Opening Lessons from NYC

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Enjoying Ramen in Pittsburgh before moving back to Richmond

Now a couple weeks removed from my tournament at the Marshall Chess Club, I’ve had some time to think about my performance and prepare for the Chicago Open. Admittedly, NYC didn’t go as planned. Playing more solid openings in a rapid tournament, while good review, kept my hands tied against talented youngsters, which forced me to concede some draws I would have preferred to avoid. All said and done, I finished 4.5/8 over the weekend.

I think what these tournaments did show me was that when I play an opening, it is much more important to understand the concepts than remember the moves. Now I’m sure many of you know this (as do I), but actually applying that can be difficult. Let’s face it  – you need to know openings for both sides, and inevitably when there’s a sharp line, it feels like you need to remember the move order to not fall for some tactical traps.

In some of my games, it felt like I was losing time between picking a move I felt like I had remembered versus a concept which I knew. In a G/45 game, that’s wasted time! As I’ve been reviewing my openings this week, I’ve found ways to improve by eliminating rote memory and looking for concepts by challenging my own openings with “human moves”.   Given how close we are to the Chicago Open, I don’t want to give away any of my opening secrets, so I decided to use this method but focused on a game I played against a ~1650 rated player in the Dutch:

As you can see, my opening moves are hardly impressive. I simply thought of what set-ups would be the most annoying for Black and took away his only ideas. And in the game Beilin beat me from last night’s stream, you could see how quickly I fell apart from not knowing the best response.

When learning a new opening, you really need to understand the key concepts. If you don’t remember the exact move you need to play in a given position, you can work backwards with: what’s your goal? what’s the ideal set-up?

If you’re just looking at the computer for the best move when you’re planning out your openings, you are depriving yourself of that exposure you really need to play sound opening chess.

As I mentioned in the video, I’ve decided to play in the U2300 section instead of the Open section. Even with a month to prepare since the end of the semester, I was asking a lot of myself to be on my best form going into the Chicago Open. I’m hoping that playing in the U2300 will help me continue to develop as a player and better prepare me for future opens later this summer.

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Topics for Different Levels of Chess Players

A new player does not need to learn double pins.

A 1200-rated player does not need to analyze 20-moves deep Najdorf variations.

During each level of ratings, we should build out rough guidelines to improve based on our chess understanding.

If you’re just starting to play chess, learning complicated topics that does not apply to your games will only overwhelm and provide more anxieties than enjoyments.

So what should students learn at different levels.

Let’s separate player strength into three groups based on USCF ratings.

  1. Under 500
  2. Under 1000
  3. Under 1500

I’ve been working with many U1000 and a few U1500 players, and the important themes that I’m seeing are as follow:

U500

-Reduce blunders, especially giving up free piece

-Learn basic tactics and checkmate patterns (1 move)

-Pay attention to captures, make sure you see two on one opportunities

U1000

Looking at the whole board

-Elimination of defenders

-Prepare mate and tactics (2+ moves)

U1500

-Activate pieces

-Space advantage

-Focus on important targets


As you can see, there are more strategic themes for U1500 then the lower rating groups.

Tactics is still very important for U1500 players. however, the opponents they are playing against will have just as much tactical prowess, therefore learning more strategic knowledge will be advantageous.

Let’s discuss Focus on important targets briefly here.

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Many newly-1000 players would play the passive looking move Rab8, protecting the b7-pawn.

For stronger players, b7-pawn here is not important. The main focus now is to activate one or both of black’s rooks.

After scanning the board for 10 seconds or so, a stronger player would immediately see Rad8 and then Rxd2 taking control of the 2nd rank will soon take control of the game.

On the other hand, for the U500 players, even if they did play Rad8, the game may still take a few twist and turns to get to an unknown outcome


To summarize: players at each level should focus and improve on certain themes.

It’s good for newer players to see the the higher-level topics, but it’s much more important to hammer down the fundamentals.

