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!

 

Losing in Chess

My costliest defeat was against GM Dmitry Gurevich at the North American Open (NAO) in 2006. And I realized that was the case after I scanned through the cross-table one last time after I resigned.

As I marked the result, I realized a draw could have gotten me a great U2450 prize and a spot to the U.S. Championship, and a win would gave me the outright first U2450. But all the ‘could haves’ turned into a painful loss.

I had a great year in 2006. Winning the Georgia State Championship and a few other tournaments in Atlanta. I also got my peak rating at 2347.

At the end of the year, I played at the NAO again, my favorite tourney, at least result wise. My first GM scalp was against the late Walter Browne at NAO. I’ve also won the U2300/2450 prize in the Open section twice.

This time, things continued to go my way. After getting a good start, I was paired against Dmitry in the last round. I had a draw and a loss against him before, but this is the first time I got the white piece.

I played my favorite opening, Sozin, and got a position I wanted. I was attacking, putting pressures constantly.

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In the position above, 28. Rxe7 would have netted a perpetual check, and here is the complete game with the above mentioned variation.

The game continued, Dmitry found a way to trade queens to limit my attack. But I still got a good endgame position.

As we approach the first time control, my old headache of time trouble kicked in. This is the problem of INDECISIVENESS, and I’ll have much more to say about this topic in another post.

I knew I could have traded the bishop and go for 3 pawns against 3 pawns on the opposite sides. For some reason, I dismissed it.

Then, he had a powerful pin on my bishop, and things started to go from bad to worse until the end where he had three pawns against my double a-pawns, when I resigned.

That was it.

At the time, I didn’t think too much, but after I stopped playing chess, this game often crossed my mind while dealing with missed opportunities.

The reason I like chess and many other games is that no matter how bad a defeat was, I know I can ALWAYS start a new game.

Onto the next journey!

How Much Fun is Enough?

In a more casual setting at a local G/45 tournament last weekend, I took the opportunity to play some stranger openings that I don’t attempt in more serious play. Unfortunately, I took this a little too far when I barely managed to draw a 1192 (he was playing quite well for his rating, but still). In fairness, I wasn’t the only one (a fellow master lost to a 1377 who wasn’t scared off by an unsound Scandinavian gambit), and this incident was not really because of the opening (which began with 1. g3 h5!? 2. e4 h4). Ultimately, everything seems to come down to how one plays regular chess.

That disaster left me a chance to redeem myself against the only sane high-rated player left in the field, NM Franklin Chen. However, I was intrigued by his assumption that I would play the Closed Sicilian as White, and wanted to switch things up a little. But Franklin turned out to be a step ahead, surprising my 1. e4 with 1…e6.

Psychologically, that was not acceptable, and Franklin knows his openings very well, so I had to think up a good alternative to 2. d4. I ultimately settled on 2. Qe2!?.

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Li – Chen: after 2. Qe2

I’ve only seen one game in this line, but from what I understand the point is to hinder …d5, as Black would much rather take back with the e-pawn. In the only game that I’ve seen, the game continued 2…Be7 3. b3 d5 4. Bb2 Bf6 (4…Nf6 5. exd5 exd5 6. Bxf6 gxf6 leaves Black with riddled pawns) 5. e5 with a lot of space for White.

2…c5

So Black decided to go back to a “closed” Sicilian after all, and after a few moves it’s clear I lost the opening battle (at least psychologically). Qe2 makes White’s development a bit smoother after g3/Bg2/O-O/etc. but that didn’t look very interesting. I tried to play for d4.

3. b3?! Nc6 4. Nf3 e5

I usually don’t think very highly of locking up the dark squares like this, but it’s so hard for White to play d4 here that it makes a lot of sense. Again, I still tried to stick to d4.

5. Nf3 d6 6. h3 g6 7. Na3?

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Li – Chen: after 7. Na3

Consistent at least, but admittedly way too slow (still going for Na3-c2/d4). However, …f5 is coming.

