Time is of the Essence

You have a lead in development. Great! But what do you do now?

Open things up against the king. That’s what all the textbooks say, but that isn’t always easy. Your opponents have also studied the textbooks. They are not going to give you ten moves to figure out how to crush them.

Time is of the essence. In a couple moves, your opponent’s king will be safe. This is your window of opportunity. Don’t be afraid to think for a while. This is a critical moment. Are there supposed to be flashy explosions? Not necessarily. Often, sneaky non-tactical, positional moves can make the difference.

How to find those moves? In his book, Positional Play (an excellent read), GM Jacob Aagaard lists three questions you should ask yourself:

  • What are the opponent’s weaknesses?
  • What is the worst placed piece?
  • What is my opponent’s plan?

These questions are useful in essentially all positions. They may not provide you with an answer, but they will hopefully point you in the right direction. Take a look at the candidate moves and calculate the consequences. I’m not saying calculate them out to the end, but get a general idea of what’s going on there.

Here’s an example.

Brodsky, David (2308) – Niemann, Hans (2237) Marshall GP Feb. 2015

White to move

Where are the weaknesses? – Nothing immediately comes to mind. Both players’ pawn structures don’t have any weaknesses and don’t leave behind any weak squares.

What is the worst placed piece? – Actually, in this situation I’d ask, “What are the worst placed pieces?” White’s undeveloped rooks aren’t doing much and his bishop on e3 isn’t the greatest. As for black, his worst-placed pieces are the ones he hasn’t developed yet! Still, nothing in his formation seems out of place.

What is my opponent’s plan? – Finally, a question that has an easy answer! Nxe5 dxe5 Qxe5 is clearly bad because of Qb5+. Instead, black is going to go Bd6, putting pressure on the e5-knight. He can castle next move, and if white doesn’t do something now, he’ll have no advantage.

White’s only real claim to an advantage is his lead in development. He has to act quickly, because black’s plan of Bd6 and castling will lead to white having no lead in development or advantage to speak of.

There are two plans that come to mind: c4 and f4.

14.c4 trying to blast things open doesn’t work because of 14… Nxe5 15. dxe5 dxc4. Probably the best white can do there is get his pawn back and get an equal position.

Looking at f4, the main line would go something like: 14.f4 Bd6 15. Nxd7 Qxd7 16.f5 0-0 (16… exf5 is risky on account of 17.Bf4+ Be7 18.Rae1) 17.f6 g6. It looks tempting, but how much of an advantage is it? Not much. Black should be able to hold his kingside. Still, that’s the best we’ve found so far.

Many people would plunge ahead and calculate 14.f4 more. In these situations, after crunching out the important variations, take a step back and think if you have anything better.

Still stuck?

Don’t give up on c4. That’s my final hint.

I played 14. Rac1! making c4 a lot more effective. The rook exerts pressure against the black queen. The game went 14… Bd6 15.c4 dxc4 16. Rxc4 Qd8


White to move

Remember I said calculate. What to do here?

  1. Qg4!

The key move. The g7-pawn is awkward for black to defend. 17… 0-0 loses an exchange because of 18.Bh6.

The game went 17… Nxe5 18.dxe5 Bxe5. Black has won a pawn; however, he won’t be able to castle. After simply 19.Rd1 Qf6 20.Bc5, black is stuck. Instead, I went 19.Qe4? Qd5 20.Qc2 thinking that 20… 0-0 fails to 21.Rd1 Qb5 22.Rc5. However, I forgot that black has 22… Qxb2!. Fortunately, my opponent returned the favor with 20… Qd8?. I went 21.Rd1 Qb8 22.Bc5. Black’s king is stuck in the middle and may get mated soon. I won a couple of moves later.

On the surface, that looked like a crushing win. However, had I not found 14.Rac1, it probably wouldn’t have ended up like that. There wasn’t too much calculation involved. Coming up with the idea of 14.Rac1 was the hard bit.

Another example.

Brodsky, David (2316) – Samuelson, Andrew (2313) National Chess Congress 2015


White to move

OK, what do we have here? Let’s go through the questions again.

Where are the weaknesses? – Black has doubled e-pawns, but are those really weaknesses? No, I wouldn’t say so. In these structures, these pawns can be a good thing because they control a lot of squares in the center and aren’t easy to attack. Even with all the heavy pieces off, they aren’t so weak. Any other weaknesses? Not really.

What is the worst placed piece? – The black king is temporarily misplaced on d8. However, the piece which isn’t doing anything useful and doesn’t seem to have a bright future is the white knight on c3. It just can’t go anywhere!

What is my opponent’s plan? – Black’s plan is Kc8 most likely followed by Rd8. His king will be safe enough, and his rook will be nicely positioned on the d-file. If that happens, where will white’s advantage be? Nowhere.

Let’s see what happens after the most natural move 22. Rd1+. Black will go 22… Kc8 (22… Ke8 looks like suicide), and white doesn’t seem to have anything convincing. He can try poking around with moves like Na4 or Qa7, but black just goes Rd8 and white doesn’t have anything concrete.

