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Hilton Previews High School Print E-mail
By Jonathan Hilton   
April 17, 2008
Jonathan Hilton, Photo Elizabeth Vicary
Each year that I have attended the Nationals, I have heard rumors of a mysterious 2:00 AM party that takes place on a randomly-chosen night. Allegedly, somewhere in the hotel, in the wee hours of the morning, chess guys and girls are laughing, watching TV, listening to Ipods, playing blitz, and consuming copious amounts of caffeine-laden drinks. You won’t find it listed in your program guide; in fact, no one actually mentions this party outright. The secret knowledge of it comes trickling through in the offhand remarks and anecdotes of everyday conversation. “I saw the same variation yesterday, because so-and-so played it against me in a blitz game at the party last night,” the young expert down the hall says just within earshot. “I had to drink three coffees this morning to wake up after staying up until 4:00 AM yesterday,” I hear someone else say. However, I cannot personally testify to the existence of this great teenage tradition. Thankfully, I’ve never been!

Up until recently, large scholastic tournaments have been my only real chance to play outside my native Ohio. I still treat them with habitual seriousness. While abstaining from excessive sprees of bughouse and getting plenty of sleep have been two of my largest competitive edges in past years, another advantage I like to have is good preparation. Proper preparation is essential to having a successful result in nearly any tournament, and over the years I’ve developed my own way of preparing for the games. While there are many aspects to this preparation, including physical fitness, studying openings, playing training games at the tournament’s time control, and meditating solemnly over a few dozen of my crinkled, well-worn scoresheets, all of the aspects are united in their common purpose: understanding what I should expect, what I’ll need to do to win the tournament, and finally, where I am.

This understanding process begins the month before the tournament when I decide it is finally time to track down the ever-elusive “Advanced Entries” list. Many scholastic players, even Experts and Masters, do not know of its existence. Despite various USCF website changes, the pre-registration list has never been hard to find if you know where to look. Go to the scholastic section of the USCF website, find “Upcoming Nationals”, and I will let you figure it out on your own from there. (If you want to cheat, you can just go to http://main.uschess.org/tournaments/2008/hs/ )

Once I have the list, I do not focus on any particular opponent. Many years ago, I played in the K-6 Nationals in Nashville, Tennessee, my first-ever national event. I optimistically spent two weeks preparing for the top seed, Fabiano Caruana. Although I’m sure I could have pounded the variation of the Grünfeld (I was dead certain he played this defense) right into the ground, I unfortunately lost to a then-1300-rated Neal Anderson from Michigan in the second round. Since then, I’ve found there are more effective ways to prepare—ones that will keep me winning games past the first round!

 Instead, I use the list as a tool to help me understand what to expect at the tournament. I’ll know my seeding number and will envision the tournament hall—where I’ll sit, what type of player I might be paired against in the first round, where my friends will be in relation to me, and so on. In the past, I’ve usually seeded somewhere between #9 and #15 going into any given scholastic Nationals. This means I have a very good chance of tying for first if there is a typical nine-way car crash with many people scoring 6.0/7.0, but a very bad chance of taking first under the tie-break system, which unrelentingly favors the higher-rated players (something I made my peace with a long time ago). This happened when as a 2000 player I tied for first with Joel Banawa and Parker Zhao in the K-9 Nationals in Nashville. Although Joel and I had drawn our game, my lower seeding combined with an unlucky first-round draw landed me third on tiebreaks. From the list, I can see clearly that if I want to win the tournament, I will need to do it outright. This means giving up at most only one draw—and thus I need to be psychologically prepared to potentially pull off two or three moderate-sized upsets.

My preparation flows naturally. I do not try to overhaul my entire repertoire—a very common mistake for scholastic players before a big tournament—or cram opening lines into my brain. Instead, I sit down every day possible before the tournament and purposefully try to strengthen some aspect of my game. For openings, it takes too much energy away from the tournament to rework an entire repertoire, so I choose only one or two lines and analyze top-level games. The purpose is not to blow my opponent off the board with my preparation; chances are good that I will not see on the board the positions I study. Instead, the purpose is to gain confidence in my ability to understand and interpret chess as a whole. I avoid Fritz like the plague. I challenge myself to ask tough questions about chess strategy and focus on the bigger picture. If I read an opening book, rather than trying to absorb and digest the hundreds of opening recommendations in it, I will ask myself big-picture questions such as, “What is the author’s interpretation about this opening, based on the repertoire he presents?” I cannot emphasize enough how important it is not to get stressed out about opening theory before a scholastic tournament.

