The Magnus Effect: Revisiting the Past

Dear WordPress spellchecker: How is “Magnus” not a word???
Sincerely,

A passionate chess player!

Today is November 30th. It’s my aunt’s birthday (yes, it actually is). And it’s also Magnus Carlsen’s birthday! In honor of the occasion (Carlsen’s not my auntie’s, sorry auntie), I decided to thumb through Carlsen’s games – particularly his endgames. I was looking for interesting material from which I could learn something myself. I was especially curious to explore some of his games when he was younger. We all know more or less how he plays these days, and I thought it would be interesting to see how he played back when he was around my rating… Would I be able to relate? Would I understand his great moves as well as his mistakes? Would I make his mistakes and would he have made mine?

What did I find? I found a few instructive fails, though of course everyone has those. At one point I came across an interesting endgame that gave me a “flashback”.

CarlsenAge11

Black to play

Before I go any further, ask yourself the following question: is white winning? Just answer intuitively.

The correct answer is yes! Though white has no immediate win, black has no fortress. Take a look at how an 11-year-old Carlsen wins this endgame flawlessly.

This reminded me of a game of mine which wasn’t that simple. Actually, it wasn’t simple at all! Seeing the Carlsen’s game prompted me to revisit it. The position is similar to the one above, yet is very different. There is no clear win, not even a verdict. And yeah, I was sitting on the wrong side…

Balakrishnan, Praveen (2456 USCF) — Brodsky, David (2405 USCF) US Cadet Championship 2016

Praveen1

Is white winning? Probably not, though it isn’t as drawn as you may think… I say “probably” because I have no “official” verification that it is a draw… It goes without saying that fortresses aren’t one of the strong points of engines, and there are way too many pieces on the board for tablebases to be of any use. Unfortunately, the game continuation did not help the “theoretical” is-this-winning debate due to a serious mistake on my part. However, I do not see how white can crack through the “best” defensive setup.

I played 31… h5 making loft for my king. 31… g6? looks suicidal on account of 32.Bc3 ideas, and 31… h6 was also playable. I chose h5, however, because I wanted to prevent white’s kingside expansion, or at least slow it down by forcing him to trade pawns. Praveen played 32.Rb7 tying my king down to the defense of the f7-pawn. I didn’t like 32… f6 on account of 33.Re7, hitting the newly-created weakness on e6. However, that’s what I should have done – as you’ll see in the game, white got a much better version of this. Playing committal moves like 32… f6 are hard, especially in such an early stage of the endgame.

Instead, I danced for the next few moves and let white get into position. The game went 32… Ra1+ 33.Ke2 Rg1 34.Kf2 Rd1 35.Bc3 Rc1 36.Be5 Rc2+ 37.Kg3

Praveen2

Here, I was getting a little too worried about white’s setup and decided to play 37… f6. Looking back at the starting position, my “concession” with f6 was much smaller. First of all, the white king is better-placed now. Second of all, I’ll have trouble playing Kh7-g6 because of Bxf6 ideas (the g7-pawn is pinned).

The game continued 38.Bb2 h4+ 39.Kh3 Rc4 40.g3 hxg3 41.hxg3 Re4 42.Kg4 Re3 43.Bd4 Rd3 44.Bc5 Rc3 45.Bd6

Praveen3

I’ve managed to trade a pair of pawns, but white’s position looks menacing. Black’s best move is 45… Kh7!. The detail I missed was that after 46.Bf8, which seems to win the g7-pawn, black has 46… Rc8! the idea being that the white bishop is pinned after 47.Bxg7? Rg8. White can (and should) naturally try something other than Bf8, but black should breathe a sigh of relief that his king escaped off the back rank. White, however, has resources, and I’m not quite confident enough to declare it a draw, but I believe it should be one.

Instead, I panicked and made the losing move 45… d4?. After 46.Rd7! black is busted because the d4-pawn will fall. The game went 46… Re3 47.Bc7 e5 48.fxe5 fxe5 49.Rd5

Praveen4

We can all agree that black is busted here. I resigned a few moves later.

