Tuesday, April 6, 2021

My First Chess Tournament

Last weekend, Greg and I played in our first chess tournament. It was called the Colonial Open and it was held at a hotel about 10 minutes away from my house. For all the background on how I decided to join a tournament, read my previous post.

I had several goals for this tournament. My #1 goal was to not embarrass myself! What does it mean to not embarrass myself? I didn't want to get checkmated in less than 20 moves. I didn't want to blunder my queen away. I didn't want to come in dead last. I didn't want to break any of the rules.

Other goals were:

  • Have fun
  • Get the feeling of a real chess tournament
  • Try hard and stay focused
I had no expectations of winning or losing games; this was my first time out there and I was doing it for the experience.

Tournament Overview
The tournament started at 10:00am sharp. We arrived to the hotel about 30 minutes beforehand so we could get situated. When we arrived, we looked at the wall posting to see which board to go to and who

My chess dress
our opponent would be. There were 100 total players and several different divisions. Greg and I had never played in a tournament before, which meant we did not have a rating. So we played in the least competitive division, called U1300, which meant players rated under 1300 or players without a rating. Chess ratings go from 100 to 3000, but no one has ever achieved 3000. 

As Mike Wardian told me in advance, many of the players were small children. In my division about half of the players were children and most of them were ages 7-10.  The older children tended to be in the higher divisions. Mike played in the U1700 division, which was the next level up. In my room, I would guess about 75% of the players were men and 25% of them women. I played all men: two adults and four children. 

Mike introduced me to one of the players he knew who lives in Virginia Beach who is also a runner. He told me that he had read my book and really enjoyed it. WOW - a small world that I go to a chess tournament and someone has read my book. Yes, I have sold a lot of copies, but not that many!

The First Game
My first opponent was a cute little boy, I am guessing around age 7. I played as white and he played as black. The tournament began and the clocks started. We each had 45 minutes to play our moves. But if you make your move within 15 seconds, you get a bonus 15 seconds added to your total time. As I said in my previous post, these tournament rules were all new to me. For the first game, I wasn't even aware of the extra 15 seconds.

The game ends when one of these things happen:

  • One player checkmates the other
  • One player has no legal moves (this is called "stalemate" and its a draw)
  • One player resigns
  • One player's clock runs out of time
When play began I could feel my heart pounding! I did not want to mess up in the opening moves! My first few moves of the first game of my first tournament. What a rush.

My first opponent
This first opponent took a long time to make his moves. Usually the first 3-4 moves do not require much thought and are made within 15 seconds. But he was taking at least a minute per move and I followed suit. 45 minutes seemed like it would be a long time because that's 90 minutes total (more if you add 15 seconds for the fast moves), and usually my chess games with Greg lasted an hour or less. 

I was extremely careful with how I played. I thought about every move very carefully, tried to plan my attack, and tried to understand what he was planning against me. He was solid and he made no mistakes that I could exploit. At one point, I had about 8 minutes more time than he did (28 minutes vs. 20 minutes) and I figured if I played a steady thoughtful game, I would win on time. 

The other players in the room started leaving as their games ended and soon it was just our game and one other game. It was getting down to the wire. The score was even (score is determined by how many pieces are taken) and our positions seemed to be about even. I was happy with how I was playing. 

But he had caught up to me on time and suddenly we both had about the same time left on our clocks. Anxiety set in and I went into panic mode. I did not want to lose on time. I also did not want to be rushed but if I took to long to move, I would lose on time. We started playing quicker and quicker and as a result of this I made a mistake that I felt ended the game for me, and I resigned. 

Had I known about the extra 15 seconds, I might have been a little less nervous, knowing that I didn't have to play it like a 5-minute "blitz" game. Afterwards, he said the position we had been in would have been a draw due to the material and the position. It turns out that this kid came in third place out of the 44 players in our room! So, I got paired with a really strong player right out of the gate and I held my own. I was pleased with how I played but of course bummed that I made a mistake when the time was running low. 

I actually think this was my strongest showing of the entire tournament. I didn't make any mistakes until that very last move, we played over 40 moves and it was a draw position, and this kid ended up coming in third. Lesson: it's not about winning or losing but how you play the game.

After I lost to this child, I was then paired with players who were rated lower than him for the remainder of the tournament. And sure enough, I did not encounter another opponent who was as solid as my first. 

