It’s not foolproof, but seeing what one can achieve in chess just by playing natural moves is always fascinating. Sometimes, the best play is based on a few basic principles, without need for especially complex calculations or knowledge (although they can be useful).
Nevertheless, the above deserves a few caveats. “Natural” (as above) does not mean easy; consistently applying chess knowledge is much trickier than it sounds. Natural moves are often not even the best moves, but they should be sound (though not necessarily “safe”). And it’s not the only way to think about the game, but it has helped me the most (then again, I also have no dynamic intuition, so it’s probably the only way I can play).
I’d like to share how I channeled this into a strong start to the year, at last weekend’s Liberty Bell Open, entering in the bottom half of a 7-round FIDE-rated open section. After two early losses, I played some of my better chess to score four straight wins. My score of 4/7 only tied for 15th (just shy of top U2300), but I scored some upsets, got to play a GM and IM for the first time, and met a few fellow Chess^Summit writers (Isaac, Alice, Grant, and guest authors IM Alex Katz and FM David Brodsky).
(all ratings are USCF unless otherwise specified)
GM Sergey Erenburg is not your typical opponent. Having never played anyone over 2400 before, I was a bit intimidated, but also excited for the opportunity, even if it was with Black.
The time control (for all the games) was 40/100 SD/30 d10. Unfortunately, that wasn’t particularly relevant to this game because I got pummeled in the middlegame and later blundered into a tactics book-type mate in 3. However, Sergey had some useful suggestions on the dangerous Caro-Kann lines I attempted (including not playing them at all).
The next morning, I played young expert Jimmy Li (no relation) of New Jersey, achieving a pleasant edge on the board and on time out of the opening. Unfortunately, two ridiculous oversights led me to blunder a piece on move 16 (thinking I was trapping a queen) and later my queen after an inaccuracy from Black let me back into the game.
Obviously, it wasn’t great for either of us to have the game decided by a move or two, but they are as much a part of the game as anything else. Acknowledging mistakes at any level, rather than brushing them off, is central to the growth of a player.
Even before the tournament, I had been playing sloppier-than-normal chess for a while. The first few games often set the tone for a tournament, and a 0/3 start would have been even tougher to overcome. A much-needed win in the Caro-Kann Exchange turned that around. It was a solid game all-around; a strong knight on f4 and the characteristic Caro Exchange minority attack kept White at bay, eventually landing me the b2-pawn and the game.
Now things get interesting. I’ve known Alex for about two years due to CMU, though strangely this was our first tournament game against each other. Based on Saturday evening results I saw we could play each other, and prepared some Closed Sicilian, only to run into Bishop’s Opening prep (in general I’m terrible at opponent-specific prep, though that fortunately hasn’t correlated much with my results).
This was also a pretty good win, though long and messy (though no big tactical mistakes) due to scrambles in both time controls. The game centered around pressure on d6 for a while, and I won a passed d-pawn when Black tried to break out in the time scramble. I lost it after missing a check, but managed to swindle a mating attack a little later.
Having fought back to an even score, I moved on to face NM Zachary Tanenbaum, a talented but streaky player, in a game with clear similarities to my third-round game. Though I was a bit intimidated by someone who regularly holds his own against GMs, I just played simple chess in another Caro-Kann Exchange, holding off White on the kingside with a strong knight before the thematic minority attack. The worst mistake I made was offering a draw in a more comfortable position, although White declined and hung a pawn two moves later.
By move 30, I was just up a clear pawn playing against multiple weaknesses in the endgame, with a 41-minute advantage to boot. However, wanting to play in the blitz tournament, I tried to end the game quickly, resulting in some truly embarassing endgame technique. Although the game dragged on for 50 more moves and was complicated by a clock error (a TD corrected it, but lesson learned: check your clocks!), I won out in the end.
As in Round 3, my opponent didn’t play the most challenging lines, giving me more chances to just play chess. But if you’re playing up 100-200 points, you’re likely still playing someone who is expected to outplay you. Don’t underestimate the importance or value of slugging out these situations!
Pushing the Limits of Chess Sanity
The blitz tournament (a 4-round G/5 double-Swiss) was not, to say the least, worth my lazy attempts to end Round 5 early. I was late anyway and had to take a half-bye, got crushed by NM Aaron Jacobson twice, split against a 1700, and had to explain to my last opponent why I was playing 1. g4, 2. h4, and 3. Bh3.
The natural next step was to play more blitz with Isaac back at the hotel. Grant and Alex K. probably decreased their ratings just by watching us, as I managed to tally reasonable results from my own brand of bad but crazy chess. For clarity, this is completely different from my standard chess style and what I’m advocating; still, I maintain that against 1. c4, 1…g5 can be dangerous against the unprepared opponent.
In another puzzling turn of events, I recorded my flashiest win of the tournament against NM Erick Garcia, who had upset GM Alexander Shabalov (who went on to tie for first with GM Erenburg anyway). He played into a dubious Bishop’s Opening line, allowing me a natural kingside attack and d-file pressure. At 20 moves, this is my 3rd shortest and also my highest-rated win ever.
Despite my slow start, the four straight wins put me in contention for U2300 prizes. With most of the other contenders having played their share of IMs/GMs, it was my turn to play one, IM Atulya Shetty.
Unfortunately, simple chess only goes so far, and although I held my own for a while in the Reversed Closed Sicilian (shoutout to Isaac for the practice) I underestimated the long-term importance of White’s d5-pawn, my weak e6 square, and the structural imbalances in general. While it’s important to master basic tactics and strategy, developing foresight for long-term plans and positional quirks is a lot harder, and probably one of the differences between masters and IMs/GMs.
Still, as my second game against a 2400+ opponent, it was a great experience, and certainly better than my first.
I outperformed my expected score (2.61), bringing me to a new high of 2162 USCF; my FIDE rating is also projected to rise, to 1889. That may seem low for a 2100-rated player, but my former rating was 1780 based on one tournament (apparently some of my opponents were surprised, but I wasn’t the only one).
Overall a very encouraging start to 2017, with solid play that I hope to continue as I look to get the most of out each event I play.