We arrive early. I breathe a sigh of relief as I escape the frigid winter air, the warmth of the university washing over me. We make small talk with some of the tournament organizers – Kelly’s friends from chess club – and begin to help with set up. I move from table to table, placing pieces on their appropriate squares. Rooks, then knights, then bishops, I tell myself, moving from the outer edges inward. Queen on her square, I think as I place the white queen on the white square. A little voice in my head tells me I’m probably not ready for a chess tournament if it requires such intense focus for me to put the pieces in their correct starting positions. I ignore her; it’s too late to change my mind now.
“How did you get your girlfriend to come?” Tom asks Kelly incredulously. “I can never get mine to come, and she actually plays chess!”
“Really?” I ask nervously. “How good is she – I mean, what’s her rating?”
“About 1300,” he replies nonchalantly.
Great. I privately wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, as my rating is approximately 800. Still, there’s no turning back now. I’m not sure what else to do to help with set up, so I find a spot just to the left of the registration table and try to stay out of the way.
More people are starting to arrive: moms with young sons, uncertain about the age restrictions of the tournament; some guys from Saskatoon who look like they’re in their twenties; and a few older gentlemen. It strikes me that I’m the only female registered so far. A well-dressed man with a white beard approaches the registration table.
“Do good-looking people get a discount at this tournament?” he asks, eyes twinkling. He looks up from the table. “You’d qualify!” he tells me teasingly. I laugh but feel a prickle of annoyance at his apparent entitlement to comment on a complete stranger’s appearance. I brush it off.
Soon, one of the organizers announces that they are almost ready to begin the tournament. He explains some of the details:
“This is a Swiss style tournament, which means that our computer program will pair you based on how well (or how poorly) you perform. There will be five games played, each game beginning on the hour. We’ll break for pizza lunch at noon as well as for a 15-minute break before the final game. A few reminders: If you touch one of your own pieces you must move that piece; if you touch an opponent’s piece and you can capture it you must do so; castling is the king’s move so please move your king first, followed by your rook; and finally, talking during games will not be permitted,” he states clearly. He starts to call out the pairings.
I am thankful that Kelly has already explained most of these nitpicky rules to me before now; otherwise, I would be extremely overwhelmed. I am quickly learning that playing chess in person is much different than playing chess online. Suddenly, the sound of my fiancé’s name jerks me out of my swirling thoughts.
“Kelly is white against Collin* on board two; Jared* is white against Steven* on board five…” the organizer calls out.
“Of course,” I whisper to Kelly with a smile. Collin has won the last three tournaments the Chess Club has held. He rolls his eyes, but I can see that his jaw is set, determined. He’ll put up a good fight.
“Mark is white against Raquel on board nine…”
I take a deep breath, grab my water bottle, and sit down at the table where board nine sits. Even though Mark is a really strong player, I am glad I am paired with him. He’s the president of chess club and is very encouraging to new players. He won’t judge me for my inevitable blunders.
The game begins. He plays e5. I match it with e4. Remember to hit the clock, I tell myself. My hands shake. Knight to c6; knight to f3. Hit the clock. I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans. It is quiet, save the sounds of pieces moving and taps on the clock. Goals of the opening… develop, develop, develop, control the centre, castle early, pay attention to threats, I chant in my head. Hit the clock. I remind myself that there is lots of time, but I still feel pressured to make my moves quickly. Deep breaths, I tell myself, hyper aware of how fast my heart is beating.
Ah, I just dropped my knight! How did I do that? Crap. I need to pay more attention to threats. Oh well. Keep making moves… I have no idea what I’m doing.
Mark’s expression is puzzled, which makes me very self-conscious about the move I just played. He takes my bishop, and I accidentally utter a mixture of a nervous laugh, a groan, and a sigh. Ugh! The game is almost over. Should I just resign? I wonder. I’m down so much material. We play a few more moves, and then he takes my queen. I extend my hand to shake.
“I think I’m done,” I whisper. “Good game.”
“Good game,” he whispers back with a sympathetic smile.
He tells me I actually played the opening really well, until I dropped my knight. He’s very kind. I check my phone – it reads 10:20 AM. Forty minutes until the next game starts. I leave the room to take a walk; I need a break from the intense stares, the tapping of clocks, and the tension that hangs in the air.
I take a deep breath. Only four more games to go…
I hope that little narrative gave you a small glimpse into my experience at the Queen City Chess Club’s tournament on January 16th. The chess world is very new to me, and stepping into it was nerve-wracking and interesting and frustrating and challenging and exciting and exhausting. Overall, I’m glad I participated and I definitely learned from it; however, I wish I had been able to gain a bit more experience playing chess before jumping into a tournament with such skilled players.
If you are wondering how the rest of the tournament went, I lost my next two games – one of which was against an 8-year-old. Laugh at me if you must, but that 8-year-old had game! …Plus I’m super new to this. So yes, an 8-year-old beat me and as many times as Kelly has told me that chess is independent from age, it still felt embarrassing. It was my toughest loss to muster, as it was the first game I actually expected to win. After that, I won my fourth game (against a different 8-year-old) and lost my final game. By the end of the tournament, I was mentally exhausted. I guess I need to keep working on my chess stamina!
Have you ever tried something new and completely embarrassed yourself trying it? Please comment below if you can share a story that will help boost my crushed self-esteem after the events of the tournament!
*Names have been changed.