UofT at the 2023 Canadian University Chess Championship

Derek Ma – part of UofT’s Varsity Chess Team and a 3rd year EngSci Undergrad – will report on this year’s CUCC! Inspired by Victor’s article on the 2023 PanAmerican Intercollegiate Chess Championship, he will bring his take on the experience playing as board 4 of Team A.

There’s this question that has been bothering me recently: “What does chess mean to me?”. Some might consider it a simple pass-time, others a competitive hobby, but many see chess as something that bit more special. It’s a game that has defined my life yet I struggle to reason why I put myself through the mental torture sometimes. So to the 140 players who played in this year’s CUCC and others alike, I ask, why chess?

From January 27th – 29th, five UofT teams, each consisting of four members, travelled to Ottawa to compete in the annual Canadian University Chess Championship (CUCC). The Hart House Chess Club, representing the University of Toronto, is proud to have fielded some of the school’s finest chess players. Within two days of gruelling chess, five matches were played by each team to determine which University would be crowned as national champion. Traditionally, only Ontario and Quebec teams would compete, but this year’s rendition included more countrywide participation with the Universities of Manitoba and Alberta fighting for the title. Being the first CUCC to be held in person since 2020, the 2023 CUCC proved to be one of plot-twists, spectacular blunders, and a proving ground for a new generation of chess talent.

UofT is traditionally a chess powerhouse within the Canadian chess scene. With COVID putting a hiatus to in-person competitions, this year’s CUCC teams fielded many fresh faces. UofT A ranked second in terms of average rating at 2321, only slightly behind Waterloo A’s 2361. Everyone expected the clash between the two titan teams to be the decisive game as third ranked Waterloo B could only muster a team of rating 2052. The full lineups for all the teams can be found here.

UofT Team A: IM Nicholas Vettese, WIM Yunshan Li, FM Eilia Zomorrodian, Derek Ma

With the last minute withdrawal of NM Joseph Bellisimo, UofT A board 4 would have to settle with an untitled player (me). Unrated Nick Pestov moved up to Team B to plug in my departure, shoutout to him for having an excellent first CFC tournament!

UofT Team B: WFM Cindy Qiao, Victor Zheng, Ethan Moon, Nick Pestov

Three UofT teams also participated in the reserve section (for teams under 1800 in average CFC rating). These teams were mostly composed of beginner to intermediate chess enthusiasts who were not as seasoned as our veteran players. Although I will be mostly focusing on the championship teams, they nonetheless proudly competed for UofT and fought hard in every match!

The first round of any chess tournament can always be a bit nerve-racking. You never know what to expect going in, but once the clocks are started, you set aside your thoughts and focus on the board. As the game progresses, doubts begin to surface. Did my opponent prep for me? Is my position actually ok? What if I lose? As a friend once told me, chess is just as much psychology as it is game.

With this in mind, our first round pairing (team A) was against Queens University, a team that we outranked by 400 points on average. Being heavy favourites comes with its own unique challenges when playing, nonetheless, we were confident of nothing other than victory. There comes, however, the intersection between confidence and pride – a dangerous crossroad to reach. Although we did manage to defeat Queens with a score of 2.5 – 1.5, the final score warned us that any one of these teams are capable of upsets. Eilia was also warned that factoring polynomials on his scoresheet during his games is unadvised. Our B team faired better, crushing Carleton 3.5 – 0.5 on their first round.

For those who haven’t played chess tournaments before, it is hard to emphasize just how exhausting they can be. The endless calculation of a 3 – 4 hour game takes a toll on your mind no doubt. It is essential that players learn to manage their mental fatigue to be competitive. Former world champions would even include exercise in their training regimen to maximize their stamina at the board! At CUCC 2023, the scheduling was particularly brutal – three 90 | 30 games on the 28th and two more on the 29th.

Round 2 paired UofT A against Universit√© de Montreal A and UofT B against Waterloo B – both tough opponents! Even though Eilia and I secured victories on boards 3 and 4, Nicholas and Yunshan both came out worse from the middle game and lost their respective endgames, ending our match against UdeM in a 2.0 – 2.0 draw. Had we won this match, an anticipated showdown with Waterloo A would have occurred in round 3. UofT B didn’t fair much better with a narrow defeat to Waterloo B 1.5 – 2.5.

UofT B playing against Waterloo B round 2, they would unfortunately lose 1.5 – 2.5 despite their efforts.

After our disappointing results in the previous rounds, UofT A was determined to close the day on a bright note with Yunshan being especially adamant about playing a good game that round. UofT A was paired against McMaster A – a strong team with Eugene Hua (2349) and Jeffrey Xu (2263) leading their top boards. There were also rumours that their boards 3 and 4 were online demons (a term popularized recently describing players who are underrated OTB due to Covid).

Yunshan Li vs Jeffrey Xu Round 3, a crazy position after black decided to play the Snake Benoni!

