Trying too hard: The need for objectivity

Here’s a scenario: You have been pushing for a win all game with a good (or even equal) position, and then suddenly a wrench gets thrown into the position and the tables turn. The objective evaluation drops to a drawn position or even a lost position, but you find it impossible to change course and mindset to fit the new needs of the position, and disaster ensues. If both you and your opponent were reseated at the same board with the same position, with all memory of what had previously happened in the game erased, then surely you would think and play differently.

This is just one example of how often perceptions and expectations don’t match up with the realities of the position we are playing, especially when there has been a dramatic shift from the overall tenor of the game up to that point. This doesn’t just happen when one is better or winning for much of the game, but in my experience often happens against lower rated players. Against these players, I always like to preserve some type of winning chances on the board, which often leads to some rash and risky decisions. Of course, taking risks is not something to be looked down upon, but the risks have to be smart risks (it’s late and I’m not sure if that makes much sense, but it does in my mind). If the result of the game seems to be headed towards a result you were not expecting or don’t want, it’s important to evaluate the position correctly and adjust play accordingly.

In my first two tournaments of 2017, I dropped a total whopping 40 rating points, putting up incredibly weak performances against similarly rated or higher rated players, and struggling mightily against significantly lower rated players. While it has been a problem nearly my entire chess career, my failure to maintain objectivity and trying too hard in positions that didn’t warrant trying so hard hit me hard game after game. And in suffering these upsets and losses, I felt with every passing game I had to win and redeem myself, leading to a horrible cycle. Here are two examples:

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Nakada, A – Xu, G, Liberty Bell Open 2017, Position after Bf5

It’s clear to any observer that White holds a nice advantage here, with nicer pawn structure, possible attacking opportunities with f4, and the fact that Black still has a hemmed-in bishop on c8 on move 22. But I outrated my young opponent by nearly two hundred points, and my (quite illogical) thinking was “I’m not losing, so I should still try to somehow win this”. The logical continuation for Black is d5, finally freeing the bishop. But I instantly rejected this obvious move for the dumbest reason: I saw White could play Bxh7 Qxh7 Qf6+, forcing a perpetual. But there was no objective reason to shy away from a draw, especially since it’s not likely my opponent even considered playing it (he had rejected the same continuation a move earlier), and the alternatives are quite a bit worse. I ended up playing Qg7, and White kept my bishop entombed with Qh3. The game eventually resulted in a draw after the time control, at a position in which I (deservedly) remained worse. At least my poor decision making didn’t lead to a loss, but I can’t say the same for the next game…

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Xu,G – Lapan, D, Liberty Bell Open 2017, Position after Kg7

In the final round of the tournament, I desperately wanted to win in order to restore some confidence. I took quite a bit of risks in an equal endgame to try to push the issue, and arrived at this position. Here, I saw the natural Kc6 leads to a draw, as both rooks end up being sacrificed for a passed pawn. Yet it was in this situation that my brain totally shut off, and made a nightmare tournament even worse. I played the horrible Ra3??, intending to play Kc6 on the next move, but missed Black’s strong reply Rg6!, which cuts my king off completely and gets the rook behind his passed pawn. Here, Ra7+ still holds the balance, but I continued stubbornly with Rh3, and after Rh6 suddenly realized the position had flipped 180 degrees and I was likely lost. What happened here was a stubborn, irrational ability refusal to accept the objective evaluation of the current position, and I ended up playing inferior moves out of frustration as a result.

I definitely hope to improve on this shortcoming in my psychological approach to the game, and not letting external factors or what happened in the game earlier to cloud my judgement or calculation. Hopefully you all will judge positions in a smarter way than I did, or at least for the right reasons!

The Secret(!?) Ingredient to Chess Improvement (This is not clickbait)

Hi everyone! My name is Jennifer Yu and I am excited to be joining the writers at Chess^Summit! To introduce myself in a quick snippet: I’ve been playing chess for eight years now, as my first tournament was in February of 2009. Right now, my rating is currently floating around the 2300 range. I have had my chess ups, downs, and times where my rating just seemed to get stuck at a wall and not get anywhere at all. I currently reside in the Northern Virginia area and compete in many of the tournaments on the East Coast. I also have had the opportunity to compete nationally and internationally. I think my most notable achievement is probably winning the gold medal in the 2014 World Youth Chess Championships U12 Girls. I am also in the process of preparing for my third US Women’s Chess Championship this year. Along the years I’ve gathered some helpful tidbits that I would like to share with you all. However before I start, I would like to thank Isaac for giving me this opportunity to write on Chess^Summit and share my ideas with all of you. Now to the article!

