After coming home from the the Washington International Chess tournament, I was headed out again a couple of days later. This time it was to Toronto for the North American Youth Chess Championship from Aug 14 to 18. Normally I wouldn’t play these type of “Continental Youths,” for there is a significant rating risk as most players are lower-rated. Consequently there is a higher level of stress round-after-round, all for not that much a significant enough Chess title or prize. But this time, Canadian organizer Francis Rodriguez and his team were able to convince FIDE to award an International Master (IM) Chess title to the winner of the top age group U18 section – a grand prize. That’s a highly coveted Chess title, and it got my attention 🙂 There were many other Chess norm prizes and other titles sprinkled too for various categories. But the IM title was the biggest. So this North American Youth changed from being just another event to something special. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so. You should’ve seen the entry list balloon, within a matter of a few days of this announcement. Kudos to the organizers to get FIDE to approve the Chess titles and norms, and with over 350 players in various sections, this was I believe the largest North American Youth Chess Championship ever.
My support team and I (Dad and brother this time, since my mother had to leave in the midst of the Washington International for a family emergency to travel to India) took the noon flight from Newark on Porter Airlines, which arrived at around 2 pm in Toronto. The round was at 7pm, later that Wednesday. A slight digression here – I’d just like to say, that Porter may as well be the best airlines I’ve ever traveled on! They have a lounge at each of their terminals with free WiFi, complimentary refreshments, and a meal onboard 🙂 How great is that! As the plane approached it’s landing, I marveled at a beautiful island and the azure waters surrounding the Billy Bishop Airport.
Once we landed at the Toronto city airport on a clear, bright day, we took the ferry to reach the mainland and then made our way to downtown Toronto to finally reach our destination – the playing venue and hotel, “Chestnut Residence.” When I arrived at the Hotel, I figured I can rest for a couple of hours for the evening round. But that was not to be. After standing in line for about 30 minutes at the busy front-desk, we got a room which was not even cleaned after the last occupants. We trooped back downstairs, and were given another room 15 minutes later. We gingerly entered the room, and it all looked fine. A few minutes later, the bathroom started overflowing . We also realized that one of the main lights in the bedroom wasn’t working, and so in the evening the room will be half-dark. This was upsetting. We called up front-desk, and they offered to send a maintenance person right away instead of exchanging rooms. Well, 30 minutes later the person showed up. He fixed the bathroom, but fixing the light fixture was a different story. It required all kinds of wire changes and nearly an hour to fix. It was almost 6:30 pm now. Dismissing thoughts of a rest, I headed downstairs for the tournament.
The place reminded me of the SuperNational’s playing hall, which brought back pleasant memories. In the first round, I was Black, playing David Itkin (2021 FIDE) from Canada. Emerging from the opening with a time advantage, I aimed to build on that with some board advantage as well :). David decided to sacrifice a pawn, but it wasn’t very effective. All I had to do was consolidate and be careful of any Kingside tricks. I played Qxa2 and as I wrote down my move it hit me that I had blundered. I tried to put on a poker face, but the winning move was too obvious. Surely enough he played Bc5, the decisive blow. Panic overtook me. I had set out with high hopes to win something special, and here I was struggling with someone rated 300 points below me. I played on, but the final result was inevitable from that point on. 1-0 for him. I had started off with 0/1. It was shocking.
There was no room for error now. I figured a winning score for the Title would be 7.5/9. Well, I’d just made my job a lot harder. I’d now have to score at least 7.5 out of the last 8 rounds if I wanted to have a shot at the title.
As we got back to our room after dinner, we began to notice a tremor in the room and a whooshing sound. It was perplexing. Then we figured it out. Our room was right behind the entire bank of elevators. There were three elevators whooshing up and down the shaft right behind our room wall. This was so annoying and distracting. But we had no choice. We spent the night in discomfort, and I can tell you that Chestnut Residence is a busy place; for those elevators were going about their business all night. Whoosh!
Next morning on Thursday, Day 2, I won my second round with Aquino Inigo (2030 FIDE). Whew! It felt reassuring to know that I can win. I headed back to the room. My family had already switched rooms and this one was to the side of the elevator bank. So still some noise, but not the ruckus from the night before.
