Playing in a Chess Tournament after a 30+ Year Layoff

I started a personal chess journal close to when I began studying chess again.  It covers a number of chess areas including the basic level books I read on my return to the game and my personal opinions on if I liked or hated whatever I finished reading.  It also contains a self assessment of my playing strength at the end of each year along with the rating justification. More recently, it chronicles my first tournament in multiple decades round by round.

I brought one of my old laptops because I wanted capture my own post round reaction of my tournament experience including a bit about my opponent, their study habits and anything else I felt might be interesting to me.  I knew I’d be likely to forget quite a few things if I waited to get home following the four day tournament.

During the mentioned 5 plus years of study, I played very, very few games against human opponents.  My logic was I wanted to avoid a confidence problem should I take a lot of losses.  This decision will come back to haunt me.

I live in San Antonio.  The tournament was in Irving if I remember correctly.  What I do know is I thought it was in Dallas but it turns out to be very near it. 

I agreed to split the travel and hotel costs with two other chess playing friends from my hometown.  I also bought about $40 of groceries (for breakfast, lunch and snacks) to take since I had no intention of paying hotel restaurant prices for all my food. It turns out that was a very good decision.

Here we go for a recap round by round.

Friday May 27, 2022

Round one in the books.  I was so unsure of how things were going to go.  I was really surprised at how the tournament started.  I arrived to my table and my clock began before I was ready to pull out my pen and pad. It took me more than 5 minutes before I was situated and that isn’t good.  For some reason I was confused at the time increments.  In the old days, I remember we’d make 40 moves and then get bonus time.  Because I didn’t realize it, I was in a bad way with my time.  I played pretty well for my first game back and had my chances late into the game.  The time (or lack thereof) really began worrying me and I began to rush…which is never a good thing when playing in a tournament. He wound up finishing me off in the endgame.  It was competitive and I’m thankful for it being so.

Before the tournament, I was worried I’d have to play a young kid.  I played a young kid.  He deserved to win based on his play. I’ll regroup and it’s on to round two.  So much playing rust!

Saturday May 28, 2022

Round 2 is in the books for me.  Another loss.  I was paired as white against a fellow rated 1782 named Steve.  I expected a lower rated opponent after my first round but that wasn’t the case.  He is probably late 30’s in age.  We played a 28 move game which was book for around the first ten moves.  He played the King’s Indian against me.  I enjoyed the game though I’d have been happier with a win.

We had a chance to go over the game afterwards in a makeshift skittles area.  He was friendly and kind.  He offered suggested moves on some of my more suspect selections.  I documented his suggestions on my notation.  I plan on studying my games when I return to San Antonio.

We chatted about San Antonio’s current chess scene and Austin’s which is where he is living.  I told him I am an amateur writer and will be blogging about my tournament experience.  He seemed eager to read my stuff.  I’m currently in my hotel room capturing as much as I remember.  I’m still not managing to ration my time well.  He played well with nice tactics displayed.  He deserved to win.  I could have managed to limp along a bit longer but my position was lost.  I didn’t want to be “that guy” who doesn’t recognize when it’s time to resign.

Round 3 just finished up about a half hour ago.  It’s now 10:55pm and I’m catching up on my journal before dinner. I played Ethan, a recent high school graduate who is fairly new to chess.

Our game was a draw though honestly he outplayed me for most of the game on an opening he said he knew fairly well.  I didn’t know his opening and played black mostly in the dark.  It was firmly in the middle game before I equalized and we were getting ready to enter the endgame in a drawish position though he was up a pawn.  I asked him afterwards how he improved so far over his current USCF rating.  He told me he plays a lot of practice games on chess.com.  I have spent a great deal of time studying books with no practical over the board play. I’m certain my journey for improvement has been thoroughly proven wrong.  I need regular over the board play along with the study. It’s a brutal lesson to learn in a chess tournament.  On to round four on Sunday and hopefully wins for a change.

Sunday May 29, 2022

Round 4 for me is in the books.  I lost again on a blunder.  What improved for me was time management. I suppose it’s important to look for silver linings in disappointments. 

I had the opportunity to chat with my opponent after the round.  His name is Jim.  We had the opportunity to review our game outside of the playing hall where others gather to go over their games.  I asked Jim how he was introduced to chess.  It was through one of his math school teachers. 

I asked for Jim’s secret to improvement.  He told me he plays somewhere around 40 games of chess per week both at his Waco chess club and online through Chess.com.  I followed up with another question on what he recommends to get better at chess.  He told me a 55% study versus 45% play (my memory fails me right now.  Play versus study percentages might have been the other way around) would be a good ratio for improvement.  It has paid dividends for Jim with his victory against me and a draw against a 1900+ rated player in this tournament.

