Closing Out 2015: Ending on a High Note

Even though 2015 only saw my rating jump by fifty points, I’ve progressed a lot since graduating high school. For today’s post, I wanted to discuss the goals I set for myself back in January and how they panned out, as well as set new goals for next year.

2015 proved to be interesting, as I pushed myself in playing tougher competition and in being more active in the Richmond Chess Community.

1. Break the Top 40 for 18-year-olds nationally

This one I achieved! In February 2015, I jumped to 34th in the country with a rating of 2051. While I wanted to break the top 30, I didn’t play in enough tournaments to stay competitive – mostly because of my college selection process and preparing to graduate. That being said, I still was ranked 44th nationally before turning 19.

2. Win the Virginia Scholastic Chess Championships

Trying to improve from 8th place finishes both my sophomore and junior years, my state title hopes ran into a wall in round 4.

While I got off to a strong 3/3 start, I lost my fourth round game to defending champion (and eventual winner) Vignesh Rajasekaran and continued to bottom out with a two draws for a 4/6 score and 15th place finish. In what proved to be another disappointing State Championships for me, I did have one nice win in round 3 that I’ve never shared on chess^summit.

Steincamp – Feng (Virginia Scholastic State Chess Championships, 2015)

1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 f5 4.a3

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In G/60 time controls, it’s crucial to maintain flexibility. By inserting this move, I take away …Bf8-b4, a move I thought Perry had prepared for me. While this move is nothing special, it gave me a slight edge.

4…Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7

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My opening deviation has paid off! With this move, my opponent shows me he doesn’t know where the bishop belongs. By failing to optimize this piece (better was to c5 after a preparatory …a7-a5), he has guaranteed that he will need to waste a tempo in the future improving it.

6.d3 d6 7.e3

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A strategic decision. Blocking in my own bishop, I protect the d4 and f4 squares with my pawn. My goal is to play this position like a Reversed Closed Sicilian, meaning my play will revolve around the d4 square.

7…O-O 8.Nge2 Qe8 9.Nd5

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A critical moment in the game. By placing my knight on d5, I give Black a choice: 1) admit his mistake and protect the c7 pawn, or 2) trade on d5 knowing that his c7 will be a long-term positional weakness. I plan on recapturing with the pawn, followed by controlling the half-open c-file.

9…Nxd5 10.cxd5 Nd8 11.O-O Qg6 12.f4

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Shoring up the holes in my position. Black’s development seems better, but his army isn’t coordinated or prepared for a kingside attack. Once I lock up the center, I will put pressure on c7.

12…Nf7 13.Qc2 Bd8 +=

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Already, Black’s problems are visible. His knight on f7 has no future, and his passive bishops prevent Black from connecting the rooks with hope for normal play. With the static advantage, I just continue to improve my position.

14.e4 Nh6 15.Qc3!

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The most principled move in the position. Black has one weakness, c7, but it’s firmly protected for the moment. Now it’s time to simultaneously attack a second weakness, d5, and stretch Black’s defensive resources.

15…Qh5 16.fxe5!

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A hard move to find given the time control. When your opponent has poor coordination and isn’t developed, sometimes it’s best to try to open the position to go for the attack. What about that knight on e2, you may ask? Well after 16… Qxe2?? 17. Bf3 is simply winning.
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17… Qxf1+ 18. Kxf1 fxe4 19. dxe4 Bg4 20. Bf4 +- I saw this during the game and was content with my piece offering.

16…dxe5 17.Bxh6

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With this move, I trade off my worst piece and give Black a choice of further misplacing his pieces or compromising his structure.

17…Qxh6 18.Rae1 fxe4 19.Rxf8+

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The whole point for opening up the position – here I get full control of the position once Black recaptures on f8.

19…Kxf8 20.Rf1+ Bf6 21.dxe4 Bg4 22.Nc1 Kg8 23.Nb3 b6

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My knight maneuver to b3 was intended to reach c5, but now I’ve provoked a weakness from Black, the c6 square. Furthermore, it will become more difficult for Black to get rid of his c-pawn weakness with a …c7-c6 push without a pawn on b7.

24.Nd2 Rc8 25.Nf3 Qh5 26.Nh4?!

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With less than ten minutes left, I played this move too quickly to fully understand what I was doing. Here I’m offering a pawn for full control of the f-file, as after 26… Bxh4 27. gxh4 Qxh4 I was planning on 28. Qc6 with a nice hold on the position. In reality, Black has 28… Qe7, and it’s hard to see what I’ve gained for a pawn and a weak kingside.

26…Qe8 27.Nf5

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My knight has finally found a square. Black, already playing for a draw, immediately goes for an opposite colored bishop position.

27…Bxf5 28.Rxf5 +=

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How can White win? My assessment derived from the common middlegame concept for positions with opposite colored bishops – attack the color your opponent is weakest. In this position, White is objectively better because all of Black’s weak squares are on light squares. Without a concrete defense, my bishop will enter the game via h3, leaving Black paralyzed.

28…Qe7 29.Bh3 Re8 30.b4

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There is no need to rush in this position. It was important to stop …Qe7-c5+, which would have allowed Black to simplify the endgame, making it more difficult to win. With no way to enter my half of the board, Black must stay passive to defend all threats in the position.

30…Qd6 31.Rf1

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A practical move. With this retreat, I prepare Rf1-c1, putting pressure on the c7 pawn, and make way for my h3 bishop to dominate the position on d6.

31…h6?? +-

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A costly blunder, as this move weakens even more light squares around the Black king. Originally aiming for a slow plan, I decide that now is the time to go in for the kill.

