It happened on May 16th, 2019 – the night of my 29th birthday. After a dinner party with some close friends, I headed to sleep, in an effort to silence the late 20s melancholy, which was dancing under my skin. A quick look into the inbox of my social media seemed appropriate before jumping into bed. It was then that Dr. Penny Changrong Yu messaged me to share the thrilling news that would put a delightful spin on my birthday night. She was carrying an exciting, almost dream-like, invitation by Professor Zhu Jiaqi from Nankai University, regarding an extraordinary chess competition in Tianjin, China: the “2019 World Prestigious University Chess Invitational Championship”.
A kind invitation and a generous subsidy
The idea was simple but brilliant in its conception. Nankai University was having its 100th anniversary and, to celebrate this special occasion, its administration had decided to host a six-day invitational team chess competition, inviting some of the world’s best renowned Universities to play. To encourage participation, the organizers made a significant and generous financial investment, demonstrating how seriously they believed in this project. Apart from Nankai University, whose leadership fully endorsed the event, the tournament was also supported by certain high-level government bodies, such as the Board and Card Games Administrative Centre of the General Administration of Sports of China (i.e. China’s Ministry of Sports), the Chinese Chess Association and the Tianjin Sports Federation. In a striking act of unprecedented generosity, the organizers – aided by the significant subsidies from their government sponsors – offered to cover the flight expenses of all 5-member teams (each University was allowed up to three players, one coach and one captain), as well as their accommodation, with full meals in the four-star “Huigao Garden Hotel” for an overall, estimated investment of approximately USD $120,000! It was such an unbelievably generous gesture that, ironically enough, one or two invited Universities became suspicious and declined to play, finding it rather implausible that the offer could be legitimate!
Hart House Chess Club says “I do”
By the end of May, Hart House Chess Club’s executive board had proudly accepted the invitation and had started making preparations for the trip. The original list of tournament guests included eight Universities, competing in a 7-round, rapid chess tournament. Later on, the organizers added four more teams for a total of 11 rounds of round-robin chess. The final list of participants struck a fine balance between leading academic institutions and strong chess-playing universities across several countries of the world:
- Moscow State University
- University of Missouri
- University of New South Wales
- University College London
- Harvard University
- Princeton University
- University of Toronto
- Saint Louis University
- University of Oxford
- The United Team of Japan Universities
- Nankai University of China (two teams)
Of course, it was a real honor for our club to have drawn Nankai University’s attention and to be included among such extraordinary Universities across the world. It was also a great opportunity for our club members to participate in a top class chess competition. Such was the excitement for the tournament that, in less than a week, more than 15 UofT students expressed interest in playing. In the end, based on the applicants’ ratings and commitment, the executive board selected Sean Lei, Tanner McNamara and Qiyu Zhou as team players and nominated Alex Ferreira as team coach and your author as team captain.
Once selections were made, we began to take care of the logistics of this trip, such as the issuance of travel documents, flight arrangements etc. In each step, we were greatly assisted by the Hart House staff (we wish to thank Tom Moss, Michelle Brownrigg and especially Cynthia Nevins for that). The last act of the preparation was the official team picture, which was taken in the Hart House Great Hall.
The next moment we were at Pearson International Airport, our childhood chess boards neatly loaded in our luggage.
Arrival to China
No sooner had our plane landed in Beijing, in the afternoon of November 24, than the surprises began to occur. Our team was welcomed by two smiling event volunteers, holding a big UofT sign in the pink/purple colors of Nankai University and running the first year of their adult life. We were also joined by Qiyu’s mom and dad who were waiting for us at the terminal. The organizers had kindly made arrangements for a pick-up bus to take us to Tianjin (an entire bus for 9 people – what a spoil…). We got on and we started chatting with the volunteers about chess, about China about our studies. They even showed us how to download and use WeChat, China’s super social-network application. They were fully prepared to provide all the tournament-related information we needed and excellently coordinated by their supervisor. It was magnificent. Before we knew it, we were in the front of our hotel in Tianjin.
Conveniently located nearby the Nankai University Campus, the Huigao Garden Hotel was shiny and spacious. Much to our surprise, each team was offered the luxury of four double rooms, a treatment which brings the word generosity to a whole new level. Though it was only 8 p.m. when we walked into our hotel rooms, we had little energy left for evening exploring (after all it had been a long 14-hour flight followed by a 2.5 hour bus ride). We had dinner, as a team, at a nice neighborhood restaurant and we finally got a good night sleep.
Candice, Rachel, Ophelia and a walk around Nankai campus
My knowledge about Chinese food is extremely limited. But this only meant that our first-day breakfast at the hotel could be a unique opportunity for experimenting. There were no english labels next to the foods, which would normally make me very cautious. But this one time, the idea of not knowing what I was about to eat felt rather intriguing (for those of you who are curious, it turned out that, among other things, I ate a duck egg – super salty, but I’m sure the rest of the squad also tried certain peculiar tastes).
Around 10 a.m. we were ready to leave the hotel and begin exploring. The weather in Tianjin was sunny, a few degrees warmer than Toronto, and the opening ceremony was at 5 p.m. so we had all the time in the world for our first visit to Nankai University. Before leaving the hotel, our loving family “adopted” Andrew Lu, a sophomore from Harvard University, who was not in the mood for doing school assignments but prefered to go adventurous for a day.
It was a healthy, re-energizing, most beautiful walk.
The campus was huge but, unlike most North American campuses, which are somewhat secluded or, at least, visibly delimited from the rest of the city, Nankai buildings blended with natural elements, such as willow trees, small lakes and rivers, and intertwined with features of the city landscape, including local food establishments, small residences, city squares and outdoor sports courts. As we were wandering around the campus I caught myself being drawn to several little sights: everyone was riding bicycles or motorbikes, the streets were ridiculously clean, the few vehicles we came across were actually funnily small, there were outdoor post office stations and people would pick up their parcels from the sidewalk, most bikers had a coat permanently attached to the handles of their motorbikes, which they used as windproof protection (super innovative novelty).
Those were the smaller peculiarities of the city. But there were two more things that really caught my attention.
The first was Nankai University’s official bookstore. Though it was not very big, it displayed a robust identity compared to most bookstores I’ve seen. Besides the usual pens, the hoodies and the university t-shirts, which any such store tends to have, it also offered works of art, such as gorgeous paintings, depicting historical moments for the University of the city; or drawings and albums of important Chinese figures and University leaders.
