Hilton on Not Playing the Pan-Ams
By Jonathan Hilton   
January 15, 2010
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Jonathan Hilton, Photo Kip Shaffer
Four weeks into my first quarter of college, I believed I might never play in a chess tournament again. Stranded on campus without a car, vexed by group assignments, computer-graded coursework, and professors, and struggling to cope with my friend Jerry Hanken's death, the idea of playing in even a local event seemed strange at best. Transportation, personal energy, and even money were lacking. On-campus options, while logistically feasible, couldn't provide me with the serious competitive environment I craved. My one visit to the University of Cincinnati's student chess club ended promptly when I discovered I was the only person in attendance at that week's meeting. I was forced to scalp my daily free pizza off a frat that night. Finally, I found that my energies were too scattered for studying or training on my own. I had opened ChessBase on my computer exactly once, when I pulled an all-nighter to finish the move tree index for my new book on the late GM Wojtkiewicz, which IM Dean Ippolito and I wrote together for Mongoose Press. Frustrated and disheartened, I decided one night that I had "quit" chess. 

Some days later, I had dinner with an acquaintance, Nick Shah, at Center Court, the celebrated university cafeteria. During the course of the conversation, Nick revealed that one of his numerous avocations-which included everything from contemporary piano music to the incredible sport of tricking-was chess. Curious, I mentioned my chess background and asked him how strong a player he was. Nick had been the best at his high school, knew a couple of openings, and felt generally confident in his abilities. Not intentionally sounding arrogant, I offered to play him blindfolded to test his abilities. He balked. Having never heard of blindfold chess, Nick was convinced he would win. So, after dinner, the two of us headed back to the dorms, where I played a two-game blindfold simul (with Black on both boards) against him and another friend.  

Although I'm normally an 1...e5 player, I trotted out a Sicilian Defense in the style of Wojtkiewicz's Accelerated Dragon against Nick. Since Nick-who was probably around 1000-1200 rating strength-had never seen the opening before, I managed to catch him in a trap that netted a pawn around move 11 or 12. My technique proved strong enough to finish the rest. The other game featured the From's Gambit Ignored with 1.f4 e5 2.a4, so I eventually weaseled my way to a checkmate on that board as well. Afterwards, I played both games back from start to finish and conducted a quick post-mortem, pointing out the largest errors for both sides. I went over tactics, various methods of controlling the center, and the basics of gambit play and hypermodern strategy. Nick was hooked. I gave him my cell phone number. 

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Jonathan Hilton, Photo Betsy Dynako Chicago 2009
From then on, I was busy teaching chess in the dorms at least two or three nights a week. Small gatherings of chess enthusiasts started occurring sporadically, and soon I was giving three-board blindfold simuls, playing blitz time-odds (5 minutes to 30 seconds was usual), demonstrating bughouse strategy, and teaching endgames on a semi-regular basis. Word spread throughout the dorm that I was a chess master, and several students approached me about learning to play. No matter how tired I was from the day's classes, I would fetch my set and teach whoever wanted to learn. Far removed from the world of organized chess, the game was thriving; an organic, late-night chess community was sprouting up from the tangled network of dorm rooms in Turner Hall. 

As excited as I was about teaching my fellow college students the game, I couldn't help but feel that my own play was suffering. Time-odds blitz and blindfold simuls count as party tricks to me, not as real chess. Being rated four hundred points higher than the next-best player at the university allowed my ever-present competitive drive to dwindle. One day, feeling invincible, I challenged my friend Kevin Johnson-a fellow University of Cincinnati student rated just short of 1500-to a blindfold game. Kevin's reaction was much the same as Nick's, though he cautiously asserted he felt he could at least get a draw. Wanting to test my abilities, I pressed the point. Finally, Kevin took up the challenge. My competitive energy was flowing again. 

Kevin insisted on the best possible conditions for the game-the absolute silence of a collegiate study room. We headed up to the seventh floor of Swift Hall, where the University Honors Program-which has rapidly become my academic home over the past few months-has a study lounge area. Once we were comfortably settled in, Kevin pulled out his laptop and fired up Fritz. I sat facing him, staring him down but unable to see the board on the other side of the screen. With my brow furrowed and my face buried in my hands, I called out my moves with a grimace and snarl. 

To both our mutual amazement, I eked out a win from a rook and pawn endgame in our first-ever matchup. In all honesty, I hadn't expected to actually beat Kevin. I had originally estimated my blindfold strength to be around 1300, but perhaps I had improved. We analyzed the game and set up a rematch the following week, starting what would become a ferocious three-game contest. In the second game of the match, I flubbed a promising Maroczy Bind by hanging a piece, leveling the score to 1-1. In this third and final game-our last during Autumn Quarter-I managed a miniature against Kevin's King's Indian Attack. 