Not impressive. What else can we do? It is fairly clear that the black king will not go to e8 under any reasonable circumstances. His majesty will go to c8 where he is safe. Say, that knight on c3 really does suck…

I played 22. b4!. The point is to go b5, blasting things open against black’s king. The game went 22… gxf3 23. gxf3 Kc8 24.b5 (24.a4 was also possible) 24… axb5 25.Nxb5 Rd8


White to move

This looks really promising for white! Black’s king is barely surviving and white essentially has at least a draw by perpetual check in all variations.

Now, it’s 99% calculation. What’s the best way to proceed? Here’s how it ended.

22.b4 was the move which made that happen.

In both games, I had a lead in development. However, I had to come up with an immediate plan or my advantage would be lost. I did invest a lot of time at those critical moments, and it paid off. Again, don’t be afraid to take your time and ask yourself the three questions. If your calculations don’t bear much fruit, take a step back and look if you have other options.

Mix it Up! The Bad Wörishofen Turnaround

After twenty-seven hard fought games in Europe, I’m more than ready for my two week break in Italy and Austria before clocks start in Budapest for the First Saturday Tournament on April 1st. While I’m presently enjoying some time in Milan, what have I been up to since the conclusion of the Liberec Open?

A glimpse into the tournament hall before the start of round 1!
Last week I completed the Bad Wörishofen Open in Germany, notching a 5/9 score in a reasonably competitve field. This was a tough tournament for me – I actually played the first two rounds feeling under the weather, and by the end of the tournament I was exhausted from the collective stress three back-to-back-to-back nine round tournaments gives you.

While my posts have been a lot more analytical as of late, I wanted to spend today’s post talking about pregame routines, and how sometimes making the smallest changes mid-tournament can make a difference in your play.

To some extent, many chessplayers do something before a game to prepare ourselves mentally for the battle ahead – listen to music, go on a walk, take a nap. Or maybe it’s what you bring to the table – like a favorite chocolate bar or energy drink! This helps us get into the mindset of playing good chess. But what happens when you are having a bad tournament? Do you change your pregame habits, or do you take the risk of entering a cycle of inescapable tournament doom?

Sometimes a little change is nice. Last August, I brought up how changing out my flavor Gatorade from blue to “Darth Vader juice” (red) motivated me to play better in the Washington International – I won both games that day, with Black! A little silly, but in believing that a change in my approach to the game would make a difference in my over-the-board play, I came back re-energized half way through the tournament.

A board set up outside near the tournament hall… notice anything funny?
Admittedly, in the United States with the two rounds a day format, it can be difficult to find time to change your pregame habits, but in Europe the narrative changes a bit.

Thus was the case with the Bad Wörishofen Open. With one afternoon round each day, there was a lot of time between each round to prepare.

Despite a 1.5/2 start, my momentum had hit the fan after a loss to an International Master in the third round. I drew the next two games where I had held the advantage for much of each game, and then out of a combination of exhaustion and frustration, I played out of character in the sixth round, losing to drop to 2.5/6 with only three rounds to go, and tumbling 1.5 points behind the leader in my rating group.

Outside of the small shopping area, Bad Wörishofen didn’t exactly offer much in terms of off-board entertainment…
This was a critical moment of the tournament for me. I had Black going into the seventh round, and another loss would see me having to struggle for a 50% score – not to mention, I was still tired and had been failing to convert good positions for most of the tournament. Something had to change.

Yours truly, trying to get unlost in Milan!
At this point in the tournament, my coach made a bold recommendation: stop all opening preparation. This would spare me some energy going into each of the last three rounds, but more importantly, would force me to play principled moves should I get into any sort of unfamiliar opening territory. So great – energy saved? Check.

So that left the question, what to do in the meantime? Bad Wörishofen is a small town known for its thermal baths, but due to the awkward timing of the rounds as well as the limited (and busy) options for lunch, I was unable to visit prior to the rounds. Other than a walk through the German countryside, there wasn’t exactly much to do.

Luckily for me, there was one important I hadn’t answered before going into round 7: who is going to win March Madness? Every year since my hometown team, the VCU rams, made the Final Four in 2011, the college basketball tournament has been one of my favorite sporting events year round, and there was no way I was going to pass up on making a bracket this year.

Arrival at Milan Central Station
So while my opponent was (as he showed me post-game) preparing some deep Sicilian lines for me, I was looking at stats and putting together my Final Four (feeling pretty good about Michigan getting in … let’s ignore I picked Duke to win it all). What happened in the game? I played 1…e5 and produced one of the best games I’ve played this trip.

So by approaching the game with a completely different mentality, I was able to eliminate all the stresses and maximize my energy. This result helped me push for one last comeback, as I scored 1.5/2 in the last two rounds to end 5/9 and tied for a first place class prize! What a photo finish!

This tournament taught me a lot. At many points I was getting great positions, but things just weren’t clicking – kind of the opposite of the Liberec Open where I was getting terrible positions but kept finding ways to win. To untie the knot, all it seemed to take was putting chess completely aside between games and relaxing.

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Feel free to ask me any questions about my trip so far on Twitter!
With the Bad Wörishofen Open complete, I’m going through Italy (Milan, Florence, and Venice) as well as Austria (Salzburg and Vienna) before reaching Budapest for my first round robin tournament. In all likelihood, my next post will come out before I start competing in Hungary, so for my next post, I will be answering any questions you may have about my trip – What’s it like to play in Europe? What’s my favorite city so far? – or any other chess travel questions you may have. If you want to ask me a question, tweet me at @isaackaito or email us at chess.summit@gmail.com!


