I think I could have also tried the title The Quest to Break 2000 Backwards or Philly Phailures, but I hardly think that this is an appropriate way to describe my first tournament back since the US Junior Open. As I mentioned in my last post, I pushed myself to play in the top section of the World Open, pitting me against the toughest level of competition I had ever encountered over the board. Across the six games I played (I had three half point byes), I had the longest in tournament losing streak of my career (five – six if you include the final round of the US Junior Open!), and in a majority of the games, I was simply outclassed by my opponents on both sides of the board. To put things simply, by my own personal historic standards, this year’s World Open could have very well been one of the worst tournaments of my career.
But I would like to think that this is a shallow understanding of my overall performance. Sure, I had my failures this tournament, but what my stay in Philadelphia showed me is that there is an entire realm of chess I had never seen before and that in the eyes of a Grandmaster, I am once again a beginner. But this is okay – learning something new means finding something you have never seen before, and this performance is another step in the age-old process of becoming a better chess player. What do I mean?
After completely collapsing in the first four games of this tournament, I got a call from my coach in which he told me the opening repertoire I had counted on since breaking 2000 would no longer cut it at this level competition, and I would need to improve and find better openings to get more competitive positions. Bam! A new weakness had been discovered in my play, and despite my progress, that problem started with move one (well, metaphorically). I can probably make master without fixing my repertoire, but seeing as my ambitions are much higher than this, I will be revamping my openings with the hopes of returning to the World Open next year with a much more competent result. I have no idea what this means for my current goal in the short-term, but I’d like to think that if I can persevere, I can still achieve great things despite my not-so-young age…
Persevere. That’s a strong word – and the biggest positive I can hope to take away from my experience in Philadelphia. Around the time my coach called, my parents, who have always been supportive of my chess, offered to let me withdraw and pick me up early from what was quickly turning into a miserable result. Somewhat stubbornly (perhaps the same trait that makes me a chess player), I declined with two games left to go. My confidence had taken a serious blow after quickly reaching lost positions in each of my first two games, and after two more humbling defeats, I was quickly realizing that as a positional player, it was somewhat foolish to think I could have fared well against a level of competition that understood my very strength better than me. For my last two games, I decided to focus on two aspects of my game that I previously stated I wanted to work on the most: calculation and mental fortitude.
Sure, I was reaching worse positions out of the opening, but I knew the only way I could have any chance was to be strong and focus on making the best moves I could every move. At this point I was very aware of the real possibility of losing all of my games, as well as falling far below 2100 – though as I’ve mentioned rating no longer matters to me if I’m improving. For today’s post, I want to share my last two games, as they play into a greater story going into my last round.
My fifth game was both a blessing and a curse. Faced with the Veresov, my limited opening knowledge meant I had to calculate from move four, draining my time and causing an unforced error on move 19. While such a quick loss would be discouraging to many, I took it as a positive because I had succeeded to get out of the opening with no prior knowledge and reached an arguably better position. As I tried to describe to my dad, I was flying! Unfortunately, it was just a little too close to the sun… Here we go:
Arthur–Steincamp (World Open, 2016)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Bg5 Bf5 4.f3
