Fall Cleanup

After barely missing a GM Norm at the Washington International, my play took a downward turn. September turned out to be full of freak blunders and missed opportunities (though not always for me), and by the end of the month, things really were getting wacky…

Botta
When your opponent plays 42… Re6?? running into 43.Nc5!… what can I say?

After that, I wanted to turn over a new leaf at Washington Chess Congress, the 9-round norm tournament where I magically got my GM Norm two years ago. I was hoping that all the junk was out of my system

My first round game against Charles Bouzoukis (2160 USCF, 2054 FIDE) was a quick and powerful win.

Bozoukis
Playing 18.Ne6! felt great!

The excitement wasn’t only in the playroom alone. Things got eventful that night when an emergency alarm went off at 1:30 am! Trust me, that was about as fun as it sounds. On the way down to the lobby (from the 10th floor), we learned that it was a false alarm, but at that point, it was quicker to go down to the lobby and take an elevator back upstairs than to walk. The alarm was caused by contractors, who among other things covered the results board with a tarp, so I couldn’t even find out how others did 😦. Well I guess there’s a first for everything…

In round 2, I got black against Andrew Samuelson (2309 USCF, 2186 FIDE). Things went great for me when he blundered a pawn on move 13! After that, however, I didn’t play very accurately and let him stabilize—into a situation where I couldn’t really consolidate my extra pawn. After some inaccuracies from both sides, the game ended in a draw. I was kicking myself for not winning this one. Though this was naturally bad for norm chances, making a draw in the second round with black is not a big deal.

In round 3, I got black (again) against Arvind Jayaraman (2331 USCF, 2169 FIDE). We reached a fairly murky position out of the opening, and then this happened:

Arvind CJ

Black has two pawns for a piece, and I was naturally waiting for the right moment to take the exchange on d3. Black’s pawn on b3 looks nice at first, but it isn’t actually of that much use (pushing it will most likely result in its loss). Play is mainly in the center for the moment. A direct plan of action like 18… Bxd3 19.Qxd3 c4 20.Qd2 exd5 21.Nxd5 Bc5 with an unclear position was most appropriate. Instead, after a long think, I blundered horrendously with 18… Qc7??, missing 19.Bf4!. I was either losing an exchange or a key central pawn by playing 19… e5 (I chose the latter), and there was no coming back from this.

Rest in peace tournament 😥. After such a game, I needed a win to pull myself up, and I did the job against Ernest Colding (2229 USCF, 2035 FIDE). It was a crushing 24-move win for me.

The 1:30 am false emergency alarm was not the only first this tournament. During the 5th round, the lights started seriously misbehaving. One half of the room suddenly got much darker. And then the other half went darker. Then whatever light was left went out as well. We had to stop the clock 3 times before everything went back to normal. Yeah, that was… interesting.

Fortunately, my play was better and more consistent than the lights. I won with black against Evan Park (2165 USCF, 2065 FIDE). He had excellent opening preparation, but he let me get too much “noise” going in the early middlegame, and I crashed through.

I was back to 3.5/5, not a bad score. My norm chances were obviously dead, but chances for a trademark comeback were still there. In round 6, I got white against GM Jesse Kraai (2558 USCF, 2499 FIDE). My fairly loose play really wasn’t sound. I was fortunate to get to an equal endgame, which was soon drawn.

In round 7, I got black against IM Alex Ostrovskiy (2518 USCF, 2423 FIDE), and original play in the opening on my part really didn’t work out. I have no intention of repeating it…

Ostrovskiy 1

White is clearly much better here. He has more space, better placed pieces, black’s knight on a6 is offside for the moment, etc. 16.Ne5! attacking the d7-pawn is the strongest move, but instead, he played 16.bxa5 bxa5 17.Ne5. The most logical move 17… Qe7, defending the d7-pawn, did not appeal to me because white could play 18.c5, where he could relocate his knight to d6/b6 via c4 and combine that with play on the b-file. True, black can get his knight to d5, but that’ll only be consolation…

Because of that, I went for activity with 17… Qf4. The reason why playing Ne5 before trading was a good idea is because b6 hangs in these variations, practically ruling out Qf4 ideas. Objectively speaking, it’s not good for black, but in this position nothing is. The game continued 18.Qe3 c5 19.Nxd7 Qxe3 20.fxe3 Rxf1+ 21.Rxf1 cxd4 22.exd4 Rd8

Ostrovskiy 2

After a forced sequence from moves 19-22, I’m winning my pawn back on d4. Obviously I’m not out of the woods here, but I managed to scrape out with a draw after 23.Ne5 Rxd4 24.Nc6 (24.Rb1! was stronger) 24… Rd7 25.Nxa5, where my activity was enough to keep white’s pawns at bay.

