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Winning the US Team Chess Championships

Ethan Li, Managing Editor

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With seconds left on the clock, I dragged my queen to d7. Check… perpetual check! Just like that, we became champions.

National champions.

The gravitas of the moment felt lacking for some reason. The kitchen-living room where we played our games felt too casual, and the ICC boards illuminating our computer screens so resembled the same boards we played blitz on everyday. Yet one moment we were four teenagers, whiling away a Saturday evening playing chess, and the next…

It’s funny how things can change in a moment.

*        *        *        *        *

A year earlier, my team had faced the same situation. We had won the US Amateur Team East Championship and qualified for the playoffs, but in the finals we fell short. USAT North champions “Got Mate?” bested us 2.5-1.5 in a heartbreaking match riddled with furrowed brows, bitten nails, and petulant sighs.

While painful, the loss taught us invaluable lessons. We had been too relaxed in our pregame preparation, and, conversely, during the match we had been too serious, overly concerned about things outside our control. For example, we would frequently check on each other’s games, a frivolous practice that distracted us from our own position.

This year was different. We learned from our mistakes.

“We . . . had a stronger drive to win and prove ourselves as not only East champions, but as national champions,” says Warren, our third board. Fueled with this determination, we swept the Amateur Team East with a 6-0 score, and we began preparing for the playoffs immediately after the pairings were released.

Fast-forward two months: we were all gathered in Warren and Wesley’s living room. The TV played Tottenham vs. Chelsea on low volume while the four of us reviewed our preparation a final time. Finally, the clock struck one. It was game time.

In the first round of the playoffs, we won against USAT South Champions “Mode Beast” without too much trouble, since one of their players was unfortunately unable to play.

We had made the finals again, but, unlike last year, we were not nervous. The previous year’s loss had sobered us to the reality of the situation: nothing was guaranteed. Rather than thinking we could become national champions, we instead focused on each playing the best games we could. Our mindset had changed.

For the final match, we were paired against USAT West winners “XCell Chess Club,” who scored an upset victory in round one against the USAT North team “Fake Moves.” Suffice to say, we were prepared for a difficult match.

Jason, our fourth board, finished his game first by skillfully converting a middlegame advantage. “I exterminated my opponent’s attack and got . . . a great position in the endgame,” he summarizes.

 

On board two, Wesley also won, precisely exploiting a blunder to secure the full point. “The blunder at first didn’t seem like such a critical success because of the pleasant positions we all had, but in the end, it became [an integral] win.”

 

That left just Warren and myself. We needed just half a point from either of us to lock down the victory, and both of our positions were highly promising. But then we slipped. The siren song of victory unbalanced us, and both Warren and I spiraled down a slope of mistakes. Soon afterwards, Warren lost and my own position continued to worsen.

As I watched my position deteriorate, my mind flitted back to last year’s finals. I remembered the pain of losing after coming so far, and for a moment I felt a paralyzing fear. I was afraid to lose, afraid to let my teammates down, afraid—like countless other chess players—that I had squandered a perfectly good game.

But fear does not win championships.

The important thing to do in any difficult position is to move forward. So I took a deep breath, and dove back into the position. I was prepared to play a tiebreaker should my opponent win, but I was also determined to fight as hard as possible to save the game. My teammates were of a similar mentality. “I was a little deflated, when I saw Ethan got a bad position,” remembers Jason, “but [I] was ready to play another round of chess.”

“In the final moments, all of us were crouched around Ethan’s screen to observe his game. When [he] pulled out a perpetual check we all jumped up and screamed “Yes!” at the same time, Jason recalls. “I couldn’t believe we’d done it,” he says, shaking his head.

“Immediately after the draw was accepted, the four of us erupted into roars, laughter and hugs,” remembers Wesley.

“It was exhilarating,” Warren echoes. “I remember when I first attended the USATE, way back in 2009 . . . I always wondered what it would feel like to win the tournament and then the playoff. Our team made that . . . dream a reality yesterday.”

Looking back, I believe it was our team’s mindset that facilitated our success. I believe that our newfound uncompromising tenacity would have given us strong chances even if the final round had gone to a tiebreaker. Regardless, it was definitely best to not worry too much about winning. We wanted to win, of course, but we were more focused on making good moves, and that allowed us to play at an elevated level. Ultimately, our result stemmed from this blend of relaxed determination.

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Winning the US Team Chess Championships