Gearing up for the 43rd World Chess Olympiad

The 43rd Chess Olympiad (September 23 – October 6) is less than a week from starting, and with it comes all the hype that this biennial event always seems to bring.  The largest team chess event in the world will surely attract many spectators and online viewers for its two-week duration.  This year, the event is being held in Batumi, Georgia, which is very close to the venue for last year’s World Cup held in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Chess_Olympiad_2018_official_logo
The official logo for this year’s Olympiad!

One of the most intriguing storylines about the Olympiad has to do with a bit of history.  For the first time ever, the team from Russia will not hold the top seed in average rating.  In a way, however, it is almost fitting, as the new top-seeded team, the U.S., will try to defend their championship from two years ago in Baku.  The U.S. team will bring the same lineup as they did two years prior:  GM Fabiano Caruana, GM Hikaru Nakamura, GM Wesley So, GM Sam Shankland, and GM Ray Robson.

There are some changes to overall team makeup and standings as well, including regulars who are not playing and some newer faces.

Perhaps the least surprising of the absences is GM Magnus Carlsen, who has the World Championship match to prepare for.  Russian regulars GM Alexander Grischuk and GM Peter Svidler will both not be playing, too.  However, the Russian team is still very much in good hands with GM Vladimir Kramnik, GM Sergey Karjakin, and GM Ian Nepommniatchtchi on the top three boards.  Lastly, GM Veselin Topalov will be missing from the scene due to the banning of Bulgaria from international events by FIDE.

On the other hand, a number of players that have committed to playing might surprise us.  Firstly, despite being the challenger for the upcoming World Championship match, GM Fabiano Caruana is still playing in the Olympiad amid his already-busy summer schedule.  Secondly, GM Vishy Anand is playing for the India team for the first time in over ten years, and his presence should greatly improve India’s chance at the gold.

The top five seeds, in order, are:

  1. The United States
  2. Russia
  3. China
  4. Azerbaijan
  5. India

The Chinese team has greatly increased in strength as well, mostly due to the significant rating jumps of both Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi compared to where they were last time.  Azerbaijan, who is led by GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, has also increased in strength.  India now has GM Vishy Anand and GM Pentala Harikrishna as a 1-2 punch, and with three players over 2700, they also expected to be competitive.

In general, the return of most of the strongest players and some shifting among the top teams should make for an extremely interesting Olympiad, especially since team events are always fun to follow.

My next article is scheduled right in the middle of the event, so I should hopefully be able to pull together a few notable games to share at that time.  Until then!

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An Unstoppable Maghsoodloo Clinches First Place at World Juniors

With one round to spare, a world junior champion has already been crowned. Although he started out as the top seed and a heavy favorite, no one could have predicted such a dominating performance. 18-year-old, Iranian Grandmaster Parham Maghsoodloo destroyed the field and currently has 9.5/10. This score puts him 2 points over 2nd place and notches him a live performance rating of 2976.

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Becoming champion grants Maghsoodloo both automatic entry to the 2019 World Cup as well a spot in the Challengers section of Tata Steel. With a live rating of 2691 (after gaining over 100 points this year), only bright things can be expected of this young Iranian talent.

What impresses me the most about Maghsoodloo besides his amazing performance is his dedication to chess. Allegedly, Parham studies chess for 20 hours a day!! Although this might be a far-fetched estimate, the serious time he devotes to chess cannot be overlooked as a serious factor that has attributed to his success in becoming the World Junior Champion. Another thing I like Parham is his determination to fight every game. In positions that could be considered equal Parham did what he does best. He found the best plans, understood complicated positions better than his opponents and overall played extremely accurate. In no game did he actively go for a draw. Instead, he gave every game his all which is really shown in the fact that he “only” drew one game against fellow Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja.

While Maghsoodloo has already clinched first place, the tournament is not over yet. Today he is paired against the 16-year-old Russian grandmaster Andrey Esipenko. Will the young Russian talent be able to put a halt to a seemingly unstoppable Maghsoodloo? Only time will tell.

Live and previous games can be found in the link below:

https://www.chessbomb.com/arena/2018-fide-world-junior-open-championships-u20

 

 

 

My Favorite Moments from 2018 US Juniors Championship (Part I)

For the second year in a row, I was invited to do commentary for the US Junior and Girls Championships. The tournament has become a staple in the US tournament calendar, especially since it is now being held at the Saint Louis Chess Club and offers quite a nice prize fund along with an invitation to the US and US Women’s Championship to the winners. I really enjoy the tournament because there is less pressure on the commentators unlike in the GCT events, the games are fun and exciting and it’s interesting to watch the young talents in action. It was also fun to see them interacting between the rounds and after the tournament; so many of them are good friends outside of chess! It is also encouraging to see so many young girls around 2300-2400 FIDE, especially for the future of our Olympiad team. The junior section was extremely strong and featured 5 GMs. This list doesn’t include Jefferey Xiong, Sam Sevian and Kayden Troff, all of whom declined their invitations. Can you imagine a national junior tournament that has 8 Grandmasters?! By now I’m sure the readers are aware that Awonder Liang defended his title, thus qualifying to the 2019 US Championship.

