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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

 

Blindness in Winning Positions

It seems that every time after I write something, I prove myself wrong shortly afterwards. Write about a good tournament, play terribly in the next tournament! Write about openings, have an opening disaster (that game is really off limits)! If this trend continues, I’m going to start writing about some of my worst tournaments before major events!

After writing my article about the grind, I naturally had to prove myself wrong at my next tournament, the USATE. The tournament ended well, but I did mention the glitch I had in round 2…

Just look at this position. It’s winning itself. You don’t even have to be there and that’s when your mind goes on vacation. You start thinking about your rating gain, how much time you’ll have until the next round, who you might play, the food waiting for you in the hotel room, etc. You don’t pay as much attention to the game as you should.

The textbook says you should always tell yourself “It’s not over until it’s over”

Come on! It’s over! Really, it’s over! Enough nonsense Mr. Philosophical.

Brodsky, David (2450) – Qi, Henry (2220) USATE 2017

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Black to move

White is two healthy pawns up. Black has the bishop pair, but there’s only that much compensation provided by the bishop pair. Game over very soon, right? My opponent played 36… Be5 and offered a draw. A draw would win the match for the team, but really? You don’t give a draw in position like that unless you are really short on time, starving, or about to fall asleep. I may as well win this position. I played 37.Rc5 Bg6 38.Rc6 Kf7 39.Rxa6 (grabbing a third pawn) h4 40.Ne2 h3

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White to move

The time control was reached, and I nonchalantly played 41.Bf4? Can you find black’s best defense?

After my opponent’s reply 41… Bb8! I freaked out. I went into full defense mode and started fighting for a draw. (Spoiler: I’m still winning, can you figure out how? I failed that task.)

You can check out what happened here.

That game is still a mystery to me. I mean, you would think white should be winning easily, yet look what happened. I’ve tried finding some random improvements for white, yet none of them are instantly 1-0. Still, assuming white is totally winning does not seem to be at all unreasonable.

What is not unreasonable to say is that me going on autopilot cost me a half point. It did admittedly look suspect to allow black some chances for an invasion to my h2-pawn, but since I didn’t see anything concrete for him, I trusted my calculations and was punished for my lack of depth.

41… Bb8 was not the easiest move to find, but had I looked deeper, I probably would have found it. It was right after the time control, and I had plenty of time. There are no reasonable excuses.

 

Why do things like that happen? We are all guilty of not paying enough attention towards the end of the game. It’s natural after a long fight that you just want to relax a bit. Usually, our opponents are tired too, and we get away with it, but there are moments when you brainfreeze and forget about your opponent’s resources.

Your opponent’s rating may also have an effect. You will take a GM more seriously than a low-rated kid. Desperate GMs are supposed to be slippery in those situations, while the low rated guys are supposed to crumble… not really!

What I did in the Qi game doesn’t seem that bad. 41… Bb8 is not an obvious move at all to find. Everybody has moments like these, and I didn’t blunder anything huge and didn’t turn 1-0 into 0-1.

Still, these moments can be really frustrating, especially if things aren’t going well. When you start going into philosophical depths about human stupidity, your play does not improve. Trust me.

In the USATE, the team won the match 2.5-1.5, and I was happy I managed to save the game. I brushed it off without any big problems and found my form in round 5 by beating GM Larry Christiansen. Still, it had an impact…

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OMG, what did I just do!?! Photo by Vanessa Sun.

The following game, however, was awful. I was playing the Washington International right after a disastrous tournament. Things weren’t going so well, but if I won this game, I’d be around my expected performance, maybe a little bit above it.

It stands out clearly in my memory as my #1 non-stalemating fail in my career. Just look for yourselves.

Huang, Andy (2250) – Brodsky, David (2400) Washington International 2016

Huang1

White to move

We just reached the time control. It had been a bit of a scramble, but I emerged clearly on top. Basically, I just roll my pawns down the board and should win. White’s h6-pawn is a goner. After I play g5, his bishop won’t be able to protect it anymore.

