Beating Lower Rated Opponents Part II

We will continue to look at common unpleasant situations that arise when facing lower rated opponents and how to overcome them. In part I we examined what to do when your opponent plays for a draw — in this article we will look at how to beat your lower rated opponent when they play better than expected and when you shoot yourself in the foot.

2.Opponent Plays Better Than Expected

We all know the feeling; you are playing down expecting an easy game, but to your surprise your opponent finds all the right moves and even finds strong ideas you didn’t  see yourself. You start getting nervous and asking yourself “How is this possible? He/she is not that good, how could I have let them outplay me?”, start psyching yourself out and only make your opponents task of beating you easier.

The truth is that this is not just possible, but actually expected to happen occasionally! What people often forget is that the ELO system assigns just one number to a person to determine their strength and so should be interpreted as an average estimate for a players overall chess ability. That is, in one particular game your opponent could easily play at a level of 100 points or more above their rating (and some games 100 points below their rating). For those who are numerically inclined consider the following experiment: I took 10 samples from a normal distribution with mean 2000 and standard deviation 100 to represent the lower rated player’s playing strength for 10 given games and another 10 samples from a normal distribution with mean 2100 and standard deviation 100 to represent the higher rated player as shown below:

Rating simulation

As you can see in 3 of the 10 games the lower rated player actually has a higher “game rating” when matching up against the higher rated player.

This is just to show that it is actually quite natural for the weaker player to sometimes play at a high level (and of course the reverse is true for high rated players!), but on an even smaller scale it is quite possible that your opponent can play certain moves or part of a game at a level above their rating and another part of that same game at a much lower level — exploiting this to your advantage will be the main focus of this section.

At World Open 2019 in Round 3 I was paired down with the White pieces against a lower rated (2070 FIDE, 2231 USCF) and elderly opponent. Considering these factors I was expecting a fairly easy win going into the game and was already thinking about where I wanted to go for dinner after (this game was actually played on my birthday!). To my surprise the win was by no means easy. After playing out an uncommon line of the French defence we reached the following position:

White to move

The position is probably close to balanced, where white has some pressure on the king-side, but black has the long term advantage of the e4 square for his knight; I was comfortable with this dynamic as the higher rated player. The critical and probably best continuation for White is 14.f5! Bxh2+ 15.Kh1 Nbd7 16.fxg fxg 17.Bxg6 Ne4 with a very sharp and unclear position.

I didn’t even seriously consider f5 seeing that h2 would hang and instead opted for 14. Ng3?! to help prepare f5. My opponent responded in the best way playing 14…Nh7! ⩱, a move I had not seen. My bishop on g5 is now problematically placed, as black has the B+Q battery looking down the b8-h2 diagonal. I cannot play 15.Bh4 due to the hanging pawn on f4. 15.h4 fails to 15…Nxg5! (not 15… f6? 16.Bxg6 fxg 17.hxg! with Qh5 and a dominating attack coming) 16.hxg Bxf4 -+

Instead I chose 15.Qg4 which happens to be the engine’s top choice and keeps the game complicated, which was my main goal. Just because my lower rated opponent found a few moves I did not and got a better position does not mean that this trend will continue, especially if the position remains complicated and he has to make tough decisions every move. The game continued

15…f5 16.Qh4 (The engines recommendation is 16.Nxf5 gxf 17. Bxf5 Rxf5 18.Qxf5 Qd7! with an approximately equal position as I have 2 pawns and a Rook for two pieces, but with the permanent weakness of the e4 square I think it would be hard to play for a win once Black consolidates White’s initiative)  16…Nd7 17.Rael Rae8 where we reached the following position.

Move 18, White to move

Black maintains an advantage and now White must make an important decision. I could have played a neutral move like 18.c3 and tried to sit tight and hold (which maybe I would have opted for against a higher rated player), but instead continued looking for ways to complicate the position. As mentioned earlier, players can often play phases of a game very well and other phases very poorly so when facing a lower rated opponent who is playing better than expected it is important to keep the position complicated and try to force tough decisions. With this in mind I eventually settled on the move 18.Be7!

This move is tricky and has some venom; after first glance it looks like White is losing after 18…Bxe7 19.Rxe7 g5, but after 20.Rxg7+!! Kxg7 fxg, the threat of Nxf5 and a full attack on Black’s defenceless king leaves Black in trouble. The best continuation for Black was 18… Bxe7 19.Rxe7 Nhf6 20.Rfe1 Rxe7 21.Rxe7 Qb6! threatening both d4 and b2, but this subtle continuation is not so easy to find when there are a myriad of possibilities (I did not see it during the game an evidently neither did my opponent).

My opponent spent a lot of time calculating the different variations and eventually chose a safe continuation as the game continued 18.Rxe7 19.Rxe7 Bxe7 20.Qxe7 Rf7 21.Qe8+ Nhf8 22.c3 Nf5 23. Qe5 Qd8! (23…Qxe5 leaves Black with an unfavourable bishop vs knight ending after 24.fxe Ne4 25.Nxe4 fxe (25… dxe Bc4 +-) 26. Rxf7 Kxf7 27.Be2 with Bg4 to follow) 24. Re1 Ne4 25.Bxe4 fxe (25…Re7 hoping to trap the queen fails to 26.Bxd5+!)

Position after 25…fxe

My opponent has played well all game and managed to navigate his way through a complicated middlegame to keep his advantage. I realized that for most of the game we had played through a pretty closed position, which is a type of position that French players typically excel at and in fact I would consider the diagrammed position above to be a pretty closed one still. Hence I started looking for a way to open up the position; one can often induce mistakes from an opponent (especially one lower rated) by changing the character of the position. This forces your opponent to quickly adapt to the new position and nuances that come with it, forgoing the ideas they had previously planned — a difficult task for most.

With this in mind I continued with 26.f5! gxf 27.Nxf5 Qg5 28.Rf1 opening up the position quite a bit. My opponent told me after the game that on this move he was originally planning to play 28…g6 which he thought was winning the knight, but this fails to 29.h4! If 29… Qh5 then Ne7+ wins an exchange, whereas 29…Qd8 is refuted by Nh6+. As a result the position is about equal after a quiet move like 28…Qf6 or 28…Kh7, but my opponent who moments ago thought he was winning and was still adjusting to the new ideas available in this more open position decided to play the active move 28…Ng6? 

After 29.Qe6! it is now White who is taking over as the pin on the rook is extremely unpleasant. The game finished with a nice tactical blow: 29…Nf4 (the ugly looking 29…Nh8 was Black’s only chance, but still white maintains a sizeable advantage) 30.Rxf4! Qxf4 31. Ne7+ Kh7 (31…Kf8/h8 loses the queen to 32.Ng6+) 32.Qg6+ Kh8 33.Qh5+ and Black resigned in view of 33…Qh6 34.Qxf7 where White is up a piece and has a devastating attack 1-0.

In the end my lower rated opponent outplayed me for most of the game, but in just a few moves threw it all away. In my opinion the pressure to make tough decisions (such as after 18.Be7) and the sudden change in the pawn structure (via 26.f5) caused my opponent difficulties and he wasn’t able to successfully adapt to the subtleties of the position — these are important things to look out for when you find yourself in such a situation.

3. You Shoot Yourself in the Foot

Many chess players have had the feeling that they lost a game more than their opponent won it; that is they made an obvious mistake (or mistakes) that just handed over the victory without the opponent having to do anything special. In this section we will look at how to recover from a (non-lethal) mistake made against a lower rated player.

To demonstrate these ideas we will look at a game from a local (i.e in Pittsburgh) G30/d5 event where I was playing someone around 300 points lower rated with the Black pieces. We played out the four pawns attack of the King’s Indian and reached the following position with Black to move

Black to Move

I felt very comfortable here and in fact the engine evaluates this position as -1.4 after a quiet developing move like 19…Bd7. I had also noticed that I could give up my sacred dark squared bishop by taking on c3 to win the pawn on e4. I calculated the line 19…Bxc3 20.Bxc3 Rxe4 21. Bd4 b5! where Black is winning a piece and so happily played 19…Bxc3?

My opponent of course replied 20.Qxc3!  a move I had forgot to even look at! Irrespective of why I missed this pretty obvious recapture (lack of focus, mental lapse or whatever else it could have been), I had managed to not only lose my advantage, but actually hand it over to White (i.e. White is now better); I shot myself in the foot.

The game continued 20…Rxe4 21.Bf3 Re8 22.f5

Position after 22.f5

Black is up a pawn, but White has a tremendous initiative along the dark squares. Threats of mate via Bh6 are in the air and my knight pinned on the c-file restricts my defensive resources. The line I considered “safest” (and the engine agrees) is 22…Qd8, but after 23.Bh6 Re5 White remains better and can continue pressuring with say 24.Qd4 or even force a draw by repetition with 24.Bf4 Re8 25.Bh6. Now it is unlikely my opponent would take a draw in this position, but when playing against someone 300 points lower rated that was a possibility and one I wanted to avoid — despite being in a worse position I wanted to continue playing for a win!

Ideally Black would like to meet Bh6 with Ne5, which is a much more natural piece to have on e5 than the rook, but the immediate Nd7 is impossible due to the pin against my Queen. This led me to play the move 22… Qb6!?. I had seen the line 23.a5 (of course not 23.Bh6?? Nxa4 -+) Qa7 24.Kh1 Nd7 25.Rael Ne5 26.Be3 where Black is forced to play 26…Qb8 and have a more passive position than after 22…Qd8. Despite seeing this, since I was playing a lower rated opponent I reminded myself that just because I was able to find this line does not mean that they will. This can be a dangerous maxim to follow blindly; one should not solely play for tricks and play objectively bad moves hoping their opponent makes a mistake. However, when one is in a worse position against someone lower rated and has to chose between two somewhat similar miserable lines, I think it makes sense to play the one where a mistake can offer you a way out.

My opponent replied with the immediate 22.Kh1?!, forgoing the intermediate move a5,  and after 22…Nd7 things are looking a little better for Black. White still has an advantage, but Black will play his knight to e5 next move, have the open c-file to fight for and also have the luxury of retreating the queen to d8 (instead of b8) if attacked where it can remain an active offensive and defensive piece along the d8-h4 diagonal. The game continued

24.Rael Ne5 25.Bg2 Bd7 26.f6? 

An inaccuracy from White, playing the immediate 26.Qg3 (with the idea of going Qh4-h6) offered more flexibility as the possibility of playing Bc3 later on to continue the attack remains available (whereas now the f6 pawn blocks the a1-h8 diagonal for White’s bishop).

26…Rac8 27.Qg3 Rc2 (this rook penetration was only possible due to White allowing the b8 square to be vacated and for the knight to have moved off of c5 so that the maneuver  Ra8-c8-c2 could be executed — if we compare this to the line 22.a5 we see that this would not be possible) 28. Qh4 Kh8

Position after 28…Kh8

The diagrammed position is equal (engine gives it 0.00 and gives some drawing lines that end in perpetual), but here my opponent played a critical mistake. When a player has had a clear advantage for a large part of the game it is often difficult for them to mentally adjust to the fact that they may no longer be better, which can provoke a mistake. Here my opponent, who previously had a strong attack along the dark squares went “all-in” with 29.Bh6?, but after 29…Qd4! -+Black’s activity (along the same dark squares!) is more than enough to defend against White’s threats and consolidate the extra pawn advantage. The game continued

30.Bg7+ Kg8 31.Rd1 (the immediate 31.Qh6 fails to 31…Qd2 where Black forces a queen trade) Qe3 32.Qh6 Qxh6 33.Bxh6 Rxb2 and white resigned a few moves later as Black has a commanding material lead and White has no attack to show for it 0-1.

Even though I caused myself a lot of problems in this game with 19…Bxc3 I still managed to fight back and win. The key moment came with the move 22…Qb6 where I managed to exploit my understanding of the position to garner some activity and extra defensive resources. With said activity I ended up outplaying my lower rated opponent and got the full point! This just goes to show that even if you shoot yourself in the foot, you can still fight back and make decisions that can induce mistakes from your opponent.

Beating Lower Rated Opponents Part I


One often measures his or her chess improvement by results against stronger players; many players (I was a victim of this type of thinking myself) when they beat someone say 200 points higher rated feel like they are improving and not too far from reaching that rating themselves, but when they lose to someone 200 rating points lower feel like it was just a fluke and nothing to worry about. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that consistency is the key to long-term improvement. Being able to consistently beat lower rated players can have as big of a positive effect on your rating (as my recent results show) as upsets against higher rated players. Moreover, this consistency can also help your psychological well-being by avoiding mood swings that come from losing to lower rated players. Despite these benefits, the subject is sometimes neglected and many improving players tend to focus on their results when “playing up” and not seriously reflecting on their games when they “play down” regardless of the result.

The idea for this article came to me from my recent (somewhat unusual for me) tournament performances. Quite often when playing an event I will manage to upset a higher rated player, often even an IM or GM, only to later lose to a lower rated player and squander any rating gains I had — a recent example of this is my performance at Cherry Blossom in May. Since that tournament, however, the opposite has been true; in 22 USCF rated games since then I managed to score 14/15 against lower rated opponents (without losing a game) and (unfortunately) only 1.5/7 against higher rated opponents. What surprised me was that in the process I gained 17 FIDE rating points and 37 USCF points (not all the games were FIDE rated) despite feeling like I didn’t do anything special; I just beat those lower rated and lost to those higher rated. Upon some reflection I came to the conclusion that consistently beating lower rated opponents is something special!

When playing someone lower rated there seems to be an expectation about how the game will go: I will get a comfortable position from the opening, then outplay my opponent in the middlegame as the superior player that I am and then (if necessary) convert the endgame, easily winning without even breaking a sweat. Sometimes the script may indeed play out this way, but more often than not things won’t be so simple!   In fact this was most pronounced by my performance at the 2019 World Open in July where I scored 5.5/6 against lower rated opponents, but only had one “smooth” game. In another three games I stood worse, but managed to win two and draw one, and in the remaining two games I managed to win completely drawn positions. It was certainly not the case that I easily crushed my opponents; to quote Drake it instead felt like most of my wins were “willed into existence” (video for reference). In this article and its sequel we will examine some of the typical cases of how this idealistic script may not play out (and how to win anyway!) using examples from my recent games.

We will look at the three common types of “alternative scripts” that occur when playing down:

  1. Opponent plays for a draw. This most often happens when your opponent has the white pieces and decides to play very solidly, take no risks, trade as many pieces as possible and try to crawl his or her way to a draw.
  2. Opponent plays better than expected. Sometimes you expect that your lower rated opponent will slip up somewhere, and you will be able to punish their mistakes, but to your surprise they keep finding the best moves and even some strong moves you didn’t see yourself.
  3.  You shoot yourself in the foot.  Quite often your weaker opponent may get a good position not because of their strong play, but because you overlooked something and made a mistake that leaves you in trouble.

