PRO Chess League: Massive Pawngrabbers Comeback Can’t Stop the Minnesota Blizzard

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers responded to an early 3-point deficit the only way they know how, staging a late comeback to force the Minnesota Blizzard back into business. Unfortunately, there are a few things you can’t do in a PRO Chess League match, and going down 3.5-0.5 early is one of them. Minnesota held its ground for a well-deserved 8.5-7.5 victory, emerging clear first in the Atlantic Division for the first time.

Given Pittsburgh’s history with the Blizzard, this couldn’t have ended with anything other than a close match. This year, Minnesota and Pittsburgh took early division leads over the likes of Webster, St. Louis, and the Montreal Chessbrahs despite not making the playoffs last year. Our two 2017 matches were decided by the slimmest of margins, 9-7 (Minnesota) and 8.5-7.5 (Pittsburgh).

Minnesota fielded a balanced lineup that is remarkably easy to underestimate. The bullet prowess of GM-elect Andrew Tang may prove more relevant than his OTB ratings in this rapid league. Of course, all eyes were on IM Sean Nagle after he went 4-0 as Minnesota’s #4 last week. Pittsburgh brought the same lineup as last week, with the exception of FM Jennifer Yu, who made her debut on Board 4.


Unfortunately, the match couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start as a few promising positions went astray and we went down 0-3. We were hoping GM Awonder Liang could close the gap, but time trouble got the best of him as IM John Bartholomew forced a perpetual to put the Blizzard up 3.5-0.5.

A 3-point deficit is nearly insurmountable and meant every opportunity would be crucial for the rest of the match – even if you have to play 23. Bxd6?!? like in a crazy game we’ve already recommended for Game of the Week. Since Awonder didn’t win that last week, I guess he just wanted to play another. Be sure to support us on Twitter when the GOTW poll goes up!

Although ending IM Nagle’s 5-game winning streak along with a win by GM Alexander Shabalov over IM Bartholomew is all well and good, barely tying the round 2-2 was not nearly enough to give us a fighting chance. GM Shabalov quickly recognized the dire situation and promptly demolished IM Daniel Gurevich’s Caro-Kann.

GM Liang followed up next, defeating GM-elect Tang in a classic battle of youngsters. Unfortunately, FM Jennifer Yu saw her edge against IM Bartholomew fall apart in time trouble, but IM Atulya Shetty ended the round in dramatic fashion with a swindle over IM Nagle.

It seems that Awonder wanted to play multiple Games of the Week. Not quite the rampage we saw in the round before, but 26. Nf5! is beautiful.

This left Pittsburgh down 5.5-6.5, needing 2.5 of the last 4 points for a tie and 3 for a win. This was a nailbiter all the way to the end. The Pawngrabbers looked down and out a few times, but IM Atulya Shetty scored an exciting win against IM Bartholomew (along with Awonder’s Round 2+3 wins, are these the best 3 games our team has played in a single match?) while FM Yu and GM Liang held their opponents to draws from very tough positions. Meanwhile, however, GM Andrew Tang was able to save the Blizzard with a win against GM Shabalov.

After three weeks, what can we say about the new Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers? The team is no longer outmatched by its competitors and has clearly earned its spot in the league. However, the players we’ve brought in, while very good, are still inexperienced in the league environment, and that does show in critical moments, usually through time trouble. It will be interesting to see how this develops as the season goes on and our players get used to playing 15+2 against other strong players.

If you’re itching to watch our next match, you won’t have to wait for long — we’re due for more this (Super) Saturday. We will be streaming on The Steincamp Show once more — once again, thanks to Isaac Steincamp, David Hua, and GM Eugene Perelshteyn for their contributions and commentary! Be sure to tune in next week!

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Practice the Way You Play: Why Focus is so Important in Chess

On paper, the Cardinal Open went really well for me. I tallied an even score against tougher competition, and gained over a dozen rating points, putting me back to a respectable 2115. Combined with a strong showing at the Eastern Open, I had gained a whopping 32 rating points over the last two tournaments. Great stuff.

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A night out at Umi in Pittsbugh

I’m going to turn this article inside out and work my way backwards: I’m taking a much-needed break from weekend tournaments. Huh?

When I first started chess, I learned the mantra: “practice the way you play”. For much of my chess career I have followed this mentality, and I’ve had decent success with it. But now in my junior year of college, my “mindset” when I study chess looks something like this:

65% chess + 25% school/homework + 10% other stuff

Sure it’s great to look at the board and calculate than not at all, but doing this repeatedly can be damaging to your ability to play well in tournament conditions. After all, if you can’t focus while at home, how can you expect to block out distractions when everything is on the line? Some players are good at this – I am not.

I think the first example of this came from my second round win:

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Steincamp–Davidovich, position after 9…Qxh3

Here I chose the “easy” move 10. Qxf7+, winning a pawn because of 10…Kxf7 11. Ng5+ Ke7 12. Nxh3, and went on to win the simplified endgame after some work. But you may have realized that 10. Qxb7! is much better here – in fact its simply winning! An in form Isaac would have calculated this deeper, but I couldn’t find a satisfying blow after 10…Kd7, failing to realize I’m already much better. I think this was a two-fold practical failure – firstly because I didn’t compare the positions after 12. Nxh3 and 10…Kd7, but secondly because I simply trustd my opponent too much here.

