This was my first over the board (OTB) chess tournament in my life, which was also US Chess Federation (USCF) rated. It was the Seattle Chess Club Novice (U1200) tournament that’s held monthly, and it is a four round swiss pairing tournament, G75 + 5s delay. That means each player has 75 minutes to make all their moves, and each time the opponent hits the clock, you get 5 seconds “delay” before your timer starts ticking down. Added time per move is common, and “increment” tends to be more common in online play, where you add 5 seconds every time you hit the clock (Fischer Increment).
I’m known for being a slow player in Magic: The Gathering (perhaps an understatement), and not much changed when I started playing chess online and over the board casually – I consistently ran into time trouble in even Rapid format games (10-15 minutes to make all your moves). To improve on that, I forced myself to play a lot of Bullet games on Chess.com, which are 1 minute games with no delay/increment (1+0). For the last two months, I’ve been playing quite a bit of that, with Rapid games mixed in – to my surprise, I time out (flag) opponents in Bullet more than I run out of time, which I took as pretty good progress, reaching 1150 rating in Bullet compared to my 954 rating in Rapid (though I haven’t played nearly as much rated Rapid online as of late).
As I perused the SCC tournament history on uschess.com, I noticed there was a healthy group of players in the U1200 section playing between 750 and 1100 rating, and I estimated my rating in slow chess to be around 850-950. If I played all four rounds, I would be pretty pleased getting 2/4 (two wins, two losses) or better, thinking there’d likely be few, if any, draws when novices play each other (draws are worth a half point).
The week prior to the tournament I tried to take three days of PTO, but was interrupted all three days due to vitally important work issues (just how it is when you’re an executive of a company), and didn’t get as much study done as I’d have liked. I played some OTB games vs. my friends Peter and Max in the 10+10 Rapid format, and studied a decent amount online using the analysis engine, but I felt somewhat underprepared going into Saturday’s action.
I arrived at the Seattle Chess Club’s location in Greenlake 15 minutes before the tournament started and watched about 12-14 people file in for the event, ranging from very young (7-8 years old) with their parents, to early-middle aged (me), to one or two older players. We registered without much fanfare, and pairings went up, and I had the white pieces playing against Chad Foster, who I remembered from the US Chess ratings page was rated in the mid-high 700s (just checked now: prior to the tournament, he was provisionally rated 746).
Both games I played can be found at the following Lichess Study link:
Round One: Boddy v. Foster, London System vs. Hippo Defense
For this tournament, I planned on playing the London System with the white pieces, which typically yields a setup like below:
Chad opened with b6 and Bb7, which apparently is the start of the English Defense, but looked to me like the Queen’s Indian Defense, going for the early fianchetto of the bishop. Fortunately, these setups are not very good against the London opening, because the pawn on d4 is extremely well-reinforced, and I felt pretty confident going through the opening moves.
(Later I was informed by someone on Twitter that his opening is the Hippo Opening, which is something you’d often see on Eric Rosen’s stream)
Indeed, after the opening 11 moves, Lichess has me at +0.5 advantage. Chad pushed c5, which was a blunder since it undefends the pawn on d6 and allows Bxd6, which is not only a free pawn but increasingly large control over the center of the board. Lichess has me at +4.0 advantage here, which is commanding, and it felt like it, too.
Unfortunately, I make the same blunder here that I make in a lot of my London games when I play Bd3 rather than Be2, which is that I forget my bishop on d3 is undefended. I set up an exchange on e5 which I do regularly – and it’s good when the bishop is on e2 – but end up giving away my bishop like an idiot capturing with my pawn rather than my knight.
I played this move quickly and as I hit the clock I realized what I had done, and Chad immediately took on d3. From here on out, I fought extremely hard – I’ve had worse positions before and won, or scored a draw, I thought. Turns out Lichess has me at -6.0 disadvantage after Qxd3, which is close to dead lost.
For the next 47 moves, Chad and I played accurately with no mistakes or major inaccuracies throughout the midgame to the beginning of the endgame – I felt the vise tightening around me the entire game. I was pretty surprised; while I had blundered a piece like a moron, I felt like I was playing quite well in the midgame and just waited for Chad to re-blunder back as he did early in the game, but he simply didn’t – he played extremely positionally and closed in, forcing trades and putting me in tough spots – not only was I down a minor piece, but Chad had the bishop pair while I had only two knights.
As the position continued to open up, Chad’s advantage would only grow as the bishops overtake the knights in value due to their increased scope.