Back in January when I played in the Boston Chess Congress, my 2300 rated opponent played 4. Bxf6, which was what I was expecting when I played 3…Bf5 at the time. Following my thought process from that game, I played the same move, the idea being that if White wants to take on f6, he better do it before I play …e7-e6. By playing 3…Bf5, I can play …e7-e6 without making a bad bishop. But now, six months later, it’s a different time and different opponent. With 4. f3 I was out of book, and my only weapon was my brain. 4. f3 is the second most common move played in this position and has a concrete idea. White will take on f6 to make way for an e2-e4 central push, hoping to gain a lead in development as well as a structural advantage in turn for the bishop pair. At first, I liked 4…Nbd7, but quickly recognized the “fork trick” we all see as a child with 5. Nxd5 Nxd5 6. e4 and so forth. In our post-mortem, my opponent said this is a line (indeed! It is the most common move), but with no prior knowledge, such an attempt would not be practical. At this point, I realized how critical the d5 pawn was to my position, seeing as it was my only hold on the center. In an effort to be solid, I opted for 4…h6, a move Spassky chose back in 1981 at Linares and won a convincing game with as Black. Of course, I did not know this at the time, but if a great like Spassky played this move, then I must be on some sort of right track. My opponent played a move that has never been played at the Grandmaster level, but this is likely because the Veresov rarely finds its way into the top, if ever 5.Bxf6 exf6 6.e4 Be6 7.Bd3 c6
I spent some more time here to calculate various …c7-c5 lines. I think here, it’s already important to see that 7…dxe4 8. exd4 Qxd4?? loses immediately to 9. Bb5+ and the queen is lost. This idea is important because many simplifications where the d-file opens will meet the same fate. For example, one of the first lines I saw 7… c5 8. dxc5 Bxc5? 9. exd5 Bxd5 10. Nxd5 Qxd5?? 11. Bb5+ and again we see the same pattern. Of course, I had found the improvement 8…d4 followed by capturing on c5, but this was all moot because White can take on d5 first and the same tactical problems persist. I took the more solid route, since 7…c6 ensures that with trades on d5, I will maintain the bishop pair, which is presently my only real advantage in the position. 8.Nge2 Bb4
This move kicked off the rapid consumption of my time, as the decision to place this bishop here on b4 or d6 was an important one. My gut originally ruled out this move because this pin doesn’t last long, and spent a significant amount of time thinking about 8…Bd6 to stop Nf4 ideas. 9. exd5 cxd5 10. Nb5 0-0 should be equal, but I found a good resource for White with 8…Bd6 9. Qd2 and now the idea of Nf4 is a real idea and it is not quite clear why I’m going to give back the pair of bishops along with two structural weakness.
After a while, I reconsidered the text move, and realized it asks White to do something about the pin (which is committal since now I can castle), but the real point is that if a2-a3 and b2-b4 my bishop will go to b6 and attack the dark squares since White doesn’t have this bishop anymore. Then the king will look bad on g1 and White will have to do something about the d4 pawn. I think I spent about 15 minutes here, but as the engine has informed me, this was the correct decision! Since this position has never occurred in a Grandmaster game, I’m curious how much my opponent knew in this position. In our post-mortem, he said that I even have to play this move, which suggests that he was aware of this position, or is simply a strong player – or perhaps both! 9.O-O O-O 10.Kh1 Re8
After the game, my coach told me here that I have 10 moves that are absolutely appropriate to play in this position, which I guess suggest I spent too much time here trying to find the silver lining. However, up to this point in the tournament, I had failed to establish such a solid position by move 10 which makes this position a small victory for me personally. That being said, I think the insertion of this move was critical for the future course of the game. First, I am fully prepared for the e-file to open with my rook on e8, but I also give my bishop two options in case of retreat: a5, and the path I took during the game, f8. Though the bishop may seem misplaced on f8, it is a long range piece and is just active, while also providing my kingside with some form of defense. I spent some time here trying to develop my knight, but I concluded that if 10…Nd7 11. exd5 is well timed because now the position opens and now my knight seems misplaced. My opponent said this is what he would have played if my knight had moved at this point, regardless of d7 or a6. Having established full equality, my opponent decided to change the pace of the game with 11.Ng3, allowing me to play 11…dxe4 and break up White’s center.
