Winning the World Open U1800 Title in Philadelphia

The 45th annual World open was held from June 29th to July 4th, 2017 at the Philadelphia Marriott downtown, 1201 Market Street and Philadelphia Pennsylvania. My dream of playing in this tournament was now a reality. It was at the end of 2016 that I had decided to play in the World Open in 2017 but it would be a long road to actually get there.

The World Open at the Mariott Downtown Philadelphia CREDIT Daaim Shabazz
My good friend Farai Mandizha convinced me that playing in the World Open might be a good idea. I was very skeptical about my chances in such a competition but what would happen if someone were to prepare for such an event several months in advance. Would would happen if I could live and breathe chess for 6 months while preparing for this event? So thank you Farai. Your advice made a huge difference.
Farai Mandizha, Adia Onyango and Justus Williams in Philadelphia, CREDIT – Daaim Shabazz


The seed for playing at the World Open was actually planted by Millionaire Chess. It was actually Maurice Ashley, Amy Lee and Teresa Parr who made coming to the US possible in the first place. That initial trip for the Millionaire Chess Open led to so many other things. It opened so many doors. Then I was not even playing at Millionaire Chess. I was helping to organise our next big tournament but going to the US and seeing your many people play the game and then followed by a stint as a volunteer at the World Chess Championship, that would be enough to get anyone playing serious chess again I am sure. Little did I realise when coming for Millionaire Chess that less than a year later I would be playing myself. Life is full of mysteries.  Amy and the rest of the team, thank you so much!
Millionaire Chess Open


The World Open under 1800 tournament was incredibly tough. There were at least 170 players who entered the tournament and there were so many players rated above me. However, if there is anything I have learnt about chess tournaments, ratings can mean very little because it is your form and nerves at the end of the day that will determine if you win or not. In any case I knew there would be no easy games at all.  The tournament was 9 rounds long, the longest chess tournament I had ever played in. I already knew in advance that the tournament would be very tough so I had done as much as possible to prepare for this tournament. I have never prepared so intensely for a tournament in my life. If I was going to fly more than 20 hours to a tournament the very least I could do was to make sure that I am in the best possible shape mentally and physically for that tournament.


I spent a huge amount of time working on my chess, at least 5 to 6 hours a day over 6 months. The biggest challenge with working on my chess was the huge amount of material that I had to cover. I have accumulated so much chess material over the years mainly books, apps and software that it was completely overwhelming when sitting down to prepare for a tournament. At some stage I had to accept that I would only be able to go to a fraction of the material I had which was fine. By the time the tournament started I just made it with the work I had covered so far.



I didn’t think it was possible to do so many chess puzzles in such a short space of time. Over the 6 months I did between two thousand and three thousand chess puzzles. I went through some chess apps where I did every single puzzle from start to end. I did so much chess that I started to dream about chess. I never ever used to dream about chess. Dream chess positions?? This kind of thing never used to happen.


Because of the difficulty of getting strong players to prepare with in Kathu, I decided to get a chess coach. Heinco Du Plessis, based in Joburg, happily agreed to be my chess coach. I had never had a chess coach before in my life. In fact I was a chess coach myself but decided that I need help to prepare for this tournament. We had coaching sessions via skype. Heinco offered me great practical ideas on approaching the tournament, selection of openings, how to tackle highly tactical players. We also did some work on opposite coloured bishops. I never forgot what Heinco advised me around opposite coloured bishops. The games can be drawish but king safety is critical in the middlegame.


I love to play very short games of chess, blitz over the internet. However, when I was preparing for the tournament I realised that playing so much blitz could be my undoing in such a grueling tournament with very long games. So what did I do? I gave up something that I enjoyed a great deal. I stopped playing blitz chess and when I played chess online I went for the unlimited games without a clock. That way I would focus more on the quality of my moves than the time on my clock. I guess when you want something badly enough you do what you have to. Never before in my life did I imagine that I might have to give up playing blitz and even to this day after the World Open I now stay away from blitz even though I am generally a very fast player.


I tried to keep fit and healthy because I knew it that’s playing 324 our games over 5 days would be very taxing. I did a lot of walking and jogged at least 5 kilometres every week. I’m part of the Kathu Parkrun which meets every Saturday to run 5km.


I also added some breathing exercises at the beginning of the year and combined these with a bit of yoga. Over the past 3 years I’ve have been taking cold showers every day so that continued and worked well with the breathing exercises and jogs.


Mental preparation was also a big part of getting ready for the World Open. I tried to relax as much as possible and not think much about winning at all. My wife Nothando helped me immensely by reminding me that I should try to have fun before and during the tournament. However, 2 rounds before the end of the tournament I did not tell her that I had a big chance to win. I just downplayed everything to minimise pressure on myself. Before the tournament I did a bit of research around winning. I was very keen to get the mindset of winners and champions during a competition. One thing which came up constantly is that many eventual winners tended to focus on that moment whether it was just a move or a point in a game. They did not allow their thoughts to drifting into winning or events after the game. They were very much grounded in what was happening at that time.


During the tournament I played a great deal of music. There is one song I had on repeat which I would play on my way to and from the games. I enjoy the song very much and it helped me to relax a great deal.


The world open tournament was unusual in a number of ways. It was the first tournament I ever took part in where I had to use my chess set and chess clock. I made sure are you practiced as much as possible with the chess set that I was going to use in the US.


