World Cup Concludes, Other News

Only yesterday did the World Cup of chess finally come to an end, concluding the 26-day-long event and crowning Levon Aronian as the winner over runner-up Ding Liren in tiebreaks.  The much-anticipated tiebreak section for the final match was perhaps cut shorter than what many had wished for, but it still offered enough fireworks to go around.  Last week, we examined how the shorter time controls in the tiebreaks could affect matches for both the higher rated and lower rated players, so we will also investigate how that could have played a role in what went down.

Let’s take a look at both tiebreak games from yesterday.

Aronian – Ding, World Cup, 2017

In this game, we saw Aronian try for a kingside attack that just ended up working.  From the get-go, there was no guarantee that anything substantial would have been done and it wasn’t even clear if the attack was the right way to go for White.  However, with a few inaccuracies (such as 17. … g5) along the way, Aronian was able to force his way through with 19. Ng6 and a rook joining in at the end.  Overall, it was a very forcing game that truly proved that Aronian was a player deserving to win the World Cup.  Only one more game stood in his way.

Ding – Aronian, World Cup, 2017

After opting for a relatively unexplored piece setup with 6. Bf4, Ding was able to build up a respectable advantage with the White pieces.  White’s real chance came on move 23, when a move like Qd2 or even Qc1 would have left White with a sizeable advantage and the long-lasting initiative.  Instead, Ding missed the move and soon dug himself into a hole to the point where he was no longer able to create winning chances from his position and eventually lost.

In what was a fairly short tiebreak for the World Cup final match, Aronian showed incredible resilience and an ability to pounce when the position called for it.  A few perfectly-timed attacks and counterattacks were all it took for Aronian to turn the tide of the games in his favor.  In addition, the faster time controls seemed to not faze Aronian at all, but it may have made Ding uncomfortable, especially in the moments when it mattered.  Aronian’s win at the World Cup marks his third classical supertournament victory of 2017, the previous two being the Grenke Chess Classic in April and Norway Chess in June.  He also won the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz in August.  In general, this year has been very eventful for Aronian fans, who have seen their star player cross the 2800 rating threshold and become the 2nd highest rated player on the planet as of now.  And still, it is only September!

In other news, the Isle of Man International open tournament is currently taking place, and it started on the 23rd of September.  A simple crosscheck of dates would reveal that this tournament started before the final match of the World Cup would have ended.  Thus, neither Aronian nor Ding are playing in the IoM International.  Ironically, however, I doubt that any of the top players there, including Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura, and Anand, are glad that they are there since they would probably have wanted to still be in the World Cup circuit…but who knows?!  After 5 rounds, Carlsen is unsurprisingly in the lead with 4.5/5 alongside Pavel Eljanov, who has played very well so far.  Those two will play in round 6.  Right behind them are the many players at 4/5, including American GMs Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Alexander Lenderman, who I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with on numerous occasions in local tournaments that I have played in.

A few upcoming tournaments to take note of are a few European-specific events, including the European Club Cup and the European Team Championship, both of which will take place in October.  The FIDE Grand Prix series concludes with the 4th and final event in November, which will also punch a ticket for another participant in the Candidates Tournament taking place in March of 2018.

Next time, I plan on showing an instructive game I played recently that may be of interest to players who get frustrated by robot-like opening systems.  Good luck in your future games, and, as always, thanks for reading!

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Simple but Effective: Minority Attack

One of the most surefire strategies in chess for either side is the minority attack. It is so effective because it arises directly from a certain type of pawn structure, is often nearly impossible to prevent, and almost always causes some structural problems for the other side when successful.

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Pawn minorities are usually disadvantages if anything, but given the above structure, White has the deceptively effective plan of attacking Black’s c6 link with a well-timed b2-b4-b5. Queen’s Gambit Declined Exchange players will recognize the pawn structure very well.

Once there’s a pawn on b5, there’s not a lot Black can do to prevent damage. If Black simply ignores White’s play, White takes on c6, leaving Black with a backward pawn on the open c-file or an isolated pawn on d5. Both …cxb5 and …c5 (after dxc5) also leave Black with an isolated d-pawn. White may be left with an isolated a-pawn, but it’s usually not very easily attackable and thus not a major factor.

