My Go-To Inspiring Moment

I don’t see this discussed a lot, but it would be interesting to see what chess players describe as their favorite chess moments, and the resulting insights into their chess mentality. Admittedly, it’s a little difficult for me to truly appreciate my games because I spend too much time fretting over the mistakes caught by Stockfish. But I’ve always liked to scroll through past games when I’m bored, and have caught some exceptions over time.

More than anything else, my attention shifts to my hardest-fought draws. Does that sound boring? Over the last few weeks, I’ve been struggling with an uncharacteristic lack of proper focus in my games. It’s always inspiring to remember that I was able to slog through long games against strong players where I was a move or two from getting clobbered throughout.

Of course, I could have also chosen some of my wins under similar circumstances. I’m not ashamed to say I love those as well; however, eking out a win after spending the entire game on the run likely involves a little more luck than usual, and does detract a little from the whole “tenacity” thing.

My favorite example is actually my fourth game from the 2015 Cleveland Open against, whose 40/100, SD/30 d10 time control was the longest I’d played at the time. Nevertheless, I was stretched to the limit in my last two games, notably barely making both time controls in both games.

Vasto (2096) – Li (1974)

2015 Cleveland Open U2100, Round 4

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After 23…Bc6

After an early inaccuracy that left me on the run for a while, I had managed to trade off most of the minor pieces and began to think the coast was clear. White soon showed quite clearly that this wasn’t the case.

24. Bb1 Nd7?

Trying to trade more pieces, but missing the real purpose of 24. Bb1.

25. Nxc6 Qxc6 26. Rg3!

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Suddenly, this is very awkward for Black. Castling is obviously impossible due to Qg4; oddly enough, 26…Kf8 was the best chance, due to 27. Qg4 Rg8. Instead, I played 26…g6?

Fortunately, the immediate 27. Bxg6 doesn’t quite work, but White has many potential kingside intrusions. Even if most of them don’t work at a particular time, they will under some circumstances and Black at least has to be extremely careful evaluating each one.

27. Be4 Qb6 28. Qf3 Nc5 29. Qf6 Rg8 30. Bf3 a5

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This was a bit of a gamble, since White has no immediate threats, I opted to temporarily postpone …Rd8, possibly until Rd1. For the future, Black prevents b4, which could knock proper defense off e6 if Black gets careless at the same time.

31. Rd1 Rd8 32. Rxd8+ Qxd8 33. Qe5 b6 34. Qe3 Rh8 35. h3 Ke7 36. Rg4 Qd3?!

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After meticulously checking for possible ways to get clobbered for a few moves, Black gets sucked into desperately trying to trade queens and pulls the game back into dangerous territory. 36…Qc7 defends everything surprisingly well: the d-file via …Rd8 and f7 if necessary (notably, …g5 is an option despite its weakening appearance).

37. Qe5 Rc8 38. Rd4 Qb1+ 39. Rd1

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I anticipated White’s 40. Qd6+, so in some ways this was the true “move 40” decision, at with of course, barely a few minutes. Interestingly, after so many moves of surviving White’s potential threats, I was enticed by the weak pawns on the queenside. This pulled us, yet again, into another sketchy-looking position. The game move is a better version of 39. Kh2 (not allowing 40. Qd4+ as in the game), which after 39…Qxa2 is objectively about equal, though it may prove difficult for White to prove compensation.

39…Qxa2 40. Qd6+ Kf6 41. Qd4+

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So far, I’ve been critical of my less safe decisions, but honestly, there’s nothing really wrong with bold decisions if you check them thoroughly. After the influx of 30 minutes for the 2nd time control, I began to be more confident in my chances to hold the kingside while snapping up the queenside. 41…Ke7 could have just led to a draw after 42. Qd6+, but I had also considered 42. Qh4+, after which 42…Kf8 43. Qxh6+ should be okay as Black has …Rc7 defending f7, but not 42…Ke8?? 43. Qf6 threatening Bc6+.

Instead, I went with 41…e5?! 42. Qd6+ Kg7 43. Qxe5+ Kg8 44. Rd6 Qxb3! 45. Bd5!

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To my credit, I had checked 45. Rxg6+ since move 40. White does have a perpetual after 45…fxg6 46. Bd5+ but with only a queen and bishop, White has no mating attack so I was confident I hadn’t missed anything. However, after 45. Bd5 I was forced to go into a worse ending with 45…Qb1+ 46. Kh2 Qf5 47. Qxf5 gxf5, although Black’s passed a-pawn does give good chances of holding.

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Nevertheless, even though White has yet to regain his pawn, Black must be careful; for example, after White’s 48. Rg6+48…Kh7 was not a happy choice but 48…Kf8? runs into 49. Rxh6 threatening Rh8+ and Rxb6.

