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!

 

 

 

 

Ten Tournaments to Follow/Play This Summer- A Pretty Obvious Selection by Vanessa

In order of occurrence, not personal preference.

1. Norway Chess: June 6-17

Obviously, you can’t play this tournament this summer. You can have a lot of fun watching it, though!

Altibox Norway Chess 2017 is nearly over, but has certainly featured a few cool surprises along the way that must be noted.

The fun event kicked off with a blitz tournament, won convincingly by Magnus Carlsen. He could not keep that level of success throughout the tournament, though.

With an impressive two wins, GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian lead the tournament so far. This could change over the next few days, but as the leaders are one point ahead of their competitors, it may be difficult for GMs Karjakin, Kramnik, Giri, and So to catch up.

As for another surprise worth mentioning: there is no doubt that it is always widely spread news when someone beats the World Champ and GM Levon Aronian gets to boast about his win over World Champion Magnus Carlsen this tournament. Magnus has yet to beat someone- not a particularly strong showing on his part.

The finish should be quite exciting and as the players emerge from the rest day, they will hopefully bring more fighting chess! You can check out more information about the tourney on their official website and watch commentary on Chess24.

2. National Open: June 14-18

This is always one of the biggest chess festivals of the year. The $100,000 prize fund is always tempting, but what is most exciting is perhaps the numerous side events including simuls, lectures, book signings, and raffles, as well as cool prizes, such as The Freddie award, given to a U14 player who played the most exceptional game in the tournament.

Held in Las Vegas, a great location for adults, there is even a poker tournament to play as a side event. With eight sections, it is worth playing or at least watching the titled players face off in the open section. They will be broadcasting a few games on their website.

3. New York International: June 21-25

Last year, one of our writers, David Brodsky, earned his first IM norm at the event. This is a relatively small tournament compared to the others, but it is one to watch out for because there are usually IM or GM norms earned at it. Always with a strong turnout, the tournament is going into its 10th year.

The Marshall Chess Club, where it will be held, does not release the entry list for it, but I can let Chess^Summit readers in on a secret:

GM Yaro Zherebukh, who played at the U.S. Championships this year and is the current Marshall Chess Club Champion, will be vying for that first prize.

4. World Open: June 29-July 4

I feel like all American chess players play in the World Open at one point in their life. Of course I’m exaggerating, but it’s a tournament many players play in, partly because a lot of their friends play in it and partly because the prize pool is enormous. The first prize for the open section is a cool $20,000, so many titled players are drawn in. So far, GM Le Quang Liem is the top seed, but with such a strong field, anyone could win it.

For those of us who are non-GMs, the tournament is still fun and can yield great results. There are also a few side events around the tournament, such as a Women’s Championship, to get the fun started. Lectures by three different GMs are scheduled. I’ll be preparing for this tournament myself, so be sure to say hello to me if you recognize me! It will be my first time playing and reporting on the tournament for ChessBase.

5 & 6. U.S. Junior & U.S. Girl’s Junior Championships: July 7-18

As qualifiers for the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship, the U.S. Junior and U.S. Girl’s Junior Championships are two significant tournaments for young chess players in the United States. The winner of each tournament has the honor of playing in the U.S. Champs. Last year, they were won by GM Jeffery Xiong and WIM Emily Nguyen.

The fields this year are as strong as ever, and I feel that GM Xiong is a favorite to win the U.S. Junior Championship again. After all, he won the World Junior Championship and is one of the top 15 players in the country.

Top seed Carissa Yip is my favorite to win the U.S. Girl’s Junior Championship (Sorry to all my other friends who are playing- I’m rooting for everybody nonetheless). Winning the tournament would qualify her for her third consecutive U.S. Women’s Championship. However, she has extremely tough opponents who will not let her wrest that coveted spot so easily.

7. Match of the Millennials: July 26-29

This is a newly introduced tournament supported by The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, the Kasparov Chess Foundation, the USCF, FIDE, and FIDE Trainers’ Commission. Four players U17, two players U14, and two girls U14 will make up a team and the American team will face off against a team of young players from around the world. Although there is not too much information about this tournament, a press release can still be found on ChessBase. Despite the lack of news, the coming-together of these five organizations is sure to bring an exciting tournament. The American players are definitely the future of American chess and the players from all over the world can prove their worth against them. The kids playing in this tournament are the children to watch for years to come.

