PRO Chess League: Pittsburgh Starts Season with Resounding Win over Buenos Aires

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2018 PRO Chess League season, emerging clear 2nd in the Atlantic Division after defeating the Buenos Aires Krakens by a higher-than-expected 10-6 margin.

The Pawngrabbers look a bit different this year as they look for a fresh start to their second season. With fewer teams in the league this year, we were able to solidify our bench with several strong players from across the lake in eastern Michigan that will have plenty of chances to shine in the coming weeks. And just last week, Pittsburgh scored a huge victory with the addition of 14-year old free agent GM Awonder Liang, who, like traditional powerhouse GM Alexander Shabalov, requires little introduction.

Finally, our stream team (originally my co-manager Isaac Steincamp) now includes NM David Hua and GM Eugene Perelshteyn.


Unfortunately for Buenos Aires, their chances were severely hampered by poor performance on their lower boards. Untitled Cristian Sanhueza, rated 2298 FIDE, scored 0-4 as the Krakens’ #4, while GM Leandro Krysa, who suffered from chronic connection problems, posted a dismal 0.5-3.5 on the night. This was clearly a bit of an extreme case, but does suggest that the more “top-heavy” lineups (Buenos Aires also fielded GM Federico Perez Ponsa and GM Alan Pichot) may be underestimating the importance of the lower positions.

In contrast, the Pawngrabbers seem to be quite strong in that regard. Many of our players last year were heavily outrated by many of the IM/GM powerhouses they faced, yet managed to score a respectable number of upsets. As we saw last night, being blown out 4-0 can be more damaging than it looks at first, so scoring a point or two as a low board goes a long way. A 1.5-2.5 was a respectable result for Pittsburgh #4 FM Edward Song (especially given how close his other games were), while IM Atulya Shetty scored a surprisingly strong 2.5-1.5.

Finally, time to recognize the obvious: our top two boards GM Alexander Shabalov and GM Awonder Liang. It’s never easy to predict Shaba, but he showed no signs of nerves, obliterating his first three opponents before falling to the Krakens’ MVP, GM Ponsa. Awonder took a more solid route, scoring two draws and a win against the Argentine GMs to also finish 3-1.

Let’s take a look at some of the key moments of the match.


Pittsburgh went 2.5-1.5 in the “weird” round (1v4, 2v3, 3v2, 4v1). Edward, not fearing his highest-rated opponent, played what was probably the most exciting game of the round. Unfortunately, time trouble proved fatal in an equal ending.

GM Perelshteyn offers his take on White’s spectacular opening.

Round 2 was a bit shakier, but Pittsburgh scored 2-2 to stay ahead. Shaba spiced things up with a scary piece sac.

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Shabalov–Krysa, round 2

With the score so close, Round 3 was shaping up to be critical. Everyone was up to the challenge, and collectively scored 3-1, moving within a point of winning the match. Isaac and David recap the round below.

I have to repost another Shaba game14. c4! was a really nice find.

Ed promptly finished the match in style, clinching the match courtesy of an early tactic against the Krakens’ Sanhueza. Black was surprised to find that 18…Qc5?? loses the queen after 19. Bxf6! Bxf6 20. Rd8+!!.

And just like that, Pittsburgh had ensured victory over the Buenos Aires Krakens, a strong, 2017 Playoff team. However, now that Pittsburgh is a true contender for the league, tiebreaks matter, and Awonder and Atulya did well to pick up another point and a half, getting us to 10-6. A great start to the season for the Pawngrabbers!

Be sure to tune in next week/same time as we take on the Montreal Chessbrahs in what should be another tough and exciting matchup!

PittMontreal.jpg

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Living on the Internet: Streaming, PRO Chess League, and more!

What a week it’s been! With classes now in full swing, it’s almost like break never happened! Here’s what I’ve been up to since my return from the Eastern Open:

On Air!

As I mentioned a few months back, I’ve joined the chess.com stream team to help promote chess. With some small technical difficulties (sorry for the lag!), my first episode of The Steincamp Show aired on Twitch this past weekend. If you missed the stream, I covered some topics like rook endgames, the Bird Bind, and some memorable games in my Europe trip. Have a look!

I’m hoping to stream regularly with chess.com, so make sure to subscribe to my twitch channel so you can notifications for when I go live!

#nervesofsteel

In addition to my work here at Chess^Summit, I also happen to be the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers in the PRO Chess League. Last year the Pawngrabbers finished strong despite an 0-4 start, winning the last three regular season games against Lagos, Portland, and Minnesota.

