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.

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2 thoughts on “Practice the Way You Play: Why Focus is so Important in Chess

  1. Pingback: Thinking about Chess Again: I Mean was I Ever Not? – chess^summit

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