In this article we will look at the 1st case and will examine the 2nd and 3rd cases in part II.

1. Opponent Plays for a Draw

This sometimes happens and is mostly unavoidable; after all what can you do if your opponent (typically with the white pieces) shows no interest in playing for a win, but instead tries to remain super solid and trade off as many pieces as possible? Though it may be frustrating when your opponent plays this way, it does not mean that a draw is certain! When your opponent takes such an approach to the game they will often avoid the most principled, and often objectively best, variations. The main thing to remember about this type of play is that although each such decision is only a small concession, over the course of the game these concessions can accumulate to a sizeable advantage for you.

This is nicely illustrated in my round 8 game from the 2019 World Open. I was playing a young opponent rated 2050 FIDE (around 200 points lower rated than me) with the black pieces and pretty early on I realized that my opponent had no intention of trying to beat me. After playing out the Panov variation in the Caro-Kann we reached the following interesting position:


White has an IQP which can be a long term weakness, highlighted by Black’s knight on d5, but on the other hand he has an initiative with all of his pieces pointed towards the Black king; I would consider this position dynamically balanced. A sample line of how the game could have continued is 17.Bh6 Nxc3 18.bxc3 Qd5 19.f3 Rfe8 where the position remains balanced with lots of play for both sides. Instead my opponent surprised me with

17.Bxe7? Qxe7 18.Nxd5 Bxd5 19.b4?! Nc4 20.Nxc4 Bxc4

In the last 4 moves my opponent traded off 3 minor pieces avoiding the most critical (and probably best) line in favour of a “safer” position, but where white stands clearly worse. The d4 pawn is now a permanent weakness and white has no initiative to compensate for it. On the other hand with only major pieces and a pair of same coloured bishops (which will likely get traded soon too) left on the board it is no simple task for Black to exploit this weakness (as far as I know one of the best versions of the IQP to have for black is R+N vs R+B, which isn’t possible here). The game continued

21.Qe3 Rfd8 22.Rd2 Rc7 23.Rad1 Rcd7 24.h3 Qh4!? 25.Be4

Position after 25.Be4

As before the game revolves around the weakness of the d4 pawn and as a result White’s major pieces are passively placed defending it, but is not so clear how Black can break through. I chose to play the move 25…Bd5!

At first this move seems paradoxical — I had just mentioned how white is trying to trade pieces and simplify the position so why would I willingly go along with this plan? The reason is twofold; a concrete chess reason and a psychological reason as well. From a chess perspective it is clear that the bishop is White’s most active piece and so trading it off will leave White with only his very passive major pieces. Moreover, this will permanently stop my opponent from being able to play d5 himself and trading off the weakness. Black can then attempt to triple up on the d-file and play e5 at the right moment to try and win the pawn.

But the psychological effect of this move should not be underestimated. Throughout the game it has been my opponent who has been initiating trades to try and neutralize the higher rated opponent. All of a sudden, I reversed the flow of events and offered a piece trade myself; this probably left my opponent fairly uncomfortable and possibly even doubting his own understanding and assessment of the position. Although I cannot speak with confidence about what exactly my opponent was thinking, the reaction this move drew was definitely a positive one for Black as my opponent played 26.f3? 

Clearly White is hoping for the line 26…Bxe4? 27.fxe where he no longer has an IQP, but of course Black will not oblige. The bottom line is that f3 unnecessarily creates extra weaknesses around White’s king that (spoiler alert) may play a factor later on; another small concession that slowly increases Black’s advantage. The game continued

26…Qg3 27.Rc1 Bxe4 28.Qxe4 Rd5

where we reached a similar position to what would have happened if my opponent played 26.Bxd5, but where White inexplicably played f3.

The critical point in the game was reached on move 38 with black to move in the following position

Position on move 38 with Black to move

The engine’s evaluation is similar to the previous diagram (hovering around -0.5), but the position has opened up a bit with each side having one less pawn on the queenside. White has all his forces aimed at the b6 pawn, while Black is still eyeing the IQP on d4. There are many different ways to try and trade off these pawns, but when playing a lower rated player we want to pick the one where it is easiest to err. As my old chess coach used to say “give your opponent a chance to screw up”.  

I played 38…b5! enticing my opponent to take the pawn.  If he doesn’t (and he shouldn’t) the character of the position changes a little bit — the g1-a7 diagonal now becomes accessible to Black’s queen (which can be dangerous due to the pawn having moved off of f2), White’s rooks become more passive staring at a pawn on the 5th rank rather than the 6th and ideas of Ra4 putting more pressure on d4 become available in some lines. None of these threats are extremely serious, but after playing the entire game trying to force a draw it is hard for White to decline a simplification especially when it involves trading the problematic d4 pawn for another one.

My opponent cracked under the pressure and accepted the trade playing 39.Rxb5?, but after 39…Rxd4 (of course not 39…Rxb5? 40.Rxb5 Qxa3 41.Qxa3 Rxa3 =) White’s king is in serious danger. The game continued

40.Rb6 Qc5! exploiting the weakness created by 26.f3; 41.Rxa6 fails to 41…Rd1+ 42.Kh2 h4! where mate via Qg1 is unavoidable.

41.R6b5 Rd1+ 42.Kh2 Qg1+ 43.Kg3 Qe1+ 44.Kh2 h4! 45.Rh5+ gxh5 46.Qc2+ f5 47.Rb7+ Kg6 and White resigned 0-1.

Overall this was not an easy win, but White’s goal of holding a draw backfired; he made seemingly small concessions throughout the game (trading minor pieces, 26. f3 and  taking the pawn on b5 being the main ones) which accumulated into a problematic position that he was unable to defend. As the higher rated player in such a situation the goal should be to create psychologically difficult decisions for your opponent and exploit to the maximum the minor concessions he or she makes along the way. Even though this may not feel like the most elegant way to win, I believe it is the most effective approach when facing an opponent who stubbornly plays for a draw. For now I leave you with a recent (unannotated) example of this at the most elite level in chess.

Part II of this article is now published here.

Foxwoods: A Near Miss Part 2

I’m back! The past couple months were pretty busy for me with school, an interesting machine learning project, and of course chess. After all, summer is the main chess season for Americans. Time to get back to where I left off!

This year, I spent my Easter weekend at the Foxwoods Resort and Casino, playing in the Foxwoods Open. 5 rounds, 4 foreigners, and 3 GMs into the tournament, I had 4/5 and a 2600+ FIDE performance. Everything was simply going great!

Then in round 6, I faced a setback by losing to GM Hovhannes Gabuzyan (2620 FIDE, 2711 USCF) with black. Out of a non-theoretical but equal opening, I spiraled downward. I honestly can’t explain most of my moves in the early middlegame. I recovered somewhat, but the position was very bad for me throughout the entire game, and I cracked in the end.

Time for revenge after that awful game!

In round 7, I got white against Eugene Yanayt (2276 FIDE, 2363 USCF). I got a comfortable advantage out of the opening, but then some hiccups crept into my play…

Yanayt 1

While this doesn’t appear to be anything special on the surface, this position is very nice for white. His pieces are more active, and black doesn’t seem to have a real plan besides holding tight. My plan was to open up the kingside with f5-f6, and I decided to strike before he could play Kf6 with 24.f5 Ne5 25.f6+ gxf6 26.Be4

Yanayt 2

White is temporarily a pawn down, but that won’t last long. The f6-pawn will fall one way or another. Black’s knight looks nice on e5, but it really isn’t doing much. And again, what is black going to do here? He really doesn’t have a clear plan. My opponent played 26… R8c7 which I met with 27.Rg1+ Ng6 28.h4. If 28… h5, black’s kingside is softened up considerably. I can consider 29. Rfg2 to win a pawn and infiltrate black’s position, ideas with Ne6+, or just waiting and strengthening my bind. My opponent played 28… f5 and after 29.Nxf5+ Bxf5 I made a big mistake

Yanayt 3

After 30.Rxf5, white is much better. Material is equal, but white is so much more active and will likely infiltrate black’s position. Also, black’s chances for counterplay are minimal. Instead, I played 30.Bxf5? which ran into 30… Rxd5! 31.h5 Rcc5!

Yanayt 4

I had missed 31… Rcc5! and realized that things weren’t easy here. White is still better, but there was no point giving black all this counterplay. 32.hxg6 Rxf5 33.gxh7+ Kxh7 34.Rh2+ is not mate because of 34… Rh5. 32.Bg4, with the idea of a discovered check if black simply moves the knight, looked promising. 32… Rxh5 33.Bxh5 Rxh5 didn’t worry me, since white can attack the d6-pawn with 34.Rd1 or 34.Rd2. Black will be lucky not to lose the pawn, and his kingside pawns will be too slow. However, 32… Rg5! annoyed me. After 33.hxg6 f5 34.gxh7 fxg4, I wasn’t confident I’d win the rook endgame.

I chose another option: 32.Rgf1 Ne5 33.h6+ Kxh6 (33… Kg8 34.Be6!! was a neat tactic I had in mind) 34.Rh1+ Kg7 35.Rxh7+ Kg8

Yanayt 5

So far, so good, but here I had a blackout. White can win his pawn back by playing 36.Rg2+ Kf8 37.Be4, after which he has an advantage. Somehow I didn’t see this and played 36.Rh6? which blows all my advantage. I saw that I had nothing in the rook endgame after 36… Nc4+ 37.bxc4 Rxf5 38.Rxf5 Rxf5 39.Rxd6. I was lucky that my opponent let me repeat once with 36… Kg7? 37.Rh7+ Kg8. This time I saw it and played 38.Rg2+ Kf8 39.Be4 Rd4 40.Bxb7

Yanayt 6

Material is equal, but white is better. His pawn structure is intact, his king is safer, and his bishop is better than black’s knight. Black can’t simply run his passed f-pawn down the board because that would weaken the 7th rank and his king. My opponent made a few mistakes under pressure, and I won without much difficulty.

Phew! That was a wild ride. In round 8, I got black against IM Dean Ippolito (2339 FIDE, 2427 USCF). For norm purposes, I needed to win this game. I really wanted to win this game, but I wasn’t going all-in either. I was totally willing to take reasonable risks, but committing suicide wasn’t my plan!

The opening was fairly dry, and I turned down a draw offer on move 14. Maybe I would’ve taken it in a different situation, but I just wanted to play.

Ippolito 1

On the surface, this position doesn’t look very exciting. White has more space and central control, but with so many pieces exchanged, black is totally comfortable. Now he’s got to figure out what to do. The b6-pawn is hanging, so black has to decide what to do with it. 21… Rb8 is probably ok, but it looks fairly passive. 21… Bxc4 22.Rxc4 is also fine for black, but I didn’t see how I’d have any realistic winning chances there. What else is there…? 21… c5 22.Nxb6 Rb8 is a nice idea, but it simply loses to 23.dxc5. 21… Na2 22.Rc2 Nb4 23.Rcc1 is a move repetition, but I don’t want a draw.

Then I saw it. After repeating moves once with 21… Na2 22.Rc2 Nb4 23.Rcc1 Na2 24.Rc2 I struck with 24… c5!?

Ippolito 2

YOLO! I didn’t calculate everything to the end, but I thought this was a good winning attempt that wasn’t very risky. After 25.Nxb6 Rb8, white can’t play 26.dxc5 because of 26… Rxd1+. That’s why I included Na2 and Rc2 before playing c5. If 26.Nc4, black will be mIppolito 3uch better after 26… Nb4 27.Rcc1 Rxd4 28.Rxd4 cxd4. Yes, white can play 29.Nxa5, but after 29… Bxe2 black’s d-pawn is simply a monster.

My opponent found the best move 26.Na8, and after 26… cxd4 27.Nc7 Rbc8 28.Nxe6 Rxc2 29.Nxd8 I had to decide how to proceed.


Black is still a pawn down here, but he can win it right back by taking on e2 or b2. However, that will most likely not be enough for an advantage. For example, 29… Bxe2 30.Rxd4 Rxb2 looks fine for white, since he has plenty of activity and isn’t in danger of losing the a4-pawn (without taking on a5 himself that is). 29… Rxb2 runs into 30.Bd5+ Kf8 31.Ne6+ Ke7 32.Bxa2 Rxa2 33.Nxd4 Rxa4 with equality. Instead, I chose the best option 29… Nc1!. The game continued 30.Bd5+ Kf8 31.Ne6+ Ke7 32.Nxd4 Nxe2+ 33.Nxe2 Bxe2 34.Rb1 Kd6

Ippolito 4

The dust has settled. Black is a pawn down, but he has more than enough compensation. His pieces are so much more active than white’s. In particular, black’s king is solidly in the center, while white’s king is stuck on g1 for the moment. Furthermore, black’s king can come to the queenside with Kc5-b4 fairly quickly, white’s queenside, and let’s not pretend that the f4-pawn is very secure. This isn’t easy at all to play for white.

During the game, I thought this was very good for black, but my silicon friend thinks that white is fine with accurate play. Still, over the next few moves, my opponent made some inaccuracies under pressure, and I got a solid advantage which I went on to convert to a full point.

This was simply fantastic! Going into the last round, I had 6/8 and was tied for 2nd place. In the last round, I got a double black against GM Alex Shimanov (2610 FIDE, 2684 USCF). Importantly, to get a GM Norm, I needed to draw that game.

Now, I don’t have much experience in must-draw games, but I knew the general idea for what to do. Play for a win, don’t let your opponent get a risk-free advantage, etc. Just play normal chess and don’t lose! And besides, who said I couldn’t try to win this game? After all, I was tied for 2nd place going into the last round of a big open tournament…

Shimanov 3

I didn’t know the theory in a sideline well, and I made an inaccuracy to end up in a slightly worse position. Ok, it wasn’t a big deal. If that’s the only thing that went wrong, I could totally live with it.

Now as for this endgame. White has more space and control over the e-file. A natural move would 23… Rc8 to occupy the open c-file. Possible followup moves include Kf8, Rfc7 or Rd7 followed by Kf7, etc. If 24.Rbc1, then black can play 24… Rxc1 25.Rxc1 Re7, occupying the open e-file. Black should have very good drawing chances after this.

However, I hallucinated. After 23… Rc8 24.Rbc1 Rxc1 25.Rxc1 Re7, I thought that white wins a pawn with 26.Rc8+ Kf7 27.Ra8, but the simple 27… b6 saves the day. I really think this is what I missed. Instead of occupying the c-file, I passively played 23… Rd7?. I thought I could hold some kind of fortress with this passivity. Boy was I wrong… After 24.a5, I played 24… Kf7? instead of taking my last chance to play 24… Rc8.

Now to fast forward a few moves, we reached this position

Shimanov 1

Yes, black’s position is “solid,” but he’s so passive. In all seriousness, what to play here? The rook on d6 can’t move. Pawn moves don’t look so great. 33… Ke6 runs into 34.Rc8, which infiltrates black’s position. 33… Kd8 doesn’t allow infiltration, but it looks pretty bad. Meanwhile, white can advance his kingside pawns and try to infiltrate without allowing any real counterplay.