The game went 41.c4 g5 42.Be5 f4. I decided to push my pawns a bit, since the h6-pawn wasn’t going anywhere. It went 43.Kd1 f3 44.Ke1

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Black to move

Game over, right? I just roll my pawns down the board and win with the help of my king. After 44… Kxh6 I could win this in my sleep. In fact, my dad could probably win that position. Sorry dad, it says a lot. Instead, I played 44… g4?????????????? allowing 45.Bf4!. Surprise! I can’t take the h6-pawn. Now it’s a draw. My king can’t get in to support my pawns. If you want to take a look, here’s how it ended.

I almost quit chess after that one. OK, I wasn’t that mad, but I couldn’t believe my stupidity. I proceeded to lose my next 2 games in abhorrent styles.

My mistake in that game was similar but worse. I simply forgot that he could go Bf4 and protect the h6-pawn. I was going on autopilot and didn’t take 10 seconds or even one tenth of a second to look at what my opponent could do.

 

The bottom line is: don’t totally autopilot. Don’t forget about your opponent. Look around and see if your opponent has anything obvious (Huang game). If things look suspect, look a little deeper (Qi game).

It’s not over till it’s over. Leave the mental celebration after the handshake. It’s natural, and no offense there, you will have an incident or two like this in your games. Just try to keep these things to a minimum. As your opposition gets tougher, keeping your focus towards the end of the game is crucial to winning those games you should win.

Czech Mate! A Little Luck in Liberec

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Crossing the bridge into the old city in Prague

For the second major stay of my tour, I left Austria for the Czech Republic. The narrative leaving Lienz was one of optimism – I had scored 4.5/9 in my first European tournament after starting slow, and gained over 50 FIDE rating points. Beginner’s luck? I certainly hoped not…

I only had a few days to rest before the Liberec Open, and Vienna and Prague were on my itinerary. As you may recall from my last post, I professed my love for Vienna, so how did the Czech Republic compare?

As I hopped off my train in Prague, the first distinguishing feature I took note of was movement. Life in Prague is fast paced; the city is busy day and night, and its never too late to find a good goulash or get a drink. Thanks to a lower cost of living, Prague (and much of the Czech Republic) is a hotspot for tourists all over the world. English isn’t as commonly spoken in the Czech Republic, so John’s arrival the day before the Liberec Open was perfectly timed!

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Who is this John Ahlborg guy?

John’s gotten a few Chess^Summit mentions in the past few months. His draw against GM Ray Robson to close out 2016 at the Pan American Intercollegiate Championships got covered by guest writer Thomas Riccardi last January, and a win of his against me at last year’s Pittsburgh Open found its way into one of my recent posts about English Opening theory.

It also happens that John was one of the first chess players I met when I first arrived in Pittsburgh. We have travelled together twice for Pan Ams, and have played side-by-side several times for the University of Pittsburgh chess team. But Liberec, Czech Republic? This was new!

Unlike Lienz, Liberec has a population over 100,000, and is one of the biggest cities in the country. The city, like Lienz, is a destination for skiing, but also has plenty of museums and shops to explore. Though the directors of the Liberec Open didn’t plan any social events for players, John and I found plenty each day to keep us busy.

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Awaiting the start of Spící Krasavice, Liberec’s rendition of The Sleeping Beauty.

Several highlights included a self-playing piano exhibit at the Severočeské Muzeum, Laser Tag (who do you think won that 1 v 1 battle?), and visiting the Liberec Zoo. Of course, when we were too tired to do anything else, we could simply visit one of many cafes in the city and prepare for our upcoming round.

Before I delve into the detail of my tournament performance, I must confess that this was simply my luckiest tournament I have ever played in. Despite having five Blacks, I scored a strong 5.5/9 and look to gain a significant amount of FIDE rating points again – yet, that score doesn’t really tell the whole story.

After winning in my traditional slow style in the first round, the following eight games tested my tactical acumen and ability to make decisions quickly. I got results in several games where I was simply much worse, and much of that had to do with my ability to manage the clock and make practical decisions. Though my mental fortitude was rewarded this time around, I believe if I don’t improve from this performance, I will quickly be disappointed with my future results. Let’s have a look!

