Last week I attended a norm invitational 10-player round robin held at the very nice Charlotte Chess Center and Scholastic Academy (CCCSA) in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was my first time in Charlotte, and both the club and the City made a very good impression on me. The tournament consisted of 3 sections: A (GM Norm), B (IM Norm), and C (IM Norm). If you would like to find more about the participants, check out their bios.
I was seeded 5th out of 10 in the B group. To achieve an IM norm, I needed to score 6.5 points out of 9.
Pairings were known two weeks ahead of time. I got 5 blacks and 4 whites and was to play the top 4 seeds in rounds 2-5 straight followed by the rest of the field. Were these good pairings? In retrospect, I don’t think so. Playing badly in those 4 games could knock me out of contention, and none of my other games were guaranteed to be wins, but I had worse pairings. My last invitational started with double black, playing 2 GMs and a soon-to-be IM in the first three rounds
As much as you pretend that you don’t care about the norm, well give it a try and see how well you can pull it off :).
My preparation was mainly for the early rounds. Yet, I had my minds on opponents to beat and opponents to survive, and that’s where my story of harakiri and comebacks starts.
Before the first round…
In round 1, I was black against a local player, Tianqi “Steve” Wang. As Steve was the second lowest rated player in the tournament, this was a game I wanted to win, not only wanted to me it was a must. I was to play the 4 strongest opponents right after him, and I felt like my chances could get diminished right and there if I didn’t win. Well, I was wrong about the must win part but dead right about the aftermath of this game.
After a dubious opening from my opponent, I went on a little rampage trying to win, and ultimately ended up in this position. At this point I had had already turned down a draw offer.
This position looks terrible for black, and it truly is. After 37.Bg4 and 38.Bf5+, black’s defenses will collapse. Instead my opponent played 37.Qxe5?? allowing 37… Rc6! 38.Re6 Rxe6 39.Qxe6 Qxc3. Black is not dead lost anymore! My opponent played 40.Kf2 and offered another draw.
Objectively, it should be a draw, but objectivity took a backseat. Remember I was there to win! If I try some clever moves with the queen, then white will give perpetual check. But I can stop the checks with Qg7, right? The bishop endgame should be good for me with my c-pawn. No more draw!
I played 40… Qb2 41.Qf7+ Qg7?? (41… Kh8 42.Qf8+ would have led to a perpetual) 42.Qxg7+ Kxg7
What’s the catch? My opponent played the simple move 43.Bf3!, and I realized I was busted. The pawn endgame is winning for white after 43… Bxf3 44.gxf3. I played 43… Bc2 44.b5! c3 45.b6 and not wanting to see the b-pawn queen, I resigned. Harakiri #1 was over
We’ve all had moments like this before, and it always feels so stupid and even more so at the beginning of an important tournament. I just gave away half a point, and that half point… Well, keep reading!
Round 2 was a fun slugfest against IM Roberto Martin del Campo that ended in a draw. I got a good position, but I tried a little too hard to run my opponent over. I almost lost the game. Nobody can say that I don’t try hard 😉
Round 3 was a boring draw. IM Vigorito offered a draw on move 16, and I decided to take it.
The advantages of quick draws include more time to chat!
It was a boring draw, but at least I wasn’t losing at any point. At this point that was the best I had. I reached some stability. Next round, I wanted to exploit having the white pieces. I was facing John Ludwig who was one of the top seeds with a FIDE of 2397 and a USCF of 2470. We played once before at the 2016 US Cadet, and we drew with opposite colors. If I won this game, I would be at 50%, and I could get the tournament back on track.
Round 4 was the slugfest I had wanted… except that it went the wrong way for me. We both made some mistakes and soon reached the critical position.
White to play
Things are getting sharp here. Black’s play on the queenside has gone pretty far, but white has some play on the kingside. There is no backing down from either side.
The critical variation was 23.fxg6. Black has two options 23… fxg6 runs into 24.Qxd6, where white now has a check on e6. 24… Bxb2 25.Qe6+ Kh8 runs into a nice shot 26.Nxc4! winning the game. Anyhow, black’s position looks a little too suspicious over there.
I was more concerned about 23… hxg6. The shot there would be 24.Nf5! with the idea that black gets mated after 24… gxf5 25.Rg1. However, after 24… Bxb2 25.Ne7+ Kg7
White to play
I thought white had nothing better than a repetition with 26.Nf5+, and I wouldn’t go for one. Remember, I wanted to win this one too. In my calculations, I missed the move 26.Rg1!. White has multiple ideas, namely Nxg6 sacrifices. It turns out black is simply lost there.
Instead, I looked at different paths, trying to find something better than a draw. Naturally, what I found was worse. 23.Qg2? Ne5 24. Ng4 Nxg4 25.fxg4 Qc2!
White to play
Now white is busted. 26.f6? fails due to 26… Bxf6 27.Rxf6 Qxc1+. If I trade queens, black’s queenside pawn(s) will run through. I tried to complicate matters with 26.Bf4, but after 26… Be5 27.Bh6 Rb8 white’s attack is not really there. Here’s how it ended.
Harakiri #2 completed.
1.0/4. Marvelous! Not. No more norm contention for me. That didn’t take long. My hypothetical maximum score was 6.0/9 which would happen if and only if I would win my remaining 5 games, but let’s be real… At this point ending the tournament at 50% sounded like a success.
In round 5, I was facing the top seed, IM Zurab Javakhadze, with the black pieces. At that point he was 3.5/4. That’s another thing about round robins. In a Swiss, if you’re doing badly, you’ll play someone who is also doing badly. You’ll get some relief by being paired against an easier opponent. Instead, in round robins, your relief may come in a form of playing one of the top seeds or one of the leaders. I got both the leader and the strongest player. Thank you very much.
