How To Play Against The Vienna Game

Hello everyone. Today I will be discussing how to play against one of the trickiest openings that I’ve ever encountered and played myself. This opening is known as the Vienna Game. the Vienna starts off with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nc3. In my opinion, the Vienna game is one of the most dangerous openings to play against if you’re unprepared.  Although 2. Nc3 looks fairly harmless, it can be a vicious opening. Let’s look at a sample line to see what I’m talking about.

1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. f4

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Boom! With f4 on the board, things are starting to get exciting. Already at this point, Black really has one move that doesn’t leave him immediately worse.

3. exf4 4. e5!

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exf4 seems natural. A pawn is a pawn, right? This is not the case. Take a closer look at this position. Black already has almost no moves with his knight. The poor knight on f6 has to retreat back to where it started, g8. White might still be down a pawn, but he will get it back easily.

3. Ng8 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. d4

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As we can see, it is a relatively simple task for white to get back his f4 pawn. In addition, white has far superior development, and black’s king is unsafe and will have to deal with a ton of pressure for the remainder of the game.

As we just saw, things can easily turn ugly for black. What is the best move then? While in my practice of playing this opening I mainly see 3. d6 (This move, although better than 3.exf4 still leaves white better as often, white places his bishop on c4, castles kingside, and attacks the black with pawn storms like h3 g4 when possible), the best move is the thematic pawn break, 3. d5!

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Let’s take a look. How does this move work? Mainly due to the king weakness created with f4. By playing f4, White has opened up the sensitive diagonals around his king. By playing d5, black seeks to rapidly open up the position in order to take advantage of this weak king. For example, after 4. exd5 black simply can take back with the knight. After a series of exchanges, black has superior piece development and white has a weak king. Black can simply continue developing his pieces and try to attack the white king.

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If white plays 4. Fxe5 Black now responds with Nxe4.

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As we see in this position, in contrast with the 3. exf4 variation, black’s knight is actively placed, his pieces have a future, and whites king is again weak. Black will often follow up in this position with be7, 0-0, and c5 to control the center. Although the position is still double-edged, black is totally fine and has his own chances as does white.

Another variation is another line a black player should familiarize himself with is 2. Nc6 in response to 2. Nc3. Often, when playing lower rated players, I have found a tendency that when they don’t know what to do, they copy the moves I make. For example, nc6 in response to nc3. Nc6 is a respectable and perfectly playable move. However, things can become tricky after 3. Bc4. Although after 3. Nf6 white has nothing substantial and black is fine, the same cannot be said if black continues to mimic white by going 3. Bc5. After 4. Qg4 it is very awkward for black to defend the g pawn. After the best move, 4. g6, white simply should play 5. Qd1(to avoid any discoveries with the d pawn) and black has serious dark square weaknesses.

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now you might be asking yourself, what happens after 4. Qf6 instead of 4. g6.

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This looks very scary for White. Not only is black defending the g7 square, he is also attacking f2 and threatening d5. However, the threat on f2 is not a problem. White can simply ignore this with nd5! You might be thinking, “Wait WHAT?” after qf2 kd1 it looks scary for white right?

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However, black has no good follow up. Every square around the white King is covered. And black has his own problems. Already, in this position, both c7 and g7 are hanging now.

As we can see, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the many lines of the Vienna game. It’s important to note, the point of this article was not to provide a repertoire against it, rather just to show you the dangers this opening can hold as well as give you some ideas on what positions you should look at. It’s up to you to decide where you continue from here.  I hope by reading this article, you have learned something about the importance of knowing your openings, not just in the Vienna game, but in all openings. Until next time!

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Tragedies of a 1900 Rated Player

I thought for today’s article, I’d look back at one of my games from 2014 (and before) where my opponent played particularly well, and I much less so. I thought this would be a fun exercise, as you all will get an opportunity to learn from my positional and strategic mistakes, and I will try to salvage my position four years later. Hopefully, in analyzing these games, you will be able to see some of the shortcomings of a ~1900 rated player, and avoid the very mistakes that made it difficult for me to break 2000!

I want to review a G/60 game I played in the Kingstowne Chess Club against NM Srdjan Darmanovic back in early 2014. At this time, I had yet to break 2000, and my opponent was mid-2200 strength. When I chose this game for this article, I think the first thing that stuck out for me was my lack of a clear plan for development. Let’s take a look:

Darmanovic, Srdjan – Steincamp, Isaac (Kingstowne Action Plus #98, January 2014)

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. d4 O-O 6. h3

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Position after 6. h3

Based on what I know now about King’s Indian Defense theory, I think it’s fair to say that I was out of book at this point. This h3 variation has gotten a lot more popular in recent years, and is considered an important tabiya for any KID player. White pauses development for a move to prevent various …Bg4 ideas Black may have. Taking away this resource from Black makes it difficult to chip away at White’s space advantage, so Black is already at a crossroads.

6…Nbd7 7. Bg5 h6?!

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Position after 7…h6

I don’t think I would have played 6…Nbd7 if I got that position again, but I would certainly not be an advocate for this approach. White’s bishop will find refuge on e3, and will simply target this h6 pawn for the rest of the game. I think in this position I should have asked myself “What do I want to achieve in this position?” or “Does 7…h6 help me achieve anything?”

With …h7-h6 on the board, it’s easy to see how White benefits, but what does Black intend to do now? When playing the KID, it’s critical that Black not waste time or create unnecessary targets. Black starts out the opening by surrendering the center, and giving White lots of space. So here we understand that on principle, this move fails. A quick look in the database shows only only one GM who played this move, and White went on to win (Bareev-Svidler, 1997).