48. Rg6+ Kh7 49. Rxb6 Kg7 50. Rb5 a4 51. Ra5 f4!

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The immediate 51…Kf6 faces difficulties after 52. f4 or 52. Kg3.

52. Ra7 Rf8 53. Kg1 Kg6 54. Rc7 Nb3 55. c5.Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 00.12.16

55…Kf6 56. c6 Ke5 57. Bxb3 axb3 58. Rb7 Rc8 59. c7 b2 60. Rxb2 Rxc7

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Far from a perfect game, but no one has to expect to be perfect. In this case, calculating to the best of my ability worked, and underscored why I’ve been proud about my mentality.

A Beginner’s Take on the United States Chess School

I never thought I would see a child doing squats at a chess camp. This and many other similar, crazy moments at the United States Chess School’s 34th camp are memories that I will cherish forever.

Since 2006, IM Greg Shahade has held training camps for some of the best young chess players in the country. I was lucky enough to help out at the camp held at the famous Marshall Chess Club earlier this summer. Most beginners like me would typically never get the opportunity to attend this sort of chess camp. After all, the standards to qualify for the camps are getting higher and higher every year as players are becoming stronger at younger ages. The camp I observed was on the higher end of the spectrum: every child that attended was rated at least 2200.

Among the talented group of students were the youngest master in United States history, Max Lu, and the youngest female master in United States history, Carissa Yip. In addition, the four girls who attended the camp are currently the top female chess players in the country under eighteen years old. During our camp, they were even interviewed by The New York Times for an article on the gender gap in chess. Although not every participant made the papers, each of the other children boasted their own similarly impressive achievements.

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I’ll admit that when I first arrived at the Marshall, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I had a million worries, which increased as more and more kids came to the club. I felt out of place- too old to fit in with the kids, too young to chat up the parents, not qualified enough as a chess player, and an all-around foreigner to this chess scene.

Despite this inner turmoil, I had a job to do. I currently help Greg with social media for the organization, updating the nonprofit’s Twitter and Facebook accounts when there is chess news to be shared about past camp participants’ successes. At the camp, my obligations included taking pictures, as well. I was there for work, so I sucked up my intimidation, stammered out introductions, and struggled to match names to faces. Greg announced my part in the camp and told everyone to smile if I pointed a camera in their direction.

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Greg launched right into a lesson, as almost all the kids had been to a USCS camp before. The puzzles presented were way over my head, as I was only a beginner. I watched the kids write down answers almost immediately and call Greg over to check their analyses. The room was soon full of voices shouting Greg’s name as the children discussed answers and variations. Amid the chaos I realized that their talent was coupled with enthusiasm,  and a pattern emerged: the kids all wanted to be the first to answer questions (and to answer them correctly, of course).

Over the next four days, I learned that these kids “misbehaved” uniquely. Instead of being distracted and not paying attention or going on tangents as children traditionally do at school, these kids got in trouble for being too enthusiastic about lessons, about chess. Timeouts were necessary and way too common, especially on day three, the day I’ve dubbed “Stripunsky & Squats.” GM Alexander Stripunsky came to teach the class and punishment was implemented in the form of squats when the campers called out.

The children’s unique behavior continued well into lunchtime for the next few days. On the first day, I heard the kids cheering for 99 cents pizza, a tradition, as they crowded the doorway to leave for lunch. By day two, the kids were playing bughouse, blitz, and bullet during lunch “break.” Most of them didn’t take breaks from chess at all.

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They just asked their parents to bring back pizza from the pizzeria because they simply didn’t want to leave their boards.

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I doubt I will ever experience that dedicated atmosphere anywhere else.
Magnus Carlsen, Irina Krush, and other top players have always inspired me, but I was infinitely more inspired by a group of ten to fifteen year olds. These kids embodied what it meant to truly work hard.

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For seven hours a day, their mind was on chess and only chess. They were talented and dedicated. I think the moment that shocked me the most was that every kid was able to set up a position in their minds blindfold style and solve a puzzle. I watched an eleven year old checkmate with a bishop and knight vs a king, a checkmate that even past women’s world champions have failed, with only a few seconds on the clock.

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I witnessed a twelve year old beating Greg in bullet.

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It’s hard to look at these kids and think that they’re so accomplished. They’re all young. But they aren’t to be underestimated. These kids are all going to do amazing things in the future. Not all of them will be grandmasters, nor will all of them play chess professionally. It’s clear, however, that they have found a passion, that they all have potential,  and that they have gained qualities due to their chess training that will help them achieve their future goals no matter the relation to chess. I wonder if the kids will think back to this camp when they are a lot older and remember it as a time where they were able to easily fit in with others and find their niche, to be with others that were as passionate as they, as well.