The pairings generally came out just before the round so you could use those for preparation. What I did was study the results and try to guess who I might play. However, my preparation did not focus on the opening I would use but more on the game approach and what my plans for that game were. My coach would also give his ideas.  For instance if I was playing someone who was very tactical the idea could be to play a dry, technical game which presented very few chances for sacrifices that tactical players revel in.


With the World Open you decided over how many days you wanted to play the Tournament over. Given my lack of Tournament play I decided to play the Tournament over the maximum possible period, 6 days. This would give me enough time to get used to the long games. If I didn’t perform well I would have option to re-enter the Tournament. However, once the tournament started I just hoped that I would not lose a game. I did not like the idea of re-entering the tournament and having to play a lot more chess just to be in the running for a prize.


Big mistake in traveling days! One big mistake that I made the before the World opening was I travel to the US too close to the tournament. I arrived in the US on the 28th of June. I would start playing in the tournament on Thursday the following day. This meant that I had a very little time to adjust to the time difference (Philadelphia was 7 hours behind South Africa) and to get rid of jetlag. At the Millionaire chess open in 2016, I heard of chess players who lost their first few rounds because they were just too tired and unable to adjust to the time difference Street travelling to close to the first round.


My flight to Philadelphia was connecting through Qatar. What I did was that as soon as we were in Qatar, I adjusted my watch to Philadelphia time and tried to go about my day using that time. So by the time we landed in Philadelphia in the morning I had already made a full adjustment. So I had no jet lag at all. I thought that was quite remarkable. That’s how determined I was to be ready for the tournament.


Most of the players were staying the Marriott Philadelphia which was hosting the Tournament. However, I decided to go for a much cheaper option using Air BnB this meant I would walk for about 15 minutes to the venue every day. Staying at the hotel cost at least R1,000 a night and this was just too much for me.  Initially I was a bit worried about staying far from the venue especially given that some of the games could end very late at night. In the end it turned to be a great arrangement. I got to have a bit of exercise before and after the game even though given the heat in Philadelphia I would be soaking wet after the walk to and from the venue.  One other plus was I could retreat to a very quiet place after games. There was a great deal of chess taking place at the hotel and sometimes I just didn’t want to see a chess board. After the morning game I would go back to my lodge, take a nap and freshen up. I was so focused on the Tournament I didn’t even hang around the venue once my game was finished. I just disappeared. I was here to play chess after all!


I went 6 rounds straight winning one game after another. When I look back at these games I think the biggest factor was not my play but rather my composure during the games. Even when I was not enjoying a good position I was very calm. I also played incredibly fast in most of my games building up a huge time advantage. The delay time control, which I was not used to, is not easy at all on someone who is under time pressure.


By the end of the 6th round,  I was one of the top names when the standings would come out. However, I did everything possible to avoid thinking about winning the Tournament. I know from following so many tournaments that absolutely anything can happen in the last few rounds. Whenever anyone spoke to me about winning the Tournament I tried my best to shut down that topic and quickly move to something else. However the 6th and 7th round did not go very well. I drew both games. I was worried. What had happened to my mojo? Could I get back to winning ways?  This was not a good stage of the Tournament to start dropping any points. One of the drawn games was a position where I felt I was losing but a computer evaluation showed that I was really winning. I was quite upset about this and tried my best to forget it.


The final 2 rounds started earlier than usual and I made it a point to set my alarms on at least 2 devices. I didn’t want to take my chances. After winning my game in the penultimate round I was just one of two players tied for first place. My last round game did not go well. Even though I had the white pieces I black quickly equalised. I made 3 draw offers in that game. I had played into an opening I was actually not too familiar with. After my draw offers were declined I decided that whatever happened was fine. I was going all out for the win because if I played passively I was surely going to lose. I made a reckless bishop sacrifice on the central d5 square. The sacrifice was unsound but my opponent declined it. His position was so good that after declining the sacrifice he still had great opportunity to win.



It became a topsy turvy game with very sharp play. He sacrificed his own Bishop on g3 and I had little choice but to take. Unlike mine his sacrifice was a winning one. Unfortunately he misplayed in the following moves and I not only survived but won the game after he blundered a rook. I could not believe my luck. From a hopeless position I had survived and was now in sole first position. I was now waiting on Vittal’s game. If he won with the white pieces we would be tied. Unfortunately for Vittal things started to go downhill for him. His game was also very sharp with a bishop sacrifice being made by mistake. It would take a miracle for Vittal to survive that game. It was sad to see the teenager losing his game after coming so close. I could not believe my good fortune. I had just won the U1800 section of the World Open. This was by far the biggest win of my chess career to date.


Towards the end of the tournament I had looked up previous editions of the tournament and was discouraged to find out that to win the tournament I would probably need at least 8 points from 9. This was a huge ask. How on earth could someone get so many points in such a tough tournament? In the end I finished with 8 points, I won 7 games and drew 2 games. I definitely exceeded my own expecations. I have never scored so high in a tournament before!


If there is a big lesson I took from playing in the World Open it is the power and effectiveness of working under the radar. I was able to get a huge amount of work done because I kept a great deal to myself in the months before the tournament. I hardly spoke about the tournament and just got on with the preparation. I did thousands of chess puzzles over the months and followed a strict routine every single day. I thought I played well at the World Open but I think it helped to some luck as well when it mattered most.

And now for the actual standings at the end of my event.

World Open U 1800 standings
 You can get the full standing for the section here.