Surprises for a First-Time Nationals TD

I had been directing local Pittsburgh tournaments on-and-off for a year and a half when Boyd Reed asked if I’d be interested in directing the 2018 National Elementary in Nashville. Now, this was after he’d told me all the “fun” tournament director stories… but to be honest, I was pretty interested in seeing what the tournament was like, having never been to any national scholastics as a kid. Since I had nothing to do in between finals and graduation, I was all for it.

It seemed a bit strange to go in barely knowing anything about national scholastics, and more generally tournaments of that size. My home state of Indiana has never been big on the national scholastic scene, so for a long time I barely knew anyone who had been to any of those. And the largest tournament I’d played in was the U.S. Amateur Team East, which features at most half of the number of players of the National Elementary – factoring in all the potential parents, coaches, and kids running around shows how overwhelming the thought of the event was to me. But Boyd, who is basically the most experienced TD you can find (in addition to being the USCF Director of Events), was on board, which was good enough for me. In that line of work, surprises are a necessary part of the experience.

Not everything was a surprise. Friday (the first day of the tournament) was, as expected, not the most relaxing day ever. Having my my last exam Thursday evening meant scrambling to Nashville in the early morning, unlike most TDs who arrived Thursday. I ended up staying up till 3:30 a.m. (in solidarity with a few other friends cramming for their exams) before heading out for my 5 a.m. flight and getting a solid 2(!) hours of sleep along the way.

The enormous staff and the general nature of directing was also pretty much what I expected. There were slightly more than 40 floor TDs (including me) and one chief TD for each section, in addition to the backroom/overall chief TDs. The mechanics of tournament directing are not that exciting, although that is obviously not the purpose of the job. It is often said that it is better if a tournament director is invisible, usually indicating that there are no major problems or disputes created for or by the TDs. Most of the job of a floor TD is to be alert for questions, of which there are more than you’d expect at a normal large tournament (kids being kids), or in the case of national scholastics, taking results. However, it’s a mostly quiet endeavor, and is probably best left that way.

However, over the weekend I truly realized (for the first time) that that playing chess makes me feel very old, but directing makes me feel rather young. There is a pretty obvious explanation for this – wealth of organizing/directing experience is much more tied to age than chess skill (which, if anything, is considered to be stronger in young players). Most of the other TDs had clearly been around for a long time, if not at the national level.

The Gaylord Opryland Resort, where the National Elementary is often held, is a unique experience in itself, and pretty iconic to many players growing up (including most of my fellow authors here). I had been duly warned how huge the place was, and how chaotic it would be with thousands of kids and their parents, but it’s impossible to describe the magnificence of the Gaylord complex without being there. The challenge of walking outside into the high-80s heat and the abundance of rivers, islands, sunlit domes, and (typical resort-level expensive) food ensured I didn’t need to set foot outside throughout the weekend. As a tournament director mostly running around trying to squeeze in a meal between rounds or get some much needed sleep, the perspective is a bit different than it would have been a few years ago, but I assume that as a kid the place would have been a lot of fun.

But ultimately, the two biggest surprises were the walking and the eagerness of the players with rules.

The walking is probably something I could have seen in advance; walking around anywhere for 3 straight hours (per round!) has to have some effect. Apparently, Isaac warned me about this before, but I wasn’t really listening at the time. In any case, I knew it was going to be a tough weekend when I discovered in the middle of Round 1 that’d I’d already walked 4 miles (it took another day before I felt like never walking again). One of the chief TDs (hopefully in jest) claimed 30 miles, having been awake from 7 am to 10 pm.

Most of the disputes between players seemed to be, as I predicted, touch-move disputes. Those are never smooth, because the case almost always relies on player testimony, and kids at the elementary school age often don’t understand what it takes to convince someone impartial (e.g. a tournament director) of much. The usual instinct of a TD is to deny the touch-move claim (and warn both players to be clear to avoid future ambiguities) because forcing someone to move a piece in the face of shoddy evidence is far more damaging than the other way around. Unfortunately, this isn’t always accepted by the players in question (yes, there was crying).

