Best. Weekend. Of. My. Life.
There is honestly no other way to introduce my first Millionaire Chess experience. I am not saying that it was my best performance ever nor my best tournament ever. I am saying that out of all the weekends I have ever had, whether it was full of chess or not, this was by far the best.
I had no expectations going in except that it would be a cool tournament to meet some famous grandmasters. With a new Olympic gold medal under his belt, I have to admit I was most excited to meet Sam Shankland and have him sign my chessboard. Equally exciting were my prospects of meeting Jeffery Xiong and Varuzhan Akobian. I was also excited to see friends and make new ones.
When I arrived at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City on Thursday night, I felt a little nervous. I hadn’t done as much opening prep as I wanted to do. My coach was encouraging but I worried what I had spent all this time studying was never going to be enough. I didn’t think it would help, however, to cram any of it that night. Instead, I went to see friends and was happy to reconnect with them.
MY DAY ONE:
I suppose I was right to be nervous as my first game was an absolute nightmare. I do not recall another game I ever played where I felt as paralyzed as I did in that one. It was frustrating to experience that in my first round of the tournament. My attitude turned sour and I was not feeling positive as I went into my next game, which was better, but still ended in a loss. With two games left, I could not afford to feel discouraged, though. I was facing a lower rated opponent which meant I needed to win. Fueled by necessity, I went on to win the game. Then, I won the next, against someone who was higher rated than the two players I lost to. The night ended well, therefore, and my faith in myself was restored.
MY DAY TWO:
I was more determined the next morning. Cheered by the fact that the time control was longer, I felt ready… but like the previous day, I started my day with a loss. Following that was another loss. I was crushed. I lost a lot of confidence. I desperately searched for the way to recover quickly and found it friends and a good meal with them. After all, I had achieved “not the best result, but good company and good food are the most important things in life.”
MY DAY 3:
The next day started just as disastrously. I could tell I was going to lose my game about halfway through, but I still fought for a draw. I began to count how many people had higher results than I had. I was vying for the U1200 prize in the U1600 section, so my overall tournament results actually did not matter so long as I made the top 5 under 1200 for some prize money in return. I counted four people with more points than I had, so at that point, I could only try for 5th place money: $600. I figured the money would be split for 5th place because there was no online mention of a playoff for the prize, and I was satisfied that I would be receiving some money.
I returned to my room, content to be receiving some $200 (I counted a 3 way tie for 5th). Because a friend had made the open section’s Millionaire Monday playoff, I returned to the hall about half an hour after the scheduled playoff time to watch him.
Imagine my surprise when I read a flyer on a board claiming the U1600 section had playoffs for the U1200 prize.
My name was on the list!
I scrambled to ask the first man I saw for the time and he just happened to be Maurice Ashley. I was half an hour late! I had missed the playoff!
I hightailed it into the room where the playoff was occurring and was relieved to see that it had not yet begun. My heart was racing from my sprint into the room. I sat down at my seat and tried to make sense of my situation. Firstly, it was clear that I did not know how to count. There was a 4 way tie for the last place to qualify for Millionaire Monday. I had completely miscounted and would perhaps be eligible for the finals. Secondly, I knew I didn’t have much blitz practice. I heard so many quotes that blitz rots your brain and had limited my blitz play immensely throughout the years. I never liked the pressure of the quickness, either.
Luckily, I had friends to support me. My nerves were at an all-time high as I realized I could qualify to play in Millionaire Monday for more money and some temporary fame. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling, though, except to calm myself down.
With many hugs, a few handshakes, reassuring squeezes, and exclamations of good luck, I started my games.
It was a double round robin, but one of the players failed to show up. I played two girls, twice each, and emerged the winner by some miracle. Only one game made it to Chess24’s broadcast.
That meant I needed to brace myself for the more intense games that awaited. I had dinner with my friends and was happy to learn that two of them had made it to their respective matches for the following day. After small celebrations, we retired to our rooms to prepare for the real battle: Millionaire Monday.
MY DAY 4: MILLIONAIRE MONDAY:
The next morning, I felt tired but excited. I can clearly remember trying to soak in all the prestige of the playing hall.