After the inclusion of the moves 33… g6 34.h4, I wisely lashed out with 34… b6!?. After 35.axb6 I made the mistake which sealed my fate.

Shimanov 2

After 35… Rxb6! 36.Rxd5+ Ke6 37.Rc5 Kd6, black can put up good resistance. He’ll trade pawns with …a6, and then white will have a really hard time winning this endgame. Instead, I played 35… axb6? continuing in my passive play. After 36.Rc3 Ke7 37.g4 Rd7 38.g5, I found my position to be collapsing. I went down without much of a fight.

So yeah, RIP GM Norm #3. It was painful to come so close only to miss it in the last round, but it was a good learning experience for my thick skull. Norms aside, I played well and gained plenty of rating. If I keep playing like this, I’ll have plenty of norm chances en route to the other requirement to become a GM, achieving a 2500+ FIDE rating.

My 4th GM Norm: 5th time in Italy is a Charm Part III

Welcome to the third and final part of my coverage on the Forni di Sopra in Italy last month where I scored my 4th GM norm. This will cover what happened after round 5. I’d just gotten past the double round day on Tuesday 6/18 (with a bit of mixed fortune). Was still doing well, with 3.5/5 and performing close to FIDE 2600, though bouncing back from losing with the white pieces can be tough. Sure enough I was “playing up again”. On 6/19 I got paired as black against a FIDE 25 hundred Italian GM. This happens to be someone who I’d played once and beaten, as white in a European tournament at the end of 2017. Maybe my attempts to review and appreciate my play in that prior game against him helped with my confidence and motivation, albeit just slightly. This young GM is versatile, and I felt I had to try my best to be “a bit ready” for just about anything. Let’s see how my game with black went:

GM Alessio Valsecchi (FIDE 2504) – IM Justin Sarkar (FIDE 2366) [A17] 10th Forni di Sopra (6), 19.06.2019

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 Against the English I chose to play like this. Was willing to enter a Nimzo-Indian, or a Mikenas attack – more on that opening later! 3.e3 This rare move gives an impression of wanting to avoid a theoretical battle, which you can’t automatically assume but based on the course of the game seemed to be the case. d5 4.Nf3 c5 5.cd5 Nxd5 5…ed5 6.d4 would be a sort of Tarrasch defense (with e3 by white, rather than g3).

This was something I’d looked into playing with black sometime before, via a different move order. Now 6.d4 is the main move, transposing to a Semi-Tarrasch. Whereas there are other moves like 6.Bc4, 6.Bb5 or 6.Nxd5 that can be kind of tricky and have some bite. The move he chose was quite rare, though I see has been played by GMs Morozevich and Ganguly (not to mention Korchnoi, back in 1982). 6.Qc2!? Nc6 or 6…Be7 7.a3 Be7 8.Be2 0-0 I castled automatically, expecting in turn an automatic castling. Indeed, in all the games that reached this move 8 position (first being Korchnoi-Pinter, Rome 1982), black castled and white castled in turn on move 9. My opponent had other ideas in mind. White quickly played 9.h4!?

Wait a second! Now he wants to mate me? At first I was like why did I touch my king one move too soon? Is this theory!?

Well this novelty might not be so great, but sure has practical value! White might even not be worse yet! I got intimidated, but after thinking awhile I tried to have faith in the fundamental soundness of my position. f5!? Took 25 minutes to play this. Still not sure if it was correct (or necessary, by any means), but just felt I had to consider his ideas with Ng5 or g4. Can’t even quite reproduce what I calculated on other moves and I’ll have to analyze this position some more in attempt to understand what on earth is going on! My opponent in turn spent about 10 minutes. 10.h5 This actually kind of surprised me. He has no immediate attack. Thought he might keep options of a later Ng5 (possibly in conjunction with g4) in reserve. a6 This, with idea …b5 seems to fit in well with my setup. 11.h6 This guy is doing an AlphaZero on me! g6 11…g5!? might be even stronger, but I guess 11…g6 felt like the human “reflex reaction”. 12.d3 Maybe another move like 12.d4!? (or the pawn sac 12.b4!?) was stronger. I’ll just give the unclear assessment. b5 Natural and strong 13.Nxd5 Qxd5 Centralizing and intending …e5 with a great position (and stronger than 13…ed5 14.b4!?) 14.Bd2 Played after almost ten minutes. e5 15.e4 Played after 8 minutes and maybe not so great, but white’s position already looks unpleasant. Qd6 16.Rc1 fe4 17.de4 Nd4 18.Nxd4 ed4 -/+

19.f4 This makes things worse. Castling was a lesser evil, though black has many options and a big advantage with the much stronger pawns (crushing central majority) Rxf4!? Intuitively decided on this in couple of minutes. Sacking the exchange looked tempting and crushing, but little did I realize there was more to calculate. In hindsight, the obvious 19…c4 was probably more straightforward and to the point. Sacking on c4 is clearly inadequate for white, and taking on f4 in the next move or so is still on the cards. 20.Bxf4 Qxf4 21.Qb3+ Turns out to be the best try, but not calculated by me in advance. c4 Played this fairly quickly, based on seeing 22.Bxc4+ Kh8 (simplest, first hitting the rook on c1 before taking the bishop on c4). Based on allowing more complications than I realized, I was left wondering if I should’ve played 21…Kh8? However, that allows the shot 22.Rxc5! With idea 22…Bxc5 23.Qd5, that would’ve been a cold shower for me. I’ll have to go by the equal eval. It looks like one side will give the other perpetual check! 22.Rxc4 I paused on this for a few minutes, not having calculated it. Knew I had to take the rook and just hope that even if I “messed up” I still had at least a draw. bc4 23.Qxc4+ Kh8 24.Rf1

At this point white had 25 minutes and I had just under 20, to reach move 40. I actually considered and expected this move. Now I have a choice: to take the e-pawn and keep the queen centralized while opening up the white king more, or take the dangerous h6-pawn. Still not sure which is stronger! Qxe4 Played this in a minute or two. Thought/hoped I’d worked out a win, which could be why I didn’t give enough thought to taking the h6-pawn. Maybe that was simpler, with less to calculate and a wider margin of error. 25.Qf7 I anticipated this but overlooked from a distance, the nuances of him inserting g3 against my bishop check on h4. This turns out to be very relevant. Needed a few precious minutes to figure out the right order in which to check. Qb1+! Checking here first was VERY important. The bishop check on h4 would be met by 26.g3! I’d actually have to check on b1 to make a draw, as taking on g3 would actually lose to 27.Kd2. Note how the bishop got deflected from being able to check on g5. 26.Bd1 I correctly saw this is losing and also hopeless is the bishop down ending after 26.Kf2 Qf5+. I had NOT yet worked out at the board if I had a win after 26.Kd2 with the idea of sacking the exchange on f4 against my bishop check on g5. The game can continue 26.Kd2 Bg5+ (queen takes b2 check first is also valid and likely to transpose) 27.Rf4 Bxf4+ 28.Qxf4 Qxb2+ 29.Kd1 Qb3+ 30.Ke1 Qc3+ 31.Kd1. White has deadly mate threats and it’s not clear if black can do more than keep checking. Now the right way to make progress is 31…Kg8! Now white has no good way to renew the mate threat. 32.Qe4 (or 32.Qe5 Kf8!) Qb3+ 33.Ke1 Bb7 34.Qxd4 Qg3+ 35.Kd1 Kf7! followed by giving the bishop on b7 and playing …Rd8+ should be winning. So it’s a question of if I would’ve found it at the board (and, not feared ghosts when playing …Kg8!). Bh4+ 27.g3 Now this intermezzo fails to help white Bxg3+ 28.Kd2 Qxb2+ White has no way out. 29.Bc2 Qc3+ is also losing. Had the bishop been on e2, white would be able to move the king back to d1 leaving black with just a perpetual check. 29.Kd3 Qc3+ 30.Ke4 Qe3+ 31.Kd5 Be6+ 32.Qxe6 Rd8+ White resigns 0-1

There we go. I did it, accomplished the formidable task of striking back with black. White tried to pretend he was AlphaZero with the crazy h4-h5-h6 and I was able to punish him!

Now going into 6/20 I had 4.5/6 and was white against a Norwegian teenage IM in the FIDE mid 24 hundreds.

IM Justin Sarkar (FIDE 2366) – IM Johannes Haug (FIDE 2438) [A18] 10th Forni di Sopra (7), 20.06.2019

1.c4 This was the first interesting moment and I’d say strong move. My decision to play the English was both practical and impractical at the same time. Impractical because I rarely play it (despite being “half English”). Practical, because it sidestepped certain problematic openings against 1.d4 (including the Nimzo) where I felt unsure how to try for an edge against him. This undoubtedly came as a surprise and messed with the youngster’s prep. He thought at least a few minutes on his first move, facing a tough choice. Nf6 The main alternative I considered was 1…e5, when I had a relatively “low theory” line or two in mind. 2.Nc3 e6 This shows he probably wants a Nimzo. This was precisely something I felt not so keen to face against him. He seemed well-versed in just about every variation and I felt I’d struggle to get the slightest edge. Felt he was less likely to play 2…e5 here than on move 1, though still had to consider it. I kind of anticipated 2…e6 after 1…Nf6 and the funny thing is the moves of this and my last game (1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6) have been the same, with reversed colors. 3.e4!? So, the Mikenas Attack. The Flohr-Mikenas Attack is a relatively sharp system in the English that can lead to interesting play. d5 The main reply. 4.e5 The main move. 4.cd5 ed5 5.e5 Ne4 is an alternative. d4 5.ef6 dc3 6.bc3 The relatively safe but less ambitious 6.fg7 cd2+ gives white nothing. Qxf6 7.Nf3 Black has a few moves here and I realized I was taking a big chance that I knew enough relative to him at least for the sake of this game. Was just hoping the surprise value along with whatever I looked at beforehand, combined with him not necessarily having something deeply worked out in this variation, might serve me well and even enable me to fight for an edge. I was aware he had faced the 4.cd5 ed5 5.e5 line and it was possible he knew this well too (and might rattle off a bunch of theory), but it was a gamble I chose to take. It seemed to pay off, given the course of the game. e5 Serious alternatives are 7…c5 and especially 7…b6 8.Bd3!? This (now somewhat popular move in this line) is an interesting alternative to 8.d4.

Playing this move at the board had a nice feel to it. Apparently it was first played in Alburt-Mednis, NY 1980. White wants to castle quickly and will relocate the bishop ideally to e4 (or else c2, depending on circumstances). Black spent over 5 minutes here and played something already perhaps a bit inaccurate. I’ll soon be fighting for an edge so my opening can be considered a success. Finding a good way to surprise him and get a position where I felt more or less in control was indeed not an easy task. As we’ll see though he still had chances to equalize later (so indeed, winning is almost never easy). Nc6 From whatever I know it’s considered slightly inaccurate to commit the knight there so soon, as e4 will become a more attractive square for the white bishop. I won’t really go into the theory, but the main continuations are 8…Na6!?, 8…Bd6, or 8…Bg4 9.Be4 Nd7! (with idea of sacking the pawn for initiative: 10.Bxb7 Rb8). 9.0-0 Bd6 Black’s natural developing moves turn out to not meet the demands of this position. 10.Rb1! This strong prophylactic move anticipates the black queen’s bishop development by putting the rook on the semi-open b-file and keeping an eye on the b7-pawn. I spent over ten minutes, unaware of it being theory (and high scoring). The hasty 10.Be4?! Bf5! should be fine for black. 0-0 11.Qc2! Throwing in this move first (hitting h7) is useful. The 4 prior recorded games from this position (starting with Gelfand-Yegiazarian, Yerevan 1996) were all wins for white. Again 11.Be4 allows 11…Bf5! Now the attempt to grab a pawn with 12.Bxf5 Qxf5 13.Rxb7?! would run into 13…e4 with too much play/initiative. g6 Strictly speaking a novelty, and probably not a bad one. Black insists on developing the bishop to f5 soon, to challenge what will be a strong bishop on e4. On 11…h6 12.Be4 (or maybe 12.Bh7+ Kh8 13.Be4) it’s not so easy to see a good move for black, to solve the problem of the c8-bishop and get coordinated. 12.Be4 Bf5!

I saw this and even felt it offered good chances to resist (perhaps equalize). I can’t even really “win a pawn”, as black can regain the pawn with …Na5 followed by taking on c4. It’s tough to say what’s the best continuation here. Maybe take on b7 anyway and on 13…Na5 move the rook somewhere along the b-file and after knight takes on c4, play something like 14.d4 with a little initiative. Or try the position with 13.d4 Bxe4 14.Qxe4 ed4 15.cd4 Rfe8 and well, queen somewhere. 13.Bxf5 gf5 He spent just about a minute on this. The endgame with 13…Qxf5 14.Qxf5 gf5 also offers decent chances to equalize. Taking on b7 can still be met by …Na5 followed by regaining the pawn on c4. Was also thinking about 15.Nh4 kind of forcing …f4 and for now maybe using the f5-square for the knight (i.e. 16.Nf5) but not sure if it really achieves much. 14.d4 e4? But this kind of tempting move is just really bad. A quick f2-f3 will seriously weaken black’s position. I was rightly unsure what to play against 14…b6! Now the b-pawn is no longer en prise and more importantly it guards against c5. White should be in no real danger, but it’s tough to see a way forward. 15.Ng5 A quick f2-f3 is in the air and the knight has a convenient retreat square on h3. It actually guards nicely against …Qh4 ideas hitting h2, and its position “on the rim” will be just temporary. h6 The white knight won’t get stuck on h3 for long so this merely weakens black (though 15…b6 16.f3! was still a big issue) 16.Nh3 b6 17.f3! Of course. ef3 Tough to suggest anything better. 18.Rxf3 Ne7 19.Nf4 c5 20.d5 Ng6

21.Bd2 A simple practical move and pretty strong, preparing to bring the queen’s rook into the game. It turns out, even stronger was 21.Nh5! It required concrete calculation though: 21.Nh5 Qh4 22.Qxf5! (just don’t play 22.Rh3?? Qe1#) Qxh2+ (or 22…Bxh2+ 23.Kf1 Qxc4+ 24.Kf2 Be5 25.Bxh6 +-) 23.Kf1 Qh1+ 24. Kf2 Qh4+ 25.g3 Qh2+ 26.Kf1 turns out to be basically winning, with 26…Qh1+ being met by 27.Ke2 and white will crash through before black can create enough threats. I can understand though, not wanting to calculate something like this. Now apart from Rbf1, Nh5 remains a threat. Bxf4 Black spent 15 minutes on this but it’s too late to offer advice. White has a serious advantage in kingside pawn structure, with a “protected passed pawn” on d5 to boot. Black’s chances of achieving and maintaining a Nimzovich style blockade on d6 in this position (isn’t the knight supposed to be there!?) are close to nil. 22.Bxf4 Kg7 23.Bc7 One of many strong moves. Now I’m willing to allow an endgame, where I can win with the passed d-pawn. Qe7 24.d6 For sure black has failed to blockade my passed pawn Qe4 25.Qxe4 fe4 26.Rf5 f6 What else? 27.d7 Simple and direct Ne5 While this is outright losing, there was no solution. Now white has to make a choice, even though all plausible moves win.