While it worked out in this game, my losses proved to show that not focusing 100% can be costly. For this I shouldn’t need to look further than my third round loss to young talent Maggie Feng:

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Steincamp–Feng, position after 18…f4

After getting a position in my opening preparation, I had a slight advantage after 18…f4?! With a little bit of focus, I should have at least considered changing my plans with the correct 19. gxf4! with the idea of meeting 19…Rxf4 with 20. Ng2. My king is surprisingly safe, and White holds a long-term advantage, thanks to the protected passed pawn on e5.

But dogmatically trying to force my plan of playing e2-e4, I continued with 19. Bxd5? Nxd5 20. Ng2 Raf8 21. Rae1? And perhaps here you already see the tactical punishment for not asking the simple question – “what is Black’s next move?”:

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Steincamp–Feng, position after 21. Rae1?

Maggie cut the position open with 21…Ne3, and it quickly became apparent that I was going to lose. After a forced 22. Nxe3 fxe3, I realized that Black has a serious threat! Trading all the rooks on f1 and delivering mate on h1! I gave up a pawn with 23. Rf3-+, but the game ceases to be instructive from there.

I’m actually not that dissapointed in missing the best moves in either game because the calculation required isn’t exactly trivial, but I am dissapointed in the way I negated both. Perhaps these uncharacteristic jumps in my decision-making paints a better picture of where my focus was at last weekend.

Not All Things are Bleak

The biggest positive for me this tournament was that my conversion technique was strong enough that I was able to finish with a reasonable performance considering my lack of form. In my fourth round game I won thanks to perpetual pressure, and managed to win a clean pawn early:

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Carr–Steincamp, position after 14. Rad1

Out of an English, we’ve managed to get a Reversed London System. An opening I am relatively comfortable playing with White. In this game, White’s Reti has turned into more of a Hedgehog set-up, but his rooks are misplaced. As long as Black prevents a e2-e4 break, its going to be difficult for White to fight for anything more than equality.

Here I realiazed my position’s potential with 14…Qb6! gaining a tempo thanks to the threat of …Bxg3. White chose 15. Nf1, after which I hit f2 again with 15…Bc5! While White now has to make up for his misplaced e1 rook, I’m creating structural targets. 16. e3 a5 17. a3, and now it’s time for White to create a plan.

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Carr–Steincamp, position after 17. a3

Here it would be really easy to assume the position is equal, but I think it’s important that Black continues to improve the position, as White is running out of natural moves. With 17…Rad8, I prepare my pieces in case of a central break, and force White to make a move. In the meantime, I’m intending to orchestrate a …Nd7-c5 jump – hitting both b3 and d3. After 18. Rc1 Bf8, the position is really difficult for White. I can allow Bxf6 by playing …Nd7-c5 at the right moment, and the pin against the d3 pawn makes it hard for White to be active.

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Carr–Steincamp, position after 19…Qa6!

White erred here with 19. Bd4? which loses a pawn by force thanks to 19… Qa6! hitting both d3 and a3. I picked up the a-pawn and pushed my queenside to get the full point. Being able to win both this game and the second round after netting a pawn felt like a big win for me. Being able to count on technique can save a lot of energy!

I guess my fifth round draw was symbolic of my overall tournament performance. After an opening disaster, I found a way to claw back into the game and save a dead lost position. I felt like the developments after 29…Rf8 were of significant importance:

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Steincamp–Miller, position after 29…Rf8

Black’s bishop pair is an unstoppable force. I can’t defend the light squares against my king, and f2 is chronically weak. The only reason I’ve yet to resign is because I’ve managed to find pesky moves, White must play with tempo. I chose 30. Qe4, with the idea of bringing the c1 rook to c6 and hitting g6. After 30…Bf5 31. Rc6 Qd7 32. Qc4 Bg4 33. Rc7, Black has a critical decision to make:

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Steincamp–Miller, position after 33. Rc7

Should Black play 33…Qxc7? I think the answer is absolutely! After 34. Qxc7 Bxd1, Black is passive in the moment, but the material advantage shouldn’t be overlooked. White should draw, but the margin for error is small. I think Black’s decision, 33… Qf5, already surrenders the advantage. Black isn’t addressing White’s counterplay, and with each move I’m slowly getting back into the game.

I threatened mate with 34. Qd4, and had already seen the queen sacrifice that arose in the game, 34…Rf6 35. Re1 Qf3 36. Qe3 Re6 37. Qxe6!:

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Steincamp–Miller, position after 37. Qxe6!

Arguably the best move I played all weekend, ironically in one of my worst games of the weekend. The idea is actually pretty simple – after 37…Bxe6 38. Rxe6, Black cannot stop Re6-e7, strengthening the pin. After 38…Qxd3 39. Ree7, I offered a draw because Black has to go for perpetual check:

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Steincamp–Miller, final position

If Black were to play 39…Qd4?? he’d be in for quite the surprise, as 40. Rxg7+ is winning! After 40… Qxg7 41. Rxg7 Kxg7, White is up a pawn and will win the pawn endgame. Now it’s Black who has a weak king after 40… Kh8, and White should convert the material edge.

Arguably I could’ve waited a couple moves to offer the draw, but after a mostly poor game on my part, I was ready to end the tournament on an even score. I should have lost this game, but persistance got me the result. Continually finding forcing moves and playing dynamically forced Black to make enough decisions that he lost the thread and failed to convert.

Pre-Tournament Mindset

Going into the Cardinal Open, I knew my form wouldn’t match what I brought to the Eastern Open last December. Between school, streaming for chess.com, and managing the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, my chances to study were greatly diminished.

I was a little more optimistic after this win on my stream a week before the trek to Columbus:

White’s choice Nxd4 was a bit weird, but nonetheless, a complete game on my end with Black.

