Endgame Essentials: Making Your Opponent Press the Self-Destruct Button

Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably knew what was coming: endgames! Last Tuesday, I had an instructive win with Black against a lower rated player at the Wild Card Open. While my opponent was guilty of playing for a draw, he did put up some tough resistance in the endgame, which made it fitting to cover in today’s edition of Endgames Essentials.

For long-time readers of Chess^Summit, you may be familiar with my Endgame Essentials series that I started last year, studying the games of Magnus Carlsen and other top level Grandmasters. For our newer readers, welcome! In Endgame Essentials, I focus more on endgame technique than converting technical positions. So far, I’ve discussed critical factors like pawn structure, king safety, and piece activity which can effect the overall assessment of a position.

But let’s say you have the advantage – you’ve done your homework: induced a weakness, gotten a small material advantage, or stopped all of your opponent’s counterplay. How do you convert from here? Sometimes its a good idea to let your opponent hit the self-destruct button…

Perhaps Napoleon says it best:

“…when your enemy is executing a false movement, never interrupt him.”

– A biographical magazine from 1852 quoting Napoleon Bonaparte

While Napoleon was never considered a member of the chess elite, this is actually great advice, especially for practical endgame play! If you have a long-term advantage in the endgame, it is your opponent’s responsibility to generate dynamic counterplay and change the nature of the game. So be patient and don’t complicate the position!

This idea of being patient during endgames is exactly what I wanted to talk about in my game from last Tuesday. I’ve made a video recap with my thoughts, but if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, you can play through the game here at your own pace!

As I repeated throughout the video – if you know you have the better position, let your advantages accumulate before doing anything drastic in the position. And never – ever – let your opponent get counterplay.

The Next Chapter

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Whether it’s the night-time view from Mt Washington (see cover photo) or watching the Pirates get blanked by St Louis, there’s a lot to do in Pittsburgh!

My next test in the Wild Card Open is a toughie. Remember FM Gabe Petesch? I’ll have White in my chance to avenge my two-game match defeat from earlier this month. I’m not sure what to expect, but I think it should be a fun, hard-fought game … and hopefully something worth sharing on Chess^Summit!

 

My mentality for this tournament is reminiscent of my Columbus Open performance, but the added wrinkle of playing opponents I know well makes this event much more challenging than the latter. While I will be pushed in ways I haven’t really been pushed before, my goal is to play smart chess, and be on the right track to play good chess in Cleveland – the finale to my summer.

 

A Golden Performance

The U.S. Junior Championships and the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championships were held simultaneously at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis from the 7th to the 18th of July 2017.  In impressively competitive sections boasting some of the strongest juniors (U21) players from around the country, there was much hype leading up to the tournaments.  In the Open section, we saw 7 of the 10 players rated well north of 2400 and all players within 20-30 rating points of each other.   In the Girls section, we saw much of the same.  But would that hype translate into the exciting, close combat play that many expected going into the tourneys?

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The logo for the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship

In the Open section, the 14-year-old Arizona native Awonder Liang weathered the storm and was the last man standing when the tournament ended, winning with 6.5/9.  However, the path was far from easy.  The six players that finished behind Liang were all within 2 points.  Liang was not even leading the pack going into the last round.  Down half a point to Kayden Troff going into the last round, Liang was able to win and preserve his chances while Troff untimely lost his own game.  In the Girls’ section, the dust seemed to have settled much earlier, with Virginia native Akshita Gorti leading the pack by 1.5 points with two rounds left to go.  Drawing the two last games, Gorti cruised to a tournament victory while keeping the rest of the pack at arm’s distance away.  In fact, I was recently able to sit down with Gorti and ask about what she thought of the tournament and her overall performance in this tournament and in the past year.  The full interview is provided below.

 

Vishal Kobla:  First, major props.  Congratulations on your result!  How do you feel?

Akshita Gorti:  Tired, haha.  But happy, of course, I won the tournament.

Vishal Kobla:  What was your mindset going into this tournament? Obviously, you came in wanting to win the entire thing, but what were your true expectations?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I definitely wanted to win.  I mean, there were a lot of players, so I had to try to win against all of them.  But basically, I just wanted to win.

Vishal Kobla:  How has the year been so far for you?  I know you traveled quite a bit. Where all did you go and how did you do and what were those experience like?

