CHESSanity: A Story

“Dad! I want to teach too!” cried my little brother, Wesley, then only ten years old.

My dad (who then was, ironically, trying to solve some chess tactics himself) huffed in annoyance at my brother’s irritating persistence.

“You’re too young to teach,” he sighed for the umpteenth time. “Your brother is already fourteen and almost in high school. Nobody wants to learn from a ten-year-old.”

Undeterred, my brother continued his tantrum. After half an hour of incessant wailing, my parents finally gave in and found a willing six-year-old student who lived only five minutes away from our home. In an unexpected turn of events, my brother’s fervent passion for teaching actually transcended his supposedly young age.

It was around this time that parents in my community began latching onto the notion that chess could really benefit their child’s development. As relatively cheap but effective options, my brother and I were the perfect fit for beginners. His students, as well as mine, began growing in number.

Soon enough, the inquiries about my brother’s and my availability to teach overwhelmed my parents’ WeChat inboxes. As full-time students with extracurricular activities outside of chess, my brother and I did not have the time to give chess lessons to 10 students a week. So, in order to accommodate the heavy influx of requests we were receiving, my brother and I began giving group lessons every Friday night starting from early 2014.

Our inaugural group of 6 to 8-year-olds was probably the most talented group I have ever worked with. Some alumni include Liran Zhou (currently the #1 ranked 9-year-old in the nation and 2016 K-3 National Champion), Ellen Wang (currently the #1 ranked 9-year-old girl in the nation), Lisa Jin, Edison Huang, and Jeffrey Zhai. All of these brilliant young kids are currently ranked in the top 100 in their age group in the nation—and to think they arrived at our weekly Friday night lessons without a clue on how to play chess.

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Greater NY Scholastics (2/5/17); Back, left to right: Wesley and Warren Wang; Front, left to right: Lisa Jin, Ellen Wang, Jeffrey Zhai, Edison Huang, Liran Zhou

With such success so early on, what was there to lose?

And so our teaching career took off, and CHESSanity’s foundation was born.


By the fall of 2015, I had been teaching chess in the aforementioned manner for over a year and a half. It’s incredibly hard to ascertain what exactly sparked the idea of our next initiative, but the thousands of dollars in tuition we had thus far collected from students wasn’t just about to go to a new iPhone or a new video game console.

Still, there is one memory in particular that stands out when I reflect back on various inspirations for our current main project: CHESSanity’s Adopt-A-School-Initiative.

When I was in tenth grade, my school’s varsity badminton team traveled to Hempstead High School for an away game. Entering the school, I was shocked to see metal detectors embodying the entrance and armed guards patrolling the hallways. Having been fortunate enough to be sheltered from such conditions, I had only seen such sights on TV or on the news. Yet, Hempstead High School was only a 20-minute drive away from my home…

At the end of the day, although my team won, my biggest takeaway was not the victory, but the memory of a then unimaginable sight.

After some research, I discovered that Hempstead wasn’t alone—this aforementioned visual typifies many school landscapes. Over time, I came to realize that these excessive safety precautions were actually representative of an inherent sense of trouble and unrest in the surrounding environment. In these schools, crime filled a void in students’ lives early on—a void that exemplified a lack of resources. It was crime that became their escape from reality.

By this time, I had achieved the USCF Candidate Master title as well as a multitude of experience as a chess teacher; I knew what beneficial impact chess could have on an individual. In winter of 2015, while running my weekly Friday night lessons, I had an epiphany. For my pupils, I was able to transform chess from a board game into an inherent part of their lives. Why not introduce chess to these underprivileged students? Why not chess to fill their void?

Using our newfound Adopt-A-School initiative as a springboard, I began my journey to mitigate the problems schools like Hempstead faced. Soon, the “sent” tab of my Gmail became littered with unanswered messages. Undeterred, I continued to persevere—I felt obligated to ameliorate these students’ plight.

A breakthrough came in the spring of 2016. Through a series of email exchanges, a meeting with the superintendent, and a generous donation of 55 chess sets, CHESSanity was accepted into the Wyandanch School District and invited to a Board of Education meeting.

Other schools began to follow in quick succession. My brother and I completed a 3-hour intensive training session for Roosevelt school district’s elementary and middle school students in March. Additionally, during the past spring, we conducted lessons every other Thursday for 1st-3rd graders in the Hempstead school district.