Johnson, Kevin (1477) - Hilton, Jonathan (2296, Blindfolded)

[A04] Blindfold Game (3), 11.2009 

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.d3 Bg7 4.g3 Nc6 5.Bg2 e5

This is perhaps slightly more flexible than 5...d6, since it still affords Black the option of playing the ...d7-d5 break in one move at some point.

6.0-0 Nge7 7.Nbd2 0-0 8.a4?!

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The system in the King's Indian Attack with a2-a4 and Nb1-d2-c4 is outmoded. My opponent had learned it from Angus Dunnington's How to Play the King's Indian Attack, published in 1993. These days, such thematic maneuvering is considered far too slow against Black's flexible setup. A modern treatment is 8.c3 d6 9.a3 (9.Nh4!? followed by a quick f2-f4 is still another idea) 9...h6 10.b4 Be6 11.Bb2, with Qd1-c2, Rf1-d1, and Ra1-c1 to follow. White has pressure on the queenside, giving him reasonable play.

8...d6

8...d5!? is also possible, when 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nc4 leads to a Fianchetto King's Indian with the colors swapped. I felt White's extra move might give him a slight initiative here. The text is solid and gives Black the advantage.

9.Nc4 h6

9...Be6 immediately runs into 10.Ng5 followed by f2-f4.

10.Be3

This square should be reserved for White's c4 knight, which may reroute to d5. On e3, White's bishop is a target. The provocative 10.Nh4 was a better try, as 10...g5!? 11.Nf3 Be6 12.Ne3 leaves Black slightly weakened on the d5 and f5 squares. After 12...Qd7, preventing the thematic plan of h2-h3, Nf3-h2, and Qd1-h5 with an attack, Black has the freer game.

10...Be6 11.Qd2 Kh7 12.a5 Rb8 13.c3 b5 14.axb6 axb6 15.h3 b5 16.Na3 Qd7 17.Kh2 f5

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Black has won the battle for space. White's queenside play did not succeed in putting pressure on Black, and now Black dominates both flanks.

18.c4 b4 19.Nb5 Rf7

19...g5 looks less artificial, but the text is actually quite powerful. Black plans ...Rb8-f8 and ...f5-f4, against which White can do little.

20.Ne1?

White attempts to prepare f2-f4, but this is too late.

20...f4 21.gxf4 exf4 22.Bxf4 Rxf4  0-1
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Here White resigned in view of 23.Qxf4 Be5, winning the queen. We never managed to schedule a fourth game during Finals Week, but I'm sure that Winter Quarter will see another such match. 

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Photo Kip Shaffer
Am I content with my current level of chess activity at college? The honest answer is that I am not. This quarter, the chaos surrounding my transition from homeschooling to college compromised my ability to stay in touch with the world of organized chess. As someone used to playing in a couple of tournaments every month, this hurt on an emotional level. Realizing I had too many papers to write to play in the King's Island Open last month crushed a tiny piece of my soul. Furthermore, I failed to make a serious attempt to get a team together for the Pan American Championship, which is starting as I write these lines. A major competition in some distant land seemed, to me, to have little to do with the budding dorm room chess community. The task of finding team members and securing funding on short notice seemed too much to handle, particularly when I couldn't find the means to play in even local events. 

In hindsight, I shouldn't have been so surprised at how my first-quarter college chess experience turned out. In my first article on college chess, written after last year's launch of the College Tournament of Champions series, I wrote that "You're more likely to find a handful of students playing blitz in a dorm than actively participating in a college club," and that "the prospect of leaving campus to travel to a major tournament more than once in a blue moon seems dubious for most full-time students." I clearly remember stringing together these sentences-but at the time, college chess was still something that happened to other people. Somehow, I felt my experience would, by necessity, be different. 

So what comes next? At the moment, I have few ambitions past teaching the game and leading the dorm-room chess revival. Undoubtedly, I'll need to rely on chess to turn a few bucks to further my education-I'm still a few FIDE points shy of getting my FM title, which I would need to become an official vendor of chess lessons on the Internet Chess Club, but I'll likely start offering lessons over-the-Internet anyhow. Given how saturated the job market is around campus, replete with students in need of textbook money, online chess coaching seems by far the best job option available. In my spare time, I'll work on the next volume of my book-Wojo's Weapons, Winning with White Volume I covers the late GM Aleksander Wojtkiewicz's white repertoire after 1.Nf3 d5, but there is still a lot more ground to be covered in Volume II-but Saturday classes will prevent me from getting out to any tournament next quarter. I do plan on contributing time and energy to the campus chess club, but only to the energy level I can afford. I'm still deciding on a major and trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. For now, it looks like my return to organized chess will have to wait. The world of "unorganized" chess is a sufficient battleground for now, though: even during winter break, I'm meeting up with newfound college friends and continuing to teach them the game I love. In fact, I'm headed off into the snow to go teach a few of them right now.

Read Jonathan Hilton's similarly titled article from a year ago, "Hilton on Not Winning Nationals." For more on blindfold chess, check out a recent article by Eliot Hearst on the US Women's Chess blindfold exhibitions.