28.Rxe5 I kind of like this, as it involves a very concrete idea of forcing a won king and pawn ending. fe5 29.Rf1 Very important. First deflect the f8-rook, then play Rd1. The careless 29.Rd1?? would throw away the win after 29…e3! Now promoting would run into real problems after 30…Raxd8 followed by 31…e2. This move forces the f8-rook away, as trading will cost black the other rook for the d-pawn with a hopeless bishop down endgame. Rfd8 No choice, really. Black tries to give as little as possible, to stop the d-pawn. 30.Bxd8 Rxd8 31.Rd1 Kf6 32.Kf2 Ke6 33.Ke3 Rxd7 34.Rxd7 Kxd7 35.Kxe4 Ke6 Black has temporarily escaped with equal material, but the king and pawn ending is lost. The power of the outside passed pawn, you can say. 36.g4!

An important move and the culmination of white’s idea. I think Joel Benjamin would nod. White has liquidated into a won king and pawn ending. This concept is the theme of his book “Liquidation on the Chess Board”. Black played a few more moves here before throwing in the towel. a6 37.a4 Kf6 38.h4 Ke6 39.g5 h5 39…hg5 40.hg5 a5 41.g6 Kf6 42.g7 Kxg7 43.Kxe5 followed by eating up the b-pawn in 3 moves is of no avail. 40.g6 Kf6 41.g7 Kxg7 42.Kxe5 Kg6 43.Ke6! I think this is called outflanking. Have to review my Dvoretsky endgame manual vocabulary! a5 44.Ke5! Black resigns 1-0

His position never recovered after move 14 and for the last 30 moves it was basically one way traffic. It was good to be able to convert and achieve an important win. Now with 5.5/7 I was tied in the lead and performing in the FIDE high 26 hundreds. What a nice recovery from my unfortunate round 5. I’d been dreaming of a performance like this, ever since the Rilton Cup back at the end of 2016 (where I was performing like a FIDE 28 hundred after 5 rounds, just to lose a bunch of games in a row after that). Now with just 2 games left, would I take things to the finish line? Well, yes and no.

My pairing for Friday 6/21 was black against GM Cristhian Cruz of Peru rated in the FIDE mid 25 hundreds. What’s funny was that I’d both seen and played him once and only once before: in the May 2015 Texas tournament where I scored my 3rd GM norm (was also black against him that time, the game ending in a draw). How would I fare this time, compared to 4 years ago? As for my GM norm status, I was performing so well going into this game that a draw would likely clinch it regardless of last round result, based on my most probable 9th round opponent(s). Cruz had 5/7 so was trailing me by half a point. Let’s go over what happened. I don’t see a need to analyze the game in that much detail, but will recap the critical moment(s).

GM Cristhian Cruz (FIDE 2561) – IM Justin Sarkar (FIDE 2366) [D20] 10th Forni di Sopra (8), 21.06.2019

1.d4 His most probable first moves were 1.d4, 1.c4, or 1.Nf3 (in Brownsville 2015, he played an English) d5 It was a bit of a tough decision but I decided that on 1.d4 I’d aim for the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. 2.c4 dc4 Here we go, the QGA. 3.e4 You can say, the most ambitious and principled answer. I also had to be (slightly) ready for 3.e3 and 3.Nf3. e5 Most common and probably also most solid. Black has many alternatives and I also have certain experience with the 3.e4 QGA from the white side. 4.Nf3 Bb4+ The main and solid alternative to the more common 4…ed4 5.Bxc4. 5.Bd2 Slightly more common is 5.Nc3 ed4 (5…Nf6!? with the idea 6.Nxe5 b5 is a complicated alternative) 6.Nxd4. Bxd2+ 6.Qxd2 Was aware of the alternative line 6.Nbxd2 ed4 7.Bxc4 Nc6 8.0-0 playing for development and initiative, not worrying for now about getting back the pawn. The funny thing is that I’d tried this myself as white a month prior, in an unpublished game! ed4 7.Qxd4 Nf6 Knew about this little nuance in my prior study of this QGA variation, despite not having actually had this position yet with either color. Allowing white to take on d8 is of course at least a slight concession but I guess the thinking is that 7…Qxd4 8.Nxd4 lets white regain the pawn on c4 without making any structural changes and can argue to have the slightly easier game, with the for now slightly stronger central majority. It appears the move 7…Nf6 was introduced in Susan Polgar – Maxim Dlugy, Brussels 1987 (a few years before I got taught the game!). 8.Qxd8+ 8.Nc3 Be6 9.Qxd8+ Kxd8 transposes. Kxd8 9.Nc3 Be6

This temporarily keeps the extra pawn and leaves white with a decision how to regain it. This position has about 25 published games and a high drawing rate. 10.Nd4 Main alternatives are 10.Ng5 or 10.Ne5. Nc6!? This move was also introduced by Dlugy, back in 1990 against Petursson. I knew about it being the “main move” and chose to give it a go. It’s a rather committal decision, allowing tripled pawns, though it does force an immediate decision upon the white knight. 10…Ke7 also seems viable, as played by Ivanchuk, in a 1992 rapid game against Karpov (don’t think I was aware of this during the game). Black will always recapture on e6 with the pawn, while white can also try something like 11.0-0-0!? (as in Vachier Lagrave-Nabaty, 2012). 11.Nxc6+ Cruz thought over 20 minutes on this. White might as well inflict the tripled pawns on black, not being afraid of black’s tripled “extra pawn” (while arguing his kingside pawn majority is potentially better than black’s crippled queenside majority). bc6

Not the prettiest queenside pawn structure for black (aren’t the tripled c-pawns called “Irish pawns”?), but for now it’s an “extra pawn”. This is a bit of a confusing position to conceptually grasp, even if it should be dynamically equal. Guess an important thing is that the c-pawns control some useful squares and somewhat restrict white’s actions. Even if I knew in theory it should be fine, playing with tripled pawns felt kind of scary at the board. 12.0-0-0+ This natural move is strictly speaking a novelty, though already at the board I was having trouble recalling specifics despite my decision to play this position (was aware of 12.f4 g6). The main move is 12.f4, against which black plays 12…g6 (then 13.0-0-0+ Ke7). In the game I ended up getting better than this (somewhat defensive) structure on the kingside. Ke7 13.Be2 White can revert to 13.f4, when 13…g6 would transpose to 12.f4 g6. Guess black has an additional option like 12…Ng4 (not sure if I would’ve played it). Nd7 A natural redeployment of the knight, while creating new possibilities like meeting 14.f4 with …f6 (rather than …g6). 14.Rd4 Nb6 The biggest problem with this move was that I spent over 40 minutes to play it. Now I had 35 minutes (plus 30 seconds increment per move) to reach move 40. So, little over a minute per move, while he had over an hour on his clock here. Fortunately I was able to pick up the pace, over the subsequent course of play, and even avoid severe time pressure. I think my problem was not so much a specific issue in this position, but more my general concerns about such structure and the strategic risk(s). It did scare me that trading both pairs of rooks could be better for white, maybe even winning (though that’s a bit far fetched). Just the thought, that his 2 queenside pawns hold my 4 (thank you, tripled pawns), whereas he has a healthy looking 4 against 3 on the kingside with his extra e-pawn. 14…Nb6 defending the c4-pawn looked so natural but I was asking myself things like “Does my knight really want to go there?” “doesn’t it want the option to go to c5 (or e5)”? Also, is taking on c4 actually an immediate threat? Well yes it is. The reply …c5 runs into Nd5+. A move like 14…Rhd8 came into mind, when taking on c4 is not so strong due to 15.Bxc4 Bxc4 16.Rxc4 Ne5 17.Ra4 Nd3+. Instead white can play 15.Rhd1 when black should play 15…Nb6 but that’s when “my fear” of trading both rooks came into play (though it should be rather balanced here, as how will white really make progress on the kingside or find ways to penetrate?). Still, 14…Nb6 is very logical. It secures the c4-pawn. 15.Rhd1 g5 This looked like a positionally desirable move, something to play on principle when given a chance. I exploited white’s omission of f4 and now it’s tough for him to do anything with his kingside pawns. I might even consider doing a “minority attack” of sorts, such as with …h5. 16.g3 White took about 15 minutes on this. Renews the idea of f4, though the open g-file upon exchanging on f4 should benefit black. f6 Spent 5 minutes on this and have about half an hour left. 16…g4 trying to fix the f-pawn should be viable but didn’t really want to work out the consequences of 17.e5 (followed by maybe pushing the f-pawn anyway). Was kind of trying to not make unclear changes to the structure beyond this point. 17.f4 He took over 15 minutes on this. Not so promising really, but what else? Maybe the pawn sac 17.e5!? with idea 17…fe5 18.Re4 but white can’t really hope for more than equality. gf4 18.gf4 Rhg8 19.f5 This kind of surprised me. Not a desirable positional move to make, but what else can white do? I suppose he wanted to limit my active ideas on the g-file. Bf7 20.e5 Especially, in conjunction with this. Was concerned at first about what I’d missed, but it became apparent he was just trying to get some play, even at the cost of a pawn. fe5 Now I have 25 minutes plus 30 second increment per move, so 35 minutes to reach move 40. 21.Rh4

Nd5 Took 5 minutes on this move, aiming to basically liquidate and kill off the game. Had to double check that I wasn’t getting into trouble, in any of the various sequences of captures. Had I looked harder and seriously believed I was better and not automatically been content with the first draw I saw, I probably would’ve played 21…h5! The pawn is poisoned due to 22.Bxh5?? Rh8. Black is better for sure and white will have to fight hard for a draw. Well it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback about how I should’ve played 21…h5 but I have to put everything in perspective and in context of the situation. I was likely tired, after a long (mostly successful!) tournament while having a final 9AM game. Was still most likely mentally recovering from my 40 minute freeze on move 14. Before his slightly desperate pawn sac, didn’t really think I was likely to be better. And yes, the GM norm really meant something to me. I even knew at this point who I was almost certain to play as long as I don’t lose this. To me it seemed more time efficient to work 21…Nd5 22.Bxc4 out basically to a clear draw, make sure there are no unexpected problems in the more forcing lines. Well I have to consider holding (without much drama) with black against a higher rated player trailing me by half a point as a good result and I know I felt that way, especially by clinching something so great as a GM norm. 22.Bxc4 I expected this. The game is completely equal and will soon fizzle out. “All rook and pawn endings are drawn”. Well, of course not all, but this one is for sure. Nxc3 23.bc3 Bxc4 24.Rxc4 Rad8 Spent about ten minutes to double check the soundness of this move, and ease of the draw when trading a pair of rooks, after various sequences of mutual pawn captures. 25.Rxc6 Rxd1+ 26.Kxd1 Rg2 Just intuitively, this had to be fine for me, whatever order white tries to take pawns. His next move was the last serious think of the game, over 5 minutes. All resources have been exhausted and beyond this point we played the remaining moves quickly. 27.Re6+ Kf7 28.Rxe5 Rxa2 29.Rc5 Rxh2 30.Rxc7+ Kf6 31.Rxa7 Kxf5 Draw agreed 1/2-1/2

This draw clinched my norm and kept me tied in the lead, with 6/8. It’s not every day you clinch a GM norm with a round to spare.

I forgot there was one more requirement for the GM norm: to wake up on Saturday morning in time for the 9AM game and show up in time to make a move in that game. 4 others had 6/8 and I was playing white on board 2 against a FIDE 2583 who also had 6 points. In no way did I just want to play for a draw (and a hopeful tie for first). Wanted to try treating it as a regular game and in a way the difference between win and draw for me would be bigger than the difference between draw and loss. First place here would be a huge result. I was also left with the uncertainty of how seriously he’d try for the full point as black against me. Would this Peruvian GM judge me more by my rating, or my performance in the tournament?

M Justin Sarkar (2366) – GM Jose Martinez Alcantara (2583) [E00] 10th Forni di Sopra (9), 22.06.2019

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Bg5 Come again? Whatchamacallit. OK this was something I wanted to try in a real tournament game (at least once as a surprise weapon) sometime soon, and had even reviewed some notes this morning. Fair enough, but I’d already call it a mistake. Bottom line is it was too experimental for a last round 9AM game with white, when tied for first place. I could save it for another time (or a rainy day, as they say). While occasionally (as in my draw with Ivanchuk!) I might have real personal reasons to want to experiment with something new in a serious game, I believe I lacked sufficient justification in this situation. Although I approached the game willing to take risks and provoke (or get provoked into) double-edged play, even that never quite came about. While sad, I think it’s instructive to see how quickly the GM was able to achieve the “easier side of equality”. He equalized a bit too comfortably and was able to try for more, without even taking risks (often, against strong and solid opening play by white, black has to take certain risk in order to play for more than just a draw).

Bb4+ One of a few good moves. 4.Nd2 4.Nc3 would transpose into a Leningrad Nimzo. h6 5.Bh4

This position has been tested just under 2 hundred times in published tournament practice. The main line is 5…g5 6.Bg3 Ne4 7.Ngf3 Nc6 8.a3 Bxd2+ 9.Nxd2 Nxg3 10.hg3 Nxd4 11.Ne4 when white is considered to have compensation for the pawn. Or 5…c5, and now either 6.a3 Bxd2+ 7.Qxd2 or 6.dc5. But after thinking over 10 minutes my opponent chose the best scoring move that has been played less than ten percent of the time. 0-0!? Both 5…c5 and especially 5…g5 are rather concrete decisions. But incredibly, I was clueless what to do against castling as I’d failed to ask myself what happens if black just castles. It can be easy to neglect to ask oneself such questions, especially in an early morning rush. Still not even sure I know the answer! Incredibly there are no examples to follow from any high rated players let alone GMs. 6.a3 Even this might be slightly inaccurate, as the bishop actually WANTS to go back to e7. It’s a bit more stable there whereas the queen knight is misplaced on d2 instead of c3. 6.e3 or 6.Nf3 are alternatives. Be7! 7.e3 7.e4 d5 (or 7…d6!?) is risky to say the least, while behind in development. 7.Nf3 might be a slight improvement, though as we’ll see I had other ideas in mind. b6 I anticipated this, but had no good solution in mind. 8.Be2 Took ten minutes on this but my idea is too creative and can only risk a worse game. Bb7 9.Bf3 This feels a bit too artificial. After 9.Ngf3 black has no problems whatsoever but it seems like a more normal position. d5 Played in 5 minutes. I saw and got concerned by this. Black shuts in his b7-bishop but gains central space and my bishop is clumsy on f3. 10.cd5 ed5 Recapturing with the knight or bishop equalizes but this is more challenging. 11.Rc1 The first tactical point is that 11.Ne2? runs into 11…g5! 12.Bg3 g4. Nbd7 12.Bg3?! This clumsy move is suspicious. White should just try 12.Ne2! with the idea on 12…g5 13.Bg3 g4 to sac a bishop for two pawns with a not so clear position. c5 13.Ne2 Ne4

14.dc5? An early morning oversight, but really such a terrible move in many ways. Somehow white has to take on e4 and hope to not be worse by very much. Ndxc5 15.Nb3 Wanted to castle, but of course that drops an exchange to taking on d2 followed by 16…Nb3. Ng5 16.Nbd4 Nxf3+ 17.Nxf3 Ba6 18.0-0 Rc8

19.Nfd4? A real lemon. This knight does not belong here. Much better is a move like 20.Rc3! trying to untangle with Re1 or Be5 (or maybe 20.Be5!?).

