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!

 

 

 

Beating Back Opening Trouble at the Chicago Open

May was my biggest month in a long time, as I finally graduated from college after four busy years of math and computer science! In August, I’ll be moving to California to start my tech career, but until then, I’ll have a few months (my first free summer in years) for family, travel, appreciating my Indiana homeland, and, of course, chess. What a better way to start off the last than with one of America’s largest and strongest open tournaments, the Chicago Open?

The 27th Chicago Open, held over this last Memorial Day weekend, easily beats all other contenders for my personal toughest tournament. In the top section, superior competition was all but guaranteed – my 1938 FIDE rating seeded me 8th to last seed (!) in a 128-player field dominated by strong masters, many of them GMs, IMs, and norm seekers. There’s also the question of fatigue over such a long event – in my only other event of this type (the 2017 US Masters), I started off with two wins over IMs in my first four games, only to manage one draw for the rest of the tournament. This time, I was hoping to avoid such a reversal.

But ultimately it was my openings that made me struggle. Of course, I had a general idea of what positions to expect from the openings I played, but the lines I faced in Chicago more varied than I was used to, and revealed that I was woefully underprepared. FM Aaron Jacobson’s descriptions of my positions out of the opening as “ranging from barely playable to completely lost” seems apt, while IM Alexander Katz deemed some of my positions indistinguishable from my ultrabullet games.

The above descriptions may give the impression that I barely made it out of the tournament in one piece. On the contrary, I scored a respectable 4/9 against all higher-rated opposition, for a solid 2174 FIDE/2245 USCF performance. But I’d be lying if I said it was a pleasant process, or that I could see that result coming based on my openings!

Days 1 – 2: Getting on the board

My first game certainly didn’t help my case on openings. I was destroyed by FM David Peng, despite entering a line Isaac had played against me several times in a bullet match a few weeks ago. Despite my play being supposedly theory, the resulting position was rather uncomfortable and I had no conception of the correct plans, making for a rather easy victory for White. My weaknesses were not limited to the opening – in the second round, I navigated a slightly worse opening position to reach an equal ending, but messed that up.

So if my openings were bad, my endgames were bad, and my middlegames were dubious, where did my results come from? The answer may be as simple as resilience. In the past, we’ve talked about how players can be distinguished by how they handle worse positions. Many inferior positions are lost not out of force, but because it’s much easier to make a mistake. Making an opponent work hard for the win in such a situation is useful, because in many positions it’s easy to tell how one side has a clear advantage, but not how they should use it.

I didn’t have to wait very long for a practice opportunity – in Round 3, I got this gem of a position as White right out of the opening.

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Li – Greanias: after 14…Be6

White is clearly much worse, if not completely busted; e3 is permanently weak, and Black has more space and more active pieces while White has no clear plan. In most situations, I wouldn’t waste too much energy trying to save the game, but a third straight loss would have tanked my tournament. Luckily, Black didn’t know what to do either, and proceeded to make rather unhelpful moves, some of them weakening. This eventually made the position equal, but because my initial position was so bad, I didn’t have any real chances to push for more.

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Li – Greanias: after 36…h6

As expected, the game simplified into a drawish ending, but I really needed a win here, so I tried one last trick. Try to see as much as you can before looking at the game continuation – let’s just say that it was not all sound, and my king eventually ended up on d8.

Day 3: Finally some decent opening positions!

Round 4 came and went fairly quickly as I accepted an early draw from NM Gopal Menon (2200 FIDE, 2336 USCF). For the first time in the tournament, my opening went well and I’d achieved a nice advantage in a Closed Sicilian as White.

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Li – Menon: 18…Ne5 1/2-1/2

On move 18, Gopal took a long think, and then offered a draw. In retrospect, I should have played on, with the advantage on the board and on the clock. But my extraordinarily lucky Round 3 win had not made me confident about my play, so I made the safe choice.

Unfortunately, fatigue set in that night, and despite getting a decent position on the Black side of an English (kind of a reversed Bb5 Sicilian), I made a simple oversight on move 19 and never recovered.

