Wisconsin does not come to mind as a destination for 9-round open chess tournaments. But I believe that perception is changing now!
The 1st Wisconsin International Chess Festival (WICF) was held from June 13 to 18 at the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel in Madison. It was organized by Wisconsinite FM Alex Betaneli, a well-known and respected player on the chess circuit, and his Wisconsin Chess Academy. Most tournaments in the US follow a 5-day schedule, with double rounds every day, and this ends up becoming quite exhausting for the players. WICF, however, was played out over 6-days. This was a refreshing change and one of the main reasons I was attracted to the tournament, despite there not being many higher-rated players in the first edition.
In the first round, I faced a fellow youngster, Joey Kelly, with the Black pieces. The position was more or less equal out of the opening, with perhaps a slight edge for me. But it was quite clear the game was headed for a draw, as White’s position was just too solid. Unfortunately, instead of remaining objective and just playing the best moves, I lost the thread and pushed vainly, undermining my position. To my opponent’s credit, he took advantage of my mistakes without giving me an opportunity to get back in the game.
I was able to rebound and comfortably won my next 3 games. In round 5, I was paired with the seasoned IM Michael Mulyar. The game started out innocently enough, but after a couple of inaccuracies on his side, I seized the initiative. The moves flowed naturally as I applied relentless pressure on my opponent, eventually converting my advantage using some dynamic motifs.
I was back on the saddle with 4/5 and was paired against GM Vladimir Belous in Round 6. The game was nothing to write home about and ended in a topsy-turvy draw. The most interesting game of the round amongst the top boards was between Canadian IM Aman Hambleton and the top seed in the tournament, GM Andrey Stukopin.
Andrey methodically exploited his opponent’s inaccuracies and won an instructive strategic game.
After a messy draw against GM Denes Boros, I was paired in the penultimate round against GM Stukopin, who stood at an outstanding 6.5/7 and was running away with the tournament. We traded Queens early on, but I was able to build up a seemingly decisive advantage after some mistakes on his side. Unfortunately, I was unable to convert it, and my opponent was rewarded with a draw for his tenacious defense.
I finished with a win in the last round, putting me at 6.5/9, good enough for tied 2nd. GMs Stukopin and Belous shared 1st with 7.5/9.
Alex Betaneli, along with the reliable duo of Arbiter Glenn Panner and Assistant Arbiter Jim Hodina, did a terrific job of hosting the tournament. They approached it from what was in the player’s best interest. The pairings were out well in time, and the playing hall always remained quiet. Also, each table had a box to drop-off electronic devices before the games started, thus greatly reducing the possibility of a forfeit due to carelessly leaving the devices on-person.
The Howard Johnson location was conveniently nestled between two supermarkets. The hotel itself was spacious and had an impressive indoor pool. I have never stayed this close to the playing hall, which was just a 30-second walk away.
I hope Wisconsin will become a frequent destination for major open chess tournaments in the future.