Peter John McLean :: all

Chess Tournaments: Soviet era clocks, opening knowledge, Stockfish, and how to make friends

So I played in my first USCF chess tournament last weekend. It was in Terre Haute, which is about four hours away from where I live in South Bend. It was a team tournament, meaning that I, and three friends, got up at four in the morning to drive four hours before the sun had even risen, so we could sit very quietly, moving pieces of plastic across a board.

It was awesome.

The Roundup

I would have never thought to myself, oh hey, there is a chess tournament on the other side of the state that starts at like nine in the morning, maybe I could completely rearrange my sleep schedule and drive all the way there to lose some games against way stronger players. That just isn’t a thought that would come to an introverted Internet chess head like myself.

Luckily, I had my friend Chris to convince me (and two other guys) that we simply had to do it. It’s great to have friends like this, who convince you of the awesome shit you have to do and then not take no for an answer. Of course, with a little convincing from Chris, we were all down to try it out. Two of us, including me, had never played in a tournament before, so that alone meant this would be a pretty cool new experience.

Chess Tournament Culture / How to Make Friends

Chess players can be a little weird. At least, if you are not a chess player, chess players can certainly seem weird. Walking through the building, before, during, and after matches you could hear people gathered in corners, muttering to each other about bad bishops and passed pawns, opening theory, and how “I was totally up five pawns in the opening, but screwed up this stupid bishop sac and then I just hung everything.”

If, however, you are an active chess player with at least a couple years experience, this is a great thing. Chess can be a lonely hobby if, like me and just about everyone else, you got started by playing online. But by finding a club near where you live, you start playing with other passionate people in your area, you can start to meet friends who share an important interest with you.

I was just thinking about that the other day. Basically everyone I know is either a writer or a chess player, because those are the two driving factors in my life. Some of my friends are both.

Aside from one muffin topped ATAT looking guy who couldn’t find pants or a shirt that fit and who told my friend that he hadn’t been concentrating at all during the game (my friend got a draw against him, even though he was about six hundred points weaker in rating), everyone else was really cool. Whether we were outside smoking and talking, or over the board, or sharing comments about one of the live games in the tournament, the whole place was filled with likeminded and friendly people.

It was standing around, listening to a bunch of people excitedly talking about chess that I realized that chess is a hobby that brings a lot of people together. No matter where you go in the world, if you play chess, you can find people nearby who are as into the game as you are. You can make lasting friendships over the game.

In fact, while I was road tripping across the state, one of the guys in the car, nicknamed Wildcard for awesome reasons, was talking about how his work at a community center led him to play chess with a homeless guy who he was having trouble relating to. It just brought us all back to the point that chess can unify people when they have basically nothing else in common.

If you are introverted, shy, lonely, or have moved to a new place and can’t find friends, you should think about playing chess.

Losing Chess Games

I lost all three of my games. This, to people with big egos or other personality disorders, may seem really disappointing. After all, I got up at four am and drove across the entire state just to play in this tournament. But actually, I’m kind of glad I lost.

I played three really strong players and they, well, played really strongly. I took my time with my moves, considered my options, applied three and a half years of tactics, positional knowledge, opening, middle game, and endgame skill, and whatever experience I’ve gleaned from just playing a lot of damn chess. I still lost.

However, imagine if the opposite had happened. I had driven four hours and got placed with very weak players who hung their queens and then just resigned on the sixteenth move because I had taken all of their pieces without any effort.

If that had happened, I really would have been disappointed.


A couple of days after the tournament, I looked over my three games with a friend who is a much stronger player than I am. He told me that I had lost all three games in the opening, rapidly pointing out far superior moves that I could have played and showing how I gave up center space and tempo without gaining virtually any counter play at all.

Looking at the games with him, it became pretty obvious that my opening skill is weak. I’ve done this on purpose, because the worst thing a new chess player can do is waste his time studying opening theory when he doesn’t understand basic tactics, positioning, or endgame play. The funniest thing in the world is to watch some wood pusher play out fifteen book moves in the Sicilian just to later show that he can’t even find mate with a rook and a king.

But this happens and you don’t want to be that guy.

Instead, I learned from the tournament that before I play more tourneys I need to take some time to really book up on key openings and understand how to reply to them. I won’t waste hundreds of hours memorizing every possible response to 1.d4 but I could at least figure out the functional responses to it and its subsequent lines of play.

In tournaments, any decent player will have a strong opening repertoire so if, like me, you don’t know much about openings you may begin losing positionally pretty early on.


I have never spent time with computer analysis. I just play games and study them after and can usually find my own errors pretty easily.

However, one of the guys that I was with brought his laptop so they could analyze their games afterward and it is definitely a worthwhile thing to do. Computer analysis can easily show you where you go from a winning position to a losing one in a single move or a set of bad moves and by identifying these, you can make better decisions in future games.

We Won First Place

And yeah, my team tied with two other teams for first place. The reason it worked out that way was our team did surprisingly well against a very good team, that then didn’t do as well in a couple of other matches as well. Since we did well in a couple of those matches, even though we didn’t win any more games, it gave us a win against a team that needed a loss to even us up. We also received a bye for the first round, which counts as a win.

So I went to a chess tournament, lost all of my games, and I won first place.

How cool is that?

Oh, and every clock you see at a chess tournament looks like it was built during the Soviet era.

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