Games 2 and 3
After the first game, Greg, Mike Wardian, and I went to grab a quick lunch. My game had lasted about two hours and was the longest of all three of us. We shared stories and it was really exciting to hear how their games had gone. Greg won his game and Mike lost his. We all learned valuable lessons and I was excited to try again. Game 2 started at 1:00 and Game 4 started at 4:00.

I do not remember these games as well as I remember my first. Of course, I can always refer back to them as I wrote down all of my moves and all of my opponent's moves. 

My second opponent was another child, perhaps a year older than the first. He was the polar opposite of my first from a technique standpoint. He moved very quickly, always had something up his sleeve, and he was a little reckless. He made a mistake early on, which won me a piece. But I also made an early mistake, and he won material back. (Pieces are referred to as "material.").  I set up a battery which would have checkmated him in one move, but he saw what I was up to and successfully defended against it. That game was pretty wild and I ended up resigning after making a mistake. It did not last nearly as long as the first game. I wasn't as happy with how I played that game.

My third opponent was about the same age as my second, but not nearly as skilled. He always made the safest move and never planned any strong attacks against me. I setup a strong attack against him but I wasn't about to "close the deal." I'm fairly certain I was the stronger player and I was in a stronger position until the time was running low, and I blundered away a piece. To "blunder" a piece means to put it where your opponent can capture it with no repercussions. 

I had actually thought about my move for at least two minutes before I made it. But the problem is, I was considering multiple moves, and the actual move that I made I maybe only gave about 10 seconds' thought to. This is what happens to me in online chess. When the time starts ticking down, I get anxious and I make stupid mistakes. It's my biggest weakness in chess and if I could figure out how to avoid mistakes with little time on the clock, I would win much more frequently. 

I ended up losing the third game due to this blunder (I resigned) and I was not happy about it. I played the entire game really well, but then lost because of a very obvious mistake.

Greg, me, Mike Wardian, Adam (the runner)
Day 1 Recap
So, I lost all of my games. I wasn't down about it though. I was frustrated with myself for that final game, but at least I know what I need to work on. On the other hand, Greg won all of his games! Amazing! I was so happy for him. He was absolutely crushing it. We were mentally exhausted after all of that and treated ourselves to a nice dinner out.

Game 4
The tournament started at 10:00 again on Sunday and I finally got to play an adult! It was nice to play an adult because they aren't so serious about it, at least not at my level. He had me in a compromising position early in the game, but I found my way out of it and won material doing so. I continued to win more material as the game went on and he ended up resigning. My first win!!!! It felt so good!  I was worried I would lose all of my games but now at least I had a win under my belt.

Game 5
Another kid, this one was maybe 10 years old. He was similar to my third opponent in that he made safe moves and never set up a strong attack. And, exactly like I did with my third opponent, I blundered away a piece as time was getting low. We each had about three minutes left on the clock. Because it was so close, losing a piece at that stage meant losing the game so I resigned. Once again I was super frustrated with myself for losing focus. I actually thought I had that game won because I had more time than him, I had a better position, and all I needed to do was to keep putting him in check. And I was putting him in check every move, but one of those moves happened to be a square where the piece could simply be captured. 

Game 6
Another adult! Yay! Before we started playing, we chatted about the tournament so far. We both had one win under our belt. In this game, I immediately found his weakness, exploited him, and checkmated him in 12 moves. It took me about six minutes. Way to end on a high note!  Since our game was so quick, we went into the lobby and I showed him how I did it: how I spotted his weakness and took advantage of it, setting it up several moves in advance. Here is how the game went. I played as white.

My final game: a 12-move checkmate!

Greg's Tournament
After winning his first 3 games, Greg had two losses followed by a final win.  So he won four games and lost 2. I lost 4 games and won 2. Because of this, he ended up winning the "unrated" bracket, which equated to prize of $100. We had no idea there would be prizes at our level so this was an unexpected benefit. Greg joked, "It only took me 9 hours to earn $100!"

We left the tournament and Mike Wardian was still playing. Because he was in a higher division, he was playing a game where each player got 2 full hours! We learned that our 45-minutes-per-player games were considered "fast games". If I had two hours, I feel like I could play so much better!

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
I'm officially hooked and I want to hire a chess coach! I really need the coach to teach me mental strategies for not blundering. I know all I need to do is think about each move very carefully before I make it. But when my clock is running down, I feel like I have to move quickly so I don't take the time to ensure that my move isn't a huge mistake. I think I'm being careful, but I am actually not.

