Abby on her Best Trip Ever
By Abby Marshall   
October 31, 2008
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Before my trip to Beijing for the 1st Mind Sport Games, my experience with China was dominated by a long-term relationship with General Tso’s chicken, taking an agonizing class on Chinese government, and watching Usain Bolt win gold in the Bird’s Nest. Not to ruin the suspense here, but I can’t overestimate how China has affected my life cause I’ve learned so much and it was definitely the BEST TRIP EVER.

The first day of any trip, no matter how good or bad it actually is, is always one of the most exciting days. How cool is it to wake up halfway around the world? So I’ll start there. Unfortunately, I instantly knew breakfast was going to be a big problem cause it ends at 10, but luckily jet lag saved me and I woke up reasonably early, was excited and took a bunch of dumb pictures of the room, and then fell back asleep and missed breakfast anyway. Well, the extra sleep definitely helped me because the American team made history by being, according to the hotel, the first tourists to walk to Tiananmen Square! We thought this was strange, because Jenn asked how long it would take and they said “one hour.” Huh. So by the third hour we are all probably thinking the same thing (one hour, maybe the only thing that could have been one is…day?), but this turned out to be one of the greatest decisions we made. We stopped in a park with lots of beautiful stone statues, and then in a cute tea shop where everyone drank endless amounts of Jasmine while Jenn read Cosmopolitan. The articles were in Chinese, but had teasing English subtitles (“how to have a blingy lifestyle”).

We had left the hotel around 11am and by 5pm, we made it! It’s National Day and the Chinese are definitely one of the most patriotic peoples in the world. The place is packed beyond belief. Jenn said that she was “now convinced there are over a billion Chinese.” The interesting part about it was that there was no pushing or shoving or any signs that enormous amounts of people were all together in the same place. Occasionally groups of six soldiers dressed in uniform would march through. We were so tired when we arrived, I didn’t get to see much of Tiananmen Square and I almost forgot why we had gone on this six-hour death march.

We went to Wangfujing street that night, and it totally kills. No offense New Yorkers, but man, Fifth Avenue looks like Main Street in Newport News compared to Wangfujing. Sorta kidding, but seriously, it is like five times as wide with tons of stores and markets and mini-festivals and little parks and an endless stream of Chinese. There was also a side street that I went down the last day that has all these weird, freaky foods you can try: anyone for seahorse on a stick or fried scorpion? Well, the nose always knows. 

Dude, China is like a different planet. Take a second to think about it cause at first I wasn’t feeling it. We look different, we don’t speak the language, we don’t know the layout of the city, we aren’t familiar with the food. All of this was made very clear this first day because we took a walk through the city and got lost, ate at local restaurants, and got to see over a million Chinese. It’s kinda cool being an alien for sure cause you get to experience what is out there and China is becoming, for real this time, the center of the world.

The first leg of the trip before the games was just as awesome. Jenn has lots of great reports about the things we did like visiting the art district which was very interesting given that the Chinese government is so closed about certain issues yet haha seemingly has no censorship on artwork and going to see the Forbidden City. At night we would go out, often to the popular Vics and across the street Mix combination. Most places played club remixes of American hip-hop sometimes supplemented with techno. While in China, we were always thinking of new things top do and places to go. The possibilities felt endless.
 
A few hours before the first event, the individual blitz, David calls us all down for a team meeting,  so he can go over the rules. I’m thinking, like touch move and junk? This is going to sound crazy but the rules ended up being a tiny bit of a panic button for at least Jenn and me because they sounded so crazy: first, be careful not to misplace pieces (place a piece on an ambiguous square)  which will earn you a yellow card (then red and then forfeit). This was a big problem for Jenn who had spent her entire day preparing e3 ½.  Second, it’s absolutely crucial not to displace pieces (knock over a piece and press the clock before adjusting it)  which means forfeit. David laughs and says it was funny watching the Russian players going like, “misplace, displace, huh?” I then asked if listening to music is allowed. I was thinking along the lines of music relaxes me during games, while then Jenn says, “yeah, it would be fun!” and she starts doing some little dance and all I can picture during the first few games is Kosteniuk, as opposed to her usual laser gaze at the board and motionless figure, loosening up and bobbing her head to some Russian hip-hop. David said he wasn’t sure, and I decided not to risk it in case the arbiters thought I had downloaded the rap version of MCO.