Of course, those aren’t the only factors at play; as with many positions involving pawn weaknesses, the structurally weaker side often gets compensation in the form of open lines, space, and activity. But it’s clear that the victim of the minority attack cannot just sit and wait for the plan to unfold. Because of the static nature of the minority attack’s benefits, I personally try to avoid that pawn structure (as the victim) at all costs, and have been relatively successful, despite that structure being extremely common.


The minority attack can obviously arise from the Queen’s Gambit Declined, but another common pathway is through the Exchange Caro-Kann as Black. Many players like to describe it as a safe option for White, but in my opinion, the minority attack shows that it’s not as safe as it might seem.

Here’s a “typical” example of how I put it to use against a 1900 in the Pennsylvania G/60 last weekend.

Henninger – Li

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c3 Qc7!

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After 5…Qc7

In a previous game against the same opponent, I’d played 5…Nf6 in a tough game where White played Bf4, Qb3, Bb5, Nf3-e5, and more. This is a lot easier, as White will find it hard to develop the dark-squared bishop.

6. Nf3

Ideally, White would play Nf3 or Bf4 here, but it’s not so easy to challenge Black with that. The only real tries here, in my opinion, are 6. Ne2 (preparing Bf4 and ready to meet 6…Bg4 with 7. f3) and 6. h3 before Nf3.

Even in this early position, a seasoned Caro-Kann player would already be waiting to prepare …b7-b5-b4. There’s not a lot White can do to prevent this, but he can prepare for it.

6…Bg4 7. Be3 e6 8. h3 Bh5 9. Nbd2 Bd6 10. Qc2 Nge7 11. a3

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After 11. a3

White’s already sensing the minority attack, but interestingly enough, this rarely proves effective, as Black just plays …a5, daring White to force matters with b2-b4, which has its own problems.

11…Bg6

Indirectly pressuring c2 to make an eventual …b4 more effective and lessen the chance of b2-b4.

12. O-O O-O 13. Rfe1 a5

It’s also worth noting that White is stuck defending the queenside, since Black has given White absolutely nothing in the center and kingside. White has a chance at the ugly b2-b4 (by getting rid of the pin on the c-file immediately), but ultimately chooses not to contest matters.

14. Nf1 b5 15. Bg5 b4

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After 15…b4

White has the usual 3 choices (plus or minus axb4); unsurprisingly, none of them are particularly appealing as they all lead to weak b, c, and/or d-pawns.

16. Bh4 bxc3 17. bxc3 Rfc8 18. Bg3 a4

Black will quickly make White’s life miserable if allowed to play …Na5-b3 or …Na5-c4, so White lashes out.

19. Bxd6 Qxd6 20. Bxg6 Nxg6 21. c4

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After 21. c4

This simplifies things a bit, but White’s d-pawn is still very weak. Black is the only one with chances here.

21…dxc4 21. Qxc4 Nf4 23. Ng3 Qd7 24. Qc1?

White caves and simply blunders the exchange after 24…Nd3. Needless to say, White did not last much longer.

But that was a little too straightforward, as White didn’t really do anything to prepare for the minority attack. Let’s see how well this can work against one of my toughest opponents ever, FM Gabriel Petesch.

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After 6…Qc7

Same opening, but again, White has not pressed for much and Black is already comfortable. Still, there’s a lot of game left to play – White is not closing in on 2400 for nothing.

7. Bg5 Nf6!

Not fearing 8. Bxf6 gxf6, which can be followed soon by …e5! But that’s a story for another day.

8. Nbd2 e6 9. Qa4 Bd6 10. O-O O-O 11. Rfe1 Bh5 12. Bh4 a6

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 12.11.24 AM

After 12…a6

 

It looks like Black will get in …b5-b4 easy. But White can do a bit about it.

13. Rac1 Rfc8 14. Qc2 Bg6 15. Bxg6 hxg6 16. Bg3 b5 17. Nb3

And here we see one of the few downsides of the minority attack: the c5 (or c4 if you’re White) square is a bit weak because of …b5/…d5/bishops getting traded left and right. But this is not quite a save for White.

