Focus on the Craft

Result of wins and loses are easy to measure and powerful to experience.

But often these are short-term thrills, and across the many ups-and-downs, it is easily dismiss-able from our memory.

When we focus on short-term results, our mind are buried into looking at certain outcomes, and chess improvement is anything but certain.

On the other hand, the process to improve the craft is what matters in the long term, and we are in control when making the effort.


As many of you know, I’m not currently active in playing tournaments (albeit a fan of in-person blitz tourneys). Instead, my focus in chess is help more students reach 1000.

While working on the side hustle of teaching, I see the parallel of improving teaching methods to the process of chess improvements.

Rinse and Grind

In any training day, the calculation exercise that you work on, or the endgame study that you struggle with will not show result immediately.

They are, however, the seed of improvements. And it is by repeating the exercises day in and day out that the seed will blossom.

Teaching chess is similar, looking thru 1 game or 1 puzzle will not give me enough information to understand what is the student missing.

But the process of continuing to observe will slowly reveal patterns.


No one knows how long it will take us to the promise land. But we CAN control the effort.

Focus on the Craft!

Put in more effort and worry less about the result.

A Weekend of Grandmasters

While not the most difficult tournament I’ve played (being only 5 rounds instead of the 7-9ers with which I’ve been otherwise occupied recently), last weekend’s Potomac Open certainly featured one of the strongest set of opponents I’ve ever faced. Most notably, I was the only player in the event to face all three Grandmasters, a situation undoubtedly brought on by my first round upset of GM Larry Kaufman. When it was all over, I had scored an even 2.5/5, which, as my opponents were rated an average of 2399, was good for some hefty USCF/FIDE rating gains.

My first game ended in a nice win over GM Kaufman, but not without a worthy test of my endgame technique. I won a pawn via opening skirmishes and seemed to be cruising to an easy win, but a few inaccuracies in the ending made matters less clear.

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Li – Kaufman: after 27…Ke6

I knew 28. Nxg7+ should win, as after 28…Ke5 29. Ra7 should pick up the rest of Black’s kingside pawns quickly. However, with both of us in serious time trouble, I wanted to avoid any tricks involving a racing b-pawn or Black’s king moving too close to mine, so I went for the “safer” 28. Ne3?! forcing 28…Re2 29. Ra3 Nd5! (Black cannot relieve the pressure on c2) 30. Nxd5 Kxd5 31. Rd3+ Ke5 32. Rc3 f5 33. Rc7.

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Li – Kaufman: after 33. Rc7

Black correctly ignored the threat to the g7-pawn with 33…Kf4! (rarely a good idea to go passive in an inferior ending). With only a few minutes left, I made a few quick repetitions to get to move 40 faster in this 40/90,SD/30;+30 game: 34. Kf1 Rd2 35. Rc4+ Ke3 36. Rc3+ Kf4 37. Rc4+ Ke3 38. Rc3+ Kf4. And finally White is able to force Black’s rook off its perch: 39. g3+ Ke5 40. Re3+ Kd4 41. Re2.

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Li – Kaufman: after 41. Re2

White’s pieces are still pretty restricted so it will take some more work to untangle. However, Black continued 41…Rd1+ 42. Kf2 Rh1? Giving up the d-file is a critical error, as one way or another, Black’s king is cut off, giving White time to grab the kingside pawns more safely. Indeed, soon after 43. Rd2+ Kc4 44. Ke3 Rb1 45. Rd4+ Kc5 46. Rd7, I achieved two advanced kingside passers to Black’s tied-up b-pawn, giving me the win.


In Round 2, I played a great game against the even higher-rated GM Jesse Kraai (who went on to win the tournament 5-0), accepting a pawn sacrifice for which the GM ultimately found insufficient compensation. Although I lost the pawn back in a time scramble, it seemed that I could draw the ending relatively easily, until I learned (for not the first time) that there are always tricks.

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Kraai – Li: after 43…Na3

After repeating once, I had expected White to acquiesce to the only way to keep his pawns defended, 44. Nb4 Nb5 45. Nc6. But instead, he played 44. Kf1!!, leaving the c2-pawn undefended for no immediate reason. Unfortunately, I failed to see the point of this move until after 44…Nxc2 45. Ke2 Kf8? 46. Kd2 Na3 47. Na7! when my knight was trapped and ultimately forced to sacrifice itself on c4. Instead, the preemptive 44…Na3 should have drawn (see the notes to the full game).


My next opponent was young expert Madhavan Narkeeran, who knows me fairly well from my days in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, both of us played exceptionally poorly, each trading several major blunders that ultimately ended in a pawn-up rook ending that I should probably have won fairly easily. Instead, I missed several fairly straightforward wins and had to settle for Q vs. R, which I somehow failed to win.

Naturally, this did not leave me in the most confident of spirits in my next game against FM Justin Paul, especially when I found myself in this position:

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Li – Paul: after 8…Bc5

I had no idea if this was theoretical, but of course White can’t castle here, and Black is quickly pushing moves like …O-O and …Re8+, so it did not look good despite my extra pawn. Eventually, Black decided to nab two knights for a rook, leading to some interesting choices:

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Li – Paul: after 16…Ndf6

I thought I could get some material as compensation if I acted quickly enough, so I played 17. Bc3, which was met as expected with 17…Nf2 (although 17…Rb8!? works for the moment as well, since the expected 18. Bxf6? Qxf6 threatens to take on b2) 18. Qf3 N6e4, itself threatening 19…Bg4 and forcing 19. h3.