I think the best thing I did for myself this tournament was that I treated it like a getaway from school. Not worrying about points, and just trying to play good chess (this is arguable!) made it easy to relax, despite ugly losses in the first and third rounds. While the quality of my chess needs to improve, I think my mindset going in was in the right place.

One thing I’ve learned about chess is the panicking about your form is only productive during your pre-tournament preparation. You’ll review lines you’ve forgotten, or crunch through tactic after tactic. Otherwise it’s just wasted energy and will hurt yout result more than help it. Since I’ve mostly stopped comparing myself to what I think a 2200 plays like, I’ve been a lot more optimistic during tournaments – which frankly makes the whole thing a lot more fun.

Real Talk

Okay, so I’ve done the whole going backwards thing, and it made for a fun literary device that’s allowed me to highlight both my strengths and weaknesses in Columbus. Cool. But what about that no tournament thing? How does that concretely help my shortcomings?

I suspect in the short-term, it will hurt more than help. But I do sincerely think this is the right move for me right now. Finishing this semester to the best of my ability means spending the summer being a dedicated chess player. I’m already planning on spending most (if not all of May) competing across the east coast, and the idea that I’ll be able to really focus on chess again is encouraging. 100% focus.

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Streaming the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers vs Montreal Chessbrahs match with LM David Hua last week!

In the meantime, I’m still planning on being reasonably active in chess. Managing the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, streaming for chess.com, and of course, writing for Chess^Summit is going to be enough to keep me busy for a while.

Game Analysis: How has Computer Changed Chess

Imagine learning to drive a car today versus learning to operate self-driving cars in the next 20 years.

And now compare how top level chess are played today versus when it was in 1995.

We are just at the inning 1 of this evolution. And the speed of change will only increase.

In today’s game analysis, we’ll look thru a sharp game played between two strongclass B players.

Here is the COMPLETE GAME annotation, and below is two interesting moments I’ve been pondering about.

Ambition Everywhere

comp1White has just played 12.g4

In 1999, I would have said this is a crazy move. White’s king will have nowhere to castle, all black has to do is break through the center and then game over.

Today I say this is a very interesting move, black will need to struggle a bit to break through the center, and if white has to keep the king in the center, so be it.

King Safety

comp2

White has just played 24. 0-0

The 1999 me and myself today will agree on this position. And that is I have no clue which king is safer in this position.

That is the agreement. The difference would be

1999: How can this position happen, the players must be out of their minds.

Today: Just another day in the chess world, and I should study this position a bit more closely.


So how could I study chess today with the help of computers

1.Play more tournaments

Experience matters a lot. If you have seen complicated games like the above many more times than your opponent, you have an edge.

2.Question dogmas

From the first diagram, my 1999 dogma was don’t go crazy on the wings if my own king is not settled yet. There are some truths to that, and I’ve learned about these from Kotov’s Play like a Grandmaster book.

However, because more examples are practiced and the computer gives us more insights, the exceptions are increasing so fast, that when we hear any new ‘rules’, the first reaction is to ask are there counter examples.


That’s all for now. Here’s to another week of entertaining chess adventures!

Pawngrabbers Tied for Division Lead After Defeating Montreal Chessbrahs

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers are just one of two undefeated teams in the PRO Chess League’s Atlantic Division after tonight’s win over the Montreal Chessbrahs. The Pawngrabbers were solid throughout the match, increasing their margin over the Chessbrahs every round to finish 9.5-6.5. The other undefeated team is the Minnesota Blizzard, who edge us out in game points after pummeling Buenos Aires 11.5-4.5. We’ll have to fix that when we face off next week!

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14-year old GM Awonder Liang was the undisputed hero of the night, crushing the Montreal lineup 4-0. He was the only one to defeat GM Robin van Kampen in an overwhelming kingside attack. GM Eugene Perelshteyn joined NM David Hua and Isaac Steincamp on air to give his take on the game.

Awonder didn’t let up next round against IM Michael Kleinman, who was duly punished for an cheeky …Bh5 in a two-knights Caro Kann.

GM Alexander Shabalov didn’t quite live up to his performance from last week, but found a way to get the points when it mattered. IM Michael Kleinman managed to swindle Shabalov from a completely lost position in time trouble, but Shabalov returned the favor by swindling GM Aman Hambleton in the next game. Shabalov’s chances were also looking bleak in Round 4, but stayed alert to the end against GM Robin van Kampen to snag the fateful 8th point for the Pawngrabbers and end the night 2-2.
IM Atulya Shetty returned as Pittsburgh’s #3 this week, and scored a respectable 2-2 with wins over the Montreal IMs. Some solid technique on display against IM Michael Kleinman in a tricky ending.
Last week, Pittsburgh showed its strength in lower boards, and that didn’t seem to change much with the introduction of SM Mika Brattain, who replaced FM Edward Song as the Pittsburgh #4 this week and matched his score of 1.5 points tonight. The Pawngrabbers took the lead after Round 2 courtesy of Mika’s win over IM Renier Castellanos. Mika would go on to clinch the match with a last round draw against IM Michael Kleinman.
Besides GM Liang’s amazing performance, what were the keys to winning the match? One theme that kept popping up was time management – we were noticeably better on the clock all around, and most importantly were generally able to keep that without compromising our quality of play. In a few cases, it netted us some unexpected points, such as in Round 2’s Shabalov-Hambleton.
Several shoutouts this week, starting with the players themselves, and especially GM Awonder Liang for his 4-0 sweep – a difficult feat for any player. Thanks as always to Isaac SteincampDavid Hua, and GM Perelshteyn for another round of great commentary this week. Thanks also to Grant Xu for helping me with everything behind the scenes.
With just two weeks of the season down, there is still plenty of chess to be played and plenty of time for the standings to change, but the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers are in a very good spot at the moment with two strong wins. That said, next week we are up against the only other undefeated team – the Minnesota Blizzard, who we had two exciting matches with last season (we lost the first 9-7 and won the second 8.5-7.5). Both teams have proven their worth early on this season and we fully expect it to be a very tough match. Tune into our Twitch stream next Wednesday at 5:55 pm for the match!
-Beilin Li, Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers co-manager