This year the commentary team was just me and Robert Hess with no third person on the smart board. Robert really insists on not using the engine which is quite refreshing but also challenging. I noticed that I could remember the games better and figuring out the positions on our own was also a great learning experience for me. Of course, it also resulted in mistakes and mishaps which were later pointed out by YouTube viewers.

For example, in this game between Ruifeng Li and Annie Wang we reached the following position in our analysis:

annie vs ruifeng

In this position we were trying to figure out what to do after 19…Bc6 we tried 20. Qd2 but after Bc7 the queen cannot move away from the d file with check. Of course, simple 20. Qc4+ Kh8 21. Qe6 does the trick!

Later on in the same game, we couldn’t figure out a win by Annie in the following position:

annie vs ruifeng2

The game ended in couple of moves after:  33… Qxe3 34. R5xe3 Rdd1 0-1

I really love the fact that Annie accepted the wildcard to play in the Junior section. Although her result wasn’t spectacular, how often does a player around her rating get the opportunity to play in a tournament with 5 GMs? There is a lot of pressure in playing in these fancy events with live coverage and everyone watching, but at the end of the day it’s just another round robin event for her that I think will tremendously help her growth.

Awonder may have won the tournament but it wasn’t a smooth sailing for the young champ. Trouble came in round 5 in his game against Mika Brattain:

Mika vs Awonder

16. Nfxg5!? interesting sacrifice hxg5 17. h6 Bh8 18. Rh5?! (18. h7+ Kf8 (
18… Kg7 19. Nf6 Nd7 20. Qh3 Kf8 21. Qa3+ Re7 22. Rh5 the game is over after
White takes on g5) 19. Qa3+ Qe7 this line was pointed out by Robert and is
completely winning for White. Black can’t move any of his pieces) 18… Bxe4
19. Qxe4 Nd7 20. Rd3? (20. Bd3 time to finish the development. White can
play for the long term initiative) 20… f5! Awonder shows great resilience
21. exf6 Nxf6 22. Rxg5+ Kf8 23. Rf3 Ke7 brave! The king is completely safe now – great defense and nerves by Awonder! All is well that ends well.

I can’t talk about this event without mentioning one particular player. Alex Bian may not be a household name yet, but the young man had the tournament of his life. He qualified to Junior closed by winning the US Jr. Open and proved that he belonged in the tournament even though he was the lowest rated player. He started the tournament by defeating two GMs and finished with a respectable score of 5/9, gaining 50 FIDE points. Alex will be attending UC Berkeley in the fall and won’t have much time for chess, so this tournament was sort of his one last hurrah.

One of my absolute favorite games of the event is the one between John Burke and Alex Bian. I would suggest to anyone reading this to go take a look at that game and analyze before reading my notes.

BurkvsBian

22. h3 {preparing g4} Qh8! Robert loved this move. Can you blame him? 23.
g4 Kg8 24. Be2 Nc5 25. Kg2 a4 26. b4 Nb3 27. Rd1 Bb2 very brave decision to ignore White’s play and collect pawns on the queen side 28. gxh5 Bxa3 29. hxg6 Bxb4 30. f4 very creative play by both players. White is ignoring the a-pawn and is activating his bishop Bc5 31. Bg4 a3 (31… fxg6 32. Be6+ Kg7 computer suggestion that looks scary but Black can start bringing his rooks to the king side) 32. Rxb3 (32. Qa2 White can also put an end to all this}) 32…a2 33. gxf7+

BurkvsBian2

33…Kf8?? fatal mistake leaving the pawn on f7. The finish is
beautiful (33… Kxf7 34. Bxc5 bxc5 35. Rxb8 Rxb8 36. Qe1 Qb2+ 37. Kh1 Kf8 
according to the engine this is 0.00 but who plays chess like this?) 34. Be6
Qg7+ 35. Kh2 a1=Q 36. Rxa1 Qxa1 37. Bxc5 Ra2 38. Rg3 1-0

I have last track of how many times I have shown Alex’s last round win over Praveen Balakrishnan to my students. It is a great example of how to attack with opposite color bishops.