While the offseason meant learning basic Photoshop skills to promote the team, it also meant scouting stronger local players and signing top players. We got some pretty big news last week:

GM Awonder Liang is set on second board behind GM Alexander Shabalov. This year the Pawngrabbers have added depth on boards 3 and 4 with IMs Atulya Shetty and Safal Bora, FMs Mark Heimann, Gabriel Petesch, and Edward Song, as well as Mika Brattain, David Itkin, and Grant Xu.

The Pawngrabbers’ start the 2018 season with their second-ever international match-up against Buenos Aires tomorrow, at 6:40 PM EST. It should be close, so don’t miss out on the official team stream:

I’ll be streaming the Pawngrabbers’ matches on my twitch channel (with technical issues fixed), alongside LM David Hua for much of the season, so don’t miss out!

Looking Ahead

Just two weeks down the road, I’ll be competing in the Cardinal Open in Columbus, in what will prove to be my first attempt of 2018 to escape the snowpocalypse that is Pittsburgh right now. I’m not exactly sure how many opportunities I will have to compete beyond this tournament given my school schedule, so my main focus is to just play sharp and avoid regrettable blunders.

In the meantime, I’ve been keeping track of the Tata Steel tournament in the Netherlands. How about Kramnik’s win over Svidler yesterday?

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 21.05.23.png
Kramnik–Svidler, position after 17…Ne8

At a glimpse, White seems a little over-extended. Kramnik has two sets of doubled pawns, and e5 seems particularly weak. But how would you react if I said Kramnik went on to win in just 7 moves?

In reality, White’s rooks are actually really active – both of White’s rooks are optimally placed, and Black’s a8 rook and e8 knight are several moves away from getting into the game. White might be statically worse, but he has a dynamic edge on his side: 18. Rd7!

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 21.15.07.png
Kramnik–Svidler, position after 18. Rd7!

Not a hard move to find, as Kramnik hits three pawns at once (a7, b7, and e7). Svidler needed to bail out with 18…Bxe5 19. Rxe7 Bxc3 20. bxc3, but the endgame isn’t easy to hold. Black’s queenside pawns are weak, meaning that White will have an advantage to push on the queenside. Not to mention, it’s also more helpful to have the bishop than the knight in this endgame too.

So Svidler tried to opt out by trading away a pair of rooks with 18…Rc7  but was caught off guard by 19. Rxa7!

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 21.20.50
Kramnik–Svidler, position after 19. Rxa7!

Now the position is starting to crumble. If Black tries 19…Rxa7? 20. Rd8! and White has a long-term advantage if 20…Kf8 21. Bxa7. White is extremely active, and Black will not easily break the pin on the e8 knight. So Svidler had to make a concession with 19…Rb8, and that was all Kramnik needed to win the game.

After 20. Rd5 b6 21. Nb5, White already has a commanding edge. Black’s rooks will never be fully (or actively) coordinated. Meanwhile, White’s knight on b5 is an immovable force, and the Black knight on e8 is unable to get into the game, thanks to the e5 pawn.

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 21.29.26
Kramnik–Svidler, position after 21. Nb5

After 21…Rxa7 22. Nxa7 Kf8 23. Rd7, tactics are on White’s side again because if 23…Bxe5 24. Nc6! is decisive. After 23… Ra8 24. Bd4, Svidler resigned. White is so active that winning the b6 pawn is considered a distraction. While Black struggles to find activity, White has a plethora of plans to choose from.

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 21.36.09
Kramnik–Svidler, position after 24. Bd4

White’s dynamic advantage from seven moves ago is now a static advantage, even with the doubled pawns. The knight on a7 not only blocks out the a-file for the rook, it takes away the c8 square. The Black knight on e8 can’t get out, and bishop on g7 is pointed at a pawn. Unless Black plays for a quick …f7-f6, White can march his king all the way to c6 and win the b6 pawn there. With all of his pieces active, then it becomes possible for Kramnik to push his b-pawns.

Black could try 24…f6, in fact, that’s probably the only real candidate move in the position. But even there, 25. Bxb6 fxe5 26. Bc5 exerts permanent pressure on e7 while preparing to advance the b3 pawn.

I like this game because it illustrates how important the overall balance is between statics and dynamics. At first, Kramnik had a dynamic edge, and he realized the position’s potential. In keeping with Dorfman’s strategy, he continued to play dynamically until his initiative became a long-lasting edge. As spectators, we were rewarded with a 24 move win against a super-GM!

