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Hopin' at the Open Print E-mail
By Jessica Lauser   
August 7, 2008
Jessica Lauser, on her way home from this year's Blind Championship

As the 5-day schedule of this year’s U.S. Open begins , I am busy preparing, both mentally and emotionally, for the ensuing battles I expect to face. No doubt, my fellow class-level participants are doing the same. 

Although I’ve been competing regularly now, since 2002, and have played consistently in the B-Class range since 2006, somehow, it’s still never easy getting ready to go “…once more into the breach, dear friends…” as William Shakespeare succinctly put it.

What makes this particular event especially meaningful to me, however, is not its location, nor the large number of previous years it’s been held, but rather the fact that it was in this same event, five years ago, I won top honors in my section, and managed an incredible feat to make it happen, one I will likely not attempt again, for reasons that will become clear.

It happened like most important things do—gradually, and seemingly quietly at first. So, it is my hope that in telling of this particular adventure, my readers will be inspired at how, in such an unexpected way, Fortune favored the foolish, and boy, was it stupid. In fact, I would admonish players not to get any funny ideas about attempting the same, for they do so at their own risk. 

After a downright miserable performance at the 2002 NorCal State Championship, where I had sported an embarrassing rating of 1043, which was actually up from 771, (It was embarrassing primarily due to my age at the time: 22), I was determined to claw my way through the class ranks and attain a respectable rating, one I could at least be proud of. I had between 2002 and 2003 managed to get up to 1251 from playing at a local club where I lived at the time, but was still hoping to improve as no adult likes having to admit to having a low rating, especially when they love the sport as much as I do.

While I’d seriously considered going to the World Open, I was put off by the extreme cost of travel, hotel, entry, etc., which made my participation simply impossible on a student’s budget. As a result, I had to find something a lot closer to home, and the likelihood was low that I would, it being relatively short notice. 

Around that time, I discovered the 2003 U.S. Open was going to be held in Los Angeles, and decided that I would find a way to be there, doing what I love—playing in tournaments—even if it meant I were paired on Board 983 located in the hotel parking lot!

In an effort to raise the necessary funds, I spent the intervening weeks from mid-May to late-July tenaciously seeking sponsorship. I began by producing some nice, albeit expensive, promotional materials at my local Kinko’s, which I then distributed to numerous restaurants and businesses throughout the community. With that, I crossed my fingers, and hoped the money would come. 

It did at first, but, as the time of the tournament approached, donations slowed considerably, until I just couldn’t get any more. After several weeks of work on this, I was able to raise about $1000, but even that was only half of what I needed. Sadly, it was at this point that my options were dwindling, and I realized that if I were to be able to go at all, it would mean I would be completely on my own as far as paying for the trip was concerned. There were simply no more sponsors to be found.

So, with moderate reservations, but hope things would somehow work out anyway, I did the unthinkable: I tapped out every last dime in my bank account, and went all in on the chance to play, and hopefully win at the U.S. Open. Doing so not only meant I’d be broke for the next month, but it carried with it the risk, which was definite, that I would end up homeless if I returned empty-handed. Despite having taken an unsupportable risk, I remained determined not to be shown the fool. 

Having made all of the preparations I could think of, I was off. I had just moved into fall housing, taken finals for summer school, and flown to Los Angeles to begin competing the following day, when, as my luck would have it, I immediately developed a horrendous sinus infection. It would be my constant companion throughout the event, and with whom I would face the most difficult challenge, to date, of my competitive career.

In addition to being very sick, on the verge of becoming homeless, and feeling utterly stupid for daring to try such a thing, I was also forced to play the 2003 U.S. Open and 2003 U.S. Blind Championship simultaneously, my opponents sitting side-by-side across from me, at the same table, due to a ridiculous time conflict beyond my control. Although I had been given a choice of entering one event or the other, I insisted on playing both simply because I hadn’t risked everything to be denied every possible chance there was to win money.   

Surprisingly, the hardest part was neither suffering with 24-hour sinus headaches and a constant ringing in my clogged ears, nor a cough and a severe, burning throat that wouldn’t quit, but rather the rock-bottom morale that year’s 12-rounder dished out when I lost six out of the first seven rounds, and consecutively to boot. There was even a point at which I seriously considered simply going home, humiliated, I felt that sick.

Still, somehow, my success in the Blind—clear 2nd in the United States and an upset prize for defeating the previous year’s national champion—spurred me onward, secure in the knowledge that at least I wasn’t going to quit, even if continuing made me worse for the wear and ultimately led to failure. 


So, with renewed determination, I played the second half of the Open, coming back strong to win four of the remaining five rounds, for a total score of 5 out of 12. Looking back, I can say it was true no-holds-barred chess, as I had literally no draws. Truly, this was the stuff that could make or break one as a chessplayer, and I felt broken alright.

In fact, I’ll never forget the way my final round opponent, rated 1600 to my 1251, just wouldn’t give up, and how I had to grind him down to claim the win. I’m sure he fought in every way he could, primarily to avoid losing to someone rated 350 points below him. Understandably, I would have done the same thing in his position, and have subsequently been there myself, so I know exactly what that is like.


Mercifully, after a grueling five-hour game, for better or worse, it was over. 

Exhausted, but grateful to have stuck with it over eight long days, I made my way to the TD room, to see if I might have won a prize. By the time all the results were finally in, and the patience in the room was worn to tatters, one of the directors looked up at me from his laptop and said, “You won twelve-fifty.” And I was stunned. “Twelve Hundred and Fifty?!” I blinked, he nodded. I couldn’t believe it: I had won.

Incredibly, I had done it. For my 2nd-place finish in the Blind I’d already received $300, plus $30 for a side-event earlier in my stay. Added to my winnings from the Open, that totaled nearly $1600! It worked; my suffering had not been in vain, nor was I going to be kicked out of my dorm for an inability to pay; here was the money I had fought for, and not a moment too soon. 

So, with great relief, the kind I had never felt before, I made my way up to my room and quietly keyed in before closing the door behind me. By then it was 2am, and I remember being so utterly amazed that I had actually accomplished exactly what I’d set out to do, I could only stand there with my back against the door, shaking from the shear exhaustion and illness washing over me. At that moment, I whispered to myself, weakly but in triumph, a quiet smile spreading across my face, “I did it.”

Naturally, it is with these memories of past experiences that I now enter the 2008 U.S. Open.

Fortunately for me, the U.S. Open and U.S. Blind Championship no longer conflict, and so I will be free to focus on this, and only this event, for the next five days. The fact that I am well, and have brought with me my best friend and love of my life, can only serve to bolster my spirits, with things decidedly much more in my favor, this time around. 

Finally, I would like to dedicate my contribution to this year’s event not only to the players in attendance as a whole, but specifically to those in B class and below. 

It is to you I offer my most sincere admiration and respect. For it takes more courage and fighting spirit to play strong tournaments, especially an open like this, for those of us who have a greater journey ahead of us than behind, than those who have already claimed more tangible recognition for their struggles. 

Of course, this is not to say that masters don’t struggle, and even GM’s at that—they certainly do—it is simply to give the ‘little guys’ some encouragement, and thereby inspire great chess, no matter what the level. 

Yours in Chess, 

Jessica Lauser a.k.a. “Chessica”

U.S. Blind Women’s Champion, 2003-Present