First person: Going after the state chess title
Published: Friday, March 21, 2008 - 10:41pm
When: Friday-Saturday, Feb. 8-9
Where: Peoria Civic Center
Teams competing: 121 schools entered; 118 actually competed
Uni results: 11th place overall; first place among Class A small schools (award given by Illinois Chess Coaches Association independently of IHSA)
Uni highlights: Gordon Ruan, 7th place, first board; Alex Zhai, 10th, second board; Geoffrey Beck, 4th, third board
Junior Gordon Ruan (foreground left) and senior Alex Zhai ponder their next moves during their first-round match at the IHSA tourney. Gargoyle photo (click to create slideshow)
CHESS IS A game full of unexpected surprises that can be both delightfully rewarding and extremely dreadful. In chess, being perfect and winning all the time is impossible.
Through my six years of playing, I have lost games to both stronger and weaker players. Everyone has to experience the dissatisfaction of losing a game sometime in his or her playing career.
Although losing is disappointing, if players have the right attitude, they can learn from their mistakes and quickly improve their play. If they fail to learn from their experience, then those mistakes will appear the next time they play.
To me, one of the big secrets to playing chess well or doing anything well is to learn from your mistakes, get over your losses, and avoid making the same errors next time.
In 2006, Uni finished fourth overall at the IHSA state tournament, setting a record for the school. That year was the highest Uni ever finished at state since the IHSA eliminated the division between small schools (A) and large schools (AA) in 1995.
Prior to that, Uni teams had won six IHSA titles, all in Class A: 1978, 1979, 1986, 1991, 1992, and 1994.
Last year, Uni placed eighth at state and decisively won the small-school title awarded independently by the Illinois Chess Coaches Association. However, our performance was disappointing, since we had the exact same team as in 2006.
This year, our chess team worked extremely hard to try to be the best, such as studying chess theory seriously. Our hard work paid off as the Feb. 8-9 state tourney in Peoria approached. We were seeded second out of 121 schools and determined to win.
A Perfect Score
When I woke up on that chilly Friday morning, I felt very energized. It was Feb. 8, the first day of the two-day IHSA state chess championship.
I had everything already packed up to go from the previous day and soon arrived at the meeting spot in the Uni Gym parking lot. Our driver, French teacher and team sponsor John Garvey, made sure all the nine chess team players were present, and then we took off for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Peoria.
The IHSA state chess championship takes place each year at the Peoria Civic Center, and teams of eight compete in seven rounds.
Our varsity team consisted of me on Board 1; senior Alex Zhai, Board 2; senior Geoffrey Beck, Board 3; junior Alan Liang, Board 4; junior Greg Atherton, Board 5; junior Brian Wang, Board 6; sophomore Daniel Cheng, Board 7; and freshman Youyang Gu and junior Jason He, alternating on Board 8. Chris Merli was our coach.
As we approached the Civic Center, the big question was whether we would be able to win state and redeem ourselves from last year.
When we stepped out of the white Turtle Van and entered the colossal Civic Center building, we immediately went to the skittles room (open to all) to acquire a table and put our personal belongings down. We then pulled out our chess sets and prepared to head off to the playing room for our first-round match against Oak Forest.
Our first surprise of the day came when we were told that the playing room had been moved to the third floor, and that the room was much improved from the previous one, which was very cramped. We soon arrived at our spacious new digs, already full of chess players getting ready for the first round.
As I sat down on Board 1 and pulled out my Chronos Clock, my opponent, Matthew Prysock, handed me his notation sheet. He had curly blonde hair and seemed very polite. I gladly took his notation sheet, signed it, and handed him my own.
Once he handed mine back, I waited in eagerness for the speaker to announce the first round to start. After a five-minute speech about the rules of the tournament and making sure the time controls each were one hour with a five-second time delay, we were finally told to begin our games.
Playing as white, I was excited to see how much of a challenge my first opponent would put up. Unfortunately for Prysock, he made his first error by deploying one of his knights to an inferior square. Unsure of where to strategically deploy his pieces, he allowed me to coordinate my queen, knights, and bishops harmoniously, quickly gain a strong attack, and defeat him easily.
The first round was a decisive win for the entire team, with all our boards winning their games. We finished with a perfect score, 68-0. Unfortunately, there was not much time for me to analyze my team members' games since the time between rounds was very short.
The Rest of the First Day
By the time we finished Round 1, it was time for lunch. Eating lunch at chess tournaments is very annoying, since all the food prices are heavily inflated. Hot dogs cost $2, nachos and hamburgers $4.50, and a bottle of water $3!
