Tournament Prep

In early February, I registered for the 2022 Minnesota Open that took place this past weekend. I’ve never played in an OTB tournament, so I really had no idea what to expect.

I registered for the lowest section, the “Bantam” U1100 section. In Minnesota, “Bantam” is a usually a term is used for young hockey players. Since I was unrated, I thought this would be the right section. I am currently somewhere between 1200 and 1300 on rapid, so I even thought it might be a bit easy for me, which I was fine with since it was my first tournament. Boy was I wrong. More on that later.

Just to get a sense of some of the other players in my section, I started looking through some of their USCF tournament history. It turns out that if you know how someone finished in an online tournament, and you can find that tournament (maybe on lichess), then you can pretty easily figure out their usernames. The players I started finding had online ratings close to mine, which I thought was good.

I found Chess Dojo’s preparing for a tournament video useful. Based on that I decided to set a goal of just trying to use most of my time. I tend to play too fast, and with the longer 90+30 time controls in the tournament, I wanted to make sure I was able to use most of my time. My goal was to have less than 30 minutes left on my clock at the end of the games.

Week Of The Tournament

Looking back, I was a bit of a wreck the week leading up to the tournament. I was a bundle of nerves. I did not sleep well and I even hurt my back, probably because I was so tense. This is a part of being an adult chess player that they don’t often talk about - the physical strain. I’m not even that old!

For my training/studying the week before, I decided to stop learning anything new. Pausing my progress on any books or videos. I continued doing my regular tactics studying and played a few longer training games, mostly against the Maia 1500 Bot on lichess, mostly to get used to using a clock and writing down my notation. I cut back on the number of games I was playing, even taking a 4-day break from even looking at chess games. Instead I just did some mate-in-2 puzzles from a book. I think this was a good plan and was the best thing I could have done.

The night before the tournament I did not sleep very much.

Tournament Begins

It was finally Friday night, the day of the tournament. It was being held at a hotel about 30 minutes from my house. I drove there and I was both super nervous and super excited. I have spent so much time on chess over the past year and I was finally going to be able to play OTB! I had my board, pieces, clock, and caffeine, and I was ready to go.

I got to the hotel and it was pretty nice. Then I found the “ballroom” where the event was being held. It was in a kind of dingy basement area. The reality of OTB chess started sinking in. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this was much less glamourous than anything I pictured. There were pieces of paper taped to the walls with rankings and pairings. The folding tables and uncomfortable folding chairs we were playing on were all crammed together in the room. I’ll just say that it is not the type of hotel ballroom where you would want to hold a wedding. Even part of the men’s bathroom was broken down, which is tough when there were a couple hundred men that needed to use it.

Speaking of all the men, the other thing that quickly became clear was that this was a tough environment for women. I was just another adult guy playing chess, so it was not a big deal for me. However, according to USCF records, only 14% of all the players in the tournament were non-male. In my section it was slightly higher, with 21% non-male.

When I got there I saw there was a note that I needed to see the tournament director (TD). I was already nervous, and this did not help. Luckily it was just some confusion over my registration. Even though I entered everything correctly when I signed up, there happens to be another USCF member with my same first and last name. Maybe it is a distant relative of mine. Once that was sorted out, I was ready to go.

That said, I was still excited and am very fortunate to be able to play chess, in any setting.

I found my first pairing, and I was ready to go.

Round 1 - The High School Kid

I found my corner of a table towards the back of the room and set up my board and clock. I’m glad I figured out how to use my clock in advance, because those things are not easy to set up. I was also happy to be able to use the board and pieces that I’m used to. One less variable. Looking around, I was glad I had my own pieces. There were all varieties of boards and pieces, and there were not many that looked any nicer than mine. I just have a $12 set from Wholesale Chess, but the heavy weighted pieces are great. I actually got this $33 set with a board and carrying bag which include those pieces. At least I looked like a chess player.

My first game was against a high-school kid. I call him a “kid” but he was probably taller than me and I’m sure had been playing chess longer than me. However, I found out he was a senior in high school, so I can still call him a kid.

He was rated 750 OTB. My first thought was “I can beat a 700 player.” What I didn’t take into account was, like me and presumably everyone else in the lower sections, he had been playing online quite a bit. So even though his OTB rating was in the 700s, his actual strength was much higher. After the game he told me his online rating was closer to 1700. If he is rated 400 points higher than me online, then he should beat me in most games. In this case it was because of my blunder that I lost. By the end of the tournament his rating was 925.

I was playing black and played the Caro-Kann. For most of the game I was holding it together. I had a few questionable moves that I’ll be digging into more as I analyze the games in detail, but overall I was pretty happy with the game. Part way through he offered me a draw. I thought I had some more opportunities and had gotten some advice that I shouldn’t take draws, so I kept playing. In hindsight, I should have accepted the draw because 9 moves later I hung a mate-in-1. It was a case of just playing too fast. My plan was to trap white’s king, bring in my rook, and find a way to win. What actually happened was trapping my own king. It was one of the first moves where I just played without thinking. The 2.5 hours I had spent on this game came down to this one mistake. My opponent just looked at me funny when I played it. He was a good sport about it though and I realized my mistake as soon as I played it. I could have resigned right away, but I let him deliver the final blow, because I always hate it when my opponents resign right before I checkmate them.

