Yermo's travels: USA triumphs in abbreviated World Senior Teams

by Alex Yermolinsky
3/14/2020 – The World Senior Team Championships in Prague ended prematurely, Thursday, after 7 rounds due to the looming Coronavirus epidemic. In the 50+ tournament, the favoured USA team lived up to expectations by winning with a full point margin. The top 65+ team, Russia, also took top honours, but only on better board point tiebreak over the second-placed French. GM Evgeny Sveshnikov, who played a fantastic tournament with 5½/6 shortly after his 70th birthday. | Report and photos: ALEX YERMOLINSKY

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Anticlimactic finish in a frantic climate

As you probably know the 2020 World Senior Team Championship was called off after 7 rounds of play. A great effort was made by the organizers to get this tournament going long enough until it was fit to be put in the books. All the great people that were involved in this did the best they could under very trying circumstances, and deserved to be lauded.

The USA team won it for the third year in row, finishing with 5 match wins and two ties, making it 12 points. Three teams finished one match point behinds us, that is Lasker Schachstiftung of Germany, the top host team Czech Republic 1, and Iceland. This is the order of tie-breaks, which was set by a technical forfeit win by Lasker over "USA TOO" by the count of 4-0 and two quickly agreed 2-2 matches that featured 8 draws between them that likely didn't reach 100 moves all combined.

USA team

USA team at the closing ceremony

I'm far from being proud of being a part of this finish, but the first six rounds of play were all about chess, and very little about that pesky little virus that intends to murder us all. Since my qualifications in the fields of epidemiology and general medical science are non-existent, and my expert advice on maintaining social order during emergencies cannot be trusted, I think I'd do my best by sticking to the chess matters, however I'm tempted to throw in an occasional half-witty remark, for which I apologize (although not really because I couldn't care less...You get my drift?).

So, we return to "Day C-2" — i.e. March 10, 2020 — two days before we learned of President Trump's Wednesday night announcement of new travel restrictions into the USA. We faced Czech 1, and we did rest our leader and team captain Alex Shabalov. It's rather that he rested himself, because we don't practice democracy in our team affairs, considering it an archaic custom hardly fit for running a tight ship. As we're now on Day C+1, and you have been glued to your computer screens reading the news for longer than you can remember, and you simply cannot stop, as you silently scream about something that needs to be done (or not to be done); an objective observer would credit us with some foresight, at least we didn't lack leadership.

Anyway, Shabalov sat that one out, and we posted the bottom four line-up, which in the old days of slow-paced 14-round long Chess Olympiads was a rarely used, but dangerous weapon. We christened it the Danger Squad, and generally had some surprisingly good results with it, including a key win in the last round of the 1996 Olympiad in Yerevan over Georgia that got us the bronze.

Gregory Kaidanov moved up to Board 1 to face Zbynek Hracek, the second-highest rated player in the entire event.

 

A key win it proved to be as the author of these words missed clear chances to make the margin of victory more convincing.

 

Still, a 2½:1½ win was enough to place USA two point ahead of the field, going into Round 6.

Our team line-up rotation schedule continued the next day when we played top contender Lasker team.

Team Lasker

Team Lasker

Not to overstate my own importance, but I always have a bad feeling when my team plays without me. Am I a lucky charm or just good at chess? Likely, not the latter. It's just bad things happen while I impotently watch from the sidelines. We got beat by England in Dresden and nearly lost to Italy in Rhodes. Every match I played in the US Senior Team has won, except for the Iceland match last year. More about upholding this venerable tradition a bit later in the article, but I digress. Let's go the games.

 

This was the first loss by Shabba in three times he led our team. Such things happen to everyone, particularly in our age group. Graf himself lost a bizarre game to Lubo Ftacnik (pictured) two days earlier when he forgot about the clock while trying to win a better ending. Lubo didn't mind.

Speaking of old friends I saw many familiar faces. Some I thought I'd never see again. Take Margeir “the Icelandic Strangler” Petursson (don't ask me where the moniker comes from, but we both cherish that memory).  I heard rumors of Margeir settling down in some former Soviet Republic, but still, when I saw him last year in Rhodes he greeted me in more than a passable Russian. How's that for self-improvement late in life?

Petursson and Ftacnik

Petursson and Ftacnik

Back to the match. Kaidanov-Jussupow was anticipated as the rekindling of an old Moscow rivalry, but the game never took off the ground and was agreed drawn after Arthur's aggressive opening play met no refutation.

On the next board our birthday boy Joel played in his trademark unorthodox style, starting with the Bogo, and then pushing his pawns forward while most of his army was huddling on the back rank. The win was there, and then it was gone.

 

Somebody had to win to salvage the match, and as it later turned down, our tournament as well. Igor Novikov answered the call.

