Friday, January 22, 2010

Liberty Bell Open: Day 1

Since the end of December I've managed to direct a couple of chess tournaments in New York City, and play in two tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club. Those one day trips were manageable and with a small amount of space to cover it wasn't that hard to get around. The hardest part about going to the Marshall was getting up to the second floor on that antique conveyance that passes for an elevator. Once I got upstairs everything else was relatively easy. I entered the tournament, requested a permanent board for all the rounds, sat at the board and let my opponents come to me. When the round was done the opponent posted the result or Steve came over and asked me how I did. It was not a particularly long distance to go to the skittles room or to the bathroom.

This past weekend I made my 3rd annual trip to the Liberty Bell Open in Philadelphia. In 2008 and 2009 I got up early on Sunday morning, drove to Philadelphia and played the two day schedule. I only have to spend one night in the hotel that way. Despite the craziness of playing 4 G/40 games and 1 40/2 G/60 game in one day, I've actually had some decent results on the two day schedule. It's true there was the 2008 meltdown, but then there was the 2009 queen sac game. For those two years my combined record is 4 wins, 4 losses, and 6 draws against opponents with a 1750 average rating.

This year driving myself to Philadelphia was not going to happen. If I wanted to go, I needed a ride down there. Unlike my trips to the Marshall, there were many options ride wise. There were about 10 different players from my area going to the tournament. Many options, but only one person was the perfect choice for a female chess player with limited mobility. Super chess mom to the rescue! I went down with one of my former students, Alexander and his mom Donna. Every scholastic chess team needs a parent like Donna. She's been the driving force behind building up the chess team at her son's school, and is the one that takes care of all the logistics when traveling to the various scholastic nationals. Getting her son and me to Philadelphia and through the rigors of a three day weekend tournament is a piece of cake compared to what she does for the chess team at scholastic nationals.

The logistics of playing in a large class tournament for three days in a big hotel is a lot different then taking a day trip to the Marshall Chess Club. A weekend tournament with over 400 players, 8 sections, and 3 different schedule options poses many obstacles to any player who has mobility issues. 400 players don't fit in a small space. Everything is spread out. If you have ever played in a tournament at Sheraton City Center Hotel in Philadelphia you know what I'm talking about. Pairings and skittles room are in one place, the director's room is in another place and the playing room is in a third place. On the mezzanine level where the tournament is held the bathrooms are far away from the playing room. Even on two good legs it can take a player a few minutes to walk to the bathroom and back.

However even before I started playing I knew I had some serious issues with getting around. Donna had checked us in while I sat down. Alexander was overseeing the bellman loading our luggage on the cart. Finally the 3 of us and the bellman with the luggage cart get on the elevator to go up to the 23rd floor. Normally when I check into a hotel for a big chess tournament I try to get a room fairly close to the elevators. However since we had a suite with adjoining rooms it was all the way at the end away from the elevators. As I'm walking to our rooms I'm thinking to myself "I'm going to be exhausted just walking to my room from the elevators. How am I going to make it through the weekend?"

Fortunately that's where having super chess mom looking after you comes in handy. She could see this was going to be a problem for me, so she called up the front desk to see if the hotel had a wheelchair we could borrow for the weekend. Yes they had one, and sent it up to our room. This former marathoner, triathlete and hopefully future black belt was not overwhelming thrilled with the prospect of spending the weekend being pushed around in a wheelchair. However unless my opponents wanted to come up to the 23rd floor and play me there, I didn't have any other viable options. Trying to tough it out and walk all around the tournament area on crutches wasn't going work. That was very apparent from my walk to the room.

Since breaking my ankle I've gained much appreciation for the simple things that able bodied people take for granted, and the challenges one faces when trying to make one's way around on crutches. Doing these same things via wheelchair presents a whole new set of challenges. Perhaps that's how the politically correct term "physically challenged" came about. As I went through the weekend, I felt a little like one of those investigative reporters that goes "undercover" and takes on the role of someone they're not. The anonymous reporter blends into the world he is investigating and plays his role without anyone knowing who he is. However in the chess world I'm not anonymous, so I would make a lousy investigative reporter trying to play this role for real. Instead it makes for a very different report on this particular tournament. Sit back and enjoy my ride.

