It took nearly two months, but this past weekend I finally saw the benefits my European excursion had on my play. A performance rating over 2350 at the Columbus Open and my first win against a 2400+ rated player were certainly unprecedented, and proved to be my next big jump towards National Master. Where did this performance come from? Here is a story about how I needed to trick myself to start playing good chess again.
Welcome to the Dark Side
A week before my trip to Ohio, I played in a local rapid tournament to prepare for the grueling two day schedule. I’ve never been a particularly strong rapid player, but I was fairly dissapointed by my 2/4 score, as my games were marred with mistakes and uninspired play.
I was ready to brush it off as a bad day at the office, but the last round of my Tuesday night tournament also screamed the same word: Slump! After getting a great position out of the opening, I somehow found myself getting outplayed by a lower rated player and miraculously got a draw.
So the script going into the Columbus Open was already written. Those glory days I had in Europe were long over – my undefeated triumph in Budapest and opening creativity in Reykjavik were just memories now. Clearly I had bad form – it was Tuesday night, and I had until Saturday morning to stop atrophying.
But across three days, what can you do? Not much really – of course I did about an hour of tactics each day, but I just tried to relax and focus on my cooking. With each passing day, I just braced myself for a rough weekend, as the competition in Columbus seemed to be toughest I had faced since last summer’s World Open (and I didn’t need any reminders as to how I did there). That National Master title seemed really far away, so I just wanted to play good chess. This would just have to be another one of those dreaded “learning experiences”.
Making the Most of Things
It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote about how changing a pregame routine for the sake of one game can help a lot, but what about for a whole tournament?
For the sake of convenience, I decided to limit my packing to a backpack, which meant some wholesale changes to my tournament approach. Typically, I like to dress fashionably for my games – button down shirts, sweaters, and so forth. If the pros do it, why can’t I? Not this time – I didn’t want to draw attention to my games, so t-shirts it was! Instead of the wooden set I have brought to tournaments for most of the last decade, I brought a cheap plastic set. I packed to just play chess and have a fun weekend away from Pittsburgh. Road trip!
What I didn’t realize was that I had already tricked myself. Backpacking? I just did that for three months in Europe. Just play chess? That was my exact mantra going into the Dolomiten Bank Open last February. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Columbus was the next stop on my European trip.
By believing National Master was out of reach, I tricked myself into throwing all stress out the window.
Taking Down the Death Star
As Grant and I walked into the Union at Ohio State University, our phones buzzed with our first round pairings, and I had quite the test. Paired with Black against a 2400+ rated FM, I’d have to take on one of the top 50 blitz players in the country in a G/60 game – a simillar time control to the previous week’s rapid event. My record against 2400+ opposition hasn’t been great, so my expectations were minimal going into this early morning round.
In a pairing that had all the makings of a blowout win, the result proved to be exactly that – though after only needing 8 minutes on my clock, it was my opponent who extended his hand to tender his resignation. My first 2400 scalp, and a masterclass against the London System at that!
I was fairly relaxed for my next two games against 2300+ opposition. I finished the day at 1.5/3, which was impressive considering the level of competition. Admittedly I could have had an even better score, but I was just having fun, remember?
I opened Sunday morning with an easy draw against a National Master, giving me White in my last game against an expert. A win would mean finishing on a plus score with a great overall tournament performance, and a loss would flip the narrative.
Playing 1 e4 was not my Intention!
As I needed it in Reykjavik, I needed to count on my opening creativity and willingness to explore to get the point. After 1. c4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. cxd5 cxd5 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. e4 e6 6. d5 we reached a French by transposition:
Now if I were a 1 e4 player, and my opponent a French (or Sicilian) player, this would have just been a normal position reached by 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 cxd4 5. cxd4 Nc6 6. Nc3 or 1. e4 c5 2. c3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. cxd4 d5 5. e5 Nc6 6. Nc3. But I’ve only played two King’s pawn openings in recent memory, and as I had researched prior to the game, my opponent played the Alekhine’s against 1. e4, so we were both out of book.
Luckily for me, I wrote an extensive article about the French last year here on Chess^Summit, and so conceptually I was able to identify plan’s for White. As I discussed in the aforementioned article, the French is inherently strategically risky for Black because it lets White grab space in the center and locks in the c8 bishop. In return, Black gets dynamic possibilities to break the center with various pawn breaks, but should Black fail to prove a homeostasis in the position, White will have a simple static advantage and no risk position.
One thing I really liked about this transposition was that Black has already “released the tension” on d4 since we reached this position through the Exchange Slav. This early trade is not to most French players’ liking, as sometimes its helpful to insert …Qd8-b6 before trading on d4. After 6…Nge7 7. Nf3, my opponent erred with 7…Ng6?, giving me a lasting edge with 8. h4!
I actually think Black is already strategically lost because he loses the ability to play …f7-f6 by force, so he has no ability to counter the center. Even though 7…Ng6? was an obvious error, this just goes to show how thin the line can be between equality and a lost position in the French for Black. Black’s play must be action-oriented. I got a dominating position in just a few moves, and even though I blundered later in the game, my position was still strong enough to get the win.
The Force Awakens
Ideally I won’t need regularly deflating performances to help me play better chess, but what this tournament showed me was that when I throw stress out the window I’m a much stronger player! Going forward I’ll be treating these tournaments more as weekend getaways than chances to make National Master. So it may be a while before I wear a button down shirt to a game again…
My rating jumped from 2134 to 2159, so I can start to smell the title, but it’s still a few good performances out. Since I have a while before my next weekend tournament, I’m going to focus a lot on tactics and calculation as I try to close the gap to 2200. I definetly feel a lot more confident in my play than I did a week ago, so I’m hoping to keep it up!