Touch-move aside, the players seemed to be very eager to apply their knowledge of tournament rules. Even in the K-5 Under 1200 section where I spent most of my time, there were many questions about rules that are, if I’m not mistaken, not discussed widely in the traditional chess curriculum. Given the misunderstandings, I’d have to say that it’s probably a distraction from what’s really important, but I can’t say that I (or many of my peers) would have acted differently as a scholastic player – everyone wants to feel in control of the game and its procedures, whatever they might include. However, for instance, quite a few players called me over to claim a three-move repetition because they had moved the same piece back and forth three times. The explanation (that the same position has to occur three times) is relatively simple and usually accepted, but it does seem like the kids have rushed into learning these rules.


By all accounts, the Elementary Nationals stayed alive and well throughout the weekend. It takes an enormous effort from the top down to keep a 2000+ player event (especially one with as many auxiliaries as the National Elementary), and both players and directors owe a lot of thanks to Chief TD Jeff Wiewel, as well as organizer/Director of Events Boyd Reed, for their continued support throughout the event. Thanks to the rest of the staff for making the 2018 National Elementary such a big success!

Time Management

Time management is a subject teenagers don’t seem to be qualified to discuss. Fortunately, time management in life and time management in chess are two different animals, and I do know a thing or two about the latter…

Here in the US, time controls can be confusing to say the least. The traditional time control of 2 hours/40 moves, sudden death 1 hour had been replaced with 2 hours/40 moves, sudden death 30 minutes with a 10-second delay. Or maybe there’s a 5-second delay some places. Then there’s the 30 second increment which is the standard time control internationally. Sometimes there’s a time control after move 40, sometimes there isn’t. With all this confusion, I will briefly compare the two time controls: those with delay and those with increment.

First off, being in time trouble with delay is much worse than being in time trouble with increment. 30 seconds isn’t that much to make a move, especially if you have a difficult decision to make, but it’s better than 5 or 10 seconds. No question about it. On increment you can also build up time and potentially invest it at a critical moment, while with delay you can’t.

With the increment, on the other hand, you are more likely to land in time trouble, simply because you start with 90 minutes instead of 2 hours. If there’s no time control after move 40, then you’re even more likely to end up in a situation where you, and often your opponent, are playing on the increment alone. Those situations aren’t easy to handle at all. Meanwhile, with delay, you may be a bit short on time with a couple moves to go to the time control, and most games don’t go long enough for you to burn the extra 30 minutes you get at the time control.

General guidelines

With increment or delay, time trouble is still the same kind of animal, and there are some general principles you should follow.

If your opponent is in time trouble, don’t rush and take your sweet time. Figure things out on your own. In a complicated positions, your opponent isn’t a happy camper; he’s stressed out and is calculating variations over and over again. Then some hallucinations start creeping into his thoughts… When you make a move, he has to reply fairly quickly with all this chaos going on in his head. That isn’t easy. If it’s a technical endgame or a position where your opponent has fairly easy moves to make, then there’s all the more reason for you to think. It’s not like you’re letting your opponent think more about his next fairly intuitive move…

I learned this lesson in a rather extreme way when I was rated about 1800. I was beyond completely winning, with an extra queen and piece, and my opponent had one second on the clock. I was playing quickly until… guess what? I managed to stalemate my opponent! Every chess player has had an embarrassing episode or two like this, but I did learn my lesson.

Don’t make committal decisions right before the time control—assuming there IS a time control. It’s a bad idea. In my personal experience, most of my big decisions during moves 35-40 with a couple minutes on the clock have been pretty stupid to say the least. Unless there’s a forced win or you really need to make a committal decision, just do something normal. Also, take a little break after the time control to refresh your mind. Go to the bathroom, walk around, check out the other games, etc. Just don’t continue sitting at the board crunching things out. Spending a few minutes to refresh your mind is a much better idea.

Quasi-time trouble

Say you have 5-10 minutes on the clock to make a few moves before the time control. It’s not like you have no time, but you’ve got to speed up. This isn’t an unusual scenario, and it’s a hard call what to do. It all depends on the position.

