Torment across the board

I thought I was a good player, until I tried Blitz chess for the first time.

blitz chess 298.88 (photo credit: )
blitz chess 298.88
(photo credit: )
Sweat pouring down my back, pupils dilated, hands trembling... you'd be forgiven for asking what drugs I was on, but all it took to put me in this highly stressed state was watching my third game implode on me. My temples throbbing, struggling to breathe in a controlled fashion, I petulantly smashed my king on its side, resigned and grudgingly accepted the proffered hand of my opponent. He was 10 years old. Welcome to the World Blitz Chess Championship. Four hundred contestants, including eight of the world's top 20 grandmasters, 13 rounds to be played over five hours - four minutes for each player to complete his moves. Not for the faint-hearted - or, as it turned out, for the complete amateur. My brief was to get myself to Heichal Hatarbut in Rishon Lezion, interview the contestants, watch from the sidelines, and come up with a Rolling Stone-type piece for the paper. But when I arrived and saw the queue for registration to play, I just couldn't resist. I was a decent schoolboy player in London, winning my borough championship and competing in the nationals, so I thought I surely had a decent chance in Rishon. I couldn't have been more wrong. Fish out of water? So far out of water I could have been in the Gobi Desert... Upon joining the line, I found myself in the first orderly queue I had ever come across in Israel, even though I've been here over two years. Evidently this crowd was not made up of the run-of-the-mill Israelis who can't wait patiently for the lights to change without starting a mass brawl. Instead, I was surrounded by a genteel and sedate group of chess aficionados - about 60 percent Russian, nearly all male, and seemingly lower middle class. Had I known what would happen in the 10th round, involving some of the seemingly "genteel and sedate" players, I'd probably have worn a flak jacket as I queued. When it was my turn to sign up, I asked how many games I would have to play, how long each game was, and some other apparently amateurish questions. "Do you even know where you are?" sneered the official behind the desk. "Yes - I'm here covering the story for The Jerusalem Post, but I want to play as well," I replied. After some frenzied debate between the officials, it was decided that I - the unranked, unproven stranger - could take part in the qualifying rounds. My NIS 150 entrance fee turned out to be as good as the next man's, even though the notes hadn't been touched by the fingers of a grandmaster. So I was in. As I proudly draped the player's pass round my neck, I could feel the old chess juices flowing once more. I used to travel across the country representing school and club, and - now that I was back in competitive surroundings - realized that I'd missed this feeling for the last 10 years. But I still had to fulfill my journalist's role, so it was time to find suitable subjects to interview about the competition. Most of the crowd milling around the lobby seemed to know one another, but as I looked more closely, I began to spot a few fellow interlopers. One in particular stuck out like a sore thumb - long hair pulled back into a pony tail, a dolphin tattoo on his uncovered upper left arm, motorbike helmet perched next to the chess board he was practicing on, I could see this was not the stereotypical contestant. Introducing himself as Gilad Guy, "from nowhere in particular," he and I quickly struck up a rapport - two outsiders banded together in the cliquey world of top-flight chess. Post-army, Gilad had bought a bus, turned it into a caravan and driven it around Israel for three years. Now stationed at his girlfriend's place near Petah Tikva, Gilad had come to play at the tournament, "because I've run out of friends to play with." He was starting to sound as out-of-place here as me, and I thought maybe that was the same story for a lot more of the entrants, but Gilad soon set me straight. "Most of these guys play in leagues, for clubs, in competitions all year round. The only chance we have is that this speed chess [Blitz chess] makes people slip up - it is much heavier and more nerve-racking than classical chess." As I contemplated this, I spotted a middle-aged man in the corner of the room contorting his body into a distinctly unorthodox chess stance. He appeared to be warming up as though he was about to step into the ring at Madison Square Garden, and I had to know what was behind his routine. Waiting until he had finished his stretches, I approached him tentatively - unsure how stable his mind was, if this was how he geared up for a decidedly unphysical pastime such as chess. "I am a sportsman, chess is my sport. Thus I prepare in exactly the same way as if I was about to play tennis or soccer," replied Avner Hadar, of Tel Aviv, when I put the question to him about his workout. "How do you prepare, then?" he challenged me. With a quarter bottle of Jameson and a Cohiba No. 5, I told him, but he didn't believe me. "It's all about finding the happy medium in your mental state - you must be alert enough to concentrate properly, but no so wired that you put yourself in a stressed condition," Avner went on. His words were drowned out by the organizer calling out the first round fixtures. This was it. I was back, the dark horse, unknown challenger, ready to stamp my name all over the international chess world. Pity everyone else had the same idea too. Round 1. I sat down opposite an immaculately coiffed man of about my age - confidence oozing from his pores in rather the same way the sweat was from mine. We shook hands, smiling artificially, and he casually asked