“If I don’t get my last norm on this trip it will be nothing but an utter failure,” I joked, half-seriously, to my roommate and travel partner, Tom Riccardi. “Okay just kidding–the experience will be totally worth it, of course, no matter how I do,” I added, wisely lowering the expectations. I often lecture about the importance of not pinning your happiness to your results, to aim to enjoy the moment and the process and to be satisfied with trying your best. My two-month trip to Europe, somewhat unfortunately, gave me the golden opportunity to practice what I preach. I only had one real goal, to earn my third and final IM norm, and four tries to make it happen.
The trip came about spontaneously. Despite playing alongside each other in a few national championships when we were much younger and much less aware of the infinite stresses of chess, Tom and I never actually met or spoke until about a year ago, when we ran into each other at a blitz tournament held at the historic Mechanics Chess Club in San Francisco. A few weeks later Tom messaged me and we started studying together. He was planning to go to dental school in Fall of 2016 and wanted to play as much chess as possible before then, to see how far he could go. Thus he wanted to travel, perhaps to Europe, and play in a series of high-level chess tournaments. And me, pining to play in Europe for a few years now, finally felt confident enough to make the jump; so we started planning the trip last summer. As luck would have it, we were also both seeking a place to live in Santa Clara County (aka the South Bay), and so we moved in together in Mountain View and setup a permanent chessboard in our living room.
We quickly figured out that the marquee tournaments were the Gibraltar Chess Festival at the end of January and the Reykjavik Open in March. Searching for events in between, we eventually stumbled upon two tournaments in France: the Cappelle-la-Grande Open and the Cannes Chess Festival, both expected to have quite a strong turnout. Much to our surprise, however, by October of 2015 the Gibraltar Open was already full! They reached their cap of about 250 players and had quite a few on the waitlist as well.
So we planned our trip to start in Cappelle and finish in Reyjkavik. Then, at the beginning of January earlier this year, with our flights already booked, I got an email from GM Stuart Conquest, the director of the Gibraltar Chess Festival, who asked if I could still make the tournament, as a spot had opened up. I forwarded the email to Tom, adding a four-letter expletive in all-caps. I had already prepared, mentally, emotionally, and financially to start the trip in France. It would be such a burden to change everything around and prepare myself to actually make it and play Gibraltar. But passing up the opportunity to play in Gibraltar was simply not an option; it felt a bit like destiny, honestly speaking. So I hustled and altered my travel plans, booked a new flight and an Airbnb in Gibraltar and Paris, where I would stay for a week and meet up with Tom before heading north to Cappelle-la-Grande.
Finally the dream trip was set, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I had no reason not to be confident, I had spent the last six months really training seriously and my previous tournament, the 2015 North American Open, earned me my second IM norm. But I was also scared, genuinely, of failing. I went back and forth, from confidence to fear. Eventually I landed upon the philosophy that since my eventual goal is to become a Grandmaster anyway, then while getting the final IM norm would be wonderful and amazing and deeply fulfilling, it was just a step of a much longer journey, so it wouldn’t matter all that much in the long run if/when I achieved this goal. With my mind and spirit at ease I embarked on my journey.
Gibraltar Chess Festival The U.K. territory just south of Spain was warm and delightful, with the gorgeous rock of Gibraltar visible from any point in the city. If I had to choose a favorite tournament this would be it. Impeccably organized, ridiculously strong, and overall a great experience. I loved playing in the main room, surrounded by so many brilliant players: Anand, Short, Kamsky, Nakamura, MVL…I mean you couldn’t throw a rock (pun intended) and not hit a 2700 super-GM.
My tournament started out without any hits or misses, I won in Round 1 playing down against an American, Edward Sedillo (my last game in Europe was also to be against an American, but I played zero in between!). Then in Round 2 I lost to GM Bela Khotenashvili (Georgia), one of the strongest female players in the world, despite at one point having an excellent position. In Round 3 I was again paired down and won against Henrik Lobersli of Norway (I would face Henrik once more in the Reykjavik Open) and in Round 4 I again faced one of the strongest female players in the world, GM Valentina Gunina (Russia), who got the better of me in a very complex game. 2/4 was nothing to be shy about, as I felt I had played fairly reasonably up to that point. Then I won so, so undeservedly in Round 5:
Alistair Hill vs. Kostya Kavutskiy
White to move.
In the diagrammed position I had just played Nd6, hoping for Qc6, so I could play Rc8 and trap White’s queen. My opponent saw the same simple trap, and quickly retreated with Qb2. Neither he nor I noticed that after Qc6 Rc8 the knight on d6 is unprotected (!) and Qxd6 would decide matters on the spot. Call it whatever you’d like, mutual blindness, divine providence, sheer dumb luck, I eventually won the game and blissfully tweeted about it. In Round 6 I finally got my big break. I was paired against another Norwegian, IM Johan Salomon, who I managed to outplay towards the end of the first time control, allowing me to win a nice game:
Now thoughts of getting that norm started swimming around in my head. In my next two games I drew against grandmasters Florian Handke of Germany and G.N. Gopal of India. While on paper that’s an excellent result, especially for someone chasing the norm, I felt very disappointed to miss several wins against GM Handke:
In Round 9 I’d be gifted with a serious chance of clinching not just the norm, but the title too, since my live rating had crossed 2400 by this point in the tournament. I was paired Black against yet another elite female player, WGM Tan Zhongyi (China). The morning of the game I went on a small hike with Mike Klein and Peter Doggers of Chess.com, who were at Gibraltar to run the official live-commentary broadcast. Normally I’d try to relax before such an important game, but I wouldn’t get another chance to climb the rock and appreciate the view, so enjoyment of nature trumped chess preparation in this one case.