32.Be6+ Kh8 33.Qf3 Rf8 34.Qh5

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Due to his inability to control light squares, Black has little time to stop Qh5-g6, followed by Be6-f5, threatening mate on h7.

34…Qe7 35.Qg6 Qe8 36.Rxf6!!

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Absolutely crushing! The rook is invincible since 36… gxf6 leads to 37. Qxh6#, and 36… Rxf6 gives up the queen. Black, thinking he would only be down a piece plays one more move.

36…Qxg6 37.Rxf8+ 1-0

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And my opponent threw in the towel as 37… Kh7 loses more material due to 38. Bf5 where I will be up a full rook in the final position. A fun game, and really instructive when discussing the principle of two weaknesses.

3. Beat a Titled Player

It took me until May before I got my first decisive result against a titled player, but it was worth the wait as I beat State Champion and 2014 World Youth Chess Championship Gold Medal winner Jennifer Yu in the first round of the Cherry Blossom Classic. If you missed it, I posted a video of the game shortly after the tournament.

Since then, I’ve added two more wins against National Masters to my resume, one at the Washington International, and another in the G/120 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships.

4. Coach MLWGS to the U1600 National High School Chess Championships

A year after coaching my high school team to win the U1200 National High School Chess Championships, the Green Dragons fell just shy, taking 5th in the final standings.

Well, admittedly, this one was a goal I had set for the team on our way into Columbus. The team got off to a strong start, leading the section at the half-way point, but the long weekend was tough on the team, as a late slip-up meant going home with 5th instead of 1st.

The team worked hard last year to prepare for Nationals, and since my alma mater won the National Championships in 2014 for U1200 in their first national championship appearance, their work ethic has been one of the great untold stories in scholastic chess. Since my graduation last June, the team has proven itself a force to be reckoned with, as two players on the team have already broken 1700! It will be fun seeing how they fare in Atlanta next May.

5. Become a National Master

This is the ultimate goal for me, and I fell 95 points shy. If I have to be honest with myself, last year I lacked perspective when it came to discussing breaking 2200, as it took me half a year to develop from a weak expert to a much more competitive junior player. With a lot more games under my belt, I’m definitely moving in the right direction.

Other Achievements

Well, you can’t really script the whole thing. Before moving out of Virginia, I had never placed in the top 5 at any State Championship. Now a student at the University of Pittsburgh, I’ve managed to break the curse three times! I took 4th in the G/15 State Chess Championships and 5th in both the G/120 State Championships and the G/60 State Championships.

Directing the first ever MLWGS School Chess Championships last year was by far the best tournaments I’ve ever directed. Hopefully, I can be back next year to watch the games!

To round out my career as a high school chess coach and advocate for chess in the Richmond Area, I completed my term as a Director of the Virginia Scholastic Chess Association, as well as ran the 2015 MLWGS Chess Championships and volunteered at the most recent edition of Dragon Chess Camp.

Working with my peers at this past summer’s Dragon Chess Camp was a bittersweet moment for me, as I’m not sure if I will ever be able to put together such a reputable scholastic chess program again in the near future. I guess chess^summit counts for something!

Moving Forward, 2016

Well, it wouldn’t be the end of the year if I also didn’t look ahead to the next 365 days, wouldn’t it?

1) Win the 2016 US Junior Open in June

I’ve never said this was going to be easy, and that’s why I’ve revived chess^summit to help document my way there. I’ve got a lot to learn between now and then, but with tournaments like the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, the Boston Chess Congress, and the Liberty Bell Open (maybe!) already lined up, I should have a lot of tournament exposure against strong opponents before I land in New Orleans this June.

2) Become National Master

As I mentioned, this is the ultimate goal. I don’t know what beyond 2200 is realistic for me, but I think I’m not that far off to becoming a titled player. Just one norm away from becoming a Candidate Master, I really have to wonder how much time it’ll take to make that next jump…

3) Win a tournament – any tournament!

I’ve always played up when competing, so this hasn’t been a realistic goal. However, since moving to Pittsburgh, I’ve played in sections where it’s not unrealistic to take the top prize. I got really close at the Robert Smith Memorial, playing on board one for first in the final round, only to fall short when it counted most.

4) Play at least 85 tournament games in 2016

I think not getting enough games last spring really slowed my momentum, making it difficult for me to progress as a player. Prepared to learn from my mistakes, I expect a lot more tournament appearances in the near future.


And that’s it for 2016, I think whatever I’m meant to achieve I’ll get there, and I’m intrigued to see where that takes me.

This will be my last post for the year, but when I return in 2016, I’ll have games from the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, which could feature matches against teams like Webster, Texas Tech, and UMBC – so stay tuned!

Have a happy holidays!

Free Game Analysis: Triumph at Emporia!

Congratulations to Jeffrey Song! This past weekend, Jeffrey scored a 3.5/5, boosting his rating from 1582 to 1709! The high school Junior upset two 1800+ rated players and held a draw with an expert, making for what was surely a memorable weekend. For today’s Free Game Analysis, we will take a look at his crucial Round 4 win. If you would like me to analyze your game, send it, and check back on Tuesday or Friday mornings to see if I chose your game to analyze!

I worked with Jeffrey for two years back when I coached at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. The team captain has gained 700 points since his freshman year.

The Emporia Open isn’t known for strong (titled) players or its lucrative prize fund, but being one of the few adult tournaments in Central Virginia, it always makes for an interesting turnout. Let’s see what we’ve got.

