The 2020 U.S. Class Championships: An OTB National Event!?
Kudos to International Arbiter/International Organizer Anand Dommalapati and Capital Area Chess for holding the 2020 U.S. Class Championships over-the-board from October 30 through November 1 in Dulles, Virginia. 130 players participated!
In case you didn’t know, the U.S. Class is a 5-round Swiss system tournament with seven sections, one for each USCF class: Master, Expert, Class A, Class B, Class C, Class D, and Class E. The top two sections are FIDE-rated.
It’s held over one weekend: one game is played Friday evening, and two games each on Saturday and Sunday. The time control is Game in 120 minutes with a 10-second delay. There’s also a 2-day option, where players contest two faster games on Saturday morning, and then merge with the 3-day players on Saturday evening.
A re-entered player cannot play someone they faced “in their first life, ” unless that opponent has also re-entered. Then, the “re-incarnated” entities can play!
Most tournaments do not allow re-entries, and scholastic tournaments almost never do, but it is something to be aware of.
Are Re-Entries Fair?
I think just about any tournament policy is fair if it is announced in advance in all publicity. It is the responsibility of the player to understand the rules of a competition, and to ask questions of the Organizer or Tournament Director if they are unsure about something.
The Organizer is responsible for ensuring good playing conditions; the Tournament Director is responsible for applying the regulations of the competition correctly and fairly.
Sometimes a re-entered player will win a prize, and this can upset some players. Anecdotally, the re-entry doesn’t change the player’s fortunes and they just increase the prize fund for players in good form.
I have written before that taking up the French Defense saved my chess career. Well, that was great for facing 1.e4, but I needed something against the closed openings. One day in 1999 my dad brought home a book that helped me solve this task for awhile. Thanks, Dad.
Play the Noteboom is the title of a 1996 book written by Mark van der Werf and Teun van der Vorm, and published by Cadogan Books (now Everyman Chess).
The Noteboom Variation is a cross between the Slav and Semi-Slav Defenses, characterized by the positon after, for example:
Black takes the c4-pawn and might hold onto it!
In the main line, black gives back the pawn and a very unusual situation arises:
Black has two outside, connected passed pawns! This single factor made the Noteboom really appealing to me in the late 1990s and early 2000s: as long as I didn’t get mated, I often wound up with winning or nearly winning endgames!
I had a ridiculously high score with the Noteboom Variation, when my opponents allowed it, including some nice upsets. The fun didn’t stop there, however.
The Marshall Gambit
White can avoid this situation by playing an Anti-Noteboom system. The most common and best choice is the Marshall Gambit:
This early central thrust is not possible in the Slav or Semi-Slav because Black has a knight on f6. The main line continues:
When White has definite compensation for the missing pawn: open lines for the queen and bishops, and a drafty Black king to target.
I believe the main move here is 8…Na6. But as a firm adherent of the “take and hold” school of chess, I used to play 8…Nd7, threatening to shut out white’s monster bishop with 9…c5.
Four of my tournament games reached this position. My opponents played 9.Bd6 or 9.Qd6. Then I held on for dear life after…
…and won all four games! Now, I probably had losing positions in three of them, but sometimes Caissa is on your side. My opponents included an A-player, the same Expert twice, and my first master scalp in tournament play.
Um, yeah. Don’t try this at home!
Now I view all of this very differently. In the main line Noteboom Variation White has a strong bishop pair and his central play could end up being … shall we say … problematic. 15 years later, I wouldn’t try a “rope-a-dope” strategy against the Marshall Gambit. Not a recipe for success…
Also, amateurs are more familiar with the opening now than in the late 1990s, notably with The Triangle System (2012)by Ruslan Scherbakov.
Desperate people do desperate things. I was a weak player without much confidence and relied on a material advantage to win long, drawn-out endgames. I didn’t think I could win any other way. That led me to playing these semi-bluff openings.
