Winging The 2018 National Open

One of the problems with any type of pre-tournament preparation is that there are always surprises in chess – just ask the guy who played 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Bg5 h6 5. Bd2?! against me last Saturday. On its own, there is nothing to lose from that (besides time), but I see many seasoned players comment that they feel very prepared before a tournament but run into trouble as soon as there are surprises. I do believe there’s value in reining in big expectations and developing the skills to handle the unexpected.

That doesn’t mean I like to go into every tournament cold. After narrowly surviving last month’s Chicago Open, I decided to cover the holes in my opening repertoire for Black and replace some difficult lines that I’d only played because there was nothing else I knew. But completely revamping openings can’t really be done in a few weeks between tournaments, and in this case would have required me to learn two completely new openings featuring a lot of nuances in specific move orders. So I decided that wasn’t worth it for now, and thus arrived at my next big tournament – the National Open in Las Vegas, Nevada – ready to wing it. In the end, I came back from an early loss to finish 5.5/7 with some big rating gains (broke 2200 USCF for the second time, and gained about 40 FIDE points) to match.


On paper, the Under 2300 section promised a much more reasonable field (where I was seeded 40th out of about 100) than the Chicago Open. However, even in a 7-round tournament, it’s still fairly difficult to recover from a slow start, and in the first three rounds of the tournament, it was pretty clear that I would have to do a lot better.

In Round 1, I won a rather ugly game against my 1975-rated opponent on the White side of a Closed Sicilian. Objectively, my kingside attack wasn’t very sound, but Black’s position proved unpleasant to defend in practice. Despite missing numerous tactical shots, I eventually won on move 33.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same fortune in Round 2, where a few simple oversights turned the tables on a great position. Despite standing slightly worse out of the opening, I had managed to outplay my opponent on the kingside and seemed to be in the process of converting against a harmless kingside attack.Simply 27…Rag8 followed soon by …Kg8 would keep a large advantage, but unfortunately, I managed to bring my queen back instead, and after managing to “admit” my mistake with the genius maneuver …Qb6-d8-b6 fell into a mating net for which there was no good defense.

Round 3 was pretty much the opposite. A Classical French went very wrong as White, and I soon found myself in dire straits facing mate (and other) threats. However, after I managed to get the queens off the board, it seemed like I could hold, and my opponent offered a draw. Despite being close to losing a few moves before, I was already thinking about staying in prize contention and thought Black could make no progress. My opponent must have had similar thoughts, as he overpressed a few moves later into a losing ending.

Having gotten through Round 3 with a decent score, I started to think about staying in prize contention. In a Round 4 game reminiscent of Chicago, I acquiesced to an early draw, this time as Black. My opponent, a foreign master, played a harmless-looking opening (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Bg5 h6 5. Bd2?!) very slowly and had only 18 minutes on move 18, but I misjudged the position and thought I was worse if I deviated from the repetition. Acutely aware of my extraordinarily luck in Rounds 1-3, I decided to avoid any chance of overpressing. However, this meant I would likely have to win my last three games – typically, in most 7-round tournaments with a similar prize structure, 5.5 points are required for a significant prize.

If nothing else, I will remember Round 5 for taking an unreasonably long time. I played up again, and was close to winning straight out of the opening as White. However, when my opponent sacrificed the Exchange, I started draining a lot of time and quickly drifted into a much worse position trying to fend off a massive kingside attack that looked impossible merely a few moves earlier. However, after a few inaccuracies by my opponent I escaped into an Exchange-up ending. Despite some technical challenges (as there always are in my endgames) I managed to collect the full point.

Anticipating a Black in Round 6, I assumed it would be tough to stay in prize contention. However, I also knew doing something crazy against a strong opponent just to keep winning chances alive would likely not work at all. As Black, the first order of business was to equalize. The opening took longer than usual, because White sprang 1. b3 on me, and I tried to play a main line (as much as there can be in such a rare opening). I managed a solid position with the bishop pair compensating for White’s more active position. On move 17, White, already playing quickly, lost the Exchange to a two-move tactic, and although there were some detours along the way, I managed to convert without major issues.

The tournament couldn’t have ended any better, in what was by far my best game of the tournament. I’m no stranger to last-round disasters, but the round went basically as well as I could have hoped for in every stage of the game. My opponent faced challenges early on navigating the unfamiliar opening as Black, and I emerged with a nice advantage, simply improving my position as fast as Black solved his problems. Black eventually gave up a pawn facing pressure on the queenside and center, trading into a pawn-up ending that culminated in this:

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The simplest way to end matters is the classic breakthrough 49. b5!, the point being White doesn’t care about the bishop after 49…axb5, since after 50. c6 bxc6 51. a6 Black’s tangled pawns+knight complex can’t stop the a-pawn! Even after seeing so many breakthroughs in endgame puzzles and the like, it was pretty cool to play it in a serious game.


Getting the critical last win in this way was not only enough to tie for the 4th place prize, but also enough for a solid rating boost (+31 USCF, +41 FIDE), notably pushing me above 2200 USCF for the second time ever, to an all-time high of 2209. After a lot of thoroughly documented ups and downs, I’ve rebounded with some great results this year, but it’s still been quite the challenge getting back to the master level. This time though, momentum is on my side, so hopefully I’m here to stay!

My Swiss Gambit

The New York International is a 9-round norm tournament held every summer, organized by the Marshall Chess Club. I have really good memories from the tournament. I beat my first GM at the 2015 NY International, got my first IM Norm in the 2016 edition, and became an IM in the 2017 edition. This year was a little different… from the very first round.

While a traditional Swiss Gambit involves drawing the first round to face weaker opposition, I took a more extreme approach at the New York International when I lost my first round. I was the only higher rated player who “chose” this “strategy,” except that I didn’t do so voluntarily. It did work out well in the end—at the expense of any GM Norm chances.

Part 1: Bad start

In the first round, I got black against Brandon Nydick (2329 USCF, 2130 FIDE). After a fairly unusual opening, things heated up.

Nydick 1

I wasn’t impressed with my position here as black. White has control of the d-file and a nice bishop, while black’s pieces are somewhat passive. White’s pawn structure, however, isn’t the most secure. The b3-pawn is hanging, and white’s e3-pawn isn’t awe-inspiring either… I was expecting 23.Rd3, after which I was planning 23… Qc7 with the idea of Ne5. I correctly estimated that the position was about equal.

Instead, I got hit with a surprise: 23.b4?. It’s an enterprising idea, but objectively it’s bad. After 23… cxb4 24.c5 I made a bad decision.

Nydick 2

24… b3! keeping a passer on the b-file and shutting down the a3-f8 diagonal for the white bishop was best. The reason I didn’t play it was because I thought 25.Qc4 hitting the e6-pawn was very strong. Somehow I missed both 25… Qe4! and 25… Qb5! both of which will lead to a queen trade. Black is much better in that endgame. I also spent time calculating the intriguing consequences of 24… bxa3 25.c6, after which white is fine.

