A Dogged Start and a Trick to Secure Candidate Master

After an excellent October stretch that saw me return to the 2100s, the Pennsylvania State Championships proved quite the test to finish the month. For the most part, I got what I wanted, taking down a strong expert and a master for a solid 3/5 performance in a strong and crowded field.

With those two wins, I secured my fifth USCF Candidate Master norm and the title. Although it’s a largely symbolic accomplishment, it signifies a certain degree of high-level experience (roughly speaking, CM norms represent performances that would be impressive for a 2000 player) and has separated me from my regular Chess^Summit colleagues until now (despite me being the oldest by 7 months). Somehow, it makes me feel a bit more worthy of my place in the 2100s.

(Speaking of age, I have the honor of marking Isaac’s birthday. Welcome to the 20s, Isaac, and may this bode well for you in this weekend’s Pittsburgh events!)


Isaac at the state championship

My first task was to start strong, and in particular avoid my first round disaster from last year, in which I crashed out to a 1527. This year’s first round went more smoothly; I coaxed a small advantage from the Black side of a Torre, and converted a won ending after my 1704-rated opponent was forced to wreck her kingside pawn structure.

However, being seeded in the middle of the pack meant facing top opposition early, and I was promptly paired against young NM Christopher Shen of Ohio. His choice of the 4…Qxd5 line of the French Tarrasch led to an odd pawn structure that turned in his favor:

Li (2116) – Shen (2229)

I had just played 12. Qe2 to protect my c4-bishop when Black unleashed 12…Ng4!?. Unsure of whether my lead in development would compensate for the loss of the bishop pair after 13. Qxg4 Qxc4, I inserted 13. Bb5+!?; however, after a later …b4, Black’s b-pawn was not looking quite so weak.

Li (2116) – Shen (2229)

I was at a loss for ideas on how to counter the cramping effect of Black’s b4-pawn and the open a-file, and went with the weird looking 18. Nb5!? to make more of a push for the queenside. Unfortunately, after 18…Qe5! 19. c4 Bxb5 20. cxb5 Bc5 I went for counterattacking the b7-pawn with 21. Qf3?! and ended up a pawn down after the resulting struggle. However, it wasn’t so clear, as I was able to trade off Black’s b-pawn, leaving us with…

Li (2116) – Shen (2229)

It then seemed to me that it would be nearly impossible for Black to win the a-pawn and I could hold. Unfortunately, I was forced to play h3 to relieve the back rank, and in time trouble, was pushed into:

Li (2116) – Shen (2229)

I had rabidly avoided trading queens up to this point, because some of the rook endings involved Black’s king rushing to the a-pawn faster than mine. Unfortunately, in time trouble I had overlooked 43…Rd8! 44. Qe2 (to prevent 44…Rd1+44…Qc1+ 45. Kh2 Qc7+ 46. Qg3 which at least, is playing with fire after 46…Qc1 targeting both h1 and a3.

Oddly though, Black (with 20 minutes on the clock to my 4) rushed into 43…Qc1+? 44. Qxc1 Rxc1+ 45. Kh2 Rc7??

Li (2116) – Shen (2229)

In fact, 45…Rc8 draws… barely, as Black’s king is just in time to catch the a-pawn. 45…Rc7 cost Black a tempo over that, and made all the difference as I got to b6 first. Clearly, no one could be happy with such a result, but to Chris’s credit, he bounced back and scored 2.5 in his last 3 rounds to tie for second.

Digging deep against Chris Shen in Round 2

While I was surprised at the comeback, I had a lot of motivation to keep the possibility alive. As I’ve mentioned before, breaking master requires beating masters more than occasionally. Also, from a tournament perspective, momentum is rather important at all stages of a tournament. While Isaac ultimately scored the same as me, he wasn’t able to produce enough momentum after a rough start. As for myself, I at least wanted to avoid simply oscillating between high-rated and low-rated opposition.

Unfortunately, I was a little too rushed in my next round game against NM Franklin Chen, simply blundering a pawn after equalizing. Nevertheless, I was glad to be able to play a nonintuitive Nimzo-Indian line correctly for the first time.

Chen (2173) – Li (2116)

Here, I somehow mustered enough to play 11…c5!? (the more normal looking 11…Qd7 was also fine), which looked rather ugly after 12. dxc5 bxc5 13. Rc1 Qb6 14. Bxf6 gxf6.

Nonchalantly admiring my ugly-looking pawn structure (photo credit: Franklin Chen)

However, unlike many of the other positions I aim for, Black’s immediate goals are clearly of the more dynamic nature, and after White’s attempt to untangle with 15. Rc2 Nc6 16. e3 Bxf1 17. Bxf1, it looked like the game was floating toward equality.

