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!

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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

Opening Overhaul 2: Grünfeld

Last week, I discussed the London System in the first installment of the Opening Overhaul series.  In that article, I talked about the opening’s characteristic moves, plans for both sides, and some newer ideas that have become popular recently.  That same formula will be used this week in the analysis of the Grünfeld Defense.  

Overview

Although the opening first appeared in a casual game in 1855, the Grünfeld Defense received its name from Ernst Grünfeld, the player who popularized the opening in the 1920s.  In fact, in the first game that he used the opening, he beat future world champion Alexander Alekhine.  Overall, this opening was one of the trademark hypermodern openings at the time due to its lack of adherence to classical principles.  This made for a very dynamic, double-edged opening that procured a large following in a time period filled with traditionalist teachings from the likes of Steinitz and Tarrasch, among others.

The characteristic moves of the Grünfeld are as follows:

  1. d4 Nf6
  2. c4 g6
  3. Nc3 d5

From here, there are a number of continuations that have been tried for both White and black, some of which I will expand upon later.  Additionally, there are a number of possibilities of openings that can transpose into a Grünfeld.  However, overall, this concept of an early challenge to the control of the center (d5 from Black) is the fundamental basis of the Grünfeld Defense.  The general pattern is that White builds up a strong center, and Black tries to break it down with counterplay.

grunfeld1
The characteristic Grünfeld position

The Plans

For White, the typical plans, as aforementioned briefly, revolve around building up a presence in the center.

  1. Pawn center – Many of White’s positions and plans against the Grünfeld are based on a big pawn center, especially after the Exchange Main Line:  1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 where White has pawns on c3, d4, and e4.  With a large pawn center, White gains a lot of space early, especially in the center.  In optimal circumstances, White can continue to push these pawns down the board, often creating a passed pawn while restricting the movement of Black’s pieces.
  2. Quick use of rook on a1 – Much of Black’s early play hinges on the immense pressure that the fianchettoed g7 bishop exerts on the a1-h8 diagonal.  Although the mini-c3-d4 pawn chain is in the way, the rook on a1 is often targeted in many tactical sequences.  Thus, White can benefit from moving the rook to c1 or d1 early, which could help fortify the center as well.
  3. Attacking black’s king – If the pawn center holds up strong, White can sometimes switch focuses and attack the Black king.  This can be accomplished a few different ways, such as with a leading f2-f4-f5 push or even an h2-h4-h5 push.

For Black, the typical plans, as aforementioned briefly, revolve around trying to break down whatever White builds in the center.

  1. Attacking with flank pawns – the c5 and f5 pawns play a crucial role in Black’s attempts to liquidate White’s initial advantage in the center.  The c5 pawn usually exchanges on d4 at some point, transforming the focus on d4 to pieces-only and slightly weakening White’s center in the regard that the d4 pawn no longer has pawn support.  On the other hand, an f5 push from Black almost always forces White to react in the center by either pushing d5 or e5.  This can sometimes give Black more holes to occupy in the center.
  2. Pressure with minor pieces – the minor pieces play a huge role in pressuring the center.  Since the king’s knight is often traded off early (Nf6 – Nxd5 – Nxc3), Black has three minor pieces left, and they all play an integral role.  The g7 bishop obviously targets d4 and pressures the a1-h8 diagonal.  The queen’s knight often sits on c6 and attacks d4, and sometimes moves to influence other squares.  The light-squared bishop often moves to g4 and threatens White’s king’s knight, which usually plays an important role in protecting d4.
  3. Utilizing semi-open files – the c- and d-files are often open or semi-open for Black in the Grünfeld.  Thus, it typically benefits Black to put his rooks on c8 and d8.  In fact, in the exchange main line, Black usually gets his kingside rook to d8 very quickly, which increases the pressure on the center.  Additionally, the White queen is often one of the last pieces moved from its original square, so it behooves Black to place a rook opposite the queen on the d-file.

Games

One of the most important games in the Grünfeld Defense was the very first one, because a significant victory against a very strong player set the bandwagon rolling and led to many players taking up the opening.

Of course, there’s the Game of the Century played between Donald Byrne and Bobby Fischer when he was a mere 13 years old.  While this game technically transposed into a Grünfeld, it is still considered one in the record books, and the ideas used in the middle game are somewhat reminiscent of Grünfeld play anyway.

 

 

I’ve played the Grünfeld throughout my chess career as well, so there are a number of games that I’ve played that could be of interest.  I’ll show one here.

 

 

 

New Ideas

The exchange main line has somewhat decreased in popularity from the White side as Black has different ways to both limit the pressure White’s pawn center creates and create counterplay.  Thus, White has come up with a few different ways of approaching the Grünfeld.  One of these ways is a line that’s become more popular recently.  It goes:

  1. d4 Nf6
  2. c4 g6
  3. Nc3 d5
  4. cxd5 Nxd5
  5. Bd2!?

