Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The Old Man's Handshake

Inspiration is not an often guest these days, while being stuck at home once again…

The mechanism of my posts coming to life used to be: play a tournament, come home, rest some days, get on a plane again (preferably on a window seat, with my huge and not so pretty looking headphones on). That was the moment I liked to sketch my posts the most- in those few hours in the air! To get at least a taste of that ‘in the air feeling’ I had to find those dusty headphones, pour myself a glass of Merlot and lay back on the chair… With a little exercise of imagination, I can almost hear the stewardess asking if I want a cheese or ham sandwich. “Chess please, oh cheese I mean, a tomato juice and a glass of dry red wine!”. That was exactly how my trip to Spain started last month.

I know, I was meant to write about my ‘German League’ experiences first, but the on ground inspiration had a different plan, so let it be Spain!

To start with the beginning, I was one of those who has taken every occasion to travel and play chess during this ‘pandemic’ period. Call it risky or not, I felt my health was being damaged more if just staying another few months at home, so when the opportunity came to play in the “Division de Honor” in Linares (!), I didn’t think twice and took it!

I’ve been to Spain only 3 or 4 times before and all were either short stays or so long ago that nearly forgotten (except that tapas bar in La Linea- see the “The Life of a Chess Player” posts for details Link to the post ). Being so excited, I even planned my trip so to arrive 2 days early. When landing in Malaga and coming out of the airport to wait for my bus I was already a happy person! Yes, I was happy to have had 2 different 2h flights, to wait for another 2h for the bus and then to travel for another 5h with it to my destination! If you think that’s sarcasm, just ask the stewardess for a wine refill and think it over!

The Malaga airport is like a dear friend to me, as the only times I used it were on the trips to my beloved Gibraltar tournament. The first thing to do after picking up the suitcase was to order a “cortado” and feel like the luckiest person ever while sipping it!


Linares is a small city in the AndalucĂ­a region, but one full of chess tradition. Every chess player knows about it because of the ‘all stars’ tournament used to be held there for many years in a row. My excitement was even higher when realizing I’d be staying at the chess hotel which hosted Kasparov, Karpov, Ivanchuk and all the other ‘legends’! As one of my teammates later noted, “You could be sleeping on the bed Garry did!”. I am not sure this is a thought people usually share, but blame it on the ‘on ground inspiration’…

The tournament started with a surprise. While having lunch with my team, I was told I’d probably face only 2 or 3 women out of the 7 games… I wrongly assumed it was a women’s board I had to play on, but the rules were so that the one lady in the team could actually play on any board. I was not sure if those were good or bad news…

Won the 1st game vs an IM with some inspired play. In the second round I had the black pieces vs a GM. Confused my lines and got a ‘classical’ worse Rauzer position. I remember thinking during the game how could I get into that position, after playing my whole life exactly how my opponent did… But, I was wearing my fuchsia jacket, I was falling in love with Spain more and more every day and I felt there were no problems I could not cope with! My opponent started playing uninspired, I on the other hand was more precise than ever and got to a winning 3 on 3 pawn endgame. Then, in the hit of the battle, I took my jacket off and spoiled it… Draw. I’m not superstitious, these are just perfectly logical facts.

Later, at dinner, everyone was trying to cheer me up- “It was not so easy!”, “You played really well, it happens”, “Don’t worry!”… Finally, they convinced me it was just an accident and I was joking again. I must say that I always knew that Spanish people were friendly and opened, but the first time I experienced it was in Linares! Even though not all my teammates spoke English, the atmosphere was great every day! We were having all the meals together except breakfast (‘Garry’s bed’ was too good of a companion) and no language barrier could stop us from talking! How many interesting life stories I discovered there! Even after I lost 3 games in a row (all long fighting games vs strong opponents, but anyway- ‘long castling’ is never nice) nothing changed. Well, almost nothing. I remember that evening, at dinner, the team’s captain- a man in his 70s came from the bar with a glass of whisky. Nothing strange so far, until he stopped next to me and offered me the glass saying “The best whisky!”. I knew it was time to start winning again.

