The Pressure in the Room: Return to the Pittsburgh Chess Club

As we left it, the Sorensen Memorial at the Pittsburgh Chess Club was in full swing. In the first round, the lower seeds put up resistance against their higher rated counterparts, but the favorites ultimately prevailed, setting up an intriguing second round.

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NM Nabil Feliachi taking on PCC regular Vassil Prokhov in the second round

Though there were still a few mismatches in the top bracket, all eyes were on the top board, as National Masters Franklin Chen and Kevin Carl clashed in the first all-2000+ matchup of the tournament.

Having competed in this format several times, I’ve always found the second round to be especially dangerous. Get a slightly worse position against the wrong opponent, and you might just find yourself starting at 1/2 with four rounds to go. That is an incredibly small margin of error if you’re hoping to win a prize!

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Kevin’s game captured the spotlight for the round!

While convenient, this tournament schedule can also be extremely unforgiving. Winning a tournament like this means playing consistently good chess for six consecutive weeks against the best players in Pittsburgh – not an easy task by any means! If you want to beat the best here, you really have to be the best. This of course is what makes chess in Pittsburgh so much fun!

Brilliancy of the Tournament

…and I’m not really kidding either. Things seemed to be headed Franklin’s way after the opening, but had a crucial miss when he essayed 21. fxg5?

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Chen–Carl, position after 21. fxg5?

Just like in his first round game, Kevin found a way to rebound with the stunner, 21…Bxf3!!, offering his queen for an unstoppable attack. After 22. gxf6 Rg8-+, the game reached a quick end with mate on the board!

The Long Haul

While there was an abrupt end to the top board, there were still other players in the field  trying to reach the 2/2 mark. NM Nabil Feliachi improved to 2/2, and with half point byes Chip Kraft and Evan Park each improved to 1.5/2. That left Melih Özbek in the chase for a perfect score.

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Melih was the last player on the night to reach a perfect score of 2/2

Out of a Tarrasch, the opening didn’t seem to promise much until White erred with 16. h3?!, unknowingly weakening his own king.

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Kostyak–Özbek, position after 16. h3?!

After 16… Ne5 17. Nxe5 Qxe5, White quickly came to the painful realization that 18. f4 is forced, as 18. g3? collapses to 18…d4!, opening up Black’s light-squared bishop to wreak havoc on the White king.

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Kostyak–Özbek, position after 18. f4

Now, having moved so many squares in front of his king, White stood much worse, and Melih was able to use his bishops to ground out a nice win.

Familiar Faces

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PCC regular Yisrael Isaacson looking over his third round game

The Sorensen Memorial’s third round pairings proved to be extremely difficult for the field. Evan Park, back from his half point bye, had Black against his former coach Franklin Chen for their first ever tournament encounter. Tournament Titans Kevin Carl and Nabil Feliachi squared off on board 1, while further down the list, long time friends Finn Overlie and Jeffrey Schragin were paired for their 22nd contest.

In my opinion, the tournament narrative really develops here. Pittsburgh lays claim to a handful of experts (and stronger), but with so many local tournaments each year, rematches among the top players are the norm. Preparation can play an integral role at this stage – weak opening repertoire? Good luck moving beyond these match-ups.

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Paul Cantalupo and Melih Özbek catching up before the start of the round.

Clash of the Titans

Kevin and Nabil seemed to be on collision course when they entered the tournament, though to see the pairing with three rounds to spare was a bit of a surprise. Nabil was in cruise control until he erred with 28…Qxa3?, thinking he was winning material:

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Carl–Feliachi, position after 28…Qxa3?

But imagine his surprise when after 29. Nxb5 Qc1+ 30. Nf1! +- keeping the full piece. As I mentioned before, chess is particularly cruel. Just a few moves before, Black had missed his chance when he played 24…Rac8 instead of 24…Qa4! winning on the spot.

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Carl–Feliachi, position after 23. Rb3

The rooks lack oxygen, and after 25. Rb1 Bxe2 26. Nxe2 Ne4 28. Rd3 Qc2! -+, Black is simply winning material and the game.