In addition, a small collection of beautiful vases, carvings and wood-made artifacts, not only invited you to take them back home as gifts, but it also created a unique ambient atmosphere, which was further enhanced by the dimly lit “history booth” of the store and the 100th Anniversary music themes, always playing in the background. You could even buy bottles of Chinese wine. It struck me more as a University point where you could find unique items of local culture and history, than a commercial establishment for branded goods.
The second thing that really got me excited was the public exposure for the international chess event we had travelled to join. There were big signs, advertising the tournament and displaying prominently the logos of our Universities, posted on literally every street light. Huge and impressive banners had been set up across big building surfaces in every corner of the campus. It was incredible. It also showed that both Nankai University and the city of Tianjin were fully committed to this event as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the University and people like us, who love and believe in the royal, must for once have felt truly visible by the public.
All that said, the highlight of the day was, without a doubt, the three volunteers who picked us from the hotel and showed us around their University: Candice, Rachel and Ophelia. For their dedication, their hospitality and their kindness, they deserve all the praise I could offer and, I’m sure, one could easily fill pages with words of appreciation for the respectful care they showed for us. They were always there when we needed them, waiting for us at the hotel lobby every morning, happy to provide any kind of assistance, offer translation with the locals when needed, go with us to any part of the city we wished to visit, recommend to us the best shops and food places and generally make sure we had a pleasant stay.
Here’s a story. Once upon a time, in Tianjin city, the organizers of an international chess event sent an invitation to the local School of Foreign Languages. They were asking the college students to apply to become volunteers, tasked with providing everyday assistance and showing around the city ten groups of students from foreign universities. The organizers ended up accepting 25 volunteers, all of whom were women. But what’s really mind blowing is that more than 70 students had applied, which made many of us feel very uneasy, when asking ourselves the bothersome question: “would our student community ever be able to offer nearly as many volunteers for six full days during the school season?”. That was the measure of those volunteers’ dedication. And, funnily enough, every guest university thought that their two volunteers were the best and outstanding ones, which is indicative of the excitement all volunteers managed to stir. [Need I say that, of course, Candice, Rachel and Ophelia were the exceptional ones?]
Anyways, on the first day, Candice, Rachel and Ophelia showed us the landmarks of their University. The biggest campus attraction was arguably the impressive statue of Premier Zhou Enlai. Enlai was an outstanding alumnus of the University as well as the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. Carved in white marble, the three-meters high statue of Premier Zhou stood upright in the southern square of the Main Building, sitting on a two-meter-high stone base. In the front of the stone base one could read the famous motto “I Love Nankai University”.
They also took us to the main school cafeteria, which was very stylish and vibrant. We indulged our desire for a glass of cold refreshment and we enjoyed a long conversation with the volunteers at the comfort of the extra large booths. This was going to be our first experience reading a local food & drink menu translated in English. I take it that certain Chinese dishes and beverages must have very poetic names in mandarin but that figurative language often led to some very funny English translations. For example, looking at the first page of the menu with the tea selection, the customer was encouraged to choose between “Paris is wonderful”, “mango is very busy” and “connected through flesh and blood”. During lunch and dinner time at the hotel, you would always see players walking by the buffet, chuckling and pointing at such food name tags as “political association”, “start laughing” and “supreme master of the duck” (to mention but a few). Those were beautiful moments of light humor.
By the time we finished our lunch at an outdoor foodcourt in a traditional neighborhood, the time was already 3:30 p.m. We started heading slowly back to the hotel. It had been a refreshing walk. Once we arrived, the lobby was very lively, as members of the organizing committee were offering gift bags to the team captains, along with name tags, event booklets and other tournament memorabilia. The welcome reception would soon begin.
The opening ceremony
In the eight years of my short career as a chess player, I attended quite a few opening ceremonies. But I can hardly recall moments from any of them. Being more mature now than I was 10-15 years ago, certainly allows me to appreciate more certain aspects of a chess event, which seemed boring to me in the past. After all, the event hosts did not seem to take these welcome receptions very seriously either. That was not the case with the Nankai organizers though. Professor Zhu Jiaqi and his team took great care of the event’s opening ceremony.
Each team shared a round table with another university; the team captains had their separate table; the government officials were also kept together; the volunteers were assigned their own big table. Players, coaches and captains were dressed in their university uniforms, holding their Nankai University gift bags, and wearing name-tags displaying their role in the team. All tables were looking to the stage, where one could see the big screen-wall, animated with tournament banners in the bright colors of Nankai University. It was a real show, properly scripted, artfully directed and well executed. It was not so much memorable because of any big props or artistic performances; but it stood out for what it suggested about the size and significance of the event.
There were tv-cameras and photographers everywhere. The officials who were present in the event, served at the highest ranks of the Chinese government, and represented many different public institutions: Nankai University, the Chess Federation, the Federal Ministry of Sports, the City’s Ministry of Sports etc. If one’s goal is to restore, the (once significant but in recent times diminishing) importance and popularity of chess among a society and its political leadership, that is the way to do it. I am sure it takes longtime efforts and persistent advocacy to convince such important institutional players that the cause is worth their support, but kudos to Professor Zhu Jiaqi for accomplishing that through his hard work.
Back to the opening ceremony. The two hosts warmly welcomed all Universities to Tianjin and thanked each of the officials for the assistance provided by their respective institutions. The speeches were delivered in two languages: the male host spoke in mandarin, whereas the female host was reading the English translation. One by one, starting with yours truly, the team captains were invited to proudly march to the stage, holding their University signs, amid a clapping audience. The cameras were flashing from all over the place and I couldn’t help but notice the organizers’ music choice for this celebratory moment – it was the theme song of an old Western movie called the Magnificent Seven 🙂
Once the teams were presented, Professor Zhu Jiaqi, the beating soul of this event, joined the stage as Chief Arbiter and Chief TD of the tournament. And then something unexpected happened. After a brief welcome speech, Jiaqi raised his right hand in the shape of a fist and then took an oath, first in mandarin, then in English, to be an impartial and fair arbiter who will respect the rules of the game and apply them evenhandedly to all players without prejudice to the best of his abilities. I note that not so much because it is a rare sight in chess tournaments, but because it was one of the many things we were totally unprepared for, considering that the event had been advertised as a friendly, rapid, non-rated chess competition. A solemn and public oath by a University Professor, who serves as head organizer and arbiter in a friendly chess tournament, is not only a humble gesture, revealing of a non-western culture, but it also was a brilliant demonstration of how seriously and professionally the organizers took this friendly event. A real slight of hand to suggest to everyone involved (organizers, players, coaches, arbiters, officials, media), in an almost subconscious way, how high the expectations had been set; expectations for mutual respect, sportsmanship, professionalism, punctuality and responsible behavior. There were no excuses for anyone to mistake that exemplary, top-class world chess competition for a free ride to a social event in China.
