Reflecting on the 2016 US Junior Open

Though finishing 7th with a score of 3.5/6 wasn’t exactly what I had been dreaming of, I think my performance at this year’s US Junior Open should give me hope going forward into the future. That being said, there’s always room for improvement, and as this weekend’s games have shown me, this has not changed. I had several opportunities to make my mark in this tournament, playing both of the eventual winners, but in critical moments I had lapses of judgement, ultimately costing me the game in each encounter.

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Jackson Square

Part of this was nerves, I’m sure, but this is no different than any other tournament. If I learned one lesson from this weekend, it’s that you should never set a goal to be to win a tournament! These things just don’t happen on demand. Despite putting in nine months of dedicated study and hard work, this weekend just wasn’t my best weekend. And it’s not like I haven’t improved. In the last nine months, I’ve gained roughly 75 rating points and earned the title of Candidate Master playing against tougher venues across the East Coast. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while my enthusiasm was in the right place, there were twenty-four other ambitious players in my section, who I’m sure were also keen on winning the event. Clearly there can only be at most a few co-winners, and I’m sure if this exact section were to meet again a month from now and play, the final results would be somewhat different. We can’t control when we play our best, but we can focus on continuing to improve, and as my coach has been trying to tell me, do the work and the results will come! Maybe my breakthrough tournament is next month, or next year, or maybe it was even in New York City just a couple weeks ago. While the US Junior Open has concluded, I still have many opportunities to make the most of my preparation for this tournament in future events. That being said, let me highlight some of the key moments of this weekend.IMG_0981

My first round game proved to be rather simple, as my opponent offered a few pieces out of the opening and fell apart quickly. Though I’d usually be annoyed with such a pairing, sitting at the board in a risk-free round helped me relax and become acquainted with the tournament hall. Opening the tournament with a win? Done. Now it’s time to go to war.

In my next game, I was already paired up against the eventual co-winner of the tournament, though he may thank me for my error in reflection – I believe it was the closest he came to losing the entire weekend.

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Steincamp–Liu

White to Move

Here we have a relatively balanced position, with a long middlegame battle ahead of us. Black has the famous hanging pawns structure on c5 and d5, and while I may not have space, my set-up is solid and offers many strategic choices. Here I decided that my queen was misplaced on f5, and played 17.Qb1 with the idea of creating the Reti battery with Qf5-b1-a1 and putting pressure on the dark squares. One problem for Black is that I can continue to improve my position, while all of his pieces are on their best possible squares but lack concrete attacking options. For this reason, my opponent spent half of his time on 17…h6? which is a practical mistake to have spent twenty-three minutes on this move! Black takes away the g5 square, but this is not within the realm of discussion for this position. Quickly, I took my chance to seize the initiative. 18.Qa1 Qf8 19.a4!

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Using the a-pawn technique we’ve discussed several times already here on Chess^Summit! My goal is to create a weakness on the queenside, and reactivate my d2 knight via b1. 19…Ba6 20.Nb1 Bb7 21.a5 Rb8 22.Nc3

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Visually, my position has already undergone a significant transformation. Black’s pieces have meanwhile spread in disarray and lack a concrete plan. My goal now is to trade the d5 pawn for my only weakness on b3. 22…Bc6 23.Nh4 Rxb3 24.Nxd5 Bxd5 25.Bxd5 Nxd5 26.Rxd5

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With my activity comes tactical problems for Black. Already, I’m threatening to take on g7, removing the defender of the d6 bishop. Furthermore, Black’s bishop is pinned to the d7 knight, so Black already must be careful to not hang material. After this move, my opponent had minutes, if not seconds to complete the rest of the game. 26…g6 27.Rcd1 Re6 28.R1d2!

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The right idea! Preparing to create Alekhine’s gun and simply pick off a minor piece and win the game. I spent a lot of time here trying to calculate 28. Bh8 (which works), but couldn’t find a line I really liked. Once I noticed Black has a hard time moving any of his pieces, this became an easy move to make. 28…Ne5

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Hanging a knight, right? Maybe you can already start to see what I missed. My initial reaction to this move was surprised because I had ruled out this option in my calculation of my previous move. In my head, I could hear myself saying “Black only had seconds left when he made the move and was looking really nerv- no this doesn’t matter!” And calculated here. My thought was 29. Bxe5 Bxe5 30. Rxe5 Qg7 but I couldn’t find a way for Black to keep the piece. “Okay, he hung it” but my opponent was a strong master, and such a mistake is so elementary… I went up and drank a glass of water and returned to the board to reanalyze my lines. Nothing. And so I continued. If I had just stuck to my plan of 29. Qd1! Black would have had to give up the exchange since the b3 rook and d6 bishop are hit. But I was greedy and continued 29.Bxe5 Bxe5 30.Rxe5 Qb8!