If you’re winning or near-winning, I wouldn’t recommend spending all your time looking for a knockout punch. Here’s a worst case scenario of what could happen: You play some regular moves, trying to find a knockout at every moment, while your opponent will get away with some reasonable moves. You start to lose the thread, and before you know it, your opponent is posing some problems, and you don’t have time to think about them. Then you start making mistakes/blunders and lose a heartbreaker. These kinds of games have happened before and will happen again. Unfortunately, it’s not like there’s a nice way out of it. After all, if it turns that you missed a knockout punch on that move you played in 10 seconds, you’ll be kicking yourself for not spending more time! Since you can’t see—and don’t have time to see—everything, use your intuition. If it really looks like you can finish your opponent off here and now, then do spend some time trying to figure things out. Otherwise, take a bit of time but don’t take your last big think at that moment.

If the position is totally unclear and razor-sharp, then you’re in for a (potentially not enjoyable) ride. Leave yourself with enough time so that you don’t all-out blunder, stay sharp, and hope for the best. If the position is fairly technical, however, your moves shouldn’t be that hard to play. There’s nothing wrong with dancing around a bit before the time control.

In conclusion, I’d suggest that you don’t burn your time too low unless you really feel there is a win or the position is critical. Use that little time you have left wisely!

Chronic time trouble

Some people have a serious time trouble addiction. By that I mean getting into time trouble practically every game. It’s a serious problem with no real cure. Dealing with chronic time trouble isn’t my area of expertise, since I personally have only had occasional struggles with time trouble. I’ve actually never flagged in a long time control game, though I have gotten down to one second a couple times.

It seems that, in general, time trouble is a sign of bad form for me. My worst time trouble issues came up at the 2015 Philadelphia Open, when I went into the tournament with a perfectionist attitude and spent way too much time on my moves. My result there was apocalyptical. Fortunately, this was just a one-tournament issue, and my time management was soon back to normal. In other tournaments where I was regularly getting into time trouble, I wasn’t playing very well either. In general, I was spending a lot of time on nothing special/bad moves. I’d blame it on my pre-tournament mindset rather than my time management itself. Long story short: perfectionism is a bad idea that leads to time trouble. Also, if you’re getting into time trouble in a certain tournament, try to play a bit faster the next few rounds.

What’s normal and what’s not?

There’s no big rule of thumb. How much time should you have at move 20? Move 30? How about 35? How much time should you spend after the time control? I could go on and on with these questions that have no real answer.

In some ways, time trouble is normal. Is it really expected that if you reach move 60 you’ll have 20+ minutes on the clock? No, of course not! It all depends how complicated the game is. If you’re playing some razor sharp stuff, take your time. It’s better if you’re in a bit of time trouble a few moves down the road than if you get demolished because you didn’t calculate deep enough.

If, however, you’re spending a lot of time on fairly straightforward moves without coming up with any strokes of genius, that’s a bad sign. Unless you’re at the crossroads deciding what plan of action to take, you shouldn’t be tanking. If there’s a tactical shot that looks promising but turns out not to work, and instead you play a fairly natural move, that’s time well spent. In some cases, those tactics will work, and in other cases they won’t. This is just one of those. In general, don’t spend too much time on simple decisions. If you’ve spent all your time placing your pieces to perfection and have no time by move 25, you won’t be a happy camper when complications arise.

What about critical moments? Well, a critical moment is a really vaguely defined term, and there’s no Mariam-Webster definition.  If you feel that your next move will significantly affect the course of the game, then do take your time. However, if you think every other position is a critical moment, you’re mistaken! By the time you get to an actual critical moment, you’ll have no time to figure things out… Don’t spend too much time on simple decisions.

Conclusion

I could go on and on with this philosophical discussion about time management. What’s the big conclusion? Really a lot depends on the game. In general, spending a lot of time on simple moves and perfectionism is a recipe for time trouble and disaster. Getting into time trouble here and there is okay, but if you get into it every game, you have a problem.

Until next time!

Opening Overhaul: A Preview

My last few posts have kind of been all over the place.  I’ve discussed blunders, shared some of my own games, analyzed grandmaster games from the top tournaments, given tournament previews/recaps, so on and so forth.   Admittedly, I haven’t been able to decide on a specific direction to go in for a few articles due to the juggling act that is the junior year of high school.  Since February, I’ve taken an ACT, an SAT, a couple SAT Subject Tests, and most recently, a couple AP Exams.  In fact, I just took the AP United States History exam yesterday, and thus, had to write up this article all last night.  But I digress.

