Friday, 22 March 2019

Chronicles of a Traveler

Almost 3 weeks of traveling are slowly coming to an end.

Sitting at my gate in the Riyadh airport I am remembering details of these 20 days. My phone’s being unable to connect to wifi has perhaps inspired this meditative state…

Saudi Arabian selfie!
What makes one month to be as successful as this one has been for me? What did I make differently? Not so much I believe. I am the same Irina, but still, something is very different. It might be something about me being more at ease with myself… How so? Well, I have been traveling alone to all of my tournaments lately, having company just on rare occasions. It made me ‘talk to myself’ more. I have come to understand my brain, my body and my needs much better. I have been thinking about so many things while avoiding all the ‘social distractions’ that I feel more connected to the World than ever. The word ‘feel’ itself has also got a new meaning to me. I could literally make the joy of life flow through my veins while listening to the drum’s rhythmical bums of a Saudi Arabian traditional song. I could taste the colors of life while sipping from a glass of very sweet mint tea in the desert. I could let the wind clear my head and take away all of my worries while riding a horse. I could let the air come to each and every pore while taking a deep breath of the kindest people’s hospitality… To be honest, the length I’ve let this stuff escalate to is a bit overwhelming.

It is not easy to be left alone with yourself but it is a journey worth to be taken.

It’s a bit funny how I had to go to Gibraltar, then Berlin, then Vietnam, then Saudi Arabia, just to find myself… It sounds very much like a motivational cliché from some book, though it is nothing but probably being a bit too honest.

I have read that in search of wisdom, it is not a teacher one should seek. A teacher is everywhere and everyone, a beggar, a dog, a lake, a match. Wisdom cannot be taught, it can only be discovered by each and every one himself, living the life at fullest, travelling, exploring the World, other people and yourself.

So, is that what I am searching for- wisdom? Maybe, or maybe not.

Photo from the Closing Ceremony of the 1st Hail Rapid Chess Tournament for Women
Mom says that she’s very happy for me, that I have started to win tournaments- that I’ve become a winner. I have always known I am a winner; I just couldn’t understand why I was unable to show it to the World… Now that I have finally started to, I don’t feel different at all, but mom is happy, dad smiles and it is a reason enough for me to be happy as well.

(Photos from the official twitter account of the Saudi Chess Federation- )

Thursday, 21 February 2019

The Life of a Chess Player- Part 3

   The evening proved to be a very enjoyable one. I got distracted from all of my chess thoughts and by the time I got back to my place, I understood that I’d have a good night sleep. Over the years, I have come to the idea that a good sleep is often more important than some super preparation, especially before a morning round. I checked the pairings and decided I would have my chance to fight for a better prize the next day. A draw with black would guarantee me a tie for ‘some’ prize, while a win would mean an extra 2k in my pocket.

   I woke up the next morning feeling quite fresh and motivated. Had some breakfast and prepared a bit. ‘The brain’ was surprisingly silent… I must say that it was nice not to hear voices in my head for a change! I was quite pleased with my preparation and went on to take the last walk towards the rock.

   “He will walk straight into my preparation and he will be busted!” Here it comes again! I was happy that at least it meant that ‘the brain’ was not still sleeping. “Just focus and play well!” “How nice it would be for him to play what I’ve looked at! With 2k extra I can buy that nice purse I’ve seen and order that beautiful dress I liked…” “Sh!!!” I imagine how I would take care of my kids if I can’t control even my thoughts… But, that’s not what this story is about, fortunately enough.

   Got to the game just in time to sit comfy. My opponent was still not there and of course, ‘the brain’ had to start the speculations… “Maybe he partied too hard last night and he’s still sleeping. Maybe he will not come at all!” I was trying not to pay attention to ‘the voice’, adjusting calmly the pieces on the board.

   The game started. My opponent came 5 min late and played ‘1.c4’. My preparation was useless from move 1. “How could you be so naive? Of course he would avoid your preparation!” “All is fine, it’s just a game of chess, let’s enjoy it!” “I would rather enjoy the 2k impact on my shopping list…” “All at its time!” 1…e5.

