Isaac’s Mailbag

I decided over the weekend to add a new installment called “Isaac’s Mailbag”. In this post, I want to answer common questions that people have asked me about chess. If you wish to send me a question, feel free to leave it in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in the next installment of this post.

For this week’s post, I’m going to answer questions prompted by members on my school team at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.

1) What is a strong system to play against 1. b3 (the Larsen Attack)?

This was probably the hardest question I got this week, so I figure I would tackle this one first.

The Larsen Attack is a different opening, and is rarely seen at amateur tournaments. I sometimes will play 1. b3 in Blitz, but then will transpose to an English (c4 openings) or the Bird’s (f4 openings). I find that this seems to be the common trend with Larsen players, so its even rarer to see someone else play something different. While it means taking a theoretical approach, I find that the positional struggle is often better than the tactical melee for Black.

1… e5 and 1… d5 are the most common defenses for black, so I suggest looking at those first. 1… b6 is interesting but its symmetrical and can lack dynamic play. While I think its a good approach to play positionally, there are still many positional lines to consider. I suggest looking through these Grandmaster games and choosing a system that feels comfortable for you.

1      2      3      4      5


2) What is a good goal (for my tournament this weekend)?

Setting a goal is probably one of the most important things you should do before going into any tournament. Having an expectation for yourself and trying to meet it is healthy, and can easily drive your performance. Ideally, a good goal is to play good chess, but it is nice to gain a few rating points while doing it.

If you are the highest rated player in your section, you need to find stronger competition.

If you are within 100 points from the highest rated player, you should always aim to win the tournament.

If you are in the top half of your section, your goal should be to get a norm, in most cases meaning that you perform at over 200 points above your rating.

If you are in the middle of the section, I suggest aiming for at least a half point above equilibrium, so 3/5, 3.5/6, or 4/7 are all good results.

If you are in the bottom half (or at the bottom), push yourself to finish at equilibrium. This means a quality performance.

A lot to remember? That’s what I thought, play good chess and the goals above will happen!


3) Did Kasparov win that FIDE Election?

Unfortunately, the former World Chess Champion lost the FIDE election by a wide margin. While the election is over, he wrote a thought provoking article on chess24 that you can read here. While there are some politics as to how FIDE should be run, Kasparov does point out that there are some clear problems that need to be fixed with chess.


4) What is a good book for studying how to play the Smith–Morra Gambit as white?

For those who are not familiar with the Smith–Morra Gambit, it starts

1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3

White sacrifices a pawn for development, and gets full compensation, if you are a Sicilian player, you ought to know a defense to this line, both inside and out!

Mayhem in the Morra by Marc Esserman is a clear first. Being a Sicilian player, the thought of looking through this book scares me. Esserman’s variations are very detailed and account for many ways that the Morra could go out of book. I have a friend from Maryland who won a game in 9 moves at the World Open last summer from knowing the theory present in this book. A lot of people say that the Evans Defense is the cure for the Smith–Morra, but I wouldn’t be so sure after giving Mayhem in the Morra a read.

Chess Season is Coming Up! What’s in Your Plans?

If you’re in that 1000–1200 rating range, and you’re trying to quickly add that next set of hundred points, what’s the easiest way to do it? Tactics? Openings? Positional play? All wrong. If you’re in this rating range, you really just need to get out there and play some games. I’d even say tournament play is more important than practice.

Here’s why:

  • Opponents in this 1000-1200 range, while may seem tough, will make mistakes. Part of being 1400 is just identifying tactical opportunities. Your opponents aren’t Grandmasters, so apply the tactics you’ve learned and the points will come naturally.
  • Playing rated play is the best way to identify misunderstandings in your game. For a 1200 rated player, its not expected that you make the best move every move, but that you understand how to follow the basic principles and get respectable positions. Playing in many tournaments will not only test your principals constantly, but it will make your calculation process more efficient, which is critical for your development.
  • By reviewing your games, you will identify openings that you need to study. Studying and understanding practical openings is much more important than memorizing loads of theory.

When you’re planning your chess calendar this fall, just remember that the brain is like a muscle. The more you play chess, the more accustomed you will be with each event. Play many rated games and you will improve!

