GM Ramirez: "More Round Robins!"

blitz01Beyond the booming presence of chess in Saint Louis, clubs and programs have sprung around the country, reaching out to schools, giving grandmasters a place to teach, and forging the new recruits for the American future elite. The Charlotte Chess Club, the efforts of the late Sevan Muradian, the Dallas Chess Club, all the happenings in New York, the American Chess Academy in Los Angeles, The Mechanics Institute and the US Chess School. And yet, with all this, I still feel there is an important void in American chess that has yet to be filled: Round Robins. You might be asking yourself, “well, what's the big deal about Round Robins? They sound boring!” It's an all play all format, and a random Round Robin won't have the prestige or interest that is generated by an important title, such as national championship or Candidate's tournament. Indeed, that might explain the lack of Round Robins in America, but that doesn't make them any less important for the growth of chess. Let me explain:
  • Being a chess player isn't easy. Most grandmasters supplement their income by teaching, writing books, giving lectures or doing other random things, but making money from simply winning tournaments isn't easy. Actually, you need a lot of strength (rating) to get invited to the circuits where you can make a living playing chess. In Europe, many grandmasters have access to leagues (Bundesliga, 4NCL, French League, Liga Española, etc). Here, well, not so much. So, only one path remains, if one wants to be a professional chess player: one must get to 2700. Getting there is easier said than done, and we aren't even talking about the dedication, talent or mental stability (or instability) required to get there, but also the playing opportunities.
  • If one is a grandmaster rated 2550-2650 the list of tournaments one wants to play in is surprisingly slim. European events are far, expensive, and they offer less and less conditions (expenses paid) to players around that rating. The greater prevalence of 2700s and 2650+ players means that it isn't unreasonable for a top ten player in America to simply not be offered anything to go to a strong open. Going to events such as the Chicago Open, National Open, World Open and all these kinds of tournaments is a big risk. You spend most of the tournament playing down, and it's entirely possible that one mistake just ruins the entire tournament.
Winning rating, though possible, is difficult. When Igor Kovalenko crossed 2700 by playing open tournaments, an interview with him on indicated that “very few grandmasters have crossed the 2700 mark, but it is almost unheard of that one of them does it by only playing open events!” (WGM Dorsa Derakshani).
  • This is where Round Robins come in. A place where grandmasters can play against each other, keep playing strong games and sharpen the skill-set needed to face the elite, a world where drawing with black is, amazingly, not a bad thing.
The Chinggis Chess Club, located a bit south of the San Francisco Airport, is thankfully bringing some needed fresh air to this format. Their inaugural Round Robin tournament was held last year, and this is the second time they are hosting it. We can only hope that they continue making these kinds of tournaments! The tournament attracted seven grandmasters, two International Masters and the local player: Bayaraa Chingun who is rated just shy of 1800, but is only ten years old. chingun01 I was talking to the organizer of the tournament, Bayaraa Bekhtur, who goes by Bay, about the event. The return on investment simply cannot be compared to other tournaments, he explained. Every game that Chingun played was a learning experience, and he wasn't getting blown out of the water from the get go by any means. He ended up not scoring any points, but was close to a draw in more than one game. He can surely take this learning experience and proceed to become a better player. The tournament itself was warm and inviting. We had home made food between rounds, the hotel was close to the playing hall and the organizer provided transportation, and overall it was a pleasure to participate in the event. Chess-wise, it was a very strong tournament. The top seed was Sam Shankland, while two other 2600s joined the fray: Timur Gareyev and Yaroslav Zherebukh. Four players were in the 2500s': myself, Andrey Stukopin, Cristian Chirila and Andrey Gorovets (who is technically still looking for his GM norms, though he is easily GM strength). In the 2400s was GM Tsegmed Batchuluun and IM Keaton Kiewra. Fighting chess was rampant, with many games going well into the fifth or almost sixth hour of play. The format was an almost winner takes all, with $3500 going to the winner, $1000 to second and $500 for third. Zherebukh was the early leader of the tournament. He faced Chingun on the first round and was the only decisive game, and he also struck against Kiewra on round two to go into a 2-0 lead. However, that is more or less where things ended on his good streak. In a slugfest battle, Stukopin was able to catch Zherebukh with a nice victory with white... but in round four it was Shankland that was able to beat Stukopin to take the lead, with the following nice game:

[Event "Chinggis Chess Club Invitational"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2016.01.21"]
[White "Shankland, Sam"]
[Black "Stukopin, Andrey"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "B66"]
[WhiteElo "2638"]
[BlackElo "2558"]
[Annotator "Ramirez Alvarez,Alejandro"]
[PlyCount "73"]
[EventDate "2016.??.??"]
[WhiteClock "0:24:31"]
[BlackClock "0:17:16"]