Seeing nothing better, I went 24… Nf8? which is an awful move. After 25.c6 Qc7 26.Rfd2 white had full compensation for the pawn if not more. It became difficult for me to play, and I eventually cracked.

That hurt. My GM Norm chances were gone, since I’d get to play relatively low-rated opposition the next few rounds, bringing down my rating average and performance way too low. It would be practically impossible to get my rating average above 2380 (the minimum average rating required for a GM Norm).

A crazy fact was that this was my first time losing the first round in a 9-round Swiss tournament ever. From that perspective, this kind of game was way overdue! I stayed positive and came back. After all, with 8 rounds left, there was plenty of chess left in the tournament. Despite knowing that my norm chances were fictional, I kept going.

Part 2: My comeback

I won a fairly nice game in round 2 against Rey Jomar Magallanes (2325 USCF, 2101 FIDE). It wasn’t the cleanest win ever, but my play wasn’t bad at all. Here’s an interesting moment from the game:

Magallanes

I had been better for most of the game, and I had just won a pawn. My pieces, however, were a bit scattered. Black should go 31… Bf7! here, preparing … e5. White doesn’t have much of an advantage after that. My opponent instead played 31… e5? which I met with 32.d5!. My idea was that 32… Bf7 is met with 33.Bc5! Bxd5 34.Bxd6. Though both of white’s rooks are hanging, c7 will drop with a deadly effect. My opponent reduced the damage by going 32… Kd7 33.Bc5 Rac8, but he’s lost, and I won shortly afterwards.

In round 3, I won another nice game with black against Bahadur Khodzhamkuliev (2283 USCF, 2164 FIDE). I simply got a very good position and was winning by move 25. Not a bad boost!

Unfortunately, my roll came to a temporary halt with a draw in round 4; and trust me, it could have been worse. I was white against Rawle Allicock (2288 USCF, 2198 FIDE) and out of the opening we reached this position.

Allicock 1

This is a strange position. Black’s pawn structure is damaged, but white’s pieces aren’t in the best shape either. I had my eyes on the e4-pawn which was a nice target. If 24.Qb1, attacking the pawn, I wasn’t impressed by my chances after 24… c5. Another option to consider was 24.Nc4, planning to relocate the knight to e3, and white might claim a small edge after that. The best move which I didn’t consider was 24.Ra5!. It looks strange but was actually very strong, since it prevents c5.

Instead, I prematurely played 24.c4? and got hit with 24… c5 25.d5 e3!.

Allicock 2

Black isn’t worse at all after this one. 26.fxe3 Nxd5! Is very strong for black. I went 26.Rxe3 Rxe3 27.Bxf6, eliminating the f6 knight and the Nxd5 tricks with it. After 27… Qe8!, however, I completely overreacted.

Allicock 3

28.fxe3 Qxe3+ 29.Kf1 Bxf6 doesn’t look fun for white, but white isn’t in bad shape after 30.Qe2!. Instead, I went 28.Bxd8?? Re1+ 29.Qxe1 Qxe1+ 30.Nf1, completely underestimating how bad the position is after 30… Bd4 31.Bh4 g5 32.Bg3 Bc8. The white bishop will be dead after f5 and f4, and his position is just lost. Luck, however, was on my side. While gaining time on the clock, my opponent accidentally stumbled into a threefold repetition. Phew!! Okay, this is NOT the game I wanted. So here I was with 2.5/4 against players whose FIDE ratings were all under 2200. This wasn’t part of my plans at all, but it wasn’t a total disaster either. Oh well, there were still 5 rounds to go…

In round 5, I got back on track with a win against Aaron Jacobson (2373 USCF, 2259 FIDE). Things went exceptionally well for me, and by move 20, I was a clean pawn up with black. What more could I want? I went on to exploit my advantage and won a fairly smooth game.

Part 3: Fun at the top boards

With 3.5/5, I finally got to play up. I was white against IM Alex Ostrovskiy (2508 USCF, 2414 FIDE). Though the rating difference was very small, I was glad not to be playing down! I got a nice position out of the opening, but Alex defended well, and I wasn’t able to get through. I was disappointed that I only got a draw out of it, but I got over it. After all, I had gotten seriously lucky in round 4…

In round 7, I started a late-tournament charge by beating IM Kim Steven Yap (2441 USCF, 2363 FIDE) with black. After turning down two draw offers, I ground him down from a fairly dry position. Going into the last day, I had 5/7. Not bad at all, but I needed a strong finish.

Round 8 was the game that blew the tournament open for me. I got white against Brandon Jacobson (2449 USCF, 2303 FIDE) who, at that point, was leading the tournament with a 2700+ FIDE performance! He needed 0.5/2 on the last day to get a GM Norm. If things went sour, I wasn’t going to hesitate to offer a draw. I knew, however, that winning this game would be huge and blast the tournament wide open for me and others.

Brandon 1

With his last move 25… Kh8, Brandon offered a draw. I declined with 26.Re5!, as I felt that black had problems to solve after this one. 26… Rxe5 27.dxe5 is bad for black (more about that later, since the game got into very similar territory).

If 26… Rg2, I was planning 27.Rf1, since after 27… Nb4 28.Bb3 Rxd4 29.Re7!, black has to go back with 29… Rd8 to prevent mate, and it’s clear that black is in big trouble. Black, however, can play 27… b5!. Things don’t look pleasant for black, but white doesn’t have a crystal clear follow up. For that reason, 27.Bxd5! cxd5 28.Re7 may have been stronger. I missed that after 28… Rc8 29.c3 Rf8 30.Rxb7 Rff2, the b7-rook prevents Rxb2, meaning that everything is under control.

Black’s best move was probably 26… Rg3! If 27.Bxd5 cxd5 28.Re7, it turns into a pawn race after 28… Rxh3 29.Rxb7. White should have the upper hand with the rook on the 7th, but it isn’t clear at all how much he actually has. 27.Rf1 Nc7! is annoying, since the h3-pawn is hanging in a lot of lines. White should be better, but it isn’t anything dramatic.

Brandon instead played 26… h6?!. 27.Rxg5 hxg5 looks nice for white, but 28.Rg1? runs into 28… Nf4!. Instead, I simply played 27.h4, as I felt that the inclusion of the moves …h6 and h4 would help me. Brandon decided to go 27… Rxe5 28.dxe5 b5, but that is just very good for white.

Brandon 2

28… b5 was necessary to prevent white from going c4 and winning the knight. Now, 29.b3 will be met with 29… b4, and white is stuck. Therefore, I played 29.c3! with the simple idea of playing b3 and c4 on the next move, since black will no longer be able to go en passant in case of b4. Black is in big trouble, and he may be lost already. After 29… a6 30.c3 Re8 31.Bxd5 cxd5 32.Rxd5 g5 33.hxg5 hxg5 34.e6, I went on to win.