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Li – Paul: after 19. h3

As it turns out, this does not completely solve White’s problems, due to possibilities such as 19…Bf5!? 20. g4 Bh7 21. Rhf1 Re8! which creates an incredible support network of the Re8, Qe7, Bc5, Ne4, Nf2. Instead, Black played the straightforward 19…Nxh1?! but after 20. Rxe4 Qf8 21. Be1 it was only a matter of time before I won the trapped knight on h1. This left me a healthy pawn up, and I eventually won.

It also gave me – quite unexpectedly, given the strong field – a chance to play for money if I could get a result in the last round. Unfortunately, my pairing against GM Sergey Erenburg threw a wrench into this possibility, especially since I was tired and didn’t feel up to thinking about long term plans – not a blessing for playing a GM as Black in the Caro-Kann. Nevertheless, I was able to keep the game interesting when White had to expend a lot of time to think about how to break down my somewhat inferior but solid position. Eventually though, I wasted too much time shuffling my pieces on the back rank and allowed him to develop a winning attack. Still an instructive game, and one I should probably look over a bit more before sharing it.


While this wasn’t quite enough for prizes, my performance over the weekend was quite high and quite good for my rating, and also a few nice personal milestones. I broke  further into master territory, finally broke 2000 FIDE, and for the first time, my record against 2300s (spanning the last 12 months) is over 50%.

This also happens to be my last major tournament on the East Coast for a while, as I will be moving in a few days to start my new job at Google in California. This will be quite a change, both in chess (as nearly everyone I know is from the eastern half of the U.S.) and life, but I have enjoyed my time here immensely, and will definitely try to make it back once in a while, and am excited to see what the future holds!

US Cadet Championship

The US Cadet Championship is an invitational round robin tournament for the top US players under the age of 16. I was first invited to play in the Cadet back in 2015, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend due to scheduling problems. In 2016, however, I played. I was around the middle of then 10-player field, and I had a great tournament. After leading the tournament 7 rounds in, I finished in a 3-way tie for first, but unfortunately I went down in an armageddon playoff and didn’t get the title. That is a story for another time…

In 2017, I yet again didn’t play due to a schedule conflict, but I decided to participate this year. The tournament moved from Rockville, Maryland, (2016) to Manchester, New Hampshire, to San Jose, California. The tournament also decreased in size from 10 players to 8 players. This is the last year I’m eligible to play, and I hadn’t been on the West Coast in ages, so I gladly accepted the invitation.

The participants (sorted by July USCF rating) were:

Me (2527)
Rayan Taghizadeh (2410)
Josiah Stearman (2375)
Akira Nakada (2329)
Gabriel Sam (2328)
Aravind Kumar (2315)
Jason Wang (2289)
Max Li (2247)

I knew and had played East Coast players such as Aravind and Akira before. As for the Californians, I knew a couple but hadn’t played them—or to be more precise I hadn’t played chess with them. At the 2015 World Youth, Rayan, a few others, and I went bowling! The results are classified.

I was the big cat, and after tying for first place 2 years ago, my pre-tournament goal was simple—to finish first. Being the top seed wasn’t an easy position to be in, since the pressure was on me to win. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have competition either.

On Sunday, July 8, I finished the World Open, and on Wednesday, July 11, I flew out to California. The flight was uneventful (yay!), and I had a day to enjoy the Bay Area and hopefully somewhat adjust to Pacific Time. The opening ceremony and the drawing of lots were on Thursday afternoon, and the first round was an hour after that. I got seed number 4, meaning that my colors were white followed by black followed by white, etc. Coincidentally, the top four seeds got numbers 1-4, while the bottom four seeds got numbers 5-8.

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The players, organizers, TDs, and guests!

My round 1 win against Jason Wang (2274 USCF, 2187 FIDE) was fairly smooth. The homework I did before the round worked out very well, and I got a near-winning position after 20 moves. Not bad… After my last two tournaments, an uneventful start was a welcome change.

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The start of a successful day at the office! Photo by Bay Area Chess.

In round 2 I got black against Gabriel Sam (2328 USCF, 2138 FIDE). He steered the game towards drawish territory, but I did manage to get an advantage. Here’s where I missed my chance:

Sam 1

In the past few moves, I’d made territorial gains with my pawns and had pushed white’s pieces backwards. This, however, all came at the expense of weakening my king; more on that later.

As for concrete variations. 30… Bxf2 is the first move to calculate. It will most certainly be me with 31.Nxe5 Qc7 32.Qb5. Though the white knight is pinned, black can’t win it as 32… Bc5 runs into 33.Qd7+. Not impressed with the idea of being a pawn down without any gain, I looked elsewhere. 30… e4 31.Nd4 was possible, but I was uneasy at the idea of letting the white knight anchor itself on d4. 30… Qc7 31.Kg1 a6 is reasonable for black, but I went for something else: 30… Bc7?. White responded to the obvious threat of …e4+ with 31.g3 and I went 31… Bd6. I had, however, underestimated the move 32.Qb3!

Sam 2

I had wanted to have control over the position, and this is not a good development. Ng5 is a serious idea by white which could lead to dire consequences for black is he isn’t careful. He can also go Qd5 centralizing his queen. I saw nothing better than to go back with 32… Bc7, but I had no real advantage after that. The game ended in a draw.