A Fun Study by Matous (1979)

This is a study I found composed by Mario Matous back in 1979. Kudos to you if you can solve it! (White to move and win)

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 11.57.53


The Answer:

1. Kf2! Bringing in the king. 1. Kxf1 fails to 1… Ba6. The other option 1. Qxf1+ only draws because the light squared bishop covers too many squares to create an effective mating net. 1… Bg2 Covering the threat of Qxf1+, Qg1+, Qg3#. This also allows the queen to get in the game from a7. 2. Bf3 Reinforcing the threat of Qxf1+ with mate. Black must respond with 2… Qg7 With everything good to go, Black can expect a draw, right? 3. Qh4+ Extremely critical. 3. Qxf1+ is truly tempting, but after 3… Kh2 4. Qg1+ Kh3 5. Bxg2+ Kh4, all Black needs to do is trade queens to draw. While a computer might see white as having the initiative, good luck finding the win over the board! 3… Nh2 This is the critical position. How can white possibly continue? 4. Qh8!! Brilliant! 4… Qxh8 allows 5. Bxg2# So the Black queen must not be deterred from protecting the g-file. It should be noted that both 4. Qh7 and 4. Qh8 are much less precise because 4… Qb2+ is possible, making the position messy. 4… Qg6 5. Qh7 Not 5.Qa1+? as after 5…Nf1, the line transposes to the same Qxf1 variations as mentioned before. 5…Qg5 6.Qh6! The point of this maneuver. Now after 6…Qg8 7. Qc1+ is winning because 7…Nf1 and now, after much waiting, 8. Qxf1+ Kh2 9.Qg1+ Kh3 10. Bxg2+ Kh4 11. Qh2+ Kg5 works because the white queen skewers the black king to his queen. 12. Qg3+ 1–0.

Wow. That was impressive!

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!

Time Trials: A Study Technique to Break 1800

You’re probably familiar with tactics, opening study, endgame preparation, and the works. Boring much? I don’t blame you. Here’s a technique I learned in Japan from a friend, and expanded on it on my own. This is how it works:

1) Write down your time in tournament games

If the time control is above G/60, you should write down how much time you have left at the end of each turn (ex: in a G/60 match, 1. e4 (60) e5 2. Nf3 (59)). This is a good practice, because when you go over the game with your coach or computer, you can see if time was a factor in the decisions you made.

2) Go over the game immediately after the tournament

If you’re not already doing this, you’re making a big mistake. Going over your mistakes is the easiest way to find holes in your knowledge. We’re all human, so you’re bound to do something wrong in each round. I like to go over the game with my opponent after each round, and then again with my coach.

3) Come back in six months

At this point you’ve played many tournament games (hopefully), and in all likelihood forgot most of your analysis. That’s okay! Set up a board and a clock at the same time control that the game was played in. This is where you’re records of time come in real handy. For each turn, force yourself to calculate the position for as long as you calculated at the board, nothing more, nothing less. For example:

1. e4 (60) e5

2. Nf3 (59) Nc6

3. Bb5 (59) a6

4. Bxc6 (59) bxc6

5. 0-0 (57) Nf6

33. Kg3 (50) Qg4#

Okay, this isn’t a full game, but you can dissect something already from this notation. The white player spent 10 minutes for the whole game, which lasted 33 moves! The white player who would be doing this exercise should realize that he is moving way too quickly, and if he tried to calculate, he couldn’t possibly do a concrete job. This is one possible test to see if you are moving too quickly.

Of course, there is also the opposite problem too:

24. Nd4 (24) Nc6

25. Nxc6 (17) dxc6

White spent seven minutes calculating this exchange, so clearly this position gave him trouble. Hopefully, when doing this exercise, the White player can do the same analysis that he did on the board six months prior in less than 7 minutes. If this is the case, this is good! It means that not only are you learning from your games, it means that your ability to calculate is improving.

I found that this exercise really helped me realize that I was moving too quickly in critical positions, and after I implemented this practice, I not only improved my calculation techniques, but also my time management skills. Here’s a funny story, I actually stopped this technique for a few months, and for that period of time my rating remained stagnant. However, now that I’m doing it again, I’m playing better chess and calculating much more effectively.


Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!

Mission Accomplished – Part 2

This is extension of Mission Accomplished – Part 1. I finished with a score of 4.0/6 this past weekend, and I had quite a few quality games to show for it. Today’s game is from the second round, after my loss to GM Erenburg. I knew I needed to win, but after move 3 I knew I should win. Here’s the game.

