This weekend marked my last preparatory tournament before the US Junior Open – the inaugural Carolinas Classic. Given how my fast start to the Cherry Blossom Classic only petered out to a 3/7 finish, I decided to just focus on being consistent in playing each round. While arguably I failed in this respect, I did well to start 2.5/4 and get an opportunity to play for a class prize before dropping the final round and falling back to an even score.
This tournament was particularly interesting for me, as I got to play new openings and reach sharp positions in three of my five games. While my debut in North Carolina saw an end to my nine-game unbeaten streak with Black, it also saw me to another win over a 2300+ rated player, as well as an encounter with the 2012 US Junior Open winner.
Before we delve into some of the critical moments of my games, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the first edition of this FIDE rated event.
Considering the cost of registration, the chess rate, and the quality of the hotel, I thought that this tournament was extremely well run. The surrounding area was extremely accessible for players with plenty of food options and accommodations within walking distance. Sure, the tournament directors were a bit paternalistic at times, but on a whole, to be able to play in any FIDE event for such a low cost is a rare opportunity in the United States. My only wish was that this tournament had better advertising prior to the event. I actually found out about it by accident, and I wonder if stronger players would have participated if the event was advertised outside of North Carolina. I would recommend this tournament to any serious chess player, especially those looking for FIDE rated games.
That being said, here were some crucial moments of my tournament.
Beware of the Exchange Sac!
Pitted against the third strongest player in North Carolina, my board was broadcast live (only the second time in my career playing on DGT!), and I was hoping to impress for a second week in a row against 2300+ rated competition. Shortly after the opening, I offered a pawn sacrifice, and my opponent thought he spotted a way to clamp my position down instead with 17. Bb5
On face value, Black’s position looks dangerous. I have a weak c5 pawn, and visually, I am at a developmental deficit. However, with my opponent’s king in the center, I had anticipated this and my position sprung to life!
17… Ne5 18. Qxd8 Rxd8 19. Bxc5
Again, still visually unconvincing, but trust me the bishop on c5 is worth more than the f8 rook! In White’s effort to attack, he left his king open for my knight’s infiltration.
19…Nxf3+ 20. Kf2 Nxg4 21. Bxf8 Kxf8
I’ve never really been known to hesitant sacrificing the exchange, and here’s a great example why. Black now has the bishop pair and an extra pawn, but the e4 pawn is destined to fall, so a minor piece and two pawns are more than enough compensation. Furthermore, the bishop on g7 is holding the knight on d1 in place and it’s now White that lacks activity. My opponent decided it was too much to hold on to b2, and gave me the pawn, but this game me a pawn majority on both sides of the board and I was able to convert the endgame (though it was not without difficulty!).
My opponent did well to bounce back, winning the next three before drawing tournament winner Grandmaster Elshan Moradiabadi.
The second round also gave me an interesting match up (again on DGT), paired with the 2012 US Junior Open champion and University of Texas graduate Karthik Ramachandran.
This match-up was extremely close, and I think it could have gone either way, but unfortunately in sharp positions, usually there can only be one winner! I’m still in the process of trying to figure out what happened in that game, so rather than sharing a critical moment of the game, I’ve decided to share an instructive one.
For those of you who would like to see the game in its entirety, you can find it here if you scroll down towards the bottom of the games list. Even though I lost, I was really proud of how I fought in this game.
The Power of a Pawn Sacrifice
In this position, I played 19. Nd5! offering the b2 pawn to Black’s g7 bishop. This is probably the most well-known form of a pawn sacrifice, but it’s always important to know where your play is coming from! The game continued 19… Qxd2+ 20. Kxd2 and now we can see that if 20… Bxb2 21. Rb1 Bg7 22. Bf3,
I have sufficient counterplay for the pawn. If Black tries …b7-b6, I can march the a-pawn to a5, and Black’s queenside collapses. But the more complex find was if Black inserted 20… Bxd5 first, blocking my control of the diagonal after 21. cxd5 Bxb2 22. Rb1 Bg7. But now I have the resource 23. Bd3 and Black is once again in trouble.
Here I have the luxury of taking the pawn on f5 immediately or waiting since this pawn also blocks in Black’s rooks. Now White can quickly play a2-a4 to stop any queenside expansion ideas and then push the h- and g-pawns down the board. Realizing this, my opponent opted for 20…Rde8 21. Bd3 and complexity ensued.