There is one question that I am often asked about chess; whether by a fellow chess player comparing notes, a younger player seeking advice, or most often, friends at school who have not yet entered the complicated realm of chess. It is, “How do you practice chess?”. It is a simple question, really, and one that I’m sure all tournament players were asked at one point in time. Now this would be different for everyone as the levels, time commitment, and aspirations of every player vary. If one wants to improve the most they possibly can in a specific amount of time, there would have to be a specific routine set in place that takes into account all variables. This would lead to perhaps one player committing to solve as many tactical problems as they can while another reads and memorizes entire endgame books over and over again. It would be impossible to create a practice routine that applies for all players that will guarantee improvement. So… what is the point of this article? I believe there is one factor that will lead to steady improvement over time for all players. This magic ingredient, simply put, is to play more.

I know this topic has been mulled about and been described time after time again, but I cannot over stress the importance of it. I have heard it before said here and there, but to me I just always kind of put the advice away into my pocket and sarcastically scoff, “Yeah, because that would somehow magically make me play better.” But now, I truly believe in the importance of increasing play as I have seen the improvement it gave to other players, and the evidence of this in my own chess history. I originally learned chess in California where my rating rose to about 1400. After I moved to Virginia in the summer of 2011, I increased the number of tournaments I played in, especially larger opens (I previously attended mostly scholastics). By the end of 2012, I was a solid 1900. That is quite a leap! I’ve also observed the dramatic rise of young talented players correlated with the amount of games they play. An amazing example is a fellow Gold Medalist Rochelle Wu. Rochelle is the current reigning World Champion for U10 Girls and is already at a high 2100! She plays a tournament nearly every week sometimes driving hundreds of miles to get there. This also shows an extreme amount of dedication and hard work.

I have compiled three simple reasons why increasing the amount of games played, will increase skill level.

  1. Experience

Usually when a child plays an adult of the same level, it will almost always be an interesting battle. The issue of the difference of age will become a factor in the game somehow. Some people may say the child has the sharper mind, and therefore the upper hand. Many others say that many more years of experience that the adult has garnered easily triumphs the child. This is a hypothetical situation, as in a real game, it will be rarely as simple as this. However, the gist of this example is that experience cannot be overlooked. It can only be a good thing, as it slowly adds new knowledge each move you play. It can definitely help improve one’s play because if you lose to a trap in one game, you will be wary of it in the next. The only real way you can get more experience, is to play more games.

2. Intuition

You may have once seen a blitz game between high level players, maybe Grandmasters. As the clock winds down, each second becomes more precious, each move entering faster on the board then the last. Before long, a frenzy of clock banging and the whizzing of moves will occur. How is it possible for them to play that fast?  How is it possible for them to think that fast? Most likely, the players are using their intuitions. They have a subconscious feeling that tells them where to go during the game.  A solid intuition is the basis for every good player. It can help conserve valuable time during a game and sort through jumbles of variations to direct a clear way to go. Intuition can be developed by solving problems like the ones in Positional Play by Jacob Aagard (a great book!), an excellent technique I learned at the US Chess School. However, I found that by actually physically playing a game, it will develop an unique “chess sense”.

3. Focus

Have you ever just gone to a chess tournament and felt like you learned more about chess in those few measly hours between games than weeks of ‘practicing’ at home? This happens to me all the time. It’s really absurd but I find that just being in the environment of playing an entire day of chess makes me focus on chess more in my down time after games.  It is extremely easy to get distracted at home, but at a tournament, I am only thinking about chess. For example, I may explore opening lines I have never seen before when preparing for an opponent. Also, when analyzing a game with an opponent, I could be provided by valuable insight from the ‘enemy’ that could not be given by an engine or a coach.

In a nutshell, these are three relatively simple reasons of why playing more chess will improve chess skill. I think that increasing play at larger tournaments will be most beneficial. However, if you are restricted by time, finances,or etc., playing online can also be great. (It does have to noted that there is a real difference between playing games over the board and over a computer screen.) And also, if your rating suffers at the beginning don’t be alarmed! It is completely natural and occurs to me often. Just realize that rating is only showing something that is temporary and if you experience true improvement over time, your rating will realize that too. As I said in the beginning of the article, I am preparing for the US Women’s Championship and I know how I will be practicing! My calendar’s lined jam packed full of tournaments! I hope this article helped all of you in some way and I wish you all good luck on your journey to play more games!