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After 17. Nb3

17…Bxg3 18. fxg3 Qd6 19. Qd3 Ne4! 20. Nfd2 Nxd2 21. Nxd2 b4

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After 21…b4

And White couldn’t stop …b4 after all. Still, White can plant a knight on c5, which makes it kind of tough for Black to break through. However, it’s clear that Black has the only real chances, due to White’s weaknesses.

22. Nb3 bxc3 23. Qxc3 Qb4 24. a3 Qb5 25. Nc5 a5 26. b3 Ra7 27. Rc2 Rac7 28. Rec1

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 12.20.00 AM

Black’s plan has been very straightforward up to this point, but 60 minutes is not a lot of time, and by now I was down to under 10 minutes to Gabe’s 5.

The fact that I eventually lost this game on a blunder should not detract from the simplicity and effectiveness of the minority attack. Although White’s knight seems powerful, the a, b, and d-pawns are still quite weak and White has no real targets anywhere else. I was happy to reach this point against a 2400.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just show the ending.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 12.24.31 AM
After 34. Rd1

34…Nxb4??

Almost any other reasonable move keeps a sizable advantage for Black, the most natural being 34…Rb8. 34…Na5 is especially cute. On the other hand, almost any move attacking the b4 knight wins for White here, so it’s amazing that I even considered this.

35. Rdb1 and I resigned in a few more moves.


Although that didn’t work out in the end, the first game and most of the second were pretty solid demonstrations of how simple the minority attack can be. If you want some more opportunities with that, I’d certainly recommend getting some Exchange games with the Caro-Kann!

Chess^Summit is Looking for a New Resident Author

Ever wanted to talk about chess on an established web platform? Here’s your chance! Chess^Summit is looking for a passionate and talented author to contribute insights regularly (bi-weekly).

About Us:

Resident Authors Beilin, Alice, and Isaac at the 2016 World Open in Philadelphia

Chess^Summit is a unique online project (chesssummit.com), designed to help chess players discuss their goals while sharing their step-by-step progress on an online forum. Since the site’s conception in 2014, Chess^Summit has had over 66,000 article reads worldwide and has been recognized by the United States Chess Federation, Chess Club Live, and many other organizations for its ability to constantly publish creative content.

By featuring non-titled players on the site, Chess^Summit is able to consistently make relatable articles and videos for amateur players and connect with players from around the world differently than mainstream chess websites.

Responsibilities:
– Create interesting and fun bi-weekly chess-related content for readers (articles, videos, etc)
– Publish content through WordPress (can be learned on the job)
– Maintain a social media presence (Facebook, Twitter) and promote your own Chess^Summit articles (at a minimum)

Requirements:
– Access to Internet and a Computer
– Understanding of chess, chess notation, and terminology
– Willingness to work with Chess^Summit team

Beilin with Grant at the 2016 PA State Championships. Grant is now the 3-time defending state champion

Remarks and Benefits:
While the Chess^Summit Resident Author is not a paid position, we aim to help budding chess reporters build a brand and public profile while creating unique chess content. Our authors have landed paid opportunities and recognition from ChessOpeningsExplained, the Perpetual Chess Podcast, the United States Chess Federation, and ChessBase – thanks to their work for Chess^Summit.

Feel like you have a lot to share on Chess^Summit? Fill out our application and see if you have what it takes to become the next member of the Chess^Summit team!

Through My Eyes: Opening Night at the Sorensen Memorial

IMG_1854
Don’t be fooled! Evan Park, the youngest player in the field, recently broke 2000 after only two years of tournament play!

In my experience, Pittsburgh is one of the most dangerous cities to play chess. Unlike other metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh isn’t dominated by young talent, but rather a class of well-seasoned veterans, consistently underrated yet somehow consistently over-performing. Opening innovation isn’t enough to win against these guys – everything needs to go perfectly. Hotbeds for chess around the city like the Pittsburgh Chess Club continuously pair the city’s best against each other, making a logjam in the chase for rating points. Want to boost that rating in the Steel City? Good luck!

That brings us to the 20th Fred Sorensen Memorial. A Tuesday night ladder at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, this event marks the first litmus test to see who’s playing well going into the fall. With college players returning from the summer to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, it’s more important now more than ever to be in form.

IMG_1847
I got a chance to use my camera for the first time since the St Louis Rapid and Blitz. How could I pass that?