Professor Jiaqi’s oath was followed by a short statement on behalf of all players, by Oxford University’s board 1 player, Daniel Karim-Abbas, who stressed the commitment of all participants to promote and honor the ideals of fair chess competition. After that, Grandmaster Ye Jiangchuan, representing the General Administration of Sports of China, and Yang Kexin, on behalf of Nankai University, delivered the welcome addresses and were soon joined on stage by Wang Hong, from the Tianjin Sports Bureau. The three event directors declared the start of the 2019 World Prestigious University Chess Invitational Tournament by placing their hands on a big, red power ball, in the shape of a globe.
The opening ceremony ended with an official event photo featuring all the participants, arbiters and organizers on stage. We posed as a friendly, smiling group and then had our last supper before the start of the competition.
Technical meeting and winner forecasts
That same evening, the technical meeting of the captains took place. It was conducted in the same serious and professional way, as Chief Arbiter Zhu Jiaqi was going over the tournament rules.
During the meeting, Jiaqi shared more stories about his interesting background, which helped us to get to know him better. In the past, he had been a tournament chess player himself , reaching up to 2000-2100 FIDE rating but he then became more involved with organizing tournaments, teaching chess and serving as an International Arbiter in major chess events. As a player, he has confined himself to chess arbiter tournaments! Thanks to Professor Jiaqi and the dedicated efforts of the School Administration, Nankai University has built a long tradition of chess culture. Its chess teams have scored outstanding achievements in domestic and international competitions since the establishment of the chess program in 2001, earning rare reputation for the school (e.g. winner of the World University Team Championships three times, several individual achievements by its students in the World University Chess Championships etc). In addition to the competitive level, the University has also included chess as an optional course of the school’s curriculum and Jiaqi teaches some of the classes.
In his speech to the captains, Professor Jiaqi humorously observed that, to him, modern chess games no longer make sense. The royal game, he noticed, has lost some of its appeal at the top level competitions, where he arbiters. This is because professional players make “unintelligible”, computer-like moves, which are largely inaccessible by ordinary human spectators. As a remedy to that modern trend, Jiaqi proposed the following rules for our tournament: a) non-rated games, so that the players are not afraid to take risks and display creativity in their games, b) no draw-offer until after move thirty, in order to foster a fighting spirit and c) rapid time control (25 min + 10 sec/move) to make the games more suspenseful and increase the chance for decisive results.
According to the rules of eligibility, players could be university students, faculty members or staff. The majority were students.
I was lucky enough to draw number 12 in the lot for seeding, which meant that our players would alternate between black and white pieces in every round plus they would always play in the same table (is that the equivalent of home court advantage?)
As for the winner forecasts, based on ratings, there were three clear favorites: Saint Louis University, led by fellow Greek IM Nikolas Theodorou, Nankai University, joined by super GM and former Olympic medalist Wang Yue, and University of Missouri, led by GM Grigory Oparin. On paper, Hart House Chess Club was among the underdogs, for whom the tournament would be an uphill struggle. But our players were driven, with great team dynamics and a very strong female player on board 3. We had reasons to be hopeful and we were looking forward to testing our skills against the competition.
A note on the playing site
Before I start writing about the games, I would like to comment separately and enthusiastically on the tournament playing hall. It was, without a doubt, the best tournament venue I have ever seen in my life. There are no words to fully capture the impression it made on me as well as to other players and captains. It was not just convenient (high ceilings, wide hallways, comfortable chairs, bright lighting, water stations etc); it was elegant. Each player had their own individual table, on top of which there was a beautiful wooden DGT board. All tables were animated with the players’ name tags in glass holders and embellished with cardboard tournament banners. At one end of each row of tables you could see the seats where the team captains could rest. The other end was the area for the tournament arbiters. Believe it or not, each team match had its own arbiter, dressed in a formal suit, and all of them were supervised by a couple of deputy chief arbiters and coordinated by Jiaqi.
Past the arbiters’ area, there were stanchions, delineating the security lines for spectators. There was also a buffet with light refreshments, fruits and desserts to which players could help themselves during the game. On top of all that, there were huge announcement boards, as well as event banners and university logos all over the place.
A giant screen featuring the games of the players in real time was the icing on top of a really yummy cake. Such tireless and great work by so many remarkable people. The event’s art director clearly was a virtuoso who went out of his way to deliver an unforgettable production design. To put it in one sentence, the tournament venue conceded nothing to the gorgeous playing halls in the world famous closed super GM tournaments, which we only see on the pages of the world’s best chess magazines. It made you feel unworthy to be there. For the incredible playing hall and the tournament logistics alone, we all owe a heartfelt thank you to the organizers.
Day 1: Caught in deep water
Our first day of the competition started with a good breakfast followed by the usual treat: our team was joined by Candice and Rachel who took us on a trip to the Tianjin Water Park. Formerly known as “Green Dragon Pond”, the Water Park is the largest urban park and recreation area in Tianjin and one of the city’s leading tourist attractions. It was formally established in 1951, covering an area of 126.71 hectares. A real feast to the eyes, but too big to walk all of its surface. To give you a sense of its vastness, it consisted of nine islands (Islands 1 – 9) and three lakes (East Lake, West Lake and South Lake). Surrounding the waterways, there were pathways, pagodas and gardens. Lots of cats, birds and fish too.
The gardens showcased both Chinese and foreign architectural styles. There were also many lively visitors, some of them dancing, some of them singing and some of them simply walking and hanging out. The recreation area of the park had one of the city’s tallest ferris wheels. Visitors were also encouraged to travel on the lakes via rowing boats and high speed water shuttles. Quite excitingly, the park changes its theme according to season, for example, during spring there was the Tulip Show, and in autumn there was the Chrysanthemum Show.
