2009: A Chess Odyssey....or By The Time I get to Nashville
By GM Joel Benjamin   
April 13, 2009
GM Joel Benjamin, Photo Elizabeth Vicary, August 2008
GM Joel Benjamin switches off from answering your questions to blog on SuperNationals IV. Keep the questions coming to [email protected] for future columns. Look for a future blog on the 2009 U.S. Championship, in which Joel is one of 24 contenders.

Nashville is a nice enough town, and the Gaylord Opryland is a sight to behold, though a bit too spread out for my taste.  But I would rather not go there, for a simple reason:  You can’t get there from here.

There aren’t enough direct flights from the New York airports to accommodate the vast number of parents and kids coming from NYC.  [And I’ll only fly from JFK or LaGuardia if it’s a life or death situation]  But when you have connecting flights, disaster is just around the corner.  Last time I ended up overnighting in Cincinnati (Northern Kentucky, to be accurate) after missing my connection.  [The plane was actually at the gate when I arrived, but they wouldn’t reopen the doors]  So this year I made sure to fly earlier in the day, so when I missed my connection I could still catch a flight later in the day.

When I got to the Delta gate area in Newark, I was a bit surprised to see a total of zero Delta agents manning the desks.  I checked my flight status on my I-phone and found it was delayed an hour and a half.  So I went over to the two Northwest agents on the other side of the room (they are apparently the slightly more industrious half of that corporate merger).  They couldn’t access the Delta computers, but they told me to knock on the door at the Delta Club room.

Inside, an agent was happy to re-ticket me, but it turned out the later Cincinnati-Nashville flight was completely full.  So much for my grandmasterly planning.  But she did have an idea.  There was a 1:00 flight to Atlanta (even earlier than my original flight) and a connecting flight that would get me to Nashville about the same time as scheduled.  It was delayed ten minutes at that point, which certainly seemed to be no big deal.

There was one detail she neglected to mention.  Down in Atlanta people were constructing arks for the deluge.  The weather was so bad that no one in their right mind would travel through there if they had any choice.

Unsurprisingly, the plane didn’t leave until three, which meant I missed my connection anyway.  After unsuccessfully trying to re-ticket or find out about later connections, I got on the plane so late that the overhead compartments were full.  I begged them not to make me check my bag, which had all my clothes in it.  I didn’t know what flight would bring me to Nashville, and I feared I would never see my suitcase again.  No dice.  So I bid my bag goodbye and got on the plane.

  When we touched down in Atlanta (after circling for half an hour) my connection was long gone, and the next flight out would be pretty tight.  So I sped off to the gate.  The 5:35 was delayed until 6:05 (officially), so I had a shot.

At the gate I was re-ticketed for a 7:30 am flight. [That was not going to happen; I would have been responsible for my own hotel, too!]  I was put on standby and waited, while other travelers were talking about a tornado in Nashville (the danger had passed by then, fortunately).

I spotted a man and a little red-haired boy with a chess bag.  Brilliantly deducing that they were also headed for the chess tournament, I found out that young Sean Sidi went to Hunter, the New York powerhouse and major rival of my own Columbia Grammar.  People were telling us it was about 200 miles to Nashville, so Sean’s dad Ziv and I started to talk about renting a car to drive there.  Hey, if David Wright and Derek Jeter can play together on the U.S. team, Hunter and CGPS can team up as well.  But we waited to see if we got on the plane.

I could hardly believe it, but we all got boarding passes.  So many of the passengers couldn’t make it to Atlanta that there were plenty of seats available.  I sat next to a woman who was happy to give me the aisle seat.  Perhaps we would all be in a good mood soon.  I phoned me wife and gave her the good news.

Alas it was not to be.  After sitting in the plane for a while we were informed the flight was cancelled.  The little bullet plane was deemed unsafe in the bad weather.  I texted my wife:  “flight cancelled, the saga continues.”  So we were off to the next gate to see about the 8:07, which was at least a full size plane.  But the chances didn’t look too good for getting on it.

We found a mad scene at the gate.  At least 70 passengers were on the standby list, and we could not easily ascertain if we were even among them.  The plane was also quite delayed (which made empty seats even more unlikely, as their occupants had more time to get to Atlanta).  We would have to wait a long time and likely still be stuck in Atlanta.

By now a cabal had formed, and escape plans were well under way.  Two other "strandees" joined forces with us:  Janie, a young historian headed for a conference, and Monte, a businessman and prospective author with plans to go hunting in the morning.  We eventually decided we were fed up enough to ditch the airport, and headed down to the rental counters.  For me, there was the added uncertain reunion with my suitcase, but I was beyond caring by now.