Wilson – Song (Emporia Open, 2015)

This was the fourth round of the tournament, and already, I think presented Jeffrey with a unique psychological challenge. Already 2.5/3 against much higher rated competition after the first day of play, it would have been really easy for him to rest on his laurels and play with less intensity, thinking that he had already “achieved” something.
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3
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For those of you who remember my post on Akobian’s French, this is what Khachiyan chose at the 2008 World Open. Both 3. Nc3 and 3. Nd2 are becoming more popular, but the issue with this move is that the knight is susceptible to …Bf8-b4 ideas, pinning the c3 knight.
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I’m already not liking this move so much, perhaps it’s theoretical, but practically, it makes less sense. By opening the position, the pace of the game will be dictated by piece activity, but Black’s bad bishop on c8 will always be slow to join the fight. Knowing the principle “move your pieces as few times as possible”, gives us the most natural and popular move, 3… Nf6.
4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Bd3 Ngf6 6.Nf3
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This move is natural as Black prepares to castle, but the move 6. Bg5 is a much more attractive alternative. If you look at Black’s position for candidate moves, it’s hard to find moves other than …Nf6xe4. A move like 6. Bg5 would slow down Black’s play, giving more time to simplify. For example. 6. Bg5 Be7 7. c3 Nxe4 8. Bxe7 Qxe7 9. Bxe4 Nf6 10. Qd3 += (not 10. Bd3? Qb4+)  and White maintains a small edge as Black has still yet to solve the problem of his bad bishop.

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6…Nxe4 7.Bxe4 Nf6 8.Bd3 c5
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Statically worse, Jeffrey takes a dynamic measure to try to get back into the game. Black’s idea here is to try to give White an isolani while simultaneously moving his c8 bishop to c6.
9.c3 Bd7 10.O-O cxd4?
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Black is slipping. While this move isn’t a blunder, it doesn’t improve Black’s position. Two moves away from castling, Jeffrey ought to have been looking at …Bf8-e7 or …Qd8-c7 to get his pieces into the game. These problems are an exacerbation of the 3… dxe4 line and is why my main recommendation for future play is 3… Nf6.
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Giving Black no counterplay! Black’s only hope was for White to give himself an isolated d-pawn to play against. Here, by taking with the knight, White eliminates any structural weakness while also taking away the option of …Bd7-c6.
11…Bc5 12.Be3 Nd5?
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A tactical oversight. Already feeling behind positionally, Black attacks White’s e3 bishop with the hopes of creating a structural imbalance. Black would have better off with a move like …Qd8-e7 or just …0-0 (thought that does feel courageous after Be3-g5).
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Hard to disagree with White’s play so far. A thematic move from the Winawer French, White takes advantage of the lack of an f3 knight. With his lack activity, Black must give up some material to survive.
13…Nxe3 14.Qxg7 Bxd4 15.cxd4 Nxf1 16.Qxh8+ Ke7
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After the last few captures, White will be up a pawn in a same-color bishop and rook endgame where White has to be close to winning.
17.Qxd8+ Rxd8 18.Kxf1 h6 19.Rc1?!
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White’s first real mistake of the game. If you know the basic idea, “rooks belong behind pawns”, then a move like Rd1 is far more natural, ready to move the d3- bishop when the d4-pawn needs protecting. The method white used in the games complicated matters which actually cost him the game!
19…Bc6 20.Rc4
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White must have felt awkward when making this move, vulnerable to tactical shots like …e6-e5 and … Bc6-b4. White should have been able to see this position from two moves ahead and realized that the final position is more complicated.
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Punishing White. White cannot take the pawn thanks to the pin, and must watch out for …e5xd4 creating a passed pawn. In an effort to salvage his position, White makes a horrendous blunder.
21.Ke2?? e4 -+
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Again, I’m forced to wonder how far ahead White calculated when playing this endgame. White’s move 21. Ke2?? was the only move on the board that loses considerable material.
22.Bc2 Bb5 23.Bb3?
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23. b3 loses less material, as being down an exchange would have offered White more resistance than being down an entire piece. Let’s see Black’s technique.
23…Rxd4 24.Ke3 Rxc4 25.Bxc4 Bxc4 26.a3 Bd3
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Already, the red flashing lights are going off again. While 27. f3 can be met by 27… f5, White can insert 27. g4 to play f2-f3 on the following move, at least making some gains in material. When you are significantly ahead, don’t make the game more complicated! 26… f5 and 26… Bd5 would have offered a much easier game for Black.
27.g4 Kf6 28.f3 exf3??
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Even if Black had calculated a complete win, this move makes no sense. Already knowing that Black is winning, this move only risks losing the point. 28… Ke5 makes much more sense as after 29. f4+ Kd5 Black now has a passed pawn and more than enough time to reroute the bishop.
29.Kxd3 Kg5 30.Ke3 Kxg4 31.Kf2 h5
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Black has achieved a winning pawn endgame, thanks to his pawn majority.
32.b4 b5 33.Ke3 h4 34.Kf2 Kh3 35.Kxf3 Kxh2 36.Kf2 f6
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Okay, this is winning, but 36… f5 takes away the g4 square for the king, thus making the h-pawn untouchable an the promotion faster.
37.Kf3 Kg1 38.Kg4 Kf2 39.Kxh4 Ke3 40.Kg4 Ke4 41.Kg3 f5 42.Kg2 Ke3 43.Kg1 Ke2 0-1
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After some extra-curricular activities, Jeffrey finally found his way to the end-zone. The win put him at 3.5/4 with an opportunity to play for first place!

A very hectic game, as both sides have a lot to learn from this performance. What are our takeaways?

1) The game is not over until it’s over. A cliche, but I think that sums up the dynamic of the game. This game was White’s to lose, and well – to put it simply – he lost it. If your opponent hasn’t resigned, that means he has no intention of losing, so you still have to earn the point.

