The powerful e5 Pawn break against the Benoni: using it as White, neutralizing it as Black

Introducing myself

Hi, I’m Franklin Chen, and this is my first post for Chess Summit, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to begin sharing insights into chess understanding and improvement here. I recently (December 2015) finally became a US National Master, at age 45, and still consider myself an improver. (If you are curious about my history, my personal Web site has an interview of me for the Pittsburgh Chess Club.)

Theory, examples, and practice

Today I’d like to give an example of how to improve understanding and use of a single important concept, the e5 Pawn break by White against the Benoni Pawn structure, in particular, the Modern Benoni structure:

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As you go through my post here, I’d like you to consciously think about how to be effective at chess study. I like to conceptually effective study as being broken into three components:

  • Theory: knowing about a concept, in its abstract generality
  • Examples: seeing analyzing how the concept works or doesn’t, in specific contexts
  • Practice: actually using the concept in your play, and then analyzing whether it worked or didn’t, making note of improvements to make in your play the next time

Theory

The basic theory of middlegames with this Pawn structure is the following:

White has an extra King side Pawn, on e4, and it would like to advance to e5 to attack Black’s d6 Pawn, which is very vulnerable because it is the base of a Pawn chain that has no possible Pawn to protect it. If White’s Pawn can get to e5, then it shuts down Black’s Bishop developed on g6, and also might advance to e6, or might support a Pawn or piece getting to f6. White might also advance g4, g5, h4, h5 for a full-blown King side attack on Black’s King.

Black has an extra Queen side Pawn, on c5, and therefore has chances to play against White’s Queen side by advancing with, …a6, …b5, then maybe …c4, …b4. Black’s Bishop on g7 will aid in the attack on the Queen side and also sometimes go to d4 or e5 to attack White’s King. Black has a half-open e-file and can put pressure on White’s e4 Pawn and try to prevent e5.

All very abstract, but it’s useful to know what the possibilities are up front, before diving into concrete examples. Note that when looking at examples, it is critical to examine good and bad play by both sides, not just one side; this way, we avoid the trap of overoptimistic, wishful thinking believing that the side we play has it easy. The beauty and challenge of chess is that most reasonable positions are not winning or lost but contain resources for both sides in case one side plays inaccurately (and in human chess, that always happens eventually).

Example from Isaac on how not to play against him as White

Last month, Isaac analyzed one of his games in which he was Black in this Pawn structure and his opponent as White misplayed the middlegame and allowed Black easy play on the Queen side, resulting in this won position:

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White is completely lost here, because Black’s Queen, Rook, and Bishop have broken through: White had not even made any progress in the center or King side, but instead mistakenly not only helped Black open the b-file, but also went after winning Black’s a6 Pawn rather than protecting the critical b2 Pawn from capture.

Remember this position! At the end of this article, you’ll understand why.

Examples of Mikhail Tal losing horribly as Black!

Now that we’ve seen White punished for imprecise play, let’s see examples of Black being punished. I really like the following examples, in which the great attacking legend Mikhail Tal, who played the Modern Benoni as Black a lot and won many brilliant games as Black, actually got completely crushed by not being careful about White’s own attacking resources involving the e5 Pawn break!

Penrose-Tal, 1960

Penrose-Tal, 1960 reached this position, which White to move:

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White looks in trouble

Let’s face it, the position is looking really bad for White here. It’s looking like Black will be playing …b4 next move, pushing White back. Meanwhile, White doesn’t look like he can get in e5 any time soon, given that White’s only guarding the e5 square with the f4 Pawn, while Black has the d6 Pawn, Knight, Queen, Rook, and Bishop all majorly overprotecting the e5 square.

Let’s say White tries to blunt Black’s Bishop and get more control over the e5 square with 19 Bd4. But then 19…Bxd4 20 Qxd4 b4 21 Nd1 Ba6, and White clearly stands worse, with no hope of pushing through with e5 or anything else on the King side, while Black is swarming in on the Queen side:

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White had something ready

So you might think, there goes another dominating game by Tal as Black. But he was in for a big shock: White played 19 e5 here!

Yes, it loses a Pawn, as we already observed, but the critical insight here is that e5 can, in the right circumstances, be powerful even if it is a Pawn sacrifice. Let’s see why: after 19…dxe5, 20 f5! is the key idea, reaching this position, which is in fact winning for White:

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Black to move faces many difficulties. Make note of the following transformations in the game after just two moves:

  • Black’s Knight on c5 is no longer overprotected, since the d6 Pawn has been deflected to e5.
  • Black’s Bishop on g7, which had so many threats against White’s Queen side, is now blocked up.
  • White’s Pawn on f5 threatens to take on g6 and open up the f-file for White’s Queen and Rook.
  • White’s Bishop on d3 is now unblocked against Black’s King side.
  • White’s Knight on c3 now can hop to the cleared e4 square to attack Black’s King side.

You can study the full game (linked above) for details, but let’s just say that after reaching this position, White played 26 Nc5 winning Black’s Knight on d7 and the rest was just a matter of technique:

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Korchnoi-Tal, 1962

You’d think the great Tal would have “learned” to watch out for the e5 sacrifice idea and wouldn’t fall for it again, but oops, he did it again! We’re all human.

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In this position, Tal as Black has just played 18…b5, frantically trying to get in Queen side counterplay. But 19 e5! followed. Let’s look at the positional transformation in this example after 19…dxe5 20 Nde4.

Now that you’ve seen the previous example, you might want to think for yourself and write down a list of what has changed, before reading further to check your answers. I’ve found that it’s really important to try to work out your thoughts, and even actually write down, as though making a commitment to your beliefs as though you were really playing, before checking answers, rather than just passively reading:

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OK, here’s a list of transformations:

  • As in the previous game, White has forced Black to self-block the e5 square, which is no longer available for Black’s Knight, Bishop, or Queen.
  • As in the previous game, Black is now suddenly weak rather then overprotected at c5.
  • White has an immediate threat of d6. Note that in the previous game, this motif was not present.
  • Even Black’s b5 Pawn is now vulnerable, because it was never overprotected in the first place, and now if Black’s Knight on c7 gets chased away, it will fall.
  • Interestingly, unlike the previous game, where White basically dominated the King side, here, White is suddenly operating on the center and Queen side.

Note how each concrete situation will have its own list of possible transformations. That’s why it’s important to study many examples of the theme of the e5 sacrifice, and when encountering the possibility in your own games, to check whether it actually works. Note that the list here is smaller than the previous list, for example; correspondingly, White’s advantage is not as decisive as in the previous game. But still, after 20…Qd8 21 Nxf6+ Nxf6 22 d6 Ne6 23 fxe5 b4 24 Nd5 Nxd5 25 Qxd5 Bb7, White had regained the Pawn with a large advantage:

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The final position before Tal resigned is very entertaining:

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Revisiting Isaac’s game

Armed with the knowledge and examples we have seen, let’s go back to Isaac’s game. The whole impetus for my writing this article was noticing something in this position in his game, with White to move: 

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White played the planless 15 Qg3 here. But when seeing this position, I immediately thought, is now the time to play the thematic 15 e5 sacrifice? First of all, does Black even have to take? And if Black takes, then what are the possible transformations of features of the position? You may want to stop and work out some possible lines.

A note on chess engines

Warning: this position is actually much more complex than the examples from earlier. In fact, after doing this exercise, you may want to check whether your favorite chess engine wants to play 15 e5. Mine did not. My engine did not believe that 15 e5 was as strong as I believed it to be. So this is a reminder that engines are not a replacement for human concepts and intuition: Kramnik famously lost a game against Leko in the 2004 World Championship because he relied on engine analysis that was not deep enough at the time. When studying chess with an engine, use your own knowledge of ideas to generate and check candidate moves and plans with the engine.

What if Black doesn’t take?

Note that Black can simply choose not to take the Pawn on e5, in order to prevent White from advancing with f5. After all, Black could protect the d6 Pawn with …Ne8 or …Qe7, or even not protect the Pawn at all, since if White ever takes, Black could retreat with …Ne8 and try to regain the Pawn, with a blockade of White’s d6 Pawn, and might be able to defend.