“Resetting” After a Blunder

We’ve all had that sinking feeling, the adrenaline suddenly rushes through your body and you freeze – you have just blundered. Everyone who plays chess blunders; we’re only human. However, a GM friend once told me that “mistakes never travel alone — they always come in twos.” What he meant was that after you blunder once, it is much more likely that you blunder again, making what could have been a recoverable position get worse and worse.

While I had experienced this many times, something didn’t make sense to me. In a stressful situation, shouldn’t we be motivated to be more focused, not less? Wouldn’t the adrenaline help us to get super focused, and come up with clever ways of making up for the mistake?

But I think in this situation, this doesn’t happen very often. Blunders do tend to come in pairs. All of this is familiar to me. I can think of many times where my response to a blunder was a not well thought out move, which resulted from being demoralized. To combat this problem, I needed to develop a way to fight my instincts. I call my approach resetting.

To illustrate the point, here is my third round game in the Marshall Chess Club Championship against Nasir Akylbekov.

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Click here for game pgn.

In this game after my bad blunder f4,  I completely underestimated my position. If I had looked at the position with a fresh mind after 19.f4 (which actually doesn’t turn out to be that bad) I would have noticed that on bh6, white has a decent attack and black’s pieces are all over the place resulting in equality. Instead I played kh1, a move which leads to a worse position for white.

Grandmasters and even the World Champions are also susceptible to this typical psychological mistake. During the second tiebreaker game between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, Carlsen would have won by about move 35 and in my opinion was much better with the trade of the two pieces for the rook. Nevertheless, they made it to this endgame position.

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Click here for game pgn.

Here Carlsen missed a complicated win with 62. Kf7 Rc2 63. G4, and played the horrible bg4 which allowed black to consolidate after re8 (he was trying for Bf7 then Bf8, but it doesn’t work).

After this blunder, he was faced with another winning position, but he couldn’t refresh himself, he couldn’t bring himself back into that objective mindset and missed the win.

After 73. Be6 Kh8 74. Bf8 (Threatening Bf7) f5 75. Gxf5 Ra7 76. F6 Gxf6 77. Bf7, White is winning.

It is very easy to fall into this never ending downward spiral during your game. In order to keep my objective mindset after a blunder, I use a few simple processes to reset.

  1. Go to the bathroom and wash off your face. This may not seem like much to you, but it provides a break from the board and you come back with a new perspective on the board.
  2. Similar to number one, just taking a walk around the tournament hall or outside can also provide you with a break from the board.
  3. Resetting and getting your objective mindset back can be different for everyone, and sometimes has to be done without leaving the board — adjusting my glasses reminds me to reset — or stopping all thought about the game and taking three deep breaths.

The key is that these processes have to be automatic. These rituals can trick the brain into forgetting about the stressful thing that just happened and moving back into thinking mode.

There have been times that I have used the idea of resetting, which has resulted in winning losing games. I have been told by coaches and GMs that there is no such thing as “lucky” over the chessboard. I have felt very unlucky at times — and lucky at others — but the truth is when I was unlucky, I simply wasn’t resetting and remaining calm throughout the game. More recently, I have found ways to come out on the other side of that equation with some resetting that gave me the confidence and demeanor to continue fighting for what seemed like an impossible win. As we all know, chess is more than tactics alone.

In this game I made a pretty big blunder out of the opening and found myself in a worse position. However, throughout the game I played without a loss of motivation, just as I normally would, and tried my hardest not to crack under pressure. In the end, after many mistakes from both sides, we reached this position and I found the drawing tactic (he blundered in the end and lost). This just goes to show you how difficult you make it for your opponent to win when you play as you normally would in any position. they are expecting no resistance and can be surprised by strong play from their opponent when they are relaxed and have an obviously winning advantage.

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Click here for game pgn.

After 33.Rxd5! I equalized and later won the game (due to consecutive mistakes made by my opponent as well as my ability to reset throughout).

These concepts might seem simple, but they have been very effective for me, although not always easy to implement. Chess is a constant reflection on life and what I learn over the board, I try to apply to my life in general. Chess is a gift that feels like it will take you down. However, if you step out of your comfort zone and work like crazy to understand your strengths and weaknesses, you don’t even realize that it is building you up. Dealing with blunders and losses and resetting in a short time span is a life skill that I am grateful to be learning.