Where was I in all this? Frustratingly enough, my course load this semester has forced me to keep my eyes off the chess board, and I’ve decided to sideline myself for a few weeks from tournament play until my school schedule becomes more manageable. Somehow that found me to be a tournament director of this event, and thus the inspiration of this project. Knowing that I have played a vast majority of players in the field, I’m hoping that with these tournament reports I can share my insights throughout the event, as well as give a glimpse as to why chess in Pittsburgh is so strong.

And with that hefty introduction, let’s take a look at some chess!

Statement Wins

IMG_1841
Nabil chose the Benko Gambit and was rewarded with a nice win

These ladders can be long. With the tournament lasting six weeks, I’ve always believed that momentum is the key to winning. For the strongest players in the field, that means showing their class and effortlessly moving into the second round unscathed on opening night.

Easier said than done! Even with the top players paired against the bottom half of the field, that still pitted roughly 1800 rated players against National Masters. Who would put up resistance?

Second seed NM Nabil Feliachi arguably had the best win of the day:

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 17.48.01
Overlie–Feliachi, Black to Move

Unaware of the of the impending attack, Finn chose 1. f4? to kick Black’s knight off of e5. However, after Nabil chucked 1…c4!, White must have realized he was lost! The game continued 2. Qe1 Nd3 3. Qg3 f6 4. bxc4 Qf2+! (click here for web player), and with the trapped bishop on g5, Nabil won material and the game.

IMG_1868
Melih had to push a small advantage from the opening to get the point

Nabil wasn’t alone in producing a masterclass win. Chip Kraft launched his e-pawn and busted Black in a Catalan, and the youngest (Evan Park) as well as one of the oldest (Vassil Prokhov) competitors both cruised to nice tactical finishes. Candidate Master Melih Özbek (Congrats on the recent PhD) met some resistance early, but methodically earned his point.

Overcoming the First Test

IMG_1839
Paul’s adventure into main line 1 d4 paid off with a good result to start the ladder

Of course, winning every game with ease is unrealistic, and there were a fair number of close calls on opening night. Having played in this field several times, I must admit that has more to do with the growing strength and resilience of the 1300-1600 rated players in Pittsburgh. There have been quite a few events here where I’ve felt that a win against a 1400 was much harder to come by than a win against an opponent 400 points stronger! They simply aren’t afraid to play slightly worse positions.

Playing Black, National Master Franklin Chen had to take some risks to get an advantage from a symmetrical pawn structure to win. Paul Cantalupo (who I played recently) got an advantage early, but couldn’t convert his attack and had to settle for a draw, a result which proved to be the only upset of the day.

That being said, no one danced on a knife’s edge more than Michael Kostyak who managed to convert the following position:

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Sasson–Kostyak, position after 34…Qg5?

Playing for the 500 point upset, Ivry plopped a quick tactic on the board: 35. Qf8+ Kh5 36. g4+ Kh4 37. gxf5. Thinking he had won a piece, Ivry was in for Caissa’s worst lesson when Michael played 37… Kh3!!, prompting immediate resignation.

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 18.31.28.png
Sasson–Kostyak, position after 37…Kh3!!

White cannot stop mate on both g1 and g2, and thus the game was over. Even worse was that 37. Qg8! was the winning blow White needed to win the game. Chess is truly a cruel game.

Battle on Board 1

The top seed and my Pittsburgh Chess League teammate, Kevin Carl, had the toughest pairing of the night in his match-up with Walter Kennedy. Walter is a solid player, and at his best, is a much stronger player than what his 1800 rating suggests.

IMG_1867
Deep in thought

Kevin ventured into the Catalan, and opted to give Black hanging pawns. All seemed to be in the balance until he dropped the howler 19. Qb2?, offering Black a tactical shot:

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 18.45.58
Carl–Kennedy, position after 19. Qb2?

As he told me after the game, he immediately realized that he had missed the undermining move, 19…g5!, winning a piece. Luckily for him, Black continued with 19…Rfe8, and after an immediate 20. Nd3, the position returned to rough equality and the plot progressed.

Black actually had built a slight edge when Kevin played 26. Qf5:

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 18.53.14

In what proved to be the critical moment, the game turned on its head when Walter essayed the move 26…Qe7? allowing 27. Rxd4! g6 28. Qh3, dropping a pawn thanks to the pressure on c8.

