Checkmate: Chess Club exceeds expectations at tournament

| Staff Writer
Two masked students sit on opposite sides of a chessboard.

Rannon Huo, WashU’s A-team 4th board, in the middle of a round. (Photo courtesy of Bill Simmons)

In the second round of the 2022 Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, the Washington University Chess Club A-Team faced off against a team of International Masters, all ranked within the top 1600 active chess players in the world. While WashU lost all four games in that round, they exceeded their overall expectations against such high levels of competition and left the tournament with a higher ranking than when they arrived. 

The Chess Club sent two teams to compete in the tournament, which was held in Dulles Virginia from Jan. 6-9. The A-Team consisted of seniors Philip Keisler and Nicholas Bartochowski, sophomore Rannon Huo and second-year PhD student Saumik Narayanan. The B-Team consisted of senior Andrew Shiman, and first-years Josh Warner, Ilan Schwartz and Joseph Badros.

The A-Team entered the tournament as the 20th seed team, and the B-Team entered as the 42nd seed. After the last round, the B-Team ended in 33rd place with a score of 3.0/6.0, while the A-Team ended in 16th place with a score of 4.0/6.0, narrowly missing the medals given to the top 15 teams when it fell behind the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in a tiebreak.

The annual tournament uses a six-round Swiss system, a non-elimination format where teams are ranked by number of wins and then by tiebreak scoring. Each round, every college team was paired against another to play a classical time format chess game. The teams’ members were each ranked by Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) standards and paired against the corresponding member of the opposing team. 

“WashU really outperformed expectations,” Andrew Shiman, club president and B-Team first board, said. “A-Team was 16th, and the field had a lot of Grandmasters and International Masters, so we did a lot better than our rating suggested.”

The tournament had 57 teams in total from different colleges around the country. The level of competition ranged from unrated and novice players to titled players, including 24 chess Grandmasters.

“[The competition] really was very much a mixed bag,” Shiman said. “We played against some pretty decent college teams that had fairly strong tournament players. We played against a team that was mostly professional players when the A-Team played against the SLU B-Team. We also played against some teams with a bunch of very inexperienced players, which we did okay against.”

At the end of each round, the individual scores from each player were added together, and the cumulative score determined the winner of the round. Due to the team nature of the tournament, strategy differed from traditional tournaments.

“Most chess tournaments are individual, so you’re playing for yourself and taking draws or playing aggressively for wins based on your own personal tournament situation,” A-Team member Philip Keisler said. “In a team tournament, the risks you take on the board are much more dependent on how your other boards and other team members are doing, because it’s about winning each match, not necessarily about getting your own personal best score. That can lead to different situations during the match that are a little more complex sometimes.”

A-Team member Saumik Naraayanan similarly noted some of the complexities of team play. “You have to pay attention to more about your teammates as well as yourself,” he said. “In some scenarios, if you only need a draw to win the match, even if you’re winning, you might just take a draw to help your team.”

The tournament was held in the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott. Prior to each round, pairings were released, allowing teams to prepare for their opponents. Then, the teams would play together against their opponents, aiming to have a cumulatively positive score.

“The pairings only come out an hour before the round, but usually we can figure out how we’re going to play,” Naraayanan said. “We’ll figure out who is going to play…what color we’re going to be, and then we all prepare openings. Usually we can figure out what opening our opponents were going to play by doing some sleuthing online. Depending on what openings you think they were going to play, we’d try to prepare our counters, and maybe we’d have a surprise of our own.”

Keisler further described some of the team preparation that took place before rounds that helped the individual players best carry out their games. “[Pre-round], we all go into preparation mode because in chess, the first shot at really getting an advantage is in the opening if you can out-prepare your opponent,” Keisler said. “If your opponent plays the Nimzo-Indian, ‘how can I find some tricky sideline I know better than them?’ We would all prepare each other, so Saumik was helping me with some lines [and] Nick would go to his computer and look up a bunch of crazy lines where we could sacrifice a bunch of material on. Then we’d all go down to the board together to start playing our games next to each other.”

Correction: We have updated this story as of 10:19 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 7 to reflect that Andrew Shiman was the B-team first board, not third board.

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