Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Traveling with Catalina Foothills - Part 1

Paul Gold traveled with the Catalina Foothills High School chess team to the recent SuperNationals IV. Here is Part 1 of his recap of that event through the eyes of a non-player, non-coach, non-parent, man on "vacation!"

Chaotic. That is the word I am able to summon to describe how I felt about accompanying the Catalina Foothills high school chess team to the SuperNationals, the granddaddy of all scholastic chess events. Coach Robby Adamson and his team from Tucson were the subjects of an article I wrote for the March issue of Chess Life magazine. This is the sequel, Wavemaster II, The Movie, if you will, the generation of which required a trip to Nashville to experience the frenetic excitement of 5000 kids ready to push wood for national hardware.

It is not like I had never been to an event like this before – I was a floor TD for the Kansas City version of this event in 2001. And I have organized a great number of large scholastic events over the years. But this year’s tournament just felt like a monster; again, kind of unexplainable because for the very first time I was not the organizer, TD or coach, nor did I hold any kind of position of any responsibility. I was (gulp) on vacation! And I was strenuously trying to avoid being myself for the next five days, because if I attend this event as me, I might just not have that much fun. So my goal was to unclench my fussy little fist for the next four days and just let it all happen. I wanted to observe everything and control nothing.

Robby had indeed made the necessary airline bookings and hotel reservations. And we were in the capable company of chess parent Erwin De Sa, veteran of numerous scholastic chess wars. I cannot tell you how invaluable he was, knowing this particular site and exactly how to handle the logistical eccentricities surrounding young chess players. We arrived as planned in Nashville on Wednesday night and by the time we had checked into the Gaylord Opryland Resort, it was about 12:30 AM. Robby accommodated me nicely, putting Kevin Zhang and Eli Alster (two of the more quiet players) into our room. Another room contained our female contingent (Jenelle Wallace, Sangeetha Pugazhendi, and Jacquelyn De Sa) and the final room was inhabited by the redoubtable Erwin plus Michael Reed, Hugh Chen and the one and only Andy Lin. Two more players would join us the next night (Sam Cotter and Jacob Kreiger); traveling and rooming with their respective parents.

Day One – 2 April
The rooming arrangement went swimmingly and I was pleasantly surprised to get in maybe 5 hours of sleep before I rose on Thursday morning. There would be two chess events that day – the bughouse tournament at 11:00 AM and the blitz at 5:00 PM, otherwise a nice day to acclimate and case the joint. In the end only Kevin played on a bug team, paired up with his friend Randel Eng from the Phoenix area. They would finish 17th, which was telling in respect to the strength of the field – Randel is rated 1950 and Kevin around 2150. They seemed to really enjoy playing, which was heartening in a national event where the kids, coaches and even parents can get mighty serious.

A number of the kids trouped with Erwin and I across the street to the Opryland Mall for some food before the bug. It was late by that time so we all ate lunch for breakfast. Then things seemed to open up for the rest of the day, the kids exploring the enormous hotel grounds, while Erwin went out for snacks. Then, just less than an hour before the start of the blitz tournament, we heard an announcement telling us to go to the nearest secure area because of a tornado warning. We all filed out of our rooms and huddled in a marked area, waiting for the all clear notification. Jenelle had brought her laptop and we were able to see the red zone on the map near Nashville on the National Weather Service site. We did not have that when I was a kid!

Along the way I had already encountered some of the chess folks to make this kind of an "old home week" for me. The very first people I saw manning the check-in table for the bug event were none other than Tucson chess organizers Kiki Huerta and Karen Pennock. I sidled up to the table and asked if I could be paired into the bug event and that I would need a partner. Kiki directed me to "the eighth grader in the suit" and I got my handshake and chat with Jon Shacter, now working at Raytheon, where both Erwin and I are employed in Tucson. Jon is one of those rare kids who became a tournament official – he also maintains the SACA website. A little hard for me to take the slight graying at the temples, I must say – was it not yesterday that he was 12 years old?! I got a really warm hug from Kim Cramer, the High Priestess of Chess Control, and my "evil twin" also stopped in with a grin, NTD Robert Tanner. I think I surprised Harry Sabine with my "remember me?" but he eventually did, though I noticed he was without his signature neon high-top sneakers. I spotted head NTD Robert Singletary busy on his cell phone, so I would have to get my salutation in with him a little later.

Kevin Zhang prior to the start of the Blitz tournament

Most of the Cat Foot kids entered into the blitz tournament – in fact, the pre-reg list was HUGE for a side event at 900 players. Unfortunately, the tornado warning delayed the start by some 40 minutes, time that would be needed in the end. Kevin, Andy, Eli, Michael, Sangeetha, Jacquelyn and Jenelle started their clocks, with me, Hugh, Erwin and Robby in the cheering section. The plan was for a six-round tournament, where you play two games (one White, one Black) for a total of 12 points possible. The team tally adds up the best four scores. Things went along more or less as one might guess until the second to last round when it was announced that the tournament would comply with the USCF rule that no final round can start later than 9:30 PM, a decision made years back when this kind of event went long into the night, tiring the players before the main event. So if the tournament runs late, the TDs can truncate the last round - you only play five rounds instead of six. Those of us watching figured there was no way we could get in that last round since we never recovered the lost time due to the weather. Michael was sure of this enough to head back to the room after his fifth round match…and then came the announcement that there would be a sixth round. Around 9:20 PM, Michael was still in his hotel room – he actually made it back to the tournament hall just in time to confirm his forfeiture (ouch). In the end the team scored very well anyway, placing second behind Thomas Jefferson, who lapped the field by three full points! Andy, Kevin and Eli all scored 9/12, with the surprising Jacquelyn contributing 6.5 points for the final tally.

After a slice of pizza, the team dispersed, most for their rooms. Robby and I repaired to the Irish pub for a drink with Jon Shacter, where we philosophized on many subjects and of course, chess. We sat outside the pub and more familiar folks stopped by to say hello, most notably for me, Carol Jarecki, who had flown her own plane in, as she often does. I will also mention that during the blitz I did a small bit of work with Jon Shacter and Robert Singletary, setting up the Junior High ballroom for the start of the tournament the next day. During this time Robert told me what he is up to – still doing CPA work in Raleigh, NC, but he is also the CFO of the American Lung Association, where he lives in Ohio. Add to this his peripatetic chess work and his family life and you have a lot on the plate. Robert is truly a top-shelf act – not only ambitious and successful, but one of the really nice chess people. I always enjoy seeing him – I just wish he did not look so tired!

That wraps-up Day 2 and Part 1 of our series. Look for Part 2 to appear soon with Paul's continuing adventures on vacation.

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