What’s the moral of the story? First of all, not everything that looks like a fortress is a fortress! And even some of the fortresses have gray areas… My first misstep was not playing f6 earlier in the game – when I finally did play f6, white was much better off. Things got dicey, and one awful mistake was all it took for me to lose.

This is how Magnus Carlsen, Praveen, and many other players win better endgames. Their opponents miss “clean” draws, and things get progressively worse and worse until they can’t bare the pressure anymore and crack. This is an example of me cracking under the “Magnus Effect”. Many players used this strategy before Magnus Carlsen and many will use it after him, but he sure is the current king of this phenomenon.

Happy birthday, Magnus!

Anyway, until next time!

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A Good First Impression – Opening Strong

The amount of articles, books, apps, and video content devoted to the topic of openings is absolutely staggering and a bit intimidating. Indeed the opening sets the mood for a game and can determine long term success or failure. There is great pressure to make a strong opening as seen in any game from a casual pick up to the world championship. The good news is that a strong opening rooted in some basic fundamentals can help you determine the  path of your game.

As stated before there are tons and tons of sources on openings, but all share some of the same root principles. For demonstration sake, we will examine the Ruy Lopez or “Spanish Game”. This opening is named after a 16th century Spanish Priest and is still used at all levels of play today for very good reason, it works and follows some basic principles. So to begin, the first principle of a strong opening is also one that remains throughout the game – control the center.

a

If you can control the center of the board, in most cases you can control tempo and make your opponent play YOUR game. d4, e4, d5, and e5 aren’t just the heart of the board but the heart of many tactical and strategic elements. Controlling or possessing these squares can help ensure a favorable pawn structure and help to defend pieces on adjoining squares. So to control the center let’s play e4, arguably the best move on the board.

b

1.e4 does many things as you can see from the example above. First, it occupies a strong square in the center. It also allows for easy development of the Kingside minor pieces and opens a nice diagonal for the Queen to develop, part of the second major principle we will touch on – develop your pieces quickly. This brings more weapons into the fray and helps control the games tempo as discussed in my previous article “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”. So let’s move to phase two…

c

2. Nf3 quickly brings the Knight into action and is the perfect compliment to a Kings Pawn opening. This move puts pressure on the e5 pawn and clears out space for you to castle very soon, another principle of a strong opening and one that remains throughout all games – protect your King. a Knight at f3 is a great defender of it’s King, can combat enemies in the center and the right side of the board, and can also really open up the Kingside and facilitate some great counter play as the game unfolds.

d

The next move in the Ruy Lopez line is Bb5. This prepares white to castle Kingside, threatens the Knight at c6, develops a minor piece, and controls the tempo all in one move. Once in this position white can determine many factors, set up some long term strategies, and leave many threats for your opponent to consider. From here there are tons of different lines and options for an interesting game.

To recap, let’s go over the key principles of a strong opening:

  1. Control the center – many say that whoever has the center has the game. As discussed earlier, controlling or owning these key squares in the center gives you a major advantage as the game unfolds. This ties in with the second point…
  2. Develop quickly – the more weapons you bring to the fight the better. If your pieces are bottled up or not developed with purpose you will find yourself at a big disadvantage at all phases of the game. When developing, do so with the intention to control the center. Remember – the sooner you have developed your pieces, the sooner you can castle.
  3. Get the King to safety – the ultimate purpose of the game is checkmate, period. The sooner you ensure your King is protected the sooner you can begin your assault on the enemy. Many games are different, so deciding how soon to do this will be dependent on many factors. As you develop as a player you will learn when better to delay this act in favor of attacking or developing other minor pieces.
  4. Move each piece once – as discussed in one my previous articles, “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”, unless you can gain a major advantage such as a fork, do not move a piece more than once in the opening. Doing so will cripple your development and give tempi to your opponent. This allows your opponent to unleash their weapons earlier and put gross amounts of pressure on you.

