This week I sat down with Scorpion veteran IM Levon Altounian (LA) to get his thoughts on the USCL, the great chess players in history, and the local chess scene.
EJ: We are almost half way through your second season in the USCL. How has this season compared to last year?
LA: Interesting, very educational but strange at the same time. One of the nice surprises includes having a much better organized team, GM Alejandro Ramirez playing for our team, and the fact that U of A donated not 1 but 2 perfect rooms for our cause. In 1 room we play and in the other we have spectators listening to very insightful and interesting comments by experts or even an IM using a projector that shows all 4 games same time.
EJ: Speaking of Alejandro. You’re one of the few players that has been asked to play board 1 or 2. How has having a GM (or 2) on the team affected your play?
LA: Well, it was very nice having a strong GM on board 1, which makes me a pretty good board 2. At the same time there was more pressure “delivering” the point on that board. One of the nice things was that it is not just any GM we got. It was a guy we know very well now and I think everyone likes a lot. That brings something special to the table.
EJ: Is it a different type of preparation for board 2 than 1?
LA: Not really. For example, last week playing board 1 I played a person who could also be board 2 if they had a GM present themselves.
EJ: How about preparation from last year that’s changed for this year?
LA: Well, I think the anxiety is gone. Last year we were e-mailing each other like crazy 4 days before the match sharing info. This year- much more relaxed and we trust the players to do the job. If someone needs advice or some help- we all help each other. Considering our opponents also prepare, sometimes its complete luck or accident which opening or system we end up playing.
EJ: Being an experienced tournament player, does “history” against an opponent OTB translate to success in the USCL?
LA: I don’t think so. Of course if a 2300 plays a 2600 who beat him 6 times in a row- probably yes. But in our case so far we have not encountered any match where someone was afraid of the opponent or thought they would win easily. Of course for statistics and guessing the outcome- ratings, styles and their personal past encounters count for a little bit.
EJ: Maybe not afraid, but if you’ve played someone enough times does that experience help in preparation for a match?
LA: I can’t speak for others, but in my games I usually compensate my lack of studying chess or playing enough tournaments by a better preparation. So the more I know the person, better I feel.
EJ: Any idea who you’ve played the most games against in your past? Alejandro has mentioned playing against the Dallas team nearly 20 times each.
LA: You mean which team or a person?
EJ: A person.
LA: Oh, no one in particular. I came to Tucson from California and they are not yet in the USCL league, so have not played anyone more than once or twice I think. Plus when I play the same team- they always had different people on that board for each match.
EJ: Do you think CA will get a second team? Any old friends you hope would join the league?
LA: No idea. They are definitely strong enough for it. But management is important for such cases. All the friends unfortunately are also very dangerous players so …. They probably can make one team for South CA as the North CA has a great team already.
EJ: Perhaps if Alejandro can’t swing the schedule next year…
LA: Oh! you mean to invite them to play here ?
EJ: Not necessarily but if S-CA doesn’t want a team, it doesn’t mean we can’t have them!
LA: Yes, that is possible. However, there are few problems with that in my opinion. One is that I don’t like inviting an outsider who no one knows- We are used to people we know- we are spoiled. Two- since there is a cap in rating- only very high rated players make sense to invite. I would love to have someone like Akobian here for board 1.
EJ: Team spirit is important to the Scorpions.
LA: Yes, very. One of the reasons I played in it and went through nightmarish schedule changes was the team spirit. I like literally everyone how is on the team and know the Tucson players very well. I really like what Leo Martinez is doing as a manager, I like Robby and Ginsburg being on the team, I like all that the younger generations- Adelberg, Amanda Mateer, Ben Marmont, you name it- all either play or help us. I also like how the Phoenix line up looks. I have a huge respect for Barcenilla and love being on a team with Danny Rensch. Now that he got his last IM norm, he promised he will IM-ise everyone.
EJ: I couple of “elects” that need their titles.
LA: Yeah, true, which speaks well for Arizona. Getting titles is hard here and it is hard to travel. I hope time will come when with all the combined forces we can organize a titled tournament in Tucson.
EJ: I’ll see what I can do about that. Although Danny has done a great job with the CopperState. I know you’re one of the few members with family that makes traveling difficult. How do you “keep sharp”?
LA: Well, I am not “sharp” at tournaments unfortunately. It is a relative term.
EJ: Sharp enough to win a couple of state championships. Congratulations on that by the way.
LA: Thanks I play ICC and use tournaments such as the local scholastic League Match as a way to prepare for the whole year. Kind of like a “camel effect” – learn enough new stuff for 1 big tournament and then use it for the year. I am not as sharp as I could be if I played as much as I did 10 years ago but sometimes I do OK.
EJ: I’m sure many of your opponent’s would disagree. So you think being “off the grid” helps you in the USCL?
LA: well, I am good at boring chess and psychology. More the opposite – USCL helps me “get on the grid”.
EJ: I’m wondering if opponents are having a difficult time to prepare for you.
LA: Well, that too. For example- in the last game against Baltimore I prepared well enough to not only guess the opening we would have but the exact position to move 13, including his novelty. All worked perfectly.. but I still drew.
EJ: Best laid plans…
LA: I am more a chess “theoretician” than a player I guess. I was only half joking when I mentioned in the blog that I need to play the opening and then let Alejandro or someone else play after that.