The thing to realize here is that White’s e5 advance is not intended for a quick knockout win. It is a positional move that just happens to possibly be a sacrifice. What the e5 Pawn does, if untouched, is restrict Black’s counterplay, so that White can continue to improve his position before making a committal capture of some kind to break through. Note that White’s Rooks are not yet developed. Imagine if they were on d1 and e1 behind the d5 and e5 Pawns. A sample line where Black just ignores the e5 Pawn might be 15…Qe7 16 Rad1 Ne8 17 Ne4 Rb8 18 Qf2 b5 19 axb5 axb5 20 g4 c4 21 Bb1 Ra8 22 g5 and White has made progress on the King side while Black has only been able to advance the Queen side Pawns and move the Rook around:

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After Black accepts the sacrifice

Black to move:

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This is a fascinating position because White has no direct threats at all and it’s even Black’s turn. Try running an engine on this position. It has to think longer and longer before believing White will eventually achieve a substantial advantage. Here are some features of the position:

  • Black’s activity is very restricted.
  • White will put a Knight on e4 and advance the Pawn to d6 eventually, supported by a Rook on d1.
  • White g4 and g5 stuff might happen, and/or something on f6.
  • Black has to watch the c5 Pawn, which is no longer overprotected because the d6 Pawn was deflected away.
  • White’s Queen on f3 could be a threat against Black’s Pawn on b7. White is playing on all sides of the board here.

A sample continuation: 16…Ne8 17 Ne4 Rc8 18 d6 c4 19 Bc2 Nef6 20 Rad1 b5 21 axb5 axb5 22 Nxf6 Bxf6 23 Qd5. White still has a bind and is going to finally regain the sacrificed Pawn:

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I have not analyzed every possible continuation with the engine, but I have complete faith that White’s advantage must be considerable in every line after the e5 sacrifice. I would welcome any attempt to prove me wrong! In any case, from a practical point of view, without perfect Black play, at least we should be able to agree that White has more than enough compensation for the Pawn.

A game of mine where I faltered

In 2006 (when I was less knowledgeable and strong than I am now), I played a game as Black in which I got crushed by a National Master. I like to think I learned something from that game. Here is an important position, with Black to move:

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I should have stopped to think about the features of the position, which is completely fine for Black, but I got complacent. There were too many choices: …b5 looked good, and so did …f5.

I could even play …Bxc3, removing the defender of the e4 Pawn, then go after it. I ruled that out because 17…Bxc6 18 bxc3 Nf6 19 Bf3 and it looks like Black is in bad shape. I didn’t see the tactic 19…Nxe4 which equalizes because of 20 Bxe4 Re8:

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Instead I played …Re8 and then White played the “obvious” 18 e5.

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I was devastated when I saw this, because what was I thinking when playing …Re8? I had forgotten to check whether e5 was good, since it wasn’t anything special in the other variations I had considered. It’s always important to check for important ideas on every single candidate move even if they didn’t work on the candidate moves you already looked at. I felt so bad that I gave up and panicked, took the Pawn, and after the thematic f5, slowly fell apart. I could not see a good continuation if I declined the Pawn. It turns out there was: because White’s e5 Pawn is still pinned, Black has time to play 18…f5! 19 e6 b5! with counterplay. It looks like Black can try to maintain a blockade and defend.

A final example

To reinforce understanding of a concept, it is important to keep reviewing examples, and nowadays, that is easy because of the publishing of played high-level games online. For example, just by following chessbase.com, I saw a nice game by young 21-year-old GM Benjamin Bok posted in an article there in which he showed how to play the Black side of the Modern Benoni.

In the following position, White has just played 18 e4.

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Unfortunately, the threat of e5 is transparent and easily parried, with 18…Ng4. White has misplayed the opening, because now e5 is completely controlled by Black, who has the d6 Pawn, two Knights, Bishop, Queen, and Rook all controlling e5! You know that White is never going to get e5 in. Sure enough, some moves later, we have White to move:

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White has done nothing but defend, while Black is already creating serious pressure on the Queen side. Look familiar? This should remind you of Isaac’s game. If the b2 Pawn falls, it’s game over. Guess what?

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In this position, Black played 31…Nxb2 and the game was effectively over. I recommend looking at the entire game to see how Black finished White off after winning a Pawn and then switched attention to attacking White’s exposed King. GM Bok made it all look easy, against a FIDE 2470 opponent! The Modern Benoni in the hands of an aggressive player still lives!

Conclusion

In this article, I explored examples of thematic White and Black play in Modern Benoni Pawn structure middlegames. I particularly enjoyed spotting the opportunity for an e5 Pawn break in Isaac’s game. I hope we will all watch out for this idea in our games, whether to play it or to defend against it.

SPFGI Take Two

After playing chess for maybe a year in the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, I stared in amazement as I arrived at the Susan Polgar Girls National Open tournament in Corpus Christi, Texas. There were ballrooms upon ballrooms of just rows of tables with chess sets on top. There, I played and won my first ever all-girls tournament – well, I tied for first, but that’s close enough for a nine year-old who was the only one able to defeat the first seed. For the first time ever, I just knew that chess was what I wanted to do, not dance or gymnastics or any other ‘girly’ activity.

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That was 2007. Five years later, I found myself invited to be the New Jersey representative for the Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational. In those five years, I never played in an all-girls tournament outside of the local New Jersey Girls Junior – where the open section was maybe ten people on a good year. When I arrived at the St. Louis airport for the first time ever, I felt that heart-wrenching pressure to win as the top seed. But something was different when I stepped on campus and the pre-tournament events began. For the first time ever, I was there not to win, not to just eat, sleep, chess. I went into the tournament with no friends, and just one acquaintance who I had met while in Greece for the World Youth Chess Championships two years prior. I came out of the tournament with at least a dozen new friends, most of which I still keep in touch with even today.

Five days ago, I again found myself here, in St. Louis. When I first accepted the invitation, all my friends asked me why I would even consider returning – it’s my last summer before college and I’ve already won the title, so why take that week out of my life to come back and risk losing that 2100 rating I’d finally achieved after four years? Shouldn’t I be relaxing on a beach somewhere, enjoying my last taste of freedom before I become shackled to college life? To be honest, I asked myself these questions even while I was on the flight here, but as I settled into my dorm room, I remembered the excitement of the tournament, the friendliness of the organizers and the fellow players and I knew I made the right decision to come back.

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Round 4 of the Blitz Side-Event

In a way, it feels only right that I end my scholastic career here at the 13th annual Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational after launching it at the foundation’s National Open nine years earlier. It’s taught me that tournaments are not just a battleground – it’s a place to experience immersing oneself in chess completely for the first time ever, or a place to realize you’re not the only girl who loves this game, even if you are the only one in your school or even state. The SPFGI is an event that inspires, not only pushing me to keep playing chess, but also pushing me to promote chess with the NJ All-Girls Chess Camp.

The Southern Open: A Comedy of Errors

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The 2016 edition of Dragon Chess Camp brought in a record 51 campers for the week long program.

What a long couple of weeks it has been! Since my return from Philidelphia, improving from one of my most nightmarish tournaments of my career has been at the forefront of my agenda. With new openings to learn and grandmaster games to review, I had exactly two weeks to prepare for this past weekend’s Southern Open in Orlando. While such a short period of time to prepare is by no means ideal when preparing a new repertoire, I was ready to play some new lines as Black. In fact, in each of my games as Black I got to play new openings and reached much more solid positions! So progress has been steady, but there’s still a long ways to go.

On top of my own personal opening preparations, my first week back from the World Open was also spent volunteering at a program I had started back in 2013, Dragon Chess Camp. Back in my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to push our team to become much more competitive and provide my teammates with competitive opportunities across the country. The first edition of the summer camp had twenty participants and raised enough for our team to travel to the National High School Chess Championships in San Diego the following year where we won clear first in the U1200 section. Since, the team’s outreach has really taken off – running free chess clinics, more summer programs, and hosting a plethora of scholastic tournaments – and the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has become the pinnacle of chess in Richmond.

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Watching the kids practice the Lucena and Philidor positions – better now than later! And that screen in the background? We were watching Nakamura’s big win over Carlsen too.