2) Calculate don’t complicate! Both parties of guilty of this in this game as each side made decisions that made the game more difficult to win (19. Rc2 and 28…exf3). If you are winning, play to be efficient. The faster you win, the more energy you have for future rounds. Based on this game, I would recommend both players to practice technical endgames to make over the board games easier.

3) Know your openings! A much more subtle sub-plot in this game but White managed to get an advantage from 3… dxe4. If you want to make this move work, look up games in this line on ChessBase and see what you can get!

Once again, congratulations to Jeffrey, as we hope to see more of your games in the near future!

A Better Berlin: Handling 5. d4

In last Sunday’s video, I tried playing 1…e5 in response to the King’s Pawn opening. Without much theoretical knowledge of the Berlin, I quickly got bogged down in a worse position and on the clock. Though I got back into the game with a sacrifice on  g4, the position I reached isn’t desirable enough to want to play again. Let’s take a quick recap of what happened:

JoseBautista–leika (G/15 ICC, 2015)

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6

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The Berlin of the Ruy Lopez. Since it is one of the most solid openings at the Grandmaster level, I decided to give it a try. I hadn’t studied Ruy Lopez theory in 8 years, and when I did it was for White. Back when I played against the Ruy Lopez, I opted for an immediate 3… a6.

4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4

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Already one out of book for me. While this move is one of the most popular ways to counter 4… Nxe4, I was only familiar with some of the 5. Re1 theory. And so here starts the Belin Wall, well – sort of.

Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nc4?

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The first inaccuracy that set the tone for the match. Main line, as we will see, is the much better 7… Nf5. In the video, I discussed the possibility of playing …Nc4-b6 and how playing …Nd6-f5 would block in my bishop, but this approach gave my opponent too many tempi. As we’ll see, Black aspires to play …b7-b6 and fianchetto the bishop for solidarity and good endgame play.

I’ll stop here since this questionable move already deviates from the Main Line which we will be discussing. When looking for a model game, I was lucky to find the Giri–Vachier-Lagrave match up from the London Chess Classic, in which Anish outplayed Maxime in a critical tiebreak match.

Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, both in the World’s top 10, have played each other many times – including the recent 2015 FIDE World Cup!

Vachier–Lagrave – Giri (London Chess Classic, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5

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Here gives us the critical move 7… Nf5 which makes Black’s position tenable. From here, the Black knight can attack the center without being easily kicked away (8. g4? would be a serious weakening). With the queens coming off the board, it’s important that Black has piece activity to make up for losing the right to castle.

8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.h3 Ke8

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Let’s say the line ends here, as Giri’s remaining developing moves are intuitive, and could arguably be found over the board by any strong player. White has given up the pair of bishops and is in the endgame, but has some compensation. Beyond the doubled pawns on the c-file, Black is unable to castle, and needs time to develop to prove equality.

10.Nc3 h5

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What is this move? This h-pawn thrust is a prophylactic measure against any future idea for White involving g2-g4. With the game heading to an endgame, this idea is not as much of a weakening considering that the queens have been traded.


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While this move plans to put the e2 knight in the center of the board, it’s kind of esoteric. This isn’t the most common move, as 11. Bf4 holds that honor, but it scores the same among ~2600 rated players.

11…b6 12.Rd1 Be7 13.Bg5 Bb7 14.Bxe7 Kxe7

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Black doesn’t really mind moving the king around so many times. As long as Giri’s king is safe and covers the d7 square, he’ll be fine. In fact, if you think about it, the king needs to be active in the endgame anyways. According to ChessBase’s online database, this immediate trade on e7 has never occured. While Black no longer has the pair of bishops, Anish has three “long-range” pieces compared to Vachier-Lagrave’s two.

15.Ned4 Nxd4 16.Nxd4 c5 17.Nb5 Rhc8

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Black’s last move to solidify. With all of his weaknesses covered, Giri is ready to start pushing …a7-a6 and then improve his position.

18.f4 Bc6 19.Nc3 Ke6 20.Kf2? h4!

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And just like that Black is arguably better! Should White try to play g2-g4 now, he would compromise his structure, leaving a static weakness on f4. Already, there are some ideas of …Rh8 in the position, with an idea of a rook lift to g6.

21.a4 Kf5 22.Ke3 Re8

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Both …Rd8 and …Re8 were perfectly acceptable here, but this move takes the most principled approach. With the rook on the same file as the king, White must find an answer for …f7-f6, ruining White’s hold on the center.

23.Nd5 Rac8 24.Rd2 f6 25.Rf1 fxe5 26.fxe5+ Kg5!!

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Maxime must have missed this. If Black takes on e5 immediately with the king, it stands in the center of the board, in the crossfire of both of Black’s rooks. Now should White try to protect the e5 pawn with 27. Ke4, he will lose to 27… Rxe5+!! as 28. Kxe5 is mate after 28… Re8#. What an idea! With White forced to play passively, the rest of the game is a matter of technique.

Giri won the game later on move 43, in what was arguably his best game of the tournament. While the victory may have been sweet, it was short-lived, as Maxime went on to win the next two tiebreak games, sending him to the final against Magnus Carlsen.

So what does this game tell us about the Berlin? Let’s take a look at the structure after move 17.

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If you’re wondering why so many Grandmasters play the Berlin, you should start here. Structurally, Black is more solid and his king, thanks to the early queen trade is already in the center. With all of his early dynamic play, White has yet to define his structure, leaving his e5 pawn seemingly hyper-extended. If we think about how Vachier-Lagrave attacked Black’s weaknesses (17. Nb5), the threat of the c7 and a7 pawns only slowed Giri’s play but didn’t cause him long term problems, so already that position is at least equal. Let’s take this position to the next level.