Phew! In round 8, I drew with white against GM Vladimir Belous (2627 USCF, 2530 FIDE). I may have had a few chances for an advantage, but I didn’t think very highly of my position and steered the game towards a draw. In the last round, I made a quick draw with black against IM Michael Mulyar (2472 USCF, 2384 FIDE), which concluded my 4-game drawing streak—this hadn’t been my plan, but from a rating perspective, it was a reasonable result, which did help to limit the damage.

This wasn’t what I was hoping for, but it wasn’t too bad either. I’m not quite sure what to make of my play as a whole, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ll be back! Without malfunctioning lights, alarms, or brains. Wish me luck.

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How to win in Winning Positions

The experience to lose half-point or even the full point here and there adds up, and it starts to rattle your head.

Whether it’s up a piece for the U1000 crowd or having small advantage for the sub-1500 players, it takes experience to develop winning techniques to finish games cleanly.

How can we practice to improve our technique?

Winning Games (1)

Before we get to the answer, let’s drill in the number one focus to win a winning position.

SIMPLIFY

  1. Trade Pieces
  2. Reduce noise

Trade Pieces

For my U1000 students, trading pieces when up in material is a lesson we repeat a few times until it becomes second nature.

The reason is to avoid counter attacks and mistakes from our side to give back the ‘gift’.

In the position below what is the easiest way to trade the dark-square bishop?

U1000_trade

Reduce Noise

For the more experienced players, trading pieces has become a second nature, and we’ll start to working more complicated positions.

We may not be winning, but rather tiny bit better in the position.

If we are defending when up in material, it is important to reduce the attack from our opponent.U1500_simplify

In the position above, if white retreats the knight to f3, then black will play Ne4 trapping the rook and getting ready to attack on f2 as well.

There are lots of noise in the position, so white needs to reduce all of the problems on the king side.

The best move is to swing the rook to b3, attacking black’s queen and then retreat knight to f3.

After Rb3, the rook will be much safer than it is on g3, and then white can start to develop the rest of the pieces and march forward with the two extra pawns.


Simplify is always the strategy when you are winning, and the way to do that is to trade more pieces and reduce noises.

Now you’ve learn the concept of simplify, it’s time to practice.

Setup a better position and try to play a computer level that is a bit more stronger than you, and see if you can simplify the position to get the full point!

All-Girls Chess Camp

“Wait, are you the only girl here?”

Ever since a close friend asked me that question years ago, I haven’t been able to push it out of my head. How is it that at basically every chess tournament, in a room of hundreds of people, I was one of maybe a couple dozen women?

Other startling details started popping up everywhere for me, like how in the list of the top 100 players in the world, there is only 1 woman. In the list of the top 100 players in the nation, there are only 2 women. I remembered how when I first learned chess in elementary school, there were plenty of girls in the club but a year later, I was one of the only girls still actively playing.

CS Image

In order to try and combat this gender gap, I started the All-Girls Chess Camp back in 2014 which tries to remove potential social and financial barriers preventing young girls from becoming involved in the game. The camp provides a safe and comfortable environment for young girls to get to know other girls interested in the game and learn from the top junior female players in their area. To make sure that financial situations are never a problem, each participant gets to walk away with a chess set and a basic strategy book to facilitate continued learning after the camp. The most rewarding moment of the camp so far, and a testament to the potential it has, was when two girls from the first camp came back to teach this last year.

20171112_094938

Unfortunately, the materials and work put into the camp to make it happen do not come free. Especially with our expansion to the Long Island and Washington, D.C. area this last year, we need funding more desperately than ever. It takes about $1,500-$2000 to run a single camp (dependent on size of the facility and as such the number of participants we can accept) and we simply are not able to provide the funding for all three locations and potential expansions without your help. Please help us bring this wonderful game to more girls and help create a safer and more comfortable environment for girls in the game overall, a donation of any amount counts.

In other news on the status of the camp, this last summer has been a great period of growth – we are now in the process of becoming an official non-profit organization and have also been accepted into the Clinton Global Initiative’s Commitment Challenge, a competition between 50 projects based on who can pull the most funding. It is also with this in mind that we ask for your generous support to help establish this program and other projects (e.g. tournament and chapters throughout the country).

 

To follow the All-Girls Chess Camp, you can visit our website, or like us on FacebookIf you have any inquiries about our program, please feel free to contact Alice at chess4girls@gmail.com and/or check out our sites below.

*To comply with the Commitments Challenge’s regulations, the maximum donation per individual is $250. All donation quantities are greatly appreciated.

Photo for GoFundMe

Complicating Matters

Endgame defense can be difficult. Some endgames can be extremely tough to defend. In many, you may be able to spot a light at the end of the tunnel which saves a draw. However, there are times when you’re lost and conventional means won’t save you. Now, I’m not talking about insane swindles drawing from -5 positions. I’m talking about positions where playing the objectively best moves won’t necessarily help you.