With Kramnik at +2, he’s definitely in contention for first, but I’ve got this weird feeling Anish Giri is going to keep the edge… time to start watching to the Challenger section!

What can you learn from blitz games?

There is an interesting debate on the value of blitz tournaments and games.

Whether it’s useful to play blitz games to improve your chess, or from a broader point of view, does blitz attracts more audience to the chess game.

My answers to both of these questions are resounding yes. I’ll leave the debate and my own opinions for a different time.

However, regardless your opinion, what you should definitely consider is to review and learn from your own blitz games just like a standard game.

We’ll review three snippets of my recent blitz games played both over the board (at CCSCATL) and online. Below are three themes we’ll discuss in this post:

  1. Learning to thrive in Complications
  2. Improving Intuition
  3. Searching for unexpected tactics

Complication

blitz1

White to Move

After an unsound sacrifice in the opening, I got into the above position.

Here I can feel there are compensations, as black’s king is not able to castle, thus hard to connect the rooks. Plus all of white pieces are ready to jump in for any impeding attack.

White has two choices:

  • Bxg7
  • Rxe7

I took on e7, because I wanted to keep the dark square bishop. However, with closer inspection, possibly Bxg7 is a more objective try.

After a few more moves, we reached the next critical point.

blitz2

Black to Move

Question: would you play:

  • Bb5 or
  • Bg4

Blitz games give many opportunities to make mistakes. And it’s helpful to train your own tolerance of complications.

Intuition

In the position below, I pushed my pawn b3-b4, feeling good about the sacrifice.

blitz3

Black to Move

Here I thought Bxb4 is not possible due to Qa4. But my intuition failed and I missed the critical variation.

Question: can you calculate the variation to the ensuing endgame after all the trades and evaluate why black is clearly better in that position?

Unexpected tactics

blitz4

White to Move

I was playing black and feeling confident about the position. The game continued with Rxd2 exd2, and then Qe3 winning white’s e2-bishop.

However, when I entered the game into the computer, to my surprise, Stockfish told me it was +0.4 in this position.

Question: what did both side miss for white to counter attack?

———-

There are many instructional moments in blitz games, and the value is in understanding the nuance just like reviewing standard games.

Next time you get a chance to play blitz, make sure you can extract value from these games.

P.s. Feel free to answer the questions in the comment section.

When (not) to Castle

We are taught early on that we should always castle, both to get our king to safety and to develop our rook. That is usually sound advice, and one rarely has a valid opportunity not to castle. Naturally, there are exceptions, and today I would like to talk about those.

I’d split those exceptions into four categories:

  1. Player A has advanced his pawns on the kingside/queenside making it a bad choice to castle in that direction – that could be because a) the pawns don’t sufficiently shield player A’s king and/or b) castling would disrupt potentially powerful play with the pawns
  2. Castling would walk into a powerful pawn storm and/or mating attack – admittedly, I haven’t encountered this situation often.
  3. The king is perfectly safe without castling – that one is usually added to categories #1 and #2, but there’s an example of that which we’ll discuss in a moment.
  4. It’s an endgame – in the endgame, king activity is important, and the chances of getting mated are small.

Take this example:

Chernin

Black to move

In this fascinating position, I was black and without hesitation played 20… Kf7!. On f7, the king is absolutely safe, since white has no concrete threats against it. Also, my rook is better off on the h-file, where it could help with kingside pawn pushes. It should not come as a surprise to you that Kf7 is a good move and that 0-0 is not. This definitely falls into category #1. After pushing all those pawns and having promising prospects on the kingside, castling would simply be absurd.

T. Davis

Black to move

In this game, I was up to my usual risky pawn-grabbing business with black and reached this position. I’ve won a pawn, but my development isn’t the greatest, my king is stuck in the middle, and my h6-g5 pawn pushes appear to be more weakening than aggressive. But anyway, what to do with the king? 16… 0-0 is a bad idea on account of Qh5 and Ng4 business. Therefore, I decided to just play 16… Kf8!. It gets the king off the e-file and more importantly keeps the rook on the h-file. The king isn’t weak – it’s shielded by pawns and is surrounded by friends and family. And his majesty can always go to g7 if I feel the need to connect my rooks eventually.