My Fails: A Top Three List

I would have ended 2017 and started 2018 on a good note had I not dumped 25 USCF rating points in two consecutive tournaments. So much for my happy end of 2017 article.  Anyway, not my idea of fun… Now my play wasn’t that bad – almost no massive blunders in 15 games – but it wasn’t good either. My play was just off; it wasn’t only bad luck. I feel I’ve played like this before (i.e. at the 2017 US Masters), and I’m hoping to eradicate this kind of chess out of my system. Maybe writing about it will help.

Highlights

1: Winning this position with black with 6 seconds on the clock (and a 10 second delay)

Arjun, K (2258 USCF) – Brodsky, David (2508 USCF)

Arjun

Black to move

Without rooks, this is easily winning for black, but with four rooks, this endgame is a mess. Big time. I have no idea if black is objectively winning or not, but with no time, I’m so relieved I managed to win this one. Here’s the end.

Okay fine, earlier in this game I made my life a lot harder than necessary, but swindling someone in a time scramble feels good!

2: No mid-tournament breakdowns

Despite my bad play, I never lost two games in a row. I was always able to stop the bleeding.

3: Staying alive with black in this game

Wang, Kevin (2380 FIDE) – Brodsky, David (2405 FIDE)

K. Wang 1

White to move

White is a pawn down, but black’s position and coordination are in shambles. Engines proclaim that after 28.Qe5! Bb7 29.Ng5! white is +5 (and going up). Nevertheless, with a bit of luck, I managed to stay alive. Okay, getting into a -5 position is nothing to be proud of, but being able to survive it without your opponent blundering terribly takes more than just luck – your opponent won’t play perfectly, so just make your opponent’s life as hard as possible. During the game, it wasn’t obvious to me at all that black is totally busted after 28.Qe5! Bb7 29.Ng5!, and my opponent erred by playing 28.Bg5? after which he still should be winning but it’s harder. Overall in this tournament, my defensive skills weren’t really that off. If only this game had ended a little better…

Lowlights

1 & 2: Blundering twice in the above game

I survived that busted position and actually had a chance to rob a full point…

K. Wang 2

White to move

Black is in dire straits in this bizarre position. Though he’s up an exchange for a pawn, he’s tied up. His king is shaky, and he doesn’t have a clear plan. White should just continue on the queenside with 47.b4!, and he’s near-winning. Instead, as black, I got a gift when he played 47.Ne4??, and I returned part of it by responding with 47…Qxh4??. I could have just gone 47… Qxe6! 48.Nf6+ Kf7!. White isn’t winning the exchange because his rook on d7 hangs. White has nothing. He’s busted.

After missing that fairly basic tactic, I went on to blunder again. He played 48.Ng5, threatening Rxe7 Rxe7 Qd8+, and therefore I responded with 48…Qh6 with the idea of playing Qf8 in the end. He responded with 49.Ne4

K. Wang 3

Here, I should have gone 49… Qh4!, but I somehow didn’t realize that it was repeating the position. Instead, I played 49…Qg7?? too quickly. After 50.Qg5! black is busted. He can’t stop Nf6 from landing hard. After 50…Rxd7 51.exd7 I had to resign.

What’s the moral of the story? That’s unclear to me, but in three moves I pulled off two terrible blunders. I fully deserved to lose this game. My tired, confused brain needed to stay tactically alert and be able to calculate straight.

3: Not winning completely winning positions

On January 12th, I got two completely winning positions against two IMs, and managed not to convert either of them. Here’s the first one, against IM Alexander Kalikshteyn:

Kaliksteyn 1

Black to move

Black is up a clean exchange here, has two powerful passed pawns here, and appears to be completely winning. Indeed, after 40…Rd8!, more or less forcing a trade of bishops with Bd5, white is busted. Instead I played 40…b5?! and let white coordinate. After a few more mistakes, I let him play f6 (with his bishop on the long diagonal), and my king was blown open. I even ended up in trouble (see puzzle 2), but I survived and the game was a draw. A huge miss.

And here’s the second one, against IM Kassa Korley:

Korley

White has the bishop pair in a fairly open position and an extra pawn to boot. Everything is just dominating, except that his king is a little shaky on the 2nd rank. Though it’s no big deal now, it turned into one later… After 44… Nd3!? I was way too greedy and grabbed a pawn with 45.Bxd3? cxd3 46.Rxd3 only to miss 46…Qc4! which is winning back the a4-pawn. Now I have coordination problems, and my king is really loose on the 2nd rank, and I doubt I’m winning. Instead, I should have just gone 45.Bc3! after which I’m more or less winning. Black’s knight jumps are nothing.

That day was terrible for my morale. Now as for lost positions that I’d saved… that would be a grand total of one game, against IM John Bartholomew. There, I believe it would have been harder for Bartholomew to win than in my two fails above.