7…Bg7 8. c3 Nge7 9. Rd1

White is almost ready to play d4, but Black can play 9…f5!, threatening …fxe4 followed by …d5 with a big advantage. This can be done over the next few moves, but ultimately Black delays it too long.

9…O-O 10. Bg2 a6 11. O-O b5?! 12. Nc2 Bb7?

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Li – Chen: after 12…Bb7

This was Black’s last chance to get ahead with …f5, and with the d4 push, White is equal again.

13. d4 exd4 14. cxd4 Re8 15. Qd3 f5?!

Would have been a great idea little earlier, but now this looks rather suspect. Since Black’s bishop isn’t defending the weak light squares on the kingside, White has a lot of potential Ng5/Bd5/similar ideas.

16. Ng5

Threatening the devastating Ne6/Nxg7; relatively best, in hindsight, is 16…Bf6.

16…Nc8?

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Li – Chen: after 16…Nc8

Since this was a pretty fast game, I totally missed this, which is bad because White’s knight is nearly trapped; even if it moves (e.g. 17. h4 h6 18. Nh3) Black wins the e4-pawn because of the Bb7’s indirect attack on the e4-pawn. Of course, Black’s kingside is not held together very well, so simply sacrificing the knight and opening the f/g-files gives White (at least) decent compensation. I decided to sac the knight and hope for the best. It turns out that this is very sound.

17. f4! h6

Probably not objectively best, but it’s reasonable for Black to make White prove the attack at this point. Bailing out with 17…fxe4 leads to 18. Bxe4 Nb4 19. Nxb4 Bxe4 20. Nxe4 cxb4 where 21. f5 is unlikely to end well for Black.

18. exf5 hxg5 19. fxg5 Qxg5

Otherwise, it’s virtually impossible to defend g6 after 20. f6.

20. h4!

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Li – Chen: after 20. h4

A few other moves work too, but this, which I first saw after 19. fxg5, looks the simplest. If Black tries to hold onto g6 (as in the game), White just storms ahead with the f-pawn. Otherwise, f5-f6 followed by Qxg6+ is game over.

Black chose to just give up the e8 rook, but this leaves White up the Exchange with a still massive attack, so the rest of the game was relatively straightforward.

20…Qg4 21. f6 N8e7 22. f7+ Kh7 23. fxe8=Q Rxe8 24. Rf4 Qd7 25. Rf7 Kg8 26. Raf1 Nd8

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Rxg7+ have been rather tempting for a while, but allowing Black to block the a1-h8 diagonal complicated matters a little. With that option gone, White mates in a few moves.

27. Rxg7+ Kxg7 28. dxc5+ Kg8 29. Qc3 Nf6 30. Qh8+ Kf7 31. Qg7+ Ke6 32. Qf6#

The Counterattack

Defense is a very important aspect of chess and even more so at the higher level of chess. Just because something went wrong or things look scary doesn’t mean a chess player should collapse. In this article, I’ll be talking about a key part of defense, counterattacks.

Counterattacks counter attacks (well, duh…). They follow the saying “the best defense is a good offense” which is obviously overgeneralized for picky people like chess players. However, counterattacks can be a handy defense when you think “normal” measures won’t do the trick. First, I should talk about defending against attacks in general.

Rule 1 of defense: Don’t panic (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference intended)

Don’t let your brain freeze up just because you’re under attack. You need to be able to calculate and think straight. You need to trust yourself. Do not overestimate your opponent’s chances. The fact that he is attacking doesn’t mean that there is any real danger.

Rule 2 of defense: Don’t panic

Really, don’t. Ok, now that we’ve covered that, there a couple things I should add.

Rule 3: Don’t go passive

Don’t curl up into a ball to survive an attack, metaphorically speaking. Try to defend against the attack actively. Feel free to counterattack. Of course, sometimes you need to be passive, but unnecessary passivity can be fatal. This is basically the point of this article.

Rule 4: Don’t be afraid to bail out

There’s nothing wrong with saying something along the lines of “My opponent’s attack is dangerous, and I’ll give back some material to get into a worse endgame that I may be able to hold.” That’s totally fine! But that does not mean that you should bail out against every little wimpy attack.