Coming up Short in Complex Positions

A little over a week ago I had a nice showing at the PA State Chess Championship, going 3.5/5. I had my highest ever performance rating of almost 2350, drew my first 2300+ opponent and my actual rating went up a solid 54 points to 2072. I am obviously quite happy with these results, however today I am going to focus on a few games from the weeks leading up to this tournament. I am convinced that these three games were indicators that I was capable of performing at a high level and also have made me a stronger player.

In each of these three games, I was either objectively winning  or much better, yet only scored a half point total. This as you can imagine, lead to some frustration, when for three straight tournaments I lost rating points, despite playing quality chess. Although I have, of course, messed up winning positions before, these games stick out to me for the following reasons:

  1. They all occurred within three weeks of each other.
  2. None of these games were lost due to a grossly obvious blunder on my part.

Now without further ado, below are the games I was referring to, along with analysis of key positions. If you are interested in seeing the full games with some extra analysis, a link will be given at the end of the article.

Game 1: Black vs Nabil Feliachi (2140)

This game was played during round 3 of the PA State G75 Championship. I couldn’t complain about how the tournament was going (I lost a close game to FM Gabriel Petesch and won a comfortable game against an 1850). My opponent played an interesting opening where he gambited a pawn for an open b-file, much like a reverse Benko gambit. However, I was able to trade off a couple minor pieces and I liked the position I had.

Me vs Felliachi

Feliachi-Holzmueller after 20…Qxf3

Here  black is up a pretty healthy pawn. White’s pieces do not appear to be any better than black’s and both kings are relatively safe. Granted, white has open a and b files, and extra space on the kingside , but I do not think it should be enough for a pawn in this case. In the game, however, white tried to exploit their space advantage by opening the h file and attacking me. This eventually lead to a position where I was objectively winning, but where there was potential for complications.

Me vss Feliachi 35

Feliachi-Holzmueller after 35…Bc3

In this position I had to makethe choice between two appealing but different options. In the game I chose to play 35…Nc6 in an attempt to win the knight on d6 (notice that 36…e5 would be met by 36…Nxe5 due to the pin on the f file). However, even though I ended up winning a piece and got an objectively winning position, I wish I had instead played 35…Qxd6. Where after 36. Bxd4  Bxd4  37. Qxd4  Rxf4 black is up at least two pawns and white’s king is in constant danger. Not only was this practically easier considering I was in time pressure, but it was also the objectively better line. I eventually went on to lose this game on time, but by that point the position had become unclear.

Game 2: Black vs Adrian Benton (1835)

This game took place in the last round of the US Amateur Team East Tournament (USATE). My team had an opportunity to finish the tournament with a positive score and winning would gain me significant rating points. Like the first game, my opponent played an unusual opening which lead to the position below.

Holzmueller V Benton

Benton-Holzmueller after 15… d4

My opponent in an attempt to open the center, played the move 15… d4? which is a healthy idea. However, can you figure out why this move fails tactically? The answer can be found in the link provided at the end of this article.

After this tactical sequence,  we reached a position that, objectively,  is completely winning for black. Unfortunately, due to the material imbalance, these positions are not always trivial to win.

Holzmueller v Benton move 22

Benton-Holzmueller after 22…cxd4

Although I am up a queen, white has a rook and knight for it.  White’s king is completely secure, whereas mine is under the direct watch of white’s light squared bishop, and potentially the white knight. To compound the problem, white’s minor pieces are all coordinated towards a common goal: putting pressure on my kingside. On the other hand, I have a bishop on b3 which is attacking a weak queenside pawn, a rook on a8 doing absolutely nothing, and a queen on c7, which will become a much better piece when I consolidate. My only good piece is my bishop on g7, which  neutralizes white’s dark squared bishop. So why is this objectively winning?

Two reasons:

  1. If I play accurately I will be able to defend my king and improve my pieces.
  2. My queenside pawn majority will at some point pose white too many problems.

Me vs Benton 26

Benton-Holzmueller after 26…Re3

I followed reason 1, relatively well, but fell short on reason 2. In the position above, considering the two reasons I mentioned above, what would be black’s most logical move here? The move I played here instead was 26…Bf8?, with the idea of putting some pressure on the a7-g1 diagonal. However, as mentioned earlier this piece is probably best suited to neutralize white’s dark squared bishop.

After some inaccurate play by both sides (see the link for a more detailed analysis) we reached the position below.

ME vs Benton critical

Benton-Holzmueller after 32…Nxf7

With ten minutes on my clock I played the natural 32…Qxf7?? which changes my position from winning to losing. Why is this move losing, and can you figure out the best way for black to win this position? The solution will be in the link provided.

Game 3: Black vs Evan Park (1892)

This game was played on a Sunday match in the Pittsburgh Chess League. My opponent was a talented nine year old who has been playing USCF rated tournaments for less than two years! This took place the week after a slightly disappointing USATE tournament (due mostly to the game above) and I was hoping to get back on track. During the first stages of the game I was feeling fairly confident, because my opponent had played a sub-optimal line in the Maroczy Bind and allowed me to equalize easily. However, after the opening I ended up settling for an opposite colored bishop ending.