Puzzles

I’m going to give you a few puzzles from my games, and I’ll do the same thing like last time. I’ll post the answers in the comments on Sunday. Enjoy!

Puzzle 1

Shmelov

Black to move

How to deal with white’s pressure?

Puzzle 2

Kaliksteyn

Black to move

What to do in this bizarre position as black?

Puzzle 3

A game ends in four moves with a b-pawn giving mate. Find out how. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain the backstory behind this one later…)

Conclusion

Philosophically speaking, I got plenty of opportunities in those tournaments. Next up is actually exploiting them… Though I certainly did not want this to happen, it was a revealing display of my weaknesses at this point.

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Until next time!

Tata Steel Showcase

Every major supertournament has at least one game that makes you go “wow” when you see it, especially live.  Currently, the 80th Annual Tata Steel Masters is taking place in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands.  Even though the players are only through a portion of the tournament, there’s a possibility that a “wow” game has already taken place.  In round three, Vishy Anand faced off against Fabiano Caruana in a battle of two heavyweights.  In the first two rounds, Anand had a win and a draw, while Caruana had two draws, so neither player had to go all out in this game, especially this early in the tournament.  That said, this game quickly morphed into a tactical minefield.  In the end, the game was a beauty that brought along some interesting implications.

Anand – Caruana, Tata Steel Masters, 2018

As we saw, the game started with a Petroff, which signaled that Caruana was not playing for much more than a draw.  Black’s novelty on move 12 led to a 30+ minute think for Anand, likely for deciding whether to delve into the complicated tactics or continue in a more positional struggle.  In hindsight, Anand chose correctly, as the mobility and square coverage of the two pieces ended up trumping the extra rook for Black.  While Caruana was attempting to create play against White’s king in the end, Anand was slowly gearing up for an attack of his own – the only difference being that Anand’s was the attack that proved successful.

Currently, the tournament is a little past the halfway mark, with the 9th round underway at the time this is published.  Three players are tied at the top, including Magnus Carlsen and two others that may be surprising:  Anish Giri and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  All three of these players have played very well so far so it will be interesting to see how the last few rounds go as the tournament comes to a close.  Of course, there are a number of players just behind them that could catch them, which means that there is the possibility (as always) that there will be some more fascinating games down the line.

However, I will be leaving you with just one for now.  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!

Over the Board with Dan Schultz – Chris Wainscott

Hello, and welcome to the first edition of Over the Board. In this monthly Chess^Summit exclusive I will go one on one with players, personalities, and writers from around the world. We’ll discuss their lives on and off the board and get advice on how to improve.

For this inaugural edition, I have the great honor of doing an extended interview with a player and writer I greatly admire, Mr. Chris Wainscott. Chris has written for Chess Life, Chess Life Online, and American Chess Magazine while also maintaining his website ontheroadtochessmaster.com. Like myself and many others, Chris began to pursue his chess ambitions later in life setting his goal to prove you can achieve a title, something I know he will do. Chris has done a lot for the sport and is a very talented writer, we discuss a great deal and cover a lot of ground in this unabridged interview.

Wainscott-Wallach - photo credit Allen Becker

Wainscott v. Wallace – photo credit Allen Becker

Chris, what first sparked your passion for chess? Do you have a first chess memory?