What did I miss? In that 30… Bxf2 line, I was winning at the end, but I just didn’t look deep enough. After the practically forced 31.Nxe5 Qc7 32.Qxb5 Bc5 33.Qd7+ Qxd7 34.Nxd7, black has 34… Bd6+ 35.Kg1 Kf7

Sam 3

The white knight is trapped! The pawn endgames after both 36.b4 Ke6 37.Nc5+ Bxc5 38.bxc5 Kd5 and 36.c4 Ke6 37.c5 Kxd7 38.cxd6 Kxd6 are lost for white, as his king is just too far away. The exact details are far from obvious when looking from a distance, but I totally missed this idea. It was tough luck that I didn’t win, but trust me, there are much worse things that can happen to a chess player…

Round 3 was an important game for me and for the tournament standings. I was white against second seed Rayan Taghizadeh (2410 USCF, 2327 FIDE). The game was very interesting, and I really could write an entire article about it. The opening went well for me, and I managed to keep one of Rayan’s knights grounded on a5 with nowhere to go. He wisely went for counterplay, spicing the game up. I was clearly better, but it wasn’t obvious how much I actually had. We reached this position:

Rayan 1

White has a queen and two pawns for two rooks, and there is a pair of bishops on the board. At this point, the b-pawn is mainly for decoration, as it won’t be running up the board anytime soon. The main target is the f7-pawn and the black king in general. White’s bishop is going to assist the queen in doing this. But how? 35.Bf3 with the idea of Bd5? 35.Bg4 aiming at e6? Or 35.h4 going at the black king from a different direction? I spent most of my remaining six minutes on my next move, and it was well worth it, since I found a win.

35.Bf3 will be met with 35… Rcb6 36.Bd5 Bc8! 37.e6 is no good for course, and white doesn’t have anything convincing. Therefore I threw 35.Bf3 into the wastebasket. There weren’t too many concrete variations after 35.h4, and that could always be a backup. Then I crunched out the details of 35.Bg4! to the end and saw that it was winning. White intends to go e6 next, and that could fatally open up the black king. 35… Bc8 is no good, since after 36.Qd8+ Kg7 37.e6, black is all tied up and can’t stop anything. Rayan played the critical move 35… Rcb6 which I had been expecting. I replied with 36.e6 fxe6 37.Qd7!

Rayan 2

This was the key idea. The e6-pawn is going down which will more or less be mate. That is unless black goes 37… Bc8 which fails to a nice tactic: 38.Bxe6+! Rxe6 39.Qd8+ Kg7 40.Qc7+. Black is losing the b8-rook, and Rayan resigned here.

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Everybody in action in round 3. Photo by Bay Area Chess.

That win felt great! The next morning, I was in an even bigger clash against Josiah Stearman (2411 USCF, 2285 FIDE). Josiah was leading the tournament with 3/3, and he was clearly my biggest threat in the tournament. Early on, it looked like the game would be a pretty dry ride until I got a pleasant surprise.

Josiah 1

A couple minor pieces have been traded off already, and neither side has any real claims to an advantage. Though I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t too disappointed with this development. If we drew, there was still a large chance that I’d outrun Josiah in the last three rounds, and besides, I shouldn’t be expecting anything special with black after only 13 moves… I though Josiah would play either 14.Qxe6 or 14.Qc2 with rough equality, but he decided to go 14.Qxb7? instead. That was a bad idea. 14… Rfb8 15.Qxc7 Rc8 16.Qb6 Rcb8 leads to a repetition, but I rightfully wanted more. After making sure there weren’t any problems, I went 14… c6! (14… c5! with a similar idea was also strong). I had a simple threat: 15… Rfb8 16.Qc7 Ne8, trapping the white queen. 15.Ba7 does stop Rfb8, but it is met with 15… c5! followed by 16… Qd7, where the white bishop is trapped. Josiah instead chose 15.d4 which is probably white’s best move. The game went 15… Rfb8 16.Qc7 Ne8 17.d5 cxd5 18.exd5 Nxd5 19.Qc6 f5!

Josiah 2

I had a lot of tempting alternatives in the past few moves, but what I did was strongest. Though material is equal for the moment, white is in big trouble. My threat is 20… Ne7 trapping the white queen (as if her majesty hadn’t gone through enough trauma). If white gets out of there with 20.Qc4, I’ll simply snag the b2-pawn with 20… Rxb2. Josiah tried 20.Ne1!?, but black is clearly much better if not winning here. I soon won the b2-pawn and went on to convert, even if the game did get a bit wild before the time control…

With 3.5/4, I was leading the tournament. Josiah had 3/4, Rayan had 2.5/4, and the rest of the field had 2/4 or less. This was fantastic! It got even better when I won my next game against Max Li (2267 USCF, 1788 FIDE). It was a tough fight where I didn’t have much but managed to win. Adding to the masterpiece, both Josiah and Rayan lost. That meant I was leading by 1.5 points going into the last day. Oh man. This was perfect…

Unfortunately, my round 6 game against Aravind Kumar (2309 USCF, 2153 FIDE) didn’t go according to plan. I got a dry but harmless position with black, until I slopped it up.

Aravind 1

This is a Carlsbad structure with all bishops off the board. Both sides’ plans are fairly textbook: white wants to create a minority attack with b4-b5, while black wants to play on the kingside. I should’ve just gone 17… f5!. 18.b4 worried me, but after 18… Nb6! eyeing the c4-square, black may even be better. Instead of doing that, I naively went 17… a5?! which was met with 18.Ndxe4! dxe4 19.Rd1

Aravind 2

White has a simple plan here: blast things open with d5. He will have the d-file and more active pieces. One thing that black has in his favor is that he will be able to go Ne5-d3 after d5, but I jeopardized that possibility by going 19… Nb6?. Instead, 19… f5! 20.Rfd2 Rfd8 21.d5 Ne5 is still acceptable for black. After 20.Rfd2 Rfd8 21.d5 f5 22.dxc6 bxc6 23.Ne2 I was in big trouble.

