-hard to watch something so thrilling from a chair. So, I stand.

Okay, that’s about it. Carry on.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Antichess: Bullet Strategy

Wait, is antichess even a word? Nope. Well, kind of, but you will not have heard it unless you are a nerd like me. Antichess is actually a strategy used in bullet (1-minute) games, and usually by patzers in the 1500-1600 range – at least in the opening stages. But, what is it, exactly?

Antichess literally means playing horrible or extremely questionable moves in a bullet game, hoping your opponent pre-moves something else or doesn’t notice your move, allowing you a cheap-shot win.

For instance, moving a bishop to threaten your opponent’s queen when the bishop is completely unguarded. It can just be taken. However, because your opponent is either pre-moving the opening, or maybe he/she is really low on time, they have another move in mind and make it immediately. You then take the queen, sometimes for free, and their blood pressure spikes. It really is maddening, unless you are the one playing antichess.

I see a lot of this in the opening. For instance, some mook will fianchetto a bishop on g6, and then crash it into your pawn on b2 for no reason. Because we did not expect such a funky move, we ignore it and play something else, usually a developing move, immediately, and lose a rook clean. Welcome to antichess.

Another good antichess strategy are unexpected and dubious checks. If your opponent has one second or less left on his clock and you have more, simply crash the queen or another piece into whatever you can, causing check. Sometimes, knights are good for this because the escape route isn’t always so clear when a player is all keyed up. Your opponent will not have expected such a move, and will have pre-moved something else, which causes his flag to fall while he desperately tries to figure out why his move didn’t work. It’s because he’s in check. It works like a charm, even on high-rated players.

I mentioned earlier that (mostly) only patzers play this stuff, at least in the opening. Why is it only 1500-1600 players who attempt this junk? Two reasons: One, because they have absolutely no clue how to properly formulate a plan in chess, and so they go for the cheapos to win. Two, you simply cannot advance much past the 1600s using only antichess strategies in the opening. A player may fall for that crap a couple few times, but once they get your number, you’ll lose every single game.

Even GMs and other titled players play a bit of antichess when low on time, but they cannot get away with that crud in the opening or middle game, because their titled opponents will simply crush them like a flies. But, we are all human, and when we have less than a second on the clock, things get dicey. That’s when I recommend throwing your checks, pushing your pawns, sacrificing pieces without reason. Antichess works, if you do it right.