Round 2 - Forced Bye

I did not sleep well Friday, partly because I was so worked up over the loss, and partly because I had been drinking a bunch of caffeine during the game. But, I was lucky that I was able to sleep in my own bed and spend some time with my family.

I drove back to the hotel Saturday morning. I was ready for a better game. I had a plan, I was mentally strong, and I was confident.

Then the pairings came out. Side note: by saying the pairings “came out” I mean they printed off the sheets and taped them to the wall. Isn’t there a better system then this? If not, I’m going to develop one and make a ton of money.

Anyway, I found my name and saw that I was the odd man out and got a 1-point bye. I was not happy. I came to play chess, not have to sit out on a round. I tried to find out of there was anyone else I could play, even in another section, just to get the experience, but the TD claimed that there wasn’t anyone else to play.

Now I had 5 hours before my next game. I didn’t want to sit in the lobby of a hotel for that whole time. I also didn’t want to spend an hour of that driving home and back, but that is what I did. I got to take my dog for a walk, spend some time with my family, and just relax. That was very nice. But having the bye totally threw me off. It is hard to be really prepared for something like this, and then not get to do it. I think that impacted my next game a bit, but who knows.

After this round I now had 1 point so I was ranked in the middle of the pack, 39 out of 57 players. For only playing and losing one game, I found that pretty funny.

Round 3 - The Middle School Kid

I got back to the tournament in the afternoon to play my second game, but it was already round 3. In this game I was again crazy nervous. This kid was rated 700 and was already 1-1 in the tournament. By the end he would be rated 840.

I decided to play my current favorite opening for white, 1. b3. I could tell it threw off my opponent a bit, which is what I was going for. However, that didn’t last long. After 2 moves my opponent hung a pawn. If I had slowed down a bit, I would have seen that. It happens all the time in my online games. The whole point of this opening is to be able to attack the center, but from the flanks. When my opponent suddenly had e5 and d5, I should have noticed something was wrong. But, playing too fast I missed my chance to take the free pawn.

I realized it after I played my normal 3rd move, which is 3. e3. But then it was too late to do anything about it. The rest of the game was a fight. I was never able to make any solid progress or find an advantage. For most of the game I felt like I was just playing defense, which it turns out I don’t like. At one point he just hung a knight… that I missed. I never realized it until this tournament, but I think I’m more of an attacking player, though I never get to any positions like that. I had already decided before the tournament that I was going to change up my openings, but I knew I couldn’t do it until after the tournament was over.

We get to an endgame where I am winning. I knew I was up in material, having a bishop and 4 pawns vs 6 pawns. However, I had the sinking feeling from the night before that I was just one blunder away from a loss. Pro tip: this is not a good mindset to have in a game of chess. My opponent’s 3 connected pawns were marching down the board towards me and I didn’t know what to do (besides add “study endgames” to my list of things to do). My opponent offered a draw and I took it. Afterwards he showed me how I could have won.

Now I was mad at myself for a different reason. However, once I calmed down, I came to the conclusion that it was an exercise in self-awareness. Mentally, I was close to losing the game. Physically, my heart was racing and I was almost shaking with excitement or nerves. Knowing this, I was not so upset at taking the draw even though I was winning. It wasn’t like it was going to be easy for me to win, I had to not make any mistakes, which I was not convinced I could do.

Round 4 - The Elementary School Kid

It is now Sunday morning and my opponents keep getting younger. This time it was a kid who could not sit still and kept getting up and looking at a friend’s game after every move. He was rated just under the 1100 cut-off for this section. By the end of the tournament he was over that to 1140. After the game I asked and he said he was more like 1700 online. How is everyone I play 1700 online? Maybe that’s just what people say.

Out of the opening, I think I was doing pretty well. That’s saying something because I really don’t know much about playing black against 1. d4. I crammed a little Nimzo-Indian the week before, so I was just going with that and some basic opening principles. But, after the opening, it all went downhill. I was taking my time, but I had a number of questionable moves throughout the game where I just miscalculated. I was seeing tactics where they did not exist. I was seeing ghosts. Eventually I was so far behind that I just resigned.

Round 5 Bye and Final Results

Going into the tournament I had asked for a 1/2 point bye in round 5. I had plans on Sunday evening with my wife that were more important than playing chess. So, I ended the tournament with 2.0 out of 5. That makes it seem way better than I actually did, considering 1.5 of those points were from byes. But I did somehow finish in the middle of the pack for my section and got a provisional rating of 887.

What’s Next?

Now that I tried this OTB tournament, I am excited for more OTB chess. I heard this many times, but it is very different from online chess. It feels like there is more at stake because you can’t just click a button to play another game. You only get a limited number of chances, so you need to make them count. There is a local chess club that has weekly tournaments, so I am going to try to get to those. There is also a few more local tournaments coming up this summer. I feel like my rating is higher than 887, but I bet everyone feels they are underrated.