Aravind 3

White has the d-file, better pawn structure, and a safer king. There aren’t many volunteers who would want to be black here. Adding to my misery, I walked into 23… Nd5 24.Nd4 Qf6 25.Nxc6! Qxc6 26.Qe5 which cost me a pawn and the game.

That hurt. Josiah won his game, meaning that he was now half a point behind me going into the last round. In case of a tie, there would be a playoff, and I wanted to avoid one if possible. I played for a win in my round 7 game, where I was white against Akira Nakada (2308 USCF, 2154 FIDE).

Akira 1

I had been up to original shenanigans in the opening, and I reached this position. I wasn’t impressed with what I had here, especially because of the move 17… Nd5!, after which I didn’t see a better alternative than 18.Bxd5. Black is for sure completely fine after that one. Instead, Akira played what I was hoping he’d play: 17… Nc6?!. After double-checking the consequences for a few minutes, I played 18.Nxf7!?. If 18… Qxf7 19.Bxe6, white will a dangerous attack and large amounts of compensation. While my silicon friend evaluates the position after 19… Qf6 20.Rh3! as 0.00, I don’t think many people would envy being black here. Compared to this, the position after 17… Nd5 seems much nicer for black.

Akira had other ideas, and he quickly played 18… 0-0?. The white knight is trapped, and black is in great shape after the obvious 19.Bxe6 Rxf7 20.Bxf7+ Qxf7. There, however, was a hole in black’s idea: 19.Ng5!. After 19… hxg5 20.Bxe6+ Rf7 21.hxg5 white will have a rook and three pawns for two minor pieces, and black’s king is in serious danger of getting mated on the h-file. I went on to convert this position successfully, though I did have smoother ways to win…

All’s well that ends well! Josiah drew, meaning that I won the tournament by a full point with 5.5/7. While I didn’t gain much on rating, 5.5/7 is not a score to complain about! Considering the scare I had on the last day, I’m glad it ended this way.

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Judith Sztaray,  yours truly, and Tom Langland.

A big thank you to Bay Area Chess for organizing and running a smooth event! Everything was as good as it gets.

Building Good Habits

With summer coming to an end, I have been thinking a lot lately about what I can do to facilitate chess improvement during the inevitably busy school year that lies ahead. As my daily schedule will be packed with course work and other activities, it will be quite difficult to find time for chess or even just find the motivation to put serious effort into studying the game.

When time is lacking and motivation is low, I find good habits to be a fantastic way to keep hopes of attaining a certain goal afloat. When it comes to chess, I have been working diligently on integrating a few positive habits into my daily routine that I can rely on to sustain my improvement during the upcoming school year. While I will no longer be able to study chess for large chunks of time every day like I was during the summer, smaller chess training habits will allow me to keep improving even during the busiest of times.

Training Habit #1: 30 minutes of tactics

The title explains it all: half an hour every morning of focused tactical training on an online tactics trainer. Daily tactics training is extremely beneficial because it reinforces tactical patterns that crop up perpetually in games and keeps one’s tactical eye very sharp. Since reintroducing tactical training into my daily chess routine, I have been blundering much less often and calculating more efficiently during games.

Training Habit #2: Book review

Every day after completing my tactical training, I spend about thirty minutes reviewing a lesson from the Yusupov book that I am currently studying. I strongly believe that reviewing old or previously studied material is just as important as reading new chess material because it ensures that more information is retained.

Training Habit #3: Read one chess article

Taking as little as five minutes every day to read a chess article about a recent GM tournament, a strategic principle, or a neat endgame can go a long way to maintain interest in the game. Personally, I have not only thoroughly enjoyed following but also learned a lot from articles covering recent top level events.

Over the course of the next month, I plan to stick to these three habits every day so that by the time school comes around, the three activities above will be second nature. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

New and Old at U.S. Juniors

With another year, another U.S. Junior Chess Championships have come to a close.  The field for both tournaments did not disappoint, even though they were markedly different from years past – another testament to the constantly evolving landscape of junior chess in the country.  In the end, the tournaments were engaging to follow, with action and the title up for grabs all the way until the end (if you remember the Girls section last year, it was decided before the last round!).  They were held from July 11-21 as a nine-player round-robin. 

U.S. Girls Junior Chess Championships 

First, the Girls Section.  After nine grueling rounds, youngster Carissa Yip came out on top by a full point at 7/9.  Although she lost one game later in the tournament, her six (!) wins more than made up for it.  It was evident from the start that Yip was going to be playing for wins all tournament, essaying the double-edged Grünfeld and eventually creating a lethal attack against an uncastled White king.  After winning the first game, she followed up with a second win, dodging and eventually capitalizing on her opponent’s overextension in the middlegame.  She continued to excel at the top of the standings throughout the tournament, winning games wherever possible.  By the last round, she was already up a full point on the rest of the field and just had to draw the last round to clinch the tournament, which she was able to do. 

One of the more interesting points about this tournament victory for Yip is related to the same tournament from last year.  In that event, while Akshita Gorti was able to power through to a convincing tournament victory, Yip somewhat struggled, finishing with only 3.5/9.  As a result, I would have to believe that this victory feels extra special for Yip as, 1) it is already one of the most prestigious junior tournaments in the country, but 2) it’s also a bounce-back performance relative to last year.  All in all, it made for a strong performance this year, and it’ll be interesting to see if she can keep it up next year. 