What category does this fall into? It’s probably category #1, as black has been busy pushing kingside pawns. However, in some scenarios, castling kingside would not be a bad idea in this position, while in the first example, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where castling would be good!

OK, what’s the conclusion from those two examples? In both I pushed my kingside pawns, and as a result my rook was better placed on h8 than on f8. Also, in both examples, the black king was safe. Basically, I reached the same goal as castling – I got a safe king and an active rook. When I started pushing my kingside pawns, I threw basic principles into the garbage bin (admittedly with a good reason). This allows us to arrive to a different principle when you have advanced pawns on the kingside, castling kingside often doesn’t make sense.

Another reason why not to castle – you will likely get mated if you do so! In this case, I’m thinking about openings like the Sicilian where black often keeps his king in the middle and plays on the queenside so that white’s kingside pawn storm doesn’t murder him. This is a frequent theme in the Sicilian and a reason why in many situations, black will delay castling until  the right moment.

The Mysterious …Kf8 in the French

In the French Defense, black often plays Kf8, usually in order to protect the g7-pawn. One example is the following main line position:

Winawer Theory 2

The main moves here are 7… cxd4 and 7… Qc7, but the move 7… Kf8!? Is perfectly playable here. Why? Doesn’t it break all the principles?

OK, I probably can’t explain this one in a paragraph, but I’ll try. If black plays 7… 0-0 (which is a theoretical main line), after 8.Bd3, white starts an attack by targeting h7. The attack is not easy to counter by any means. After 7… Kf8, however, white has no clear way of attacking the black king. Black will focus his play on the queenside, and it isn’t easy for white to counter it. The big drawback of Kf8, however, is that black will have a hard time connecting his rooks – still, that’s something he can live with.

As I said above, these ideas with …Kf8 appear many times in the theory of the French. Sometimes they occur in situations where black can’t castle (or won’t be able to get away with it anyway), but even there it isn’t easy to explain. The French, especially the Winawer, is NOT an easy opening to explain using principles.

Puzzles

Before I finish, I would like to leave you with a few puzzles. Come back on Sunday, and I’ll publish the answers in the comments.

Disclaimer: Just because this article is suggesting that you shouldn’t castle, it does NOT mean that in all the puzzles castling is bad. It’s up to you to decide what’s best.

Puzzle 1

Brandon 1

White to move

Is 25.0-0 a good move?

Puzzle 2

Azarov 1

Black to move

How should black respond to white’s last move 22.Bc5?

Puzzle 3

Sveshnikov Theory

White to move

What is white’s best move in this theoretical position?

Puzzle 4

Cuarta

White to move

In this unusual position, is 24.0-0 a good idea?

Puzzle 5

Last but not least, I should finish with another fascinating and unique idea in the French Winawer.

Winawer Theory 1

Black to move

What is the most-commonly played move here? (Give yourself a pat on the back if you find the idea and haven’t seen it before!!)

Order in The Court: Keeping Your Pieces Happy

Paul Morphy, arguably the most accurate player in history and a hero of mine, famously said “help your pieces so they can help you.” This idea has been mirrored or paraphrased in most chess books and is one my coach often reminds me of. These eight words frequently run through my head when I’m deciding which move to make next and I often ask myself if I’m helping or hindering my pieces when I analyze a game. This may seem to be an obvious concept, but executing this theme is not always easy and to the uninitiated it can be a major barrier. The challenge is that your opponent is trying to do the same thing and there are only so many squares. So how do you balance attacking, defending, and keeping your pieces happy? Let’s look at each member of the royal court and discuss:

Pawn – the foot soldier of our kingdom. Often overlooked or seen as a piece for trade and protection, you must bear in mind that it can capture en passant, promote to a stronger piece, and create a great barrier on your opponents diagonals. That being said, the pawn is also very susceptible to attack in the following examples:

pawns

An isolated or backwards piece is always a liability. Hanging or isolated pawns are usually easy targets and the cost of protecting them isn’t always worth the price spent in terms of tempo or opportunities brushed aside for an easy piece. An isolated pawn can sometimes be a trap to draw your opponents attention from another area of the board. Double pawns are often a liability and are often calculated as one piece. Both pieces are up for grabs if not properly supported and block diagonals and spaces that can be desirable for your other pieces. An essential element to consider with your pawns is the act of creating a chain. Think of this as a series of pieces that “have each others back” and support their fellow pawns and other members of the party. Let’s look at the example below and see this in action:

iagonals

Now in this example which side would you rather be playing on? See how white has  channels and escape squares for it’s Bishop meanwhile black has bottled theirs in? When constructing your pawn chain keep piece activity in mind and look to improve their mobility, not hinder it. This brings us to the Bishop…

