This story starts in early September, just a few weeks before the 2016 Chess.Com Isle of Man International was to take place and much closer to the event start date than a typical ‘chess Eurotrip’ should begin to be planned. Previously I knew the IOM international was a strong tournament, now going into its 3rd edition, but assumed it would be too expensive to fly to some random island in the UK and play a tournament for 10 days and so I didn’t look into it much.
Then a beloved non-chess friend offhandedly mentioned that a round-trip flight to Dublin, Ireland was surprisingly cheap (starting at $400, plus some annoying baggage fees). Upon hearing this news I immediately looked up where the Isle of Man actually was (turns out, close to Dublin!) and started calculating as to whether the trip was feasible. I was aware that the tournament would be packed with GMs, including the U.S. Big 3 (Naka, Fabi, & Wesley) and would be an excellent opportunity to go for a norm. The final norm…
So while flying to Dublin and then to IOM and back seemed plausible, I didn’t want to do it alone. So I asked IM Keaton Kiewra if he would be interested in joining. Keaton is currently on his own quest for the GM title and having roomed with him in previous tournaments, I figured he may be down to join and a great travel companion. Well, he was down, a little skeptical at first about making such a trip on short notice, but eventually said “YOLO” and we started booking our trip.
We decided to spend a few days in Dublin to get used to the time difference and also because we wanted to take the opportunity to do some sightseeing. This turned out to be a great decision, as Keaton and I share a mutual love for trying new cuisine, and Irish food did. not. disappoint. It started with a huge Irish breakfast, followed by several feasts throughout our brief stint in Dublin. We also tried Guinness beer, which rumor has it actually tastes better in Dublin, due to the water (?), and again we were not disappointed. It was much better than any Guinness I’ve ever had, smooth and dark and overall delicious. A local friend also suggested this speakeasy in the heart of Dublin which served some gorgeous cocktails:
The so-called “Dirty Wizard”
OK so now it was time to go to the Isle of Man and actually play some chess. Based on my rating, I was slated to play against someone in the top 8-15 or so, and as it turned out, I got paired with GM Alexei Shirov. Yep, former number two in the world/world championship candidate/overall tactical genius Shirov. A player I followed when I was growing up and always amazed by. I went into the first round ready to fight and fully expecting him to play 1.e4 and checkmate me. Well to my surprise he trotted out 1.d4, traded queens in the opening and quickly played a technical gem.
Kostya sticking to his beloved King’s Indian vs. Alexei Shirov (Photo: Mike Klein)
In Round 2 I defeated an FM whose FIDE rating had dropped below 2100, so a tough fight regardless of the rating difference. Then in Round 3 I was paired up again, this time against GM Sunilduth Lyna Narayanan, who outplayed me in a sharp Nimzo and won with Black. In Round 4 I played another sub-2100 player, tricked him in the King’s Indian and won a smooth game. Round 5 gave me another crack at a strong player, IM Martin Zumsande from Germany. I focused on playing solid with White and we drew close to move 40.
So, I broke the cycle! It felt good to gain a positive result against a higher rated opponent, even if it was just a simple draw, and it meant that I would play up again the next round, raising my rating average for norm purposes. In Round 6 I was paired with GM Tiger Hillarp Persson, a well-known figure in the chess world whose sharp and dynamic style has scored him many beautiful wins. I played the King’s Indian once again and after a tough battle ended up losing, though not without my chances. In the post-mortem Tiger was exceptionally friendly and generous with his advice, and even said that I had “great King’s Indian instincts”, which I immediately blushed at and could only respond with “Wow, that’s high praise :)”.
With IM Keaton Kiewra in Dublin, trying our 1st (or was it 2nd…maybe 3rd?) pint of Guinness
Despite the loss my mood was quite decent–there was still everything to play for with three rounds to go, not to mention my good mood after speaking with Tiger about our game. In Round 7 I was paired against WIM Dharia Parnali, who held me to a draw in the first round of the Cannes Chess Festival earlier this year. This time the game had an opposite progression. She outplayed me in the opening, equalized easily with Black and even started playing for the win at some point–but in a tricky R+B vs. R+N ending I managed to seize the initiative and win the game. Despite my bad play in the opening, I was happy to stay tough and find my chances in the endgame.
Back to an even score, in Round 8 I played up again, facing IM Antony Bellaiche from France. I did some quick norm math and realized that a win in this round would give me theoretical chances based on who I played in the final round. So I prepared my favorite King’s Indian for a few hours and pumped myself up before the game (by listening to Eminem, of course). What followed was a far-from-perfect but fascinating struggle where I managed to come out on top. I was especially happy upon seeing that from move 30 until the end of the game I found the absolute “only-moves” to decide matters in my favor.
The final round–Kostya gets pretty nervous during chess games. (Photo: Mike Klein)
Now with 4.5/8 my well-versed norm calculating skills dictated that in the last round, to achieve a 2450 performance I would need just a draw if I played someone rated 2583 or higher, whereas only a win would suffice if their rating was 2582 or lower. And then it was as if the pairing was handed down from destiny itself: White against GM Babu Lalith, 2586 FIDE. Now Lalith is a strong player no doubt, but he could have just as easily been rated 2582 for this event, and if so I would need to beat him if I wanted to earn my last norm. So I felt it was kind of divine providence that all I needed was a draw, with White! How hard could it be?
Well a disappointing finish, but what are you gonna do, not play chess? We all know that’s not an option 🙂 . Ending with 4.5/9 really ain’t bad, I gained about 16 points and had a wonderful time in Europe, trying so much amazing food and really enjoying the “one-round-a-day” culture, where you get ample time to prepare and rest after each round! A week after this event ended I played in the 2016 Spice Cup, my recap of which will soon be posted on US Chess. Until next time!
Kostya Kavutskiy is a professional chess player, coach, and author currently residing in Mountain View, CA. His first book, Modernized: The Open Sicilian was published in February 2015. For more of Kostya, check out his official Twitter and blog.