U.S. Junior Chess Championships 

The Open section of the tournament saw many new faces in this year’s edition, with five of the ten players not having played in this tournament last year.  That statistic comes with somewhat of an asterisk as Annie Wang played in the Girls section last year, but for all intents and purposes, it counts.  After nine action-packed rounds, it was Awonder Liang who came out on top with 6.5/9.  Unlike the Girls section, which had a relatively spaced out distribution of final scores, the Open section was very clogged up in the middle, with five players in the 4-5 point range and seven in the 3.5-5 point range.  This made for many critical games from early on, as every full point made a huge difference.  Even the tournament winner, Awonder Liang, “only” had four wins, compared to Carrisa Yip’s six in the Girls Section.  Still, Liang was able to finish a half point above Advait Patel, who earned second. 

Unlike Yip, who was able to reverse her performance from last year to win the tournament this year, it was sort of the opposite of Liang’s case.  He won the tournament last year, too!  So, this actually marks two in a row for Liang, who must certainly be feeling ecstatic after this performance.  While he faced significant competition in both events, he has been able to weather the storm each time out.  The question everyone will be asking this time next year will be:  Will Liang be able to three-peat?  Of course, only time will tell. 

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time! 

 

Adapting and Adulting

For today’s Chess^Summit article, I want to talk about something that’s new for me, but perhaps for many of my readers, will be relatable on a somewhat personal level. Rather than talking about chess and analyzing positions today, I want to discuss an element of chess (but perhaps equally important) that doesn’t get talked about a lot – adulting.

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Playing a game at the Folklife Festival in the National Mall

For the first time in my [short] life, I’m working a day job (internship – let’s not get carried away) and living in a studio apartment in Washington, DC. While I don’t have to prepare for classes during the week, the first thing I realized is that unlike being a student, I have a lot less free time now… It’s the hour-plus commute to and from work, it’s the 30 minutes it takes to cook dinner every night, and don’t forget – the additional thirty minutes it takes to clean your kitchen afterwards. After a long day of work and then errands, there’s not really a lot of time left during the week.

And for those of us who aspire to play chess competitively and improve, that can be quite frustrating.

Personally, after what felt like a promising showing at the Chicago Open, I felt like my momentum came to a full stop a few weeks later in the Continental Class Championships here in Washington. With three draws and two losses, my rating dropped to 2099, and even though dipping below 2100 again may have as well been a rounding error, it still really stung. In my last nine games, I’ve scored 6 draws and 3 losses, no wins. Since, I have really struggled to find time to invest in my chess at the level I want to.

I have to be totally honest here – for me, the concept of “making time to study” is a little foreign. When I was in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have to make time, there was time – the hour gap between classes, for example. Furthermore, I also had the benefit that many of my friends also played competitively, and we would regularly train together. It wasn’t a conscious decision to train because we needed to be ready for the next tournament – this is just what we did for fun, and it happened to be beneficial.

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Night out at the Washington Nationals game!

As someone adjusting to professional life, putting aside time to study can be difficult. Your non-chess playing friends might ask you last minute to catch a drink. Maybe there’s an event happening in the city you want to attend. Or perhaps you need to call your parents tonight because it’s been too long since you last called them. Is there a world in which you can possibly do everything?

I can’t promise the best answers or even enough experience in adulting (don’t forget I’m relatively new at this), but here’s three tips I’ve learned so far this summer:

1) Adjust Your Goals – What’s Reasonable?

This is the toughest pill to swallow, but it’s important to start here. For those of you all who read my articles, you know my career goal has always been breaking 2200 and earning the National Master title. But right now, at least until the start of the fall semester, I’m not in a place where that’s realistic. My new short-term goal is to learn how to find pockets of time to study, while simultaneously keeping chess stress-free.

That being said, it’s also important to not push back your long-term goals too far, or else the instant gratification monkey takes over forever:

So give yourself reasonable deadlines. Since I will graduate (hopefully) in August 2019, my goal is to break 2200 before then, with the understanding that I will have to use my time wisely during the semester. Seeing as I broke 2100 for the first time in October of my freshman year, that gives me more than four years to figure things out (25 points a year, right?). If it doesn’t work out and I’m not particularly close, I plan on taking a short break from actively seeking the title (I’ll still play) and writing a chess book – something I would prefer to do as an NM, but who cares about sequential order?

2) Manage Time Better

A lack of time might be temporary, but managing it is something I need to learn now if I want to become a stronger player. While my move back to Pittsburgh is around the corner, many of my chess friends have now graduated or moved. So with only six planned rated games left this summer, it’s the perfect opportunity for a test-run of independent study before the semester starts.

One thing I’ve started doing is bringing a chess book to work (not openings), and during my thirty minute lunch break, I take 15 minutes to work through it (unfortunately without a board). Doing this means that when I come home, I can spend 15 minutes on tactics, and I’ve already put in 30 minutes for the day. A minimal thirty minutes a day during the work week means two and half hours invested before even making it to the weekend… that’s starting to sound doable!

3) Chess is Hard, But it is NOT Work

You shouldn’t do things that will make your experience with chess more stressful. If you have a full-time job, you don’t need that in your life. Of course, we all have goals we want to reach, so it’s important to break them down into small, manageable pieces.

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View from the Lincoln Memorial.

First, if you have a full-time job, you are not a junior. You’re going to have moments in your life where you can’t dedicate as much time to chess. Maybe you have a really demanding job, or it conflicts with another activity, or perhaps you have kids! That doesn’t mean your goals aren’t attainable, it just means you have to not force your goals to happen to avoid unnecessary stress.

