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!

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