The team’s goal was to keep our spot in the League (two clubs out of 8 were going down). We were not doing well and with just 2 rounds to go, our only chance was to win both matches, one vs the lowest rated team and the other one vs one of the strongest…

On the next day I finally won and the score was 5,5-0,5. Step 1 completed! During the dinner after, everyone was calculating who and how should play… I would have had black vs a GM I played once before, many years ago. The captain told me “Draw is fine tomorrow”. I said “OK” and on the next day I played the Najdorf. Had a fine game and won in style! The team won 4-2 and we kept our spot in the “Division de Honor” (always liked how it’s called!) !

At the final dinner, everyone was very happy, though if to compare to the other evenings, not much was changed- we were all talking & laughing like we were doing the whole tournament! The captain was a bit late. When he arrived, he approached me, and just shook my hand with a smile looking directly into my eyes.

The feeling was overwhelming; I remember it like it was yesterday… I felt like I was given the handshake for which I longed for so many years when remembering the man who taught me how to play chess- my grandfather.

This experience is priceless to me and all I can add is “Thank you, Spain!”.

 

Saturday, 17 October 2020

The Leagues Dispute

With the most discussed topic of these days being whether chess players should be able to play in more than one National Team Championship, I thought to begin a new series of posts which are to describe my experiences playing in Leagues all across Europe.

I consider myself a lucky chess professional. Over the last 10 years, I have played for clubs in many countries, among them Germany, UK, France, Turkey, Greece and many others, including my own- Romania. I have met different people with all kind of values and traditions, each unique in their own way. I like to think about it as of a ‘University of Leagues’. Each ‘course’ had its ‘good’ or ‘bad’ professors and they all have taught me valuable lessons!

It is very difficult for me to understand the idea behind the FIDE President’s statement that chess players should be forbidden to play in more than one League…

Photo from The Polish Extra League, Krakow, 2020
It feels strange to even have to explain it, as it seems rather obvious that this idea is totally unfeasible. While it makes sense in sports like football, hockey, handball, where the season is divided in matches to be played all year long, every week or so, in chess- a League has from 7 to 11 rounds usually. These games are being played during the same amount of days. Therefore, the math is very simple- if a League has 9 rounds- there are 9 days of competition. Many professionals play in a few Leagues during a year in order to make a living, as 10 days of work out of 365 are obviously not enough. Let’s say you have 3 or 4 leagues, that would mean 36 days of work- still not enough, right? That’s why there are official tournaments like Individual and Team National, Continental and World Championships where if one’s good enough, he can represent his country and add another 40-50 working days to his calendar. Ok, it makes for 86 pay days. What about the other 280? Well, everyone has his own approach- one plays a commercial tournament per month, where he earns money only if playing well, others prefer to train hard and play less but aim for the ‘jack pot’ in the higher mentioned official events.

If one is lucky enough to be from a country with chess tradition, he might hope for some support from the National Federation, of course, if he’s good enough to be in the Top5 of the country… 95% of the chess players (or even more) do not make this category and the countries which support the chess players seriously can be count on the fingers anyway… This means that if you’re not top 5-10 (best case) in Russia, USA, China and maybe a very few others you have to find a way to make a living with aprox. 86 ‘certain’ pay days per year… While no one has been complaining about it because sport is sport and we all understand that not being an Olympic one, we have to do with less funding than other sports it is absolute non sense to make it even worse for the average professional chess player. 86 pay days per year is very little but if you make it 46 then it will become an amateur and elite sport only… Is this what FIDE wants? I am utterly puzzled by this idea…

But enough with numbers and unnecessary explanations, this series of posts is meant to describe funny, sad, inspiring and disappointing, but all invaluable experiences which I got by playing in Europe’s biggest and smallest Nations Leagues.

Course 1- Germany

To be continued…


Thursday, 8 October 2020

D, My Friend

10 000 feet above the ground, I gaze through the window to only see dark clouds and little lights somewhere far... Everything seems so insignificant from above...

A Russian ballad starts playing in my headphones; it’s a sad but somewhat hopeful one. The lyrics are touching and I feel tears building up slowly in my eyes. The heart starts trembling and no strange faces I make can stop those tears... But it’s dark, the lights are far, I can let it be...


 

There are so many things I like that’ve started to make me feel this way lately, since...