What can you do in such positions? You’ve got to spice things up. You’ve got to create confusion. You have to make your opponent think and use his time. Your job is to make your opponent’s life as hard as possible. Is it unreasonable to assume that your opponent will let something slip after long hours of play and his time ticking away? Of course not. Besides, if you’re busted, what do you have to lose?

First, here’s an example of me on the receiving end of this from a couple years ago. After a wild fight (let’s not go there) against a strong IM, I emerged with a winning position. Here’s what happened:

PK 1

White is a pawn up, and more of black’s pawns are quite loose to say the least. Black’s only chance here is active play. 48.Ra6! is winning here. The point is that after 48… Kd5 49.Nxc6 Rf6, which looks like it wins the knight, white has 50.Ra8! attacking the bishop in return, and he’s just winning after that. I missed this idea, but I chose what seemed to be a reasonable path: 48.Rg7? going after the g6-pawn. Then I got hit with 48… Bf6 49.Rxg6 Ke7

PK 2

Black is giving up pawns left and right, but Rxc2 will save him. The b2-pawn will fall after that, ruining white’s winning chances. I ended up sacrificing an exchange with 50.Nxc6+ Kf7 51.Rxf6+ Kxf6. I did win black’s remaining queenside pawns at the cost of my c- and h-pawns. Though it wasn’t technically winning, I still had winning chances there, but I butchered those too and the game ended in a draw.

Now it’s not like this was a particularly complicated endgame, but I got bamboozled. All my opponent’s activity forced me to figure things out instead of just converting easily. Anyway, I had been lost earlier in the game, and went on to get my first IM Norm in that tournament, so everything ended happily…

A tricky pawn endgame

Hevia 1

I was black against a GM, had been much worse for most of the game, and after a difficult rook endgame reached this position. Though material is equal, black is in awful shape. His king is cut off along the 7th rank, while his counterpart is beautifully active on a5. Black’s pawns have barely gotten moving, while white has a passed pawn which is already on c5. Oh man.

How does white get through? One key idea is to go Ra7 with the idea of winning the a6-pawn. If black cleverly tries to stop that with …Kb8, white will go Rd7-d6, which (could) result in a winning pawn endgame. But ok, white can go 55.Ra7 right here, right now. The a6-pawn is going down, but there’s a catch: black is still kicking in the pawn endgame after 55… g4 56.Rxa6 Rxa6+ 57.Kxa6 h5. While white has connected passed pawns on the queenside, black is getting his own passer on the queenside, and only accurate calculation can determine who will win the race. Long story short, it boils down to a queen endgame after 58.b5 h4 59.b6 g3 60.hxg3 hxg3 61.Ka7 g2 62.b7+ Kd7 63.b8Q g1Q

Hevia 2

I saw all this during the game, and I thought it was a draw. I was, however, surprised after the game when I found out that this is mate in 44 according to tablebases. For me, queen + pawn vs. queen make up a mysterious class off endgames, where tablebases are more valuable than Dvorestky’s Endgame Manual. In this endgame, however, white’s queen will do an excellent job shielding the white king from checks (by “counterchecking” the black king), and white’s king will assist the queen in pushing the black king out and escorting the pawn to victory. Still, from the starting position, even getting here isn’t clear—not to mention the evaluation of the endgame.

Instead, my opponent played 55.Rh7. After 55… g4, the pawn endgames are now a completely different story. Still, 56.Ra7! ironically still wins here. The idea is that black is in zugzwang. If 56… Kb8, white goes 57.Rd7!, and the pawn endgame after 57… Kc8 (57… h5 runs into 58.Rh7!, after which black’s position collapses) 58.Rd6 Rxd6 59.cxd6 h5 60.Kxa6 h4 61.b5 g3 62.hxg3 hxg3 63.b6 g2 64.b7+ Kd7 65.b8Q g1Q, and even to my human eyes it’s pretty clear that white is winning after 66.Qc7+ Ke6 67.d7. Still, this is a long line which could easily get “fuzzy” in human calculation, and it’s not unlikely your opponent will miscalculate/hallucinate somewhere along the way. My opponent instead tried a different path 56.Ka4, which doesn’t blow the win but isn’t on the right track. He could attempt to sneak back around with Kb3, but it will run into …g3!, since after hxg3 Rxg3+, white obviously doesn’t have time to take the h6-pawn because he’s in check. He probably didn’t believe the critical lines were winning for him. The game continued 56… Kb8 57.Rf7 Kc8 58.Re7 Kd8 59.Re3? (this is what blows the win), and after 59… h5 I was actually completely all right, since I’ve finally managed to mobilize my pawns on the kingside. After 60.Rg3 we agreed to a draw.