This summer, fifty-one scholastic players registered, which will help next year’s team compete in their first SuperNationals in Nashville, Tennessee! With such high attendance, I was tasked with the largest group I had taught in all four editions of the program. For that week, our class focused on theoretical rook endgames – the Lucena, Philidor, Vancura, known draws – whatever you could think of! Despite the relatively young age of my group, by having the players practice both converting and defending, they proved to be extremely fast learners and one of the players even used the ‘building a bridge’ technique to convert a win at the weekend’s tournament.

The second half of the course focused on principled opening play, which I had put together after my performance at the World Open. Halfway through the week, I had realized that many of the players in the camp only knew “unprincipled” openings – for example, various Pirc and Modern structures as Black – and were constantly having problems because they didn’t know theory. Thinking back to the thousands of pages of chess literature I’ve read, Greg Serper’s chess.com article on Inexperienced Player Mistakes comes to mind, where he calls a 1500 rated player’s choice of 1. c4 a mistake (of course this means I sinned in this same way six years ago) because a player of that caliber needs to learn chess by fighting for the center first with 1. e4 or 1. d4.

I think part of the openings-craze among scholastic players is driven by coaches who themselves don’t know classical openings, or perhaps think that changing openings will solve all of the problems their pupils may be having. Of course, this may temporarily improve the student’s performance, but long term – as I too have recently found – could be more of a hindrance than a strength. As a gift to all the 1. e4 players in my class, I showed them a simple plan Amonatov used in similar structures to demonstrate how Black’s failure to fight for the center was the root of his problems.

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The tournament venue – good thing the US Junior Open in New Orleans taught me how to cope with the heat!

So that’s enough banter, how did my first tournament back from the World Open go? Admittedly, not what I had hoped for. Without any opportunities to really practice my new openings or demonstrate improvement in an over-the-board game, I lacked a lot of confidence in my own abilities. This definitely had an impact on my overall play, but the bigger problem was that in spending all of my preparation on openings for this event, I was not as sharp tactically, and that proved to be the most apparent reason why I underperformed.

In my first round, I had a Deja vú experience, getting once again surprised in the opening and completely dismantled by International Master Daniel Fernandez – not exactly what you want when you’re confidence is already at a low! For my next two rounds, I focused on staying solid and earned two easy draws, though I figured they would not be the most entertaining games to share today. I nearly repeated the task in the fourth round, but a simple blunder saw me lose a pawn and enter a hopeless endgame. So once again, I had to look to my last round game to avoid disaster. After some impractical opening decisions, I reached the following position:

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Steincamp – Teodori, White to Move

While White might be able to hold a fortress, it’s clear that only Black can really play for a win. Beyond the fact that I have the thematically bad Maroczy bishop, Black also has the advantage that he can play for several weaknesses. First against the e4 pawn, in either tying down my pieces or making me play f2-f3 weakening my dark squares. But perhaps the idea that will really prove to be the most annoying is that Black can simply play …a7-a5-a4, and then put pressure along the half-open b-file, using the principle of two weaknesses to create pressure. If needed Black also has the …f7-f5 break as an added resource he can use to try to put an end to my existence. So strategically Black is winning. Over the board, I figured my best chance in this position was to find a way to generate kingside counterplay and reroute my light-squared bishop to a more active position. 21.g3

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Here I decided my only way to improve the position was to expand at the right moment with f2-f3 or f2-f4, but playing this move first leaves my options open. More importantly, this is the beginning of a long road trip for my bishop on d3, starting on f1, and re-entering the fray on g2. With the next few moves, my opponent made it clear that he didn’t know how to proceed. 21…Bc6 22.Bf1 Qd4 23.Bg2 Kg8 24.Rd1 Qg7 25.Rde1 Qd4 26.Rd1 Qg7 27.Rde1 Ba8 28.h3

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As you can see, my opponent has done very little to improve the nature of his position, simply waiting for me to make a mistake. Of course, there’s nothing I can really do at the moment to punish him, but the more I continue to evolve my position the better suited it will be to fend off any attack from Black. With this move, I create a little room from my king on h2. I was considering 28. f4?! but after 28… Qd4 starts to get annoying and tactical complications ensue after …f7-f5. Though h1 seems like a suitable square for the monarch, it’s on the same diagonal as Black’s bishop, and I would rather avoid that if possible. With Black not doing much, I have time to place my pieces as I would like. Realizing I was planning f2-f4, my opponent lashed out with 28…g5? and then the party really started!

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Even in my poor form, I immediately recognized this as a positional blunder. While temporarily stopping f2-f4, Black has just weakened his light squares around the king. Already I can think about mounting my g2 bishop on f5 where it would actually be a decent piece and at the very least give me very good drawing chances. Furthermore, thanks to 28. h3, I can put my king on h2 and consider opening the g-file at my own convenience. With this one move the entire dynamic of the game starts to change, and luckily for me, my opponent has yet to realize the gravity of the situation. 29.Kh2 Kh8 30.Qe2 Qg6 31.Qb2+ Qg7 32.Qe2 Kg8

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If you compare this position to the previous diagram, you’ll see that Black’s position is identical to the one before it, while I’ve had the luxury of making two moves and am on turn to take a third. Here I decided to take control of the game with 33.f4 since now seemed the most logical time to change the structure in the game. Black’s ability to use his long-term trumps are starting to wear off, and it almost seems like the a8 bishop is every bit out of the game as mine on g2. 33…f6 34.Bf3 Kh8 35.Bh5?

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Trying to execute a bishop pendulum before locking in on g4. Positionally not bad, but tactically problematic if Black finds 35…gxf4! the critical zwischenzug that turns the game upside down. Luckily for me, as the game has shown thus far, Black was beyond trying to proactively solve his problems and reacted to my threat as I had anticipated. 35…Rg8 36.Bg4 gxf4 37.gxf4 h5 38.Bf5

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Not taking the pawn! Positionally it is much more important to have a bishop on f5 and control the critical light squares in the position. This enables my queen to enter the game on h5 if Black isn’t careful, which wasn’t an option if I had taken with the bishop. Tactically, Black probably retains an edge if after 38. Bxh5 f5! attempting to open the long light square diagonal. I awkwardly managed to set-up a defense until making this critical mistake some moves later. 38…Qh6 39.Rf1 Reg7 40.Rff3 h4 41.Qf2 Bb7 42.Be6?

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Black to move and win. I’ll attach the answer further down in the article if you want to try and solve it first. Positionally though, my goal was to lock down the e-file by playing f4-f5 and use the f4 square for my rook to attack h4. This is precisely what happened in the game, but even from a positionally better side of the board, tactics are still everywhere! 42…Re8 43.f5 Bc8 44.Rf4 Rh7 45.Bf7!

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I had seen this when I played 42. Be6, and perhaps I was too quick in missing its initial refutation. The game is now lost because Black cannot take on f7 without losing the queen via Rf4xh4 with a pin, and now my bishop will go to g6 and win the exchange. Sadly for Black, there are no practical winning chances once the position simplifies. 45…Re7 46.Bg6 Bb7 47.Bxh7 Rxh7 48.Rg4 1-0

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 18.31.45And the game meets its rightful end. Black cannot save the h4 pawn, and my pressure on the kingside will be too much to handle. Black’s light-squared bishop, once the proudest piece in the position, now is utterly useless to aid Black in his struggles.

Not a particularly well-played game, but I thought it illustrated how at the 2100 level, how tactics and poor endgame technique still plague our games. And to some extent, the once abysmal d3 bishop’s road trip was quite amusing – it moved eleven times from d3 to reach h7 to win the game!

I’ve already thoroughly discussed endgames here on Chess^Summit, but if you missed my series on Carlsen, you can check them (in order) here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here – I swear they are all different links! It was a lot of fun putting together those articles, and it certainly helped my endgame play, and  hopefully it can help you too! As for tactics, it’s a never ending improving process – speaking of which:

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 18.24.4242. Be6?? Rg2+ 43. Qxg2 Rxg2+ 44. Kxg2 Bxe4!! 45. Rxe4 Qg6+ -+

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How easy it was to miss 44… Bxe4!!? Well, luck was certainly on my side this game.

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Last summer I took third in the U2200 section, which set me well on my way towards breaking 2100.

I’m closing out this summer with my next tournament, the Washington International, before heading back to Pittsburgh for my fall semester. While I was flirting with the idea of trying the open section early in the summer, I’ve decided to compete in the U2200 section to iron out some of the weaknesses in my game. The Washington International is certainly the most accommodating tournament I’ve ever played in, and I’ve had this event marked on my calendar since I left Rockville last year. I’m hoping to make the most out of this tournament, and hopefully, it can be as good to me as it was last year! Until next time!