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Jackson Main School (Hempstead, NY) – 3/23/17
CHESSanity3
Lesson Time! (Jackson Main School)

Overall, the positive feedback we are seeing is enormous—after a few sessions at Hempstead’s Jackson Main elementary school, I found that the impact I strived for had been realized. These young children were beginning to spend their free time studying from their very own “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” book. We had finally filled their void.


Though, over the years, I’ve come to realize that I’m not only teaching to fulfill some parents’ unrealistic expectations for their children, nor am I teaching in order to supposedly improve critical thinking abilities in these same children (of course, that’s just an added bonus).

What I’m really hoping for is that these students will take an intense liking for chess—it can be a passion that they will take with them for a lifetime. 

After all, aren’t we all just playing chess because we love it?

A Surprisingly Good Game

My chess games aren’t usually very good.  I tend to win mainly by staying semi-relevant in slightly to clearly worse positions.  Well, I guess maybe I’m exaggerating…… a little bit.  But I can say for sure that I don’t specialize in one-sided victories in which I’m in control the whole game.  However, today I am happy to present my best game ever- a straightforward and crushing win.  In this “miniature”, I toasted an International Master with sharp and accurate moves.

I am playing white here, and my opponent is Zlatko Martic, rated 2321 at the time.

The game began:

1.e4 e6  2.Nf3 d5  3.Nc3 d4  4.Ne2 c5  5.c3 Nc6  6.cxd4 cxd4 7.Qa4 Bc5

Black’s play has already been questionable (in particular his 3rd move), and white can’t be worse here.  Black’s d4 pawn is overextended and vulnerable.  How can I take advantage of this?

DIAGRAM 1.  How do I chip away at black’s central control?

1.PNG

8. b4!

I will pry black’s bishop from it’s defense of d4, whilst gaining an important developmental tempo.  My c1 bishop is ready to burst free.

8.  …               Bb6?

That can’t be a good move.  Black probably should have taken the pawn with 8. …Bxb4, after which play could have proceeded: 9.Nexd4 Ne7, and black should be able to maintain material equality, albeit with a slightly awkward position. 

9. b5               Na5

DIAGRAM 2. Should I “cash out” and take the d4 pawn?

2.PNG

10. Ba3!  

Indeed.  That d4 pawn is not going anywhere, and there’s no reason to snag it.  It is best to add another piece to the attack, and this Bishop on a3 will be quite an asset, slicing through black’s position and making castling difficult.  If 10. … Ne7, I was intending 11.Qb4, after which black is quite uncomfortable.

10.  …               d3?  

Encouraging me to go where I wanted to go anyway.

11. Nf4             Bd7

DIAGRAM 3.  Should I “bail out” and capture the d3 pawn?  OR should I make a move that threatens checkmate on the next move and will shatter black’s kingside?

3.PNG

12. Nh5!      

Boom!  This Threatens Nxg7 (checkmate!) on the next move, and fascinatingly enough, black has no legitimate way to protect this pawn.  If you guessed 12.Qb4, that’s also a reasonable idea since this also threatens a checkmate- with Qf8 on the next move.  However, I thought this could be answered with 12. … Qe7, after which white’s attack seems to dry out (13.Qc3 Qf6), and he may indeed have to  settle for a pawn-up endgame.

12.  …               f6                                 

A sad defense.

DIAGRAM 4.  Should I “sell out” and take either the d3 or g7 pawn??

4.PNG

13. e5!

There will be no pawn-related cashing, bailing, or selling-out in this game.  I am not interested in black’s lousy pawns and that’s final!   The text move prepares to chip away at black’s kingside, while also giving my queen the freedom to swing over to the kingside and wreak havoc.

13.  …               g6

14. Qb4

Threatening checkmate in one move- for the second time in this brief game (I’m threatening Qf8++)!

14.  …               Kf7

Uh-oh, black saw my threat.  Is this the end of the attack?  Have I been led astray by my seeming addiction to eschewing the capture of free pawns and threatening Checkmate-in-One’s?

DIAGRAM 5. It’s time to finally bust open black’s position.

5.PNG

15. exf6!

Finally I’m taking a pawn- although it looks like I’m giving up a knight as a result.  But the reason is that if 15. … gxh5, I’ll continue with 16. Ne5+ Kxf6, 17.Qf4+ Kg7…… And now, the crucial point is that I have 18.Bf8+, after which black has to play 18. … Qxf8, and then 19.Qg5++ is checkmate.