As I said, I unfortunately wound up losing this game in a pawn race, but it was not enough to derail my tournament…right?
At this point, I had already spent nine (!) hours at the chess board, and had little time to relax going into the next round, where I perhaps put together the worst game I’ve played in a while. My mother, who came with me to this tournament, suggested it might be because of the heavy meal I had going into the game, but honestly, I thought I just had a bad game – it happens to everyone at some point, and there’s no shame in it.
Twenty-ish moves into the game I managed to “wake up” and start making respectable moves. Having played tired now in several games over the past few weeks, my best suggestion is to walk around, and not try to calculate long lines but look for positionally logical moves. While this method certainly isn’t failproof, in an equal position you can still outplay your opponent if you just ask what’s my opponent’s weakness? and what’s my worst placed piece?. I have a slight hunch that Jacob Aagard would agree with me on that…
After ten or so moves of maneuvering, I found this nice tactic to make up for an extremely poor performance:
38… Rxd3!! and now the position collapses since the mate threat on g2 means White must give up a piece. Nice move but a single move doesn’t make a good showing!
Round 4 saw me draw quickly after some experimenting with my opening preparation for the US Junior Open, though I must mention preferred my opponent’s position when we agreed on the result. However, scoring 1.5/2 in games where I felt I played less than perfectly was reassuring that even when not at my best, I can still play and hope for a result. Knowing that my last round opponent would be a strong National Master (2200+), I relaxed and focused on putting my best foot forward in my last game before the US Junior Open.
While I lost in a time scramble, I was better for most of the game, and the computer actually preferred my side of the board until the last fifteen minutes of the game as the resulting endgame was deemed as unsavory. Again, I’m still in the process of understanding everything that happened, but I had one highlight I really liked since I was extremely vigilant in defending my king.
Offense is the Best Defense
My opponent decided to open the floodgates here with 29. gxh5, trying to rip apart my kingside and quickly deliver mate. However, almost instinctively I knew this could never work with White’s king on f2. My plan is to keep the g-file closed at all costs, and put my rooks on the h- and f-files. Once my rook is on h8, I can quickly activate my e7 bishop on h4, punishing White for opening the position. The game continued 29… Kg7 30. Rg1 Rh8 31. Ng4 Nxh5
White’s attack has fizzled out, but as the engine points out, there was never anything here for White, in fact Black is perhaps better, if not, equal. This sequence not only played a huge role in the position that transpired, but the clock as well. In these three moves, my opponent spent half his time, and I only needed 3 minutes (of course I had looked at this position before the capture on h5, but still my foresight gave me a temporary time advantage). But the game didn’t stop there, after 32. Nxh5 Rxh5 33. Ba5 Bh4+
And now I’m the one attacking. Don’t believe me? If White isn’t careful, 34. Kf1? is close to losing since 34…b5! threatens mate in one with …Bd7-b5#. White must put the rook on h1 and remain passive while I storm the barricades. The attack ensues after 34. Ke2 b5 35. Qd2 Bb4+ 36. Kd1
The tide has turned, and in time trouble, White is struggling to hold. With my next move, 36… Be7, White’s a5 bishop is closed out of the game and White’s rook have no real avenues of play. My opponent did a great job of complicating the position, and offered a draw before I miscalculated and went from winning to lost in a couple moves. Maybe I deserved to win this one, but that cannot be said about my games in the third and fourth rounds, so in a sense it balanced out.
These last three weeks have given me many extremely complicated positions, and of the seventeen games, I can’t really say that any of them proved to be easy, with most of them pushing the maximum time alotment of the round. While this last game ends my nine-game unbeaten streak with Black, I think my games with each successive week have shown significant improvement, and definetly has me looking forward to the US Junior Open in 11 days!
Again, I can’t thank everyone enough for the support over the past year, and I am really looking forward to showing everyone what I’ve learned this year in New Orleans. Over the past seventeen games, I’ve scored 9.5/17, with only five losses across the three venues.
For the most part, I’d say the theoretical aspect of my training is complete, minus a few tweaks after analyzing my performances over the past three weeks. Here on out, I’m planning on working extensively on calculation since that proved to be the key determinant across all of my losses.
I suspect the preparation and anticipation in upcoming days will be just as fun as my trip to New Orleans, so make sure to check back to get my final thoughts going into the US Junior Open!