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I didn’t have a single easy game in Liberec – even the 1200 I played in the first round put up a tenacious defense!

After my first game against a Czech youngster, it didn’t take long for me to realize how strong the field was, despite the overall lower average rating than the Dolomiten Bank Open. I like this first round game, because it shows what happens when you put less experienced players in positions where they have to make uncomfortable decisions.

The following day, I got paired with Black against a WFM and member of Turkmenistan’s 2016 Olympiad team. After getting a great position out of the opening, I fumbled my advantage, and in time trouble, the game took a turn for the endgame. But my luck had just begun, and thanks to all the endgame study I did to write my Endgame Essentials series (here is my latest installment), I found a way to outplay my opponent and get the win.

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A visit to the Science Museum with John!

My opponent missed her chance, but nonetheless, not a game to be disappointed in. The fireworks began in the third round when I pulled an upset against an FM from Scotland! After getting a fantastic position out of the opening, I managed to drop a rook(!) but still was able to find a way to get the win in the endgame. Starting 3/3 was a great feeling, but it had been quite an emotional roller coaster ride – usually I don’t play so carelessly…

The script quickly changed for the next two rounds. Dropping both, I found myself at 3/5 needing to stop the bleeding and get a result. My fourth round game wasn’t much of a contest, as it was only hours after my win against the FM and I was too exhausted to calculate anything. My fifth round game had reached an interesting position, but I missed a nice opportunity for me and fell into a worse ending and lost again. In one of his first Chess^Summit posts, Grant explained how important it is to avoid losing two games in a row and going into my 6th round game, it felt like there was a lot of momentum going against me, even though 3/5 against the level of competition I was playing was a very reasonable score. This number nearly became three against another Olympian and WFM from Turkmenistan but I managed to save this position and draw.

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Atabayeva-Steincamp, position after 26…Qb7

I have a lot more I want to share, so we’ll skip over this game, but saving this game this was the starting point of a lot of luck for me. My next game I had another Black and got into an even worse position, but I got the gift of my career and won, keeping me on a plus score at 4.5/7. Of course, I was well aware that I should have lost both of these games thanks to opening disasters, but I was reminded of how I broke 1900 before I worked with my current coach, GM Eugene Perelshteyn.

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Stopping by the Liberec Botanical Gardens

When I was rated roughly 1700-1800, I found myself getting into a lot of worse positions and having to outplay my opponents a lot. Even in my chess.com games, I would drop material all the time and force myself to play on (ever wonder why I love sacrificing the exchange now?). Forcing myself to get results when I had worse positions was the biggest reason I made 1900, though I can no longer get away with playing like this at the 2000 level. I talked about this a lot in one of my first YouTube videos, and this sixth sense I developed years back was extremely useful for me this tournament.

If you still aren’t convinced that Lady Luck was on my side, getting a win in the eighth round should show you otherwise. In a game that made my third round win look like a cake walk, we both had a lot of chances to win, and in my opponent’s time trouble, I escaped and came out on top. Sure, lucky is a word to use here, but as we all know, whoever makes the last mistake generally loses!

My over-the-board luck ended during the final round when I lost on the Black side of a King’s Indian. Funnily enough, I probably finished that opening better off than I had in the three rounds prior. As a last dose of luck, a bunch of results went my way, and I was able to win a class prize with a 5.5/9 score. Let’s just say I won’t be rated around 1800 FIDE for a while… John had a strong performance too, placing 9th with a score of 6.5/9!

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Claiming my class prize at the award ceremony!

What a tournament – and so much over-the-board drama! If only my brain and pieces could have gotten along better, maybe I could have played for more! My next tournament is in Bad Wörishofen, where I expect to play against the toughest field I’ve seen so far this trip. I’ll have to pick up my form a little, but either way, I’ll be sharing some key moments with you in just a couple of weeks!

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Visiting Saxon Palace grounds in Dresden, where I will be staying the next few days!

