By Abby Marshall
Last year at the Polgar Invitational in Phoenix I did not have high expectations. I hoped for a nice score and a place in the top five. Mostly, I was just thrilled to be there and get a chance to play other top girls from around the country. Still, my motivation and interest in chess were at an all-time high, and I looked forward to the trip with excitement and dreams of winning. Six days later, after four wins and two draws against players with international titles, I was declared co-champion and awarded a scholarship to UTD.
This year I felt much more edgy and nervous. Naturally, it would feel less special to win this prestigious title again, and, what’s more, I did not think I could do it. Arguably the competition was stronger last year with two players rated 2050 and 2300 respectively, but for some reason, I was less sure of myself and my playing ability. I felt there was little time to prepare for the tournament because I spent several weeks away ón vacation at the beginning of the summer. Also, at the time of the tournament, I had not played a serious game of chess for two months. Finally, last year the family of a friend who was playing in the Denker had taken me to this event and I remember having a lot of freedom in the hotel and around the city. This year my mom, younger sister, and baby brother were coming, and so this meant we were less flexible.
Being the returning champion put me in a difficult situation psychologically. If I finished in any place other than first, it would seem like a big disappointment. I’m not sure what other people thought of my chances, but I knew the competition would be tough with the top four players (I was number four) all within fifty points of each other, and a cluster of 1800 players just below.
Everything seemed less special to me. I remember I played every game last year in a blend of high excitement, adrenaline, and nerves with confidence in myself that I could at least draw every player here. I would walk around the tournament site in order to calm myself and be clear-headed for the game and then sit down at the board, highly motivated yet also relaxed. This year I went through the first day of the tournament rather sluggishly and without feeling very excited, trying to get myself motivated for the game and recover the thrill of last year.
Luckily, by the third round I started to become more alert and focused. I met some really great people and the old excitement and positive tension came back to me. It also helped that the three players ahead of me either lost or drew their games so I moved onto the top board. After the round I usually relaxed in the hotel room until my mom, sister, and brother came back and we’d all go see some relatives who lived in the area. It definitely was not the ideal tournament routine, driving an hour and visiting late into the night, but I think ultimately it cleared my head and eased some of the pressure. Other nights I would play bughouse for a few hours, again, not to be recommended, but perhaps that motivated me to play well.
In the second and third games my opponents put up terrific battles, going seventy and fifty-five moves, showing why they were the best in their states. Regardless of one’s rating, every person was the best somewhere. When you travel to represent your state, you try.
The fourth game was the first test I thought I might fail. I met my opponent last year at the Polgar. She is a strong player, from Texas and is less than a hundred points behind me. For me the opening was a bit of a mess. She quickly equalized and got a comfortable game while I struggled to reorganize my pieces. After this phase I made no obvious good moves I’m proud of; but I think she may have played too slowly and allowed me to build an easy attack that got overpowering. This was the turning point in the tournament for me, beating a good player about my strength. I felt confident again and a repeat of last year now looked entirely doable.
Game five was the decisive battle. Only my opponent and I had a perfect score. I believe everyone else was a point behind us or would be by the end of the round. This round my motivation and nerves peaked and, more importantly, I felt confident and ready. Whomever won would be guaranteed at least a tie for first, so I figured if I won now that would be enough and I could enjoy the last round. Such thoughts are bad luck and revealed to me I still was not in the proper mindset.
My opponent employed the Stonewall, which I loathe to play against. I don’t really know much about what to do against this system other than a basic idea of where my pieces should go. In blitz, I always get into trouble against it. I thought I was doing all right in the beginning. She began a typical Stonewall attack with the f and g pawns while I drummed up some play on the queenside and watched the center. I believe she made a mistake in pushing g4-g5, which brought about a strange position where I thought I should be better. It appeared my pieces could defend my king while I mopped up her weak pawn, got reorganized, and used my extra material and space. She simply played logical moves while I struggled to find the simplest way to proceed, using about forty five minutes for the next four moves, which was a generous amount given the time controls. My efforts failed to find the best moves and she had a chance to win by clearing the way for her dark-squared bishop. I did see her crushing move after I played 26…Rf6 but she played the next two moves in about five minutes so I did not have to endure much agony. We got into an interesting ending where I had a valuable extra pawn though she had the two bishops. I thought it should be a draw, and brooded a bit over accepting her draw offer around move 55, but I decided to press a little longer. She got too aggressive with her king and so I managed to win. A similar thing happened last year when in a drawn late-middlegame position in the same round my opponent blundered bladly and lost.
After this victory I felt utterly jubilant yet also relaxed. That night I played a couple hours of bughouse and stuck around to watch the Open, basking in the glow of successfully defending my title. I figured by tomorrow my motivation for the last game would come and I could hopefully win the tournament outright. Right then, all I felt was relief. It’s strange that this win didn’t add any pressure to get a perfect score; my only goal in this tournament was to get first again and so I didn’t feel any additional anxiety now that my primary objective was achieved. These emotions are bad for a chess player. If I had been in a similar position last year, I believe I would have been much more focused and able to play a higher quality sixth game.
The last round saw me paired against the top seed. To my dismay I felt no more pressure than in a casual skittles game, which for me is disastrous because I play very well under pressure and not up to my usual strength when I feel relaxed. This is true for many players: usually the more tension you feel the more you care about winning the game.
During the whole game I felt restless and made my moves quickly, getting up from the board frequently and pacing around the room. Only when my position began disintegrating did I finally sit down and focus. My opponent definitely had winning chances in the game but played too slowly and gave me a chance for a counterattack on her king. I failed to exploit this and again she built up pressure on my weak queenside. We traded into an endgame where she had a definite edge, though she continued trading into a very drawn position. I offered a draw, which she declined. A few moves later, she offered, and I accepted.
This was one of the toughest tournaments I have ever played in, psychologically and chess-wise. I did not dominate my opponents. I just played a little better and made the next-to-last mistake. My final score, with five straight victories and a draw, is not an accurate representation of how hard this event was for me. With a couple of different moves, my performance could have turned out far worse. In the critical games, my opponents had winning chances and I had to struggle in the early rounds to get the full point. Most of my games went to the third hour mark. In these events, the high prestige and excitement provided by being surrounded by so many good players inspires all participants to play well above their ratings.
I suppose my biggest problem in this tournament was not getting in the proper mindset. I played not to lose and worried too much about not finishing first. It would have been better to concentrate more on enjoying the event like last year and improving my score or aiming to win outright. It seemed to me like facing the same incredible challenge again but for no gain this time, when I should have realized there is a lot to gain the second time around. I did not expect to win but I’m happy I tried and found out how wonderful it is to be a two-time winner of such an amazing event.
All in all, I’m very glad I decided to participate in the Polgar this year. It’s a great chance to meet other girls who enjoy chess and inspiring to see girls advanced enough to play good games. I met some extraordinary people here and had a good time. The Polgar is a phenomenal event that I fully support. The hotel looked magnificent and in a convenient location to eat, shop, and go into the city. The playing conditions were excellent and using the flags and MonRois added to the grandeur of the Polgar. The only thing I would change is the clock. It’s nice to practice with international time controls, but I think better chess would be played with the Denker’s G/180. I always felt rushed at the end even with the increment and would much rather have the additional hour and a half. Otherwise, everything is perfect, especially the added blitz match between the Denker and Polgar winners, and I think the Polgar has a bright future.