Funnily enough, nowadays I have a massive score against the Noteboom on ICC! That’s the great thing about playing an opening: you understand how to play against it, too!
To me, this implies he plays 1…e6 in response to at least 1.e4 and 1.d4, and possibly other first moves as well. If my assumption is correct, it means he plays the Classical Dutch (…f5, …Nf6, …d6, …e6) or Stonewall Dutch (…f5, …Nf6, …e6, …d5, …c6), but not the Leningrad Dutch (…f5, …Nf6, …g6, …Bg7, …d6).
What Does the French/Dutch Player Want?
Rich, counterattacking play!
The choice of the Dutch as d4-defense is revealing and makes me think this player favors lines like the Winawer, Classical, MacCutcheon, or Burn Variations in the French after 3.Nc3 — and not quiet passive lines such as the Rubinstein or Fort Knox.
In my years of playing the French, I never considered playing the Winawer or MacCutcheon in tournament play — it’s just not my style. The Classical and Fort Knox were my favorites. But how do you identify what to play?
I don’t believe that the Sicilian is necessarily the “best” opening, or that everyone should play it. I do believe, however, that any player who wants to answer 1.e4 with 1…c5 can find a system to their liking.
I’m talking about how to answer the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3):
As you probably know, there is a huge array of options. Traditionally, they are grouped by black’s reply from the diagram: does s/he play 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6?
Instead I’ll consider popular variations based on my opinions about they rank on two scales:
Aggressive — Neutral — Solid
Tactical — Neutral — Positional.
Of course, white has a hand in which line is played also, so these won’t be 100% accurate, but I’ll characterize some popular lines.
If you want an excellent overview of the Sicilian mainlines and Anti-Sicilian setups, get Mastering the Sicilian Defense by the late Danny Kopec (1954-2016). Kopec always shined as an author when discussing structural play in the opening and middlegame.
Okay, here we go:
Aggressive and Tactical
High risk, high reward! Probably the most aggressive line in the entire Sicilian universe is the Dragon Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6):
The “Dragon bishop” plans to breathe fire on the long a1-h8 diagonal. White’s most critical try, the Yugoslav Attack (6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0):
When the first player will castle into an attack on the queenside, while starting one of their own on the kingside.
Despite this, I have never considered the Dragon super-tactical, because many of the sacrifices are standard and repeat themselves over and over again. Still, compared to other options, I will place it in this bucket.
This may surprise some people, but I consider the Najdorf a blend of Tactical and Positional. Black doesn’t necessarily aim to attack the king, and often uses a “whole board” strategy. It is not as aggressive as the Dragon in a “kill the king” sense, but a positionally aggressive opening where black willingly takes on some risk. I learned how to play this opening from the first edition of The Sharpest Sicilian, one of the finest opening books I have ever read.
Black seeks aggressive counterplay in this line, but the risks are more structural than anything else, with the potential outpost on d5. A knight ensconced here can be paralyzing. Still, neither side is too likely to get mated during a Sveshnikov battle, and the tactical play is relatively tame.
This is a dynamic, combative system with a large array of possible setups for both sides. Not only do both players need to be well-prepared and alert, some of the tactical motifs are strange. There are more solid lines a player can choose than the Taimanov, but more aggressive ones as well.
When I play 1.e4, it is my least favorite Sicilian to face because of its chameleon-like qualities. I should probably take a look at Emms’ book!
I’ve given a traditional move order, but this exact position is now infrequent because of the strong Keres Attack (6.g4). Nowadays the Scheveningen is more often reached through the Najdorf: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6.
These positions are among the most balanced in the Sicilian, with something for everyone.
For more than a crash course on the Scheveningen, get Dynamics of Chess Strategy by Czech Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa (trainer of David Navara). His comments on the Scheveningen, Ruy Lopez, and other lines is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Garry Kasparov, devoted Scheveningen player during his career, might also agree with Jansa’s recommendation against the Pirc as a “turkey shoot!”