Before the blitz I was nervous cause I was the second lowest rated and I honestly thought I could lose all my games. Obviously I didn’t, since I started 2/3. From then on I was just sorta feeling it. My tactical sense felt sharp and I would aim for these crazy messy positions especially in the team rapid because I felt confident and I thought my opponents might not. Opening prep seemed to be almost nonexistent here and I only ran into problems once in the opening against the Indian team, which was not surprising because I fell into the same opening problem last year at the World Youth against an Indian player. I guess I didn’t learn my lesson.

One thing that helped was I got a lot of King’s Gambits, my favorite opening. Some very insane positions came from those games.

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Position after 12...Bd4


During our match against Sweden, Iryna looks over and sees me play 13.Be3 in this position, and gives me this look like “you look confident but it looks bad and I can’t figure out if you know what you’re doing.”



I got a chance to show off to a couple grandmasters one night, playing through what I thought was the sweet game above. While I’m praising each of my moves, Jesse and Josh are giggling and sharing some inside GM joke I guess, and I get to the end and whatever, so Jesse is like show us the KG game you lost. I make faces but go through it, and the guys are like, start at the beginning. 



I play 1.e4 (“good move” according to GM Kraai) and then throw out 2. f4 and then I have to stop and explain why my favorite move in the world is not so hot. (Oh by the way, this was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life, so everything I say here is not to make fun of anyone or complain). What followed felt strangely like psychoanalysis where I am asked of what I think of each position, and what on principle (forget theory) is wrong with my opening moves. Then we examined the moment where I made my big mistake and Jesse, in contrast to his normal loud presence, is quietly asking me what my state of mind was when I played each of my moves. By the end of it Jesse says that if I just learned basic principles I could gain 200 points. Wow. That would be cool. It’s possible I guess that I could sack the KG for being over 2300…

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Abby Marshall faces Arriane Caoli


So I was very relaxed during the remainder of the tournament. Iryna told me that this led to Alex making jokes that during my games I’m just chewing gum and snapping my fingers to some beat, while looking over at the top boards going like, who are these people called world champions? 

Whatever. So maybe the American team is younger and enthusiastic and prone to impetuous and silly behavior. Like when some of us dressed up in Chinese costumes and Jesse said “it’s like traveling with little kids!”

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Varuzhan Akobian, Iryna Zenyuk, Alexander Shabalov and Abby Marshall.


 I don’t think anyone did too spectacular in the individual events and the women’s team’s greatest moment was playing China on first board in the last round of the blitz. Our men’s team did fantastic in the team rapids and got into the semi-finals. They lost in the morning to Ukraine, but kudos to Josh for going 2-0! Then the guys lost to Iran for the bronze medal, which was a bummer, but at least we all went out that night, along with the Mexican and Slovakian teams. The Mexican team was amazing. Their players have the best endurance ever: we left the place at 4am and we had to say goodbye to them because they were still working it.

The American team also had a lot of fun. The night before the team events everyone at least stopped by to play blitz, and I feel I learned a lot of good stuff playing blitz with Jenn and Iryna and analyzing our games from the individual events. Iryna is for sure best roommate ever.

I feel I did well. I regret not being a little bit more serious, especially in the individual blitz where I feel if I had been more alert I would have done even better. I now feel I can compete on the world stage at least partially, maybe if I had played Hou Yifan I would have really felt the difference, though in terms of opening prep and general skill level I didn’t feel out of my depth against anyone below 2400. 
 
  We visited the Great Wall, and I share Iryna’s view: The Great Wall is great! But also tiring! Without Jesse I dunno if I would have made it; he basically forced me to climb to the top, defined as the highest point you can go on the path we took, and the parts that were really steep were just brutal. It provided an amazing view of the wall itself and also of the city in the distance. As you’re walking up, every ten minutes or so there are little towers where you can stop and look out over the place, it was really beautiful and worth the unforeseen exhaustion. Jesse and I were the first to make it to the top, where we waited for about forty minutes for everyone else, and I began to worry about the physical capabilities but more importantly the mental toughness of the team. I mean, there was a guy with a cane making it up to the top. In the end though it was all good, and I would say seeing the Great Wall is a necessity for anyone visiting China, just maybe don’t listen to Alex who suggested we “run!” on the way back down.