Dumb example: if your opponent is “attacking” you with 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5, that kind of thinking could be used to play 2… Nf6 3.Qxe5+ Qe7 so that you get the queens off and “defend a pawn down endgame”. No, no, no! You should have a concrete reason for bailing out, not just “I’m scared”.

Onto some examples…

Playing with fire

In the following game, I was under fire. Instead of calling the fire department, I started my own little blaze. Though what I did was not objectively correct, it was practical…

Brodsky, David (2388 USCF) – Aldama, Dionisio (2517 USCF) World Open 2016

Aldama 1

I had just won a piece, but black has serious compensation… he has two pawns, the white king is shaky, and white is a bit tied up with the pin on the d-file. However, black is not immediately threatening Red8 because of Qe3, counterattacking the white knight, and Nxf3 would fail to Qf4. However, black has ideas of sacrificing even more material with ideas of Rxd6 Qxd6 and Qf5 and harassing the white king.

Asking my silicon friend what it thinks about this position was quite entertaining… it gives white a little edge (maybe 0.4 or 0.5), though its top moves include the awe-inspiring 25.Rab1! (there’s actually a point behind it). Anyway, I decided to play with fire myself by going 25.Nxf7!? Rxf7 26.Re1!

Aldama 2

I’m not interested in taking the exchange, since black just gets free play. Instead, I’m pinning black up, and I’m considering going f4 or Nc4. Unfortunately, objectively, this entire thing is a draw 😢.

The game went 26… Ree7 (unpinning on the e-file) 27.f4 c4 28.Nxc4

Aldama 4

Here is where IM Aldama went wrong by playing 28… Bxc4?. After 29.Bxc4 Nxc4 30.Qd8+ white grabs the exchange, and black doesn’t have sufficient compensation. White is just much better, and I went on to win.

The correct move was 28… Nxc4!. After 29.Qd8+ Kh7 30.Rxe7 c5 31.Bxc4

Aldama 3

Black has enough to make a perpetual check. There are two ways: 31… Bb7+ 32.Rxb7 Qe4+ 33.Kg1 Qe3+, or the fancier 31… Bxc4 32.Re8 Rf8! 33.Rxf8 Qe4+, with the same perpetual check.

What’s the moral of the story there? Instead of curling into a ball, I started a counterattack myself and managed to bamboozle my opponent. I went for an active choice instead of a passive choice because I felt it was right. What I did wasn’t objectively correct, but it did the trick in practice. It was a weird and complicated position, but hey, who said that chess is easy?

My ultimate counterattack

This game goes into my all-time records. After an unusual opening, I won a piece, but had no development. You’ll see for yourself…

Brodsky, David (2449 USCF) – Jacobson, Brandon (2392 USCF) Marshall FIDE Weekend Feb. 2017

Brandon 4

Yeah, I had a point… White is a piece up, but his kingside is undeveloped. How to develop it? Err, ehm, eh… [insert coughing noise]. The details are unclear.

Black’s best continuation is 15… Rhe8! 16.e3 Na2. After 17.Ra1 Nxc3 18.Qg4+, it looks like black is just losing his queen because the mate on d1 is prevented. However, black has 18… Bd7!, and if 19.Qc4+ black goes back with 19… Bc6. That is just a repetition, and white can go 19.Rxa5 Bxg4, though he technically doesn’t have any advantage in the endgame.

Instead, Brandon played 15… Na2? 16.b4! (this is practically forced) 16… Nxb4

Brandon 5

Black’s attack looks very promising, but white has an incredible idea that saves the day… honestly, if I were to choose a best move from my entire career, I’d probably choose this one. Now, try to solve it! Here’s how the game ended.

What’s the moral of this one? Had I lost this one, it would have probably served as a horror movie shown to beginners to illustrate the importance of development… I’m half joking, but seriously, I could have easily lost in the confusion. However, I kept a clear head and managed to launch a deadly counterattack with my 17th move.

Being under attack isn’t the end of the world, not even the end of your game. For all you know the attack may be completely benign. Don’t panic and calculate. Many attacking games are won not because the attack was fatal to start with, but because the defender made a mistake. Try not to be one of these fatalities.