8. Sinquefield Cup: July 31-August 12

Not much explanation is needed for this event, as it has consistently been one of the greatest tournaments to watch every year (but you can find more information on their official website anyway). 

*Update, 6/14/2017: The players for the tournament are not fully confirmed- I had conducted my research using information from the GCT website, which was not updated to display the confirmed players. *
I figure anyone can win it, as it has been a different winner every year (2013: Fabiano Caruana, 2014: Magnus Carlsen, 2015: Levon Aronian, 2016: Wesley So). However, I hope there is a fresh, new winner this year to make it more exciting. The field is always a bit different, so there are always new possibilities!

9. St. Louis Rapid & Blitz: August 13-19

This one is super special to watch out for due to a couple of reasons: Isaac will be reporting from this event and it is new to the Grand Chess Tour! I apologize for leaving out the Paris and Leuven legs of the Grand Chess Tour, but because I could only choose 10 events for a Top 10 list, I wanted to go with a new tournament.

*Update, 6/14/2017: The players for the tournament are not fully confirmed- I had conducted my research using information from the GCT website, which was not updated to display the confirmed players. *

 I am hoping for some diversity in the new field, as the Grand Chess Tour decided to add more wildcards into their tour. It remains to be seen if their wildcards could possibly win it all!

For more information, see their official website.

10. U.S. Masters Chess Championship/North Carolina Open: August 23-27

Many GMs like to play in the U.S. Masters tournament held in North Carolina. The likes of GMs Sam Sevian, Niclas Huschenbeth, and Ruifeng Li will be playing, and I am sure many more grandmasters will register as the tournament draws closer. Norms can be earned and for this championship, titles are even required. Five games will be broadcasted every round, with a special $150 sponsorship enabling the organizers to add more boards.

The North Carolina Open and North Carolina Open Scholastic Section also happen in conjunction with the U.S. Masters, drawing in many lower rated players. The open section is FIDE rated, which is good for the players who may not want to play in the much stronger U.S. Masters field. With four sections and lower class prizes in each section (ex: U1400 section has U1200 prizes), there are even more prizes to win. The top two boards will also have their games broadcasted.

What tournaments are you playing in this summer/following?

A Game of Chance

On paper, if a player is paired against a significantly higher rated player, he or she is supposed to lose.  That is how the rating system is supposed to work.  However, we also know that upsets occur all the time when the higher rated player fails to win.  So, if they’re not supposed to occur, then why do they?  More specifically, how are upsets created?

While not always the case, the higher rated player is typically a better positional player than the lower rated counterpart.  Therefore, it is justified to assume that if two players are locked in a positional effort, the higher rated player will come out on top the majority of the time.  This leaves the flip side of the coin, a tactical game – when it comes to a tactical game, it comes down to which player is better at tactics and calculation rather than who is higher rated.  In general, it is easier to gain an advantage against a higher rated player through tactical means than it is through positional means.

We’ll investigate a case in point here with a game between a high 2300-rated IM and super-grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.

 

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Figure 1: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 16. … e5

 

The knight is attacked, so it has to move; the question is, where?  White has three safe retreat squares, but none of them are appetizing since Black will continue with Nf6 and d5, which will seriously question White’s control of the center.  In addition, White would not have a concrete plan, which comes as a consequence of losing presence in the center.  Thus, White takes a chance with a tactical sacrifice, justifying the decision with the knowledge that he will probably lose if he plays passively.  Let’s see how that decision held up.

17. Ne6!

A good practical decision, forcing Black on the defensive.

17. fxe6

Forced.  If 17. … Qb8, 18. Nxg7+ followed by Nh5 leaves White with a clear advantage.

18. Qh5+

The correct follow-up.  Once again, playing forcing moves makes it exponentially easier to calculate variations.

 

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Figure 2: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 18. Qh5+

18. … g6   

If 18. … Kf8?? 19. fxe6+ and mate comes next move.

19. fxg6 Nf6 20. g7+

An important intermezzo that allows the queen to enter deep into Black’s position.

 

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Figure 3: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 20. g7+

 

20. … Kd7 21. Qf7 Qe8 22. gxh8/N!

An important detail that really proves this variation worthwhile for White.

22. … Qxh8 23. Ne2!

 

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Figure 4: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 23. Ne2!

 

After the recapture by the queen, White had to really think about how to continue the attack, and he delivers with this accurate move.  The knight move clears the c-file for the rook, which cuts off escape squares from the king and simultaneously threatens Rc7+.