The litany of opening theory is absolutely immense, but these guiding principles are the heart of a strong opening. Keep these in mind as your game starts and you are sure to have better battles with more victories. While there are many books and videos out there, in my opinion too many, the best content I have found is free on chess.com. From the landing page, the entire world of openings is readily accessible. https://www.chess.com/openings

e

I hope this article has helped to streamline one of the most daunting elements of the game and boosted your confidence. What my coach has always told me rings true, “follow the basic principles and put your pieces on their best square, they will know what to do.” While this is the briefest of introductions on the topic, this established a foundation that will make grasping opening theory and building a repertoire much easier. Remember to walk before you run, another piece of wisdom from my coach is to “know the rules before you break them.”

 

World Juniors Recap

This morning marked the end of the World Junior Championships, which were 11-round Swiss tournaments held in Tarvisio, Italy over a span of almost two weeks from November 13-25.  However, as the saying goes, it wasn’t over until it was over.  This was, in fact, the case for both the Open and Girls’ sections.  For those who were awake to watch the round, it proved to be a suspenseful couple of hours.

In the Girls’ section, the tournament wasn’t decided until the last round game between U.S. native Jennifer Yu and Kazakhstani native Zhansaya Abdumalik.  Down half a point (8 vs. 8.5), Jennifer Yu needed a win in order to leapfrog her opponent and win first place outright.  However, in what started as a symmetrical English, middlegame pawn structure and king safety were what made the difference in this one, allowing Abdumalik to win with the Black pieces and the tournament outright by a full point at 9.5/11.  Despite her last round loss, Jennifer Yu still finished with a Bronze (3rd place) with 8/11 since she was alone at second place going into the round.  This game, however, was not the one that caught my attention from the top boards in the last few rounds; it was the 10th round game between Davaademberel Nomin-Erdene and Jennifer Yu that piqued my interest.

Nomin-Erdene – Yu, World Girls’ Junior Championship (10), 2017

To elaborate, this game caught my attention due to its dynamic nature of piece play and the role of square color control and weakness.  We saw how White obtained a grip on the dark squares on the kingside early in the middlegame, but the “outstanding” bishop on h8 held the kingside long enough for Black to be able to generate counterplay on the light squares on the queenside/center.  This ended up being one of those cases where the counterattack proved to be stronger than the original attack; Black’s queenside pawns led the way as the major pieces found entryways en route to the king, which decided the game in the end.

In the Open section, more than one game was involved in the last round in terms of possible tournament winners.  Among those possible winners was the 12-year-old world sensation Praggnanandhaa.  All in all, seven (!) people were capable of winning the tournament going into the last round, with all but one of them at 7.5/10 (the only exception was top-seed Aryan Tari at 8/10).  As described in the tournament description for the World Juniors, the winner of the section would automatically receive the GM title.  This presented an added excitement factor for pretty much everyone in the chess world sans Sergey Karjakin.  If Praggnanandhaa was able to win the tournament, he would crush Karjakin’s record for youngest ever to achieve the GM title by 3+ months.  Unfortunately, to the dismay of much of the aforementioned people of the chess world, Praggnanandhaa only drew the last round, finishing at 4th place at 8/11 behind the three co-champions at 8.5/11.  While his last game didn’t present him much of a chance as Black, a game that Praggnanandhaa would most probably want back was the 10th round game against Lomasov.  With time trouble present, the two players reached this position during the sudden death portion of the time control:

 

PRLomasov
Praggnanandhaa – Lomasov, Position after 56. … Qg7

 

The winning move in this position is the relatively hard-to-find 57. Qa8, which protects the rook and threatens to penetrate with Ra7.  Most likely due to time pressure, Praggnanandhaa missed this idea and instead went for the perpetual with Qe6+/Qg8+.  If he had won that game, he would have had the chance to play Tari on even ground for the chance to win the tournament in round 11.  That didn’t happen, though, and Tari drew rather easily to maintain his position atop the rest of the competition.

With that, another World Junior Championships has concluded, and it did not fail to display the off-the-charts talent of some youth in the chess world.  Next time around, I will probably be discussing something related to the London Chess Classic, as that tournament is starting in about a week!  And, as always, thanks for reading!