Round 5 has been completed for me.  I played Gurugraham, a second grader.  He played white.  He was very polite.  His parents gave him encouragement before the match began and I wished him well on our game.  We wound up playing to a draw.  Afterwards I asked his approach to chess in one of the adjacent meeting rooms.  He has been playing since 2020.  His dad mentioned he takes lessons as well as a membership to Chess.com.  He plays a lot of chess weekly. I wished him well on the remaining games of the tournament.  I still am taking to heart all the ways my opponents study.  I should mention his rather impressive knowledge of chess openings.  I should also note he played out the game in review largely from memory.

Monday May 30, 2022

Round 6 My hotel roommates had mentioned they could hear me wake up and move around at my normal 3:45am time.  I wanted to be asked to join next year’s trip to the tournament so I purposely slept later than I normally would.  That was a mistake.  Bryan, one of my chess playing roommates sleepily asked what time the round 6 was scheduled to begin.  Angel, the second chess playing roommate said 9:30am.  It was 9:30am.  Ugh! I threw on my clothes from the night before and made a beeline to the playing hall where my clock was started.  I played as white so it had already cost me 5 minutes.  Luckily my opponent also arrived late so our time when we began was about equal.

I’m writing this on Tuesday which is the day after the tournament.  Rounds 6 & 7 I’ll be covering from my middle age memory…which isn’t very reliable.

I was debating with myself if I’d be happy to win by a no show.  I was more on the side of no though I’d honestly become comfortable winning that way to get into the full point column.  I noticed a father and son headed in my direction of the playing tables. The father sat on the second to the lowest board while I was clinging on to the absolute last board of the amateur section.  This was not how I imagined my return to tournament chess.

I faced off against a likeable second grader named Curtis.  Like all the rounds of the tournament, I fell badly behind on the opening.  My good fortune was finally equalizing and then having Curtis hang one of his knights in an attack I could see developing. He managed to recover and we played on where eventually I was fortunate to come off with a win.  My first win of the tournament.  I spoke afterwards to the young boy and his dad asking what they did to improve.  Again I heard they play a lot of chess rather than heavy book study.  He was match tough while I was not.  My luck was he liked to play fast and that was his undoing. He definitely could have beaten me had he taken his time.  Everyone is a tough out for me in my return back.

Round 7 I had forgotten late checkout of 1pm from the hotel.  I grabbed a courtesy cart and loaded it up with our traveling bags and such after round 6.  One of our other San Antonio chess players (who was staying an extra night) graciously offered to let us store our bags in his room until the completion of the last round.  We did exactly that.

I faced my last round opponent who was having the same rough tournament results as me.  We both wanted to win.  Like all the other rounds before, I was outplayed in the opening and slowly had fought to equalize though it cost me a pawn and a bad endgame position to boot.  We played to a 79 move stalemate which I achieved thanks to my repeated study of Silman’s endgame course and DeLaVilla’s 101 endgames you must know.  2 and a half out of 7 for my tournament result after more than 30 years away from competitive chess.  That’s one win, three losses and three draws.  I lose over 50 rating points but gain a brutal lesson that I NEED to play more chess to make me match tough.

What’s funny is how many people gave me the same advice over the last five plus years.  The advice was to play a lot of practice chess.  Who offered this advice?  A good friend who is a national master, class level players and my wife to name a few people. I was so hard headed that I didn’t listen.  I stuck to reading books on chess, doing tactics puzzles on my copy of chess mentor, playing perhaps 30 games over five plus years on Fritz 15 chess program set to friendly mode.

This tournament did not go as I expected.  What I expected was to outplay my rating and shock my opponents with all my chess study.  If I had to pick, playing chess in the volume of 20 to 40 games a week over those five plus years would probably have given me far better results.  It was a convincing lesson which will definitely change my chess study approach.  Initially, I plan on mixing study and practice games over the next year with the hopes of much better 2023 results.

I had planned on asking a master chess player or higher to evaluate my games and give me a study plan.  No need for that as my experience and the questions I asked all but one of my opponents after my games has given me the blueprint for improvement.

It’s not the story I expected to tell pretournament but one which I think will be helpful for those players like me who may be contemplating a return to chess tournament play in the future.

It’s been a couple more days since the tournament.  I’ve had time to reflect a little bit more on my tournament experience.  Yes, I was outplayed in every single opening.  Thanks to my book study, I was able to have a playable game in each of them.  I also was saved in the final round thanks to my book study on endgames.

I spoke to my friend who is a local National Master this past Saturday.  I thought I’d get his take on how sound is my new modified plan for chess improvement. It was good to know he said it is a sound plan.  That made me feel good to know I’ll be following a more correct path.

I’m posting this so you can see what happens if you think books alone will be your key to chess mastery.  I’ve learned my lesson and share it now with you.