Without a knight on f6, I had to make sure that I wasn’t opening myself to any kingside attacks, but the aggressive 12. fxe4?! Qxd4 13. Nf5 Bxf5 14. Rxf5 failed to impress, as White is down a pawn and has an imaginary attack. This move put me below 50 minutes to make move forty, as I had to find an effective way to meet 12.Bxe4 as d4-d5 is threatened. Quickly I saw that if White succeeded to trade his d-pawn for my c6 pawn, my lack of development would leave me in a worse endgame, as well as tactical problems on b7. So I had to find my next move as well, 12…Qa5 =+
At this point, I’d like to believe that I have solved all of my opening problems, sans the knight on b8, while also asking White questions of my own. On top of threatening to win a pawn on c3, I’m preparing to play …f6-f5 to attack the bishop and open the f6 square for my knight. I also had some strategic ideas here of doubling the c-pawn in the case of 13. Qd3, and then using the c4 square with a …Nd7-b6-c4 maneuver with some serious queenside pressure. This move also acts as prophylaxis, stopping d4-d5 because tactically I can play …Re8-d8 and win material. At this point in the game, I was already somewhat confident that I could finally get the position I had yearned for all tournament, but my clock was already of some concern… With some engine analysis, both sides are playing well thus far, as we are both selecting one of the computer’s best move with each turn, keeping the game around equality. 13.Nce2 Bf8
Because 13…f5 would have been met with 14. c3, I decided now would be the best time to relocate the bishop, seeing as it no longer has a purpose on b4. This move revives the threat of …f6-f5, followed by quick development from Black. I thought White’s best plan was to slowly build the position with 14. c3 (as played in the game) but followed calmly with b2-b3, and eventually c3-c4, which would once again establish a strong center. As the game showed, trying to expand on the queenside favored me as it created some weak squares like c4. 14.c3 f5 15.b4?! Qa6!
A critical find, highlighting the positional importance of 10…Re8. The f5 pawn is not hanging because after 16. Bxf5? Bxf5 17. Nxf5, the knight on e2 does not have enough defenders and White loses a piece. By provoking this move, I’ve also managed to create a big positional weakness in White’s camp, the c4 square. An example line to prove this would be 16. Bd3 Bc4 17. Bxc4 Qxc4, and in addition to White’s weak light squares, Black now has the added idea of bringing a rook to e3, as well as …g7-g6 to protect f5 and play …Nd7-f6. My position isn’t winning, but it plays itself, unlike White’s. I believe White chose the best move in 16.d5 given the complications, and my lack of time at this point (around 30 minutes for 14 moves!).
One of the reasons this move is so strong is because if my rook were to leave my back rank, White can play Qd1-d8 in some lines forever freezing my mobility. For example, 16…fxe4 17. dxe6 Rxe6 18. Qd8! is strong, and Black’s win of material is irrelevant after 18…exf3 19. Rxf3 Rxe2 20. Nxe2 Qxe2 because now I only have one piece that can move, while White can quickly activate his rooks and win the game.
In this position, I thought it was important to keep enough pieces on the board, as that will be the only way to take full advantage of the weak c4 square and establish counterplay. I decided on the more practical 16…cxd5 because now I can bring my knight to c6 and finally complete development. I haven’t suffered because of this lack of activity, but there’s no reason to delay this any further. 17.Bd3 Qd6 18.Bxf5 Nc6 19.f4 g6??
And a perfectly good position slides out of reach. Needing to play at roughly a minute a move until move forty, I cracked under pressure here, thinking I could hold tactically, giving myself enough time to bring my bishop to g7. My opponent, a friend of Grandmaster Joel Benjamin and famous coach in New York, said after the game that every move should have two good reasons to make it – one is simply not enough! In this case, he was more than right. While I probably should have seen the ensuing tactic, my position is already falling apart after the trade takes place on e6. In reality, my position would have been a lot more optimistic if I played my other candidate move 19…Rac8 or had found various endgame positions after 19…Bxf5. Of course I can’t say I would have won, after all, there is a price to pay for not knowing openings! 20.Bxe6 fxe6 21.Qd3 Ne7 22.Ne4
The oversight – not only am I worse, I can actually resign here because the bishop cannot help me hold the crippling position since all my pawns are on light squares. I would go on to play a few more moves, but that was more inertia than me actually thinking I had a chance. Of course in severe time trouble, it’s easy to miss “Maurice Ashley moves” like these, but in the future, I will have to do better to ensure a better result.