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Since White decided to give up the bishop pair with 6. Bxc6, we must also take this into consideration. While this minor piece endgame may be arguably tenable, it is clear that again, only Black can play for a win as the bishop dominates white’s knight. So with this assessment, we can say that Black is better in most Berlin Endgames.

Here’s another game where Black proved that solidarity was more important than initiative.

Teimour Radjabov (right), of Azerbaijan, is in the world’s top 30. Known for his opening preparation, let’s see what he had ready for the 2015 World Cup winner, Sergey Karjakin.

Karjakin – Radjabov (World Rapid Chess Championships, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.Rd1+

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Our deviation from the Vachier-Lagrave–Giri game. Here Karjakin immediately asserts control of the d-file with a forcing move. While an easy move to play, it does have the drawback that Black already wants to get his king off the d-file. So while White develops, Black gets to improve his position.

Ke8 10.Nc3 h5 11.Bg5

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Radjabov’s last move, …h7-h5, set his intentions of playing a long game – just like Giri. Karjakin, knowing that he would not be favored in the endgame, plays with gusto, immediately developing his pieces with threats along the way. But can initiative overpower Radjabov’s solidarity?

11…Be7 12.Ne2 Bd7

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Radjabov can’t exactly afford to play pedantically. While …b7-b6 followed by fianchettoing the bishop is far more natural, here, its much more important that Teimour gets his rooks into the game. Note that 12… Be6? would be punished by 13. Nf4! as the bishop for knight trade would give away Black’s long-term advantage.

13.Nf4 Rd8 14.Bxe7 Kxe7

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Again we see the thematic exchange of dark-squared bishops. By getting his own bishop off the board, Karjakin intends to play Nf3-g5 to keep the initiative. While White’s pieces are seemingly more active, he runs into the issue that he just doesn’t have enough pieces.

15.Ng5 Rh6


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A weird looking move but a necessary one as e5-e6 (a theme that White missed in my video) is no longer possible. Objectively, the position is equal since Black is held down by White’s knights, but its Karjakin”s desire to fall that proves his undoing.

16.g3 Rf8 17.Rd3 Bc8

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Black doesn’t have much to do here, but Radjabov’s point is that White can’t either. Black’s only weakness is the d-file, but as many of you know, you need two weaknesses to win a game of chess.

18.Re1 Re8 19.f3 Kf8

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With a safe king, Radjabov can just make improving moves on the queenside.

20.Kf2 a6 21.h3 Ne7!

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A multi-faceted move. First, it gets out of the way of any g3-g4 pushes. Second, it prepares …Ne7-g6 attacking the e5 pawn and offering a trade of knights to simplify the endgame in Black’s favor.

22.g4?! hxg4 23.hxg4

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I’m not sure if I agree with White’s g3-g4 push. While seemingly naturally, it makes Black’s h-rook more active and ignores the idea of …Ng6. By simplifying the endgame, the game gets easier for Radjabov, not Karjakin.

23…Ng6 24.Nxg6+ Rxg6 25.Nh3 Rh6 26.Nf4 Rh2+

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In just a few moves, Black has maximized his advantage after a single trade and claiming the h-file. White may already have to play for equality.

27.Ng2 Ke7 28.Re2 Reh8 29.Ke3 R8h3 30.Nf4 Rxe2+ 31.Kxe2 Rh2+ 32.Kd1 g6

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Only on the better side of equal, Black defines his structure while White wonders how to fix his overall passivity.

33.Rd2 Rh1+ 34.Ke2 a5 35.Ke3 b6

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Maintaining flexibility. Black can move the bishop to a6 for play and has a solid structure to back it.

36.Ne2 Bd7 37.Ng3 Rh3 38.Rg2 Be6 39.b3 a4!

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A nice idea, aiming to weaken White’s queenside pawn structure. If Radjabov can trade the last pair of rooks, he’ll reach a bishop v knight endgame where only he can stand better.

40.Ne4 Rh1 41.Nf6 Ra1 42.c3 axb3 43.axb3 Re1+ 44.Re2 Rxe2+ 45.Kxe2 Bxb3

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Now with a material advantage, Radjabov has a win to play for in the classical Berlin Endgame. Black went on to win 23 moves later.

So what do these games tell us about playing the Berlin as Black?

  1. The Berlin won’t win games quickly. As evidenced by both games, endgame technique and defence are two critical skills needed to play the Berlin effectively. Black didn’t get an advantage until White erred playing for an edge.
  2. Patience in the key. Remember, the main reason why the Berlin is popular for Black is because the computer gives it a favorable evaluation with the computer. Once the queens come off the board, the game is about strategic gains for either side as White tries to compensate for losing the bishop pair.
  3. A Berlin Endgame is a good endgame. The biggest positive from today’s article. If White can’t effectively prove his compensation, he will be tortured in an uphill positional battle.

Blast to the Past: The Transition from Scholastic to Adult Play

For today’s post, I wanted to discuss my transition from being a scholastic player to a regular tournament player. Back in 2007, I broke 1300, and I wasn’t getting a high enough level competition in the tournaments near me. At ten years old, the idea of playing with adults in a weekend tournament was daunting, so I gave it a try at a local club in a few game-a-week ladders. While I only had a handful of games at the Kaissa Chess Club, it definitely gave me some perspective on how chess was different at the next level. For today’s post, I wanted to show how playing adult chess my gameplay over the board.

I won my first scholastic tournament in the first grade to break 1000 in 2004.

Before I share my games, let’s discuss what scholastic players gain from becoming regular tournament players:

1) Patience – With adult tournament play, the time controls can be twice as long as standard scholastic tournaments. For me, changing from G/40 to G/90 was especially challenging as I hadn’t really been forced to calculate extensive lines in games. Patience is one of the most important virtues in chess, and in my personal opinion cannot be learned through scholastic play.