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I myself found that I slowly interacted more with the kids, joked around during discussions. I laughed along with them, made references to the meat cleaver in the fridge, and had fun. In the end, I even got to play a few rounds of bughouse! I was quickly crushed by my superiors, but I had the time of my life.

I owe my boss, Greg Shahade, my sincerest thanks. He watched me complete tactic after tactic when I wasn’t required to be doing my job and encouraged my slow but obvious progress. More than that, Greg was a phenomenal teacher and the mastermind behind the US Chess School. The camp would have been completely different if not for the exact circumstances. Greg as the teacher was one part of it. The kids’ chemistry, the timing of the camp (just after the World Open, which many of the kids participated in), and the location ALL contributed to the camp’s success. Of course we had no shortage of issues, late starts, and sad goodbyes, but we easily overlooked them.

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I cannot contain my excitement for next year’s New York camp. I’m sure it will be different as new kids bring their own brands of enthusiasm to the table, but it will be full of the same laughter, happiness, and inspiration I discovered this year. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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You can find out more about the United States Chess School at their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Our Inner Underdog Selves

For those caught up with the recent chess events, you’ll know that Wesley So of Webster University won the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, staying half a point in front of the field from round 7 and onward. Wesley So actually began the tournament as the fifth seed out of ten people – right in the middle of the field. Now, of course, this being one of the prestigious tournaments in the Grand Chess Tour, everyone in the field is around the same level: the top of the top. But in a way he had it different, finishing in last place the previous year. Wesley So truly made an amazing comeback.

WesleySo

Most of us can only ever dream to be at the top of the world like the players at the tournament, but (hopefully) we can usually relate to what Wesley must have felt going into the tournament: the feeling of being the underdog – nothing to lose and experience to gain. It’s that feeling of being the ‘expected loser’ that gives us that adrenaline and courage to play those crazy, and sometimes brilliant moves that help us clinch wins or transform losses to salvageable positions.

I remember when I first breached that sacred barrier between 1900 and 2000 – it was my first tournament in 2011, where I beat an expert, a master, and drew a master in a quad. Growing up, I always played up a section – I was that fearless little girl who played the king’s gambit and constantly had my pawns extended towards my opponents king. I took risks. Risks that mostly paid off because my size and rating combination frightened my opponents.

So naive little me thought, “Now that I’m 2000, I should totally play in the open section at Liberty Bell this year! It’ll be fun!” Nope. Not fun. Out of seven games, I got 2.5 points – a bye, and a draw and win against two other experts. Sure, I didn’t do horribly, but my self-esteem was basically gone. I played the same kind of chess – but those who truly belonged in the Open Section had the experience that made it evident I was either bluffing or just playing unstable chess.

Sure, sometimes we have brilliant performances playing in the sections above us – but a question we really need to ask ourselves is “Can I beat those people lower rated than me if I were to play them?” Maybe you can – perfect! I strongly encourage continuing to play up to gain experience (unless you’re trying to win money of course). However, if you’re like me and you have a rather poor score against those lower rated than you, consider playing in your own section for once. Sometimes it’s necessary to lose and realize the necessity of creating a strong foundation for your rating. For me, it was accepting the fact that I needed to learn to beat those lower rated than me before challenging those higher rater that finally helped stabilize my performance and allow me to reach 2100 after four very long years.

To truly succeed as an underdog in a section, it’s necessary to build a solid foundation so that we don’t waste our points losing to those lower rated than us.

Wake Up Washington!

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Mid-thought in my third round draw. I swear I’m not sleeping!

What makes for a good tournament performance? Rating gain? Total number of wins? Winning prizes? Well, for me, it was none of the above. Last week’s Washington International marked my final tournament before returning to Pittsburgh for the fall semester, and a return to one of my favorite tournament venues.

Just like last year, I entered the U2200 section hoping to find some sort of clarity going into the fall. Since the US Junior Open, I think it’s fair to say that I have had a particularly tough stretch between a poor showing at the World Open and some uninspired play at the Southern Open – only tallying two wins over my last eleven games. Of course, these past two months have also given me a lot of insight into my own weaknesses as a player, forcing me to work on a new opening repertoire, my calculation skills, and my overall endgame understanding.

After a few days on Sanibel Island following the Southern Open, I was ready to get back into tournament form!

To an extent, I do think putting so much emphasis on my preparation for the US Junior Open resulted in a bit of a backslide in my studies upon my return from New Orleans. I didn’t really grasp this in Philadelphia as I was preoccupied, getting torn apart in the Open section, but this became apparent to me when my performance in Orlando was punctuated with a very lucky win despite my poor form and inability to find any tactics that weekend. But naturally, I have greater aspirations than to obsess about a tournament I played in two months ago, and making master is certainly a good first step.