NY Intl rd 8 pairings

And that’s how I found myself in a tie for first going into the last round! Not bad at all… My last round game against GM John Burke (2600 USCF, 2518 FIDE) was no peaceful draw. It was actually the longest game of the round! I was worse for most of the 5+ hour game, but I scraped out alive. That landed me in a 4-way tie for first with GMs Mikhalevski, Hess, and Burke!

As I mentioned above, my GM Norm was practically impossible after the first round loss. My comeback wasn’t shabby, but I didn’t even achieve an IM Norm performance (it was 2438). Objectively, I lost my first round, and I shouldn’t be whining about not getting GM Norm chances! It’s unfortunate that botching up one game can obliterate my norm chances, but it is what it is. In the end, I’m happy about this tournament. I did my best given the circumstances, and after all, I tied for first! (you can check out final standings here)

Congratulations to Brandon Jacobson and Levy Rozman on getting IM Norms, and thank you to the Marshall Chess Club for running the tournament!

Note to self: There is absolutely no need to repeat this Swiss Gambit experiment!!

Preparing for the Washington International

A couple of weeks ago I made arrangements to play in my first nine-round tournament ever: the 7th Annual Washington International. Even though I will not be able to play in the top section, I am tremendously excited to play in the tournament because nine rounds against approximately equally rated opposition will be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate good form and make serious rating gains. As I do not want to let such an opportunity go to waste, my chess studies in preparation for the tournament have been more focused, intense, and consistent than ever before.

Since the beginning of June, I have split my chess practice into two basic components: tactics/calculation and book study. The calculation practice ensures that I stay sharp and improve my board visualization abilities, whereas consistent book study allows for the acquisition of new concepts that will improve my chess understanding in the long run. While this may seem like a relatively standard training regimen, some of the methods that I have found to be very effective over the course of the past month may not be known to everyone. Allow me to dissect some of my favorite training methods from the month of June:

  1. Timed calculation with a real board: Setting up difficult tactical problems from online tactical training sites on a real board, and then giving myself ten minutes to solve each tactic using a chess clock has helped me tremendously in improving my tactical ability. I believe that the use of a real board and clock significantly enhances the calculation training because it stimulates tournament conditions: better focus due to time constraints and three-dimensional element of tournament chess. It is a good idea to keep some form of a log for tactics as it can be very rewarding to track one’s progress.
  2. Reviewing book material with a chess software: Up until late December of 2017, I would study chess books over the board, moving the pieces as I flipped from page to page. While this seems like a decent method, I found that I would not absorb everything that I studied, and more importantly, I would start to forget old material after only a couple of weeks. This frustrated me because essentially only 10% of what I studied actually aided my improvement in the long run. One day, I ran across a blog post by FM Daniel Barrish. In the post, FM Barrish discussed the technique of plugging chess positions from books along with corresponding analysis into a database software. The point of this technique is not only to exploit the benefits of active learning, but more importantly to create ready-made chess lessons on one’s computer that can easily be reviewed at any point in time after having studied the material. I tried out this technique myself with Artur Yusupov’s book series that I am currently studying, and have found it to be incredibly useful. With periodic review of old lessons on my computer, my recall of material has risen tremendously.
  3. Chess note cards: The idea of chess note cards came to me recently after having used Daniel Barrish’s technique for a while, and I am already starting to experience the benefits. A few weeks ago, I printed out many positions from the exercises in Artur Yusupov’s books and glued them individually onto the front sides of note cards; I then wrote the solutions for each position on the backs of the corresponding note cards, along with the names of the two players and the setting of the game (place and date). By now I have amassed quite a large collection of note cards based on the Yusupov books and am reviewing them periodically. As a result, I am able to recognize positions in my games that reflect certain positions from a Yusupov book, and then apply the same concept that was shown in the book. I highly recommend this method because it is a fantastic form of active learning: writing the solutions on the back of the note cards as well as reviewing them periodically engages the mind actively with the given position.

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Note card review underway!

I apologize for the lack of actual chess content in this blog, but I will be back to playing tournament chess as soon as the Washington International comes along. Stay tuned and until next time!

Keeping the Foot on the Gas

This week, I’ll be taking a quick break from the Opening Overhaul series to cover a topic that appeared in my most recent tournament last weekend, and I feel it is important enough to write about it now.

The Continental Class Championships were held from June 15-17 in Falls Church, VA.  Fellow Chess^Summit author Isaac was there, too, and he played in the Open Section.  I decided to play in the Expert (U2200) Section because it was my first tournament in a while and I figured I would perform better overall in my own section.  I went into the tournament as the fourth seed in the 3-day section, so I felt that I would have at least two rounds of playing down before the pairings would become a little more muddled.  Indeed, that’s how the games played out, as we will see.

In the first round, I was paired with an opponent I had beat before with White, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the opening in that game.  Thus, prior to this round, I prepared for that same line; such is my luck, as he played something completely different, and I was back to playing a normal game.

Kobla – Al-Hariri, Continental Class Championships, 2018

A standard Italian game out of the opening, there was mostly maneuvering.  By the time the middlegame came around, there were two distinct focus points on the board.  One of those was the pawn fixture on b5 and the tension between the a and b pawns for White and Black, respectively.  The second focus point was the tension in the center after Black got in d5.  Black arguably won both battles there, but I was able to keep the pressure along the central files. Eventually Black tried to trade material in a fancy way but it was ultimately flawed, and I won a piece.  The conversion was a bit shaky, but in the end, I was able to win the first game of the tournament, which is always nice.

Klenoff – Kobla, Continental Class Championships, 2018

In the second game, the middlegame was somewhat rough as my f6 plan became a failed experiment, but I got somewhat lucky by being able to get in d6 and d5, after which a trade of pawns and minor pieces opened up my position a bit and I was able to do some maneuvering to transfer my bad light-squared bishop to the kingside where it would be of use.  At that point, I was able to capitalize, and after White’s queen ventured a bit too far into my position, I was able to gain a few tempi by attacking the queen, allowing me to gain the initiative.  That initiative carried through to the end when I was able to win material and eventually the game.

The 2-0 start was the best I could ask for considering I hadn’t played in a long time and hadn’t even looked at chess, and it also confirmed that playing in my own section was the right decision.  Still, there were games left to play.  In the third round, I was paired up against a high 2100 who had merged in from the 2-day section.  I had no idea what he played so I went in with general preparation.