While there were multiple paths to Rome for my opponent, they were all long and complicated. At the end of the day, that’s what saved me.

Mutual Confusion

Sometimes, things just get so complicated that neither you nor your opponent have any idea what’s going on. It can be a curse or a blessing (depending on whose calculations are more accurate), but if there are no reasonable alternatives, mutual confusion is not a bad idea.

Here’s a final example from one of my own games. I had been a bit worse for a while, and after both my opponent and I built up our positions a bit, things exploded.

Ludwig 1

(I was black) This goes to the old land of queen + knight vs. queen + bishop, filled with passionate debates about which combination is better… My personal rule of thumb is that, no matter the situation, whichever duo I have is worse. Just kidding, but it really depends on the situation. Here, white is for choice, not only because his queen + knight duo is better than queen + bishop, but because he has a passed b-pawn that is very dangerous. Black’s king is also fairly exposed, due to the kingside expansions, while white’s king is still fairly safe for the moment.

White is actually winning here with the move 50.Qb1!, hitting the f5-pawn and aiding the passer at the same time. After 50… Be6 51.hxg4 fxg4 52.b6 g3, however, it gets messy. The most natural line goes 53.b7 gxf2+ 54.Kxf2 Qf4+

Ludwig 2

The b-pawn is beyond black’s control, and white’s only job is to get his king to safety. The most natural move is to run back with 55.Kg1?, but that actually blows the win. After 55… Qxe3+ 56.Kh1, the desperado 56… h3! actually secures a draw! Yes, white can go 57.Qf1+ Ke7 58.b8Q, but after 58… hxg2+ 59.Qxg2 Qe1+ 60.Kh2 Qh4+, white can’t escape the checks.

Instead, white has to play 55.Ke2!, ironically going into the middle. The white knight, however, covers everything, and black has nothing. After 55… Bg4+ 56.Nxg4 Qxg4+ 57.Kf1, white’s king will run to the corner, and …h3 desperados no longer work, since black no longer has a bishop to provide backup.

Instead, my opponent played 50.hxg4? fxg4 51.b6!? (if 51.Qb1 black has Bg6! attacking the queen). Here’s where I returned the favor and slipped up as well.

Ludwig 3

51… Qxb6 52.Nxg4+ is obviously white’s idea, but I had 52… Kf5. What I missed was rather embarrassing: I thought that white had 53.Qxe5+ Kxg4 54.f3#, but the f-pawn is pinned. Oops!! After 52… Kf5, black is also all right after 53.Nxe5 Qe6 54.f4 Kxf4, where the situation looks scary but is actually harmless.

Instead of that, I played 51… Be6?, giving my opponent another chance to return to the winning variation by playing 52.Qb1!. I naturally didn’t know that that variation was winning during the game, and neither did my opponent, because he instead played 52.b7? Qb6 53.Qd1, giving up the b-pawn with the aim of collecting my kingside pawns instead. But after 53… g3! 54.Qf3+ Ke7 55.fxg3 hxg3 56.Qxg3 Qb1+ 57.Nf1 Qxb7, black is holding. The game was soon drawn.

These variations are naturally difficult to see during a game, especially after a long fight and with little time, and that’s what you’ve got to use to both ends. However, the moral of the story is clear: the more complicated the win is, the less likely your opponent will play it. Complications aren’t necessarily your enemy when defending. They can be a lifeline if conventional defensive means fail. And, as I hope these examples illustrate, complicating matters can save you half points here and there that just giving up wouldn’t do.

The Art of Saving Your Skin, Part 2

At this year’s Northern California flagship event, the annual 6-round CalChess Championship, I landed in the middle of the pack – giving me plenty of time for the true all-around experience.

Picking Up From Last time

In my last article, I talked about how you can be the driving force behind a surprising and lucky swindle – “making your luck”, so to speak. Of course, having managed to score 3.5/4 in that event (despite being lost in three of the games), I was quite a bit biased. Even I would rather not be lost, let alone three times, in the first place.

