My 4th GM Norm: 5th time in Italy is a Charm Part III

Welcome to the third and final part of my coverage on the Forni di Sopra in Italy last month where I scored my 4th GM norm. This will cover what happened after round 5. I’d just gotten past the double round day on Tuesday 6/18 (with a bit of mixed fortune). Was still doing well, with 3.5/5 and performing close to FIDE 2600, though bouncing back from losing with the white pieces can be tough. Sure enough I was “playing up again”. On 6/19 I got paired as black against a FIDE 25 hundred Italian GM. This happens to be someone who I’d played once and beaten, as white in a European tournament at the end of 2017. Maybe my attempts to review and appreciate my play in that prior game against him helped with my confidence and motivation, albeit just slightly. This young GM is versatile, and I felt I had to try my best to be “a bit ready” for just about anything. Let’s see how my game with black went:

GM Alessio Valsecchi (FIDE 2504) – IM Justin Sarkar (FIDE 2366) [A17] 10th Forni di Sopra (6), 19.06.2019

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 Against the English I chose to play like this. Was willing to enter a Nimzo-Indian, or a Mikenas attack – more on that opening later! 3.e3 This rare move gives an impression of wanting to avoid a theoretical battle, which you can’t automatically assume but based on the course of the game seemed to be the case. d5 4.Nf3 c5 5.cd5 Nxd5 5…ed5 6.d4 would be a sort of Tarrasch defense (with e3 by white, rather than g3).

This was something I’d looked into playing with black sometime before, via a different move order. Now 6.d4 is the main move, transposing to a Semi-Tarrasch. Whereas there are other moves like 6.Bc4, 6.Bb5 or 6.Nxd5 that can be kind of tricky and have some bite. The move he chose was quite rare, though I see has been played by GMs Morozevich and Ganguly (not to mention Korchnoi, back in 1982). 6.Qc2!? Nc6 or 6…Be7 7.a3 Be7 8.Be2 0-0 I castled automatically, expecting in turn an automatic castling. Indeed, in all the games that reached this move 8 position (first being Korchnoi-Pinter, Rome 1982), black castled and white castled in turn on move 9. My opponent had other ideas in mind. White quickly played 9.h4!?

Wait a second! Now he wants to mate me? At first I was like why did I touch my king one move too soon? Is this theory!?

Well this novelty might not be so great, but sure has practical value! White might even not be worse yet! I got intimidated, but after thinking awhile I tried to have faith in the fundamental soundness of my position. f5!? Took 25 minutes to play this. Still not sure if it was correct (or necessary, by any means), but just felt I had to consider his ideas with Ng5 or g4. Can’t even quite reproduce what I calculated on other moves and I’ll have to analyze this position some more in attempt to understand what on earth is going on! My opponent in turn spent about 10 minutes. 10.h5 This actually kind of surprised me. He has no immediate attack. Thought he might keep options of a later Ng5 (possibly in conjunction with g4) in reserve. a6 This, with idea …b5 seems to fit in well with my setup. 11.h6 This guy is doing an AlphaZero on me! g6 11…g5!? might be even stronger, but I guess 11…g6 felt like the human “reflex reaction”. 12.d3 Maybe another move like 12.d4!? (or the pawn sac 12.b4!?) was stronger. I’ll just give the unclear assessment. b5 Natural and strong 13.Nxd5 Qxd5 Centralizing and intending …e5 with a great position (and stronger than 13…ed5 14.b4!?) 14.Bd2 Played after almost ten minutes. e5 15.e4 Played after 8 minutes and maybe not so great, but white’s position already looks unpleasant. Qd6 16.Rc1 fe4 17.de4 Nd4 18.Nxd4 ed4 -/+

19.f4 This makes things worse. Castling was a lesser evil, though black has many options and a big advantage with the much stronger pawns (crushing central majority) Rxf4!? Intuitively decided on this in couple of minutes. Sacking the exchange looked tempting and crushing, but little did I realize there was more to calculate. In hindsight, the obvious 19…c4 was probably more straightforward and to the point. Sacking on c4 is clearly inadequate for white, and taking on f4 in the next move or so is still on the cards. 20.Bxf4 Qxf4 21.Qb3+ Turns out to be the best try, but not calculated by me in advance. c4 Played this fairly quickly, based on seeing 22.Bxc4+ Kh8 (simplest, first hitting the rook on c1 before taking the bishop on c4). Based on allowing more complications than I realized, I was left wondering if I should’ve played 21…Kh8? However, that allows the shot 22.Rxc5! With idea 22…Bxc5 23.Qd5, that would’ve been a cold shower for me. I’ll have to go by the equal eval. It looks like one side will give the other perpetual check! 22.Rxc4 I paused on this for a few minutes, not having calculated it. Knew I had to take the rook and just hope that even if I “messed up” I still had at least a draw. bc4 23.Qxc4+ Kh8 24.Rf1

