Hilton Blogs from the Denker
By Jonathan Hilton   
August 3, 2008
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High School Champions face off. Photo Jonathan Hilton


At the Denker tournament of High School Champions, 47 players are competing for Academic Distinction Scholarship from University of Texas at Dallas as well as $3,000 in additional scholarships and prizes from the U.S. Chess Trust, the Ursula Foster Family and others. The fantastic participation is due in part to the generous player stipends provided by Grandmaster Arnold Denker's Family. GM Denker's son and grandson made a special trip to Dallas to kick off this event. Ohio representative Jonathan Hilton blogs after two rounds of play--Chief TD Alan Losoff

 There are few scholastic tournaments in the nation with the fighting spirit of the Denker Tournament of High School Champions. The competitors aren’t just strong players; they’re players who are also used to winning. Many have large racks of scholastic trophies in their rooms back home, and know well the “win-or-die-trying” feeling of facing lower-rated opponents at local scholastic events.

All Denker Champions must surely have experienced the following scene. The position on the board is complicated—often worse for the Champion, who has risked everything for the win—and the clock is ticking relentlessly. Every move there is a strong possibility of making a horrible blunder, the kind measured in terms of the number of pieces lost instantly. Adrenaline is flowing, and snippets of perilous calculations flash before the Champion’s eyes as he feels the danger in his stomach. Hands fly as the players slam the clock, a dozen spectators crowd around, and the evaluation of the position swings from “White wins” to “Black wins” and back again. Yet somehow, the “Champion” prevails—whether he or she was down a pawn, a piece, or even an entire rook when the time-trouble began and the heat was turned up. 

This is what the Denker is about: gathering up the nation’s “Champions” and placing them into one tournament. The goal? Determine a “Champion of Champions”—someone with the right mixture of sound play and killer instinct, someone able to defeat rivals of Champion caliber in a six-round event. The games are messy, complicated, and often full of blunders—particularly with the fast-paced time control of G/90 plus a 30 second increment. But each round, the players who had the greater level of “Champion” intuition and poise move up the scoreboard by a full point.

What can be said of the nature of such a competition? For one, the ratings of the players tend to reflect their relative experience—not their level of innate talent. Most Denker participants below Expert level are drastically underrated in terms of talent and potential. So far, the only advantage I have seen among the pool of Experts and Masters over the “Class A” and “Class B” players is their level of familiarity with what it takes to win a game in scholastic chess. 

For me, winning often involves the kind of exchange sacrifices almost never seen in my more traditional, slower, saner games. For instance, to win my state High School championship, I had to uncork the following sacrifice as early as Round 1:

White's position, which was strong throughout the middlegame, is facing a serious counterattack in the center. I decide to unleash immense complications.
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Hilton-Kountz, White to Move


21.b5!?
An energetic blow based on the following exchange sacrifice.
 21...fxe4 22.fxe4 Bg5 23.exd5 exd5 24.bxc6 Bxe3+ 25.Qxe3 Qxc6 26.Qg5 Nf6

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Position after 26...Nf6


27.Rxf6!
The position suddenly becomes murky, and both players are now in full-fledged time trouble.
27...Qxf6 28.Bxd5+ Bf7 29.Qxf6 gxf6 30.Bxf7+ Kxf7 31.d5
 Objectively, Black may have the better chances in this endgame. However, objectivity is rarely important--the initiative is everything, as positions are constantly being mishandled by both sides.
 31...Rb3 32.Rc1 Rfb8 33.Kf2 Rb1 34.Rc2 Re8 35.Bd4 Rd1 36.Rxc4??
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Position after 36.Rxc4


 A gross oversight. Black can now win instantly.
36...Rd2+
My opponent, in the excitement of the moment, misses the simple 36...Re4 37.c6 Rexd4 38.c7 Rxc4 , winning the game!
 37.Kf3 Re1
The lead has changed again, and now White is winning.
38.c6 Re8 39.d6 Ke6 40.d7 Rg8 41.Bxa7 followed by Ba7-b6 forced Black's resignation. 1–0
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Compare that with the sacrifice I had to make just to stay alive against the talented John Flores of New Mexico in Round 1 of the Denker last night.



1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.g3 c6 5.Bg2 dxc4 6.0–0 Be7 7.e3!?