As fate would have it, I continued my horrendously lucky streak by saving two very lost positions against two young experts. Like in the three nearly-lost causes from last month’s article, I was saved only by the grace of time in these (apparently not called “sudden death”) G/120, 30 second increment games. In my first game, I messed up a good Hedgehog position and was in the process of being overrun by connected passers, but in time trouble, my opponent’s inclination toward “safe” moves created enough chaos for me to level the position.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 2.49.34 AM
Cheng – Li: after 27…Kg7

White has a few ways to win here – my personal preference is the simple 28. Bd3, followed by ramming the b-pawn up the board – Black’s pieces are just too passive to create any real counterplay. However, in time trouble, White understandably opted to close the door on any funny a8-h1 diagonal business with 28. f3, although this may already be a step in the wrong direction. This continued 28…Bd5 29. Bc4 Rc8 30. Bxd5 Nxd5 31. Rxc8 Qxc8. Trades are not easy to stomach here for Black, but surprisingly they’re the only chance for play here.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 2.56.59 AM
Cheng – Li: after 31…Rxc8

However, the tempting 32. Bxe5+?, seemingly winning material, gave Black far too much counterplay after 32…dxe5 33. Qxe5+ Bf6 34. Qxd5 Qxa6. White is technically up material now, but the dark-squared weaknesses make it very hard to press. That said, there isn’t much else wrong with White’s position, so the game should be a draw, probably more than I deserved. With White having a minute left, I did try to press for a while but didn’t quite make it. But you can see my attempts here.

I don’t know if the entire Saturday was just an off-day, because my next game was even worse overall. I had a pretty bad position right out of the opening (move 15 or so) as White and it didn’t get better from there. But eventually, my opponent did fall below comfortable time, and missed a few shots she would have almost certainly found otherwise. That was the only chance I had down the Exchange for seemingly no (negative?) compensation. Slowly but surely, I turned it around, in the order below.

Drawing a 2400

Lest you believe the rest of my career will consist of me swindling players 200 points below me, there were some signs of hope. My first two games obviously didn’t bode well for a third-round matchup against 14-year old FM Andrew Hong (2472) with Black, but each game, each position is different. And in a surprising turn of events, it was I who found myself pressing in a solid Caro-Kann game, although after playing it a little safe, the game petered out to a 25-move draw.

The Grandmaster

Turns out that was enough for me to play GM Enrico Sevillano, who had been upset in the previous round. It was an interesting enough game, but I eventually got caught with the “classic” bad light-squared bishop in the Closed Sicilian, and weak pawns trying to escape that situation tactically. An instructive one by the GM that you can check out here.

The New Opening

After that, it was back to playing experts, and on the last day of the event, I thought it would be good to try something new. Against my 2150-rated opponent’s Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian line, I wanted to try a response that I had read about a little but hadn’t gotten a practical feel for yet.

Contrary to appearance, it didn’t go that smoothly. I tried a generic dark-square strategy, but it’s probably a little too primitive for equality and having no experience with the line before, I didn’t find the right moves so easily. That said, it was a far cry from the 5 experts I’d played before, in that I was not actually lost during the game, for once!

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Ne2 Re8!?

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 12.35.54 AM
Somalwar – Li: after 5…Re8

Honestly, I thought the concept looked cool. One author for this line describes a certain aesthetic appeal to retreating the bishop to f8 early in the game.

(5…d5 6. a3 Bd6!? 7. c5 Be7 8. b4 b6 is another line I’ve tried. Black’s plan is to follow up with an eventual …e5 but I can see how this is not to everyone’s taste.)

6. a3 Bf8 7. Ng3 e5

This might be probably playable, but definitely not a clear equalizer. But the idea is simple dark-square play. Unfortunately, Black is a bit passive for that to work.

8. d5 a5 9. Bd3 Na6 10. e4 Bc5

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 12.38.42 AM
Somalwar – Li: after 10…Bc5

11. Bg5?!

This didn’t make a lot of sense, and just seems to give Black some extra tempi – White is not going to trade off this good bishop, or move it anywhere else besides, perhaps d2. White would have been fine just making regular moves, as Black doesn’t have that many active opportunities.

11…h6 12. Bd2 d6 13. Na4 Ba7 14. Bxa5??

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 12.41.23 AM

It’s hard to imagine this could be a colossal blunder, but I always say there are things to look out for whenever there isn’t a knight on f3 (or f6 in Black’s case). After 14…Ng4! White is in a surprising world of trouble. Simply castling only seems to make things worse: 15. O-O Qh4 16. h3 Nxf2 and Black snaps up the knight next, guaranteed to win big on material. White opted for 15. Rf1 but after 15…Nxh2 the attack was still going, and I managed to collect the point.


Unfortunately, I played much too cautiously in the last round (I guess all those narrow saves against experts got to me!) and ended up with a vanilla 19-move draw against a young 2150-rated player. It wasn’t quite the ideal way to go out, but I did end up above water in a tricky section, and this was good enough for some rating gains on both the USCF (2226 to 2234) and FIDE (2039 to 2052) side. It was another exciting and tough introduction to the Bay Area chess scene, and all thanks goes to the Berkeley Chess School for their organization of such a high-quality event.

It’s too early to say which events next month will feature, but with new games and new faces, it’s the perfect time to ditch the act of simply saving my skin. Thanks for reading!

