How to Miss a GM Norm by a Whisker, Part 2

When we left off in part 1, I had 3.5/5 and was having an amazing tournament. Next up was getting a norm…

In round 6, I got white against GM Niclas Huschenbeth (2639 USCF, 2590 FIDE). I went for an ambitious and risky opening, and it worked out beautifully. I was winning after 20 moves.

Huschenbeth 1

Here, I missed the killer 21.Rxd5!, which is completely winning. 21… Nxd5 loses the queen to 22.g4, so black must go 21… Rxd5 22.exd5, after which he cannot effectively cover his e7-pawn. He’s dead lost. Instead, I played 21.g4? Nxg4 22.Bxe5 Nde3 23.Bb2 Nxd1 24.Qxd1, after which I still had a huge edge…

Huschenbeth 2

A few moves later we reached this position. I had played very well over the past few moves, but here my play was a bit too fancy. White’s simplest plan is to play 39.c4! and bring the king up, since black is more or less paralyzed! His king is stuck on the h-file, his knight is the b6-pawn’s only shield, and his rook is vital to the defense of the e7-pawn. Instead, I fancily went pawn hunting with 39.Bg8+ Kh8 40.Be6 Kh8 41.Bg8+ Kh8 42.Be6 Kh7 (I naturally repeated once) 43.Bg4, with the idea of relocating the bishop to d3 and winning the h6-pawn. Though this is probably still winning, it isn’t the easiest.

Huschenbeth 3

After another streak of playing high-quality chess, we reached this rook endgame. White is a pawn up, and his hopes lie in winning the queenside pawns. The simplest way to accomplish that is 54.Kc4!, which just wins. I had been worried about 54… Kg5, but 55.Kb5 Kxh5 56.Rxb6 leads to a winning pawn endgame, though 56.c4! may be even simpler. 55.Kd5!? should win as well. Long story short, everything wins there! Instead, in the heat of the battle, I irrationally played 54.b4? Rc6+ 55.Kb3 axb4 56.Kxb4 e5

Huschenbeth 4

Yeah, those split pawns really aren’t that effective… White may still be able to eke out a win after 57.h6 Kg6 58.c3! (not the logical move 58.c4 because it takes the square away from his king), but this has turned from a routine technical job into an endgame study. My next move 57.Rf8+? is completely pointless and blew all winning chances. After a few moves, we drew.

Aargh!!! True, I had gotten a bit lucky in the first half of the tournament, but there hadn’t been anything this crazy. Anyway, my performance was still 2620+, and there were three rounds to go. Not long after the end of this game, I saw that I’d get black against GM Sam Sevian (2741 USCF, 2645 FIDE) the next day. This wasn’t my dream pairing, but it sure helped my average rating. I didn’t have to worry that a series of draws would dip my performance below 2600.

After a lousy night’s sleep, it was game time. Despite my big miss the previous night, I played well. A topsy-turvy fight ended in a threefold repetition after the time control. There was one point where I was in trouble, but besides that it was all right. Yay!! When drawing a 2645 GM decreases your performance slightly, you know you’re doing something right!

In round 8, I got white against GM Josh Friedel (2638 USCF, 2553 FIDE). Now, two rounds to go. It looked like I’d need 1.0/2 to get a norm. So what was the masterplan? 2 draws? Well I couldn’t count on that one, since drawing with black against a ~2550 GM in the last round was NOT a guarantee by any means. Okay, I could get to play someone weaker than that. And who knows, maybe they’d switch my colors, and I’d get white again. Then again, winning this game would clinch the norm, and why not try to win?

I wanted to fight it out just like I had been doing the entire tournament. If it was a draw in the end, no problem. At least I tried. I settled on getting whatever slight edge I could out of the opening and milking it.

Here’s a comprehensive summary of what happened:

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Naturally, I’ll show you the positional mishap and the unsound active defense.

Friedel 1

At this point, the position is approximately equal. Black is going to go …c5 next to solve his problems with his bad knight on a5. I should’ve just settled for something like 15.Nd2, just trading pieces. When he plays …c5, I’ll just capture without any problems. Instead, I naively played 15.b4?!. My plan was to meet 15… c5 with 16.bxc5 bxc5 17.dxc5, where black is left with an isolated d-pawn. I was aware that I had very little in the ensuing position, but I wanted to give it a ride because why not. Unfortunately, I got hit with 15… b5!. …c5 isn’t going to happen. Black will install a knight on c4. Oops.

There are several things I’m kicking myself about in this game. The first is allowing 15… b5. The second is overreacting to it. Sure, I like black’s position there, but he probably doesn’t have an objective edge—which I generously gave him when I decided to bail out.

Friedel 2

Here’s where I ended up a few moves later. It’s queen + knight vs. queen + bishop, and in this case, the queen and knight are the better combo. In fact, my bishop really isn’t good for much besides babysitting my b4- and d4-pawns. A queen trade not involving a change in pawn structure would be a disaster for white, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that position is objectively lost. Naturally white isn’t forced to trade queens, but that’s a danger he should keep in mind.

Black doesn’t have that much in the way of concrete plans. He’ll try poking around on the queenside, and if that isn’t successful, maybe he’ll go h5-h4 to gain some ground on the kingside. Who knows? He could do anything. White’s best policy here is probably to sit tight. His position should hold together, though it won’t be fun at all.

