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Nicky and Melinda’s Tournament Adventures Print E-mail
By Melinda J. Matthews   
May 4, 2011
The Prelude
A funny thing happened on the way to the chess tournament.

If Nicky and I were fanatic believers in signs and omens, we would have turned around and high-tailed it for home mere hours into what became our seventeen-hour road trip.  Late on Tuesday night, while traversing an isolated stretch of Florida highway, my car hydroplaned.  For the longest few moments of my life, I completely lost control – of the car, and, it felt, of our fates.  I could do nothing except clutch the steering wheel as we swerved and slid and careened across three traffic lanes.

Miraculously, the tires finally connected solidly to the ground without us crashing into the construction median wall to the left, tipping into the ditch to the right, or side-swiping another car.

We pressed onward to Gainesville (FL), carefully and queasily (me), where we planned to spend the night.

Couch Surfing and the Swarm

As part of our ongoing struggle to keep tournaments affordable, we recently became card-carrying couch surfers.  This is a wonderful organization in which members open their houses to others all over the world to share not only their homes, but also their lifestyles and cultures (www.couchsurfing.org).  I first learned about couch surfing from Gary Robson at the 2010 Grade Nationals, where he and his son, GM Ray Robson, were signing copies of Gary’s book, Chess Child, a warm and absorbing account of Ray’s journey to becoming America’s youngest Grandmaster.  As Gary enthusiastically explained couch surfing, which he had touched on briefly in his book, Nicky and Ray engaged in a multi-hour, epic blitz battle.  By the time the boys concluded their blitz matches (only because the bookstore closed), I was sold on the concept.

Our Gainesville hosts, a family of three with an oboe-playing daughter Nicky’s age, were welcoming and generous.  Quite unexpectedly, they offered us an entire house, nestled cozily in a lushly wooded lot, which had recently been vacated by the host’s mother.  The downside: lushly wooded in Florida translates into heavily mosquitoed.  As soon as we opened the front door, the little blood-suckers swarmed us.  And thus began the great mosquito-mashing escapade.  It was oddly fun, a bonding experience between families as we swatted and smashed together, attempting to whack mosquitoes forcefully without accidentally smacking a person.  I tried not to think about the karmic price we might pay later for massive mosquito-cide.

And after the hydroplaning incident, this odd thought crossed my mind briefly, harkening back to my childhood biblical studies: Isn’t one of the plagues swarms of insects?  

Tornados, Hail and Thunder

Morning dawned clear and bright. We hit the road to Nashville, Nicky’s iPod blaring, singing and full of cheer.  As we approached the Tennessee border ahead of schedule, we impulsively decided to stop at an obvious tourist trap, BEAUTIFUL RUBY FALLS!, enticed by the extreme lurid cheesiness of the signs.

Traffic came to a standstill at the Chattanooga city limits.  The exit to BEAUTIFUL RUBY FALLS! was barricaded, police waving highway traffic away, their car lights flashing.  We were disappointed, but not concerned – yet.

Then we noticed the downed trees and how eerily grainy the light seemed.  Every road sign we passed had been bent, twisted and snapped in half.  Every exit was barricaded; the areas we traveled were darkened, without power.  Police presence was everywhere.  We nervously switched on the radio to find out what had happened, but we could not tune into a station.

Almost two hours later, we finally inched past the Chattanooga city limits, still puzzled, but moving freely at last through a clear patch of road in the gently rolling mountains.  Encouraged by the brighter skies, we even stopped to admire the scenery:

Tennessee Roadside Waterfall , Photo by Nicky Rosenthal
The sky ahead appeared oddly ominous, but I thought we were approaching a typical storm.

Then...Splat! We thought a rock had hit us.  But suddenly – splat-splat-splat-splat-splat – hard-driving hail was pelting our car with such force that we thought the windshield would break.  I couldn’t see.  I pulled over to the side of the road to wait out the storm, stomach in knots as insane truckers whizzed past us, rattling my tiny car.