While at a nice beach, while playing some English Attack variation, while hearing a joke, while having a beer with friends, while reading a nice poem, while thinking what opening to choose late in the night, while feeling the Spanish sun...

I can only give in to this sadness, I don’t even want to fight it. I just try to pick up crumbles from the so many memories and remember every bit of them, trying to relive them again, and again, and...

Some bad turbulences start. It was stormy when the plane took off.

 I am not scared, I haven’t been for a long while now... I have had a good life and death is not something I fear of. I think of it as of an always present companion. Every now and then, when I feel like having a heart full conversation and there are no friends around, we talk. It can be calming, even enlightening sometimes... Maybe we’ve even become friends? Perhaps... I never judge you, we have understanding and respect, I enjoy our conversations- isn’t it the recipe for friendship?

We sometimes briefly touch each other- as a sign of mutual appreciation. There are times I even feel like hugging you, just to let you know all will be fine and you’re not alone, but... There are hugs you only think of... Who knows what “they” would think of it? Not that it matters, not to me at least...

The lights are coming closer and you’re slipping away...

I am so calm, powerful... I am not alone and I feel hope again. And that’s always been how you’ve made me feel...


Until next time dear companion, dear friend, D...



Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Story inside a Story (III)


Was eagerly waiting for my roommate to finish her game. She had had a technically winning position for about 2 hours already, but it wasn’t that trivial to convert it. Between my trips upstairs- to check her game, contemplating the idea of putting my high heels on and desperately trying to force the shi**y engine on my phone show if my opening idea was good or not- I was lucky enough not to get involved in any other social interactions… Finally, it was a relief when I saw my roommate approaching with a smile, as that meant she won and was in a good enough mood not to try bailing on the party (it required quite an effort to convince her join me). Meanwhile, I decided I didn’t ‘deserve’ to put on my fancy high heels, after all, the brain should know I wasn’t happy with its performance and what better way of doing that than make the looks suffer, right? Perfect logic!

We headed off to dinner, it was just about to begin. The atmosphere was nice- round tables with beautiful arrangements, some cool music playing in the background, nicely dressed Woman Grand Masters, who wouldn’t have any problem passing as models… I suddenly started to regret that high heels decision… The feeling didn’t last for too long though, as I saw some friends making us signs to join their table, which we happily did.

The waiters started to move around us offering wine and bringing the appetizers. Continuing that day’s ‘wise’ series of decisions, I saw myself taking a sip of dry red wine… The thing about this kind of dinners is that you can never know how many glasses you had, as they are constantly filled, without you even noticing… By the time the main dish came, I was already deep buried in my thoughts, completely ignoring everything which was happening around. “Hey, what’s wrong? You’re not hungry?”, my roommate tried to bring me back to reality. “Emm… No, I’m just eating, slowly…”, I said looking around. Another ‘wise choice’. I saw my opponent happily laughing at the nearby table showing his friends something on his phone. Of course, my brain assumed the worse “He’s showing them how he won today…”, and I fell into the thinking about the game abys again…

“Irina, do you want to play in the first game of the ‘Battle of Sexes’?”, the captain of the Women’s Team asked me. She was sitting right next to me at our table. “Well…”, and I had again that twitch and lagged with my answer... “I am a bit underwater, start without me and I’ll join the next game”. Being an experienced lady and a strong player, she said: “Come on, don’t think too much of your game and let’s have some fun, it will distract you!”. “Sorry, I don’t feel like it…”. Apparently, I was on an unconscious mission to completely sabotage that day…

The “Battle of Sexes” started. Everyone was following it with interest except me… The unfortunate neighborhood with my opponent was not letting me think of anything but the game I lost. “Irina, let’s go to our hotel, you’re not enjoying yourself here…”, said my roommate. It came like a saving rope which I happily grabbed. So, we left from the event which I was dreaming to participate at for years…

With the best roommate ever- IM Ekaterina Atalik
After a silent, 15 min walk down to our hotel, we were about to enter it, when I saw that the Italian restaurant on the corner was still opened. “Let’s have a last glass of wine and some dessert maybe- my treat!”, my offer was too tempting, so my roommate didn’t protest. We were the only clients. A handsome, hype waiter came to us in a cheerful mood, asking “So, how are you, ladies tonight? Want to have some drinks?”. Not looking in the menu, I said “2 glasses of Pinot Grigio please, one white and one rose”. “Excellent choice! Anything else?”. “I would also like a dessert, what do you suggest?”. “Let me bring you my favorite dessert, I am sure you will like it!”. “Ok”.

