BY EVAN PARK
After a year of playing chess competitively, I was pleased to see that as a nine-year-old, I had qualified in the under-10 division of the World Cadets Tournament in Pocos De Caldas, Brazil. I was both nervous and excited as the event came close. While I had played in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and even Nevada, World Cadets would be my first time to play on an international stage. Finally, the day came. My suitcase was packed with my chess books, my Kindle, and chess set. My mother made sure I packed some clothes as well, and my Dad and I drove to Cleveland from my home in Pittsburgh to board the plane to Brazil.
From the moment we arrived at the Viracopos International Airport in Campina, Brazil, to the moment we touched back down in Cleveland two weeks later, I was met with surprise after surprise. Our first surprise involved the shuttle bus, or rather, the absence of a shuttle bus. Upon arrival,we looked and we looked for the shuttle bus sign that should have been there according to the plan sent to us by the organizers. We walked around the baggage claim, the passenger waiting area, but there was just no sign to point us anywhere, not even any information about a chess tournament!
In desperation, we asked a staff member who worked for the airline. While his English was limited, thankfully, he was warm-hearted and eager to help us. He used his phone to call the organizers several times, but nobody picked up. Our last hope was the information desk. But they knew nothing about the tournament, let alone the transportation shuttle! We waited and waited.
Finally, we decided to get a taxi because the information desk clerk said the hotel was quite close. Right before we left for the taxi, the airline staff member came back to us and--using google-translate-- asked, “Would you like to call the organizer one more time? ” Miraculously, someone decided to pick up the phone this time. It turned out that there was a shuttle bus waiting, but it was in the domestic, not the international arrivals! It also turned out that the hotel was much further away than “quite close.” In fact, we drove for four hours! This qualifies as my second surprise. Unfortunately, it was dark out and I was already exhausted from the flight, so I quickly fell asleep and was not able to see much of the scenery. At 1 am, we finally arrived at the tournament hotel. We were so thankful that since we could not speak Portuguese, one of the hotel staff members spoke English.
Two days later, the tournament began. There were many players from different countries, demonstrating the worldwide interest in chess. In my age-group section, there were 88 players from 29 countries. After the opening ceremony, when I went to my first game, another surprise waited for me. My opponent had not arrived. So I waited the required 15 minutes, then “won” my very first international game by forfeit! I had imagined many ways for my first game to go, but winning this way was not on my list. Winning by forfeit also mixed up my pairings, meaning it altered the player to whom I would be assigned for the subsequent rounds. Ideally, each player should play an opponent with the same amount of points, though this is not always possible.
In chess, additionally, there is a “color rule” for pairings. Because “white” traditionally goes first, the “white” player has an advantage. Thus, alternating colors is generally preferred, and a special effort is made to avoid three games of the same color in a row. In fact, since this was an international tournament, subject to FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs) rules, three games in a row of the same color is explicitly forbidden. Since I had neither played a white nor a black round, I could play anyone regardless of which color they had played. This turned out to be beneficial for me--another surprise--as my first opponent’s unexpected absence created opportunities for me to play all the most highly-rated players from China (loss), Russia (win by timeout), Mongolia (solid win), and India (loss).
One of the most enjoyable parts about playing internationally was eating and chatting with our country teammates at meals. We could talk about everything, but of course, we avoided talking about chess. No reason to give up secrets. The hotel provided us with a large buffet every day, including traditional Brazilian barbecue. My dad was most impressed by the assortment of fresh fruits that tasted like they had just been picked. His favorite was papaya, while I loved the juicy melon.
Sadly, my next surprise was the stomach flu. I had to stay in bed all day. This was unfortunate because I could not go on a day trip to see the city with the rest of the U.S. Team members. It was also fortunate because it did not occur on a match day.
One final surprise was a happy one. I had the opportunity to meet and learn from one of the main US team coaches, Grandmaster Robert Hungaski. Over the course of the tournament, he taught me four key opening variations. His strategic thinking and the clarity with which he explained everything was very important. He helped me grasp the openings even in the short 30-minute time frame we had to prepare before each game. While much of what he taught me was not put to use just then, it has helped me in other tournaments. Actually, on the way back home from Brazil, I stopped by Cleveland to play the Ohio Chess Congress. I just had not played enough chess over the eleven days in Brazil. Due to my newly-refined opening arsenal, I got first place. Participating in this tournament was my mom’s biggest surprise, as she had been waiting for us to come home and could not believe I was playing yet another tournament.
On my first international chess trip, I experienced many surprises, and also found new friends and kind strangers, and learned from a wonderful coach. Next time, nothing will surprise me... right?