This is not the version of the story I was expecting to write.  I had been studying chess books daily for going on six years.  Throughout that time, I had mostly been following the 20/40/40 rule in chess which is spending 20% of my study time on openings, 40% on middle games and 40% on endgames.  Before all that, there was a good 30 year gap since I played in my last chess tournament. 

I started a personal chess journal close to when I began studying chess again.  It covers a number of chess areas including the basic level books I read on my return to the game and my personal opinions on if I liked or hated whatever I finished reading.  It also contains a self assessment of my playing strength at the end of each year along with the rating justification. More recently, it chronicles my first tournament in multiple decades round by round.

I brought one of my old laptops because I wanted capture my own post round reaction of my tournament experience including a bit about my opponent, their study habits and anything else I felt might be interesting to me.  I knew I’d be likely to forget quite a few things if I waited to get home following the four day tournament.

During the mentioned 5 plus years of study, I played very, very few games against human opponents.  My logic was I wanted to avoid a confidence problem should I take a lot of losses.  This decision will come back to haunt me.

I live in San Antonio.  The tournament was in Irving if I remember correctly.  What I do know is I thought it was in Dallas but it turns out to be very near it. 

I agreed to split the travel and hotel costs with two other chess playing friends from my hometown.  I also bought about $40 of groceries (for breakfast, lunch and snacks) to take since I had no intention of paying hotel restaurant prices for all my food. It turns out that was a very good decision.

Here we go for a recap round by round.

Friday May 27, 2022

Round one in the books.  I was so unsure of how things were going to go.  I was really surprised at how the tournament started.  I arrived to my table and my clock began before I was ready to pull out my pen and pad. It took me more than 5 minutes before I was situated and that isn’t good.  For some reason I was confused at the time increments.  In the old days, I remember we’d make 40 moves and then get bonus time.  Because I didn’t realize it, I was in a bad way with my time.  I played pretty well for my first game back and had my chances late into the game.  The time (or lack thereof) really began worrying me and I began to rush…which is never a good thing when playing in a tournament. He wound up finishing me off in the endgame.  It was competitive and I’m thankful for it being so.

Before the tournament, I was worried I’d have to play a young kid.  I played a young kid.  He deserved to win based on his play. I’ll regroup and it’s on to round two.  So much playing rust!

Saturday May 28, 2022

Round 2 is in the books for me.  Another loss.  I was paired as white against a fellow rated 1782 named Steve.  I expected a lower rated opponent after my first round but that wasn’t the case.  He is probably late 30’s in age.  We played a 28 move game which was book for around the first ten moves.  He played the King’s Indian against me.  I enjoyed the game though I’d have been happier with a win.

We had a chance to go over the game afterwards in a makeshift skittles area.  He was friendly and kind.  He offered suggested moves on some of my more suspect selections.  I documented his suggestions on my notation.  I plan on studying my games when I return to San Antonio.

We chatted about San Antonio’s current chess scene and Austin’s which is where he is living.  I told him I am an amateur writer and will be blogging about my tournament experience.  He seemed eager to read my stuff.  I’m currently in my hotel room capturing as much as I remember.  I’m still not managing to ration my time well.  He played well with nice tactics displayed.  He deserved to win.  I could have managed to limp along a bit longer but my position was lost.  I didn’t want to be “that guy” who doesn’t recognize when it’s time to resign.

Round 3 just finished up about a half hour ago.  It’s now 10:55pm and I’m catching up on my journal before dinner. I played Ethan, a recent high school graduate who is fairly new to chess.

Our game was a draw though honestly he outplayed me for most of the game on an opening he said he knew fairly well.  I didn’t know his opening and played black mostly in the dark.  It was firmly in the middle game before I equalized and we were getting ready to enter the endgame in a drawish position though he was up a pawn.  I asked him afterwards how he improved so far over his current USCF rating.  He told me he plays a lot of practice games on chess.com.  I have spent a great deal of time studying books with no practical over the board play. I’m certain my journey for improvement has been thoroughly proven wrong.  I need regular over the board play along with the study. It’s a brutal lesson to learn in a chess tournament.  On to round four on Sunday and hopefully wins for a change.

Sunday May 29, 2022

Round 4 for me is in the books.  I lost again on a blunder.  What improved for me was time management. I suppose it’s important to look for silver linings in disappointments. 

I had the opportunity to chat with my opponent after the round.  His name is Jim.  We had the opportunity to review our game outside of the playing hall where others gather to go over their games.  I asked Jim how he was introduced to chess.  It was through one of his math school teachers. 

I asked for Jim’s secret to improvement.  He told me he plays somewhere around 40 games of chess per week both at his Waco chess club and online through Chess.com.  I followed up with another question on what he recommends to get better at chess.  He told me a 55% study versus 45% play (my memory fails me right now.  Play versus study percentages might have been the other way around) would be a good ratio for improvement.  It has paid dividends for Jim with his victory against me and a draw against a 1900+ rated player in this tournament.

