My recent trip to Italy gave me the chance to know the Italian chess scene through its tournaments, the players, and the organizers. Milano has a very old chess club from 1881: Società Scacchistica Milanese (Milano’s Chess Society). It began around 1860 when a group of amateurs tried to organize themselves with the name Aurea Simplicitas (Golden simplicity) and were meeting at the Lion Cafe, which nowadays doesn’t exist, in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which still is the main center street of the city.
This ancient club occupied many different cafes, even some homes of illustrious characters, like lawyers, or nobility. Around the 1970s, very likely thanks to Bobby Fischer’s phenomenon, it was in a beautiful classical building with an elephant head over its entrance door, a memento of earlier hunting trips to Africa. Later it moved inside a site previously held by a bank, and little by little to Milan’s periphery.
In this tournament 28 players participated. For the first time I played in a FIDE-rated tournament, and I must admit the time control was sweet! The tournament consisted of six rounds: one round on each of four days, and the last day, a Sunday, were the final two rounds. The time control was 90 minutes for 40 moves, plus 15 minutes to end the game, with 30 seconds added per move!
I was given a provisional rating of 1440, because I never had a FIDE rating. The main organizer told me that I needed to be able to do at least half a point in order to have a FIDE rating after the event. Obviously I tried to explain that I was stronger than that, but they looked at me as if to say, “Every guy says that!” Maybe they should have asked my rating on a great site like playchess.com to get a better idea of my strength.
The first round had about three false starts, because like always some players arrive at the last minute and didn’t pre-register. The tournament director had to do the pairings over and over to accommodate everyone.
The club provides everything. I forgot the pen and they gave me one. The games were played on a nice wooden chessboard with wooden pieces. Clocks were also provided and set on the correct time control by the arbiter before the start. During the tournament, I had the chance to talk with many chess players and tournament directors. Most chess players who played in this tournament were veterans, which means players who have played chess 20 years or more. Some can only have a minor rating of about 1900, but when playing for such a long time, it means that they have developed a good opening repertoire and they are not easily defeated. It is interesting to notice also how the study of chess has changed over the years. Some players told me that while in the 1980s they would mainly study chess books, nowadays the main tools are chess databases, videos, and eventually coaching. The main difference also is the way the young players grow. While 20 or more years ago a young player would definitely take years to become stronger, nowadays thanks to computers and tournaments available everywhere, young players grow definitely faster and become stronger within a short period of time–often in just a couple of years. Then, of course, there is the sport aspect which is important. Most tournaments here are FIDE rated, which means they will have long time controls, as mentioned before.
There are weekend tournaments. As it is done in Georgia (USA), they play one round on Friday night, two rounds on Saturday, and two rounds on Sunday, with the long time controls mentioned before. For some middle age players this is clearly hard, because every game lasts a minimum of four hours. This shows how chess can be a brutal sport, where endurance is really needed as it would be in a marathon.
I’m totally in love with this time control because it allows me to think strategically, not only to calculate variations, but also to assess the position and come out with ideas on piece activity and how to continue the game in creative ways. Tournaments are planned nearly a year in advance, because they are communicated to the Italian Chess Federation within 6-8 months from the time the actual tournament will be played.
While being at the tournament, I had the chance to talk with many of the Italian players who are rated 2000 and above. It was particularly interesting to notice the differences with USA. I asked if they played blitz online, and most told me that they never play blitz! I was clearly shocked and thought they were lying, but asking from multiple angles I realized they had a different forma mentis. Thanks to the chess club, they really play a lot OTB because there are different tournaments during the week and on the weekend. They play long time control games and then study a lot or analyze their games. Another question I asked following the recent review I did on Boris Gelfand’s latest book, Positional Decision Making in Chess, was if they had a favorite player which they would try to emulate.
One of the most baffling answers was “Depends on who my opponent is.” I couldn’t understand the answer, and I speak the language. The explanation was that depending on the opponent’s strength or weaknesses, they try to emulate a champion of the past which better adapts to fight those strengths and weaknesses. One told me that against a particularly solid player, he prefers to adopt more of Botvinnik’s style than Tal’s. This means that the players in this city mostly study games of champions from the past and try to learn from those games, instead of doing tons of tactics and playing fast blitz/bullet games like many do in USA. Another thing which baffled me was that one of these 1900+ rated players, a few days after a game that I lost to him, was still thinking upon it because I lost for a silly miscalculation mistake, but clearly I had a winning position from the opening. The part which amazed me was that he had learned our game by memory and showed me the analysis he did on it. This showed me that their work ethic is quite high.
