By NM Landon Brownell
1,500 teenagers. 300 parents. 16 tournament directors. That’s right -- it’s the 2007 National High School Chess Championship. I flew to Kansas City, MO, from Tucson, AZ, with Coach FM Robby Adamson and 16 team members from Catalina Foothills High School. We also brought a few adult chauffeurs, just to keep 17 teenagers from acting TOO much like 17 teenagers. We arrived at the Hyatt Wednesday evening (well, technically, it was Thursday morning) to give us plenty of time to rest up before the blitz tournament Thursday evening.
We all slept in as much as we could Thursday morning, and then everyone sort of goofed off, playing blitz and watching TV, except for the few responsible students who used the extra time to get some homework done. The blitz event was rather uneventful, despite over 300 participants, possibly because of the stellar directing by Roger Brownell, who ran both the blitz and the bughouse (have to do a little bragging about my dad). Catalina Foothills was the decided favorite in the tournament (our 4th board was higher rated than the 2nd board of any other team participating), and proceeded to take first place by 5.5 points. I was fortunate enough to tie for first individually, but my tiebreaks were less favorable than last year’s, and I received the 3rd place trophy. All in all, it was a fun tournament, as the blitz event always is, and we all enjoyed playing in it.
The main event started in good time, and the first round began, surprisingly, within half an hour of its scheduled starting time. Nothing worth noting happened during that round, with the singular exception of Victor Yee (1789) making an amazing 453-point upset against Eric Rodriguez, a master from Florida.
In the second round, Christopher De Sa (2110), our 3rd highest-rated player, hung the exchange and a pawn in the opening, but somehow managed to make something out of nothing, and proceeded to come back and win as only Chris could. Unfortunately, Sean Higgins (2082), who is by far our hardest-working team member, was drawn into an opposite-colored-bishops endgame against a lower-rated opponent, thus bringing our top four scores to equal 7.5/8. However, we were only tied for first.
In the last three years, our main rival has been Edward R. Murrow High School, from Brooklyn, NY. Not only do they have two International Masters on the team, but they also have… TWO INTERNATIONAL MASTERS!! The top two seeds of the national championship are on the same team! What else do they need? Of course, they also have an expert and two class B players, but you really can’t get over those two INTERNATIONAL MASTERS. OK, I’m done now. Anyway, Catalina Foothills and Murrow tied for first in 2005, with the team from Tucson slipping by on tiebreaks for the first place trophy. In 2006, we were ahead by one point going into the last round, and they decided to go 4-0, giving Murrow the championship by half a point. Needless to say, nothing would please either team but the 1st place trophy, and we were going to do all in our power to bring it home to Tucson.
Saturday morning we all woke up bright and early -- well, at least early; the brightness could be debatable. Vaishnav Aradhyula (our 2nd highest-rated player at 2168), Chris, Sean, and I were all playing down, as were Pasha Savine (1928), Eddie Moskala (1782), and Victor Yee, all having gone 1-1 the previous day. The third round was quite uninteresting, although I had to struggle a bit in my game, after having managed to get a very bad position out of the opening, and our top 8 players all won. While that was all well and good, the New York team was close on our heels, only dropping one point. Mikhail Furman (1691), who was our downfall last year, upsetting a 1900 in less than 10 moves, was finally stopped in his tracks by Chris Williams (2217), after defeating two experts in his first two rounds. Thus the standings were now Foothills-11.5, Murrow-10.5.
The fourth round, Chris had to play up against Christopher Williams (who, as their names are so similar, I will refer to as Chrissy Bear). While Robby was prepping Chris in the room, he got a call from Pasha, to whom Chrissy Bear, who is predominantly an e4 player, had confided, “Why is Chris prepping when he knows I’m just gonna bust out 1.d4?” The game continued with De Sa making short work of him, as Chrissy Bear was much less prepared, and had much less experience in the line which he chose to “bust out.” Yet again, I made a small mistake in the opening, and proceeded to get into a very drawish position against my 2043-rated opponent, but achieved ( or rather received) a winning position when he accidentally picked up his rook, intending to move his knight. Vaishnav and Pasha both won easily against lower-rated opponents. Unfortunately, Sean was upset by Joshua Downey (1927), thus making Pasha our 4th highest scorer, but as we were eating dinner at the food court 2 blocks away (though we never had to go outside, as everything was connected by a skywalk), we were greatly heartened to hear that Derek Tan (2137) had played Murrow’s top IM, Salvijus Bercys, to a draw. Foothills-15, Murrow-13.
