Vegas, Vacations & Victories: Alisa on the North American

FM Alisa Melekhina covers key games on her way to finishing second in the U2300 of the 2017 NAO Open. She also gave a presentation on her recent book, Reality Check. Also featured is an interview with tournament winner GM Robert Hess. Alisa finishes her recap with her Top 3 Tips for Playing in a Tournament after a Long Break.

The end of December is defined by the cheer of the holiday season and vacation getaways to warm destinations. For us tournament chess players, we have another enticing option: the annual North American Chess Open organized by the Continental Chess Association. As with previous years, the 27th annual edition of the event was held in fabulous Las Vegas during the week between Christmas and New Year’s from December 26-30, 2017.

The timing of the tournament made it a convenient option for students on break and non-chess professionals enjoying the slowness of the holiday season. Now that my vacation days are circumscribed by my work schedule, I have to select my tournaments carefully. I knew the tournament would be a gamble, so to speak, as my last major event was the U.S. Women’s Championships in 2016.  Ultimately, there were enough factors weighing in favor of playing at the NAO: timing, location, venue, prize potential, and a 7-round vs. 9-round option.

Viva Las Vegas

While Bally’s is one of the more modest options on the Strip, it’s proximity to the luxurious Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace hotels across the street provide a full Vegas experience at a more reasonable price. The chess hotel rate was $99-$109/night.

Catching up with IM Nazi Paikidze, now a Las Vegas local, and WFM Maria Manelidou at the Mandarin Oriental.

The convenience of a venue should not be underestimated during a chess tournament, especially when the rounds are grouped together in an accelerated double-round/day schedule. The tournament hall was in the same tower as most of the guest rooms. Although it was a quick elevator-ride away, the elevators would get full close to the start of the round and the dismayed procrastinators would have to wait for the next opening. Photo Juan Jauregui

As an added anti-cheating measure, players using the restroom during the rounds are screened for electronic devices.

It is not unusual to see chess vendors around tournament halls. This year, a new board game called Poker Chess (PokerChess.com) set up shop outside. Challengers used the hybrid chess/poker game deck and board to try to win a free set.

With $120,000 in total guaranteed prizes, the prize fund was among the higher of the larger-stakes events hosted by the CCA. However, what differentiated this tournament for me was the availability of an U2300 section. Usually, the next class section after the Open is U2200. This places players at the master level in somewhat of a dilemma. We are used to being jostled around in the open section, stuck in the high-variance loop of playing up/down. For example, in a warm-up event at the Marshall Chess Club a week before the NAO, I went from playing a 1600 in round 1, to a 2500 the next round. For those of us at the tail-end of the Open section, a Swiss tournament can be a tumultuous experience with a scramble for one-off top class prizes. In contrast, the juicy first prize of $7,000 in the NAO U2300 was an incentive that was well within reach. And it’s never about the money. Chess players are trained to thrive in competition; goals that are both meaningful and feasible are essential components.

Open sections offer tremendous experience to players looking to improve, and I highly encourage those looking to raise their game to seek out greater challenges. But, sometimes it is desirable to play in a tournament for the experience or the aesthetics of the game. In these circumstances, I prefer a consistent playing field to one of high-variance. As I discuss in my book, it is important to define goals and expectations before pursuing victory. Playing chess does not necessarily mean that your goal has to be to become the world champion; there are alternatives to meaningfully integrate chess in our lives.

Coming in to the U2300 sction as one of the favorites was also a much-needed confidence boost after not playing seriously for a while. Psychological impact on chess should never be underestimated; it’s possible that the expectation of winning accounted for rising to the occasion. I went undefeated in the tournament and went into the last-round tied for first. I ended with 5.5/7 and split second for a nice payout of $1,516.17.

It’s a Woman’s World

A conspicuous feature of the final round was that the top three boards in the U2300 section each had a female player as the frontrunner. WIM Megan Lee won on board one to clinch clear first. On the other side of me on board 3, WFM Thalia Cervantes defeated the section’s top seed, Garoush Manukyan (2295) to join the tie for second. The 15-year-old had a breakout event, gaining over 60 USCF rating points and surpassing the 2200 benchmark. Originally from Cuba, Cervantes now lives in St. Louis to focus on chess. The women in this section were not to be underestimated. The only games where I came close to losing in the tournament were against Lee and Cervantes.

Thalia Cervantes, Photo Betsy Dynako

The Open section was not without its share of enterprising female players such as young stars WIM Annie Wang, FM Akshita Gorti, WIM Emily Nguyen and WCM Rochelle Wu. While I don’t have the data on trends in the number of participating female players over the years, there was a different feel to this tournament.

National Girls Tournament of Champions winner, Rochelle Wu. Photo Maggie Luo

Growing up playing in open Swisses for the last two decades, I would be among the few female players in the entire tournament. Now, among the record turn-out of 805 participants, there were young women not only competing at all levels, but often being the front runners. Their presence was palpable. Perhaps it was the timing of the event in attracting young players during their winter break, or the subtle incentive embedded in the bonus mixed doubles prize — a not insignificant $2,000 for first. Or maybe it’s a new era in U.S. chess. GM Robert Hess, commenting in his capacity as the coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympiad and World Cadet teams, suggested that the rise could be due to, “more role models and more incentives, such as the Girls’ Junior Championships.”