Me vs PArk 21 (2)

Park-Holzmueller after 21…bxa5

Although this position is far from winning, the fact that black’s bishop is far stronger than white’s certainly favors me. While black has just sacrificed a pawn, white’s extra a5 pawn is incredibly weak and will be won back whenever black wants. Therefore, it would be logical  to play 21…Ra8 which focuses on activating the rooks and also threatens the a5 pawn. Unfortunately, in the game I rejected this variation because I did not want to trade off my b pawn for white’s weak a pawns (21…Ra8 22. Rb1  Rxa5 23. Rxb7  Rxa2). Considering the amount of activity my rooks would have gotten, though, this would have been the most challenging variation. I instead opted for 21…Bc3 which won back the a pawn, but made it more difficult to activate my rooks. In fact, eventually white’s rooks became active and I had to be careful not to lose!

ME vs Park 41

Park-Holzmueller after 41…Rxf5

In order to decrease white’s play I decided to temporarily sacrifice my pawn on f5 and trade off a pair of rooks. After 41…Rxf5 42. Bxf5  Bf6 43. Re4  Ra7 44.  Re3 Ra4 45. Rb3  Bd4 46…Bd3 we reached a critical position.

Me vs Park 46

Park-Holzmueller after 46…Bd3

Here, I saw that I could win the pawn back by playing 46…Bc5 and then reach an easily drawing ending. While this is the most natural idea, I was able to find an idea that kept more winning chances and actually gives white a lot of trouble. What was this idea?

My opponent was able to find a very clever defensethat forced me to trade my powerful bishop for his bad bishop. This eventually lead to the following position; the last point in the game where I had any winning chances.

Me vs Park Last winning chance

Park-Holzmueller after 54…Rf4+

In this position I was getting into a little time pressure and quickly played 54…Re4? which I wrongly thought was winning. Why does this move lead to an easy draw for white?

Moving Forward

While none of these three games yielded me the results I wanted to see, I learned a lot from them and they were all interesting to play and analyze. I hope you found them interesting as well.  Let me leave you with this final thought. Do not worry too much about your results, and instead focus on playing good chess, learning from each game you play, and most importantly, enjoying the fascinating game of chess. If you follow this strategy, your desired results will follow.

And here is the link to my analysis of the three games: https://en.lichess.org/study/q4XvxLwO


‘Tis (or Dis) the Scholastic Season

There may be hundreds of ways to partition the body of chess players in two parts.  One differentiator that I find very relevant to this time of year is, well, time.  Not the time on your watch, but the time on your chess clock.  There are typically two schools of thought for time management in chess – those who play relatively quickly, and those who play relatively slowly.  It’s not rocket science, the two sides are easy to divide into.  Other more difficult partitions would be positional vs tactical players or maybe casual vs serious, but I digress.

I, for sure, am part of the latter school.  Over the years I have been cultured to play slowly and not to rush my moves, almost to point of “too slowly.”  In the end, it might have been the cause of my undoing this past weekend at the VA State Championships.  The tournament was six rounds held over two days, and since it was a scholastic tournament (i.e. K-12 & Collegiate), short time controls were given.  In addition, since the tournament requires people to sometimes to travel across all of Virginia, they had to wrap up relatively early on Sunday.  Thus, four rounds (!) were played on Saturday itself.  They were played around the clock from 9 in the morning to 9 at night; the first three games of the day were played at a lightning-fast (for me) 60 minutes for each player with a 5-second delay.  The last round on Saturday and the two rounds on Sunday were played at 90 minutes for each player with a 5-second delay.  The 60/90 split has been traditional for this tournament, so it’s nothing new.  However, with all the work I have from school, I didn’t have much of a chance to prepare this year.  As a result, I was going in without having played a G/60 game since last year’s rendition of the same tourney, and the shortest time control I had played since the K-12 Nationals in December of 2016.  Having not been able to practice with many blitz or quick games either, you could say I came into this tournament underprepared, especially for being the third seed.  Most things have stayed constant for this tournament over the years, but one aspect that has changed is the pairing format for the first few rounds.  I remember the tournament organizers choosing to do accelerated pairings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss-system_tournament#Accelerated_pairings) in order to mix things up early for some years in the past, but they have also gone with the basic Swiss-system for some years as well.  This year, the normal Swiss-system was used, so I was fortunate to play much lower rated players in the first couple rounds.

In the first round, I was paired against a 1200.  Unlike the boards around me, my opponent took his time for his moves, despite being severely outmatched.  I do applaud him for his resilience and refusal to accept defeat early, but I did win nevertheless.  Some of the boards around me finished in 20 or 30 minutes into the round; with rating discrepancies like this, results like that are bound to occur.  In the second round, I was paired against a 1656.  Although I probably brought this game too close for comfort, I won in the late stages as the clock was ticking down for both of us.  In the third round, I faced my first truly “competitive” opponent at 1906, and the game was nothing short of crazy.  Early in the middlegame, I secured myself the initiative and eventually a piece for two pawns thanks to some tactics.  At one point, the evaluation reached as high as +3.5.  However, due to some careless moves that I played quickly, that advantage disintegrated in a few moves.  At one point, there was a string of 3 or 4 moves where the engine evaluation flipped between + and – for every move, partly because there was an idea that my opponent could have played that would have effectively ended the game (both of us happened to miss it, however).  When I had mere seconds on the clock, my opponent could have played a move that would have required me to bail out of my kingside operation and go for a perpetual check on the queenside where his king was castled.  But then, out of the blue, my opponent hung his queen!  Although I came out of there with a win, it was one of the weirdest games I had played to date.