In the afternoon round I was paired with Olivier Kenta (2127 FIDE). There was a point in the game where I avoided trades as I felt it would decrease my winning chances. I opted for something inferior instead, but was unable to come up with a constructive plan afterwards. Olivier’s h-pawn attack was powerful, and after some nonsensical moves from my side, I was forced to resign. I was shocked and devastated. I’d been completely swept off the board. The hope of winning the U-18 title and becoming an IM was dashed and I was now struggling to stay above 2300 FIDE rating, having lost a sizable 24 points after three rounds. The online broadcast by Monroi got the board and result wrong, and showed me winning. It was quite a shock to my family when they learnt that the outcome was painfully different than what was being shown on Monroi.
Time stood still. I was completely torn apart, and in mental anguish. The constant thought of my failure swirled through my head and was an agonizing dose of reality. I couldn’t turn away from it. I was living the misery. I couldn’t believe I was bowing out so tamely from the quest for the Title. Without a whimper! The typical instinctive thoughts of Fight or Flee flooded through my mind. Since there was not much to play for now, my father started making backup plans in case we choose to withdraw. The airlines, the hotel, the tournament organizers, all had to be coordinated and approved. It was possible to withdraw without breaking the bank.
The decision was now mine. This was a hard one. My uninspired performance so far only suggested that I will end up losing more FIDE rating points. At the same time, I had come to play for the Title and it was hard to pull away even if the hopes of winning it had experienced an untimely end. If I left, the door would be closed. If I continued, I could try to earn back some of the FIDE points. But most important, I had to learn to play through a tournament even in psychologically the most adverse circumstances. An inner voice told me I should finish the tournament. Hope continued to linger in the darkest moments. For me, I had to salvage some pride, and if possible rating points. But most important I’d to try till the end. I had to learn to hold my ground and make the best of the worst situation.
Once I decided to see this through, there wasn’t much to do in the room. Although our room had troubles with the elevators, it had a great view of downtown Toronto. From our room, we would watch the fountain square with its own concert stage and pretty buildings all around. We decided to go for a walk to the lively centro. The experience was enjoyable and at least I forgot about my troubles for some time. My brother was out to have some fun, and he kept me entertained.
Upon returning back to the room, doubts crept back into my mind if I’d made the right decision. But it was too late for that. It had all become fairly straight forward for me. I now had to go into each round knowing that I had to Win. There was no Draw option for me anymore. The tournament outcome was no longer in my control. I’d dug myself into a nice hole.
After a restless night, it was on to Friday, Day 3 of the tournament. I managed to notch up 2 wins against Canadians, Guangyu Song (unrated) and Mike Ivanov (2080 FIDE) on Day 3. This was my first day without a loss. The wins put me at 3/5, a full 1.5 points behind the leaders. After rounds in the afternoon and evening, we went out for a long walk to the fountain square. It became a ritual and we looked forward to the exercise. It was easier today walking around and not thinking about Chess.
On to the penultimate day, Saturday, Day 4. The Round 6 was at 10am in the morning. I was playing White and paired with Nikita Kraiouchkine (2234 FIDE). It was more or less equal until he made a tactical blunder, allowing me to win two minor pieces for a rook. The win however was far from easy. After a few imprecise moves from my side, all the winning chances evaporated. I was forced to trade into a drawn endgame. There’s no way I can win now I thought. But luck was on my side and Nikita erred. I managed to capitalize on his small mistake and finished the game with a Win!
With three more rounds to go, Justus Williams was leading at this stage with 5.5/6, followed by Jarod Pamatmat (5), and Awonder Liang (5). Following them was a cluster of players on 4 points, including me. In the afternoon 7th round at 3pm, I got a double-white and was playing Joshua Colas (2206 FIDE) who had just come off a tough loss to Justus from a superior and most likely winning position. I found myself forced to go for simplifications and a Draw was inevitable. We reached the following Rook endgame: White: b5,Rf4,Kd3. Black: b7,d4,Kg7. Joshua’s King was cut off, so I had some hope. If Joshua had played the simple Rf7!, it would be impossible to win. But he played Rc7 ?!, Kxd4, Kg6 ??. I was able then to win his b7 pawn and create the neccessary “Lucena.” This was unbelievable! Two dead drawn games, and I’d managed to win to keep myself in the mix! Howsoever feeble the hopes were for a Title, I couldn’t have done anything more. Hope was being faintly rekindled. The tournament outcome was still not in my control. I just had to focus on my game, and find Wins.