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Homa – Li: after 19. Rxe4

My kingside had become a bit exposed as a result of an earlier …g5 and a few exchanges, and moves like Rg4 and h2-h4 are looming. However, White is not without difficulties either; his kingside light squares are weak, and his inferior pawn structure on the queenside provides good counterchances if Black reaches an ending without further weakening the kingside.

Although Black’s position looks difficult, 19…Qe6! is quite effective; Black threatens 20…Qh3 to block h2-h4 for good, and the immediate 20. h4? is met by 20…g4 keeping the kingside closed, with moves like …h5 and …Rf3 to come. Black can’t stop h2-h4 after 20. Qe2 (see the attached game) intending to trade queens on g4, but his resources seem sufficient in the resulting ending.

Unfortunately, after a lot of thought, I decided on 19…Qd7? at the last minute, thinking I might as well leave the queen out of harms way. After 20. h4, I realized why I’d ditched 19…Qd7 in the first place – 20…g4? simply hangs the h6 pawn. White was able to open the kingside to his liking, and eventually won. See the rest of the game.

Day 4: Crush with White, crushed with Black

Day 4 started off with a nice win against NM Damir Studen. I didn’t play the opening very well; Black equalized rather easily despite choosing an inferior variation of the 3. Nf3 Scandinavian.

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Li – Studen: after 15. Rfd1

However, thinking he was out of danger, Black quickly played the natural-looking 15…Rad8? and was surprised by 16. c5! threatening to win the dark-squared bishop with 17. a3. 16…Rc8 was probably best, but White has several advantageous options, such as 17. Nd2 (going for d6, probably gaining the bishop pair) and 17. Bd6 which also looks uncomfortable for Black. Instead, Black accelerated his defeat with 16…Bxf3? 17. Bxf3 Rc8 18. Rd3!, when the threat of Rd3-b3 is a big problem. Black is always a step behind, and I finally cashed in about 10 moves later.

Unfortunately, in Round 7 it was back to opening trouble. Like in my early games, I was again nearly lost out of the opening. I had my chances later, but got into severe time trouble around move 25, giving White a winning attack. Instead, White traded into a much better, but tricky ending, and when both of us fell low in the second time control, I managed to swindle into a drawn ending.

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Posthuma – Li: after 60. Rb4

Instead of the obvious 60…Kg4 drawing after 61. Ke4 g5!, I played 60…Kg3 and after 61. Ke4 h5?! (61…g6) 62. Kf5 h4?? 63. Rb3+ my king was cut off along the 3rd rank, giving White the h4-pawn and the game. Throwing the game away like that was unfortunate, but I definitely came a lot closer to holding than I deserved to. See here for the game.

Day 5: Finishing strong

Round 8 started off rather unpleasantly, as I got the following position out of the opening, as White. Reasonably-prepared players probably shouldn’t find themselves in these situations as White, but anyway… no time to worry about that yet.

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Li – Chen: after 18…cxd5

Black’s superior center and White’s f5-pawn are a source of worry. On the other hand, Black’s weaknesses on b7 and f7 require some attention. Once again, the position looks difficult, but resilience goes a long way; the key for White is to keep Black tied down to b7 and f7, because until those are resolved, Black cannot immediately advance his center or grab White’s weak f5-pawn. As the game progressed, Black eventually got in his …d5-d4 and I fell into time trouble, but Black’s kingside provided enough counterchances for me escape unscathed into the second time control, and we drew a few moves later. See here for the rest of the game.

The last round had a rather lethargic feel to it, as many players without prize or norm chances are dropping out or making quick draws out of inertia. I was barely awake, but determined to make the last game count, even as Black. This was a fairly smooth win, except for one slip-up in the middle. My opponent and I both missed a strong, but not so obvious piece sacrifice; she attempted the same sacrifice two moves later but it was not nearly as good, and I consolidated without too much trouble.


This last win brought me to 4/9, which was good for a 15-point USCF gain and 40-point FIDE gain. I had gone into the tournament thinking an even score would be really good, so this is certainly a solid result. Nevertheless, I will be sure to catch up on my openings so I don’t subject myself to these unpleasant experiences again.

I’m planning to play next at the National Open in Las Vegas. This is a big event with a lot of great side events, so it should be a lot of fun!