The U.S. Blind Chess Championship was held in Pittsburgh October 30-31. In past years I have volunteered at this event, but this year I missed it, to volunteer at an international tournament: the 10th Pan-American Chess Championship for the Blind, in Mexico City. This article is about both events.
Last year, there was an embarrassing outcome to the U.S. Blind: only one player showed up. That was Jessica Lauser, the previous year's winner, who of course retained her title. The organizer, Alex Relyea, made the best of a bad bargain by organizing a Blitz tournament for Jessica and the volunteers, which was won by Erick Zhao; but we didn't know if there would be a U.S. Blind in 2022 after such a disappointment. When the usual US Chess bidding deadlines came and went, USBCA (U.S. Braille Chess Association) leadership looked around for an alternative event to participate in. The Pan-American, in Mexico City, looked interesting, and not too expensive. It was scheduled for October 23 to 29. Four American players signed up, including Jessica, and I signed up as an assistant (along with my wife Nancy).
Then we got an astounding surprise: there was going to be a U.S. Blind after all, and it was going to be on October 30 and 31! Alex had had some trouble communicating with people, and didn't even get to submit his bid until October 1. The USCF office (CEO Carol Meyer and Director of Events Boyd Reed) turned it around in a hurry, by October 4, but with the short notice, it hardly seemed possible for Alex to get enough players and volunteers to make a successful championship tournament, let alone with four would-be players and one would-be volunteer away in Mexico. But more about that later.
The tournament in Mexico City was held in a large urban park, Utopía Meyehualco Alcaldía Iztapalapa, in the Iztapalapa borough, which is similar in size and population to the Bronx (in New York City). Due to the balmy climate, play was outside, in an arena that had a roof but no walls. This was pleasant, although the frequent sound of truck engines backfiring, and sometimes sounds from the olympic-size pool next to the arena, could be distracting. There were 48 players, which we were told was a record, from 12 different countries, which was also a record (it was the first time that anyone had entered from the United States). Unfortunately two of the Americans backed out: Jim Thoune, who had won the U.S. Blind in 2016 and 2017, could not travel due to health problems; and Megan Bledsoe, who had originally inspired the other three to sign up, was unnerved by the chaos and stress caused by problems with hotel assignment and transportation on opening day, and flew home in the morning without playing a game.
Jessica started off with a bang, defeating the highest-rated player on the pairing sheet with Black:
The tournament was in three sections: Blind open; Blind women; and Visually Impaired (i.e. not entirely blind) open. Jessica's section, Visually Impaired, had nine players. Two higher-rated players, who had gotten half-point byes in the first round, made the going harder for Jessica after that, but she ended with a score of 4 1/2 – 2 1/2, good for fourth place in the section and second-place woman. She will get a published FIDE rating for this.
The other American player, Marilyn Bland, was in the Blind women, also with nine players. Marilyn, from Texas, had played in another international tournament, the Women's Blind World Championship, in France just a few months before; she was the first American ever to compete in that event. It was also her first chess tournament ever! (By way of comparison, I had been playing tournament chess for 16 years before I played in a tournament abroad.) She lost all her games in France, but won one game, against a difficult opponent, in Mexico City. Her fighting spirit and resilience were an inspiration to the rest of us.
An excursion had been scheduled for the day before the last two rounds, but the schedule was rearranged to put the excursion on the last day, and this unexpectedly gave Jessica a chance to fly back to Pittsburgh and defend her U.S. Blind title. In the mean time three other blind players had entered that tournament: Pittsburgh's own Al Pietrolungo (who had won this tournament in 2015), and two others, including a former Expert. And, I'd like to mention, three people had signed up as volunteers: Jeff Quirke, Zack Skalka, and Jay Shirley. I was pleased and relieved to learn that Pittsburgh was able to furnish enough volunteers for this event on short notice.
Jessica beat everybody in sight, including two wins over the second-place finisher, Nick Baumgartner. The former Expert, Al Goncer, lost to both Nick and Jessica. At four players, the attendance was low, but next year, without snafus involving a late announcement and a conflicting Pan-American event, we can hope it will return to previous levels.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Jessica Lauser for some photos and some corrections.