Akshita Gorti:  First, I went to Iceland.  Iceland was a nice place, it was cool.  I played in the Reykjavik Open.  So, it was a good experience, saw a lot of top players, and I played with a couple IMs and GMs.  So, yeah, that was Iceland.  Then, it was Chicago Open, but that was more of a normal tournament.  After that, it was Russia [for the World Team Championships].  Yeah, I don’t play any other tournaments, really.

Vishal Kobla:  Did you prepare any differently for this tournament, maybe different from other local tournaments?  

Akshita Gorti:  Not really… cause I was busy this entire month because I had to go to Russia, Chicago Open before that, and then right after I came back, played in World Open, so I didn’t have much time to prepare for it specifically, so I just, you know, played basically.

Vishal Kobla:  Did you prepare in general before the whole string of tournaments?

Akshita Gorti:  Yeah, yeah, I did prepare stuff in general.

Vishal Kobla:  Obviously, you had a great start to the tournament, right?  After a draw and a couple wins.  Can you give me a round by round run down of what was going through your mind?  Where you eager, nervous, growing in confidence?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, usually, before every round, I was a bit nervous, but after I won a couple of games, I started to grow a little bit more confident.  In the middle of the game, if I’m in a good position or something, then I’m confident and I just try to win.

Vishal Kobla:  So, this was a one-game-per-day kind of schedule, right?  So did you have a daily routine that you would have before the game, after the game?  Or was it different every day?

Akshita Gorti:  Yeah, no…it was pretty much the same.  I would wake up, do some tactics, and then look at openings – that was my preparation.  Then I would eat my lunch and go for the round [at 1 pm].  That was really all.

Vishal Kobla:  Did you have a favorite game from the tournament?

Akshita Gorti:  I think my game against Agata [Bykovtsev].

Vishal Kobla:  Right, that was the game…you had a pretty crushing game.  Was there a game that you were maybe the least happy about?  Or did you get lucky in any games?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I wasn’t really happy with my first game because I didn’t really play that well.  Yeah, first game, it was equal, but I slowly got worse in the position, but then somehow I was able to get back and make it equal and it was a draw, but I didn’t think I played too well so I didn’t like too much about my first game.

Vishal Kobla:  So did you have a game that you believed was the most crucial or the toughest for you in the entire tournament?  Was that the first game, or was it another one?

Akshita Gorti:   The toughest game was probably the one that I drew against Thalia because I was actually worse in that position, but then it became equal again…and then it went to an ending where I had a piece for a three pawns and I had to hold that endgame, and I had barely any time left.  Well, we both didn’t have any time, so I didn’t want to lose that game, so I had to make it a draw, and I did, but it was pretty crucial because I had to make a draw there.  And I had trouble in the opening, too.

Vishal Kobla:  What was, I guess, your overall opinion of the tournament?  Was there anything that you would have liked to be different?

Akshita Gorti:  Uh, no, not really.  It was a well-conducted tournament, all organized well.

Vishal Kobla:  This clearly should check off another box on your wish list for chess – winning the Junior Championship. What are your next immediate goals, long-term goals?  Where do you go from here? 

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I want to become an IM, that’s a goal.  And, U.S. Women’s Championships, I’m playing in there, so I want to do well there.  Those would be my main goals right now.

Vishal Kobla:  In your opinion, what do you think were the major reasons for your success in the tournament?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I think I worked really hard for it, and basically, I was tired after World Open, but still I prepared really hard and I tried to play my best so I think that’s also why I won.

Vishal Kobla:  Do you think that playing in all those tournaments right before helped in the end?

Akshita Gorti:  Yeah it does, because you stay in form, and you can see tactics and moves much easier, so yeah, it helped.

Vishal Kobla:  What do you think you will need to work on or improve upon going forward from here?

Akshita Gorti:  How, after getting into winning positions, how to convert them.  Like, in my last game and the previous game that I both drew, I had a good position, and I was not able to convert them.  And even before this tournament, like in World Open, I also had trouble with that.

Vishal Kobla:  So how do you plan on working on that, then?

Akshita Gorti:  Probably working at more positions at home in which I’m better and try to figure out how to win them.

Vishal Kobla:  Alright, thank you for the time!

 

Gorti – Bykovtsev, U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship (7), 2017

Notes by Akshita Gorti; my additional comments are in italics

1d4 

1. d4 was, by far, the most popular opening choice of the players in this tournament.

1. … Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. h3

GortiBykovtsev
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 5. h3

So, this is a King’s Indian, and this is actually my first time playing this h3 and Be3 setup.  Basically, the idea is that you can keep the option of g4 to prevent the f5 idea, because I know I saw a couple games and she always likes to play e5, f5, so anyhow, she would do that.  So, keeping that option open kind of frustrates that idea.

5. … 0-0 6. Be3 e5 7. d5 a5 8. c5

The idea of [a5] is to play Na6 followed by Nc5, so before that happens, I played c5 so the d6-pawn also becomes weak after I trade those pawns.

8. … Na6 9. cxd6 cxd6 10. Nf3

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 10. Nf3

So this approach here I knew, but the right move [for Black] is Nc5 here, and then I would [play Bxc5, dxc5] and Bb5 to prevent this Ne8 idea.  So, if Ne8, I take it, actually.

10. … Bd7 11. Nd2

A staple maneuver in the King’s Indian.  The knight is better placed on d2 than f3 since it has the option of rerouting to c4 and applying pressure on the weak d6 pawn; it also vacates f3 for the pawn to advance, which would support the pawn on e4.

11. … Nc5 12. Bxc5 dxc5 13. a4 Ne8 14. Bb5 Bc8

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 14. … Bc8

And here, she moved back, which she probably shouldn’t have.  Now, it’s literally the same position [from the analysis on move 9] except I have my knight on d2 and the pawn on a4, which is actually better.

15. Bxe8 Rxe8 16. 0-0 f5 17. Nc4 f4 18. d6

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 18. d6

I thought this was a good idea, to get my knight to d5, and it’s really annoying, the passed pawn.

18. … Be6 19. Nd5 Qg5 20. Ra3

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 20. Ra3

I really like this move, too.  It just prevents Bxh3 and f3 ideas.

20 … Rf8 21. Ndb6

I played this move because I saw some ideas where after [21. … f3 22. Rxf3 Rxf3 23. Qxf3 Bxd5] and the double pawns are just unnecessary.  So I thought like, if I just play f3, then she has no threats, and that would be pretty good.

21. … Rad8 22. Kh1 Rf7

A passive response from Black, allowing White to accomplish her plan of blockading with 23. f3.  A more active response was possible with 22. … Qh4, which prevents 23. f3 by White for now, at least, and also threatens 23. … f3 from Black’s perspective.

23. f3

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 23. f3

Now, White has accomplished what she wanted to do and can return her focus to the center and the queenside.

23. … Bf8 24. Rd3

And she was taking a lot of time, so I just wanted to play simple ideas and not anything too complicated.

24. … Qh5 25. Qd2

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 25. Qd2

She was threatening Bxh3, so now I have Kg1, Qg2.

The full variation that Gorti refers would go 25. … Bxh3 26. gxh3 Qxh3+ 27. Kg1 (protecting the f1-rook) Qg3+ 28. Qg2, which prevents any more checks.

25. … Bg7

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Akshita evaluates her opponent’s move.  Photo source:  uschesschamps.org

26. b3

She didn’t have much time, so I was just making moves that made sense.

26. … g5 27. Kg1 Qg6 28. Qxa5

I was thinking of taking on a5 [with the knight], but I’m like, “Why keep this knight undefended?”  And this just helps my position.

28. … Rdf8 29. d7

 

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 29. d7

 

A truly suffocating bind by White.  Black has no counterplay and it is just a matter of time before White finds a way to break through, one way or another.

29. … Rd8 30. Qxc5 Bxc4 31. Nxc4 Bf8 32. Qc7 Qf6 33. Nxe5

 

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Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 33. Nxe5

 

And from here, I think it’s clearly winning.  This game also gave me a 1.5 point lead, so it was very important.

The rest of the game will be provided without notes.

