Arlington, Va. – Vernon McNeil lost all hope of winning first place in his section at the Washington Chess Congress when he got a flat tire on the way to his Round 3 game.
“I was thinking the best I could do is maybe tie for second,” said McNeil, who rushed to make it to Round 3 after the mishap with his tire only to arrive to see his opponent writing in the forfeit on the pairings sheet.
But McNeil, who had been undefeated for his first two games, pressed on through the rest of the tournament and remained undefeated for his last four games.
That persistence brought McNeil a $1500 prize as he tied for first place with Andrew Wu, of Virginia, in the Under 1700 section.
“I feel good about that,” McNeil, of North Carolina, told CLO as he collected his prize money from Chief TD Steve Immitt.
“I needed that money badder than a hog needs slop,” said McNeil. “I had a dead battery, a flat tire, and some more inconveniences.”
McNeil’s payoff was just one of several inspiring stories that CLO discovered at the Washington Chess Congress, which drew 197 players and coincided with National Chess Day.
Seven-year-old Ronen Wilson, of Ashburn, Va., who tied for second place along with this CLO writer for second place in the Under 1700 section to win $625 – offered a combination for what it takes to excel at chess.
“It’s the practice and what you got,” Ronen said, a reference to natural talent.
Based on his upward trend, some observers believe Ronen is likely to become a titled player in the near future.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise if within three years he’s making master and knocking on the 2300 door,” said one observer who is familiar with Ronen’s tournament play, including his second place win in the Under 1600 section at the Cherry Blossom Classic earlier this year. “That wouldn’t be shocking for his current level of progress right now.”
Ronen is a student of 2012 Virginia state co-champion and National Master Justin Burgess.
Ronen’s mother, Veronica, who is a nuclear engineer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that since she and her husband aren’t chess players, they hired a coach to take their son’s game to the next level.
“We just needed someone who knew what they were doing to help him,” she explained “He was so hungry for the knowledge and we had no way to help him improve.”
Ronen discovered chess at age five while messing around with a cell phone.
“I was self-taught by a computer,” Ronen said.
“It was actually a bit of bad parenting,” his mother said.
“When he was younger, we needed some quiet time at times, so we would give him the phone and say, ‘Have fun, son,” Ronen’s mother said. “He discovered a chess app and would randomly move the pieces. We just thought, ‘Oh, he’s having fun. He’s not calling people. Let him go at it.’
“But after a while I started noticing that he’s actually playing games.”
The coaching evidently paid off.
“We’re over the moon,” Ronen’s mother said as her son peered up at the wall charts to see how much he had won. “We couldn’t imagine this in our wildest dreams.”
Even though he has a coach, Ronen is also a rather independent learner.
For instance, when asked how he practices, Ronen said he works from Silman’s Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner to Master and 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations. He even had a copy of the latter book with him at the tournament.
Asked what he planned to do with his winnings, Ronen said: “I’m basically a saver so I really would like to save it for college.” He said he wants to study turtles in college.
“They’re fascinating creatures,” he said.
The Washington Chess Congress also featured some interesting games in the Premier Section.
Sources called our attention to several games in particular which, thanks to the painstakingly hard work of tournament director David Hater, can be found here.
Browsing through the games on the site, this one struck me: the round 3 game between GM Felipe El Debs, of Brazil, who won clear first place and a prize of $3100 with 7.5 out of nine points, and David Brodsky.
Finally, while this CLO writer is usually the one who asks the questions, TD and chess journalist Andy Rea turned the tables and interviewed this writer about his second place win in the Under 1700 section.
This writer conceded that he didn’t really outplay anyone and was probably lost in several games until his opponents blundered.
“The victories I got were more like gifts, so I don’t want to make too much of it,” we told Andy Rea.
“It’s one thing to beat somebody but to just exploit a mistake is something different. If they had played accurately I don’t think I would have been in the running for the money.”
Some players drew connections between the name of the tournament and the fact that it took place just miles form the meeting place of the US Congress, which has – for the past several years – declared every second Saturday in October at National Chess Day.
“Chess is a game where one hopes individual ideas come together in perfect combination,” said Charles Edelman, of Washington, DC, who tied for second in the Under 2100 section. “With the Washington Chess Congress falling on National Chess Day and Columbus weekend in the city that declared both holidays, it seems another fitting perfect combination.”