Melinda on Nationals: A Successful Adventure
By Melinda J. Matthews   
December 14, 2010
Melinda Matthews, chess mom, writer and assistant TD blogs on her diverse and intense experience at the K-12 National Scholastic Championships. See full results here and look for another K-12s story coming soon by Matan Prilleltensky.

Then and Now

Two years ago, a few days before we departed for the 2008 National K-12 Championships, I received a bold and confident text from my son, Nicky, which I saved for over a year until I accidentally erased it from my phone in a memory-cleansing frenzy. His message, pithy and to the point:


That year he tied for 7th grade co-champion with two other boys, Andy Wang and John Lodger Hughes, taking first on tiebreaks and bringing home the coveted 4-bar trophy, which to this day remains proudly and prominently on display in our living room.

I received no such premonitious text this year, but even as Disney-phobic as I am, it felt welcoming and familiar to return to the scene of past victories. 

At this year’s tournament, in a déjà-vu reprise of two years past, Nicky sat on Board 1 for the ultimate round, Round 7, facing the same opponent from two years ago, talented John Lodger Hughes, playing again for the same high stakes.  Only the colors changed, with Nicky as black this time around.

And once again, in similar fashion, their game ended in a draw, leaving both boys nervously awaiting the results on another board to determine their championship fate.  That championship-deciding game, between Nicky’s Miami friend, Luciano Aguilar, and Nicky’s tough fourth round opponent, Eve Zhurbinskiy, ended with Luciano’s down-to-the-wire victory, resulting in a six-way tie for the 9th grade championship.  In tie-break order, Sam Schmakel, John, Nicky, Azeez Alade, Yuta Kakutani and Luciano all shared 9th grade top honors.

Here is Nicky’s 7th Round draw with John Lodger Hughes:

On top of his storybook ending in the main tournament, Nicky captured trophies in both side events.  He and long-time bughouse partner and friend, Nathan Barnavon, took 3rd place on tiebreaks; later that evening, Nicky won clear 2nd in the K-12 blitz tournament, losing only to champion Michael Bodek. 
Nicky and Nathan with TD Elizabeth Tanner 3rd Place, National K-12 Bughouse Championship

Call To Duty

Apparently, I haven’t completely disgraced the blue apron, because enthusiastic volunteer coordinator Tom Nelson offered me a position as his assistant for this tournament.

Those who have never volunteered cannot begin to fathom the intense behind-the-scenes flurry that takes place throughout the tournament: extraordinary precision and coordination is demanded under extremely tight parameters.  I was literally on my feet anywhere from 8:30 a.m. until 10:00 p.m., constantly racing back and forth between chess control, the main tournament hall and the K-1 hall (I suggest, as an unofficial experiment, we wear pedometers next time to log how many miles are traveled in the course of a typical volunteer’s tournament). 

Tom, a man blessed with abundant energy, hustled wherever he needed, organizing, designating, jumping in and filling in, barely stopping to eat (and I’m beginning to suspect he doesn’t sleep, either).  Also, for the first time since I began volunteering a few years ago, Tom’s wife, Melody, was able to slip away from her day job to join us.  She, like Tom, is a friendly, tireless bundle of good cheer and enthusiasm; time flew by whenever we worked together.

Cassie Tanner, my kind of girl: Always ensuring candy or biscotti are close at hand
I was gifted with a pleasant surprise as well: My own personal assistant, plucky 10-year old Cassandra Tanner, who is possibly the youngest, ablest and certainly the cutest Tournament Director-in-Training ever.  I’m both embarrassed (for myself) and proud (of her) to admit she wields the stapler and wears the blue apron far better than I do.  Together we moved over 200 trophies, helped post new pairings and standings each round, checked each others’ score-keeping, answered questions, organized and delivered messages.  We also shared an unexpected common thread: in 2006, her father, TD Robert Tanner, was Nicky’s coach at his first Emory University Castle Chess Camp.

A Long Overdue Shout-Out to Friends, New and Old

One reason we’re drawn to these tournaments time and time again, despite logistics, expenses and frayed nerves, is the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends and to make new ones.  It’s perhaps the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of tournament travel; the connections formed linger far past the highs or lows of the final standings.