The featured photo is the John Lennon Wall, which I visited in Prague.

 

The Importance of FIDE Ratings

“What’s your USCF?”

Ask any chess player in the United States, and they’ll respond without as much as a second thought.  So what?

Now take a trip to any country outside of the United States.  If you ask the same question to a chess player, you’ll most likely receive puzzled looks and responses along the lines of “What’s that?”  Another country, probably the same response.  The borders of the United States are most likely going to be the extent to which chess players would recognize “USCF.”  Any further, and chess players use other rating systems.  Sure, some countries might have their own local chess federations as well.  However, most use another rating system, at least for the larger tournaments.  This rating system is the Fédération internationale des échecs, better known as FIDE.  FIDE is sometimes called the World Chess Federation because it is just that.  FIDE is a global organization that connects and interacts with national chess federations and hosts international chess tournaments.  It is recognized by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) as the main overseeing body of international chess play.  Most top-level tournaments respect FIDE rules and regulations, almost without exception.

So why does this matter?  In short, it matters because the FIDE rating becomes the most important of all at high-level competition.  Almost every international tournament is FIDE rated.  In addition, most high-level open tournaments in the United States are FIDE-rated for the highest section(s).  Even the World Chess Championship, perhaps the most popular chess event, is FIDE rated.

Establishing a FIDE rating

If a chess player aspires to become the best of the best one day, he or she must pay attention to FIDE ratings as early as possible.  Moreover, he or she should attempt to play in as many FIDE-rated tournaments as possible in order to achieve their first rating.  Per rules, one must play 9 games against FIDE rated players, with three having to be in the same tournament, and at least 1 point (out of 3) must be scored against those three players.  It seems complicated, but it isn’t difficult if many FIDE-rated tournaments are being held.

After the first FIDE rating is achieved, the best approach is to try to stabilize and gradually increase it.  This, however, can sometimes be difficult and might trend in the opposite direction, as it did with me.  My first ever FIDE rating was 2018, a good 50-100 points above my USCF rating at the time, which was somewhere in the 1900s.  In this case, my FIDE rating was higher than my USCF rating, but for most people, it turns out to be the other way around.  Despite my attempts to keep my FIDE rating above 2000, it didn’t last long, as I lost games to players who were much higher-rated than me in USCF but around equal to me in FIDE.  As a result, these games would affect my FIDE much more than they would affect my USCF.  My FIDE rating hit an all-time low around at 1838 in March of 2016 after poor tournament play in general.  Since then, however, I have been able to claw my way back to a current rating of 2121 in a span of roughly 12 months.  A couple of different approaches have allowed me to accomplish that.  For one, I have begun to play much more frequently in the open section, which tends to be FIDE-rated nowadays (as previously mentioned).  Performing well in these open sections has definitely boosted my FIDE rating.  Secondly, the NVA Chess League has benefitted me greatly.  The NVA Chess League is a team league takes place over several months and is FIDE-rated.  However, the fact that each separate game is rated as its own event has helped me the most, since many more points are gained for each win.  Lastly, playing in international tournaments has helped when they come around since they add 9 FIDE-rated games apiece.  Although I haven’t played in any of the prestigious international tournaments such as the World Youth just yet, but I have had my share of North American Youth Chess Championships that I have attended.  Having played in four straight, they have also helped me get in more FIDE-rated games.

In the end, however, playing in FIDE-rated tournaments is the easiest and most efficient way to improve FIDE ratings.  The earlier someone improves their FIDE rating, the better, too, because FIDE uses a higher K-factor (scalar) in calculating ratings of minors (U18).  This means that ratings fluctuate more with younger ages.  Although this could potentially cause more severe drops, the possibility of higher gains also exists.  It’s important to note that USCF ratings are equally important at first; until one’s USCF rating is high enough to be able to compete in FIDE-rated sections and/or tournaments, progress can’t be made in FIDE ratings in the first place.  It’s just that, eventually, once someone reaches the levels of 2300 or 2400+, FIDE ratings become that more important.  As always, thanks for reading and see you next time!