Neutral and Positional
Kan Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6):
This branch of the Sicilian is much tamer than, for example, the Sveshnikov or Taimanov. There are more solid or positional alternatives, however. Black’s play is restrained, but not plodding. White has very different ways of answering this opening, from the space-eating Maroczy Bind (5.c4) to the solid 5.Nc3 to the more aggressive 5.Bd3 followed by Qg4.
Honestly, this is a Sicilian I don’t like for either side! Of course, your mileage may vary.
I’ll say it plainly: I don’t think the Accelerated Dragon is very good if white plays the Maroczy Bind (5.c4!) and doesn’t allow black to make a bunch of exchanges. I’ve never understood why this line is so popular in books/DVDs and with chess coaches. Can someone please explain it to me? Everytime I face it I feel like I’m shooting fish in a barrel.
Black has some tricks in non-Maroczy lines, but if white is prepared this defense will be a most welcome sight.
The polar opposite of the Dragon? I think so. Black hangs back and develops solidly, reacting to white’s ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re the kind of player who likes to bait the opponent into overextending themselves.
The Classical has some distinct advantages. Like the Dragon, there is only one really challenging line against it, the Richter-Rauzer (6.Bg5). Unlike the Najdorf or Taimanov, in the Classical you pretty much know what’s coming if your opponent doesn’t play an Anti-Sicilian.
An aggressive player might opt for the Sozin Attack (6.Bc4) and a very aggressive opponent will head for the VelimirovicAttack (6.Bc4 e6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qe2), but the prepared Classical player has nothing to fear in these lines.
Another benefit of the Classical is its flexible move order: black can play 2…d6 and 5…Nc6, or 2…Nc6 and 5…d6. That’s helpful when trying to get your preferred setup against Anti-Sicilians.
I hope this overview helps players considering playing the Sicilian for the first time or, maybe, a player considering a system change! Which Sicilian is best for you?
I’m not talking about an early tournament withdrawal because of another commitment, or because you’re feeling legitimately ill. I’m also not talking about scheduling a last-round bye in advance. Let’s exclude withdrawing in order to return as a re-entry, too.
I’m talking about those cases where you could continue, but don’t want to — usually, because you’re having a bad performance and want to “stop the bleeding.”
Don’t worry, I won’t judge you. I’ve made this kind of quick escape more often than I can count. Plenty of my tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club have ended with this sequence:
I have a hopelessly lost position…
Repeatedly shake my head, make faces to no one in particular, and finally stop my clock…
I quickly shake my opponent’s hand and reset the pieces before others see the carnage…
Run to the pairing sheet…
Mark the win for my opponent…
Write OUT next to my name and circle it…
Race out the door without saying a word to anyone.
This way no one has to see me explode or make an @$$ of myself. I do that in private…
Hypocrisy? Fake Encouragement?
Yes, I realize this “procedure” goes against my recommendation to do a post-mortem analysis with your opponent…but do as I say, not as I do, OK? Anyway, I said that step is optional!
I don’t condemn the “bruised ego tournament withdrawal” because I know it’s not easy to play your best with a sub-optimal state of mind. In fact, I don’t try to cajole my students into carrying on if they really don’t want to. That could do more harm than good.
There’s always another tournament. We can recharge and come back stronger next time.
Some parents and coaches won’t agree with my stance and will counter with platitudes like “never give up,” or “quitters never win.” My dad once threatened to never register me for a tournament again in my early years when I suggested withdrawing after a poor performance. I had to play, but didn’t learn some deep life lesson — I was just annoyed and lost badly.
Anger and disappointment can be powerful motivators. The same cannot be said of despair.
Experienced players can skip this post, but it might be helpful to newer players and to parents.
I would also encourage Organizers to keep in mind the following advice given to me by the late Mike Anders at the 2008 National High School Championship:
How do you split $100 three ways? Give each player $35 and thank them for coming!Associate National TD Mike Anders (1955-2013)
Important: US tournaments almost never apply tiebreaks for cash prizes, unlike with trophies! Every player’s points count the same.
