2010 Labor Day
Chess Adventure


Edward D. Collins

Image copyright 2010 by Edward D. Collins



This past Labor Day Weekend I competed in the Southern California Open, a chess tournament held at the LAX Hilton Hotel, in Los Angeles.  It was a 6-game event, two games per day, which began Saturday morning and finished Monday evening.

I had penciled in this event on my calendar a couple of months ago, but as late as the Friday evening prior to the event I was still undecided about entering.  I was still kind of "chess-ed out."  After that 9-day marathon event in Irvine just a few weeks ago, I felt I needed a little bit of a break from chess.  Also, I could tell I was coming down with a cold.  On Thursday and Friday my throat was very scratchy, usually the first sign of a cold with me.

The night before the event, my tournament friend Ed Hayes wrote me an e-mail and said,  "As pilots, we never fly sick!  Dude, I am the lowest rated player!!  It's all good!!"

I'm not even sure what that all means but it convinced me to enter!

There were two sections; the Open Section, open to all, and the Under 1800 Section, open to players rated 1799 and below.  After the results of my last tournament, I'm actually rated 1813, but those results aren't official yet.  The September Rating Supplement, which is what this tournament would be using, lists me at 1735.  Thus, I'm actually eligible to enter either section.

I considered entering the Open, but I figured this might be my very last chance to ever play in an Under 1800 event.  Maybe I can go out with a bang and win some prize money and maybe, just maybe, I can win the 1st Place trophy.   Most all of the tournaments I enter don't have trophies as part of your prize.   However, for whatever reason, this event did.

Of course, playing in the Under 1800 Section then puts additional pressure on winning.  At 1735 in an Under 1800 Section, I would be ranked somewhat near the top, and most certainly have to play someone rated lower than me at least a few times.  I've learned there is much more pressure in playing someone with a lower rating than you, when you're expected to win, than vice-versa!

Anyway, late Friday night I pre-entered the Under 1800 Section.  I set a goal for myself of nothing less than 4.5 (out of 6) points.


Round One:
  Sure enough, I'm paired against Kyle Perkovich, with a rating of 1412, who appears to be about 12 years old. 

Have I told you how much I dislike playing kids?  Maybe that's because I don't enjoy losing to kids!  Instead, I'd much rather be paired up against an old man with a long, white beard, someone who's been playing chess for 40 years.  Some of these kids learned the game a year ago and they are already stronger than me!

Play is even for awhile and then on Move 18 I find myself with a beautiful connected and passed queen pawn.  I further improve my position, slowly, and then force the win of a pawn on Move 29.  I win a piece a few moves later and it's all over in a move or two.

 One for one.



Round Two:  Did I say how much I dislike playing kids?  I'm now paired up against an 8-year-old, who is 100 points stronger than my last opponent!  This kids got a name that would challenge a spelling bee champion; Thayer Aletheia-Zomlefer.  He also has 12-year-old (or so) brother playing in the Open Section, who was rated 1806 a few months ago!  I ask him before the game where he's from, since his name and face were unfamiliar to me.  He tells me he lives in Arizona.  Wow, he and his family came all the way out here for this event?  I promise myself not to take him too lightly.

By Move 12 I'm glad of this advice I gave myself.  The kid is already attacking my king, with not one, not two, but three pieces, and his Queen is also ready to jump into the fray.  Also, unlike many other kids his age, he never leaves the board, nor becomes restless or impatient - he's playing in every way like an adult.  (And a very gracious one at that.)

On Move 15 he makes what I believe is a slight inaccuracy and allows me to exchange one of my knights for his powerful, light-squared bishop.  On Move 22 I double my rooks on the open c-file and I think I've now equalized.

I find out later it wasn't necessary, but on Move 29 I decide to stop his attack for good, by sacking my rook for one of his knights and center pawns.  I don't often sack pieces, but my gut tells me it's right and it's a move he probably would not have expected. 

With one of his powerful center pawns gone, it's not long before the other one falls, as well as his a-pawn a move or two later.  I now have three connected queenside passers and a bishop on that side, against his lone rook, a material imbalance which certainly justifies my sack earlier.  The rest, as they say, is a matter of technique. 

He actually plays the game out and forces me to checkmate him.  (At my level, players almost always resign when checkmate is inevitable.  But some of these kids haven't learned how to do that yet.)

Two for two.


Round Three:
  I check the online pairings before I leave my home Sunday morning and I see for the this third round I'm paired up against Sos Hakobyan.  Sos Hakobyan?  Why can't I play more players with normal, American-sounding names, names that at least I can pronounce?  I quickly check the United States Chess Federation's online database and I see Sos has only played a few USCF tournaments in his life.  USCF Tournaments.  With my luck he has probably been playing tournament chess in his former country since he was a boy.