16. …               Nxf6

17. Ne5+         Kg8

DIAGRAM 6.  Can you find the move I played which caused black to resign immediately?

6.PNG

18. Qf4!

Black resigned because NxN would allow Qf7++, while gxN would allow Qg5++.  And there’s no way for black to adequately protect his f6 knight.

How was I able to play such a game?  I think I did a few things right in this game:

  • Patience:  I was able to continually look for better options instead of settling for good ones.  “If you find a good move, look for a better one”.  Usually these “patient” moves involved improving my pieces or getting another piece into the game.
  • Timing: I sensed when the position called for more- for example I was able to play 13. e5 and 15. exf6 because I sensed that I was in a position to do something very strong on those moves.
  • Precise Calculation When Necessary: On move 13, I pretty much had to see until the end of the game (that’s the only way I could resist taking such a juicy g-pawn).  This involved seeing the moves Qb4 (not obvious), and exf6 (sacrificing a knight), and potential lines which required a Bf8+ sacrifice in order to work.  Precise calculation will often be necessary to reap rewards in a good position.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Curse of the Top Seed

If you were going into a tournament as the top seed, what would your thought process be?  Would you expect to win the section?  Or at least have a decent chance of doing so?  Ostensibly.  Furthermore, let’s assume that as the top seed, you play lower rated opponents outside of your own class (Expert, A, B, etc.).  Would this make it significantly easier?  Again, an ostensible conclusion.

Let’s start with a scenario.  This top seed is playing in a U2200 section in a 7-round tournament.  Furthermore, it is known that the player will play against one 1900, three 2000s, and three 2100s, in that order.

To show how likely (or unlikely, for that matter) it is to win a tournament like this as the highest seed, several active players’ performances against lower- and equal-rated players were compiled from uschess.org with the ‘Game Statistics’ tool.  The weighted averages of the group’s probability of beating 1900s, 2000s, and 2100s were used.  These averages were then slightly increased/decreased to give us the potential performance of an “ideal” player that would theoretically be stronger than the average of the given players.

 

DataTable1
The table shows the probability of the result, as described on the left, against each opponent in a 7 round tournament

 

Shown above is a table with the rounded values for the probabilities of winning, drawing, and losing to each rating class that the opponent for that round would fall into.  We see how as the rating of the opponent decreases, the probabilities of winning increase – that’s expected.  On the flip side, the chance of losing a game decreases as the opponent’s rating decreases – also expected.  However, it is interesting to note how the chance of drawing games do not follow such a clear cut pattern; the chance of drawing to a 1900 and a 2000 player is virtually identical, but the probability spikes as the opponent’s rating approaches the rating of our ideal top seed.  In fact, it surpasses the probability of winning such a game.

Since we are looking at the chances of winning a tournament, the only possible scores we will look at include 7/7, 6.5/7, and 6/7.  After getting to 5.5/7, the different paths (loss + draw, three draws) to get to 5.5 points become so large that attempting to calculate the chance of reaching said points is flat out impractical.  Furthermore, the chance of winning a tournament with 5.5 points out of 7 is much less in its own right since many more players are capable of reaching that score.

The number of ways of reaching each distinct score was laid out, and the respective probability of each result was used to calculate the probability of each distinct path of reaching a certain number of points.

 

DataTable2
The only path to obtaining a result of 7-0
DataTable10
The 7 different possible paths of obtaining a result of 6.5-0.5
DataTable6
The 28 different possible paths of obtaining a result of 6-1

 

The combination computations led to 1 possibility for obtaining 7-0 (all wins), 7 possibilities of obtaining 6.5/7, (a draw in any of the 7 rounds), and 28 possibilities of obtaining 6/7 (7 possibilities of losing a game in one of the rounds plus 21 possibilities of two draws in two distinct rounds).  The probability of obtaining 7/7 was the only result of its class, so it was turned into a percent to find the actual percent chance of running the table in such a tournament.  The seven possibilities of obtaining 6.5/7 and their respective probabilities were summed to find the overall probability of obtaining such a score.  Lastly, the 21 different possibilities of obtaining 6/7 and their respective probabilities were summed to find the overall probability of obtaining such a score.  The resulting probabilities and their derivations are displayed in the following tables.

