A Chaotic Start to an Annual Tradition

The 57th season of the Pittsburgh Chess League kicked off this weekend, if in a somewhat messier fashion than I remember from my two years with the league. The league is apparently one of the oldest of its kind (if only because there aren’t many of them), but the gatherings of area teams and curious individuals for monthly long rounds of chess constitute one of the main avenues of competitive play in the area.

The big change for me was that I became the primary contact for the CMU teams and in charge of the rosters. Normally, managing team attendance and forming rosters isn’t so burdensome, but this did coincide with the sudden exodus of several teams with transportation issues and several others losing top players. This really shook up the boundaries between the three divisions (the top 8 and next 8 teams by rating normally play in Divisions I and II; the rest in Division III), and created a lot of guesswork in the days leading up to the opening round, since I didn’t think CMU II (mostly lower-rated players) would like being a punching bag for the experts and masters in Division I.

In the end, organizer Tom Martinak decided to scrap Division III altogether and CMU II (rated 1609, a low-ish rating for Division II) barely made it out of Division I, which looked like this:

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The top half is playing the bottom half first, so perhaps 75% of the first few months’ matches will go 4-0; unfortunate, but the way of the draw. However, Pittsburgh will see a tough spring fight among the top four, which I think will come down to CMU and Pitt:

  • Phalanx Trebuchet is seeded first nearly every year due to having GM Shabalov on the roster, but its lack of a reliable lineup has led to some shockingly poor performances over the years. Despite the addition of FM Gabe Petesch and rising expert Maxim Yaskolko to the roster, Phalanx likely lacks the necessary depth to challenge the other three contenders.
  • This time, Carnegie Mellon decided against splitting into two expert teams, and now stands to gain from some strong players who’ve joined over the last two years. With ten players over 2000 (including three 2300s, e.g. Grant Xu), CMU is in a good position to take over the lead from…
  • Pitt, who’s taken first for the last three years and added two masters to a traditionally strong roster. Convincing victories over CMU and CMU Tartans sealed the deal last year, along with Isaac’s (yeah, that Isaac) stellar 6-1 record. The battle between CMU and Pitt may come down to which of the 2200s and 2300s come to bat in critical matches. Of course, one can’t really count out…
  • CMU Tartans, who have various connections to CMU (Well, mostly. See Jack Mo and Joe Mucerino), but aren’t affiliated with CMU I. The team has been able to send a surprisingly strong and regular lineup despite its smaller and slightly lower-rated (compared to CMU and Pitt) roster. Tartans took clear second last year, and can easily play spoiler if CMU and Pitt slip up.

But before that, we’ll have to get through the first four rounds. The first round was more chaotic than I remembered in many ways: a smaller room for more people, the loudest I’ve ever heard league president Tom Magar scream announcements, two accidents (of the falling/tripping kind) under the same table, etc.

Not exactly ideal conditions for the first round, so perhaps it’s fitting that I used it as a bitter sendoff of a gloomy opening. Due to extra CMU players, I opted out of the main match and played my new teammate Nathan Holzmueller in an alternate game. Recently, I’ve been struggling (a lot) with concentration and my lack of opening knowledge catching up to me in sharper positions (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’ll save further explanation for another post!) Recently some of my opponents have done a better job than others at showcasing the dangers for Black in the 5…e6 Panov and seemingly typical IQP, activity-for-structure positions. I’m transitioning to the more active 5…Nc6, but before getting completely up to speed on that, decided to try my luck one last time.

Holzmueller (1987) – Li (2084)

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6

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Until now, I’d kind of been using 5…e6 as a theoretical shortcut since I figured most of the positions were similar to each other. The only issue was that I’d never faced main lines into moves 10-15 and didn’t have a great sense of danger in these positions. My intuition was that if Karpov liked the 5…e6/6…Bb4 ideas here, I should more or less trust it.

6. Nf3 Bb4 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Bd2 Nc6 9. Bd3 O-O 10. O-O Be7

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The plan of rerouting the bishop to f6 does make it awkward for White to keep the d4 pawn, but as I’ve been learning the hard way lately, White does pretty well to let it go while he still has the activity to show for it. Another recent game of mine continued 11. Qe2 Ndb4 and although I did get in 12…Nxd4, Black’s queen never got a moment of rest until I blundered into a mating attack!

11. Re1 Bf6 12. Ne4 Nxd4?! I think this is already not a great idea; 12…Bxd4 is no piece of cake either, but does avoid some of the immediate threats that I faced in the game that give White so much more initiative. 13. Nxf6+ Qxf6 14. Ng5 g6 15. Ne4 Qg7 16. Qc1 Rd8?