Well, what are the prizes, anyway?
Fully-guaranteed prizes are as advertized: they do not increase or decrease.
One possibility is to guarantee some of the prizes, say 1st and 2nd place, and calculate the rest based on entries, as we’ll see next.
The organizer could also guarantee a certain percentage of the prize fund, say, 70%. In that case he or she would be on the hook for at least 70% of each prize, assuming there is at least one player eligible to win it.
The event is unlikely to get exactly 32 entries, so the prizes will probably be higher or lower than advertised.
20 entries? Prize fund is $480 x (20 ÷ 32) = $300.
42 entries? Prize fund is $480 x (42 ÷ 32) = $630.
Each prize in the total prize fund is calculated the same way.
Now that we are sure what the actual prizes are, there are two magic words to prize calculation:
Add and Split
Let’s take the basic example of three prizes:
1st Place: $100
2nd Place: $50
3rd Place: $25
There is no issue if the top three places have different scores (for example, 4-0, 3½-½, and 3-1 in a four-round tournament). This seems to happen rarely, however!
Player A and Player B both score 3½-½. Player C scores 3-1.
Players A and B do not both receive $100, and Player C $50! A player once got upset with me at the World Open when I explained that all players tying for 4th place do not get a full 4th place prize!
Players A and B share 1st and 2nd place equally: $100 + $50 = $150. $150 ÷ 2 = $75 each.
Player C receives $25.
Player A scores 4-0. Players B, C, and D each score 3-1.
This time Player A receives $100. Players B, C, and D share the next three prizes, if they exist. There are only two prizes, so those two prizes are split three ways:
Players B, C, and D share 2nd and 3rd place equally: $50 + $25 = $75. $75 ÷ 3 = $25 each.
Class Prizes and Under Prizes
Open tournaments often feature additional prizes beyond “place” prizes. This is to give lower-rated players a chance to win something for their efforts as well.
Compare the following prizes:
Class A: $35
Under 2000: $35
The first two prizes are synonymous, because Class A is defined as 1800-1999. A tournament ad could use either wording.
The third prize is not the same as the first two! It’s available to any rated player Under 2000, so a 1680 who has a good event can win this prize for himself or herself. If the Organizer wants to make unrated players eligible for this prize, it should read like this:
Under 2000/Unr: $35
Note: One cash prize per player. A player can only win the highest prize available to them, not multiple cash prizes. So if they go 4-0 they get 1st Place (using $100 as before), and someone else gets the Class or Under Prize.
It is possible to win a cash prize plus other prizes such as a trophy, plaque, qualification, or free tournament entries.
One Last Example
1st Place: $150
2nd Place: $100
3rd Place: $50
Under 1800: $50
Under 1600: $40
Amy (2231): 4½
Bob (2174): 3½
Charlie (2071): 3
Diana (1993): 3
Edward (1770): 3
Frank (1692): 2½
Gabby (1575): 2½
How are the prizes calculated?
Amy gets 1st Place ($150), and Bob gets 2nd Place ($100).
Charlie and Diana are only eligible for 3rd Place, but Edward is eligible for 3rd Place and Under 1800. We figure out which prize is larger for Edward: either 3rd Place + Under 1800 divided by three players, or Under 1800 alone. Clearly, it’s the latter. Therefore:
Charlie and Diana share 3rd Place ($50) and receive $25 each.
Edward gets Under 1800 ($50).
Gabby gets Under 1600 ($40).
This is by no means an exhaustive treatment, but I hope it demystifies prize-giving for those new to tournament play! Good luck!
If you’re new to chess, you may not know that a player can offer a draw for any reason, almost whenever they wish. Fans of other sports and games argue that this should not be allowed, but there are a lot of positions in chess that are impossible to win. Many more can’t be won without a lot of help from your opponent.
Players can sensibly agree to a draw when it is clear no other result is on the cards.
