Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Among the prodigies

Tonight after work I wheeled by my brother's home in Plano, picked up my 13 year old chess playing nephew, and headed over to the Dallas Chess Club. We entered in the 7:30 p.m. regular Friday night Swiss System four round chess tournament.

In chess, one acquires numerical ratings based upon whether one loses or wins to other opponents in rated tournament games. I am rated 1722, which is a "Class B" player. This means that I am ranked in the 85th percentile or so of 'tournament players', i.e., roughly 15 percent of the people are rated more highly.

My nephew is rated just about 1200, which is fine for his age and experience, but placed him in a different tournament section, the "intermediate", than the "championship section" in which I played.

I also joined the Dallas Chess Club. I had noticed that when I run a tournament with my own micro-club, the Dallas Chess Club is always quick and willing to advertise it on their website for free. I noticed that some of their tournaments have low attendance, and I wondered if they could use a new dues-paying member. A membership in that club is not exorbitant, but it costs more than double what it costs for me to pay the affiliate dues on my own chess club. Yet my chess club is largely a state of mind, while the Dallas Chess Club has a little rental space where it runs constant tournaments. I decided that sometimes one votes one's conscience with one's wallet, and I vote chess.

About 35 or 40 people showed up to play in the tournament. Soon, the capable tournament director had posted the pairings for the first round.

Swiss system tournaments work by adopting a "top rating plays one below median rating, one above median rating plays bottom rating" seeding system, with the process applied each round to those with similar scores. One is never 'eliminated' in a Swiss system tournament, but just "plays up" or "plays down" depending on whether one is winning or losing.

I had some trepidation about the first round pairing, because it was possible I could fall below the median, and "pair up" to the top of the chart. As the top of the chart was a 2400 rating International Master, an internationally recognized player just a notch below grandmaster, this would not be a good thing for my win/loss ratio.

But I paired down. My first round opponent was Katherine. Katherine was nice, and polite. She was in fourth grade. Her rating was 1262.

She had the white pieces for our game, and played 1. e4, the most popular opening move. During my tournament preparation this week, I had read up on a defense that has always worked well for me, Philidor's Defense. Philidor was a musician and chess player many hundreds of years ago. The defense which bears his name meets the e pawn opening with a rock solid but passive "strong point line" of defense, a kind of Maginot line of chess. It's an opening that requires a lot of patience, but it can reward the second player who faces opponents who get too reckless in attack.

Katharine played really solid chess. She was not reckless at all. The Philidor served me well, and I defended solidly. But I was not getting any kind of real advantage, just a dynamic equality. When we got to the endgame, I was a pawn ahead, but we were down to just queens and pawns, which often leads to draws.

But if there is one rule about 9 year olds, it's that they move very quickly. Katherine took a pawn she should not have, and then lost her queen. Soon I had won.

After my near brush with a draw with the elegant and far-seeing Katherine (who showed her sense of humour in the practice room, joking with the other competing girls about great games they each had won), I hoped to draw an adult for the second round. You see, I learned long ago (and nearly lost to game to prove it in KC in 2003 to a 900 player) that kids' ratings are always much lower than the kids' actual strength.

But my next opponent was not an adult. He was, though, a stronger player than I am.
Meet Stanley. He's 12, he's 1850, he's polite, and he's going to be a master someday.

I met Stanley on the field of competition. I had the white pieces, so I launched into the slow, solid King's Indian Attack. Stanley played a d5, e6 system, and did not really know it all that well. I thought I got a mild advantage from the opening.
But I missed a tactic in the early middle-game, around move 20, and dropped a pawn.
Soon I'd dropped the whole game. I extended my hand to resign, saying "thank you" to Stanley. He really played a simply superior game. I did not even mind that a fellow I perceived to be a parent hovered over our board, spectating.

Now my record stood at 1 win, 1 loss. I waited to see whom I faced. Soon I found myself paired with Darwin.

Darwin is 8 years old. At 8 years old, most chess players are sorting out the moves and getting their ratings into the 600s. But Darwin was rated 1262, making him one of the top 25 8 year olds in the country. Now a ranking of 1262 is D level, and in an adult not a fearsome thing. But kids' ratings tend to skew low, and I awaited Darwin's on-slaught.