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A blind spot! Even with seconds left my opponent showed off his tactical acumen with this idea. Already I should have recognized that I can’t play for a win and played 31. Rd8+ Qxd8 32. Rxe6 fxe6 33. Nxg6, but it’s not so clean and for a position that was winning just moves ago, I wanted more. As the famous saying goes, mistakes come in bunches, and in this case, I continued down the path to self-destruction with 31.Qd1 Rb1 32.Rd8+ Qxd8 33.Qxb1

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It was in this moment I realized I had forgotten one of the most basic rules of chess when I recaptured the rook on b1. My original intention was to take on d8, but of course, this isn’t legal due to the pin along the back rank. My opponent converted the endgame, but my position is practically resignable here.

Obviously losing this game put a big dent in my tournament hopes, but I could still have an outside chance at winning so I wasn’t too worried yet. In the third round, I played a 1400-rated player who played unambitiously until his position was nearing critical condition, and then somehow riddled the best move in the position eight times in a row to reach equality. Right when I sobered up to the real possibility of drawing, my opponent hung mate, and I was spared of any humiliation.

While this win preserved my hopes, the horrendous start to my fourth round almost ensured I could not win the event. Luckily, thanks to my study of Carlsen’s endgames here on Chess^Summit, I found a way to draw, and at least finish the day 2.5/4:

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Steincamp–Proleiko

White to Move

Even though I am materially even in this endgame, I am structurally worse, and must constantly defend my position’s well-being. Black’s intentions are clear with his last move. He wants to push his b-pawn and exploit my weak a-pawn. Though my position is a little rancid, Black’s king blocks his h8 rook from action (king safety is not as relevant here), which give me just a few moves to regroup. In order to draw this position, it’s incredibly important to understand that rook and four pawns against rook and three is a draw. This means that trades favor me and that I can afford to trade my a- and d- pawns for the b4 pawn if I can reach that rook endgame. Knowing this, I started by eliminating the threat of …b4-b3. 19.Nd4 O-O 20.Rb1 Rxa2 21.Rxb4 Ra1+ 22.Bf1

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My bishop is passive for now, but this is the consequence of having had the worse side of equal. Now I want to trade off a pair of rooks or force Black off my back rank. 22…Nd7 23.Rcb5 Rc8 24.Rb1 Ra4 25.Nf5!

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This move guarantees equality. Even though I knew he would reject it, I thought about offering a draw here to communicate that I knew how to hold equality. The knight is poisoned since the d5 bishop will hang, and once Black deals with the fork threat on e7,  I will retreat to e3 and then to c4, holding nicely. 25…Kf8 26.Ne3 Bc6 27.R5b4 Ra3 28.Nc4 Raa8

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Thanks to my activity, I can force enough simplifications to force a draw. As I’ve mentioned repetitively in my Endgame Essentials series, activity is crucial towards success. 29.Bg2 Bxg2 30.Kxg2 Rcb8 31.Nb6 Nxb6 32.Rxb6 Rxb6 33.Rxb6 Rd8 34.Rb3Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 23.23.01

Also drawing was 34. h4, but there’s no reason to prove the 4v3 endgame if you don’t have too. My opponent played on for a few more moves, but soon realized how tenable my position was and agreed to a draw. It wasn’t quite the moment I wanted to demonstrate my defensive technique, but with the way the opening went, I had no choice in the matter.

The timing of this round made my day plans quite weird. Having finished at half past three, I had the rest of the day to myself to explore New Orleans. Even though a draw meant I likely couldn’t win, I knew it was important to take a break from chess and relax. After putting my things back in the room, I got an Uber to get a ride to the French Quarter, but unfortunately, my driver asked me to cancel when he realized he wasn’t making as much as he thought he would for the drive. In doing so, it meant I couldn’t summon another Uber without paying a cancellation fee even though it wasn’t my fault. Grounded at the airport hotel, I didn’t exactly have much to do other than go on Netflix and watch some of the Copa America games. I was still feeling quite adventurous, so I ordered delivery from Domino’s and got their cheesy bread… Needless to say, I was quite disappointed.

So as I’m sure you can imagine, I was looking forward to my fifth round game despite my overall tournament standing. Paired against an underrated youngster, we reached a same color bishop, queen, and rook ending, and once again my endgame knowledge proved vital.

