The Art of Saving Your Skin, Part 2

At this year’s Northern California flagship event, the annual 6-round CalChess Championship, I landed in the middle of the pack – giving me plenty of time for the true all-around experience.

Picking Up From Last time

In my last article, I talked about how you can be the driving force behind a surprising and lucky swindle – “making your luck”, so to speak. Of course, having managed to score 3.5/4 in that event (despite being lost in three of the games), I was quite a bit biased. Even I would rather not be lost, let alone three times, in the first place.

As fate would have it, I continued my horrendously lucky streak by saving two very lost positions against two young experts. Like in the three nearly-lost causes from last month’s article, I was saved only by the grace of time in these (apparently not called “sudden death”) G/120, 30 second increment games. In my first game, I messed up a good Hedgehog position and was in the process of being overrun by connected passers, but in time trouble, my opponent’s inclination toward “safe” moves created enough chaos for me to level the position.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 2.49.34 AM
Cheng – Li: after 27…Kg7

White has a few ways to win here – my personal preference is the simple 28. Bd3, followed by ramming the b-pawn up the board – Black’s pieces are just too passive to create any real counterplay. However, in time trouble, White understandably opted to close the door on any funny a8-h1 diagonal business with 28. f3, although this may already be a step in the wrong direction. This continued 28…Bd5 29. Bc4 Rc8 30. Bxd5 Nxd5 31. Rxc8 Qxc8. Trades are not easy to stomach here for Black, but surprisingly they’re the only chance for play here.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 2.56.59 AM
Cheng – Li: after 31…Rxc8

However, the tempting 32. Bxe5+?, seemingly winning material, gave Black far too much counterplay after 32…dxe5 33. Qxe5+ Bf6 34. Qxd5 Qxa6. White is technically up material now, but the dark-squared weaknesses make it very hard to press. That said, there isn’t much else wrong with White’s position, so the game should be a draw, probably more than I deserved. With White having a minute left, I did try to press for a while but didn’t quite make it. But you can see my attempts here.

I don’t know if the entire Saturday was just an off-day, because my next game was even worse overall. I had a pretty bad position right out of the opening (move 15 or so) as White and it didn’t get better from there. But eventually, my opponent did fall below comfortable time, and missed a few shots she would have almost certainly found otherwise. That was the only chance I had down the Exchange for seemingly no (negative?) compensation. Slowly but surely, I turned it around, in the order below.

Drawing a 2400

Lest you believe the rest of my career will consist of me swindling players 200 points below me, there were some signs of hope. My first two games obviously didn’t bode well for a third-round matchup against 14-year old FM Andrew Hong (2472) with Black, but each game, each position is different. And in a surprising turn of events, it was I who found myself pressing in a solid Caro-Kann game, although after playing it a little safe, the game petered out to a 25-move draw.

The Grandmaster

Turns out that was enough for me to play GM Enrico Sevillano, who had been upset in the previous round. It was an interesting enough game, but I eventually got caught with the “classic” bad light-squared bishop in the Closed Sicilian, and weak pawns trying to escape that situation tactically. An instructive one by the GM that you can check out here.

The New Opening

After that, it was back to playing experts, and on the last day of the event, I thought it would be good to try something new. Against my 2150-rated opponent’s Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian line, I wanted to try a response that I had read about a little but hadn’t gotten a practical feel for yet.

Contrary to appearance, it didn’t go that smoothly. I tried a generic dark-square strategy, but it’s probably a little too primitive for equality and having no experience with the line before, I didn’t find the right moves so easily. That said, it was a far cry from the 5 experts I’d played before, in that I was not actually lost during the game, for once!

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Ne2 Re8!?

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 12.35.54 AM
Somalwar – Li: after 5…Re8

Honestly, I thought the concept looked cool. One author for this line describes a certain aesthetic appeal to retreating the bishop to f8 early in the game.

(5…d5 6. a3 Bd6!? 7. c5 Be7 8. b4 b6 is another line I’ve tried. Black’s plan is to follow up with an eventual …e5 but I can see how this is not to everyone’s taste.)

6. a3 Bf8 7. Ng3 e5

This might be probably playable, but definitely not a clear equalizer. But the idea is simple dark-square play. Unfortunately, Black is a bit passive for that to work.

8. d5 a5 9. Bd3 Na6 10. e4 Bc5

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 12.38.42 AM
Somalwar – Li: after 10…Bc5

11. Bg5?!

This didn’t make a lot of sense, and just seems to give Black some extra tempi – White is not going to trade off this good bishop, or move it anywhere else besides, perhaps d2. White would have been fine just making regular moves, as Black doesn’t have that many active opportunities.

11…h6 12. Bd2 d6 13. Na4 Ba7 14. Bxa5??

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 12.41.23 AM

It’s hard to imagine this could be a colossal blunder, but I always say there are things to look out for whenever there isn’t a knight on f3 (or f6 in Black’s case). After 14…Ng4! White is in a surprising world of trouble. Simply castling only seems to make things worse: 15. O-O Qh4 16. h3 Nxf2 and Black snaps up the knight next, guaranteed to win big on material. White opted for 15. Rf1 but after 15…Nxh2 the attack was still going, and I managed to collect the point.


Unfortunately, I played much too cautiously in the last round (I guess all those narrow saves against experts got to me!) and ended up with a vanilla 19-move draw against a young 2150-rated player. It wasn’t quite the ideal way to go out, but I did end up above water in a tricky section, and this was good enough for some rating gains on both the USCF (2226 to 2234) and FIDE (2039 to 2052) side. It was another exciting and tough introduction to the Bay Area chess scene, and all thanks goes to the Berkeley Chess School for their organization of such a high-quality event.

It’s too early to say which events next month will feature, but with new games and new faces, it’s the perfect time to ditch the act of simply saving my skin. Thanks for reading!

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