Round 5 has been completed for me.  I played Gurugraham, a second grader.  He played white.  He was very polite.  His parents gave him encouragement before the match began and I wished him well on our game.  We wound up playing to a draw.  Afterwards I asked his approach to chess in one of the adjacent meeting rooms.  He has been playing since 2020.  His dad mentioned he takes lessons as well as a membership to Chess.com.  He plays a lot of chess weekly. I wished him well on the remaining games of the tournament.  I still am taking to heart all the ways my opponents study.  I should mention his rather impressive knowledge of chess openings.  I should also note he played out the game in review largely from memory.

Monday May 30, 2022

Round 6 My hotel roommates had mentioned they could hear me wake up and move around at my normal 3:45am time.  I wanted to be asked to join next year’s trip to the tournament so I purposely slept later than I normally would.  That was a mistake.  Bryan, one of my chess playing roommates sleepily asked what time the round 6 was scheduled to begin.  Angel, the second chess playing roommate said 9:30am.  It was 9:30am.  Ugh! I threw on my clothes from the night before and made a beeline to the playing hall where my clock was started.  I played as white so it had already cost me 5 minutes.  Luckily my opponent also arrived late so our time when we began was about equal.

I’m writing this on Tuesday which is the day after the tournament.  Rounds 6 & 7 I’ll be covering from my middle age memory…which isn’t very reliable.

I was debating with myself if I’d be happy to win by a no show.  I was more on the side of no though I’d honestly become comfortable winning that way to get into the full point column.  I noticed a father and son headed in my direction of the playing tables. The father sat on the second to the lowest board while I was clinging on to the absolute last board of the amateur section.  This was not how I imagined my return to tournament chess.

I faced off against a likeable second grader named Curtis.  Like all the rounds of the tournament, I fell badly behind on the opening.  My good fortune was finally equalizing and then having Curtis hang one of his knights in an attack I could see developing. He managed to recover and we played on where eventually I was fortunate to come off with a win.  My first win of the tournament.  I spoke afterwards to the young boy and his dad asking what they did to improve.  Again I heard they play a lot of chess rather than heavy book study.  He was match tough while I was not.  My luck was he liked to play fast and that was his undoing. He definitely could have beaten me had he taken his time.  Everyone is a tough out for me in my return back.

Round 7 I had forgotten late checkout of 1pm from the hotel.  I grabbed a courtesy cart and loaded it up with our traveling bags and such after round 6.  One of our other San Antonio chess players (who was staying an extra night) graciously offered to let us store our bags in his room until the completion of the last round.  We did exactly that.

I faced my last round opponent who was having the same rough tournament results as me.  We both wanted to win.  Like all the other rounds before, I was outplayed in the opening and slowly had fought to equalize though it cost me a pawn and a bad endgame position to boot.  We played to a 79 move stalemate which I achieved thanks to my repeated study of Silman’s endgame course and DeLaVilla’s 101 endgames you must know.  2 and a half out of 7 for my tournament result after more than 30 years away from competitive chess.  That’s one win, three losses and three draws.  I lose over 50 rating points but gain a brutal lesson that I NEED to play more chess to make me match tough.

What’s funny is how many people gave me the same advice over the last five plus years.  The advice was to play a lot of practice chess.  Who offered this advice?  A good friend who is a national master, class level players and my wife to name a few people. I was so hard headed that I didn’t listen.  I stuck to reading books on chess, doing tactics puzzles on my copy of chess mentor, playing perhaps 30 games over five plus years on Fritz 15 chess program set to friendly mode.

This tournament did not go as I expected.  What I expected was to outplay my rating and shock my opponents with all my chess study.  If I had to pick, playing chess in the volume of 20 to 40 games a week over those five plus years would probably have given me far better results.  It was a convincing lesson which will definitely change my chess study approach.  Initially, I plan on mixing study and practice games over the next year with the hopes of much better 2023 results.

I had planned on asking a master chess player or higher to evaluate my games and give me a study plan.  No need for that as my experience and the questions I asked all but one of my opponents after my games has given me the blueprint for improvement.

It’s not the story I expected to tell pretournament but one which I think will be helpful for those players like me who may be contemplating a return to chess tournament play in the future.

It’s been a couple more days since the tournament.  I’ve had time to reflect a little bit more on my tournament experience.  Yes, I was outplayed in every single opening.  Thanks to my book study, I was able to have a playable game in each of them.  I also was saved in the final round thanks to my book study on endgames.

I spoke to my friend who is a local National Master this past Saturday.  I thought I’d get his take on how sound is my new modified plan for chess improvement. It was good to know he said it is a sound plan.  That made me feel good to know I’ll be following a more correct path.

I’m posting this so you can see what happens if you think books alone will be your key to chess mastery.  I’ve learned my lesson and share it now with you.

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