Morning Dose of Reality Check

In keeping with a strong female representation at open events, I was delighted to be the guest lecturer of the tournament. CCA tournaments usually feature GM/IM lectures or game analysis. With thanks to the tournament organizer, Bill Goichberg, the lectures are free for tournament players. The “catch” is that the lectures usually begin early at 9:00 A.M. before a scheduled 11:00 A.M. morning round (scheduling a lecture post-round would not be feasible given unpredictable end-times for the games). I was concerned that the timing may affect turn-out. Waking up before 9:00 A.M. on the third day of a grueling tournament is tough enough, even tougher in Las Vegas!

On the day-of, I was pleased to see around 50 attendees. Special thanks are due to Juan and Sabrina Jauregui, founders of the burgeoning Las Vegas Chess Center, for helping with on-site tournament registration and for supporting the lecture & book signing.

FM Alisa Melekhina’s lecture and book signing for Reality Check. Photo Juan Jauregui

My lecture focused on the themes of decision-making and logical thinking prevalent in my new release this year, Reality Check: What the Ancient Game of Chess Can Teach You About Success in Modern Competitive Settings. My hope for the audience was that they would take away a more rigorous approach to their decision-making over the board. I opened with a few examples of tactics to distinguish between calculation and decision-making, and then progressed to a more advanced example of inflection points for decision-making in real chess games.

The attendees were from various sections and included kids, adult players, and parents. Photo Juan Jauregui

Partial group photo of the early-risers. More than a few people told me, after the morning round that day, that they won using the tactics and lines we discussed! Photo Juan Jauregui 

The main example was from my favorite opening, the c3 Sicilian for white. I previously made a YouTube video for iChess on How to Win in the c3 Sicilian in 21 moves or Lessthe title was inspired by miniatures won in this line. I supplemented with an article on Alapin theory in the October 2014 issue of Chess Life. At the end of my lecture, I joked that I was happy that my first-round opponent at the NAO didn’t see this content because the game was from this exact line. It just exceeded 21 moves, but nevertheless served as the perfect start to my tournament.

Endearing Endgames

Logical chess sequences often occur in endgames because there are fewer overall pieces, allowing your pieces to coordinate. I had a few such “logical endgame” puzzles occur in my games. I remember thinking, while I was playing, that it’s too bad chess can’t be this logical in earlier stages of the game — these puzzles were a joy to figure out over the board.

Over in the Open section, a missed winning endgame sequence disrupted IM Kostya Kavutskiy’s almost-stellar finish. Going into the last round, he had 5/8 and was playing GM Mark Paragua on board 12. A win would have likely shared the $2,400 prize for top U2400.

For many players, missing a last-round win against a GM would be devastating. However, always the good sport, Kavutskiy comments: “The game went surprisingly well, and I found myself an exchange up with a more-or-less easy winning path. Of course, I managed to mess it up, and having reached this position, I realized White’s winning chances had finally evaporated, as Black’s counterplay with h3+ (followed by a king move and Be5) is quite dangerous. So I played…

Although there was no Christmas tree in the playing hall, IM Kavutskiy’s new hair color lit up the room. Photo Kostya Kavutskiy

[C]Hess Goals

GM Hess also credits an endgame en route to his victory in the open section. He won first place on tiebreaks with 7/9 and took home $4,140. His favorite game of the tournament was surprisingly not a win, but his 86-move, round-8 draw against GM Sam Sevian. Hess explains, “It was a hard-fought draw. Holding a very strong, talented GM to a draw made it my most meaningful game of the tournament. I was slightly worse, had less space, made some inaccuracies, and released the tension early. Although I was eventually able to neutralize, I had only 20 seconds left in the knight endgame. A memorable moment occurred at the very end when my knight was trapped. White didn’t have to recapture.”

As in my case, Hess was re-entering the open tournament circuit after somewhat of a hiatus. His previous major event was the 2017 Winter Classic round-robin in St. Louis in March where he finished third with 5/9. When asked how round-robins compare to Swisses, he quipped “It’s like apples to spaghetti,” wanting to keep the analogy within the realm of food: Swisses require coping with two arduous games per day, but round-robins have the added pressure of thoroughly preparing for each opponent. Each format requires its own strategy. Hess feels that, “Opens help a non-theoretical style, such as myself, to catch people off guard. On balance, I prefer playing in Swisses.” Though, “I am definitely open to receiving invitations to strong, prestigious round-robins,” he (half)-joked.

Hess credits his involvement in the chess community to staying sharp. Although he doesn’t play in open events as often as he used to, his commentary work, writing for Chess Life, and generally following top games keeps him in the loop. Now that Hess has private students, he has a new form of motivation: “My students have inspired me. I wanted to perform well because they look up to me.” I asked if having students look up to his performance would, on the flip side, add pressure. Hess rebuffed the idea: “No; I didn’t even think about not doing well.”