Psychological Resiliency: The Art of the Bounceback

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If you’re anything like the prototypical chess player, you probably hate losing more than anything in the world. Or even drawing games that you think you should have won. It sucks, but I’m not going to give the usual “study your losses and learn from your mistakes” spiel. Instead I’ll focus on the short term instead of long term response, because immediate reaction to disappointment is critical to consistency and improvement.

I am no stranger to periods of frustrating stagnation. After starting tournament chess in 2007 and ending with a rating around 2050 by the end of 2009, I struggled to improve noticeably for quite a while. My results were woefully inconsistent: good results alternated with bad results. Basically everything I’m going to tell you I didn’t know. It took me the next 15 months just to break 2100, during which I considered quitting chess completely after every tournament.

When we hit plateaus, often good tournament results are alternated with horrible tournament results. Rarely do players plateau because they continuously have average tournaments. If you can increase your floor performance level, then you give yourself a great chance to have a breakout result eventually that isn’t offset by other major losses.

I’m a big stats and data guy (it’s actually my job for the summer), so take a look at the below table and see what you can notice:

results

Not coincidentally, I made master towards the end of 2012.

Basically, try to avoid ever losing twice in a row or being upset twice in a row. Whenever you get hit, get right back up and hit back harder in the next game. I know it’s a whole lot easier said than done, but if you put yourself into this mindset all the time you will develop a psychological resiliency that can carry over not just from game to game but also from move to move, or tournament to tournament. Even many strong players seemingly can’t do this. How many times have you seen one of the top seeds get nicked for a draw or loss in round one and immediately withdraw? There’s a certain word I would use to describe these people, but this blog post is probably not the appropriate place to say it.

The exception to this is if you play up. If you play up against much higher rated opposition, this becomes tough to do, otherwise you should be at their rating! Playing up can help you gain experience against strong opposition, but if you find yourself just losing game after game, it really does you no good. My suggestion is to develop a pattern of strong consistency against lower-rated and equally-rated players. Once you can consistently take their money and rating points, move up.

I am convinced my slow, eventual grind to my current rating of 2350 could have been a lot quicker if I had been able to develop a greater psychological strength earlier on. (That, and better study habits. Isaac seems to be a lot better and more methodical at this!) I like to feel like I’ve improved in this area, as I have very few catastrophic results anymore. I feel like my approach has matured. Of course, I don’t claim to be great at this even now, as it is an ongoing process for all players. The next step is to increase my chances of super strong results, for which actual chess study plays a much larger role (go figure).

As I’m writing this, Hikaru Nakamura has notched his first ever classical win against Magnus Carlsen in round 1 of Bilbao. But perhaps even more remarkable is that Carlsen won all of the next three games to surge back to clear first. What I’ve noticed is that in the rare occasions that Carlsen does lose, he comes back with a vengeance, and often steamrolls his next opponents. That’s part of the reason why he is in a class of his own. He doesn’t let losses get to him. Instead, he uses them as fuel for the fire that is unleashed upon his upcoming foes. Be like Carlsen, channel that competitiveness, and GET PISSED OFF when things don’t go your way.

I have my share of 20 move demolitions, but the example I’m showing is the best display of the theme of resiliency:

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Liu, A (2360) – Xu, G (2284), Continental Open 2013, Position after 18. Kf2

I was coming off a tough loss in the previous round, having missed many opportunities to draw against a 2500+ player. This game looked like a forgone conclusion too, and I can’t remember ever having to defend such a depressing and sh***y position. It’s move 18, and not a single one of my pieces have left the back rank, except for my queen that is about to be pinned by Re1. However, I was determined not to lose, and tried to make the win as difficult as possible for my opponent.

18…Kd8  only move 19. Re1 Qf7 20.Qf4 Qf8 this looks even worse, doesn’t it? 21. gxf6 Nxf6 22. Rg1 Nbd7 23. Qg5 b5!? A move of desperation, but a very practical decision. I couldn’t wait for White to slowly build up pressure and crush me, and had to seek some kind of activity. 24. Nf4 Nb6 25. Ne6+ Bxe6 26. Rxe6 27. Qxg7+ Qxg7 28. Rxg7 Nfd7 29. Bh3 b4 30. Bf6

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White still has a tremendous position and is winning, as his powerful rooks and bishops paralyze my knights. However, I was able to avoid getting mated or suffering massive material loss, giving me a chance to keep fighting. Granted, my opponent doesn’t play with the best precision leading up to the time control, but I refused to die and played “annoying” chess.

30…Rae8 31. Rxe8 Rxe8 32. Rxh7 a5 33. Be6 a4 34. h4 b3 the only way to set problems 35. axb3 axb3 36. h5 Ra8 37. h6 b2

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White is only a couple of steps away from victory, and I had calculated in all lines that I was losing, but I held my breath….38. Bf5?? White tries to play it safe, but finally errs. The simple Bxb2 Ra2 Re7 Rxb2+ Kg3 Ra2 h7 Ra8 Bg8 would have won. 38…Rf8! I grab my opportunity and realize I am probably out of the woods. 39. Bxb2 Rxf5 40. Rxd7+ The computer actually still says Re7 is winning for White, but that is a tough move for a human to calculate thoroughly with little time, so White bails out. Kxd7 41. h7 Rh5 42. h8Q Rxh8 43. Bxh8 Nxc4

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I end up with a better endgame in which I was able to press, but alas, I missed a couple wins later on and the game ended in a satisfactory result of a draw, and I avoided two brutal losses in a row. 1/2-1/2

This kind of tenacity and resiliency is a widely seen attitude that generalizes to a life approach (see the Confucius quote at the beginning of this post). Besides Carlsen, there are many other examples:

-The Golden State Warriors never lost two games in a row in their magical 73-9 regular season run. They often blew the opposing team out of the gym in the next game after the games they did lose. Perhaps fittingly, when they finally started to lose multiple games in a row, they almost got eliminated by the Thunder and lost the championship to the Cavs.

-The five minutes after a soccer goal is scored is often said to be the most dangerous period of time for the team that just scored. The opposing team is often at its hungriest and most motivated to strike back in this period.

-Before his retirement and subsequent attempted “unretirement”, Muhammad Ali only lost three fights in his career. After every single loss, he won the rematch, often decisively. Ali is considered by many to be the Greatest of All Time.

Developing resiliency goes a long way. It’s difficult to do, but those that can master it achieve greatness.

 

 

 

Attacking Chess (Part 2): The Speculative Spectacle

In the first installment of our Attacking Chess series, we discussed the first rule that I have considered to be a must-know if a player wishes to have success.  If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you check that out first before reading on (that article can be found here).

In the previous rule, we discussed situations in which the player should not shy away from moves or sacrifices that are not associated with a clear path to victory, especially if long-term positional or tactical compensation exists.  In this way, if the attack doesn’t finish the game off right away, there is still a fighting game in the road ahead.

However, we do not always find ourselves in these situations where we can always fall back on the ability to play on with compensation if an attack falls apart.  It is these specific situations that should` be prepared for and studied most – when an attack does not go through, and it leaves the player with an inferior position.  Yet, this does not always have to be the case – there is hope; it is here in these situations in which our next rule applies.

Rule #2:  When dealing with speculative sacrifices, it is better to have a bailout option available.

There might be multiple ways to accomplish this, but the most likely candidate to occur will be the perpetual check or the forced three-move repetition.  Giving perpetual checks is one of the simplest ways to end a game in a draw, especially if they are completely forced.  The ability to be able to end the game with no questions asked can become quite handy when conducting attacks, especially when material is being sacrificed.  Knowing that it’s impossible to lose because that draw is always available in the back pocket is a great feeling to have.  With this in mind, venturing a bit to try something can pay off in the end, as it did in this following game.