Bishop – unlike other pieces, a Bishop can only be on one colored square its whole life. When constructing your pawn chain or developing an attack keep this in mind. If you lost a Bishop of one color, it is often a good practice to open paths for the remaining one.  The Bishop can be a powerful tool on its own, but if used in tandem with another piece, particularly on a diagonal as backup to the Queen, the Bishop is a major force to be reckoned with. Fianchettoing not only give the Bishop a perfect diagonal, it puts pressure on the Rook and depending on which side your opponent chooses to castle on, can threaten mate with another piece as we can see in the below example. Note the beautiful diagonal the Bishop has across the board and, with the Queen ready to strike, ensures a victory.

diang

Knight – I have never shied away from admitting this is my favorite piece. The Knights unique movement and capabilities make it a dangerous piece. A Knight can fork and elude pieces like no other and is an absolute ninja when the opponent has to guess which square you’re eyeing up. Keeping in mind that it has to alternate colored squares every move, planning ahead is key in using this piece to its fully potential. Look at the example below and identify the “good” Knights:

k1

Notice how Black has given its Knights nowhere to go while white has ample opportunities? Another point to keep in mind is available squares for these Knights, particularly how blacks Knight on b4 has nowhere to move. Remember, much planning and forethought is necessary to get the most out of your Knights and without a plan they will likely impede your development or become easy targets.

Rook – the battering ram of the King’s army, the Rook is most lethal when it can achieve an open file and go behind enemy lines, especially on the 7th rank. A doubled Rook is also an incredibly dangerous weapon. The Rook requires some forethought and clearing out space to do things such as a Rook lift or to load “Alekhine’s Gun” but, in my opinion, it is an easier piece to master than some others. Most endgame books and lessons I’ve seen start with mastering Rook endgames as this mighty piece often survives until the end due to it’s starting location and lateral mobility. Alekhine’s Gun, named after a 1930 game between masters Alexander Alekhine and Aaron Nimzowitsch showcases the raw power of the Rook and is a game I highly recommend everyone studies. Below is the final position where you can see the gun, an unstoppable battering ram!

alekhine

Queen – it is in any Kings good interest to keep his Queen happy. Indeed the safety and mobility of the Queen give the army much power and her loss often cripples the assault and morale. To keep the Queen happy, consider what makes the Bishop and Rook happy as she has the same needs as they do; open files, diagonals, and escape squares. I will refer to the example above used under the Bishop section to drive home the sheer power of this piece. It can be an easy trap to fall into to build your attack around the Queen, so always consider your other pieces before banking on the Queen to do all the work.

King – the irony that the King, the target that must be eliminated to gain victory, is the least powerful piece. Defense is the name of the game here, period. King safety is one of the cardinal virtues of the game in all phases and can never be forgotten. Balancing King safety and mounting an attack is a difficult task, but it is an essential skill to master. Castling early, maintaining a strong pawn structure around the King, and ensuring minor or major pieces can come to the rescue are things to keep in mind as you move through the game. Many masters and I too believe that three pawns on the second rank defending the King is the strongest formation. While I often play the Kings Indian Defense against a d5 opening, I stay towards a traditional three pawn defense otherwise.

So let’s go over some key points to keep each piece happy:

Pawn – pawn structure sets barriers and traps for your opponent. Passed pawns are powerful and underdeveloped or backwards pawns are a major liability. In short, let pawns assist your forces deeper and, if the opportunity arises, promote and fulfill their destiny.

Bishop – do not block your Bishops diagonals! I repeat, DO NOT BLOCK YOUR BISHOPS DIAGONALS! Give the Bishop a powerful diagonal that covers ground and supports a major attack and you have a strong opportunity ahead!

Knight – remember the Knight must alternate colors with each move. The Knight requires a great deal of forethought and planning to utilize wisely and can be trapped or lost if moved without a plan. Give the Knight open squares of the opposite color and keep it towards the center of the board and you have a powerful weapon.

Rook – the Rook is powerful in controlling an open rank or file. Doubling Rooks or mobilizing them to the 7th rank will give you a major advantage and opportunity to mow down the enemy. And again, study Alekhine v. Nimzowitsch 1930 and the use of “Alekhine’s Gun.”

