My Toughest Tournament Ever

Norm tournaments are mostly about present and future IMs/GMs, but I thought it would be interesting to see what it’s like for a random master to play a big norm tournament like the U.S. Masters. Long story short, it’s really hard – evidently, I can only handle about half a tournament (Meanwhile, David plows through 10 of these things in a year.).

Admittedly, it seemed ridiculous given my recent results that I should jump right into the strongest edition of one of the strongest tournaments in the country. But the tournament has been on my bucket list since I became a master, and I ultimately had little choice in the matter, having locked myself in on the whim of a Chess.com Titled Tuesday event.

Things didn’t look any easier on site, where I found myself the 4th-lowest seed in a field of IMs, GMs, and norm hopefuls. But to my amazement, I held my own in this field, defeating two IMs in the first four rounds! Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that these events are marathons and not sprints, but from the beginning this was meant to be for the experience than anything else, so there was a lot to learn and a lot of memorable moments. Aside from chess, it was good to see David and Vanessa again!


After earning the National Master title in April, I found it hard to stay motivated given my busy school and summer work life and the lack of uncertainty over what I wanted to achieve. The few times I did play chess were disasters; for example, in my last tournament before the Masters, I had to fight uphill to draw both an 1800 and 1500, and somehow managed to mess up a R+2 vs. R ending.

At this point, I wasn’t going for anything in particular other than staying solid as much as possible against whoever came my way. There was no warmup period, as I was immediately dealt Black against IM and 2-time U.S. Open champion Michael Mulyar. At first, the game looked like what you’d expect of this type of matchup:

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 12.21.00 AM
Mulyar – Li: After 20…Qc7

I’d played the opening reasonably, but after wasting time with dubious knight maneuvers, I found myself facing an imminent e4-e5. To make matters worse, I was down 40 minutes on the clock.

White surprised me by playing 21. f5!?. 21…f6 was the only “permanent” answer, but that would invite an eventual Ne6, which looked extremely unpleasant. Unsure of what to do, I stalled with 21…cxd5, which was immediately met by 22. f6!?. Clearly, moving anything on the kingside is a disaster, so 22…dxe4 followed. Instead of simply playing 23. Ng5 with fxg7 soon to follow, White attempted the more immediate 23. Qg5, and after the forced 23…Ne6 24. Rxe4 Nac5, erred with 25. Rfe1? Nxe4 26. Rxe4.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 12.46.46 AM

I’m guessing White just overlooked 26…h6! (probably the simplest way to resolve matters), and after 27. Qh4 Qc5 28. Qg3 g6 29. Kh1 Bd7 30. Rh4 Qe3 31. Ng4 Qc1+ 32. Kh2 h5, I was basically out of the woods with an extra Exchange. Still, even though Black is completely winning, this is completely possible to mess up, especially with only 5 minutes to make move 40. Fortunately, I closed out the win without too much trouble.

Beating an IM for the first time was a huge accomplishment for me, but looking deeper, I didn’t do anything too fancy here; I just tried to make the most of a bad position and took the chances I got. This is not to say that you can just simply for chances and win, but even very strong opponents make simple-looking mistakes.


On the other hand, I was definitely a little too confident going into the next two rounds, even though my opponents were better than almost everyone I’ve ever played. Since I had White in both games, I hoped I could sustain a solid position without too much effort. Alas, there’s a lot more to the chess than that, and I was soundly outplayed by IM Guillermo Vazquez and Deepak Aaron, a strong master rated over 2300 FIDE.

One of the more questionable decisions could have been avoided pretty easily:

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 1.22.59 AM
Li – Aaron: after 17…Rg8

The most straightforward continuation is 18. Qf2, even if it requires Ke1. I believe White should be somewhat better with the king relatively safe and the h6-pawn likely to fall.

Instead, I charged ahead with 18. Qxh6?I’m not sure how to explain why I chose this. I even calculated everything pretty much correctly; I just completely misjudged the resulting position. After 18…Bg5+ 19. Qxg5 Rxg5 20. Rh8+ Ke7 21. Rxa8 Bc8 trapping my rook, I assumed playing g4/Ng3-f5+ would be enough compensation for losing the Exchange. But after 22. g4 b6 23. Ng3 Qb7 24. Rxc8 Qxc8 25. Nf5+ Rxf5! 26. exf5 Qh8, Black’s queen proved too powerful due to my weak f3 and c2 pawns.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 1.28.55 AM
Li – Aaron: after 26…Qh8

Overconfidence with White would prove to be a recurring problem – I didn’t score with White for the whole tournament, even against lower rated players (more on that later).


With a 1/3 score, I had to wonder if I was headed for a bye as one of the lowest seeds (not a disaster by any means, but I wanted to play as many games as possible and there was little else to do around the area). It’s not often that someone at my level finds themselves in a must-win situation as Black against an IM, but that seemed to be the case here!