2) Chess Etiquette – At scholastic tournaments, almost anything goes. Usually, rules aren’t as strictly enforced, and while poor sportsmanship is frowned upon, it’s not effectively punished.  In adult play, there is an expectation that you respect your opponent. This wasn’t really an issue for me, but I have seen younger players not understand the tournament rules (touch-move, etc) or understand proper chess etiquette (this includes stalling in a losing position, making distracting noises, etc).

3) Practical Experience – Once I got to 1100, most of my tournaments would feature four significantly lower rated opponents, and only one real contest. While the euphoria of winning was definitely enjoyable, I didn’t have opponents forcing me to look at new openings or tactical ideas. At such a young age, I think all the winning went to my head and I stopped studying for tournaments. In adult play, any result is possible in any game – and your opponents generally challenge you to find new ways to win. In other words, no more hanging pieces, simple checkmates, and no more basic tactics – the chess starts here.

4) Better Fundamentals – As you’ll see in the games I chose for this article, my understanding of the openings went to the next level. In this article, I will compare how I played the Closed Sicilian in 2007 to how I played the same opening in 2009. While I wasn’t playing grandmaster-level chess at 1300, the progression in my understanding of chess made it possible to reach the next level. Let’s have a look.

Steincamp – Arnold (Kaissa Chess Club Sept-Oct Ladder, 2007)

When I “graduated” from the Kaissa Chess Club, I distinctly remember beating everyone at least once with the exception of my opponent here, Lloyd Arnold, Sr. In this game I was just shy of 1200, while my opponent was just over 1600.
1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 d6 3. g3 Nc6 4. Bg2 Nf6 5. d3 g6 6. Be3 Bg7
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One of many plans of the Closed Sicilian. Usually, White will play Ng1-e2, Qd1-d2, castle kingside, and then push f2-f4, hoping for some sort of strategic advantage. The one oversight my opponent and I both had was the move …Nf6-g4. This is a great resource for Black to make White either give up the bishop or waste some tempi. Black found this opportunity a few moves later, making this resource the first real idea for Black against the Closed Sicilian that I had seen at the time. White should have played 6. h3 instead of playing an immediate 6.Be3.
7. Qd2 h5?!
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Definitely a novelty for me back in 2007, but I haven’t seen this idea for Black since. Because White’s plan is to play f2-f4, this move encourages me to play f4-f5 in the future, taking advantage of the fact that the g6 pawn is only protected once.
8. Nge2 Ng4!
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A standard idea for Black in these fianchetto structures. With no other alternatives, I must give up the pair of bishops to continue play.
9. O-O-O??
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This is the first move that shows my true lack of understanding of the Closed Sicilian. While in scholastic play I could get away with a kingside pawn storm, that doesn’t really work at this level. The Closed Sicilian often lends itself to race positions, where Black attacks on the queenside as White seeks to play on the kingside. Here I’ve put my king on the wrong side of the board, and already, the g7 bishop is eyeing the b2 square.
9…Nxe3 10. Qxe3 Nd4
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Black’s opening play has been far from perfect, but my opponent has shown that he at least understands the thematic ideas of the Closed Sicilian. After using the attacking idea of …Ng4, he follows up by placing a piece on d4, Black’s most traditional idea. Both of these ideas for Black were ideas that I had never seen effectively for Black in the past 4 years of scholastic play. Here I get them in my first real adult game!
11. f4 Qb6 12. Nd5? Nxe2+!
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Taking advantage of my last move and proving why queenside castling was a bad idea with this zwischenzug. Normally Black waits for  White to play c2-c3 before executing the trade, but here the g7 bishop and queen on b6 are both bearing down on b2, and Black is clearly better.
13. Qxe2 Qxb2+ 14. Kd2 O-O
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A safe move, but I wonder if Black could have the nerves to try 14… Qxa2! because 15. Nc7+ Kf8 16. Nxa8? is punished by 16… Qa5+ and checkmate is forced. 17. c3 Qxc3+ 18. Ke3 Bd4+ 19. Bg4#. This being said, White no longer has a great way to defend the king to the …Qa2-a5+ threat as without the e3 bishop, I no longer have any way of controlling the dark squares.
15. Nxe7+ Kh8 16. Nd5 Bg4 17. Bf3 Bxf3 18. Qxf3 Qxa2 19. g4
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At this point, I don’t think there’s much else to recommend for White. In a strategically lost position, I make an effort to try and turn things around.
19…c4 20. gxh5 c3+ 21. Ke1 Qxc2 22. hxg6 fxg6 23. Qh3+ Kg8 24. Qe6+ Kh7
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With no increment or second time control, I’m left to think that maybe my opponent was trying to mess with me psychologically. I don’t think that really works here since repeating is my best option.
25. Qh3+ Kg8 26. Qe6+ Kh7 27. Qh3+ Bh6 28. Rg1 Rae8
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Organizing Black’s forces. White is clearly lost as my kingside attack couldn’t add up to anything.
29. Qg3 Re6 30. Nc7 Rxe4+!
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Clearly my opponent was doing tactics to prepare for his games! What a blow! Onc the f8 rook lands on f4, checkmate is inevitable.
31. dxe4 Qxe4+ 0-1
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Resigning instead of allowing checkmate was something new for me when I progressed to the adult level, but here the resignation is definitely appropriate.

Within the next two years, my understanding of the Closed Sicilian had changed and a lot of that improvement can be traced back to this loss. Here’s a game I had two years later against a slightly higher rated opponent. I don’t remember many games that I played before 2010, but this win was one of them.