In the three weeks leading up to the Washington International, I completely changed how I attacked my studies. Every morning, I woke up at 6:30 to go running  to improve my endurance while beating the heat. After pushing my physical limits, I then tested myself mentally, doing tactical exercises for about two hours before working on my opening repertoire and then testing out some lines in online practice games. On most days, I was able to put in about five hours of preparation, though there was one day where I somehow had the stamina for ten! This wasn’t enough to fix all of the problems my game has had over the month prior, but it made up for a lot of poor preparation – think of it as a “spring cleaning”, if you will.

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Boards and sets! The Washington International is the most accommodating tournament I have ever played in – breakfast, mid-game coffee, provided boards and pieces – what more can you ask for?

So, as you can imagine, I entered Rockville the most prepared I could be, and easily the most confident I have been in a very long time. I knew it would be hard to replicate the success I had last year with a completely new opening repertoire, so my only goals were to focus on getting solid positions out of the opening and limit the number of unforced blunders in my play – both of which were places I had failed in my two prior events.

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20. Qf2 +/-, Steincamp – Imada

My first three games were extremely uneventful, though I managed to outplay my first round opponent from an equal endgame to secure a win. My score of 2/3 wasn’t a bad start, but my tournament really started in round 4, where my inability to play quickly cost me a beautiful position and the game. Even though I’m not particularly happy with how this game ended, I think it’s instructive and worth sharing here on Chess^Summit.

Ouch! Well, I guess that’s one way to lose to a lower rated opponent… Not quite what I was hoping for in my “back to form” tournament. One thing I’ve noticed about some of my tournaments pre-dating the US Junior Open was that if I had a closely contested game and lost, I generally would underperform in my next few games and it would kill my ability to have a consistent tournament performance. Knowing that my ability to rebound quickly from this loss would define how I did in this tournament, I played my best chess in each of my next two games as Black.

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18…Bf6, Boris – Steincamp

Pushed for what felt a “must-win” in round 5 to bounce back from a tough loss the night before, I opened with a move I hadn’t played since 2007! Typically, I bring blue Gatorade to each game, but when I feel like I need to win, I switch it out for “Darth Vader” juice (red). While superstitions are silly (I have others!), there was no messing around this Monday morning, and Caissa rewarded me with some creative play, and a great win to really start my scoring spree this tournament.

While I won this game with some nice technique, I was much prouder of myself for completely ignoring my opponent’s time trouble, and forcing myself to find the best move at my own pace, even once the endgame had been reached and it was clear the game was continuing for the sake of formality. I feel like my ability to handle such situations has come a long way since I blew a State Championship last February trying to push my opponent further into his own time trouble.

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9…Bd7, Nath–Steincamp

So I was back! Just a few hours later, I was back at the board again with the Black pieces. Any guesses as to how I responded to 1 e4 after that previous round? I was really confident in my play again and by move 13 I reached a completely winning position, and unlike my earlier loss, I once again forced myself to use my time more effectively to put the game away in style!

Now 4/6 with three rounds to go, I was feeling optimistic again about my chances to place in the event, but as luck would have it, things just did not work out. Paired against one of the strongest players in the field I managed secure equality, but quickly found myself distracted by some off-the-board behavior related to my opponent that I do not wish to discuss at this time. I had my own mistakes and know what I can take away from this game to become a stronger player, but unfortunately, this once again killed the momentum I had worked so hard to build. I did well to draw my last two rounds with Black, but on paper, 5/9 certainly didn’t seem to make up for that round 7 loss.

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Coaching at the first ever Virginia Scholastic Chess Association Intensive! A small group of kids, a lot of material to cover! Since I don’t know where my future will lead me, this might be the last scholastic event I run in Richmond for a while.

So we return to the opening question – what makes a good tournament? Dropping below 2100 for the first time certainly doesn’t sound like a good result, but when I look at the goals I set for myself going into Rockville and then compare these nine games to my previous eleven, only one word comes to mind: progress. In this tournament, despite playing with a new opening repertoire, there was only (arguably) one game where I left the opening slightly worse (my round 8 draw), and while I had my mistakes, it was still not nearly as many as I had at the Southern Open. Even though I was fully prepared for this tournament, I got hit with everything this section could offer me, and each of the lessons I learned will be valuable towards future improvement.

Good is a strong word in chess because it’s too general to really describe every aspect of a performance. At this year’s Washington International, I didn’t have the breakthrough tournament that I had the year prior, but I certainly had a very encouraging result. The way I played showed a lot of improvement, but in pulling together a solid showing, I also saw my play with White isn’t getting me enough, and that my ability to manage time trouble can still use some work.

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Cathy calling!