Kobla – Theiss, Continental Class Championships, 2018

I went for the quick draw for a couple of reasons.  For one, I figured that I should just take the points I get since I was playing a higher rated player.  I also figured that I didn’t want to risk it since it was my first tournament in some time, but I feel like that was the wrong mindset to have because I had already played two games and for the most part that rust would have been gone.  And, obviously this isn’t the mainline of the Sveshnikov for Black so I could have continued with the declining move Bd3, but in all honesty, I had forgotten the correct way to decline the draw, and that was another reason I took the draw.  In hindsight, if I had known the correct line, however, I probably would have played on.  Either way, this draw meant that I had 2.5/3 and just had to prepare for the next morning.

For the fourth round, I was paired against a good friend of mine in Alex Jian, someone I’ve played a number of times in the past.  Many of our previous games have been in the Grunfeld, so for this game, I decided to prepare something one-off.

Jian – Kobla, Continental Class Championships, 2018

This game is definitely the one I want to spend the most time talking about.  To start, my choice of preparation definitely threw my opponent off, as he prepared for something completely different as he told me afterward.  With that upper hand, I was able to equalize early on and soon in the middlegame I was in the driver’s seat.  I was able to increase the pressure as the middlegame went on, but there were a couple points where I could have cashed in that momentum into better endgames or otherwise better position overall, but I missed them or didn’t think highly enough of those opportunities.  Even in the end, I was still better, but I offered a draw feeling like I had done what I could.  In hindsight, I definitely should have pressed, as I could have in the third game as well.  As a result, I finished this round with 3/4.

I took a bye in the last round as I actually went to a concert with my family that night to see U2!

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It was a great performance!

But I digress.  Overall, the lesson to be learned here is that, if given the opportunity, one should always go for wins, even if already at or near the top of the standings.  As world-class players like Carlsen and Caruana have shown, it doesn’t hurt to press a little for wins when already winning a tournament because they can only help you.  When in a better position, if something happens down the road and that advantage is lost, then it is what it is and one can settle for a draw.  But, if that opportunity to go for a win exists, then go for it.  Especially in my fourth round game, there were a number of instances where I could have either cashed in or just played on and seen what would have happened, and if I could have won, it would have been better for me.  In the end, finishing with 3.5/5 gave me a tie for third, but considering that I started out 2/2, there was definitely room for improvement.

Next time, I’ll probably continue to play in my section with the hope of replicating the success I had in this tournament nevertheless.  But, if there’s one thing I’ll do differently, I’ll definitely press for wins when I can.

Momentum in Chess: How Emotions Can Win Games

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and maybe you can relate with me. In a lot of my recent tournaments, I’ve noticed that the quality of my chess is stronger after a win than a loss. Winning seems to create some unstoppable force, and losing sees it all come to a screeching halt. When I started to think about my own results, this seemed odd – often I’m playing in the open section, and usually without much of a chance to win the tournament, so why the gap in quality?

You may recall my recent article about the Chicago Open, where my third round opponent hanging his queen gave my tournament a much needed spark. I played arguably my best game of 2018 in the following round, and despite a close loss in the fifth round, I had the resolve to get a draw against a higher rated player before closing out the tournament. This spark helped me find untapped potential, and “momentum” to finish with a respectable result.

What is momentum, and what is its role in chess? Without a lot of common ground for chess psychology, we should probably start with some foundational basis. Within a game of chess, we as players experience trends. Trends, positive or negative, describe if the natural flow of the game favors us or our opponents. As much as chess is about the quality of moves being played over the board, how we react to certain positions emotionally is equally important. Understanding the flow helps us ask questions like: how did we react to a dubious move? and what happened when we missed a strong move for our opponent? The stronger the trend, the harder it is to break the current and fight for a stake in the game – even if the actual moves required are not so difficult to find.

To demonstrate this, I found an example in one of my own games where the negative trend was so strong that I failed to find a basic resource to equalize the game:

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 21. Rac1

Up to this point in the game, everything has gone swimmingly for White. My opponent has more space and better piece coordination, so it’s clear that he has won the opening battle. He continued with a strong exchange sacrifice after 21…Rab8 22. exd5 Bxd5 23. Nxd5 cxd5 24. Bxd5 Nb2 25. Bg2 Nxd1 26. Rxd1

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 26. Rxd1

White has given up the exchange for two central passers, and Black’s chances of surviving look rather bleak. I could have chosen a more stubborn defense with 26…Rbc8 and held my ground, but feeling like I needed to do something, I played 26…Rb4? -+ to which not only can I not sufficiently explain why I played this move. Play continued 28. d5 Qb5 29. c6 Rc4 30. Bf1? Rxc2 31. Bxb5

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 31. Bxb5

If I gave myself this position without exposing myself to the prior frustrations the game brought, I would almost instantly find the blockade, 31…Rd6!= to which White can never hope to make progress. After 32. Re1 g6, White realizes he doesn’t have enough dark square control to promote his pawns, and would have to settle for a draw. But frustrated, and more or less convinced I already lost, I capitulated with 31…Kf8?? and after 32. d6 Rc5 33. a4, I resigned as I can never stop White’s passed pawns.

Negative trends are strong because they constantly force the defender to constantly keep the position secure under extreme duress. If you have analyzed your own game with an engine and realized you missed a simple tactical/positional resource to get out of a worse position and asked “how did I miss that?“, there’s a good chance that it was influenced by some sort of negative trend. We are human after all.

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

phpe0c0ay
Wesley had quite the roller coaster finish in Leuven! photo: Lennart Ootes

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

By “locking down”, we cramp our creativity – the emphasis is more on not making a mistake than playing our best chess. While this is an effective strategy to stop the bleeding, I’ve noticed that in my own games that the actual game play can seem rigid and unenterprising. In going all out for a win, we lose a lot objectivity in our emotional approach to the game, as chess is deemed equal from the start. Both approaches have their own form of blindness, which can prove to be detrimental in the long run.

Unlike trends, I think momentum is harder to see with over-the-board moves, and is best explained as an emotional approach to each round. Finding a strong idea or tactic in a worse position shouldn’t be attributed to momentum or confidence, but a string of results can be better understood in this light. Let’s take a look at Wesley So’s performance in the recent leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Leuven:

Rapid Results: W   W   D   W  W  D  W  D  D

Finishing +5 against GCT competition is quite the feat – even in rapid! In this stretch, it was clear that Wesley’s preparation was working, and his games had a natural flow to them. I was really impressed with his fourth round win against Anish Giri – Wesley was in second gear, and had established a significant lead over the competition.

Sure, you could argue in some of these wins (like his 2nd round win against Mamedyarov) Wesley shouldn’t have won, but he pressed as much as he could and his opponents collapsed. Sometimes to win, you have to create your own luck.

Blitz Results: D   D   D   D   W   D   D   L   L   L   D   D   D   W   D   W   L   L

Wesley’s blitz results will probably force him to ask what changed between formats. Is Wesley’s rapid genuinely better than his blitz? or Was Wesley trying to play more solidly to secure his lead in the tournament? or Did fatigue become a problem late in the tournament? I can’t speak for Wesley, but just by looking at his results some form of momentum was lost in the transition to blitz.

