Off and Back On Again: How to Break out of a Slump

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Preparing for the Pittsburgh Chess League

This fall has truly tested my patience as a chess player. After coming back from a successful tour in Europe, I felt like my days as a Candidate Master were numbered, and the National Master title was soon to come. After beating my first 2400+ rated opponent in Columbus, my confidence doubled. Surely this was a sign!

But then came the stall. Lackluster performances at the Cleveland Open and the Pittsburgh Summer Open to close out the summer had me question my true strength as a competitor heading into the school year. With the pressure of my semester workload kicking in, my rating took a nosedive to the low 2100s after drawing a lower rated opponent in the opening weekend of the Pittsburgh Chess League. So much for the script…

Life in the Slow Lane

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Bumper cars at Kennywood Fright Night

After a lot of thought, I decided to take a break from chess – at least until my first wave of midterms passed. In place of tactics and opening preparation, I used this time to cook, explore Pittsburgh, and as you already know, direct the Sorensen Memorial at the Pittsburgh Chess Club.While I missed my usual dosage of over-the-board action, I got some much-needed stress relief. Forcing myself to get outdoors while taking care of my obligations with school and my internship search helped me clear my mind and relax. Every day wasn’t a high-speed chase to the finish line.

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Goat cheese does wonders!

I learned a lot in my month long sabbatical. Directing (and reporting on) the Sorensen Memorial really helped me appreciate how competitive chess in Pittsburgh truly is, giving me some perspective on my previous string of unimpressive results.Here’s the thing about slumps. They happen to everyone. It’s hard performing at a high level every tournament, but it’s easy to get obsessed with your own results. Watching the games of my fellow competitors showed me that I am not the only 2000+ rated player who makes mistakes, and that’s okay! Playing well doesn’t just mean making the best moves, but improving from the learning process. After a month of directing, I was ready to play, and my mentality was completely different. I will only get to earn the National Master title once, so right now, my focus needs to be on enjoying every step of the way – not just breaking the finish line.

With a redeeming win against an expert in the second round of the Pittsburgh Chess League, I could not have been more excited to enter the Pennsylvania State Action Chess Championship.

A New Dawn

G/30 has never been a good time control for me. The time control’s speed, paired with my desire to play a methodical game of chess have never meshed well – historically leading to a plethora of disappointing results. I think on any other given day, I would have been a bit more anxious going in, but this was my “big” return to tournament chess and a chance for me to warm up for tournaments to come. It’s showtime!

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Threw together a quick breakfast before the tournament for both me and my roommate and fellow Chess^Summit author Beilin Li

After a quick first-round win, I got paired with an ambitious unrated player. My tournament got off to a flying start when my opponent played 9…e6?:

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Steincamp–Bouajaja, position after 9…e6?

Without hesitation, I dropped 10. c5! claiming the d6 square and the advantage. After 10…Qd8 11. Bf4! Black had to concede the d5 square too with 11…e5 and I won the game with relative ease. Even though I erred a little later down the road, I was pretty pumped to win a game so convincingly. The final position makes quite an impression – Black can’t move any of his pieces!

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Steincamp–Bouajaja, position after 36. Rd6

After a 2/2 start, I somehow stumbled on a draw in the next round against the eventual tournament winner, which set up for the newest edition of my rivalry with my Chess^Summit coauthor Beilin Li. We’ve had some competitive clashes in the past, but in our recent blitz tournament encounters, Beilin has certainly been dominant. With a little more time on the clock, could I get my revenge?

In the spirit of avoiding any of Beilin’s preparation, I played 1 e4 for just the fourth time since my last round in Reykjavik. In return, Beilin surprised me by responding with the Sicilian – we were on our own. The opening wasn’t really theoretically driven, but I had a near decisive position after 11…d5?:

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Steincamp–Li, position after 11…d5?

With Black’s king still on e8, I quickly played 12. exd5 Qxd5 13. c4! ripping open the position. With the e-file now half open, Beilin tried to bail out win 13…bxc4 14. Bxc4 Nd4 but after 15. Qxe5+ Qxe5 16. Nxe5 but the damage was done – Black had a lost endgame:

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Steincamp–Li, position after 16. Nxe5

Moral of the story? If your opponent’s king is weak, open up the position and go for the kill! 1. e4 had served me well, pushing me to 3.5/4 with it in 2017!

I wound up dropping my next round to Perpetual Chess Podcast host Ben Johnson after a critical tactical miss, and then drawing a complex game with an established National Master to finish the tournament at 4/6.

While some of my games left more to be desired, I was relatively pleased with my first weekend tournament outing since Labor Day weekend. I will need to work on my calculation and endurance to improve from this performance, but considering the time control, I count this as one positive step out of my slump. Enough of these and I should be able to start walking!

Big Things

During my break from tournament chess, I somehow stumbled upon an opportunity to become a partnered streamer with chess.com! Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about this, and I hope to make the most of it.

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In The Steincamp Show, I have three goals:

  1. Create an alternative to banter blitz. Watching other players play blitz has been a staple of chess streaming, but in my streams, I’ll spend more time teaching than playing, and encouraging viewers to think along the way.
  2. Be relatable. I hope to build your intuition by sharing my successes and failures on my way to expert and beyond, much like my articles here on Chess^Summit
  3. Be honest. As I work towards my National Master title, you’ll get to hear my thoughts first-hand, and see how much work goes into earning a title beyond my contributions here.

I’ve gone ahead and created a Twitch channel, and I’m hoping to be on air soon. If you want to watch, follow my channel to get updates of when I go live and share instructive clips. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I’m curious to see where this adventure takes me!

 

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3 thoughts on “Off and Back On Again: How to Break out of a Slump

  1. Tina Suo

    Hi Issac! I love reading your website and kudos for your courage and hard work in chess improvement. I am sure that you will reach your goal in the near future with your work ethic.

    A side question — what is the book that showed in the photograph? I’m trying to get some chess books with puzzles from real games and the ones in your pictures looks interesting.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Tina! I’m hope that’s true!

      That book is Aagard’s Strategic Play! I would recommend reading the Positional Play book first – it’s a great read and really forces you to understand positional principles – a must know for strategy.

  2. Pingback: Don’t Get Discouraged! – chess^summit

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