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Hilton On Not Winning Nationals Print E-mail
By Jonathan Hilton   
April 21, 2008
Jonathan Hilton. Photo Elizabeth Vicary
After three rounds of the High School Nationals (click here for final results ), I had one win, one loss, and one draw. Flush from finishing at +2 in the Foxwoods Open with a huge performance rating, I'd been focused and ready to win my games heading into Nationals. So after three rounds, my score of 1.5 seemed like a total disaster. I'd lost to someone 300 points below me in the second round and then followed it up with a draw playing 600 points down in the third. I was certain I was having a bad tournament.

Thus I dreaded the typical chess social question, "So how is your tournament going?" I don't have very many bad tournaments, so I wasn't quite sure how I would answer. What are you supposed to say when you're disappointed with your performance? I found myself shaking my head and breaking into a loony smile. "Bad," I'd respond, "pretty bad."

By about the fifth round, however, I'd made an important discovery. It seemed that almost everyone who didn't still have a perfect score would chime in, "Me, too." In fact, nearly everyone who wasn't simply annihilating his or her opponents game after game was having, at the very least, a frustrating time! How was it that so many people were having a "bad tournament"?

It is easy to have high hopes going into Nationals, but it is hard to earn a perfect result. Players who had pulled off multiple upsets only to lose games against masters on the top five or six boards were having a "bad tournament", as were the ones who "only" had a 4-1 record in the U1600 Section. There were some with perfect scores who might be doing "all right"-but as for the rest of us, we were all certain we were having a "bad tournament".

The fact is, despite weeks or even months of preparation and hard work, any player can have a disappointing result at Nationals. For the masters, playing hundreds of points down every round can be psychologically strenuous; for the Class A and B players on winning streaks, playing hundreds of points up every round will eventually catch up with anyone. In general, only one exceptional player will finish with a perfect score, and the rest of us have to just do our best. When I realized how many players felt they were having a bad tournament-and how depressed some of them were over their results-I felt it was a shame. Not winning Nationals is not worth feeling miserable over: there were a number of good things about having a mediocre score. If you don't believe me, here are just a few of the blessings I experienced over the course of the event.

My friends were all still my friends. I learned that friends are there for you even when you aren't winning your games. In the fourth round, I was paired against Sanford Kagiyama from Arizona. I was rated 1368 points higher than my 878-rated opponent and did deliver the win as expected, but not before Warren Harper and James Canty III-who were both playing on the top table-traversed at least half the length of the tournament hall just to come check on my game! Canty seemed particularly impressed by the attack I had managed to whip up with my bishop pair. It was quite a walk all the way from the top, and I'm glad I had friends willing to come give me moral support.

  Ridiculous swindles make great stories. Damir Studen, a master from Georgia, became known as a swindle king for pulling off a win and a draw from two dead-lost positions. With the stage presence of a stand-up comedian, Damir entertained crowds upwards of twenty people for at least half an hour on Saturday night showing his piece-down swindles on a laptop projector screen. Although Damir's play only allowed him to finish with 5.0/7.0, tying with my score, the games he played were priceless for their entertainment value.

I learned I get far more hugs when I lose. My disappointing result early on led to many heartfelt displays of condolence. Even people I didn't know well-a couple were total strangers-just walked up to tell me, "It's all right," and throw an arm around me after a disappointing result. At first I wondered whether I looked absolutely devastated to merit such attention, but soon I realized most of these strangers (potential friends!) had read my online articles and had been rooting for me all along.

I was reminded that a gracious loser can be an excellent role model. Especially with so many young players around, it would be a shame if someone behaved with bad manners after a loss or draw. In large opens, resentment and bitterness after a bad game are common. I learned this quickly at Foxwoods. At the Nationals, however, I tried hard to be even more gracious than usual-a top seed on a losing streak has the ability to set the behavioral norm that up-and-coming players will follow.

Since I didn't win myself, I got to congratulate the winner of the event. I spent a lot of time over the course of the tournament with Daniel Yeager and his father, and I was able to root for Daniel the entire way through. He had an exceptional tournament and I was thrilled for him that he won the event.

Although I didn't finish with the result I had hoped for, I feel I still did all right and am already planning a comeback. There will be plenty of future tournaments headed my way in the coming months. The Ohio High School Championship is in just a couple of weeks, so I will have a shot at making it into the Denker for the summer. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to being the underdog again in my games at the Chicago Open after that. One lackluster result, although disappointing, shouldn't ever be enough to bring someone down. After all, those of us who underperformed weren't at a "bad tournament"-we just thought we were having one.  

Look for Elizabeth Vicary's wrap-up report later this week and check out Monroi coverage in Atlanta, including a video , a photo gallery and live games.

April - Chess Life Online 2008

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