Steincamp – Kremenchugskiy (Virginia Closed, 2014)

1.c4 e5 2.g3 Bc5 3.Bg2

3…Qf6?! What?! Surely this cannot be theory! Black makes a very obvious threat on f2, but its highly out of principle. This Scholar’s Mate idea is not a line, so its a matter of punishing my opponent. My opponent was rated over 1850, so I knew it wouldn’t be too easy.

4.e3 Nc6 5.Nc3 Nb4

6.d3 While Black has made petty threats, I’ve just developed naturally, and I am ready to punish Black with either Nc3-d5 or Nc3-e4.


7.Ne4 My first forcing move of the game. My position is extremely solid, so Black will begin to see the holes in his logic, with my next few moves, I am able to push Black into passivity.

7…Be7 8.a3 Nc6 9.Ne2

9…f5 This looks like the most natural move, but I think this helps me. While my knight is strong on e4, its even stronger on d5, where it could attack c7. Also, the pawn on f5 blocks out the queen so it emphasizes how the queen is misplaced on g6. So honestly, this move kind of helps me. I think that 9… d6 would have been better, as it gives the bishop on c8 a chance to breathe.

10.N4c3 Nf6 11.Nd5 Nxd5

12.cxd5 There are a few lines in the English where this is best for White, and with Black’s delayed development, this is fine for me. Black will have to move this knight again, ending its epic journey from b8-c6-b4-d8. Four moves to travel two squares!


13.f4! A much needed break. Black will play c7-c6 soon, opening his position. This move will eliminate one of his center pawns and make d4 or f4 potential outposts for my pieces. 

13…Bd6? Blocking in the pieces! 13…d7–d6 was much needed.

14.fxe5 Bxe5 15.O-O

15…O-O Black’s king is safe, but his position is not. Black has a good bishop on e5, but it can easily get pushed around. The queen is awkward, and Black has yet to develop. At his point in the game, I focused on developing my space advantage.

16.Nf4 Qb6 17.Qc2

17…g5? Creates weaknesses in front of the king unnecessarily. My opponent did not consider my immediate response 18. Nh3. I was expecting a move like 17… c6, but Black can only do so much.

18.Nh3 g4 19.Nf4 c6 20.d4 Bh8

21.Bd2 Black’s position is in shambles, and there is no reason to exchange on c6. By developing the bishop into the game, I bring another piece into the attack.

21…d6 22.Bb4 Rf6 23.Rac1 Bd7

24.Nh5 I’ve tied down Black’s pieces to his c- and d-pawns, but I only have 5 minutes left to reach move 30. I found this as a creative resource to get there.  If I had time, I might have seen the winning 24.dxc6 bxc6 25.Nd5! cxd5 26. Bxd5+ forking the king and queen.

24…Rg6 25.Nf4 Rf6 26.Qd3 Nf7 27.Nh5 Rg6

28.Nf4 I only have two move left to reach the time control, but I’m starting to plan on my opponent’s clock. At this point I was looking at e3-e4 ideas, but also playing Nh5 and sacrificing the exchange on f5. I didn’t have anything concrete, but I knew there would be opportunity there.

28…Rf6 29.dxc6 bxc6

30.Nh5 Phew! Only had 6 seconds left when I hit the clock! Now I have 60 minutes to go into a deep think.

30…Rg6 Black offered a draw here, but how could he be equal?

31.Kh1? Unnecessary. Not a blunder, but I played this to play e3-e4. I should have just taken on f5 and sacrificed the exchange. I realized this after I made the move, and shifted gears.

31…Ng5 32.Rxf5! Bxf5

33.Qxf5 +- This is the point of the sacrifice! Everything hangs in this position: c6,d6, and g4. I’m at least going to equalize materially, and I have a lot of play on the kingside.

33…Rf8 34.Qxg4

34…Nf3 An aggressive approach, but I was expecting 34…Ne6 followed by 35. Qe2 and one of the pawns (c6 or d6) hang next turn (critical that 35. Qe4 is not played because Black plays 35… d5 with tempo. The move my opponent made loses immediately as seen in the game.


35…d5 And Black has the initiative, right? Nope!

36.Qe7! It was at this point in the game that my opponent realized how lost he was. the rook on f8 is overloaded, and material will be lost here.

36…Rc8 37.Bxf3 Qb8

38.Nf4 While I am completely winning with this move, I wish I had seen the beautiful 38.Rxc6!! A hard move to find but if 38… Rcxc8 39. Bxd5+! Rcd6 40. Bxd6+ Rxd6 41. Qxd6# Truly spectacular!