A Wildly Average USATE

Against my expectations, I was able to make the US Amateur Team East for the third (!) year in a row, and like David, saw a rare opportunity to push for some of the winner glory, with CMU fielding Grant Xu (2396), me (2136), Ryan Christianson (2059), and Alex Hallenbeck (2027) for an average January rating of 2154.5. Also, I had worked my way to 2180 through early February, so I was definitely pushing for master, and the tournament served as an important test of how I could handle that mentally.

 

There was no contest for the highlight of the event as we pulled off a huge upset in Round 5 and I drew an International Master for the first time.

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Ryan and Beilin in Round 5 (photo by Vanessa Sun)

Our opponents were GM Eric Hansen and IM Aman Hambleton of Chessbrah fame, followed by an expert and a 1600 on the bottom boards. Their top-heavy strategy put a lot of pressure on the GM and IM to clean up, although it seemed to mostly work as I was the only one to score against either of them. On the other hand, it seemed like we would have to win the bottom two boards to stay alive in the match.

Alex delivered an early win on Board 4, while Grant looked to have a good Alapin against Hansen, but fell for an early tactic that left him in a positional bind for the rest of the game. Against Hambleton, I ended up on the Black side of the closed Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian for the first time. I was really nervous because I was playing an IM and had no idea how theoretical that line was, but I played it solidly, stayed even throughout the game, and we agreed to a draw on move 29 to close out my third encounter against an IM/GM. See the full game here!

At 1.5/3, this left the match in the hands of Ryan, who had struggled against some lower-rated players, but nevertheless defeated his expert opponent easily. For the first time, CMU was 4.5/5 going into the last round, and tied for 2nd with a legitimate shot at winning. With my unexpected draw, I also had a great chance to make master if I could win my last game.


Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get the ending we hoped for as Grant, Ryan, and I were simply crushed by IM Justin Sarkar and young experts Eddy Tian and Nico Chasin in the last round. To his credit, Alex easily beat his young expert opponent on Board 4, but it’s hard to win the match when your teammates are all lost by move 20.

Nevertheless, our score of 4.5/6 was good enough for Top College and Top Pennsylvania team (the second was later removed due to duplicate prize policies). And after three long days, I had gained one (!) rating point. I had mixed feelings about this; the result was disappointing given what I did in Round 5 and the chance I had after that, but on the other hand, 2180 is around the point where many National Master contenders collapse, and I avoided that for the most part.

In hindsight though, it was kind of a fitting result for some interesting moments earlier in the tournament.

Round 1: Lucky Misses

We played down in Round 1, and the outcome of the match was never really in doubt. But at the time, I felt like my game was a lot more chaotic than it needed to be. My 1850-rated opponent quickly ended up on the wrong side of the 4. Nc3 Advance Caro-Kann:

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Weinstein – Li: after 11…Nc6

I made some mistakes and tried to simplify too early. Eventually, I bailed:

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Weinstein – Liafter 18. Be3

Thinking I’d at least grab a pawn for my troubles (great logic, right?), I ventured 18…Bc5 19. Qa4+ Kf8 20. O-O-O Bxe3+ 21. fxe3 Qxe3+ 22. Kb1 Nf6, but White won his pawn back with 23. Qb4+ Qc5 24. Qxb7:

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Weinstein – Li: after 24. Qxb7

Black’s king is actually safe now, but it’s not easy to find a way to break through the kingside. White gave me an opportunity a few moves later, but that’s where the misses started. While I was better (or winning) throughout the sequence, it was a little disconcerting to have missed some of White’s moves, lest one of them be a spoiler!

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Weinstein – Li: after 27. Ne4

I thought I calculated through everything, and went ahead with 27…Nxe4! After the forced 28. Qxf3 Qxc2+ 29. Ka1 Rb8 30. Rb1 Nd2 I missed 31. Qf4, gaining time by attacking the rook on b8. Same thing after 31…Rb7 32. Qh2. Again, neither move actually saved White, but I was a little nervous at having missed both of them.