I don’t remember what we were talking about, I suppose I was trying to justify my bad mood, not knowing that it was about to… But let’s not jump ahead. Everything at its time.
The waiter came saying: “This will be the best tiramisu you’ve ever had!”.  I curiously took it- it was looking nice indeed, but how can a tiramisu surprise me? Took the first bight. “Mmmm… It is amazing! There’s some very familiar taste, but I don’t know, what is it with, banana?”, I said. I am not sure how I could still distinguish the ingredients after all the wine I had… “I was sure you’d like it! It’s a banana and Nutella tiramisu!”. It was the best dessert I ever had in my life. I finally started to relax and feel better…

Left the place in great mood. As we decided to take a bye on the next day and to go visit the monkeys, the late hour wasn’t an issue. By the time we got back to our room, it was well after midnight. I threw all my bags on the floor and started to take of my boots, when I suddenly realized that something was missing… “I think one bag is not here…”. “There’s the bag with the heels…”, “Here’s your minibar bag…”, my roommate started to go through them. “Where’s the one with the money and passport?” “It’s missing…” “But you payed at the restaurant, so you had it on you… It’s probably still there!”. We hurried back to the restaurant to only see no lights at all. It closed. “Well, the tiramisu was worth it!”, I said. “But you won’t be able to fly back home without your documents!”. “No worries, I met some Romanians at the tournament’s venue, they work there, one is that ‘wardrobe guy’, remember? I’m sure they’ll find a job for me as well…”. My roommate was shocked by my not caring at all. “Ok, let’s inform the reception, maybe they have the contact of the restaurant’s stuff”.

Back at the reception, I saw some chess players around a chess
The famous, owl bag
board analyzing something, and having some drinks. “Hey, how are you, could I join you?”, I asked. “Sure! Irina, didn’t you lose your bag? Someone from the Italian restaurant brought it, asking if anyone recognized it and I remembered noticing you had a very funny owl bag some days before… He left it at the reception!”, said one of the chess players at the table. Heading to the receptionist’s stand, I saw my roommate already holding my ‘owl bag’… “Fiuf…There are still good people in this World”, she said continuing: “Ok, let’s go to sleep, enough adventures for today!”. But I had another plans, I wanted to see what was there being analyzed on the chess board… Because I have chess in my veins and no lost game, no missed party or lost bag will ever change it! All I needed to remember that was a banana tiramisu at the right time…


Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Story inside a Story (II)


The most awaited Open of the year! Why so? The Gibraltar Festival is a place where professionals meet amateurs, where ‘Elite’ meets ‘the ordinary’. Where else would you see GMs like Hikaru Nakamura or Veselin Topalov hanging around in the lobby’s bar, taking on blitz challenges? There are tournaments for any level there, as well as lectures from Top players, quizzes, parties- and all for the ones who love chess and in such a unique location like the Rock of Gibraltar! It’s nothing less than 11 days of chess paradise!


This year was the 2nd time I participated and I was looking forward to it from the minute the previous edition ended! It was definitely no disappointment- I was playing interesting games vs strong players, I was sharing the room with my best friend, finally got time to see the famous monkeys, as well as the old town… The highlight of it all had to be my first participation in the already traditional “Battle of Sexes” – an event where a team of Top Grandmasters played vs a team of Top Woman Grandmasters, in a relaxed & fun atmosphere, after a fancy dinner. I remember that day as it was yesterday!

I was having a so-so performance until that point, winning against the lower rated opponents and losing against the higher rated ones. My problem was that I felt tired after what had been a very busy Autumn and Winter… I was forcing myself to prepare for the games, even though I had no will for it whatsoever… To describe the extent of my state- in the first day, over dinner, after I won my game vs a lower rated opponent, I told my roommate “I think I am either going crazy or finally having a break through!”, “What do you mean?”, she asked suspiciously. “Well, just don’t laugh-but today I became one with the pieces on the board, I was seeing everything and I think that if to check the game with engines, they will show my calculation to have been perfect!”. “Come on, Irina, don’t make me worry about you!”. “No, you don’t understand, it was like a new Wolrd opened to me and I got such a pleasure from playing, which I can’t compare to anything!”, I proudly added. “And how was it to become one with the pieces, anything in particular I should know about?”, my roommate sarcastically replied.