alexvspraveen

In this position Robert and I were trying to figure out how to launch an
attack for White. The straight forward way doesn’t quite work. 15. Rdg1 Qf3
the queen has to go here to cover f6 (15… Qh3?? 16. Rxg7+ Kxg7 17. Rg1+
Kh8 18. Qg5 threatening mate both on g7 and f6) 16. Qh6 (16. Rxg7+?? Kxg7 17. Rg1+ Kh8 18. Qh6 and there is nothing after the simple Rg8) 16… Bg4 17. Qg5 Rfd8 18. Bc3 h6 very annoying resource! Again, the engine spits this line out but can someone find this over the board? 19. Qxg4? Rd1+ winning the queen

15. Bc5! upon looking deeper into the position it becomes
clear that the bishop on d4 is misplaced. Where would the bishop like to go?
To f6, of course. 15… e3 Praveen collapses immediately. The point of this
move is to play Rfd8, but Rfe8 was necessary to guard the e7 square 16. Qxe3
Rfd8 17. Rdg1 Qd5 Black is looking for counterplay 18. Rxg7+ Kh8 (18… Kxg7
leads to mate 19. Qg5+ Kh8 20. Qf6+ Kg8 21. Rg1+) 19. Rhg1 Bf5 20. Qh6 Qxe5 21. Be7! the bishop is untouchable Rd6 22. Rg8+ 1-0

Although I praised Alex, I have to feature another one of his losses to none other than the winner. Black misplayed in the critical moment, and his opponent was unforgiving.

awondervsalex

13… Be6 Black has snatched a central pawn and plays a normal looking
developing move 14. Be3! taking advantage of the fact that the d4 bishop
cannot move due to the misplaced queen on a6. Now Black has a big decision to
make. Take a pause and think about how to proceed here Bxc4 (14… Bxe3 
is impossible 15. Nxd6+winning the queen) (14… O-O 15. Bxd4 cxd4 16. Qxd4 Black has to accept a worse position) 15. Bxd4 O-O Black hangs on to the material but his king is so weak 16. Bf6 Bxf1 another opposite color bishop position 17. Qd2?! surprisingly, this is an inaccuracy! (17. Qc1! is the more precise continuation d5 18. Bxe7 Rfe8 19. exd5 {and unlike in the game, there is no annoying Qd3 harassing the white queen}) 17… d5 18. Bxe7 Rfe8 19. Bxc5 Bd3 (19… Qd3 is a better defensive try but the endgame doesn’t look good for Black. White can also keep the attack going with Qh6) 20. exd5 Qc4 21. d6 Bf5 (21… Qxc5 22. Qxd3 the d6 pawn is deadly) 22. Bd4 Qd5 23. Qf4 forcing Black’s hand as g4 followed by Qf6 is a threat Re4 24. Rxe4 Qxe4 25. Qxe4 Bxe4 26. Bf6 Bc6 27. Rc1 1-0

Instructive endgame alert! The game between Annie Wang and Alex Bian was a crazy affair, but before reading my notes take a pause and figure out why Annie’s 70.Ke1? loses

AnnievsAlex

70. Ke1? up until now Annie defended meticulously, but got careless with
this move Kb6 Black misses his opportunity (70… Rxb5 unlike in the game,
White is now a temp behind 71. Bxb5 the pawn ending is lost but the problem
is the bishop has nowhere to go (71. Bf3 Rb3 72. Kf2 Rxf3+ same problem as
before 73. Kxf3 Kd4) (71. Be8 Rb8 72. Bf7 Rb7 73. Ba2 Kd4) 71… Kxb5 72. Kf2
Kc5 73. Ke3 Kc4 74. Ke2 Kc3 75. Ke3 h5 {the reserve tempo is key} 76. Ke2 Kc2
77. Ke3 Kd1) 71. Kf1 Rxb5 again, I would suggest pausing here and trying to
figure out a way for White to make a draw. I don’t want to give it away, so check out the rest of the game here.

Let’s end Part I with another Annie game. Advait Patel got a great position against her with the White pieces, but allowed the position to get unnecessarily wild.