So, I had navigated my way through the first three rounds undefeated and with a perfect 3-0 score.  The last game of the day was against a high 2000 rated player.  The game began with an opening I was unfamiliar with, so I wasn’t quite sure what my middlegame plans were.  As a result, I never got much going in my favor, and the game ended in a draw.  My fifth round game was quite the spectacle.  I was able to play one of the opening lines I know best, but my opponent (2050), one who I had played numerous times in the past with the same color, had prepared a forced drawing line that I couldn’t avoid.  In the sixth and final round, I was paired against another 2050.  In this game, I had some dynamic play early in the game, but by the time I was finally able to get a material advantage (a pawn), I was already playing quickly because of time trouble, and the game was reduced to an opposite-colored bishop endgame where my opponent was able to hold easily.

This tournament proved to not be my best, and although there were some instances where I just had to play better moves over the board, it all came down to the short time controls.  After winning the first three, I only managed to draw the last three games.  Finishing with 4.5/6, it was half a point lower than what I was hoping for at the least for this tournament.  The results from this tournament were bittersweet, though.  Although my rating did drop a few points, it is practice for the many scholastic tournaments approaching around this time of year.  In fact, 2017 is the year of the SuperNationals, which are being held during the second weekend of May (12 – 14) at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee.  During other years, however, tournaments such as the Junior High Championships and the Elementary Championships are also being held.  In a few weeks, the All-Girls Nationals are being held in Chicago, and that happens to be an annual event.

With the string of scholastic events already started, it is around this time that the portion of chess players that play slowly have to practice playing faster, especially if they wish to do well in these grueling competitions.  If not, your time might just be up.



From Worst Tournament to Best Tournament Ever

With the exception of one Ohio chess club’s monthly Saturday Swiss, the 2017 Pittsburgh Open (held from March 3-5) is my best tournament to date. Although I missed a chance to make master by the narrowest of margins, my 3/5 score in the Open section was good for a 2368 performance rating and even a USCF Life Master norm.

Of course, the score doesn’t tell the whole story, as you’ve heard from us too many times.

I wasn’t in the best mood before the tournament, largely due to a long and draining weekend at the US Amateur East followed by some rather uninspired play in the Pittsburgh Chess League, which cost my team an important match and erased a few weeks’ worth of rating gains for me. Due to Friday afternoon commitments, I opted for the 2-day schedule, hoping to compensate for the shorter first two rounds by playing lower-rated opponents. Instead, I booked a first round with someone slightly more familiar.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 12.38.06 PM
Xu – Li: after 17. Ne4

In this rather standard Classical Caro-Kann tabiya, White is gearing up for g2-g4 on the kingside and Black needs a worthy counter. Both 17…Rad8 (threatening a timely …c6-c5) and 17…b5!? are reasonable choices, but I hastily tried to trade some pieces with 17…Nxe4?! 18. Qxe4 Nf6 19. Qe2 and instead of the more or less forced 19…c5 (allowing White a strong attack after 20. g4), I went passive with 19…Kh8? 20. Ne5.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 12.46.51 PM
Xu – Li: after 20. Ne5

The wasted tempi allowed White to reroute his queen to e2 and thus post a knight on e5, threatening all sorts of Bf4, g2-g4, etc. It was too late for 20…c5? 21. Bf4 Bd6 22. dxc5! Bxe5 (22…Qxc5?? 23. Rxd6) 23. Qxe5 Qxe5 24. Bxe5 Ne4 and White can simply keep the extra pawn with 25. Bd4 (25…e5 26. Rh4) or as in the game, play 25. Rh4 Nxc5 26. b4 Na4 27. Rd7 and with all my pieces offside, Grant won the ending easily.

Things turned around next round, but only on paper. Against NM Ben Johnson of the Perpetual Chess Podcast, a promising Closed Sicilian went very wrong as early as move 15 and Black was +5 until the inevitable time scramble. Suddenly Ben flagged and I was horrified to discover that I had accidentally set the clock to 60 minutes and 10 seconds instead of G/60 with 10 second delay (clearly I need more experience with the DGT North American).

We called on a TD for clarification, but these situations are almost always irreversible so long as the gameplay and equipment function correctly. To my credit, I was up a pawn in the final position, but I couldn’t help thinking Black would have consolidated more smoothly if we had played with the delay and thus had more time earlier.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 1.12.51 PM
Li – Johnson: after 19…Rd8. Anyone want to be White here?