I faced the final test after 32…Nb3+ 33. Ka2 Nd2 (a repetition to get closer to move 40) 34. Ka1 Nb3+ 35. Ka2 Qc4! 36. Rbd1 Nd2+ 37. Ka1.

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It took me 18 of my remaining 19 minutes to find 37…Rxb2! and it’s mate in 3 (not including the Qb8+ intermezzo) because Black threatens to mate on a2 and 38. Kxb2 Qb3+ mates next move. Evidently I don’t do any tactics puzzles.

After the hiccups (if only mentally), that was over and our team followed suit, winning 4-0.

Round 2: Another Miss or a Blessing in Disguise?

Seeded 40th out of about 300 teams, we weren’t expecting to play up so early. Alas, pairings (accelerated, maybe?) are pairings, and we were paired against the 3rd seed team of IM Dean Ippolito, NM Eric Most, and a 2100 and 2000. Grant drew Ippolito comfortably, Ryan’s opponent offered a draw in a slightly better isolated queen pawn position, and Alex and I looked to be winning our games. Unfortunately, neither of us could convert our wins and we drew the match 2-2.

One could reasonably make the case that this saved us from some future obstacles, as it set us up for our remarkable Round 5 win and it was the only half point we gave up before the last round. But it was really hard for me to not be disappointed at my own game.

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Li – Most: after 20…Qg5

The opening wasn’t great, but my opponent thought he would just trade queens en route to destroying my queenside. I was very happy to find 21. Nf4!, threatening Nxe6 and exploiting the loose knight on c4. The game continued 21…Nxf4 22. gxf4 Qf6 23. cxb4 Qxd4? (23…Ba6 put up a lot more resistance) 24. Rd1 Qxb2 25. Qxc4, leaving me up a piece for two pawns.

From there, it was a series of rash yet timid simplifications on my part. I eventually bailed into an ending, which admittedly wasn’t the easiest to win, though with an hour more on the clock, I should have done way better.

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Li – Most: after 39. Nxb2

And after Black tried to break up the e- and f-pawns, I got a passed d-pawn:

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Li – Most: 45…Bd7

The simplest route seemed to be 46. Nc6! forcing 46…Bxc6 (otherwise, 46…a6 47. Bh3+ g4 48. Bxg4+ Kxg4 49. Ne5+) 47. dxc6 Ke6. And I naively assumed that: 1) I had to deal with the a-pawn before anything else, and 2) the bishop would hold the kingside pawns easily. One issue at play is that White has the wrong-colored bishop should I end up with only the h-pawn.

I was very, very wrong on both points. If the king is away, the kingside pawns are not nobodies, as I found out the hard way. And while the a-pawn is a bit of a nuisance, White can simply tie Black’s king to the passed c-pawn while marching the king over to the kingside. White may end up with only the h-pawn left, but if calculated correctly, White should have enough time to take Black’s pawns and prevent Black from reaching the h8 corner. For example, 48. Bd5! Kd6 49. Ke4 a5 50. Kf5 a4 51. Kxg5 a3 and White takes the f7 and h7 pawns while Black is distracted with c6.

But after 48. Kd4 Kd6 49. Kc4? f5 50. Kb5?? g4 it’s a dead draw:

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Li – Most: after 50…g4

I played this out for completeness, but Black’s pawns are too fast by one tempo: 51. h3 h5 52. hxg4 hxg4 53. Ka6 Kc7 54. Kxa7 f4 55. Be4 (otherwise 55…f3 wins!) 55…f3 56. Ka6 f2 57. Bg2 f1=Q and we wrapped up the game at 12:30 am.

Round 3: Durkin’s Folly

We went back to playing down for two rounds, this time against a team of kids each rated around 1500. I’m embarrassed to say that this was more interesting that it should have been, but…

On Board 3, Ryan tried the Durkin Attack (1. Na3) because the tournament was giving out prizes to the best games in a few openings, which included the Vienna, the King’s and Queen’s Gambits, and the Durkin Attack. Ryan’s game started with 1. Na3 e6 2. Nc4 d5 3. Ne5 f6 (later, we decided that 2. c4 followed by Nc2 was a better plan). Meanwhile, I had ruined a good position by miscalculating a tactic and had to trade into a microscopically worse rook ending with seemingly no winning chances. It seemed that we were going to have to resort to the bare-minimum 2.5-1.5 win against a team we outrated by 600 points.