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Doesn’t matter how you get there, 3/3 is still 3/3!

Elsewhere, there were nearly upsets on every board. Chip Kraft won with Black against Melih, and Evan Park triumphed in his showdown on board 3. Even more surprising, was that 1800-2000 rated players only scored 50% against lower rated opposition. When trying to beat familiar opponents, you have to be willing take risks. But as this night showed, sometimes taking chances can backfire.

Onwards

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Student meets Coach

After a dramatic three rounds, only NM Kevin Carl holds a perfect score, but both youngster Evan Park and Chip Kraft are only a half point behind at 2.5/3 and should pose interesting challenges over the next three rounds.

With 1900+ rated players scoring anywhere from 1/3 to 3/3, I think the current standings are proof for the original claim I made in my first tournament report: Pittsburgh is one of the toughest places to play chess. 

As the tournament moves into the second half, I will be particularly interested in who can play the most consistently. In the race for first, the remaining three rounds is practically a single-elimination tournament.

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IM Kostya Kavutskiy’s Positional Sacrifices Promo Code!

Remember Kostya? For those of you who are new to Chess^Summit, I got the chance to stay with the International Master in Iceland for last April’s edition of the Reykjavik Open during my European Tour. Kostya had the tournament of a lifetime, placing 6th in one of the most prestigious open tournaments in the world, and we also had a lot of fun putting together instructional round-by-round recaps of the tournament. Here’s one from the fourth round!

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When I think about landmark games in 2017, Kramnik-Harikrishna (Shamkir Chess) and Aronian-Carlsen (Norway Chess) immediately stick out. Why? The power of the positional sacrifice.

Kostya’s ChessUniversity course is really well put together and is a fun and friendly introduction to positional sacrifices. As a coach and chess writer, I think its especially valuable that Kostya finds top-level Grandmaster games from both past and present to help build your intuition on how to analyze positions. Make the most of the course, and I promise you will be a stronger player for it! Check out this clip from his 45-part series:

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Kostya and I at the Closing Ceremony in Reykjavik

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Blitz With Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson and I have different jobs. Every two weeks, I write an article in which I decide how many question marks to put next to my mistakes. Ben, on the other hand, interviews interesting personalities of the chess world in his Perpetual Chess Podcast. That may help to explain why, in the Chess^Summit World Cup Sweepstakes, Ben got 9 points, and yours truly got a score of big fat zero. Really, I did.

Ben started the Perpetual Chess Podcast in December 2016, and it is getting more and more popular. I was interviewed in Episode 21. Ok, perhaps not all people he interviews are that interesting J. Since then, Ben has gone on to interview big chess personalities, such as Rex Sinquefield, Hikaru Nakamura, Judit Polgar, etc.

Now for my amazing World Cup predictions:

Winner: Carlsen

Runner-up: Nakamura

Best American: Nakamura

Best Russian: Grischuk

Best Chinese: Wei Yi

Most Draws: Nakamura

Most Wins: Carlsen

Top <2700 player: Rodshtein

Does Carlsen make top 4?: Yes

We won’t even start discussing where they went wrong… Ben, on the other hand, correctly predicted that Aronian would win!

I played my part in the sweepstakes by offering one of the prizes: a 30-minute blitz match, and Ben was the prize winner! What a wonderful coincidence. Ben’s rating is in the 2100’s, though he doesn’t play much these days. From his podcasts, however, Ben knows all the secrets of the top players…

I ended up winning 3-1, though it was eventful…

Game 1 was a quick win after Ben blundered a piece early on. Ok, I’ll take that!

In game 2, my position was looking good, but my clock wasn’t. I ended up flagging in a queen up position. Ben obviously forgot to read my article about when to resign. More about my revenge later…

Summary of game 3: 1.e4 a6!! 0-1… yes, I really did play 1.e4 a6 but no, the game wasn’t so smooth… I finally got the better of Ben. In the final position, where I was a queen up, Ben flagged, and not the other way around.