   The opening didn’t go the way I hoped and I had found myself in a position where I had to play precisely in order to equalize. Luckily, ‘the brain’ didn’t disagree with the fact that I have to work a bit if wanting to win any prize at all. I successfully equalized (or maybe I should say ‘we’?). My opponent (a 2500 GM) started to take more time, feeling that his advantage was gone. He was close to getting into time trouble. I on the other hand had more than enough time and had a clear plan of how to start playing for an advantage. He understood that he might get into trouble and found a strong move which forced the exchange of the queens, entering a totally drawish rook endgame. “That’s it, I have done all I could. A draw is a draw.” “But 2k… Let’s play for a bit longer, maybe he’ll blunder something or lose on time!” “Come on, he’s a GM.” “So what? Did you see what Aronian did today? Play on!”. I played for some extra 30 min making no progress at all and finally offered a draw. A draw it was.

Photo from the Closing Ceremony in Gibraltar, 
together with GM Adhiban Baskaran and WGM Aleksandra Dimitrijevic
   I gained 11,5 Elo points, played against 7 GMs in 10 games scoring +1, won a prize- all reasons to be happy. “This is what you call a prize?” “Come on, just be grateful for what you have and the next time it will be even better.” “I hope that not 20 pounds better.”

   I guess that’s the human nature- to never be happy with what you have and always wish for more.

   “So, dear friend, what situation would you prefer? To have a stable salary as a postdoc or to ‘gamble’ for about 10 days- 7h a day, having the possibility to win 15k, 10k, 2k, ‘some prize’ or nothing?” “Of course I would want to ‘gamble’! That’s what this life is about- it’s about taking chances and going all in, having adrenaline rushes and being happy like a kid when you win!”
     The story will always be the same. One wants what he doesn’t have, always finding his friend’s life more attractive…

Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Life of a Chess Player- Part 2

     The game started with my opponent playing the Sicilian, the Rauzer system to be more precise. I remembered having some bad games played quite recently in this variation, so I told myself “Ha! You want to win- great! I do as well!”. I was quite happy with his choice, as the alternatives would be some super solid Ruy Lopez variations. 

In control
      I succeeded not to mess up the opening and got a very pleasant long term advantage. While walking around, eating nuts and alternating sneezing with coughing (why not catch a cold at one of the strongest events of the year, indeed?), I was telling myself “Look- he’s suffering, he can’t find a good continuation, just keep pressing, keep pressing and +2 will be yours!”. So, I continued pressing, with every move I made he looked more and more unhappy. Having left about 5 moves to the time control to be made, I had smth like 8 min on my clock- quite enough for the “dream Rauzer endgame” I had on the board. He made yet another move and I replied quickly, automatically, making a terrible move which let him escape. I saw the relief on his face on second 1, but it was already too late to even try saying “J’adoube”, following the footsteps of a few famous players…

     “Sh**, Sh**!” That was all my brain could produce at that moment. “Why did you hurry? You have spoiled everything. You can’t win a position with decisive advantage with the white pieces, what will you do tomorrow when playing black?” It was a challenge to make some normal moves, making it to the time control with all the stuff going on in my mind… We agreed to a draw eventually.

Treats from 'the' tapas bar
      I decided it was a good time for pretending I missed the bus and took ‘the 45 min walk’. Big mistake- ‘the brain’ just couldn’t stop talking to me… “Like a woman”-came to my mind the usual reply of a friend and I just started laughing. My lonely laugh attracted some strange looks from the people passing by and I thought that I should better find a roommate for my next tournament, as my ‘brain talks’ have started to become dangerously satisfying…

     Decided to go to the tapas bar right across the corner of my building. A glass of wine had to cheer up the “crying brain” who had already started its ‘prep talk’ for the next day’s game with the black pieces against ‘some’ GM. “You will lose tomorrow, not take a prize and then have a long trip home in my company only!”. “Come on, it was just one unlucky bad move- you played very well today, every day you play better and better, you’ll see- tomorrow will be a good day!”. “Of course, as good as it was today!”. 

    The wine finally came and a text from a friend together with it which said she’d be joining me shortly. “Yas!!!”, I thought, with the brain’s replies drowning little by little with every sip of wine.

To be continued...

Saturday, 16 February 2019

The Life of a Chess Player- Part 1

     The idea of this post came to my mind on yet another day when walking to the round from La Linea to Gibraltar.