I'm White again, and I play the King's Indian Attack, my opening of choice, as of late.  He responds with a French Defense type of pawn structure.  I find out later Sos is Armenian and players from Armenia are notorious for playing the French... since it was the opening of choice of their beloved hero, and former World Champion, Tigran Petrosian. 

I have lots or pressure early.  I'm winning, but I don't know by how much.  I later force open the f-file, an advantage for me with my rook on that file, and then force the exchange of his good bishop for my bad knight.  A few moves later, however, I close the position with a pawn move when, I discover later, I should have opened it!  He now equalizes and it's a fight all over again.

On Move 32 the fireworks begin.  He sacks a knight for a couple of my pawns.  I wasn't expecting it at all, and I should have been.  (Always examine all of your opponent's checks and captures!)  With his move I suddenly find myself with two pieces hanging!  I go into a long, long think.  I probably spend 20-30 minutes on this move alone.  This is the do-or-die moment.

I look deep into the position and I believe I can survive the oncoming attack, despite the fact that my king has almost no cover. 

I do.  I find a way to save both of my attacked pieces.  And I sure my lone piece in the endgame will be worth more than his extra pawns. 

And it is.  I find a way to force off the queens and the rooks from the board.  We're down to an endgame with his five pawns against my bishop and three pawns.  A few moves later my king and bishop work together and capture two of his five pawns.  I sack my bishop later, at the right time, for another pawn, which will force one of my own pawns to his first rank, bringing about a new queen.  He immediately resigns, as he should - it's now an elementary win for players at our level.

I should have entered that game to be considered the best-game prize.  It was well played by both of us, and very exciting.

Three for three.


Round Four: 
I'm back to being paired up against a kid, a girl this time.  The last time I played a girl, in Irvine, she kicked my butt.  (Granted, she was an adult, and rated almost 200 points higher than me.)  Rachael Eng is 13-ish or so, and Asian.  I'm reminded of little 8-year-old Annie Wang, who won our division in July in Agoura Hills, and took home more than $1,600.00 in prize money.  Like me, this girl also has three points right now, so I vow not to take her lightly either.

By Move 20 she's winning and she knows it.  She has a MONSTER of a knight deep in my territory on d6, firmly supported by her pawn on e5!  However, for reasons which I may never understand, she voluntarily moves this knight to a worse square about nine moves later.  She then captures my lesser developed knight for hers.  That gives me immediate pressure on her backward d-pawn... I'm attacking it with more pieces than she can defend it with.  I win it a few moves later.  In her haste to get the pawn back, and establish material equality, she misses a simple tactic.  With my queen I check her king on b1 while also attacking her undefended rook on h1.  A move later I'm now up a whole rook and the rest is easy.

Four for four.

Four for four?  Are you kidding me?  The last time I went four for four was a full sixteen years ago, in Tucson, at the 1994 Ye Olde Pueblo Open!  I was a lowly 1500 rated player back then, and ending winning my section with a perfect score.



Round Five:  I'm alone at the top.  No one else in our entire section has four points.  (Two players have 3 1/2 points and a bunch have 3 points.)  The tournament is now mine to lose.

I'm paired up against Steven Morford, a gracious, middle-aged man (with a name I can pronounce!) who I've been sitting next to during earlier games, and chatting with in-between rounds.  As it so happens, Steven is the current president of the Southern California Chess Federation.  He had a perfect score until his last round, when he had to settle for a draw.  With a rating of 1770, he's the second highest rated player in the entire section.  But as recently as 2006, Steven's rating was in the mid 1900 range!  This game won't be easy!

We dance back and forth like a couple of grandmasters.  Neither or us weakens our position, creates any holes, etc.,  Neither of us can gain an edge, in my opinion.  (Upon computer analysis later, this was confirmed.) 

With an ending consisting of just queens, knights, and a few pawns, and what I believe is a dead-even position, I offer a draw.  With proper play, a draw is going to be the inevitable result anyway, and I wouldn't mind conserving my energy for the last round game.  Steven considers it for awhile and then accepts my offer.  This is the type of position if you try to hard to win, you end up losing.

I now have 4.5 points out of 5, with one round to go.

A quick check on the standings shows me who I will be paired up against in the final round - the only other player who also has 4.5 points - Cijo Paul.  Cijo and I played once before, a few months ago.  He defeated me in that game, but that was my first chess tournament in almost five years.  I certainly had "chess cobwebs" in that tourney, and recent results have proven to me I've dusted them off since then.

