"...the sense of community, camaraderie, competition, and sportsmanship is lost..."
We have a special treat for all chess players this month. National Master Gunnar Andersen, one of Colorado's best chess players, has written an excellent summary of Alayne Wilinsky's DCC on lichess blitz tournaments. The heading photo is Gunnar enjoying his game. Or maybe I should say, playing with his food :-) Also interspersed within this report are John Brezina photos of Mr. Andersen's DCC simul. Without further ado... Enjoy.
Quoting Gunnar Andersen: "At the behest of JC MacNeil, I’ve decided to write up a report from the players’ perspective for the DCC Shut-in Showdown tournaments. I will also give some advice on how to play blitz well, as I believe that it is a separate skill from classical chess, and I will also give some advice on how to maximize performance in the arena format. However, first I think it is imperative to start with the history of these fantastic events.
On March 10, 2020 the Denver Chess Club had its last over the board (OTB) meeting to date, as a result of the global COVID-19 outbreak. I will not comment more on this outbreak, it is well known by everyone that it has ruined several things as a result of government restrictions banning gatherings of multiple people. However, there were a handful of chess tournaments that continued past this date, notably the Candidates tournament which determines the challenger for the world champion title, although this tournament was controversially canceled halfway through.
When will we see live chess of any kind again?
Things looked very bleak for chess - with rally cries to turn to playing on the internet - which is clearly nowhere near a substitute for OTB chess. Playing chess online is inherently seen as less serious, you don’t know who you’re playing, it’s basically just for fun. The scope of online chess for most people is its use as a vehicle for instant gratification in blitz and bullet - the sense of community, camaraderie, competition, and sportsmanship is lost, and degenerate behaviors such as flagging , or playing badly to stay up on time , are encouraged in these time controls.
With online speed chess, you have the capability to play thousands of opponents at the click of a button - finding a new game takes very little time, and you can find a new game immediately after yours is over. With this format, one can easily play 100 games in a sitting, as the author has done more times than he would care to admit... To be clear, I personally find this enjoyable on some level - but at the end of the day it is hollow and unfulfilling in comparison to OTB.
Beating anonymous strangers on the internet is fun because chess is fun, but it is not fun because I am beating “them”- the people you’re playing are basically interchangeable, and although I have personally become friends with some people I’ve played previously on chess websites, the vast majority are just constituents of a void of ostensibly unlimited chess enthusiasm dispersed across the Earth whom I will never interact with again in my life, personally or professionally.
Gunnar played against 14 players in this DCC simul.
This is something I think that non-chess players simply don’t understand, in the past I would tell a teacher or colleague that I was saving up money to travel to an out of state tournament, they would always ask, obliviously, “Why can’t you just play it online?”, as if no one had ever thought of that before. Not only is online chess unfulfilling compared to OTB, it inherently carries the very real risk of engine cheating, the world’s greatest blight to chess, with constantly novel schemes from the debased riff-raff of the planet thinking of new ways to cheat. However, in contrast to what we can divine about internet cheating, the majority of these things are not inherent- online chess does not have to be soulless, it just feels that way because of the distinct lack of greater community.
So, I was very pleasantly surprised when Alayne Wilinsky decided to create the first DCC Quarantine Blitz Arena a week later, on March 17th. You can find the link here - it was the first tournament of its kind from the DCC, and it was a lot of fun, drawing 36 players who had nothing to play for aside from faux rating points and faux glory. For better or worse, the DCC lichess tournaments utilize the Arena system, as opposed to the Swiss System which is used at the DCC.
In arena tournaments, a win is initially worth 2 points, while a draw is 1, and a loss is zero. So, this all seems normal so far, but if a player wins 3 games in a row, that player will get a “streak”, which means that wins will be worth 4 points from there on until the streak ends by suffering a draw or loss, after which another 3 wins are required to set up another streak.
Another feature of the arena system is that as soon as a player finishes a game the system will pair them with an opponent of similar standing and rating, it is not necessary to wait for the other participants to finish their games. This system rewards fast players by allowing them to play in more games than slower participants, thus higher potential for points. Arena tournaments also reward consistency with the streaks feature, and they put pressure on players to try to beat the leader to end their streak.
Arena tournaments also incentivize the leader to beat the players in second or third place, because beating them resets their streak - increasing the disparity between the leader and the chasers. The other way that arena tournaments incentivize fast play is something called the “berserk” feature, which cuts a player’s time in half (e.g. 5 minutes down to 2 minutes 30 seconds), but yields an extra point from wins. The berserk feature is yet another way that the leader can increase the score gap if Player A has the exact same results as Player B, but Player A berserked every game and played B did not, there will be a huge score differential. The author of this report has berserked in the vast majority of the games, in most of the tournaments my berserk rate was 100%.
Gunnar berserking and destroying the opposition.
