Play Your Own Section

By National Master Evan Rabin 

The advice given in this post is controversial among chess coaches…While it is important to play against strong opponents to improve, at tournaments, players should play their ‘own section’ and not ‘play up’. Tournaments usually have class sections that have maximum ratings. For instance, the World Open has an open section, U-2200, U-2000, U1800, U-1600, U-1400 and U-1200. Many coaches suggest players play up a section or two; for instance, a 1900 rated player would play in either the open section or the U-2200, when he is eligible for the U-2000 section. Players should not play up as consistency is an integral aspect of chess improvement, it is important to learn how to handle the pressure of winning one’s own section and one can learn almost as much from analyzing their games against players around their level than when they play up.

While one should play higher rated players, gain confidence and score upsets, it is also important to learn how to consistently beat lower rated players. One Saturday when I was 15, I had one of the best tournaments of my

Evan Rabin playing at The Right Move

life at the Marshall Chess Club, as 1900 player, beating my long-term friend and rival FM Leif Pressman, who was an expert at the time, and drawing IM Ilye Figler, may he rest in peace, two tie for first place. The next day, I played in The Right Move scholastic tournament and lost to a 1200 in the first round. The previous day I was confident that I was 2000+ strength and then I needed a place to hide away. When it comes to their strength, players often think about their greatest wins but not their worst losses. The truth is players are not are usually not as underrated as they think they are; ratings are a player’s rating is a decent indicator of his overall strength. It is important to determine how to consistently defeat lower rated players, especially when they play draws openings like the French Exchange variation. Some of the world’s elite grandmasters struggle when they occasionally play in open events and need to win a lot of games to stay on top.

Years ago, I was enroute to a tournament with FIDE Master Nathan Resika. I was playing in the Open Section as 2000-rated player. He asked me why I was playing up and I told him I wanted to play strong competition and gain experience. He enlightened me, saying”Players who play up do so only because they are afraid they would not win their own section”. While my instinct was to disagree, after thinking a while and hearing his argument, his comment resonated with me. When I play in the lowest section I am eligible for, it’s either I win a prize that pays for my trip and more or the trip is failure. When I play in the open section and score an upset or two, that is a success. I tell students that they need to play over-the-board tournaments because they need to deal with the pressure; however, playing up, they do not exactly feel that.

One can gain almost as much experience, playing people around their own level or weaker and analyzing their games than playing up. By reviewing my games against players of my level or lower, there is always something to learn. I remember once I played a 1700 player an expert and thought I won fairly easily. It turns out I didn’t know he was a fellow student of my coach Grandmaster Leonid Yudasin. A few days later, Yudasin said “we absolutely must go over that game.” It turns out I was losing at one point and did not realize it. While it is important to review grandmaster games, it is not necessary to player higher rated players to learn from one’s own games. Rarely have I analyzed a student’s game and not been able to teach him something from it.

It is also worth noting that just becuase one plays up a section, it does not mean she will play all players who higher rated. Since a lot of players play up, once a player loses a round or two against higher rated players, she will often mostly play players of his own class anyhow. For instance let’s take a look at Natasha Morales Santos’ 4.5/9 performance at the Foxwoods Open 2024:

Result Color Score Pre Rtg. Post Rtg. Opponent
L 17 W   5.5   R: 2347   2354 GABRIELA ANTOVA  (30039107)
L 32 B   5.0   R: 2212   2237 MICHAEL TAKAHASHI  (14333301)
L 62 B   3.5   R: 2214   2200 LAWYER TIMES  (12167330)
W 80 W   1.5   R: 2162   2118 CHENXUAN LING  (17159983)
D 41 B   4.5   R: 2200   2200 GREGORY MARKZON  (12057550)
D 73 W   3.0   R: 1947   1957 DAVID W SLATIN  (10051622)
W 66d B   3.5   R: 2119   2104 RAMON MANON-OG JR.  (14235205)
D 44 W   4.5   R: 2124   2144 NARAYAN VENKATESH  (17154243)
W 65 B   3.5   R: 2139   2146 JULIAN COLVILLE  (16397710)

A majority of Natasha’s opponents (5/9) were rated under 2200. Another three of her opponents were less than 20 points higher rated over the section limit, not much higher than the high 2100 players, she would have played if she was doing well in the U-2200 section. Play

Thus, next time you register for a tournament, strongly consider registering for your own section. Consistency is an integral aspect of chess improvement, it is important to learn how to handle the pressure of winning one’s own section and one can learn a lot from analyzing their games of players of any level. One should win their section and then ‘graduate’ to higher ones. For instance, one of our Grace Church School students Ashlyn recently won second place and then 1st place at two consecutive Grand Prix tournaments and got her rating over 600. She graduated from our reserve section (u600) and is going to play in our challenger section (600-1000) in the next event. One can play in club tournaments or other open events like the United States Amateur Team East or U.S Open, to have a a chance at playing stronger players; when he can though, he should play a class section, control his emotions, win a prize and learn from his games.

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