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.
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?
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
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:
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
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…
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
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.
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
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…
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.
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
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.