Something amazing happened then.  EVERYTHING GOT BETTER.  It was as if we left the accursed grounds of the airport and were free to live in happiness.

Monte was willing to drive the rental back to Atlanta after the weekend, but he negotiated a deal for a one-way rental.  The five of us piled into a Camry and got on the road.  Monte offered to do all the driving; the way the rain was coming down it was hard to argue with him.  Besides, Sean was unwilling to do any driving, claiming it was illegal, or something.

A four-hour drive affords much opportunity for conversation, and our discussions went way out there.  Ziv is, as I understood him (I fear I will not do him justice here), a sound engineer with extensive experience in many aspects of film production.  His documentary work enabled him to speak with authority about Hopi Indians and the history of alchemy.  He also apparently had early business interests in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it would be better to let him explain that story.

Monte had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the bible, being the rare person who believes you shouldn’t go around telling people what’s in the bible if you haven’t actually read it.  [His life story was pretty incredible, but I don’t want to get too off track here] At one point, I listened to three passengers speaking intelligently about the history and culture of American Indians…I remember thinking, somewhat overwhelmed by it all, maybe Sean would like to talk with me about baseball?

Anyway, whatever life philosophy you might have, it was easy to wonder if we were put in that car for a reason.  Maybe the reason will be revealed years from now, who knows.

[Meanwhile, other chess families were having similar experiences.  A Columbia parent, mindful of my Cincinnati experience, re-ticketed from New York to Knoxville, after learning it was the airport closest to Nashville.  There she drove to the tournament with another family.]
After dropping off Janie at her hotel in Murfreesboro, we pulled into the Gaylord about two a.m. and finally put little Sean to bed. He turned out none the worse for the wear, contributing a healthy 5-2 score to the third-place Hunter team in the K-3 under 800.

Checking in myself, I asked, without much hope, if there was any chance I could get a room with two beds.  There was one way, the clerk told me.  I could have a handicapped room—the beds are lower and there’s a place to sit in the shower, but otherwise it’s completely standard.  My Columbia colleague Nelson Dunn was happy he didn’t have to sleep in the tub.

Monte also left a bag behind on the trip, so we drove back to the airport.  I decided not to drop off my computer bag in the room and head straight out.  We parked, made our way to baggage claim and found the baggage clerk.  “Check if your bags are here,” she said.  “A flight just came in from Atlanta.”  We scooped up our luggage just as the clerk announced the office was closing in ten minutes.  That’s how close we came to seeing our bags stay in their own hotel for the night.  [And Monte had to drive another two hours to Charlotte, Tennessee]

Getting there did not bring everyone freedom from logistical problems.  Our neighbors in the Horace Mann room, grandmasters John Fedorowicz and Nick de Firmian, had their own comedy routine going.  John was perfectly happy, as he told everyone, to sleep on a cot, but Nick found a room with two beds to switch to.  He then started moving gear to the new room.  John’s doctor had advised him to try to avoid stress, a difficult prospect at such a tournament.  He plopped down on a couch outside the team room, lamenting to all who passed by, that Nick forgot to pack his clothes and was trying to kill him.

Later it transpired that the new room was already occupied, ironically, by a Horace Mann family.  The hotel naturally gave away the old room, leaving the dynamic duo temporarily homeless.  At which point John went back to his perch and complained about Nick checking them out of the hotel.  [They got their room eventually]

Joel's son Aidan, was happy that his delay back to NYC was not as long as his trip to Nashville.
Of course, many kids, parents, and coaches put up with their own travel nightmares for the pleasure of participating in this, or any nationals.  Once it’s over you can look back and laugh.

I kept my sense of humor on the trip home when my flight from Atlanta was delayed for three hours, this time due to bad weather in Newark.  After all, it gave me the chance to watch the entire Mets opener, a 2-1 win over Cincinnati.  I guess there is always a silver lining.

Over 5200 players attended the SuperNationals in Nashville (April 3-5). Living legend Garry Kasparov and astronaut Greg Chamitoff spoke at the opening ceremonyCheck the final results, MSA rated results , the official website and the video contest page. Also on CLO: Jennifer Shahade's event wrap-up , Macauley Peterson's interview with GM Yury Shulman , an interview with GM Alexandra Kosteniuk and a Parent's Perspective, Part I and Part II.