There was no real time to reflect on the slight disappointment in Cappelle-la-Grande, as the Cannes Chess Festival was only one day away. Tom (Riccardi) and I took a bus back to Paris and then a high-speed train to the south of France. Upon arrival, it was quickly obvious why Cannes is known for being such a vacation hotspot—the view of the Mediterranean Sea, the beaches, the food, it was all beautiful! We rented an apartment through AirBnb and cooked most of our meals, our go-to staple being farfalle with sausage, mushrooms, onions, and whatever vegetables we could pick up from the grocery store. I also had a lot of Nutella while in France. Like a lot. Tom wouldn’t stop giving me a hard time about it.
Cannes The Cannes Chess Festival was run as part of a larger “Festival of Board Games” held at the Palais des Arts, where they hold all the Cannes Festivals (most notably Film, I believe). I joked about feeling slighted that chess was being played in the same room as checkers and scrabble, “childish board games”, of which there were also serious competitions taking place during the week. The tournament was much smaller than Gibraltar or Cappelle but still strong, with Gata Kamsky as the top seed, joined by GMs Danil Dubov and Evgeny Romanov of Russia, and several more GMs and IMs playing. My tournament started poorly with a draw against an expert, failing to convert a winning endgame, but then I bounced back with a quick win and held a draw against GM Kazhgaleyev, who had just defeated me in Cappelle.
Another photo from the gorgeous playing hall at Cappelle-la-Grande
But the fate of my tournament took a turn for the worse in the next game, when I lost to FM Thomas O’Sullivan, a French junior who narrowly missed an IM norm in the event. It was hard to feel too upset though, as he did catch me in the opening and then outplayed me as well. I could never quite bounce back in the event, drawing my next two games (two more failed conversions) while playing down.
This would be my worst event of the trip by far, but there was a bright spot, as I managed to win an Open Sicilian against FM Bastien Dubessay (France), despite being out-prepared (!) :
In the next round I lost to GM Artur Kogan, who played his usual style of enterprising chess and soundly beat me. In the final round I drew against a master in an unmemorable game, finishing with 4.5/9 and a loss of 22 rating points. Tom also had a disastrous tournament, blowing a completely won game against an FM in Round 1 and never recovering, with a few more losses than he’d care to remember.
But Marc (Esserman) did quite all right, scoring 6/9 against a tough field, with a key loss coming at the hands of Kamsky in Round 8. The tournament was surprisingly won by GM Bai Jinshi (China), who defeated Dubov and GM Abhijeet Gupta on his way to finish clear first with 7.5/9.
Now that the nightmare in Cannes was over, Tom and I flew to Brussels, as we had a weeklong break before our final event, the Reykjavik Open. In Brussels we stayed with one of my closest friends from my time at Lindenwood University, Elise, who was an extremely generous host.
We had a couple of goals for Brussels. One, we wanted to relax and recharge, there were ten more games to be won in Iceland and it was important to show up fresh and excited to play chess. Secondly, we wanted to explore Brussels, and get a bit of culture in during our trip. We saw the world-famous Atomium, had authentic Belgian waffles and fries (mostly known as “french fries”), and developed an intimate understanding of the many, many varieties of Belgian beer. I was amazed by the overall beauty of Brussels, which is filled with rich architecture mixed with a more modern aesthetic.
Mont des Arts Garden, overlooking Brussel’s Town Hall in the Grand Place
Somewhat surprisingly, there was quite a fun chess scene in Brussels for amateurs and club players alike, who would often meet up to play blitz during weeknights and weekends at one of several bars throughout the city. Upon discovering the scene Tom and I first tried the ol’ “let’s pretend we’re total beginners but then play at our real strength and crush everyone”, but after a few “brilliancies” the jig was up and we had to confess our ratings. There was even an informal blitz tournament that we crashed on our final day in Brussels. I did well overall but then dropped two games to a couple of players around master strength (no shame in that, especially after downing a few Carolus!). Tom ended up winning the event, going undefeated in all but one game (against yours truly).
Tom in a ‘spirited’ post-mortem against one of the players who scalped me.
We also had the chance to meet up with Frederic, one of my students through Chess.com University, whom I teach monthly in an interactive group class. Frederic took us to one of his favorite cafes in the city where we played a bit, drank more beer (hey, when in Belgium!), and philosophized about chess and life and everything in between.
As far as tourism goes, I’d say Brussels was my favorite city to visit. Not as crowded as Paris, but just as visually stunning and full of rich history. But now it was time to get back to business: Iceland.
Upon arriving in Iceland we quickly got settled into where we were staying: a large house turned hostel near Downtown Reykjavik. There were about 6-10 people staying there at any given point during the week, so it was interesting to see so many faces come and go in a short period of time. We were really excited to play again in a serious environment; Reykjavik has a reputation for being extremely well-organized, competitive, exciting, and this year was no exception.
Like the Cappelle-la-Grande Open, the Reykjavik Open consisted of one big section, ranging from beginners to super-GMs, most notably Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Dmitry Andreikin, and Richard Rapport, three players I was really star-struck to see play in person. The large section meant one had to do well in the early rounds in order to play against stronger opposition and retain better chances of norming. I would feel obliged to comment on the many Americans playing in Iceland, but Alejandro already did it for me!