Chen (2173) – Li (2116)

Unfortunately, I promptly followed with 17…Rab8 (the more active 17…Rad8 was more in spirit with the reasons behind this line) 18. Ke2 Qb5+? 19. Qxb5 Rxb5 20. b4!, and amazingly, Black has no way to regain the c5-pawn after 21. bxc5 (trust me, I tried!).

Although I was not at all happy with how I tanked the previous game, I didn’t have much to complain about the following morning, when I unexpectedly dispatched a strong expert in just 16 moves.

Li (2116) – Moore (2145)

It’s hard to believe Black will be checkmated in just 8 more moves, but that’s what happened after Black played the seemingly harmless 8…Nd4?! leading to 9. Bxd4! cxd4 10. Nb5 Qb6 11. Qb4.

Li (2116) – Moore (2145)

In contrast to my first test run of this at the Pennsylvania G/60, Black attempted to hold onto the pawn with 11…Kd7?! but I was prepared with 12. e5! dxe5 13. Nd2 and Black resigned after 13…Ne7?? 14. Nc4 Qa6 15. Qc5 Nc6 16. Qd6+.


This gave me a match I had been anticipating for some time, against Eastern Pennsylvania’s NM Peter Minear. Last year, Peter had denied me a dream comeback, swindling me after I’d fought back to 3/4 and went up an Exchange and pawn against him, so I was naturally eager to straighten out the score, although I knew it would be tougher with Black.

A high-stakes rematch of last year

Unfortunately, despite my three hours of rest, it was not to be as Peter simply outplayed me from the beginning. Still, I managed to keep things interesting by escaping from a crushing kingside attack into a knight ending that, while clearly losing for me, demanded a bit of patience by White.

As I’d expected, Peter played the 3. f3 Fantasy Caro-Kann and I made the mistake of going into a safer but more strategically demanding French-like line with 3…e6. Although I clearly had no idea what I was doing, I was able to achieve a safe-looking position that had a bit more venom that it seemed.

Minear (2341) – Li (2116)

Peter had failed to punish some awkward decisions by me (including an earlier …Bb4-a5-c7/…b6/…Ba6/…Nxa6 maneuver) and I was half expecting him to close up with 15. e5, after which I was ready to train sights on f5. Instead, he played the trickier 15. f4, and without the pawn on e5, I failed to see the danger of f4-f5 with 15…dxe4?! 16. Ncxe4 Rad8? 17. f5!.

Minear (2341) – Li (2116)

I realized only then that my knight on g6 was horribly placed. 17…exf5 18. Nxf5 f6 was more or less forced (White was threatening 19. Nf6+!). However, a few moves later, I spotted a practical chance, however small.

Minear (2341) – Li (2116)

White had broken through with h4-h5-h6, but I still had to try 26…Qe3+!? 27. Qxe3 Rxe3. Although the ending after 28. Ng4 Rxf5 29. Nxe3 Rxf1+ 30. Kxf1 must be clearly winning (White is up a pawn, with a much more active knight and king), it wasn’t as easy as it looked (knight endings rarely are!). At one point, I was able to keep my hopes up with this:

Minear (2341) – Li (2116)

The plight of White’s knight was confusing; it had been trapped, yet untouchable and also keeping my own knight on f7. However, it wasn’t clear how White would resolve the issue of his knight without possibly letting me have a chance at taking g4.

By move 50, Peter had erased almost all his time advantage but in time trouble myself, I chose a shorter end.

Minear (2341) – Li (2116)

While White should win pretty easily after 52…Nb7 53. Ne3+ Ke6 54. Ke4, it’s not a foregone conclusion when both players are down to minutes. However, I insisted on ending the game via 52…Ne6?? 53. Ne3#

On the next board over, Grant scored a convincing victory over co-leader NM Gabe Petesch (both had fought back from an early half-point deficit due to early byes), taking the state title for the second year in a row. Congratulations, Grant!

Grant and Isaac in the unofficial Chess^Summit state championship picture (photo credits: me)

As for myself, I didn’t like ending the tournament in such a drastic fashion, but overall, I was very satisfied with my game, and of course happy to achieve that final USCF CM norm and trek back into the mid-2100s. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but if I have too much time on my hands (read: play rated games all day, every day for the rest of the year), I may even flirt with the idea of breaking master by the end of the year!

See you all in two weeks!

One thought on “A Dogged Start and a Trick to Secure Candidate Master

  1. Pingback: Memories From an Exciting 2016 – chess^summit

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