I got my revenge for the flagging incident in the final game, game 4. Ben hung a pawn on move 4. Good start! However, I managed to ruin my good position, and by move 40 I was busted in both departments: position and clock. Then a miracle happened. Out of the blue, I trapped Ben in a mating net! He couldn’t get out, and I managed not to flag this time around.

Weak Squares In the Anti-Sicilians

Facing a tame-looking opening as Black often looks like a lucky break, as getting a solid, equal (or better) position out of the opening – often the dream as Black – seems to become much easier. I used to worry about this more from the White side, wondering if my openings were too cautious and balanced to create winning chances. But after playing a lot of these “boring” openings from both sides, it became clear that the better player always manages to create chances to profit. From the Black side, it’s always important not to get lulled into careless decisions when it looks like your opponent is not trying hard enough.

Despite blowing the second game in my last post against FM Petesch, the prospect of me closing out the Pennsylvania G/60 with two Whites made things a bit more comfortable. But with the next round starting immediately after that tough loss, I felt like I just wanted a quiet game without time trouble issues.

With that in mind, I decided not to grind out one of my usual Closed Sicilians against young expert Maxim Yaskolko, who I’ve played on and off since I was about 1500. I’ve been getting the better of him lately, but he had to be pretty familiar with my Closed Sicilian routine, so I went for the only other anti-Sicilian I knew anything about.

Li – Yaskolko

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bb5+ Bd7

I was ready for the more ambitious 3…Nd7, although it is probably a bit risky, so Black goes with an understandable and safe alternative.

4. Bxd7+ Nxd7 5. O-O Ngf6 6. Re1 e6 7. d4 cxd4 8. Qxd4 Be7 9. Bg5 O-O

White’s choices haven’t been particularly interesting. The queen on d4 looks solid at first as it eyes the d6-pawn, but Black can challenge the queen with …Qb6 and should have no problems defending on the d-file after …a6.

10. Nc3 a6 11. Rad1

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After 11. Rad1

For the above reason, 10. Nc3 was rather futile, and probably could have been replaced by 10. c4 or something, though Black is doing fine. The knight is pretty awkwardly placed now, especially after the natural 11…Qc7 and 12…Rac8. However, Black hastily tries to chase the queen out immediately.

11…e5?

A really unfortunate decision, as the rest of the game is basically me slowly exploiting the weakness of d5 and d6. It is very hard to justify this given the absence of the light-squared bishops.

12. Qd2 b5 13. a3 Qb6? 14. h3?

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After 14. h3

I’d been trying so hard to play relatively quick, safe moves to just improve my position that I missed 14. Nh4! g6 15. Bh6 followed by 16. Nf5! when the knight is immune due to mate on the g-file, and thus winning at least a pawn.

Nevertheless, even with that opportunity gone, Black’s problems continue, as there is little to be done to prevent White from piling on the d6-pawn.

14…Rfd8 15. Nh2 b4 16. axb4 Qxb4

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After 16…Qxb4

In my first big think of the game, I started calculating a lot of tempting Nd5 lines. They weren’t clear at all, so I simply continued my plan as to not cash in too early.

17. Re3 Nb6 

17…Qxb2?? 18. Rb1 Qa3 19. Nd5 wins.

18. b3 Rac8 19. Rd3 Rd7 20. Bxf6

Black does have chances at counterplay with …Rdc7, so this gets rid of one more useful Black defender and introduces the Nh2 with tempo.

20…Bxf6 21. Ng4 Be7 22. Ne3 g6

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After 22…g6

Black thought allowing Nf5 would be curtains, but it turns out Nd5 works immediately anyway.

23. Ncd5! Nxd5 24. Nxd5 Qxd2 25. R1xd2

25. Nxe7+ Rxe7 26. R1xd2 Rdc7 27. Rxd6 Rxc2 28. Rxc2 Rxc2 29. Rxa6 would win a pawn, but the ending looks iffy.

25…Bg5? 