The first order of business was getting myself entered into the tournament. I could have played the four day schedule with a 1/2 point bye for round 1, or the 3 day schedule with the first two games at G/75. I opted for the 3 day schedule. I couldn't help myself. I wanted to play all 7 rounds. G/75 is a decent compromise between really slow chess and really fast chess. Walter Brown, one of the directors asked me if I needed a special board. I wanted to be at a board on the end of a row. I just needed space to put a chair to prop my foot up. At the Marshall when I requested a special board, I showed Steve what would be easiest for me. At this tournament I had no idea how they were numbering the boards in my section, and there would also be a merge of schedules after round 3 and then again after round 5. I left it up to the directors to figure out where to put me.

Afterward I was sitting outside the director's room talking to Jay Bonin. He's been at the various tournaments I've played in and directed at the Marshall so he's gotten used to seeing me on crutches for the last month. He wasn't too shocked seeing me in a wheelchair. Various players who haven't seen me in awhile where more taken aback. Mostly the reaction was "Oh my god, what happened to you?" "Did you do that skiing?" I supposed I could have made up a fantastic story about skiing in the Swiss Alps and having to be taken out by helicopter, but I'm a lousy liar. I said that I can't talk and walk down stairs at the same time, and explained how I fell down the steps in my house. Not a very glamorous tale, but the sad truth of the step not taken. (Apologies to Robert Frost.)

We were not the only event in the hotel so there were many people checking in and heading up to their rooms. Waiting for the elevator on the mezzanine level during a busy period is like waiting for the subway during rush hour. When one finally comes it's full. It seemed like every elevator that stopped on the mezzanine had loads of people with suitcases or a bellman with a cart full of suitcases. It's one thing for a lone person to squeeze herself onto a packed elevator, it's a whole different story with two people and a wheelchair. We finally took an elevator down to the lobby and then went back up. I've used that trick a lot when attending big events in high rise hotels.

The first round was at 11:00 am. That gave me time to sleep in a bit, take a shower (a serious undertaking!), and have a nice breakfast before the first round. I was a little anxious about figuring out where I would be so I had Donna bring me down a little earlier then normal. Once we got down we went to find the pairings for the under 1900 section. Some of the sections were posted along the hallway outside the playing room. We roll past all of those pairings and none of them are for the under 1900 section. I finally ask one of my friends whose in my section where are our pairings? In the skittles room. Far away from the playing room. And I really thought I could manage this on crutches and a bum leg? What was I thinking?

As we head to the tournament room Walter tells me they had meant to put me at board 203, but put me at 205 where my opponent was already set up. I didn't think it would be a big deal since we were the only ones playing on that row. I could sit sideways and prop my foot up that way. It was a bigger deal then I thought. I had trouble getting comfortable. Various parts of my lower body would go numb depending on how I sat. I found all sorts of new ways to fidget in my chair, or perhaps I should say chairs. It was game of "musical chairs" gone bad. After awhile sitting sideways I decided to move into a normal chair and sit facing forward. I had to put my leg down and then that started tingling and throbbing. I moved back to sitting sideways with the leg propped up again.

I don't think all this switching chairs and adjusting my position was helping my concentration. After 23. Qe2 Bf8 we reached the following position.

I proceeded to play 24. Nxb5? It wasn't until 24...Qxb5 25. Qxb5 Rxb5 that I realized that I just gave up a knight for a pawn. I know exactly what happened. On move 23 I had considered playing Bf1 instead of Qe2. I rejected the move because I expected him to move his knight off of c6 to eliminate the threat of Nxb5. Adding a minor piece to the defense of the pawn makes 23. Bf1 a wasted move. When he didn't move the knight, I thought I could take the pawn. I clearly forgot that a knight and queen attacking a pawn defended by a queen backed by a rook was not the same as a bishop and knight attacking said same pawn.

