Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2012 arrow A Parent's Reflections, Part II: Success in Orlando
A Parent's Reflections, Part II: Success in Orlando Print E-mail
By Melinda J. Matthews   
December 4, 2012
Nicky Rosenthal, with his 11th grade Championship trophy, Photo Harvey Lerman
Perhaps I downed a few too many soothing cups of homemade chai or meditated a bit too long on Thursday – the day we left for the K-12 Nationals – because I was not my usual frenetic pre-travel self.  Nicky and Nathan slept in while I ran a few errands, finished packing, took out the garbage, filled the cat bowls, and did the dishes, all at a leisurely pace.  I finally woke the boys in the late morning and suggested lunch at our favorite cheap-but-ultra fresh and tasty Mexican place after we loaded the car.  It was past 1:00 p.m. when we finally hit the road. 

As we left the restaurant, I sent a text to Nicky’s dad, David, to let him know we were on our way.  David, who’s usually as easygoing as it gets, sent back a worried response: Aren’t you leaving a little late?  I did the math in my head, gulped, counted on my fingers to double-check, and gulped again as reality smacked me in the face: Holy cow, we have less than four hours to get to Orlando!  It’s usually a 3-1/2 hour drive IF the road gods smile upon us and all circumstances are favorable: no traffic, no construction, and no getting lost in the spaghetti-bowl maze around Disney World.  Yikes!  I instantly morphed from laid-back pseudo-hippie chick to pedal-to-the-metal hot-rod mama.  And while I can’t confess exactly how I did it, let’s just say we pulled into the guest lot at the enormous Orlando Marriott World Center, one of the myriad hotels that cater to the Disney crowd, with over an hour to spare before blitz began.   

As Nicky and I waited for blitz to get underway, perpetually sunny Castle Chess camp director and chess mom, Jennifer Christianson, and her son, Ryan, cruised past us to check the final bughouse results.  Jennifer stopped, turned, and without missing a beat, pointed to Nicky in mock horror and exclaimed in staccato tones, “Nicky! What? No bughouse?”  It’s almost become tradition for Nicky and his bug partner to face Ryan and his regular teammate, Jeremy Paul, during these events; Team Christianson-Paul has been the one to beat for most of Nicky’s bughouse-playing history.  Once again, Ryan and Jeremy proved that they’re an exceptional team, solidifying their bughouse dominance by capturing this year’s championship – and their fourth national bughouse title.

By the way, for those of you seriously worried about Nicky’s bughouse renunciation and possible loss of interest in speed chess, fear not.  First, he asked me to clarify his original reason for not playing bughouse: he wanted to minimize time away from school.  In the past, missing school for chess (in any form) was a no-brainer as far as Nicky was concerned: always chess, never school.  But, as I wrote in my earlier piece, junior year has been pretty stringent academically; make-up work will be hellacious.  Second, Nicky’s obviously still crazy about fast chess, as evidenced by his eagerness to hit the blitz tournament the moment we arrived.  And apparently, Nicky remains a solid speed chess contender, taking clear second with 10 points, a ½ point behind this year’s blitz champion, Brian Hu.  Brian, one of Nicky’s friends from Robby Adamson’s Western Invitational Chess Camp, had a great main tournament as well, finishing tied for first (first on tie-breaks) in the 10th grade championship.

After settling the boys into blitz, I wended my way through the cavernous convention center to the opulent lobby to check us into the hotel.  Since it was too late to cancel either Nathan’s reservation or ours, I instead requested and (fortunately) received adjoining rooms.  Nicky and Nathan opted to share a room so they could talk chess, snack continually, and watch sports into the wee hours.  Of course, that meant I was forced to take the solo room next door – you know, the quiet, serene, sports-free zone with the great big white puffy king-sized bed, cozy reading chair, and perfect space for my yoga mat, my music, and my pre-dawn practice.  Oh, the sacrifices we make for our children!  In all seriousness, having my own room was an unexpected luxury.  I really enjoyed being able to get up and move around in the morning without fearing I’d wake my tournament players (for once, no tip-toeing around gingerly or lying awake wide-eyed, silent, and jonesing for coffee!).

Nicky’s main tournament included some long, tough games, but he battled through valiantly to finish with five wins and two draws, making this, without a doubt, his best scholastic nationals ever.  And based upon the kind emails and Facebook messages we’ve received, many of you already know how Nicky’s tournament ended.  His great results left him tied with Sam Schmakel for the 11th Grade championship, with Nicky taking…(drum roll)…first place on tiebreaks (double exclamation points)!!  Yes, indeed, Nicky repeated his odd-grade/even-year co-championship history!  And that’s not all.  Thanks to his solid performance, Nicky achieved his main goal for this tournament: earning his National Master title.  His post-tournament rating jumped to 2205, a crucial 16 points that catapulted him over that looming 2200 hurdle.  Hearty hugs, a toast, and congratulations to my awesome son for two well-earned titles! Sparkling ciders all around!

Here’s Nicky’s key last-round win over Vincent Zhang:


I have to stop and give a huge, grateful shout-out to Brian Goldstein, who’s been Nicky’s primary chess coach ever since Nicky began serious tournament play at age 10.  Brian has always taken his role in Nicky’s chess development very seriously, even coaching Nicky for free when we tried to drop lessons during particularly lean financial times.  Nicky and Brian stayed in constant touch throughout this tournament, and Brian’s between-round prep and pep talks obviously made a huge difference.  We can never thank him enough for his generosity and for his unwavering belief in Nicky’s abilities.  You rock, Brian!

I reported for blue apron duty before Round 1 only to discover – horrors! – the blue aprons were no more.  Instead, I was issued an official badge clipped to a bright red lanyard and assigned to work in the K-1 section, set in a separate ballroom away from the bustle of the larger main tournament hall.