NM Nick Thompson and Nicky, looking forward to a rematch
This tournament, Nicky befriended one of his tough USCL opponents, NM Nick Thompson of the Arizona Scorpions.  After squaring off against each other in blitz, they formed an immediate bond that led to serious discussions of summer visits, camps and tandem tournament travel.   Because the boys were reluctant to bid farewell, Nick and his easygoing mother, Judy, joined us for a post-tournament late dinner, the first time we were able to fully relax, eat leisurely and simply enjoy each others’ company. 

Another surprising connection was Nicky and GM Ray Robson. 

Like almost every other serious chess family, we became aware of Ray almost as soon as Nicky began playing tournament chess.  In 2006, Nicky and Ray both played in Florida’s Space Coast tournament, with Ray in the top section and Nicky in the lowest.  Already Ray was a star, fast on his way to superstar status.  Players would nudge each other, whispering whenever Ray entered the skittles room.  In those days, still a fledging, nervous, overeager chess mom (only the fledging part has changed), I remember poking Nicky and pointing out that Ray was eating oranges before his match.  My own son, phobic about anything remotely healthy, preferred a pre-game snack of Skittles washed down with M&Ms.

Their paths never fully crossed, though, until this past Labor Day weekend, when Ray and his father, Gary, turned up at the Florida State championship to sign Gary’s thoughtful, insightful book, “Chess Child” (shameless plug: read it if you haven’t; it’s the book I wish I had at my fingertips six years ago).  Ray graciously played blitz with anyone who asked at the state championship, Nicky among them.

So after Nicky’s early Round 2 ending Friday night, Nicky, ever fearless, marched into the bookstore on our way to dinner, unrolled his chess board and challenged Ray to more blitz.

Two hours later, the boys reluctantly ended their games so the bookstore could close, both grinning broadly.  It was one of the nicest, purest examples of bonding over the board that I’ve ever witnessed; Nicky and I truly appreciate the generosity of time and friendliness bestowed upon us by both Ray and Gary, who kept me company as I waited, melting with hunger, for Nicky.

GM Ray Robson and Nicky, blitzing in the bookstore

 Another old friend, Matan Prilleltensky, appeared at this tournament as well, coaching and reporting from the sidelines.  We first met Matan at the 2007 US Junior Open, where he played in the U21 section, bravely rooming with Nicky’s then-coach, Brian Goldstein.  He caught my attention because he treated the younger players with sincere, good-natured respect; the kids responded in kind.   We’ve met at a few tournaments since then, especially when he lived in Miami; he has been unfailingly kind to Nicky each time, relating to him as an equal.  I’ve felt an almost-maternal pride in watching Matan develop; I’ve especially enjoyed his thoughtful, intelligent USCF posts.  I was delighted to run into him in at this tournament, even if ever-so-briefly, as we yelled happily to each other, waving as we headed in opposite directions.

Of course, there are our wonderful friends from University School of Nova Southeastern University, the chess team that took Nicky under their wing six years ago, when his only aspiration was to play with other children and we couldn’t find a non-adult club.  Their then-coach, Ted Goldstein, invited Nicky to play with the University School club; he also steered Nicky toward serious tournament play when the time was right.  To this day, the University School group welcomes Nicky into their team room whenever I’m on volunteer duty; this tournament was no exception.  And let me send out a special thanks to my University School parents and friends, Renee Feller and Yoav Barnavon, for taking Nicky out for a real meal when he finally grew tired of devouring PB&J sandwiches in the room; and to Susanne Hurowitz and Hildy Riegelhaupt for plying me with sushi and cookies between rounds.

In Conclusion

And so another tournament adventure comes to a close, this time with unarguably satisfying personal results for Nicky.  Still, the best part of the tournament (for me) always comes at the end, when boards are set up and carefree blitz and bughouse play commences.  I cannot help but smile when I scan the hallways, witnessing openly joyous faces as pieces fly and clock buttons are slammed. This is why we chess parents endure the long days, the unfamiliar hotels, the anxious moments, the sometimes-enormous expenses: for the delight on our childrens’ faces.