Hilton Blogs from Chicago
By Jonathan Hilton   
May 25, 2008
Jonathan Hilton.
Photo Elizabeth Vicary, April 08
After three rounds of the Chicago Open (May 23-26), I've reached this simple and perhaps unenlightening conclusion: the more I calculate, the better I play. I started down the path to formulating this simple statement in Round 1 on Friday night, when I was paired with one of my boyhood idols, GM Varuzhan Akobian. From the opening moves, I had that feeling of being so scared of my top-notch opponent that I calculated everything, without exception, as fast and as accurately as I could. I didn't want to lose to some magical Akobian ten-move-tactic, or even an obvious two- or one-mover.

The intensity of my calculations paid off. I chose to play the Grünfeld with the Black pieces, an opening I've been playing for a long time, and equalized quickly in the opening. I pushed myself to look further and further each move, to the point where I was seeing about ten ply ahead in all different directions. My reasoning was that if I could just see everything he saw, I wouldn't lose. Soon, I was building an initiative on the queenside in a typical Grünfeld endgame. Then a small miracle happened. I actually out-calculated the strong GM and went up the exchange! After the game, Akobian confirmed he had simply missed 19...Bb5, a retreat that destroys White's coordination. 

Once up the exchange, however, my ability to see ten ply ahead suddenly vanished. The endgame position seemed simple enough, and at the very least I ought to have been holding a draw. I had to make 20 more moves or so to reach the time control and had about forty minutes; I felt it was more important to try to play obvious moves than to calculate. Wrong! The instant I stopped calculating more than two or three moves ahead, I brought a great positional tragedy to the world: 26...f6?? Suddenly, Akobian scooped up all my kingside pawns an annihilated me with his two bishops. I fought awkwardly to coordinate some sort of defense, but I put all my pieces on bad squares. This included the king, which spectacularly walked into a mating net by charging all the way to e4. 


Had I only calculated the consequences of my actions on move 26, I could easily have seen a few variations in which my kingside pawns were weak. I might not have seen Akobian's exact move-order, but I would have at least seen that after 26...h6!, the correct defense according to Akobian, White has no way to break through and the game should be a draw. Kudos to Akobian for his rock-solid technique, practical play under fire, and-most of all-sportsmanlike attitude. 

After this game, the difference between looking several moves ahead and just throwing out whatever move looks good should have been utterly obvious. However, the worst was yet to come. After having a hard-fought draw with my now twelve-year-old friend Expert Srikar Varadaraj in the morning, I went on to play against A-player Paul Fricano Saturday night. Without calculating, I played instantly a grave positional blunder as early as move twelve! (Instead of 12.e3?, White should obviously play 12.dxe6 en passant.)


Within ten moves of this, Mr. Fricano had destroyed my entire kingside pawn cover and had a clearly won game. In an ironic role-reversal, however, I soon began calculating about ten ply again; Mr. Fricano, about 4-5 ply. Soon I found myself up three minor pieces for a rook. Then the roles switched again, and I missed a two-mover, losing one of my pieces. Finally, once the time control had safely been reached, the roles switched a final time. My opponent fortunately missed some easy opportunities to sacrifice his rook for my bishop on e6 and have strong middlegame compensation; instead, we wound up going into an endgame, in which I finally defeated him. Mr. Fricano was a great sport after the game and handled the disappointment like a true gentleman. The game was a wild ride, but I think by now I have learned my lesson: calculate, calculate, calculate, and only then will I be able to play strong moves.  

Meanwhile, some of this country's top players have been playing those strong moves for themselves-and winning games. IM Josh Friedel, who earned his final GM norm at the US Open, defeated top-seed Hikaru Nakamura in Round 2. Friedel lost to GM Atanas Kolev, a solid 2600+ player, in Round 3, but is still on track to get the 10 FIDE rating points he needs to clinch his GM title. 


The 3-0 crowd at the Chicago Open is down to three: GMs Mitkov, Kolev, and Yermolinsky. The action will pick up today as these three GMs face off with each other and other top GMs from around the country. Be sure to check the official website for updates, and check monroi.com for live games.

GM Yury Shulman stands with 2.5/3.0. Shulman, who was seeded 4th in this astonishingly tough field, has had some close games but has continued to prove why he is our newly-crowned US Champion. Endgame technique has been especially important for Shulman, who ground out both NM Seth Homa in Round 1 and IM Mark Ginsburg in Round 3 from rook endgame advantages.


IM Jacek Stopa managed to hold Shulman to a draw in Round 2, and then managed a draw against the 2700+ player GM Tigran Petrosian.


While the grand prize at this tournament is ten grand, Expert and Master-level chess players have been winning money here in Chicago at a different kind of game. No, there's no casino at this hotel, like at Foxwoods. What we do have, however, are economic scientists in need of willing volunteers.

The road to earning my own wad of cash began on Saturday morning before the noon round. A college student with a clipboard approached me and began speaking softly. Unable to make out his precise words, I thought I'd give him a hand. "Oh, it's a petition!" I exclaimed. I was surprised when he simply asked if I was rated over 2000. "Definitely," I said. He told me I was eligible to participate in a University of Chicago economics research study and earn a considerable amount of money. I've always liked scientists, particularly when they pay me, so I was more than eager to help. 

The scientists had me sit down at a table and play a mathematical pattern game against an unseen opponent in another room. I was told that if I won, I would receive ten dollars, and the game began. Normally, I wouldn't put up such a fight for ten dollars in cash. However, the problem was that I had actually run out of cash in my wallet just before the tournament, and hadn't had time to replenish much of it. The ten bucks would really come in handy if I needed to buy a snack during my noon round. I calculated fiercely with the numbers in my head, turning them this way and that, to achieve my mathematical objectives. I vanquished my first opponent. I was then told I would play a second game, with slightly different rules. If I won, I'd receive another ten dollars. Although in hindsight I definitely had some easier ways to win the second game, I fought like a madman. Calculation again paid off, and I won the second game. I filled out a survey afterwards and pocketed $20.00 in cash. I'm looking forward to trying out some of their other mathematical puzzles today, for even greater profits; the rumor circulating around the playing floor now is that one GM won $276, the maximum amount, yesterday afternoon.

In other news, ever since I started blogging at Foxwoods, I've been asking chess players for good quotations. It works something like this: a reader approaches me, says something kind about my articles, and I ask if he or she has anything to say to the world. Although I've asked at least a dozen persons this question, it was only yesterday that one person actually came up with something printable. Expert Troy Daly of Florida told me yesterday, "It's a great tournament." I know it may not sound like much of a quote, but I thought I'd use it to conclude this piece, since I think it's true. After duking out the first three rounds of the Chicago Open, I think it is a good tournament. I'm facing off with GM Sharavdorj today in Round 4, so wish me luck!