 

DataTable3
The probability of obtaining each result described in the left column
DataTable7
The calculations to find the overall probability of obtaining a result of 7-0; white cells signify a win.
DataTable8
The calculations to find the overall probability of obtaining a result of 7-0; white cells signify a win and yellow cells signify a draw.
DataTable9
The calculations to find the overall probability of obtaining a result of 6-1; white cells signify a win, yellow cells signify a draw, and red cells signify a loss.

 

As we can see, despite being the top seed in the tournament, our ideal player only has about a 0.53% chance to score 7/7.  Scoring 6.5/7 should be much easier, right?  Well, it is 5 times more likely, at about 2.66%, but it is still not overly convincing since that is still only a 1/40 chance.  We see this probability increase almost threefold when the score comes to 6/7, up to 7.28%.  Even still, this is relatively low!  Here we see that our ideal player would theoretically only go 6/7 in approximately one out of every 13.8 tournaments.  So, if the probabilities of a player are so low in regards to obtaining a high score in a tournament, why do we still see a fair amount of high scorers in 7-round tournaments (or the like)?

The answer to this question is similar to that of the birthday paradox.  If you haven’t heard of this, I encourage you to search it up, as it has some fascinating concepts.  The question simply runs, “If there are 23 people in a room, what is the chance of any two people sharing a birthday?”  As absurd as it seems, the answer is 50%.  That is because we haven’t established a specific reference; for example, if we said, “What is the chance that someone in the room has a birthday on January 1st,” then the probability would be exponentially smaller.  However, since no reference was ever given, the number is much less.  We have a similar situation in this case.  If you pick out any single player and calculate their probability of winning the tournament with any of these points, the probability would be as low as we calculated above.  But, if you have, say, 10 of these very strong players in a section, then the probability of one of these players obtaining a score of 6, 6.5, or 7 is increased tenfold from our original probabilities for the single player.  There are also other factors that could potentially increase or decrease a player’s chance at obtaining a high score in a tournament.  If a section is extremely competitive with not many players “playing up,” such as in the World Open, the probabilities decrease.  On the flip side, if there are many lower-rated players in a section, whether they are there because of the choice of playing up or if they have to, such as in grade-based scholastic national tournaments, then the probabilities increase.

Now that you have an idea of how hard it is to actually win a tournament, the next time a parent or friend asks why you didn’t win a tournament even if you were the top seed, you have statistics to defend yourself!  And, as always, thanks for reading!

Chess Openings: Staying with THE Times and MY Timeline

One of the most frequent challenges of a chess player is making adjustments in playing style. With the rapidly increasing role of technology in chess, any player who does not embrace this challenge is at a disadvantage. I have never been close to an opening theoretician. My chess strength has been my tactical vision. In personal training, openings were not as high of a priority as tactics, positional strategy, or endgames.

In my earlier years, I would try to keep my openings as simple as possible. My most flagrant example of this is the use of the London system against the King’s Indian and the Grunfeld. This led to several drawn out, non-confrontational games where both players had to be very patient. While the vast majority of the games were relatively stale, I benefitted from avoiding the main lines of the King’s Indian and the Grunfeld, both of which have several branches and are studied extremely carefully by players who play these systems.

I decided it was time for me to change my openings to truly fit my style and bring out the best of myself. I began to look at e4 e5 openings for both sides. This was my first time attempting to use openings to my advantage instead of trying to limit the disadvantage of my lack of theory. Not only was I abandoning 1. d4, but I was also ridding myself of the French defense that I had played for about seven years. I immediately appreciated the combative nature of the positions and realized that e4 e5 lines suited my style very well, combining positional fundamentals with various tactical possibilities.

The precision of chess enabled by the numerous engines including Houdini, Komodo, and Stockfish have contributed to a high proportion of draws. Thus, creating winning opportunities requires a more thorough approach to theory with premeditated manipulations of the subtle details in any type of position. The deliberate style from my old openings is not suitable for the modern era of chess, especially if I want to exploit my opportunities with the white pieces to seize the initiative in the opening.

Coming Home

If you’re following me on any social media or have interacted with me in any way in the last year or so (and actually based on the topics I have been covering recently), you probably know that due to college and some personal things, chess has been sitting in the backseat for about the last year of my life. I’m happy to say that I will be jumping – maybe stupidly diving is a better term – back into my chess career during the upcoming World Open.

So I’m an extremely superstitious player. And for some reason my past performances at World Open have been half the tournaments great and the other half is trash. But that was back when I still competed relatively consistently. Right now, all I really want is to not blunder away any games through piece drops.

