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A Chess Dad's Philadelphia Story Print E-mail
By Robert N. Bernard   
June 18, 2010
Photo Rob Bernard
As Father's Day and the summer season of Philadelphia chess looms, a chess dad looks back on accompanying his child to the Philadelphia Open this spring.

The 2010 Philadelphia Open seemed like a good place to revive my tournament chess career.  The past few years I have not played much, instead concentrating my chess activities on managing and blogging for the New Jersey Knockouts of the US Chess League.  I did play a few times in the past several years, but at one-day quads or small Swisses.  I don't think I've played at an event that had two consecutive days of play since the 1980s.  Plus, my eight-year old son, an avid chess player himself, had been asking about going to a tournament at a hotel for a long time.  I'm not sure whether it was the tournament itself, or whether he's allowed to jump on the bed at a hotel that attracted him more, but Philadelphia in spring, only 90 minutes from our home, seemed like a good choice.  Plus, Philadelphia is where my tournament career started.

I didn't learn how to play chess until I was twelve, but it didn't take long before the fever hit me.  My mom had taught me how to play, and soon thereafter I was regularly beating her, and I sought out more competition.  As far as I knew, no one in my school in Ithaca, New York, knew how to play, and I had not discovered the cadre of chess-playing Cornell students that I would meet  the following year.  But one day, glancing at the shelves of a magazine and smoke shop, I espied a magazine called "Chess Life and Review".  I purchased the magazine, and, to my surprise, there were things called tournaments all over the country in which you could enter and play people.  After learning all I could about tournaments, chess clocks, and trying to memorize opening lines (don't try this at home, kids), we traveled to my first tournament ever - the National Junior High School championships, in - you guessed it - Philadelphia.

So, a few weeks ago, with those fond Philadelphia memories not far from the forefront of my frontal lobe, my wife, two boys, and I packed up the car and drove to Philadelphia.  My son and I would play in the two-day versions of the under-1000 and under-1500 sections respectively, my wife and two-year old would explore the area, and a good time would be had by all.  When we got to Philadelphia, however, there was a problem.  There was a nurse's strike at a nearby hospital and the lobby and rooms were filled with not only chess players, but by out-of-town nurses brought in to cover for the striking workers.  The hotel had overbooked the rooms, and our room reservation had been canceled.  So, we were instructed to go to another hotel.  Besides being disappointing to my son, who wanted to stay in the tournament hotel, my wife would have to transport herself and our younger son through the streets to meet us after the games.  Luckily for us, the weather was absolutely beautiful, so in retrospect it wasn't so bad.

The next day, the first round started.  Being in the two-day section, we weren't playing in the big ballroom, but a smaller ballroom on a lower level.  My son and I were playing only two tables away from each other.  I arrived before my opponent, and took a seat where I could look up during my game and see my son.  And, being able to see my son play his opponent was a thrill, given that in most scholastic tournaments, parents are forbidden from the playing hall.  Now, I could see how my son sits, how he thinks, how he moves, how he ponders a tough position.

And then it hit me... during this whole tournament, my attention would be constantly split - worrying about how he was doing, and concentrating on my own game.  And that got me thinking even more, as I was playing the first few moves of my first game... Why was I here in Philadelphia?  Was it to win the big prize?  Was it to gain some rating points?  Was it to challenge myself in long games?  Was it to bond with my son in a shared experience?  I wasn't sure, but I hoped at the end of the tournament I would know.

The first round went well for both of us.  Two wins to start the day!  I trapped my opponent's queen in the late opening, which made for an easy finish.  My son, however, was faced with this position.

Miguel Azcona (953) - Jaron Bernard (813)

2010 Philadelphia Open (Under-1000 section)
Round 1
3 April 2010
Black to Move

In this position, White just played 16. Qg4 to escape the attack from the rook on h8.  How did Black continue?

Show Solution

While uncorking moves like this, it has been no surprise to me that in the past year, my son's rating has increased almost 500 points.  On the other hand, my rating hasn't changed at all, as I haven't played.  However, in the past several years when I have played, the graph of my rating performance bears more than a passing resemblance to the stripe on Charlie Brown's shirt. 