Qd7 20.f3? This just seriously weakens white, especially the e3-pawn. 20.b4 had to be tried, even though after 20…Ne4 I’d rather be black. Bg5 21.Bf4 Bf6! Even stronger than doubling the white pawns on f4. Spent most of my remaining time here trying to find a way to continue, but it’s too late to offer white good advice. 22.b4 Bxd4 23.ed4 Nd3 24.Rxc8 Bxc8 25.Bg3 Qc6 26.Qd2 Qc2 27.Qxc2 Rxc2 28.b5 Bxb5 29.Rb1 Rxe2 30.Rxb5 Rb2! 31.Rxb2 Nxb2 32.Bb8 Hastens the end, but it’s lost. a5 33.Bc7 Nc4 34.a4 Kf8 35.Kf2 Ke7 36.Ke2 Kd7 White resigns 0-1

With this win, my opponent captured clear first place with 7/9. The others with 6/8 drew. I was left with the 9th place prize and my GM norm certificate. As much as the young Peruvian GM deserves credit, for beating me and winning the tournament outright with a very high GM performance and 18 point rating gain from 2583, I really think this was a brain malfunction for me. At least, I didn’t try to do an AlphaZero with h4-h5-h6. After my accomplishment, maybe somehow it was tough to be in the most focused mindset to play a 9AM game against a GM who *might* try to beat me with black due to my much lower rating (clear first in a tournament like this might be a career accomplishment for a GM, while a tie for first with 5 people and win on tiebreaks is nothing extraordinary). Still I hope it was instructive to see how he was able to go about it without even taking risks, after my overly experimental play. I took one liberty too many, and he rightly punished me. So my last round stupidity got me the low end of a GM norm (2602, by GM norm calculations). For the sake of tournament standing, I failed to quite take things to the finish line. Yet took it close enough to the finish line, for the sake of my extra GM norm certificate. What were the odds of doing so well as to be able to afford to lose the last one and still get a GM norm? Far exceeded expectations, along with any of my serious tournament results in the last few years. Strikingly enough, it’s tough to really attribute this result to luck. If anything, in some ways luck was against me. Had I gotten lucky and won a game by a fingerfehler or something, then I probably wouldn’t have seen anything to write home about. But I felt like I played strong and inspired chess throughout (most of) the tournament and that meant something.

Chess-results would tell you my final performance was just 2590, which is wrong. As many norm seekers themselves likely know, that site just uses a raw average when calculating rating performance, without making any adjustments. That means your performance can “go down” with a win against a low rated player. In this case, my first round opponent was rated 2091. So by GM norm calculations he gets raised to 2200. So that in itself adds 12 points to my actual performance and there you go. For some reason it bothered me, that a few people quickly looked up my performance on that site and thought I missed it, though not sure why 🙂 Well it was a rough end for sure, to a fabulous tournament. I’ll have to properly get over the bitter aftertaste produced by the last game and hope it helped to write about it along with certain lessons, while acknowledging credit to my opponent where it’s due.

Funnily enough, every GM norm of mine involved performing heavily with one color and just OK to slightly well with the other. In my very first GM norm I won 5/5 with black (including against 3 IMs). In my second GM norm I scored 4.5/5 with black (including beating a GM, drawing a GM, and beating an IM-elect in the final round to get the norm). In my third GM norm I scored 4/4 as white (beating a GM and 3 IMs, while doing just so-so with 2.5/5 as black). Now in this 4th GM norm I scored heavily with 3.5/4 as black (beating a young master, IM, GM, and drawing with a GM). My white score of 2.5/5 was OK (including, the draw with Ivanchuk!) but of course could’ve been better. It’s interesting that 3 times out of 4 my strong color was black, as I’ve usually been stronger with white. Anyway I played overall such a strong opposition this time, for 6/9 to be worth a FIDE 26 hundred performance.

My real task ahead will be the rating climb to FIDE 2500. That will of course require increased consistency. As my ceiling seems quite high, I’ll probably have to raise my baseline performances. Easy to say, and I think we all struggle with consistency to a certain degree. By the way I think “extra GM norms” ARE relevant. ESPECIALLY, while still an IM. Many players know firsthand how tough they are to achieve. Even if you can say I don’t strictly speaking need any more norms for my GM title application, they still DO count. Totally, 100 percent. Plus, surely a norm certificate with the name Ivanchuk is priceless.

I hope my article gave a good picture why this 4th GM norm meant something, at least to me. I’d carry on about my personal situation and elaborate more on specific personal challenges, while trying to put it in perspective with my recent accomplishment, but think I’ve covered enough ground both with the chess and my personal reflections. With this, along with my prior two parts on the tournament in Italy last month. I truly hope you enjoyed reading my detailed tournament recap, just as I truly valued putting it together and reaching out to an audience of fellow chess players. This can mean more to me than you realize.

So, what’s next? Well so far my attempted rating climb has NOT been steady. Had a rough tournament in Philadelphia at the end of June, followed by the recently finished American Continental in Brazil where I was doing well just for it to go south near the very end (11 rounds is tough, I guess!). Lost a combined total of 21 ELO points in my events. I’ll try to keep in mind something David Brodsky wrote 2 years ago, in an article on crossing 2400 for his IM title: “Generally, when people get a norm, get a title, or in simple English have a big success, they very often have a bad tournament shortly after it. I don’t know why exactly that happens, but it just does”.  I don’t know why, either, but will try to take heart in this. Next up is the Pardubice Chess festival, which I’ve just begun (I do manage to get myself around). Hope to be back again, before long!

My 4th GM Norm: 5th time in Italy is a Charm Part II

Continuing, from my first part of this article a few days ago. Incidentally, in my Ivanchuk game I failed to put the game moves 40 and 41 in bold. You probably were still able to follow and in any case I just edited it. Sorry about the typo.

Anyone is welcome to use my game against Ivanchuk and annotate it themselves (for a site, or whatever) if they wish, even borrow my notes as desired, as I bet there are more things to say about this crazy game!

Before I proceed with my next games, think I left out something on a personal note. Remember the first article I wrote, for this site? 3 months ago, on winning two games in one. I think things have picked up a bit, since that time. Must not underestimate the value of writing about personal experiences and sharing your story. Maybe it was worth adding this, so others know how I felt. People might not know/realize what it personally meant for me to reach out and describe such game/experience. It also felt like a great topic to write about! So feel free to glance back at that article.

This second part of my tournament in Italy will cover what happened on the double round day. Remember, I had 2.5/3 (wins against a 21 hundred and 22 hundred, and a draw with Ivanchuk rated about 27 hundred). There were 2 games on Tuesday 6/18: 9AM and 4pm. Was Black round 4, this time against another Indian youngster: a teenage IM rated close to 2500. The night before, when in the midst of my preparation, my internet disconnected due to a “maximum usage exceeded” error with the code I was using to connect. Realized I had to be given a new code. The front desk was empty by that time of night and I’d have to approach the reception sometime after 8 in the morning, shortly before the game and with barely time to eat breakfast. When trying to prepare for a game, I tend to do lots of position searches in the ChessBase Online Database. At the moment I find that doing these series of Online Database position searches, while a bit time-consuming, can somewhat guide my prep. So I had to decide how to work around the internet outage. I chose to just stick with whatever I’d been looking at (an opening to play, against his likely 1.e4 mainlines). As I picked a sharp sideline of an Open Sicilian, review was required. Decided to use my already created notes from awhile back, along with Hiarcs14 Book to fill in some gaps. Figured I had to allow some time to review in the morning before the 9AM game.

On Tuesday morning, just barely had time for a quick breakfast. Was also able to approach the front desk for a new internet code. This time he gave me 2 codes, in order for me to have a second one to use after the first one runs out! When successfully logging in, I’d see the following displayed on my screen: ” ({ ‘logged_in’ : ‘yes’, ‘link_login_only’ : ‘’ }) “. The morning didn’t go smoothly. Was over 20 minutes late, partly due to being in a panic that I lost my passport. When I came down, the organizer said I left it at the reception and he had it with him. So let’s see how I recovered from the morning events and lost time on my clock.

IM Arjun Kalyan (FIDE 2482) – IM Justin Sarkar (FIDE 2366) [B61] 10th Forni di Sopra (4), 18.06.2019

1.e4 c5 It was a Sicilian day. Needed a little break from double king pawns. 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bg5 Now I had something new in mind. Bd7!? 7.Qd2 This main move defines ECO code B61. Sometimes I like to play new ECO codes, though I’ve faced it from the white side, long time ago. Rc8

Larsen Variation

This is the main move. The Larsen Variation is a bit shaky (Black hangs by a thread, in various lines), but not quite busted I don’t think. Wanted to try the black side of this variation at some point, even as a surprise weapon. Another interesting tidbit was that GM Dreev, who was sitting pretty much next to me, used to play this. 8.f4 The other main move is 8.0-0-0 and now …Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Qa5. Had a game like this with white from back in the day, where I tried 10.Bd2!? Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Qa5

10.e5 Most principled. The alternative 10.0-0-0 gives black options of the interesting exchange sac 10…Rxc3!? as I once faced (though I think this is more an attempt to equalize and hold a draw after 11.bc3 e5 12.Qb4 Qxb4 13.cb4 Nxe4 14.Bh4) or 10…h6!? 11.Bxf6 gf6 de5 12.fe5 e6 13.0-0-0 Bc6! Relatively best

13.Bb5 But here, more typical and probably more principled is 13.Nb5! The mainline is 13…Bxb5 14.ef6 Bc6 15.h4 g6 16.Bc4 Bc5, which is risky for black (and there are many variations to know) yet not entirely clear. Nd5! 14.Nxd5 This was his first serious think, of almost 15 minutes. The alternative is 14.Bxc6+ bc6 as in Karpov-Balashov, 1971. Bxb5 15.Nc3 I was aware of the alternative 15.Qxa7!? (you can tell me why black can’t take the queen) Bb4! (with idea 16.Qxb7 0-0) first played in Hort-Panno, 1970. I’ll trust the machine this is equal/unclear. Bc6 Also possible is 15…Bc5 16.Qg4 Bb4 17.Nxb5 Qxb5 as in Dolmatov-Yudasin, 1981.

16.Rd3?! Played after ten minutes of thought. The main and best move is 16.Rhf1 as first played in Beliavsky-Yudasin, 1981. I also failed to remember anything beyond this point. 16.Rd3?! was played in Berg-Lindberg, SWE 2011. Black played 16…h6 and my move is also reasonable f6 Played after 20 minutes of thought. 17.Bf4?! He took at least as long on this reply. The bishop is actually poorly placed here, despite lending the e5-pawn extra support. Another bishop retreat was preferable, though it can be a tough decision to leave the e5-pawn en prise. Qc5 Aiming for at least comfortable equality, though black can actually go for more with 17…f5 or 17…Be7 18.ef6 Qxd4 16.Rxd4 gf6 20.Ne4 Be7 21.Nd6+ What else? Bxd6 22.Bxd6? This turns out to be a blunder. The obvious 22.Rxd6 was called for. 22.Rxd6 Ke7 (or 22…e5 23.Be3) 23.Rhd1 was better than the game. Bxg2 The pawn can be safely taken. 23.Rg1 Rg8! Very important. Seemingly walking into a self-pin, but 25.Rd2 Rd8! is very strong. White is simply not fast enough, to exploit the pin on the g-file. Black already has the “strategically winning” two connected passers.

24.Bb4?! But this just makes matters worse. Rg6 25. Re1 e5 26.Rh4 Rc7 27.c4?! Bf3?! Something like 27…e4 28.b3 Bf3 was more to the point. 28.Bd6?! 28.Rf4 Rcg7 29.Rh3 Rg1 30.Rxg1 Rxg1+ 31.Kc2 Bg4?! With the trap 32.Rxh7?? Bf5+. Centralization with 31…Be4+ was stronger. 32.Rg3

Rxg3? Spent half of my remaining 7 minutes to make this trade. Not surprisingly 32…Bf5+ was stronger. White can try 33.Kb3 Rd1 34.Bb8 but even if white picks up the a-pawn, the black connected passers should be much faster than white’s extra pawns on the other side that can barely move. Black can even just play something like 34…a6 with idea 35.Rf3 Rd3+ This pure OCB ending is most certainly winning, with the 2 connected passers. Trading on g3 helps white for sure, and the f-pawn is no longer passed. I was determined to show it’s a win, but still can’t quite be sure. The main idea I saw was to play …h5 followed by at the right moment …h4 as a pawn sac, to recreate connected passed pawns followed by …f6-f5-f4. However he has to watch out for ideas of white sacking the bishop for the e&f pawns and being able to leave black with just an a-pawn so as to have the bishop and wrong rook pawn draw, along with the h4-pawn serving as a distraction once black sacs. The win is at best problematic, but was just hoping I’d work out something after move 40 time control. 33.hg3 Kd7 34.Bc5 a6 35.b4? White spent 2 and a half of his remaining 7 minutes on this. Now this struck me as a mistake. Black gets to fix the structure and make the white a-pawn a more or less useless backward pawn, while being left with a desirable b-pawn (rather than a-pawn) that can’t be touched. Had white played a move like 35.a4 or 35.Bb6 I still can’t claim to be sure whether or not it’s a win. I can’t automatically rule out the possibility but it will take precise calculation and deep analysis that I have yet to do, to see how to make progress on the kingside without allowing unfavorable changes to the queenside (such as, trading both pawns too quickly or being left with the “wrong rook pawn”) b5 36.cb5 ab5 37.Kd3 h5