Clearing the Path

After reading Vanessa Sun’s article a couple days back, it struck me how many of the things she addressed that I took for granted. I never realized how blessed I was to have been able to learn chess at a relatively early age, to fully appreciating the people I’ve met, and again – to just how much of a vital role my parents have played in my success.

As much as I relate to everything she mentioned, I feel as though it is also necessary to think of the cons of starting chess at a very young age. Now, I’m not saying anything she said was wrong – I most definitely believe in and benefit from basically everything she says, but as a parent or child is trying to decide whether or not to devote much of someone’s childhood to chess, I believe that it is necessary to also understand the problems and unhappiness that it could create in a child’s life.

Time. Like all things, there are two sides to this. Sure, you have more time for chess, more time to improve, more time to learn, more time to meet people. But on the other hand, weekends don’t exist in your life anymore. Hanging out with your school friends becomes a rare occurrence. After all, your weekends will be you sitting in a chair at a chess board for more than ten hours of the day at a time. Depending on how serious you are, there will also be chunks of your week being devoted to personal study or private lessons. All of this, plus the way the society around you (your town, your state, maybe even your country) will view the fact that you play – either it comes off as a “great! You’re the coolest!” or a “What are you? You play chess….competitively?” All of this unfortunately creates an imbalance in the child’s life. While happy with the game (crossing my fingers that this is true, or at least will be in the future), they also feel as though they are missing out on a lot of school events or really anything non-chess related.

Something that needs to be addressed, before any of us can really talk about chess promotion to the extent that we want to and before we can create as large of a participating population as we can, is how to take away these negative factors.

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At the time of the Girls Closed tournament, I had also been invited to a week long beach trip with my friends – but as much as I wanted to participate in that, I knew that participating in the Girls Closed tournament was not something I could allow myself to miss. 

Personally, I think chess gets a bit of a bad rep when you’re young – it’s a “nerdy” thing to be doing (not saying that’s bad, in fact I pride myself in being a complete nerd nowadays – but childhood me wanted to be “cool”). It takes up your time. Losing, let’s be honest, is never fun – but especially as a child.

So how do we do it? How do we go about making chess a more accessible and yet a not overly dominating factor in our lives? How do we make chess something that can be regarded as an asset to a young child wanting to fit in?

For me, finding that balance was accepting that if I want to be able maintain both friends at school and at chess – I have to work. Never let any single thing take over. It’s not necessary to do a complete chess training ritual everyday – sometimes a single tactic can go a long way. And in terms of making it more of an asset, the only thing we can do right now is slowly introduce it to as many people as we can and be humble and normal about it – if we make chess out to be an odd or special thing to be doing, then that’s how those around us will take it.

 

Feelings on the Home Stretch

After a few detours, I’m finally closing the gap between myself and the National Master title. However, the pressure from the chess world does not get any easier at this point, so as a rare and temporary escape from all the complexity, I’m taking some time to reflect on the more subjective and personal side of this journey.

Even though I’m merely 20 points from master, I’m not oblivious to what it takes to make the final push. I wrote about some of the pitfalls for my second Chess^Summit post and received several humbling over-the-board lessons to that effect upon breaking 2150 for the first time. And Vishal, who is actually a bit closer than I am, has already sampled the NM roadblock after reaching 2197 a few weeks ago. Both of us have a chance at the US Amateur Team East in two weeks, but could take much longer than that!

Still, although I don’t make a lot of assumptions in the chess world, I believe very strongly that anyone who invests the time and energy and is good enough to reach a certain rating, will get there, whether that’s 1200 or 2200. A while ago, I decided that I would not force changes to my tournament habits for the sake of securing master safely, e.g. purposely withdraw from events early or seek weaker competition. Note that I am not branding these methods as unethical in any way; I just don’t think they are necessary, and they take away from an invaluable experience. I anticipate the moments leading up to master will be some of the most memorable.

I actually had a chance to finish the deed at last weekend’s Pennsylvania G/75 Championship, before taking my pre-planned half-bye. A few people were curious as to how I was feeling about being close to master; in general, the players around here look forward to seeing others (especially young players) succeed, which is nice. However, that sense of community has its limits. My third-round opponent (a 2373-rated FM) allowed me to relentlessly chase his queen out of the opening, and eventually, I had an opportunity to force a repetition. I knew I was still better (albeit dangerously) and a win would seal my 2200 rating, so I took the risk and eventually lost my way in a tactical minefield.

While disappointing, it’s nonetheless characteristic of my competition style, as I’ve always tried to fight for the best result possible while being realistic. A few people at the tournament thought I would have taken the guaranteed draw to bring myself to 2190, but the NM goal notwithstanding, I think I still would have pressed given a similar opportunity. In some sense, I see myself as creating a reputation, at least to myself.