This information is important to remember because it gives context to how the tournaments are conducted. From the social side, I was very happy with these efforts because I saw that a lot of players I knew in real life had accounts on lichess, my favorite online chess server, and I was able to interact with them as I had pre-corona. It was nice that I had an outlet again to play chess with people I know and I consider friends and colleagues, further these tournaments gave me the ability to connect with people I hadn’t had the chance to talk to at the Denver Chess Club as much because they were in different sections than me.
In short, these tournaments did a great job at restoring the sense of community that we found OTB at the Denver Chess Club, a place from which I’ve alienated myself since moving back to Woodland Park (Colorado Springs area) and getting a “normal” job, decisions that created barriers for me to play in the Denver Chess Club. In short, the first DCC tournament was a smashing success.
However, the next week, Mar 24, 2020, a very substantial change was made - there were now prizes! Alayne Wilinsky generously donated $100 out of her own pocket to stimulate this endeavor, and the prize breakdown was as follows: 1st -$50, 2nd - $30, 3rd - $10. Top U1900 - $10. Personally, I think that this is a good prize distribution because it encourages excellence at the top levels, but it also incentivizes lower-rated players to play as well(and play well), which gives more diversity of player base. The addition of prizes made the tournament objectively better, the tournaments were still free and all of the previous benefits of playing in the tournaments were still in place. This tournament was by far my most successful tournament, I took 1st without losing any games - I won all games except for one against Griffin McConnell, which was a draw. I got $50 from this excellent event , a performance rating of 2702, and I got a lifetime peak of 2632 in blitz- I couldn’t have been happier. During this tournament, I was completely lost in several of my games - but I was able to fight back, or flag my opponents, which is just something that comes with the territory of fast time controls.
My strategy for these tournaments is usually something like this:
1. Eat a healthy meal, then exercise before the game. After I clock out of work (I work from home) I proceed to eat a healthy dinner, and then I walk three miles. It is also imperative to drink lots of water, I personally aim for 1 gallon per day. A sound body is a sound mind!
Sound body, sound mind.
2. Get a good playlist. During the tournaments, I always listen to music. I think that when you’re competing, it’s important to channel whatever energy you want to feel. Some people prefer to play without music, but it’s a personal choice.
3. Berserk every game (at least at the start). Towards the end sometimes I stop berserking so I can relax a bit and just enjoy myself if my lead is big enough, but I usually keep berserking anyway. If you start the tournament off well, it is significantly easier to win.
4. Play confusing openings. I often deviate from what I like to play over the board when playing online, I prefer to play some “pet” systems. I have a lot of these, so it keeps people confused, and if you are less confused than the opponent, this helps a lot in blitz. For example, I’ve defeated a number of people with 1.h4 - not a good move objectively, but it caused enough confusion among them, and they don’t want to lose to 1.h4, so this puts a lot of psychological pressure on the opponent.
Gunnar probably sprang a lot of his pet openings in this event.
5. Play to your strengths. I seek out tactical positions because these are the ones I play the most well, but some people have other strengths obviously. I am a good tactician because I have played Puzzle Rush on chess.com more than 1000 times, as well as a lot of bullet games- although my bullet rating now is only a modest 2644 at the time of writing, in the past, it has been upwards of 2800 on lichess, so being low on time does not bother me. Surviving time scrambles is very important, you get a lot of points just by doing that.
6. Mental resilience. In spite of doing all of these steps, sometimes things are not going my way at all. In this tournament I didn't even get top 3, I lost a few games early and gradually became more tilted, I could not accept a result that was not first place, and as a result, I got absolutely nothing. If I had shown more resilience, I would have been able to get at least third, but I failed in every category. However, this experience made me stronger - in spite of an absolutely heinous performance rating, I won this tournament. During this tournament at one point I lost 5 games in a row, and although I was upset I set my sites only for third place - I would’ve been content after such a disastrous start. After this, I got it together and I even finished in first place, although only by a small margin, but this goes to show that being mentally tough, and overcoming adversity is vital for success in blitz.
So, this is my game plan basically during the tournaments - I’m aware that some of it is generic, but this paper is meant to reflect my personal opinions and experiences. Further, cliches are cliches for a reason - they have some bearing on reality, and a lot of people agree with them. Ultimately, this is no substitute for chess skill, a Grandmaster would win these tournaments much more easily than me. The goal of this tournament strategy is to make the maximum with what you have and to play at YOUR personal best - not anyone else’s.
It is us thanking you, Mr. Andersen
In closing, I am very thankful for these tournaments: I find them to be a fun and stimulating exercise during the ennui of this quarantine, and I sincerely appreciate the major efforts of the DCC, and especially Alayne Wilinsky, on reviving the sense of community and camaraderie that the DCC warmly provided in the past for over the board tournaments. This report would not be complete without a few tactical exercises. So I’ve included them below, they’re all from my games!"
Note: Gunnar's lichess handle is "Andnar". Also note that while Gunnar selected the diagram positions, I wrote the captions. Any errors are mine. All handles are given with the players own spelling.