Here are the things that went well:
  • I did not embarrass myself, as I was able to hold my own for at least 35 moves each game
  • I learned so much, particularly how tournaments "go" and what to expect in the future
  • I had a lot of fun and it was cool to watch Greg and Mike Wardian play when my games ended
  • I can officially say I played in a chess tournament
  • I won two games
  • I checkmated someone really quickly
  • I met some really nice and smart people
  • I won against all the adults I played
Here are the things that didn't go well or where I need to improve:
  • Study openings more so that I can move quicker in the beginning and save time for the end
  • Be more careful about my moves when the clock runs down
  • Relax, try not to get so anxious
  • Be more confident in my abilities, but do not underestimate my opponents
  • I lost against all the children I played
I got a chess mask!
Official ratings are updated once per month so I will soon have a rating, now that I have played in a tournament. I think it's going to be pretty low, like 600 or something. I am guessing Greg will be around 1100. But who knows, I could be higher. I'd rather start out with a low rating and improve with each tournament than have a high rating to start and go in the opposite direction. Plus, this probably means I will play easier opponents, increasing my chances of winning. 

As with anything, we all have to start somewhere. Having an official chess rating is a step up from not having a rating, no matter how low. (Okay, I will admit part of me doesn't want a low rating. . . but that's just my ego.) I have decades ahead of me to get better at this game. I will not be able to run at the level I do now once I'm in my 50s, so here begins the transition to a mental sport that doesn't require physical ability!

If you made it this far, thank you for reading! Stay tuned for my next tournament, which will be memorial day weekend. And thanks again to Michael Wardian for encouraging me to bring my chess skills to a live tournament.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Marathon recovery and chess tournament preparation

I spent last week recovering from the Two Rivers marathon. I experienced a sleep nirvana like no other. For four nights in a row, I slept straight through the night, with loads of deep sleep (according to my FitBit), and for 1-2 hours longer than usual. I would have expected that with no running, I wouldn't need so much sleep, but it was like my body knew it was recovering from a major event and the sleep was phenomenal. FitBit even gives you a sleep score, and one night I got a 90, which is the highest I have ever seen, followed by a 91! This tells me that I really did leave it all out there on the course and that perhaps I didn't have enough rest going into the race. 

Mentally, I feel much better about the race. I wrote my blog when I was still processing all of my emotions. Of course, that is the main reason I keep a running blog - for reflection and closure on my race experiences so I can move on in a productive manner. My main takeaway is that I ran a solid race on a tough course without having as much of a taper as I needed, given the extended training cycle. I'm proud of my execution and my BQ cushion of over 20 minutes. 

Also, running is just one aspect of my life; not my whole life. When I was training at 75+ miles per week it felt like my whole life because I didn't have the time of energy for much else. But getting 10+ hours back last week with no running made me realize just how much of a commitment I made to that training cycle. Unlike with past marathons, I didn't jump to sign up for future races. I only have one race on the calendar (a half marathon in May) and I give it a 50/50 chance of getting canceled. So everything is up in the air with my future race plans, which is a first for me!

Additionally, I have a mild injury, which I am fairly certain stems from the bike accident I had in 2019. While vacationing in Norway, my tire got caught in a rail track, stopped the bike, and I fell onto the bike with my pelvis hitting the bar with a massive amount of force. The area never completely recovered. It was about 95% there and then I ran CIM 4 months after the accident and that aggravated it again. When I started strength training in May 2020, I started feeling it again with lower abdominal exercises. And I noticed that engaging my lower abdomen in any way made the area feel a little sore.

It was extremely mild so I didn't do anything about it. I trained for Harrisburg with no issues. But as I ramped up for Two Rivers in February, I noticed that the pelvic area would get tender from running. During the marathon, it was a little achy, but nothing major enough to even mention in my race report. When I finished the marathon, I did experience some nasty pain throughout the groin and pelvic region, which continued for the rest of the day.

Ever since the marathon, it's been a little achy when I have to use my lower abdominal muscles or when I move my legs in a certain way. I had an X-ray done today and was diagnosed with mild inflammation of the pubic synthesis, which means I need to cut back on running for four weeks, and I am totally fine with that.

Now onto the exciting stuff: I competed in a chess tournament last weekend!

I started playing chess when I was six. I loved it so much that I asked for an electronic chess set for my 7th birthday and I played that thing all the time. It wasn't long before I could beat my dad. Then came the teenage and college years, followed by my 20s when I rarely played. I beat my boss at a job I had in my early 20s and he was just as competitive as me, and he didn't like that I beat him. And so as a general rule of thumb, I learned never to play my boss in chess. It's more important for your boss to like you and respect you for the work you do on the job, not because you can outdo him or her in some other game.