My friend and fellow writer Vanessa Sun recently asked me why I haven’t been focusing more on chess, was it because of different priorities? Or just being busy overall? I would say that it was a combination of believing that I should be prioritizing school and the lack of a real chess community around where my college is. The closest chess hub to my school is probably in Philadelphia – still about a forty minute train ride away. There is also the small issue of how there is no chess club at my school yet (something I plan on changing this coming year since I have grasped how to take care of myself better in college now). Without a chess club or community around you, there is no one to play with, no one to have weird debates with about tactics.

Sure, there are always those amazingly supportive friends that want to challenge you or ask you to teach them, but it is still different with having fellow tournament players nearby. While our team wasn’t amazing, just having a chess team in high school really helped to spur my continued passion and participation in the game as my schedule grew busier and busier. As I catch up with those friends, I hope to also be re-discovering my love and drive to improve myself, step by step, as I try, as well as I can by myself, to relearn how to study and figure out what I personally need to finally get myself to master.

Endgame Swindles

In my past two tournaments, I confess that I got lucky in a couple games. Big time…

In the past, I’d gotten ridiculously fortunate in some games. This endgame is probably my most insane swindle ever:

Abdi, Farzad (2254) – Brodsky, David (2305) Eastern Class Championship 2015

Abdi

White to play

As black, I had the infamous f-pawn. The problem, however, was that it was still on f3. If it were on f2, it would be a draw.

In the textbooks, against the pawn on f3, white wins by giving checks, eventually forcing the black king in front of the pawn, bringing his own king closer to the pawn, and so on until white can win the pawn or give mate.

However, white has only one winning move here, 68.Qa6+!. There white performs the process described above. Had he played it, I would have resigned in a few moves. Instead, my opponent gave another seemingly fine check, 68.Qa1+??.

Where’s the catch? Try to find it.

I went 68… Kg2 69.Qg7+ Kf1!. Incredibly, white has no other checks besides Qa1+ and Qg7+. He cannot force the black king to f2! It is a draw!

Does this qualify as a swindle? I admit I went for this endgame a) because I had nothing better and b) as an excuse not to resign immediately. I guess it was sort of a swindle, as I doubt my opponent thought there was only one winning move. Especially considering that he had a queen, everything should be winning, right?

That game was played over 2 years ago (time flies!), and since then, none of my swindles has come anywhere near that one. It’s really, really, really rare that something like this happens. But if you keep trying, fortune will smile at you eventually.

Luck aside, it’s your job to try and trick your opponent in positions where you are pressing but don’t have enough to objectively win. You can’t count on them making mistakes out of the blue, but you can give them an opportunity or two to make those mistakes. As they say, in chess, you make your own luck.

In endgames, chances are both you and your opponent are getting low on time and tired, mistakes will start creeping into your play, and your calculation start getting faulty… In my humble opinion, the endgame is as good a phase of the game as any to swindle your opponent.

Still, how to do it? I have three pieces of advice:

  • come up with innovative ideas (that have a chance of working)
  • lay (realistic) traps
  • keep trying

Did I mention keep trying? By that, I don’t mean play king + rook vs. king + rook for 50 moves hoping your opponent generously blunders his rook or gets mated. No! I mean keep trying realistic winning attempts. If you throw enough of them at your opponent’s head, he may eventually crack.

The question is how to best combine the three. The traps shouldn’t be that obvious. There is a reason why they are called traps. Still, there are only so many non-obvious traps in the position… In the following two games, those were the kinds of questions I had to answer.

Let’s first start with my round 2 game from the Cherry Blossom Classic:

Brodsky, David (2485) – Fellman, Mike (2201)

Fellman1

White to play

Earlier in the game, I had expected to get more out of my position, but somehow it didn’t materialize. The position’s big trump is my b-pawn, which is fairly advanced. I can go 64.Rh8, harassing the black bishop. However, black will most likely go 64… Rg3+ 65. Kh2 Bxb6 66.Bxb6 Rxf3 67.Rxh4

Fellman2

Black to play

This is of course a draw, but holding rook + bishop vs. rook is not an easy task, as practice has shown. However, black has an extra pawn, and it is strong and centralized. Will I be able to even win that e-pawn? Unlikely. That did not seem promising.

How to proceed? Go for that endgame and hope it’ll work out? Honestly, I felt that I should try something else to see if it worked before trying that option.