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 18.59.30
White stood better from here on.

26…Ne4! could have proven to be something here, as Kevin would have to combat the knight’s route to c3. Black had his chance.

With the pawn center collapsed, Black fell apart, thanks to some good technique from White. Miss your chances against these top players, and you don’t give yourself a chance to win.

On to Round 2

With the first round in the books, eight players opened the Fred Sorensen Memorial with a win, meaning that the tournament’s toughest games start this Tuesday! A lot of interesting games this round, and certainly a lot more to be looking forward to. Hard to say if anyone stands out as the clear favorite after this round, but that’s why there are six!

I’ll be posting the next report in two weeks, following the conclusion of Round 3!

Queen vs. Two Rooks

I’m continuing with my articles about material imbalances. This time it’s queen vs. two rooks

What can we say about queen vs. two rooks? Using the beginner material scale, two rooks are worth 10 points, and a queen is worth 9 points. Does that mean that two rooks are better than a queen? If that were a simple question to answer, then I wouldn’t be writing this article…

Coordination

It depends, as usual, on coordination. Bad coordination, especially with more pieces on the board, is, in general, a recipe to disaster when facing the queen. The queen is a goddess at causing nasty cases of LPDO (loose pieces drop off). If the rooks are coordinated, however, then the two rooks can be an effective force.

Number of pieces on the board

Don’t underestimate the power of a queen and minor piece(s) combo. Those can be quite annoying, especially if the opponent’s pieces are badly-coordinated. The pieces can, of course, be cooperating with the rooks too, but usually it’s the side with the queen that is better off.

King safety

It would be criminal not to mention a thing or two about king safety, especially when we’re talking about queens. The queen has a reputation of mating unsafe kings, especially with the help of a couple pieces. And let’s not forget about perpetual checks; queens are good at that too.

I’m not saying that two rooks are not good attackers. No, they can be, but mostly when they are coordinated. “Ladder” mates exist, and two rooks on the 7th rank are true monsters. But the queen is generally better at dealing with weak kings than the rooks.

One thing that I should comment on is that, when looking up my games with the queen vs. two rook imbalance, I found that many of those were one-sided games, mainly in favor of the queen. It was not because the side with the two rooks botched it up but because the position was totally botched up to begin with.

Let’s look at a quick example of a position that isn’t one-sided.

Kopiecki, Edward (1963 USCF) – Brodsky, David (2201 USCF) Marshall Grand Prix April 2014

Kopiecki

White has a queen for two rooks, and there are a couple minor pieces on the board – if the minor pieces weren’t there, then black would just be better. The rooks aren’t coordinated for the moment, and white is threatening mate. Here, black should go 20…Ne8, defending the g7-pawn and preventing white from infiltrating on c7. The position there is roughly equal, as neither side can do anything concrete. Instead, I went for inspired active play with 20… Ng6? and was in trouble after 21.Qc7! grabbing some queenside pawns.

The rest of the game wasn’t pretty. I basically tried to blow open the white camp with active play, but everything was under control for white, and I was objectively much worse. I managed to generate something but in the process botched up the complications and would have been lost had my opponent found a nice little tactic. Fortunately, he missed that tactic, and the position went back to objectively drawn. Then, he blundered again, and I won. Phew!

What are the conclusions from that game? Don’t overestimate the power of the two rooks and don’t give away pawns unless you have a legitimate reason to!

Last October, I got a chance to get the raw deal: two rooks vs. a queen with equal number of pawns and no other pieces on the board. In simple English, I got the raw deal. And, in simple English, the game turned into a festival of mistakes.

Tsay, Vincent (2152 USCF) – Brodsky, David (2430 USCF) Eastern Chess Congress 2016

Tsay4

Yes, I did use this game already in my queen vs. pieces article. This was after my messup that degraded my position from winning to better. So, what to say about this position?

The black rooks are coordinated, that’s for sure. There aren’t any loose pawns for either side, and black should be able to protect everything if necessary. The black king is defended by the rooks, though it can get a bit drafty (as it did in the game).

What’s the overall evaluation? Black is better, but he isn’t winning.