It’s a rather unorthodox-looking move, but the idea is quite simple.  In normal lines, when Black trades knights on c3, White recaptures with the pawn, which adds temporary support for the d4 pawn but is often negated if Black plays c5, cxd4.  But, in this situation, if Black trades on c3, White can recapture with the bishop, the difference being that the bishop can directly contest Black’s g7 bishop, and the d4 pawn is still protected.  As a result, Black typically doesn’t trade on c3 but rather retreats to b6 when attacked with e4.  This line, therefore, leads to a slightly different type of Grünfeld.

Meanwhile, Black has had some new ideas of his own that have increased in popularity recently.  One of these entails not trading on d4 after playing c5, but rather keeping the tension and at some point playing b6 to just protect the c5 pawn.  The difference in these positions is that Black can still create pressure on d4, but he can also safely move his queen to c7 now since, in the exchange lines, the queen would be in a precarious position on the open c-file.

And, with that said, thanks for reading!  I hope this article provided you with something useful, even if you don’t happen to play the Grünfeld yourself.  Next time, I’ll likely be covering another opening, but I don’t know which one just yet, so I will have to figure that out myself.  See you next time!

Saving Worse Positions

The worst feeling in chess is losing a position where you were completely winning. Unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately as we will see!) this problem occurs at essentially all levels of the game from beginners to elite GrandMasters. There is a lot of literature out there on how to convert winning positions and finish off your opponent, but in this article I want to focus on the other side of the coin: When you reach a worse position and are almost lost how can you save it? Or even win?

The idea for this article topic came to me from a game I played at the recently completed Chicago Open. In round 6 I was playing a well established International Master, Michael Mulyar. After a complicated middlegame we reached the following position

Mulyar-Itkin-1
Mulyar-Itkin after 29…Nb5

I (playing with the black pieces) had sacrificed two pieces for a rook and a pawn, but was quite optimistic about my chances. I thought my pieces were active and white was quite cramped. With my last move 29…Nb5 I was threatening the a3 pawn with dreams of marching my a6 pawn all the way to a1.

My opponent however was unfazed by this and played 30.Qe4! after which I realized that I had grossly misevaluated. Suddenly my pieces are far away from my king and only my lonely bishop on g7 is helping on defense. As a result there is no good way stop the immediate threat of Qe8 along with the ensuing attack.

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that I am close to lost (the engine gives over +3 after 30.Qe4!) against a higher rated opponent and also have over half an hour less on the clock to complete the next 10 moves and reach the time control. What should I do? I immediately starting looking for lines that were murky and left counterplay for black. My opponent had played the entire game quickly rapidly and so I was hoping to find something that might require a tough decision from my opponent. I thought to myself “if I can get him frustrated he might make a mistake”. To this end I decided on 30…Be5 to  propose a trade of pieces and change the pawn structure. The ensuing moves can be found here, but eventually we reached the following position.

Mulyar-Itkin-2
Mulyar-Itkin after 36…Kh8

I had reached my goal. The objective evaluation of the position has not really changed, hovering around +3 for white, but I have managed to create a tough decision for my opponent. White has a strong attack and it looks like mate is close, but there does not seem to be anything forced. On the other hand black is offering a queen trade, which if accepted will lead to an ending where white should be winning, but it would take another hour to convert and there are still some practical chances.

After the game my opponent gave the line 37.Bf4 h5 38. Qg5 Nf5 after which there is still no mate (although white maintains a healthy advantage after 39. Bc1) and so rejected it. He also likely didn’t want to trade into an ending due to the reasons explained above and started to get frustrated — white is almost mating and is certainly winning, but can’t find anything concrete.

Not wanting to trade queens and rejecting Bf4 my opponent chose the seemingly logical, 37.g4?. This was the mistake I was hoping for and after 37… Nf5! it is now black who is winning.  Suddenly white’s attack is merely an illusion while black has serious threats coming against f2. The game continued 38.Qg5 Rb2 39.Bg7+ (there is no good way to defend f2) 39…Ng7 (and not 39…Kg7?? where 40.Nh5 following by Qd8 is checkmate.) 40.Qh4 h5 where now black is up material with a strong attack. White resigned after a few more moves.

Another example of this type against a strong opponent happened at the infamous 2017 Canadian Closed (infamous due to the events described in this article). I was playing IM (now GM) Aman Hambleton with black in round 6. This was an important point in the tournament as we both had 3/5. Aman was one of the tournament favourites and needed a win to keep 1st place chances alive (1st place would include a spot on Canada’s Olympiad Team and a spot at the 2017 World Cup in addition to prize money), while I was aiming for a score of 6/9 as such a score would grant me the FM title since this was a zonal event (I finished with 5.5/9, just missing my goal). After strong positional play from White we reached the following position.

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Hambleton-Itkin after 47.Rb5

White is up the exchange for a pawn and pressing, but black is well positioned to defend. He has two bishops and all of the pawns are on the kingside reducing white’s winning chances. Overall black has a tough defensive task ahead, but with accurate play should be able to hold. After a lot of triangulation we reached the following position.