I won my first game, then got held to two draws while playing down, a bad omen signaling that this was not going to be my tournament either.
On the next day, before Round 4, Tom and I and about 50 other players embarked on the Golden Circle Tour, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. The tour took us on many different sights, including the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir (one of the world’s largest active geysers), and of course a must-see while in Iceland: the Bobby Fischer Chess Center and grave in Selfoss.
The Gullfoss (“golden falls”) waterfall
Fischer’s final resting place
In front of many photos, news clippings, books and magazines about the immortal Fischer.
The tour was beautiful, interesting, and downright inspiring. Being reminded of the greatness of Bobby Fischer really gets me riled up, what can I say! I won in Round 4 to move to 3/4, which set up my first big challenge in Round 5: 2600+ GM Nils Grandelius (Sweden), who shockingly started off the event with a loss in Round 1, and just finished playing in the Altibox Norway Chess super-tournament, which he qualified for shortly after the Reykjavik Open. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say I got extremely lucky in this game:
Photo courtesy of Lennart Ootes
This incredible save made me realize that anything is possible in chess, and even strong Grandmasters are often fallible. The next round saw me paired against GM Stefan Kristjansson (Iceland). Around this time, (or perhaps a round earlier/later) a representative of ‘New In Chess’ magazine was in the hall handing out copies of a recent issue, and had I opened it up and read Grischuk’s annotations to one of his key wins in the 2015 World Blitz Championship, I could have been saved from the following opening catastrophe:
A painful game no doubt, but I definitely learned from it. I won the next two rounds to return to the higher boards and play up again, this time against IM Mads Andersen (Denmark), whose GM title is currently pending (I think). I was definitely outplayed from the opening, but completely turned things around when my opponent overestimated his position and fell into serious trouble. Somehow, I couldn’t finish it off; not winning this game was probably one of the most upsetting experiences in chess that I’ve ever had:
Photo courtesy of Lennart Ootes
I normally don’t get angry after a game, if I get outplayed I’m typically fine and focus on what I can learn, if I blunder or play terribly I get mopey and pensive and start thinking about other career options, but after this game I wanted to punch a hole in the wall. I think I was mainly angry at myself for letting such a beautiful sacrifice go to waste, especially against such a strong player in such an important event…and with Black! My norm chances were effectively dead at this point, but I still had a final round to play the next day, so I let my anger fester for a bit and then tried to let it go.
As luck would have it, I was paired against GM Alexander Shabalov. This was a tough pairing, and I knew it going in. Shabalov won his first U.S. Championship when I wasn’t even one year old, and his massive experience would undoubtedly help him deal with the pressures of the final round. I was out of norm contention at this point, but a win or a draw would get me the U2400 prize and finish the trip on an excellent note. Alas, it was not to be:
I wasn’t too bummed out about this game, at least I had some chances. In a sharp position, Alex handled the dynamics better than me and deservedly won. I finished with 6/10 and a loss of few points. Tom had an up-and-down event, scoring a few upset draws, finishing with 5/9 (he withdrew before the final round to make sure he caught his flight back to the states). Marc again had an excellent event, with 7/10, including draws against Rapport and former candidate Beliavsky (!), adding to his list of scalps of Anand, Short, and Yusupov.
Overall the trip was an incredible experience. I learned so much about chess, about myself, about the world. It wasn’t all amazing, there were some pretty heavy downs, but I tried to remind myself that this was what I signed up for—the experience to play chess all over the world, win, lose, or draw.
Adjusting to traveling (especially solo) is probably tough for everyone their first time. I can’t say I had a unique experience, I imagine it was pretty clichéd actually. Feeling like an outsider, in conversation I would often self-deprecate about being American, and joke about my stereotypically poor sense of world geography, and the increasingly serious possibility of Donald Trump becoming the next U.S. president (it got less and less funny with each event).
But despite feeling like an outsider, I felt at home in each tournament, as chess transcends barriers of language and culture. It was easy to connect with someone in a post-mortem–even if we had no language in common—since we just spent the last five hours or so making intermittent eye contact, desperately trying to deduce what the other was thinking. We communicated plenty.
Before the trip I promised myself, as well as others, that I would earn that final norm. And I really thought I would. And I was really close in Gibraltar and Reykjavik, but faltered at critical moments. It’s deeply disappointing but at the same time my philosophy towards chess (and in a sense, life) is that whatever happens is what deserved to happen. Not in the karmic sense but rather a deterministic kind of way.
I returned to Mountain View in late March feeling really depressed, but also really grateful for having the opportunity to even do such a trip in the first place, and very confused about the conflicting nature of all my thoughts. But as a dear friend explained to me, the human mind is made up of different parts, all of which are allowed to feel any way they want to at any point in time. None of them harbor less valid feelings than the other–they all have a right to exist. It made sense that I needed to cope with the stresses of such a long and intense trip, which explains the confusing and conflicting thoughts.
Going over my games really helped, even in a therapeutic way, and of course recounting the trip here helped me relive some of the more painful moments and find a strange form of closure. I’ve already planned and started training for my next few events: the Chicago Open in May, followed by an IM-norm invitational at the Saint Louis Chess Club, and the National Open in Vegas. Wish me luck!