But how to try and win? The white king is a bit airy, but I didn’t see any realistic mating ideas. But how about the queenside pawns? None of them are really loose or anything, but it’s not a bad idea to eyeball them… In simple English, I needed to try to grab some queenside pawns without allowing a perpetual check. This wouldn’t be easy – I knew I had to resort to the old trade secrets of dancing around trying to make progress… AKA grinding.

Nothing particularly eventful happened for the next few moves, and we soon reached this position.

Tsay5

After having my rooks doubled on the f-file for the past few moves, I decided to try out the g-file with my last move 51… Kg7-h7!?, clearing the g7-square for my rook. I honestly doubt that the rook could accomplish anything effective there, but it was worth a try – I could always put my rook back on the f-file with no harm done.

Vincent had defended well up to this point, but here he cracked with 52.h4?. I thought this was a bad move but for the wrong reasons. Can you find the win for black here? I’ll come back to the solution later in this article.

I went 52… Rg7+? 53.Kh2 Rf2+ (going 52… Rf4 would have gotten there immediately, but I wanted to dance around a little) 54.Kh3 Rf3+ 55.Kh2 Rf4 56.Kh3 Rxd4

Tsay6

Yay! I’ve snagged a pawn! The only problem is that after 57.Qf8!, black cannot stop perpetual check. Oops… Instead, I got lucky when Vincent played 57.Qe5? which was the right idea but the wrong execution. After 57… Rd3+ 58.Kh2 Rf7, I stopped the perpetual. Still, after 59.Qe6, I had to figure out what to do. Black’s best policy is actually to give up the d5-pawn with 59… Rdf3 in some form or another to stop the perpetuals. Black retains some advantage there. I went 59… Rff3?. Here, white would have had a draw after 60.h5!, not letting black escape with the king via g6. After some thought, my engine gives triple zeros. Instead, Vincent couldn’t resist checking with 60.Qe7+?, after which my king successfully flees. The game continued 60… Kg6 61.Qe6+ Kh5 62. Qe5+ Kxh4 63.Qe7+ Kg4 64.Qe6+ Kf4 65.Qxh6+ Ke4 66.Qh4+ Ke3

Tsay7

All those checks may seem scary, but I was well aware that this was no perpetual. My king has run towards the queenside, and my rooks are now helping shield his majesty. This is the point where white starts running out of checks. A few moves later, I won.

I want to go back to the moment after 52.h4?, where I had a win.

Tsay8

Black should be concerned that his king doesn’t get into a perpetual check, but the winning move here is ironically 52… Kg6!. Black’s plan is simple: play Kg6-h5xh4. Then, white will be forced to trade his queen for black’s two rooks after Rf2+, resulting in a completely winning pawn endgame for black. How does white stop this? Well, he can’t! His checks are useless! I completely missed this remarkable idea, and kudos if you found it.

So yeah, queen vs. two rooks is not an easy imbalance to play… What’s the conclusion? I guess it is not to underestimate the queen – in their raw form, two rooks are better than a queen, but in many other situations they are not.

Upsets Galore at the World Cup

Midway through the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Tbilisi, only three of the world’s top ten players remain in the circuit, and Magnus Carlsen isn’t even one of them.  Did we want it to happen like this? No, not really.  Did we predict such a thing?  Never.  Was something like this bound to happen?  You could say that.

So why do we always believe that all of the top players will have a deep run and that the last few rounds will provide more fireworks than a July 4th celebration?  Moreover, why do we dismiss the possibility that some (or even most) of the top seeds will be knocked out relatively early?  Now, this won’t be an article about the psychology of such predictions, but we can look at some of the reasons for why the World Cup has played out the way that it has this year.

  1. Schedule

The World Cup circuit is arguably the toughest tournament in the modern era.  In order to reach the finals, a player has to play a minimum of 12 games over a span of 18 days, which is already tiresome – and that’s only if you’re extremely lucky.  If you’re on the opposite side of the spectrum, you might have to play 54 games over a span of 18 days.  Overall, it is a lot of games to play at one time, and players would not have as much time to rest and prepare in between games.  And, of course, the entire event is about 2.5 times longer than most supertournaments these days.  Put it all together, and you have one of the toughest schedules on the planet.