Admittedly, I missed much of this leg of the Grand Chess Tour because of my own tournament this past weekend, but I did catch his loss against Nakamura, where nothing seemed to go right, and then on top of that, he blundered in a theoretically drawn endgame:

After losing his first game of the tournament to Mamedyarov a round before, I think Wesley’s focus was to draw and enter the next day with a three point lead. As a result, Wesley didn’t do much with White and let Nakamura get an active position, got outplayed for a little, and then after saving the game, blundered.

So we now have some general sense of how momentum works, but how do we influence it without having to wait for our opponents mistakes? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I couldn’t speak from personal success here. But I think it can be done – just take a look at Fabiano Caruana’s recent stretch of good results:

Candidates (1st place): Won two consecutive games after loss to Karjakin in round 12

US Championships (2nd place): Finished +5 despite early loss to Izoria with White

Norway Chess (1st place): Won tournament after 1st round loss to Magnus

Caruana’s ability to bounce back from losses is admirable and should be studied further as it shows great emotional discipline in critical moments. Again, since I don’t know Fabiano personally, I can’t speak for his approach to handling losses, but in preparation for this article I looked over a lot of my games after losses and thought of ways to curb their effects:

  1. 23-round6-Candidates-DSC07020-Emelianova
    Comeback King and World Championship Challenger. photo: Maria Emelianova

    Losses happen. Though obvious, I feel like this is a good starting point. Don’t beat yourself up for being human. Instead it might be more constructive to figure out why you made that mistake immediately after the game finishes. This way you enter the next game with a concrete reason of why you lost rather than the self-deprecating “I suck at chess” line.

  2. Treat all games equally. Not easy to do since tournament situations can dictate what results we need. But if you’re winning most of your games and you need a result to win a prize, why play for a draw when what you are currently playing seems to be working? If you’re struggling, maybe it would help to change openings for a game. I played 1. e4 in my final game of the 2017 Reykjavik Open without knowing any theory, and admittedly I was much more excited to play because of this switch – and I won! Different things work for different people, but make it fun!
  3. Take away positives from your games. I think with engines, it’s really easy to see where we went wrong more than right. Give yourself credit for the things you do right too! Maybe if you see that you are bringing good ideas to games, it will be easier to put aside a loss and mentally prepare for the next round.

It’s important to understand that I am not expert in chess psychology (or psychology alone for that matter), and that I’m struggling with this as much as you are as I write this – this stuff his hard. However, I think it is important to discuss how we approach games, especially if we want to hold ourselves accountable to a certain standard of play. If sports psychology is important for the development of athletes, why don’t we talk about it as much for chess? Let’s not forget that a lot of the beauty of chess is in its humanity, not what the engine thinks.

I’m curious to hear what you all think. Do trends play a factor in your results? Are your results what dictate your approach to a game? Any good anecdotes? Let me know in the comments!

Chess Training AI is Closer than We Think

My position just changed from +3.5 to -2.3. I often hear students say after analyzing a position with our silicon friends.

Have you ever wondered what all these numbers mean in the context of a game?

What if there is an English translation of the game analysis from the engines?

With growing AI advancement, the DecodeChess Team is putting the technology together to make translating chess engine language to English a reality.

Stockfish Analysis In English

For players U1500 and especially U1000, looking at the engine analysis feels reading an article in foreign language.

If there’s a brief English notation to go along the engine analysis, the experience of going over the Stockfish analysis will improve tremendously.

Let’s look thru a brief Demo of DecodeChess

Import the game

To get started, we’ll simply import a game using PGN format

Decode1

Once the game is imported, users has the option to decode any move during the game.

Decode5

After the the Decode: the app will provide a list of recommendation and notations

Decode4


We’re still in the early stage of the implementing AI into chess training.

However, with the hard work of DecodeChess team, we’re closer to have novice players utilize top-notch chess engines in a more effective way.

For anyone interested to try out DecodeChess, here is the link to the free trial experience.

 

 

Surprising a Friend in the Caro-Kann

Hidden under the struggles of a large and Chicago Open is an unusually tense game (from an earlier Chicago tournament) that I narrowly managed to win against my good friend Megan Chen. With some free time at home in Indiana, I suppose now’s a good time to finally put that game to rest, or else Megan will be bothering me throughout next week’s National Open.

In the spirit of my last post, the game shows again, to some extent, openings only matter so much and continually seeking chances even in unpleasant positions can be very useful. This game, in many respects, is unremarkable: I wasn’t having a very good tournament, and certainly didn’t deserve more than a draw (having nursed a rather mediocre endgame for a long time – a product of some subpar plans in the opening).

However, this game in particular occurrs under somewhat special circumstances, Megan and I having known each other for a long time (since before our days of serious chess). The mentality is always interesting for opponents who are very familiar with each others’ specialties (especially for a first encounter). On paper, it must have looked like a fairly one-sided matchup (given the rating difference), but there were a few confounding factors at play. For instance, there is Megan’s exhaustive study of the Caro-Kann, which as you might guess, we both find to be borderline unbreakable. Since I figured Megan had long ago made a thorough analysis of what I play against the Caro, I decided to play a sideline in the Classical (3. Nc3) lines that I hadn’t, and probably won’t, play again.

I’d like to focus on my opening thoughts for a moment. The main line (not just in this line, but in the Caro-Kann) is usually considered to be 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Bd3, where after trades White obtains a developmental advantage against a nonetheless solid setup for Black.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 1.04.17 AM
After 5…Bg6

However, White has a decent sideline in 6. Bc4!?, where White usually tries to harass Black’s light-squared bishop with other pieces. This often takes the form of a trick in which White tries to upset the kingside pawn structure of an unwary Black, e.g. 6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6 8. Nf4 Be7? 9. h4!, threatening to trap the bishop and forcing 9…h6 10. Nxg6 fxg6. Ouch!

However, White can take a totally different path with (6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6) 8. O-O, which at first glance looks harmless.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 1.43.07 AM
After 8. O-O

However, if Black does nothing, White has the simple plan pushing f2-f4-f5 on the kingside which isn’t exactly pleasant for Black. Fortunately, Black has several reasonable ways to discourage this. One is to distract White on the b8-h2 diagonal as Megan did in the game. Another is to facilitate the trade of light-squared bishops followed by …g6, e.g. 8…Nbd7 9. f4 Nb6 10. Bd3 (10. Bb3 Qd7 prevents f4-f5) 10…Bxd3 11. Qxd3 g6. However, this doesn’t completely rule out f4-f5 as White can still consider pushing the pawn if he’s up for sacrificing a piece. The immediate 12. f5?! is probably a bit speculative (the more methodical plan is 12. b3 followed by Bb2, c2-c4, slower buildup) but White can consider this in several lines, and although it’s not always objectively sound, it’s difficult to tell how dangerous each case will be for Black. After 12. b3, Schandorff (in his Grandmaster Repertoire on the Caro-Kann) already considers 12…Bg7 13. f5! exf5 14. Nxf5 gxf5 15. Ng3! to be effective for White.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 1.54.01 AM
A promising attack for White

However, as is usual when I study openings, I later discovered this was not the most common continuation of this line. Naturally, I was on my own, and didn’t manage to get in f4-f5 fast enough. I got what I thought was a promising position, but my horribly misplaced pawn on f4 caused a lot of trouble later on.