Overall, I’ve done relatively well to carry on like usual; after all, psyching myself out is the quickest way to rule me out producing master-level play, and I have been competing well recently. However, I’m not the most patient person ever, and there’s a chance I may not play from March to September, so I’m definitely sensing a bit of urgency. Still, that won’t stop me from making the most of a big chance at the US Amateur Team East, where I’ll play Board 2 for one of CMU’s teams alongside fellow Chess^Summit author Grant.

Be sure to tune in next week, where I will likely unveil a mini-project designed to eventually get me up to speed on various theoretical chess topics!

5 Things I Missed Out on as a Non-Scholastic Chess Player

I had never been to a huge scholastic tournament before this past weekend when I went to the Greater New York Scholastic Chess Championships, or the “City Championships”, as my friend called it. I only played chess competitively in a few small scholastic tournaments and Goichberg tournaments. I never had a school chess team, never competed with a team of friends or with other children, even though I longed for it- and still somewhat do. I’ve recently been living vicariously through watching kids and covering tournaments instead of actually playing in them.

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Now that I have at least poked around a scholastic tournament a bit, there are a few things I feel that I have missed out on because I didn’t grow up playing in tournaments every weekend or have close chess friends. They are things that sometimes make the scholastic chess experience so fun and life-changing.

 

FIVE THINGS I MISSED OUT ON (in no particular order):

1) Having time

This one’s obvious: having the time to improve or just play when school (or work if you’re older) isn’t eating away your energy and effort. This one doesn’t require much explanation.

 

2) Close chess friends (although that has been somewhat remedied in the past year)

dsc00449What I mean, though, is friends I sparred with over the board every week or every few tournaments, friends that I confided in about more than chess. Or at least chess friends that actually lived nearby. What I don’t mean is the people you say hi to and see at every few tournaments, have dinner or catch up with, and don’t talk to much until you see each other again. While those friends are nice and I have plenty of those, I mean the ones you see often, the ones that go to the same after school programs or clubs. In the same way that kids make friends exclusively through baseball or ballet, I wish I had made those kinds of connections through chess.

I think chess friends in any respect are an essential part to the chess experience, as they are the ones who support you, help you grow as a person and as a chess player. I often feel that I have missed out on growing up with chess friends, although I’m glad for the many I have now.

 

3) Parents being so excited when I won a game

This one requires a story:

Today I watched a kid come out of the playing room. His mom said “You won?!” He said yes and his mom swept him up into a hug and kissed him. It was clear she was so happy for him, probably because he most likely won some sort of prize, but it was obvious that she was so proud of him.

I don’t mean to say that parents aren’t supportive. Alice wrote a great article on how important it is to have supportive chess parents that you can refer to about parental support. I mean this thing on my list in the way that parents brag to their friends about their children’s achievements over tea. I mean this in that I never got into chess at an age where I was young enough to be fussed over, shown such outward support and pride. I mean this in the way that parents don’t obsess over their eighteen or thirty year old child’s victory in the way they did when they were six. I never got that, which may arguably be a good thing, but it’s all a matter of perception, and I feel that it might be something I missed out on.

My friend pointed out that this parent’s actions may not have been best for the child because it breeds the thought that winning is so important, but the way I’ve spun it is so that the kid knows how proud his parents were of him not only for his success, but also in general for showing up that day and fighting it out over the board.

 

4) Trophies!

dsc00793Okay, this is meant to be a bit of a funny one, but obviously I don’t get trophies anymore (I have a few from when I was K-12 nonetheless). They only give out money at non-scholastic tournaments (sometimes plaques and other prizes). Of course, I’m not complaining about getting money, but I saw many kids running around in glee with their trophies and I rarely got that experience!

 

5) A school teamdsc00805

I’ve never been part of a school team before. It is sort of related to the chess friends idea, but I never got to participate in team activities, to play as a team and win as a team. I wish my school or more schools where I grew up had these opportunities to play together with classmates, but I guess I got unlucky. The cheering as kids received a big trophy represented growth and success together. The achievement could be celebrated with others and that is a feeling that cannot be replicated when chess is often so individualized

BONUS: World Youth (and any other cool invitational, scholastic tournament like Denker,
Barber, Susan Polgar’s Girls Invitational, etc.)- This sort of relates to #5 on the list because in a way, the delegation is a “team” of sorts.