23. … b5

This move actually protects against Rc7+.  The key point becomes clear after 24. Rc7+ Kxc7 25. Qxe7+ Nd7 26. Rc1+ Bc6 and the option of 27.  b5 is no longer available.

24. Bg5 Qg8 25. Rxf6 Qxg5 26. Qxe6+ Kd8 27. Rc7!

White keeps mounting the pressure and creates a dual mate threat.

 

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Figure 5: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 27. Rc7!

 

27. … Qe3+ 28. Kf1 Kxc7 29. Qxe7+ Kb6 30. Qxd6+ Ka7 31. Qc7 1-0

 

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Figure 6: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 31. Qc7!

 

The threat of Rxa6+ followed by mate is unstoppable and Black resigned.  This game was an example of when taking the risk with a tactical combination could pay off, especially against a higher rated player.  While this example was purely tactical, it should be noted that an early positional miscue by the opponent can also be exploited if played correctly.

As we have seen, timid/passive play against a higher rated player is not a good idea.  Although the game might last a long time, in the end, you will probably lose.  In contrast, playing actively and boldly is the best approach against a higher rated player if one wishes to have a chance at beating or drawing since many tactical combinations have the possibility of ending in a perpetual check as well.

Upsets happen quite regularly in tournaments, and it goes to show how hard it can be for top seeds to beat every lower rated player that they play.  Next time, we will investigate the opposite – how likely it is to beat lower rated players in a tournament.  That is, how likely it is for a high rated player to finish with a perfect or near-perfect score in a tournament when playing all lower rated players.  And, as always, thanks for reading!

Life After Master on the West Coast

Earning the National Master title in April has been one of the proudest achievements of my life, and certainly of my chess career. After notching several master-level (and better) performances to finish the job, there seemed to be little doubt that I was ready to see what lie beyond master. Alas, I soon had to deal with various life matters such as final projects and exams in school, visiting my family in Indiana, and preparing for my summer internship. Although I found time to stream a 49-game bullet match with Isaac during finals week, I haven’t been quite the force in the chess world as of late: my first tournament as NM (which included, among other things, losing to a 1900 despite winning a clean pawn on move 7) was one of my worst in recent times, and for the first time since starting college, I went a month (May) without playing a tournament. My most recent tournament (here in Seattle) was better, but it was clear that I wasn’t quite there mentally: everything seemed unusually complicated and unfamiliar, and I often found myself unwilling to make critical tough decisions.

Apparently, similar “post-master” syndromes are not uncommon. I wouldn’t say that dropping 40 points after becoming master is normal, but a dip in results after that milestone is not unheard of. After all, 1900-rated kids are no pushovers, and a 2200 rating is not that different from 2150, or even 2100. As FM Ethan Li wrote yesterday, the mental aspect of chess is undeniably important, and in many cases shows what makes master-level chess. So I still have a lot of work to do if I want to stay competitive among masters.

In last weekend’s tournament, I faced three rapidly improving but lower-rated kids in a G/90;+30 quad, scoring 2/3. In my first game against an 1853, against my usual instincts, I sacrificed a pawn for dynamic play. Although my technique was far from perfect, I eked out a fun win.

My second game against a 2021 was the main example of my lack of tenacity in recent times. My opponent erred early and allowed me to simplify into a positionally dominant endgame, but thinking it was nearly impossible for me to lose, I blocked up the position making it harder for me to break through, then straight-up blundered a pawn; I was fortunate not to lose.

My last game against a 1938 was a little too complex for me, as I was already tired from the long games. I’ll likely analyze this in more detail in a future post, but have provided the exciting game for viewing pleasure.

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Probably one of the few pictures I can take in my building…

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that there is more to life than chess, and this summer, that means making the most of my time in the wonderful city of Seattle. Being from the Midwest, this is a pretty new experience that I have yet to figure out, but I’m looking forward to a lot of challenging work, meeting new faces, and exploring a lot of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, my photography skills are basically nonexistent and I have no hope of matching Isaac’s picture game, but I’ll do my best to keep chess^summit posted on my summer!

 

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Downtown Seattle from my room

As far as my chess plans are concerned, I’ve committed to a “quality over quantity” approach to choosing tournaments as I look to get the most out of each event I play. The two major events I am eyeing this summer are the Seattle Seafair Open, a local event that regularly draws many strong masters, and the U.S. Masters Championship in Greensboro, NC – one of the country’s premier national events. Stay tuned for information about these tournaments and my preparation for them in the coming weeks!