Since my opponent was a 1. Nf3 player, I decided it was important to try some preparation – otherwise, I’d be simply trying to match a much stronger player. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the best at openings or preparation – in fact, I had never successfully prepared for a specific opponent before. But I noticed my opponent had played a pretty specific line against two GMs before, who had both gotten great positions due to a temporary pawn sacrifice. I also didn’t think my opponent would suspect I’d prepped for him (mostly due to my strength), so I gave it a try. Long story short, it worked great!

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 4.31.58 PM
Saravanan – Li: after 8…c6

White deviated from the games I’d looked at, playing 9. Nb3 instead of 9. Nc2. This was probably an improvement, but I suspected that the GMs would not have played 8…c6 if it was just hope chess. This gave me the confidence to play 9…d5 anyway, and the game continued similarly with 10. cxd5 cxd5 11. exd5 Qb6 12. Qd4 Nbd7.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 4.36.34 PM
Saravanan – Li: after 12…Nbd7

This is when I realized the point of 9. Nb3: protecting b2 and giving White more options, e.g. 13. Bg5. Black has good compensation for the pawn with a powerful dark-squared bishop and White’s king still in the center, but I didn’t see how exactly I would get the pawn back and White has ideas of Nb5.

So I played 13…Qxd4 14. Nxd4 Nb6 15. d6 Nfd5, intending to open up the a1-h8 diagonal and develop my other bishop as soon as possible. After 16. Nxd5 Nxd5 White had a choice between the game move 17. Rd1 and 17. O-O-O. I think White missed a chance here even though it looks like the e2-bishop would be hanging, since the d5-knight is loose and White has possible Bb5 and Bc4 counterattacks.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 4.46.28 PM
Saravanan – Li: after 17. Rd1

Instead, after 17…h6, 18. Bc1 was forced and I played 18…Rd8 intending 19. Nb5 Be6 20. Bc4 Rac8. But instead of simply blocking off the c-file with 21. b3 (saving the extra d6-pawn for the moment) White tried to force matters with 21. Bxd5?! Bxd5 22. O-O?

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 4.51.31 PM
Saravanan – Li: after 22. O-O

21. Bxd5 already makes White’s position fairly uncomfortable, and 22. O-O is simply squashed by 22…Bc4; White resigned a few moves later.


Unfortunately, the overconfidence with White kicked in again when I played FM Hans Niemann; I overextended quickly and blundered a pawn on move 15, and later the Exchange while trying to win the pawn back. Although I hadn’t been favored to win any of my games as White, I definitely felt like I could have put up more resistance in those games.

My next game against WFM Apurva Virkud was only marginally better, as I essentially played into a bad version of the Bogo-Indian and got pretty passive early on.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 10.26.39 PM
Virkud – Li: after 5…Nc6

In this position, I expected White to transpose into the mainline Bogo-Indian with 6. Nf3 (having opened with 3. g3 instead of 3. Nf3), where 6…Bxd2+ 7. Qxd2?! is met with 7…Ne4 8. Qc2 Qb4+. Instead, I was surprised by 6. e3! giving White the ideal setup after 6…Bxd2+ (necessary to play …d6/…e5) 7. Qxd2 d6 8. Nc3. Soon after 8…e5 9. d5 Nb8 10. Nge2 a5?! 11. Nb5, I got tied down defending c7. Later, I blundered in an already difficult position and lost soon after.


In the next round, I bailed with a 9-move draw against NM Sam Copeland after accepting an interesting gambit in the Two Knights Caro-Kann. Early draws are admittedly not something I would encourage in general, but since he wasn’t feeling great and I was having second thoughts about the line, I guess we thought it would be prudent to call it off early. Furthermore, I wanted to save energy for my last round (I had to skip Round 9 to fly back to Pittsburgh) especially as White, and I think that was the right decision.

Unfortunately, even though my opponent was the lowest-rated (although by no means a weak player) I’d faced all weekend, I managed to overextend on the kingside in an Exchange Berlin and ultimately did not come close to winning. This was disappointing, although it goes to show how each game is really different; I definitely relied on my intuition more, perhaps due to beating strong players early on. This is definitely a game I’ll have to analyze more, but I’ll show the (effective) ending, since it was pretty surprising.

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 1.47.39 AM

24…Bxd3! 25. Qd1 (otherwise White will be down at least 2 pawns) 25…Rxd4! 26. cxd4 Bxd4+ 27. Kh2 Qxb2+ and I played on a bit longer than I should have, but with best play White is down too many pawns for the Exchange.


That’s a lot to take in for one’s first norm tournament. I wish I could have been a bit more consistent throughout, but for someone just trying to make some noise in the tournament, I am pretty satisfied with what I got out of it. In fact, my lifetime record against International Masters is now a curious 2.5 – 2.5 (with all my scores coming as Black).

Last but not least, I’d like to thank the tournament staff, especially organizer Walter High, for such a strong and smoothly run tournament. I definitely hope to be back someday!

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