Since we are both a half point ahead of the rest of the field, we each know a draw will guarantee us at least a tie for 1st, with possibly another player or two.  However, I really want to win the trophy.  If there is a tie for 1st, the prize money is split evenly but the trophy will be awarded to one of us on tie-breaks... something that would be out of my hands.  (The tie-breaking procedures involve how each of our opponents faired during the event!)  I have no intention of letting that happen.  It's been a long, long time since I've taken home a trophy.



Round Six:  I'm Black.  Cijo plays 1.c4 - the English - and I respond with 1...Nf6 and then 2...g6; the King's Indian Defense.

By Move 10 I'm already unhappy with my position.  White is better.  And if Cijo finds 11.Ba3, his position will only improve.  Naturally, he sees it and he plays it.  I'm forced to exchange queens and move a knight off to the side, out of play.

I know Cijo is aware of my 2nd Place results in Agoura Hills a month or earlier, and my 3rd Place results in Irvine a couple of weeks ago.  Despite beating me in early April, I know he won't take me lightly.  Because of this I have a feeling he will probably be content with a draw, and split the prize money.

Sure enough, on Move 16, he players Rfe1 and then offers me a draw.  I consider the offer for ten minutes or so, looking as deep into the position as I can.  And after doing so, I realize I'm worse.  He has a better position.  Declining his draw offer here would be very unwise - I have no play at all.  I'm forced to accept.

Engine analysis later confirms it - White was slightly better - so my decision to take the draw is justified.

I don't mind sharing 1st Place... but now winning the trophy amounts to a crap shoot.  I mentally wish all of my previous opponents good luck.  The number of points they finish with will affect my tie-breaking score.

We're done early, so we hang around for a couple of hours, for two other games all finish, to wait to see who, if anyone, the two of us will share 1st Place with, and who the trophy will be awarded to.

As it turns out, Cijo and I shared 1st Place with just one other person.  So it was a three-way tie for 1st.  1st, 2nd, and 3rd Place prize money was all combined, and we shared the total equally between the three of us.


And... drum roll please... I DID win the very nice trophy on tie-breaks!!!  Yes!  It's the largest and nicest chess trophy I've won, and now my most prestigious too, since my only other 1st Place trophy was for winning an Under 1600 Section.  This trophy, 16 years later, is for winning an Under 1800 Section!

Thus, I had another good tournament.  I defeated 49 other players for the right to take home the beautiful trophy, I tied for 1st Place, I didn't lose a single game, I achieved my goal of at least 4.5 points, and I picked up another 20 rating points, giving me a new, all-time high rating of 1833.  I renewed some old acquaintances, and met some new ones.

I can't think of a more enjoyable way to spend a holiday weekend.


The End


Epilogue:  On a final note, the name Alex Garber, the gentleman who Cijo and I shared 1st Place with, rang a bell with me.  At the time I assumed it was simply because I had run into him at a previous tournament.  However, on the drive home that evening, it suddenly hit me... I met Alex at a local bookstore a little more than EIGHT years ago!  We met in chess section of the store, and struck up a conversation.  We then got together a couple of times later, and played some casual chess games, right there in the same store.  Eight years worth of time was long enough for both of us to completely forget about these casual games at the bookstore.

I still had his old e-mails and so I shot him off a quick note later that evening, congratulating him on sharing 1st Place with me.  Fortunately, his e-mail address had not changed and he responded back almost immediately.  He still lives nearby and we have plans to get together for some casual games in the near future.  I find out later this was the first tournament we both entered together.  Small world.




Congratulations!  Sounds like you had a blast.

With your permission, I'd like to use your description of the tournament as an example of strong writing to present to my students.  I really enjoyed reading it, and I realized this is the kind of enthusiastic tone and strong use of specific detail I'm always trying to promote.

I understood only a fraction of the chess terminology, but I could follow what you were describing pretty well.

Brendan Powers
English Teacher
Rosary High School
Fullerton, California




Great story!  I felt like I was there!

Maybe you should add author to your repertoire!

Rick Landis



That was exciting reading!  Like I was there and knew what was happening!  I really enjoyed reading this account of the tournament even though I did not understand all of the chess terms.

Judy Collins



Hey Ed, ~

What a tournament!  I loved reading about your adventures – and then the finale of sharing first place with someone you struck up a conversation with in a book store 8 years ago.  How cool that you’ll get together with him sometime in the near future.

Congratulations on your marvelous results – and that, in the midst of an oncoming cold!!

Jennifer Harris



Congratulations Ed.  You deserve to feel proud, not only for the victory, but for the exciting narrative you used to describe the matches.  I have never before read a chess tournament description and felt such tension and emotion.  I actually read every word and looked forward to the climax with anticipation.

But where is the obligatory picture of you with the trophy?

Dennis McWilliams



Great read and very exciting!

Ed Hayes