Here is team captain and external event coordinator Tanner McNamara’s brilliant report on this year’s Pan Am competition!
For PanAms this year, I had the pleasure of experiencing the tournament both as a player and as the external events coordinator with Hart House Chess Club. There were a few scares from a few different players before any of the chess began, but eventually everyone was able to travel, allowed to participate, and, importantly, actually showed up to the airport on time. Not just that, I guess, but we even got everybody to the right gate even after a late switch meant a fifteen-minute walk across the airport.
In fact, the trip actually got off to a very nice start as Joseph and I were rewarded for our decision not to take the default travel schedule. Booked together for just the one-way trip to Charlotte, we were upgraded to first class while the rest of the travel party, on the roundtrip booking, remained in the back of the plane. Of course it was just a short flight, but that had its advantages too, compared to the cross-country trip of last year and the accompanying time change. I could not have had a better first class companion than Joseph, even if he is a Patriots fan. I’ve never heard anybody ask “is it free?” that much, and, come to think of it, I’ve never heard a flight attendant laugh that hard at a passenger. Clearly they made the right choice upgrading us, we were right where we belonged.
After the long wait for everyone to deboard, we collected our things and split up into a couple Ubers to get to our hotel. We had a nice team dinner across the highway and returned to inspect the playing hall. Disappointed with the lack of water bottles he could steal from the hotel, Joseph took a trip to the local grocery store to buy a 32 pack of water bottles. Back in the hotel room, Mark tossed out some puzzles for us to get our brains working, here’s my favourite: White has no light-squared bishop, and the e-pawn is on e4, Black has the e-pawn on e6, the c-pawn on c6, and no d-pawn, otherwise the position is as in the starting position. It is easy to see how this position can be reached in 3 moves, but how can this position be reached on Black’s fourth move?
The next day provided us with our most free time. After a team breakfast near the hotel, we took the lightrail into downtown Charlotte where we spent the afternoon. We got off at the Spectrum Center, where a couple people were hoping to see the Hornets play, but alas the schedule did not allow for that. We walked around the city a bit, found a sad looking park (but at least it was playing host to some Canadian geese), came across the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and eventually found a Mexican lunch spot where the primary entertainment was watching Dai suspiciously eye the guacamole. Eventually he would try it, but I don’t think it’s his favourite, and he would later admit that upon first sight it reminded him of wasabi.
We returned to the hotel, but not without a small adventure as an unnamed member of our team had to exit the lightrail in order to use a washroom. In a great show of team spirit, we all hopped off with him and waited for his return on the platform. If we could maintain such a collective supportive attitude throughout the tournament, it would be a successful event.
In round one, our A team was paired against UCLA and our B team against UMBC – two familiar foes from last year. The UMBC lineup was unchanged from the year before, and that strong team took out our B team with a 4-0 score, though we put up a couple good fights. The UCLA lineup was unrecognizable compared to the year prior, and we avenged our 2018 loss with a clean sweep against the new UCLA in 2019.
In round two, our A team was paired up against Missouri, a new scholarship school backed by Rex Sinquefield and the St. Louis Chess Club and led by Cristian Chirila. Having been embarrassed by these opponents in China just a month earlier, we were looking for a better showing this time around. While we ended up losing the match 3.5-0.5, we certainly weren’t embarrassed with Joseph holding a draw on board 2 against his grandmaster opponent in a fascinating game while Mark had chances to draw in his endgame and Dai played some enterprising chess leading to a double-edged position with plenty of winning chances. My game was probably the worst of the bunch, though even I managed to reach a roughly level heavy-piece ending before I carelessly let my weak king decide the game.
In round three, our A team got paired down, this time against the all-women team from Texas Tech. Honestly, we played some sketchy chess this round, with Mark just playing a dubious opening to reach, well, a bad position. Joseph was struggling with the black pieces, Dai reached a slightly better endgame but it wasn’t clear that he had many winning chances at all, and I was taking my time putting away a much lower rated opponent on board four. In the end, Mark tricked his opponent, Joseph won on time, Dai was held to a draw, and I converted a better endgame to give us a 3.5-0.5 match victory that was much closer than the final score would suggest.
In round four, our A team was paired up against another scholarship school, the B team from University of Texas at Dallas. Slightly weaker than Missouri on paper, we thought we should have some chances for an upset. Unfortunately, Mark did not have his best game, and we never really had chances on that board. Joseph got into a complicated position with chances for both sides, while Dai and I were trying to hold draws on the bottom boards – we still had a chance for a drawn match if everything went our way. Unfortunately, Joseph came out of the time scramble losing, Dai could not manage to hold, and my draw on board four was the only thing keeping us from being swept. Actually, that was my first classical draw against a grandmaster, but that provided little consolation with the team going down 3.5-0.5.
It’s always important to make time to go outside, walk around, and get some fresh air, even if it’s a little rainy. And who knows, maybe you’ll see a fun bird.
In round five, our A team was paired down again, this time against a Cal Tech team that was performing very well. Mark very quickly got a powerful attack, Dai got a similar endgame to the one he drew a couple rounds prior, and I got another uninspiring position with black against a lower rated opponent, this time from an exchange Slav. In the end, Mark crashed through with ease, my opponent gifted me a mating attack out of nowhere, Dai showed some nice endgame tricks with a good knight against a bad bishop, and we were able to secure a 3-1 match victory even with Joseph losing his game.