The game continued 26. Bf1 Rbb8 27. b5 Nd8 28. b6 Ba4 29. Rd3?? Bc2 30. Rb2 Bxd3 31. Bd3 Rc6 32. Ba5 Nb7 33. Bd2 Bd6 At that point I knew my passed pawn was going nowhere, and perhaps it would be better to have lunch and rest up for round two. Donna had showed up just about the time I resigned with pretzels and water. At that point I didn't need the snacks, but a ride back to the room for lunch was even better.

Elevator rides were an adventure all weekend. It wasn't just crowds that caused problems. Sometimes when the doors would open the floor of the elevator car would not be level with the floor of the floor. That would sometimes make for a bumpy entrance or exit. She kept apologizing for having me sitting with my back to the door. Since there were mirrors in the elevator I could see what was going on behind me. Then there's the natural tendency to get off the elevator when it stops regardless of the floor. Several times I had to say "We're not at our floor." I joked about being dyslexic and being able to read the floor numbers in the mirror just fine.

In round two they managed to assign me to the correct board so I was able to put an extra chair at the end and prop up the leg that way. I still ended out spending a lot of time fiddling around with the position of the chair, the position of my leg and my position sitting. I was trying not to be a distraction, but it's hard to be subtle when I'm moving my leg from the floor back to the chair. I also needed to have the board and clock close to the end so it was easier to reach. That meant the clock sat at my left the entire tournament. I actually prefer it on my left particularly in short time controls. I can move and press the clock with my left hand, and at the same time score with my right hand. In fact when I'm White and I play a lefty who wants the clock on his left I'm disappointed.

My second round opponent was a high school kid who used to play in my scholastic tournaments when he was in elementary school. His rating has gone up a lot from those days of 3 digit ratings. His rating is a little higher then mine. He had a frustrating first round loss. He had forgotten to press his clock and ran down to 10 seconds before he noticed. He ended out losing on time in a position he was winning. Our game was fairly quiet until I rejected taking a pawn on move 23. I was attacking it twice and he was defending it twice. Unlike the last game I could actually take because I have a fork after he captures my knight. Maybe I was a little gun shy after blundering the piece in round 1. My insipid move 23. Bc1 allowed him a crushing attack. Here is the game.


Neither of these losses had anything to do with the time control of G/75. The games didn't last long enough to have the clock become an issue. I think my issues were physiological and psychological. I was distracted by trying to find a comfortable position to sit in. What worked at the Marshall tournaments was clearly not working here. I was going to have to fiddle around more with how I was sitting. Admittedly I was also uncomfortable with the attention I was receiving as I was being pushed around the tournament all weekend. I didn't want this weekend to be a big production, but it was hard to avoid it becoming so once I realized negotiating the tournament space on foot wasn't going to work.

The third round was the first of two merges of schedules. The 4-day and 3-day schedules would merge and we would playing round 3 together. The tournament room is one big room with a large wall dividing it in half. On Saturday morning they had the 4-day schedule on one side of the wall and the 3-day schedule on the other side of the wall. Even though I was on the back row by myself there were players from the lower sections only a row away from me. At least I felt like I was part of the tournament even though I wasn't playing with my own section. I was far away from where the Grandmasters and International Masters were playing on the top boards. However when playing a faster time control I'm not as prone to wanting to watch the games on the top boards.

After the merge the bulk of the sections played in the main room , and just a few rows were being used in the second room. I had assumed they would move me after the first merge, but they didn't. Here's my round 3 opponent and I all by ourselves in the back of the room.

Any feeling of being part of the tournament was gone. I felt like I wasn't really playing. Unfortunately it seemed like others felt the same way. There were two moms sitting in the back having a conversation like there was nobody around. Several times I would look their direction and and hold my finger to my lips as if to say "Shhhhhh!" I finally just put on headphones and listened to music. The headphones didn't help when people decided they would come to the back and start analyzing their games. They had turned the back few rows into an ad hoc skittles room. Several times I had to tell people we were playing a tournament game, and to please go to the skittles room. They looked at us as if they hadn't even noticed we were there. Perhaps they thought we were analyzing a game or playing blitz. The worst was when some parent going over his kid's game starts chewing him out for making a bad move. That I heard very clearly even with the headphones on. I flagged down one of the tournament directors and asked him to get the analysis moved to the skittles room.