However, passive defense isn’t the easiest thing for humans, and there have been countless examples where passive defense has led to disaster. And to my credit, what I did almost works—but almost isn’t enough. I went 34.Bf4!? Nd5 35.Bd6. My idea was naturally to win the c6-pawn, and I thought black had nothing better than a perpetual. The game went 35… Qd3 36.Qxc6 Qd2+ 37.Kg1?. The “?” is from an objective standpoint, since my silicon friend tells me that white isn’t lost after 37.Kg3 Ne3 38.h4!, but it’s very shaky. Anyway, back to the game, which went 37… Ne3 38.f4 Qe1+ 39.Kh2 Nf1+ 40.Kg1 Ng3+ 41.Kh2 There’s no mate on h1, and white has a Qc8-f5-c8 perpetual check if black’s knight strays away. Everything appears to be defended, but there’s a little loophole:41… h5!.

Friedel 3

Black has a simple plan of cementing his knight with …h4 and following it up with Qh1#. There’s nothing I can do about it. If 42.h4, black’s knight will come to g4 via the Nf1-Ne3 merry-go-round. 42.f5 is useless since 42… h4 43.Bxg3 hxg3# is mate. The f5-square is covered so there’s no perpetual. I played 42.Qc8+ Kh7 43.Be7, but that was more of an excuse not to resign immediately than anything else. My bishop bit the dust, and black’s queen came back once more to mate me.

Ouch!! Another painful realization was that in the last round, it was possible I wouldn’t even play someone high enough for me to get a GM Norm. Playing a 2465+ was more or less guaranteed if I won/drew, but a loss didn’t cut it. What had I done???

Fortunately, I got lucky with the pairings. In the last round, I got white (yay!) against GM Isan Ortiz Suarez (2692 USCF, 2549 FIDE), who was having a rough tournament. I needed to win this game to get a norm, and I was going all-in. No doubt about it.

I did get outprepared in a sharp Sicilian, but I achieved what I wanted: a complicated position. And it wasn’t even objectively bad for me. I did miss one strong move/idea, but it was hard to see, and missing something like that isn’t unusual for a Sicilian slugfest. What I went for was very sharp, and I ended up in a situation where the most principled—and strongest—continuations would likely boil down to a perpetual check. I didn’t want that and spiraled downward instead…

Ortiz Suarez 1

White is in huge trouble here. His king is getting swarmed with pieces. The e2-pawn is a nasty thorn. White has no real counterplay. Everything is awful. I’m dead after just about anything: 30… h5, 30… Rc8, 30… Nb5, etc. Fortunately, my opponent let me back into the game with 30… Nd1+?. After 31.Rxd1 exd1=Q 32.Rxd1 Bxb6, I was happy with the change because a) I’m not dead, b) I’m only down a piece for two pawns, c) I have actual play here, and d) I’m not dead. I was even happier when I found the strong move 33.Rd6!

Ortiz Suarez 2

Black’s is having a few coordination issues here. If 33… Bc7 or 33… Bd8, 34.Rd7! will win since black can’t save himself with 34… Bc8. What else does black have here? Oh boy, I’m actually better here!! As my opponent was thinking and thinking on his next move, I was getting more and more excited. He played 33… Ba5. 34.Qa4! Qc7 35.b4 is objectively best. Black can’t hang on to the bishop, and after 35… Bxb4 36.Qxb4 Bxg2, white is slightly better. Instead, I played 34.b4?!, which I had prepared while he was thinking on his previous move. He replied with 34… Rb8?! (34… Bc8! is stronger, but it’s legitimately difficult to figure out what’s wrong with …Rb8)

Ortiz Suarez 3

Instead, 35.e6! Qg7+ 36.Qd4 was strong, though there’s a key detail, which I’m not sure I would’ve seen. Black appears to be holding everything together after 36… Bc8 37.c3 Qxd4+ 38.Rxd4 Rb7, but 39.Rd6! (not the easiest move to see from a distance) is very strong. Black is going to lose a bishop with his bad coordination. White will have excellent winning chances in the ensuing endgame. The simpler 35.c3 is also not a bad move, after which white isn’t worse at all.

Nerves, stress, tunnel vision, and an emotional rollercoaster cannot excuse what I did next: 35.bxa5????. Even after I played it, I didn’t see what was coming. 35… Bc8+ was a cold shower, and I resigned on the spot.

What happened?

That’s a hard question. Though I don’t have the full answers, here are my conclusions so far.

In rounds 1-5, I had a few shaky moments, but I played well overall and held my own. Round 6 was a huge miss where I played very well but got caught in the heat of the battle and lost my mind when I played 54.b4?. Round 7 was an excellent game where I held my own against a 2600+ GM. Then norm thoughts and fatigue started creeping into my head and really messed with my decision-making in my 8th round fail. I was just too naïve and unrealistic there. My last round was, well, a mess. I’ve been in and will be in must-win last round games, and they aren’t easy—especially with a GM Norm at stake.

If you think I’m upset about the tournament as a whole just because of the finish, you’re wrong. I played great chess for the first 7 rounds, and what happened in the last 2 was preventable. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ll be ready next time. And if I play this way, there will be a next time. Several next times and hopefully with happy endings.

GM, here we go. The hunt is on. For real.

P.S. All expletives were removed from the first draft of this article to suit my PG-13 audience.

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