 

Tournament Momentum: A Case Study of the 2017 Supernationals

Every chess player knows that chess is a mental game both on and off the board. That is, a player’s performance during the game is only one factor in determining his overall performance in a tournament. The other factor is determined by the player’s habits after the game is over: when he sleeps, what he eats, his state of mind, etc. Most of all, it is important to maintain a level emotional state throughout the tournament, although this is difficult as chess is often an emotional ordeal.

Case in point: At the Supernationals this year, I entered the fifth round as one of only two remaining perfect scores in the K-12 section. I was paired against the talented Kesav Viswanadha, an International Master and fellow All-American teammate. Our game started slowly, and for over three hours neither of us could claim an advantage. Finally, nearing the fourth hour and the beginning of time pressure, I successfully crashed through his defense with a calculated pawn sacrifice. I achieved a winning position! But then, I relaxed.

This is the great danger of achieving an advantage: a player loosens the pressure when victory is near. Conversely, the person losing redoubles their efforts, struggling with the tenacity of a cornered animal, desperately clawing at any chance, any possibility, to recover.

My mind began to wander. During the game, the stress on the brain is so quietly intense, so wholly pervasive, that the mind takes the first chance possible to escape the tension. It takes extreme focus and discipline to maintain a high level of concentration throughout the entire match. I started to wonder: what would I eat for dinner? Would that sushi place still be open at this hour? I checked my watch: 11:45. Probably not. How much longer would this game take?

I wasted time and effectively squandered the advantage I achieved from three hours of toil in a mere ten minutes. In the end, I drew (tied) a position which was so absolutely winning that I could have converted the full point when I was five. But in time trouble anything is possible. We each had seconds left on the clock. It was no longer a battle of skill, but rather a test of stamina. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

When I play chess, I can feel exactly how long a minute is. A minute is enough time to calculate three variations, maybe four. It is enough time to mentally break down twice, and recover three times. It is enough time—hopefully—to make the right decision in a crunch. The final minutes of a chess game are akin to the fifth set of a grueling tennis match. The pristine, clean-cut, calculated play from earlier deteriorates into a brutal street fight fraught with sloppy attacks, incomplete defenses, and missed wins. In those minutes I feel—more than any other time—the true length of a minute.

Despite this lackluster performance, the real blunder came later that night, after the round, back in my hotel room. I felt robbed. I felt cheated. I cursed foul words and abused the hotel pillows with my fists. I could not believe what had happened, and I definitely could not sleep. My mind tormented itself, a destructive, self-effacing process which was not helped by my ability to visualize the game mentally. The final moves played on an infinite loop in my mind as I forced myself to watch all the potential wins I had missed. I broke down, the greatest mistake a player can make during a tournament. I sacrificed my performance in the final two rounds because I could not move on from my mistakes in fifth round.

The next morning, I lost my penultimate round from a similarly winning position. I could not bear to play chess anymore. From this experience, it is obvious a chess player must find a balance between caring too much and not caring enough. Playing with emotion and passion allows one to play more imaginatively and focus more intensely, but it also left one more vulnerable to the debilitating pain of losses. Still, caring is unequivocally essential to improvement and progress.

Finding the right balance of emotion is a lesson that may be learned from chess, but one that may also be applied to life as well. It is important to keep in mind that although the greatest pains come from caring, the purest joys are born from it also. The best wins, the most creative, brilliant, pure demonstrations of chess ingenuity, are created from intense personal investment. Most importantly, however, in finding this balance between care and apathy, a player will be able to more easily move on from losses and not let them affect the remaining games in the tournament.

Online Ratings: A Myth?

I often hear people talk about how our online ratings are supposed to be inflated versions of our official ratings. Oddly enough, I’ve almost always had an online rating lower than my actual rating, on both my ICC and chess.com accounts (both of which, unfortunately, have been rather inactive in recent years due to school).

For the longest time, I thought, maybe I’m overrated? But at the same time, my rating still steadily increased over time. In fact, for basically the entirety of my chess career and for as long as I’ve had my ICC account, my online rating has been at least a hundred points lower than my actual rating.

Evidently, that disparity, although it incited some teasing from some fellow chess players, did not stop me from actually improving my ability to study and progressing both on and off the board.

So don’t let your online rating, whether it be the blitz ratings or the tactics ratings, either boost your confidence too much or drag you down too much. As long as you work hard, you will improve and you will make it.