I met Zong-Yuan Zhao (Yuan) while playing in the Australian Open Championship in January of 2007. The geography of the situation guaranteed that we would rarely see each other. We had an amusing encounter at the most recent Olymapid. We ran into each other before a game. We had a short chat and discovered that our opponents on that day would be Aronian and Topalov. Living in Canada and Australia has its advantages for chess players too;).
I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time with Yuan at the most recent World Cup. Our backgrounds are very similar – top chess players of great countries but that lack a chess tradition.
I have met a lot of chess players over the years. Yuan is hands down one of my favourite people in the world of chess. His story is an amazing one, as he finished a degree in Pharmacy which he followed up by working a year in the field before deciding to study medicine, his current occupation. Oh yeah, he’s also a Grandmaster rated 2570. When our adventures were coming to an end I asked Yuan to write an article for my blog and he gladly agreed. Enjoy the detailed account, I certainly did!
“My name is Zong-Yuan Zhao, a 25 year old Australian, currently living in Sydney and studying 2nd year post-graduate medicine, having previously completed a bachelors in pharmacy. I consider myself a complete non-professional when it comes to chess although I am extremely passionate about the game and have worked hard on it for more than 15 years. This was already my second time representing the Oceania region (this FIDE-designated geographical area includes countries like Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Palau and potentially other Pacific Islands). I have very pleasant memories of my previous 2007 World Cup sojourn (held in Khanty Mansyisk as well) when I got to face the now “Great Magnus” (current world no.1 Magnus Carlsen from Norway) just before he reached true greatness – after beating me he jumped from something like 2670 – 2720 in one rating list, I must have made the bulk of that Elo contribution right :)
That was a great learning experience but it was only the start of my European tour to seek my GM norms and he told me afterwards that he thought I would be able to do it. I didn’t take the man too seriously as I thought he was merely consoling me after snapping me 2-0 in the match but I can now report he has a future in the soothsaying business, doubtlessly like some of his Nordic ancestors - I went on to achieve 3 GM norms out of my next 4 tournaments in Europe…
I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Bluvshstein when he visited Australia at the beginning of 2007 in Canberra for the biennial Australian Open held in Australia’s capital, Canberra. At that time as I recall it he was about to start university and the Australian tour was a small “chess tourist” holiday before he would be more confined to his academic interests.
Fast forward now to 25th September 2011, about 5pm at Moscow Domododevo airport with me wandering around aimlessly inside the gigantic yet quite overcrowded airport. As I wheeled my baggage past the “Business to Bussiness Cafe” I suddenly recognised the slightly raised, blond crew-cut of a familiar figure. “Mark” I blurted out, the man looked slightly confused first of all, probably because we were in Russia and very few people would call this name this “English” way. Eventually we made eye contact and my voyage from Sydney-Khanty Mansyisk for the 2011 Chess World Cup was about to get much better. My flight from Sydney-Abu Dhabi was cancelled and then rescheduled about 15 hours later which meant I missed my connecting flights from Abu Dhabi-Moscow and Moscow-Khanty Mansyisk. What was meant to be a 30 hour trip had already turned into the third day on the road (or in the sky since I was mostly flying) for me by the time I reached Moscow Domododevo airport. I was simply so relieved that I found someone familiar who also spoke English.
Of course, as fellow chess colleagues we quickly started socialising and catching up on the last 5 years since we last saw each other. Mark offered his English-Russian translation services and valiantly tried to change my air ticket to the same flight as him on the evening of 25th September. However, it was not quite to be, as I had to spend one more evening at the airport hotel before I could jet-off to my final destination in Khanty Mansyisk.
I arrived in Khanty Mansyisk early on the morning of 27th of September (2 days later than what I planned, all due to my cancelled flight from Sydney) and having crashed in my room for about 8 hours I went out to get my World Cup player’s accreditation and then pleasantly ran into Mark and his fellow Canadian colleague, Eric Hansen. In fact this was the beginning of a somewhat short but very meaningful friendship between the three of us as we spent most of our spare time aside from the chess together. The first thing we did was go off and get some afternoon dessert at a cafe quite close to the Olympiad Hotel (where many participants of the 2010 Chess Olympiad was housed). Apparently for Eric, there at this puny but beautiful little cafe he had his first flirting (one of many more for sure) with the famous “banana split”. Funnily enough as Mark explained, despite the Cyrillic-English alphabet differences the pronunciation of this was almost English-like. We started teasing Eric about his first “banana-split” but I somehow have a feeling this was sort of understood by the pretty waitress who was making Eric’s banana split and she really did make it very special for him, I only wish we had captured it on camera. Next we went across the road to a little snack bar on wheels and Mark attempted to order two Russian snacks which I would describe as being quite similar to Turkish Pides (like a pizza but in a different shape and the topping is sometimes sealed inside). They were delicious but the main thing I remember was Mark teaching me the pronunciation and I thought one of them was rather close to what sounded like…”gibberish” :) I am sure Mark will correct my tongue twisting misunderstanding. (Cheburek-MB;))
In the chess scheme of things, this time my opponent in the first match (each match consists of 2 classical games followed by rapid, blitz and armageddon games on an as needed basis) was the 2710 Russian GM Evgeny Tomashevsky. As I write these passages I checked the latest chess news and he has “cruised” to round 3 of the World Cup where he is facing the top Azeri GM Vugar Gashimov (world no.11). I say cruised because his victory over me at least was indeed very cruisy as I was dispatched with few chances. In the first game, I snatched a pawn early on in a Catalan on the black side and got this position:
I have been dismally outplayed and if white had played 23.b4 here I may have soon passed out at the board due to asphyxiation :) Instead my opponent continued his manoeuvres and somehow I managed to improve my position to this:
At this point after white’s last move, 35.Qb1 I recall both of us had only about 1 minute left and my opponent was clearly getting very nervous (first time control at move 40, where each player got an additional 30 minutes, note that there is also a 30 second increment from the start of the game) . I got very excited as I saw possibilities of moves like 35…c5 or simply just 35…Qb6 but then it hit me. I played the highly excitable 35…Nb6?? thinking that this wins an exchange since the rook can’t retreat to c2 as then the knight is hanging. My opponent broke this “logical argument” by playing 36.Rc5! Bxc5 37.Rxc5 and I resigned shortly after, feeling quite depressed. From a purely chess point of view, 35…c5! which I thought about briefly before “blurting out” my blunder was very strong and ensures black a good game. What a pity…
Unfortunately Mark and Eric also posted the same dismal result and we shared our woes together that evening at a lovely Russian restaurant which Mark and I went back to together every night for the remainder of our stay in Khanty Mansyisk. (Night City Restaurant-MB)
In the second game, my opponent showed his true colours as he solved my anti-Marshall riddle:
The position comes after 19.Bxc4. The following phenomenon I am sure is familiar to chess enthusiasts and professionals alike. Strangely enough I had this position in my analysis on the computer with the evaluation that white is slightly better. The line the engines gives is something like 19…a5!? (which mortal which think of that? If one does think of it, I would check his DNA and accuse him of cheating by selling his soul to be a silicon) followed by 20…Rb7!. Okay, the moves are sort of conceivable but the plan as a whole is distinctly without “clear” human logic. My opponent continued instead 19…Bg4 20.Bf1 Bb4! (forcibly coming in to e1 with his rook) 21.Qb3 Bxf3! (this is the sort of move harder to make for a strong grandmaster than an average 2300 player because one has to see the follow up well in advance, otherwise giving up such a strong bishop would be a grievous sin which condemns one to the chess sin bin) 22.Qxf3 Re1 23.Qd3 leading to the following position:
What would you expect black to play?
Just to keep you in suspense for a moment longer, at this point whilst my opponent was pondering his move, I got up to use the restroom and have a quick bite at the little snack bar they set up for the players. I was feeling really quite confident as it still hadn’t occurred to me what black was planning. I am pretty sure Evgeny had already envisaged the following move when he spent a long time pondering his 19th move, truly grandmaster foresight! 23…Qg6! this is a really nice move. It’s a bit against intuition to initiate a queen exchange but once one realises that exchanging queens is very bad for white due to the back rank pin, it all makes sense 24.Qc4?! (instead 24.Qxa6! Qc2 25.Kg2! seems to be a draw as now black should opt for 25…Qe4+ 26.Kg1 Qc2 with repetition. If 25…Rxc1 then 26.Rxc1 Qxc1 27.Bc4! seems to be somewhat better for white) 24…Qe4 25.a3 Bc5! (a simple tactic as my opponent described it but one I missed and still quite cute I think) 26.Ra2? (26.b3 Qxd4 27.Ra2 Qxc4 28.bxc4 Rxc1 29.cxd5 cxd5 30.Kg2 a5 31.a4 I saw but dismissed quickly because here I may draw but anyway then the match is lost) 26…Qb1 26.Bd2 Rd1! and I simply have too many awkward pieces and soon I was mercifully knocked out by my opponent.
So after losing 2-0 I enjoyed one more “rest day” as I had originally booked my return flight to Sydney in case I made the rapid/blitz tiebreaks if the match is tied after the first two games. Instead the Canadian/Australian trio embarked on another wander around Khanty Mansyisk. We visited a lovely Bavarian style restaurant and had a very nice lunch for only 300 roubles (just over 10 USD) and then we strolled back to the tournament venue and enjoyed the action as other players had to sweat it out in the tiebreaks. There was a really good computer room/analysis area where each game was broadcast live (actually there were live camera feeds for some of the top games and one could clearly see the player’s facial expressions, simply awesome!) and in addition each computer was equipped with Houdini (no.1 chess engine in the engine rankings and maybe of humanity too!) so that even players like me could instantaneously pick up embarrassing episodes in the games of the greats like Karjakin and co. For dinner that evening I recall that Eric ordered a gigantic pizza (I think it was larger than “family size” by Australian standards) which took less than 10 minutes to make (really impressive as so called fast food pizza chains I know of take at least 15-20 minutes) and afterwards I believe he even made the acquaintance of a local Russian lady who is about to move to his home town in Canada. I think Eric is flying home 2 days later than Mark and I but we feel we leave him in good company as we departed home.
Many players ask me about what I think of the World Cup in Khanty Mansyisk. My answer to the question depends on the emphasis which the person asking the question has: Khanty Mansyisk is a beautiful city with rich customs and very friendly people and the chess events held there, whether it be World Cups or Olympiad are simply very well organised, I would say of top class. The only down-side, at least for a man from the Land Down Under is that this is simply a place very, very, very…far away! However, my final emphasis would be for the experience and chess it’s well worth it and I would do it again and again and again!
Thank you Mark and Eric! You guys are what made this experience even more memorable as I felt we shared a little bit of our special journey together. This World Cup really stands out in my memory because of both of you. May the Canadian/Australian bond grow ever stronger and I hope one day I will get a chance to visit your Northern Lands!”