It was after Isaac and I rebounded at the Pennsylvania G/60 Championships (which, by the way, Grant swept 4-0) that I realized how much our results have aligned in recent times. Both of us had been on a steady downward slide since reaching peak ratings during the summer, but produced encouraging performances at the G/60. In light of the similarities, “Also Finding Form in Short Time Controls” would have been a fitting title for this post!
However, I think Isaac’s recent results have largely reflected the challenges of adapting to a completely new repertoire, and he weathered some very tough challenges to his new openings in the G/60. In contrast, my trajectory has been more dramatic, as I completely lost my footing against lower-rated players for several tournaments, before notching my first win against a 2300 master.
After reaching 2157 in July, I managed only a 1.5/8 record against opponents rated 1800-2000, dropping my rating to 2069 in only a few weeks. For perspective, this included:
- Blundering queen for rook in a much better position with 20 minutes to my opponent’s 3
- Two losses to sharp players in sharp Panov lines
- Blundering into mate with 50 minutes to my opponent’s 3
- Blundering a rook on move 12, barely 10 minutes into the game (I resigned on move 15)
- Another painful Panov loss in which I couldn’t come up with ideas against a simple c5/Bb5 setup.
See a pattern? It was easy to see I was uncharacteristically rushing in my games and that my lack of opening knowledge had started catching up to me. Both were difficult to accept, as openings had never been an issue, and I had always been a sensible (and often slow) player who ground down everyone under 2000. It goes without saying that I’d never experienced such a drop before, even when I was a 1000-rated kid with an exploding K-factor.
Fixing a problem takes more than identifying a problem, and after dropping 88 rating points, it wasn’t clear what my next step was going to be. However, it was obvious that I needed to change my perspective on competing:
- Rushed mentality: Earlier, I lamented some obstacles to reaching master. This should have pushed me to prepare for a long journey, but instead I became impatient, and as reflected in my games, reluctant to spend too much energy on games I “should” win. Needless to say, if I reach those heights again, I will not be making the same mistake!
- Openings: In the past I’ve advocated against focusing too much on openings, and I still believe this to be good advice for many at the lower level. But while studying openings may not be strictly necessary, I’ve come to regard it as something that can’t hurt, as long it doesn’t entail disregarding other aspects of play. For what it’s worth, I do know strong players who don’t dedicate much to studying openings, but their standards are often higher than mine and obviously, the value depends a lot on the opening. Playing the Caro-Kann is not something one does to avoid theory.
- Controlling factors: This is difficult to describe. Before the Cleveland Open, sitting at a rating of 2119, I was glad not to have any expectations for the event (given a reasonable consensus against building up too many before playing), but had a terrible tournament. This again came back to bite me at the local league, which served as my warmup for the G/60 championships. Analyzing expectations was a bit of an attempt to change how I felt while playing. Even ignoring the many other factors in play, you can’t create mentality in this way.
As late as a week before the G/60 championship, I was still planning to take a break from tournaments until the state championship at the end of October. I don’t think this would have been a bad decision, but in the end I decided against the idea of intentionally making drastic changes to my regular tournament habits. Nevertheless, at this point I truly had no particular expectations for the tournament; I definitely thought of it as a more social occasion that normal, as it was the first event of the fall and would draw a large turnout.
A Slow Start
The top section alone drew 30 people for four rounds, resulting in accelerated pairings for the first two rounds. Although clearly entrenched in the top half of the draw, I was given a first-round White against NM Tom Magar.
Tom is a good player, but time is not often on his side and lower-rated players know they can often overpower him if they watch their time. However, the circumstances were different this time, as I was trying to avoid issues with rushing my play. Unfortunately, I didn’t pick the best time control to do so, and despite successfully deploying a Closed Sicilian trap, I played too passively, fell way behind on time, and eventually blundered in time trouble.
1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. d3 d6 6. Be3 e6 7. Qd2 Rb8 8. Nf3!?
The first surprise of the game; 8. Nge2, would likely transpose to normal lines usually reached after the 6…Rb8 move order, involving ideas of f2-f4, Bh6, and …Nd4. In the 8. Nf3 line, a temporary Ne1 will still allow White to proceed as normal. However, Black fell for the trap, and it proved to be another example (for me) of opening knowledge being helpful at unexpected times.
8…Nd4?! 9. Bxd4! cxd4 10. Nb5
The point of 8. Nf3!? is clear after 10…Qb6 11. Qb4; after 11…Ke7, 12. e5 is strong, while after 11…Kd7 12. e5! dxe5 13. Nd2 the threat of Nc4 is strong.
Instead, Black chose to simply give up a pawn with 10…Ne7 11. Nbxd4 O-O 12. O-O Qb6 13. c3 Bd7. However, my opening success tripped me up here, and suddenly I couldn’t think of a good plan. In fact, I had a rather simple route to a full pawn center via 14. Ne2 Bc6 15. Nfd4 etc. In the actual game though, I fell into time trouble and faced a number of uncomfortable situations.
Since I only had 2 minutes left to Tom’s 15, I stopped notating here, but remember the unfortunate position in which I cracked. I opted to let Black prove a breakthrough on the kingside, but surprisingly Black took the safer route of trading off the d5-knight.