So what’s a more constructive use of time? I think the most common move, 7…e5 proves to be a lot more versatile. While it may feel awkward to self-pin the f6 knight, Black can always play …Qd8-e8.  With this move, Black finally stakes claim in the center with a normal KID position. Black will need to be creative finding a home for the c8-bishop, but Black should be comfortable here.

8. Be3 e5 9. d5 Ne8?

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Position after 9…Ne8

Too dogmatic! Here I wanted to carry out ….f7-f5 as soon as possible, but I’ve failed to analyze the position for other ideas. For example, after 9…Nc5 10. Nd2 a5, we achieved a position where White stands slightly better, but Black’s pieces are better coordinated:

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Variation after 10…a5

This idea of a forceful …Nc5 followed by …a7-a5 is a powerful one, as it secures an outpost on c5. Should White ever take this knight, Black can recapture with the d-pawn, and bring his f6 knight to d6 via e8. Already, we see the difference in potentiality for Black by comparison. Black hasn’t written off this idea of …f7-f5 yet, but I would have at least been able to place my bishop on d7 to connect my rooks.

10. Qd2 Kh7 11. g4!

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Position after 11. g4!

And now the short-sightedness of Black’s plan is realized. Up to this point, my set-up has the sole goal of advancing with …f7-f5. Because I’ve given White the luxury of space and much better development, my opponent can afford to “weaken” his king for the time being. This move is not the machine’s top pick, but I think for a G/60 time control, White has a significant advantage.

Black needs to shift focus to the queenside with a move like 11…c6, but I opted for the much worse continuation, 11…f5? 12. gxf5 gxf5 13. exf5 Ndf6 14. Qc2 e4?

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Position after 14…e4

In this series of moves, I’ve made numerous positional blunders to continue with my plan. 11…f5 allowed White to open up the position, where White clearly stands better. On the other side of the board, I somehow managed to get a superfluous pair of knights on e8 and f6.

Even worse is the more recent strategic sin, 14…e4?. I should have probably forced myself to stop here and look for some plan to salvage the position, but based on my game notes, this came quickly, with thew idea of opening the g7 bishop. Of course, with every pawn move, two squares grow weaker, and here the d4 square is a prime example. My opponent was quick to play – if I had this position as White, I’d say this is fairly automatic too: 15. Nd4 Qe7 16. Ne6 Bxe6 17. fxe6 Kh8

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Position after 17…Kh8

Visually we see the irreparable damage I’ve brought to my own position. Black has no chance now to be active, and White will simply queenside castle and throw both of his rooks at my king.

The lesson here? Don’t play dogmatically! My play has been influenced by one idea up to this point, but it’s so simple to find ideas outside of the …f7-f5 push. Maybe it’s easier to say this four years later, but perhaps a couple more minutes spent would have yielded more.

White finished the game off quite nicely, but it’s hard to offer anything for Black, so we’ll be moving on. If you want to see the rest of the game, click here.

1900-rated Bonehead Lesson #1: A lot of coaches say focus on concepts in openings over memorization. I think the distinction between that notion and this game was that as Black, I only focused on a singular concept, without adapting to White’s twist on the opening. If you find that the opening you play doesn’t give you that flexibility, you might want to consider looking elsewhere.

1900-rated Bonehead Lesson #2: When things clearly aren’t working slow down and make a plan! In this particular game, this went hand-in-hand with lesson #1, but even beyond the opening, I had several chances to stop and not play …f7-f5 and find other avenues of play.

These things sound really basic for a 1900 to be messing up, don’t they? And they are! What I’ve seen now, four years later, is that when playing sub-2000 opponents, they are susceptible to variations on these kinds of basic planning errors too. Let’s flip the script and I’ll show you what I mean.

In this game, I had Black against a 1900 rated player in the April 2017 First Saturday Tournament in Budapest. My opponent opted for the Scotch, but after a couple moves it became clear he lost his way:

Lukacs, Albert – Steincamp, Isaac (First Saturday Tournament, April 2017)

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d4

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Position after 4. d4

Prior to my trip to Europe, I had switched to 1…e5, so I had to prepare quite a bit beforehand. Luckily for us, I have quite extensive post-game notes on this game:

“Admittedly my knowledge of this version of the Scotch is quite limited. All I remember is White usually avoids this line because Black always has …Bf8-b4 and its inconvenient for White”

So – to be fully transparent, at the time I couldn’t quite remember theory here as well. As I include my game notes, compare the thought process from the first game to sense the difference! Out of book does not mean out of luck!

4…exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 6.f3!?

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Position after 6. f3?!

“I’m on my own here. This seemed dubious, so I thought the simplest
way to play would be for …d7-d5″

And I still don’t like White’s choice – this isn’t really an idea in this line of the Scotch, so my best guess is that White is reacting to the pin on the c3 knight, and didn’t know to play 6. Nxc6, the main line here. Kind of like my move in the last game, …h7-h6, this move can only really help me, the opponent.

I continued with 6…O-O, but as American IM Will Paschall pointed out immediately after the game, I could have just played 6…d5 here with a bit more of an edge.