33. … Rg7 34. Rfd1 h5 35. Rd5 g4 36. hxg4 h4 37. g5 Qxg5 38. Ng4 Qe7 39. Nh6+ Kh7 40. Nf5 Rxg2+ 41. Kxg2 Qg5+ 42. Kh2 h3 43. Rg1 Qf6 44. e5 Qxf5 45. Qxd8 Qc2+ 46. Kh1 47. Qh4+ Qxh4 48. d8/Q Qf2 49. Rd7+ 1-0

 

Being able to ask questions to Akshita Gorti about the tournament and about chess, in general, would not have been possible if it had not been for her, so thanks to her for letting me do this.  There are many things that I will be able to take away from this interview and the chance to go over a game with her, and I hope that is the same for all readers.  For one, we learned that preventing our opponents’ plans is just as important and following through on our own.  We saw this exemplified in Gorti’s choice to play an early c5, a move that she may have never been able to play later.  We also saw how opening plans tend to be relevant in most positions, even if they appear at unnatural times.  For example, Gorti knew that the main variation of the opening at move 10 would end up with her playing Bb5, inhibiting Ne8 from Black.  Although Black went out of book in that position, Gorti still found herself able to harness the same idea in a slightly different position.  Lastly, we saw how strong and effective prophylaxis can be.  In the middle game, White took the time to play Kh1 and f3 to ensure that Black had no lasting plan before continuing with her own ideas on the other side of the board.  By using all of these ideas, along with others that are probably beyond my own ability to explain, Gorti was able to deliver a crushing blow and all but ensure her first place finish.  Although Gorti states that she needs to work on converting wins, it is really something that all chess players must constantly work on; if anything, this just confirms what the great Emanuel Lasker said so many years ago:  “The hardest game to win is a won game.”

 

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Some of Lasker’s wisest words

 

Either way, I wish Akshita good luck in her future games and may there be many more performances like this one to come!  And, as always, thanks for reading!

Am I Ready for This Tournament?

Since the beginning of the summer, I have struggled to decide whether to play in the this year’s U.S. Masters Championship (to be held August 23-27 in Greensboro, NC) or the Atlantic Open (August 25-27 in Arlington, VA) as a break between my internship and school. Although various factors, such as cost, location, timing, and family had to be considered, it ultimately came down to how prepared I thought I would be for chess that week. After the considerations, I decided to give the U.S. Masters a try.

The Masters is clearly the more serious of the two and more expensive to match, while the Atlantic Open is typical Continental Chess fare, though FIDE rated as well. Opportunities to play in 9-round norm tournaments like the U.S. Masters are rare and possibly a great experience, but I must feel prepared; if I’m doomed to get crushed by higher-rated, more experienced masters the whole tournament, that’s not good after all.

If I had to make the choice in April after becoming a master, I would chosen the U.S. Masters without too much hesitation, time and money permitting. But since then, the time I’ve spent on chess, as well as my performances, have not been convincing. Having dropped a significant number of points since barely making master, it’s been difficult to feel like I belong in that relatively elite crowd. At least, I felt like I needed some more data points to justify playing in such a fancy tournament (compared to what I’ve played in so far).

I thought I’d have my chance at a Seattle masters-only event at the beginning of July. Alas, the event got rescheduled on very short notice, and I wouldn’t be able to make it after all. I was also planning to play in a popular and strong local tournament in late July, but wanted to make the decision earlier for logistical reasons.

I ended up turning to an unlikely measurement: the Chess.com Titled Tuesday, a monthly event for those holding verified NM, FIDE CM, FM, IM, GM titles or the women’s equivalents. If I got consistently crushed without a fight, it would be time to seriously reconsider.

Although it wasn’t a smooth performance or a good measurement by any stretch of the imagination, I came out feeling like I had passed my personal test:

  • I won my first game over an FM, although this was tainted by White’s resignation in a winning position (22. c3! cuts off the Black bishop on b2 and leaves Black helpless). The opening had been great for me, but 12…g5? was too greedy, and 13. Nxd5! was a nice find. Instead, 12…Qh4 was a safe way to leave me at least equal, with my active pieces, control over f5, and strong center.
  • The second game was even worse, as I had no idea what I was doing in the opening and promptly got my pieces tangled; with my queen trapped by move 18, I soon had to resign. Since this opening is not terribly uncommon for Black, I have since read up on it a bit.
  • The third game went about as well as I could have expected. I never let White get anything in particular, and was fortunate to not be affected by the weak light squares in the queen endgame.
  • The fourth game was a pure swindle, and although I am not proud by having to resort to my unlucky FM opponent’s blunders (allowing 35. Bxe3!), it is worth noting that I never play this opening as White (and probably shouldn’t without a decent amount of study).
  • The fifth game was embarrassing, and quite enough to remind me how better players can simply outplay their opponents in dead-equal-looking positions, as well as the value of activity in the endgame, even at the short-term cost of material (e.g. 44…Rd2! rather than the passive 44…Kb7? which allowed White an advantage for the first time).
  • The sixth game was fun, although I know it’s unlikely to occur in a long game. I’m guessing my opponent simply hadn’t seen this and underestimated it, and was arguably toast by move 9.
  • By the seventh game, I was feeling a bit lazy, and I got the feeling that my opponent might be too, and the game petered out to a draw quickly. The eighth game was a good display of Black’s trumps in the Classical Caro-Kann, particularly the weak h5 pawn.
  • My last round opponent did not show, which was disappointing; a game with a GM seemed to be a nice reward for the late comeback.