The passion came later, but my first chess memory is from the age of four. It was 1977 and the Fischer Boom was either dead, or at least in its death throes. My mom and some friends of hers decided they wanted to learn, so they bought this cheap hollow plastic set that came with a folding cardboard board and were teaching themselves the rules.
Like so many kids I wanted to do what they were doing and so I pestered them to teach me as it looked interesting. I liked games in general and this one just had that ‘something’ that made it too tempting to pass up.
They taught me, and within just a few playing sessions I was beating adults. That gave me a special connection to the game.
For the next decade or so my chess career was confined to the occasional one-off game, mostly with either my mom or my grandfather. Occasionally I might meet some kid at school who also knew how the pieces moved and play them as well.
The passion came in 1987 when at the age of fourteen I learned that my ninth-grade history teacher, Charlie Vetter, was also the guy who ran the school’s chess team. It had never occurred to me before that there could be such a thing as a chess team.
Shortly thereafter I played in my first tournament, which was the Texas Junior Championships. I came in fifth, losing only to the prodigy David Peterson, who went on to be featured in the Chess Kids documentary a few years later.
Of course, my result speaks a lot more about the relative weakness of the field than any strength of mine. Keep in mind that in 1987 scholastic chess was nothing like it is today. Not to mention that the event was held in my hometown of Midland rather than in a major population center.
So, what prompted you to write about chess?
I have always thought of myself, at least vaguely, as a writer. When I was a kid I used to write stories that I would read as a sort of one man play for my family. I’ve written a lot of (unpublished) stories and fragments over the years.
I read Botvinnik’s essay which is in the beginning of his 100 Selected Games book in which he gives the advice that players should analyze their games critically and then publish the analysis to subject it to criticism and correction. His viewpoint was that airing your work would both force a person to be completely subjective as well as helping to improve since you’d get feedback from others.
So shortly after setting the goal of getting to 2200 I decided to start blogging. I did this since at first, I’d say to myself ‘I should do X, Y, and Z’ but didn’t necessarily follow through with those plans. I figured that if I openly wrote that my plan for the month was to do something, and then followed up along the way and recapped at the end I would have to hold myself accountable if I failed.
You can still see the early blog here: ontheroadtochessmaster.blogspot.com
At some point during the year or so this blog was active I decided that it never hurts to ask when you want something, and so I emailed Chess Life editor Dan Lucas and told him I wanted to write a column for the magazine. He let me know that there were no openings for columns, but that he’d happily give me space for a feature. So my first paying gig as a writer was the January 2014 issue of Chess Life which featured my article on improving as an adult.
Around a year into blogging, my friend and mentor Sevan Muradian asked me to blog for his website ChessIQ. That lasted a couple of years until his untimely death in February 2016. Now I write for my own blog, ontheroadtochessmaster.com as well as a regular assignment covering University Chess for American Chess Magazine. I also still contribute to Chess Life and Chess Life Online at times.
Now I saw in an article from Quality Chess that you stopped playing from 1992 until 2011. Can you share what caused the break and what brought you back into the game?
The stock answer to this question always seems to be something about a job and family causing life to get in the way, etc.
My case was completely different. In 1992 I moved from Texas back to Arizona where I had lived for several years previously. I was 19 at the time, and within a few months of being back in Phoenix I wound up a drug addict.
After spending a few years completely out of my mind on meth I got my life together in 1996, but by that time chess had more or less passed me by. It just wasn’t something I thought about much. I didn’t play but maybe a half dozen casual games during my break.
Then, in late December of 2010, I was visiting my grandfather and while digging through boxes of old photos he happened across one of my scoresheets from the late 80’s. I felt something stir deep within the primal part of my brain and I remembered how much fun I had in the five years I had spent as an active tournament player from 87-92.
I recall texting my then girlfriend, now wife, and saying something like ‘I think I’m going to start playing tournament chess again.’ She replied ‘again? When did you ever do that?’ A few weeks later in January of 2011 I resumed playing and haven’t looked back.
Do you feel chess is different now than it was in 1992?
There are so many ways in which it’s completely different. The biggest of course is access to information. For those who didn’t come up in the internet age it’s probably not something easily grasped, but access to information was incredibly hard when I was first playing.
I can recall going to the Midland Public Library with a notebook and copying down games out of books. Or digging through microfiche copies to find game scores from articles in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times.
This is how my ‘database’ was compiled. Nowadays when it’s so easy to decide you want to look at the games of any player and with a few strokes on your keyboard, you can look at pretty much anything. All those memories feel like a dream.
One really funny way in which things changed was the advent of the digital clock. I say funny because of course when I started playing again I immediately bought a board, set, and clock. I was so proud of the fact that I owned a shiny new battery operated analog clock. Then I got to my first tournament and saw the digitals, learned about delay, and realized my brand-new purchase was obsolete right out of the box.
Of course, some things felt exactly the same. I was delighted to find that Vishy Anand was the world champion when I came back. I’d enjoyed his games when I was younger.
I think Vishy Anand is timeless, he still has plenty of championships in him. I greatly enjoy your Quality Chess Challenge and agree their vast content is just incredible. We are coming up closely on February 13th, one year from when the challenge started. How do you feel this challenge has impacted your game? Are there any specific books from Quality Chess that really made an impact?
The Challenge started from an offhand remark by a friend of mine, NM Richard Martin, who said something like ‘Quality Chess’s products are so good you could probably get to master just by studying them.’ So I messaged Jacob Aagaard, who I’m Facebook friends with, and mentioned this to him. He had some interesting insights and input.
I decided to give it a year and so I posted in the Chess Book Collectors Facebook group that I was going to do this. The ‘Challenge’ portion came up when Belgian player Johan Verduyckt said he was going to do the same but using only New in Chess books.
While the Challenge part has kind of died since life got in the way for Johan and he hasn’t been able to play much, the event itself has been both fascinating and frustrating.
Fascinating because QC does, in my opinion, put out amazing books. They are instructive and entertaining at the same time. I really feel that I’ve grown a lot in my understanding of the game during the past 11 months or so.
Frustrating because I am a chess book collector, and so for the past year or so I have acquired a bunch of books that I haven’t really looked at much.
I should point out that one thing I noted going in to the challenge was that I had no intentions of being overly dogmatic. So, there are a few non QC books I’ve used when I didn’t have a QC alternative to use. So I’ve used books on tactics by both Susan and Lazlo Polgar, along with Minev’s book Practical Rook Endgames.
As for books from QC that have really made an impression, I’d say Questions of Modern Chess Theory by Lipnitsky, Soviet Middlegame Technique by Romanovsky, Positional Play by Aagard, and How I Beat Bobby Fischer’s Record by Judit Polgar have helped a lot. The most useful though has been the Yusopov series. If I have one regret from this project it’s that I didn’t really make time for a lot more Yusupov.

arturyusupov

Artur Yusopov

I also enjoy your chesstempo challenge. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I kept seeing George Takei posting these ‘100 Days of ____’ things on his Facebook page which would show how someone improved greatly at something after 100 days of doing it.
I decided that it would be interesting to do 100 days of tactics on chesstempo. I am a firm believer in the value of tactics training, although I also understand that since tactics flow from a superior position just studying tactics alone without working on the other parts of my game would do me very little good.
My initial intent was 100 days of one hour a day of tactics. However, I’ve realized that I need to change that since one hour is eating up too much of my study time. I’ve been thinking about how to modify that, and it’s likely that I’ll change it to 30 minutes a day and roll out the revised version over the next few days.
In fairness to the concept I’ll start over from scratch. Although I should point out that I’ve gained 30 points or so in the couple of weeks I’ve been doing these.
There’s an awesome picture on your website where you are seated between Aronian and Carlsen. What was that like and what kinds of conversations did you have with the players?