EJ: Without tipping off any future opponents, are there any openings or lines that you “dream” to play?
LA: I wish when I was younger someone made me play “correct” openings – like najdorf sicilian, Slav defense and not the “weirdo” ones I usually play. Now I am too old for those unless Leo and the team wants to have a heart attack watching me play those
EJ: A little excitement is a good thing. I’m a fan of the Latvian, personally.
LA: Latvian I played few times. It is better than its reputation. There was a guy in Orange County- rated about 2300. He only played Latvian and when his opponent wouldn’t let him do it- he was taking it very personally. What is interesting is that in blitz I do very well and make probably less mistakes than in a tournament, where I try to find the most perfect move each time
EJ: Perhaps we need to suggest a Blitz league. Just don’t decide to let your time run down to test this out. I don’t think your fans could take the excitement.
LA: That is what happened in few of my USCL games where I was winning and found the ‘only” way to not win by trying to win the “best” way. That is actually one problem with USCL. I find that for me in tournaments when I am in time pressure- it is much easier to play than to play for the team. A lot of unseen pressure and many times other boards start calculating my game to figure out what to do on theirs and vice versa. But that is the name of the game.
EJ: You set the tone.
LA: I think it has to do with the fact that we really care.
EJ: But I’m know many of the players have complete faith in you. You’re not called “the Solid” without a reason.
LA: The big faith is “Lev will be fine”. I am the disciple of Tigran Petrosian- the most solid player ever!
EJ: Is he your favorite player in history?
LA: However, maybe it was not the best idea in the long run . Tal would be a better model. The more I learn about chess, the more I move from Botvinik/ Petrosian/ Capablanca to names like Kasparov, Ivanchuk and Kramnik. For example- how do we compare the natural talent of Capablanca to the extreme preparation skills of Kasparov? I was blown away by Garry’s game against #2 seed Anand years ago, when he prepared until move 41, where he is up a piece and needed FRITZ to tell him how to win it… all done before the game even started.
EJ: If you could be board 2 on a team with any player, who would you like to play along with? No disrespect to our current Scorpions.
LA: Well, honestly, unless we talk about the top 10 in the world, I am good enough to give a very strong fight to anyone. So I would not want to play board 2 with egoistical or cocky players. All others would be fine. Alejandro, Rojelio Barcenilla, they are great to play with. It would be fun to be in a team with Nakamura probably and see his “Nakamura effect” from the “good side” and rather than being the receiving end of it. USCL board 1 is usually so tough anyways- no one has a chance for going perfect.
EJ: Perhaps the USCL needs an “All-star game”.
LA: USCL went from something small to something very big and important, thanks to relentless work of Greg Shahade. So I would not be surprised if they invented some other type of matches.
EJ: I think seeing a SoCal team would be a lot of fun.
LA: He also had the poker websites do most of the sponsoring so I am sure some high-end poker-like ideas are in his mind for the USCL.
EJ: I’m 0-3 in getting a prediction out of these interviews. Any thoughts on the match this week against Dallas?
LA: I don’t know… we all say we are great and then it all comes down to one move of one of the games. So predicting it has a wrong karma effect it seems.
EJ: Fair enough…
LA: If all boards do the way they should- we should win. I think the main battle will be if Robby can win his game on board 3.
EJ: I meant to ask, is there anything like the USCL back in Europe when you played?
LA: Well, the USCL took a format similar to German bundesleagues. Which is copied in nearly every self-respecting chess country.
EJ: Did you play in those?
LA: No, I was too young for those and too much into architecture studies, unfortunately, but it is a wonderful system. People can concentrate on being a professional in chess.
EJ: Well, I for one am glad we have the USCL and the Arizona Scorpions.
LA: Yes, and that is why I hope everyone can support the Scorpions. (Leo can tell you how !)
EJ: I really hope the younger kids from the community follow the matches. I would have killed to have had something like this when I was in school. Watching my idols play each week.
EJ: Anything you’d like to say before we wrap up?
LA: Well, I would probably like to take a moment and talk about the Tucson chess scene. I am very optimistic about chess in Tucson and Arizona in general. That is one of my drives and motivations for being on the USCL team.
EJ: Sure… You’re a very active coach outside of the USCL. Feel free talk about your life outside of the USCL.
LA: I think all the organizations here and individuals are working towards the same goal of providing chess education to people of any and every age and strength, and I really like how SACA has evolved from more less passive organization to much more active role and that is thanks to Karen Pennock (SACA President), Jon Shacter, volunteers and you. I like what 9 Queens is doing here, the USCL team, all the work Leo, Robby, others put in and I especially like that there is very little clash of interests.
EJ: There’s that team spirit again.
LA: I would love to see more unique events here like simuls, bughouse tournaments, matches between organizations- like Raytheon and U of A and some tournaments similar to the very successful types Danny runs in Phoenix so we do not have half the Tucson travel to Phoenix to compete.
EJ: I’m sure if there’s a will, there’s a way.
LA: With Tucson chess growing, Arizona Chess for Schools growing and my daughter Ani growing- I can hopefully play more chess and hopefully get my GM title.
EJ: That would be wonderful! Well, I think that wraps up for us now. Thank you for sitting down to chat and good luck to the Scorpions!
Learn more about Levon’s Arizona Chess For Schools at their website. You will find all the connections with the coaches, schools, and organizations involved.