Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Setback

Richie lost his first round in the Nationals. While always mindful that in chess anything can happen in any given game, I must admit that I had some expectation that he would be in the hunt for top honors longer than the first game!

My initial reaction when Richie emerged from the playing room looking less than thrilled was of course to be disappointed. I had mentally prepared myself for this moment but I wasn't expecting it to come so soon. I knew that we had built up in his mind the importance of the Nationals. The whole point of even going is to give him something to strive for, to learn to set goals and push himself, etc. But the consequence of the build up is that if you stumble along the way, the let down is greater.

I have to confess that I more or less assumed that Richie blundered his queen or blitzed out his moves without thinking. But after reviewing the game with him, I realized that his loss was directly related to some of the combination exercises he had worked on recently--unfortunately, combinations (where you initially sacrifice material, but regain it through a tactical follow-up) introduce an element of risk into the game because they require accurate calculation a couple of moves ahead at least and if they fail you're usually left worse off. In this case, the combination was actually quite deep (in its intended form) but he didn't recognize that one of his opponent's replies created an immediate forcing response that saved the position. Still, the fact that he was even looking for this type of combination is something that was a direct result of his recent training exercises so I can hardly find fault with him for trying. My next thought was that he failed to put up resistance after he was down material and just gave up without fighting. In reality, he posed his opponent multiple tactical threats over the course of the game and even baited some clever traps, any one of which could have swung the balance, but to his credit, his opponent dodged them all and even found some very strong responses and eventually finished the game off solidly.

Richie generally handles losses with relative equanimity. This one was a little different. I asked how he felt and he defiantly replied, "fine," but I could tell he was upset because he knew that his chances for first place were probably over already.

Well, I suppose that situations like this are where the real life lessons are learned and I was actually looking forward to sharing the whole "a man's character is measured by how he reacts to adversity" thing, but before that, step one was just to cheer him up.

I had told him a few days ago about some of the world champions and what I thought made each of them so great. I told him that Paul Morphy was like a force of nature -- he was a great attacker and defeated his opponents right out of the opening. I told him that Capablanca played beautiful simple looking moves that created tiny advantages and was the best in the world at converting his advantage in the endgame. And I told him that Bobby Fischer was one of the most consistent players ever -- move after move, he just didn't make mistakes.

I raised his right hand and I said, "You had Paul Morphy, right here in this hand, look at the way you charged out in the opening and planned that combination," and I raised his left hand and said, "and Capablanca was right here waiting patiently to finish the game off in style," and then I searched in his left pocket and I searched in his right pocket and I said, "but you forgot to bring Bobby Fischer with you!" "Richie, Richie don't forget about me! You didn't here him calling for you?" He laughed. We hugged. We watched a Pokemon movie together.

In a calmer moment, we had the talk about setbacks and adversity and character.

While Richie was playing the next round, Julian stopped by to wish him well. I think he had heard about his first round loss and wanted to cheer him up but he had to leave for his own game before Richie could see him. I delivered the message.

"Richie, you just missed Julian. He came by to cheer you up and give you encouragement. Wasn't that a nice thing for him to do for you?"

"Yes. Well. That's O.K. Tell him 'Thanks, I'm already cheered up.'"

Never underestimate a kid's resilience.

[On a technical sidenote: it is possible to win a 50 player tournament even after losing the first round, but it's unlikely unless you came into the event seeded #1 or #2 especially in a field where the strengths span a wide range (Richie was seeded #5). The reason is that even if you win the rest of your games, in order to be picked to play against the tournament leader you need to be in clear 2nd place or have the highest rating among players tied for 2nd going into the last round (that haven't already played the leader. A series of upsets in this particular tournament is fairly unlikely due to the wide ratings span.]

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