My game against Katherine had encouraged me to play something more complicated with black, in an effort to create more "winning" chances. This time, in response to his e4, I played my "small center system", with e6, d6, Ne7 and Nd7. Usually, this provokes in weaker players rather tame positions. But Darwin did not hesitate. He built a massive attacking pawn center and then developed his pieces. Wait a minute! Darwin was not only deceptively good. Darwin was really good! I transposed into a double fianchetto system which bears the name of an eastern european whose name escapes me, and awaited Darwin's on-slaught of attacking pawns and pieces.

Fortunately, Darwin fell into a minor trap, and I was able to fork his queen against his king, winning the queen. I loved what happened next. Instead of resigning, as I would do if my position became utterly hopeless, Darwin played on. He reverted from "top 25 US 8 year old" to "maybe I'll get lucky and we'll stalemate and I'll get a draw" in a moment. I took my time, made an extra queen of a pawn, and checkmated Darwin. We shook hands politely.

Between rounds, Darwin's father asked me how his son had done. I told him that it was quite a fight until Darwin dropped his queen. Then his father told me that Darwin's rating had been rapidly jumping, and instead of 1200, he will be 1500 when the next official rating released. I could easily believe it, and again, Darwin could easily be a chess master someday.

After three rounds of facing young rising stars, I was eager for a nice fourth round pairing with one of the other adult-ish Bs in the tournament, few though we be.
But you see, Johnathan had held a teen B to a draw, and suddenly, I was playing yet another 8 year old, Johnathan, the 9th strongest 8 year old in the country at 1350.

I had the white pieces, and I resorted to an old standby, the Colle System. It's a quiet, developmental opening with a scorpion's sting, invented by a Belgian master, Edgard Colle, who used it to make lovely sacrifices in the 1920s and 1930s. One brings one's pieces and pawns out quietly, and then one tries to attack. If no attack materializes, one tends to have a good endgame.

From time immemorial, since gurdonark's own 20s, there has been one patented way for me to win chess games. It's called "keep it simple, win a pawn, and then trade down until the pawn helps one win". Although I am no endgame genius, I can usually play quietly, win my pawn with a modest attack, and then hold on to win the resulting ending.

The script with Johnathan looked to fit the profile. He played inexactly in the opening, and I won his c pawn. He got a little initiative in return, but not much.
Soon, I had a simplified position in a bishop, rook, and pawns versus knight rook and pawns endgame, a pawn up. I had booked my passage on the good ship "simple win".

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Johnathan figured out a way to win back the pawn. Soon we were in an equal rook and pawn endgames. It is very hard for either side to win a rook and pawn endgame. Johnathan offered a draw, and I accepted.

All told, I finished the tournament with 2 wins, 1 loss and 1 draw, or 2 1/2 points.
Each game was fun. The average age of my competitors? about 9 1/2. But then a curious thing happened. It turned out that 2 1/2 points got me a share of the top class B prize. I pocketed the princely sum of 12 dollars and 50 cents. As the entry fee was 15 or so, it was not a Vegas type robust fortune. I liked the chess mom who sat in a corner quietly reading, except that every round she got up and wrote into her son's notation book the name and rating of his opponent for him.

My nephew and I both had great fun. He finished with 3 out of 4 in the "intermediate" class, which, unfortunately was just out of the money for the 10 dollar prize he nearly won. He did play lots of blitz with me, and a good bit of bughouse chess, a funny four handed chess variant game, with other kids there. He's a good egg, is my nephew, and we get along well together. In June, I think that he and I will road trip to another tournament, but I have not picked the locale thus far.

Now the storm clouds rain down thunder and lightning, and I wind down after microwaving up a midnight dinner and spending time talking and reading on line.
I looked up the "progress" of the ratings of the kids I had played, and, sure enough, everyone but Stanley has already improved their rating since the last "official" rating, by hundreds of points. Kids' ratings do accelerate!
I love it when I play chess for fun, and don't worry about wins and losses. It was a great night.

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