For example, I mentioned earlier that I’m officially 2099. Well, at this weekend’s Potomac Open, you won’t find me in the Open section, not the U2300 section, but yeah – really, the U2100 section. Admittedly, not the most courageous thing I’ve ever done, but tournaments can be kind of expensive, and if you aren’t prepared to play in the Open section, then why blow your paycheck on registration fees and hotels if you’re not going to be happy with the way that you play! Just because you aren’t playing in the Open section doesn’t mean that you are not getting valuable experience.

I’m going into this weekend knowing it won’t be a chance for me to make a monumental step towards master, I just want a chance to engage with chess in a low-stakes environment and see what happens. Regardless of how I do, it’s still something fun and a distraction from work – I’ll learn my lessons and be ready for the next open section.

Closing Thoughts

Having a full-time job and being a competitive chess player isn’t always easy. For me, adjusting from the junior chess mindset is certainly going to be the most challenging hurdle. That being said, it can be done – you just have to know how to study chess smarter… but for most of you reading this, you probably already know this. This is what adulthood (or attempting to adult) looks like kids!

What techniques do you use to budget study time and work? What’s the hardest part about transitioning into adulthood? Leave a comment below! 

Better Position != Winning

I don’t get to play Titled Tuesday much on chess.com.

When I do, I always want to make use of the opportunity to brush off some rust and study new opening ideas.

Here is the Full Game Analysis

blitz5

To summarize:

I played an interesting opening and got what I wanted out of the opening. In the middle game, I had the tide on my side and would have made small improvements to make it less complicated.

When it turned to the endgame and time scramble, nerves got in the way, and I couldn’t finish off the game.

In the end, mission to brush off rust and study new openings were accomplished for this game, but the result was not satisfactory.


This game helped me to feel even stronger about how blitz can help me improve.

For anyone in the Southeast, CCSCATL will have an in-person Blitz Tourney on Saturday, July 21. Hope to see you there!

Accept Draw, Reflect Later?

Unfortunately, useful statistics on draw offers are hard to find, but my guess is that on people believe draw offers are too common, on average. I am inclined to believe this myself, if nothing else because I have noticed a lot of players (at lower levels) accepting draws in clearly better positions. Of course, when we’re at the board ourselves, our perspectives are likely to change as our natural (for many of us) human risk-averseness kicks in. While I was stuck around 2000 USCF, I couldn’t even hold my winning positions against higher-rated players, so it was hard to imagine I could be upset with a draw against anyone 2200+ or so.

That attitude has changed dramatically in the 3 years since. Nowadays, I play more open sections where I’m the underdog, and thus more opponents that are not inclined to draw without a good reason. This occasionally presents some interesting dilemmas.

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Li (2159) – Velikanov (2403)

In this game (March 2018, Chicago), I managed to surprise my much higher-rated opponent in the opening, and he offered a draw in a very difficult position. Against most players, this wouldn’t be much of a decision, but a rare easy draw on move 12 against a 2400 seemed pretty welcoming. Objectively though, White has a huge advantage, and I concluded that if I couldn’t at least draw this position, I didn’t deserve the draw anyway. So I played on, and there were no regrets over that decision, although I royally messed up a 3-pawn-up rook ending later on and had to settle for a perpetual.

However, my fear of messing up such an advantageous position did not come out of nowhere. It’s quite possible that I simply had bad memories of declining a draw only to lose the game later. For example:

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Linde (2096) – Li (2093)

In the deciding game of this team match from the 2017 Pan-Ams, my opponent offered a draw after playing 19. Rd1. Black has avoided serious weaknesses and is getting close to a freeing …d6-d5 break, although that loosens up his pawn structure a bit and requires care. Probably the position is about equal. It came up in our post-mortem that my opponent wasn’t feeling well at the time, which explains the draw offer. Not knowing that, I decided to play on, as I felt pretty comfortable positionally, and I wanted to play a good game after playing mostly way up or way down the whole tournament. Unfortunately, despite taking the advantage late in the game, I blundered a piece in time trouble and lost.

The same scenario would play out twice more during an otherwise stellar 2018. At the Philadelphia Open in March, I decided to press on in a very symmetrical ending against a 2100, only to hang an Exchange and lose. And a month later in a rapid tournament, I declined a draw – and clear first – against a slightly lower rated opponent in a somewhat better position. This backfired yet again when I went on to reverse a winning position by hanging a piece in time trouble!

So by the time summer rolled around, I was feeling pretty cautious about the whole draw offer concept. Especially true at critical moments of the Chicago Open and National Open, which I talked about in my last two posts.

Although I escaped the humiliation of losing after turning down the draw offers, it started to dawn on me that I might have veered too much in the other direction. In the first game, my opponent took a long think before playing 18…Ne5 and offering me a draw, which I accepted despite a better position where he had only 40 minutes left. The second was in someways more questionable. I thought my only option was to repeat with 15…Qa5+ 16. Bb4 Qc7 17. Bd6 and take a draw in a position where my opponent only had 18 minutes. In reality, after 15…Qa5+ 16. Bb4, 16…Qf5 was completely fine (I was worried about my queen being vulnerable on the kingside, but White is not developed enough to exploit this). Unlike the Chicago game, this created some tournament difficulties as I had 2.5/4 and had little room for winning money.

However, in spite of my excessive caution in both games, they exhibit the point that there is often no right answer in these draw offer dilemmas. Giving up a half point, after all, is much less disastrous than giving up a full point, and I ended up surviving both of my decisions, as in Chicago, I was primarily playing for improvement, and in the National Open, I ended up winning the rest of my games to tie for 4th in my section.