As I pack my bags for another term at Pitt this week, I’m excited about the prospect of being able to play more frequently in various local competitions. With the Pittsburgh Chess League, as well as the various Pennsylvania State Championships on University campus, I’m confident that I will not only have an opportunity to regain the points I’ve lost the last half of this summer, but soar beyond if I continue to attack my studies. Of course, I likely won’t have five hours a day anymore given my workload, but I hope I can make up for that with ambition and get back to the results I’m used to.

These past few tournaments have been a test, and the finish line is near. My only hope is I cross it sprinting.

The Muzio Gambit

Pawn sacrifices in openings are relatively common. Piece sacrifices are rare. Multiple piece sacrifices are so rare; they must be valuable, like a Liberty gold coin.

Capture5

Bobby FischerCapture6 stated that the real chess genius was Paul Morphy, who was the first historical figure of Grandmaster strength.  If Fischer can win the fantasy knockout tournament between all the World Champions (https://www.chess.com/article/view/the-all-time-world-chess-champion-bracket), then Fischer’s assessment of Morphy’s strength is evidential.

MorphyCapture7 was so strong that he retired from chess in his early twenties.  He offered to play anyone a match at Pawn + Move handicapCapture12 yet, no one picked up the glove that he threw down.

We have all learned chess from our predecessors, yet Morphy was an exception. When he was a pre-adolescentCapture13, he somehow, intuitively, instinctively, taught himself how to play good chess.  His overall lifetime record was an amazing 84.8%.

Morphy played for rapid accurate development, and he put his pieces on their best squares.  It was joked that Fischer could throw pieces at a board, and they would land upright centered on their best squares.

Morphy said that one should not attack until all the pieces are in play.  He was so ahead of his time that Botvinnik Capture8.PNGstated that there was little the Soviets could learn from how to play open positions, since Morphy showed everyone how.

Paul Morphy played more Muzio Gambits (or variations of) than all the World Champions combined.

I reviewed dozens of opening principles and devised the following succinct opening proverb for my students: “Connect your rooks, along the back-rank, as quickly as possible, by castling into safety” ©. This game has no players, yet, it ends with how all chess games should end, with checkmate.

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. Bc4 g4 5. O-O!

Capture

The Muzio Gambit proper, and a truly gutsy move.  Two hundred years ago, in 1816 London, Jacob Henry Sarratt (http://www.edochess.ca/batgirl/Sarratt.html) and William Lewis Capture9played a 10-game match between themselves where Sarratt played White and Lewis played Black.  Nearly all the games opened with the Muzio Gambit, and they really played some wild chess in those days!  Game #6 (can be found in some chess databases), ended in a draw, and was particularly entertaining.  Sarratt introduced the idea that a stalemate was a draw, and Lewis’ famous pupil was Alexander McDonnell, who played LaBourdonnais in that great 1834 series of matches.

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The Muzio Gambit is a tactical piece sacrifice.  It is imperative that White keep Queens on the board to generate threats as compensation for being down enormous material.  White’s attack will evaporate if Queens are traded.  The Benko Gambit (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5) is a positional pawn sacrifice.  In the Benko, Black can actually trade Queens and maintain his positional pressure.

7. e5 Qxe5

Capture1 

8. Bxf7+!

This is called the double Muzio.  Chess databases contain fewer games played with this second piece sacrifice, yet it scores better than the more frequently played 8.d3.  An excellent historical example (between two World Champion candidates) isCapture10 Adolf Anderssen – Johannes Zukertort, Breslau 1865, which continued 8.d3 Bh6 9.Nc3 Ne7 10.Bd2 Nbc6 11.Rae1 Qf5 12.Nd5 Kd8 13.Bc3 Re8 14.Nf6 Rf8 15.g4 Qg6 16.h4 d6 17.g5 Bg7 18.Qxf4 h6 19.Qh2 a6 20.d4 hxg5 21.d5 gxh4+ 22.Kh1 Nb8 23.Qxd6+ Bd7 24.Qe7+ 1-0

Kxf7 9. d4 Qxd4+ 10. Be3 Qf6

 Capture2

11. Nc3!

This must be called the triple Muzio.  I like this move, and is the reason why I am writing this article.  For hundreds of years, the main line has been 11.Bxf4, which is proven good, yet 11.Bxf4 always seemed to me to be out of sync with the thread of the previous moves.  I do not recall where or when I first saw 11.Nc3, but it makes sense.

Capture11Alexey Shirov – J. Lapinski, Daugavpils 1990 continued 11.Bxf4 Ke8 12.Nc3 Nc6 13.Nd5 Qg6 14.Rae1 Be7 15.Bd6!! Kd8 16.Qxf8+! Bxf8 17.Bxc7# Some consider this the most brilliant Muzio ever played.

