I played in my second chess tournament this weekend. It didn’t go well.
My first competition was in December. That one went much better.
In typical fashion, I showed up an hour early. I was the first one there. I met the head of the Waldorf Chess Club and we chatted about chess and sandwiches.
The other players piled in and we got sectioned into quads: groups of four. We would play each person in our quad once for a total of three rounds. I took math in college so I put this together quickly.
To spoil the whole thing, I lost all three of my games.
Here’s how each of them went:
Neck and neck until he ruined my pawn structure (weakened my position). Beat me in the endgame because of my bad position.
I tried to be crazy flashy and sacrificed two pieces for a fancy checkmate. I miscalculated and was then just down two pieces.
A super even game that went down to the last few minutes. He was up a pawn and used that to beat me in a King and pawn endgame.
Here’s what I took from all this.
But it is valuable. For many reasons.
After a strong performance in my first tournament, I thought I was hot shit. I needed to be humbled to snap back to reality. Mom’s spaghetti.
As I learned in Brazilian Jiujitsu, being humbled, getting your ass kicked…It makes us kinder and more patient people. It gets us out of our heads. It destroys our egos. Our wellbeing stems not from our success, but our willingness to grow.
Only when our armor is damaged can we begin to make repairs to it. Otherwise we just walk around thinking we’re invincible.
I barely remember the winning moves I made during my first tournament. But the losing moves in this last one are engrained in my psyche. I can envision them right now as I’m typing this.
It’s an unfortunate truth, but losing is the best (only) way to get better at chess. That’s probably true in any endeavor: business, relationships, instruments.
When I meet with my chess coach next, we’ll have plenty to analyze.
The people I played this weekend were much stronger than those I played in December. It was a reminder that I must consistently go against better players.
The first competition pumped me up to improve at chess. It was a Winning is fun! I want to do more of it kind of motivation. This one energized me even more. But this time it’s a Losing is awful! I want to do less of it sort of thing.
The losing will never stop. It’s part of leveling up. It’s out of my control.
The only thing I can control is what these losses mean for me.
It was one of my favorite days ever. Not because of any result, which I’ll get into. But because of how fun the experience was. Let me explain.
1) I got to spend the day doing something I love with one of my best friends.
We got there an hour early. That’s my style. For any event, I’d rather be an hour early than a minute late.
We settled in, validated my parking in the Hilton garage, and prepared.
My buddy brought a couple books and his laptop to do some last-minute studying. I took a different approach.
Since the hotel was right across the street from the Johns Hopkins campus, I took a 30-minute stroll. It was gorgeous.
I walked past their cafeteria, quad, sporting facility, as well as the largest gym I think I’ve ever seen.
I wasn’t thinking about chess at all. I was meditating over how cool it was to finally be competing in this thing I fell in love with over the past year.
It was refreshing to clear my head. I didn’t think twice about not doing any last-minute studying.
Before a big fight, a reporter went into the locker room to find Floyd Mayweather playing Xbox. He said, “Aren’t you going to warm up for the bout?”
Floyd glanced over and smiled. “If I’m not ready by now, I’m not ready.”
Yes, I compare my chess playing to the greatest boxer ever. But that’s how it felt. I was as ready as I could be. And that made me feel totally present as I floated by those Hopkins students.
2) We got to nerd-out with other chess peeps.
This tournament broke the Baltimore record for the largest private chess competition. There were 96 registered players. 51 were competing in my section.
Everyone was so kind. Between rounds, we could see almost every table in the lobby with a chessboard on it and people analyzing their last game or playing blitz.
It was cool to know that everyone in the room enjoyed chess so much that they too signed up to play in a tournament.
There were four rounds (games). We had a 30 to 60-minute break between rounds to eat, chat, and chill. Then the next pairings would post and we’d make our way to our tables.
For more than half of the players, it was also their first tournament.