If nothing else, the game was apparently sufficient to steer me into shape for the rest of the tournament. The start of the long time control (40/100 SD/30) was a good opportunity to put the first two rounds aside (and set my clock correctly…) for a fresh start as we merged with the 3-day schedule. I caught a bit of a break against a young 2356-rated master from Upstate New York, in what turned out to be a surprisingly quick and painless hold.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.55.43 PM
Paciorkowski – Li: after 6…Na6

Isaac has given me plenty of practice against 7. g3, which is probably White’s best chance for an edge. The idea is to let Black double the c-pawns via …Nxc5-e4-xc3 in exchange for more active development. Instead, White settled for the tame 7. Bd2 which simplified to 7…Nxc5 8. a3 Bxc3 9. Bxc3 Nce4 10. e3 Nxc3 11. Qxc3 Qc7 12. Be2 b6 13. O-O. But with White lacking any active plans and uncomfortably placed on the c-file, I thought I might have some chances to pressure with 13…d5.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 10.15.17 PM
Paciorkowski – Li: after 13…d5

However, after 14. Rac1 Ba6 15. b3 Rac8 16. Qb2 I had exhausted most of my options. The game petered out to a symmetric knight and pawns ending and we drew soon after that. I was happy with the result, given how the first two rounds went and that Paciorkowski was my second-best draw to date. However, I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much since I hadn’t really been tested in the opening.

I ended up crashing in a friend’s hotel room that night because the blitz tournament had run late and getting back to my apartment would have taken too long. The next morning, I woke up from the couch to find myself paired against NM Jeff Quirke, who doesn’t play many major events but has been very strong in the Pittsburgh Chess League. A major opening gamble paid off perfectly, leading me to a surprising 15-move win.

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Li – Quirke: after 6…d5

I ventured 7. f5!? which is uncommon but quite strong in my opinion. It wasn’t the soundest of decisions because I was basically committing to a piece sacrifice after 7…d4 or 7…b4 (as played in the game), which I knew were good but I hadn’t actually studied the continuations and trusted myself to find them over the board. Another option for Black is 7…exf5 but White has more space, more active pieces, and better center control after 8. Nxd5.

Indeed, Black spent 40 minutes before settling on 7…b4 (7…d4 is probably better; not really less safe, and gives Black a bit more space to shuffle around), forcing me to prove myself after 8. fxe6! bxc3 9. exf7+ Kxf7. And now I had to start thinking a bit, but I figured 10. bxc3 couldn’t possibly be good, so I settled on the only other reasonable choice, 10. Nf3.

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Li – Quirke: after 10. Nf3

Being my materialistic self (not a good combination with a knight sacrifice, I know!), I started worrying about Black consolidating with, say, …cxb2 and …d4. The short answer is that Black should not consider giving White an extra tempo to castle, play, Ng5 or Ne5, etc. The long answer is a bunch of vicious forcing lines that end badly for Black. Indeed, I felt much better when I walked around the table to look at the game from Black’s perspective!

Nevertheless, in my haste I answered 10…Nf6? with 11. Ng5+?! (instead of the obvious and strong 11. e5), which wasn’t a game-changing mistake but nonetheless led to 11…Kg8 12. e5 when after 12…h6! White needs to play a little creatively to maintain the attack. For example, 13. exf6 hxg5 14. fxg7?? Bxg7 is simply losing as White has to deal with Black’s threat of …cxb2 and my king is not really safer than Black’s.

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Li – Quirke: example of White’s attack fizzling out

However, facing a bit of time pressure (14 minutes left!) Black blundered with 12…Ne8??.

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Li – Quirke: after 12…Ne8

The game abruptly ended after 13. O-O (13. Qf3! actually wins on the spot, but I missed 13…Qd7 14. e6!13…cxb2 14. Qf3! Qe7 15. Qxd5+ with mate to follow. As an added bonus, I once again had a chance at National Master (and to a lesser extent, the U2300 prize) if I could win the last round. How quickly everything had changed since Saturday morning!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite meant to be, even with a stroke of luck that gave me another White, this time against FM Arvind Jayaraman of Ohio.. I didn’t completely squander the opportunity; I successfully defended against a positional Exchange sacrifice and had a chance to win at the end, but succumbed to a perpetual in time trouble.

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Li – Jayaraman: after 12…f5

Until I give up the Closed Sicilian, I guess I can never get enough practice with these positions. Simply playing fxe5 followed by Bh6 is always an option, but I should have considered exf5 in conjunction with that to solve the problem of White’s light-squared bishop. While Black will trade off White’s dark-squared bishop, his e-pawn will be weak on an open file, and his bishops not particularly useful compared to White’s on g2.

The game continuation, while not fatal by any means, does make the g2-bishop look a little silly.

13. fxe5 dxe5 14. Bh6 Bxf3! 15. Bxf3 f4 16. Bxg7 Kxg7 17. gxf4

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Li – Jayaraman: after 17. gxf4

It took me a while to settle on this, mostly because I thought Black might like 17…exf4. In reality, Black will find it difficult to make progress on the kingside as the pawn storm is rather risky for Black as well. So understandably the game continued with 17…Rxf4 which was a bit uncomfortable, but certainly better than waiting for …fxg3. While White’s bishop isn’t exactly the best piece on the board, it seemed the Black’s weak e5 pawn and weak d5 square could prove to be good compensation.

However, the course of the game changed dramatically after 18. Bg2 g5 19. Qe3 Ng6 20. Qg3 h6 21. Nd5 Raf8!?

