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

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.

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!

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!





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