But despite losing the following game I don’t regret going on the hike at all, if anything it boosted my confidence—well see for yourself, I had a great position!
Honestly I’m still not over this one, even now, more than two months later. I can still close my eyes and I’m there, in Gibraltar, feeling swell, watching my norm hopes dwindle away move by move. All I can hope for now is to learn from the experience and never ever relax in a chess game until the clock is stopped, no matter what.
In the final round I could still earn the norm with a win over GM Pontus Carlsson (Sweden) but I wasn’t even close. Pontus outplayed me and won handedly. I blew it the round before.
During Round 1 of this event I ran into IM Marc Esserman–we’d met a few years before but never talked all that much. We exchanged our travel plans and found out we’d both be playing Cappelle-la-Grande, Cannes, and Reykjavik! Marc was already on an extended tour that included the London Chess Classic back in December of 2015. Like me, Marc was seeking a title (the grandmaster title), and like me, came oh so close. His event was nonetheless memorable, as he defeated Nigel Short and then drew Anand a few rounds later:
Vishy opted out of Marc’s beloved Smith-Morra Gambit, a definite moral victory! Photo: Sophie Triay
Although in the end I finished with just 5/10, the experience was really invaluable, and the tournament had a great atmosphere. In addition to Marc I also ran into U.S. players FM Kazim Gulamali and FM Matt Herman, who, incidentally, did clinch his final IM norm and the title, beating GM Handke in the final round to boot, (congrats Matt)!
Kostya, Mike Klein, and Peter Doggers at one of Gibraltar’s many social events. Photo: Sophie Triay
After Gibraltar I spent a week in Paris resting, enjoying the food, and contemplating life (so you know, the usual Parisian experience). I met up with Jason Stoneking, a Paris-based writer who I’ve worked with multiple times in the past doing commentary on Chess.com. We discussed chess, life, art, nihilism, among other things, and visited the Museum of Hunting and Nature, where they had way more taxidermy than I ever thought possible.
Me and my spirit animal, the forlorn polar bear
A few days later Tom flew in, having never seen Paris before, so we spent an afternoon trying to cram in as many sights as possible. We saw the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre Museum. Then the next day we took a bus up to the northern tip of France, to Dunkirk, the larger town adjacent to Cappelle-la-Grande. Honestly I had the least amount of idea in terms of what to expect from this tournament. We even had to switch hotels at the last second but eventually found a good hotel near the town’s central bus stop, and would travel to the tournament hall daily.
We were pleasantly surprised by the event, as despite having over 500 players in attendance the tournament went quite smoothly and the organization (as far as I could tell) ran extremely well. The field was not as star-studded as Gibraltar but nevertheless extremely deep in strength, with over 50 grandmasters, led by the top seed, Kamsky (who would go on to win clear first).
My tournament started out fruitfully as I drew against GM Andrey Vovk of Ukraine (my countryman!). But then followed a loss to GM Murtas Kazhgaleyev (Kazakhstan) and a draw playing down against Prasenjit Dutta (India). Due to the huge number of players and the hyper-accelerated pairings used by the tournament, I was relegated to playing down my next three rounds. I won all three, and got another crack at a top player, facing GM Tigran Gharamian (France). He duly trounced me, and I was back to playing down for the rest of the tournament, sans norm chances. I scored another win in Round 8, and had I converted a winning position in my last round game, I likely would’ve taken the top U2400 prize on tie-breaks. But it was not to be.
Tom, on the other hand, had an excellent tournament, scoring a few upsets and finishing with 5/9, which was good enough to take the top U2100 prize on tiebreaks.
I’d like to show one of Tom’s most impressive games, especially since it was connected with a pretty funny story about opening preparation:
A few hours before the game, Tom showed me the idea of 8…h5, a novelty, with the point that after 9.Bxh5 Nxh5 10.Nxh5b5! Black offers a second pawn and gets huge compensation with his powerful light-squared bishop. And of course this was exactly what transpired in the game, and Tom won beautifully against a titled opponent. But the real story begins about halfway through the game–I had already won and was observing Tom’s board, when Marc came up to me and started asking about Tom’s preparation, and if he had showed or mentioned his game to us against WGM Masha Klinova (Israel) from two rounds before. I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he was even asking, until he added that he had played that exact same line against his opponent:
So Marc too prepared the same crazy novelty and also ended up winning a nice game, although he couldn’t get his opponent to accept the second sacrificed pawn on b5. Interestingly, both Marc and Tom opted for the same psychological strategy during their games to “veil” their preparation, spending quite a bit of time in the opening stage, resorting to outright acting to make 8…h5 followed by 10…b5 appear completely improvised. While Marc’s opponent saw through the act and wisely rejected the second pawn, Tom’s victim bought his story and ended up paying the full price! In the end Marc finished with 6.5/9 and was again close to a GM norm. He also managed to score against another legend, Artur Yusupov, in a very interesting draw:
With Cappelle-la-Grande now finished Tom and I had just a single day to travel the entire length of France to the opposite corner, Cannes.
FM Kostya Kavutskiy is a chess player, writer, and teacher based in Northern California. Make sure to follow Kostya on his Twitter and look for Part 2 of this article coming soon.