11.Nc3 develops White’s last minor piece and connects his rooks.  Black needs five moves to connect his rooks, and White has already sacrificed two pieces. Does the position really warrant that White pause to defend the threatened e3-Bishop?

fxe3 12. Qh5+ Kg7 13. Rxf6 Nxf6 14. Qg5+ Kf7 15. Rf1

Capture3

White moves his inactive Rook to the only open file on the board, and pins Black’s Knight. Black’s undeveloped Queenside pieces can only look on helplessly while White caps his resplendent play with another tactical sacrifice.

Be7 16. Nd5 Rg8 17. Rxf6+! Bxf6 18. Qxf6+ Ke8 19. Qe7#

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Potomac Open: Oh, What Could Have Been!

Having been relatively stagnant in the low to mid-2100 rating range for about a year now, I’ve still been searching for that one breakout tournament result that can give me a decent rating bump.  In this tournament, it seemed as if that result was finally within reach…until it wasn’t.

The Potomac Open was held in Gaithersburg, MD from the 29th to the 31st of July.  I had two weeks prior to the start of the tournament to prepare for the tournament; seeing as the open section was the only one I could play in, there were going to be many higher rated players.  At the start of the tournament, I was the third-to-lowest seed – pretty much what I had expected.  The last tournament I had played in was the Cherry Blossom Classic way back in May (you can find Isaac’s reflection of his performance here).  As a result, I had a desire to do well in this one, especially because there was going to be a string of successive tournaments in August, and having a good performance in this tournament was hopefully going to give me momentum going into the following ones.

In the end, I managed to finish with 2.5/5.  While this is not a perfect performance by any means, it was certainly inspiring as I knew that I could definitely compete, even in the highest of sections.  In the first round, I was paired against a 2413-rated adult.  Fortunately for me, I had the white pieces, so I was hoping to salvage something in this round.  In order to follow the game and the full annotations, click the link below.  For future reference, clicking the game quotation will lead you to the game viewer.

Kobla – Palani (Potomac Open, 2016)

Okay, so that game definitely did not have the best finish.  Either way, it was still a psychological win for me because it was still a draw against a much higher rated player.  There are a couple morals that can be absorbed from this game:

  1. Always look at all of the pieces and the whole board. More often than not, knockout blows will come from pieces that haven’t been the center of attention for the last few moves.  If you remain too set on using a couple pieces or trying to make a certain plan work, you will miss moves, like I did in this example.
  2. Don’t be afraid to repeat moves once (or even twice), since it will gain time on the clock if in an increment time control and possibly give you a psychological advantage, all the while not changing the actual dynamics and ideas of the position.

That was the only round on that Friday night, so I went back home and tried not to think about this game too much but rather the future round.

The next morning, the pairings revealed I was pitted against David Bennett, a 2250 rated player that had improved enormously over the last year or so in order to reach the level he was at now.  The game began as an English; though the middlegame didn’t go quite as planned for me, we went the distance and reached time control.  We will join the game from there.  What followed was what I believe an instructional endgame where I was able to hold a draw in a pawn-down position.

Bennett – Kobla (Potomac Open, 2016)

That was quite a ride!  Perhaps it was just the hours of online bullet and blitz practice I have built up over time that helped me in this game, but it was instructional nonetheless.  There were a couple morals to be taken from this game as well:

  1. Studying endgames is so crucial to improving your game. If anything, it is more important than learning openings and middlegames.  If you can get an advantage early in the game, but you can’t convert it in the endgame, then what’s the point?
  2. If there’s still play left in the position, never give up. As we saw in this game, there were multiple points in the game where my opponent could have improved.  I made my own share of mistakes, but I just happened to make less, and in the end, that’s what mattered.

I was definitely feeling satisfied after that game.  Achieving two draws with two higher rated players after two rounds was certainly nothing to complain about.  At that point, the main thing I was hoping to do was to build on this early success and hopefully turn it into a great result.

In the third round, I was pitted against a 2261 rated friend around the same age of me.  I will admit, I did have luck on my side on this game.  In the game, my opponent blundered a tactic, and luckily, I was able to capitalize.  Let’s see if you can do the same!

 

August18_KoblaXu
Figure 1:  Kobla – Xu – Position after 24. … c4??

 

Once you think you have fully solved the puzzle, click here to see the solution.

With that tactic, I was able to start the tournament with 2/3; in my mind, that is more than I could have ever hoped for in the open section!  With that day being a successful one, I went to sleep that night feeling really confident.

However, as the saying goes, you can’t win ‘em all.  In the fourth round, I was paired against another friend of mine, rated 2239.  Unfortunately, in this game, I was not so lucky.  After forgetting my opening prep, I was thoroughly dismantled in this game.  The one thing I learned from this game was to repeatedly go through opening prep, as you never know when you’ll need it.  This was the last thing I was hoping for after my early success, but it was enough to derail any chances to jump in rating.  But still, the tournament was not over.  With one round left to go, I just had to make the most of what I had left in the tank.  In the fifth and final round, I was paired against an equal.  With both of us being tired after a long couple days and tournament, we agreed to a draw not too long into the round.