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Direct defenses with …Nf5 aren’t always the most stable, but due to potential knight forks on f3 that isn’t a problem for the time being (e.g. 16…Nf5 17. g4? Nd4 =+). The game move was actually due to an oversight after 17. Bh6 I had quickly planned 17…Qe5?? which of course fails to 18. Bg5 and 19. Nf6+. As if I needed any more trouble with the weak dark squares and loss of the bishop pair.

17. Bh6 Qh8 18. Bc4 f6!? A primitive but interesting attempt to extricate the queen from h8. 19. Nc3 Kf7 20. Rd1 Ne7 21. Bf4?! g5?

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In hindsight, this is a pretty bonehead move, but I hadn’t actually considered 21…Nef5 which would counter the Ne4-d6 threats more smoothly. To his credit, White had 21. Qf4 simultaneously clearing the 1st rank for the rooks and threatening Qxd4 and Qc7.

22. Be3 Nef5 23. Bxd4 Rxd4 24. Rxd4 Nxd4 25. Qd2 Nf5 26. Re1 Qe8 Probably the best try; having to clear f8 for the king is pretty awkward, but it’s not easy to counter Qd3 threats. 27. Qd3 Kg7??.

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A real pity given the time advantage (16 minutes to 2 until move 30). 27…Kf8 would have given Black some reasonable practical chances, but the rest of the actual game isn’t particularly comment-worthy.

Perhaps “fitting” isn’t the right word for the 5…e6 Panov sendoff, but for better or worse it did showcase the problems I’d been having with opening choices and how I’m willing to address them. Here’s to more success with the 5…Nc6 Panov, and a great season of Pittsburgh Chess League!

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Chess vs. College

Now that I’m a freshman in college, I’ve realized one of many things: I don’t have any. Time. Whatsoever. I find myself everyday running around between classes or going to and from the library hoping to find a nice quiet table (or one crowded with my friends) to study at or marching myself to my dorm – which, lucky me, is the only one off campus.

What baffles me is I have so many friends who still play chess in college – but how? Where in the world do you have the time? A time-turner? Was there a time machine especially made for chess players that I just wasn’t notified about? (if so, please let me know asap) With the chess Olympiads going on right now, I thought of how a grandmaster friend of mine was returning to college basically a month and a half late in order to play. A month and a half. For a freshman, that work would be overwhelming – but for a sophomore? I can’t even imagine.

Some of us are lucky, we have a chess team in our school or at least a club to just remind ourselves of how much we love the game. But some of us not so much. In fact, its up to me this year to create a chess community here, at Swarthmore. I will say though, the support from the people I’ve met here are amazing – everyone is astounded by the fact that I play, enthusiastic about the prospect of a chess club and maybe a team, and amazed that the competing chess community was so large.

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Webster University Chess Team

So originally I was going to write about the Olympiads, but recently while working at my part time job, I realized just how great the college community is about embracing the game of chess and just had to write something about it. To thank everyone who’s supported me and everyone else who writes here on ChessSummit, and to just say to our younger readers – don’t give up, no matter your skill level chess is a game that will live with you forever.

The Intimidation Factor (and why not to trust stronger players)

We’ve all been through it: you’re playing a (possibly much) higher rated player and things seem to be going ho hum smoothly, and suddenly your opponent uncorks a move you hadn’t even considered, or considered and thought was impossible. What he just played has to work, right? No way he flat out just played a horrible move or is bluffing, right? You hunker down and calculate all the lines, and don’t see what he is seeing, but out of fear play a different move. A couple moves later, you realize you have played into his hands completely.

The intimidation factor is natural: members of society are taught to respect those higher up, so it makes sense to trust that a stronger opponent knows what he is doing. When you’re on the delivering side, it can kind of feel like hope chess, but if you play these “bolt from the blue” moves with confidence it can psychologically unnerve the other side. When you’re on the receiving end, it is critical to trust yourself! If you have the ability to calculate everything and have things figured out, play the move you think is best. In positions of crazy complexity or positions where you simply have a worse understanding, you might still get ultimately outplayed, but it is always better to have yourself rather than the other side dictate how you play.

This is easier said than done, and I’ll be the first to say that I have had my fair share of not trusting myself when playing against those higher rated than me. Now that I’ve gathered a little more experience (you might notice I like to pick out the psychological elements of the game), I have learned to utilize this to my advantage as well as stabilize my play more against higher rated players.