Even if your engine gives a value just slightly over +1 for black, I can virtually assure you it’s winning. The main plan I saw was to play the …h4 pawn sac at the right moment. Then when pushing the connected passers (usually …f6-f5-f4 followed by a later …e5-e4-e3) be sure that white can’t play a quick a4 forcing black to take with the pawn and be left with a wrong rook pawn draw. I kept changing my mind where I wanted to place my bishop for this, but it didn’t change the outcome or eval. Still had to overcome a bit of resistance. 38.Bf8 Ke6 39.Bg7 Bd1 40.Kd2 Bf3 41.Ke3 Bd5 42.a3 Bg2 Now I decided I wanted to place the bishop back on g4, before playing …h4, to stop white’s h-pawn from moving right away, though the computer will probably suggest a quicker win such as an immediate 42…f5 followed by soon …h4. The bishop is nicely centralized on d5 for now though I decided it’s useful to be guarding the h5-square when playing the …h4 pawn sac. 43.Kf2 Be4 44.Bf8 Bf5 45.Bc5 Bg4 46.Bb6 h4 I saw no need to delay this any longer. 47.gh4 f5

48.Be3 f4 Passed pawns must be pushed, but only in ways that don’t allow a dark-square blockade. So here, order is important. The pawn must go to f4, before a later …e4 followed by …e3. 49.Bc1 Kd5 50.Ke1 Bh5 A useful waiting move, with ideas to put the bishop somewhere it can anticipate a4 pawn sac ideas followed by pushing the b-pawn, while simultaneously keeping an eye on h5. 51.Kf1 Ke4 52.Kf2 52.a4 ba4 53.b5 Kd5 won’t change anything. Be8 Here actually 52…Bg4 53.Bb2 Kd5 54.Bc1 Kc4 was stronger. 53.Bb2 Kf5 Or 53…Kd5 54.Ke2 e4 55.Bd4 Bh5+ 56.Kd2 e3+

The one important detail to see is 57.Bxe3 fe3+ 58.Kxe3 Bd1! This is the only move to win, making sure that when white plays a4 the bishop can capture so as to remain with a b-pawn rather than a-pawn. Black will eat up the h-pawn and before long, through a series of mini-zugzwangs be able to get the king over to b3 to gobble up the a3 followed by b4 pawn and win with the extra bishop and b-pawn. 57.Kd3 Bf7 Just don’t play 57…Be8?? 58.Bxe3 fe3 59.Kxe3 followed by a4 with a draw. 58.Bc3 Kg4 59.Ke4 Bg6+ 60.Kd4 Kxh4 61.a4 ba4 62.b5 Be8 63.b6 Bc6 White resigns 0-1

After this win, had just under 2 hours before the next game. Was White against a young GM rated over 2600 who was trailing me by half a point with 3/4. Ended up being 5-10 minutes late to the game.

IM Justin Sarkar (ELO 2366) – GM Bogdan-Daniel Deac (ELO 2623) [D85] 10th Forni di Sopra (5), 18.06.2019

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 Thought he was more likely to go for a Nimzo 3.Nc3 d5 A slightly odd surprise, given how much I’ve played the Grünfeld. Had to decide what line I wanted to play. As it turned out though, I ended up not really knowing the line I chose or getting a good position. 4.cd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bc3 Bg7 7.Bb5+ This was something I wanted to try lately and had faced once or twice before, so decided to play it in this game. c6 8.Ba4 0-0 After moving quickly, Black spent over ten minutes on this obvious move. 9.Ne2 c5 No time on this. Black has a few different plans/setups to choose and it turned out I was least ready for the straightforward 9…c5 followed by 10…Nc6, despite it actually being the most popular move. 10.0-0 Nc6

11.Bxc6? Played after 6 or 7 minutes of thought. As we’ll see I had personal reasons for playing this way, but it was actually a sign of not trusting myself or my opening erudition. Kind of like I wanted to hand him at least comfortable equality, in order to clarify the game. White should play 11.Be3 and after 11…Na5 or 11…Qc7 it’s a game. While I didn’t know the lines, should’ve better trusted that white can hardly be worse just yet and has prospects to be better in this exchange Grünfeld structure. bc6 12.Ba3 cd4 13.Nxd4?! I’d call this a bit dubious and prefer the obvious pawn takes pawn recapture. While black can hardly be worse, it should be a bit closer to just flat equal with chances to soon fizzle out. For instance, 13.cd4 Qa5!? (or 13…Ba6 14.Bc5 as in Karpov-Morovic, Lindsborg rapid 2003) 14.Bc5.

Bonin system

We’ve transposed to the Bonin system, named after the legendary Jay Bonin (a fixture in the NY Chess scene, especially Marshall Chess Club). Never quite understood it, but think he has done rather well with it (at least, against his typical lower rated opposition). Wanted to see if I could hold my own by playing like Jay. He’s known though to have a slight bias, to liking knights. To me, black can’t possibly be worse, with the bishop pair in a mostly open (albeit rather symmetric) position. Avoiding the trodden path with White against higher-rated players can sometimes (like in this case) suggest certain sense of fear and make their task easier of aiming for the full point without taking excessive risks. I’ll elaborate more on this topic when discussing my very last game in this tournament, in my next part. Regarding, the general mistake of deliberately avoiding mainstream theory when white against a much higher rated player. No disrespect to Bonin, but I’d choose a Kasparov system over a Bonin system. Qc7 Black also has the move 13…c5! 14.Bxc5 Qc7 as in Bonin-Shahade, NY Masters rapid 2002. Not even sure what improvement Jay had in mind. Maybe 15.Ba3 but after 15…Ba6 (or 15…Qxc3 16.Nb3) 16.Re1 Qxc3 17.Nb3 Rfd8 18.Qg4 h5 Black can’t be worse, to say the least. 14.Qa4 Bd7 15.Qc4?! I already got things wrong and failed to play like Jay. For sure, the move is 17.Bc5, as he himself played in a published game. I saw ghosts like 17…Qe5 (even that should be equal, though hardly a reason to not play the immediate 17.Bc5). The queen is worse on c4 than a4. Not sure if it really changes the dynamics of the position. Rfc8 The guy has been playing quickly and confidently again, since castling. Now the e7-pawn is poisoned due to 18.Bxe7?? c5 followed by 19…Be6 after a knight retreat and white loses a piece. 16.Bc5 e5

17.Nc2?! A clumsy retreat square for the knight. 17.Nb3 was more logical. Maybe 17..a5 but then probably 18.Qa4 or 18.Qd3 should be OK. Qa5 18.Qb4 Qa6 19.c4?! This really just creates weaknesses along with a weak pawn on c4 though it’s tough to find something constructive to do. Probably 19.Rfb1 Be6 20.Ne3 was a lesser evil. Be6 20.Ne3 Rab8 Already 20…f5 suggests itself. Not sure what I wanted to do. Maybe 21.ef5 gf5 22.g4 though it looks a bit desperate. 21.Qc3 Rd8 22.f3 f5 23.Rfc1 Rd7 24.a4 This really weakens white more but I wanted to play a4-a5 with idea of playing a6 when the queen moves from a6, possibly fixing the a7-pawn as a target and sometimes allowing b7 as a penetration square. Rbd8 Black seems to be keeping the tension and postponing the decision whether to push with …f4 or exchange on e4. 25.a5 h5 26.Ra2 Kh7? Now is time to make a decision with the f-pawn. Such as, 26…f4 27.Nf1 Rd1 (or 27…g5). 27.Re2? Does nothing but make matters worse. White should really try 27.ef5! gf5 28.Qc2. Rd3 28.Qa4 R8d7? This slow, indecisive move throws away the advantage. A move with the f-pawn was screaming to be played: 28…f4 or exchanging on e4, with clear advantage. 29.ef5! I was worse and it made sense to change the structure of the position, even hoping to get play against his king. gf5 30.Nf1?! Why this? 30.Qe1 right away made more sense. The knight might not want to retreat. Kg6? The king is actually not very safe. At this point I had 14 minutes and he had 16, to reach move 40. 31.Qe1! For some reason this took me 5 or 6 minutes, yet I failed to work out the complications of 31…Bxc4. Ended up trying this, more intuitively. Bxc4?! He in turn took 5 or 6 minutes. This is actually not so good, though it’s tough to justify black’s play. Something like 31…Bf7 was better.

32.Qg3+? It looked tempting to check. Shame I missed 32.Qh4! f4 33.g4! This is very dangerous for black, his best bet is 33…Kh7 34.Qxh5+ Kg8 and clearly I have at least a draw (with 35.Qe8+). I can try 35.Rxe5! (or 35.Rb2 Bf7) Bf7! 36.Re8+! Bxe8 37.Qxe8+ Kh7 when again I can make an immediate draw by checking, or play Re1! White has an attack. Kh7 33.Rxe5?! This is actually inaccurate, albeit the right idea to do an exchange sac. Bxe5?! Black spent 5 minutes on this. Actually 33…Bf7! is stronger, when 34.Rxf5?? fails to …Rd1! So probably, 34.Ree1 Qxa5 35.Qg5 R3d5 34.Qxe5 Bf7

35.Qxf5+? It can be tempting to take a pawn with check in time pressure, but why not threaten mate in one with 35.Bf8! Bg6 (forced) and now play 36.Qf4. Somehow I filtered out this logical follow-up. Black is more or less forced to go for the position after 36…c5 37.Qh6+ Kg8 when after 38.Bxc5 he has nothing better than a draw (such as, by 38…Rd1). Bg6 36.Qf6?! 36.Qf4 Rf7 was a lesser evil. Qxa5 37.Qxc6 Qc7 38.Qf6 Or 38.Qf4 Rf7. Rf7 Black spent his remaining 2 minutes. Not 38…Rd1?? due to 39.Bd4! Now 39…Rxf1+ 40.Rxf1 Qd8 41.Qxd8 Rxd8 42.Bxa7 Bc2! followed by trading rooks gives black the worse side of a draw! 39.Qe6?! White should try something like 39.Bd4!? Qb8! 40.Be5 or Qe5. This might give better survival chances compared to the game. a5 40.Ne3? A move 40 lemon. The knight doesn’t belong here, though it’s tough to know what to suggest. Qf4?! The direct 40…a4 was stronger. 41.Nd5 fails to Qd8. 41.Rc4 This is what I was going to play, but used up most of my time in the second time control in coming to terms with how bad my position was. Qg5 Was actually expecting 41…Qf6 42.Qxf6 Rxf6 and I had at best vague ideas to put up some resistance but felt I was unlikely to hold (e.g. 43.Ra4 Ra6). 42.f4? Now I just collapsed, especially with no time left. Of course 42.h4 was the only try to prolong the game. Rxf4 43.Be7 Qh6 Only move to win, but quite obvious. 44.Rc7 Qg7 45.Bd6 Rf7 0-1

Losing felt at least slightly discouraging (especially as white, against an opening I’ve played many times from the other side). If anything I felt rather unlucky. Even though, 50% on one day against two higher rated opponents (both teenagers!) ought to be, at minimum, acceptable. Almost escaped this one.

So after this mixed fortune on the double round day of the 18th, it was back to just one game a day (though the final round was at 9AM). Wondered if luck was turning against me based on this game, even though I was still performing close to FIDE 2600. To see how I recovered in my next games, stay tuned for the next part! This part was meant to cover just the double round day. The next part will cover the rest of the tournament.

My 4th GM Norm: 5th time in Italy is a Charm Part I

Italy has been like a rating haven for me. Can just about claim I’ve found my niche, in a chess tournament context. My first tournament in Italy was almost exactly a year ago: The Ad Gredine Open, in a beautiful area of the Dolomites. That tournament officially began my upward climb, after what was perhaps my longest slump. Finished strongly there, with 2 good wins against GMs.

Since then, I’ve gone back to play in Italy 4 more times, including this most recent one. My relatively worst of the bunch was Rome last December, where I gained 3 points and still played a few strong games! Not quite sure, but maybe in general Italy has a serene feeling to it. Somehow I feel at home there, even if I barely interact with people or speak the language! Last month, I went to a small town in Southern Italy called Gallipoli (wait, isn’t that in Turkey!?) for the Salento Open. It was in the middle of nowhere. When going in my hotel room, I got greeted by the sound of old-fashioned style jazz music playing through a speaker in the bathroom ceiling! Sometimes I woke up to the morning sound of bathroom wall jazz! Not your everyday occurrence. Finished well in the Salento Open after a slow start, tying for third and performing in the FIDE high 24 hundreds while facing mostly very strong IMs and GMs.

My best was yet to come. Most recently I played the Forni di Sopra Open, in another area of the Dolomites (compared to a year ago). An added attraction, which really persuaded me to go was that Ivanchuk was registered. In fact, I’d been told this, during a car ride with the organizer in Salento last month, while talking about future tournaments in Italy . Ivanchuk has been like my long time idol. This World top 30 chess great is very creative and versatile. On good days he beats world champions, on bad days he loses to much lower rated players. I’ve sometimes called myself the Vassily Ivanchuk of IMs or joked about my Ivanchuk-like inconsistencies. So, playing him would be like a dream come true. Lo and behold, I got to play Ivanchuk! More on that later.

In terms of result, I topped it up another notch and scored my 4th GM norm. Having completed my required norms, my problem is of course the rating, being slightly over a hundred points away from the FIDE 2500 promised land. While you can argue that 3 norms was enough, 4 norms can only be better. As GM norms are notoriously tough to get, this was a big accomplishment. It was 4 years since my last norm. I think the important thing is psychologically I feel I have enough norms under my belt for the GM title. It was tougher to truly feel that way, before this 4th norm. Plus, a norm certificate with the name Ivanchuk is priceless.

I’ll divide this tournament report into 3 parts. You can call it opening, middlegame, endgame. This part will cover the first third of the tournament.

The general schedule of this 9 round tournament was one game a day at 4pm. However on the fourth day 6/18 was a double round: 9am and 4pm. This will be covered in my next part. Sometimes the biggest challenge is to get off to a good start. I think ANY tournament player can relate. Sometimes the first round itself can feel like the biggest challenge, even when playing a much lower rated player. Just about every new tournament is some form of adjustment, more so in a foreign country! Was White in the first round against a player rated roughly FIDE 2100. It was a struggle. I was for sure worse somewhere, but managed to come through in the end to win.

At a glance I was just about in the middle of 1 pointers and could go up or down in round 2. All the way up or all the way down, that is the question. I considered playing the top seed Ivanchuk a bit unlikely, as we both had white. Knew there was a slight chance though, as there could’ve been more winners with white (doesn’t white usually win more than black?) so someone would have to get an extra white and that person could very well be me. Sure enough, I got paired against Ivanchuk! I couldn’t believe my eyes, or even look at any chess that night, before going to sleep. Was playing him at the first plausible opportunity, getting an extra white to do so. He could play just about anything, so I didn’t really know what to most expect. Let’s see how the game went. Well this game was NUTS! It was a real nail biter. My attempted annotations won’t do it justice or provide anything near a comprehensive overview of what was going on. I’ll just try to shed some light. We can both be very original players and in that sense, this game failed to disappoint. Just sit back, fasten your seat belts, and enjoy the ride.