As I mentioned before, I was fortunate to survive a fairly long ending, and eventually swindled a win in the end. But as I’ve said before, these don’t happen out of nowhere – they’re a product of staying focused and watching for chances as they come!

My Summer Warmup

Tonight, the New York International starts, and it’ll be the first in my string of 9-round summer norm tournaments. As a local warmup, I played the Northeast Open last weekend. It turned out to be a big success, though my games did contain a few hiccups. At least I didn’t blunder any rooks this time…

My round 1 game against Daniel Diskin (2091 USCF) was strange. The position was fairly tense and unclear out of the opening, but I came out on top.

Diskin 1

White has a very nice position here. The c-file is all his, black’s pieces are fairly passive, and black won’t be castling anytime soon. With his last move 31… g5, black wants to create counterplay on the kingside. Nevertheless, white has several good options here: 32.Kh1 gets the king off the g-file, 32.Nd2 gets the queen into action… Instead, my move 32.Nc5? was godawful. After 32… Nxc5 33.Rxc5 gxf4 34.gxf4 my opponent played 34… f5! swinging the queen over to the kingside.

Diskin 2

White doesn’t have a trace of an advantage here. Somehow I snuck out… The game went 35.Kh1 Qh7 36.Bb6. I felt that I had to create counterplay against the black king. After 36… Be7 37.Qf3, my opponent arguably made his first slip-up with 37… Kf7?!. Though this is objectively equal, black has to play extremely accurately not to be lost. I went 38.Rc7 Qh4 39.Qf1

Diskin 3

This is the critical position, and my opponent made the losing mistake with 39… Re8?. After 40.Bc5 Kf8 41.Bxe7+ Rxe7 42.Rc8+! Re8 43.Rc3, the h3-pawn is dropping, and there’s nothing black can do about it. Black is just lost, and I went on to win a couple moves later.

What was black’s defense? The threat of 40. Bc5 can be dealt with by going 39…Kg6, but what if 40.Bc5 anyway? 40… Bxc5 41.dxc5 doesn’t look pleasant at all. 40… Bd8 41.Rc6 doesn’t look like fun either. Black, however, has a third move that I completely missed: 40… Bg5!!. If 41.fxg5 Qe4+ 42.Kg1, black actually has forced mate with 42… Rh4!. That’s why white needs to go 41.Rc6! Re8 42.fxg5, after which black has a perpetual. Anyway, this is hard to see, especially in time trouble. After 37… Kf7 the only way out is this 40… Bg5 idea. That isn’t the case after a “normal” move, and that’s why I don’t like 37… Kf7 on general grounds.

That game took quite some work, but I was never in danger of losing. My round 2 game, on the other hand, was a different story. I got an awful position as black against Yefim Treger (2217 USCF).

Treger

Black is a pawn up, but his king is in the center and his development is lagging behind. White has an insane amount of compensation, but somehow I escaped from this nightmare alive. What’s more, I even came out on top! Not quite sure how that happened…

This was sort of a shaky start, but starting with 2/2 is nothing to complain about! My round 3 game against Arslan Otchiyev (2380 USCF) was nice. After sacrificing a pawn for a strong initiative, I accepted my opponent’s defensive exchange sacrifice and continued to play actively after that. After reaching the time control, I was winning, but it took another 34 moves to finish him off. This game really drained a huge amount of energy from me, and I’m glad this wasn’t a morning game. I’ll give you a little puzzle from after the time control:

Otchiyev

Is 47.Qe6 a good idea here? Is it winning? Would you play it? Does white have anything better?

The fire continued into round 4 against Max Lu (2266 USCF). Minus a minor blunder in the opening, everything was okay. Wait, minor blunder? Yeah I’ll show it to you…

Max Lu

Max played 11.Ne5? and after 11… Bb7 I was completely fine. 11.Qg5 is tempting and does look like a strong move, but it fails to 11… Nxc6 12.Qxg7 Ke7! 13.Qxh8 Bb7 14.Qg7 Nxd4!, after which white is in huge trouble. What did we both miss? The answer is at the end of the article.

A few moves down the road, we reached a critical moment.

Max Lu 2

White has grabbed space in the center, and his position looks okay on the surface. 17… e5 will be naturally met with 18.d5, and white is probably just better after that. Another more reasonable plan is to pile up pressure on the d4-pawn, but white will go Nc3-e2 to defend it. What to do? Preventing Nc3-e2 is the key. I correctly played 17… b4! severely restricting the white knight. After all, it is still undeveloped! The game went 18.a3 Qa4! (still restricting the knight) 19.Qe2 Rac8

Max Lu 3

White’s position isn’t fun at all here. Both 20.Nd2 and 20.Rc1 run into 20… Rxd4. What else to do? There’s 20.axb4 Qxa1 21.Nc3 which is sadly white’s best option. After 21… Qxd1 22.Nxd1 axb4, black has two rooks for a queen and is clearly much better. Max decided to go 20.e5 but that didn’t help at all. After 20… Nd5 21.Nd2 Qc2 22.axb4 axb4 23.Qf2 Qxb2, white is just lost.

Going into the last round, I had 4/4, and several players were at 3/4. An epic 9-move draw against GM Sergey Kudrin sealed the deal for me. What’s the conclusion? I’m not really sure. It feels great to win a tournament like this by a full point, but my first two rounds were shaky! My next challenge starts tonight at the New York International. Fingers crossed.

Answers

Round 3 game: Yes, 47.Qe6 is winning, and I did play it, but it isn’t white’s most convincing win—47.Rd3! is a total knockout and takes that honor. After the forced sequence 47… Qxe6 48.dxe6 Bc6 49.Rd6 Bb5 50.e7 Kg7 51.Rxa6 Kf7 52.Rb6, I felt that white was winning, and it turned out to be true. White will advance his king and pawns, and the black e5-pawn will become an endangered species. Once the pawn falls, as it did in the game, white is just winning.

Round 4 game: 11.Ne7! Bb7 12.Nc8!! was white’s powerful shot.

Max Lu 4

This deserves a diagram of its own! 12… Qc7 fails to 13.Bxb7 Qxb7 14.Nd6+, meaning that black has to give up the exchange with 12… Bxc8 13.Bxa8. He’ll have compensation, but he’s clearly much worse. Anyway, don’t feel bad at all if you didn’t see this one. I was completely oblivious to it!