I calculated a chance to get rid of the f3-pawn, but I figured creating tactical possibilities involving the d5-rook couldn’t hurt, and in a naive effort to gain some clock time, played 34. Qe4+?. Of course, this alone doesn’t kill White, although after 34…Kg8, 35. Nxf3?? certainly did.
And 35…Nxf3+ 36. Bxf3 Rxd1+ won, as 37. Bxd1 Qxf2+ mates.
Not surprisingly, I was pretty disappointed at the above conclusion. I didn’t care about being in the running for prizes, but more often than not, the start of a tournament sets the tone for the rest of the tournament. Given my recent struggles, it seemed unlikely I would recover. But after all, I was at the tournament to carry on as usual, so I had no compunctions with focusing on one game at a time.
I faced a tough challenge in Round 2 from Evan Park, who became the 5th ranked 8-year old in the country after barely a year of tournament experience. He equalized easily against my Bishop’s Opening, and I was lucky to wiggle out of a jam on the queenside when Evan’s weak back rank led to him blundering a pawn. Although there were a few tricks left after that, I was able to convert the ending without too much trouble.
The tournament got a little anticlimactic in Round 3, when I was surprisingly paired against another young player, rated 1600 (yeah, pairings when many people have 1/2 are weird). In a Classical Caro-Kann, White’s decision to delay the thematic g2-g4 push one move proved to be an inaccuracy as I traded into a comfortable endgame, playing against an isolated pawn.
Although I was given more of a break in Round 3, I expected to be paired back into the strong expert pool for one last chance to show something for my G/60 experience. My opponent turned out to be none other than NM Mark Eidemiller, who had a 5.5-0.5 record against me going into the tournament.
Back to Basics
This time, Mark settled for a type of Torre system where I equalized easily. However, I’d been outplayed by him in better positions before, so I wasn’t ready to rest anytime soon.
…Bg4 would be slightly annoying, so White’s 14. h3 was pretty natural. At this point, I had no clear idea how to proceed; the position as it stands doesn’t lend many active opportunities to Black, so I chose what I thought was a waiting move: 14…Bd7.
Up till now, I had been naively hoping to eliminate any imbalances, but after 15. Nb3, something had to give. Should Black prevent Nc5, creating a weakness? Given how annoying the knight looked from my perspective, I decided that 15…b6 would be fairly inconsequential as long as I kept my light-squared bishop, and naturally 16. Ne5 Bc8 17. Rc1 Bb7 followed.
18. Rc3 Rfe8?!. I dislike this a bit due to the possibility of 19. Bb5! inducing the awkward 19…Rec8. This is unlikely to be fatal or anything, but does create some unnecessary pressure for White. However, White chose a more direct defense of the e5 knight: 19. f4?
Sometimes in Torre, Colle, or London-like systems this is thematic, but in this case it’s simply weakening, as White isn’t pursuing an attack on the kingside. It’s possible that White overlooked my next move, which is a tad more direct than 19…Nb4 20. Bb5.
19…Ne4! 20. Rc1. At least it’s clear that 20. Bxe4? dxe4 21. Rxe4 Nb4 followed by 22…Nxa2 doesn’t help White.
20…f6? 21. Nxc6? Both of us overlooked 21. Rxe4! dxe4 22. Bc4+ Kf8 23. Qh5! when Black is unlikely to survive the sudden kingside onslaught. Given White’s strong, and likely winning play, I was pretty lucky to avoid this, although it is a bit difficult to notice in a shorter game. After the game move, Black is sailing smoothly.
21…Bxc6 22. Qc2?! Rac8 23. Nd2. 23. Rf1 is of course the critical alternative.
However, White’s unfortunate 22. Qc2 allows, at the very least, 22…Bd7 23. Qd1 Ba4 with a lot of pressure on pretty much everything White tries to hold. From here, it’s not as difficult as I felt during the game. A pawn is a pawn, but always mentally tricky when playing someone who tries as hard as Mark does.
23…Qxf4 24. Nxe4 dxe4 25. Qb3+ Kh8 26. Ba6 Rc7 27. Rc3 Qd6 28. Rd1 Bd5 29. Qa4 Rd8 30. Rdc1 Rxc3 31. Rxc3 h6 32. Rc8 e3?!
Once again, the power of time trouble began to show as I slipped a bit. White found the cute 33. Qa3! winning the e3 pawn back after 33…Qd7 34. Rxd8+ Qxd8 35. Qxe3. Luckily for me, the a2-pawn was indeed safe and I just grabbed it with 35…Bxa2 36. b3 Bb1. This did make winning more difficult but White couldn’t hold the two weak pawns and airy king. However, by now both of us were well under 5 minutes so we didn’t notate further.
I can’t really stress enough how relieved I was after I finally won, although undoubtedly part of this is due to my apparently awful B+2P vs. B conversion (according to Isaac). Although I missed out on prizes (because apparently it’s possible for there to be both 4-0 and 3.5-0.5 scores), I took home a nice 19-point rating increase.
I’m going to echo Isaac in that our practice games and discussion have been good for us in recent times. There’s still a lot to do to regain form and eventually make master, but pulling off a win against my toughest opponent (and my first against a 2300+ rated master) is a great confidence booster.