We played the next sequence of moves reasonably quickly:

7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.Bd3 d5 9.O-O Re8 10.Bg5 Qd6

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Position after 10… Qd6

And here I wrote in my notes:

“I sensed here that the position was roughly equal, but I sensed one of three things would happen: 1) my opponent would prove equality, 2) my opponent will give me a position where I play for two results, or 3) he will blunder in just a few moves”

A little abstract – but now that I’ve had this sense in some of my other games, let me attempt to explain:

White’s position doesn’t make sense. Normally, White would take on d5 and try to play against my dark squares, but opening up the position favors Black – thanks in part to the pawn on f3. I have a couple potential plans here – pushing …d5-d4, breaking the center by trading on e4, or sitting and waiting for White to break the tension. I still need to identify which route I want to pursue, but I have options. But where does White play?

For example, if he continues with 11.Bxf6 Qxf6 12.exd5 Bxc3 13.bxc3 cxd5 I can already play for two results – simplifying now only helps me.

Because White’s development doesn’t suggest an obvious plan, I knew that there was already some pressure on him to respond to my ideas before creating his own. Somewhat surprisingly, he collapsed in 12 moves.

11.Re1 d4 12.a3?!

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Position after 12. a3?!

“The engine’s best move, though during the game it seemed like an admission of guilt”

My opponent spent 25 minutes here, and to only come up with this move was the sign of a trend in my favor.

After the game, my opponent said that he missed the following attempt to defend:

12.e5!? Rxe5 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Ne4 Qe7

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Variation after 14…Qe7

“I saw this position – I thought White had some compensation, but believed I could fend it off. Though if White is to prove equality, this is it”

I would need to see a little deeper to confirm my analysis (specifically 16…Bxc3!), but my position is still on the right track. Black has the bishop pair and is certainly for choice. I continued to analyze the line after the game with an engine and came up with: 15.c3 dxc3 16.bxc3 Bxc3! ( 16…Ba5? 17.f4 ) 17.Nxc3 Qc5+ 18.Kf1 Qxc3

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Variation after 18…Qxc3

And Black nurses a material advantage. There’s still some work to do, but as I said before, I have gotten a position where I can play for two results.

So, back to the game:

12…dxc3 13.axb4 cxb2 14.Ra3?

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Position after 14. Ra3

“The real culprit, the positioning of this rook is particularly unfortunate”

Again, like my 2014 game, White continues to move with a particularly short-sided view. Black not only has the advantage, but gets to dictate the flow of the game.

14…Rb8 15.Qb1 Rxb4 16.Rxa7? Nd5!

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Position after 16…Nd5

This more or less seals the deal, as the threat of Nc3 is incredibly strong. If 17.exd5 Rxe1+ 18.Qxe1 b1=Q-+ and if 17.Bd2 Qc5+! wins a piece after 18.Kf1 Qxa7 19.Bxb4 Nxb4 20.Qxb2 Nxd3 21.cxd3-+

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Variation

My opponent tried to save the game with 17.Ra3 but after 17…Qc5+ 18.Kf1 Nc3 19.Rxc3 Qxc3 20.Ke2 Ra4 21.Bd2 Qa3 22.c3 Be6 0-1 As Black’s b-pawn will promote or be traded for copious amounts of material.

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Position after 22…Be6, 0-1

And so just like the first game, the clearest problem was lack of a clear plan! This is not to suggest that ~1900 rated players aren’t capable of coming up with plans, but it should show you the difference in how to carry out a game. It’s incredibly easy to play artificially, or look for the most aesthetically pleasing move, but it’s another thing to have a deep understanding of the position. Notice some key themes for improvement for both games:

  1. Where do my pieces belong?
  2. Why is this move useful? Do the negatives outweigh the positives?
  3. What are my other options?

I think if the losing side in both games had just asked these simple questions – they would have put up a lot more resistance. I think one of the biggest differences between me as a 1900 and me as a 2000+ rated player is that I’ve had to force myself to open my mind and adapt to other options within a position.

What are some other things that helped you break 2000? Any noticeable changes? Let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for our readers trying to cross the hurdle!

How to Deal with Losing

Fall seven, rise eight

My kid are not playing well. I’m so bad at chess. How can we avoid losing.

These are the comments from parents and chess players alike when the chess journey gets tough with a bad tournament or game.

Parents often ask how can we deal with losing, especially when the younger players cry after games.

When I hear these questions, my response often will be: I hear you, and I can understand your pain for the short term.

However, chess journey is a long game and there are ups and downs for every player.

Let’s first get the painful truth out first.

Losing sucks! No doubt about that. Just ask Magnus about it, this is the best player of our time, and he’s still having trouble handle losing.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about why losing is an important part of the chess journey, and why often losing early can be more beneficial than winning without progress.


If you’re a 2000 rated player, and hypothetically let’s say you can play in the U1200 section.  More likely than not, you’ll be able to win every single game. 

Losing may not be part of the equation in this hypothetical scenario, but will you improve chess skills over 1-year?

Not likely.

Every game, you’re playing weaker players, basically you’re providing training opportunities to the new players.

For anyone to improve, it is necessary to play against stronger players. And each time we jump to a higher section, it is part of the process to struggle against stronger players, but then improve thru the learning experiences.


The Chess Journey is a marathon, and losing in chess sometimes feeling like struggling on the 3rd mile on your first practice run.

That’s why we all need to practice many trial runs before the final marathon run. The first practice will be far from perfect, the second will be a little better, but still long way to go.

However, each time, you’re building stronger muscles physically and mentally, and by the show-time, you’ll be more robust and less likely to be bothered by small aches in the run.