Tempo, Tempo, Tempo

A critical component of success in chess is not just a solid understanding and awareness of tempo, but the capability to influence and control it. Strong players seem to have an innate ability to make one seemingly brilliant move and turn the tide of the battle, much to their opponents despair. These players understand controlling the tempo of the match and making the opponent play the game on someone else’s terms will allow them to take the victory more often than not. Once you can recognize tempo as an almost tangible force in the game and better yet impact it, you will certainly see a noticeable improvement in your match results and be able to better command the game.

A tempo (plural tempi) can be in essence defined as a turn, but in the tug of war that is chess, having the tempo can mean gaining a preferable result on your turn, forcing your opponent to respond and thus giving you control and more options to sway the course of the match. Alekhine, Carlsen, and many other well known and studied attacking players exemplify this by making moves that force their opponent to reconsider their plans and fight with their backs against the ropes. These players are said to have gained the initiative, limiting their opponents options, exerting their will on the flow of the match, and forcing their opponents to play the game differently. While this may sound complicated or the culmination of tedious study of theory, it is really quite simple and can be accomplished by following a few simple rules:

Rule 1: Move with Purpose – Simply put, one must make every move count in order to dictate the flow of the game. If you are focused solely on attacking your opponent, they will evade and counter. Hollow attacks that can be countered or easily dodged offer no advantage and can ultimately be your downfall. Players who break the rule of bringing their Queen out too early are a great example of this principle in action. They may make some idle threats in the center or offer a weak check or two, but the tempo can be stolen very easily. This would give the defending player an opportunity to develop while their opponent evades to try and save their Queen. This leads to rule 2…

Rule 2: Develop Your Minor Pieces Early – While pawns are an important part of the game and gaining a favorable pawn structure creates a solid foundation to move around later in the match, the minor pieces are going to defend and attack at the same time when in the right place. Being ahead in development not only offers an advantage to tempo, but allows you to assure your King is protected by being able to castle sooner and allowing you to pressure your opponent efficiently and faster than they can pressure you. You will have more weapons at your disposal sooner, certainly an advantage in the battlefield .

Rule 3: Do Not Move the Same Piece Twice – Unless it is to gain a very good advantage or out of absolute necessity, do not move the same piece twice. If you were to move your e file pawn twice in a row for instance, you are allowing your opponent two turns to your one. My coach often says “put your pieces on their best squares and they will do the rest.” He is absolutely right and often I find if I can get the pieces where they are most effective and make smart, simple moves around them, I can gain and maintain the initiative much more effectively and often.

Rule 4: Checks Don’t Matter – This is a habit that took me a long time to break and still requires significant help from my coach to stay away from. Unless the check forces your opponent to follow a plan you have set up or creates a pin or fork, the check is not necessarily an indicator of your advantage. Caution must also be made as a check with a strong piece can create many countering opportunities for your opponent and can ultimately cause you to lose tempo or a piece. While a check may gain a psychological advantage of showing your opponent that you are clever or have keen situational awareness, this is fruitless and meaningless without a plan.

Rule 5: Look at The Situation From Both Sides of The Board – It happens to us all, tunnel vision. We focus so much on what we want to happen on the board that we may overlook the reality of what lies before us. When making a move, consider what move you would make if you were playing on the other side. Often when we focus solely on what plan we’ve created, we overlook opportunities we hand our opponents or better moves we could have and should have played.

Understanding tempo is simple, but harnessing its power and consistently possessing it, particularly amongst strong opponents, takes time and awareness. Like many other parts of the game, analysis after a match yields great results and “aha” moments. A positive habit I have picked up lately has been to say “tempo, tempo, tempo” before I make a move or when I am feeling pressured. I visualize the tempo of a game, I look at it like a level one might use when hanging a picture. Will this move send the bubble too far to one side, creating an imbalance? Once you can feel the tempo of a match and make these 5 rules of tempo part of your standard behavior, you will find you have much more control of your matches and have designed a stronger foundation to build a winning plan from.