     I had my headphones on, pretending they were a good alternative to the cap, though the wind didn't necessarily agree with me...
Ready for the game?
     I was staying on the Spanish part, at about 15 min walk from the border. It was possible to take a bus after another 6-7 min of walking or walk the whole way up to the Caleta. I tried it on the first day and it was a 45 min walk all together. Had to repeat it quite a few times on the way back, as some of my games finished too late for catching any bus. The music in the headphones was undoubtedly a good companion. Having this whole time for meditation I was contemplating my life as if it wasn't mine.

     Some people have told me that they envy my lifestyle in a quite recent conversation. I asked "What is there to envy, you're a postdoc at one of the best Universities in the World, having great perspectives, while I basically live a life of a 'gypsy'? " He told me "You make a living out of your passion- the thing you love the most and you're best at in your country, while the most of the people are ok with just being "mediocre" at a few things...".

     How exactly does this life look like?

     Well, back to Gibraltar while walking to the round... There were 2 more rounds to go, I was on +1, which was my goal before the tournament. While actually playing the games I felt I could do better than that, I missed some incredible opportunities, being quite frustrated immediately after. When you're at a tournament, you can't afford negative thinking, as you still have some games left and you must make the best out of them, so I had to trick my brain into being satisfied. "You see how well you can play? You can outplay anyone, it's just a matter of experience you're missing". "Sh**, 'missing'... After so many years I know very well that I can outplay anyone, the 'missing' IS actually the problem." Ok, corky brain... Let's try a different way.
 "You play so well, you were just a bit unlucky, tomorrow will be better!". "'Unlucky' you say- the story of my life."
      I would manage to come to an agreement with 'the brain' eventually...
Still a bit of walking left towards the rock.

     So, 2 more rounds to go, +1. I was playing against a young guy with about 2495, having the white pieces. Being at a tournament like Gibraltar I thought "2495... Pf, what is that, I should 'beat' him!", making abstraction of the fact that this 'Pf' and a few years younger than me is actually better than my 2407. The wind was the only one keeping it real- pulling out my headphones from time to time. "I will win today making it to +2, then I get 'some' 2550+ with black, he'll want to win- risk it all and I will suddenly be on +3". "Shh, keep it real, brain, just play well today, please."

     I got to the playing hall 30 min early. Decided to go for a tea on the terrace. Met a friend there and finally got to talk to someone else but my brain! Felt quite confident when sitting at the board afterwards.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Plans & Resolutions

     Dear readers,

     The New Year is already here and I have new tournaments coming up, new plans.

(photo by David Llada)  
     I must say that time flies so quickly for me in the last few years... It seems to me that it was only yesterday when I was still competing under 20 yo and here I am, at 25 already. I am not very sure how this 5 years have passed so quickly. I guess that travelling from a chess tournament to another, from one country to another, one just gets sucked in by a kind of routine- make plans, prepare, travel, play, repeat... I am curios, will the next 5 years pass in the same manner?

     I have decided that I will play less this year and try to make time for things other than chess as well. In the end, playing 14 classical tournaments a year has proven to be quite ineffective. That doesn't mean I am becoming less of a professional chess player. It is actually the other way around- I will participate in less tournaments, but in stronger ones.

     My first classical tournament of the year will be in Gibraltar. This will be my first time there and I am quite excited about it- it has bean on my to do list for many years already. I hope to play against many strong opponents and also have a good time.

     Afterwards, I am thinking of participating in the HD Bank Open in Vietnam, in March. The tournament meets my requirements, having a very strong field and attractive prizes. I am not yet 100% sure that I will go there, as it clashes with the Romanian Women's Championship, but given the bad conditions and prizes from the previous years, I have reasonable doubts to believe anything might change this year. The hope never dies, so I am waiting for the regulations to be published and that will be the moment of my final decision.

     The European Individual Women Championship is going be the highlight of the season for me, as usually. It will take place in Antalya, Turkey in April. I don't have many plans afterwards, I just hope to be pleased by my playing by that moment.

