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.


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.


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!