I played really well for 95% of this game, but as we all know, chess is cruel and every move counts. While it’s no fun to have a lost game on the 22nd move, I was proud of my ability to be accurate in the opening and be resourceful in unfamiliar territory. But my work with the Veresov wasn’t done yet. I had two half-point byes prior to my last round game, but my final opponent had seen this game and thought he could replicate my time trouble with a different take on the Veresov.
I guess psychologically he had hoped this would be enough to give a final punch to a player who in his eyes was extremely weak (how else could you see a 0/5 player?). I’m not really a fan of this strategy, as it’s not like I had forgotten why I set my structure the way I did, but also I don’t think the Veresov was in my final opponent’s repertoire. Personally, I don’t like to prepare completely new openings unless I know enough about what my opponent plays over the board – just ask Chess^Summit colleague Beilin Li! So now with over 24 hours of rest heading into my last game, I was determined to play to the best of my ability and save myself from a disappointing showing. I had already decided to withdraw from the Philadelphia International, since my coach and I decided it would be best to go home and fix my opening problems rather than have these lessons retaught. Luckily for me, I was able to conquer my last round curse quite convincingly.
Wettasinha–Steincamp (World Open, 2016)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Bf4 Bf5 4.f3 e6
With the bishop on f4 and not g5, my position is a lot more flexible, allowing me to play this move since e2-e4 is currently not possible. Because of this, I had already envisioned my plan for the middlegame, which meant I could play quicker and respond to my opponent’s threats when needed. My plan is to play …c7-c5 (now possible thanks to my e6 pawn), develop my knight to c6, and then see what my opponent does to make more positional decisions. 5.g4 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.e3 c5
If you’ve read my posts prior to the Chess^Summit relaunch, you’ll see that I’m often a big believer in opening principles. While my opponent has gained space on the kingside, his king will have to make some critical decisions, while I have yet to make any positional commitments. As promised I’ve continued with my plan, and carrying it out has taken minimal time. White now decided to trade off light squared bishops which certainly doesn’t hurt my position. 8.Bd3 Bxd3 9.Qxd3 a6
Making sure that I can recapture on c5 without allowing the nasty Qd3-b5+, winning a minor piece. Funny story here. The following morning as I was confirming my room cancellation and preparing to leave for Richmond, I ran into my opponent, who proceeded to tell me that this move was a blunder because he can play his king to f2, and because of the weak b6 square, I’m as he put it “simply lost”. I was extremely skeptical of this, but figured there was likely some sort of engine work behind this and brought it up with my coach on the train ride home. With further analysis, lost is not only a strong word, it’s completely incorrect. My opponent’s idea of playing Ke1-f2 and then opening the e-file is dangerous, and if anything is just unclear. I had no such hunch during the game, as a solid position held by principles typically prevails against one that does not. I guess it was the typical chess player hubris that exists after losing. Sure this Ke1-f2 improvement is much better than 10.O-O-O?, but it does not punish hundreds of years of conventional thinking. 10…Nc6 11.Nge2
With plenty of experience in race positions out of various openings, I was already optimistic about my winning chances – and not without good reason. During this point in the game, I remembered a quote from GM Greg Serper a few years ago at Castle Chess Camp where he said that Soviet players used to joke that the extra “O” in queenside castling notation also is recorded on the final result as a loss for that side. Using the last round win I had in New York as a base example, I knew that to have more success in a race position, I needed to find forcing moves and find the most accurate move order. Every move my opponent spends defending is a move he can’t attack the kingside. 11…Qa5 threatening …Nc6-b4 12.Kb1 c4 13.Qd2 b5
So far every move has been forcing, and now …b5-b4 threatens to trap the knight. My thought with this move order was that if 11…c5 12. Qd2 Qa5, White has a little bit more flexibility (though not much) to choose a move here since he hasn’t played Kc1-b1 yet. By getting him to play the standard prophylactic move, the c3 knight has no safe squares. That opening time advantage my opponent was hoping for? Instead of only having 20 minutes until the 40th move, I’ve only used twenty. I started to calculate a lot more from here, but that’s because I had a slight suspicion that my game would never make it that far if played accurately. 14.Nc1 Bb4
As my coach would later point out, 14…b4 should also work, but during the game, I thought this got rather messy. I liked this move because it provokes the mistake made in the game, 15.a3? but the point was that should 15. N1e2 Be7! be played, now the threat on the c3 knight is revived, and White must choose between 16. Nc1 or 16. a3, meaning I win a tempo or create a serious weakening of the queenside. I wanted to be able to connect my rooks before going all in, so that a kingside assault would be even less effective from White. I briefly considered sacrificing on a3, but not having access to b8 meant that this attack was more hopeful than concrete, so I reverted to my original plan 15…Be7 16.Qh2?
