Seventy-six points. The past six months months had been particularly brutal stretch for me, as my rating hemorrhaged continuously and fell below 2100 for a third time in my career. Gone were the days of beating FMs in Europe, and gone were the days of consistent prophylactic play. Since June, I had only beaten two players rated over 2000 – hardly the score of someone seriously trying to become a National Master. Needless to say, I was pretty discouraged.
With the fall semester complete, I packed my bags and took a bus south to Richmond with only ten days to prepare for the Eastern Open. A beacon of hope or a chance to implode? Historically, I have always underperformed in this event, never reaching 50% across three attempts – even posting an abysmal 0.5/5 in 2012, one of my worst performances to date. However, with no team to represent the University of Pittsburgh this year at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships in Columbus, this was by far my best option for quality games.
Frame of Mind
With so much to review and a bad form to fix, ten days didn’t feel like a lot of time to address all of my weaknesses. To better prepare for this tournament, I made some key decisions early that helped me get back to fighting form.
Limit Opening Preparation:
Because I wasn’t stuck playing the same opponents anymore, I decided that opening surprises were less relevant. Knowing this, I cut out the London System and 1. e4 from my opening repertoire for White, and decided to shelf the King’s Indian and Hyper Accelerated Sicilian for another day.
This still meant I needed to spend a lot of time looking over my lines, as a lot of recent Grandmaster games meant important theoretical developments for both sides. While I prefer an even distribution of study time, reviewing my opening lines was a majority of my preparation.
Work on Calculation:
Opening knowledge is great, but calculation is essential. Throughout the semester, it became clear that my tactical abilities were atrophying, so this was an immediate area of concern. I started to feel really confident four days before the event when I pulled this stunt:
Regardless of the event, stamina should always be in the limelight. With the Eastern Open being a gruesome seven round schedule crammed into four days, I had no doubt that this would be a mental marathon. I probably could have done more here, but I was able to make some decisions throughout the event to compensate for it.
It’s really easy to say these things, but my decisions regarding preparation were pretty deliberate. I knew that to perform well in this event, I’d need to have a plan and stick to it. After a quick glance at the standings, I saw that while I was roughly in the middle of the cross table, the rating difference between me and the bottom was really small, while the difference between me and Aleksander Lenderman was … well, Lenderman certainly doesn’t need an introduction.
Knowing this, I decided to mix things up before setting foot in the tournament hall.
1. No chess in between rounds. This one proved to be really easy. With Tyson’s Corner just down the road and my girlfriend in town, there were plenty of (good) distractions to keep my mental energy levels high.
Of course, this meant no preparing for my opponents between rounds, but this is why I set a repertoire before the tournament. I felt really confident in my opening studies, and I managed to put together a plus score in games stemming from my preparation.
2. Don’t worry about ratings! As easy as this sounds, I had struggled with this in Pittsburgh, underperforming in games against lower rated opponents. My goal this tournament was just play solid chess each round, so I made the decision that if I drew a lower rated opponent but played a solid game, that’s a good result. Playing practical chess is really important in a long tournament, so draws aren’t necessarily the end of the world if you know when to take your chances.
These were big changes for me, but I knew I needed to change something to avoid another disappointing performance. After all, how often do I get to leave Pittsburgh during the semester?
During the tournament, I managed to (finally) pick up a copy of Thinking Inside the Box by Jacob Aagard from my childhood chess vendor Todd Hammer, and on pre-game mental preparation, Aagard writes:
“Personally I have always felt it useful to lay a strategy for the game. To think, in advance, of various situations that could arise. I did not always do this; but when I did not, I always regretted it.”
– Jacob Aagard, Thinking Inside the Box (page 44)
So I guess I was doing something right! After ten days, I felt ready – nervous – but definitely ready. I had a chip on my shoulder, and I really wanted to do something with my last tournament of the year.
Deja Vu on Opening Night
My first tournament outside of Pittsburgh since last August started with, well – an opponent from Pittsburgh. Paired with White against FM Gabe Petesch, I knew I had a good litmus test for the tournament. While I’ve never gotten a result against Gabe, I’ve always gotten an interesting game against him when in good form, so I wasn’t daunted by his new 2400+ rating.