IM Justin Sarkar (ELO 2366) – GM Vassily Ivanchuk (ELO 2691) [E72] 10th Forni di Sopra (2), 16.06.2019

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.g3?! This rare move is the Pomar system. White has an array of lines to choose against the Kings Indian and this move is only the 9th most common according to Chess Base. I feel inclined to label it as dubious, as objectively speaking black seems to have more than one way to equalize whereas just about any other mainstream choice against the Kings Indian is a more serious fight for the advantage. Another thing is that if white really wants to try this system, a slightly more accurate move order against the Kings Indian is 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 0-0 5.Nc3 d6 6.e4, for reasons that will become apparent. This nuance I failed to appreciate. A bigger issue is that in general, avoiding mainstream theory when white against a much higher rated player (who very likely wants to beat you, right?) is usually a mistake. This actually cost me later in the tournament. I’ll elaborate on this topic in the next part(s). Somehow I know these things yet lately have been defying them a bit too many times. Have to practice what I preach. Actually there were emotional reasons here for my choice, relating to ECO codes. There are 5 hundred ECO codes, ranging from A00-E99. I’ll have to elaborate another time on my interest in ECO codes and their classifications, but for now say that sometime last summer I carefully researched Ivanchuk’s over 4 thousand published games collection to note what ECO codes were missing from his tournament practice. E72 was one of them. I decided going into the game I’d get a kick out of playing a mutually new ECO code if possible. In that sense, E72 fit the bill perfectly. E72 is defined by the move 5.g3 as I played. It was also something I recently wanted to try anyhow. My opening play here though, left something to be desired. Let’s see what happened: c5!? My move 5 surprise made him think for 4 minutes, then uncork this interesting alternative to the automatic castling. Already we have a case for the aforementioned 3.g3 move order being more accurate. It sidesteps such alternatives to castling. Whereas here, 5…0-0 6.Bg2 would transpose to that Fianchetto with 6.e4 position I gave. 6.d5 b5!?

Played after 6 minutes of thought. Must confess I failed to consider this Benko Gambit attempt. Now white should just play ball and play pawn takes pawn, not being worse with an extra pawn in a standard type of Benko Gambit position after 7.cb5 a6 (or 0-0). However, wanting to be original I got overly creative and after 6 minutes decided on something that “looked interesting”. 7.e5?! In reality this is just asking for trouble. de5 He took 32 minutes on this obvious capture, which I think gave me a false sense of security 8.Nxb5 Ne4!? Played instantly. I failed to even consider it. Probably not even the objectively strongest move, yet it tempted me to do something that was just bad, in attempt to “justify my play”. 9.d6?!!? Not even sure how to annotate this move. Objectively bad, yet with some practical value given the murky nature of the position. But Black is really going to be in control, as will be apparent. My brain just wasn’t working and I was shaking off bad form, in this game itself! Just did something after about 15 minutes thought that looked interesting and “might work”, without being able to properly calculate the consequences. Qa5+ 10.Ke2

Don’t try this at home. I realized that on 10.Bd2 if he trades everything on d2 even at the price of an exchange sac on a8 for a pawn, I’m not better to say the least. After the king move I had little clue what’s going on and was somehow just hoping my threats would give enough play. Bb7 He took 10 minutes on this 11.Nc7+ Kd7

And 7 minutes on this. By now though, it dawned on me that I could seriously be worse despite taking the exchange, maybe even in trouble. Still, totally crazy position! Not one you see too often. Talk about original players. Tough to come up with general guidelines in this position. “Develop your pieces”. “Control the center”. “Have a plan”. “Try to take pieces”. “Don’t hang pieces”. Those are just some things that come to mind. I actually had to use the murky nature of the position in attempt to keep finding resources when things got critical. Objectively speaking, things have gone horribly wrong. Think I was still a bit blissfully ignorant of how bad things actually were. 12.Nf3 Can’t quite understand why I took 13 minutes on this and chose not to take on a8 first, though it should amount to the same thing after 12.Nxa8 Nxd6 13.Nf3, etc. Was still ahead on the clock though. Actually I think his time pressure later on saved me. Nxd6 He took 5 minutes on this (13…Nc6 is also possible). 13.Nxa8 Nc6 another 4 minutes on this. 14.Bg2 e4! This move really takes control of the position. 15.Nd2 This retreat is the least of the evils. Nd4+ 16.Kf1 Rxa8 17.h4! Perhaps the best try in a dire situation, to make some luft. White might sometimes have slight hopes of activating the rook. f5! 18.h5 Else …h5 felt positionally crushing. g5

19.Nb3 A desperate attempt to untangle, at the cost of a pawn. Inserting first 19.h6 Bf6 was probably more accurate. Nxb3 20.Qxb3 Ba6 I anticipated this. 21.Qd1 Bxc4+ But he took 5 minutes on this, and now has under 6 minutes (plus 30 second increment per move) to reach move 40. 22.Kg1 While I have 29 minutes. Bd3 23.h6 Bf6 23…Bd4! was stronger, and pretty much winning. I’ll take the machine’s word for it. 24.Bd2 Qb5 25.Bc3 My Bd2 followed by Bc3 was the relatively best try in a grim situation. I was actually expecting him to take on c3, followed by something like 26…Qb2. Rb8!? 26.Bxf6 ef6 27.b3 c4

28.bc4 28.Rc1 was a better try. Nxc4? 28…Qxc4 was stronger and virtually winning, though it’s tough to grasp such nuances without a machine. 29.Bf1 Took about 13 minutes on this and got down to 7 minutes. 29.g4!? was possible. I was worried about 29…Qc5 with idea 30…Rb2 but overlooked my drawing resource 30.Rh3! So maybe, some other queen move for black. Still, if I was unsure about 29.g4, 29.Bf1 was the right move to play. This trade is useful in attempt to free my position. Ne5 He was down to 3 minutes 30.Bxd3 Perhaps immediately 30.Qb3! ed3 31.Qb3!

A very important resource, to trade queens. d2 32.Rd1? It was stronger to take on b5: 32.Qxb5+ Rxb5 33.Kf1 with drawing chances. Maybe I felt the open a-file would help me, even if it meant sacking a pawn on b3. Qxb3 33.ab3 Nf3+ He had 1 minute here 34.Kg2 While I had 4. White must avoid 34.Kf1? Re8! Rxb3? This natural move, capturing a pawn while defending the knight, was actually a mistake, not readily apparent. Black should play 34…g4! This move gets priority. I didn’t realize it either. With the black rook able to go places like e8, white is trapped. Actually the best is to give back the exchange with 35.Rxd2+ Nxd2 36.Rd1 but after …Rxb3 37.Rxd2+ Ke6 38.Ra2 Kf7 39.Rxa7+ Kg6 followed by taking on h6 black should be able to untangle in the rook and pawn ending and make the 2 extra pawns tell. If I can pinpoint one missed win by him, this is it. Note he was down to a minute to reach move 40, and taking the pawn seemed very natural. Actually it was less important. So I guess my pawn served as a decoy. 35.Ra1 Ne1+?! Stronger was the immediate 35…Ra3! The rook is taboo due to 36…Ne1+ followed by queening, and 36.Rb1 is essentially forced. On 36.Rd1? Black can just play something like …a5. 36.Kf1 Ra3!

37.Rd1 37.Rb1 is an alternative but going to d1 and gaining a tempo hitting the d2-pawn makes lots of sense. Nf3 38.Ke2 Ke6 A better try was 38…g4. Now 39.Rb1 and some move, not sure what exactly. After his time pressure move, I suddenly equalize. 39.Rb1!

Don’t fall for 39.Ra1?? Nd4+ 40.Kxd2 Rxa1 followed by …Nb3+ but 39.Rb1 puts the rook on a nice open file and creates enough counterplay. Little did I realize, I’ve now officially equalized. Actually the evaluation will remain stuck at 0.00 for pretty much the rest of the game. At the board things felt a bit scary though. g4 40.Rhd1 Or 40.Rb7!? Kf7 41.Rb7+ Kg6 42.Rh1

I got tempted by 42.Rg7+? Kxh6 43.Rg8 trying to set up a mating net, but this is just asking for trouble after 43…Ng5! d1/Q+ I was kind of expecting him to promote to a bishop! Chucky has been known to show this type of humor. I’d have to take anyway, as 43.Kf1?? would be refuted by …f4! 43.Rxd1 Ng5 44.Rdd7 a6 45.Rb6 a5 46.Ra6 Ra2+ 47.Rd2 Ra4 48.Rd5 Re4+ 49.Kf1 Nf3 50.Rd1

A very important resource, guarding the first rank. Actually spent awhile looking at 50.Kg2?? Re1 and now stalemate ideas involving 51.Rd1 Rxd1 52.Rxf6+ but they simply fall short. Re5 51.Kg2 Ne1+ 52.Kf1 Have a feeling taking on e1 followed by a5 is good enough to hold (with the idea 53…Re5 54.Ra6), but of course completely unnecessary to say the least. Nf3 53.Kg2 a4 54.Ra1 Ne1+ 55.Kf1 Nf3 56.Kg2 And here, finally he offered the draw. The move 56…Re8 as shown online, was not actually played. Maybe such move got registered when resetting the pieces. In any case, the game is completely equal. Incidentally, clock times after each move are stored in the Live Chess Cloud. It helped me to go back to check it for the time situation.

Crazy game! This was quite a save, against such World legend, from a very bad position. I think my game with Ivanchuk set the tone. By the way, one thing about playing someone like that (and a tournament like this in general) is that both your strengths and weaknesses can become more apparent. It felt though like I was still shaking off bad form, in this game itself! But anyway, I’d have to overall feel satisfied with my defensive efforts to salvage such a draw against such caliber GM. As I’ve had various issues with time pressure, it was something to actually be saved by his time pressure. Or at least, it felt a bit like that. Overall, I hope you enjoyed the game!

Round 3 I actually “played down”, with black against a rising Indian junior rated FIDE 2205. He’d beaten a GM in round 1 and of course I knew had to be taken very seriously. All I can say is that the game was pretty equal and I was kind of expecting a draw any moment but he made an unforced error in time pressure around move 30, followed by a losing blunder by move 40. So I just had to take the win I was given.

Was off to a great start with 2.5/3 and my next task was to get past the double round the next day with a 9AM 4th round. As I began with a double white, I was due black again in round 4. Was paired against a high rated young Indian IM (close to FIDE 2500). Stay tuned for the next part!

College: My Next Step

Hi everyone!  This post will be different from most of my others.  I’m not exactly going over any games.  Frankly, the title probably tells you enough.

In contrast to the other three original Chess^Summit authors, I’m only now able to say this:  I’m officially done with high school! Starting next fall, I’ll be attending the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA, USA.

My plans in terms of writing for Chess^Summit will not change – I still plan on writing articles for the Chess^Summit community.  The biggest difference will probably be in terms of over-the-board play.  In all honesty, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to play because of college work, but once I find tournaments in the local Atlanta area, I plan on playing when possible.

I also hope to get to know some chess players in the Atlanta area.  So, if any of you guys live in the area and want to get into contact with me, you can email me at vishalkobla AT gmail.  I also hope to do some group or private lessons in the Atlanta area, so if you’re interested in that, then please email as well.

But, that is that!  Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!

Look Ma, I Did It: My 2019 US Chess Champs

Entering the 2019 US Women’s Chess Championship, I had zero expectations. After the 2018 Olympiad in October, I spent a few months away from the chess board to catch up on school work and prepare for various tests like the SATs. My hiatus from chess ended in a tournament in January of 2019 with a mediocre result, which I was fine with considering my lack of practice.

Before I knew it, it was March and I was at the High School Nationals. I had struggled with managing my time and work ethic in the two months since January, but I felt like I put more work in prior to the US Championships compared to previous years. Around two weeks before the High School Nationals, I created a guideline for myself where I would attempt to finish my homework early and leave at least two hours a day to practice chess. Call it my own Murphy’s law, but procrastination, getting distracted, and tests ate away at my precious chess time. Subtracting the days I skipped my routine for last-minute test cramming and good-old fashioned laziness, my chess time dwindled to about an hour a day. Although more limited than I had hoped, I felt like my practice time was much more productive than it had been previously because I started using a physical chess board to play out moves and calculate positions. Although it seems blatantly obvious to use a chess board to study, for most of my life I had either visualized positions or used a digital board on Chessbase. To be honest, I never used an actual board because it doesn’t fit on my desk and I was too lazy to sit on the floor and set up the positions. Although many people have recommended using an actual board, I always found it redundant but I decided to try it once and immediately found out I was much more focused. So if you don’t use a physical chess board when practicing chess, I highly recommend it!

Returning back to the High School Nationals, just like the US Championships, I had no expectations for myself. The main reason that propelled me to play my first nationals in years was to warm up for the US Championships, because what better way to get the brain juices flowing than a 7 round tournament in 3 days that ends the week of the US Champs? As 11th seed I had realistic chances for playing for first, but I never considered it because I knew I wasn’t in my best form and scholastics are absolutely brutal. On top of all of that, the five second delay and nonexistent second time control weren’t to my forte.

The result was more or less what I had internally expected: 4 draws against lower rateds put me at 5/7. I wasn’t elated at my result but I wasn’t disappointed either, because the tournament was exactly what I needed to slap me awake before the US Championships. The short time control without increment was sobering because I found myself playing on the delay in several games. It had been a while since I had played anything other than 30 second increment or 10 second delay, so a 5 second delay did not pair well with my heavy time usage. On several games I relied on the delay to simply not flag, which I knew would make the 30 second increment at the US Championships seem like a luxury. Moreover, I found myself in slightly worse positions out of the opening in quite an alarming amount of games, simply because I couldn’t remember any openings. I had made it a priority to do opening preparations for the US Championships in my chess routine, but losing some time here and there resulted in that just not happening. I was extremely upset at myself for skipping what I had considered the most important part of my US Championships prep, and I thought the quality of my games at High School Nationals reflected that. I only felt reassured that there would be plenty of time to prepare during the one round a day US Championships, quite in contrast with the three-round day at nationals.

Holding my 24th (!) place trophy with WGM Jennifer Shahade. Although the High School Nationals wasn’t my finest result, it was an invaluable experience before the US Champs.
Photo: US Chess

My strategy for the US Championships was, in essence, to have no strategy at all. In previous years, I had always frowned upon draws and gone all out for wins which sounds good, but really means losing perfectly fine positions by taking unnecessary risks. This basically sums up my 2018 US Junior Girls where I was so adamant against draws that I would rather go into an unsound and probably worse position if it meant I could have a chance of winning. Instead, that just led to several disastrous upsets and losing around 30 rating points. This acknowledgement of draws didn’t mean I would be happy with draws this entire tournament either, but my open mentality of accepting draws if the position calls for it led to a calmer approach to the game. It’s ironic because most of my games were unpredictable, fighting chess but I did feel like my “play what I get non-strategy” had a significant impact.