38…Re8 39.Nxg6

39…hxg6? Black should have taken my queen with 39… Rxe7 but 40. Nxe7+ Kf7 41. Rxc6 and Black can just throw in the towel.

40.Qg5 Re6 41.Rxc6 1-0

A fun, instructional game! My opponent played out of principle, and so by playing solidly, I got a very strong advantage. For players who love Queen’s Raid type play, I would recommend that you tune in to the Sinquefield Cup. GM Fabiano Caruana has won 7 straight because of principled play. If I can’t tell you that early queen play is often bad, maybe Caruana will!

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!

Mission Accomplished! – Part 1

I played this past weekend at the Virginia Closed State Chess Championships and finished 7th with a score of 4.0/6, a half-point above my goal going into the tournament. My only loss was against Grandmaster Sergey Erenburg, as I had 2 draws and 3 wins.

I thought I had some really good games this tournament, so I’ll be showing individual rounds in the next few blog posts.

Chrisney – Steincamp (Virginia Closed, 2014)

I think I finished the tournament with my strongest game with the Black pieces. I like this game because I achieved my dream position in the endgame and won.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.c4 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Nc3 d6 8.Be2 O-O 9.O-O Bd7 10.Rc1 Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Bc6 12.f3 a5 13.b3  Nd7

14.Kh1 My preparation for this game ended here, as I was anticipating either 14. Be3 or 14. Bxg7. The idea behind 14. Kh1 is that White doesn’t have to worry about a forced queen trade later if I get my queen on c5.

14…Nc5 15.Bxg7 Kxg7 16.Qd4+ Kg8 17.Rfd1 Ne6 18.Qe3

18…Qb8 It took me a while to find this move. I think this was the best way to find counter play with …Qa7 and prevent white from playing c4-c5 immediately.

19.Nd5 Bxd5

20.Rxd5? For some reason I thought that my opponent would take this way, but I thought 20. exd5 was the only way to maintain any advantage. This is because 20… Nc5 21. Re1 (not 21. Qxe7?? Rfe8 -+) and white puts pressure on e7. I think in these lines, I need to play …e7-e6 ideas, but that still leaves me with an isolated pawn on d6.

20…Qa7 21.Qd2 Rfc8 22.f4

22…Rc5 My compute likes 22… Nc5, but I think I like my move more because an endgame favors me. After I played 22… Rc5 I was prepared to play 23. f5 Nc7 24. Rd3 b5 with strong play on the queenside.

23.Rf1 Rxd5 24.Qxd5 Qe3!

25.Qd3 The best and safest move. Black has to trade queens but…

25…Qxd3 26.Bxd3

26…Nd4! The whole point in the Maroczy Bind for Black, now I just need to secure this square and the game is mine for the taking.

27.Kg1 I thought that this move did not really challenge me. I expected 27. e5 dxe5 28. fxe5 Nc6 Black is better because of black’s hyperextended e-pawn (which is not a light square, the rook will be stuck protecting it), but I thought it would be not as clear for me.

27…e5 28.fxe5 dxe5 29.Rf6 Ne6 30.Kf2 Kg7 31.Rf3 Rd8 32.Re3?

32…Nf4! The key tactic, as white is completely defenseless. 33. Be2 is forced because all other moves lose material to Rd2+ with no counter play.

33.Be2 Rd2

34.a4 If White tries 34. g3 Ne6 is winning because 35. a3 Rb2 36. Kg1 (if 36. Kf1 the h-pawn is unprotected Nd4 37. Bd1 Rxh2) Nd4 37. Bf1 Rd2 38. Re1 Ra2 39. a4 Ra1 and White cannot stop Nxb3 without losing the bishop. I saw this during the game, so I was ready for these lines.

34…Rb2 35.h3

35…Ne6! White is trying to be tricky, as 35… Nxe2?! 36.Rxe2 Rxb3 37.Rd2 Rb4 38.Rd5 leads to complicated variations. Seeing as dominating, I continued my maneuver back to d4.

36.Kf1 Nd4 37.Bg4 Rxb3 38.Re1 Rb4 39.Bc8 b6 40.Ra1 Rxc4 41.Bb7 Nb3 42.Ra3 Nc5 43.Bd5 Rxa4 44.Rf3 f6 0-1

A good game for me, my opponent played aggressively in the opening, but I took advantage of 24. Qxd5 with …Qe3.

I’ll be back soon with another one of my wins from this past weekend, where an 1850+ rated player tried to scholar’s mate me!

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!