Luckily, I only have one left during this upcoming week, after which I’m almost done for the year.  As those important aspects of the junior year come to an end, I’ll be able to focus more time on chess, whether it’s playing in tournaments, playing online, or even writing these articles – a prospect I am overly thrilled about.  And, with that, I wanted to announce a new series that I’ve been wanting to start for some time – Opening Overhaul.  In this series, I want to take some time to investigate a few openings in depth and share some of the new ideas that have come about in these openings.  These openings may or not be part of your existing repertoire, but as my former chess coach used to say, “All knowledge is good.” And, who knows, perhaps, one of these openings will strike you as worth trying out sometime.  Either way, I hope that these next few articles prove beneficial in some way or another.

chessboard

In each of these articles, I plan to focus on a single opening.  In these openings, I will try to show the fundamental moves, explain some of the general ideas for each side, and finally, elaborate on some of the newer ideas in the opening, supplemented with recent games from either myself and/or some grandmasters if I can find them.

As a bit of a preview, for the first opening, I plan to write about the London System.  The London System has been around forever, but at the top levels, it was never seen amongst the strongest players.  However, over the last six or so months, I’ve seen a bit of a revival of the opening, with so many players around my rating employing the system, and with good success.  Even some of the strongest players in the world have experimented with the newer ideas in the opening recently.  But before I go into it too much, I should note that you’ll have to wait until next time for the full story on that.

And, with that, I’ll see you next time!

Missed Moments: Chicago Edition

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Beilin and I trying our first deep dish… now that was a lot of pizza!

…and just like that, my first tournament of the summer is in the books. Having gained a few points with an even score (+1 =2 -1), I guess it’s fair to say my debut in Chicago turned out respectably. I scored a half-point against a 2400+ rated opponent, and on paper, I was reasonably solid throughout the event. Of course, as with all “big returns” to chess, there were a few things in my play that require improvement.

Now that I’ve gone over my games a few times, I’ve pinpointed a few areas I really want to work on, based on my performance. In today’s post, I wanted to discuss candidate moves and expanding your search. While I don’t think this is my biggest weakness as a chess player right now, there were three different moments this weekend where looking for candidate moves could have helped my play.

Follow along and try to see if you can find the flaws in my calculation!

Looking for All of your Opponent’s Resources

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Zhao–Steincamp, position after 72. Nxc7

To my opponent’s credit, he had put up a lot of resistance to reach this point, however Black is now winning. After much calculation I pushed 72…h2, believing I had found the winning idea. I had already seen this idea a few moves before, and confirmed that 73. Nd5+ Kd4! -+ just wins for Black, thanks to the threat of queening. My main point was that if 73. Kxh2 Kf2 White can’t be in time to stop the pawn from promoting because …g4-g3 comes with check. I had also calculated 73. Kg2 h1Q+ 74. Kxh1 Kf2 with the same concept.

My calculation had stopped after 75. Nd5 g3, and without a way to stop me from checking the White king on h1, I just assumed that the position was lost. But I missed an incredibly important detail in 76. Nf4!!:

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Zhao–Steincamp, position after 76. Nf4!!

And this would force a draw, thanks to the idea of stalemate! Without a way to take the knight, White is now in time to stop both of the pawns from promoting. Luckily, my opponent missed this idea and basically resigned with 73. Kxg4 h1Q, playing on until mate.

For those of you trying to figure out the correct plan for Black, 72…Ke3 is the simplest. I’ll now push the e-pawn, and White’s king cannot leave because of the pawn on h3. Even if White can sacrifice his knight for the e-pawn, its not enough since Black still has winning material.

This knight sacrifice on f4 was a pretty hard idea to spot, especially a few moves in advance. While my opponent could have definitely put up more resistance, I was busy asking myself the wrong questions: what am I trying to achieve? How do I queen my pawns?

By not thinking about what my opponent is trying to achieve (or rather, what he can achieve), I ruled out 76. Nf4 simply because my pawn on e4 was taking away that square. This is actually a common calculation problem – missing moves because your pieces are already protecting them… look out!