  1. Stress

If you’re one of the top seeds in a tournament, especially a knockout tournament where you play relatively easy competition at first, you’re supposed to do well.  It’s as simple as that.  You’re supposed to win most of your games and keep moving on to the next round.  So, what happens when you try to force the issue too much and end up losing as a result?  You risk being closed out prematurely.  Depending on the color situation, it may be even harder to come back from a loss – just ask Anand in round 2 or Carlsen in round 3.  The stress to play well and not make mistakes can be overwhelming when combined with the fact that a top-seeded player must face it every day of the tournament.

On top of that, there are the added stakes to the entire event.  Finishing at the very top would guarantee a spot in the upcoming Candidates tournament, taking participants one step closer to the chance of playing current World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship Match.  Obviously, all players want to try and gain that opportunity, so the competitiveness in regards to the stakes definitely adds to the pressure on the top seeds.

  1. Time Control

The last point examined how trying to win too early in a match can just as quickly backfire.  However, there’s also the flip side to that – not winning enough early can lead to muddied waters in tiebreaks.  The lower-rated opponent may play exceptionally well in faster time controls, or perhaps the top-seeded player may not play as well in the faster time controls.  In general, games in faster time controls are much more “up in the air” in terms of possible results, and one blunder in a blitz game may be enough to knock someone out.

We looked at a few possible explanations for the struggles of some of the top seeded players in this year’s edition of the World Cup.  While there are much more possible reasons, especially, “it just happened,” these were some that definitely could have played a factor.  Looking forward, we have the chance of seeing an Aronian-MVL or Aronian-Svidler semifinal matchup on one side of the bracket, and a possible So-Liren semifinal matchup on the other side.  While anything could happen, the chess world can be excited for the fireworks to come, no matter who moves on.  And, as always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.

Strategic Concepts: The Wedge on d6

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Tabling for Pitt Chess Club at the Peterson Events Center

Prior to flying to St Louis for the Rapid and Blitz, I took a quick road trip to the Cleveland Open where I had a somewhat lackluster performance. I got reasonable positions out of each game, but my form was simply off and the momentum I built in Columbus simply didn’t translate into results.

With the fall term starting and my rating bouncing between 2130 and 2160, the road to National Master seemed to get getting longer, not shorter. With one game at the Pittsburgh Chess Club left for the summer, I decided to put all this stress aside and just play chess – a mindset I’ve brought up several times here on Chess^Summit.  How did I do this with the White pieces? 1. e4!

Chess with a New Face

Drawing inspiration from my final round in Reykjavik last April, I opted for Fischer’s “best-by-test” move and forced myself to think from move 1. I actually won a really nice game (which I will attach below), but I wanted to focus on a critical moment where I executed a strategic idea I had studied from the recent FIDE Grand Prix in Geneva:

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Steincamp–Kostyak, position after 10…Be7

After ten moves, White is clearly better. I have an extra pawn, and I’ve managed to kick Black’s knight to a5 where it has no mobility. When my opponent played 10…Be7, I immediately wanted to break open the position and stop Black from castling with 11. d4, with ideas of dropping a knight on d6 and wreaking havoc in the center. However, Black’s superior development makes it near impossible to breakthrough – in fact, in some variations, Black is even better if White takes too many risks (thanks to the White king still being on e1).

It didn’t take me long to realize that Black has some compensation in his development for the pawn – not enough for equality, but certainly enough to stay in the game. Needing to catch up in development, I played 11. 0-0 0-0 12. d6!. Here’s an excerpt from my game notes I wrote after the game concluded:

“20 minute think – This was a hard move to make because this pawn does look weak and it lets the a5 knight back into the game [via c6]. The problem for White is that despite the material advantage, I am lacking in development, so a slower approach lets Black back into the game. This move is aimed to help me catch up and activate my pieces. I wasn’t 100% sure I was keeping the pawn, but the amount of tempi it would take to win it should leave Black with a worse position”

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Steincamp-Kostyak, position after 12. d6!

To summarize, I’m basically throwing a wrench into Black’s position. While Black tries to play around this pawn, I’ll get the time I need to create a harmonious set-up. This is an important move in the game because it stops Black’s plan of …f7-f5, and without this, Black really doesn’t have much. After 12…Bf6, the position turns static, where I hold an extra pawn and Black has two misplaced pieces – the knight on a5 and the bishop on f6. Much to my satisfaction, this d6 pawn not only helped me develop, but also helped me conduct an attack in the center and on the kingside. You can play through the game in full here with my notes and analysis.