New Openings, New Struggles

Being in a low-stakes chess environment (for example, after becoming a master) is a good time to try out some new things. Unfortunately, I took this a little too far at the Pennsylvania State Action (G/30), where I lost to a slew of lower rated players in strange, unfamiliar openings, easily making it my worst tournament of the last few years. While it is not wrong to wade in uncharted waters, there is a wide range of unfamiliar that requires some reasonable judgment. All I can say is, when you find yourself in a close game against someone several hundred points lower, you only have yourself to blame for playing 1…a6.

A better idea is to start with smaller changes, which in my case (since I don’t study openings very heavily) means slight deviations in lines I otherwise play very often. Nevertheless, there are some difficulties to be expected along the way, like when I tried (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3) 3…a6 against rapidly improving 10-year old expert Evan Park. Although this looks like Black is just fooling around, this is in fact a useful waiting move, as White is tempted into the choices of:

  • 4. exd5 (a harmless Exchange Caro-Kann)
  • 4. e5 (an Advanced Caro-Kann where White has already committed to Nc3, making …c5 more attractive)
  • 4. Nf3 (what Evan played)

4. Nf3 was followed by 4…Bg4 and soon Be2, Bxf3, Nf6, e4-e5, etc. where Black has sort of a French Defense without the problematic light-squared bishop. Note that …a6 can be useful to Black in some lines (at worst it’s harmless since the position is relatively closed), unlike my try of 2…a6 against Isaac in a Sicilian. While I got a nice position for Black, I was unfamiliar with the plans and overlooked a tricky tactic around move 15, making the rest of the game a huge uphill task.

Games against lower-rated players are also good opportunities to try out new openings as long as they aren’t joke openings like I played a few times, but for example, some Open Sicilians I’m not so familiar with, like against a local 1609 in the first round of the ongoing Robert Smith Memorial. A much higher-rated player should still be able to outplay an opponent based on “normal” skill.

After my recent quick chess troubles, I was looking forward to start over at the Pennsylvania G/15. Unfortunately, things didn’t seem to be heading my way as Evan Park outplayed me from an equal ending in my favorite Classical Caro-Kann. A critical matchup developed in a crazy Round 6 against none other than Isaac to even our head-to-head record. Unfortunately, it just so happens sometimes that the most exciting games are the ones where you can’t keep score properly… but here is the game, to the best of my efforts!

With that victory and a final-round draw against NM Eigen Wang in Round 7, my score of 5.5/7 was good enough for 2nd place. While it’s not a particularly high-stakes victory (quick rating points and some pocket cash), it does give me a boost going into the end of 2017. Like Isaac, despite some rough patches, I very much look forward to finishing the year strongly!

Don’t Get Discouraged!

Maybe I spoke too soon. After a triumphant performance at the Pennsylvania State Action, I collapsed just over a week later in the Pittsburgh Chess League when I made this faux pas:

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Naser–Steincamp, position after 43. f6

Thinking I could delay capturing on f6, I played 43…h4??, only fall prey to 44. f7! and the game ended shortly after, as the paralysis of my rooks made it impossible to stop White from queening. My stroll along euphoria lane had come to an end, as this game was easily one of the worst I’ve played in all of 2017. Luckily for me, my teammates bailed me out, and Pitt won by a final tally of 3-1.

IMG_2068
Watching Pitt at Heinz Field. This has not been the season to H2P…

So how to pick up the pieces from here? I had only 48 hours until my next rated game, and I needed to play well for my Pittsburgh Chess Club return. The next morning, I woke up, pulled myself out of bed and went for a four mile run through Oakland. I need to be fit again. After a quick shower, I pushed myself tactically. I need to be sharp again. After pushing past 2600 on chess.com’s tactics trainer, I was feeling good. Okay, I can do this.

To recover from an inexplicable loss, I just needed some perspective. These things happen – don’t freak out! Relax, focus, and identify what you can do to improve. My goals for the upcoming week? Simple:

  1. Sleep better. Well, if you’re a college student (or grad), you know how easy it is to stay up late and binge watch videos on Youtube and Netflix. This needed to change. I decided I would only stay up late to do schoolwork, but otherwise, I needed my sleep.
  2. Eat healthier. More veggies and fruits in my cooking. I guess I should’ve been listening to my mom all along…
  3. Work out more. Working out builds endurance, which means more energy for long chess games. Also, its a great way to destress, so there’s that too.
  4. Train smarter. This is the big one. My studying to this point was all over the place. I needed to direct my studies more effectively. A balance between calculation, opening studies, and looking over top level games – with a strong emphasis on calculation. This should keep me in form for a while.