Fortunately, there were fast-food restaurants near the Civic Center, but whether there would be enough time was an issue. In the end, half of the team decided to eat at the Civic Center, while the other half went to check out the fast-food restaurants.
After eating the two hot dogs I purchased, I went back to the skittles room to review my openings for black in preparation for the second round. By the time I finished, the team was finished with lunch and Round 2 was about to begin.
Rounds 2 and 3 were little different from Round 1, with us defeating our Buffalo Grove and Glenbard South opponents quite easily, 64.5-3.5 and 54-14, respectively.
However, during Round 3, I was a little anxious about playing as white against my Glenbard South opponent, Michael Wurtz. I previously defeated Wurtz as white at the West Chicago Tournament on Dec. 15, and I was afraid he might have planned something unorthodox against me.
As I had predicted, Wurtz did prepare something different. Fortunately for me, his preparation was something I was a particular expert on. In the game, Wurtz captured both my rooks, only to realize it was checkmate 10 moves later. Personally, I thought this was my best game of the tournament as I was able to win the game with a beautiful 10-move forced checkmate, something I believe I have never achieved before.
Going 3-0 and having won my game with style, I was very pleased with our performance so far. The previous year, we had already given up a match in Round 2. Now we just needed to win Round 4, the last round of the day.
Round 4 was probably the most intense of the tournament. We were playing Evanston, a team we had lost to in 2006 when we placed fourth at state. That time we were beaten badly, as only Alex Zhai and I had won our games. This time, however, we were looking for revenge.
The round went very well, with my teammates and I having the advantage all the way through.
My opponent, Noah Lieberman, made two awful mistakes that led him to knock his king down. Also, Geoffrey Beck won his game on Board 3 in five minutes. Our team ended up winning 45.5-22.5.
To everyone’s surprise in that round, top-seed Niles North lost to U-High Normal. That meant our team would be moving up to Table 1. At the end of the day we were in second place, behind Lincolnshire Stevenson, and all of us were very pleased with our results.
Our chances of winning state now seemed very close, and all we had to do was to play the next three rounds well on Saturday. Top-seed Niles North and third-seed Barrington were no longer a threat to us. Also, we accomplished something the Uni chess team had never done since the IHSA got rid of the two-class system: obtaining a perfect score of 4-0 in the first day. What could go wrong?
An Unexpected Day
After getting a good night’s sleep at the Super 8 Motel, I was ready to get serious again and play chess. The second day is considered to be the most important, as the last three rounds determine how a team finishes.
Our Round 5 opponent was Cary-Grove, the team that upset Barrington in the third round on Friday. Armed with this knowledge, our players began the round cautious and played very safe. My Russian opponent, Alex Noll, quickly succumbed under one of my favorite openings, called the English Attack, allowing us to lead the match 12-0.
Being the first one to finish, I looked at each of the boards to see how we were doing. To my dismay, most of the games were unclear. However, our chances of winning the match were extremely high since Brian Wang on Board 6 had obtained a strong advantage.
Unfortunately, after an hour passed, the tables began to turn. Our Board 6 lost, as his opponent caught him off guard with a combination. Soon it all came down to Zhai.
At that point, Cary-Grove led us 30.5-26.5. Zhai had to win in a completely drawn position, but a drawn position is a drawn one, and we ended up losing the match 36-32.
Unfortunately, there was no break for us after Round 5, since our team was the last to finish. Still in a mess, we began Round 6 playing Hinsdale Central.
Again, we had a good lead at the start of the match, but things started to go wrong after that. Although Zhai, Beck, and Board 8 Youyang Gu won their games, our other boards were having trouble even though they had obtained an obvious advantage.
As well, I had a hard time finding a way to press through against my Chinese opponent, Ben Chan, and was forced to trade most of the pieces off and go into a drawn endgame. As we sat opposite of each other, we were both locked in concentrated thought.
As time passed, only my game and Daniel Cheng's game on Board 7. Our team had some unexpected losses, and either our seventh board or I had to win or we both had to draw.
As my opponent and I both started getting into time trouble, my only hope of winning was to run him out on time. We began moving very fast, shuffling our pieces back and forth.
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out a way to confuse my opponent in the theoretical endgame that consisted of a white king, rook, and two pawns vs. a black king, rook, and two pawns. At this point, Chan had five seconds on his clock, while I had about 20 seconds. A crowd anxiously began to gather around us and watched as our game reached its conclusion.
