My 5th Tournament Game: Lessons from an Uncomfortable Miniature

Continuing in my series of posts covering the first chess tournament in my life as a new unrated player and member of USCF, here I present my 5th round game in the 1980 Michigan Open (Reserve Section). It was a very short game, lasting only 12 moves, and only a couple of minutes. This was in a tournament where the time control was the old classical 40 moves in 2 hours, so after the game, I had to hang around for hours waiting for my father to finish his game.

I felt embarrassed by this game, which I won by checkmating my opponent (rated around USCF 1500) on the 12th move. I definitely felt good that I played well and deserved to win, but some things about what happened bothered me.

Lessons I Learned

I had never seen my opponent’s 4th move before in the opening, but just remembered to stay calm and play by ordinary principles of development. He then proceeded to break every opening principle I had learned: he moved his Queen out early, put his Knight on the rim, and even weakened the critical square d5.

I was surprised and disappointed by how quickly and poorly he played. I felt that he did not take me seriously, thinking he could just play garbage against an unrated 10-year-old boy at a time (1980) when very few kids were playing in chess tournaments. I did not believe that his play against matched his 1500 rating. I felt insulted for the first time in the tournament: in my first four rounds, all of my games had been quite hard-fought, no mercy shown me whatsoever. Fortunately, this was the only chess game in my life when I felt that I was not taken seriously because of my age and inexperience.

After the game, my opponent quickly exited to smoke. My assessment of the situation suddenly changed. I concluded that I might have been hasty in assuming he was deliberately insulting me. I thought to myself that he had not looked very well during the game and was fidgety. Maybe as a smoker he was having trouble functioning well because of withdrawal. I felt some compassion for his plight.

Then I got angry again: maybe he had deliberately thrown the game in order to go smoke? Was this possible? I no longer knew what to believe about what had happened, and I did not ask him.

Finally, I felt embarrassed that I had jumped to conclusions that may have simply reflected my own self-consciousness at being the little kid at the tournament. I realized that I could have trapped myself psychologically. From then on, I decided never to think of myself as the kid at the tournament. As long as I didn’t think that, then it wouldn’t matter whether anyone else thought it either. This was the real lesson I learned that day. Whatever was going on with my opponent, I would play the game and aim for the win. I could not control what he thought of me or whether he was sick or whether he was deliberately losing. I could not control any of these things, so it was pointless to dwell on them.

The complete annotated game

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.