This is a report written by GM Joel Benjamin.
Shabalov, Kaidanov, Benjamin, and Yermolinsky (Photo from http://www.wstcc2020.net/)
This week I am reporting from one of the most surreal tournament experiences I have ever had, the World Senior Team Championship in Prague, Czech Republic.
The US team successfully “three-peated” in the 50+ category, but it was not an entirely pleasant excursion.
Chaos enveloped us before the trip began, as Larry Christiansen, who was to join the team for the first time, decided to pull out of the team due to concerns about the coronavirus. The rest of us thought Larry might be slightly paranoid, but one cannot question his judgment in hindsight. In fact, one wonders why a convention of the people most vulnerable to the effects of infection was allowed to proceed. Alex “Minuteman” Yermolinsky was luckily sitting home by the phone and agreed to fly out to Prague (perhaps insanely) at a moment’s notice. It’s a miracle he was able to get there before the first round, but his arrival meant the “Core Three” of Benjamin, Shabalov, and Yermo would go for a third gold medal, along with strong newbie Greg Kaidanov and the MVP (for reasons explained later) Igor Novikov, back from last year’s successful team.
The games themselves went smoothly. We notched 7.5 out of a possible 8 game points in the first two rounds.
Then we got a little bit of a challenge from Czech2, a team of interchangeable parts, with four players in the 2300 range.
The boys managed 3.5 points again, with El Capitan leading the way.
Next, we took on the scrappy English, a similarly constructed team, with everyone rated 100 points higher. The 3-1 victory put us in great shape. Yermo reprised last year’s defeat of Jim Plaskett on board four.
The match with the Czech varsity frustrated us a bit as they held worse positions on the bottom two boards. Greg was given the honors of taking on 49-year-old Zbynek Hracek on board one, as El Capitan toured the city in a fruitless attempt to enter museums, which had now mostly shut down. Greg’s big win provided the winning margin in the first match where we won less than two games. It put us in a dominating position, two match points (one lost match or two tied matches) ahead of the field.
The gold medal nearly slipped through our hands in the sixth round, when we took on the second-seeded Lasker Club. We played the exact same team two years ago in Dresden, an unlikely 3.5-.5 shellacking.
This time their first board, Alexander Graf, shook off two straight losses and took advantage of a blunder by Shaba while he was getting short of time. Greg had quickly drawn with Yusupov, but we held the edge on the bottom boards. By the time I had missed my chance for a winning attack against Levin, it looked like Igor might not be able to squeeze out a win, but the game had a happy ending after all.
We kept a one match point lead on Czech1 and Iceland, who surprised a strong Slovakian team. Life seemed good. It was my birthday, and while a win would have been nice, I was relieved not to lose on my birthday again. I even got a present from the organizers, a drawing of a London street scene.
Photo from http://www.wstcc2020.net/
The team celebrated at a downtown eatery, where we wined and dined in an outdoor pod. But soon, the chess games would be replaced by more significant concerns.
I was awoken about 2:30 by a frantic phone call from my wife, who was telling me I had to leave the country right away. Apparently, Trump had just announced a ban on European travel effective midnight Friday (time zone?). I was particularly groggy because I had only gone to sleep an hour before, staying up to follow my son’s travel basketball playoff game (they lost). I said I would figure things out in the morning when I could talk to my teammates and my travel agent at breakfast. By then, we knew the vital detail Trump had initially omitted in his speech - that Americans could still return after Friday. We decided to keep going, partly because Igor told us we wouldn’t be able to get on a Thursday flight anyway.
We got to the hall to learn the shocking news that today’s round (seven) would be the last. The Czech government was now limiting gatherings to a maximum of thirty people.
Before we started, the Czechs and Yamal, a team from the Russian Arctic, banged out a bunch of moves and agreed to for draws. This removed the remote possibility that they could pass us on tiebreaks. The Icelanders were also in a peaceful mood, and there was no reason to fight it; they had a chance to overtake us with a win.
The gold medal was secured in minutes.
It seemed no one was in a mood to play with dark clouds hovering over everyone.
Lasker didn’t have to play, as a 4-0 forfeit win catapulted them into second place, ahead of the Czechs in third. America Too, which had been nicely competitive throughout the tournament, had already gone home. They too received panicked phone calls and decided better safe than sorry.
Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing that their dream match with a grandmaster team would be the last round.
They could have finished the tournament and booked flights for Friday.
We left the hall not to celebrate, but to work out escape routes to America. Igor won a huge game against Lasker, but he truly earned his MVP status after the tournament. He investigated possible itineraries for us while Shaba read ominous domestic reports. The Czech Republic had closed all land borders, were about to institute curfews, and were barring Czech citizens from flying anywhere in the EU (except Ireland, it seemed) after Friday. I decided I needed to get out the next day, whatever the cost (fortunately, the USCF was willing to cover us). Igor found me a route via Brussels (that’s how I came in as well), and by 2:00 Friday, I was back in New Jersey. Shaba also flew Friday, partly because we deduced that he would not be able to fly into Pittsburgh after that. Yermo stuck around for the time being but had Igor reticket him through Atlanta after his flight to Minneapolis was cancelled. Igor had no trouble for himself as he was returning to Kyiv.
Greg decided to stick it out in Europe, not being in a hurry to get back to anything. Yesterday he sent us a video of a man in a hazmat suit entering our hotel. Get home safe Greg!