Queen – give her what she wants and get out of her way,  but don’t rely on her to win the day by herself. Protect her, don’t use her too early in the game, and keep in mind the rules for the Rook and Bishop when planning her attack.

King – it seems silly to say, but just don’t let him die! Don’t give your opponent opportunities to attack and with every move, assure your King is not under threat of a mate, whether it be direct or discovered. Also keep in mind that having a piece pinned to the King is a dangerous idea.

Now that we know some essential principles to keep the King and his court happy, keep them in mind in your next encounters. Remember to keep your King safe and give your pieces opportunities for activity and advancement.

Revenge (Kind of)

I spent the back end of my winter break last week playing in the Eastern Open alongside Isaac!  If I was to describe the tournament in a single phrase, I would definitely say it was a roller coaster.  I began the tournament by playing GM Alexsander Lenderman on the top board.  We were locked in an equal battle for the majority of the game, but one slip-up at the end near time control proved fatal for me.  Had I just avoided that one mistake, the game would have probably ended in a draw; one mistake is all it takes sometimes!  Either way, I was not too fazed, as I was rather pleased with the way I had played.  I followed up that game with a win as White before drawing twice against consecutive lower rated players.  In my fifth round, I found myself playing against the lowest seed in the section, who had been playing extremely well based on his pre-tournament seeding.  I managed to win a pawn but had to play into a passive position in order to keep it; in hindsight, I probably should have avoided passivity altogether.  In the end, I blundered two pieces for a rook and wound up losing.  Those few games in the middle definitely marked the low point in the tournament.  Fortunately, I was able to regain something with a win over a mid-2000 rated player as White in round 6.  The tournament culminated in being paired with FM Ralph Zimmer, an opponent of mine similar to what FM Gabe Petesch has been for Isaac.

Despite being “only” 2300, he has been one of those opponents that I have never been able to figure out.  Perhaps it is his rather obscure opening choices in the Trompowsky and the Scandinavian, or maybe the fact that he plays relatively quickly yet always seems to find good moves.  Before this encounter, I had already lost to him five (!) times over the board.  And, to cap it off, I had lost to him twice in the blitz tournament that was held prior to the main event.  So, it was safe to say that I was not overly enthusiastic about having to play him once more, especially in a tournament where I was already performing quite poorly.  That said, I spent the next twenty minutes I had by preparing something to play.  Since I was playing something different as black since the last time I played him, I had to “restart” my preparation, and I wasn’t exactly fond of going back and repeating lines that I had played before.

Towards the end of that 20-minute period, I found a rather interesting and exotic-looking line that I felt fairly comfortable playing, but it wasn’t the computer’s top choice.  I still decided to go for it if it came up, and I was able to look at a few variations before having to leave for the game.  Let’s see how the game went.

Zimmer – Kobla, Eastern Open, 2017

In some ways, this game was a heartbreaker, sure.  However, I’m still content that I was able to play well against my opponent for essentially the first time.  This happened for a couple reasons:

  1. Active play – I still believe that playing actively is the best way to play against higher rated players. Playing passively and “for a draw” will only result in being ground down in the long run.  In this game, I chose moves such as g4 over gxh4 and Nxf6 instead of Bxf6 in order to keep the initiative and my pieces active.
  2. Focused opening prep – I tried to find a line that was obscure but still fit with my style of play. A common mistake that players make in opening prep is to pay too much attention to the engine.  It’s fine to have an engine to make sure you’re not making blunders, but other than that, it doesn’t tell you much.  It’s more important to choose moves based on what positions you feel comfortable playing with.

So, in the end, I should have won this game.  However, I’m not overly disappointed with a draw, either.  It’s still a step in the right direction.  Hopefully, by showing this game, I was able to offer something instructive.  And, with that, thanks for reading, and, as always, see you next time!  Happy New Year to everyone once again!

Swimming with Sharks: Return to DC

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:

Exercise:

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.

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Baking a Cheesecake? Hmm… Chess is still harder

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:

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Steincamp–Petesch, position after 14…Rfe8

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:

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Steincamp–Petesch, position after 35…Rbe8

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.

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Steincamp–Petesch, analysis after 39. Qd2

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:

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Steincamp–Prem, position after 21. Qf3

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:

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Samuelson–Steincamp, position after 38. g5

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.

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Stay calm Isaac… PC: Paul Swaney

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.

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One last surprise – my first Penguins jersey! Let’s go Pens!

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.