Slow Start and Second Chances

Let’s just say that reacclimatizing to the fall semester and playing quality chess hasn’t gone according to plan. It’s been tough – adjusting to new responsibilities as a senior, entering the job search, trying to graduate on time – was I too naïve in defining my NM goal?

Despite a reasonably respectable performance in the Washington International Blitz tournament last August, I lost my footing in the Pittsburgh Summer Open scoring 0.5/3, and tanked again in the Pennsylvania State G/60 Championships when I failed to convert this position:

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 21.14.49
Steincamp–Schragin, position after 26. Bb2

Thud. A thirty point rating drop in a week over the two performances, and my confidence took quite the hit. Things didn’t get any better when IM Alex Katz beat me in 10 consecutive games playing irregular openings in my Challenger’s Corner stream on chess.com. So, as you can imagine, I was really struggling to find something to hold on to. Nothing seemed to be going right, despite forcing myself to train even more throughout the week. Can I even call myself a 2100 rated player anymore?

Despite the downward spiral, my Tuesday night pairing at the Pittsburgh offered me a unique second chance: a rematch with Jeff Schragin – the very player who had swindled me in the aforementioned position. Knowing I’d have the Black pieces, I knew I could not afford to lose the rematch. Not just because I was supposedly the higher rated player, but I knew I needed this game for me.

Over the past year, a lot of my closest supporters have given up on me, telling me it’s time to move on, that the NM title not only isn’t happening, but will never happen for me. And it’s been really hard to block out the noise, as each tournament “failure” comes with an increasing sense of doubt in myself. Admittedly, I haven’t been strong enough psychologically to fight for myself, but I knew this game was a potential breaking point for me. Can the free fall stop?

I returned Tuesday evening from Pitt’s career fair, and in suit and tie, I cranked out my homework, leaving me just 30 minutes to prepare my lines for the upcoming match. Before I knew it I was plugging in my headphones and starting to head out the door.

There she goes, there she goes again
She calls my name, pulls my – Ouch!

As I was gathering my things, my leg hit the edge of my bed, leaving a nasty bruise. Shi*t, smart move genius. So I was off to a great start. With Spotify still shuffling, I caught the nearby bus, and passed by my old apartment as I picked up some things at the nearby convenience store. Perrier was the lucky drink of the evening. I headed out and starting walking to the club building.

The rails are caught now
And I am falling down
Fools in a spiral
Round this town of steam

I got to the board, and set my clock, dodging questions about how I had botched my game last Sunday. It happens, but I won’t let it happen again. I was running a few minutes behind schedule, but I felt relaxed. Even with all the pressure I had built up in my head, I could only think I’m the underdog now as we shook hands and started the clocks. As I predicted, we quickly walked through some main line King’s Indian theory:

Schragin,Jeffrey (1929) – Steincamp,Isaac (2066) 

21st Fred Sorenson Memorial (2), 25.09.2018

1.Nf3 g6 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 Bg7 4.Nc3 d6 5.e4 0–0 6.Be2 Na6 7.0–0 e5 8.dxe5

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 21.42.12.png
Schragin–Steincamp, position after 8. dxe5

Honestly, not the deviation I had expected. I’ve played Jeff a few times before, and he usually defaults to 8. Be3 or 8. d5.  Caught a little off guard, I was a bit relieved. This King’s Indian line usually favors Black, thanks to the superior central structure.

8…dxe5 9.Qxd8 Rxd8 10.Bg5 Re8 11.Rad1 h6 12.Bxf6?! Bxf6

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 12…Bxf6

Opening theory at this point has basically concluded. White has elected to give up his bishop pair, which will bode well for me in the long run. Structurally, my plan is quite simple. I will play …c7-c6 to take away the d5 outpost, and as White tries to contest the d-file, I will aim to place a piece on the d4 square, since White has already extended with e2-e4 and c2-c4. White shouldn’t be much worse at this point, but if he isn’t careful, it would be particularly easy to fall behind

13.Rd2 c6 14.Rfd1 Nc5 15.b4 Ne6 16.Bd3?!

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 16. Bd3

This move didn’t make a lot of sense to me. In the past few moves, I’ve rerouted my misplaced knight on a6 to e6 where it hits the d4 pawn, and managed to make White structurally commit to b2-b4. On the other side of the board, White doubled his rooks on the d-file so he could block it with Be2-d3.

I kind of have a free move here with this extra precautionary measure from White. I could try to launch my knight on to the d4 square, but tactically, it’s not as strong after 16…Nd4? 17. Nxd4 exd4 18. Ne2, and my pawn on d4 seems to be more of a liability than a strength. Seeing this, it didn’t take long to find the right plan, 16…a5!, trying to pry open the c5 square. White could try 17. a3, but in the game I had seen axb4 18. axb4 Ra3 19. Nb1 Ra4 20. Rb2 Rd8 21. Bc2 Rxd1 22. Bxd1 Ra1 23. Nc3 Nd4

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Variation after 23…Nd4

Black is clearly better here, so instead White opted for 17.b5, but this clears the c5 square, and after 17…Nc5, my c8 bishop could finally get into the game.