me my ranking. "Er, I don't have one," I replied - five words which caused him - and everyone else within earshot - to split their sides laughing. Wow - how far out of my depth was I here? Nerves shot, I made my first move and hit the clock. All I remember from the match was that I kept looking round in astonishment, wondering what sleight of hand he was using to snatch my pieces off the board without me noticing. In soccer hooligan vernacular, I'd had my head kicked in - and things were only going to get worse. Round 2 - I studiously avoided pre-match chat, having witnessed the psychological damage it had inflicted on me in the first game. I briefly shook my opponent's hand, steering clear of eye contact, and concentrated on my moves. I was white, so I opened with a commanding variant of the queen's gambit. As I looked at my attack, I composed the following line - "Black was powerless to prevent the inexorable march of Freedman's pawns" - and this proved to be my downfall. I was all over him like a rash, but also watching the game as though I was reporting on it. Blitz chess barely allows one the time to breathe between moves, so my split-personality approach was never going to work. Two stupid mistakes later, and I was staring down the barrel of another loss. Time for some moral support. I sought out Gilad, who was also floundering, having been crushed in his first two games. We both agreed that our plans for what to do with the $100,000 prize money had probably been hatched a tad prematurely and we discussed more realistic aims instead, such as salvaging at least one win from 13. As we mulled over our lots, the draw for Round 3 was pinned to the board. I made my way to Table 57, confused by the presence of a tiny 10-year-old boy sitting behind the white pieces. I searched my pockets for a sweet to offer him, thinking he must be the son of my opponent, but when he slammed his little fist down to start my clock, I thought again. By the time he had tangled me up sufficiently for me to throw in the towel and resign, I was seriously regretting my participation in the event. He offered me a consoling handshake, 16 years younger than me but infinitely more mature, as I scowled and tried to look menacing in return. This was bad. I called my mate Ben for some encouraging words. "You're like Sunderland last year," he said, referring to the Premier League's worst-ever soccer team, "and at least they won a game, eventually." Hardly the most inspiring pep talk in the world, but - unbelievably - the worm then turned. Round 4 - a steward's inquiry meant that the game was prematurely called to a halt after a spectator spotted an illegal move by my opponent. I was awarded the win, but didn't feel like taking it. It was hardly as though I deserved it, so I magnanimously offered to report it to the official as a draw. He was only too happy to agree to this, so I now had half a point from four games. But at least I was off the zero mark. Rounds 5 and 6. I can't distinguish between the two matches - I was on fire as though a Katyusha had scored a direct hit on my brain. I wiped the floor with my opposition. I chased one guy's king around the board like a cat toying with a mortally injured sparrow, then killed off the next challenger with a scything rampage through his battered defenses. All that was missing was the standing ovation, though one elderly Muscovite did mutter something at me as I strode gallantly past in victory. I assume he was praising my rapier-like style, though he could equally have been telling me the Russian equivalent of "One swallow doesn't make a summer, lad." Because, of course, it doesn't. After rekindling my faint hopes, as though I'd found the last pot of oil in the ransacked Temple, I found that I was no Maccabee, and no great miracle was to happen here. I won just one more match in my next four, a sad end to a great revival. My win came against a woman who would have seemed more at home in a boxing club - she beat the clock into a pulp, leaving me to wonder what her husband's ears looked like. But, having been humbled by my sly two-knight sacrifice, she was gracious enough to wish me good luck. And that's when it kicked off. Three tables away, there was a sudden flurry of pieces flying through the still air and up jumped one of the players as though he'd been stung by a hornet. As the rest of the crowd shouted "Quiet, calm down!" he began screaming for a referee, shattering the tomb-like silence of the arena. He had to be physically restrained from attacking his opponent with a couple of bishops, and was hustled out of the hall by security. Everyone had an opinion on the fracas - except me, that is. I'd just noticed the hour - quarter to nine - and I realized my time was up. I still had to make it back to Jerusalem at a decent hour and, like half of the contestants had already done, could see that I'd have to leave now before all of the rounds were over. Only the diehards had stayed after Round 7 - those who had a chance of qualifying for the next day's play, or those who just enjoyed the competition. I fell firmly into the latter category, but even my zeal was dimming now. I'd come. I'd seen. I'd been conquered - far too often. I made my way out with my new pal Gilad, who'd also reached the heady heights of three and a half points from 10, and we realized that neither of us would be wise in giving up our day jobs. As we passed the throngs round the main tables on our way out, I looked wistfully back at the top players, deep in concentration as they battled it out for supremacy. And that's when I decided I'll be back next year. And this time I'm going to try the Jameson/Cuban cigar routine. After all, it can't get any worse than this time around.