After a two-hour stroll around the park, indulging ourselves with beautiful views and breathing the fresh air, we returned to our hotel, had lunch and took some rest.
* * *
The first round of the games started at 2 p.m. sharp. Impressively enough, all rounds started exactly on time. Before each round, a clock was shown on the giant screen, counting down the seconds to the scheduled beginning. A 5-minute delay resulted in immediate forfeit. Nobody forfeited…
For round one, University of Toronto was facing University of Oxford, a tough derby between teams with similar goals. On board 3, Qiyu Zhou, playing with black against Jessica Juan Qi Wen, won a pawn before move twenty for not much compensation and pushed her advantage all the way to a full point. On board 2, by contrast, Sean Lei sacrificed his b2-pawn early in the game and soon thereafter he allowed his opponent, Filip Mihov, to capture a second pawn in exchange for some piece activity. On move 28, Sean missed a rare chance to press for a perpetual check and, after that, he was gradually outplayed by his very capable opponent.
The final outcome of the match turned on Tanner McNamara’s game against Daniel Karim-Abbas. It was a hard fought battle, in which Daniel seemed to have a slightly but steadily better position. On move 24 Tanner decided to transition into an endgame where, Daniel had the better pieces (rook on the seventh) as well as a healthier pawn structure. As his position was getting worse, Tanner decided to sacrifice an exchange and look for some activity on the queenside, using his minor pieces to escort his outside passed pawn to the promotion square. He did promote, which forced his opponent to return a piece, but his own minor pieces were now sitting at edge of the board, and were poorly coordinated. With a series of accurate moves, Daniel increased the pressure and managed to convert his winning advantage into a full point. Oxford beat U of T by 2 – 1, winning its first derby of the tournament.
In another critical match of the first round, University of Saint Louis shocked the hosts by beating Nankai A by 2.5 – 0.5, Wang Yue being Nankai’s only player to avoid defeat. It was, of course, very early in the tournament, but it seemed unlikely that the local university’s team would be able to recover. They had ten more rounds to show that they could. Or maybe Saint Louis would also trip in one round. In the meantime, the other contender for first place, Missouri University, swept Princeton University 3 – 0 showing in what great shape they were.
On the second round, University of Toronto took up the stronger team of Moscow State University, which was 4th in the original rankings. The course of the match was quite favorable for us: on board one, IM Arsen Kukhmazov with black blitzed his first 30 moves against Tanner but, in the end, all he got was a knight v. bishop endgame with a stronger knight for himself but with Tanner being a healthy pawn up. On the second board, by contrast, Sean Lei misplayed the opening against FM Alexandr Tarasov (it was a Philidor-type set up), and he was forced to give up his queen for two minor pieces from as early as move fifteen. Finally, on board 3, Qiyu with white, built a huge space advantage against Alena Bogachkova and was clearly fighting for a victory. Could we win or tie the match?
Qiyu’s game finished first and it was a victory. After Alena chose to give up her fianchetto bishop for a central knight and to then sacrifice an exchange, her position could not be defended, especially with very little time on the clock. Sean Lei’s game looked like a certain defeat, but UofT’s player showed great resilience and gave as much power to his pieces as he could. Though Alexandr’s position was clearly winning, the extra queen would not just win by herself because Sean’s position did not have any obvious weaknesses. A winning plan was needed for white, but Alexandr did not find it. Worse still, he ended up in time scramble and began to make mistakes, which almost removed him from the driver’s seat. On move 48, after reaching a rook endgame with two pawns each, Sean and Alexandr agreed to a draw.
There was only one game remaining: Tanner’s minor piece endgame with the extra pawn. But here it was Moscow State University who got lucky. After a couple of inaccuracies by Tanner, Arsen’s king and bishop managed to capture white’s extra pawn and place Tanner on the defensive, struggling to avoid zugzwang. He was not able to hold and a second white pawn fell. The last mistake was a piece trade, and a simplification into a lost pawn endgame, which the strong Russian player duly converted into victory, to tie the match for his team 1.5 – 1.5. A great team result for UofT, even though the course of the match allowed us to hope for more and was a bit unfair to Tanner’s efforts.
As for the three favorites, they all won their matches: Missouri by 2 – 1 against Oxford, Nankai A by 2 – 1 against Harvard and Saint Louis by 3 – 0 against Japan United. The highlight moment of this round was, of course, Michael Isakov’s wild game against Wang Yue. Harvard’s board 1 player found himself in a highly unpleasant position against Nankai’s finest, but he somehow conjured up a miraculous series of no less than four (!), practically sound, material sacrifices on the kingside, which, with some help by Yue, allowed him to achieve a draw by perpetual.
After a short break, University of Toronto had to come back to the playing hall to face its first super team: University of Missouri. This time around we were not really competitive. GM Chirila Ioan Cristian’s team beat Hart House Chess Club by 2.5 – 0.5, without receiving much opposition. Tanner’s position against GM Grigory Oparin was plagued by a number of early positional weaknesses, which soon translated into two extra pawns for Grigory, in an easily winning endgame. Sean’s fate was even worse, as he missed a triple intermezzo by GM Dmitry Gordievskyi on move 13, which left Missouri’s player a piece up.
Finally, Qiyu was at loss for useful moves to improve her position against Na Wang, who had more space and a bishop pair. After searching in vain for a helpful regrouping of her pieces, Qiyu confined herself to a draw by triple repetition on move 28. It was a painful loss, because we were not able to offer much resistance. But, overall, the first day results were not disastrous.
Let it be noted that, in this round, Nankai University easily beat Nankai B by 2.5 – 0.5, whereas things were a bit harder for Saint Louis, which scored two draws and one victory against Princeton to clinch victory by 2 – 1.
* * *
Once all games were over, our team had dinner at the hotel and then texted Rachel and Candice. It was time to visit the famous Tianjin Eye, a giant ferris wheel sitting dominantly on the bridge of Tzu-ya river, overlooking the city lights.
Several other players, from Princeton, Harvard and Saint Louis, decided to join us that night, but our two volunteers managed to take care of everyone, making didi arrangements for the entire squad (for those of you who haven’t heard of didi, it is the Chinese equivalent of Uber). It was a slow, chill ride from the lowest to the highest point of the wheel and then back to the bottom. But the view was breathtaking.