The following example involves a familiar name to you readers:

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Li, B  -Xu, G, CMU Open 2016, Position after 21.a4

Black has the preferable position here, with the two bishops, better piece activity, and more prospects of improving his position. Beilin had just played a4 here to try to free himself a little bit, and got up to use the restroom. I exhibited a mental lapse, and for some reason I thought the move Rxa4 won two pieces for the rook when it actually didn’t. Thus I played 21…Rxa4 pretty quickly and confidently. A spectator commented after the game that I “played like Beilin made an instantly losing move”. Once I hit the clock though, I realized my assumption was wrong. Now Rxa4 is not a bad move, but it’s certainly not the best or easiest way for me to improve my position. Objectively, it was still a decent move. I kept my confident demeanor though, and play continued: 22. Nxa4 Qa7+ 23. Kh2 This natural move actually proves to be quite damaging. My guess is that Beilin assumed he couldn’t trade queens cause the exchange sac should work. Thus Rf2! wasn’t found, after which White can trade queens and be fine. Without Rf2, White is a step late to stop the a pawn. After 23…Qxa4 24. Qb1, I had superior piece activity and a lot of pawn targets. A rook blunder made my work easy, but still, I was able to win despite my earlier hallucination. My bluff worked!

There are a couple takeaways here. One, the body language and demeanor with which you play a move can be quite important. Psyche your opponent out! On the flip side, in critical positions I put my hands over my forehead so I only see the board and not the expressions and gestures of my opponent. Two, your opponent isn’t always right! Basically, intimidate others and don’t be intimidated. Of course, don’t play unsound moves and sacrifices all the time, just like not all of your opponent’s seemingly unsound ideas should work either. Trust your play and yourself. You’ll gain confidence and improve! (That you can trust me on)

Why the French is Failing in Baku

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Who do you think will take gold in this Olympiad?

As some of you may know, the 2016 Chess Olympiad started last week in Baku, Azerbaijan. Though most of the drama has yet to occur, the first few days of the competition have offered many mismatches, which means plenty of great and not-so-great trends to start out the tournament. While I’m sure you may be able to find a couple, one theme that both I and National Master Franklin Chen have discussed has been how the French has not performed well at all up to this point in the Olympiad.

While I am by no means a 1. e4 player or expert on the French, I decided to tackle this theme as a personal challenge to understand why the French can be seen as strategically risky and why it seldom makes the top flight games. To first layout this article I think I should differentiate between a strategically risky opening and a bad opening.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 00.14.52If you think about the French for a second, while it aims to push …d7-d5, it voluntarily allows White to claim full control over the center with pawns on both e4 and d4. More importantly, as many French players can relate, the c8 bishop is often referred to as the “bad French bishop”, because in many lines, it struggles to find daylight and have a meaningful role in the position.

This doesn’t make the French a bad opening, as many great players have tried their hand with it as Black at some point, it just means that someone playing 1…e6 should be aware of the fact that they are giving up more static factors than 1…e5 for dynamic play on the queenside. However, thanks to the recent development of engines, many of these dynamic lines can be thoroughly analyzed at home, and thus we see the French fashioned less at the Grandmaster level than in amateur level games.

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Was Wei Yi’s win because of tactics or bad opening play? (courtesy: chess24)

I’m willing to bet that if you have been seriously following the Olympiad, you have already seen the game played by Wei Yi in the first round against Kosovo. However, rather than looking at the game for entertainment from the Chinese wonder kid, let’s try to see what went wrong for Black.

So was this just a question of bad preparation? I do get the impression that perhaps Black quickly looked over a similar position with an engine and thought he could equalize. For most French players, spending this early move, 3…a6 is not to everyone’s liking as the tempo put Black permanently behind in development. Luckily enough for us, Women’s Grandmaster Katerina Nemcova had an opportunity to display here how …c5-c4 can also cause problems in the Women’s Olympiad without the inclusion of this move.

David Howell has been 2700 before, but can he stay there and make a jump over countryman Michael Adams?

Sure, two round 1 mismatches should not be significant towards our understanding of an opening. However, it was a place to start for this article, and to be seen by two 1800+ rated players at the Olympiad – well, I hope you can see how I felt obligated to discuss this …c5-c4 push! For the next three games, we’ll be looking at space-grabbing variations – meaning that rather than capturing on d5 (which is not to everyone’s liking!), White pushes in the center and forces Black to prove something for the bad bishop and space deficit. In round 2, David Howell, one of my favorite players, demonstrates this in a beautiful win over Indonesia.

