When Gambling Pays Off: Meduri Goes All-In On Vegas

Editor's note: Some of us have the luxury of traveling to tournaments whenever we want without hesitation. Others have to pick one or two events a year and plan accordingly. But many of us are somewhere in between: we can make relatively last-minute decisions to play. But at what cost? Aakaash Meduri shares his thought process behind deciding to play in Las Vegas at the last minute.


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The author at a blitz tournament hosted by Lincoln Square Chess Club in Chicago, IL (courtesy Nathan Kelly)


I wasn’t supposed to play in the North American Open.

Really, I wasn’t. Yet on a Christmas Eve spent with my father, I began thinking about it. You see, I was supposed to spend the holidays with my family. I work at an early-stage startup where PTO is a luxury. I really did want to spend the time with them. But with my brother’s last-minute Amtrak ticket to hang out with his girlfriend and my mother working her typical ER Nurse hours, what choice did I have?

I began doing what any normal person would. I sketched out a decision matrix. On it was a rough range of outcomes, my net financial gain or loss, and a “feel-good” (i.e., how good will I feel ditching my family to play chess) utility metric. The result? I would likely leave Vegas down at least $600 and feel like a 6/10 in the process.


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Meduri's Matrix (courtesy of the author)


Good enough! Never mind that I severely underestimated the cost of flight tickets amidst a brutal holiday travel season. I was sold.

A brief background on my history with the North American Open. I’d played this event three times before. First in 2016 when I lost 28 rating points. Then in 2017 losing 29 points. And finally, the crème de la crème 2018 edition when I dropped 44 rating points. North American Open has single handedly cost me just over 100 rating points. I’m like Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems.

So why did I decide to play? Call it the perpetual optimism of a chess player. I recently moved to New York City where I’d been spending a ton of time at the Marshall Chess Club. My rating graph had taken a sort of “U” curve, but I was on the right half of the U. I felt in form and wanted to test myself outside the storied walls of the Marshall.

So I made myself a promise. I would go to Vegas to play chess. No poker. No roulette. No blackjack. No gambling. Just chess.

An oxymoron. All chess players know you sometimes need to roll the dice and get lucky.



I'd had quite a strong performance leading up to the penultimate round, dropping just two draws - one against a 2000 who was having a spectacular event and another against an IM.

I chose to present the following game with minimal commentary, not because it lacks intrigue but rather to set the stage for my final round clash.



Leaving my sixth round, I was on an adrenaline high. It was my second game of the tournament to finish last in the entire ballroom of 500+ games. But then quickly, the crash followed. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from not converting such a great position. I was tilted.

There is a meme concept in programming called the Ballmer Peak. According to the Ballmer Peak, there is a narrow range of alcohol consumption which leads to peak performance. A friend at the tournament suggested I drink some wine to calm my nerves, and I thought why not? I’m already out of the top prizes anyway.

Calming my nerves took a little longer than expected, however. But I decided I would rather show up grounded than on time to my last game.



A final score of 5½/7 was enough to share third place, win some money, and propel my live rating back over 2200 for the first time since 2017. Looking back at the decision matrix, I slightly overperformed my expected value both monetarily and with the feel-good utility. I’ll admit, it feels almost robotic to assess the tournament in such a way. Where’s the romanticism?

GM Jan Hein Donner wrote in 1959, “Chess is not art. No, chess cannot be compared with anything. Many things can be compared with chess, but chess is only chess.” I’m not rated high enough to ascertain if Donner was being tongue-in-cheek or he really meant this. Nevertheless, I can’t help walking away from the North American Open with an altered perspective.

Chess is life in the sense that our tendencies outside the board often manifest over the board. This may sometimes lead us to ruin, but it can also lead us to victory. In my natural state, I enjoy gambling. There’s this thrill that comes with embracing uncertainty and placing a bet. I stuck to my promise of avoiding any table games in Vegas, and I believe quelling those distractions helped me embrace the beauty of each game and place smarter bets on the chess board. Remove the romanticization of the external elements surrounding chess to appreciate and live the chess itself.

Maybe it’s a low-effort justification for a good tournament performance. All I know is, I’ll probably be back at the North American Open to test my luck again.