SinqCupAutograph2013 Sinquefield CupNakamura, Aronian, Wainscott, Carlsen, and Gata…looking up

That picture was taken the day before the first round of the inaugural Sinquefield Cup in 2013. The photo shoot was pretty much just an assembly line where they were moving people through pretty quickly and so I didn’t get much more than a ‘hello’ out of it.
Something amusing about that photo is just before taking the photo the photographer said ‘look up’ and while four of the five of us looked at the photographer, Gata seemed to take it literal and is looking at the ceiling.
At the time while I of course knew who those guys were, I didn’t actually know any of them. Since then that’s changed a lot. Gata was a friend of a friend, and I had the chance to have dinner with him later that night. In the ensuing years there have been a couple more dinners and some great conversations.
I’ve also been able to spend time in a social setting around Lev Aronian after the past two Sinquefield Cups. Once at the club, and once at the ‘Chess House.’ Watching Lev play bughouse is otherworldly. He’s also the funniest GM I know and what makes that so amazing is that he’s cracking jokes that are perfectly on point in English, which I think is his third, or maybe even fourth, language.
I was very moved by your November Article where you discussed the Sevan Muradian Memorial and the incredible generosity of Hikaru Nakamura. As an outsider, I was very touched and, as a huge fan, it made me love Hikaru even more. What did it mean for you personally to be involved in this?

sevanThe late Sevan Muradian – photo credit Betsy Dynako

Hikaru and I have been friends for a couple of years now. When we first started talking one of our early conversations was about Sevan. Hikaru had known Sevan fairly well and had only nice things to say about him.
After Sevan’s death there was a strong desire within the community to hold a tournament in his name and to donate the proceeds to his family. So some friends and organizers held an event in Fall of 2016 and raised some money.
The decision was made to hold this as an annual event, and at some point leading up to it I realized that there was a chance for us to harvest some resources we hadn’t thought about.
Between myself and event organizers Glenn Panner and Daniel Parmet we know several dozen GM’s, including world champions and other elite players. I had the thought that we should try to get some merchandise signed so we could have some sort of raffle or silent auction to help raise some additional funds.
I reached out to Hikaru and asked if he’d sign a couple of boards for me and he immediately agreed. I sent him the boards and one day I got a message from him saying he had gotten the boards and signed them and that he hoped we raised a lot of money.
He then said he’d like to match whatever was raised up to $3,000.00. I was simultaneously stunned, thrilled, and proud to be Hikaru’s friend.
It was an unprompted and amazing act of generosity. As Hikaru was playing in St. Louis at the time I immediately emailed Jenifer Shahade and let her know about it so they could talk to Hikaru on air during his post-match interview at the Showdown the next day!
It should be pointed out that Susan Polgar and Paul Truong also donated. Both were good friends of Sevan’s.
So which players past or present are heroes or inspirations for you?
WGM Sabina Foiser and her fiancé, GM Elshan Moradiabadi are both huge personal inspirations to me.
Just look at last year, Sabina loses her mother and then within just a couple of months puts up the best result of her career. I can’t recall anyone more deserving of something who was so unassertive about it. A friend and I had dinner with her and Elshan the night she won, and she was beside herself with happiness but also completely humble. It was amazing to watch.
Elshan, who was born in Iran, has had to endure so many things, and is often looked at as an outsider everywhere he goes. Yet he’s one of the most hopeful and pleasant and polite people it’s ever been my pleasure to know. I wish the two of them happiness for the rest of their lives and beyond.
Hikaru is another hero. I was a huge fan of his play long before I ever met him, but having seen him do things like match the funds for Sevan’s tournament and his recent trip to Africa where he spent time with a bunch of kids there and is now sponsoring training for a couple of them has made me glad to know him. It’s always inspiring to see people who understand how blessed they are who make sure to give back.
Yasser, of course, deserves a special place in everyone’s heart. To paraphrase Maureen O’Hara when she went before Congress to persuade them to honor her friend John Wayne – ‘I beg you to strike a medal for Yaz, to order the President to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing: Yasser Seirawan, Erudite.’
Getting to know Yasser a little over the past couple of years has been great. The fact that he’s also a Dallas Cowboys fan is just icing on the cake!
From the standpoint of chess inspiration, of course Fischer. You have to separate the man from the player, but his games and work ethic stand on their own.
My all-time favorite player is Kasparov. For one thing, I love his saying ‘Hard work is a talent.’ Also, his approach to the game was, and is, unparalleled. I don’t think that anyone has ever worked harder at being the absolute best than he did.
One player who I’d like to give a shout out to is the Russian teenager Vladislav Artemiev. I’ve been following his career for a couple of years now, and I’m really struck by his competitiveness. He grew up, and as far as I know still lives in, Omsk, a town in Siberia. OK, granted you’re not as limited these days by your location since coaching can be done through Skype, etc. But as far as I know he works only with a local coach.
Last year he crossed the 2700 mark, though he is just below that now. He’s also been one of the top blitz players in the world for some time.