In the first two rounds the game weren't long enough for me to need to take a trip to the ladies room. I knew this round I would probably need to go at some point. Donna said she would come in and check on me. It seemed like every time she came in was a moment when I was actually focused on the board. I never saw her, and after about 2.5 hours I was wondering if she had forgotten about me. Eventually she came in at a moment when I spotted her, and had her take me out. Bathroom runs were another adventure. Viewing the tournament area from a child's eye level made me a lot more aware of how oblivious people can be. People are walking and not even looking in the direction they're going. (Sounds familiar. Bottom 2 stairs. What stairs?) There were time I thought people were going to walk right into me. It got even worse on Sunday when all the kids came for the under 900 section.

If I ever had doubted the need for handicap accessibility, I would have gotten over it fast during this weekend. The ladies room has two doors that one has to go through to get in there. They're both fairly heavy doors. It was tricky getting through the doors unless there was someone there to hold them open for me. It wasn't an issue when I had Donna around to open them for me, but other times I didn't have anyone to hold them open. Forget trying to go through those doors in a wheelchair. Fortunately I did not need to go to that extreme. I could get up and walk in. There were bathrooms with handicap access, but they were on the lobby level. I didn't need that, but I feel for the person attending a function on the mezzanine level who does need that bathroom. Then again I don't understand why the hotel only has bathrooms at one end of the floor. Most hotels have bathrooms on both ends of a large floor that has big rooms for meetings or parties.

My third round game lasted longer then my first two games combined. My opponent played the Smith-Morra against my Sicilian, but I was in no mood to deal with accepting the gambit. Every since my "Morra Meltdown" I just ignore c3. Most opponents will push e5 and it transposes into a c3 Sicilian. He did not do that, but I just kept ignoring the pawn on c3. Eventually he recaptured on d4. Both of us missed opportunities to win a pawn at some point in the game. I think we were playing rather tentatively. Perhaps it was because we were both off to a lousy start with our matching 0-2 scores.

Despite my passive play at times I was holding the position just fine. Unfortunately I had one of those "touching a piece too soon" moments that I did not handle very well. Here is the crucial position.

I was anticipating Rc7+ I think I got a head of myself and picked up my queen and started to put it e5 to block the diagonal. Right before I was ready to let go, I noticed the rook is still on c5. I put the queen back on e6 and started to panic a bit. The first thought was "I can't believe you almost hung your queen there." The second thought was "Great! You touched the queen, now where are you going to put it?" When thoughts like that go through my mind it's hard to settle myself down and find the right square for the queen. I'm slightly worse in the position, but 39...Qe2 was a reasonable move since I'm attacking his rook on d1. Instead I played 39...Qe4 which loses outright to 40. Rc7+ In one move I manage to toss away almost 4 hours worth of play.

Here's the entire game.


One of the directors came over as the game finished. I gave him the thumbs down sign, and mentioned how much being in the back sucked this round. He said I would be moved to the other room because the 2-day schedule would be using this room. He mentioned board 100. I asked him to take me into the other room so I could check out a new board assignment. Board 100 was right by the door. I didn't want that board. It would be too noisy and too much player traffic. Then he suggested a board that was all the way against the far wall. Too far away. I was starting to feel a little bit like Goldilocks. I finally got up and walked over to board 88 which was on the center aisle and I could face with my back to the wall. That board is just right.

I didn't want to call Donna from the playing room so I decided I would attempt to roll myself out of there. However not being used to this new mode of transportation, and lacking the upper body strength to push my 1xx pound body in a wheel chair that by itself probably weighed 20 pounds I did not got very far. Some kind chess player asked me if he could push me somewhere. I had him take me to the skittles room and leave me by the under 1900 wall charts. I wanted to see what was happening in the section. There is a total disconnect from the tournament when you're not playing with your section and you you don't see the wall chart. I also wanted to see whether or not I was going to be in line for the bye in round 4. It appeared that way since the player right below me got it in round 3. I wasn't going to lose any sleep over getting the bye in the morning. If the numbers were even I wouldn't, if they remained odd I would.

Sunday was a new day. Hopefully things would be better with a change of scenery.

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