adyvsannie

42… Rf8 Annie finds the only defensive move. Now White has to be accurate
43. Qe2 Qf6 threatening Qh4 44. Qxe4 going down a forced line Qf2+ 45. Kh1 Qxg3 46. Qxe6+ Rf7 47. Rc8+ Kh7 (47… Nf8 $4 48. Rxf8+) 48. Qxf7 Qh3+ 49. Kg1 Qxc8 50. Bb2 a practical try for White. Black should have a perpetual but the mate threat and the d6 pawn give White some chances Qg4+ 51. Kf2 Nf4?  this natural looking move fails! Robert and I also only analyzed this move as it makes so much sense: Black brings another piece close to the king and defends g7 (51… Qh4+ 52. Ke3 Qe1+ 53. Kd3 Qd1+ White either has to part ways with the d6 pawn or allow a perpetual. The king can’t escape 54. Ke4  simply loses the bishop Qe2+ 55. Kd5 Qc4# White can even get checkmated if he tries too hard) 52. d7 Qg2+ 53. Ke3 Nd5+ 54. Kd3 now the knight actually gets in the way and the black queen isn’t positioned properly Qg3+ 55. Kc2 Qg2+ 56. Kb1 Qe4+ 57. Ka2 Qc4+ 58. Ka1 1-0 You can also replay the ending here.

Check back in for part 2 of the article where I’ll talk about my favorite moments from the Girls Championship!

The Journey From U1000 to 1500

Going from a new player to 50th percentile in USCF rating (around 700) is about reducing oh-no moments and tactics.

The journey from USCF 700 to 1500 is a path that continues on tactic improvements, but a shift of focus on strategical ideas start to emerge.

In this post, I’ll talk about a few common themes and recommend a Strategy book in the end.

Here are three things I see on the path to 1500

  1. Zero oh-no moments
  2. Activate your pieces
  3. Gain more space

Zero Oh-No Moments

When you start to play in U1000 instead of U400 sections, the oh-no mistakes will be punished swiftly. Opponent’s are stronger, and they don’t give back the gifts that your present to them.

Activate Your Pieces

In U1400 section games, losing a piece in 1-2 moves does not happen often. The result of wins and losses generally occur based on active vs. passive pieces.

U1000_1

White is down a pawn in the diagram above, but is very much in control of the game. Black’s bishop and rook are out of the game, and it’s only a matter of time that white’s attack will bring to fruition.

Practice asking yourself how to improve my pieces, and try to get them to active positions as much as possible in your games.

Gain More Space

The concept of Space is less clear for U800 players, but after a few games of getting squeezed, s/he could sense the pain.

The skill that players need to develop is to build more confidence. The reason many 1000 players are afraid is because they worry if they push too hard, the ‘backyard’ would become empty.

U1000_2In the position above, many players would choose d3 instead of d4.

d3 looks like a safe move and keeping things solid, but d4 is what really showcases white’s development advantage.


Getting to 1500 is a longer journey, and strategic components of the game starts to get more important.

I’d recommend Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Strategies for anyone who are interested to improve their strategy understanding in chess.

Crushing Masters(Blitz)

So here in Atlanta, there are weekly blitz tournaments at the famous Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Atlanta that are held on Friday evenings. One of the games I played a couple of hours ago was pretty interesting and thought some of the ideas in the blitz game are instructional for quicker chess games.

Vishal Balyan-Dipro Chakraborty 1-0

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 12.03.05 AM

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nh3 Nd7

So here we are in the opening, I was playing white against my opponent Dipro Chakraborty who is 2334 rated USCF. From the opening, the most common move for white to play in this position is usually Nf3 but usually in blitz sidelines can tend to favor the opponent that is faster, quicker in tactics, and has played dynamic positions. Many players that play the Karo-Kann get confused since this is not a familiar response from white’s end.

 

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 12.12.42 AM.png

8. Nf4 Bh7 9. Bc4 e6 10. O-O Ngf6 11. Re1 Be7???

A couple moves fast-forwarded and we reach this position where white has a critical decision to make, is it best to sacrifice the two pieces for the pawn on e6 immediately or slow play the position and use the space advantage to further increase the winning chances for white. In blitz, I would almost always recommend the first option, which is sacrificing in such a position for lots of play, better-developed pieces, and hopes of getting a time advantage over the opponent. The move Be7 in any such positions always entices the sacrifice on e6 square.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 12.17.37 AM

12. Bxe6 fxe6 13. Nxe6 Qa5 14. Nxg7+ Kf7 15. Ne6 Bg8 16. c3 Qb6 

In this position, I had approximately 4 and a half minutes to my opponents 2 minutes and 45 seconds because he had used a significant amount of time in the opening trying to calculate the outs from the messy position black received from whites sacrifice. The goal for white is to keep the king close to the center and make it tough for black to coordinate its pieces into an attack on whites king.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 12.20.55 AM.png

17. Qe2 Re8 18. Qc4 Qb5 19. Qxb5 cxb5 20. Nc7 Rc8

In the last couple moves, I completely threw away my whole advantage and I realized it during the game exactly a second or two after I played the move. My move Qe2 and then Qc4 were both horrible because they helped black develop and with a slight tempo as well. Also, Qc4 allows the automatic trade of queens which is decent but personally I would have been better off if I could keep the queens on the board.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 12.30.33 AM