Each round, you got paired up against someone with the same record as you. That way one would hopefully play people closer to their skill level. It also meant that each round got harder…and more fun.
3) I played well.
My first game was against a 13-year-old kid. I felt bad.
He was clearly newer to chess and I obliterated him. Starting out with a win boosted my confidence but I didn’t want to get complacent and expect each round to be that easy.
My friend lost his first game, unfortunately. He got paired against a pretty good player.
In Round 2, I got placed with another player who was 1-0. He was a super nice 20-year-old who drove down with his two buddies from Harrisburg, PA.
He was much better than my first opponent. But over time, I was able to chip away at his kingside, win his Queen, and be up so much material that he eventually resigned.
I could see him get visibly frustrated with himself during our game. We shook hands and wished each other well for the remaining two rounds. My buddy also won his game.
I was most nervous for Round 3 since I assumed my opponents would only be getting better. I was correct.
My third opponent was a calm and quiet guy with long hair. It was also my first game with the black pieces, which meant I moved second.
That was one of the most intense games I’ve ever played. I pressed him, then he pressed me, then I broke through. Then he blundered a piece. I was winning. My heart was pounding. Then…I blundered a piece! We got back to an even game and he got me in a perpetual check. We agreed to a draw.
I was kicking myself a little for not converting a won game. But I was mostly just happy I didn’t lose. A draw is .5 points. I was 2.5/3. My buddy, who lost his third game, was 1/3.
For whatever reason, this was the first game where I wasn’t nervous. Maybe it was because I was exhausted. We got there at 10am and it was now 4:30pm.
The guy was talkative and kind. I thought he would be my toughest opponent. But I won his Queen in 11 moves.
After that, I started trading pieces and chipping away at his defenses. I had checkmate in two so he resigned. He was pissed.
I felt bad because we were the first ones done out of 26 games. I was relieved to be finished and thrilled I didn’t lose a game.
I finished 3.5/4. My friend won his last game to go 2/4.
What this means.
To my surprise, I got third place out of 51 players. That obviously felt good.
It also means I now have a professional record in chess. I have a provisional rating of about 1400. That’s like a rating with an asterisk.
Once I play 25 games (21 to go), I’ll have my actual rating.
Last night, I signed up for my next tournament—The 59th Annual Baltimore Open. It’s next month and the players should be quite good.
But for now, I’m celebrating a phenomenal start to my chess career. I played well, got some hardware, and had a blast with my good friend.
Last summer over quarantine, one of my best friends and I started playing chess together online.
It was just something competitive we could do while trapped in our homes.
I knew how to play from years prior, but had never taken the time to learn the game’s basic principles, strategies, or tactics. Now, I had a mission—a purpose.
To beat my buddy.
He was better than I was so the bitter taste of defeat was a powerful motivator to improve. My ELO (rating) was around 900.
We got super into it for a few months until I fell out of love with the game entirely. I looked at a board and couldn’t care less what happened on it.
Then I, along with 62 million other folks, watched Queen’s Gambit.
The show single-handedly increased awareness and interest in chess tenfold around the world. Chessboard sales skyrocketed. Chess streamers and commentator channels had enormous boosts in their following. I was a part of all these statistics.
Then something strange happened which improved my chess skills tremendously.
I got Covid.
For the first time since starting my own business, I took a week off and did nothing but order DoorDash and play chess. Five to ten hours a day.
My rating went up 100 points in four days.
Since then, I’ve played consistently online, read books, analyzed games, hired chess tutors, and spent hours watching my favorite YouTubers go over games and teach. Here’s my rating in 2021:
Today, that same friend and I are playing in our first over-the-board tournament in Baltimore.
I’m excited and proud of how far we’ve come in a year. I’m nervous to lose to an 11-year old kid. And I’m grateful to share one of my passions with one of my closest friends.
We play five games in six hours. It’ll probably be exhausting…but I’m so pumped.
On Monday, I’ll post about how it went and what I learned from the experience.