The last time I played Gabe, you may recall I blew a great game due to poor time management, and that proved to be a recurring problem this game, though at a much smaller level:
Having won the opening battle, I have a great position. Central control, fluid development, and a clear plan. White needs to push the a-pawn to a5 and bring the f1 rook to the queenside. Once I’ve asserted my control on the queenside, I can bring my knight to b3 or c4 and put a lot of pressure on Black. Great! This didn’t take too long – and to a spectator 15. Rfc1 seems like a natural execution of that plan.
While its a perfectly good move, I wasted 12 minutes here looking at 15. f3, trying to solidify my center before going to the queenside. 15. f3 isn’t a bad move, but because I looked at this first without really identifying my plan (I had just brought my knight from f3 to d2 and was thinking about this follow-up), I needed to take extra steps to get reacclimatized to the position.
How big of a deal was 12 minutes? It would have meant that on move 36 I would have had 16 minutes in the critical position, instead of just 4:
Needing to make time control, I lost my edge with 36. dxc6?, and when I got to move 40, I found myself with a worse endgame and went on to lose. I dismissed 36. d6! because I thought the pawn would be lost, but with more time I may have seen 36…Rd8 37. d7 Re7 38. Rcd4 Qe6 39. Qd2 with a big advantage.
Its always tough to lose a game like this, but I knew I played a competitive game and just needed to pick up the pace on the clock a little bit (click here to see the whole game).
After a quick draw in the second round, I got white again against an 11 year old expert, Pranav Prem. While I had never played Pranav before, he was already gaining massive rating points before I graduated from high school, so I knew this was a potential trap game for me.
This was the first real test of my solid opening repertoire, and I was rather pleased to get this roughly equal position:
With best play Black should be able to hold equality, but White is the side playing for the advantage. Thanks to my queen on f3 and my “Ulf Anderson” knight on d3, I can play for the standard Catalan endgame advantage of the weak c6 square. If my knight can reach the c6 square, the game is much more dangerous for Black – and that’s basically what happened. After five hours of methodical chess, I squeezed water from stone and got my first win of the tournament.
Through three rounds, my tournament strategy served me well. I had an interesting draw with Black the next morning against Dennis Norman (who tacked on nearly 65 points to break 2000 for his tournament performance – congrats!), and followed that with an evening draw against FM Aravind Kumar from a position of strength.
Day 4 proved to be my real test, as I started the day with Black against two-time Virginia State Champion Andy Samuelson. Having lost to him convincingly twice before, I was a little concerned about the match-up, but once the position produced a symmetrical pawn structure. Determined to get more than a draw White pushed with 38. g5, trying to lose me in the complications:
While the game had a lot of critical moments beyond this, the trend shifted in my favor when I found the engine best 38…Be5!, asking White how he planned to extricate his knight on h6. From this point on, I felt like I was the biggest threat to myself, and I needed to stop my confidence from getting in the way of playing a good game. I made some mistakes and got a little lucky, but my hard work paid off and I converted my material advantage to a full point.
Not my best ever win, but with a plus score with Black guaranteed, I was thrilled (and tired) after another five hour win. Even more importantly, at 3.5/6, I was guaranteed to score 50%+ with any result in the final round. Phew! The Eastern Open isn’t cursed!
Unfortunately for me, having used up much of my energy, I was too content with a draw in the last round, and was punished after a drawn out ending (where I still had my chances to equalize!). But what can I say? Play for a draw and you better be ready to lose…
Last round aside, this was a great confidence booster for me as I jumped back over 2100 to end the year. Funnily enough after the last round, I thought I would only gain a couple points – 20 was a real holiday surprise!
What worked for me? To start the tournament, I really believed in my preparation, and it showed, even in my first round loss. After regrouping with a win in the third round, I played much more confidently and relaxed. Not obsessing about chess between rounds and store-hopping instead …helped? That’s bad news for my bank account.
But more importantly I treated all of my opponents the same way. I didn’t take any risks unless I felt it was the absolute best move on the board. I think in playing solidly, I successfully blocked out external distractions like rating and the disappointment in losing my first game. I had a lot of respect for everyone in the field, so it didn’t matter who the big fish were. We were all in the shark tank.