At this point in the game, I was instantly reminded phrase I find myself saying often to 1500 rated players: Tricks are for kids! This case is no different. White’s one move threat (Bf4-c7 trapping the queen on a5) is easy to see but now makes it much harder to play a move like g4-g5, as the queen would be left exposed on an open h-file. This move gives me time to play …Ra8-a7! which means I can put my rook on b7 in the future, making sacrifices on a3 a very real possibility. Once White plays this move, there’s no going back, and it was at this precise moment I knew I could win, maybe even by force. 16…Ra7 17.Bd6 trying to stop …b5-b4 pushes Rb7 18.N1a2 further reinforcement of b4 Kd7! -+
With the trade of dark square bishops, not only do I trade off White’s best piece, I can bring my h-rook into the game and use the b8 square! White doesn’t have any attractive options here, as moving the bishop back to g3 means crashing through with …b5-b4, and going to c5 only delays problems as I can consider trading on c5 then pushing the b-pawn, or playing …Rh8-b8 and winning. 19.Bxe7 Kxe7 20.e4 b4 21.axb4 Nxb4 22.e5
When I saw this move, it felt like my opponent was resigning by getting rid of his only true dynamic resource. Without any counterplay, I had a hunch that this game had only a few precise moves left before I win. I entertained myself a little by considering leaving this knight here and just winning on the queenside, but with the way the weekend had gone (and let’s face it, the way conventional players play), I continued to deprive White of any counterplay. 22…Nd7 23.Nc1 Rhb8
I was considering 23…Nd3, and it should be promising too, but it’s a much stronger threat now with two rooks on the b-file. My opponent’s move loses immediately, but what else can he do?
24.Rd2 Nc6 Threatening the c3 knight, and then …c4-c3, winning a rook. 25.N1a2 Rxb2+ 26.Ka1 Qa3 0-1
Once again, the simplest solution is the best solution, as the impulsive move, 26…Nb4 hangs b2, and 26…Rxa2+ 27. Nxa2 Nb4 28. f3 might even be winning for White. My opponent resigned as …Rxa2+ and …Qb2# are coming, and I have the added threat of …Nb4 should he find anything to stop it (there isn’t). So finally a win in the last round – something that I wish had come earlier, but I rightly had to suffer in order to earn.
My experience at the World Open gave me a new found respect for chess. Here I was, some Candidate Master from Virginia thinking I could simply pull a few upsets and have yet another impressive result. While my various preparation helped me in critical moments in each of my rounds, this result shows me that there is a long ways to go until I can play with these guys, and I’m sure once I fix my repertoire, there will be some other problem that needs to be ironed out – this is chess.
On my train ride home, I received an email, and before I knew what it was, I realized it was the ratings report from the USCF. While I have vowed to not look at my rating, I think this slip up shows that there is always a sign of hope when we persevere. With a significant drop, my rating is exactly 2100, which offers me two lessons. First, never stop fighting! Even on our worse days, we will be rewarded in the most obscure ways. While a number shouldn’t have to tell you that, it’s certainly nice to know that the system “rewards” perseverance. The second lesson? Read the email subject line – that stuff’s there for a reason! Thanks for reading this far if you’ve made it here – this is easily the longest post I’ve ever written. Until next time!