I went 64.Kh2 Rb7 65.Kh1!?. My idea was to get out of Rg3+ if my opponent went back with 65… Rg7 which is what happened. It was not necessary for him to go back, and probably another rook move like 65… Rf7 would have made his life easier. I now went 66.Rh8!.

Fellman3

Black to play

Now black has to decide how to react. 66… Bf6 might lead to trouble after 67.Rc8 followed by Rc7. Probably the best thing to do is to bail out with 66… Bxb6! 67.Bxb6 Rf7 68.Kg2 e4 69.fxe4 (69.Rh5+ Kc6! attacking the bishop is a key resource. It’s understandable to miss it in the heat of the battle.) 69… Kxe4 70.Rxh4+ after which we get rook + bishop vs. rook, without any pawn for black. Compared with the position I could have gotten had I played 64.Rh8, this is an improvement! Winning rook and bishop vs. rook would be another story, but at least white realistically has serious winning chances there.

Instead, my opponent made the losing mistake with 66… Rd7?. After 67.b7!, black has to give up his bishop for the pawn, and he can’t get the white f-pawn off the board. I won the game a few moves later.

Just like that, in three moves, I turned a seemingly nothing position into a winning one! What’s the moral of the story? My best interpretation is that ideas like Kh3-h2-h1, which at first glance look ridiculous, can actually be good.

Last weekend, I had another endgame where I swindled my opponent in a similarly drawn endgame. But first a warning: this endgame was a lot more complicated than the previous one. The game itself was unusual and interesting, and I’ve decided to analyze this one starting right after the time control, where I had to make decisions how best to make my opponent’s life miserable.

Brodsky, David (2477) – Subervi, Jonathan (2249) Northeast Open 2017

Subervi1

Black to play

I had been better for most of the game, but a careless move had blown it all away. White is temporarily a pawn up, but black will win it back after he takes the c6-pawn. With my last move, 40.Nd2-f3, I reached the time control, attacked his bishop, and realized I had absolutely nothing if my opponent played 40… Bxc3 41.Nxg5 e5!. It will be equal material once black takes the pawn, and I’ve got to be careful about black’s passed b-pawn.

Instead, my opponent, who was in time trouble, played 40… Bf4?. Now, I had some time to decide what to do next. If you want, take a think and see what you can come up with for white.

The critical move was 41.Nd4, as it leads to a pawn endgame after the moves 41… e5 42.Ne6+ Kxc6 43.Nxf4 gxf4. Then, it turns into a race after 44.Kf3 (or Kh3) Kc5 45.Kg4 Kc4 46.Kf5 Kxc3 47.Kxe5 b5 48.Kxf4 b4 49.e5 b3 50.e6 b2 51.e7 b1Q 52.e8Q

Subervi2

Black to play

I saw this position in my calculations, and I thought I should have good winning chances, as black can’t check me with 52… Qc1+? because of 53.Qe3+, forcing a queen trade into a winning pawn endgame. Tablebases confirm my suspicions by telling me that this position is mate in 67 (!). Of course, I had no way of knowing that, but during the game, this looked like a decent winning attempt to me.

Then, it was time to see if black has any alternatives in that variation, and that’s how I found the move which troubled me. On move 48, instead of paying 48… b4, black should go 48… Kd4! 49.e5 Kd5 50.Kf5 b4 51.e6 b3 52.e7 b2 53.e8Q b1Q+.

Subervi3

White to play

Ironically, black queens last in this version, but he does so with check. His king is a lot better positioned in this version, meaning that it a) won’t get in the way of black’s checks and b) could help stop the f-pawn in some variations, even making some pawn endgames a possibility. I was not confident that I would win this position, and tablebases do confirm that this position is a draw.

Time to backtrack. Is it a good idea to go down that forcing path with 41.Nd4? I don’t have any real way to get out of those lines. If my opponent finds the move 48… Kd4!, will I have anything?

Therefore, I decided to go for another option, 41.Kh3, where I didn’t see a totally forced draw for black. The game went 41… Kxc6 42.Kg4 Kd6 43.Nxg5 Bd2

White is a pawn up, but black will win the c-pawn in exchange for the e6-pawn. That appears to be promising, but the black b-pawn runs fast and cannot be easily stopped by the white knight. Still, it’s the best I have.