Of course, if you’ve been a fan of chess for any length of time you know that draws can often puzzle observers…even anger them!
Players sometimes agree to draws because they are afraid to lose, or because they want to secure a prize or other achievement (such as qualification to another tournament, or a norm).
While pre-arranged draws are illegal (players agreeing to a draw before even starting a game; both players can be forfeited, each receiving zero points), two players often have an incentive to not risk losing.
A common example is two players leading a four-round tournament with a 3-0 score who are paired in the last round. By making a draw they each get to 3½ and will share 1st and 2nd place, unless a player with 2½ also wins to catch them.
Losing would give them a much lower place, whether in a cash or trophy event.
Another example is a last-round game where one player wants a draw to secure a prize, and the other needs a half point for a norm.
Most players have to pay their own way.
I am never against these kinds of draws in open tournaments as a player must pay their own expenses. Fans shrieking in horror won’t compensate the “brave” player who goes for glory but loses and gets almost nothing.
An invitational event where players receive conditions (money and other compensation just for showing up) is another matter — players in these events have more of a responsibility to the organizer and to fans.
To short-circuit early draws, some tournaments employ Sofia rules which prevent draw offers before move 30 (excluding move repetitions). These “anti-draw rules” are so named because they were popularized by the M-Tel Masterssuper tournaments held in Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia from 2005-2009.
Unlike draw claims, a draw offer involves you and your opponent, and not the arbiter. Here’s how you do it.
You can only offer a draw when it is your turn!
Decide on your move.
Play your move on the board.
Write down the move on your scoresheet, followed by =.
Offer your opponent the draw. “I offer a draw” is fine.
Press the clock, stopping your time and starting your opponent’s.
Now your opponent considers the offer. They may:
Agree to the draw.
Decline the draw verbally.
Decline the draw by touching a piece.
The opponent can also do nothing, but eventually they must take one of the actions above (or run out of time). Once you have offered the draw, leave them alone to think. Don’t ask them if they heard you!
Note that with a draw claim you never start your opponent’s clock (and sometimes don’t even play your move on the board). WIth a draw offer, you always start their clock after offering the draw.
One More Thing
If your opponent has declined your draw offer, don’t offer another one unless the position has changed significantly. There’s no formula for this, but:
If your position deteriorates, your opponent definitely will not accept a draw!
If your position improves, there is no reason to offer another draw!
My rule of thumb is: never make two draw offers in a game unless your opponent has made one in-between (that you declined).
Draws are part of the game, no matter if some fans like it or not. I hope this post has shown you how to properly offer a draw to your opponent…whatever your reasons!
Nearly all games today are played with time delay or increment. As a result, “quickplay finishes” (FIDE) or the notorious claims of “insufficient losing chances” (USCF) are mostly a thing of the past. The players decide the result of the game between themselves, as it should be.
Draw claims are a lot easier with digital clocks, which unfortunately means beautiful clocks like the Garde are less common. Photo: Caissa Chess Store
Still, knowing how to properly claim a draw is important for a tournament player in two main instances:
The 50-move rule
Triple occurrence of position
Note that this is different from offering your opponent a draw — I’ll cover that in a future post.
You can only claim a draw on your turn, with two possibilities: the key position has already appeared, or your next move would bring it about.
The 50-move rule
If 50 consecutive moves (by white and black) have been made without a pawn move or a capture, a player having the move can claim a draw.
50 consecutive moves have already been played without a pawn move or capture.
To claim a draw: Pause the clock, call the Arbiter, and state your claim.
Your next move will complete 50 consecutive moves without a pawn move or capture.
To claim a draw: Write down your next move, pause the clock, call the Arbiter, and state your claim. Do not play the move after writing it down!
In both cases, it is important to not start your opponent’s clock! If you do, it is now their turn and you cannot claim! There are no retroactive claims; If the position changes into one where a claim is no longer possible, you’re out of luck!
