A report from the United States Amateur Team Championships, where people truly play for love of the game.

In a rite of winter that seems like it could have been lifted out of the movie “Groundhog Day,” last weekend, more than 1,300 people from around the country packed into a suburban hotel in rural New Jersey for President’s Day weekend. It was their 46th annual convention, though not always at the same location, and not always with the same people. It was the U.S. Amateur Team East chess championship.

Billed as the “World Amateur Team Championship” (in a country where the championship of its national past-time, baseball, is called the “World Series,” such bravado should not come as a surprise), it is the biggest and oldest of the four annual amateur team championships held around the country every year on President’s Day weekend.

Why does the tournament have such a loyal following? It certainly is not the prizes. In the best spirit of amateurism, there is no money, just clocks, plaques (for best teams in different categories), and the dream of true national title.

The tournament has such wonderful energy that it always attracts a large number of players, including grandmasters and international masters. Indeed, this year’s attendance set a record with 307 teams and 1300 players. Among them, there were 12 grandmasters, 24 international masters and FIDE masters, and 75 masters. (The rules are that the teams, which have four regular players and can also have an alternate, must have an average rating of less than 2200, the level of a master. So a grandmaster has to be balanced with a lower-rated player, who is often one of their students.)

There are also prizes for best team name, best costumes and best chess theme. My team was named, “Yip Yip Hurray!” in honor of our top player, Carissa Yip, who at 13, and with United States rating of 2349 (and 2234 internationally) is a rising star. Predictably, many team names were inspired by politics including, “Our Stonewall is Yuge,” “My Trump Beats Your Queen,” and the co-winning name, “Grab Them By the Pulugaevsky,” which tied in audience support with “Pillsbury Takes En Croissant” (which also won the top prize for the seniors category).

I have competed in the Amateur Team East almost every year since 1980. In spite of life’s twists and turns, I continually return to Parsippany, N.J., the site of the tournament for the last few decades. And I’ve been able to live out the amateur dream twice — I’m one of a handful of people who has been on two winning teams (1998 and 2009). Nobody has won it three times.

It addition to the competition, it also is a reunion event. People who are otherwise immersed in their daily lives get together once a year to check in and catch up with old friends.

I often see people from the Marshall Chess Club from the days when I lived in New York City, the Boylston Chess Club from when I lived in Boston/Cambridge days, the New Britain Chess Club from Connecticut, where I now reside, and many others from around the east coast and beyond. This tournament is unique in so many respects, but what always amazes me is the diversity and intergenerational connections among the players.

My team, which ultimately took the top prize for mixed doubles (two men and two women), won the first four matches, but we were demolished in the fifth round by the team that ultimately won the tournament, “Summer Academy Talented Youth.” The champion team was somewhat a family affair with Ethan Li, Wesley Wang, Warren Wang, and Jason Li.

We battled back in the final round to beat “Putin Gave Us Our King,” a strong team with grandmaster John Fedorowicz, on Board 1. Carissa, playing the White pieces, held him to draw. Our team finished with five team points, lots of terrific memories, and the desire to return and do battle next year.

The following game was Yip’s best effort, a win in Round 2 against Denys Shmelov, a Ukrainian international master.

Yip, Carissa vs. Shmelov, Denys
U.S. Amateur Team Championship | Parsippany, N.J. | Round 2 | 18 Feb 2017 | 1-0
1. e4 Nf6 The Alekhine Defense, named for the former World Champion, doesn't have such a great reputation at elite levels, but it is not so bad.
2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. Nf3 dxe5 Not necessary, but a known line; 4... e6 seems wiser, if a little passive.
5. Nxe5 c6 6. c4 Nf6 6... Nb4 is considered a better move. Among other things, it contains the threat of 7... Qd4.
7. Nc3 g6 8. Be2 Bg7 9. Be3 Nbd7 10. f4 Without doing anything extraordinary, White has a very nice position.
10... Qc7 11. O-O O-O 12. Bf3 Rd8 13. Qe2 Black is really cramped and has a problem getting his light-squared bishop out.
13... a6 14. b4 Nf8 15. Rac1 Bd7 16. a4 The position is almost comical. White is simply dominating the game.
16... Be8 17. Rb1 This waste of time does not hurt White because her position is so good.
17... N6d7 18. Rfc1 Yip has been patiently improving her position while Shmelov has had to sit and wait for her to do something and hope that he find some counterplay.
18... Nxe5 19. dxe5 Capturing fe5 was better. Yip probably feared some pressure against her pawn on d4, but Black cannot do anything.
19... f6 20. b5 Rab8 If 20... fxe5, then 21. bxc6 and the threats of cxb7 and Bb6 give White a clear advantage.
21. exf6 One consequence of her earlier decision about which way to recapture -- Yip's impressive center has disappeared. Nevertheless, she retains a healthy edge because of her lead in development and advantage in space.
21... exf6 22. f5! Sealing in the dark-squared bishop.
22... Bf7 23. Bf2 Re8 24. Bg3 Qa5 25. Qf2 Rbc8 26. bxc6 bxc6 27. Ne4! Winning an exchange.
27... Rcd8 28. Nd6 Re7 29. Nb7 Rxb7 30. Rxb7 Bh6 31. Bc7 Qxf5 32. Bxd8 Bxc1 33. Bxc6 Qd3 34. Bb6 Bxc4 Black has picked up a pawn for his exchange and his pieces are active, so the game is far from over.
35. Qf3 Qd6 36. g3 Bh6 37. Bf2 Bg7 38. Rb1 f5 39. Rd1 Qb4 40. Bd5+ Exchanges help White.
40... Kh8 41. Bxc4 Qxc4 42. Qf4 Qb3 43. Rd8 Qb1+ 44. Kg2 Qb7+ 45. Kh3 Qf7 46. Bd4 Kg8 47. Bxg7 Kxg7 48. Qe5+ Kh6 49. Qe8 Qc4 50. Qe3+ g5 With the subtle threat of 51. Qf1, mate.
51. Kg2 Qc2+ 52. Qf2 Qe4+ 53. Qf3 Qc2+ 54. Kh1 Ng6 55. a5 Qb1+ 56. Rd1 Qc2 57. Rf1 Ne5 58. Qxf5 Qc6+ 59. Kg1 Qc5+ 60. Qf2 Qxa5 61. h4 Ng6 62. Qe3! Simple but effective. The pin is deadly.
62... Qd5 63. Rf2 Qd1+ 64. Kh2 Qd5 65. Rd2 Qf5 66. Rf2 Qd5 67. Rc2 The threat is 68. Rc5.
67... Qe5 68. Qxe5 Nxe5 69. Rc5 Nf7 70. Rc7 Kg6 71. h5+ Kf6 72. Kh3 h6 73. Ra7 Ke6 74. Rxa6+ Kf5 75. g4+