Ironically enough, young couples in Tianjin avoid the wheel as, according to an urban legend, any couple who go to the wheel are sure to break up the day after. We were all single so there was nothing to jinx. We just sat back and enjoyed the ride to the sky. Once the wheel spinning was over, we got off our trolley and walked for about an hour along the beautifully lit riverside. There were lots of nice trees as well as a few fishermen here and there. It was calm and refreshing.
We headed back to our hotel around 10:30 p.m. and went to sleep with the picturesque view of the city lights still dancing in our minds.
Day 2: The counter-offensive
Our second morning in Tianjin was more low-key. We wanted to step up our game in the tournament so we tried to remain focused. Instead of a long journey around the city, we told Candice and Rachel that we preferred to pay a quit visit to the nearby Tianjin University area. This time, our family adopted Joshua Behar from Sydney, and off we went.
It was a nice walk plus we were treated to a public drum show by a group of young adolescents who performed in the middle of a big square. They were good and got the audience hyped!
On our return, we grabbed lunch at a traditional Chinese restaurant and then back to hotel. Like I said, we had to remain focused. And it paid off.
* * *
On round four we were paired against University College London, a solid team, whose tournament aspirations were similar to ours. On board 1, Tanner was playing white against Michael Green. Michael decided to sacrifice an exchange early in the game but this call did not exactly pay off as it was Tanner’s pieces that became more active.
On the second board, by contrast, Sean Lei had a fairly balanced game against Zhong Wei, with UCL’s player having a stable slight edge all the way to the queen endgame, but still inadequate to cause any real trouble. Finally, Qiyu had seized a lot of space on the board against Diana Maria Serbanescu, which put the pressure on her opponent, who was forced to give up an exchange. Things looked ideal for UofT to finally score its first victory but the games did not continue as smoothly.
Tanner embarked on a dubious attack on the kingside, which gave Michael enough time to pick up all white pawns on the queenside and activate his pieces. Qiyu also made some bad moves after winning material, which led to getting her queen trapped and captured. However, as soon Tanner’s opponent began to grow strong, he plunged into deep thought and did not notice the time on his clock. As a result, he flagged on move 48. Diana-Maria also misplayed the position after winning the queen, making it possible for Qiyu to promote one of her pawns and win the endgame with good technique.
The last game also ended with a decisive result, when Sean’s queen invaded Zhong’s camp and started creating threats, including a lethal checkmate threat. Final score: UofT – UCL 3 – 0 and a first match victory for our team!
As for the three leading Universities, Saint Louis, Nankai A and Missouri, they all continued their winning streak without much trouble against Oxford (3 – 0), Moscow State (2 – 1) and South Wales (3 – 0) respectively.
Our round five game against University of New South Wales was not particularly thrilling. The four male players on boards 1 and 2 (Tanner and Sean for UofT, Jeremy Horin and Joshua Bear for UNSW) decided to play it safe and not take any major risks. This resulted in rather uneventful and balanced games, with lots of piece trades, leading to drawn endgames. Draws were agreed almost immediately after move 30. The critical match was that between Qiyu Zhu (black) and Selena Qian (white). The game was fairly double edged, with Selena’s attack on the queenside being faster, while Qiyu’s kingside attack was more dangerous plus she had two minors for a rook.
It’s hard to predict how the game would have went, if both sides continued with perfect moves, but on move 27, at the highest point of the battle, Selena blundered a piece and was completely lost thereafter. University of Toronto clinched the match by 2 – 1 and was at +2 =1 -2 overall.
In the meantime, at the top classes of the ranking, Saint Louis University lost to University of Missouri by 1 – 2, which allowed Nankai University to hope again after their own 3 – 0 victory against UCL.
Unfortunately for University of Toronto, it was at this juncture of the tournament that we had to face Nankai University A. And, as you can imagine, things did not turn out very well.
Tanner was forced to give up an exchange on move 15, in order to stop GM Wang Yue’s devastating attack, and went down in flames. Sean also lost material to Yankai Li early in the game and was unable to recover. Qiyu was the only one who was doing well against Yiyi Xiao, and she even won a pawn.
Unfortunately for her, Yiyi found a nice tactical stroke on move 39 which allowed her to win a queen and a pawn for two rooks but, more importantly, to seize the initiative. Qiyu’s position was still defensible but it was Yiyi who had the power to create threats and, in mutual time pressure, Qiyu overlooked one such threat and got mated on g2. We were swept by the hosts but we were nevertheless happy with the results of the second day.
Thus, we called Candice, Rachel and Ophelia and, together with Josh, we went to the nightlife area of Little Italy to enjoy drinks at the local bars. The rest will have to stay in Little Italy 🙂
Day 3: A missed opportunity
In the morning of day 3, the hosts had organized a tour at Tianjin’s Ancient Cultural Street, with bus pick up from the hotel. Of course we signed up for the tour! The Ancient Cultural street was located on the west bank of the Haihe River with the Temple of the Queen of Heaven (Tianhou Palace) as its geographical center. Although essentially a business street, we were able to admire its special architectural styles, its classic cultural features, buy various folk crafts, and sample the delicious local snacks. Perhaps the most impressive features were the splendid replica classical architecture in the folk style of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
As a person who is interested in traditional handicrafts I appreciated another highlight of the Ancient Culture Street – the hundreds of stores selling a wide variety of folk handicrafts. There were also lots of paintings, jade items, cloisonné and potteries for sale. It was lively and colorful, with much blue brick and small booths and haggling stallholders all over the place. You could even buy live crickets in a cage and set them free for good luck.
I would say that Tianjin Ancient Cultural Street is a commercial fair within a traditional style neighborhood, designed as a place for visitors to experience Chinese folk custom; as such, it contains examples of nearly all the local culture in one place.
But boy it was cold that day. As soon as the tour was over, I jumped into the bus, went back to hotel and waited for the start of round 7.
* * *
It was time to face another super team, the University of Saint Louis. This time we would not lose with our hands down. On board 1, Tanner was playing Greek IM Nikolas Theodorou, while Sean Lei was facing GM Akshat Chandra on board 2. Finally, Qiyu was taking up the highest rated female player of the tournament, Dorsa Derakhshani.