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Bg5 e6 7. Qd2 a6 8.
O-O-O h6 9. Be3 Bd7 10. f3 Qc7 {In a well known position, this might already
be an innaccuracy. Better is to start immediately with 10...b5 so that the
game continuation is not possible.} 11. Kb1 $1 {A cunning waiting move.} b5 (
11... Na5 {might be an idea, and is definitely more pleasant than the game
continuation.}) (11... Be7 {feels like a loss of a tempo in these kinds of
Ragozin Sicilians. It's not like Black wants to castle kingside after playing
h6.}) 12. Bxb5 $1 {A typical Sicilian sacrifice. The endgame is highly
unpleasant for Black.} (12. Ncxb5 {is simlar and also deserves attention.})
12... axb5 13. Ndxb5 Qb8 14. Nxd6+ Bxd6 15. Qxd6 Qxd6 16. Rxd6 Na5 {In general,
if Black manages to find counterplay against the queenside in these kinds of
position, he should be ok, but with everything being under control and Black
still lacking some development, it is very difficult to play the position with
the extra piece. All White has to do is not let Black move anything and the
pawns will roll on their own.} (16... O-O 17. Rhd1 {is very awkward for the
Black pieces.}) 17. b3 Rc8 18. Kb2 Bc6 19. Rhd1 Nd7 20. a4 Ne5 21. R6d4 g5 22.
Nb5 O-O 23. Bd2 Ra8 24. Bb4 Rfc8 25. Bd6 Ng6 26. c4 e5 27. R4d2 Bd7 28. Bb4
Nxc4+ {Desperation, but Black's position was already pitiful. Shankland
finishes off the game precisely.} 29. bxc4 Rxc4 30. Ka3 Be6 31. Rd8+ Rxd8 32.
Rxd8+ Kh7 33. a5 Rc2 34. Rd2 Rc6 35. Rd6 Ne7 36. a6 Rxd6 37. Nxd6 1-0[/pgn]
I started off well, drawing my first two games and defeating Chingun and Chirila:

[Event "Chinggis Chess Club Invitational"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2016.01.20"]
[White "Ramirez, Alejandro"]
[Black "Chirila, Ioan-Cristian"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C77"]
[WhiteElo "2578"]
[BlackElo "2536"]
[Annotator "Ramirez Alvarez,Alejandro"]
[PlyCount "69"]
[EventDate "2016.??.??"]
[WhiteClock "0:09:04"]
[BlackClock "0:00:42"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. d3 d6 6. c3 Be7 7. O-O O-O 8. Nbd2
b5 9. Bc2 d5 10. Re1 d4 11. cxd4 exd4 12. a3 {An interesting position
strategically. I'm playing my good friend Cristian Chirila, and I decided to
go for a 1.e4 line that I never play. As such, I had no clue what I was doing
while my opponent was banging out moves. Still, I liked my position.} a5 $6 {
Played almost instantly. A good learning experience: just because you've
played the line before doesn't mean you shouldn't check your moves before you
play them.} (12... Nd7 {was, as I learned after the game, reached in
Chirila-Sokolov a couple of years ago. Chirila played this with Black again a
few rounds later against Stukopin, but lost again though he had a good
position from the opening.}) 13. a4 $1 {It is this breakthrough that makes
Black's position awkward.} Ba6 14. axb5 Bxb5 15. Ba4 Bxa4 16. Rxa4 (16. Qxa4
Nb4 17. Ne5 {was, apparently, more precise.}) 16... Nd7 (16... Nb4 {was the
move I was expecting.} 17. Nc4 Nd7 $1 {and I wasn't sure how to reply. I
calculated that I cannot take on a5.} 18. Nxa5 (18. Rxa5 Nc5 {and Black is
doing quite well.}) 18... Qe8 $1 $13) 17. Nxd4 $1 {It took me some time to
calculate this move, but I was just trying to make sure all the variations
worked in my favor.} Nb4 18. N2f3 Bf6 $2 {Not what I was expecting, and the
reason my opponent played this is rather curious.} (18... Nc5 {was my original
thought, as was his, but then he miscalculated badly!} 19. Ra3 Ncxd3 20. Nc6 {
was my idea, and I thought after} (20. Rxd3 {was what he thought won on the
spot, but lo and behold:} Nxd3 21. Nc6 {it seems that Black's position is
desperate. If he moves his queen, I take the bishop and d3 is unprotected.}
Nxe1 $1 22. Nxd8 Nxf3+ 23. Qxf3 Rfxd8 {and unfortunately for me, I end up down
material! Black has more than enough for the queen and is in the driver's seat.
}) 20... Nxc6 21. Rxd3 Qb8 22. Qa4 Nb4 23. Rdd1 {I preserved some edge, which
shouldn't be much.}) 19. Nc2 {Other moves worked, but I liked this one. White
retains his pawn and I finish off the rest in good style.} c5 20. Nxb4 cxb4 21.
d4 Nb6 22. Ra1 a4 23. d5 Ra5 24. Bd2 Bxb2 25. Bxb4 Rb5 26. Rxa4 $1 Re8 27. Ba5
Rxa5 28. Rxa5 Bc3 29. Ra3 $1 Bxe1 30. Qxe1 f5 31. Re3 fxe4 32. Rxe4 Rxe4 33.
Qxe4 Nxd5 34. Qe6+ Kh8 35. Ne5 1-0[/pgn]
This was a nice confidence boost after a disastrous tournament I played the week before in San Diego, where I let go of a share of first place in a position up a piece against IM John Daniel Bryant. However, things would not stay happy for me. After squandering an almost winning position against Kiewra, I had my doomsday by losing two in a row. I got overambitious against Stukopin and lost with the white pieces, while playing the fifth hour against Gareyev I hallucinated in time pressure and lost. chinggis01 Meanwhile, Shankland and Stukopin kept going at an implacable pace, with Sam pulling a 0.5 point lead. Gareyev joined Stukopin after beating me, and it was these three that lead the standings going into the final round. Interestingly, all three won the final round game and Shankland won a deserved first place.
Photo: Yevgeny Surov Photo: Yevgeny Surov
Personally my tournament ended up being rather mediocre, with only 5.0/9, but it was a great learning experience and a chance to try out new things, not to mention I now have a lot of material to review, weaknesses to address and work to do. I can't thank Bay and the staff of the Chinggis Chess Club enough for hosting this event. I hope that other chess clubs around the USA start hosting more Round Robins, both for norm events and for grandmasters to strengthen their play. Trust me, if you want to throw in a couple of local players to get their strength up and for them to play and measure themselves against some of the best fighters in the country, we will be happy to play them! I enjoyed my visit to San Francisco very much, and I can't wait to be back.  

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