For better or worse, Black had to defend passively with 25…Bd8; this runs into a tactic taking advantage of the unfortunate position of Black’s rooks.

26. f4!

 

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After 26. f4

 26…exf4 (26…Bd8 27. fxe5 is just a clear pawn) 27. Nb6 and Black ran out of time.

 

This was by no means the best way to play the position (eventually given that I arguably missed a win at move 14!) but the game does underscore that you only need one win, and sometimes simply improving your position and limiting counterplay is enough. While I might have missed some objective improvements, I was never in real danger, which is often more than one can hope for.

My last game, a nice win over NM Tom Magar, might not be boring in the same sense, but I know some people don’t think the Closed Sicilian to be challenging enough. Indeed, many of the positions look almost symmetrical on the important areas of the board, but in many games I’ve been able to show that many small-looking advantages can be more useful than people think.

Li – Magar

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. d3 d6 6. Be3

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After 6. Be3

I hadn’t had to spend too much energy in my third-round game, so it felt like a good time to get back to my roots. That said, Tom and I have played a number of Closed Sicilian lines before, so I didn’t know which one he’d choose.

6…e5 7. Qd2 Be6 8. f4 Qd7?!

This is a bit unusual and committal, since it largely immobilizes the Be6, making it vulnerable to Nf3-g5. Keep in mind that for now, this is Black’s good bishop.

9. Nf3 Nge7 10. O-O O-O

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After 10…O-O

I tend to think more of White’s chances than other people in these kinds of positions. Black’s position is reasonably solid, but White has a natural possibilities of doubling on the f-file and playing Bh6 or even c2-c3/d3-d4 if Black is slow. White’s bishop does not look great at the moment, but exf5 (if Black goes for the usual …f5 break) changes that outlook a bit. Note again that Black’s light-squared bishop is mostly stuck, and the potential loss of that bishop is a problem if he plays …f5.

11. Rf2 Rae8 12. Raf1 f5?! 

Black tries this anyway, but the task of defending the light squares (and dark-squares – see later) becomes a long term problem.

13. Ng5 Nd4 14. Nxe6 Nxe6

 

 

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After 14…Nxe6

15. fxe5

I’m always a bit hesitant to break this out too early (in this case, rooks will be “traded” quickly) but otherwise Black plays …exf4 himself, unleashing the dark-squared bishop. As it turns out, White has plenty of options left.

15…Bxe5 16. Bh6 Bd4 17. Bxf8 Rxf8 18. Kh1 Bxf2 19. Rxf2 

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After 19. Rxf2

Since a lot of pieces have been traded off and all of Black’s weak points are defended, it looks like there’s a lot less play. But White’s pieces have a lot more potential; Black has to watch out for Nd5, and if the e4 and f5 pawns are traded, Ne4 and the light-squared bishop in general. Perhaps Black would like to trade rooks, but doing that too hastily would allow White’s queen to be too active. Finally, Black has still a number of weak squares – currently defended, but not necessarily in the long term.

19…Ng7 20. Kg1 b6 21. Bh3

Trying to keep Black’s pieces tied down on the f-file and c8-h3 diagonal.

21…d5?!

One way to try and activate the queen, but this allows White’s queen an easy way in and now d5 (and e4 if the pawn moves) is a weak point White will try to exploit.

22. exf5! Ngxf5 23. Qf4 

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After 23. Qf4

23…Rf7 24. Qe5 

This immediately threatens 25. Bg2, either winning the d5-pawn or allowing the devastating Ne4 if …d4. Black’s only defense that I can see is to swing back with …Rf7-f8-d8.

24…d4?? 25. Ne4 Nd5

Forced, but White has quite a few ways to finish things off. One is to simply ensure Nf6.

26. c4 dxc3 27. bxc3 Re7 (otherwise, 28. c4) 28. Qxd5+ 1-0

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After 28. Qxd5

In the end, White won by exploiting the advantages from earlier. This goes to show how advantages that look small and manageable at one time are not necessarily the same later!