So here we saw how when White leaves Black with no target on d4, the position quickly becomes difficult to play and White is the one continuing to press for space. While we have found some small improvements for Black in each game so far, we have yet to really see a position where Black can find serious dynamic resources to make up for slow development or a space deficit, reinforcing the fact that the French is strategically risky. I mentioned that Black could try …f7-f6 against Howell instead of breaking the center, but Canadian Grandmaster Bareev tried this against Mickey Adams, only to reach a similar fate. Take note of how Black still has problems in development, but also suffers from poor structure and king safety!

Will Karjakin get a chance to play Magnus one last time before the World Chess Championships?

I hope so far you’re starting to see a pattern. In each of these four games, Black has failed to find dynamic resources and paid the price for playing a strategically risky opening. That is not to say that the French is a bad opening – it has lots of well-established theory and a history of being played in many important games. It’s just that in each of these cases Black failed to “prove” anything whereas against 1…e5, usually it’s up to White to “prove” he has something. This burden of proof is what makes the French inherently risky, and why principled novelties could prove as more detrimental to Black than White in an over the board game.

I want to leave today’s post with a game Franklin shared with me that I had completely missed, but I think reinforces the theme that against these top level players, the French is perhaps not the best option against 1. e4. In the third round Austria-Jamaica match, Markus Ragger showed us we were forgetting one more thing about the French – the bad c8 bishop. Against the Jamaican FIDE Master, Ragger built an “aquarium” around b7, and the bishop never saw daylight as White’s pair of knights danced around Black’s position.

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Aside from trying 1. e3 in his first game, Carlsen’s start to the tournament has been rather quiet with draws in the next two subsequent rounds.

Again, here is another seemingly well-versed player in the French unable to demonstrate its prowess over-the-board. I think it’s really easy at home to passively look at these positions with an engine and believe that Black should be more or less okay with perfect play – but is it realistic to know all of these positions by heart for a tournament? I hardly think so. Black gives up a lot in the opening, the center, development, and in the case of a few games today, king safety – from a human perspective, it’s really difficult to hold the equality when White just makes fundamentally sound moves. It especially hurts when you’re playing the French against a top-class player in the Olympiad! All of these factors explain why fans of the French maybe a little unhappy.

While this article is about the French – we won’t be talking about THE French. I think France has a good chance at being a serious dark horse contender to medal, and wouldn’t be surprised if they snatch bronze in Baku.

So what does this mean if you play the French? Well chances are, you aren’t representing your country and playing the likes of Ragger and Adams right now, so for the most part, your opponents likely are not familiar with these lines for White. So on that note, you’re probably safe – you just need to have a really strong theoretical understanding and a good sense of the static/dynamic balance in the position. Notice how in each of the five losses we analyzed today, all of Black’s troubles stemmed from a position where the pawn structure could change – whether it was Black playing …c5-c4 to avoid the IQP, or challenging the d4 and e5 pawns to justify giving up the center. Based on what I’ve seen writing this article (keep in mind I play neither side of the French), it would appear that to play 1…e6, Black must be ready to handle many different pawn structures, and be flexible as the direction of a game changes. Whether or not this is for you, I can certainly not be the judge.

I’ll certainly be on the look out for more French in Baku, and I hope you do too!

 

Eugene Perelshteyn’s Big Announcement

For today’s video, Grandmaster Eugene Perelshteyn is back to tell you about his new website, ChessOpeningsExplained! You may have heard of his books, Chess Openings for Black Explained and Chess Openings for White Explained, and now they are coming to life online. Before I highlight some of the benefits of a ChessOpeningsExplained Membership, here’s GM Perelshteyn’s video on the importance of a consistent opening repertoire – in this case, the dark square strategy!

As mentioned in the video, becoming a member will not only grant you access to PGN versions of the Chess Openings Explained series, but also a video library with updated theory and high-level games, as well as a forum to ask specific questions you may have about the repertoire. As a bonus, becoming a member will give you a free game analysis code for AskAGM, the sister site of ChessOpeningsExplained, where a Grandmaster will go over any game you submit!

Make sure to check out the site, and let us know what you think!

