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:
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!