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Xu–Steincamp

Black to Move

Again, material is even, but strategically Black is much better. In trying to attack my kingside, White has put all of his pawns on light squares, and now, both b3 and e4 are weak. Furthermore, White has no way of creating counterplay. Meanwhile, all of my moves are extremely naturally, and I only needed about five minutes (increment not included) off the clock to finish the game. First, I started with 36…Rb4 to activate my queen by blocking White’s threats on a5. 37.Bc2 Qc6 38.Rb1 Qb7 39.Rf3

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If you’ve been reading my Endgames Essentials posts, you can probably already sense the direction with which this endgame is heading. My goal is to tie White down as much as possible, and then break with …h7-h5. With my next move, I attack the c4 pawn and force White to defend the b1 rook. I considered taking on a4, but this opens the position slightly, and could offer my opponent counterplay. Remember, it doesn’t matter how long it takes if you win! 39…Bf7 40.Rff1 h5 41.gxh5 Rxh5 42.Kg2 Qa8 43.Rh1 Rh4

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Stopping h2-h4 while also putting even more pressure on the e4 pawn. While I haven’t won any material in the last few moves, the defensive task has become immensly more difficult, as the position went from the principle of two weaknesses to the principle of three (b3, e4, h2)! 44.Qd3 Be8 45.Rbe1 Bd7

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Again, no need to rush with …Bc6. I inserted the threat of taking on f5 here to see where White would place his king before taking further measures. 46.Kg3 Rb8 47.h3 Bc6 48.Kg2 Rbh8

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Since the b3 pawn is adequately protected, it was time to bring this rook from b4 to a more active location. Already, there are ideas like …g5-g4 exposing White’s king, as well as putting my rooks on h4 and f4 to win the e4 pawn. 49.Bb1 Qg8 50.Qf3 Rf4 51.Qg3 Qa8

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I could have also tried 51… g4, but this opens the position and I have to be accurate. While my move takes longer, I guaruntee the win of a pawn, and White is completely helpless. The game effectively ends in a few moves. 52.h4 Bxe4+ 53.Bxe4 Rxe4 54.Rxe4 Qxe4+ 55.Qf3 Qxf3+ 56.Kxf3 Rxh4

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A winning rook and pawn ending, but my opponent makes life even easier with 57.Rf1 Rf4+ 58.Ke2 d3+ 59.Ke1 d2+

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My opponent played on till mate, but I figure that that continuation is far less instructive.

With a win, I sat at 3.5/5 and was tied for third heading into the last round. Though unrealistic, if my second round opponent were to have lost on board 1, and I had beaten my opponent on board 2, I would have tied for first, but I wasn’t counting on this. At this point, I recognized that if the tournament leader won with scholar’s mate, I couldn’t control it, and if he lost in four moves, it would still be out of my control. With my fourth round draw, I knew I was undeserving of first place, and if it happened then I would be extremely lucky. In just 30 minutes, the tournament leader drew, and that was that.

I still had my hands full though against a 2300 who was one win away from securing a tie for first. We had an interesting opening to say the least (though not necessarily great in quality), and in the middlegame, my opponent made a positional pawn sacrifice and got plenty of light-squared compensation. I was doing well to hold and reached this position:

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Steincamp–Wang

White to Move

As we’ve seen thus far activity has been the key theme in each of my endgames, and thus I played 28. Qe7?? Rf8 29. Qb4 Ne4! -+ Even though I pushed Black’s rook away, I neglected an even more important theme we had discussed, king safety! If I had found 28. Qd3, my drawing chances would have sharply increased, and who knows, maybe I could have played spoiler and stopped my opponent from tying for first. This theme of consolidation is also extremely important in endgames, and admittedly it’s not one I spent extensive time studying back at home.

So at 3.5/6, my tournament was over. I had my chances, but this weekend I was shown three reasons why I simply could not be the US Junior Open champion, and that’s okay. While I have my over the board regrets, I have no regrets about pushing myself to win this tournament. Training to be competitive has made me a lot more well rounded as a player, and has given me the discipline I needed to improve going forward. Again, I can’t stress how grateful I am to have competed in this event and shared my process to reach here with all of you.

IMG_0983My last game completed, I was happy to find that Uber had waived my cancellation fee and even given me some credits for a ride. With nothing else to do, I finally got to head to the French Quarter and explore New Orleans. Being a food fanatic, I visited Cafe du Monde for their beignets and after a stroll through Woldenburg Park had dinner at The Gumbo Shop before heading back to the hotel.

IMG_0990While I had fun exploring the city, I wish I had more time to visit famous attractions like the zoo or aquarium, but unfortunately, the location of the hotel made this just about impossible as nearly everything of interest was about a half hour away.

With my last junior tournament in the books, I’ll have to think about what I want my next goal to be. Obviously, I want to become a National Master, but I’m hoping I can accomplish even more by the time I graduate college in three years… I guess we’ll have to see!

As I’ve mentioned before, I will be relaunching Chess^Summit on June 28th, adding three new authors in Beilin Li, Vishal Kobla, and Alice Dong. I’m really excited about the future of Chess^Summit, and I encourage you all to check out the new authors and learn from some of their own unique insights! See you all in a week!

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2 thoughts on “Reflecting on the 2016 US Junior Open

  1. Pingback: Welcome to Chess^Summit! – chess^summit

  2. Pingback: Endgame Essentials: From Khanty to Krulich – chess^summit

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