I decided to go for fancy tricks with 44.e5+!?. 44.c4 would have led to something similar. The game went 44… Kd5 45.c4+ Kxc4 46.Nxe6. This leads to the kind of position described above. The turned into a pawn race after 46… b5 47.Nc7 b4 48.e6 b3 49.e7 b2 50.e8Q (50.Nb5!? is one of those study-like moves that could work in some positions and you should be on the lookout for, but I didn’t think it would be effective after 50… Bb4) b1Q

Subervi4

White to play

From afar, I had thought that because I queen first, I should be able to get something against the black king. Plus, the queen and knight are a tricky combo and are good at creating mating threats. However, that isn’t the case. The deeper I looked, the more I realized that I have no forced win or anything.

How to proceed? Well first of all, if I wanted to win this one, I’d need to hide my king from perpetual checks. The black checks can come from everywhere, but the ones on the b1-h7 diagonal are preventable. The tricky ones, however, are the ones that come on the first rank (Qg1+ and maybe Qd1+). Therefore, I decided to drive the black king to the first rank so that my king could hide. The game went 51.Qc6+ Kb3 52.Qb5+ Kc2 53.Qc4+ Kd1 54.Kf3 Qf5+ 55.Kg2 Qg5+ 56.Kf1 Qf5 57.Nd5

Subervi5

Black to play

My king is hidden from the checks, and my knight is coming closer towards the black king. The position is still objectively drawn, but there’s nothing forced.

Now, for laying traps. What are some of black’s most compelling moves? There is no obvious follow-up if 57… Qh3+ 58.Kg1. What else? How about 57… Qf3 threatening Qh1#? If 58.Kg1, black has 58… Qe2! and white’s coordination is getting disrupted.

My opponent, not seeing the trap, played that. Can you find the nasty surprise I had in store for my opponent?

I went 58.Ne3+! Bxe3 59.Qd3+. Black can’t move his bishop because it’s pinned, and after 59… Kc1 60.Qxe3+ I force a queen trade after which black can’t catch the white pawn. My opponent had to resign.

I do admit that last endgame was one heck of a ride! Still, it goes to show that chess is a hard game and that tricks and traps do work sometimes. However, laying those traps is the hardest part, but if you try, you may get lucky. Good luck with your future swindles!

Tough Tests, Tough Results

Last time I wrote here on Chess^Summit, I shamelessly compared chess to making pizza, and posed the 50 million dollar question: “Am I getting better?” After two consecutive games with Black against higher rated players, I have some answers – and more questions. Let’s get started!

Square One

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Lost in thought Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

Earlier this month, I started training a player trying to make expert, and since I myself am only a few years removed from being at that level, much of the program I’ve designed for him consists of positions I’ve studied relatively recently. Rereading over all this old material has been entertaining, but it’s forced me to look at my own games more critically – am I following these positional fundamentals in my own games? Do I really ask myself the right questions when I calculate? If I had any indicator, my third round game at the Richard Abrams Memorial against my friend and 2300+ rated player Eigen Wang was probably not a good sign. Consider the following position:

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Wang – Steincamp, position after 14. Bg5

My pieces aren’t exactly on the best squares, but my pawn structure gives me some chances for queenside counterplay, so objectively White should be no more than slightly better. Once this innocent-looking 14. Bg5 found its way on the board, I immediately started calculating the break 14…b4!?, after all, if I was going to make progress, it had to be on the queenside, right?

The problem with this approach was that it failed to ask the most simple question in chess, what is my opponent’s plan? While yes, my candidate move 14…b4!? is in the right spirit of the position, skipping to this step now proved to be how I reached a strategically lost position in just three moves! White has been itching to play the central thrust d3-d4 for the entire opening, and while he had chances earlier, improving his pieces first is never a wrong idea. Naturally I was aware of this idea, but I failed to look further for one more important detail:

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If it were White’s turn right now, he would play 15. d4 which comes with tempo since the opening of the d-file would result in a simple tactic, removing the defender on f6 with the threat of taking the hanging bishop on d7. What should have registered in my calculation here was that if I do nothing about this, White’s next move comes with tempo! This is an extremely important detail when I start looking for candidate moves – in fact, there should really only be two: 14…h6 and 14…b4!?. So taking the mental shortcut made me reach a similar conclusion, but this next part explains why this lazy man approach to thinking is no good:

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Wang – Steincamp, variation after 15…b4!?