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 17…Nc5

This is a big development. My plan was to trade my light squared bishop (which can never attack d4) for the f3 knight (which can attack d4). A dream position would be if I could trade my f6 bishop for his c3 knight, leaving his useless light squared bishop on the board, as my knight finds comfort on d4.

18.Be2 Bg4 19.h3 Bxf3 20.Bxf3 Rad8?!=

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 20…Rad8

A bit too weary of an incoming Rd2-d6 idea, I decided my best chance to play for an advantage was the minor piece endgame, missing the strong idea 20…Bg5! 21. Rd6 Be7 22. R6d2 =+

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Variation after 22. R6d2

There’s still a long ways to go, but Black is really flexible, and White’s pieces are misplaced. Here I can continue to play for …Nc5-e6-d4, with the added perk of a potential …Be7-b4. Black stands better.

Instead of going for the ending, White erred with 21.Bg4?, and was never able to fully recover. I had anticipated 21. Rxd8 Rxd8 22. Rxd8+ Bxd8 23. Bd1 with the following endgame:

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Variation after 23. Bd1

I was fully aware that with best play, White should hold. However, I liked that I didn’t have any clear weaknesses in the position. Even if I allowed White to play 23. Bf3-c8 in one move, it still cannot dislodge my pawn structure.

Speaking of pawn structure, my knight still stands strong on c5, and its powers can be augmented with a future …f7-f5 push. There’s a lot of chess to be played still, though I admit, 20…Bg5! was a key miss.

Luckily enough, 21.Bg4? allowed me to insert 21…Rd4 22.bxc6 bxc6 -/+, and there was no doubt that I was clearly better here:

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 22…bxc6

White’s center is about to collapse, as both e4 and c4 are weak pressure points. White’s bishop on g4 still isn’t compatible with the pawn structure, and I have the luxury of playing …Rd8 or …Rb8 if needed. With not a glimpse of activity left in the position, White is basically strategically lost. My opponent fell apart in just a couple moves.

23.Bf3 Rxc4 24.Ne2 Bg5 25.Rd6 Nxe4

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 25…Nxe4

Clipping a second pawn. Here White realized that the point of 24…Bg5 was that if 26. Bxe4 Rxe4 and there isn’t time to win the pawn on c6 because the knight on e2 is hit. Instead, my opponent blundered immediately with 26.Kf1?? Nxd6 With the rook hung, White tendered his resignation.

Even with what’s proven to be a difficult September, I doubled my point total with 2/2 with four rounds to go. Emotionally this was a big win for me, but I’m not going to pretend like all of my problems are fixed now with this result. Looking beyond some of my confidence issues this month, a lot of my recent games have shown me that I really need to revaluate how I make some of my decisions over the board. This is going to be a long rebuilding process, and I need to be vigilant in these next few months.

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Glimpse from my over-dressed second round performance (photo credit: Finn Overlie)

It wouldn’t be Pittsburgh if the week didn’t finish with another opportunity to get in a game. Sunday afternoon marked the opening weekend for the Pittsburgh Chess League, one of the oldest chess leagues in North America. After grabbing brunch with a friend in Oakland, I found myself with a couple hours to warm up on University campus before my game started. It didn’t take long to find the computer lab in the library to play some music and online blitz.

I’m looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something help – is that mate?

So yeah, I was feeling pretty good. Now with the White pieces, I decided to take some opening liberties against an expert: 1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 c6?! 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e3 e6 5. g4?!:

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 5. g4?!

Maybe a bit too confident here, but why not? Black has willingly boxed in his c8 bishop, and basically wasted a move with 2…c6. I don’t play this kind of stuff often, but it’s not like the g2-g4, h2-h4 ideas are totally original in these structures…

To his credit, Black actually defended reasonably well, but it came at the cost of time.

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 16…Nf5

I needed to keep the pressure on Black, so I immediately sacrificed the exchange on f5 to win a massive pawn center. During the game, I figured it was justified since all of the files are closed and d5 falls. It isn’t the machine’s top choice, but I maintain that it was still an extremely practical decision since the knight on f5 is well suited. 17. Rxf5!? exf5 18. Nxd5 Qa5+ 19. Nc3 Rc8 20. Bf3 b5 21. Kf2 0-0

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 21…0-0

Here I hold a nice advantage, my goal is to bring my knight to f4, while cementing my central hold with c2-c3, and expanding on the kingside with h2-h4. Already in a massive time hole, Black traded queens and bishops, making the endgame even more favorable for me.