Byrne – Fischer (Third Rosenwald Memorial, 1956)

 

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Figure 1:  A young Fischer during this game

 

I’d hardly be surprised if you, reader, have seen this game before.  It’s most famously known as the Game of the Century, and rightly so, when you see what happens.  In this game, Fischer was a mere thirteen (!!) years old when he played this game.  He was just becoming a promising young master at the time of this game.  Byrne, on the other hand, was one of the leading American chess players at the time.  In this game, Fischer (as Black) demonstrates noteworthy innovation and brilliant sacrificial play.  Get your popcorn out and enjoy the following.

 

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Figure 2:  Byrne – Fischer – Position after 15. Bc4

 

White has active diagonal pieces, and is ready to castle on the next move, but these characteristics are offset by the fact that the e-file is begging to have a rook on it and White’s king still sits in the center.  Fischer takes this difference to heart and goes all in before he can lose the chance.

15. … Nxc3!

The tactics all work out in Black’s favor.  White can’t take the knight with 16. Qxc3 due to 16. … Rfe8, setting a particularly painful pin; the bishop will fall.  16. Bxf8 doesn’t offer much better after 16. … Bxf8, and when the queen moves anywhere, 17. … Nxd1 will leave Black with the upper hand, and White’s king is still stuck in the center.  Note that 17. Qxc3 falls to 17. … Bb4 and the queen is lost.

16. Bc5

Attacking the queen, but also moving the only piece left on the e-file away from it.  This gives Fischer the chance to kick the king out of castle-zone.

16. … Rfe8+ 17. Kf1

This is what Byrne was banking on.  It appears as if Fischer has to solve the situation with the queen, whereupon Byrne can then capture the knight and be ahead with a comfortable material advantage.  Fischer, knowing that that is not an option, delves deeper into the position, hoping to find some way or another to save his position, if not turn the tables.  If you have not seen this game before, I encourage you to momentarily halt scrolling and try to predict the next move.

 

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Figure 3:  Byrne – Fischer – Position after 17. Kf1

 

17. … Be6!!

I’d add more exclamation marks if I could, as you could probably write a whole book on this move if you really wanted to.  If this game is called the Game of the Century, then this move can certainly be called the Move of the Century.  Fischer offers his queen in exchange for a minor piece and a fierce attack for now, and depending on how he continues, he might receive even more material in return.  In two moves, Fischer is able to reposition his bishop and transform it from where it wasn’t doing much into a dagger raking through the most important (and vulnerable, from White’s perspective) diagonal on the board.  Sounds tempting, doesn’t it?  It was to Fischer.

 

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Figure 4:  Byrne – Fischer – Position after 17. … Be6!!

 

18. Bxb6?!

Byrne accepts the sacrifice, hoping that he can outsmart the young thirteen-year-old in the ensuing complications.  Still, declining the sacrifice wasn’t so easy.  18. Bxe6 falls to the classic smothered-mate trick after 18. … Qb5+ 19. Kg1 Ne2+ 20. Kf1 Ng3++ 21. Kg1 Qf1+! 22. Rxf1 Ne2#.

 

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Figure 5:  Byrne – Fischer – Position after 18. Bxb6?!

 

Other alternatives don’t work out all too well either – 18. Qxc3 Qxc5! 19. dxc5 Bxc3 leads to an endgame in which Black should win due to the extra pawn advantage.  However, 18. Bd3 was probably the lesser of the evils, but that should still leave Black with a slightly better position.

18. … Bxc4+ 19. Kg1 Ne2+

The point.  As of now, Black only has a piece and a pawn for the queen; although his pieces are almost optimally placed, there is still work to be done before anything can be made of it.  Fortunately for Black, he has the option to force a draw by perpetual check by the means of Ng3++, Ne2+, Ng3++ etc.  This leads me to believe that Fischer most likely stopped calculating after this position on his 17th move because he had the draw if he needed it.  There was no need to confuse himself by any means.  After reaching this position, he would then decide if he wanted to play on or take the draw.

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Figure 6:  Byrne – Fischer – Position after 19. … Ne2+

20. Kf1 Nxd4+ 21. Kg1 Ne2+

Fischer demonstrates the classic “windmill” scenario, and it is quite a sight to behold.

22. Kf1 Nc3+

Around here is most likely where Fischer decided to play on, after calculating this combination.  The king is once again revealed to a check and the rook on d1 hangs.

 

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Figure 7:  Byrne – Fischer – Position after 22. … Nc3+

 

23. Kg1 axb6!

Never mind the rook!  Taking the bishop with a tempo on the queen is a crucial intermezzo (meaning “in-between”) move.

24. Qb4

Note that 24. Qc1, trying to protect the rook, is not possible on account of 24. Ne2+ and the queen falls due to the fork.

24. … Ra4

Gaining another tempo on the queen and protecting the bishop on c4.  The purpose behind 20. Nxd4+ is now revealed, as the bishop on g7, which was seemingly doing nothing, now plays the crucial role of protecting the knight on c3.

 

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Figure 8:  Byrne – Fischer – Position after 24. … Ra4

 

25. Qxb6 Nxd1

Black has received a rook and two pieces for the queen and is now ahead in material.  The rest of the game was just mop-up work for Fischer, who proceeded to win easily.  This game was a brilliant example where Fischer was able to take a speculative risk, knowing that if all else failed, he still had the draw card he could play as a last resort.  As an added bonus, Fischer also had the windmill motif available, which would have allowed Fischer to play even more moves before deciding whether he was better off playing on or resorting to the draw.  Fortunately for him in this situation, Fischer was able to reap the benefits of playing on and declining the ability to draw, as he so often did throughout his career.  Yet, not every game follows this same storyline.  There are numerous cases, if not more, when the aggressor will have to slow down and take the draw.  We will look at once such example.

Hellers – De Firmian (Biel, 2005)

Though these two players are not well known, it is the game that matters, and it serves its purpose.

 

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Figure 9:  Hellers – DeFirmian – Position after 15. fxe5

 

White has sacrificed a piece in order to gain time on Black’s pieces and hopefully open the e-file against the Black king.

15. … Nh5

Logical.  Black moves the knight and asks the White queen to make a decision.

16. e6!?

But no!  White embarks on a journey where there is no turning back.  He sacrifices the queen in order to open the files against the king.  It is yet to be seen whether it will pay off.

 

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Figure 10:  Hellers – DeFirmian – Position after 16. e6!?

 

16. … Nxg3 17. exf7+ Kxf7

If the king moves anywhere else, the queen and king will be forked after 18. Ne6+.

18. Rxe7+ Kg8 19. hxg3

White spends some time to take some material back, but he still only has a minor piece for the queen.

 

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Figure 11:  Hellers – DeFirmian – Position after 19. hxg3

 

19. … Qxg3

Best.  Black must activate the queen as it is Black’s best prospect of limiting White’s counterplay.

20. Ne6

Suddenly, White’s position looks very threatening.  Black’s under a mate threat when being up a load of material!

20. … Qe5

It is okay for Black to defend with the Queen since White cannot afford to return a rook and a piece for the queen.

 

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Figure 12:  Hellers – DeFirmian – Position after 20. … Qe5

 

21. Rf1

Deploying the last piece into the fray.  So far, White has done everything correct after the sacrifice – put pressure on the position and use as many pieces as are available.

21. … Nf8 22. Bf5 Bc8

Putting maximum pressure on the e6-knight.  The one drawback is that it relinquishes control of the 8th rank.  White puts this to use.

 

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Figure 13:  Hellers – DeFirmian – Position after 22. … Bc8

 

23. Re8 Kf7!

Believe it or not, this actually works.  Bringing the king out into the open and on the same file as an opposing rook is not the first move you would look at.  Yet, there is no beneficial discovered check, since the rook on e8 is en prise.  Though 23. … Bb7 looks like it gets the job done as well, Black will be in for quite the surprise when he is met with the astonishing 24. Bg6!!, and out of the blue, White is winning!  There are too many mate threats to deal with in too many different directions.  The only feasible way of defending this is 24. … Qf6, but it is not enough.

24. Re7+

White has come to realize that repeating moves is the best he has.  Although his position looks enticing to play on with, there is no real way to continue and stay in the game.  In fact, any other move leaves Black with an advantage.  It takes enormous self-control to make a decision such as this, when all the adrenaline is pumping; yet, slowing down and recognizing when it’s time to take a draw will be a vital skill to master for the future, if you have not already.  But, either way, this possibility was only available because White saw the possibility moves before, and realized that, if he couldn’t quickly find a reasonable continuation in the position, his safest plan would be to take the draw.