For most ambitious and alert players, premature draws clearly should not be too regular an occurrence. But it is always important to keep one’s ambitions in check (as I learned early on!) and realize as I did later, that thinking about draw offers does not have to be agonizing, merely a learning experience. This is, of course, important not only to offering and accepting draws, but to all of chess.

How to Bomb the World Open 101

DISCLAIMER: This article is NOT an endorsement of the strategy exhibited by the author. Furthermore, the author has no intentions of writing a “How to Bomb the World Open 201” article. Ever.

The World Open is one of the largest open tournament in the US, and it’s quite an event. The $20,000 first prize in the open section attracts dozens of GMs whose participation brings norm hunters like me flocking. I was feeling fairly optimistic after three good tournaments in a row, and I was looking forward to playing 9 rounds of good chess, staying near the top boards, and fighting for a GM Norm.

Instead, I followed a different strategy. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Draw the first game
  • Do your best to lose the second game but save it in the end
  • Get destroyed in the third game
  • Do all of that against significantly lower rated opponents
  • Your tournament is ruined in a record 3 rounds, and there’s no need for more butchery
  • You may now resume playing your regular chess

Simple, isn’t it? Here’s how I pulled it off.

In round 1, I got black against Eddy Tian (2223 USCF, 2083 FIDE). I got a comfortable edge out of the opening with black, but I wasn’t able to exploit it.

Tian 1

All of black’s pieces appear to be active and well placed, while the same can’t be said about white’s counterparts. Unfortunately, black doesn’t have a clear plan to exploit them, but white doesn’t have anything convincing either. When my opponent played 26.h4, I decided to open a second front with 26… h6!?. It’s not a bad idea, but I butchered the execution. The game went 27.Re1 g5 28.hxg5 hxg5 29.g4 Kg7 30.Kg2

Tian 2

I thought the natural move 30… Rh8 would be met with 31.Rh1, leading to a rook trade. Black is on top over there, but I thought I had something better. I went 30… e5? with the idea of meeting 31.Rh1 with 31… e4!, after which white’s rook isn’t very useful. However, I ran into 31.Qf5! which is the flaw in my idea. 31… Qxb3!? may be black’s best. Despite being seemingly suicidal, white doesn’t have anything concrete besides taking the g5-pawn which will lead to complications. Instead, the game went 31… e4 32.Nxg5 Qxf5 33.gxf5 Rd5

Tian 3

Black is winning the pawn back, but after 34.f3! he has no advantage. I tried to win for 25 more moves but didn’t get anything concrete. That was a blow to my tournament plan. For one thing, this was going to hurt my opponents’ rating average for norm chances. Still, this was only one game, and I felt I hadn’t played so badly.

I thought my round 2 game against Prateek Mishra (2166 USCF, 1992 FIDE) would be a fairly smooth win, since I had a large rating edge and the white pieces. I was dead wrong. I stumbled into old theory which I had to figure out over the board, and I didn’t do a very good job. To be more precise, I was practically lost my move 25. Eventually we reached this position:

PrateekM

White’s position is on the verge of collapse here, and a lot of moves (32… Rd8, 32… Qxb4, 32… f3, etc.) would’ve finished me off. Fortunately, my opponent let me off the hook by playing 32… Qxd4?. After 33.Qxd4 Rxd4 34.Rxc2 Rxb4 35.Rxc7 white has enough activity to equalize, and the game soon ended in a draw.

This was so not my plan. Half of me was relieved that I hadn’t lost, but  the other half of me was utterly disgusted with myself for playing such an awful game.

In round 3, I got black against Zhaoqi Liu (2381 USCF, 2118 FIDE), and I was desperate to win. Watch me get crushed.

Zhaoqi 1

This position is fairly imbalanced. The d5-square is a juicy outpost for a white knight, but black has the bishop pair and is fairly active. Objectively speaking, white may have a slight edge, but there’s plenty to fight for.

With his last move, my opponent attacked my rook, and I replied with 15… Rd7?. 15… Rde8! was stronger. 16.Qxd6?? loses to 16… c4+, and white will likely play a normal move such as 16.Ng3. But wait, what’s wrong with 15… Rd7? You’ll see…

16.Qf5 hits the rook and clears out the d5-square for the white knight. I replied 16… Qb7, thinking that everything was under control. 17.Nd5?? hangs a piece, and 17.Nf4 is met with 17… Nd4! 18.Qg4 f6, after which black is on top. However, I hadn’t considered my opponent’s next move seriously: 17.Bf6!! was a nasty surprise.

Zhaoqi 2

17… gxf6 is suicide on account of 18.Nd5!, and 17… Bxc3 18.Nxc3 doesn’t seem to help black. Because white is threatening 18.Qg5 with mate coming soon, I played 17… Ne7 which was met with 18.Qg4 Ng6 19.Nf4!

Zhaoqi 3

The second wave of attack comes, and it’s really powerful. Black won’t survive after 19… gxf6 20.Nh5, as on top of everything, white has two knights that can join the melee. What else to do? Next up is 20.Nh5 or 20.Ncd5 smashing my kingside. There was one move that I had, 19… Bxc3!. After 20.Bxc3 I totally hated my position, but after 20… f5!? there may be hope. This was necessary, but I couldn’t get myself to do it. I had gone into a complicated position with the hope of winning, and now I was groveling for chances to stay in the game by move 20!?

After a long think, I played 19… Qc8? which loses fairly quickly. My idea was to trade off queens with Rb7, but that doesn’t help much. After 20.Nd5, I realized that 20… Rb7 runs into 21.Nfxg6 Qxg4 22.Ne7+! winning an exchange, and white has similar alternatives that also win. Therefore, I played 20… Re8 21.Nh5 Rb7, but after 22.Bxg7 I’m dead lost. I decided to allow checkmate by playing 22… Qxg4 23.Ndf6#

Zhaoqi 4

Ouch!! That one still hurts!

