From Trophies to Money: A Chess Mom on the Southern Open
By Melinda Matthews   
August 10, 2010
 The Southern Open is a Florida summertime staple, a welcome event that also heralds the beginning of the end of summer.  In this year’s tournament, held this past weekend, 192 players from near and even slightly far (Texas, Louisiana) descended upon Orlando to play chess, braving the simmering heat, debilitating even by die-hard Floridians’ standards.  The new tournament venue was the Wyndham Orlando Resort, a sprawling, multi-building hotel boasting a comfortable conference center.  Located on the bustling corner of International Drive and Sand Lake Road, a jumping off point to theme park heaven (or hell, depending on your perspective), the atmosphere was festive, colorful and convivial before the tournament even began.

Tournaments such as these, which I call “money tournaments,” have a far different feel from scholastics.  On the surface, money tournaments appear much less intense, offering up a laid-back vibe and a relaxed tone.  Non-participants roam the aisles during games, hovering in a manner that’s absolutely forbidden in scholastics.  Drinks and snacks, also barred from high-stakes scholastics, are spread out alongside the boards.  Players abandon their games for long stretches of time, leaving the hall to chat, relax or even duck out for more snacks while their clocks run down.  There are far fewer squabbles, tears, debates, tantrums or disputes than in scholastics – or, at least, they are far less visible.

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Nicky Rosenthal
Money tournaments also offer excellent opportunities for kids to play against and befriend adults.  In the best of circumstances (which is more often than not), adults mentor and champion their young opponents, competing earnestly over the board, but then settling in together for analysis afterwards.  Over the years, my son Nicky has met many interested and kind adult players who enthusiastically follow his progress, taking almost parental pride in his accomplishments.

Coursing beneath the casual exterior of a money tournament, however, wends a faint, underlying current that is driven by…what else?...prize money, which subtly alters the mood, the atmosphere, the strategies, the motivations.  Even though trophies and titles often divert the purer intentions of scholastics, the inherent nature of scholastic tournaments encourages bonds of friendship that last long past the immediate game.  In money tournaments, especially those with larger purses, the end goal frequently seems far more short-sighted: the focus becomes the prize, not the path.

My own (admittedly biased) opinion is that going for the money is probably the worst incentive for tournament participation.  Therefore, I’m always secretly pleased when Nicky opts to play up into a higher division, choosing the harder challenge over potential winnings.  For this tournament, although Nicky qualified for U-2100, he decided to sign up for the Open section. 

Oftentimes, so many participants play “up” that a significant numbers of players hover around Nicky’s rating.  This time, however, a very strong field, including four GMs and two IMs and one WIM, placed Nicky close to the bottom in rating order.  So Nicky battled his way through an extremely tough tournament, ending with one draw, three losses, and a bye for the final round.  Here is his second round draw with talented player, Daniel Gurevich:



Despite his losses, Nicky wasn’t disappointed, feeling he managed to play some good games.  Here’s a game that Nicky lost, but one in which he thought he had some solid moments:

 

Post-games, Nicky spent far more time with his opponents analyzing than he has in the past, perhaps seeing deeper into the games as he matures in his chess.

An unexpectedly pleasant surprise was the participation of several Georgians from Castle Chess camp. Nicky has attended Castle Chess every summer (with one exception) since 2006; it’s a week he anticipates, not only for chess immersion, but for reconnecting with friends, some of whom he sees only at the camp.  From the Georgia contingent came Nicky’s fruit snack-borrowing camp counselor, Damir Studen; brothers and bughouse players extraordinaire, Ryan and Michael Christianson (with their parents, enthusiastic Castle Chess camp director Jennifer Christianson and her husband, Fred); and 2nd round opponent, Daniel Gurevich, also with his parents.

Add to the mix Nicky’s friends from the Boca Raton Chess Club, including our travel partners Eric and Josh Feller, plus the eclectic collection of adults and kids he’s befriended along the way, and Nicky was guaranteed a good time no matter what his results.  Fortunately, chess, for Nicky, has always been holistic: it’s not just a game, but a total experience to be relished and enjoyed at each and every tournament.  So in between rounds, we carved out time to play, with the kids enjoying dips in the pool, duck feedings, rounds of ping pong and of course, many blitz matches.

As for me…I participated in my own little challenge unique to our street corner: adventures in crossing insanely-busy International Drive balancing drinks in both hands, trying not to drop bags of food tucked into places where they weren’t meant to be tucked.   In these small ways, scholastics and money tournaments overlap: parents continually scouting out food; kids happily blowing off steam between rounds.

But it wasn’t all food-scouting and no play for the parents, either.  After all, what Florida event would be complete without frosty drinks enjoyed in the poolside tiki hut, in the company of good friends, followed a stress-busting soak in a hot tub under the balmy night sky and rustling, swaying palm trees? 

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Toby Boas
Tournament directors Steve Immitt and Harvey Lerman kept the tournament moving briskly and efficiently, as ably as always.  When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, GM Julio Becerra, GM Mark Paragua and Floridian Toby Boas topped the leader board with four points each in the Open section.  Toby’s impressive showing gained him 67 points.

For parents and kids alike, tournaments such as the Southern Open offer a welcome respite from the much different rigors of scholastics, plus they provide opportunities to sharpen skills against all kinds of players – young and old, new and experienced – during the non-scholastic season.  Add to that the lure of endless sun, bright blue skies, crystal clear pools, majestic palm trees, truly kitschy architecture (such as upside-down or faux-imploded buildings) and you’ve got the magic ingredients for a successful tournament weekend, delivered with a uniquely Florida flourish.