Starting the Summer Strong

On Friday, June 1st, I finished my last exam for school and was ready for a fun weekend of chess: the Chess in Action Swiss in Katy, Texas. While the tournament was rather small, the player pool was quite ideal. Most players in the open section were in the expert rating range, with a few players a bit south of 2000 and one strong master.

Round 1

Things got off to a good start in Round 1, when I won smoothly as White against one of the lower rated players in the field: Abhiram Chennuru (1822 USCF, 1557 FIDE). After achieving a nice edge out of the opening, my opponent made a tactical blunder in a slightly worse position.

Me vs. Abhiram Chennuru

Instead of simply moving his queen somewhere, my opponent played the unfortunate 20…Bd4, allowing the crushing 21.Bh7+ Kh8 22.Bxd4 Qxd4 23.Rad1. White is completely winning because after 23…Qh4 24.Bf5 Black is losing serious material without any sort of compensation. It is worth noting that 20…Ne5 loses to 21.b4 followed by f2-f4, attacking the pinned knight.

Round 2

In the second round, I was paired against Anh Nhu Nguyen (1934 USCF, 1704 FIDE). I played the early middlegame in a very sloppy fashion and found myself in serious trouble after she seized the initiative on move 18 . However, I managed to complicated matters, and six moves later she erred with 24.Qg3?, allowing me to play 24…g5!

Anh Nhu Nguyen vs Me #3

I was delighted at having salvaged a terrible position. The game continued 25.Be3 (25.exf6 gxf4 26.Qc3! is a super strong idea that we both overlooked. White threatens mate with f6-f7, so Black doesn’t have time to save his bishop. 26…Nd7 27.gxf5 Rxf6 +=) 25…Bxe5 26.Bxb6 Qb8 27.Ba7

Anh Nhu Nguyen vs Me #4

 

I recognized that 27…Bxg3 leads to simple equality: 28.Bxb8 Bxb8 29.gxf5 Rxf5 30.Bxa6, with a perfectly acceptable endgame for Black. However, I instead decided to “repeat moves” with 27…Qc7??, only to realize in horror that after 28.Bd4 my queen is no longer protected by my rook and hence the d4 bishop is untouchable. After a couple minutes of checking to make sure that there were no more hidden resources, I resigned in disgust.

Round 3

After the disappointing Round 2 loss, I was ready to bounce back with a win against my first expert opponent of the tournament, William Fan (2039 USCF, 1840 FIDE). The opening was a definite success after I played the strong 12.d5, which shuts in black’s light-squared bishop for good.

Me vs. William Fan

My opponent responded 12…e5 because he recognized that 12…exd5 13.cxd5 Bxd5
(13…Nxd5?? 14.Be4 Rc7 15.Bxd5 Bxd5 16.Bxg7 Rg8 17.Qxh7 +-) 14.e4 Bb7 15.Nc4 +/- offers White tremendous compensation for the pawn as all of his pieces are active and e4-e5 is coming. After 13.Ng5 h6 14.Nge4 (14.Ne6!! was perhaps even stronger, although not quite a knockout blow. 14…fxe6 15.Bg6+ Kf8 16.dxe6 Nb6 17.f4 e4 18.Bxf6 Bxf6 19.Nxe4 +/- White only has two pawns for the piece, but the compensation is overwhelming.) (14.Nxf7 was a move that I had checked, but I rejected it in view of 14…Kxf7 15.Bg6+ Kg8 16.Qf5 White could play something like f2-f4, aiming for compensation, but that does not lead to an easy mate. 16…Nf8 -+) 14…Nxe4 15.Nxe4 O-O 16.Ng3, White’s advantage is overwhelming. The game continued to go in my favor, and I achieved an excellent endgame, which I managed to misplay in epic fashion. However, the final position of this game is most shockingly embarrassing for me in retrospect.

Me vs. William Fan #2

Here my opponent and I agreed to a draw in mutual time pressure, seeing that after the trades on h5 and g2-g3, the position would be equal. However, the rather obvious 40.Nf5 leads to a completely winning position! I still can’t fathom how both of us overlooked this move during the game. It is worth noting that 39…Bc8 instead of 39…Be8 leads to a fortress for Black because White can do nothing active except for shuffle his king around (the knight is tied down to the defense of the h-pawn).

When I went back to the hotel Saturday night with my friend, I knew that I had a lot of reflecting to do. I had played very inconsistently, sometimes calculating precisely while at other times misplaying good positions or simply blundering. My aim was just to “reset” my mind so that I would channel my most focused play on Sunday, the final day of the tournament.

Rounds 4 and 5

The second day of the tournament went much more smoothly for me. I was able to win my round 4 game against Charles Hawthorn (2060 USCF, 1784 FIDE) with the following nice tactic:

Charles Hawthorn vs. Me

26…b5! is the beginning of a tactical combination that exploits the power of the passed pawn. 27.axb5 axb5 28.Bxb5 Rxc1 29.Rxc1 d2 30.Rf1 (30.Rd1 Rxd5 -+ White can’t stop both the threats of …Bf3 and …Bc2, which would pick up the exchange and hence the game.) 30…Bf3! 0-1

In the final round of the tournament I was paired against my previous opponent’s brother, Henry Hawthorn (2049 USCF, 1675 FIDE). This time I had the white pieces and was able to get the type of middlegame position out of the opening that I enjoy playing: calm yet with nagging pressure. After 24.Bg2, it was clear that my opponent was starting to feel uncomfortable as he struggled to find a clear plan while I slowly improved my position.

Me vs. Henry Hawthorn

Ten moves later I was more or less winning:

Me vs. Henry Hawthorn #2

After 34.Bc1 Bxc1 35.Rxc1, black’s defensive task is close to impossible. The game continued 35…b5 36.Ke3 Bd5 37.Bxe4 (37.c5 +- followed by Bxe4 also wins, although the conversion process would probably take a bit longer.) 37…bxc4 38.Bxd5 exd5 39.bxc4 dxc4 (39…Rxc4 40.Rxc4 dxc4 41.d5 +- is an easily winning king and pawn endgame for White.) 40.Rc3 +-, and my opponent resigned twenty-five moves later.

Reflections

While I was certainly disappointed with some individual moments from the tournament, such as my blunder in Round 2 and draw in Round 3, the end result was undoubtedly a good one as I gained 19 rating points, moving from 2011 to 2030. However, the overall quality of my play in terms of calculation and intuition was even more pleasantly surprising than the actual end result. I am confident that my play will continue to improve as long as I maintain my current work ethic in the long summer months to come.

Winning through willpower

Are you watching closely?