It might seem odd to make such a significant decision on a G/3;+2 tournament, but in my mind, this chaotic condition would more likely bring out my weaknesses: time management and lack of opening knowledge. If I could hold my own under such pressure, I could conceivably do the same in Greensboro over a few days.

“It’s fine to show up late, no one cares”

About a decade now into playing chess, I , for the first time ever, regret arriving to a tournament game late. Okay, that’s false – the first time was when I remembered the time of a round wrong… and forfeited my first (and as of today, my last) game. But this time was different – to be honest I don’t think I was even late when I got to the tournament hall, as the announcements were still going on.

For some background, this was the last round of World Open, right after my first win of the tournament. With 2.5/8, I was set to play up again and a point above the players with the lowest number of points in the section – and honestly, my score is not as bad as it sounds as I had played 6 games against players rated either 2200 or higher. I was playing solid 4-5 hour games and pretty satisfied with my game quality as someone who hadn’t played since January nor studied since before entering college. When I walked up to the standings that round, I remember staring in confusion as my name was nowhere to be found in the 4-5 boards of players with 2.5 scores and as I looked down, I realized that I had been withdrawn without my knowledge and given a zero point bye. As with other problems, I immediately went to the TD desk, where I was told that they’re not sure what happened and to wait for the head TD who was making the announcements at the time.

After he came out of the main tournament hall and the other TD’s caught him up on what happened, I was given two options: either take the withdrawal or play the player who had a one point bye, a player rated about 1600 FIDE. Ultimately, I chose to not play the last round as I saw no point in playing down so much when I had finally just won a game and while not in the greatest mood from finding out about the withdrawal in the first place. Inside, I was honestly pretty upset. Competing in Philadelphia isn’t just hard on me, but it’s also extremely hard on my parents who drive me an hour to and an hour back every single day. Just because I had arrived to the standings minutes late, I was unable to play the game I deserved and had wasted a couple hours of my parents time having them wait for me to finish to go home. So next time, note to self, just arrive early – it’s better than allowing yourself to be removed or paired incorrectly.

North American Youth Championship

Tonight, a major event for young American chess players begins: the North American Youth Championship. The tournament rotates on a three-year cycle between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Held in Morristown, New Jersey, this year, it is local for many Americans and Canadians. Check out the official website for more details.

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                  The official logo. Who did this!???! Just look at the “chessboard”.

 

The unique prizes

The tournament has 9 rounds and sections by age from Under 8 up to Under 18, both Open and Girls. Though the winners of the lower sections get FIDE titles of FM or CM, the big prize lies in the U16 and U18 sections. The winner of the U16 section gets an IM Norm, while the winner of the U18 section gets the IM title. This is an “easy” and quick way for many kids to get closer to the IM title…

First of all, let me make one thing clear. I am not playing, as I have already fulfilled the requirements to become an IM. Since I’d have a reasonable chance of winning first place in both sections, I’d be the worst enemy of all the players hunting for something that I already have. I’d probably get lynched on day 1… Instead, I’ll be at home watching the action.

The last time the North American Youth was in the US was in 2014. I have good memories of the tournament, as I won the U12 section and got the FM title. I was a newly minted NM at the time, and I didn’t consider playing up to try and get an IM norm/title. Three years later, is this tournament telling me that I’m overqualified!?

NAYCC 2014

That was me three years ago! Now you can laugh…

U16 or U18?

The question that faces a lot of these players is which section to play in: U16 or U18? The U16 section should be easier to win, but on the other hand, the winner of the U18 section gets the IM title. Players who are too old will play in U18, but there aren’t many of those. More people may go play U18, leaving the U16 wide open. However, if everyone thinks like that, the U16 may be stronger than the U18!

 

Enough philosophical chatter, what would I do?

If I hadn’t crossed the 2400 rating at the NY International, I would have played in U18, as an additional norm would be useless for me.

