Blocking Out Distractions, Beating the Karpov System

This past weekend’s Pittsburgh Chess League match-up was certainly an interesting test for me. With an opportunity to break 2100 again and tally another point for the University of Pittsburgh team, I had had this day circled on my calendar since the conclusion of the Pennsylvania G/60 State Championships.

Studying at the 61 Cent Cafe in Squirrel Hill!

Admittedly, the week leading up to my match-up was by no means optimal. Having fallen ill earlier in the week, I had to miss a few classes – meaning that I would spend the rest of the week catching up on homework and missed notes. Furthermore, with three midterms coming up, chess hadn’t exactly been at the forefront of my attention, so my preparation wasn’t just limited, it was almost non-existent. Thus understandably, I was extremely nervous for what was shaping up to be the single most important game so far this school year.

Things weren’t looking any better hours before the game when my Tactics Trainer rating took a nose-dive from 2700 to mid-2600 and I was still feeling tired despite multiple cups of coffee. So now what? Over what must have been my fifth coffee that morning, I laid out a plan that would put me in the ideal position to play to the best of my ability:

  1. Throw deep opening preparation out of the window! For some players, this may sound like torture, but knowing I had White I knew I could dictate the pace of the game. By eliminating the need for deep memorization with safe principled play, I rid myself opportunities to make unforced errors out of the opening.
  2. Play safe, avoid tactical complications. I had no idea who I would be paired against, but knowing that my team would need me to win, I decided it would a better idea to try to win my positional means rather than tactical ones. That’s not to say I wanted to eliminate tactics completely, it just meant I was looking for ways to get a safe edge – space, development, structural strength … which brings me to my last point.
  3. Stop all counterplay. This has proven to be an effective way for me to play in recent years when not feeling 100%, so it was natural to go back to this style of play. This method is incredibly effective against players under 2000, and proved to be an important theme in this game.

With this in mind, I was somewhat more comfortable with the idea of playing. I was still a little worried, but I knew at the very least, I would have a reason to take my mind off the stresses of school, so I tried my best to relax the last hour before the game.

Closing moments of the October edition of the Pittsburgh Chess League. Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

I got paired against Jeff Schragin, a strong amateur from the area, and a player I have now faced four times since moving to Pittsburgh last year. While I was a favorite to win, Schragin had put the only real ding in my G/60 performance just a few weeks before, outplaying me most of the game before settling on a draw and effectively removing me from serious prize contention. Now with White and in a much longer time control, I had a chance to get my revenge in a relatively important league match.

I was pleasantly surprised when my opponent opted for the Karpov System against me. While it may have a relatively safe reputation for Black, in the hands of an unprepared player it can prove too much to handle, as the many positional subtleties can make the game fun for White, and not so much for Black. I covered this set-up in a video I made last year after the Pennsylvania G/29 State Championships, and if you missed it, you can catch up to speed here:

So needless to say, I got the exact kind of position I wanted that I had laid out in my game plan. Despite all the external distractions prior to the game to go wrong and lose, I maneuvered, created a positional bind, and won a nice game. While it was by no means a perfect performance, I was certainly a happy player after the three and a half hour fight.

Well, what’s next? The official Pennsylvania State Chess Championship is at the end of the month, and luckily for me, I’ll have two weeks after my last midterm to be fully prepared for this tournament (and hopefully get some sleep too!). While this past weekend’s result was encouraging and certainly builds off the momentum from last month’s performance, I still have some room for improvement and a lot to play for going forward.

2 thoughts on “Blocking Out Distractions, Beating the Karpov System

  1. Chris Ammons

    Have to humbly admit … I never heard of the Karpov system. …. Hang in there through midterms!

    Carlsen seems to play in a “throw opening preparation out of the window” style with inspiring results.

    Problem is (for lower rated players like me) doing this in a wise way still requires a-lot of opening knowledge.

    Regarding openings – check this research paper out “Measuring Chess Experts’ Single-Use Sequence Knowledge: An Archival Study of Departure from ‘Theoretical’ Openings”

    1. Thanks! I’ll have to check this paper out! Until recently, I really haven’t worried a lot about deep opening preparation, but rather opening intuition. Think of theory as this collection of principled moves that you can make in a position (excluding sharp lines of course) and you get to choose. Most of my journey of reaching 2000 was carried out this way, and I try to share this approach as much as possible in my posts here on Chess^Summit.

      I explain a lot of this in my World Open post ( when I faced two unfamiliar openings in one of the most hellish weeks of my career, you should check it out!

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