The two ladies quickly drew their game by triple repetition after move 20. As for Tanner and Sean, they started pretty well but they were soon reduced to passive positions. They nevertheless defended quite stubbornly, making it hard for their superior opponents to finish the game fast. Alas, in the end, Nikolas and Akshat each won one pawn, and progressively converted their advantage in the endgame. Final match score: 2.5 – 0.5 for Saint Louis.
University of Missouri beat Nankai B by 2 – 1 and remained the sole leaders, whereas Nankai A also won by 3 – 0 and retained their chances for winning the event.
Round 8 appeared to be a good opportunity to score a match point and put an end to the losing streak. We were playing against United Universities of Japan, who had not been doing very in the tournament up to that point (+1 -6). That said, we were still out-rated in both male boards. The match began very well for us, as Qiyu scored a nice victory against Yuri Sekine, after a spectacular piece sacrifice, which led to checkmate. The other games were more rough. Tanner was faced with FM Simon Bibby’s King’s Indian Defense and was doing quite alright. A couple of careless moves with his queen, on the wrong side of the board, though, gave Simon enough tempi to seize the initiative and launch an irresistible kingside attack, leading to checkmate.
The outcome of the match turned on Sean’s game against Satoshi Hirao. Sean played his favorite Philidor’s Defense and achieved a very solid position. He was also doing very well in terms of time. With just a few seconds left on his clock, and realizing that Sean had a clear and easy plan to improve his position, Satoshi made the bold decision to muddle the waters with a surprising piece sacrifice. Objectively speaking, it was not very sound. But from a practical standpoint, it achieved a lot.
It gave white the initiative, it forced Sean to think long in order to find tough defenses and, in the end, it made him lose on time, in a position which was becoming worse and worse. Thus, Japan United beat University of Toronto 2 – 1.
While we were suffering our third consecutive loss, the three favorites showed their strength once again by scoring yet another victory in their matches. Quite clearly, there were no teams, which could stop Saint Louis, Nankai A and Missouri. The only decisive matches would be between themselves.
As for us, we knew that we needed to bounce back asap. However, in round 9, we had to face Harvard University which was doing quite well in the tournament. It wouldn’t be easy. The game that ended first was that between Sean Lei and Andrew Lu. The two opponents played quite cautiously and exchanged multiple pieces, leading the game to its third stage without any real engagement. Once each of them was left with just a minor piece a rook and three pawns, with all pawns sitting on the same side of the board, they settled for a draw on move 34. Tanner’s game against Michael Isakov was more eventful, with Harvard’s player retaining a small edge, due to his active pieces, for most of the game. On move 35, Tanner lost a pawn in double rook endgame, in which there seemed to be chances of survival due to black’s well placed rooks. He defended robustly for several moves, but around move 50 he misassessed the position and offered a rook trade, which simplified the position into a dead lost pawn endgame. It was unfortunate because his hard effort perhaps should have earned him a small rewards. But such is chess, and our team was now trailing in the match, with one game left to go.
Qiyu was struggling to squeeze something out of an equal position in her game against Ella Papanek and she even declined a triple repetition, but there was no advantage to be gained and she even lost a pawn, without much compensation. Fortunately for our team, Ella made a tactical mistake which forced her to give up her queen for a rook and a minor piece. Her position might still have been defensible, but one must also take into account a player’s psychology after such a mistake in time trouble. Ella soon lost on time, before getting the chance to set up a defense. UofT v. Harvard: 1.5 – 1.5. We had ended the losing streak and we were still alive in the competition.
In the same round, University of Missouri and Nankai A won their matches whereas Saint Louis shared the match points with Nankai B which, in effect, meant that, but for a miracle, they were no longer contenders for first place.
That evening we decided to keep it low key after dinner. Half of the team stayed at the hotel whereas the other half went for a short walk around the neighborhood (without the volunteers). We had to make ourselves ready for the last two rounds.
Day 4: Fighting hard but falling short
Friday, November 29 was our last full day in Tianjin. We had breakfast together and, as always, everybody joked about my obsession with what they called “western eating habits” (i.e. using a fork, avoiding noodle soups, eating cake and white bread with butter and jam etc). Some had even asked to take pictures of my plate (I believe one of those made it to a chessbase.com report).
I thought I could add some humor and use this to the team’s benefit. For the penultimate round of the event, we were facing the mighty Princeton, against which we did have realistic chances. I gathered our team players and I gave them a short captain speech with a little catch: “I want you to know that, if we beat Princeton today, I promise to have my supper with chopsticks”. As you can tell, the stakes were very high.
That same morning, I stayed at the hotel to prepare a speech for which I will say more later. Candice also had some commitments, so the rest of our team were joined by Rachel and Ophelia. The ladies had recommended visiting the “Five Great” street, which they themselves, coming from a different city, had not yet seen. This neighborhood, was known for having a variety of interesting buildings, in different types of architecture. One of the stops was going to be the porcelain house, but
unfortunately it was closed for renovations. Instead, the team entered a colosseum replica building, the size of a small city block, which had a running track, flower decorations and escalators down to a small mall. After walking around this area for a bit and having some bubble tea, our team returned to the hotel and got ready for the last two rounds of the event.
* * *
In the end, the course of our match against Princeton was not as stressful as we anticipated. On the first board, FM Ethan Li made a blunder early in the game and got his knight trapped. Tanner collected the material and, with a series of accurate moves, converted his advantage. Sean was also doing very well in the middle game against Miles Lee.
Once Miles attack on Sean’s king was permanently repelled, Miles decided to sacrifice a pawn and transition into an endgame, fearing that Sean’s attack against his king might be decisive. After avoiding a triple repetition, Sean progressively pressed Miles to make further concessions and, in the end, he seized an open file with both rooks and, with the help of a pawn, he created a lethal mating net around Miles’ king. The only game that could have gone bad was that of Qiyu against Shira Moolten. Qiyu overlooked a nasty bishop check on move 17 which cost her an entire rook for no compensation.
However, in terrible time pressure, Shira made a couple of imprecise moves, which gave Qiyu a dangerous initiative and, in the end, a decisive mating attack. Toronto had beaten Princeton by 3 – 0!
