How I won my section at the Galway Chess Congress

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I first competed in the Galway Congress in 2004 as a 12 year old who didn’t know about tactics or strategy, thought the Italian was the only opening that existed (although I didn’t know its name) and hadn’t even discovered online chess. Basically, I thought going to a tournament was like going to the weekly club meeting except there were more people. Unsurprisingly, I ended up with a poor 1 point after 6 games.

After a break of 15 years, and playing online chess almost every day during lockdown, I returned to competitive chess in 2021. Now armed with the skill of actually being able to analyse a game, I was ready for redemption in my native county.

The tournament was somewhat unusually organized as a hybrid between an open and a sectional event. All players were organized into 5 sections with 25-30 players in each section. However, the boundaries between the sections were porous, so if you won your game, you could float to the higher section (and vice versa).

I was in Section D, where the highest rated player was 1027 and the lowest was 780. With a rating of 966, I was in the middle of the group and after my wins, faced players from Section C in rounds 2 and 3, a player from Section B in round 4, before returning to Section D for my last two games.

The first game was a variation of the Ponziani where I delay c3 and play Bishop to c4 first (waiting for them to play Bishop to c5). It quickly became apparent that my opponents Bishop was vulnerable, so I diverted the knight by attacking it with pawn to d5 and then winning the bishop with Qa4+ on move 9. I was worried my opponent could get counterplay with 10. Nxf3 gxf3 Bxf3 which wins a pawn and damages my kingside defence, but luckily it wasn’t played.

It was a long game, with my opponent spending over 40 minutes on move 16 alone and but I stayed steady in the endgame, trapping their knight on move 27 and forcing them to trade a rook for a bishop on move 30. I promoted a pawn and when I finally delivered checkmate, they only had 2 minutes left on their clock.

Game 2 was another long, tiring battle and was the first tournament game I’ve played that ended on time. In response to my Sicilian Defence, my opponent played the Wing Gambit. This surprised me, but I held steady and maintained my pawn advantage. My opponent was unable to convert the gambit into an advantage and I put pressure on their backwards c3 pawn. We entered a delicate endgame but I was able to pin their knight to their queen and eventually win the piece on move 27. With the queens off the board, the march of my pawns couldn’t be stopped even if my opponent had more time.

In Game 3, I was matched against the highest rated opponent I have ever faced in a tournament, who was almost 400 points higher rated than me. I played the Exchange French to take him out of his prep and he immediately launched a very aggressive attack. The attack was somewhat reckless and I won his bishop on move 12, but my king was still exposed and I had to run him to safety. After the game my opponent considered move 14 Re8 as his biggest mistake as it gave me breathing room. From then on, my intention was to trade queens and so determined to avoid this was my opponent, that he sacrificed two pawns and his kingside defence. I managed to force a queen trade and on move 31, facing either sacrificing more material or getting checkmated, my opponent resigned.

Game 4 was against an opponent almost 500 points higher rated, by far the toughest opponent I’ve ever faced in a tournament. In response to my Slav defence, they played the Catalan and gambited the c4 pawn in exchange for development and pressure on my c6 pawn. This lead to a very tricky position where I was unable to castle and I found myself in huge trouble before I realized what was happening. By the time I discovered the danger of 16. Ne5, it was too late and I was quickly torn to shreds.

In game 5, I returned closer to my own rating and while playing the Alapin Sicilian, I noticed I could push my pawns forward, chase away my opponents knights and lock the bishop away. I was expecting Bf1 on move 10 and was preparing to launch a strong attack, but surprisingly the engine agrees that it’s not worth trying to save the bishop. After that, my plan was to develop and not allow any counterplay. I traded off most pieces, but avoided a queen trade because I felt my attack was stronger with the queen. After a nice little tactic on move 34 that won their queen with Rh8+, my opponent resigned.

By the time of game 6, there was one other player on 4 points in Section D, so whoever won the last game, would be the overall winner. The seriousness of the situation wasn’t undermined by the fact my opponent was only 11 years old, as unlike me at that age, she is well able to play chess. Coincidentally, I faced the exact same opponent at the Galway Congress last year, that game was also round 6 and I also played black (I also won that game). Ironically, my opponent played the Ponziani against me in the game, although I often play it, I rarely have to face it. Although I knew that on move 7, d5 was theory, I lost my nerve and was too afraid of d5 exf6 dxc4 and either fxg7 or Qe2+. Instead I undeveloped my knight, played it slow and luckily, my opponent didn’t press their advantage.

The crucial moment of the game occurred on move 13 when instead of retaking my bishop with their queen (and losing the e4 pawn), my opponent retook with the g2 pawn, leaving a massive hole in their king’s defence. I now had a clear target to focus on and gradually built the pressure over the rest of the game. When 30. Rg4 blocked my opponents last desperate attack (it’s never too late to blunder mate) and simultaneously made checkmate inevitable, my opponent resigned.

Although there was unfortunately no trophy, I was delighted to win my very first chess tournament and the prize of €120. Just as valuable was gaining 140 rating points, bringing my rating from 966 to 1106 (with a performance of 1385 during the congress). I have had a huge growth in my chess skills over the past year and am very pleased about how I’m progressing.