You know how you asked to choose a security question when you make an account online? One of the options is often, “what is the country you'd like to visit the most?” I chose that one with the answer, “Chile”.
It took me until December 2018 to make my dream come true.
As usual it was my long-time friend Alex Shabalov who made it possible. Alex played in the same tournament a couple of years ago, and when the organizers asked him to come back he mentioned my name.
In case you wonder what makes it an attraction, I have no idea. All my “great achievements” are shrouded in the past, and my rating has been hovering around 2500 for longer than I care to remember.
Maybe, it's my online presence and the storytelling I often engage into, or rather the fact that I don't ask for an appearance fee – whatever it is, somehow I get to travel to exotic places, such as Arica, Chile.
It all started with a 9-hour-long flight from to Santiago. We left the winter in the United States and arrived in the summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Airbnb provided us with a fabulous apartment on the 6th floor overlooking the famous Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago.
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
After taking our sights there the next day we took a bus trip to the port City of Valparaiso, where steep hills and views of the bay reminded me of my time in San Francisco.
Next was a 2.5 hour flight up North to Arica. Chile is that long a country, stretching north-south for over 5,000 kilometers, with a great variety of climatic zones present. Despite it being a port located on the 18th parallel, Arica isn't your typical tropical paradise, its climate is more of a dry desert type with a lot of sunshine but very little humidity and precipitation.
Yours truly, having a December dinner in the Southern Hemisphere
Historically Arica has been a frontier town, disputed in the 9th Century wars with Chile's neighbors Peru and Bolivia, and it has grown into an important commercial center, supporting a population of some 200,000 people.
The tournament was sponsored by Luckia Casino, which provided a spacious ballroom for the tournament. The first three rounds, however, were held in a different location, a building belonging to Agricultural Workers Union. This is where and when we had our little adventure.
Shirov, Shabalov, Amonatov and I were in a taxi heading out for Round 4. It was still light, but I had noticed traffic lights weren't working. When we got to the tournament site we saw people congregating in the inner yard, as the lights were off. After about an hour of deliberation, play was canceled. With nothing else to do we returned to our hotel. By that time it got dark and a bit spooky. None of us wanted to return to our cottage-like rooms to sit there in the dark, so the restaurant was the obvious solution. The staff's apologetic “but the kitchen cannot work with power out”, were swept aside by our “you surely don't need power to get to the wine cellar”. Thus we survived the blackout.
The organizers poured in enough money to get some international representation. 11 Grandmasters in a 127-player field were headed by Alexei Shirov. Most of us started with 3/3, and then the real games began. Even though I quickly self-destructed against Amonatov. I got favorable pairings in Rounds 5 and 6 and was back in the hunt. My highlight came in Round 7 when I downed a young Peruvian star Jose Martinez Alcantara, who wasn't quite prepared to defend a theoretical Nimzo.
I followed that with a setback against another GM from Peru, Cristhian Cruz. While White's pawn sacrifice was as good as advertised, I felt my position was tenable. Problem was I missed the best counterattacking idea, based on a queen sacrifice, and yet I rejected a queen trade, which would have led to equal ending. A foolish decision in mutual time trouble, for which I paid dearly a few moves later.
Unfazed I used the white pieces to go after Kirill Stupak of Belorus, the winner of last summer's Korchnoi Memorial in St. Petersburg. The consequences of my daring play wouldn't be clear, but Kirill surprised me by avoiding a principled line and accepting a somewhat worse position. Emboldened by this local success and the opponent's shortage of time I played a couple of energetic moves and was rewarded by an extra pawn in the endgame. Here I used every ounce of my experience to calm myself down and deliberately chose a technical solution while quicker wins were available.
7/9 I had and stood on the cusp of my best tournament performance in years. Even a GM norm was a possibility. Why would I need it, you might ask. Thing is, I believe GM titles shouldn't be given for life. There are way too many guys who haven't been within spitting distance from tournament chess in decades, yet they still boast their GM credentials. Incidentally (or maybe not so much) a lot of them got their titles under suspicious circumstances. If you are a real Grandmaster you should be able to confirm it by scoring a GM norm, read “show a 2600 performance”, once in 3-5 years. Exceptions maybe granted once they reach the age of …. (fill in the blanks).
So, I was looking to get a high-rated opponent for the last round, and I got a bit more than I bargained for in Alexei Shirov. The Petroff got me a decent position. Alexei spent a lot of time and looked about ready to offer a draw, but then I hit the wall. Everything went blank in my mind, I was simply unable to see anything. Some five moves later I congratulated Alexei with a win and a tournament victory.
Despite this bitter end, overall the tournament was a sweet experience, and I want to thank everyone involved for helping me feel like a chessplayer again.