Steincamp – Berenstein (Taylor Fox Memorial III, 2009)

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. Bc4
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Already the first “improvement” from the first game. I still wanted to be aggressive against the Sicilian, so having the bishop on c4 fit me more stylistically at the time than the fianchetto set-ups. If I could go back in time and coach my 1300 self here, I would have preferred 3. Bb5, a much more direct move leading to Rossolimo like positions.
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A strategic error from Black, which goes to show that not all adult play is “perfect”. When White places the bishop on c4, Black generally prefers to put his e-pawn on e6 to blunt the ability of the light squared bishop.
4. d3 h6?
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This move, hoping to stop Bc1-g5 in the future is a definite inaccuracy as Black has neglected to develop his pieces.
5. f4!
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Already this move shows a much stronger understanding of the Closed Sicilian on my part. Seeing that Black’s structure is highly suspect, this move undermines White’s center while hoping to accelerate my own development.
5…d6 6. Nf3 Nf6 7. O-O Be7 8. f5
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And why not?! A very thematic idea for White, planning a phalanx on the kingside. Black is cramped and doesn’t have a move like …g7-g6 to undermine f5 since, after a trade on g6, Black is unable to castle kingside.
8…Bd7 9. Qe1
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Yet another thematic move, hoping to bring in the queen to h4. This is another idea I learned while playing stronger opponents in adult tournaments.
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Already a desperate measure, but in trying to defend, Black has made a structural weakness.
10. fxg6 fxg6 11. Qg3 g5
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Black’s hand has been kind of forced, but my next move is not the most accurate. I would have liked to see either 12. Nd5, removing the f6-knight so my rook can help target f7, and 12. Nh4! using the same idea as the game with my move 12. h4, but if Black doesn’t take, I have Nh4-f5 with great play.
12. h4 g4 13. Be3
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Not really knowing what to do, I simply developed a piece. If Black tries to solidify with …h6-h5, the g5 square becomes a great square for my knight. My opponent should have played 13… Nd4, but made my job easy.
13…gxf3?? 14. Qg6+ 1-0
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Checkmate on f7 is inevitable. A great game for me! I would say, with my current knowledge of chess, that this performance was way above the 1300 level, thanks to the adaptations I made from playing adults.

What a difference! After being outplayed every move in the first game, I got to teach my opponent a lesson with my new found understanding of the Closed Sicilian. Through learning Black’s thematic ideas, I was able to adjust my play accordingly and become even stronger – something that would have never happened if I didn’t switch to adult play. If you are a scholastic player thinking about making the transition, or a parent unsure if your child is ready to make the switch, I hope this article helps you make the best chess decision and face tougher competition.

This has held true for me since, as I have often “played up” a section to gain practical experience. While it may not seem as fun as winning every game, pushing yourself to play against the toughest competition is the most effective way to get better.

Free Game Analysis: Practical Decision Making

For today’s post, I wanted to do a free game analysis, but this time, for some much more experienced players. If you would like to have your games analyzed on the site, make sure to send your PGNs to!

With the London Chess Classic under way, the world’s best have been competing in the final leg of the inaugural World Chess Tour. While there’s a lot on the line, I’ve noticed a lot of mistakes from the first few rounds – first with Anand-Carlsen, but even more so yesterday with Topalov-Caruana.

Caruana and Topalov are no strangers to each other, having played 11 times before meeting in London.

For today’s post, I’d like to highlight the importance of being practical by showing the round 3 duel between the Bulgarian and the American.

Topalov – Caruana (London Chess Classic, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6

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The Berlin Defense has been the most common response to the Ruy Lopez this tournament. Known for its solidarity and ability to reach good endgame positions, Black has had a lot of success in defending against 1 e4 over the last decade.

4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 O-O 6.Nbd2 d6 7.h3 Ne7 8.d4 Bb6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qe2 Ng6

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I’m no Ruy Lopez theoretician, but it doesn’t take much to see that Black’s already equalized. Needing to cover the f4 square, Topalov chose 11. g3. This move comes with the disadvantage that White’s kingside can become a target while White figures out how to develop his queenside army.

11.g3 Qe7 12.Bd3

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An awkward move, but given White’s plan, it’s probably the right approach. Topalov wants to trade his dark squared bishop for Caruana’s menacing b6 bishop. To do this, Veselin will play Nd2-c4 followed by Bc1-e3 so the knight can recapture on e3. Retreating the bishop before playing Nd2-c4 means Topalov doesn’t need to worry about …a7-a6 or …c7-c6.

12…a5 13.Nc4 Bc5 14.Be3 Rd8!

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I like this move from Caruana! Though he can’t stop White’s plan to trade bishops, he can continue to develop his pieces. By not taking on e3, White has to spend one more tempo to capture on c5. Meanwhile, Black has castled, completed most of his development, and is uncontested for the d-file.

15.Bxc5 Qxc5 16.Ne3 h6 17.O-O-O Be6 18.Kb1 b5

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The most natural move for Black. With a hook on c3, Black plunges forward on the queenside with plans of breaking through. Caruana isn’t objectively better yet, but his position is easier to play – making one wonder what Topalov really got out of the opening.


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A typical defensive measure from Topalov. Black doesn’t really gain that much from trading on c4, and should Caruana push (like he did in the game), a queenside break becomes impossible! …a4-a3-a2 will be met by b2-b3, and …b4-b3 will be met by a2-a3, either way locking up the structure. Though Topalov has succeeded in defending the queenside attack, his light squared bishop is held in by his own e4 and c4 pawns.

19…b4 20.Nd5 Nd7 21.Ne1 c6??