“You made it here to the Hall of Champions,” Maurice said in a speech before we started our games. No, we were playing in the U.S. or World Chess Championship. We wouldn’t be glorified for this our whole lives. But we were already champions in our own right and on our own scale. In that moment before we started our games, I felt pride and accomplishment I had never experienced so overwhelmingly before.
And that made it all worth it.
Of course, we still had games to play.
Mine were all blurred together. I won every game as white and lost every game as black. I do not feel the need to go into explaining them, but you can see the games on Chess24. I’m not particularly proud of them as they were born in desperation and the quick ticking down of a clock. I was living on adrenaline, as anyone would in this situation. Regardless, I fought with an opponent back and forth for hours, eventually playing the only Armageddon of the tournament. It was my first ever Armageddon game, which I lost. This landed me third place, as one man in the section failed to show up. I was disappointed but at the same time grounded by the fact that I never thought I would even make it to Millionaire Monday.
CELEBRATIONS & LESSONS:
Later, I honestly felt I was celebrating not only my third place, but I was overwhelmingly happy for the sake of my friends, GMs Dariusz Swiercz and Cristian Chirila, who won the Open Section and the Under 2550 prize within the Open. Feeling happy for my friends’ successes made the celebration meal all the more exciting, as my company included people who were in good moods. From this celebratory dinner, I learned something else that was valuable to the tournament experience: the sense of community through chess. Everyone celebrated in their own way. Every chess player, I feel, understands what it is like to fit in, to find a place in the chess world. I had never felt I had such a good group of friends, or at least company, at a tournament as I did at Millionaire. I feel that no tournaments henceforth will ever as enjoyable because the company would not be quite the same. In this group, I felt a comfortable belonging, maybe bordering on a small family.
Despite all the positives, I had a lot of personal issues that arose from the tournament. Going into the event, I had many hopes that somewhat became failures by the end. I had pushed myself to be playing better chess. Even though I was constantly paired with people rated more than 200 points higher than I was, I felt I had studied enough to hold against them. At the end of the initial seven rounds, I felt quite disappointed in my 2/7 score, even though I knew I was the 61st seed out of 65 in the U1600 section. It seemed like I was never going to improve and sometimes I still feel that way. This is probably the attitude and discouragement that turns many people away from chess.
I didn’t expect to win. It was simply unrealistic. Despite this, I wanted to do better. After all, I had decided months ago that I would play in the tournament and had been training since. Sometimes the little improvements aren’t that obvious, though. A grandmaster friend once told me chess isn’t about results. I feel that when my coach tells me my games have been much better. I feel that when I play a good game and lose, but I know I can learn a lot from it. I think it takes great courage to overcome a bad result. It takes courage to keep going. I think you have to understand that it will never be easy, but you push through anyway.
Additionally, as long as chess remains fun, it will be worth it. Tournaments like Millionaire teach us the importance of having fun in the midst of pressure. It was exciting, it was intense, and it was everything I could have hoped for. It was the culmination of every little bit of happiness and excitement of the roller coaster ride that was Millionaire Chess 3 that made it so successful. I doubt I will ever have a tournament experience quite like Millionaire Chess again. I’m extremely dismayed that this past tournament was perhaps the last Millionaire. I hope one day it may be able to make a comeback, that it will find support like never before, but no matter what, I will always remember my experience there fondly.
CONGRATULATIONS AND THANK YOUS:
To close, I would like to congratulate all the winners, especially Dariusz Swiercz.
I would also like to thank the people vital to this amazing weekend. Amy Lee and Maurice Ashley get the bulk of my thanks for organizing the best tournament of my life. They are truly inspiring and I admire their efforts to hold such an event. My coach, Isaac, deserves so much thanks for his support before, during, and after the tournament. I could not have done anything without him.
My sincerest thanks to Alejandro Ramirez, Alice Dong, Sophie Morris-Suzuki, Dariusz Swiercz, Yaro Zherebukh, and Cristian Chirila for being the best tournament company I could ever hope for. Many thanks to Arthur and Joel for your dedication to cheering me on, and to Alex Wiener, Greg Shahade, and Fabi who gave me so much love online. Lastly, I owe many thanks to David Llada for taking the time to photograph so many amazing pictures of me, despite the obligation to take pictures for the overall tournament.