     These being said, a little throwback is in place. I was very happy to finish the year on a high note, winning the "Sharjah Cup for Women". It was a strong women's event where inspired decisions and lucky moments met so I could become 1st. Here are a few photos from the event:

With Sopiko Khukhashvili

Karina Szczepkowska, me and Sopiko Khukhashvili- the first 3 places

Despite some double rounds, there was time for relaxing as well
Happy Winner!

    I wish you all a New Year full of accomplishments and don't forget to make time for the things and people whom you love!

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Restless Optimism

Dear readers,

The busiest time of the year is starting for me these days. Many important tournaments are ahead, many interesting trips.

The first stop is at the Batumi Chess Olympiad (24 Sept - 5 Oct). As a team event, one where I represent my country, there is definitely some pressure on me, especially as I will be playing board 1 for Romania. Nothing's as motivating as a good challenge though and I can't wait for some big battles! (Check up my FB pages for updates during the tournament).

It is interesting to notice how years pass and I expect my eagerness to play chess to moderate somehow, but no, it doesn't matter that it's my 6th Olympiad already, I am still very much looking forward to it! Let's see what plans Batumi has on us...

Memory from the Baku Chess Olympiad in 2016, with Luminita Cosma, Cristina Foisor, me,
Ciprian Nanu and Corina Peptan. 

Next to follow is a quite unique tournament in Norway, Harstad (yeah, far North I head from the sunny Batumi). There will be 7 games, 3 rapids and 4 classical ones. I might even give some simul on one of the days, maybe even blindfold. I expect this trip to be very interesting. Anyhow, the Tromso Olympiad (2014) has left only good memories for me so I am quite optimistic about my return to Norway. 10-16 October is reserved for it.

Me, giving a blindfold simul

After no longer than 3 days of rest I will be heading to Isle of Man. It's been my dream to play there for quite some time and I am really excited about finally being able to make it happen! Being one of the strongest chess opens ever, names like Vladimir Kramnik, Vishy Anand, Levon Aronian and Wesley So are on the starting list and I can't be any happier about the chance to play in the same tournament with them and maybe even meet them at the chess board! (My optimism is restless lately...)

Yeah, this is how my end of September and whole October looks like.

It is probably too little to say that I am very grateful for the chance life has given me- to do what I love the most and to call it work!

Wish you all a nice end of week and remember, it is never too late for a dream to come true!

Sunday, 15 July 2018

July Reflections

Playing vs GM Fridman (blitz)
     While being home for a few days between tournaments I was thinking whether I am doing the right thing about choosing my summer tournaments...

     From one point of view, why not play a nice Open in a beautiful location by the sea (Sardinia, Corsica, Crete), trying to combine chess & vacation, from another point of view- is it really the way to prepare for the serious upcoming autumn tournaments?

     In the first scenario (the one I am following atm) it is quite difficult to stay 100% focused on chess as there are a lot of distractions- going to the seaside for 1-2 hours, then feeling sleepy for another 2-3 hours, then the game is coming up with no real desire for any serious preparation... Of course, the opponents might feel the same way, but if it's not the case then I might get into some serious trouble. In the end, the result might be somehow medium or more or less satisfying, but the feeling left is that I could have done more.
    Though, let's not forget about the advantage of the first scenario- not stressing at all, as there's no pressure about the result, getting a nice tan (!) and an all in all improvement of health after the nice swims in the salty water...

While taking a swim , Purtichju, Corsica

     On the other hand, if choosing a tournament in a less compelling location, I would be 100% focused on the games with the probability of my result to be better increasing substantially. Also, let's not forget about the financial part of the story- the better the result, the higher the income. Though, a bad game can ruin it all, increasing the stress level when realizing how much effort you have put into the preparation, how close you were to the desired result and yet how you have missed it...
Surrounded by dangerous kids in the Purtichju Open

     The 2nd scenario, sometimes with a happy end, sometimes not is how my year looks like from September to May, so maybe it is after all a good idea to take a break from it in summertime. On the other hand, what will be my playing form by the end of summer? Will the "vacation-like" tournaments benefit to my brain or send it to a limitless vacation?

     Not having a real answer for all these questions, I'm heading to my next tournament in a few days. It will take place on yet another island- Crete, a place very close to my heart for a lot of various reasons. Let's see how it will go and if any of my questions will get an answer...

Corsican Sky
     On a positive note, may your mood be as serene as the Corsican sky!