How to Ace the South-East Easter Tour

Fri, 2013-04-26 09:44 -- IM Max Illingworth

How to Ace the South-East Easter Tour

The Doeberl Cup, Sydney International Open and Thailand Open form a trio of tournaments all within close proximity of each other (both in time and location). Not many players play all three tournaments, and of those who do, nearly all have at least one bad tournament. While I managed to ace this tour in 2011, scoring an IM norm in Bangkok, what would have been an IM norm in the Doeberl Cup but for the lack of foreign players in the tournament (the organisers needed one more overseas player – more on that later), and didn’t have a good SIO, but survived losing -0.6 rating points.

However this post isn’t about me, rather it’s about Australia’s top player Zong-Yuan Zhao (who I’ll henceforth refer to as Zhao) who as far as I know is the first strong player (and definitely the first Australian) to play all three tournaments, gain rating points in all of them and perform way above his rating in one of them. But having achieved a similar (though less impressive) feat myself I’m qualified to say how to maximise your chances of achieving this feat, which is very difficult even for a seasoned professional.

First, one needs a tremendous energy level to be able to play 27 games of chess in the space of three to four weeks. My lack of physical fitness told when I played the 2011 SIO, so I highly recommend being in peak physical condition before playing these three tournaments. Incidentally the schedule of the Doeberl Cup is quite gruelling the tournament is two rounds a day, with Rounds 1 and 3 played at 1pm and Rounds 2 and 4 at 7pm, and then a serious attempt is made to kill the players’ brains with Round 5 at 9:30am the next day (and Rounds 7 and 9 are played at the same time), and Rounds 6 and 8 are played at 3:30pm.

The schedule for the SIO is simpler but not necessarily better, with odd rounds played at 10am and even rounds at 4pm, again with a two game a day schedule for nine rounds. Add to that a one day break between the two events and the Thai Open, and we have the equivalent of running a 20 kilometre marathon. While there was nearly a week’s break between the SIO and Thailand Open this year, in 2011 I had exactly two days to rest between the Thailand Open and Doeberl Cup.

I’d also advise not trying to do this if you are a professional chess player. The reason for this is because the vast majority of professionals are ‘owls’, that is they go to bed late and wake up late. Normally it takes a couple of hours for their brain to fully wake up, and playing in a half-asleep state for even one move is often decisive. In Zhao’s case, he is not a professional or even a semi-professional player (though he could easily become one if he chose), preferring the relatively normal life of a married soon-to-be doctor.

The next step is to find an effective routine for each tournament and stick to it. When I played the three tournaments I would eat all my meals at a similar time, analysed my games briefly as soon as I played them, and had short walks between rounds. It’s helpful if your routine is very flexible but the purpose of such a routine is to take care of all the non-chess things so you can completely focus on your game preparation between rounds.

Sharing with another person not only lowers the cost of the tournaments but also provides a source of emotional support when you get nervous or start beating yourself up over a bad game. In my case I shared with my mum, whereas in the Thailand Open Zhao shared with Fedja Zulfic (one of the other Australians playing the tournament). Given the opulence of the Dusit Thani hotel where the Thailand Open took place, it might be a very good idea from a relationship perspective to take your wife if you are married, though I don’t have any personal experience to judge the impact that has on your chess. You know you’re on to a good routine (or if you’re one of these creative types, the lack of one) when you arrive at each game feeling focused, with a lot of chess ideas (the …Ne7-g6-e5 type).

Let’s briefly return to the subject of food. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who play well regardless of what you eat, but for most it’s very important to choose the right food for each meal. Even a healthy meal of chicken, Asian vegetables and white rice can be inappropriate when eaten just before the game, as white rice is high GI and will quickly take blood from your brain to your stomach while you are playing. So think about what you are eating, remember what you ate when you played well, and most importantly understand your body and the impact the food you eat has on it.

I’ll finish my advice on the non-chess side of acing the tour on the subject of opening preparation. For tournaments with two games a day, you can get away with having a narrow opening repertoire, since if your opening ‘homework’ has been thorough your opponents won’t be able to find a hole in your repertoire and learn your opening better than you in three hours.

However the Thailand Open is one game a day (with the exception of Rounds 2 and 3, played on the same day), so your opponents have time to do serious preparation and not only prepare something dangerous but also establish a good understanding of the middlegame positions beforehand. Therefore it’s advantageous if you can play a wide range of main line openings – though it takes a lot of work and talent to succeed with such an approach. The staple of Zhao’s repertoire for the three tournaments was 1.d4 main lines as White (often using 1.Nf3/1.c4 to reach some 1.d4 openings while avoiding others) and as Black, 1.e4 e5 and the QGD/KID.