When we made it to the Tennessee Welcome Center at last, we learned we had barely missed several tornados that had touched down in Chattanooga minutes before we’d arrived.  If we had left slightly earlier, hadn’t stopped for coffee, or driven a little faster, we’d have been directly in the tornados’ paths.  It seems we had dodged another bullet.

Based on everything we were told about the various storms’ locations, we chose to press onward to Nashville cautiously, crawling through bouts of severe rain, lightning and thunder, arriving in the midst of yet another heavy storm and downed traffic lights.

It was a far-from-auspicious start to a tournament weekend.  But the harrowing road trip did have a way of realigning our perspectives and putting our priorities in order.

And not to be paranoid, but yes, the thought again crossed my mind: Aren’t hail and thunder plagues as well?

Bughouse, Blitz and the Main Tournament

The Opryland area, including our lush and enormous host hotel, The Gaylord, had recently survived its own battle with yet another plague – floods – last year.  Opryland Mills, our usual nearby source for nourishment outside of the hotel walls, remained closed for renovation, but the hotel itself was up and running, seemingly without a hitch.  In fact, because of the flooding, all of our standard accoutrements were new, including expansively long tables that allowed all players to sit comfortably – no one straddling a table leg – and fresh tablecloths with a textured nap that prevented the boards from sliding.  These little touches make a huge difference in the comfort level for the players.

Nicky and I were not the only ones affected by the storms: Due to weather damage on the roads, the official boards and pieces did not arrive in time for us to set up prior to bughouse.  Spare sets were borrowed from the bookstore; the tournament began late with some players using their own sets.  Mere minutes after the tournament commenced, though, the truck bearing the supplies arrived.  From that point on, board set up for the entire tournament moved with lightning speed thanks to the able assistance of the Gilbert High School (AZ) chess team families and other volunteers who worked while their children played.

Despite the late start, the bughouse tournament moved along smoothly.  Nicky and his friend, Nick Thompson from Arizona, teamed up to capture fourth place in the tournament, falling to eventual champions, Ryan Christianson and Jeremy Paul, and splitting a round with the team of Nitai Leve and Emanuel Schorsch.  Nicky later met Nitai Leve in the main tournament, with that game ending in a draw. 
Nicky and Nick Thompson, color-coordinated bughouse partners

Later that evening, Nicky competed in the blitz tournament, tying for second place with 10.5/12, receiving the fourth place trophy on tiebreaks.  With two trophies already won before the main tournament began, it appeared as though our trials and travails were at last behind us.

Blitz awards ceremony, with Floor Chief Francisco Guadalupe

The main tournament was not without its own surprising dramas, including a medical emergency that was quickly resolved and which ended well.   Because I tend to notice quirky details, what caught my attention this time was the massive quantities of water consumed over the course of each round.  Hotel staffers were continually replenishing the coolers as they drained rapidly, with players following a soon-predictable pattern of pouring-sipping-walking-contemplating.  Of course, as a direct result, the bathroom breaks were frequent and non-stop as well, keeping the door monitors busy and alert.

Nicky, one of the rare players who eschewed the water cooler in favor of walking around checking out other games while thinking about his own, finished the main tournament with four wins, two draws, and one loss, tying for sixteenth place overall.

The Lure of the Blue Apron

“Chess on the cheap” has been the catchphrase in our lives for several years now, ever since I established a separate household on my single-parent income.  Somehow Nicky and I have yet to miss an important tournament – “yet” being the operative word – thanks to a combination of trade-offs, opportunities, kindnesses and sheer determination.

I did not sign on as an “official” volunteer for this tournament because, for the above-mentioned financial reasons, we opted to stay down the road at the far-cheaper Comfort Inn.  I did not want to be locked into volunteer duties in case Nicky needed to be driven back to the room between rounds.  I had overlooked one simple fact: Gone are days when Nicky played one-hour matches and he actually had time to unwind in the room between rounds.  Almost every one of Nicky’s games exceeded three hours, with a few pushing the time control limits.  In most cases, we barely had enough time to throw food in him before the next round began.