GM Hess facing off against IM Dionisio Aldama in round 5. The game ended in a draw and Aldama also finished with 7/9 to be the only IM to join the 5-way tie for first. Photo Juan Jauregui 

Hess decided to play in the NAO because it coincided with a vacation in San Diego beforehand. Additional urging from long-time friend IM Teddy Coleman decided it. IM Coleman is one of many former junior players making a comeback.  He “recently changed jobs for the excitement of working at a tech startup and [is] also working on chess on the side.” Coleman had a good start by drawing 16-year-old star and tournament favorite GM Ruifeng Li in round 3, but after one draw too many after that, ended the tournament with 5/9 and +10 rating points.

As much as the tournament landscape has changed since I began competing nearly 20 years ago, there is a common thread that draws chess players back in. As I was looking through old chess photos to possibly include in the article, I was pleasantly surprised to come across an old Pan-American Youth team photo from 2001 in Argentina, including many familiar faces.

Pan-American Youth team photo. Argentina, 2001. Among the familiar faces are, from left to right, Teddy Coleman, myself, Fabiano Caruana, and Robert Hess on the end-right. Joel Benjamin and Tom Brownscombe were the team coaches.  

And there the three of us were, over 16 years later at the NAO, still engaged in a post-mortem analysis in a skittles room. (Not to mention that Tom Brownscombe, who came as one of the coaches for team USA that year, was also one of the NAO tournament directors this year.)

What keeps us playing even when we have all had such divergent academic and career paths? In fact, the last time I interviewed Hess was for my Career Crossroads cover article in the April 2015 edition of Chess Life.

We had ultimately agreed that balancing “competitive” chess and other careers turns on what one means by “competitive.” Nowadays, the chess world offers so many alternatives to staying involved outside of simply becoming an elite player. When asked about long-term chess goals three years ago, Hess’ position was, “I don’t really like setting goals; I like being happy.” Now, even since graduating from Yale in 2015, not much has changed. “Chess is something I will always do,” citing to opportunities like commentary to stay involved.  He noted that there is a difference between pursuing chess as a profession and as a career. Moreover, the flexibility of chess allows one to be involved in multiple pursuits without being limited to a single career.

Top 3 Tips for Playing in a Tournament after a Long Break

The sentiments are similar to what I advise those who ask me about the best way to study chess while maintaining full-time careers outside of chess. In fact, that is one of the most frequent questions I receive during Q&A of my book signings. Here are the top three tips I offer for those occasional tournament players who have other full-time commitments.

  1. Tactics, tactics, tactics. Tactics are by no means a cure-all for chess study. However, it is absolutely necessary to be warmed up with tactics before re-entering tournament play after a break. Preparation begins well before you actually play.

Blunders are one of the worst symptoms of rust. It doesn’t matter if you have strong understanding; your entire tournament could be marred by a blunder. Being limited in your tactical vision also causes indirect side-effects. Obscured board vision causes constant second-guessing. This in turn depletes time, which in turn causes notorious time-scrambles, which in turn leads to the usual “I was winning but lost in time trouble” narrative to lament over a tournament gone wrong.

When I was competing regularly, I would rarely blunder. However, when playing after a break of several months, I noticed I would make uncharacteristic oversights. This would happen back in my law school days when my studies would overturn my chess priorities. After ruining a decent position to yet another blunder at the 2014 National Open in Las Vegas, I dropped out of the 6-round event. And I rarely drop out of tournaments. From that point on, I swore I would do at least 15 minutes of tactics a day. I am proud to say that I have, for the most part, kept up with that promise.

I prefer the chess.com Tactics Trainer, but any tactics book or app, once a day, every day, will help keep you ready for when you decide to play. It’s simple but non-negotiable. As long as you’re a chess player, you must keep your tactical vision sharp.

  1. Play an OTB warm-up event. Players who are no longer active in tournaments may still be very active online. Yet, online games are not a substitute to playing over-the-board. There’s just something different about sitting down at a board, surveying the board in front of you, and physically moving the pieces. The experience of live play may feel foreign after a long break. To get fully back into chess mode, you need to reinstate the typical chess surroundings. Even if it’s at a different time control like a blitz event, make sure to squeeze in a live warm-up event within two weeks of your major event.
  2. Temper your expectations. Just because your live rating may reflect a certain level, say 2000, that doesn’t mean that you will necessarily perform at that level at your next tournament. Your rating reflects performance over a series of games over time. Your performance in any given tournament will not necessarily reflect your rating, especially if you’re out of practice. In that case, you may perform at the lower-end of your expected performance distribution.

Even if your rating indicates you are the favorite in the tournament, don’t expect to win. Instead, focus on other goals. Perhaps you want to play a good game in a new opening you have been studying or develop a greater appreciation for the aesthetic nature of the game. Tempering your expectations before going into a tournament will relieve the stress of playing after a break and help you enjoy the experience more. Then, you will be motivated to keep up with chess because you want to, rather than out of habit.

FM Alisa Melekhina is a long-time competitor in US open tournaments and women’s national and world team invitational events. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law school in May 2014 and is currently practicing as a corporate attorney in NYC. She previously wrote a popular CLO article on Balancing Law School and Chess.  You can follow Alisa on facebook , twitter , and her personal chess website.

 

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