As I started looking at 14…b4!?, it didn’t take long to realize that after 15. Nb1 the knight is headed to c4 via d2, targeting d6. As it turns out, this idea for White is actually not that strong, but from so far out, it’s not entirely obvious. Now if I had asked the right questions, I would compare the move to 14…h6 and play the move that I thought was the best of the two. But this temporary blindness I had imposed upon myself meant thinking I had time to prepare my own play, so I immediately faltered with 14…a4? and already after 15. d4 my position was extremely unpleasant. I would resign only nine moves later – usually its the one move in which we pay the least attention that proves to be the critical position.

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This past week was the Three River Arts Festival in Pittsburgh

After having spent an entire week preparing and getting motivated for this game, it was pretty disappointing to make such a simple mistake. Admittedly, as I would discover in my next game, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform well, and that hindered my ability to play relaxed, creative chess. I think since playing against higher rated players in Pittsburgh is fairly rare, it was really easy to raise my personal expectations. It’s a good thing that I’m taking these games seriously, but as I chase the National Master Title, I need to treat these games like I did against similarly rated opponents in Europe.

As I continue training my student, I’ll need to keep this in mind and see this an opportunity to work on my own play too!

Building Blocks: A Draw is a Draw

While I was in Europe, I identified a lot of new strengths in my game, namely, my ability to make more practical decisions. But I had some appalling over-the-board moments as well. Perhaps the most memorable was my round five draw in Reykjavik where at times it seemed like I was trying to lose a drawn rook and pawn ending. For those of you who missed it, I attached my video analysis of that endgame with IM Kostya Kavutskiy below.

Now it’d be easy to brush aside this performance as a one-off bad day, but the nice thing about theoretically drawn rook endings is that the theory never changes. Having learned my lesson here, how well could I remember this particular endgame? Turns out my fourth round game would be a pop quiz – and I’d be in serious time trouble!

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The most dramatic game I’ve played so far this year! Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

In my fourth round game, I was paired with Black again, this time against National Master Kevin Carl. Though the game started as a drawish Queen’s Gambit Declined, my opponent ambitiously decided to grab the center, setting the narrative for the rest of the game. Being on the worse side of equal, I needed to play dynamically to change the nature of the game. Can you find the equalizing shot I found?

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Carl – Steincamp, position after 18. Qe3

Even though I’m holding the center, White’s plan is simply to build pressure on the center, waiting for me to crack. The key resource he missed for me was 18… dxe4 because once White decided on 19. fxe4?!, my idea 19…Nd5! was in the cards, and the forced trade of knights on c3 meant that my position was no longer cramped. Of course, White should have recaptured on e4 with one of the knights, but resolving to an IQP position here doesn’t promise much since I will have an established outpost on d5.

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Carl – Steincamp, position after 19…Nd5!=

Now that doesn’t mean that the rest of the game was simple. I still had to play against White’s massive pawn center, and my opponent had to be on the constant lookout for counterplay. The game was tense, and as it wore on, our clocks started to dictate the pace of the game. We reached this critical position in White missed a beautiful shot, but with only so much time on our clocks, how could he find such a move? I’d recommend taking some time trying to find this one. I actually found it over the board, but my evaluation of the final position turned out to be wrong – I was not holding!

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Carl – Steincamp, position after 33…Kg6

I attached the answer a little later in the analysis, along with the solution to the next critical position. In the game, White played 34. Nxd5, and simplifications followed. White had pressure, and as it turned out, my pop quiz was now – how well did I know my theoretically drawn rook endings? Black to move and draw:

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Carl – Steincamp, position after 41. Rb3?!

Remember that horrendous ending I played in Iceland? Turns out that one game just over 2800 miles away last April made a difference between a comfortable draw here and a painful loss. How well did you do across these three critical moments? 

After a tough four-hour dogfight, I was more than pleased with my result. White had his chances, but a draw was well-deserved by both sides.

Where to next?

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There’s never a bad time for tacos! Summer time is a great time to get to the kitchen!

As I’m learning from these weekly games, I’m also trying to get ready for the Columbus Open at the end of the month. In what will likely be one of my bigger events for the summer, I’m hoping to make progress towards the National Master title, while attempting to keep my recently boosted FIDE rating at the level it is now.

To get there, I’m going to continue the study regimen that I set up for myself in my last article. But first, I’ve got two tough games left in the Richard Abrams here in Pittsburgh. Sometimes its best to ease into these things one game at a time… Until next time!