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!”.


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