The final day had approached. It was Day 5. The Sunday morning round was starting earlier at 8:30am. Justus Williams was storming ahead with 6.5/7, a full 1.5 points ahead of Jarod Pamatmat, Razvan Preotu, Awonder Liang and me. I’d moved into the second ranked group, but still 1 1/2 points separated this group from the leader. There were 2 rounds on the final day, and so 2 full points on the table to work for. All Justus needed was 1 more point on the last day, to seal the victory.
I was playing Black against Jarod Pamatmat in R8. Our previous encounter was at the US Junior Open qualifier, where I bungled a completely winning positon (+10) and ended up losing. It was time to not repeat careless mistakes and to even things up! Jarod sacrificed a pawn, which sharpened up the game. Good, I thought. The more complications, the better for me. The last thing I wanted was simplifications. I managed to fend off the attack and transition to a winning endgame. Despite having only a minute on my clock while Jarod had 3 minutes, I converted the position to a Win without any problems. No late mess up against Jarod this time. In the U18 section, ours was the last game of Round 8, and it carried on long till close to 1pm, when the final round was to start. Meanwhile on Board 1, Justus had earlier Drawn with Canadian Razvan. So Jusus had collected 1/2 point and still needed another 1/2 point for the Title. I was now in sole second, a point behind Justus, and the only one in a position to play the leader in the final round.
The final game acquired new meaning for me. For the first time since the tournament began, things were in my hands too. Lucky for me, the first tiebreak was a Direct or “head-to-head ” encounter. This meant if I beat Justus, I would win the tournament due to having a better direct encounter score! For all other outcomes, Justus would win. A Win would get me the Title. If Justus Won or Drew, he would win the title. It reminded me of the SuperNationals final game, although there I was in Justus’ position, and needed just a Draw to win the title.
Going into that final afternoon game I was facing a lot of emotions, I was anxious, but hopeful and excited at the same time! But there was a sense of calmness in all this too. For I reminded myself that this is what I had yearned for – a chance to play the leader. And after an absolutely disheartening start to the tournament, I’d won 5 straight games to earn the right to play for Title in the final round. Can I make it 6 games in a row?
There was a lot of interest in our game, since it was one of us who would win the Title. For all the buildup, it was a fairly undramatic game. The game was more or less equal until Justus played Nb4 ?. I saw the winning series of moves and felt a rush of adrenaline. Justus had missed that after he plays Nd3, I have Bc1! which wins on the spot. Shortly, he was forced to resign. It was a quick game. I felt sorry for Justus for he had played well and steady in the tournament. I was happy he still got his IM norm and an FM title. Well, as for me, I was in a trance! I’d just stormed back from 1 out of 3, to win the tournament with 7 out of 9! I had walked in a Fide Master (FM). And I was going to walk out an International Master (IM). The chief organizer, Francis Rodriguez, immediately congratulated me and let me know that I was an IM now 🙂 That was sheer joy! I couldn’t wait to share the news with my father and brother. Francis walked me out and told my father that I’m an IM now and the North American Youth Champion in U18 section. Thanks Francis, for your compliments and a wonderfully conducted tournament! For me, this tournament was a miracle. I didn’t throw in the towel after R3. I persisted even though hope had flickered away, and fought for whatever little there was left to fight for. So my fellow players, “It ain’t over, till the fat lady sings. ” 🙂
I don’t know what worked for me from Day 3 onwards. I don’t even know if I can replicate it. All I know was that I didn’t wish to Abort and Return. I wanted to Play on. You can call it grit or determination or even fool’s luck. At that time, it was just doing what I love to do – play chess and get through the day without hurting myself. Maybe that’s how champions are made. But whatever the decision in such hard situations, it has to be yours. Often times you’ve to just follow your heart, even when the mind calculates it’s a risky proposition with no rewards. It’s just the love of the game that keeps us coming back to the board, for there doesn’t appear to be much else there. If I was logical on Day 2, I would have been heading home.
After the round, we went to the top of the hotel building to the viewing gallery. With a beautiful backdrop of Toronto, for the first time in many days I smiled without a care and took a swig of Coca Cola. Boy, did it taste real sweet 🙂
Enjoy the pictures of the tournament, and the beautiful city of Toronto! There are no pictures of the actual chess rounds, but pictures of the numbing Day 2 and subsequent days. My face on different days, tells the entire story. On Wednesday, October 02, 2013, FIDE changed my title on their official site to International Master. It’s now IM Akshat Chandra. But you can still call me Akshat 🙂