Chess tournaments works the same way, in the first tournament for a child, losing feels like the end of the world.

Then it becomes less annoy, and soon many kids wants to play again especially after a lost because there are more fire in them now.

It’s not easy seeing your child cry from their first loss, but remember many players have the same experiences, I cried twice from chess games when I was younger (details in a future post).

The more a chess player experiences the ups and downs, the better s/he will handle in the future.

Next time you or your child experience a painful lost, please keep below quote in your back pocket.

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

                                                                -Mae West

The Art of Saving Your Skin

When wins slip away, the loser is rarely given much credit for saving the game. This may be justified, as the definition of a “lost position” implies that the winner must have messed up somewhere. But this does not mean the losing player must sit by idly, knowing the game is most likely lost, hoping for the other to mess up. There are specific ways to facilitate that kind of situation.

Of course, it may not be prudent to try too hard to save a truly lost position, and no matter how well one plays, lost positions are – well, lost, and should probably not be saved too often. But even if this only happens once in a while, the half (or full) point gained in the tournament is often significant, as are the rating points one saves from the better result.

More so if you are somehow able to pull this off three times in a row, as I managed to do about two weeks ago. Although the chaos of settling into the Bay Area has mostly pushed chess to the side recently, the area is, put mildly, overflowing with chess tournaments. So for my first weekend here, wanting to take a break from furniture, housing, and job setup, I went up to Berkeley to check out their monthly $50, 5-round weekend FIDE event. And despite being completely lost in three of my four games (I took a half-bye in Round 1 – it’s too hard to drive out of Silicon Valley on a Friday night), I emerged with a score 4/5 for clear first, with FIDE gains to match.

It must be stressed that, as always the case with swindles, there was an element of luck involved. My opponents (2100s USCF) were fairly strong, so I have no doubt that they would have converted these positions in most situations.

In two of my games, I was basically saved by running my opponents down on the clock (maybe if I had spent more time earlier, I could have played better!). In this situation, the conventional strategy is to hope for a more complex position.

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Li – Handigol: after 32. Rd5

In this decisive last-round game (in which I needed a win for first place), I’d spoiled a clear extra pawn and found myself in a losing position. Fortunately, the position was not so simple for Black (who had about 3 minutes to my 19 in this G/90;+30 time control) as the e-pawn dropping would be disastrous.

The upside of this situation is that the winning side (but with lower time) will often veer toward simple and direct moves, potentially overlooking… everything else. That’s not to say I (with a fair amount of time) was immune to this. After the forced 32…Qh4 33. Nd3 e2 34. Nh2, Black played 34…Ne3?! giving me the chance to sacrifice the Exchange with 35. Rxe2 Nxd5 36. Rxe8+ Bxe8.

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Li – Handigol: after 34…Ne3

Although that is objectively much best, I thought Black should be able to convert his slight extra material in that simpler position. Instead, I opted for 35. Rd4?? not realizing 35…Qxe1+! 36. Qxe1 (36. Nxe1 Rf1+ mates) Nxc2 wins. Although perhaps not such a complicated tactic, it’s not the first thing that came to Black’s mind with a minute on the clock. In the end, Black ducked with 35…Qh5? 36. Qd2 Bxd3? 37. Qxd3 and I was soon able to round up the e2-pawn with an easy win.

In Round 2, where my opponent also failed to convert a win in time trouble, it was enough for me to get to an ending that was comfortable, but not quite better for me.

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Canessa – Li: after 23. b4

After some earlier miscalculations, I found myself getting steamrolled in the center and on the queenside. At the same time, I had some counterplay, with …g5-g4 to come. Would it be enough? Probably not, I figured, but with 30 minutes to my opponent’s 10, there was no reason not to try.

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Canessa – Li: after 33…Qh7

The situation changed dramatically over the next few moves. With my opponent having only 2 minutes left, I was hopeful that my threat of 34…Rh8! 35. Bxh8 Qh2+ would keep me in the game. But had White found 34. Rd1! threatening 35. Nxa7#, I would have been a step behind. Instead, White hastily plowed ahead with 34. Nxa7+ Kd7 35. Rd1+ Ke8 36. Bf4, which is of course completely winning, but led to 36…e5 37. Bxe5 Bg5.

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38. Bf4+ wins rather easily. But at long last, White finally cracked with 38. Bf6+?? Be3+ overlooking check. White doesn’t quite lose his queen for nothing: 39. Qxe3 Nxe3 40. Rd8+ Kf7 41. Rd7+ Kg6 42. Rxh7 Kxh7 wins it back and leaves White with some pawns to compensate for the Exchange, leaving a dynamically equal (according to the engines) ending. But practically speaking, White’s fragile queenside pawns are not easy to hold, and with one minute left, White could not hold against my extra Exchange.

But those games were nothing compared to my lone draw, in Round 2. If completely lost wasn’t bad enough, try completely lost down time. A simple oversight early on left me in a tough position and scrambling for time for the remainder of the game.

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Kim – Li: after 17. Qh5

I hastily played 17…g6, thinking I would follow up soon enough with …Nf3+ with favorable trades. Until I realized 18. Qh6 threatened my rook on f8, and left me in a rather terrible position after 18…Rd8 19. Kh1 Qg7 20. Qh4.

