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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Worst Blunder of 2012

In 2012, I played quite a few chess games. I was active on, playing 41 turn-based correspondence style games (with a 28-8-5 Win-Loss-Draw record), as well as countless blitz games. The story was similar with my over-the-board (in person) play; I had numerous casual blitz and slow games at the Stony Brook Chess Club as well as the Bayshore Chess Club this year. Finally, I participated in 3 different Chess tournaments this year: The Long Island Open (where I placed second in the U1700 section), the Manhattan Open, and the Empire City Open (The last two were played in the New Yorker Hotel, in Manhattan. The facade of the building is shown below). My overall record in these events is 11-5-2 (18 games total, six in each event).

From this collection of games, I could choose several that have egregious blunders, as well as good moves, with varying levels of instructive value. To me, at least at time of writing, my worst blunder of 2012 is clear. This, surprisingly, wasn't even a chess move, but rather my failure to use two half-point byes in the Empire City Open.

Read on the find out why, and see what I learnt about tournament Chess in the process. Have you had tournaments where you wished you took a bye?

To my regular readers, I apologize for the delay in posts, and the fact that there was no Scrambled Chess Sunday Puzzle this past week. In addition to playing in the Empire City Open, I celebrated New Years with my beautiful and wonderful girlfriend at Hunter Mountain. Unfortunately, I became sick the next day! Once I recover and finish some work obligations, you can expect more regular posts and progress.

Bye Bye to the Prize

The Empire City Open is a Chess tournament that was held from December 28-30 in the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan. I entered this tournament with a rating of 1665, and I played in the Under 1900 section. In some ways, I was hoping to redeem my mediocre performance at the Manhattan Open (same location, several months earlier, I scored 3/6 in the Under 1700. This led me to shed approximately 20 rating points).

Playing in a large Chess tournament is an interesting experience which is hard to fully describe. For the three tournaments I played in, there are six games played over two days (three day schedule is also available). The first three games can potentially last 2 hours each; the last three can each be up to 6 hours! This is quiet a long time to maintain a high level of concentration, sitting in a (usually) cold room in silence. It is a true test of nerves and patience.

In the Empire City Open, I won my first three games through a combination of luck and skill. This 3/3 performance required beating a 1810, 1786, and 1862 rated player (I might post the games in the future). At this point, (if I remember correctly) I was in a three-way tie for first place in the under 1900 section. Not a bad job for a 1665 player. At this point, I thought I had a good shot for second or third, and a very good shot for the under 1700 honors. 

The games I played, especially the third one, used most of the allotted time for the round. Thus, between the third and the fourth game I had only about 20-30 minutes to squeeze in a quick dinner. For anybody in a similar situation near the New Yorker Hotel, I would recommend the International Gourmet Kitchen (IGK), located about a block away (I relied on them during the Manhattan Open as well; nothing like a Burger and a Coffee before a Chess game!). 

During this same time, I needed to make a decision about playing the following day. In this particular tournament, players have the option of taking a half-point bye for any two rounds, as long as they commit to this before round 4. A half-point bye means that you get 1/2 a point (same as a draw, half as much as a win) but you do not need to play that round at all.

Over confident in my play from my three wins that day, and considering my tournament position, I figured that I should continue to play. In fact, I had previously decided that if I was doing poorly, and not in contention for a prize, that I would simply take the byes and not bother coming into the city. But how could I pass up a shot at first place? Therefore, I played on without committing to any byes, and made a nice draw with a 1893 rated player (listed) in the next game (who was actually rated 1909 at time of playing, somehow). At 3.5/4 in the under 1900 section, I was doing very well, tied for second (in other words, set to share third and fourth place prizes) and leading for the Under 1700 honors, worth $400. With a 2100+ performance rating, it seemed hard to believe that not taking the byes was a blunder.

However, after the result of the next two games, it was clear that my decision before round four was a $400 mistake. I proceeded to lose the next two games, although not without a fight. The Under 1700 honors was split between four players, each with 4.0; therefore, a single half point would have enabled me to share the prize, and a full point (or two half-point byes) would have netted me the prize, and a admirable 4.5/6 score in the Under 1900 section.

Along the way, I learnt a few valuable lessons about tournament Chess. The two most salient ones are as follows: to have clear goals and expectations (and to stick to them), and to understand the pairing system used in the tournament.