 

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Figure 14:  Hellers – DeFirmian – Position after 24. Re7+

 

24. … Kg8 25. ½ – ½ Draw Agreed.

As we have seen through the investigation of these two game examples, it can tremendously pay off if we are able to prepare an option to force a draw in the case of a stalled attack; this can, in the long run, convert many would-be losses into draws.  Often, sacrifices do not have clear-cut winning moves following them.  If anything, those can’t really be called sacrifices, as they are merely just tactics.  We saw in Byrne-Fischer that Black’s queen sacrifice still required work to be done after in order to justify it.  However, Fischer made sure that he would have that ability to force a draw if he couldn’t find a way to continue.  Fortunately for him, Fischer had the windmill scenario to aid him in finding a winning continuation.  In Hellers-De Firmian, we saw a very similar situation, one in which White sacrificed his queen for oodles of minor piece activity.  Yet, in this situation, Hellers didn’t dare to play on after coming to the conclusion that there was nothing left for him in the position.  Though these two examples were the only ones presented today, keep in mind that there are numerous examples of such games around the world each and every day.  Hopefully, you will be able to apply this idea to one, if not more, of your future games.  In our next and final installment of the Attacking Chess series, we will investigate what will probably be the most important thing you need to know – patterns and motifs.  I wish you luck in your future scenarios dealing with speculative sacrifices, and, as always, I will see you later!

The Difficulty of Reaching Master

One of the more baffling phenomena in higher-level amateur chess is a curse that seems to befall many National Master contenders, sometime in the expert stage but particularly in the high 2100s. To be sure, there are always many players plateauing at all rating levels. But the horror stories of master hopefuls stagnating or crashing down after reaching the cusp of 2200 have stood out the most to me. Hibiki Sakai of UPitt tumbled down the 2100s shortly after reaching 2198 USCF in early 2013, almost 3 years before he broke master. Franklin Chen became a master after winning the 2016 Pittsburgh Chess Club Championship, but not before he’d broken 2190 twice and spent nearly 9 straight years in the high 2100s.

I haven’t been a member of the 2100+ club for too long and recently enjoyed a rapid swing into the 2150s, but a tournament I played last Saturday (in which I gained a whole rating point!) has me convinced that I have a long task ahead of me – more on this below!

So what’s taking us so long?

Soundness and Practical Skills

Due to my relatively little experience with serious competition and formal study, I don’t have the theoretical background that many other experts exhibit. Upon returning to regular competition in 2014, I wanted to adopt a playing style that would hold up as long as possible; since then my priority has been to play as soundly as possible according to basic tactics and strategic principles. It’s definitely not the only way to go; for example, some players (like Isaac) are drawn to the deeper positional side of chess early on, and some specialize in channelling their speculative energy into some very dynamic chess. But attention to fundamentals (despite the occasional lapses) has proven critical to my recent success, and as IM Alex Katz has confirmed, makes its mark in higher-level competition as well.

I’d say most typical chess troubles can be explained by not playing soundly enough in some way. Most serious players have likely heard the above many times, but judging from my conversations and games with lower-rated players (particularly in the Class B-C range), the overemphasis of extraneous theory in chess learning culture and failure to apply basic tactics (yes, you shouldn’t hang rook pawns at will!) and basic positional principles during games are often to blame. However, chances are that if you consistently execute a sound strategy in most “normal” situations (not an easy task by any means), you are well on your way to at least 1800 USCF.

At this stage, it can be more difficult to pinpoint what to improve. Most Class A players certainly have the game to give experts a hard time. Some Class A players do exhibit some prominent weaknesses (I’ve seen a decent amount of atrocious positional action at the 1900 level, often compensated by otherwise tricky play) but the difference between Class A players and experts is often shown most clearly in critical positions when one has to get the job done (for example, at 1950, I was being consistently outplayed by 2100s in pressure situations even when up material and time). I’ve noticed some players too readily accept time trouble blunders as acceptable losses. It’s not necessarily a fair reflection on Class A players, but does indicate the importance of maintaining quality play in critical positions is often underemphasized when discussing improvement.

As before, awareness of basic principles should always be a priority, but “practical” skills such as time management and mental strength are often underemphasized yet hugely important, and or me, were a major factor in breaking 2000 and beyond.

Consistency and More Consistency

In the previous section, I didn’t talk about consistency against lower-rated players (relative to oneself) as it’s a direct consequence of improving everything else I mentioned. However, it’s certainly important at any rating level – it’s hard to gain rating if you’re losing more than occasionally to opponents rated 200 points lower!

Most experts have the skills and experience to fend off a lot of trouble from Class A/B players without having to pull an Alex Katz-style swindle. However, it’s this increased tactical astuteness that makes the consistency task so difficult when climbing up the expert range. For example, now rated 2157 USCF, I’d have to score 3/4 against four 2050s to gain any rating at all. Given that I was rated 2037 merely 4 months ago, this isn’t the easiest task to accept. I’ve had consistently good games against other experts, but I make mistakes like they do, and as I learned back in my 1950 days, outplaying someone in the first 90% of a game isn’t a ticket to the win.

The other new challenge that comes with gearing toward master is… having to score against masters! This is pretty obvious, as one shouldn’t become a master without holding their own against masters, but somehow having to improve on my 50% score against masters in 2016 (unfortunately, drawing 2250s [or equivalent] won’t get me to master) was a little daunting to accept.

Overall, these realizations have created some personally unprecedented expectations; I’m certainly ready to tackle the challenges, but objectively I’ve got a difficult (yet hopefully rewarding) task ahead.

Finally, Some Chess!

Hardly the most egregious example, but it’s probably not a good idea to lose positions like the following, from my second round game in a local G/30 tournament last weekend, against Eastern PA master Christopher Yang:

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Li (2156) – Yang (2244)

Black has sacrificed a pawn to reach this mutual time-trouble position. Both kings are in some danger; Black’s somewhat more so due to White’s ability to open the kingside at will. However, Black’s powerful knight and f-pawn are not to be ignored, since …f3 would seriously restrict any major piece action on White’s part.

25…Kh7 26. g5 Nf5! With 26…f3 stopped, Black quickly prepares …Ne3, seemingly to prevent White from using the g-file. The second reason is a little less obvious. 27. Qe2 Ne3 28. Qh5?!

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Black prepared for an ending! In time trouble, it’s easy to forget that not all pawn-up, time-up endings are winning. It certainly takes some effort to untangle the situation on the kingside. It turns out White can’t avoid the ending, but had I been more aware of the challenges ahead, I would have chosen something more constructive like 28. Re1 instead. With 7 minutes to Black’s 4, the game continued 28…Qg4+ 29. Qxg4 Nxg4 30. Rf3 hxg5 31. Nxg5+ Kg6 32. Ne4 Rh8 33. h3 Ne3 34. R1f2 Rag8.Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 01.05.35.png

Black has made some scary progress, but amazingly has no immediate threats yet! White has enough time to try an Exchange sacrifice on e3 with 35. Re2, which leads to a strange equality. Unfortunately, time trouble does some weird things to the human chess brain and despite still being up time, I panicked with 35. d4??, which lost immediately to 35…Kf5+.


My choice of G/30 games to describe the difficulty of reaching master might seem odd. I haven’t much choice in the matter, as it’s part of recent changes to the Pittsburgh Chess Club tournament program. However, I’ve become more appreciative of quicker games in the last few weeks, partially because I’ve performed better than I ever have, but also because of how they mirror critical situations in longer games. Obviously they aren’t a perfect simulation of long games, but even playing longer games that don’t spill into time trouble bears some resemblance to playing under pressure, since most people aren’t quite as alert 3 hours into a game as they are at the beginning.

Fortunately, my game against Chris was my only loss of the day. Unfortunately, it was soon to be overshadowed my last-round draw.

Thompson (2047) – Li (2156)

Zack is a friend who is locally known for playing 1. b4 and a trickiness that compensates for his self-declared shaky hold on the chess fundamentals. In a rematch of our G/30 meeting from last month, the game began:

1. b4 e5 2. Bb2 d6 3. e3 g6 4. d4 Bg7 5. dxe5 Nc6!