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Li – Jayaraman: after 21…Raf8

My opponent told me later that he sacrificed the Exchange “for fun.” While I can’t personally imagine using that as a reason, he wasn’t wildly incorrect; Stockfish seems to think the sacrifice is relatively sound (though not better than, say, 21…Rxf2 which is probably still a bit better for Black) and it was pretty annoying to untangle from the sacrifice. Though at least I was able to insert 22. Bh3 Qf7 first, and after 23. Nxf4 exf4 24. Qg4 Ne5 25. Qd1 Rd8 reached this position:

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Li – Jayaraman: after 25…Rd8

I definitely fancied untangling with an eventual d2-d4, but with such an annoying position and only 17 minutes to make time control, I wasn’t keen on giving back any material. Unfortunately, after 26. b3 b5 27. c3 Ndc6 28. Rd2 a5 29. d4 I simply overlooked 29…cxd4 30. cxd4 Nxd4 when 31. Rxd4 just loses to 31…Qa7. To be fair, I’m not sure I had a much better choice on move 29, because Black was going to clamp down with …b4 anyway. Nevertheless, I was still a bit rattled, especially since I was low on time. But after 31. Kh1 I realized the position was actually getting a bit dangerous for Black, who has to deal with potential pins on the d-file and a1-h8 diagonal.

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Li – Jayaraman: after 31. Kh1

After the forced 31…Nec6 I had 32. Bg2, suddenly threatening e4-e5 which is rather uncomfortable for Black. 32…Qa7 as played in the game is probably most natural (not 32…Qf6? 33. e5!). However it is important to note that White is not actually threatening anything yet (in particular, e4-e5 is met strongly by …f3!) Though Black was starting to get low on time as well, and after 33. Qa1 hastily played 33…Kf6? forcing 34. e5+! Nxe5 35. Rfd1 f3.

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Li – Jayaraman: after 35…f3

At this point I had 4 minutes to make time control, but I just couldn’t calculate anything in the moment. For example, 36. Bf1 is completely winning, and rather painlessly, e.g. 36…Nec6 37. Bxb5. Unfortunately, time went by very quickly and I settled on 36. Rxd4? fxg2+ 37. Kxg2 Qb7+ 38. Kf2 (38. Kf1?? Qh1+ wins!) 38…Qf3+ and White can’t avoid the perpetual.

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Li – Jayaraman: 38…Qf3+

Naturally, this brought my final rating to 2196 and, yes, I missed the U2300 prize by half a point (nonetheless, I did earn a nonzero amount of money in the mixed doubles with the help of my friend Megan, who tied for 3rd in the U1800 despite being the 2nd lowest seed!).

However, I definitely can’t be disappointed with the outcome; turning around a rough start with a great comeback (rare for me) is definitely encouraging. And one can always use a bit more of that when trying to break master. As for the near future, I’ll likely be playing at the Marshall Chess Club for the first time next weekend, and hope to bring back some good news in two weeks!

Daniel Johnston on How He Went from 2100 to Master

On Wednesday, February 15, something special (if arbitrary) happened:

My rating of 2205 was published, officially bestowing on me the title of National Master. That’s me below, enjoying the cake the Community Chess Club of Rochester got for me – thanks, Mike Lionti!


It was a good moment. I first crossed 2100 in late 2014, though I believe I was probably somewhat overrated at the time. Despite a lot of hard work, I remained in the low 2100s (save for a brief spike early last year). It wasn’t until this past fall that my play finally started to show some serious signs of improvement.

On October 1st, I won the local Arkport Open, ahead of a 2300 and several other masters. Since that time, my play has been different in character in several ways. Maybe the momentum of winning that tournament helped, or it just happened to be the time when my work began to bear fruit. After all, we all know that progress in chess is often far from linear.

Either way, here are the main things that are different about my game, and how I went about incorporating them. Of course, I would not want anyone to think I am some great chess authority now just because I have a certificate! Actually it hasn’t come in the mail yet 🙂 But I take my relative success as a sign I’ve been doing some things right.

1. Made Fewer Blunders

This was huge for me. While knowing elaborate positional and endgame concepts is certainly essential, high rated players simply blunder far less.

Somehow, despite tactics always having been my strength, all through 2016 I was giving away games with simple mistakes. Here’s a typical example.

Luckily, I had my coach, GM Eugene Perelshteyn, to help me. In order to avoid blunders, he advised me to: Not get into time pressure, make sure to look for your opponent’s threats, double-check before you move, don’t calculate too deep, and trust your intuition.

All of this seems like simple advice. Of course I’ve heard this a million times. Practically following it is a different matter, and something I’m working on.

In addition to this, I think solving tactics puzzles and playing blitz and bullet online has also made me less likely to make mistakes. In the past I would go on a binge and study tactics for many hours over the course of a few days or a week, and then not at all for long periods. Practicing on ChessTempo for a consistent half hour each day has made a big difference.

2. Avoided Time Pressure

The biggest cause of my blunders, and consequently of my lost games, was time pressure. To illustrate this point, at the 2016 World Open I lost five games solely due to mismanagement of the clock. All of those games I otherwise should’ve drawn or won.

This has been an ongoing problem for me for some time. I worked hard at tackling this in late 2015. However, then I basically just played faster, without changing my thought process. While that yielded me success against some experts, it was not a good strategy against masters.

Playing online blitz was very helpful in getting me to change my decision-making process. It allowed me to get used to making fast decisions and to be confident in them.

Bolstering my opening knowledge was also crucial. Making decisions is a lot easier if you know what you’re supposed to be doing in the structure. If you blitz out the first fifteen or twenty moves, you’re much less likely to run into time trouble.