I had 1/3, and my tournament situation was awful. I was losing a lot of rating, and of course my norm chances were beyond extinct. I wasn’t playing well at all. I considered withdrawing, but my gut told me not to. I felt that once I got the bug out of my system, my chess would be back to normal.

Fortune smiled down upon me, and I managed to win my next three games which were fairly decent overall. I had 4/6 with 3 rounds to go. This was a fairly decent score by my standards, except that how I got there was the problem. In round 7, I did get a chance to play up against IM Gabriel Flom (2551 USCF, 2515 FIDE). I was hoping to hold my own this game, but things went wrong from the very start.

Flom 1

After an offbeat opening, I thought I should be fine here after the recapture 8.exf4 dxe4. Unfortunately, I completely missed 8.Qg4!, and I quickly realized that I had messed up big time. Black is going to lose a pawn. 8… dxe4 9.Qxg7 Ke7 10.exf4 didn’t look fun to me, 8… 0-0 9.Qxf4 dxe4 10.Qxe4 looks even worse, and 8… g5 is nonsense. My best shot was 8… Bd6! 9.Qxg7 Ke7. Though I’m a pawn down, and my king is on e7, it isn’t that bad for me. I can always trade queens with Qg8. Instead of that, I went 8… Qf6?! which was met with 9.Bxd5! 0-0 10.Qxf4 Qxf4 11.exf4 exd5

Flom 2

Black is a pawn down here, and he has a lot of suffering ahead of him in this endgame. Not surprisingly, I went down. It was really unfortunate that I blundered like this and spent practically the entire game on the back foot. Despite this humiliation, I managed to win two fairly smooth games against 2300+ USCF opponents to finish the tournament with 6/9.

That was actually higher than I’d ever finished at the World Open—in 2016 and 2017 I got 5.5/9. Nevertheless, thanks to my disastrous start, my misadventures cost me quite a few rating points.

My summer adventures continue on the West Coast at the US Cadet which starts tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

GM At Last!

After a long, suspense-filled journey, chess phenom Praggnanandhaa has officially become the second youngest to ever achieve the grandmaster title.  To say the least, it was a very long road.  Nevertheless, the achievement is still magnificent, although possibly bittersweet for him.

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Praggnanandhaa at the 2017 World Junior Championships

Let’s take a trip through time to examine how Praggnanandhaa came to reach such an achievement at this incredibly young age.  Praggnanandhaa first broke onto the scenes as a FIDE Master just before turning 8 years old when he won the U8 Open section at the Asian Youth Chess Championships in 2012.  Fast-forward three years later, and Praggnanandhaa became the youngest-ever International Master in 2016 at the age of 10 years and about 10 months after gaining the third and final IM norm at the KiiT International Chess Festival.  At this point, the chase for the GM title was officially on, and to break Sergey Karjakin’s record at 12 years and 7 months, Praggnanandhaa had about one and three-quarters years to gain three GM norms (performance rating of 2600+) and peak his rating above 2500.  Plausible, right?

The First GM Norm

Praggnandhaa earned his first GM norm at the 2017 World Junior Chess Championships.  This was a big story, but it was probably overshadowed by the potentially bigger story – one that never materialized.  This event was (and still is) one of several around the world that offer immediate titles to the top finishers of each section.  In the top section, the first-place prize was, in fact, an immediate GM title.  Unfortunately, Praggnanandhaa fell half a point short with “only” 8/11.  Still, he had finally gotten the first norm that he needed, and he had about five months to gain two more in order to beat Karjakin’s record.

The Second GM Norm

After winning his first norm in November 2017 and with a large number of events coming up, many believed Praggnanandhaa could feasibly gain his last two norms before March 2018, when he would become the same age as Karjakin when he won his title.  Unfortunately, Praggnanandhaa never seemed to catch a lucky break, and he came very close on many occasions, but could never seal the deal.  Thus, the March 2018 deadline came and passed.  But, it definitely wasn’t the end of the world for him, since Praggnanandhaa still had six months to beat the second-fastest time, which was held by Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan.  Indeed, about a month after the deadline in April of 2018, Praggnanandhaa gained his second GM norm at the 4th Heraklion “Fischer Memorial” GM-Norm tournament, finishing in clear first half a point ahead of the rest of the field.  He only had one more to go.

The Third GM Norm

The band Linkin Park has a song that goes: “Night gets darkest right before dawn / What don’t kill you makes you more strong / And I’ve been waiting for it so long.”  Indeed, that seemed to ring true for Praggnanandhaa, who had one of his worst performances in early June at the Schaakweek Apeldoorn GM tournament in the Netherlands, going a frightening 3/9.  Yet, all seemed to work out in the end, as later in the month, he played in the 4th ad Gredine Open in Italy and captured the last GM norm and the GM title in the 8th round of the tournament.  To put on the finishing touches, he won the last round as well and tied for first place in the end.  A fitting finish.  Congrats to Praggnanandhaa!

While he wasn’t able to break Karjakin’s record in the end, Praggnanandhaa’s journey was still fascinating and fun to follow.  And, what’s bad about being the second fastest to GM?!

Some now even call him the 2nd Tiger from Madras, as his hometown is in Chennai, India, and it happens to be the same as former World Champion Viswanathan Anand.  Those are big shoes to fill, but it seems very possible as he is yet to 13.  Once again, congrats to Praggnanandhaa, and I’ll see you next time!