Suddenly, I saw a brilliant move that could result in either a draw or be able to psyche him out and cause him to lose on time. I immediately played the move. Meanwhile, his clock slowly ticked down: five, four, three, two, one …. He was able to hit the clock just in time, with one second left, and secured a draw. Unfortunately, my draw was unable to secure the round, and we lost the match 36-32 again.
As we waited in the playing room for the next round to start, we were wondering how we lost two matches in a row. I was particularly angered by how I drew. If I had won, then we would have won the match against Hinsdale Central.
Something went wrong in my play. I knew I must have messed up somewhere in the opening, but I didn’t have time to analyze my game and figure out what exactly happened.
This wasn’t the first time we screwed up. In the previous year, we fumbled also because of our inability to close out games in which we had started out strong. Something was wrong in the way we played. Our first day of triumph was spoiled.
Winning No. 1 Among Small Schools
Despite the unsettling effect of losing twice in a row, I was glad to see that our team still had the strength and desire to win the final round.
Our opponents were from Wheaton Warrenville South High School, and they were absolutely huge in size. Every one of their players was taller than our tallest player. However, size matters not in a chess game, and they didn’t put up a tough fight.
During the round, my opponent, Davin Gideon, never reached equality. I was able to quickly secure an advantage and obtain more space, and he soon had to knock his king over after I captured his rook from a tactical combination. We won the match 53-15, and our record was 5-2. The tournament was finally over.
We were expecting to win the state title this year, but we fell short. It was disappointing, especially since this was the year for our best shot at first place (we will be losing Zhai and Beck to graduation).
Although we finished at a respectable 11th place, we at least made some history by obtaining a perfect score of 4-0 during the first day. Even though the end result was not the way we imagined it, the tournament was a good experience for our players.
Also on the plus side, we again won the Illinois Chess Coaches Association award for top small school. I finished seventh in the state on Board 1, Zhai placed 10th on Board 2, and Beck was fourth on Board 3.
The state tournament showed that our team has the ability to win state, but we need to be able to capitalize on winning positions. Also, I need to improve my opening technique, so my opponent won’t get away with an easy draw next time.
As I prepared to enter the white Turtle Van to come back home, I was already feeling the motivation to improve and prepare myself and the Uni team for next year.
IHSA State Chess Tournament at a Glance
Final Standings: Top 20 Teams
- 1. Lincolnshire Stevenson, 7.0 pts (159.5 tiebreaker)
2. Chicago Whitney Young, 6.0 (138.5)
3. Winnetka New Trier, 6.0 (130.2)
4. Skokie Niles North, 6.0 (126.5)
5. Mundelein Carmel, 6.0 (111.9)
6. Chicago St. Patrick, 6.0 (100.6)
7. Normal University, 5.0 (134.3)
8. Barrington, 5.0 (122.9)
9. Chicago Lane, 5.0 (115.6)
10. Cary-Grove, 5.0 (115.2)
11. UNI HIGH, 5.0 (111.3)
12. Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, 5.0 (111.0)
13. Glenview Glenbrook South, 5.0 (107.0)
14. Evanston Township, 5.0 (106.9)
15. Naperville Neuqua Valley, 5.0 (102.9)
16. Hinsdale Central, 5.0 (102.5)
17. Glen Ellyn Glenbard West, 5.0 (99.9)
18. Plainfield South, 5.0 (95.6)
19. Bloomington, 5.0 (91.3)
20. Carol Stream Glenbard North, 5.0 (90.2)
Note: A total of 121 schools entered the tournament; 118 actually competed.
Uni Individual Results
- Board 1: Gordon Ruan (jr), 7th place, w-w-w-w-w-d-w (6.5 pts)
Board 2: Alex Zhai (sr), 10th, w-w-w-x-d-w-w (5.5)
Board 3: Geoffrey Beck (sr), 4th, w-w-w-w-x-w-w (6)
Board 4: Alan Liang (jr), 65th, w-w-x-x-w-x-x (3)
Board 5: Greg Atherton (jr), 21st, w-w-w-w-x-x-w (5)
Board 6: Brian Wang (jr), 27th, w-d-w-w-x-x-w (4.5)
Board 7: Daniel Cheng (so), 29th, w-w-w-w-d-x-x (4.5)
Board 8: Youyang Gu (fr), 64th, w-x-d-d-w (3)
Board 8: Jason He (jr), 83rd-104th (final placement pending IHSA correction), w-w (2)