Of course, I could have written this ‘how to’ guide in one second with the answer ‘Win your games’! It’s not even necessary to play fantastic chess – what matters in the end is the result of the game. For open tournaments it’s more important to play consistently decent chess than to try to play like a machine. However in the Thailand Open, it was a moment of sheer brilliance at a critical moment that set up Zhao’s first place in the Thailand Open:

[Event "13th BCC Open 2013"]
[Site "Pattaya THA"]
[Date "2013.04.20"]
[Round "8.2"]
[White "Short, Nigel D"]
[Black "Zhao, Zong Yuan"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A07"]
[WhiteElo "2697"]
[BlackElo "2537"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "129"]
[EventDate "2013.04.14"]

1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 c6 4. d3 Bg4 5. Nbd2 Nbd7 6. h3 Bh5 7. g4 Bg6 8. Nh4
e5 9. e3 Bd6 10. Qe2 O-O 11. Nxg6 fxg6 12. h4 Qe7 13. g5 Nh5 14. c4 {In this
position Zhao found an amazing idea that will surely be published all over the
world.} e4 $3 ({The computer prefers} 14... d4 {, but it's very ugly and only
works because of some tactics. Even from an objective point of view I think
Zhao's choice is no less strong.}) 15. dxe4 (15. d4 {avoids an immediate
opening of the centre, but this structure is very good for Black as White has
a backward f2-pawn, plus he still has to connect his rooks. After} Rf7 16. Bh3
c5 17. cxd5 cxd4 18. exd4 Nf4 19. Qxe4 Nxh3 20. Rxh3 Qf8 {Black is just much
better. He might be two pawns down, but he is several pieces ahead in
development and White's king is really weak.}) 15... d4 $3 {I might have
played a lot of exciting games in the Thailand Open, but this is undoubtedly
the move of the tournament! The idea is that Black blocks in White's unopposed
g2-bishop (it is now very passive, defending the e4-pawn and not doing much
else) and takes complete control of the dark squares. White's centre might
look nice after} 16. exd4 {(else ...dxe3 and Black dominates the dark squares
regardless of how White recaptures), but after} Nf4 17. Qf1 c5 18. d5 (18. dxc5
Bxc5) 18... Ne5 {Black is the one who is boss! Black has ideas of ...Nfd3 and
taking on f2, and White's entire army is very passive indeed! The game
continued} 19. Kd1 b5 ({The mundane} 19... Ned3 {intending ...Qe5 and ...Qd4
was perhaps even stronger.}) 20. cxb5 c4 21. f3 Rac8 {Computers still have a
long way to go in chess, as here the engine gives equality but truthfully
White is probably lost here as he can't develop.} 22. Bh3 Rc7 23. Nb1 (23. b3
c3 {is hardly an improvement.}) 23... Nfd3 24. Be6+ Kh8 25. Rh3 Bc5 {In a
desperate situation Short finds a nice idea of sacrificing the queen to keep
Black's king trapped in on h8 and try to construct a fortress, but it doesn't
quite work.} 26. Nc3 Nf2+ 27. Ke2 Nxh3 28. Qxh3 Rxf3 29. Qxf3 Nxf3 30. Kxf3
Qf8+ 31. Bf4 Bd6 32. Ne2 c3 33. bxc3 Bxf4 34. Nxf4 Rxc3+ 35. Kg4 Qa3 36. Rg1
Re3 (36... Rf3 {with the idea of ...Qe3 would have forced an immediate
resignation, but both players were very short of time.}) 37. e5 Rxe5 38. Rg3
Qb4 39. Rb3 Qc4 40. Kg3 (40. b6 {might actually save White after} axb6 41. Ra3
{threatening Ra8 with a back rank mate, and then} h5+ 42. Kg3 Kh7 43. Bf7 Qc8
44. Bxg6+ Kg8 45. Bxh5 {sees the Black king escape, but White has almost
caught up on material and the two pieces do a good job of covering the White
king. Black is still better but if it's a win it will take a very long time.})
40... Qc5 {Now White doesn't get another chance to break out and, with both
sides reaching the time control, the technical process isn't too difficult.}
41. Rf3 Re1 42. Kh3 Re3 43. Rxe3 Qxe3+ 44. Kg4 h5+ 45. gxh6 gxh6 46. Nxg6+ Kg7
47. Ne7 h5+ 48. Kf5 Qf3+ 49. Ke5 Qg3+ 50. Kf5 Qxh4 51. Nc6 Qa4 52. Ke5 Qxb5 53.
Kd6 h4 54. Kc7 Qb6+ 55. Kc8 Kf6 56. a4 a5 57. Kd7 Qe3 58. Kc7 Qg3+ 59. Kb6 h3
60. Bxh3 Qxh3 61. Kxa5 Qb3 62. d6 Qc3+ 63. Kb6 Ke6 64. Nd8+ Kd7 65. Nb7 {White
resigned.} 0-1 

In summary, I think these are the reasons why Yuan managed to have a very successful tour:

• He’s a very strong player, as you can see from his win over Nigel!
• He is extremely physically fit and energetic, although it’s worth noting that he agreed a few quick draws over the 27 games – a good ploy for conserving energy, if your tournament situation allows for it.
• He had a good routine and stuck to it. By the time he got to Thailand he was very focused and ‘fresh’ with a lot of interesting ideas.
• He was able to fully recover after a bad game.

Good luck in next year’s tour – should you choose to test yourself to the maximum. If you’re not up to the challenge, you can always play only the Thailand Open in 2014 and have a fantastic time. I might take that advice.