Hello, badge. Farewell, blue apron. (Note the well-worn, ragged yellow star, bestowed upon me by one of the K-1 participants.)
Because Nicky was in fourth grade when he began participating in tournament chess, I never experienced life as a K-1 chess parent.  Yet I can easily relate to the palpable tournament nervousness and the parental anxiousness that permeated the hall – two very discrete and distinct worries etched on the faces of the waiting adults.   TD Susan Breeding was a model of calm, patience, and efficiency as she oversaw the event, juggling her director duties with placating children and (sometimes) their parents.  

Now for a sidebar mini-soapbox moment.  The children – all of them – were delightful and endearing through triumphs, tears, and potty emergencies; for the most part, so were the parents.  But a very few parents were not so endearing, especially those whose constant disregard for rules made our main objective – getting the little ones back and forth safely and quickly – much more difficult.  My proposed solution to this problem: any parents who fall into this category have to volunteer for at least one round.  Perhaps when they discover firsthand how parental interference, no matter how well-intentioned, compromises the children’s safety, they’ll become more respectful of the process.

The upside to working in the K-1 section is that it moves very fast, with most games over within an hour.  The downside to working in the K-1 section is that it moves very fast, with three hours’ worth of activity consolidated into that first hour (or so it seems).  That initial hour becomes a blur of racing, chasing, comforting, congratulating, always with a watchful eye on the side doors, looking for any little chess players moonlighting as escape artists (that’s why it’s particularly rough when parents continually open doors to look in – wee ones can easily slip out super-fast and unnoticed). 

Luckily, I was not alone in my duties.  When the other worker assigned to the K-1 room didn’t appear, my Michigan friend, Loraine Webster, gamely stepped in to assist for the entire tournament.  It was the perfect – though hectic – chance for us to catch up with each other (between darting and dashing).  

In general, I prefer being separated from the main event because whenever I’m working in the tournament hall, my natural wolf-mother tendency is to watch Nicky, looking for clues to his game’s progress through his body language.  It makes me way too tense, and my superstitious side believes Nicky somehow senses my tension (negatively) from across the hall.  Yet the K-1’s different rounds schedule (beginning either a ½ hour before or after the main tournament) meant I couldn’t walk in with Nicky for some critical rounds.  This became particularly tough (for me, not Nicky) once Nicky slid into the top slot on Saturday and stayed there all day after number one seed, Sam Schmakel, drew his Round 2 game.  Naturally, I wanted to be in the room before the round started to encourage Nicky, hug him, ruffle his hair, get others to take tons of photos of him sitting at Board 1 (my camera chose this weekend to die, and my cell phone has no flash) – you know, basically embarrass Nicky publicly as much as possible in as short a time frame as possible.  Of course, Nicky managed just fine without my hovering presence; it was simply my own heart that felt heavy for missing his moment(s) at the top.

Blue light special: Round 1 in the main tournament hall.

Loraine’s son, Kyle, had an outstanding tournament, taking seventh place in an extremely challenging 10th grade field.  Nathan fought through some hard games, too, finishing first in the 11th grade 1400-1599 category.  So maybe there’s something to be said for stepping back and trusting that our older children know what to do.  I’m slowly and begrudgingly accepting the fact that perhaps I want Nicky to need me much more than he actually needs me (sad face).

The boys, post-tournament weariness evident on their faces (left to right): Kyle Webster, Nicky, and Nathan Barnavon (photo: Loraine Webster)
NTD Jon Haskel ran the tournament with the same brisk efficiency we’ve enjoyed in our state and local tournaments, sometimes seeming to be everywhere at once.  The presence of a whole host of Floridians who’ve been fixtures throughout Nicky’s chess journeys – Eric Rodriguez, Jeffrey Haskel, Michael Hutsko, John Salisbury, Harvey Lerman, to name a few – made this tournament feel very friendly and welcoming to us.  And fortunately, I found time to meet up with my other friend, Catalina Foothills mom, Debbie Gross, after Saturday night rounds were finished.  Her son, Matthew, started out his tournament with the most difficult pairing imaginable, against Sam Schmakel on Board 1.

Debbie’s son, Matthew Gross, and his Round 1 opponent, 11th Grade Co-Champion Sam Schmakel.

If I had to complain (minorly) about one thing, it would be the difficulty in foraging for food.  Between our scheduling differences and the fact that four out of Nicky’s last five rounds went down to the wire, giving him less than an hour to rest and eat before heading back into the hall, we were pretty much limited to hotel fare.  So, after subsisting for three days on lackluster pizza and burgers, sandwiches from home, and snacks gobbled quickly in the room, we enthusiastically celebrated Nicky’s win with a huge and colorful sit-down dinner, gorging ravenously on sushi, teriyaki, tempura, and miso soup before hitting the highway.  Replete after our big meal and exhausted from the long weekend, the boys fell asleep almost instantly as soon as they got into the car.  That meant I could end the tournament quietly and in my own fashion: driving home under a night sky pin-pricked with cloud-blurred stars, humming along to my favorite music, sorting through my whirling emotions – giddy, amazed, proud, and sentimental all at once. 

When I wrote my pre-tournament story, I shared some of my thoughts and not-so-secret hopes.  But reality turned out to be far better than any scenario I’d concocted in my head; in my wildest imaginings, I couldn’t have designed a better fairy-tale weekend.  From start to finish, the tournament flowed as though destiny was lending a hand, channeling Nicky’s focus and determination toward (dare I say it?) the perfect Disney-inspired happy ending.  And so for us, the land of the House of Mouse truly became, for one sweet slice in time, the Happiest Place On Earth. 

Browse complete results at the K-12 Championships here.