Throughout my chess studies, my mind will wander back to the tournament hall at the Nationals, and I will picture myself at the board, focused over the distinctively scholastic plastic sets that abound therein. The old saying that goes, “If you can see it, you can be it,” is probably not too far off the mark.

The last psychological stage of preparation involves gaining an understanding of where I am right now. Picturing myself winning a national scholastic championship is all good and well, but more often than not, some flaw in my actual chess understanding will bar me from making this vision a reality. I spend a great deal of time playing over my games from recent past tournaments and past Nationals, focusing on how I understood the position then, and how I would approach the position differently now. Sometimes I will take long walks outside, often carrying old scoresheets with me, trying to recapture my thoughts and feelings from those games of ages past. I ask, if I were to play these games today, how would they have been different?

 Finally, other aspects of my preparation include exercising regularly before the tournament to stay in good health and storing up energy in the preceding days by not getting stressed out about life. Since I homeschool, I can usually arrange to take two or three quiet days for myself before the tournament to just rest and think. 

 I have often been asked the following about being a top seed at the Nationals. Here are my answers to these common three questions:

What is it like to play on the stage?
At Nationals, the top boards almost always play on large stage. I would estimate that it is about five feet off the ground, and it is usually draped in black. I have always found it absolutely exhilarating to play in the spotlight. I play my best chess when I am able to periodically stand up and look out over the rows of games below: it brings everything into focus for me. Every move suddenly has great importance, and I work extra hard not to commit any errors in my games when I am on stage.

When I played on the stage at the K-9 Nationals in 2005, it was surprisingly rickety! As I stepped onto it, it swayed back and forth. Even getting up from the board caused a slight sway, imperceptible to the onlooker but quite noticeable under my feet. I remember many years ago in the aforementioned K-6 Nationals, a young man was overcome with a bizarre combination of nausea, vertigo, and nervousness and threw up over the edge of the stage. It takes strong nerves and good sea legs to play well on stage! The stage at the Junior Chess Congress held in Anderson, Indiana earlier this year was actually a structural part of the school in which we played, and thus did not sway at all.

Do you feel nervous playing against players rated much lower than you in the first few rounds?
 It depends. Sometimes a much lower-rated player will blitz out his opening moves. Against a strong player, you can generally assume that this means you are still in his or her opening preparation, and you can simply continue to find logical moves until a new position is reached. A lower-rated player who blitzes his opening moves will almost certainly be trying to rattle his opponent and will commit serious errors. Although I do often feel intimidated by an opponent bent on rattling me, I still know that there is a reason why I am the stronger player, and if I focus on the board I will eventually discover why. In my experience, higher-rated (2100+) players of approximately equal caliber usually do not try to “psyche each other out” before a game at Nationals. Only a player who feels markedly inferior to his opponent (generally for rating reasons) will resort to playing mind games, often over things of great interest to high schoolers, such as grades or attractive members of the opposite sex.

Do top seeds also feel a vague fear of returning to school come the end of the tournament?

Yes, even Experts and Masters dread leaving a chess tournament and returning to the seeming mundane world of everyday existence. I usually have my first pangs of vague, school-related fear toward the Sunday rounds. Abby Marshall and I coined the phrase “Post Tournament Depression Syndrome” to describe the emotional and spiritual low accompanying this return. But for the next few days, the most successful Nationals combatants will forget about school, and focus only on chess.

Monroi will be broadcasting the games live; you can find a cool video on Monroi from the Junior High Nationals. Also check CLO for updates by Jonathan Hilton and Elizabeth Vicary. A future issue of Chess Life Magazine will feature an in-depth High School Nationals report by FM Mike Klein.

April - Chess Life Online 2008

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