In a position with so many issues (the pin, the dark squares in general, a looming f4-f5, and time), it’s important to know when to jettison material for relief or counterplay. After 20…Be6 21. f4 Kg8 22. f5 I was not in the mood to bunker down and hope White didn’t crash through, so I decided to sacrifice the Exchange with 22…Nxf5. White could accept with 23. Qxd8+ Rxd8 24. Bxg7 Nxg3+ 25. hxg3 Rxd3, but Black’s bishop pair will provide good compensation in the ending.

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Kim – Li: after 22…Nxf5

Understandably, White saw a brighter future in 23. Bxf5 Qxb2 24. Bxe6 fxe5 25. Ne4. Such a dangerous position would have been a good time for lots of concrete calculations, but I figured that with 20 minutes left, I might regret that decision later. So I went with my intuition, which was to finally take care of the systemic dark-square weaknesses on the kingside, 25…Bd4.

Matters improved greatly over the next few moves until I tried to be clever (a terrible idea in a dangerous position with little time). This culminated in 26. Ng5 Rd7 27. Rab1 Qxa3 28. Rf3 Bc3? threatening the cute 29…Qxb4. Never mind that I was on the run again after 29. Qc4 Rad8 30. Qxe6+ Kg7.

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I was very lucky that my opponent eschewed 31. Qxd7+! Rxd7 32. Ne6+ with mate next move (it happens!). Unfortunately, his continuation of 31. Rf7+ Rxf7 32. Qxf7+ Kh6 was still quite winning. However, instead of the simple 33. h4 threatening mate next move, he gave me an opening with 33. Ne6 Qxb4!. I would say that it is again important to have a feel for when to sacrifice material – White continued with 34. Qf1 with the dual threat of Rxb4 and Nxd8. But in this case everything else simply got mated – not much choice there.

However, the resulting ending turned out to be far from simple for White to win. The ending was undoubtedly scary to hold as Black with little time (by now about 5 minutes), but White’s bank rank proved surprisingly problematic.

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Kim – Li: after 37…Qd2

Ordinarily, Black should worry about losing the c3-bishop to forks, but White’s checks are largely useless, as any scenario winning the bishop (unless with check) allows mate on the back rank! g3 and h3 don’t help – the former gets bombarded with checks, and the latter gets hit with …Be5 when White’s queen and rook definitely should not leave the back rank. White played on for about 15 more moves, but burned a lot of time in the process and eventually agreed to a draw.

It must be reemphasized that a losing position is a losing position, and there is always some luck involved to execute these swindles. But it doesn’t have to be a passive effort, and if you take the time and energy to save a few games, you might just surprise yourself!

Rating Is Just A Number

Have you ever asked your opponent, what’s their chess rating? By definition, a chess rating is a system used to estimate the approximate strength of a chess player based on their performances in tournaments, games, and likewise. However, often, chess players will take rating too far to either overestimate or underestimate their opponents. My goal today is to explain to you why this is a bad idea and how to get out of this mindset.

It’s generally not a good idea to judge someone based purely based on their rating, after all, it is really only an estimate and not a true indicator of their actual strength. This may seem like common sense, yet I see both kids and adults at tournaments when looking at their pairings either relax or start stressing when they see that their opponents are either much lower are much higher rated than them. Why do we do this? Let’s get into it. Often, when chess players see their opponent’s rating two things might happen, cockiness or fear. Either the higher rated opponent sees someone 200+ points lower than them and starts relaxing and estimating how long it will take him to win, or the lower rated opponent starts brainstorming how many moves he thinks he can last against his godly higher rated opponent. As we can see, in both cases, the difference in rating is what causes these feelings of overconfidence or fear to occur. However, there is no reason why a chess player should feel these things. While statistically speaking the higher rated player should win every time, this by no mean happens. Higher rated players get “upset” all the time. One might even argue that part of the reason why higher rated players get upset is because they underestimated their lower rated opponent.

It takes a lot of practice to avoid getting out of these mindsets, but the first step is to stop seeing rating as a sign of how you think your game is going to turn out. Instead, treat rating just like a number. It’s okay to know the rating of your opponent, but you should come into each game prepared for a fight regardless of your opponent’s rating. If you’re a higher rated chess player playing a lower rated opponent, it’s important to give the respect your opponent deserves. You should come to the game confident in your chances to win, but should not come into the game expecting a massacre. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you’re the lower rated playing someone much higher rated than you, it’s important not to overestimate your higher rated opponent. They are human too, and as long as you believe in yourself and your chances, anything is possible.  

A final topic I should discuss related to rating is how chess players judge themselves because of their rating. As I discussed in my last article covering chess plateaus, chess players often judge themselves based on their rating, and again, this should not be the case. It’s easy to be upset at yourself if you’re lower rated and wanting to become higher rated. However, these things take a lot of time and practice. Instead, it’s important to enjoy the playing aspect of chess and not pay too much attention to your rating. As long as you have fun playing chess, and put in the appropriate work, your rating increase will come in no time.

And that’s all of my thoughts for this week. If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll try to respond as soon as I can. See you next week!

 

How to Miss a GM Norm by a Whisker, Part 1

Well, I was hoping for a different headline, but let’s start from the beginning…

The Washington International is a very nice tournament. All equipment is provided, pairings are put up early, and the atmosphere is very pleasant. Also, the field was very strong. This year, there were over 20 GMs playing, making it one of the strongest Swiss tournaments in the US! With a “modest” FIDE rating of 2402, I found myself barely in the top half. For norm-hunters, this was paradise.

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Yours truly in action! Photo by MD Chess.