If neither player has made a claim after 75 consecutive moves without a pawn move or capture, the Arbiter steps in and declares the game a draw.
Triple Occurrence of Position
If an identical position has appeared on the board for the third time, the player on move may claim a draw. The position need not recur consecutively, but identical moves must be possible all three times. When thinking of Identical possible moves, also consider castling and en passant.
An identical position has occurred for the third time.
To claim a draw: Pause the clock, call the Arbiter, and state your claim.
Your next move will bring about an identical position for the third time.
To claim a draw: Write down your next move, pause the clock, call the Arbiter, and state your claim. Do not play the move after writing it down!
Once again, do not start your opponent’s clock!
If neither player has made a claim after an identical position has occurred five times, the Arbiter steps in and declares the game a draw.
Write down your next move (if necessary), pause the clock, and claim. Do not play the move you have written down, and do not start your opponent’s clock!
I changed schools entering 7th grade (M.S. 141 forever!) in Fall 1995 and began studying chess on my own the previous summer. Early in the school year I learned that Mr. Yurek, one of the school’s math teachers, sometimes organized informal chess tournaments after school.
The tournament was conducted in knockout (elimination) style. Each match was a single game where we would “toss” for color (hide-pawns-behind-the-back). I still remember the excitement I felt when Mr. Yurek created the bracket and announced the pairings for each round!
The winner of the final would get the 1st place riboon, and the runner up would get the 2nd place ribbon. If you were knocked out, you could hang around and play casual games or just go home.
We used chess sets like this. Photo: Walmart
We didn’t have regulation tournament sets, and used the “checkerboard” chess sets one would find in a department store with the flimsy plastic pieces. We were careful with the equipment, however, and it wasn’t a big deal. To that point, I had never even seen a tournament set of the kind that would become so familiar to me. As you can guess, we didn’t use clocks or keep notation.
I remember blundering and getting knocked out by Lee in my first tournament. That lit a fire under me and I studied for the next event like never before! I was also less nervous and more careful, earning my first blue ribbon.
Many more would follow after that. I finished 7th grade with a 29-4 record, only being KO’d one other time that year (two losses came from casual games, which counted in our overall record).
I was the top player on the chess team.
The February 1996 issue of Chess Life. Kasparov vs. Anand, 1995 Intel/PCA World Championship Match.
That holiday season I was gifted a USCF membership by a family friend. I was so excited to get the membership card and my first issue of Chess Life magazine!
In March 1996 my team played in a rated tournament at P.S. 9 in Manhattan. I remember walking into the auditorium and seeing the gleam of trophies on the stage. Every player who scored at least 2½ points out of 4 would get one.
I lost my first rated game in 17 moves to a kid rated 550; some kind of Italian Game or Two Knights Defense that went badly!
I won my second game, and for the life of me I simply cannot remember anything about it, despite the fact that it was my very first victory in rated play. Maybe it says something about me that I remember my losses more than my wins?
What I remember vividly is my state after losing from a better position to another ~500 in Round 3. Not winning, but better. For one of the only times in my career I was on the verge of tears. I wouldn’t win a trophy, and I was devastated. This is why I never, ever judge my students when their emotions overwhelm them.
I also remember channeling my rage against my unlucky Round 4 opponent, by far the highest-rated I faced, at 739! He was also the brother of my first opponent. I had white in some kind of Sicilian and just annihilated him.
The Journey Continues
My first provisional rating was 659. Once again, I was determined to improve and placed 2nd in my second tournament, also at P.S. 9. I got my trophy, finally.
Looking back, it’s amazing to me that my chess personality hasn’t really changed in 25 years!
In preparing for future tournaments, I also developed a quirk that remains with me to this day. I taught myself to move the pieces and press the clock with my left hand, while I keep score with my right hand! Many times over the years my opponents have been surprised when I have the black pieces and choose to have the clock on my left side!
What memories do you have from your first competitions, rated or not? Do you have largely the same chess personality as you did early in your chess career?