Every great chess game consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called, well, the opening. The players show you something ordinary: a Ruy, an English, or — in this case — a Grunfeld. Perhaps you check against the database to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. Of course… it probably is. The second act is called the middlegame. The players take the ordinary something and make it do something extraordinary. Or sometimes they don’t:

PonoCarlsen1.png

Now you’re looking for the reason I’m subjecting you to this very very forced reference… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be… fooled.

Of course, you’re probably not impressed yet. That’s why every chess game has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call… “Magnus Carlsen popping off” (yes, this is the official term):

PonoCarlsen2.png

Ok, why am I showing you this nonsense? Well, every chess player has, at some point, witnessed a game that made a huge impression on them in some way. One of Kasparov’s many tactical melees, Tal’s sacrificial attacks, or Karpov’s positional dominations tend to be popular choices, as do games featuring incredible moves (e.g. Khismatullin’s brilliant 44. Kg1!! against Eljanov) or games with external importance (e.g. world championship-ending queen sacrifices). My formative game, displayed in two compelling images above, features nothing wild, nothing particularly counterintuitive, and was even a rapid (!) game. Yet the game was… magical. From one of the most boring positions you could possibly construct, Carlsen — cleanly (no blundering a rook or anything) — slowly outplayed a player (Ponomariov) known for their endgame ability over the course of 70+ moves!

Now, of course, while Carlsen is an incredible player it’s not like Ponomariov had any business losing this position. Personally, I don’t even think getting from point A to point B was a result of skill difference: rather, Carlsen just wanted to win badly enough that fate forced Ponomariov to comply. In doing so, Carlsen taught me (and us) two things: first, this Carlsen guy is just insane — at least for me, this was the first time I really realized that Carlsen was something special (and this was after he was #1 in the world). But more practically, that pretty much any position is winnable even against the best of opponents, and given that you and I aren’t exactly consistently playing against the best in the world (though if you are and you’re reading this, please sign my forehead) even the most apparently drawn positions are often very much alive.

With just this instance, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that the above was simply a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, but fortunately I’ve come armed with personal examples to convince you otherwise!

LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, FOR MY FIRST TRICK… let’s first set the stage a little. The event is the 2017 US Amateur Team East, one of the (if not the) largest events in the US. My opponent: FM Gregory Markzon, a local player who was about 200 points lower rated than me, but who I grew up playing against with… poor results. After some adventures in the middlegame involving both of us trying to force draws at different points for the match situation, eventually matters clarified to my team being down 2-1, forcing me to break out of a repetition into a losing position, and somehow surviving to the following almost symmetrical position with Black:

Q3vsQ3win.png

Obviously this position is very drawn, but actually things are not quite as simple as they appear. Black’s queen is slightly more centralized than its counterpart, and Black’s king is a single tempo more active than the enemy monarch. The latter is particularly important as it means many pawn endings would be winning for Black, allowing him to break out of potential perpetual checks by parrying with the queen. Thus, Black can at least hope for a situation where he slowly escorts his queen to the a-pawn, somehow corrals it while preserving the b-pawn in the process, then argues that the b-pawn is faster than the kingside connectors. In the game, White didn’t quite appreciate the danger of this idea until Black’s king had already managed to cross the halfway point, by which time some (mild) precision was actually required to survive. But psychologically speaking, going from a basically assured draw to suddenly having to find some accurate moves is often very tricky, and fortunately for us Markzon wasn’t up to the task. After well over 100 moves I managed to collect the match-tying point.

As a slight sidenote, if you take nothing else away from this article: **activate your king in queen endgames!!**. For some reason, basically all players under 2400 or so seem to be unwilling to activate their king and allow the possibility of checks, even when said checks are fairly harmless and can just be blocked. I understand the reluctance to risk blundering pawns to forks, but in general you really do need to play queen endgames like somewhat slower pawn endings (so the same principles apply: how far your pawns are is often more important than how many you have, and king activity is paramount).

Ok, this game wasn’t quite the same thing as Carlsen’s masterclass — there were some clear advantages in my position that made it reasonable to play on (even if the match situation didn’t mandate it). So let’s look at an even more blatant (and recent) example. Here, I am white against FM Arthur Guo, an 11-year-old 2300 who I fully expect to have a title by this time next year. The tournament is the Philadelphia Open, and this is late enough in the tournament that nothing but pride is on the line (we are both well out of money/norm contention. LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, FOR MY SECOND TRICK:

KatzGuo.png

This is about as symmetric a position as you can get, and if anything it can be argued that Black’s pawn structure is better off. But for reasons of personal pride (and annoyance at spoiling a close-to-winning middlegame), I badly wanted to find a way to at least try to press something. Of course, the only way to even pray for this is to engineer a way to get in h4-h5 under favorable circumstances, somehow compromise Black’s pawn structure, and then figure something else out from there, so this was necessarily my plan. In the meantime, I also need to find a way to get my queen onto a safe — but active — square, avoiding queen trades while simultaneously not allowing Black to come up with winning ideas of his own. This requires some dancing: 1. Qd4 Qb6 2. Qa4 Qb4 3. Qa7 Qe7 4. Qa8 Qc5 5. Qb7 Qe7 6. Qc6 Qc7 7. Qa4! (finally a “safe” square!!). This 7-move sequence allows White the time to get in a single tempo, so the “winning” plan becomes clear: use these 7 moves to get in g3, repeat the sequence to get in Kg2, repeat the sequence to get in h4, then finally repeat the sequence to get in h5. Oh, we also have to watch for Qc1-f4 ideas in the meantime. Phew.

In the game, this is more or less what happened, allowing me a glimmer of winning chances (though of course the position is still very drawn):

KatzGuo2.png

Here 1… Nxh5 is impossible due to 2. Qd7!. This forces 1… gxh5, which allows a cute trick: 2. Nd4 Qg5 3. Ne6!? fxe6 4. Qa7+ Nd7 5. Qxd7 when Black’s pawn structure is ruined and there is finally something to play for. Eventually, I was able to collect some of the pawns at the cost of a queen trade, leaving me with a still-drawn N+2 vs. N+1 ending. After some trickery involving a brilliant “bluffing face” (a subject for another day…), I managed to scam a win when Black, deceived by my fake confidence, erroneously resigned in the final position:

KatzGuo3.png

where 1… Nxf8 2. g7 Kf7! forces the draw immediately.

Of course I don’t mean to suggest playing on in every drawn position; sometimes, saving time and energy is the correct practical choice. But what I do suggest is “watching closely”: carefully considering when a position is truly dead vs. when it’s simply not easy to make progress. In particular, even just staying alert and focused throughout these endings where “anything” draws (often, not quite anything!) can earn you an extra half point here and there when your opponent goes to sleep (which is hardly rare). Even if this happens only one in 20 games, that’s an extra 3-4 rating points per event or so on average, which really adds up! Even full point swings are more than possible with such an approach.

AND NOW, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… FOR MY FINAL TRICK, I’LL MAKE THE LAST WORD