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Pondering this 11. 0-0, 12. d6 idea, Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

Theoretical Notes

So what is it about this d5-d6 push that makes it so powerful? Surely in principle this is a hyper-extension! Let’s not rush to conclusions. The idea revolves around Black’s ability to make a blockade. Here’s a game of mine from the Columbus Open last June:

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Wright–Steincamp, position after 16…Nd6

Here I just played 16…Nd6 following the standard knight blockade idea in the King’s Indian. Even though my knight’s primary function is defensive, it hits a lot of critical squares (c4, b5), and thus is an active piece. This knight is a strong enough piece that my higher rated opponent decided to play 17. Nxd6 cxd6 18. Rfd1, and with the center closed, the game eventually petered out to a draw.

There are two distinct differences between a pawn on d5 and one on d6:

  1. A Black knight on d6 is an active blockader. From behind the d5 pawn, it can reach c4 and e4, and pressure various points in White’s camp.
  2. A Black knight on d6 can be supported by a pawn, whereas a knight on d7 cannot. This is an important distinction, because when White has a pawn on d6, he can play to undermine the blockade. In the example above, we saw that the pawn on d5 was neutralized after 17…cxd6.

If we return to my game where I played 12. d6!, we quickly see that the knight on d7 is a poor blockader and can’t contribute to the central fight:

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Steincamp-Kostyak, position after 12. d6!

Black is by no means obligated to blockade this pawn, but if he isn’t careful, the threat of promotion can become overwhelming – thus is the power of a pawn on d6. Of course, I can’t take credit for this strategic idea, and for that I have to thank my modern predecessor, Peter Svidler, for bringing it to my attention.

Svidler Pushes Delroy

As I mentioned, I was inspired to push my d-pawn from an earlier example during the FIDE Grand Prix in Geneva earlier this summer. Peter Svidler, in a last round clash with former Women’s World Champ Hou Yifan, pushed the d-pawn and got a nice win:

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Svidler–Hou Yifan, position after 16. d6!

In this game, Hou Yifan opted not to create a blockade, and was swiftly punished with a further d6-d7 push, as her rook was tied down to d8. Even though the computer evaluates the above position as equal, Svidler showed just how easy it was to smash through Black’s defensive resources in this win.

I watched the commentary for this game live, and I distinctly remember GM Evgeny Miroshnichenko saying “this is the way to punish these positions”, and that just stuck with me…

Beat the Youngster with Old School Chess!

With the World Cup starting last Sunday, I’ve found myself spoiled for choice when it comes to analyzing games. One fixture that caught my attention was 2016 World Champion Challenger Sergey Karjakin against International Master Anton Smirnov. Even though Smirnov held his own at the Match of the Millennials earlier this summer, I would not have predicted that Karjakin would need tiebreaks to outlast the youngster.

In their first tiebreak, Smirnov had out-prepared Karjakin from the Black side of a Petrov and established equality out of the opening with a massive time advantage. Surely  Smirnov could keep the course and head into the next tiebreaker on an even score, right? Unfortunately, the youngster from Australia got tricked by a mirage when he materialistically played 23…Bxf3?:

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Karjakin–Smirnov, position after 23…Bxf3?

Thinking he could snack on h3, Smirnov must have been surprised after 24. gxf3 Qxh3 25. d5! where he realized this pawn was going to d6, restricting Black’s pieces in the center. Even with Karjakin’s damaged kingside, this proved too strong for Smirnov, and he went down in the endgame. I really like this example, because it really showcases the strength of the central passed pawn. Again, the computer gives 23…Bxf3 an equal evaluation, but just like Svidler–Hou Yifan, we are starting to see we need to treat these positions differently.

Conclusions

Of course pushing your pawn all the way to d6 alone won’t win you games, but it is certainly a viable option when considering how to restrict your opponent’s counterplay. Its important to notice how in each of these games, the pawn on d6 acts as a wedge, and makes it easier to play in both the center and on the flanks. So next time the opportunity presents itself, strongly consider d5-d6! (or …d4-d3!) – it might just win you the game!