This one kind of isn’t the typical scholastic experience, as World Youth is special.

I only found out about World Youth last year when I was seventeen. Too old for a beginner to rise up. I knew it was something I’d never get to experience and many of my chess friends have.

dsc00860And let’s be real, the jackets stand out at every tournament. Who doesn’t want one of those jackets? Every time you go to a Goichberg tournament, there’s a kid with one of them! I want a jacket. I know never getting a World Youth jacket. Every kid secretly wants one. You know you want one. But anyway, every time someone who really knows anything about getting to top level chess in this country sees the jacket, he/she knows the exclusivity and symbolism of the jackets alone. They say I represented my country. They say I’ve reached a level that most people don’t reach.

Everyone who has one has the right to flaunt it. Every kid has earned it!


If you had the chance to experience these things I never got to, reminisce on those memories a bit. For scholastic players reading this, enjoy it. Cherish these things, record them in your mind (and maybe on your phone too). You are likely to never forget it, whether you are able to go to World Youth or are just able to participate in a national championship.

If you did not grow up in such a vibrant chess scene, I hope this article I’ve written expresses how you feel, just a bit. But clearly, you are not alone in missing these things. If chess has proven anything in the past, it is that it’s never too late to start playing, to make your own chess friends. The game is for people of all ages. Remember that whenever you realize what you missed out on. There’s always more opportunities, new things to appreciate.

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Sometimes maybe you’re not meant to have those experiences. I for one, cannot believe how much my life has changed in the past year through my chess adventures. I met so many chess players and made new chess friends. I went to my first World Championship. I took up a little bit of chess journalism and chess photography and yesterday, someone told me he enjoyed my articles. Today I got to shake Garry Kasparov’s hand and tell him my name. I didn’t have the traditional chess experience I will always long for, but I always have something to look forward to in the future. I am not going to stop making chess memories because I did not get something in the past. I want to write articles about the Grand Chess Tour, World Youth at some point, the 2018 Olympiad in Batumi, and more. No matter what happened or didn’t happen in the past, there are always going to be things to look forward to in the chess world- new friends, new experiences, and new adventures.

 

Are We Done Yet? (When To Resign)

I bet you have been there

You’re completely winning. Not just winning, completely winning. You could win the position in your sleep. And your opponent still hasn’t resigned yet…

Okay, I stalemated my opponent twice in that situation. Once when I was 900, once when I was 1800. Both games were against girls. I insist, however, that correlation does not imply causation.

Stalemating someone when you are several pieces up is extremely rare. At say the 1500+ level it could be a one or two time per career thing. These things, however, show that humans are humans.

Okay, stalemates aside, when is the right time to resign?

“Play until checkmate, you have nothing to lose,” many say.

NO! That kind of stuff is often heard, and it is wrong.

It’s a waste of time. Really, in positions where the chances of swindling your opponent are essentially zero, it’s better to just resign. Don’t waste your and your opponent’s time playing it out. There’s no shame in resigning.

You get a break before your next game. That half hour spent dragging on the game until checkmate could have been spent eating, relaxing, or preparing for your next game. Even if it’s the last game of the day, you can spend that half hour doing something productive.

It’s also disrespectful. If you are playing a strong opponent, trust him, he can checkmate you with a queen or two.  One thing for sure, he won’t have much respect for you. Do you want to analyze after the game? Playing it out until checkmate is not the way. If you do that, your opponent will be annoyed and will probably just walk away and not even talk to you. Not today, not next time.

Still, this philosophy is heard a lot, especially among chess parents. At the beginner level, anything can happen, and I don’t think resigning is appropriate. At higher levels, however, things are different.

Recently, I played a kid who played until mate in a position K + 3 (connected) pawns vs. K. He was intentionally walking into mates in 1, and it was clear he wanted it to be over. Was he told to play till checkmate? I don’t know, but it seemed so. Okay, maybe I wasn’t the nicest guy when I ignored mates in 1 a few times and went on to promote to a knight before mating him, but hopefully I got the message across.

Playing till checkmate is not a beginner or kid phenomena only. There are 2300 players who do just that. To grandmasters. Yeah, I know. I saw a fine example during the Amateur Team East 2016. The 2300 was a queen, a rook, and a bunch of pawns down, and he let his clock tick down until he had maybe 3 seconds on it. The GM checkmated the guy and then refused to shake hands. Can you blame him?

Okay, playing until checkmate is one extreme. However, if I resigned every time I had an objectively lost position, I would have blown so many half and sometimes full points. Where is the balance?

