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Adventures at the U.S. Blind Print E-mail
By Jessica Lauser   
July 14, 2008
Jessica Lauser on the flight back from Pittsburgh when the co-pilot invited her into the cockpit. "The best part was that, for a moment, I could pretend I wasn't severely visually-impaired, because.... it's possible I might have done that sort of thing - been a pilot..."

Although the United States Braille Chess Association boasts members throughout the country, only seven players competed in the 2008 U.S. Blind Championship (June 20-21, Buckhannon, West Virginia). 

Participants included current and former U.S. Blind Champions Jeff Siebrandt and Alex Barrasso, as well as other longtime participants: Virginia Alverson, Al Pietrolungo, and Joe Wasserman. Rounding out the field were Dave Rosenkoetter, who last entered this event in 2001, and myself, an occasional entrant with two prior U.S. Blind Championships under my belt: in 2003 and last year.

While one participant hailed from as close to West Virginia as Massachusetts, three came from as far away as Kansas, Texas, and California, with yet another flying in all the way from where he is currently working: Thailand! 

Thanks to the outstanding efforts of Chief Organizer Rick Varchetto—with much appreciated financial support from the Elkins, West Virginia, Lions Club—hotel accommodations and transportation to and from the event were arranged to enable most of the players to arrive without incident. Everyone received exemplary service by the management and staff of our cozy and comfy hotel, the Hampton Inn. 

Oddly enough, what began as a misunderstanding on the part of the shuttle service from the airport to playing site, resulted in a near-disaster, when myself and one other player were left stranded in Pittsburgh, some two-and-a-half hours from where the tournament was located. Despite their outright blunder, unbelievably, the company refused to send another shuttle. 

As it turned out, the other player affected by this, an Expert from North Carolina, apparently flew in, but decided to simply return home when he realized he had no way of getting to the hotel, leaving me, upon my arrival, unknowingly faced with the same dilemma. 

Fortunately for my sake, Rick was able to prevail upon the kindness and generosity of fellow volunteer, Dave Ferguson, who agreed to meet my cab halfway. In so doing, he reduced the total cost of the fare I had to pay by a considerable amount, which otherwise would have been well over $500!

With just seven of us remaining, this caused NTD Tim Just to have to make odd pairings, with one player during each of the four rounds receiving a full-point bye. As a result, the four players with the fewest wins, which happened to also coincide with ratings, only played three games apiece, while those of us higher up–Jeff, Alex, and myself–duked it out for top honors.

As things gradually got under way, the event seemed fairly routine. There was, however, some confusion about the G/135 time controls, and, as a result, more than one clock was dubiously set for 1 hr. and 35 min., instead of the correct time of 135 minutes. Embarrassingly, even I was not immune to this mix-up, and, looking back, I realize that one of my wins may have turned out differently, had my opponent not found himself unnecessarily in time pressure. 

Speaking of clocks, a strange situation occurred in which it was noted by Tim that, according to the Official Rules, digital clocks take precedence over any other kind, even if the clock in question is a special adapted type used by players who cannot see even a digital display. As a result, the games in which Jeff Siebrandt and I played were governed by the ubiquitous touch-Chronos, my personal favorite, while our opponents had to have their remaining times announced periodically by volunteer assistants, since these particular clocks are, by mere nature, inaccessible to blind players.

Transportation would not be the only difficulty I would encounter. As Fate would have it, in the early morning hours, Saturday, June 21st, I awoke with a start, around 4 a.m., to a strange “chshhhhh” sound coming from the bathroom in the room I was sharing with Virginia Alverson. 

Despite my grogginess at being startled awake, I immediately recognized the sound as something quite serious, and stumbled out of bed to investigate. Sure enough, as soon as I got to the bathroom, I found it completely flooded, ankle-deep, with water spraying, head-high, from a pipe behind the toilet. Tragically, I could do little more than run down the hall to the front desk for help since I couldn’t see exactly where the deluge was coming from, much less do anything to stop it. 

By the time the lady on duty and I made it back to the room, which was less than 30 feet from the reception area to begin with, the flood had reached our entryway and was rapidly expanding out into the hall, and in toward Virginia’s suitcase, which I managed to rescue, just in time. Meanwhile, Virginia’s guide dog, Watkins, seemed apparently so put off by the sight of something this unusual taking place, that he sniffed at the water with relatively little interest, as if to say, “Boy, you’ve gone and done it now…” before laying down in the far corner of the room, safely away from the mess. 

Once we silenced ‘the Porcelain Beast’, the hotel worker and I spent about two hours mopping up the mess with a regular bucket and mop, and thus, for me, began the second day of the tournament. I have to say, however, that were it not for a similar incident I experienced at last year’s National Open—without even mentioning the guy, ehem—I might not have realized there was a problem so soon, and certainly would have been less prepared to deal with it, this time around. 

Later that morning, Virginia and I had to play the final two rounds on far less than an ideal amount of sleep. Naturally, by the end of the day, we could each feel the strain of fatigue as we belted down various Coke products, in lieu of good, old Pepsi, which was seemingly unheard of in those parts. 

Despite this mishap, luckily, the hotel management was kind enough to relocate us to a different room, as one became available, and this time, one with a working toilet that didn’t revolt the last night of our stay.

I won one game in a record eight moves, when my opponent missed a threat allowing me to play Bxf7 mate.


In other games, many were left wondering just who might win the Clayton Walker Memorial Trophy for the biggest upset. Regrettably, no one did, since most games experienced an expected result, except of course for Alex and Jeff’s. This particular encounter ended in draw, in spite of a two-hundred-point difference in rating between the two. 

In all honesty, I believe this difference was in number only, as Alex Barrasso is the strongest totally blind player I have met personally, and I have no doubt that, in time, he could certainly give Jeff a run for his money. In our game, despite being partially sighted myself, Alex handily defeated me, while his guide dog, Nero, snored quietly under the table.  Afterward, Alex, and Nero, went on to challenge Jeff for the title of co-champion. 



Read more about Jeff Siebrandt's result including full annotations of his game against Alex in the USCF Press Release on the event. 

Jessica in her game against Jeff Siebrandt

There ended up being a perfect tie for first between the two, with Jeff and Alex both earning 3.5 and $325. Jeff was awarded the 1st Place trophy on tiebreaks, and $325. According to Director  Tim Just, this year’s event, unlike most past events, had no clear, overall winner.

As for 3rd Place, at two points each, there was a massive tie between Virginia Alverson, Al Pietrolungo, Joe Wasserman, Dave Rosenkoetter, and myself. Since each of these, except me, received a full-point bye at some point or other during the event, naturally, my tiebreak points were enough to earn me 3rd Place honors, while the others mentioned above got the distinction of sharing the Under 1200, Under 1400, Under 1600, and Under 1800 class prizes. All of us, myself included, received $112.50 each.

Overall, it was a very smoothly run event, and one I, and the others, look forward to entering again next year. Happily, the organizers and the majority of the players have unanimously agreed to hold the 2009 U.S. Blind Championship, and likely others to come, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just to avoid the horrendous problems at least a few of us encountered, this year, with regard to transportation, much less, exploding toilets.

Jessica Lauser has been ranked as the number one female blind chess competitor in the U.S. since 2003. Look for more from her soon on CLO.