There are, however, many other differences between the USA and Italy. Obviously, I don’t know if this is the same for all the other European countries. The tournament flyer states that prizes cannot be combined (except the first-prize winner) and cannot be shared, and they will only be given during the award ceremony. This is quite different from the United States, where prizes are shared, and generally are sent by mail to the winners.
Usually I don’t like to wait three hours for everybody to finish their games. I prefer to leave my address and the tournament organizer sends the check in the mail. In Milano, however, I had to go a few days after the tournament to ask for it. The money prizes in Milano are quite low. By comparison, in North Carolina there was the 29th Land of the Sky tournament. The first prize for the U1200 section was $250, second prize for U1200 was $112, and for U1700 the first prize was $500. In the U1700 section they paid 14 players; the prizes ranged from $500 to $62 for the last of the 14. The entry fee was $84, which is high because the average entry fee is $69. The GM who won that event in the open section got $1600, and he didn’t pay an entry fee. Now the difference is huge with the Milano tournament, because the winner got about $200, and he is an IM! The first in the U2000 section got about $80, and the first in the U1800 got about $70, The second place finisher in the U1800 section got something like a piece of paper with the words “25 dollars” written on it, a part of which he could use to pay the entry fee for the tournament.
Obviously I don’t play for money, and I don’t care about it, because in my line of work if I get an extra shift at the hospital I’m more useful to society and make much more money than in any Italian chess tournament. Still the difference was shocking, and in Italy they don’t have a tournament like the Millionaire. Maybe the reason for some of these low prizes could be government regulations and laws.
Another difference was the use of DGT (Digital Game Technology) boards. DGT boards allow us to see the games broadcast in real time (with a little delay to avoid possible outside assistance by the partner of a cheater). In Georgia (USA), thanks to the president of the Georgia Chess Association, Dr. Fun Fong, we have six such boards which we use in our tournaments. In Milano there were no DGT boards. Instead, in this club the scoresheets are collected, and thanks to the good will of a local master, the games are inserted into a PGN database.
A last anecdote: on the same Sunday that the last two rounds of the provincial championship were played, the Milano Chess Club also organized a rapid G12/3 (12 minutes, 3 seconds added) 7-round tournament, and two GMs from the former Yugoslavia passed by there to play! From what I heard, they played in another Italian tournament, and on their way home just stopped to play there too. Europe is a great place to play chess because so many cultures are intertwined, and there is so much to learn from everyone.
Here is a selection of the best games played in the tournament. In this first game the Black player is an IM, and the White player is an expert for American categories. The IM is also the winner of the tournament.
In the following game, the White player, Mr. Astengo, is a veteran chess master, and also the person we must thank for inserting all the games of the tournament into a PGN file.
Mr. Pelizzola is also a player of master strength. He doesn’t play blitz. He loves to read chess books without using a chessboard, and he is described by another player as a very fine connoisseur of the endgame. By the way, if one has a mechanical chess clock that is broken, Mr. Pelizzola is also good at repairing them, a true multi-talented artist!
The following game shows his style, because he likes to exchange all the pieces and go into the endgame where he will methodically grind the opponent!
It can be fascinating to see that players rated 1900+ can also have a catastrophe in the opening!
Here we can witness two 500 points upset! The White player is rated around 1200, and the Black player just over 1700.
Some games can be instructive, for how NOT to play. Black is such an example.
Another example of a catastrophe in the opening!
A brilliant attacking game, in Morphy’s style!
This game well exemplifies the fight for the center (in this case D4), and how once the fight is over there is a winner because his pieces are more active.
Another upset, a player rated over 2100 cannot win with White against a 1600 who plays as his opening a very funny pawn structure that we often see in bullet games.
A nice game which shows the importance of understanding the bishop pair advantage.
The following game is interesting for the endgame. Often these kinds of endgames are based on good piece (in this case the knight, more active) versus bad piece (the bishop is placed badly, or with a bad pawn structure, which is difficult to defend, and so on) and in this case White was winning. The Black player, very tenaciously, didn’t give up and continued the fight despite being overwhelmed, showing that chess is a true sport!
Davide Nastasio is a novel chess aficionado, who has made of chess his spiritual tool of improvement and self-discovery. One of his favorite quotes is from the great Paul Keres: “Nobody is born a master. The way to mastery leads to the desired goal only after long years of learning, of struggle, of rejoicing, and of disappointment…” He has contributed previously to Georgia Chess Magazine in 2013 and is now a contributing writer in this new exciting media format.