It mainly depends how easily the position can be won. That is not necessarily proportional to what evaluation the computer would give it. That’s your job as a defender: make your opponent’s life as hard as possible, even if your play is not objectively best. Give your opponent some chances to mess up.

A simple example. You have two options as a defender. In option a, you are down a piece without any real compensation. In option b, if your opponent finds a key move, you are getting mated, while all other moves lead to a draw/loss for him. The computer may rate option a as +5 versus forced mate, but I would almost always choose option b. It depends how hard it is to find the key move, but your opponent can’t afford to make a mistake or two. In option a, however, as long as your opponent doesn’t blunder anything major, he should be pretty much winning no matter what he does.

If you’re sitting in option a (a piece down) and your opponent is strong enough, just resign. Your opponent should win no matter how inaccurately he plays. There’s no point for you to drag things on. If you’re sitting in option b, however, let your opponent find the key idea. If he figures things out, then you’ll have no real choice but to resign. However, if he messes up, then you’re (hopefully) going to swindle him. No need to resign there!

More recently, I witnessed a prime example of the stalemate phenomenon. It was in August 2016, and I was pretty much having the worst tournament of my life. Meanwhile, Praveen Balakrishnan needed to score 1 out of 2 on the final day to get an IM Norm. He was playing two GMs.

His game against GM Magesh Panchanathan was pretty wild, but at the end it was Magesh who got the winning position. Out of nowhere, I heard insane amounts of laughter coming from the other room. Yes, they were BOTH laughing. It was after the time control and my position was lost (and I did eventually lose), and I decided to take a peek at what happened. I soon found out why they were laughing…

Priceless!!! I also couldn’t resist laughing! White is completely winning (Qd5+ is mate in 10 according to my silicon friend), and he blundered into a stalemate. Magesh was lulled into thinking Praveen needed to blow off some steam and fell into the last trap. That is a rather convoluted version of scenario b, but the moral of the story is clear. If you still have a realistic chance for a swindle, try it!

If you think you’re lost, but you can’t find anything concrete for you opponent, play on. By not finding anything concrete, I don’t necessarily mean a knockout punch, but an effective way to continue. Usually, if you don’t see anything for your opponent, it’s a good sign. And if you end up losing at least you will learn how to play in such positions.

You may want to play on a bit if your opponent is in a bad time situation. Maybe complicate matters in the hope he blunders. In completely lost positions, your opponent’s time situation may not be a huge factor with delay or increment, but it is common knowledge that there is no such thing as resignation in bullet. Still, if your opponent starts messing things up, it’s a good idea to play on for a bit to see if he messes up a bit more.

When you blunder something, it’s totally okay to play on for a few more moves, even if you are completely lost. Blow off some steam. Get used to the fact you’re lost before you actually shake your opponent’s hand. As one master I know once put it, “In those situations I play on a few more moves… so I don’t say anything bad to my opponent”.

In conclusion, once you reach a certain level, don’t play until checkmate. Playing until a move before checkmate as some people do doesn’t make any sense either. Just resign at a reasonable moment. If you think your opponent will still need to work to win, play on. If there are some tactical complications and swindling chances, play on. There’s just no need to make your opponent do the stuff they could do in their sleep.

PRO Chess League Recap: Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers vs Webster Windmills

Last night the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers faced the Webster Windmills, a top tier PRO Chess League team. While the Windmills would carry the night 11-5 in this week 4 clash, Pittsburgh kept the match close and has a lot of reasons to be optimistic going into the last two weeks of the season.

I put together a video recap of the match for Chess^Summit, and you can enjoy it here!

USATE – A Preview

For those of who may not be familiar, the U.S. Amateur Team East Chess Tournament, USATE for short, is a team tournament.  Yes, you read that right.  It’s an annual event that takes place during Presidents’ Day Weekend in Parsippany, New Jersey.  The event is six rounds long with two rounds on each day of the weekend.  Although it only happens once a year, the experience and fun that can be taken from it are worthwhile, especially because of the plentiful amount of differences from typical open tournaments.  Essentially, it’s a mini-Olympiad for all of us who aren’t quite at the super-grandmaster level yet.  The Olympiad is generally considered the strongest team tournament in the world; teams are based on resident country.  The USATE’s requirements for registration are not too lengthy:

  1. A team of four players + one alternate (optional)
  2. A team name
  3. Average January supplement rating between four highest players must be below 2200
  4. No more than two grandmasters per team