3. Corrected My Thought Process

This, however, was the biggest factor in me not getting low on the clock. It was also the most important for not making other mistakes.

Computer Scientists will be familiar with the concept of depth-first vs. breadth-first search. In depth-first, you go as deep as possible into your search tree. In breadth-first, you instead prioritize checking a lot of different possibilities.

In my calculation, I used to be in the habit of depth-first search. I would look at one line, and then calculate it five or six moves deep. I would do this before even looking at any other moves.

This was a big time suck, because I would take a significant amount of time to calculate a long line only to realize I missed something on the second move. Or not realize, and end up blundering.

Why was I doing this? I suspect part of the reason was because I simply enjoyed calculating long lines. As soon as I identified the problem, however, I realized that I had to be practical and stop doing this. A chess player should look at potential first, second, and maybe third moves. Only calculate deeper if there’s something forcing.

Correcting this habit has allowed me to save copious amounts of time on the clock, and make far better moves. It also gave me more time to double-check and make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Chances are that not many of you have this exact same problem. I would’ve had trouble figuring out this error in my thinking on my own. That’s why having a coach can come in very handy and help you spot what your specific weaknesses are.

4. Improved My Openings

At the 2016 Chicago Open, I did decently with white, scoring 3/4. With black, however, my results were less impressive. I lost all five games.

My openings were not up to scratch. To prepare for the tournament, I had been studying a lot of positional concepts from games of Capablanca and Karpov. In modern chess, though, you really need to know what you’re doing in the first stage of the game.

Not only was I not well-prepared, but I was playing the Grünfeld. This sharp system doesn’t really have a big margin for error. I thought I would be okay because my knowledge had proved sufficient for my local club. What’s necessary to succeed at a serious tournament, however, is a separate matter entirely.

After such a harrowing experience, I considered abandoning the Grünfeld in favor of something safer, such as the Nimzo. Since I already knew some of the Grünfeld, I decided to stick with it.

I went through Grandmaster games from The Week in Chess where the Grünfeld had occurred. I formulated lines with black (again with the help of my coach). Now I have a giant database that contains most of what I need to know.

I’ve taken to printing all my lines out and reviewing them on a chess board for a half hour a day. I still need to learn the lines better, and there are some big gaps in my white repertoire. But now my opening knowledge is at least good enough to compete. As I mentioned earlier, knowing the opening well also helps me not fall into time pressure.

5. Trusted My Intuition

This is something I’ve only made modest gains in. Knowing when and how to trust your intuition is something that comes with experience. I think playing shorter time controls has helped.

Many of my big mistakes have come after my intuition told me the correct move. I would calculate it, see something I didn’t like, and then make a poor move instead. This has been a little bit better since I’ve improved my calculation and am seeing more.

I think a big part of the problem was being afraid to take risks, to play original and dynamic chess. Maybe it’s partially a result of losing so many games due to the mistakes mentioned above. Reading the Judit Polgar trilogy has helped me to be more comfortable playing with imbalances. I recommend it for anyone wanting to improve their dynamics and attacking chess.

Being more relaxed during games has assisted me in being able to better listen to my intuition. In psychology there’s a theory known as optimal arousal, which posits that the best mental state to be in is not too loose, but not too tense, either. As sportsmen it’s our job to steer ourselves into that healthy medium.

My coach recently told me an important rule: I should always pay special attention to the first move that comes into my head. I’ll see where following that advice brings me.

I’ve been happy to find I now have the ability to compete at a level previously unattainable (though my ability to make bad mistakes has not gone away as of yet). Here is a game I played against IM Raven Sturt at the Marshall Club in January. Using the skills I outlined above, I was able to outplay my opponent in the opening/middlegame and achieve a pawn-up endgame.
Becoming a master gave me a feeling of accomplishment, but it also brought relief. Finally, I can stop worrying about an arbitrary number and instead put that focus into continuing to learn more about chess! Hopefully this is just the beginning of my adventure on the sixty-four squares. And best of luck on your own journey, to master and beyond.

Married to the Game

Right now I’m sitting in the lobby of my resort in the Dominican Republic for my first ever real “spring break” trip – honestly, we didn’t do much of the supposed spring break things (drinking, partying, etc.). Instead, we’ve been having a blast riding ATV’s, jumping from the top of waterfalls, and whitewater rafting. The last couple days leading up to this Thursday, I had been trying hard to figure out something to post. Which, let’s be honest, with all the adventures I’ve been going on is not easy.

And then it hit me. No matter what I’m doing in my life, no matter what college I decided to attend a year ago, no matter what profession I go into… Chess was something that would always be a part of me. Whatever country I find myself in, it would be something for me to bond with others and a way to communicate past the barrier created by language.

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Just as the hustlers in Washington Square park help bring people together, chess plays a universal role in bringing different cultures together

For the last ten years, it has been one of the core defining characteristics of who I am. And that wasn’t about to change just because I started going to college or working.

All the tears, the fights, the late nights, the fast food that I’ve suffered/enjoyed will always be a part of who I am, be a part of how I face the day. While there are plenty of people that like to tell me that chess is simply “just a game” – no. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a choice. For those of us who have devoted so much of our time to it, it is much, much more than just a game.

Our ability to play and understand and love chess is something that’s like riding a bike – it will never go away. It will, truly, be there. Forever & always.