So it turned out I had plenty of time to volunteer.  And I did, for the lure of the blue apron eventually proved irresistible. 

Although I immediately sought out my friend, energetically irrepressible Volunteer Coordinator Tom Nelson, to offer my help as needed, I initially worked with Tom and his crew from the sidelines only.  I managed to remain incognito and apron-free until Round 3, when Tom asked me to don the apron to inform players and coaches that the pairings boards had been moved to the tournament hall.

From Round 3 forward, the blue apron and I were reunited for the remainder of the tournament.  The blue apron, it seems, has become my tournament destiny.

A Rant

My plague allusions (if that’s the proper literary term) reached an interesting conclusion when I incurred the wrath of...well, a figure who probably comes closest to being deified in the scholastic chess world: a chess coach. 
Round 7 began innocuously with a phone call from Tom Nelson asking if I could score-keep in the Championship section.  I donned my blue apron and raced to assist.
As the round progressed, a man came to my table repeatedly to lean over my shoulder and, without asking, to examine the score sheets.  Because I thought he was not directly affiliated with a school, I allowed him to look.  But I finally gave into my suspicions and asked if he was a coach, which he affirmed as he reached to take the score sheets from me.
I had been instructed: No coaches at the scoring table.  So I took back the score sheets, placed my hands on top of them, and told him I couldn’t allow him any more access unless all the other coaches were allowed access as well.
That’s when the fireworks began. 
This coach instantly exploded, heaping his vituperative rage on me personally and insultingly.  Fortunately for me, the tournament’s professional staff took note of our ongoing confrontation, questioned everyone involved and rallied to my side, vehement in their unified censure of the coach’s actions and behavior. 
And here I am going to hop on my soapbox. This coach, with his prima donna attitude and inconsiderate treatment, is sending a powerful, negatively-charged message to his team.  Coaches, above all, should hold themselves to the highest standard, one that includes good sportsmanship and consideration to others, both on and off the boards.  No one – not a coach, not anyone – has the given right to demand special dispensation or, especially, to belittle and demean others when they don’t get their way.  By feeling entitled to publicly berate a volunteer, this coach set a very poor example to his team and to the other players who witnessed the noisy proceedings – and his disturbing behavior.
Even if this coach could help Nicky achieve 200 rating points in one week, I would never, ever let Nicky anywhere near such a person, because ultimately, how people live their lives and how they treat others far supersedes mercurial ratings or tournament results.  Hyper-competitiveness will never trump simple human decency in my rulebook.
The coach began his tirade by asking huffily if I knew who he was.  My answer: No, and I really don’t care, because now I know exactly what he is.
End of rant.

The End...At Last

This was, personally, one of oddest tournaments I’ve ever attended, both inside and outside of the tournament hall.  In spite the vagaries of Nicky’s own tournament games, I am usually able to enjoy the proceedings on a different, more detached and upbeat level.  But the difficult road trip and the unexpected Round 7 harassment left a decidedly bittersweet aftertaste. 

I can’t complain, though: my standard tournament pleasures – reuniting with friends from around the country, working alongside some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, relishing the delight in Nicky’s face as he engages in manic blitz matches – remained unchanged.  For these reasons alone, the tournament, despite its unusual challenges, was worth the effort and expense.  And having a car available was an unexpected luxury.  Nicky and I even managed a side trip to downtown Nashville, home to hockey playoff contenders, the Nashville Predators.

In front of the Bridgestone Arena, home to the Nashville Predators

As we awaited the final standings results, though, word came down that new storm systems – and possibly more tornados – were heading our way.

That was it.  Even though Nicky wanted to stay to play blackjack with the Gilbert High team, I could hear the background music cueing: it was time to go.

We drove toward Atlanta under a dank and starless sky.  And then the phone call: turn on the radio, check out the breaking news and the President’s speech.

Oh yeah, it was quite a weekend.

Also see Shaun and Matan's wrap-up of the High School Nationals and the complete standings on the official site.

May - Chess Life Online 2011

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