However, what if I had two norms and the 2400 rating? Or two norms and no 2400 rating? Or no norms with a 2400 rating… there’s no point listing all the scenarios.

If I had no norms, I’d probably go play the U18. Why get 3 IM norms and the rating if all I’d need would be to win a tournament? If I had one norm, I think I’d make the same decision. With two norms and a rating reasonably close to 2400, I’d probably go for U16. I’d rather have a good chance to get my last IM Norm and hopefully gain some rating in the U16 section than risk going home broke in the U18.

 

Who will win?

Not everyone has registered yet, some people will make the decision last minute.

Historically, the winners of the U18 section have been in the 2350-2450 USCF range. Perhaps not fully IM level, but far from patzers… This year, however, seeing that there are already a few 2400+ players registered, I’d say the winner who gets the IM title will be stronger than usual.

The U16 section should be easier to win, but not by much. The winners have usually been in the 2300-2400 USCF range. Who knows, this year could be different…

 

What about the girls?

The girls have a similar choice to make, except with WIM titles/norms. However, the US Junior Girls Championship is going on in St. Louis at the same time. It doesn’t really matter for the boys, since most of the players in the US Junior Closed are already IMs or GMs, and many are older than 18 anyway. However, that is not true for the girls. Only half of them hold the WIM title. We’ll see who wins the girls’ sections, but it really is a shame that the dates clash.

 

I’ll be watching what should be a fun event. I do have my picks, some of whom haven’t registered yet… There will be surprises and upsets, but ultimately, the top seeds should prevail. It would be an interesting experience to play myself, but I couldn’t do that morally. IMs usually don’t play this tournament, and I don’t want to break the custom. Still, I’ll be curious to see which players will get IM norms and which player will become an IM within the next five days.

 

Fantastic Flaws and Where to Find Them

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Without many games to worry about, I’ve had a lot more time to cook. Hope everyone had a fun July 4th!

After a euphoric performance in Columbus, I got a chance to step back and process my results. Getting such a great result was certainly an achievement, but keeping up with disciplined study can prove even more difficult.

Luckily for me, I got in a two game rated match against FM Gabe Petesch, and though I wound up losing both games, I learned a lot and thought I should share a particularly instructive moment for my post here on Chess^Summit today.

 

Practical Play over Tactical Play

As the title suggests, the mistake I’m going to share illustrates the importance of maintaining a balance between tactical and practical play. Not every move should be handled with the charisma of a blitz game! I managed to surprise Gabe with some opening preparation I did about a year ago in Orlando, and after some thought, we reached this position in the early middlegame:

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 13…Qd7

White has a small plus. Given the cramped nature of his position, Black really has no active plan and must play carefully to stay in the game. Here, trying to punish Black for his awkward play, I erred with 14. h5?! an optimistic exchange sac with the intention of clearing the f5 square for my knight. After 14…Bxh5 15. Rxh5 Nxf3 16. gxf3 gxh5 17. Rg1 (see diagram below), it seems like I have reasonable compensation, but in opening the position I’ve made it easier for Black to simplify the position.

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 17. Rg1

Play continued 17…Kh8! 18. Ne3?! Bh6 19. Nf5 Bxf4 20. Qxf4 Ng5 (see diagram below), and now we realize White doesn’t have enough pieces to have a coordinated attack. With correct play, Black will seize the g-file and emphasize his plurality of rooks, leaving me with insufficient targets and thus, a worse position. Sure, 18. Rh1! would have been a much stronger continuation, but let’s not kid ourselves – White’s position is not better than it was before I played 14. h5?!. Black let me hang around and create some counterplay as time pressure became a factor, but the result was never really in doubt, and Black went on to win after a good defensive effort.

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 20…Ng5

To my dissatisfaction, the caveman approach failed here. As much as I love strategic exchange sacrifices, this position didn’t call for one. So what should I have played instead?

Finding the right idea here means correctly identifying what Black’s main problem is. During the game, I thought the ugly f6-g6-h7 structure begged for an attack on the kingside, but as we saw, Black’s pieces hold this side of the board reasonably well. Perhaps this is an idea in the future, but for now, White should be looking for more glaring problems in Black’s position. The biggest issue lies in Black’s superfluous knight on f7.