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Thompson (2047) – Li (2156)

I’d remembered this from analyzing our last game; an interesting idea to avoid having to take on e5 in an awkward fashion. Aside from playing 1. b4, White hasn’t done much wrong yet, but his position is looking kind of ridiculous already. 6. Bb5 Bd7 7. Bc3?!

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I’m usually wary of these kinds of single-purpose moves unless the reason is particularly good. Even if White intends Nd2 from the start, Bc3 isn’t exactly the most robust way to defend b4 and doesn’t contribute to holding e5 (interestingly, 7. Nf3!? does hold the e5 pawn for the moment, due to 7…Nxb4 8. Bxd7+ Qxd7 9. Bc3! followed by 10. exd6, which is quite different from the Bc3 position above). Instead, the game continued 7…dxe5 8. Nf3 Nge7 9. O-O a6 10. Bc4 O-O 11. Nbd2 Nf5 12. Rb1?

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This probably belongs in the same single-purpose category, but more pertinently it’s not really consistent with 1. b4. As long as White is playing it, it makes more sense to press the queenside now that he’s developed, before b4 starts sticking out too much. In fact, the immediate 12…Nd6 13. Bb3 Qe7 stops b5 and threatens to cause trouble on b4, and it’s not clear what White is doing on b1.

Things went downhill after 14. Nc4? Nb5 15. Ba1 and although Black can’t take on e5 just yet, 15…Bg4! causes too many problems for White.

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Rather than deal with the upcoming …e4 White opted to jettison b4 with 16. h3 Bxf3 17. Qxf3 e4 18. Qg4 Bxa1 19. Bxa1 Nxb4 leaving Black up a clear pawn.

I later won another pawn, but in time trouble opted to simplify into a pawn-up major piece endgame with 7 minutes to White’s 3 (sound familiar?). The problem with craving simplicity in a dominating position is that some pretty big wins are likely to be missed. The bigger problem is that the actual positions may not be won in the end.

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After 32…Qxe3

White played the seemingly obvious 33. cxb5 and I replied with 33…axb5?? The question marks aren’t for the resulting position, which is still clearly winning, but for missing 33…Rd2! 34. Qc1 Qe2 (several other moves win in a similar fashion) 35. Rg1 Qe5+ 36. Kh1 Qd5.

 

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White is completely busted as 37…Re2 and 37…Re3 (depending on if White bothers to prevent Re2) cannot both be stopped.

Both of us stopped notating shortly after the skirmish at move 33, but I distinctly remember the last chance Zack gave me:

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Perhaps the miss at move 33 was forgivable. Certainly not …Rd2?? (threatening mate but hanging f5; instead, …f4+ wins as Black will force the king to the first rank and either be able to trade rooks or win the h3 pawn easily).

My point wasn’t to complain about messing up so much as it was to confirm that experts do suffer from these kinds of mistakes (one of the points of Chess^Summit was to produce content from a more mortal perspective than that of grandmasters playing near-perfect games). In this case my opponent suffered quite a bit from his offbeat opening play and personally, overcoming seemingly simple mistakes like the ones above is going to be important for reaching the next level.

However, it’s possible that the Round 4 swindle was deserved due to the way I won my previous game…

Li (2156) – Yaskolko (1972)

My opponent, Maxim Yaskolko, is a strong local 13-year old who’s been sitting on the cusp of 2000 for a few months. I’d broken even with him in three games from 2014 and had played blitz with him during the lunch break to try to confuse him; however, if anyone was confused, it was probably me.

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 d6 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 Nc6 5. d3 g6 6. h3 Bg7 7. Be3 a6 8. Qd2 Bd7. The insertion of …a6 and …Bd7 is a little unusual; more normal is …Rb8 followed by rushing the a- and b-pawns. However, the opening isn’t so time critical and committing White to an early Qd2 does limit the ways White can deal with an attack on the b2-pawn (see later).

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Li (2156) – Yaskolko (1972)

9. f4 O-O 10. Nf3 b5 11. O-O b4 12. Ne2 Ne8. Here’s the little nuance (intended or not) to Black’s earlier move order; White often plays Qc1 in these situations, but usually White hasn’t committed to Qd2 yet.

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Unfortunately, 13. Rb1 gets awkward after 13…Qa5 so I settled on 13. c3 and preparing for the opening of the b-file. Instead after 13…Rb8 14. g4 Qb6 it didn’t occur to me that 15. c4 and 15. d4 were very legitimate options. 15. c4 completely closes off the queenside, giving White all the time necessary to pursue the usual kingside pawn storm, but I was a little wary of the long-term consequences, since White’s bishop isn’t the best ever. 15. d4 looked a little weakening and I didn’t want to risk getting blown apart in the center in a G/30 game. Instead, I played 15. Rac1 and faced the dilemma of how to deal with a2 after 15…Be6.

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16. c4 is still an option, but I had doubts that Black wanted to keep a bishop stuck on the queenside. This wasn’t a very good assumption since there wasn’t really any other point to 15…Be6, and it turns out Maxim had calculated out …Bxa2 more than I’d thought. But I gambled with 16. f5?! Bxa2 17. Ra1 bxc3 18. bxc3 Bb3.

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In situations where intuition plays a lot more of a role, there’s likely to be more inconsistency in a nontrivial series of moves, whether that’s due to tactical oversight or just poor planning (something that I am personally not good at). Indeed, over the next few moves I straddled between harassing the light-squared bishop and making gains on the kingside. 19. Rfb1 a5 20. Bh6 Qa7 21. Nc1 a4? 22. Kh1?


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Far too slow, and Black takes control of the game. Both of us missed 22. Nxb3! Rxb3 (22…Bxh6 23. Qxh6 is more critical but with fxg6 and Rf1 to follow, White should gain the advantage with proper play) 23. Rxb3 Bxh6 (23…c4+?? 24. Be3) 24. Qf2!

In the game, I finally had to come to terms with not being able to take advantage of Black’s awkward bishop. After 22. Kh1? we continued 22…Qc7 23. Bxg7 Kxg7 24. h4 Nf6 25. Ne2!?.

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Objectively this is kind of silly (Stockfish evaluates the positions over the next few moves as around -2.5), but I was down a clear pawn and had 7 minutes to Maxim’s 14. A rushed attempt at a kingside attack was, practically speaking, the only real try. 25…Nxg4 26. Nf4 Nge5 27. fxg6 hxg6 28. Ng5 Qd7?!.

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This spoils nothing, but it’s an overreaction to White’s shallow Rxb3/Ne6+ threat. It’s important (as I’ve learned before and relearned in my last-round game) not to flock to defensive-looking moves to convert a possibly dangerous position. In this position, Black had the more active 28…Qa7! daring the king to step back to g1; with …Rh8 coming, Black’s king safety problem is just an illusion, compared to White’s.

The real mistake came after 28…Qd7?! 29. Bh3 e6??.

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Black’s best was 29…Qa7 as similarly discussed last move. In one move, due to trying to keep the queen closer to the defense of the king, Black has created enough counterplay opportunities for White to equalize. After 30. d4! Nc4 31. Qg2 Qe7? (31…Qe8 was relatively best, but White has some tricks on f7 that I won’t go into) 32. Ngxe6+! Black finally fell apart with 32…fxe6??

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Black felt the need to make me prove my time trouble moves, which proved fatal. As in, checkmate-level fatal. After 33. Qxg6+ Kh8 34. Qh6+ Qh7 35. Ng6+ Kg8 36. Bxe6+ Rf7 37. Bxf7+37…Qxf7 fails to 38. Qh8# so Black had to jettison the queen and got mated in a few more moves.

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After 37. Bxf7+

(To Maxim’s credit, he bounced back in the last round with a surprising upset against NM Yang and broke 2000 for the first time.)


Though I was happy to turn the game around in such an exciting way, it wasn’t comforting that it was necessary. In Round 1, due to some very dubious pawn grabbing, I found myself in a losing position on move 17 against a 2007-rated opponent but managed to pull off a win due to his severe time trouble. So I ended up winning two games I absolutely shouldn’t have won and failing to win two games I probably should have won (fittingly, I broke nearly even in rating, gaining a point in the process).

The issue wasn’t one of the particular games. It’s true that I had chances in the two games I didn’t win, but it was also possible that the two games I “won” would have given me 0.5/4 for the day. Ouch! If you’re looking for consistency, my performance isn’t the best place to start.

