Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sicilian Defense, why hast thou forsaken me?

Chess has become a big part of my life since summer started. I began playing chess when I was six or thereabouts, but I had no idea what I was doing. I read a lot of books - my favorite was Hypermodern Chess, a commentary on Aron Nimzovich's famous games by Fred Reinfeld - but I'd just read the commentary and look at the pictures without figuring out what was actually going on. Then I spent about a decade forgetting how to play chess, until I found out that I was friends with the top two chess players at my school.

Now, I have a real competitive streak - anybody who's familiar with me is nodding knowingly right about now. It could even be argued that I started this blog because I wanted to keep up with Kelly and her blogging. So naturally I set out to catch up with a "nation's top 100" type (if anyone knows Jay Kumar at UC Berkeley, this is him) and someone who's been playing chess tournaments as long as I've been avoiding the game. One thing led to another, and soon I was the guy with his nose in an opening book and his free hand on a portable chessboard during a trip through Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. LAMAR VALLEY, f'chrissakes!

I'm actually pretty good at this chess thing, and I made the school team this year. I don't actually know how I match up with the other team members, because it's a ladder system: new members start at the bottom and work their way up with challenge matches. I DO know that I'm not in the top 3; there's a couple of CRAZY freshmen, plus one of the "two best at my school" people (he's not anymore, though - hee), occupying those slots. But for someone who's been playing chess for half a year, being in that nebulous area between 4th and 8th ain't half bad.

Anyway, I wrote this post pretty much for one reason, that being that I played my first game in an actual match today. We played French Defense (I need to study either that or Nimzoindian, since they're the two obvious openings after 1. d4 e6), and I was actually doing pretty well. I was winning positionally in the endgame - I had an unassailable pawn duo on the 5th rank - and my opponent only had 6 seconds left on the clock. But I lost! My opponent was moving really fast, in order to avoid losing time (if he moved within 5 seconds, he didn't lose any time), and instead of taking my time, I decided to give him less time to think by playing fast myself. BIG mistake. I broke my pawn line with an ill-timed advance, and his king tied my rook down, which allowed him to get a passed pawn and win. With 6 freakin' seconds left on the clock. Note to self: If you have 15 minutes left and your opponent has 15 seconds, you left that time there for a reason. USE IT. Blargh.

OTOH, I'm still happy that I outplayed my opponent to that point. And it's not like my loss killed our chances, since EVERYONE lost (except for Dittmer, and he only won on time after being down pieces). Monta Vista really is a strong team. I look forward to playing them again later this year; I bet I'll be stronger, and I definitely won't make the same rookie mistake I made this time. It's only the second time I've played a real-life timed match - I'll just have to get used to the fundamentals of time-constrained play.

So if that was the point, why the title, you ask? Simple: Sicilian was the opening I wanted to play as Black against e4. It was awesome and cool and complicated and...and...and I was horrible at it. I never really understood the rationale behind some of the common elements (like the e6-d6 pawn center) and I had no idea how to take advantage of the opponent's mistakes. Plus the kingside fianchetto always fell apart in ways that didn't happen when I played King's Indian Defense off d4 (though I wasn't great at that either). Although Sicilian is notable for being an aggressive counterattack on Black's part, I always got locked into certain positions and my mobility fell to zilch as White attacked my pawn structure (the e6-d6 pawn formation often left the d-pawn weak, plus White got to advance his f-pawn a lot, which didn't help my constricted formation). I might experiment with it a bit now, since it's been a month or so since I last seriously played it and I might have some new insights, but I'm still annoyed at how badly I played that opening. Any hints from any experienced chess players who happen to read this post would be appreciated (I'm looking at you, CEETTN of the pit of malice).