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Maybe two question marks are too much, but even I found an improvement before Caruana made this move. Caruana’s intentions are simple. Let’s take a look at the pawn structure.
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Here we have what resembles a standard Maroczy position. If you think about weak squares in the position, White has a clear hole on d4, which would be a great square for a knight (Want to see an example? check out one of my earlier articles here). Meanwhile, with Fabiano’s move …c7-c6, Topalov does not have the same option of putting a piece on d5. If you go back to the game position, Caruana’s knight on g6 can reach d4 via g6-f8-e6-d4. So everything is simple, right?
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What Caruana failed to realize was that after 22. Nc7 he loses his grip on the position. Once White takes on e6, Black gets doubled isolated pawns while also losing his easiest route for the g6 knight to reach d4.
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21… Rc8 was my recommendation during the game, which I actually came up with during the game! Now Caruana can play …c6 next move and White’s knight is forced to return to e3. Generally, when your opponent is cramped, you don’t want to trade pieces. Here White’s knight on d5 will have to retreat, and meanwhile, what exactly can Topolav do? Perhaps Caruana was worried about 22. f4 exf4 not allowing f4-f5, 23. gxf4 but here 23… Bxd5 wins the f4 pawn. It’s definitely risky, but certainly better than what happened in the game. Stockfish suggests 21… a4, but seeing as the queenside attack is not going to infiltrate White’s king, I don’t think this is the most logical way to proceed.

22.Nc7 Rac8 23.Nxe6 fxe6 24.h4

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Topalov here threatens h4-h5 asking Caruana where his g6 knight will go to now that the e6 square is occupied. Already, it’s becoming clear that 21… c6 hasn’t panned out tactically.

24…Rf8 25.Bc2 Qe7 26.Nd3 Nc5 27.Qe3 Nxd3 28.Rxd3 Rfd8 29.Rhd1

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Topalov’s play here is quite simple. Since Black’s g6-knight can’t make it to d4, White infiltrates through the center.

29…Rxd3 30.Qxd3 Nf8 31.Ba4 Qc5 32.Rd2 Kf7 33.Bd1 Ra8 34.Qd6!

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A great move! Endgames will favor white, but if Caruana avoids the trade, his e5 pawn falls, weakening both his structure and his grip on d4. Black has had no compensation for Topalov’s play the last few moves.

34…Qxc4 35.Qxe5 Qb5 36.Qc7+ Kg8 37.Qd6 a4 38.Be2 Qb6 39.Bc4!

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Topalov has been playing phenomenally thus far – Now this bishop move helps Topalov both blockade Black’s queenside expansion while targeting the e6 pawn. Black will never be able to kick this bishop, so now Topalov gets to improve his static advantage.

39…Re8 40.Qd4 c5 41.Qd6 Qb7 42.f3 a3 43.Rd3?

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There’s no need for this! 43. b3 was easily the most natural move. While the computer may not be as punitive, this move was a sign of bad things to come.

43…axb2 44.Kxb2 Kh7 45.Kc2

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It was at this juncture where Maurice Ashley reminded the audience of a classic game between Tigran Petrosian and Wolfgang Unzicker played back in 1960. That game featured a king march to safety before going for the attack. Here, Black’s kingside pawns are extremely weak but taking them would open files to the White king. Ideally, Topalov would like his king on g2 before taking the pawns, and Caruana really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of counterplay.

45…Rc8! 46.Ba6?!

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Caruana laid out the bait and Topalov bit! While Topalov goes up a rook, opening the a-file for Caruana’s queen is extremely dangerous. I’m pretty sure Veselin saw the next few moves during the game – but did he feel more confident about the resulting position than he did about his positional advantage? I’m not so sure. My best guess is that White got impatient and assumed he was winning at the end of the line.

46…Qa7 47.Bxc8 Qxa2+ 48.Kd1 c4

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And Black managed to draw after another 35 moves – you can check the endgame here.

While this was a long game for both players, I thought that there were valuable lessons for players of all levels.

1) Look for all of your opponent’s forcing moves!

Imagine if Fabiano took 22.Nc7 seriously before pushing …c7-c6. This game could have not only ended faster but with a different result. Caruana’s structural integrity posed legitimate problems for Topalov, and I think he could have gone on to win the match.

2) Maintain your static advantages!

From when Topalov played 24. h4, he played great chess before playing 43. Rd3. With the static advantage, White only needed to maneuver around and improve his position while Black struggled to find counterplay. Once he allowed the queenside to open up with …axb2, Caruana got options and eventually tricked White with 45…Rc8.

3) Don’t get impatient.

I think when Topalov played 45. Kc2, he knew he was winning. All White had to do was execute his idea of bringing the king over to the kingside before taking affirmative action. 46. Ba6 is tempting, but Topalov should have known better than go for a line with complications. This decision, as the engine shows, loses the initiative, and cost Topalov a much-needed half point.

Want a cool way to study while watching the London Chess Classic? Try to put yourself in both players shoes! Ask yourself how to address the weaknesses in the position and then compare your moves to the moves made in the game. It’s not easy, but after a while you become more accurate. It was through this exercise I actually found the improvement 21… Rac8 for Caruana. I also liked Carlsen’s game today against Michael Adams. While that game was a draw, I thought Magnus got a very playable position with the white pieces, and I encourage you all to check it out!

Expert vs. Expert: Knowing Your Structures

For today’s video, I wanted to share a game I played against an expert at the Pittsburgh Chess Club last Tuesday. I find this game to be particularly instructive since Black’s pawn structure dictated the pace of the game, as his pawn on c6 weighed down his development as I proceeded to find forcing moves and assemble my pieces for an attack. Hope you all enjoy!