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Hambleton-Itkin after 61.Ra5

Although the position hasn’t change too much white has managed to pose some small problems for black. If I leave my king on f5 then white threatens to play a timely f4 putting pressure on the 5th rank. Although objectively (i.e if black is careful) this is never a serious threat, it is quite an uncomfortable position to be in especially during time trouble. The possibility of f4 needs to be checked every move and slight changes in the position of white’s rook and black bishops could make an impact. On the other hand if I play 61… Ke6 white can play 62.Bg5 where I must either avoid the bishop trade and give up pressure on h4 freeing up white’s king from its defense or trade on g5. The latter would entail me to lose my two bishops and gives white a more active pawn on g5 where black may have some trouble defending both e5 and g6.

After some thought I realized that Bg5 is not so scary and set a deep trap.  For those of you that like problem-solving now would be a good time to stop reading and try to evaluate what happens after 61…Ke6. 62 Bg5. The solution as well as the continuation of the game can be found here.

After several moves we reached the following position:

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Hambleton-Itkin after 71.g7

Comparing this position to the one in the first diagram makes it hard to believe this is even the same game! From a quiet ending where white was pressing we reach a position where black has managed to promote and has a winning position. Here I was excited that I managed to trick such a strong player and relaxed a little. My opponent seemed rattled after the turn of events and after calculating a series of checks where I win his g7 pawn I thought I would have no trouble converting the Q v R. The game continued 71…Qh3+ 72.Kf2 Qf5 where after 73.Ke3 black plays 73…Qf7 and picks up the pawn. My opponent however set a trap for me as well and played 73.Kg3!!. I had completely missed this move as it leaves the rook en prix, but suddenly black has no checks and no way of stopping white from promoting. In fact a move like 73… Qc8 would lose to 74.g8=Q Qxg8 75.Rg4+. The game ended in a draw shortly after 73…Qxe4.

Black is winning, however, in the diagrammed position, but an accurate sequence of checks is needed. After 71…Qh3 which was played in the game, black may not even be winning. Better was 71…Qc1+ 72. Kd3 Qa3+ 73. Kf2 Qb2+ 74. Kf3 Qc3+ 75. Kf2 Qxg7 where we reach the theoretically winning Q v R ending. In the end a draw is not an unjust result given the position in the first diagram, but the turn of events left both sides feeling unhappy with the game.

This just goes to show that even in seemingly dry endings or even with only 5 pieces on the board it is possible to cause problems for your opponents and induce a mistake! What I have learned from these experiences (and from others that did not make this article) is that despite being a game of perfect information, chess is still a psychological and emotional game. It is precisely in situations where we are completely winning or completely losing that our emotions are hardest to control and, in my opinion, is often the reason that even strong players make serious mistakes in good positions and let games slip. As a player in a lost position the best chance to turn things around is to play on these emotions and get your opponent frustrated or needlessly excited — you have nothing to lose! On the other hand it is important for the player in the driving seat to stay as calm as possible without letting his or her emotions get in the way of objective evaluation. This is much easier said than done and in my view is the principal reason behind many “unexplainable” blunders in winning positions. I leave you with an example of a world champion being a victim of this himself. So next time you’re in a worse position dig deep and create tough choices for your opponent — you may just save the game!

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!

Opening Repertoire For Different Ratings

It’s summer time and there are many chess tournaments all around the country. This is the time to put your work into practice.

While preparing for different tournaments, parents and students alike often ask how should they organize opening repertoire.

After some back and force debate in my own head and observing student’s results, here is my current point of view.

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As with my last article on topics for different levels, I believe different ratings should focus differently on their opening preparations.

My current opinion

  1. Casual players up to USCF U1200: Play any opening that catches your curiocity
  2. USCF 1200 – 1700: Be more specific; Prepare a package against d4 and e4 for black, and choose your favorite 1st move for white
  3. USCF 1700 and Above: Depending on your training regimen and work with coach to personalize best approach

Let’s dissect these in more details

Casual Players (U1200)

When starting chess, the most important opening focus is understanding the basic opening principles. The main ones are: Control the Center, Develop Pieces, and Castle Early.

When you see a brilliant game in the French, go try it out. Find ways to experiment, learn openings that bring out your curiosity to chess.

Regardless what opening you try, make sure to focus on the main principles. Avoid losing games because half of your pieces were not developed.

If your opponent does not follow opening principles, find ways to take advantage of that.

USCF 1200 – 1700

This group is when the training gets serious, and there are certain commitment to improve in chess.

I would suggest build a specific repertoire for both white and black pieces. Stick with the same openings for a while.

The idea is to learn the ins and outs of that opening, and improve your chess in general by understanding deeper concepts such as pawn structures and positional middle game concepts from the same opening.

One example repertoire:

  1. e4 for white; Alapin against Sicilians
  2. French for black against e4
  3. Queen’s gambit declined against d4

USCF 1700 and Above

Now we are pushing towards Master level and beyond. More personalization will be required.

What is your goal in chess? How often do you play in tournaments? How do you train to prepare for tournaments?

These are the questions you want to answer and possibly work with a coach to dive in deeper.

If you have aspiration to become a master and gain international titles, then you’ll need to start playing in many tournaments.

From these tournament experiences, you’ll learn about your strengths and weaknesses in chess, and figure out the amount of time focused on openings accordingly.

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These are my strong opinion now, but I held them loosely.

For all the active chess warriors, Good Luck to all of your summer chess adventures!