 

Later the same night we went to an upscale restaurant downtown to celebrate — no, I should say, observe Joel's birthday. We sat on the deck, about six stories high up, but due to a chilly weather we were enclosed in a something that looked like an escape pod, albeit complete with white cloth and nice silverware.

"C-Day" started early for Joel, who received a 2 AM call from his wife who urged him to drop everything and come home immediately. The rest of us learned the news at breakfast table. Thoughts were instantly turned away from chess. This whole scene was eerily resembling some high school reunion function where every person was for themselves, feverishly typing with clumsy fingers and peering at small screens. Captain Shabalov took charge. He quickly emailed the USCF to ask what their position was. Despite this being 2 AM Eastern Time in the U.S. the answer came almost right away. It was left to our judgment how to handle the situation. Trump imposed deadline was some 40+ hours away...

Then we saw team USA TOO, with their bags in a tow, move toward the doors. GM Sokolin explained that they were dropping out of the tournament and heading for the airport. This settled their match with Lasker at 0-4. Not like we cared so much. Lasker was two points behind and couldn't catch us unless we lost to Iceland.

It is time to reveal our long-kept secret. The hero of yesterday's match, GM Igor Novikov, had long since back to Ukraine and works as a travel agent. Igor quickly went to work, exploring our flight options. Some tickets required significant charges to be paid. Back to Captain, who managed to obtain reimbursement guarantees from the Federation.

By 3 PM Shabalov and Benjamin secured seats on the next day flights to beat the return home deadline. Novikov was going back to Kiyv, so he had no issues (not like he wouldn't be able to solve them, if there were any), while Kaidanov and I decided to stay behind. We had our own reasons. Greg came to Prague as part of his European travels together with his wife, so he couldn't abandon her; while I...I really didn't have a good reason to stay, except that I hate the herd mentality on general principle, and rely on a “whatever” strategy in such life situations. Perhaps, I wanted to see how things unfold.

“Broke and dazed down a burning road
Stopped to have a smoke while the world was ending”

Spock's Beard described my mood fairly accurately.

Consumption

I did go out to smoke a cigarette. Deep in my thoughts, I felt strangely calm. I paced around and went near the restaurant entrance, and then I saw this curious sign (left).

If you navigate around the awkward English, you'd understand that it means that in summer time when the tables and chairs are out they should be reserved for customers only. Yet, another meaning of the word “consumption” came to my mind, and I thought, this is it, the segregation has started, the sick will have to sit on the other side. Can the Coronavirus lead to pulmonary tuberculosis?

It was near 3 PM, and we trooped into the side entrance of the main building where new seating arrangements were already made a day ago. According to the orders of the Czech government, all public gatherings  could not exceed 80 people, so half of the 50+ section was moved to a different room. Again, I am simply amazed how the organizers managed to keep the tournament going.

playing hall

A half-empty playing hall

The chess action, was, well, no action at all. Nobody cared anymore. The Czech gave away the silver medals by fixing a tie with Yamal, knowing well that Lasker would overtake them on tie-breaks, thanks to the unearned 4-0 victory over USA TOO, while the Icelandic did us the same favor as back in 1993 at the World Team Championship in Lucerne, again granting us a title-clinching draw.

Closing

A spare closing ceremony

CanadiansThe closing ceremony was a somber affair, with a resigned air of a funeral parlor. Were we really parting for good? Not necessarily because we all are going to die tomorrow, but with chess events now being canceled left and right, will there be another Senior Championship?

C+1 morning I said good-bye to Shabalov and Novikov, and sat down at breakfast to contemplate my options. Luckily, there were the Canadian players (right), who were staying until Sunday. They graciously invited me to join them for a walk downtown.

I had been to Prague before, and one distinctive feature, aside of many historical landmarks, was always crowds.

What I saw today was spooky. Hardly people anywhere, museums and art galleries closed, only with some eateries an souvenir shops still open.

A ghost town

Prague as a relative ghost town

We came back to the hotel for lunch, and then I learned from Delta Airlines that my flight to Minneapolis on Sunday, C+3, has been canceled. Apparently, MSP didn't make a short list of the 13 US airports outfit with medical equipment and personnel necessary to meet Americans returning home.

I duly reported it to our WhatsApp group and sat down to analyze chess games. A few hours later Igor took matters in his capable hands and re-booked me on an Atlanta-bound flight leaving tomorrow, Day C+2, with no extra charges tucked in. What can I say, the man is a genius.

As Day C+1 is coming to midnight, I am finishing this report. I want to thank you all, my dear readers, for being patient with me. Farewell.

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Yermo is enjoying his fifties. Lives in South Dakota, 600 miles way from the nearest grandmaster. Between his chess work online he plays snooker and spends time outdoors - happy as a clam.