Redefining a Forcing Move

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 16…Ne7

Even though I drew a much higher rated opponent in the second round, I could have done much more with a little more accuracy. In this position, I am completely winning. The king on f8 is extremely weak, and it is only a matter of time before Black’s position falls apart. Here I opted for 17. Qh5, which is strong, but gives Black some time to regroup.

Now I’m sure you might be wondering: hey Isaac, what was wrong with 17. exf4 – isn’t that more immediate? During the game, I wasn’t sure if I liked 17…g4 18. Nf2 Bf5I knew I was better, but now my f-pawn is in the way of my attack, and f5 is an annoying outpost. So I decided to play the text move instead.

I’m sure at some point you’ve heard the mantra “checks, captures, and threats” at some point in your chess career. While its great for novice players, stronger players need a weaker definition of forcing moves: checks. In this case, both my opponent and I had missed 17. exf4 g4 18. f5!! +-, and now White is completely winning:

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 18. f5!!

Now Black does not have time to take the knight! The h6 pawn is suddenly hit by the c1 bishop, and I’ve cleared the f4 square for my h3 knight. Meanwhile Black is completely underdeveloped and cannot protect his king from danger. Again an easy move to miss, but nonetheless, a great showcase of why breaking basic chess rules can sometimes be beneficial.

Looking Forward One Move Deeper

This one can be difficult, because how do you know when to stop calculating and just make a move? My game against Velikanov gave me one last chance to prove my advantage:

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 17…Kg7

After analyzing 18. exf4 for an extended period of time, I opted for 18. e4, thinking I still had some edge and could extend the game, when in reality, the position already is equal for Black. So what was it about 18. exf4 that wasn’t compelling enough? In the game, I saw the following line (diagram posted below): 18. exf4 Qe8 19. Qxe8 Rxe8 20. fxg5 Bxh3 21. gxh6+ Kg6 22. gxh3 Nxe5

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 22…Nxe5

I’m up two pawns, but half of my pawns are h-pawns! This was a little concerning for me, but then I started to see ideas like …Re8-e2, …Ra8-e8 and thought that with Black’s activity I could actually be in a little trouble. I figured I was maybe slightly better, but not enough to have a serious edge.

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Overlooking UIC, the venue for the Haymarket Memorial

In our post-mortem, I pretty quickly found the idea 23. Rb1! which is enough to preserve the advantage. By hitting the b7 pawn, Black needs to pay attention to the queenside, giving me time to rook lift: Rb1-b2-g2. And now it is the Black king that is under immediate fire! The power of looking one move deeper can really do a lot to enhance your position!

Admittedly, these were all relatively tough finds, but moments like these are what I pay attention to after each tournament so I know where I can improve. With each of these examples, there was a key theme: stalemate, weak king, development. Building an intuition to weigh these ideas relative to material or pawn structures, can go a long ways towards looking deeper and making better decisions.

My next events are two G/50 tournaments this weekend at the Marshall Chess Club, which will be my last chances to play before the Chicago Open later this month. While I feel a lot better about getting my first tournament out of the way, I know that I’ll need to train harder to be better prepared for the Open section. I guess I’ll have a better idea of where I stand this time next week!

Play Chess With Energy

Have you had afternoons when you feel like napping for the rest of the work day in the office after lunch?

It’s not a pleasant feel when there are 10 more important tasks to take care of.

Similarly in chess, we want to bring our optimized energy into each game to play the best chess and also provide entertainment value to the spectators.

Which means nutrition is an important aspect, and many tournament surroundings does not have the most energy-boosting food options. But that’s for another article.

Back to chess. I played in the early April’s Titled Tuesday and had a sub-par overall result.

While comparing the games, I can see where I played with energy, and where my pieces were being hit left and right due to lack of energy.

Hope you’ll enjoy the games below and remember to bring more energy into you games!

No Energy

https://www.chess.com/analysis-board-editor?diagram_id=3986616

TT1

Energized

https://www.chess.com/analysis-board-editor?diagram_id=3986616

TT2