Language is Everything: Lessons from the Chicago Open

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Attempt #2 at Deep Dish Pizza. Admittedly this one at Lou Malnati’s was a lot better than my first attempt!

If I’m being completely honest with myself, I was pretty demoralized after my performance at the Marshall Chess Club in the build up to the Chicago Open. My opening repertoire was incomplete, and it was pretty clear that my progression had hit a roadblock. With my showing at the Haymarket Memorial last month also not living up to my expectations, I had already made the decision to switch away from the Open to the U2300 section – probably correctly.

Even with the move down, I still felt poorly prepared. Moving from Pittsburgh to my hometown in Richmond took a fair bit of time, and I felt like I still had not addressed key problems from my games in New York. Chess-wise, the start of this summer has been quite frustrating for me. After starting 2018 with strong showings in both the Eastern Open and the Cardinal Open, my studies were forced to come to halt due to my spring semester course-load. Hoping to return with the same momentum I had to start the year, I quickly realized the toll of taking a couple months off of tournament chess had on my calculation and ability to assess positions. Needing to get back into fighting form, much of my preparation for the Chicago Open felt like review, but something was different – training was much more taxing and it took more time. I felt like a shadow of my former self. This Isaac was not going to make National Master any time soon.

Despite a full day onsite to relax and prepare for my first round, my Chicago Open debut brought out all of my insecurities in a quick loss: poor opening play, missed tactics, bad time management. A second round draw only compounded my distress when I mishandled a slight advantage as White against a lower-rated opponent and my poor time management forced me to bail out with a draw before the second time control. Paired on one of the bottom boards with Black, I desperately needed a win to close the second day and give myself some confidence. While my opening could have yielded me an advantage, I incorrectly sacrificed a pawn for no compensation.

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Zheng–Steincamp, position after 19…Nb4

Here I did the only thing that I knew could work – play both quickly and solidly, and put pressure on my opponent’s clock – one slip-up and I’m back in the game. My opponent started with 20. Qg4 Bf8 21. Bd4?!:

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Zheng–Steincamp, position after 21. Bd4?!

Back in 2016 when I wrote about winning my first adult tournament ever, a key theme I noticed was how my opponents then weighed checking my king as a better candidate move, simply because it was a check. Upon deeper analysis, I traced back White’s future problems to this move, where my only explanation for 21. Bd4 is that he prioritized this because it “checked” my queen. In just a few moves, my opponent collapsed under time trouble and I somehow emerged with a point.

An undeserved win for sure, but I had clawed my way back to an even score. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins as I left the tournament hall. Notching my first win was a relief, but with four rounds left in the tournament, I knew I needed to be better. I went to sleep telling myself that I needed to play chess that I could be proud of – I had prepared a month for this, I knew I could be better.

Change of Tone, Change of Play

Forcing myself to think more positively was an important first step towards playing better chess. My next round proved to be an incredibly difficult psychological test. 

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Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 15…f5

With my opponent’s kingside pawns barreling down the board, I needed to make a decision to change the course of the game. With the previous night’s game still fresh in my memory, I was slow to play 16. Bf3!, sacrificing a pawn for the initiative and the advantage. After 16…Bxf3 17. Rfc1 Ba6 18. Rab1!, Black realized that my idea of b2-b4 is quite strong, and my bishops on f3 and g3 are poised to carve Black’s queenside:

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Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 18. Rab1!

This was a good pawn sacrifice! My opponent put up a lot of resistance, but I gained my material back and got a strong endgame advantage to notch another win. To put it mildly, after three uninspired games of chess, I may have put together one of my best performances of the year!

Now I was really feeling the momentum swing in my favor. With a plus score late into the tournament, I played a Chicago native and promptly got chaos on board:

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Kaulule–Steincamp, position after 29. Rg1!

Here in time trouble I panicked and played 29…Ne2?, which while not losing on its own, puts Black on a very narrow course to get back into the game. Needless to say, I faltered and lost shortly after. What I really liked about this game however was how rich this position is. Sure – the rest of the game is also quite interesting (click here) – but try assessing this position. Black might have some “obvious” candidate moves, but deciding who is better is another story. It took my roommate IM Alex Katz and I about three hours to come to a conclusion after the game (without an engine). If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend setting this position on the board and try analyzing it without an engine. Remember, this isn’t a tactic – just try and evaluate the position.

Honestly I was more proud of the way I played and lost this game than how I played in the first three rounds combined. If I have to lose games, I want to lose them like this.

Next morning I had White against another 2200+ rated opponent, and I wanted to keep the momentum going. Out of an Exchange Slav, I somehow managed this darling position:

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Steincamp–Karp, position after 12…Rfc8

White has a slight advantage here, despite Black having the pair of bishops. This game really forced me to ask a lot of the questions pushed in Aagard’s books: What’s my opponent’s plan? What’s my worst placed piece? What are the weaknesses in the position? I don’t want to claim that my idea here is the best possible plan for White, but here I played 13. Nd2, with the idea of playing Bd3-f1-g2 in the future to put more pressure on d5. It took a while, but I finally achieved my set-up since Black has no real active options:

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Steincamp–Karp, position after 16. Bg2

I have to credit my opponent – despite the nagging pressure for the duration of the game, he proved to be quite resilient, and at the right moment, he found a simplification that forced equality and the game was drawn after I set up an amusing fortress in an opposite colored bishop endgame.

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With a solid tournament showing, I was able to relax. My first In-n-Out in Las Vegas!

Exhausted from my games and looking a little ahead to my west coast vacation, I decided to take a quick draw in the seventh round to finish on an even score. While I wish I could have my first three games back, I’m really proud of the effort I put into the second half of the tournament – especially considering how demoralized I was going into the event. Yes, I’l have my areas to work on, but watching how the stark effect of a positive mindset change my play, I should be more confident going forward into the summer. I think that this observation can be really instructive for players of all strengths.

That’s not to say that hard work is replaceable with a positive attitude, but if you work hard, own it! During a tournament, don’t get too caught up with your results at a micro-level. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you obsess about every mistake you make, that additional stress could make things even worse. Hard work does not always immediately translate into rating or winning, but it will make you a stronger player.

An old coach of mine asked me once “Do you believe the rating system works?”. If you don’t, then don’t have anything worry about! If you do believe it works, then you should also believe that in the long-run it will reward the right things. So work hard, do the right things, and be proud of the work you do, regardless of result!

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One thought on “Language is Everything: Lessons from the Chicago Open

  1. Pingback: Momentum in Chess: How Emotions Can Win Games – chess^summit

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