Things are going to be fine! With my plan set, I was ready to play again. Which Isaac was going to show up?

Return to the Robert Smith Memorial

It’s fitting that my return to the Pittsburgh Chess Club was the very same as my first major tournament in Pittsburgh: the Robert Smith Memorial. In that edition of the tournament, I played for first in the final round against my soon-to-be trainer Franklin Chen and lost to score 4/6. As a result of that game, Franklin earned the National Master title, and I claimed my share of second place – my best finish to date at the Pittsburgh Chess Club.

Hoping to put together a strong opening night performance, I managed to weave a 16 move miniature with Black:

My opponent deviated with 16. Ba3 and resigned after 16…Nxa2 as the position proved too much. But what if 17. Bd2? … here’s where all that tactical training comes in!

Somewhat amusingly, this game still took over two and a half hours despite its brevity. I guess some combination of ambitious opening play from White and a higher than usual level of caution will do that! I felt pretty good about this game, but there are still five tough rounds ahead. With nine players rated over 2000 competing, a bloodbath seems quite likely. Back to training!

Back to Rapid: Endgame Success and Opening Blunders

The G/15 State Chess Championships proved to be a mixed bag of results for me. I had some good moments like this one:

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 22.09.47.png
Gao–Steincamp, Black to Move

My main strategy for this tournament was to win in the endgame against lower rated players. I scored a perfect 3/3 when employing this strategy, and here I played 1…g5! (I was able to recreate this position from memory, so I don’t know the move number) making sure to stop f2-f4 so I can play a well-timed …c5-c4 to create a queenside passed pawn. With a passive position, White couldn’t do much, and I simplified down to a dream endgame for Black.

Other moments? Not so great… Take this position from my “clash” in the French with local National Master Nabil Feliachi:

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Steincamp–Feliachi, position after 11. Ke2
IMG_2139
Stuck in an opposite colored bishop endgame in the fifth round

Here I realized I had missed the incredible 11…Bb5!! almost immediately. Nabil missed this, but luckily for him, my position was so miserable that it was impossible to mount a serious comeback. Turns out that experimenting with 1 e4 in rapid with no theoretical knowledge is an easy way to lose with White… While this opening was particularly painful for me, I figured I might as well attach it so you all can learn from my awful mistake. Ouch – don’t do this in tournaments!

Ultimately, my tournament really came down to a rematch with Chess^Summit author Beilin Li. That round was insane – as all my games with Beilin are. In a tense, roughly equal but dynamic game we both found creative ways to steal the initiative which resulted in a pawn race with two extremely weak kings. In what felt like a coin-toss game, Beilin prevailed to tie up our non-blitz head-to-head record at 2.5 apiece. Luckily for Chess^Summit, Beilin recorded the game, so you’ll get your chance to relive our rapid game later this week!

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Is it that time of year? I guess there’s still Thanksgiving…

After the loss to Beilin, I won my last round with some minor piece endgame technique, and pushed my score to 4.5/7, which was enough to tie for 7th place. It’s kind of hard to know how to assess a performance like this. I got paired down a lot throughout the tournament, so if anything, it was just a great warm-up for my upcoming Robert Smith Memorial match-up.

It’s going to take a lot to overcome the jaw-dropping rating drop I had from my Pittsburgh Chess League slip-up last week. But I’m confident in my training and the work I’m doing towards my chess, and that’s all that matters. Sometimes the US Men’s National Team loses to Trinidad and Tobago, Appalachian State beats Michigan, and I lose to a significantly lower rated player. It’s part of sports. True strength is being able to get up the next day and pick yourself up. I’m ready to fight, and I’m ready to finish 2017 on a strong note.

Role of a Chess Coach

How to find a chess coach?

This is one of the most popular questions from chess parents.