In round 6, our A team faced the University of Central Florida, a team doing well in the competition but one that we outrated by a good margin. Joseph bounced back from his disappointments the day before with an easy mating attack out of the opening. I followed quickly, playing some inspired chess (inspired by Mark, who was constantly making fun of me for all the boring chess I was playing), meaning I made some dubious moves to confuse my opponent and then watched him crumble by move 20. Mark himself played some sketchy chess but pulled out a victory in the end. Dai ground out another endgame, this time from the black side of an exchange French. With this, we achieved our second 4-0 sweep and finished the event on 4 out of 6 match points.
Sahan and I walked past this rainbow on the lake on our way to get coffee between the last round and the awards ceremony. A much prettier sight compared to the rainy day before.
Overall, we played two scholarship teams, one of which qualified for the final four (UTD B), and we played two additional prize-winning teams – our Texas Tech opponents took home the prize for top women’s team (beating out the favourites from Saint Louis University), and Cal Tech won the award for top small school (under 5000 enrollment). Like any good team, we did as our board one did. Mark finished on 4/6, with four wins, all match wins for the team, and two losses, both coming in the matches we lost. Everyone on the team finished above 50%, and we hit 15.5 game points (out of 24 total possible), which was really quite a good result. No team seeded below us finished ahead of us, we ended 6 spots above our rank on the starting list. Princeton A was the only non-scholarship school to finish ahead of us. Of course with their GM-IM-IM-FM lineup, they outrated us by 300 points on average. With our result, we took home the prize for Top International Team.
Our second team was seeded very highly in the 1600-1799 rating division, and really we had excellent chances to bring back more hardware. After the loss to UMBC in the first round, they bounced back immediately in a big way, sweeping the second team from University of Michigan. Next up was a tough loss to a higher rated squad – the A team from University of Minnesota. After that was a comfortable win against Tulane, and that was followed by the biggest upset by either UofT squad in round 5 – our B team got a big upset draw against the Texas Tech B team, which had an average rating advantage of 300 points. Mahip and Jack got a couple important wins that round, with Jack facing a rating disadvantage near 400 points. That result put the team in the outright lead for the Division IV prize, but also ensured a tough final round matchup. With multiple teams a half-point behind, we needed to add to our point total, though we had excellent tiebreaks to fall back on in case of a tie. In the end, we managed a couple draws from Mahip and Juntong, but fell 3-1 to Arizona State’s A team. University of Minnesota B came away with the Division IV prize, but our B team put in a great effort and came really close. Mahip led the team with a strong result of 4/6, but the whole team did really well considering they were underdogs in four of the six matches.
The happy group all together with our Top International plaque. Back row L to R: Mahip, Mark, Dai, Jack. Front row L to R: Juntong, Tanner, Sahan, Joseph.
As a group, my travel mates for this trip generally made me feel old. At times, it would seem that they had a carefree attitude about many things, and I felt like I had to be the responsible one, I had to remind them about the flights, bug them about getting their eligibility forms filled out, stuff like that. Not to mention, I saw all their birth dates when I booked international flights for them, and it actually was a young group. Of course, I’m a PhD student myself, I can certainly forgive them for all being undergrads. Then again, I got used to taking out this group of seven undergrads to dinner each night, and they were always full of energy, and, believe it or not, the first question at every restaurant was “what kinds of juice do you have?”
So at these events, of course I’m playing my own chess, but I do also feel somewhat responsible for the whole team. This year, very few people woke up in time for breakfast, so that meant going out and bringing breakfast sandwiches back to the hotel for everyone. Juntong reliably kept me company on these trips, but many of the others woke up at the last minute. Dai in particular, well, we had to wake him up twice a day; invariably he fell asleep after lunch, but we needed him to play in the 6pm games too. Joseph played the longest games, and he always needed a fresh water bottle before his time scrambles. I also had to take advantage of the close proximity to a Food Lion to buy some poptarts for everyone as well (and bananas too, we don’t just eat junk food). And Mark, well, he just opened a package and bit right into two at once. I think there was a bit of a misunderstanding over how exactly poptarts are like sandwiches, and yeah, there’s just a filling in the middle of each poptart, it’s not a poptart on the bottom, poptart on top and filling in between. Now Mark knows, and it’s always a great feeling to share a bit of culture from my home country with my Canadian friends.
In addition to our travel party, it was great to see friends from the Ivy League Challenge and the 2019 World Prestigious University Chess Invitational Tournament, two November events held in Toronto and China respectively. Missouri fell just short in their quest to qualify for the final four in their first season of competition. Congratulations to Saint Louis University, who also beat us quite badly in China, for making the cut to qualify – Alejandro Ramirez was already on me about making sure his players get visas to come play in Toronto next year. Texas Tech, winners of the qualifier with a perfect 6 match points out of 6, and Webster round out the final four in addition to SLU and UTD. Congrats to all those teams. Princeton, MIT, Harvard, they all had good showings at PanAms, and even helped give me hope for my future – maybe I’m not so old. I ran into my friend Michael from Harvard one evening, and I invited him out to dinner with us. It was around 10:30, just after the evening round finished up. He then described to me his routine of eating lunch after the first game, eating dinner before the second game, and then politely declined the invitation explaining that it was already bedtime.
As always, a big thank you to Hart House for making this trip possible. Thanks to Cynthia Nevins, Tom Moss, and Mauro Barillas for all their assistance in making arrangements. Thanks to Sahan for stepping up to captain our second team, and thanks to Mark, Joseph, Dai, Juntong, Mahip, and Jack as well for making this such a fun trip. I had a blast and I’m very much looking forward to hosting this event next year.