For those of you who may not be familiar with norms, here’s a little crash course. To get a GM Norm you have to:

  • Play a tournament with at least 9 rounds (and take no byes)
  • Achieve a 2600+ FIDE performance rating (it’s 2450+ for IM Norms, 2400+ for WGM Norms, and 2250+ for WIM Norms)
  • Play at least 3 GMs (for IM Norms, it’s 3 IMs)
  • Play at least 5 titled players (CM and WCM don’t count for that)
  • Play at least 4 players not from your federation OR play in a tournament that is a Super Swiss (meaning there are 20+ foreigners, 10+ of which are GMs, IMs, or WGMs)

To earn the GM title, you need 3 norms (one of which has to be from a 6+ day tournament) and a 2500+ FIDE rating. I already have one GM Norm.

To earn the IM, WGM, or WIM title, you also need 3 norms and a FIDE rating of at least 2400/2300/2200 respectively.

Back to my tournament. In round 1, I was black against Eugene Yanayt (2200 USCF, 2081 FIDE), and I came close to not winning. Sounds familiar?

Yanayt 1

I had gotten an edge with black, but it only amounted to this. This endgame is a draw, and I hope you knew that. However, there are practical winning chances, and I got lucky this time around. My opponent played 34.h5?. This appears to be a move in the right direction, but it doesn’t work out. After a  move like 34.Kg2 or 34.Ra6, I probably would’ve gone 34… h5 myself, after which I’d have to magic my way to victory.

The game went 34… gxh5 35.Rh6 h4! 36.gxh4 Rg4+ 37.Kh2

Yanayt 2

I was eyeing the idea of just pushing … a4 and defending my pawn from the side which is a common idea in this type of endgame. White won’t have such an easy time there. Then I spotted another idea: 37… Rg6!. If 38.Rxh7, I’ll get my rook behind my pawn with 38… Ra6. The white rook has to rush back to stop the pawn. Though white has grabbed the h7-pawn, I felt I should be winning in the ensuing position with the white rook on a2 and black pawn on a3. My opponent helped me a bit when he played 37.Rh5?!, gifting me an extra tempo after 37… Ra6. I won a few moves later. Phew…

In round 2, I got white against GM Julio Becerra (2604 USCF, 2529 FIDE). This game didn’t quite go according to my plan. I misplayed the opening/early middlegame and got worse. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything serious, and I successfully held. I was totally fine with a draw. At this early point in the tournament, my job was to hang in there and keep facing good opposition—this tournament was strong enough that a massive score wouldn’t be necessary.

In round 3, I got black against GM Andrey Stukopin (2672 USCF, 2598 FIDE). This was a tough pairing, but I actually held with black without too much difficulty. Here’s a little snapshot of the game:

Stukopin 1

I’ve got the b-file for myself, and white’s pieces are strangely placed. However, white is threatening f4, trapping my knight, and white will try to generate play in the center. I could go 21… Qa4 to meet 22.f4 with 22… Nd7, but in the past couple moves, I had just moved my knight from d7 to e5. True, I had misplaced white’s rooks, but was it really worth those tempi? Instead of doing that, I chose a more active path: 21… f5!? 22.f4 Ng4

Stukopin 2

If white goes 23.Bxg4 fxg4 24.e4, I should be able to hold my kingside together, maybe by going Qa4-d7. I’ve got the b-file, and I should be all right. Instead, the game went 23.e4 Qe3+ 24.Kf1 Qxe2+ 25.Rxe2 Rb7, and after 26.exf5 we agreed to a draw. The position is approximately equal. Though it may not have been objectively best, 21… f5 set the tone of how I wanted to play this tournament. The more energetic, the better.

So far so good! Last year I also started 2/3, winning my first game and drawing the next two, but then I lost my 4th round game. This seriously hurt my norm chances, possibly beyond repair, and I got to play down the next round. I didn’t want the same thing to happen this year.

I got white against GM John Burke (2615 USCF, 2526 FIDE). We’d already played 7 times before then (my score was 6 draws and 1 loss). From an aesthetic point of view, the game was special. I could probably write an article just about this game. Out of the opening, I got a little edge—more like a pull to be precise. Here’s where it started getting good for me…

Burke 1

White has the bishop pair. Black’s knight on d4 looks nice, but it’s… stuck! It can’t go anywhere. Trust me, there’ll be a lot more of that to come. Black may want to open things up with 22…b5 and hope for the best, or there’s 22… a6 preparing b5. White nonetheless has a slight edge. Instead, John chose a different path: 22… Rd6?!. If I go 23.Ba4, my bishop will get harassed after 23… Ra6. Not a good idea. Instead, I immediately hit the b7-pawn with 23.Rb1, and black’s only convenient way of defending it is 23… Rb6. I responded with 24.Rxb6 axb6 25.a4

Burke 2

If that knight wasn’t stuck on d4 before, it sure is now. How about that? A knight on d4 that can’t move anywhere. But can white win? That is the question. I’m not sure, but white sure has very big winning chances in a practical game and will never ever lose this one. A few moves later, we reached this position.