The face of confidence… Photo courtesy of Charlotte Chess Center
I held on for most of the game. However, he got some chances. I was drifting a bit, and he could have played better. Eventually, we reached this position:
White to play
His thought process must have been similar to my first round position. I was a big target with a big sign on my back that read “I am having a horrible tournament. Beat me!”
After 50.fxg5 Nxg5 the position is simply a draw. So instead of essentially agreeing to a draw, IM Javakhadze went 50.f5?? which is suicide. His passer on f5 is blockaded and barely alive, and I have my own passer. White is putting his faith in his king run to b5, but it won’t get so far. I went 50… Ne5 51.Bf1 (51.Ka4 Nxc4 is the problem for white). 51… Nf3 52.Ka4 Nd4. There may have been a more accurate way to play it, but in this version, I know I have at least a draw, and can play for a win with no risk at all. The white king cannot infiltrate to b5. Now, I have to pick up the f5-pawn and run my g-pawn down in an educated fashion. It requires some calculation, but it can be done. Here’s how it ended.
Harakiri #3 was completed. It wasn’t me this time, and it felt good! I was glad to know I’m not the only person who sometimes commits harakiri in drawn positions! This win gave me some boost. 2/5 wasn’t that bad. There was still time to turn this tournament around. You know from horrible to simply bad.
In round 6, I beat the bottom seed, Kapish Potula, without any major issues. It wasn’t a spectacular win, but a win is a win and a confidence boost.
After the round, we went for a walk in downtown Charlotte, and I still had to figure out what opening I was going to play against my next round opponent, FM Michael Kleinman!
Which Charlotte am I in again??
Round 7 was a long, technical game with several glitches, but I came out on top with a win. I was better with black by move 15, got a winning position, and then proceeded to make my life significantly more difficult than necessary. He probably could have held a draw with best play, but it wasn’t easy.
The start of a looong game… Photo courtesy of Charlotte Chess Center
I had won my last 3 games, and my rating was back in plus! Back in business!
Round 8 was a short and violent game against WIM Ewa Harazinska who was still in contention for a WGM norm. She needed to win both her games of the last day which was a tough bar. Here’s where things got spicy:
White to play
12.d5 looks like a fairly normal move here, but my opponent played 12.Ng5??!!? which didn’t surprise me. I was fascinated by the consequences, but I correctly deduced they were good for black. I replied 12… Bxg2 13.Nxe6 Qe7 14.c5 (14.Nxf8 Bb7)
Black to move
Now, white is thinking of grabbing both of black’s rooks! Time to pull that LSB out of there! But where? Black should stay on the long diagonal due to the abundance of mating ideas. I played 14… Bb7!. The other move I was considering was 14… Bc6, but it isn’t so effective because white can play d5 in some variations and gain a tempo on the bishop. It doesn’t seem so important, but it actually is. The game went 15.Nxc7+ (15.Nd8+ Kh8 16.Nxb7 was possible, but everything about that knight on b7 looks wrong. How is it going to get out??) Kh8 16.cxd6 Qxe2
White to play
White is up a stump. 17.Nxa8 runs into 17… Bxd4!, where white is on the verge of getting mated. She decided to block my bishop out with 17.d5 (I told you, the tempo thing would come in handy!), but I replied 17… Na6! (17… Nd7! with the same idea was also good). Now, white can’t take the rook with 18.Nxa8 because of 18… Nc5!, where white can’t protect the rook anymore. Therefore, white is down a piece for two pawns, and black has the compensation. I won a few moves later.
4 out of 4. Here we go! Gosh, when was the last time I won four games in a row? At a scholastic tournament!?
In round 9, my opponent, Richard Francisco, was off-form, and he didn’t play too well. Had he been on-form, he probably would have exploited some of my mistakes and made a draw, but that was not to be. I won again!
5 wins in a row! From 1.0/4 to 6.0/9, half a point behind the norm. If I only got to replay the first game…
If only. Had I taken the draw that game, things may have been different. I might have had different attitudes going into my games. Maybe forgetting about the norm was better for my play: no insanity, no trying extremely hard to press for a win. Also, my opponents may have played differently against me and against each other. If only…
It would be nice to have Isaac update my bio to IM-elect, but let’s face it my FIDE rating is more than a touch away from 2400. Instead of that I learned something more important. I can do it. I can turn around a horrible tournament and make it into a great one. I can still play reasonable chess when things don’t go my way. And if I can do it once, I can do it again, though I hope I won’t have another opportunity any time soon.
I also learned that you cannot go into round robin thinking you HAVE to beat Player XYZ. You never know who will have a great tournament and whose form will be off. After all, both of my losses went to IM norm winners. In retrospect, a draw with either one of them would be a good result.
Also, preparation does not always mean success and is not necessary in large amounts. Over-preparing can make you feel tired, and it can make you feel stupid when your opponent plays something different than expected. Towards the end of the tournament, I decreased the amount of preparation I did. I didn’t entirely stop like Isaac did, but I did enough to get a general idea what I was going to do. It’s better to warm up your brain with some tactics than to prepare extensively for something your opponent may not even play.
Most importantly, a drawn position is a drawn position. By all means keep playing if you are NOT putting yourself into a significant danger. If the risks are too great, then agree to the draw even if it feels like a defeat. Trust me, losing the game will make you feel much worse.
The final crosstable, courtesy of Charlotte Chess Center
Big congrats to John Ludwig and Steve Wang for scoring 6.5/9 and getting an IM Norm and also to Gauri Shankar who got an IM Norm in the A Group. Also a big thank you to the Charlotte Chess Center for inviting me and running a well-organized tournament with excellent conditions.
Note to self: committing harakiri in round 1 of a tournament does not help improve my norm chances.