1) It is important to have clear goals and expectations when playing in a Chess tournament.

When you go to play in a Chess tournament, you need to consider more than just your opening repitorie. There are a number of other important factors. Are you prepared for the long periods of sitting? Are you dressed in layers? (Some tournament rooms can be quite cold).

Players should be prepared for the playing conditions, and should give some though to regulating what they eat and drink (I know I find myself over using the free water, perhaps drinking it as a nervous habit to relieve the stress of the game). Prepare yourself for anything at the board, including people making annoying sounds (or smells, for that matter). Planning a routine for getting up and stretching at regular intervals should also not be overlooked.

Most importantly, however, is to consider what you are playing for in a particular tournament. Do you think you can win top prize, or second prize in your section? Are you aiming for a sub-class prize, within a particular section (Like best Under 1700 honors in a Under 1900 section, as I described above)? Are you serious about winning the tournament, or just playing for fun and hoping for some good chess?

I did not have a clear plan at the Empire City Open. I should have been more realistic about my chances for scoring first or second in the Under 1900, even after a 3/3 start. I should have taken the byes, with my eyes set on the goal of securing the Under 1700 honors, which I was in ideal position to take (considering my performance and my current rating).

Why should I have displayed prudence when I seemed to have been playing so well? Firstly, I was not accustomed to that level of opposition. Secondly, I underestimated the effect of fatigue, even though I would have a night of rest between rounds four and five. Third, I did not fully understand the pairing system in the ratings, which brings me to point #2:

2) The pairing system at most swiss tournaments places underrated and over performing players at a disadvantage.  

I cannot remember the author, but I had recently read an article claiming that Chess hates the underdog. Certainly, I have gained a deeper appreciation for his/her argument.

Another brutal lesson I learnt was how the pairing system works in most swiss tournaments. The first stage of sorting the field is clear enough: players with the same score are paired with another, if possible. There are also considerations to give each player an equal number of White and Black games. Beyond this however, the pairing is not random, but instead done so that the highest rated player for each score group is paired against the lowest rated player in that score group. 

In many tournaments, this rating based pairing is done by first taking a score group (lets say everybody with 3.5/4) and splitting them (down the median rating) into two groups, with the highest rated in one group playing the highest rated in the other group. If there are 10 players, under this scheme the #1 highest rated player plays #6, #2 plays #7, and so forth. However, this is not necessarily the system used at every tournament! For reasons that are not clear to me, the pairing system in the Empire City Open was #1 versus #10. This led to me consistently playing against opposition that was ~200 rating points higher than me.

After I lost round 5, I surveyed the field, and figured that I would be paired with a ~1730 rated player, because I assumed that pairings were done to match similarly rated players within a score group. It is entirely possible that I would have lost that game as well, but I'd like to think I would have had a better shot at getting at least a draw. In fact, in my final game (against somebody rated 1880), I had some drawing chances that were narrowly missed in a tense struggle. 

In hindsight, I should have realized that this was happening earlier in the tournament. For example, after four rounds, I had 3.5/4. Even though there were players with 4/4, I actually had the highest performance rating in the under 1900 section at that point. In other words, I had probably one of the hardest draws out of all the players in that section. In some ways, starting out with the three wins doomed me to very difficult opposition. Reflecting on this point makes me wonder why they don't institute a separate prize for best performance rating within a group…. (This would compensate for the unfair pairing system).

I am not the first to point out problems with this rating based pairing system. The tournament director at the Long Island Chess Club (where I used to play, and very well run) Neal Bellon, has implemented random pairings which appear to work well. He has archived an article by Greg Shahade about the same topic at the Long Island Chess Club website. The archived article is in a MS Word .doc file format, and contains some comments from Neal.

I hate to sound like a sore loser. To some extent I am, but only because $400 for a weekend's worth of work is a nice payday when you a graduate student. But before I begin to digress on the inequities of graduate student life (I can write several posts on this subject!), I should just point out that you should combine both of the lessons above. In other words, before playing in a tournament try to find out how the pairing is done. Then, decide how this information alters your tournament strategy. For example, had I understood the pairing system better, I might have decided to take the byes. If I was rated 1701, I might not have played the tournament at all. On the other hand, now that I am ~1750, I might consider playing in an Under 1800 section. Thanks to the pairing system, I could count on playing opposition that is on average much weaker than I am.

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