Chad would use the bishops tactically, picking off pawns regularly without me able to retaliate or put my knights on good squares. On move 61, the board looked like this:
I knew that if Chad simply pushed the c pawn to victory, I’d be pretty screwed – he has my king permanently cemented on the back rank, while his king is mobile and protected due to the pawn on f4 – I can never get my king on the third rank.
Chad finally made a positional blunder, playing Rf1?? instead of pushing his pawn, which buys me a tempo and just enough time to execute my plan to draw the game. I played Ke2, forcing his rook away and giving me the second rank for my king. He accurately played Ra1, but his bishop on a3 saves the day for me – the king tempo + bishop blocking my rook on the a file virtually scores me a win of 1.5 pieces after I play Ra5, which I find and execute quickly with about 18 minutes left on my clock (Chad had about 30).
From this position, I thought for 2 minutes and calculated all the way to the end if we both push our pawns and promote. I’m proud of this calculation, I knew that I promote first and then I will play Qd5+, protected by the rook, and be able to perpetually check the king or better.
Chad played Ra2+ at some point which I figured had to be a blunder, because now Qd5+! comes with a fork against his rook for free, which is exactly what happened, and I had queen + rook vs. queen + bishop, and while both pawns are passed and his is closer to promoting, mine is outside and not next to an enemy piece:
However, taking the rook on a2 has one major downside – it loses the initiative, and it’s Chad’s turn to start checking me over and over again. And check me, he did.
At this point I was beginning to worry that I might get mated somehow, so I blocked his bishop check with Re5 and hit the clock, only to watch him play Qd4+ – I sunk in my seat, realizing I blundered my rook, and with it, all chances I had to win this game. I thought this endgame was winning for me after I get out of the checks, but after blundering the rook, I realized I had to play Qa1+, skewer his queen, and trade it, giving us the Bishop + King vs. Pawn + King ending where he has the correct color bishop to take my promoted piece, which is an instant draw (he simply keeps the bishop on the promotion diagonal and moves away from my king harassing it, and when I promote, takes my queen – and Bishop + King vs. King is a dead draw with no way to mate), so I played that, hit the clock, and agreed to a draw, signing the slips, 76 moves in all:
Didn’t have much time to analyze the game, because we were the last game to finish in the round, and we went straight into Round Two. However, it turns out that the game was drawn after 62… Rf1??, so I don’t feel too bad. The chess.com accuracy engine graded my performance as 87.5, with just 1 inaccuracy and 2 blunders.
Round One Result: Boddy v. Foster, London System, 0.5 – 0.5, 76 moves
Round Two: Selsky v. Boddy, Caro-Kann Defense
Pairings went up for Round Two, and I’m playing against John Selsky, who helps run the Seattle Chess Club and is the person I was communicating with to register for the event. I have the black pieces, and I plan on playing Caro-Kann Defense vs. e4 openings and d5 followed by c5 against most d4 openings. John opens with e4, and doesn’t play Nf3, instead playing Nc3, causing me to think fairly early in the game. I’m used to pinning the knight to his queen with the move Bg4, usually trading the bishop for the knight as is typical in the Caro-Kann opening.
Reminder: You can follow the game + evaluation over on Lichess by clicking here
I inaccurately play e6 instead of taking on e4 (which I considered), then after I close the pawn chain, John plays Nf3. This gives me an opportunity to pin his knight on c3 to his king, but I get so caught up in the idea of pushing c5 and protecting it with the bishop that I develop my knight to the interior and push c5, which apparently is a huge blunder, yielding +5.5 advantage per Lichess/Stockfish if John takes on d5:
Fortunately, he didn’t, and play resumed. I took on e4 afterwards, missed a chance to trap his bishop with b5 + c4, developed poorly inside my pawn chain (John’s bishop was pinning my knight, so I just wanted to castle), and gave John an isolated Queen’s pawn that, while advanced very far, I was confident I’d recapture at some point in the game. I finally pushed b5 to kick his bishop away, and John played b4??, which surprised me. He threw a punch at the queen, but left his bishop undefended.
I knew I could take via Qxa4, but I wasn’t sure that I could do it without trapping my queen. I had my longest think of the tournament here on the 13th move of the 2nd game, and burned at least 15 minutes on my clock going through various lines. In the end, I couldn’t see how he’d trap my queen after I was taking his light square bishop, and even if he did, I bet I would get two pieces and the initiative for it (a losing trade, but at least some compensation). I played 13. … Qxa4 and Lichess/Stockfish has me at a -5.5 advantage.