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 13…Qd7 

Black would love it if White traded off a pair of knights. Black would get more space for his pieces, clarify the purpose of the f7 knight, and perhaps even consider …f6-f5 pushes now that his f8 rook can support this central break. In fact, part of the reason why 14. h5?! didn’t work was because Black got to insert an in-between move with a trade on f3! The problem of the superfluous knight really slows down Black’s play, and this is why 14. Nd4! is a much stronger move than what I played. After 14…Bxe2 15. Qxe2, now White can really carry on a kingside attack, and it’s not clear how Black will use his knights to defend his position.

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variation after 15. Qxe2 – how does Black regroup his pieces effectively? 

White has a clear positional advantage, and without Black’s light squared bishop on g4, a kingside attack is a much more considerable option since it doesn’t come at the cost of any material. I actually saw this option of 14. Nd4! during the game, but the immediacy of 14. h5?! was appealing to me because I thought I could keep a lot of pressure on Black’s king, though I didn’t have a concrete line to convert the position into a win. While the move I played is certainly testing, it’s a failure of calculation on multiple levels:

  1. I failed to really pinpoint Black’s problem in the position. Looking at the pawn structure alone was a really superficial way of trying to find a concrete problem. Two of Aagard’s questions would have helped my search: What is my opponent’s plan? and What are my opponent’s weaknesses?
  2. I failed to effectively compare the final positions for both 14. Nd4! and 14. h5?!. This is the most important step that should have helped me make the right decision. Without a doubt, 14. Nd4! gives White a better position. Meanwhile 14. h5?! might result in a better position for White (hindsight is 20/20 – I didn’t realize how quickly Black could seize the g-file after 17…Kh8!), but unclear is probably the more accurate assessment. Even if the evaluation were the same, on a practical level, why sacrifice material when there is another option just as strong?
  3. I needed to be more concrete with 14. h5?!. Seeing that I can play for the f5 square was not a bad concept at all – if anything, it’s a nice idea to save for later since Black can’t really stop this h4-h5 push. But to play it now means paying attention to all of Black’s options. While it’s already not practical to go into deep calculation here, this would have been the last chance for me to really know what I was getting into.
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With the long July 4th weekend, I had plenty of time to relax and keep being the same old goofy me!

Failure may seem like a strong word, but these are things I take note of after losing a game where I fail to really make the most of a critical position. In one of my first posts back from Europe I mentioned that “solving” positions like these will decide whether or not I can make National Master. What we saw here was the difference between a mid-2100 rated player and a nearly 2400 rated opponent!

 

As I prepare for the Cleveland Open in August, I’ll be doing more exercises like this where I can test my tactical and positional understanding to find the right strategic approach. Right now, in my chase for NM, its more important to play smarter, not necessarily better, when making critical decisions. To help me get there, I’ll be playing in the upcoming Wild Card Open at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, a one game a week format with a long time control. Hopefully I’ll have an interesting game to share in my next post!

 

The Age-Old Question

With the recent conclusion of the Your Next Move leg of the Grand Chess Tour, we saw some things that weren’t surprising, and then some things that were in fact eye-opening.  We saw Carlsen and So perform exceptionally well, which wasn’t surprising at all, considering those two are probably the best players in the world at this point. We also saw the likes of Jobava struggle, which wasn’t all too surprising either, considering he was the lowest rated seed by 50+ rating points; however, some may say that the extent to which he struggled was surprising, considering that he won only one game and drew five out of 36 total games.

We also saw a few players uncharacteristically struggle, including Anand.  He finished with 16/36 and a minus score, which was surprising in its own right, considering that Anand was once considered one of the best blitz/rapid players in the world.  Anand also had a string of four straight losses in the home stretch of the event.  So why did he struggle?  Was it one thing that one could pinpoint?  Or was it a slew of reasons?  You may have an idea already, but let’s see exactly why and how this was made apparent.

Now, we won’t be focusing on the games that he lost as much as the games in which points were left on the board (i.e. wins into draws or losses, draws into losses) since mistakes tend to happen and everyone loses games.  However, games in which a player had a clear path to a draw or win but missed it are the true indicators of weak play.  The first case that we will take a look at was the game between So (White) and Anand (Black) in round 6 of the rapid section.