Chess on vacation in 2018
Fast forward to around 2011, the year after Greg and I got married. We took a trip to visit his parents who lived in Albuquerque, NM at the time. His father had a chess set and the three of us played many games because there really wasn't much else to do! This chess binge got Greg, his father, and me all "into" chess again. We set up accounts on chess.com and continued playing each other long after the visit to New Mexico. And then my father also joined chess.com and the four of us would play each other frequently. And then I started playing random people on chess.com.

But back then, I didn't have the mental toughness that I learned through running and through working with a sports psychologist. I would be extremely hard on myself for making a mistake. On chess.com you have a rating and when you lose, your rating goes down. And at some point in 2012 I think, I lost a few games in a row, became super frustrated, and stopped playing on chess.com. Greg and I also stopped playing on the board. We would only play on vacation when the place we were staying had a board. Greg got his rating so high that he stopped playing because he didn't want it to get any lower. 

A New Beginning
Fast forward to January 2020, when I saw a Facebook post from Michael Wardian, a professional ultra runner who lives in the DC area. He posted that he was getting into chess and that he was playing games on chess.com. I thought it would be super cool to play him, so I re-installed the app on my phone, logged into an account I hadn't been in for eight years, and challenged him. There are different types of games you can play on Chess.com with regards to how much time you get to make a move, and we played where you have an entire day to make a move. That way you don't have to be on the app at the same time. 

My favorite checkmate ever: two equines!
Whenever one game ended, we would start another one so that we always had a game going. I started to explore all the features of the chess.com app and I loved doing the puzzles. I even started playing "blitz"games that only gave each players 5 minutes total to finish the game. You win by either checkmating your opponent or having their clock run out faster than yours. I was absolutely horrible at this because it requires you to think fast under pressure.

Before I knew it, I had caught the chess bug again and upgraded my Chess.com subscription so I could play more puzzles, analyze more games, and take more lessons. And Greg got more into it as well. He started doing the puzzles and we started playing more games against each other. He also started watching chess videos on YouTube, which he used to watch years ago, but of course now there are like 100 times more of them available and they are of much higher quality. 

Upping My Game
A few months ago, I started talking more with Michael Wardian about chess, and I asked him how he was able to get his blitz rating so high. Of course, he is a naturally "fast" person so he is gifted when it comes to competing at speed. I asked him to share some of his games with me and he did. 

I started providing feedback on his games and his desire to improve fueled my desire to improve even more! He totally inspired me to become a better player and also to bring my game to a live, in-person tournament. 

Of course all of this did coincide with the release of The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, and even though I loved that series, it is not what heightened my interest in chess. And it's not what made me want to sign up for a live tournament. All credit goes to Mike Wardian. He had competed in several tournaments and had an official US Chess rating. He was also a member of a chess club.

So I found a tournament just 15 minutes away from my house, which occurred last weekend (one week post marathon). Greg, Mike, and I all signed up for it. Back in 2011, I wanted Greg to sign up for a live tournament because he was getting really good at online chess. But he never did, and then our interest in the game waned.

Greg and I purchased an online chess course and it reinforced concepts we already knew, but also taught us new concepts. Chess is like any game or sport; it's a mixture of natural talent and the hard work of training or studying. While the lessons we purchased were a good start, they barely scratched the surface of the complexities of the game. We also purchased a chess clock and annotation books per Mike's recommendation.

Mike Wardian vs. Greg Clor
The day before the tournament (Friday) Mike came over to my house to play Greg and me live on the chessboard. Playing a live game on the board with an actual chess clock is completely different than playing online. When you can see the person in front of you the dynamic changes entirely, and when you have to manually tap a clock and record the moves on paper, it adds another dimension.

In a live tournament, you make your move, tap your chess clock, and then record your move on a piece of paper. You also record your opponents move. This enables you to go back and analyze your game afterwards. At higher levels of competition, it's mandatory and you need an accurate score sheet to claim a win. To record your move on paper you need to know how to annotate all the pieces and all the squares. This was actually something I picked up quickly, and the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes. 

A huge thanks goes out to Mike for coming over and showing Greg and me the ropes of a live tournament. The score book, the chess clock, the rules, and everything would have been totally foreign to us otherwise.

How did it go? Stay tuned for the next blog in which I discuss how I applied the mental skills I acquired for running to the game of chess!