There were now only seven perfect scores, three of which were Vaishnav, Chris, and me. Vaishnav was forced to play Alex Lenderman (2447), the second IM from Murrow, and Chris was paired against Alex Barnett (2256), who not only is a very strong player, but proceeded to become one of the co-champions of the tournament. I was conveniently paired against the only perfect freshman (perfect score, that is), but unfortunately, despite my preparations, Shinsaku Uesugi (2200) went into a line that is very hard to win for black. We reached a very closed position, and after two hours of maneuvering and re-maneuvering, I finally conceded a draw. Vaishnav went into his preparation against Lenderman and succeeded in getting a relatively easy draw, while Chris, in a much worse position, was able to complicate it so much that neither player knew what was happening, and proceeded to draw also. There were now 16 players tied for first with 4.5/5, three from Catalina Foothills, and two from Edward R. Murrow.
Our top four scorers were now: Landon Brownell (4.5), Vaishnav Aradhyula (4.5), Christopher De Sa (4.5), and Pasha Savine (4.0). The Murrow top four were: Salvijus Bercys (4.5), Alex Lenderman (4.5), Shawn Martinez (3.5), and Nile Smith (3.0). Foothills-17.5, Murrow-16.5.
Coach Adamson let us know the standings Sunday morning. “But just because we’re ahead does NOT mean that it’s over. Not by any means. Bercys and Lenderman will play down both rounds. Martinez will only play down once, and three of our top four players are playing up this round.” We were all quite confident. We were up a whole point, only two more rounds to go; it shouldn’t be too hard to keep the lead. Little did we know what would actually happen. Little did we know we would get 0.5/4 that round. Little did we know that we would not be ahead, but behind by a whole point going into the last round.
Everything went wrong the sixth round. Vaishnav got a great position, but then made a poor decision and lost. Chris had a great position and was outplayed. I, the only team member playing down, went into a very tactical continuation and ended up with a slightly better position, but was drawn into my opponent’s fast pace and lost. Pasha was winning against an expert and couldn’t finish it. Sean was upset by Amanda Mateer (1894). And, of course, Lenderman, Martinez, and Nile Smith all won. The only bright side was that Bercys was held to a draw once again, this time by Tony Cao (2198). Foothills-18, Murrow-19.
We all gathered in Robby’s room. We needed some serious pepping. “We need EVERYONE to win this last round,” he said, looking at each person in turn. “Put last round behind you. We’re down by one point. Nile Smith and Shawn Martinez are both playing up, but if either of them wins, the only way to even tie for first is to win every game.” Then we got the pairings. It turned out Shawn (2006) wasn’t playing up, and Pasha had to play Jonathan Cox (2094) from Tucson, against whom he was 0-5 in tournament play. Things were not looking good.
And then it happened.
5,064 games were played during the tournament, but only one game was to decide the fate of the team championship. Only one game brought cheers outside the playing hall so loud that the tournament directors were forced to come out and restore order (or at least move the chaos further away).
15 minutes before the tournament would be over, 3 hours and 45 minutes into the last round, we were tied for first place with 22 points each. Pasha had completely outplayed Jonathan Cox, and everyone else on both teams had won relatively easily. However, one game was still in progress. Nile Smith (1854) was playing against Benjamin Marmont (1953), who lived only 100 miles away from our school, in Gilbert, AZ. With a draw or a win, the team from New York would win clear 1st place for the second year in a row. If not, Catalina Foothills would win our second national title in three years.
The coaching staffs of both teams were focused on the game, knowing that the outcome of the entire weekend could be decided by one move. Our entire team was waiting impatiently outside the playing hall, peeking in whenever someone came out the door, trying to get a glimpse of the players' faces, the spectators' expressions, anything that might give us a clue as to how our last year together as a high school team would end. The fact that Sean, Chris, Pasha, and Eddie would all be graduating this year made the excitement so intense it was almost unbearable.
One minute went by. Two minutes went by. Robby came out and dolefully announced, "Marmont had a winning position and blew it. Now he's losing." Everyone on the team was devastated. We were all good friends with Ben, but our goodwill toward him at this moment was tenuous, to say the least. The excitement over the possibility of winning 1st place had evaporated. Few of us had any hope left. Until…
Five minutes later Robby came out again, grinning from ear to ear. "Nile missed a mate in two. I can't believe it. I can't believe it. I know I saw it, but I still can NOT believe it." The change in the atmosphere was indescribable. People that were near tears before were now jumping up and down, waiting for Ben to emerge from the playing hall. The yell and stampede towards him when he came through the door brought the TDs running, but we were all so excited we didn't care. We had won the national championship.