Back to the “Battle of Sexes” day, somewhere in the middle of the tournament. We went off the bus that was taking us to the round day by day. Had to walk for about 3 more minutes to the venue. There was a round to be played before the so much awaited ‘party’. I started my usual (for that days) talk “I have no wish to play today at all, I am mentally tired, I would rather stay on the terrace and watch the seagulls with…” Twitch! In shock, I realize that I’m lagging, as my face has some kind of involuntary 2 sec. movement… “You see, I start having twitches- even my body is protesting!”. In that moment, I noticed that Vasyl Ivanchuk turned his head back, as he was apparently walking ahead of us and gave what looked to me like and understanding smile…

I came to the round late with what must have been a totally bored
look, placed my 3 cotton bags under the table (yes, one with the heels for the party, one as a ‘minibar’-juice, water, nuts, chocolate, and the other with usual women nonsense stuff) and played 1.e4. My opponent was a young 2650+ GM. He played a very dubious line in the Sicilian, one which I had recently scolded one of my friends about, because “How can you, as a GM, not know that there’s an easy way to get a significant advantage here!”. Having these words in my head, I was taking my time in making the so well-known to me moves “What does my opponent want? Does he think I’m a total patzer?”. When time came for me to make the last important move of the variation, which I knew very well and could blitz it out at any time of day or night, I thought “Well, I’ll play it, then he will suffer for the whole game to make a draw and probably will and that will be it…”, sounded like a convenient scenario for me. Only that I started to feel ‘one with the pieces’ again and a ‘forgotten memory’ came back to me.
“Hm, I think I recently analyzed a very interesting idea here- I play a dubious move, but at the most ‘human like’ reactions, black is totally busted, although the position looks like strategically lost for white at first glance…”. It was like someone on my shoulder was whispering to me “Play it, it’s your chance-take it…”. How could I resist that? For a second or two, I imagined the face of that friend whom I scolded when he’d see my move, but it wasn’t a reason good enough, the temptation was too high… So I played it.
My opponent replied with one of the ‘human like’ moves. I was very happy as I remembered one by one every move I had to make… Only that the thinking process was taking a bit too long and when I finally got to a winning position I had no time at all and blundered some mate in 2.

I was very upset about the outcome and uncertain, was I winning, was I not, did I remember correctly my analyzes, or did I confuse it with another line? Why didn’t I just play the safe move? Uncertainty is the worst a chess player can face after a game, that’s why we usually rush to our rooms the moment the game is over, to check it quickly with the computer. But, I had to stick around the venue for the party… I sat at some table in the lobby, fetching myself a beer and trying to figure out where I missed the win…

I imagine I wasn’t ‘wearing’ my most friendly look when a friend of a friend approached, obviously in very high spirits. “Well, maybe she can cheer me up a bit”, I thought. “Heeey, how are you darling, I saw you lost a bad game…”. “Well, I don’t think…”. “But let’s better not talk about it, tell me your news, are you still with that boyfriend of yours, and by the way, how are things with the federation going on?”, she said, hitting one by one all the sore spots… Our discussion continued in the same manner and at some point, when I felt I could not take it anymore, I asked the question that a 200 points higher rated player usually avoids to ask, so one won’t think he’s arrogant- “And how is the tournament going for you, how many points do you have?”. “Oh, 4,5/6-  I was so winning today vs a GM, but finally missed a perpetual, so I drew…”. Not expecting this answer at all and remembering my own 3/6, I said “Oh, congrats, you’re doing very well!”, “Indeed, considering that I quitted professional chess some years ago…”. That talk could not have gone any worse…


(To be continued...)

