Hilton Blogs from the Amateur East
By Jonathan Hilton   
February 16, 2009
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The U.S. Amateur Team East playing hall, Photo Steve Ferrer, Atlantic Chess News editor
I have always been what I would describe as an “intense” player. During games, my head hovers over the board as I calculate line after line, and I rarely sit with both feet on the ground. I gulp bottles of water, run back and forth from the restroom constantly, and during allergy season (which, for me, is roughly eight months of the year) I cough up a storm. So I was caught off-guard when I arrived at the U.S. Amateur Team East this weekend and found the atmosphere to be more akin to a gigantic family reunion than a chess tournament. My opponents were not only sportsmanlike, but also practically akin to pleasant relatives in a giant chess family tree. I could imagine myself seeing them relaxing in the cool summer breeze of an outdoor get-together, behaving more or less as politely as the various aunts and uncles many-times removed that I’ve played chess with between slices of homemade pies and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’ve found that before the start of each round, conversations start up among the players that might never take place in a high-stress, high-tension open tournament. As someone who thrives in a competitive environment, I’ve found myself feeling disarmed from the first move in every round.

Surprisingly, however, I’ve found that this relaxed environment brings out some of the better elements of my play. I make my opening moves more quickly and trust my intuition more during the middlegame. I’m willing to take some risks to mix things up, too—as Black against my second-round opponent, NM Eric Fleischman, I went for the sharpest line possible against the Veresov Opening even though I knew no theory. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Bg5, I hesitated for a few minutes before deciding to trust my instincts and play the crazy 3...c5!? rather than the usual 3...Nbd7. And then, on move six, I turned down the reasonable 6...Qa5 in favor of 6...f5, heading for additional imbalances. As I found out after the game, this idea has been successfully played by both GMs Smagin and Krasenkow.



I have also found that my tournament has been less tumultuous than usual due to another characteristic trademark of the team-tournament environment: a consistent playing strength in my opposition. Going into a game, I know that no matter what my result, it is likely that I will be paired with someone of comparable strength next round—that is, I’ll be playing against someone who is also the second board for a fairly strong team. I was paired with an A-player in the first round—and drew—but after that, I have had the opportunity to play three masters in a row, and have astonished myself by winning all three games. I’ve felt focused and motivated, and I’ve enjoyed playing on for the full point. On average, my four games have lasted five hours apiece; they’ve also been a total of 273 moves, or roughly 70 moves per game. Playing so many players close to my own strength, rather than bouncing up and down in a Swiss, has allowed me to get more chess for my money than any other tournament I’ve played in this year!

For me, time between rounds has been spent either resting or eating at one of the hotel’s restaurants with my teammate, WIM Ruth Haring. Originally, Haring—who is from San Francisco—had signed on as an alternate for my team of chess journalists, the CJAces. Unfortunately, the team’s third board, CJA President Jerry Hanken, was unable to come. Thus, Haring will be playing all six rounds for the team! Although she won second place in three U.S. Women’s Championships some decades ago, she is just getting back into playing tournament chess after twenty years away from the board. A keen observer, she’s discovering how the game has changed (computers, opening theory, digital clocks) and is quickly learning to adapt. She has held her own as the team’s fourth board, and is on her way back to the top of her game. 

Another highlight of my trip to Parsippany has been visiting Pete Tamburro’s chess library. Tamburro, another one of my teammates, has a collection of over a thousand chess books and magazines. I spent several hours before the start of the tournament poring over old manuscripts analyzing such openings as the Evans Gambit in an effort to hone my understanding of the Open Games. (This may well have contributed on a subconscious level to my choice to play sharper chess this weekend!) My appreciation of the Open Games, however, is limited to the Black side. During my White games, I’ve been wearing the UMBC name tag of the late GM Aleksander Wojtkiewicz, both for good luck and to promote the positional White repertoire book I’m currently co-authoring with IM Dean Ippolito.

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Jonathan's Wojtkiewicz badge
On a closing note, I know that the world is dying to know which name won the Best Team Name competition. By a raucous voice vote, it was determined at the start of Round 4 on Sunday evening that the Sarah Palin spoof I Can See Russians from My Board was the funniest team name by at least thirty or forty decibels. For now, however, I need to get ready for my Round 5 game—and perhaps I’ll be fortunate enough to “see” my team, which is currently at 3-1, come through to another victory!