Despite being exhausted after an already long day, our Team A put up fantastic performances across all boards and defeated McMaster 3.0 – 1.0. Yunshan kept good to her promise with her game, winning game of the tournament in her round 3 game as seen on the right (game here) . Team B fought to avenge Team A by playing against UdeM, but once again were edged out 1.5 – 2.5. After round 3, Waterloo remained top of the leaderboard with 3 points, followed by UofT A and UdeM A with 2.5 points. The top UofT reserve team of the day was UofT D, with 1.5 points.

Having played more than enough chess for the day, most of us were too tired to do much else than eat and sleep. Teams A and B decided that exploring Ottawa could wait until after the tournament finished – a proposition some reserve teams refused to accept. Team D, taking matters in their own hands, went on a grand tour of Ottawa! As Grace of Team D told me when sending their team photos, “chess kids need better pr”.

Team D and Nick exploring Ottawa! From left: Nick, Liam, Yixiao, Boomba. Photo credits to Grace Miao.

And so the round everyone was waiting for arrived: UofT A against Waterloo A. Going into the round, there was a sense that victory was necessary for us to win. We could not depend on any team to defeat Waterloo and since we drew UdeM, anything other than a win against Waterloo would null our chances of winning the tournament. This would be our chance to redeem ourselves after day one.

Unfortunately for me, the result of the match would be decided through my game. As a board 4 player, one does not seek fame, simply content to be part of such a strong team. My teammates would disagree with that statement as all their games ended in draws before mine, sealing my fate as either hero or disappointment. I had surprised my opponent, William Li, by playing the Kan Sicilian, a line he did not prepare for. Despite gaining a slight advantage in the middle game, William played excellently and equalized by the endgame. I sensed that I would get squeezed to death in a positional endgame, so I blew open the position with a dubious pawn sacrifice. This would eventually lead to William squandering a winning endgame due to time pressure. What followed would likely have been blunder of the tournament, had their been an award. The video below says everything that needs to be said, I am simply too pained to explain myself more.

Koosha Jaferian’s (team captain) stream, highlighting the fateful blunder that allowed Waterloo A to win against UofT A. Link for stream and game.

My coach would always tell me “to make the move the board is telling you to play, nothing else”. Sorry coach, I failed you on this one. In the heat of the moment, selfishly wanting to claim match victory all to myself but also under extreme time pressure, I panicked and played a move worthy to be ashamed of – Rf5??. Lunch was hard to swallow, the thought of playing another classical game next round was even less palatable. It is in these moments when I question why I even play chess. To put in your all for 3 hours and then to lose it all in a blink of a thought.

Luckily, my teammates were extremely supportive and offered their condolences to my loss. We were no longer in contention for first place but that didn’t mean we could just through away our rating points and honour. Team A’s last round would be against McGill and Team B would play UdeM B. UdeM A would challenge Waterloo A, needing a win against them to secure the championship. Excitingly in the reserve section, UofT C would play UofT D. At that point, both teams’ board 4 player had gone undefeated (Eric Wan and Yixiao Wang). The top board 4 player prize in the reserve section would be given to whoever won that game.

UofT D (left) vs UofT C! Closest are Yixiao and Eric, battling out for the top reserve section board 4 prize!

UofT A would narrowly defeat McGill 2.5 – 1.5, UofT B would crush UdeM 3.5 – 0.5, and the UofT C – D match would end in a tense draw. Still, all eyes were focused on the UdeM A vs Waterloo A match. Their match was another nailbiter as the match would also rest upon board 4 as boards 1 – 3 once again ended in draws. Incredibly, UdeM A’s Hou Han Zhang, would defeat Waterloo A’s William Li. With that, UdeM A conquered all odds and won CUCC 2023 as the 5th ranked team!

UofT teams left Ottawa slightly disappointed with their results but we nonetheless managed to snatch some prizes. Yunshan won game of the tournament with her 3rd round game against McMaster’s Jeffrey Xu. Ethan Moon won the championship section’s top board 3 prize with a perfect score of 5/5! Yixiao Wang (who defeated Eric Wan last round) and I won top board 4 prize for both sections. UofT A ended up placing 4th behind UdeM A, Waterloo A, and Queens – UofT A’s first round opponents who climbed their way back up the leaderboards. We will be back next year!

UdeM A, champions of the 2023 Canadian Universities Chess Championship!

To the question I posed earlier, I just want to say that Chess to me is just a hobby at the end of the day. It cannot pay the bills, will not present me the meaning of life, and it definitely refuses to help me find the love of my life. Yet coming back to the game after a 3 year hiatus, my passion for it is as strong as ever. I play for my lifelong friendships, to compete at places I would otherwise never experience. But most importantly, I play to avenge my past self, to tell the young Derek that it’s ok to lose. To let him know that he will always come back stronger, foolishly hungry for that next victory.

Sorry for such a delayed article, no excuses just procrastination. Congrats to UdeM for finishing first and to all of this year’s competitors, I hope to see you all Queen’s next year! Thanks to my teammates who’ve made this tournament that much more memorable. Finally, thanks to Hart House Chess Club for giving us the opportunity to play.