The author's son, Jaron at the 2010 Philadelphia Open
In the second round, I was somewhat distracted at the beginning of the game, as my son was playing his first adult ever in a rated game.  I positioned myself, so I could see him a couple of tables away, and check on his mental state.  I thought he might be nervous or intimidated, but he seemed to take the game in stride, without problems.  I relaxed, and soon thereafter, blundered a rook to a long queen move and lost my game quickly.  My son, on the other hand, slugged it out in the longest game of the round in any section.  Indeed, for the last ten minutes of the game, the room was completely empty except for him, his opponent, and the floor TD.  He ended up losing (to the eventual winner of his section), but the close nature of the game and his dogged determination were admirable.

We both went 1-1 in the third and fourth rounds, including my blundering another rook to another long queen move, and he winning one game in a dozen moves with his Knight on g5, and his Queen taking on h7 mate.

So we were both 2-2 after four rounds, and while he was done for the day, I had one more game in the evening, but this time it was a slow game.  I was ready - slow games are where I excel, or so I thought.

Robert N. Bernard (1449) - Vincent A. Decesaris (1352)

2010 Philadephia Open (Under-1500 Section)
Round 5
3 April 2010
In this position, I completely hallucinated. I played 36.f4, which loses.  I had calculated that after 36...bxa5 37. bxa5 that is was my move again, and I could play 38. Kc4, preventing his King from penetrating to the a-pawn, and with my reserve of tempo-moves with my pawns on the kingside, I would win.  I forgot, of course, that Black also gets to move, and he played 37...Kb5 winning my a-pawn.

When it was completely hopeless (as opposed to just regularly hopeless), I resigned.  I just wanted to go up to my room and go to bed.  But I couldn't, since we weren't in the hotel.  But the walk outside in the cool Philadelphia evening was refreshing.  Even more refreshing was walking into the hotel room, and seeing the joy in eyes of my two boys, since no one was stopping them from jumping on the bed.

On the second day, my wife and younger son were off to museums, while Jaron and I were playing.  In his Under-1000 section, they were still playing at G/40, but my section was into the long time controls.  I would have to keep an eye on my son after his games finished, even if my game was still ongoing.

But in the end, it really didn't matter.  His first game (a win for him) took all of five minutes, and he was content walking around the vendors and the skittles area.  I lost, again, and finally determined that I just trust that the discussions my son and I have had about personal responsibility, safety, and courtesy would work, and he would comport himself as the fine young man he already is.  He won two more and lost one on that second day, while I lost both my games.  He finished at 4-3, raising his rating almost 100 points.

At the conclusion of the tournament, with my measly two wins and five losses, my son said, "Don't worry about it, Dad.  You were rusty, and you'll do better next time if you keep up your practicing."  Somehow, hearing what I've said to him several times repeated back to me was oddly comforting.  At least I knew the life lessons he's been learning through chess - including the fact that consistent work eventually pays off if you persevere - have gotten through to him effectively. 

Indeed, that's when I realized why I was here at Philadelphia.  When your child demonstrates wisdom and compassion derived from life lessons you've imparted to them, you know that the tribulations of parenting are ultimately fuel for unsurpassed joy.

Over the next few years, my son's rating will surpass mine, and he will smile and nod as he watches his father continue to hallucinate, miscalculate, and misevaluate positions, as he steadily climbs the ratings ladder.  It will be a poignant moment, indeed.  And then when we return to Philadelphia, maybe, just maybe, my son will glance across the tournament room at me struggling against the other players in the lower sections, and wonder how I'm doing.

More chess action comes to the Philadelphia area with the Philadelphia International (June 25-29) and the World Open (June 29-July 5).

For more by chess dads, see Mark Schein's latest piece from the Chicago Open. Also check out Chess Child, Gary Robson's new book on GM and reigning US Junior Champion Ray Robson. 

June - Chess Life Online 2010

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