Though I finished half a point shy of winning money, I still gained a decent 17 points in rating.  Overall, this tournament was a success, and it proved I was certainly moving in the right direction.  Although the end of the tournament (read: fourth round game) was a valley relative to the mountains around it, I still learned something from that, so that’s another thing.  There’s always something to learn from your mistakes!

All in all, I hope you learned something from my experience in this year’s Potomac Open, and can apply them in your own games.  As always, thanks for taking the time to read through this, and see you later!

Breaking My Opening the Short Way

Today I’d like to discuss an opening situation that’s largely flown under my radar until now: playing against the Caro-Kann. At top-level, Caro-Kanns make up less than 10% of the “big four” responses (1…c5, 1…e5, 1…e6, 1…c6) to 1. e4, and Sicilians make up the vast (even by Sicilian standards) majority of responses to 1. e4 in my own games (it’s interesting how some trends get magnified at lower levels of play!).

However, chances are that you’re bound to see just about everything after playing high-level competition long enough. Two years is hardly near the threshold, but one of the first indicators is that I’m starting to see more Caro-Kanns. Good for them!

Unsurprisingly, the problems with facing the Caro-Kann highly resemble the reasons I play it as Black. Resource limitations also play a large role, as it’s not so easy to siphon complex opening ideas from database statistics or raw game scores. For example, almost all my theoretical knowledge about the Caro-Kann is from the book by Schandorff, whose recommendations are a little more dynamic than what I’m historically used to.

Honorable Mention: Fantasy Variation

There’s a weird candidate that deserves mention: the aptly-named Fantasy Variation (3. f3). I play this in bullet a lot, but mostly because everyone tends to play into the exciting 3…dxe4 4. fxe4 e5 5. Nf3 lines. In more serious play, I’d be more likely to get slower, French-like lines such as 3…e6 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Bf4 Ne7 6. Qd3 b6 7. Nge2 Ba6 8. Qe3.

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Position after 8. Qe3.

This is actually the most likely  for me to switch to (though interestingly, I’m not sure what I’d play as Black against 3. f3). The above is certainly viable and interesting for White (due to opposite-side castling), but I’m also considering resource limitations (Schandorff only discusses 3…dxe4) and my phobia of allowing …c5 with a knight on c3.

Finding the One

Ultimately, the decision came down to the question of which position was easiest to play for White. For example, I eliminated the Panov (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4) early on, though it’s understandably very popular at the amateur level, I tend to favor the static nature of Black’s prospects in the isolated queen pawn positions. Eliminating the Classical (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3) was a little more complicated; I’d actually like playing both sides of the opposite-side castling positions I talked about in my last post, but unfortunately the “boring” 12…Qc7 turned me off the line (not to mention Black’s other options on move 4). White has some decent deviations, but they don’t tend to promise much and certainly run the risk of petering out.

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Position after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Ngf6 12. O-O-O Qc7._. (there’s a new exclamation for you!).

The easiest of the Advanced Variation (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5) options to eliminate was 4. Nc3, which is, with all due respect to Shirov, surprisingly unreliable (Schandorff made a great case for this). Below is a “typical” example after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 e6 5. g4 Bg6 6. Nge2 c5 7. h4 h5!? 8. Nf4 Bh7 9. Nxh5 Nc6 10. dxc5 Bxc5 11. Nxg7+ Kf8.

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A little deceptive; Black is down two pawns and can’t castle, but will soon play …d5-d4 and …Qd5 with tremendous play.

The “ease of play” criterion came back into play for the rest of the options. I don’t intentionally shy away from positional maneuvering lines, but most of the positional options didn’t seem particularly challenging for Black, who starts slightly cramped, but invariably untangles and challenges the center with …c5.

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Black untangles with 7…Nc8!? followed soon by …Ncb6 and …c5.

However, Black’s less-mobile position (at least initially) is fairly characteristic of the Advanced Variation; maybe there’s a way to take advantage of it without being unreliable.

The Short Variation

It’s a fairly simple idea. White gears up for a fight with some more intuitive development and dares Black to catch up, as can be seen fairly quickly after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 c5 6. Be3.

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Watch out for c2-c4.

However, my impression is that it’s gone fairly overlooked, despite being a regular guest at top level. It’s possible White players (and by extension, Black) can’t be bothered with the theory at lower levels of play. However, as I turn to facing stronger opposition this can’t be counted on. I stumbled upon the 6. Be3 Short while going over study material for Black, and was surprised at how dangerous the positions were. It certainly involves theory, but most resembles the reliably active option I’d been seeking.