As I was cruising, our team was already down 0-2, so I had to be careful and avoid any mistakes to save our outfit from losing the opening match of the season. The final critical position required some brute force calculation, but the idea was straightforward:

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 42…h5

Nearly all roads lead to Rome, but I forced myself to see the entire line before continuing. Let’s see if you can too: 43. Ke5 h4 44. Nh5 h3 45. Nxg7 h2 46. Nf5+ Kd8 and now the best move is not 47. Ng3 (though it will also get the job done), but rather to play for mate! 47. Kxd6! h1Q 48. e7+ and now Black realized that he had to let me promote, and the game ended shortly after.

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 48. e7+

So after a week of drowning in bad chess, I got to finish September on a high note. There’s a lot of tough games ahead, and I need to hold myself to a higher standard as they approach. But if this week taught me anything, I’ve earned the right to tell myself: you got this, bro.

U.S. Teams Cruising at the World Olympiad

Last time, I previewed the World Olympiad – the largest chess team tournament in the world.  We are now approximately halfway through the tournament, which is being held in Batumi, Georgia.  Unsurprisingly, there are already multiple worthy storylines forming.  Only time will tell whether these will still hold true at the finish line, but until then, we can marvel (or, in some cases, be surprised) at these headlines.

  1. The U.S. Women’s team is a powerhouse

Through the first five rounds, the U.S. women’s team has been unstoppable, and this might just be the biggest headline thus far.  GM Irina Krush is on a perfect 4/4, top-rated IM Anna Zatonskih is on 4.5/5, and FM Jennifer Yu has almost swept board four points, also with 4.5/5.  After five rounds, the team is the only one left with a perfect 10/10 score (two points per match win; one per draw).  Round six will present them with their toughest opponent yet with a match against the strong team from India, but at the rate that they are going, will momentum carry them all the way through?  Time will tell, but the best we can say is “good luck!”

  1. The U.S. Men’s team isn’t doing too bad, either

While the men’s team isn’t perfect anymore – as they drew their round 5 match with Israel – they are still at a solid 9/10, still good for tied-for-5th with three other teams at 9/10.  Four teams are still at a perfect 10/10, those being Azerbaijan, Poland, Czech Republic, and Ukraine.  They’ll need to fight hard for the next couple rounds to keep within arm’s reach of proving their top-seed status going into the tournament.  This should be possible, fortunately, since we are getting to the point where the top teams will begin to knock each other off the top.  They are paired against Bosnia & Herzegovina in round 6.

  1. Speaking of U.S. Men’s…Fabiano Caruana

GM Fabiano Caruana has been on fire as board one for the last two rounds on the U.S. Men’s team.  After sitting out the first round and drawing the next two rounds as black, Fabiano Caruana has picked it up quite quickly, executing two miniatures as white in the fourth and fifth rounds against GM Vishy Anand and GM Boris Gelfand, respectively.  In the fifth round, however, his win was canceled out by Sam Shankland’s loss to GM Emil Sutovsky, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Caruana has already been playing better in the more recent rounds.  The world championships challenger will continue to play board one in the rounds to come as he practices for the upcoming world championship match in November with Magnus Carlsen.

  1. Russia hits a speed bump

It seems as if the chess fans waiting for the much-anticipated U.S. vs Russia match will have to wait just a bit longer, and they might not even have their hope fulfilled.  After a strong 3/3 start, Russia lost a shocker to Poland, getting upset 2.5-1.5 by the significantly lower-rated team.  To be fair, Poland is one of the only four teams on 5/5 now, but just based on the rating differences on paper, most expected Russia to win that match.  Despite the loss, Russia was able to salvage a fifth round to finish with 8 points in the first five rounds, but it’s definitely an uphill battle from here for that team.

  1. Georgia’s host teams surprising

As the host country for the tournament, Georgia has three teams enrolled in the tournament, named Georgia 1, 2, and 3.  Interestingly enough, Georgia 3 is currently the highest in the standings out of all three teams with 8/10, despite being the lowest rated of the three and not having a player over 2500.  If anything, this just goes to show how much the dynamic changes when comparing a team tournament to an individual tournament.  In typical tournaments, if a player is higher-rated, they should perform better, and that is fairly expected.  However, when it comes to a team tournament, all members have to play well in order for the collective team to get points, so even if one player is very highly rated, it doesn’t guarantee anything for the team.

These are just some of the most interesting storylines that have come up in the first half of the Olympiad.  But, with that said, there are still six rounds to go in the tournament, and with many teams near the top, including the U.S. in both sections, it will definitely be interesting to see who comes out on top.  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!