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Mak – Li: after 16…Na5 =+

But things turned really hairy later, when White tried a last-ditch h-pawn storm on the kingside:

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Mak – Li: after 28. h5

I immediately played 28…Qa2?, which I thought was forcing 29. Rb4 (which he did play). Apparently, 30. Qd1! is good for White, because 30…Qa5 31. b6! threatens Ra1 trapping the queen, and 30…Qa4 31. Ra1 wins the a7-pawn with a winning advantage.

Be that as it may, the game continued 29. Rb4 Be7 30. h6 Rg8?! 31. hxg7+ Rxg7 32. Be5 f6 33. Qxe6, and I made my pre-planned escape with 33…Rxc3 34. Rxc3 Qa1+.

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Mak – Li: after 34…Qa1+

Although this is not an easy find, 35. Rb1!! likely wins after 35…Qxb1+ 36. Kh2 (White threatening Rc8+ and Bxf6) and 35…Qxc3 36. Bxf6. Even disregarding that, 35. Kh2 Qxc3 36. Bd6 (I missed this!) forced 36…Bxd6 37. Qxd6 Qc7 and we reached this ending:

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Mak – Liafter 38…Rxc7

Somehow, I managed to win this ending as Black. That wasn’t very nice of me, but a win is a win. That happened in several monumental steps. First, White immediately played 39. b6, which led to trading his d-pawn for my f-pawn.

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Mak – Li: after 41…Rxd4

Now Black has a passed pawn. White should still draw this without trouble. In fact, I think I could lose this as Black if I was careless enough. Though, White played f4, let me activate my king, and traded his f-pawn for my h-pawn.

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Mak – Li: after 47…Kxf4

Now Black’s king is somehow active. I didn’t see that coming from the beginning position, to be honest. Nevertheless, White’s king is very near and with the rook behind the Black pawn and king, it’s still a dead draw. In fact, this is a draw even without White’s g-pawn.

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Mak – Li: after 52…Rh2

This might look a little scary, but in fact White is still fine. Even without the g-pawn, this is the famous Philidor position. The next position isn’t so easy for White though:

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Mak – Li: after 56…Rh8

And White finally cracked with 57. Rg1?? (57. Rf2 was necessary, to jump to the back ranks for some annoying checks). And after 57…Kd4 58. Rf1 Ra2+ 59. Kd1 Kc3 60. Rg1 Ra2 61. Ke1 Ra1+ he resigned.

This clinched the match with 3 points, but Ryan was still losing against his 1500-rated opponent with the Durkin. However, his opponent offered him a draw in a likely winning ending, so it was a 3.5-0.5 match. One wouldn’t exactly have guessed that from the positions earlier in our games.

Round 4: Finally Clean Sweep

In our last match leading up to our Round 5 upset, we played down once more, but got the job done 4-0. For once, my game didn’t make me completely nervous. I’ll leave it at this:

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Li – Gindi: after 14…g6

I switched gears slightly with 15. Qh2!? and it’s actually pretty awkward for Black to defend the c6 and d6 pawns (best is probably the counterattacking 15…b4). Instead, Black tried 15…Qb6 16. Nde2 c5? 17. g5! Nh5 18. Nd5 which wins at least a pawn.


And that’s how you work your way to drawing an International Master!

The Chess^Summit Picture That Wasn’t

With DavidGrantVanessa, and Vishal (and some former guest authors to boot) all at the tournament, it was kind of expected that we’d get some unifying picture of us all. Unfortunately, with one round left, Vanessa insisted on trying to find Vishal first, which didn’t materialize. That left us with a few individual pictures of us, all taken by Vanessa:

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Vanessa with David Brodsky
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Vanessa with Beilin
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Grant playing IM Sarkar in Round 6

Maybe next year!