The first few rounds of the US Championship were fairly smooth sailing. I took an early lead with 4/4 but didn’t think too much of it. It was only a small lead as Anna Zatonskih trailed behind me by half a point for most of the tournament, and in round robins, early leads don’t signify much. I was fairly certain that I would get knocked down at some point and wasn’t hoping for too much. I just tried to focus on each coming game and ignore the tournament situation. In several games, I had extremely close calls where it could’ve gone the other way easily such as my games against Maggie Feng (round 6) and Sabina Foisor (round 7). These games made it easy for me to not get carried away by my lead since it was evident I had done something very wrong in both games but managed to survive only by a few practical choices, opponents’ mistakes, and sheer luck.

Pictured on the rest day with my good friends Annie Wang, Emily Nguyen, and Carissa Yip. (left to right)
Photo: St. Louis Chess Club

In the crucial 10th round, I was due to play IM Anna Zatonskih, my closest competitor point-wise who was playing brilliantly throughout the tournament. I had a half a point lead with 8/9 points versus her 7.5/9 so if I won, I would clinch the title on the spot with a round to spare. I never considered winning because in previous encounters I have always been initially worse and I was playing with black. Moreover, I didn’t know what opening to expect since she has a wide repertoire, so I decided to just give up on prepping something new altogether and stick with what I knew. My main goal going into the game was to treat it just like any other game and forget about the tournament situation. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel any pressure because needless to say, it was the most important game in my life. I wasn’t too worried because previously I have performed well under pressure. Also reassuring was knowing that she had more pressure on her side of the table because she was in a must-win situation. If we drew, she would have to risk me winning in the last round and winning the title without a chance of a play-off.

In our game, she repeated the same slav line against me as my earlier game against Annie Wang in round 5. For a brief minute, I considered diverging from my earlier lines in order to avoid whatever preparation she had in store but quickly rejected that idea since I had faith in my original prep against Annie and it was an unnecessary risk. She diverged from Annie’s line and began to quickly eat up time after a few moves. I was confused because I had no idea where her prep ended and at that point I was confident that she was on her own.

We reached this position:

The immediate move that jumped out at me was 17…Nc5! I had seen the game Shankland,S -Alonso,S Praia da Pipa 2014 where a similar Nc5 idea was made in a slightly different situation. Although it looks like it hangs material, all the lines work out into Black’s favor. I had to make sure I wasn’t making a huge mistake and spent around 20 minutes calculating complications. This was definitely my favorite move in this game because it changed the nature of the position, declaring that I wasn’t going to passively defend by immediately challenging the center. It also enters a position where it’s possible for White to make mistakes, essentially making Black completely equalized. This actually happened in the game after 18. Rxd8 Qxd8 19.Nxc5 Bxc5 20. Nxe5?! Bxf2+!

The bishop is immune because if 21. Kxf2 results in 21… fxe5 where the pin on the f-file will allow me to recapture the piece with a huge positional advantage. She had to decline the inbetween move bishop sacrifice and I was extremely happy with my position. I knew it was more than equalized at this point and I was probably better, but I somehow forgot about the possibility that I could win. That is the danger of restricting your expectations because it took awhile for me to realize that my assumption of a draw being the best result no longer held true. When I woke up from the belief that I would be worse this game, I attempted to restrict her play as much as possible and take advantage of her dwindling time. After a few passive moves by her that I didn’t anticipate, we entered the following position where she made the fatal blunder 30. Qe1??

I had seen this variation a few moves earlier and felt my heart pounding because I knew I had the game in the bag. I still took a few minutes to confirm my calculations because now was not the time to get hasty. But after 30…Bf2! 31. Qd2 Bxg3+!! the game was essentially over.

She had to take the bishop because if 32. Kg1 Qxh4 and mate on h2 will soon follow. After 32. Kxg3 Qc7+ 33. Kg4 (33.Kh3 Be6#) Be6+ she resigned because 34. Kh5 Qf7+ would lead to mate and 34. Kg5 Qg3+ would lead to mate.

I was in absolute disbelief after the game and it took me a long time to realize that I had actually become the US Women’s Chess Champion. This had always been the goal every time I had played this tournament but it was always a pipe dream that I never considered would happen. But, I’m sure glad it did! However, I still had one game remaining in the tournament and I wanted to take it seriously. It might sound a little bit funny, but I felt like I had more pressure going into the last round after I had already won the tournament than before the pivotal 10th round. I felt like I had something to prove, and after a rocky middlegame, I won an interesting endgame and ended with 10/11.

I am really proud of my result in this tournament, but it also has to be noted that I was incredibly lucky in several games. I made some inexcusable mistakes that should’ve been punished, but it managed to work out for the best. Looking forward, I’m going to work on improving my weaknesses even more as I strive for future aspirations. Winning the US Championships proved to myself that I can do it and it opens a door for all the possibilities that I never considered. I’m currently working on securing my IM title, because I only have the 2400 rating requirement left, and you can bet I’ll get started on the GM title hunt right after.

Words can’t describe my gratitude towards everyone who supported me along my chess journey because I could not have become US Champion by myself. To my family, coaches, friends, competitors, and supporters — thank you. However, this is not where my journey ends, and I hope to make y’all proud in the future.

Congratulations to GM Hikaru Nakamura for winning the 2019 US Chess Championships!

2019 US Chess Champions
Photo: St. Louis Chess Club

Foxwoods: A Near Miss Part 1

Last year, at the last round of the traditional (for me) Philadelphia Open, it was announced that the tournament was moving to the Foxwoods Casino/Resort the next year. Before I knew it, it was Easter time again, and it was time to go play a strong 9 round norm tournament—this time in Foxwoods. My Easter tournaments have ranged from truly disastrous (aka the first time I ever withdrew from a tournament) to highly memorable. After all 2 years ago, I got my third IM norm at the Philadelphia Open, and had I won the last round I would have walked away with a GM norm to top it off. Let’s see where this year fits in…

Playing in the world’s 4th largest casino definitely added an interesting feel to the tournament as opposed to your average hotel. It was definitely a strange feeling when people in the elevator wished each other good luck—not in chess but in gambling. I stayed in an adjacent tower, and it took about five minutes of fast walking to reach the tournament hall from the hotel rooms, and that was only one small part of the resort. Who needs a gym to stay in shape when you have Foxwoods?

The tournament area was separate from the casino and provided a peaceful refuge from the crowds outside. There was, however, one special thing about the play room which we found out in round 1—it was located below a bowling alley! Imagine balls rolling and pins falling… The admittedly intermittent noise was not very loud but extremely annoying. I have to give credit to the organizers for switching the play room with the directors’ room, so that in round 2 there was much less noise, and in round 3, after they moved us even deeper into the room, there was no noise at all.

Ok, now it’s time for chess!

In round 1, I got white against Mardon Yakubov (2128 FIDE, 2159 USCF) It wasn’t the greatest game… I butchered a large advantage out of the opening, and my opponent defended well to reach this position:

Yakubov 1

Black is a pawn up, but he’s under fire. With my last move 21.f4, I was naturally trying to break down black’s center. 21… exf4 loses on the spot to 22.Ne6+, and 21… e4 runs into 22.Rxe4. Black’s best option here is to get his king out of the way with 21… Kg7!, after which white has nothing better than 22.fxe5 fxe5 23.Qe3. This wins the e5-pawn back after 23… Nf5 24.Qxe5+ Qxe5 25.Rxe5, but white’s advantage is minimal if at all existent after 25… Rhe8.

Instead of that, however, my opponent played 21… Rc7?. The idea of this move was most likely to prevent my threat of fxe5 fxe5 Rxe5 (it stops the Nd7 fork), but it gives white a chance to pounce. After 22.fxe5 fxe5 I saw that I could still play 23.Qe3—after 23… Nf5 white can still play 24.Qxe5 because after 24… Qxc5+? 25.Kh1 black is losing a rook or is getting mated. However, after 24… Qxe5 25.Rxe5 Re7, he’s not in such bad shape. Instead of doing that, I played another move which was much stronger: 23.Qa5! threatening Qxc7 Qxc7 Ne6+ winning a rook. Black’s best chance was to play 23… Kg8, but after 24.Ne4 Qd8 25.Ng5, he’s in really bad shape. My opponent instead played 23… Rc8? but after 24.Rxe5! I’m crashing through. I won a few moves later.

Not too bad for a first round I guess. In round 2, I had black against William Sedlar (2217 FIDE, 2411 USCF) and this time professional swindling was required

Sedlar 1

I had been doing fine previously, but then a silly mistake got me into a worse position. Fortunately, I wriggled my way out, and by the time we reached this position, I thought I was doing fine. Material is equal and fairly reduced, and while black’s e-pawn is under fire, black has plenty of activity to compensate for that. White could play 40.Rdxe5 (or 40.Rexe5) immediately. I saw that I had at least a draw with 40… Rxe5 41.Rxe5 Qc1+ 42.Kh2 Qf4+ 43.Kg1 Qxa4, but I wasn’t sure there was anything more, and my engine confirms that it’s indeed a draw. For a human, however, it’s not clearly obvious that there is nothing for black. Instead of taking on e5, white’s best move is actually to play 40.Kh2! simply getting off the first rank. Black doesn’t have anything that concrete, but I think that with reasonable play he should hold a draw without any real problems.

My opponent instead played 40.Rd1 and offered a draw. While this position is objectively equal, I didn’t see myself losing this one and wanted to try a little… The game went 40… Rf2 41.Qc4 Qb6 42.Qb5 Qa7

Sedlar 2

Here, my opponent played the logical move 43.a5?? and ran into more or less the only trap I had in store for him: 43… Rxg2!

Sedlar 3

If 44.Kxg2, black has 44… Qf2+ 45.Kh1 Qf3+ 46.Kh2 Qxe4, after which he’s a pawn up and is on the verge of mating white. Besides that, white is just broke. My opponent tried 44.Qxe5 but after 44… Qf2 45.Rde1 Rg3, he had to give up his queen with 46.Qxg3 and resigned a move later.

2/2 so far! Admittedly it was a shaky 2/2, but I was going to take it…

In round 3, I got white against GM Zhou Jianchao (2623 FIDE, 2702 USCF) This game would’ve been exciting had it not been entirely my preparation. My opponent found all the right moves to equalize, and I decided to repeat moves as I thought I might do in my preparation. While I’m not a fan of making “nothing draws” with white, this was fairly principled and wasn’t a bad decision, especially against the #2 seed with a 2600+ FIDE rating…

In round 4, I got black against GM Kamil Dragun (2585 FIDE, 2666 USCF). I had lost to him at the Southwest Class in February, and I was looking for revenge. This game was fortunately better than the last one. I’d say that overall it was a fairly accurate draw; maybe I was slightly worse, but it was nothing really serious and I held my own.

In round 5, I got white against GM Vladimir Belous (2520 FIDE, 2621 USCF). In a nutshell, this game got spicy pretty quickly…

Belous 1

So far, this looks like a fairly normal Sicilian, but after 12… d5! it got flashy. After my move 13.exd5 I was expecting one of two options: 13… Nxd5 or 13… Bxa3.

After 13… Nxd5, white obviously can’t play 14.Nxd5 because of Qxc2#, and 14.Rc4 Bc6 is not awe-inspiring. Instead, I was planning on sacrificing an exchange with 14.Rxd5! exd5 15.Bd3, after which white has plenty of compensation—he’ll win the d5-pawn, black’s king is still in the center and will come under fire, etc. After 13… Bxa3, white should play 14.Rc4 Qa5, after which he has options: Bd4, Bd2, Kb1, dxe6, etc. In both cases, the position appears to be rather unclear.

Instead, 13… b5? came as a big surprise to me. The idea is to prevent Rc4, but will it work…? The game went 14.Bd3 Bxa3 15.Ne4 Nxe4

Belous 2

Now… once I recapture on e4, that bishop on a3 is getting evicted. Then it’ll be time to start going after black’s king! 16.Qxe4 is an exchange sacrifice after 16… Bc5, though there’s plenty of compensation there. It’s actually best to play 16.dxe6! fxe6 17.Qxe4, after which white has a massive initiative. Instead, I played 16.Rxe4 which isn’t best but isn’t bad either. Black’s best option is to retreat with 16… Bd6 or 16… Be7, but my opponent played 16… Qc3

Belous 3

After 17.bxa3 Qxd3, white can more or less resign, but fortunately I had spotted 17.Bd4! in advance. Black can play 17… Bxb2+, but after 18.Kb1 he has nothing better than 18… Qxd4 19.Rxd4 Bxd4, after which he is probably lost. My opponent tried to defend with the creative 17… Qb3!?, but black is lost after that. While my play afterwards wasn’t the most accurate, I managed to convincingly get this job done.

4/5, 4 foreigners and 3 GMs down, performance well above 2600, and a large rating gain. What could possibly go wrong…? Stay tuned for part 2!

How To Play Against Lower-Rated Players

We’ve all heard it before. An overconfident high-rated player sees that they’re paired against a significantly lower rated opponent. Thinking that it’s going to be a relatively so-called “Easy win”, the high-rated player doesn’t take the game seriously at first. Then, to his great disbelief, the lower rated player absolutely crushed and upset his higher-rated opponent. How could this have possibly occurred? Now to a not so experienced player, this scenario might be outright preposterous. Sure there’s always luck involved with chess, but shouldn’t the significantly high-rated player in his infinite wisdom and expertise beat the low rated player all the time? Unfortunately, like in life, in chess, things are not so simple. Sure maybe the lower rated player was lucky, maybe he’s underrated or hey, maybe he just had a good day. But there’s another part of to this too. Having the right attitude can make or break a chess game, and today we are going to discuss the correct way to approach playing against your secretly scary lower rated opponents.


Before I begin, I should probably put a disclaimer: a lot of the things that I’m about to say might seem obvious or redundant, but you’d be surprised about how many people don’t do this in their games! The first and probably most obvious rule is to go into the game with a calm mindset. Yes, you might have noticed that you are higher rated than your opponent, but that shouldn’t mean anything to you. Just go into the game with a clear head and be relaxed. The second and arguably most important rule is to not do anything you wouldn’t do against someone around your rating or higher. Don’t take any unusual risks, make any flashy moves, or do anything that you wouldn’t do normally and do the best you can throughout the entire match. The third and final rule is to not be discouraged if things don’t go as planned and you end up getting upset. Every game is an important learning experience and it’s only through your losses that you can truly learn where your gaps in knowledge are and how you can improve.


I hope this article, albeit short, was helpful to you. The main takeaway I’d say about the proper mindset to have when playing lower rated opponents is to just be normal. As long as you’re careful, and don’t make any silly decisions, there is a reason why you are the higher rated opponent. Until next time 🙂