Meanwhile, at the top of the ranking, Missouri University was facing Nankai A in a critical match for the gold medal position. Missouri had won all their matches, with his board 1 and 2 players having scored a perfect 9 out of 9 each. Nankai also had great individual results on all boards but they were also carrying their round 1 loss to Saint Louis. They needed a victory to catch Missouri in the first place. And they got it! They started the match with two clean wins on boards two and three, leaving GM Oparin to struggle for victory in a rook endgame against GM Wang Yue. He did not manage and the match ended in 2.5 – 0.5 for Nankai.
This meant that, with just one round to go, Nankai A was for the first time leading the event as it was clearly better than Missouri in the tie breaker (i.e. game points). If Missouri were to reclaim the lead, they would need to score at least one more match point than Nankai A in the last round, which meant that Nankai had to lose or tie their match against University of New South Wales.
As for University of Toronto, our main competition was Harvard University, who had also won their round 10 match and were sharing 6th place with us. Except, they had a slightly better first tie breaker (15,0 v. 14,0 game points) and a clearly better second tie-breaker ( system). This practically meant that the only way to climb higher than Harvard in the final ranking was by earning at least one match point more than Harvard’s harvest. Both teams were facing tough opposition: we were paired against Nankai B whereas Harvard took up Moscow State University. Ironically enough, these two teams were also competing against each other for places 4 and 5 (Moscow was leading with 13 match points versus Nankai B’s 12 match points). This created a quite peculiar and funny four-way situation, as the four team captains had to split their time between watching their own team’s match but also the match of their competitors. I was no exception to that.
The initial course of the two matches seemed to very much favor us. On board one, Tanner with black, had a tiny disadvantage against IM Weichao Chu, but he was making solid moves and he was in control. That slight disadvantage continued into the endgame, in which each player had six pawns, one light squared bishop and one knight with equally (in)active kings. It looked like Tanner would hold his opponent to a draw. A similar situation appeared on the second board, in Sean Lei’s game against Siyu Wei. Solid moves, made with a steady hand led the game into an endgame, in which each side had two minor pieces (Sean had two knights whereas Siyu had a knight and bishop) and four pawns, all on the kingside. It would take a blunder from either player to lose this endgame. Finally, Qiyu led her game against Hongyi Lu in a position with blocked center and piece maneuvering, in which she could choose the moment for a radical pawn break. She was controlling the game’s rhythm.
Meanwhile, in the match between Harvard and Moscow State, the games were more dynamically balanced. In the second board (Lu – Tarasov), after some minor skirmishes, which were quickly resolved, the position looked like a dead drawn endgame. In the first board, by contrast, (Kukhmazov – Isakov) there were enough asymmetries in the material and the pawn structure to warrant an assessment of dynamic equality. In addition, and quite irrespective of the objective value of his position Kukhmazov seemed eager to play for victory. Finally, Moscow’s Elena Bogachkova, seemed to me to have a better position than Harvard’s Ella Papanek on board 3 (safe king and better bishop for white versus isolated rook and lack of counter-play for black). On the other hand, both ladies were in time scramble and a mistake could be committed any time soon.
Overall, I thought that Harvard was more likely to lose their match by 2 – 1 or perhaps escape with a tie. For us, I was thinking that we would either win our match by 2 – 1 or tie it, if Qiyu drew or one of the guys lost. My predictions proved overly optimistic.
Within just a few moments, all games in the Harvard-Moscow match ended. Draw on board 2 (as predicted), draw on board 1 (as predicted) but also draw on board 3 (I did not get that one right). In time pressure, Alena allowed Ella to pick up a pawn, for which it wasn’t clear if there was enough compensation. However, the black king was still quite exposed and, considering the time pressure, the two ladies decided not to play russian roulette with the increments and they agreed to a draw. The match was tied 1.5 – 1.5, a result which was favorable for Harvard’s goals but a bet on the part of the Russians. They were betting on us tying or winning our match against Nankai, or at least losing by no more than 2 – 1, so that they could beat Nankai in the tie breakers.
All three games in our match were still going and we now needed a match victory to catch Harvard but, unfortunately, none of Moscow’s hopes was fulfilled. Sean collapsed first. He was not worse but he was struggling for a long time to coordinate his pieces and his opponent was always giving him new challenges, by setting little traps. At one point, the question was posed to Sean’s king, whether to go in front or behind his own pawns. He went forward, which was a playable move, but in time trouble his exposed king got himself mated by a pawn. Once this happened, Tanner’s opponent, calmly offered a draw in a slightly better endgame. Tanner asked me if he was permitted to accept it. Taking the draw meant, of course, that our team would lose any mathematical hope of catching Harvard. But, realistically speaking, there was nothing to play for, from Tanner’s side of the board, other than holding the draw plus his hard effort was totally deserving of a rewarding result against an IM. The two opponents shook hand. Soon thereafter, Qiyu found herself in hot water. It was strange, because after carrying out the much awaited pawn breakthrough, she ended up with what looked like a very dangerous and mobile mass of pawns in center. I won’t try to evaluate that position as it displayed obscure complication. But I couldn’t help but observe the cold blood, the peace of mind and the steadiness of the hand with which Hongyi Lu was making her moves, even at the most critical turn of the game, even when she had only one second left on her clock. It was unbelievable, especially given the good quality of her moves. Qiyu resigned on move 65. Pity because
she would have gotten 3rd place on board 3 medals had she won that game. But she lost to a very deserving opponent.
Thus, we were nearly wiped, 0.5 – 2.5 in a result that we felt crushed by after a long fight that we were very proud of. We were not able to catch Harvard into the top half of the standings, which was an award winning position, and the loss was quite tough based on how we played. But such is life.
As expected, Missouri University swept Japan United but that was not enough as Nankai University beat New South Wales by 2.5 – 0.5 and comfortably won first place in the tie breakers. Saint Louis University were third in the final standings, and the top six was completed with Nankai B (4th place), Moscow State University (5th place) and Harvard University (6th place).
Overall we had an excellent tournament. We entered the last rounds with good chances of getting sixth place and without any real threat from below us, even if we lost our match by 3 – 0. We finished clear 7th and we celebrated our achievement at a karaoke establishment, along with our three volunteers, Josh from Sydney and some Princeton friends. As for myself, I kept my promise and ate every bit of my supper with chopsticks. It was a culturally shocking experience, which was only digested once I performed Barbie girl in a duet with Shira Moolten. In the next-door VIP booth, UCL students were having tons of fun with the students from Japan United and Oxford!