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So-Anand, position after 31. f3

It’s Black to move, and Black has the bishop-to-knight advantage; however, the doubled b-pawns somewhat negate that plus.  The position is objectively equal since White has no clear entry into Black’s position without offering a trade of minor pieces, which Black would gladly accept since it would allow the Rook to enter through c4.  If White marches his king to b3 before trading, Black won’t be able to enter anymore, but that doesn’t change the evaluation of the position since Black can just sit and White can never make progress on the queenside.  Here, a move like 31 … f6 would do since it protects the e5 pawn and effectively prevents White from making any more substantial threats on the queenside.  However, Anand decided to force the issue and after a 5-minute think played 31 … Bg1?  The move looks fancy but in truth just blunders a pawn cleanly after 32. Rd6+ Ke7 33. Nxb6, which happened in the game.  White eventually won the game by nursing the extra pawn advantage from here on.  A fairly straightforward blunder by Black turned what could have been a draw into a loss.  You can play through the entire game here.

This next case that we will investigate was the game between Anand and MVL in the very next round, round 7.

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Anand-MVL, position after 20. …. Bg5

After MVL played the tricky move 20. … Bg5, Anand found the beautiful 21. Bb5!, and after 21. …. Bf4 22. Bxd7+ Kxd7 White had a clear advantage.  However, Anand’s technique was less than perfect, and in this position:

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Anand-MVL, position after 33. … Kg7

Anand played the blunder 34. Nc4?? which would have lost to 34. … Qh8 if MVL had found it.  Anand lucked out and MVL played 34. … Nxe4, which gave the advantage back to Anand.  No harm was done there.  Later, the players arrived at this position:

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Anand-MVL, position after 46. … Rf5

With the evaluation at a hefty +5, White could have played 47. Qa7 after which the threat of Qf2+ and Nxe5+ is enough for Black to resign.  However, White played 47. Qb6, which has a similar idea, but fails to impress on the account of 47. … Qg8 when both the knight on c4 and the rook on h7 are hit (If the queen was on a7, Qg8 would be met by b3).  Anand didn’t spot the key difference and continued with 48. Qf2+, and due to miscalculation, Black was, however improbable, winning the game.  This game was truly a heartbreaker for Anand as it looked to go down as another one of his brilliancies.  You can play through the entire game here.

The next case was in the first round of the blitz section, with Anand pitted against Carlsen with White.  The players navigated through the opening and middle game to an eventually equal endgame.  Up until this point, it was only White that had had any winning chances, but each of them was squandered away.  The players reached the position:

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Anand-Carlsen, position after 53. … Rxa5

After the interesting move 54. Rd7, the position is labeled as a draw in the tablebase.  Black can’t make any progress since if Black tries to vacate a path for the pawn by moving his King, White checks him from behind and returns to d7.  If the rook threatens to check in any way, the king is always close enough to attack the rook with the king or escape some other way.  However, Anand blundered with 54. d6, which loses to Re5+ and Rd5+, which collects the pawn.  Moreover, Anand had 22+ seconds to Carlsen’s 15 but still blundered in this way.  This was yet another game where a draw became a loss because of a horrible blunder near the end.  You can play through the entire game here.

These three games weren’t even the only cases in which mistakes in superior or equal positions were made, with others occurring in the last few rounds of the blitz section.  In the end, this seemed like a recurring pattern rather than a rare occurrence.  Now, we come back to our question asked earlier in the article.  Why was Anand struggling so much in the tournament?  There are a few possible explanations.  The first is a very plausible one – the games were rapid- and blitz-rated, and the short time controls could have played a role, especially if critical positions occurred with low time left on the clock.  However, the fact that there were so many different examples of suboptimal play decreases the chance that it was just low time.  Additionally, Anand has never been “known” as a slow player; as mentioned before, Anand was considered one of the best quick players in the world just a few years ago.  So, if the answer isn’t the time control, the other possible answer that’s been tossed around before is stamina.  Stamina was discussed heavily during the past two Carlsen-Anand world championship matches as a possible decider in who would win.  Since then, it hasn’t been brought up much in press conferences or conversations.  But with Anand in his 47th year, recent tournament performances seem to beg the question to be asked again, and Anand has realized it as well.  After the conclusion of the rapid section, Anand said in an interview, “It’s nice to say ‘just a little bit off’ – I thought I was just mental! … There’s no point playing chess like this.”  It’s clear that the missed wins against MVL and arguably Carlsen that day had taken their toll.  All we can hope for is that the Indian GM is in higher spirits next time around and can still play for as long as possible.

And, as always, thanks for reading!