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Abby and Shirley at the Great Wall

On another free day, I went with Jesse and Josh to the Silk Market, a huge mall with tons of little shops set up inside. Don’t bother looking for prices. Bargaining is a huge part of buying anything in China and this place was a zoo. So I got to practice my technique here, which turned out to be very useful on later when we went to an antique market. Here’s how to do it properly: whatever you are offered, cut it in four, and then think about what you would pay and cut that in about ten. First thing is I was offered a pair of jeans for 800 yen (7 yen to a dollar, so I was offered $115 or so). No way. I offered 20 yen. I got laughed at and the next price is 600 yen (this is all communicated on a calculator). I shake my head and offer 30 and say “cheaper!” This goes back and forth, with me being presumably cursed at and then suddenly I can’t walk away because my arm is being held, and so you just sorta be patient and eventually you can buy jeans for like ten bucks. The biggest steal was when I bought sneakers for $7. They are Nikes, but say Etnies on the heel. Now where can you get that in America?

 Speaking of America, a few tips for visiting American establishments in Beijing: KFC is the biggest chain but the Chinese just cannot do fried chicken, Pizza Hut is more upscale like a sit-down restaurant, and McDonalds is about the same except much cheaper in China, and I swear I saw 7-Eleven but I did not go in so I cannot comment on the quality. I love Chinese food, but after two weeks of eating it every meal I broke down. I went to a McDonalds, ordered a Big Mac, fries, chicken nuggets and ate it all. That’s actually sorta an accomplishment, no?

 On the last day, Shirley and I got to see pandas at the zoo, which Shirley described as “pandamonium.” Then we decided to walk to Wangfujing street where we were gonna meet Cindy. We walk a couple hours and realize that it is a straight shot from the Temple of Heaven, so we walk there and since we don’t want to pay admission we have to walk around the Temple to get to the other side. To get there, we had to walk through these tiny streets of these apartment complexes and see the local life. We saw people cooking and hanging up their clothes, little kids rollerblading, stray dogs and cats, ground-level apartments where people lived in basically one room with a bed, a stove, and a TV, and then wider streets with marketplaces and people just hanging out on a Friday night.

Eventually we make it to the other side and start walking again, and then attempt to take a bus, and finally realize we are nowhere close to Wangfujing and take a cab. We had dinner at Made in China, a fabulous restaurant, and then go out with the Slovaks, Mexicans, and the rest of the Americans. It was the fireworks to top off a three week trip where I got to play some good chess plus do all kinds of things I would never do in America. 

So what’s stopping me from packing up all my stuff and moving to China? I am a huge chopstick expert, a tea addict, and I love fried duck. The language would be the main reason I don’t think I could live there permanently. I sorta regret not learning more Chinese and am limited to an incorrect pronunciation of “Ni hao” (not a very advanced expression).  Even Alex, who knew by far the most Mandarin (except David, who spent six months in China, and Cindy who is fluent), had difficulties, mainly with cabs and directions. The first night we landed, we decided to go out to an authentic Chinese restaurant and while waiting for cabs Alex decided to practice his skills with one of the staff from the hotel. The woman blushed and said that her English was not so good, to which Alex replied he was actually trying to speak Chinese…

Most locals spoke at least a little English and everyone always tried to help us or make us feel welcome. Walking back from the grocery store, I was stopped by a group of Chinese. They pointed at their eyes and pulled out a cell phone, which meant they wanted to take a picture of me, always a flattering request, right? When Shirley and I went to the zoo, we were greeted by a group of  elementary school kids, who dropped a fantastic: “Welcome to Beijing!” all in unison. The kids were so enthusiastic and excited. It was for sure one of the best cultural experiences I had in China.

Switching gears, the worst problem I faced was when a cab dropped me and Josh off on a dark and abandoned street; luckily a well-lit McDonalds was on the corner. Modernity!

Being back in America definitely has its perks. I had planned not to go to school on Monday because I was still exhausted from the plane ride and also staying up to 4am our last night, which might have not been the best idea but was sorta required, right? I would have been automatically withdrawn from school if I had missed another day, so that was good I got back in time, and it’s nice having my room back and seeing everybody and eating good KFC. OK, so I still wish I was in China, at least for another week. Though thinking about it now,  I realize now that it’s not China I miss the most: I miss everyone on the trip! 


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Abby Marshall and Shirley Ben-Dak at the Bird's Nest, the Olympic Stadium