Man crawling through mud

US Amateur Team East Recap

ChessOver the boardTournament
The good, the bad, and the ugly

Last weekend I went to the US Amateur Team East. This event is like a chess tournament, only more so.
Chess tournaments tend to be intense and fun, but also kind of uncomfortable and exhausting. At the end of the tournament, I am often on the fence about whether I ever want to play another one.

This is one of the only tournaments where you play as a team with other players. And it is big. This year it sold out to capacity with 330 teams. At four players per team, plus alternates, families, etc., that’s a lot of chess players. Things get pretty crowded.

If a 9-round Swiss is a marathon, and a local one-day tournament is a 5k, then USATE is a Tough Mudder (an obstacle race designed to be as dirty as possible).

As far as the chess, our team got 4/6, which is respectable enough, but you usually have to go 6/6 to win this tournament. I scored 4.5/5 in my games, drawing a game against an up-and-coming kid in the 2100s and winning the others against lower rated opponents.

But this tournament isn’t really about winning chess games, so let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of USATE.

The Good

The big draw of this tournament is seeing old friends. I got to meet up with a few Chess Gym members and talk chess improvement. I stayed in an Airbnb with some old friends from Boston who happen to be excellent cooks and we had some amazing steak dinners. Huge bonus, because the restaurants near the playing site leave something to be desired.

And the last night I had a great time hanging out at the hotel bar, having a few beers, and playing bughouse (for the uninitiated, a 2v2 chess variant where captured pieces can be placed back on the board). We should all be playing more bughouse!

The Bad

Unfortunately, there wasn’t as much time as I’d like to hang out with friends, because the rounds at this tournament are so long. The time control was game in 100 minutes, plus 30 minute sudden death at 40, which is actually faster than last year, but still way too slow. I’m on the record that time controls are too slow in general, and I know not everyone agrees, but for a tournament whose primary purpose is socializing, this is unreasonably, egregiously slow.

With two games per day, you’re not guaranteed to have enough time to eat or sleep, let alone hang out. The rounds also get earlier each day. The idea of this is to allow people to arrive and then leave the same day as the games, but it means your sleep time is getting crunched from both sides.

Overall, the schedule makes it almost impossible to eat or sleep normally. For a tournament that’s all about socializing, I just don’t see why we can’t have a more relaxed schedule and spend more time hanging out with our friends.

The Ugly

It turns out that when you pack several thousand chess players into a hotel, things get pretty gnarly. My friend Mike no longer plays because he finds the conditions in the playing hall too objectionable. He still comes to the tournament, but just hangs out at the Airbnb. This is a guy who drives a taxi in Las Vegas and has dodged IEDs in Iraq, so that’s a pretty strong statement.

The parents traveling with their kids camp out in every available space, so there’s literally nowhere to sit down. On the first day, the hacking coughs of a few sick players could be heard reverberating in the playing hall, and these spread alarmingly as the event went on.

It also seemed as though they moved the tables in closer together to fit all the players. In the last round, the kid sitting behind me kept jerking backwards, slamming his chair into mine. To his credit, he (mostly) stopped when I asked him to.

I’ve always wondered why no one tries to replicate USATE’s success. It’s one of the only team tournaments, and it’s wildly popular. There are similar tournaments for the other directions (West, South, North), but they aren’t as popular. Apart from that, I don’t see many team tournaments. It has to be a huge money maker for the organizers: they charge a hefty entry fee, and somewhat audaciously offer no cash prizes, only clocks.

It seems like it would be so easy to do the same tournament, only better. They could shorten the round times. They could hold it somewhere cooler than Parsippany, New Jersey. They could divert some funds from the employees who stand in the hallways shushing people towards drink tickets or free coffee.
But the fact that USATE continues to be so many players’ favorite tournament, and grow year after year, suggests that I’m missing the point. Maybe the grime and muck of this tournament is a feature, not a bug. Maybe what chess players really love, at the end of the day, is to wallow in the mud.

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