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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.15.06 PM
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!

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