The Never-Ending Dilemma

It’s the dilemma that every chess player faces prior to every open tournament.  “Do I play ‘up,’ or do I play in my section?”  I can recall asking myself this question too often to count.  I go through the exact same procedure that I bet you, reader, go through as well.  I place myself into the pre-registrations, dismiss the first round byes, slice the field in half, and match up one-to- one to see who I would play if the standings didn’t change.  After much deliberation, weighing the pros and cons of each decision, you finally do make that choice.  I know – after some point, it does get repetitive.  However, there’s actually more you have to think about than just the ratings and the people around you.  Today, we will discuss a couple of these other factors you should include in your decision-making process.

#1:  The number of rounds and the length of the tournament

Thinking about the number of rounds and the length of the tournament (number of days) should definitely help you narrow down your choices and make the overall decision easier.  I’m sure most of us, if not all, have come back home from a tournament to find ourselves exhausted and physically unable to function any longer.  From what I’ve realized, this is somewhat correlated to the number of rounds played per day.  Some tournaments these days have 3-4 rounds per day and only last one day in order to fit more in a shorter amount of time.  If the tournament schedule looks a little something like this, I suggest you play in your section.  The reasoning is this – playing more than two games will make you tired.  On top of that, we all know how grueling it is to play higher-rated players; more often than not, the game uses almost all of the time allotted.  Playing these long games along with having to play multiple per day will physically kill you, and possibly before you even finish the day.  Playing up with more than a couple rounds per day is a recipe for disaster.  Now, here’s a second situation.  Imagine this is a tournament with a very relaxed schedule – one to two games per day.  The typical open tournament has five rounds, so we’ll go with this.  This means that the tournament will span three days.  As a result of the fewer number of games per day, tiredness should not be as much of a problem.  So, playing up doesn’t seem all too bad here.  However, there’s another point to consider.  In a five-round tournament, there might not be enough rounds to give you a chance to perform well.  Assuming you are one of the lower seeds and end up losing the first couple of rounds, it will probably be around round 4 that you finally play someone around your rating.  By that time, you might just want to end the tournament and might finish around 1.5/5.  Also, there’s always a chance that being one of the lowest seeds might leave you with a full-point bye in one of the rounds, which would mean you only play four games now.  So, the fact that five rounds might be too short to perform well might be a deterrent to playing up.  From this, we can conclude that a five-day tournament over three days can go either way – a tossup if you will.  You can either play up or play in your section.  But we’re not done yet – there’s a third situation, and it is the polar opposite of the first one.  Let’s say this is a longer tournament at nine rounds played over five days.  Many of America’s large open tournaments follow this format.  Here, we still have one to two rounds per day; but now, there are four more rounds.  The difference here, compared to the previous situation, is that there is no shortage of rounds when playing up.  Firstly, these tournaments have many more participants, so it is much less likely to receive a full-point bye.  Secondly, the surplus of rounds gives you an opportunity to play a variety of ratings.  Think of it like this – you get a few opportunities to perform well against higher rated players.  If you do perform well, great for you, you’ll be rewarded with even more chances to repeat success.  If you don’t, then so be it; the rating impact won’t be much.  In this case, you’ll get the chance to play other players who also haven’t had the best of luck; then, it’s an even match.  If you win the games against people at your rating or lower while trying your best against the higher rated players, it can definitely be labeled as a successful tournament.  With these in mind, I suggest that tournaments like these are ones that are ripe with opportunity if you play up.

#2:  Consistency vs. Variety

We all hope for that one good result in a tournament, and it usually means playing up.  Sometimes, people are so set on trying to achieve this goal that they never give themselves an opportunity to prove themselves in their own section.  Sure, the periodic increase in rating might be all that matters, but there’s a chance that rating gains due to this could very well be inflated – that is, higher than the level that the player performs at.  So, when the time comes where you finally play people at your own level or below, it might be much harder to beat them than at first thought!  You might wonder, “Why am I not able to beat the players below me?”  The answer is quite clear – they aren’t played enough.  Playing so many higher rated players has probably changed the mindset to the point where you forget how to play against lower rated players.  This is why I suggest to you, don’t always play up (Alice Dong recently discussed this topic a bit, you can find her article here).  This goes the same for playing in your section.  Eventually, once you become good enough at beating players below you, it is probably time that you try playing up once or twice to try your luck – it will probably pay off!  It is best to have a variety of options at your disposal.  Play a couple tournaments in your section, build rating and experience, and then give the higher section a go.

Obviously, there is never a 100% reason for why you must play in a certain section over another.  There are always exceptions, and benefits do exist.  However, the views presented here are merely just suggestions based on the experiences I’ve gained throughout my chess career.  I hope you are able to take these other factors into consideration the next time a decision has to be made about which section to play in, and it may help your game, too!  As always, I will see you next time.