The short answer:

A coach should provide

  1. Knowledge Transfer (KT) – Showing a new player from basic tactics (fork, pins, etc.) to advanced strategies (prophylactics, piece activity, etc.).
  2. Habit Transfer (HT) – Ask students what s/he does to study and improve in chess, then make further suggestions.
  3. Psychological Preparation – Help students to acquaint the ups and downs of winning and losing.

Now the longer version.

1) Knowledge Transfer (KT)

In the old days, this is a chess coach’s main job. But that has changed in our information-world today. What Bobby Fischer had to search in Soviet-language chess books can be found online in a couple of mouse clicks today.

If you want to learn Knight and Bishop checkmate 20 years ago, your coach will need to setup a specialized training session. Then you and other students will practice for half a day until it is mastered.

In today’s world, a five-years old student can open Google Chrome and type in Knight and Bishop mate and watch the video. Then launch Stockfish, play against the the engine for a few games, and practice until s/he becomes very confident.

Chess coach can still help for (KT), as there are 100s or more chess concepts. The coach’s role for KT is to point out specific focus based on each student’s need, so students are not drown into the sea of information.


Pure Knowledge Transfer is being commoditized. Technology such as AI may one day organize all the themes in chess. Hence, coaches need to provide value in two other aspects.

2) Habit Transfer (HT)

In most of our work-place or schools, we have heard of KT, however, rarely had I hear about HT.

I believe that needs to be changed. Google can provide 80%+ of KT today, but it is not ready (or at least not as competent) in telling you what you should work on yet.

HT is a quest for a student to become a life-long learner. And a coach is the ‘tour guide’ to provide encouragement, focus, and support to help the student build and maintain the desire to learn more in chess.

3) Psychology Preparation

Experience and feelings of playing chess. A coach has stories based on his/her experiences from playing chess.

Psychology preparation is  the furthest from being automated by a machine.

A coach will LISTEN to a student describe his/her feeling and thinking from a game or a tournament. Then discuss together and tell stories from previous experiences or encounters to help student build psychological muscles for chess.

I hope this helps. Feel free to provide comments, I’m always happy to have an informative discussion on this broad topic.


Happy Thanksgiving week to everyone in the U.S!

Puzzling through My Game

This time around I want to try something different.

I’ll give you a crazy game I played recently, against FM Matthew Larson, in the form of puzzles, and you try to solve them. Take it as some kind of test with no time limit and no restrictions – just no peeking. I ought to warn you in advance. First of all, these positions are not easy – both my opponent and I are guilty of messing many of these up. Don’t expect to find the answer by looking at the next diagram!!

Even answering only a few questions correctly is great – both my 2400+ opponent and I are guilty of messing some of these up…

Anyway, let the games begin!

Puzzle 1

Larson1

What should black do in this Benoniesque position?

Puzzle 2

Larson2

How should white exchange the DSBs?

Puzzle 3

Larson3

White’s initiative is brewing. How should black counter it?

Puzzle 4

Larson4

What is white’s best move?

Puzzle 5

Larson5

Again, how to counter that initiative?

Puzzle 6

Larson6

How best to parry white’s attack?

Puzzle 7

Larson7

Again, how to parry white’s attack?

Puzzle 8

Larson8

Black has two pieces, but there are coordination and king safety problems. How to solve them?

Puzzle 9

Larson9

The last move before the time control. What should black do?

Puzzle 10

Larson10

Should white play 49.h4?

Puzzle 11

Larson11

Black to play and win!

Puzzle 12

Larson12

Can white hold this?

Puzzle 13

Larson13

Black to play and win!

Now here’s the game starting from the first position… The game contained so many interesting moments, I couldn’t pass the opportunity. And there’s no way I’d be able to describe it in my “conventional” way of highlighting a couple critical moments when in reality there are 13!

If you got a feel for the middlegame position and solved numbers 3-5 correctly, kudos! If you solved puzzles 11-13 correctly and figured out this seemingly simple endgame, another kudos! And if you solved puzzle 7 (which is the hardest IMHO), more power to you! If you feel like it, let me know how you did on the test by replying to this post.

I hope you enjoyed it! Until next time…