Burke 3

What happened over the past few moves is rather self-explanatory. I further prevented f4 with g3, we traded rooks on the e-file, and I brought my king to d3 where the action is. My masterplan was to open things up with a g4 breakthrough at some point. John therefore decided to go 33… h5, and I replied with 34.h4. Now I have another winning plan: invade on the dark squares with my king. If that fails, I can always go f3 and g4 and engineer a breakthrough. In simple English, this is free torture for me. The game went 34… Bf6 35.Bf4 Be7 36.Ke3

Burke 4

36… Bf8! would’ve prevented my king from infiltrating for reasons I’ll explain soon. Naturally, I’ll still have excellent winning chances there. John’s move 36… Bf6? was actually a losing mistake. I played 37.Bb8!, and that seals black’s fate. If 37… Kc8, I have 38.Ba7 Kc7 39.a5! bxa5 40.Bxc5, and black’s knight is trapped! That’s why the black bishop had to be on f8 so that it could defend the c5-pawn. John had to go back with 37… Be7, but after 38.Kf4, my king is through, and it can’t be pushed out. I soon won the game. 3/4! Not bad!! At this point my performance crossed 2600+ FIDE, and I could start aiming to get a norm instead of just hanging in around the top.

In round 5, I got black against GM Sergei Azarov (2669 USCF, 2574 FIDE). I was doing fine with black up until a point, and then I got a little worse, and then…

Azarov 1

White has more space here, and my knight is fairly passive on f7. Still, it’s not clear how white gets through. White’s last move 30.h4 is tricky, as he’s trying to gain territory on the kingside. I should’ve gone 30… h6 or 30… g6 to prevent or reduce the power of Ng5. I was worried these moves would soften up my kingside in case of a Rh1-h3 rook lift, but I should be able to hold anything together. Instead, I naively played 30… Ra8? which was met with 31.Ng5!. After 31… Nxg5 32.hxg5 I had a decision to make.

Azarov 2

I could go active with 32… Ra2, but I wasn’t feeling confident at all about the endgame after 33.Rh1 Rxf2 34.Rxh7 Rxg2 35.Rxg7+. Though material is equal, white’s king is closer to the action, his g-pawn is a stronger passer, and my e6-pawn is awkwardly weak. Not my idea of fun. Instead, I chose to go 32… Rh8 33.Rh1 h5

Azarov 3

Here’s where I could’ve gone down. 34.gxh6! was strong. I, however, thought that the pawn endgame after 34… Rxh6 35.Rxh6 gxh6 was fine for me, missing that white wins after 36.Ke3 Kc6 37.Kf4 Kb5 (37… h5 38.Kg5 is no good either) 38.g4 fxg4 39.Kxg4 Kc4 40.f4 Kxc3 41.f5, where white will queen and black won’t. Therefore, 34… gxh6 was my best reply, but there, my rook will have to babysit the h6-pawn for quite a while. That wasn’t part of my plan. Fortunately, after 34.Kc2? g6, I was completely fine. I have no structural weaknesses, my rook is free to go, and white can’t break through on the kingside. The game was soon a draw, without any further adventures.

This is as good a moment as any to take a break. I was at 3.5/5. I admittedly did get a bit lucky, but I was playing very good chess. What more could I want? The answer was of course a GM Norm. I had a solid 2600+ FIDE performance, but I had plenty of tough opposition ahead of me.

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover my last four rounds full of adventures, blunders, and missed opportunities, and my downfall in the end.

Moving Cities, Moving Focus

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Homemade ramen!

So that’s it for the summer! After spending three months in Washington DC, I’ll be hauling boxes and moving back to Pittsburgh to complete my senior year at Pitt. While I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly ambitious student, I’m actually looking forward to the semester and graduating within a year. Not to mention (and no apologies or remorse here), I like living in Pittsburgh a lot more than Northern Virginia and DC, and I’m going to need that last dose of Pens before I graduate.

Beyond my course load, I’ll have a lot of activities on my agenda: writing articles here, getting the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers prepared for 2019, enhancing my chessTV stream, to name a few. Despite all of the distractions, I have yet to lose sight of my ultimate goal of making National Master, and thought this week would be a great chance to give you guys a check-in on my progress.

Last month, I shared some thoughts on balancing work and chess, and discussed how I’m setting myself a deadline to break 2200. Shortly after publishing the article, I received a lot of positive feedback from you all, more so than any other article I’ve written for Chess^Summit (that’s over 260!). It was incredible to hear how some of you overcame obstacles in your lives to reach various milestones in chess (ratings, committing to playing more often, reading chess literature), and your feedback helped me understand that as I transition to adulthood, I’m not alone in this process and I have a lot to fight for going forward.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been focused on improving my mental toughness to prepare for my next tournament in September. While I feel like I have a lot to work on to reach my best form, I’ve zeroed in on my calculation and endurance because I want to build good habits and routines before my fall semester begins.

Endurance and stamina at the chess board are directly related, and thus I’ve been focused on running a few times a week as the summer comes to a close. Building time in your schedule to exercise is tough, and though I previously managed to squeeze in a jog once a week, I haven’t pushed myself this much athletically since the build up to the 2016 US Junior Open… that’s a long time. Jorn already talked about the direct benefits exercising extensively in his article on Monday, so I’ll just say this:

I think what makes running a unique exercise for chess is that you get test your psychological limits and face them head on. I’m not going to pretend to be a marathon runner or anything here, but when you’re running, there’s almost always a moment where your brain says “that’s enough” or “it’s hot outside, I don’t want to do this” or “maybe tomorrow”, you get the idea. Health precautions aside, fighting your initial instincts to relax and stay indoors is the same kind of psychological opponent you face at the chessboard: you. We actually see this kind of ‘psychological laziness’ all the time, for example, when players stop pushing an advantage to offer a draw, or more commonly, players dismissing a line altogether because it is simply “too complicated”. Running alone won’t fix this problem, but it gives players a chance to isolate this psychological element from chess and really try to beat it head on.