So the most important lessons weren’t shown by the ratings. While everyone is expected to have good/bad days, the bad days are less forgivable in the master contender pool. It’s clear I have room to improve with regards to the consistency necessary to become a master, but it will certainly be a worthwhile journey.

Meeting a new Najdorf

Opening theory in chess is constantly evolving. However, being the stubborn person I am, my personal repertoire has barely changed since I first began playing tournament chess. Never the type to want to learn and understand extensive theory, I relied upon relatively rare lines to throw my opponents off. For example, I have always played 6. h3 against the Najdorf Sicilian, and while this opening worked beautifully in the beginning of my chess career, its efficiency has decreased as the line itself became more well-known and as I reached a higher level of play.

h3 Najdorf
Position after 6.h3

About two weeks ago, I was participating in the US Girls Junior Championship, where ten of the top girls under the age of 20 are invited to play in a round robin tournament. There, I had three games against the Najdorf and while I won two out of the three games, the game where I lost made me realize that with the right preparation, I could easily be outplayed straight from the opening. This realization made it evident that I needed to learn something new against the Najdorf. Upon asking around and researching on my own, I’ve realized that not only has opening theory itself changed, but so has the way in which we acquire opening knowledge.  Recently, grandmasters have been using correspondence games as a source for opening theory. In the annotations for a game between Caruana and Gelfand (which was, in part the inspiration for the subject of this article), Caruana says of his 14th move, “This had been played before by correspondence players. I didn’t fully understand the move, but I figured I should listen to them!”

In looking through correspondence games myself, I found a recurring variation in the Najdorf that seems to be gaining popularity; the 8…h5 variation in the Be3 Najdorf. The variation itself is very suitable for correspondence chess as it entails a lot of positional maneuvering and long-term planning. While I am not the most positional player, I still find the variation appealing due to its constricting nature, as white essentially aims to eliminate black’s counter-play.

 

Najdorf h5
Position after 8…h5

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e5 One of the mainlines — the others being …e6 and …Ng4 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 h5 A trending line nowadays. The obvious goal is to stop white’s king-side expansion; one of the central ideas in the mainline with opposite-side castling. The old mainline is 8…Be7 9. Qd2 O-O 10. O-O-O with white aiming for a king-side attack and black aiming for a queen-side attack (See Anand – Topalov, Stavanger 2013). 9. Qd2 Nbd7 10. Nd5 Bxd5 The more common variation – here white pursues similar goals to the variation with the knight taking instead: 10… Nxd5 11. exd5 Bf5 12. Na5.

Najdorf Na5
Position  after 12. Na5

The idea behind this variation is that white will opt for queen-side expansion with c4, b4, a4, and eventually a break with c5. Black will often opt for central play with an eventual e4 in conjunction with potential king-side play. In this position, the key recent game at the GM level was between Caruana and Nakamura (while Na5 is moved later in this game, it serves as the inspiration for the earlier Na5 line). Here, black has three main options: Be7, Qc7, and Rb8. Against 12…Be7, white should play normally as black is not creating any eminent threats. For 12… Rb8, white should make sure to stop black’s counter-play before developing naturally: 13. a4 Be7 14. Nc4 O-O 15. Be2

Najdorf f4
Position after 18. f4!

With 12… Qc7 13. c4 b6 (13… Be7 14. Rc1 Rc8, although 14…e4 is probably an improvement over the game
continuation (Zakhartsov -Bratus, Voronezh 2008), but white still holds a slight edge after Be2, 0-0, and b4 with the same queen-side expansion.) 14. Nc6 Nb8 15. Nxb8 Rxb8 16. Be2 Be7 (16… g6 Here, a game between two masters: Madl and Gerard, illustrates the queen-side expansion that is essential to white’s opening strategy). 17. O-O Bg6 18. f4! +=

 

Najdorf g4.png
1-0 Jensen – Krivic, ICCF 2014

Now, let’s return to what happens if the bishop takes back: 11. exd5 g6. Here, 11…Qc7 is also possible, to be followed by 12. c4. Should black play 12…g6, white should try to relocate his knight to its ideal square on c6 via c2 and b4. Another possible continuation is 12…a5 13. a4 b6 14. Bd3 g6 15. O-O Bg7. Here, white’s plan deviates as it becomes difficult to pursue queen-side play as black has locked down the b4 and c5 squares. White’s attention thus shifts to the center and king-side:  16. Rae1 O-O 17. Nc1 Nc5 18. Bc2 Na6 19. b3 Nb4 20. Bb1 Na6 21. Ne2 Nd7 22. Bh6 Qd8 23. Nc3 f5 24. Nb5 Nac5 25. Bc2 Qe7 26. Be3 h4 27. g4 (1-0 Jensen,E (2495)-Krivic,D (2528) ICCF 2014). 12. Be2 Bg7 13. O-O b6 14. Rac1 O-O 15. h3 Re8.

Najdorf Rc3
Position after 12. Rc3 +=

Caruana recommends 15…Nh7, but after 
16.c4 f5 17. Bd3 Bf6 18. f4 exf4 19. Bxf4 Be5 20. Bxe5 Nxe5 21. Nd4 Qf6 22. Bb1 Rae8 23. Rc3 
+= White’s knight has two potential squares on c6 and e6 and the queen-side majority yields an advantage. Should black play 15…Qc7, white should focus more on the center and king-side (A worthy game to look into is Jónsson,D (2538)-Magalhães,L (2540) ICCF 2014).

 

16. c3 While 16. c4 might seem more logical, it lacks a future after a5. 16…Kh7 (16…Qc8 17. Kh2 Qc7 18. g4 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 20. Nxc5 bxc5 21. g5 Nd7 22. Bd

Najdorf Qc7.png
Position after 17. Qc7

3 += Black’s bishop is essentially trapped by his own pawns and white has the bishop pair and more space) 17. Rfe1 Qc7 (17…Ng8 is met with 18. g4 Bh6 19. g5 Bg7 20. Bd3 Ne7 21. Be4 Rc8 22. Kh2 with white looking to relocate the knight on b3 and looking for more play on the queen-side) 18. Bf1 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 (19…Qc7 20. a4 Qb7 21. Kh2 e4 22. f4 Rac8 23. Kg1 Ra8 24. c4 Nc5 25. Nd4 Nfd7 26. Qc2 Bxd4 27. Bxd4 a5 28. Re3 Rac8 29. b3 += 

Najdorf b3.png
Position after 29. b3 +=

White has an advantage with the bishop pair and a more favorable pawn structure) 20. Nxc5 bxc5
21. Bc4 e4 22. f4 Nd7 
(22…Ng8 23. Bf2 Rab8 24. b3 f5 25. Be3 Ne7 26. Rb1 a5 27. Red1 While white does not necessarily have an advantage here, his position is easier to play with space, the bishop pair, and a potential break on b4) 23. Bb3 Qb5

Najdorf Bb3.png
Position after 23…Qb5

(23… Rab8 24. Ba4 Red8 25. Rb1 f5 26. Bc6 Qc7 27. Qe2 a5 28. Rec1 += White has a tiny advantage here with better placed pieces, the bishop pair, and a queen-side majority) 24. c4 Qb4 25. Qxb4 cxb4 26. Ba4 Rad8 27. Re2 += In this endgame, white has a small edge and should be trying to play g3, move the king towards the center, place the light-squared bishop on c6 and play for a c5 break. Should …Nc5 happen, which should capture with the dark-squared bishop and then double rooks on the d-file and push through using the d-pawn.

Najdorf final position.png
Final Position

Overall, the …h5 variation poses an interesting problem to white, as he or she must switch strategies from the traditional king-side attack to a more positional game in the center and on the queen-side. In the Nxd5 variation, the knight maneuver Na5 to c4 in conjunction with a4 and queen-side play is essential to white’s strategy. White should also aim to contain black’s central counter-play with a timely f4. In the Bxd5 variation, white’s plans are more long-term and often the queen-side pursuit will not work out, in which case, one must focus one’s attention on the center and king-side. In many variations, white does not necessarily have an advantage, but the bishop pair and extra space provide for easier play and a potential advantage in the transition to the endgame. The variation on the whole contains fascinating positional planning, and has become a line I can’t wait to try in tournament play.