White’s lead in development allows him two possible luxuries. One is the fairly overt threat of blowing open the center. The other, a bit more materialistic, can be seen from a plausible rookie mistake, 6…Nc6?.

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After 6…Nc6?

Black might be surprised at first by 7. dxc5!, but it’s clear that Black has no reasonable way to regain the pawn due to lack of kingside development, e.g. 7…Qc7? 8. dxc5 Nxe5?? 9. Nxe5 Qxe5 10. Bb5+ is brutal, or even more immediately (as my acquaintance tried against me in the Cleveland Open blitz last weekend) 7…Qa5+? 8. c3 and the pawn is White’s for good.

Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

For an example of the first type, we turn to a rare bright spot in last weekend’s Cleveland Open. My opponent and I both had a really rough tournament, but at least I got to finish with a flash.

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 Nd7.

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Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

This is actually slightly more popular than 5…c5, and intended to lead to a slower game. In fact, Schandorff is really pushing White’s buttons with the dynacism, choosing to cover only 5…c5.

6. Be3 h6 7. Nbd2.

This was an attempt to combine my recently picked-up bit of the 5…c5 6. Be3 Short theory and positional attempts by White to stall …c5 (e.g. 4. Be3 followed by 5. Nd2 instead of 4. Nf3). I initially thought 6…h6 was too slow, but Black’s doing okay as long the center stays closed, i.e. avoid…

7…c5?

At best, Black is playing with fire, basically playing the dangerous Short lines from earlier down a tempo or two. 8. c4! would have been most forcing, but there’s not too much wrong with the game continuation.

8. O-O Qc7

Unsurprisingly, Black is a reluctant to admit the mistake, so to speak. 8…Ne7 runs into the dxc5 problems from earlier, but is probably the lesser of the two evils.

9. c4 Ne7 10. Rc1 dxc4? 11. Bxc4?!

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 01.43.18
Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

My 11th move was based on thinking Black would stick to the fairly overt intention of an immediate …Nd5. We both overlooked the obvious 11…Nc6 after which 12. d5 isn’t nearly as treacherous as the game. However, Black would have been better off with simply 10…Nc6, as 11. Nxc4! Nd5 12. dxc5 Nxe3 13. fxe3 Bxc5 14. Nd6+ is curtains; White’s ruined e-pawns are irrelevant.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 01.44.42
Possible position after 14. Nd6+

Instead, Black rolled along with 11…Nd5?? 12. Bxd5 exd5 13. dxc5. It may be a little dramatic to say the game is over, but Black is at least a move from castling kingside or regaining the c5-pawn or e5-pawn (e.g. 13…Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Qxe5 15. Re1). Black actually decided he couldn’t get out of the center fast enough and castled queenside (!) into a bone-crunching attack, resigning on move 28.

Holding Off On …c5

It’s pretty clear Black has to be careful about …c5. But if Black refrains from …c5 until reorganizing, it’s natural to wonder if the game just turns into one of the positional lines I tried to avoid earlier.

For example, in the 4. Nd2 line, White could try something on the kingside, ala 4…e6 5. Nb3 Nd7 6. Nf3 Ne7 7. Be2 Nc8 8. O-O Be7 9. Ne1 Bg6 10. f4.

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After 10. f4

After something like 10…O-O, White can try 11. g4 but at worst after 11…f5, White can lock up the position with 12. g5 (in which Black has the usual queenside action) or open the g-file, which looks sketchy with Black (almost) fully developed.

In the Short Variation, Black could try to get something similar with (after 5. Be25…Nd7 6. Be3 Ne7.

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Short Variation, after 6…Ne7

7. O-O and 7. Nbd2 look like they’ll transpose to earlier lines after 7…Nc8. Instead, White could try for the relatively uncharted 7. Nh4!? possibly followed by 7…Bg6 8. O-O.

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Short Variation, after 7. Nh4 Bg6 8. O-O

8…Nc8 might be okay for Black, but after 9. Nxg6 it’s a different game than the 4. Nd2 line. 8…Nf5 9. Nxf5 Bxf5 10. g4 Bg6 11. f4 has been played a few times, with success for White within that bubble.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 02.25.51
After 11. f4

One difference is that with the knight exchange and omitted Nd2-b3 maneuver, White is up a tempo on the kingside compared to the previous line. More importantly, White has a lot more room to generate queenside play. The computer likes White’s chances after 11…Be7 (or 11…c5) 12. c4 and whether or not that’s important, the position is a far cry from the free hand Black has in the first position.

So it’s safe to say in the Short Variation, there are always some ways for White to drum up some differences from safer lines.


And that’s the beginning of my attempts to break down my primary Black response to e4.

Any interesting ways you’ve countered your favorite openings? Let us know in the comments!