Unlike the Olympiad, we don’t have teams coming from all over the world, so they can’t be grouped by that trait.  Instead, teams are limited in strength by rating.  This limit, however, has some loopholes in it that allow for different styles of team composition.  Albeit there being multiple different styles of team composition, none have clearly proven to be significantly more advantageous than any others – in the end, it comes down to who plays well and who doesn’t, which is how chess should be played.  Let’s take a look at these compositions:

  1. Balanced

With approximately the same rating across all four players of the team, this composition aims to have an equal chance to win games on any of the four boards, and the team has no real weaknesses.  If the team as a whole plays well, it will win.  If it plays relatively poorly, it won’t do as well.  For first time entrants, this type of composition is recommended.  This is because, while there aren’t any clear advantages to this composition, there are certainly no disadvantages.  Once these players are multi-year veterans at the tournament, they can begin to branch out into other team compositions.  An example of this team composition would be:  2010, 2000, 1990, 1980.

  1. Heavy

This team composition takes advantage of the fact that there is no limit to how high rated players can be.  This composition typically entails three very high rated players plus one very low-rated player to balance out the difference and keep the team below 2200 average.  There are both advantages and disadvantages to this setup.  The obvious advantage is that three high rated players are very likely to do well, especially the players on board 3 and sometimes even 2, since opposing teams will rarely have relatively competitive players (unless, of course, the other team uses the same team composition; in this case, the match would be a great battle).  The disadvantage, however, is that the fourth board player is almost always guaranteed to lose since the team as a whole will most likely continue to play strong teams.  This places the burden on the high rated players to win almost every game if possible since drawing matches negates this advantage; it will actually work against the team’s tiebreaks because of the relatively low board points.  For teams like this, however, the hope is that the fourth board player doesn’t mind this course of fortune since they have a decent chance of winning prizes.  An example of this composition would be:  2600, 2500, 2400, 1275. (Important note:  one of these high rated players cannot be a grandmaster, but any other title is fine).  This point about winning prizes leads me to my next composition.

  1. Calculated

This team composition is based on the prize system of the tournament.  There are 13 total “under” prizes, beginning with 1000 and going all the way up to 2200.  The prizes go to the team with the most points that had an average rating less than the associated prize level.  For example, a team rated 2190 would only be eligible for the U2200 prize, while a team rated 1895 would be eligible for every prize from U1900 and higher.  This team’s purpose is to have four players whose ratings average out to just below a prize level.  Often, this type of method is combined with one of the others to offer the team the greatest chances to win a prize.  This method is used so often that it typically leads to pretty spectacular pre-tournament standings.  It is not uncommon to find 5-6 (or more!) teams with an average of 2199 occupying the top spots.  This plan can be found in the lower prize sections too, with a higher density of teams located in the 80s and 90s of a section than, say, the 20s or 30s.  The advantage of having a team with this setup is that you have one of the “strongest” teams that are eligible for a certain prize.  I use the quotes because, in the end, it once again comes down to who plays well and who doesn’t; however, in theory, a team like this would be expected to fare better than a team rated 30 points below it.  There are no disadvantages to this type of composition, which is why it is widely used in team constructing.  The key to constructing this team is to have a sum of ratings less than or equal to 8796.  An example of this team composition would be: 2310, 2230, 2140, 2115.  These ratings add up to 8795, which would yield an average of 2198.75, rounding up to 2199.

  1. Generic

For those who play just to have fun and be with friends, all these ratings and averages won’t matter as much.  If that’s the case, just take a few of your friends or people you know and go have fun!  There’s nothing more to be said!

The tournament also offers other prizes and events to make the experience even better.  Every year, there is a contest for best team name created, with the winner being chosen by the people at the tournament.  Typically, the team names model events or things with significant bearing and/or popularity from the previous year.  My team name from last year was “Bb8?? R2d2 wins easily!” It involved the new Star Wars droid, BB8, and the older, but more famous, R2D2.  “Bb8” and “R[2]d2” also happen to be chess moves!  Although this name didn’t win any of the top prizes, it really shows the creativity required to achieve that recognition.  In addition, strong grandmasters from the tournament give free lectures during their free time, and they are very instructive.

With all this said, I hope that you consider participating in this tournament!  It’s only a few weeks away, so the time to act is now.  I guarantee you, this tournament will be one of the more fun events you’ve participated in the past year, if not for your entire career so far.  I know I plan on playing there, so I hope I get to see some of you there!  And, as always, thanks for reading and see you next time!