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Story inside a Story (I)


Once, not so long ago, there was a time when planes were flying and I with them- from tournament to tournament, from city to city, from country to country… 

Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Germany, Montenegro, Moldova, Monaco, Isle of Man, Georgia, Poland, Russia, Emirates, Belgium, Spain, Gibraltar- that’s how my last September to March looked like… That’s how my life looked like for the last 10 years or so... I think I have never been stranded home for such a long time- 2 months and counting…

I remember myself complaining during the last tournaments I played that I’m too tired, that I really need a break and that I miss “normal” life. Now I have so much normal life that I don’t know where to run away from it! Where, where? At home! Quarantine!

After more than 2 months of self-isolation, I can make a thorough analysis of how it went by. Went, right! Today- it is the first day of “freedom”! Today I could go anywhere but I’m celebrating it by staying home! Isn’t it original?

Phase 1- Provisions!

As almost every (in)sane person- when the pandemic started, the first thing I did was to buy all kind of carbohydrates- flour, cans, juice, chocolate, alcohol… Although, to be honest, I didn’t need them, I’m from the category which has an extra bottle or box of anything at home, just in case- I still have some cheap bottles of pre quarantine disinfectant…

Phase 2- Chill, darling!

When I found myself ready to survive half a year without getting out of my place, I started to ask myself “Do I really want to survive it?”, “Do I want a life like this?”… To get away from these questions, I started to occupy myself with only the things I liked and missed while at tournaments- read novels, listen to music for hours, watching TV series and cooking shows, sleeping 12h, learning “Deutsch” (yeah, I take great pleasure in learning it for already 10 years or so, but stubbornly not speaking under any circumstances)… 

Phase 3- Sweeten your bitterness!

After exhausting all Netflix’s cooking shows, I felt I was a ‘chef’! Every day, I had a new kind of breakfast: pancakes, avocado toasts, banana & cereal biscuits, endless ways of cooked eggs… Then I started making new and new desserts: banana bread, sweet potato brownie, tiramisu… And here is where the story inside the story begins!




Tiramisu- the easiest and tastiest dessert!

Let’s take a plane and travel back in time- January 2020- Gibraltar.



(To be continued...) 



Friday, 6 March 2020

In(di)visible Dust


Days come and days go... 


We live, work, love, hate and the years pass one by one leaving wrinkles on our faces; noticing them in the mirror, we only become more desperate in making sure to have tried all the pallet of experiences and emotions... We want to look at our reflections and have a likeable explanation for all the small faults... If the explanations are not good enough, one can always ‘erase’ the memory the wrinkle stands for. Right, erasing memories is as easy as that nowadays! Isn’t it funny how we’re so desperate to live, to experience, just to become even more desperate later, trying to make all the signs of it go away!


However, the problem lies in the fact that it’s not the ‘surface’ faults that make us ugly and old...

It’s more and more often that you see someone so beautifully ‘wrapped’- sparkling with beauty and intelligence, even warm hearted and humble and you’re so thrilled to discover that ‘beauty’, thanking the Universe for having sent a ‘bright’ soul into your way for a change!


There are 3 ways the situation can progress...


The ‘shiny’ soul is a true diamond... You bath in its sparkle and beauty and it feels sooo good... There’s no bigger pleasure and sense of fulfilment in this World! You even feel like you borrow some shine yourself, blinding the other people with it, therefore proudly making and wearing new wrinkles...


Another possibility is that you yourself get blinded by the shine and it’s well known that one who can not see with his eyes will ‘see’ in other ways... One might discover the wrinkles of his own soul; what can be more painful than that- to suddenly be aware of all the ‘ugliness’ within when there are ‘diamonds’ shining all around...


What if the ‘diamond’ turns to be a fake though? Do you continue your ‘treasure hunt’? Is it worth seeking light when all it can do is just blind? Isn’t it better to teach yourself that ugliness is actually the true beauty?


I sometimes think that diamonds are also the happiest all black and dirty, happily disguised into a piece of ordinary rock. No one wears a dirty rock, but how many diamonds end up in captivity?

Eternity you might say... Diamonds ‘live’ forever! I would always choose to be a rock, one that could be easily broken into a thousand pieces, but all those little pieces would be free, even if torn into invisible dust!


There’s nothing a diamond can be envied for... To be a prisoner of THIS World forever, to shine and blind the ‘hopeless’ or the ‘hopeful’, is it really a life to choose?


Everyone is free to give his own answer, as long as they haven’t traded shine for freedom... Or was it the other way?