John chose not to trade queens, which I think is the right decision even though the engine disagrees; if you trade queens there and go into the endgame, you’re just conceding that you’re down a piece and the pawn on d6 is going to fall as well – defeat will come eventually.
I play 17. … Ba6, pinning his knight to his queen, he correctly responds by pushing his pawn, I trade the minor pieces and put the rook behind his pawn. I take with the queen, equalizing pawns, and offering a queen trade, which John declines once again. I refuse to take no for an answer, wanting to simplify the position as much as possible, since John has zero development and I’m ahead a minor piece. I play Qd5, figuring he will play Qd1, forcing me to choose to trade on his terms and gaining a tempo by moving a rook to the middle, but to my surprise, John plays Qxd5 (which is the recommended engine move).
Now I face a choice – do I recapture on d5 with the pawn or the knight? On one hand, I don’t want to isolate my pawn heading into the endgame – a pawn majority when everything is traded will be easily winning – but I also want to think about creating a passed pawn down the middle of the board with both rooks, up a minor piece, with John having the wrong color bishop to attack the promote square. I choose to take with the pawn, which is inaccurate, but I don’t regret it.
Doing so allows John to take that pawn in trade for the other pawns, which the engine hates on my behalf since it thinks I could have just kept that pawn instead, but I am already up a minor piece at have a -6 advantage, going from -6 to -8 doesn’t mean much more to me compared to a simple position that I know I can convert to a win, and getting John to trade a pair of rooks is a huge win in my book.
My back rank is exposed, so one mistake and I can just lose this game by getting the back rank nonsense, but I don’t want to create space for my king and give John a move – I want to keep the pressure on and force trades. I evaluate all my moves very carefully and get a rook on the seventh rank, hoping John will trade his bishop for my knight on f6, which gives me free space for my king (apparently this is the engine best move, but oh well).
John doesn’t want to trade his bishop for a knight, and begins playing quite inaccurately and moving his bishop to safe squares that don’t do much to attack my pieces or force movement. I force the last rook trade on c1, and I have two knights vs. a bishop and equal pawns, with my center pawn being passed and further along than his outside passer – and his bishop cannot capture my pawn on the promote square. Life’s good.
My knight is stopping John’s outside pawn from advancing, and then John plays the final losing move and allows me to fork his king and bishop, albeit losing my center pawn in the process:
From here the game ends as you’d expect; I don’t study the two knights endgame and it takes me way too long to trade one of them for a pawn and just force John’s king up the board, but I get to this final position before John’s flag falls and he loses the game on time:
Round Two Result: Selsky v. Boddy, Caro-Kann Defense, 0 – 1, 60 moves
Again, my game is the last game of the round, and they go to pair the third round after we send in our slip. I request to withdraw from the tournament, as I have a building headache due to playing 4+ hours of chess without a break and drinking just a single BANG Energy drink along the way (fortunately, I did eat breakfast and go for a walk in the morning) – my focus was already giving out towards the end of game two, with thoughts of withdrawal entering my brain with 20+ moves to play.
I wish the club had given more time between rounds for the last competitors to get their break, but I understand how it is, coming from the Magic world. Still, playing three 2+ hour games back to back is not something I’m prepared for, and with 1.5/2, I knew I’d be playing against someone considerably better than me, and while I don’t mind losing on merit, I didn’t want to lose because I couldn’t give anywhere close to my best effort.
Tournament Ending: 1.5/2, withdraw after R2
Overall, I had a hell of a time, and I’m looking forward to playing in March’s U1200 event. I need to do a lot more sideline preparation, as I realized I don’t know enough theory behind the openings I play and when to capitalize on mistakes (not just single-move blunders), and I should play more G30 or similar chess games over the board and online to practice on my focus.
What would a Magic-style report be without the best part? Man, it’s been 15+ years since I’ve written something like this section….
- Max McCall and Peter Beckfield for playing OTB chess with me and getting me right for the tournament
- Eric Hansen, my chess coach, for various instruction, but most importantly telling me to fight extremely hard for every pawn and piece on the board
- Seattle Chess Club, for putting on a great tournament geared towards novices
- The 7 year old Indian kid who asked me “why didn’t you trade your knights for pawns earlier?”
- The Hippo Opening
- David Bedoll, who is too cool to play chess with Max, Peter, and I
- Me for blundering my bishop on d3 for the 901st time
That feeling of being totally exhausted is pretty familiar to me and probably everyone who’s played in OTB tournaments. Managing that is a part of competitive chess. It definitely gets easier the more you do it, though.