Wainscott at SPICE 2017 - photo credit Paul Truong

Chris at SPICE 2017 – photo credit Paul Truong

What article have you written that means the most to you and why?
My obituary for Sevan, published on uschess.org. This was written just a few days after Sevan’s death. The emotions from everyone were still raw and unprocessed. It was easily the most difficult and most rewarding thing I’ve ever written.
The most prestigious thing I’ve written would be the July 2015 cover story for Chess Life ‘A New Golden Age for American Chess.’
That piece on Sevan is such a touching and wonderful piece of writing. So what do you think makes an interesting article? 
I think it’s important to be inspired. As a writer it’s too easy to force yourself to write about something that doesn’t necessarily inspire you. Maybe it’s something you’re doing for the money or for the prestige or whatever, but if you don’t truly believe in what you’re writing then it will reflect in the finished product.
I agree, inspiration and belief in your content are huge priorities. So, what advice do you have for other chess writers?
Don’t be afraid to kill an idea. If you’re writing a non-time sensitive article on a topic that interests you but it’s not going well, it’s OK to take it out back and shoot it. Or at the very least set it aside and come back to it later.
As an example, I am writing an article about the Log Cabin Chess Club, which was one of Fischer’s early outlets for improvement. The leader of that club, E. Forry Laucks, was both a tireless chess promoter and a reprehensible Nazi sympathizer. This is truly a fascinating topic.
I pitched the idea to a publisher and they gave me the green light. However, the research is hard going. There’s just not much information out there than can easily be corroborated. The information that can be verified tends to be repetitive. So to get 3,500 words has been a real challenge.
The original deadline for this piece was around three or four months ago, but I knew that the publisher didn’t have a set place where they intended to run it. So rather than force it and use unverified information, or worse yet filler, I’ve just set it aside. I still look for information sources and have gathered some, and I feel that when I go back to finish this that the final product will reflect the time and love that it took to properly craft it.
I’m presently 30 years old and my personal goal is also to become a titled player. What advice would you give to aspiring adult players who want to improve?
Don’t listen to the haters, of which there will be many. I was told in 2011 when I was rated just below 1500 that if I was lucky and worked really hard then perhaps someday I could gain 100-150 points. Peak to trough the gain has been over 400.
I couldn’t agree more, there are many people telling me the same thing. So do you have a routine or schedule for training? Any specific tools or apps you use that you would recommend?
I try as best I can to do some work every day. I analyze my games, and usually put the results on my blog. I’m a big believer in tactics books, and in ‘solving’ in general. I think that active training such as analyzing my games and solving puzzles has led to my growth as a player.
When I train passively, say by watching a video or GM commentary, I think there is still some value, but nothing like that achieved by active training.
Now, about how much time a day would you say you spend playing or working on your game and what do you work on?
It varies a lot. On a good day I get at least an hour. Some days more, often less.
I play a rated game each week at the Southwest Chess Club on Thursday. I intend to play at least one weekend tournament a month this year since I know that I need to play a bit more than I do now in order to improve to where I want to be. The goal for this year is 1900.
Luckily for me, my wife said at the beginning of the year that she hopes I’m not gone over the weekend ‘more than once a month’ so I’ve decided to take that literally and work on playing in one event each month.
I don’t really work on openings much, but I am trying to get better about that. When I say ‘much’ I really mean ‘at all.’ I spend maybe 1-2% of my time on openings. I’d like to increase that to at least an hour or two per week.
I do play over a lot of GM games, so I’m trying to be more engaged in that process as I know that I have a real weakness with planning and structures.
I do spend a lot of time on tactics and endgames. I’d say I’m probably 30-35% on each of those areas.
That’s reassuring, I spend most time analyzing and working on tactics. What do you feel is the biggest key to growth as a player?
Total immersion. There is no substitute for improvement at anything that beats it. Chess is a fascinating game and really diving deep into positions will pay off.
Are there any roadblocks or plateaus you’ve experienced on your journey?
If you look at my ratings graph, you’ll see that I have had wild swings of 150 points in either direction quite often.
I have plateaued a number of times, although it no longer concerns me since I see it as just part of the process.
Interestingly, the biggest roadblock is one of my own choosing, and that is the fact that I decided to become a writer. If I could take the hundreds of hours I’ve spent researching and writing and give those hours to improvement as a player I have no doubt that I would be much stronger than I am now.
I have no regrets about that though. Let’s say I had already hit my goal of becoming a master but I had never written a thing. Who would know? Who would care? I’d be a weak master, and while personally that would be quite fulfilling, it would have cost me a lot in the way of friendships and experiences.
I had met so many people and made so many friends in the chess world, and almost none of that stems from me as a player.
I understand the feeling. I love chess and writing but often have a hard time balancing them. So when you do have down time, what are your interests outside of chess?
Dallas Cowboys football. Although it’s getting so much harder to watch football these days knowing the kind of harm these guys are doing to themselves. I met John Urschel at the Chess House last year and told him how glad I was he had the sense to retire.
I also enjoy music. I may be 1800 at chess, but I’m like 2600 at being a music fan. I listen to everything from the Grateful Dead to Slayer. Some favorites include John Lennon, Black Sabbath, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, and Sade. I also play some guitar and mandolin.
Nice! I’m also a guitar player…I’d say NM strength. So what projects are you currently working on?
I mentioned the Log Cabin article from earlier. I also have an interview with GM Awonder Liang which should be on uschess.org by the time this interview runs. I’m also working on a piece about the recently concluded Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships. It will appear in the next issue of American Chess Magazine and I’m going to take what I hope is a novel approach and cover a story that is rarely if ever covered. So stay tuned for that!
I will! So Chris, If readers would like to get in touch with you, what are the best ways to contact you?
Email is good. chris.wainscott13@outlook.com Or you can follow me on Twitter @cwainscottmke
Thank you, Chris, for your time, openness, insight, and a fantastic interview. Next month I will interview a good friend of mine who is a “mad man” of television, stage, and movies. He also happens to be a great chess player who’s helped me out a lot and has some great stories. See you next month on Over the Board.

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