And this was an interesting game of mine from Round 3 against an expert. 

Price, Alan vs. Sazci, Bilgen
Amateur Team Championships | Parsippany, N.J. | Round 3 | 19 Feb 2017 | 1-0
1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 c5 5. d5 White had many options including; 5.e3, 5.c3, and 5.00.
5... d6 6. Nc3 6.c4 would be the more popular and possibly logical choice. I was trying to get us both out of opening preparation.
6... b5 7. O-O 7.Nxb5!? grabs the pawn but gives Black the initiative and adequate compensation after 7...Qa5+ 8.Nc3 Ne4
7... b4 8. Nb1 Nbd7 9. c4 bxc3 10. Nxc3 O-O As a sometime Benko Gambit player, this position looked somewhat familiar to me. The big difference is the presence of Black's pawn on a7. Thus, it's not a gambit and White cannot look forward to a long-term endgame advantage, while Black cannot look forward to pressure down the a-file. That difference may have been important as Black spent considerable time developing a middle game plan.
11. Re1 Rb8 12. e4 Ng4 13. Qc2 Ba6 14. Bf1 Reluctantly admitting that his bishop is better than mine.
14... c4?! It's hard to fault this move. Black seizes space and some key squares, but dooms his own bishop in the process.
15. Be3!? This move can't be the best for me, but I made the practical decision to develop and invite the exchange, which would ease some of the pressure. I began to imagine a king endgame where my king would run to d4 and win the pawn on c4.
15... Nxe3 16. Rxe3 Qa5 17. Rd1 Rfc8?! 18. Bh3! Black's knight can hurt me.
18... Rc7 19. Bxd7 Rxd7 20. Nd4 Qb4 21. Re2 Bxd4 22. Rxd4 Rdb7 23. Rdd2 Bb5 24. Kg2 Bd7 25. Qd1 a5?! This plan is slow and does not work.
26. f3 a4 27. a3 Qa5 White's plan is clear: centralize the queen to d4 and enjoy the fact that Black's bishop is "bad" in spite of its apparent scope. The pawns on a4 and c4 are both weak and targets.
28. Qg1 e5!? Black sees my plan and tries to counter it. This changes the structure. Black get's a new pawn weakness but gives Black at least the possibility of dynamic chances. White's position is perfectly solid, centralized, and ready to adapt to Black's threats.
29. dxe6 Bxe6 30. Qd1 30.Qd4 immediately would have been fine but I wanted to pressure a4 and see how Black would respond. My hope was to disrupt Black's piece coordination.
30... Rb3 31. Rc2 Rd8 32. Qd4 Qh5 33. h4 33.Rcd2 Shredder thinks that Black's threats can be ignored. 33...Bh3+ 34.Kg1 Qxf3 35.Rf2 Qh5 36.Qxc4 Be6 37.Qxa4 however humans are not computers and I saw no reason to invite needless complications near my king.
33... d5 34. Qf6 Rbb8 35. Rcd2 Rd7 36. g4 Qh6 36...Bxg4 37.Nxd5 Be6 38.Qf4 threatens both the loose rook on b8 and a knight fork on f6.
37. exd5 Rbd8 38. dxe6! Rxd2? 38...Qxd2 is the only move. 39.Rxd2 Rxd2+ 40.Kg3 fxe6 41.Qxe6+ Kg7 42.Qe5+ Kg8 43.Ne4+
39. exf7+ Black resigned here. Mate is forced: 39... Kf8 40. Qe7+ Kg7 41. f8/Q, mate.


Alan C. Price is the incoming president of Earlham College in Indiana (his alma matar) and a recent official in the Peace Corp. He is an expert, but also earned the master title at the 2015 Amateur Team Championship.