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The Highs and Lows of Tournament Chess

A friend recently made fun of me for the stance I take when in deep concentration at the board. In a difficult position, I'll block my ears with my thumbs, wrap my hands around my forehead (like a visor), and block out everything except the board.

Tournament Chess is one of the few activities in my life where I achieve flow. You sit down at the board, and for the 2-4 hours of the game, everything else melts away. You wake up to the world after the game feeling good, realising how immersed you've been, and wish you could have that same concentration in every part of your life.

If someone had tried to convince me that tournament chess could be “exhilarating” before I'd tried it, I'd have laughed hysterically and suggested they get out more. After a few years of competitive play, I'd liken the thumping I feel in my chest when getting on top of a good player to the feeling I got coming onto a football pitch as a young semi-professional player.

Ironically, chess isn't much more than a hobby to me, but the challenge of putting your mind and will to the test, and holding steady for the time required brings on strong emotions nonetheless. I'll never forget the times when after 4 hours of deep concentration one sloppy move lost the game instantly. I'll also remember the times when I managed to get the job done and pull off an upset. After a while in the game I realise I'm in that phase that most chess players find themselves in: able to play and appreciate good games, and also able to play horrendous ones.

For other players I imagine it's much the same. I've seen people sink their head into their hands and go red as a tomato after playing a move that throws the game away, and I've also seen someone do a running knee slide in celebration of a win.

Two examples of what I mean by highs and lows:

In August 2012 I was playing round 1 of the MCC Open against Malcolm Pyke, an MCC veteran who has held a ~2150 rating for as long as I've known him. After 16 moves I'd achieved the following position, where white is winning the black Queen on a5 as a conclusion to the attack.

What I loved about this game was that I played an opening I didn't know too much about, and I felt like I was starting to understand chess on a different level: I'd found quality moves in a position I didn't have prior knowledge of and was on the verge of beating a player rated 400+ points above me. 15 moves later, still in control of the game but without much time on the clock, Malcolm played Rd6 check on move 31 (see below) and I made the fatal mistake of playing Ke2 rather than the safer Kc1. A couple of stronger players watching the game dispersed after Bh5+, Kf1, and I realised my immortal game had come to an abrupt and unfortunate end:

That was a low point! I went on to score 3/9 in the event, my worst result in years, and 14 months later I'm still obviously thinking about the game!

Still, it was the start of something. I'd proven to myself that I could “play chess” rather than just memorise openings which is what many players of my rating do. Last month, at the Melbourne Cup Weekender (our strongest tournament of the year) I scored 6/9 and played the best chess of my life, picking up 138 rating points from the tournament and drawing with my first Master level player. The feeling you get from that is one of wanting to get back to the board as quickly as possible: everything is rose-tinted and chess stops being “a vice I spend too much time on” and starts being “a game suitable for scholars, children, gentlemen and women of all kinds”. Here's the crosstable:

1  Li, Zuhao (Luke)            2318 2341 7.5   28:W 38:W  8:D  6:W  7:W  2:W  4:D  5:W  3:D
2  Morris, James               2392 2403 7     58:W 29:W 20:W 13:W  4:W  1:L  5:D  3:D  9:W
3  Jordan, Bill                2242 2229 6.5   40:W 24:W  7:W  4:D  8:W  5:L  6:W  2:D  1:D
4  Goldenberg, Igor            2375 2395 6.5   33:W 21:W  9:W  3:D  2:L 15:W  1:D 14:W  5:D
5  Illingworth, Max            2440 2516 6     31:W 41:W  6:L 26:W 20:W  3:W  2:D  1:L  4:D
6  Stojic, Dusan               2239 2320 6     35:W 23:W  5:W  1:L 16:W 10:W  3:L  9:L 21:W
7  Solomon, Stephen J          2401 2452 6     34:W 26:W  3:L 21:W  1:L 22:D 30:W 13:W 11:D
8  Loh, Zachary                2031 2089 6     36:W 49:W  1:D 15:W  3:L  0:D  0:D 16:D 24:W
9  Puccini, Jack               2046 2004 6     63:W 27:W  4:L 39:W 13:W 14:L 41:W  6:W  2:L
10 Zelesco, Karl               2144 2167 6     12:W 39:W  0:D 11:W  0:D  6:L 13:L 37:W 23:W
11 Lester, George E            2017 2050 6      0:D 54:W 30:W 10:L 23:D 24:W  0:D 18:W  7:D
12 Cavezza, Paul               1701 1560 6     10:L 55:W 21:L 59:W 44:D 29:W 46:W 15:D 20:W

Finishing equal 5th in a field of 64 was a great achievement especially given the company above, and more importantly it felt great to play well. The highs and lows of being part of the chess scene are far more intense than an outsider would believe; the only conclusion we can come to, is that even for hobby players, chess amounts to far more than just a hobby.

By Paul Cavezza