51wzmocps5l-_sx359_bo1204203200_My work with calculation is a lot more concrete in terms of chess development. Per my coach’s recommendation, I’ve been working through Romain Edouard’s Chess Calculation Training book, and while I have yet to read enough of it to make a bonafide recommendation, it’s been a lot of fun using it so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas and patterns lie ahead.

Since we don’t do a lot of tactical work here on Chess^Summit, I thought it would be fun to try something new for today’s article. I’ll post a tactical puzzle and walk through me solving it in “real-time”. As you’re reading this, I’m looking at the position for the first time too. Then, after reaching a satisfactory answer, I’ll reveal the solution and discuss where I could improve from the calculation process. Imagine Jeremy Silman’s Amateur’s Mind (also a great read), but instead of talking to his students, he’s talking to himself – I guess that’s what I’m going for. Let’s begin!

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Rasmussen – Rydstrom, White to Move

Thinking: So off the bat, I really like White’s position. Visually, White has more space and there’s a lot more potential when it comes to piece play. All of White’s pieces look like they are in the best squares, so the logical place to start is forcing moves. I see two that I’ll start out with, and I’ll expand my list after that if I don’t find a satisfactory answer: 24. Nf6+ or 24. Bxf7+. I’ll work through them in this order.

24. Nf6+ forces 24…gxf6 otherwise the queen will be lost. Now that there’s a wide open king, it’s time to look for ways to continue the line. 25. Qh7+ and 25. Qg6+ are the only true forcing moves, and since checking on h7 is not going to work, I’m going to throw it out. 25. Qg6+ on the other hand, is interesting. If Black plays 25…Bg7 26. exf6 comes with mate on the next move since Black can’t defend the bishop or break the pin on f7. So 25..Kh8 is forced. 26. Bf7 threatens mate on g8 and holds the f8 bishop accountable for the h6 pawn to prevent mate, so 26…Bg7 seems forced. We could take the rook on e8, but then we’re down two bishops for a rook!

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Position in my line after 26…Bg7

But I have one other forcing option, 27. exf6, since it once again threatens mate on g7. Black cannot take the pawn since that allows 28. Qxh6#. So 27…Rg8, only move 28. fxg7+ Rxg7 29. Qxh6+ Rh7 30 Qf6+ Rg7 after which my intention was originally to play 31. Re3 (threatening a check on h3), but the bishop is hit on f7, so White needs to be accurate. 31…Qxf7 32. Rh3+ Kg8 33. Qxd8+ Qf8 34. Rh8!+ Kxh8 35. Qxf8+ and White is clearly winning:

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Position after 34. Rh8+, White is winning!

So this was pretty convincing. Black could have diverted from the line by taking on f7 with the queen, but that certainly doesn’t help his cause. Time to look at the other line.

24. Bxf7+. This is also pretty forcing, Black needs to take back to not lose material, so I’m going to analyze 24…Qxf7 before looking at other options like 24…Kxf7. After the Black queen takes, we see that ideas like 25. Ng5 don’t work, thanks to the pawn on h6. So it looks like we have a winner:

24. Nf6+ fxg6 25. Qg6+ Kh8 26. Bxf7 Bg7 27. exf6 Rg8 28. fxg7+ Rxg7 29. Qxh6+ Rh7 30. Qf6+ Rg7 31. Re3 Qxf7 32. Rh3+ Kg8 33. Qxd8+ Qf8 34. Rh8!+ Kxh8 35. Qxf8+

Reading the answer: The answer gives up to 27. exf6+-. For the sake of this article, I checked the engine, and it said I was basically right on, except it gave preference to 31. Rf3 …I’ll explain in a second why. This was a reasonably difficult puzzle because 26. Bxf7 isn’t an obvious move (as compared to Qxf6+ in that position – keep in mind I didn’t put the diagrams until after solving the puzzle!), and psychologically, I had to push myself once I realized my bishop on f7 was hanging after 31. Re3 by not giving up the line entirely.

Take away: On a whole, not too bad on my end. I think my biggest self-criticism here was I needed to find one more resource for Black instead of 31…Qxf7:

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Position after 31…c4

I should have considered this move 31…c4 because it’s the last way for Black to stop Rh3+ thanks to the pin on g2 after 32…Qxh3. Unsurprisingly White is still winning here – 32. Rg3 Qxf7 33. Qxd8+ and there’s a win after 33…Qg8 34. Qh4+ Qh7 35. Qf6

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Position after 35. Qf6 +-

When I saw this, I thought, “if only my f1 rook were on e1!” – and that’s where it all connected. Remember how I said the engine gave preference to 31. Rf3 instead of 31. Re3? This is why! Had I left my rook on e1 instead of rover-ing it via e3, I’d actually have that rook on e1 in this position. I could go back and analyze the same lines, with the difference being 31. Rf3. In this endgame, it really doesn’t matter so much, but this turned out to be a really cool example of comparing moves.

So I guess that’s two takeaways:

  1. Look for tricky ideas for your opponent beyond the most testing lines.
  2. If time permits, compare maneuvering options.

This seems pretty manageable, and it should be. All this process did was help me find where I was subconsciously cutting corners.

As the summer comes to a close, I’ll continue working through these tactics one-by-one to get mentally sharper for this fall’s tournaments. What are you all working on to improve your chess? Let me know in the comments below!