21. Nxb5 a6 22. Nf5 axb5 23. Rxe7+ Kf8 24. Re2 Bc4 25. Re1 Ra8

After a forced queen trade because of a couple poor moves that I played, I figured out a way to force black to have a bad pawn structure and get my pieces active. The move Nf5 saves my position from many worries because if I were to play Na3 here, it could be shaky after blacks bishop takes on a3 and then my c3 pawn would be hanging.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 12.36.17 AM

26. b3 Bd5 27. Bxh6+ Kf7 

I set up a nice trap here because some players playing black might take on b3 with the bishop but the in-between move of Bxh6 allows me to pick up the bishop on b3 for free or material one way or another.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 12.46.17 AM.png

28. Bg5 Ne4 29. Rxe4 Bxe4 30. Nd6+ Kg6 31. Nxe4

After this position, my opponent had only about a minute and blundered this simple tactic where white plays rxe4 and then has the knight fork on d6. We played on for a few more moves, but a large number of pawns and a low amount of time for my opponent made it tough for him to play on. He ended up resigning soon after. A good moral for blitz tournament games or just blitz, in general, is to keep in mind to make moves that others would take time to think for or try to find ways to keep the position complicated. Just a short analysis for a blitz game… I ended up winning a small amount of money(just enough to make back the entry fee and a little more). Also gained some rating and beat two masters.

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:

gru

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.

Late Fireworks in St. Louis

The annual Sinquefield Cup recently came to a close and considering how the tournament has gone the last few years, we could venture to say that this year’s results were somewhat surprising.

Image result for st louis chess club
The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, the host of the annual Sinquefield Cup.

In this year’s edition of the Sinquefield Cup, there were three co-champions after nine rounds:  Fabiano Caruana, Magnus Carlsen, and Levon Aronian.  Due to this event being the second-to-last in this year’s Grand Chess Tour, “tour” tiebreaks were held after the main event, where Caruana and So went head to head to decide who would join Aronian, Nakamura, and MVL in the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour in London.  The first two games were rapid time control, and Caruana was able to take 1.5/2 and win first place.  But that wasn’t the surprising part.  They’re all great players.  Rather, it was the fact that two of the ten players finished with nine draws out of nine games in the main event, and two more players finished with eight draws in nine games.  Additionally, no player had more than three decisive games, which isn’t incredibly low by any means, but it’s also not very high.

Of course, that’s not to say there weren’t good games.  There were many good games, and I will share one of my favorites further down in this article.  But, it seems like this tournament will resurface comments about the number of draws in tournaments these days.  Despite the many draws, at least in the first eight rounds of the tournament, all viewers were rewarded with a climactic ending in the ninth round.  Caruana came into the round leading the field by half a point with 5/8, but four players were on 4.5/8, so there was bound to be some drama unfolding.  We were given just that when two of those players, Carlsen and Aronian, won their respective games to jump to 5.5/8.  Carlsen had a nice attack early and rode the advantage to eventually capture the full point.  Aronian gambled against Grischuk with a rook sacrifice and it paid off when Grischuk blundered, allowing Aronian to win.  Meanwhile, Caruana wasn’t able to do much as Black against Wesley So, who didn’t push for much himself.  As a result, we had three players atop the podium in the end.

In an interesting side story, official September ratings came out, and Carlsen (2839) is currently 12 points above Caruana (2827).  The Sinquefield Cup caused some shifting in the top 10, but most interestingly, if Caruana had beat Carlsen when they met in round 7 and the rest of the tournament had gone as it did, Caruana would have overtaken Carlsen for number one on the rating list.  What a story that would have been!  However, winning with Black against the World Champion is a tall order, so Caruana will have to wait for another chance.

And now, probably my favorite game from the tournament:

Carlsen – Nakamura, 6th Sinquefield Cup, 2018

This game was my favorite for a couple reasons.  Firstly, I loved the tactics and attack that Carlsen was able to command in the middlegame, seemingly out of nowhere.  However, perhaps more than that, I enjoyed how he could transition seamlessly from attacking with his major pieces to liquidating to a queen and rook endgame where he ground down his opponent.  For a while, it looked like Carlsen couldn’t make any progress on Black’s a-pawn, but once he decided to trade off queens and could position his kingside pawns optimally, he could march his king all over the board, eventually picking up the a-pawn and infiltrating Black’s kingside to secure the win.

Upcoming tournaments include the World Chess Olympiad at the end of September and the Isle of Man Open in late October, so stay tuned for those!  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.