 A risky interpretation of White's c4 pawn sacrifice, aiming for quick mobilization of the center pawns. 7.Qc2 b5 8.b3 cxb3 9.axb3 is another way to obtain pressure for the pawn.
 7...b5 8.Qe2 Bb7 9.b3 cxb3 10.axb3 Nbd7 11.Rd1 Qb6 12.e4!?

12.Nc3 prevents Black's next move, but allows 12...b4 13.Na4 Qb5.
 12...c5
A bold decision, but otherwise White will retain control of the center.
 13.Nc3 a6 14.d5!?

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Position after 14.d5


 Yet another highly risky decision by White.
14...0–0!
A clean solution to most of Black's problems. 14...b4 15.Na4 Qb5 16.Qe1! exd5 17.exd5 Bxd5 18.Rxd5! Nxd5 19.Nh4 is messy, since Black has not castled.
15.Bg5 Rae8
Black correctly sees not to play 15...exd5? 16.e5! Ne4 17.Nxe4 dxe4 18.Bxe7 exf3 19.Bxf3 Bxf3 20.Qxf3 Nxe5 21.Qd5 would have given White the advantage. However, the rook placement on f8 and e8 eventually gives Black problems coordinating a defense for his king.
16.d6?
A gross bluff. Not being used to the G/90+30 time control, I was already entering time pressure and felt an absurd need to act, regardless of whether my actions were objectively correct or not. 16.Qc2 is patient and keeps the game balanced. I looked at this move for a long time, but just couldn't contain myself--I felt the need to sacrifice material.
 16...Bxd6 17.Bxf6 gxf6?
Too trusting. Black could have refuted my calculations with 17...Nxf6 18.e5 Nd5! 19.Ne4 Be7 20.h4 f5! , which easily defends Black's position.
 18.Qd2!

Now White has more than enough compensation for his two pawns.
18...Be5 19.Nxe5 Nxe5 20.Qh6 Ng6 21.h4 e5 22.h5?
Throwing away White's advantage by allowing Black's following maneuver. 22.Nd5! immediately would give White a powerful attack.  22...Ne7 23.Nd5

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Position after 23.Nd5

Now, my advantage is lost.
 23...Bxd5! 24.exd5 Nf5!
In time pressure, I had completely overlooked this move.
25.Qd2 Nd4 26.Be4 f5!? 27.Qg5+ Kh8 28.Rxd4! exd4
28...fxe4 29.Rxe4 f5 was the safest way for Black to play for the win.
 29.Qxf5 Qh6??
29...Rxe4 30.Qxe4 neutralizes White's attack and leaves Black a pawn up, though with poor king cover.
 30.Rxa6!
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Position after 30.Rxa6

Now White is winning.
30...f6 31.Ra7 Rxe4 32.Qxe4 Qxh5 33.d6 Qg6!

A tricky defense.
34.Qd5! Qg5! 35.Qb7!

White's passed pawn is unstoppable, so the rest is a matter of technique.
35...Qg6 36.d7 d3 37.Qd5 Rd8 38.Ra8 Rxa8 39.Qxa8+ Kg7 40.d8Q c4 41.Qf8# 1–0


In both cases, I was facing extremely talented players and ran into serious trouble in the middlegame. Through wild complications and hardened nerves, I somehow managed to fight back in both cases, taking advantage of errors from my opponents. This kind of excitement is seen almost exclusively in my games in the scholastic arena, where the will to win—or even just to survive—drives me to play like a madman.

My round this morning, Round 2, featured an unfortunate early draw with Haizhou Xu of Vermont. Occasionally, opening move orders (and a misreading of my opponent’s intentions) will lead to unwanted quick draws, but I’ve learned to accept these as a natural part of the game. When I was considerably less experienced, I used to scorn these draws and feel resentment toward my opponents; in fact, current Arizona Denker Representative Ben Marmont and I once had a similar quick draw in Round 1 of the K-9 Section SuperNationals III in 2005, and it was not until I tied for first in the tournament that I managed to get my frustration with that game under control! This time around, however, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to relax and prepare for my next big dogfight. I’m also not disturbed by not having won both games thus far. I’m not in bad company: Daniel Yeager of New York and Ricky Selzler of Washington have both given up at least one draw thus far. For now, I tip my hat to all the other Champions fighting in the Denker Tournament. May the “Champion of Champions” win!