But, once again, these stories need not go outside the karaoke booth. 🙂
The closing ceremony
Of course, no chess tournament is over, until you get to the awards ceremony. If you thought that the welcome reception was great you should have been at the closing ceremony! It took place in the playing hall and everybody was there: the officials, the teams, the arbiters, the volunteers. Everyone; just like in the opening ceremony. Except now we were no longer a group strangers but a family of friends, connected by a shared experience. GM Ye Jiangchuan, on behalf of the General Administration of Sports in China, emphasized that point in his speech (“as we say in my country, you are now friends”). Oxford’s Professor and Team Captain Marco Zhang put it more humorously: “during my stay in China”, he said, “my WeChat contacts tripled!”
Seated in the first row, next to the stage, I counted at least twelve government and university officers, indicative of the high regard and respect that chess enjoys in China. There were also lots of media representatives. The organizers gave impressive awards to the top six teams of the general standings, as well as to the top three players on each individual board. Women clothed in beautiful traditional Chinese dresses were carrying the trophies to the stage, which were then awarded to the players by the officials. But, on top of the winners, every player and team received tournament certificates, as well as beautiful gifts by the organizers, such as stuffed mascots of Nankai University and other memorabilia, placed in gorgeous commemorative bags.
I must confess that, this time, I did not pay very close attention to the greetings delivered by the two hosts and the government officials, in part because I was trying to take photos of the ceremony but chiefly because I was extremely nervous throughout the event. On the previous evening, Professor Jiaqi had kindly asked me to deliver the closing remarks, with which we would announce the end of the 2019 World Prestigious University Invitation Chess Tournament.
It was a real honor for University of Toronto (and for me personally) to be trusted with that task, plus I was anxious to properly share with everyone involved in this tournament (and with all the world if I could) my great admiration for the hosts’ excellent work, my sincere appreciation for the organizers’ generous support and exceptional hospitals and, finally, my deep gratitude towards Nankai University, which chose our Universities and our chess clubs as its companion, with which to celebrate such a unique moment in its 100 year-old history.
Professor Marco Zhang spoke right before me and he delivered an eloquent, a measured, a truly excellent speech, which combined humor, emotion and solemn words of appreciation in just the right quantities. There were no imperfections in his delivery, which only made me even more nervous.
I had never delivered a speech in front of the leaders of a different country (or of any country for that matter), who were our hosts to boot. Not to mention that I had to stick to the text because the organizers’ had already prepared a Chinese translation of my speech, which they read after me, paragraph by paragraph. I took a deep breath and I joined the stage. It was tough and everybody could see my legs, which were shaking. I tried to speak slowly and clearly. It lasted for about 10-15 minutes but it felt much longer – the first couple of minutes at least. And though I’m sure I did not have all the audience with me, I felt that, at least, I was able to make eye contact with those people, whom I was trying to reach as a representative of the guests. My goal was to connect with the wonderful volunteers, the amazing arbiters, the generous government sponsors, the incredible organizer, the supportive university officers and the hospitable people of Tianjin – I wanted them to know how thankful and honored we were and I wanted them to feel every word in my speech genuine.
Whether I succeeded or not in conveying that message is not for me to say. But that was the intention. And after my speech was over, the 2019 World Prestigious University Invitational Chess Tournament beloved to history…
After the event was over, a close friend of mine who followed the event wrote to me that the tournament was “a message”. “Nankai University has the human resources, the economic means and the will to invite top universities from across the world, including academically renowned institutions as well as chess scholarship universities, and compete with them fairly or even beat them. It also has the know how to build chess programs and organize a big chess fiesta. It was a show for the world to see that they can do a great job on and off the board. And they succeeded.”
I don’t mean to disagree with that description, which may reflect one side of the event. But what I choose to keep from this event is three things:
1) A highly esteemed University chose a chess event, as a way to enter the second century of its life. This is already a rare sight. Moreover, the financial (as well as other types of) support it gave was not superficial but real. Have you ever seen a university campus filled with chess banners, flags and signs? Do you know many higher education institutions, which would choose to celebrate their 100th anniversary with chess (of all human activities)? This is an unbelievable honor and also a great step towards restoring the diminishing reputation of chess.
2) The organizers first did an extraordinary job in gathering institutional support for their event and then they delivered a perfect execution at all levels: logistically, aesthetically and in terms of public relations. As chess lovers, we owe them one for convincing so many leading institutional players that chess matters. But we owe them even more for showing – through their tireless work and successful execution – that their chess event was worth every bit of support it received. Success by one chess organizer finds no limit in the cause he was pursuing, but has a spill over effect. As I said in my speech, it becomes a gift to the entire chess world. It sets a good precedent, which serves as a reference point for future organizers, and it enables them to advocate more successfully, within their countries, cities, Chess Federations and Universities for a more permanent endowment as well as for visibility and support.
3) The quiet but exceptional work done by the extraordinary people who were not in the driver’s seat but were assigned supporting roles. We must always keep in mind that big projects cannot even get off the ground without the help of the kind volunteers, who do not receive money for their work and yet they often hold themselves to a higher standard of care than paid professionals. Much ink could be spilled to discuss what kind of behavior reflects a healthy ethos of volunteering and what kind of behavior is just a cheap fake. But no matter where one draws the line, these 25 student volunteers from Nankai (which were even more if we add to them the floor arbiters, the ladies who carried the trophies etc), were truly incredible by any standard of measurement. They deserve to be mentioned and celebrated.
Good bye Tianjin
On Saturday, reality was sinking in. Tianjin was over. After one last morning walk to the Nankai campus, Candice and Rachel accompanied us on the shuttle back to Beijing airport. A new China was looming. The air was a bit foggy, but not in the way we’re used to in Canada. It was more of a haze, a dry fog, reflective of our mood, one would say.
We said goodbye to our volunteers, and then myself and Alex Ferreira also said goodbye to our team-mates, who would soon go through the security checks. Qiyu’s parents were on a later flight and helped us find the right shuttle heading to downtown Beijing. After this… it was just the two of us.
* * *
I. To visit the organizers’ website click here.
III. To watch all tournament games visit the host page here.
IV. For a photo gallery with some of my pictures from the games, see below.