At this point white had 25 minutes and I had just under 20, to reach move 40. I actually considered and expected this move. Now I have a choice: to take the e-pawn and keep the queen centralized while opening up the white king more, or take the dangerous h6-pawn. Still not sure which is stronger! Qxe4 Played this in a minute or two. Thought/hoped I’d worked out a win, which could be why I didn’t give enough thought to taking the h6-pawn. Maybe that was simpler, with less to calculate and a wider margin of error. 25.Qf7 I anticipated this but overlooked from a distance, the nuances of him inserting g3 against my bishop check on h4. This turns out to be very relevant. Needed a few precious minutes to figure out the right order in which to check. Qb1+! Checking here first was VERY important. The bishop check on h4 would be met by 26.g3! I’d actually have to check on b1 to make a draw, as taking on g3 would actually lose to 27.Kd2. Note how the bishop got deflected from being able to check on g5. 26.Bd1 I correctly saw this is losing and also hopeless is the bishop down ending after 26.Kf2 Qf5+. I had NOT yet worked out at the board if I had a win after 26.Kd2 with the idea of sacking the exchange on f4 against my bishop check on g5. The game can continue 26.Kd2 Bg5+ (queen takes b2 check first is also valid and likely to transpose) 27.Rf4 Bxf4+ 28.Qxf4 Qxb2+ 29.Kd1 Qb3+ 30.Ke1 Qc3+ 31.Kd1. White has deadly mate threats and it’s not clear if black can do more than keep checking. Now the right way to make progress is 31…Kg8! Now white has no good way to renew the mate threat. 32.Qe4 (or 32.Qe5 Kf8!) Qb3+ 33.Ke1 Bb7 34.Qxd4 Qg3+ 35.Kd1 Kf7! followed by giving the bishop on b7 and playing …Rd8+ should be winning. So it’s a question of if I would’ve found it at the board (and, not feared ghosts when playing …Kg8!). Bh4+ 27.g3 Now this intermezzo fails to help white Bxg3+ 28.Kd2 Qxb2+ White has no way out. 29.Bc2 Qc3+ is also losing. Had the bishop been on e2, white would be able to move the king back to d1 leaving black with just a perpetual check. 29.Kd3 Qc3+ 30.Ke4 Qe3+ 31.Kd5 Be6+ 32.Qxe6 Rd8+ White resigns 0-1

There we go. I did it, accomplished the formidable task of striking back with black. White tried to pretend he was AlphaZero with the crazy h4-h5-h6 and I was able to punish him!

Now going into 6/20 I had 4.5/6 and was white against a Norwegian teenage IM in the FIDE mid 24 hundreds.

IM Justin Sarkar (FIDE 2366) – IM Johannes Haug (FIDE 2438) [A18] 10th Forni di Sopra (7), 20.06.2019

1.c4 This was the first interesting moment and I’d say strong move. My decision to play the English was both practical and impractical at the same time. Impractical because I rarely play it (despite being “half English”). Practical, because it sidestepped certain problematic openings against 1.d4 (including the Nimzo) where I felt unsure how to try for an edge against him. This undoubtedly came as a surprise and messed with the youngster’s prep. He thought at least a few minutes on his first move, facing a tough choice. Nf6 The main alternative I considered was 1…e5, when I had a relatively “low theory” line or two in mind. 2.Nc3 e6 This shows he probably wants a Nimzo. This was precisely something I felt not so keen to face against him. He seemed well-versed in just about every variation and I felt I’d struggle to get the slightest edge. Felt he was less likely to play 2…e5 here than on move 1, though still had to consider it. I kind of anticipated 2…e6 after 1…Nf6 and the funny thing is the moves of this and my last game (1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6) have been the same, with reversed colors. 3.e4!? So, the Mikenas Attack. The Flohr-Mikenas Attack is a relatively sharp system in the English that can lead to interesting play. d5 The main reply. 4.e5 The main move. 4.cd5 ed5 5.e5 Ne4 is an alternative. d4 5.ef6 dc3 6.bc3 The relatively safe but less ambitious 6.fg7 cd2+ gives white nothing. Qxf6 7.Nf3 Black has a few moves here and I realized I was taking a big chance that I knew enough relative to him at least for the sake of this game. Was just hoping the surprise value along with whatever I looked at beforehand, combined with him not necessarily having something deeply worked out in this variation, might serve me well and even enable me to fight for an edge. I was aware he had faced the 4.cd5 ed5 5.e5 line and it was possible he knew this well too (and might rattle off a bunch of theory), but it was a gamble I chose to take. It seemed to pay off, given the course of the game. e5 Serious alternatives are 7…c5 and especially 7…b6 8.Bd3!? This (now somewhat popular move in this line) is an interesting alternative to 8.d4.

Playing this move at the board had a nice feel to it. Apparently it was first played in Alburt-Mednis, NY 1980. White wants to castle quickly and will relocate the bishop ideally to e4 (or else c2, depending on circumstances). Black spent over 5 minutes here and played something already perhaps a bit inaccurate. I’ll soon be fighting for an edge so my opening can be considered a success. Finding a good way to surprise him and get a position where I felt more or less in control was indeed not an easy task. As we’ll see though he still had chances to equalize later (so indeed, winning is almost never easy). Nc6 From whatever I know it’s considered slightly inaccurate to commit the knight there so soon, as e4 will become a more attractive square for the white bishop. I won’t really go into the theory, but the main continuations are 8…Na6!?, 8…Bd6, or 8…Bg4 9.Be4 Nd7! (with idea of sacking the pawn for initiative: 10.Bxb7 Rb8). 9.0-0 Bd6 Black’s natural developing moves turn out to not meet the demands of this position. 10.Rb1! This strong prophylactic move anticipates the black queen’s bishop development by putting the rook on the semi-open b-file and keeping an eye on the b7-pawn. I spent over ten minutes, unaware of it being theory (and high scoring). The hasty 10.Be4?! Bf5! should be fine for black. 0-0 11.Qc2! Throwing in this move first (hitting h7) is useful. The 4 prior recorded games from this position (starting with Gelfand-Yegiazarian, Yerevan 1996) were all wins for white. Again 11.Be4 allows 11…Bf5! Now the attempt to grab a pawn with 12.Bxf5 Qxf5 13.Rxb7?! would run into 13…e4 with too much play/initiative. g6 Strictly speaking a novelty, and probably not a bad one. Black insists on developing the bishop to f5 soon, to challenge what will be a strong bishop on e4. On 11…h6 12.Be4 (or maybe 12.Bh7+ Kh8 13.Be4) it’s not so easy to see a good move for black, to solve the problem of the c8-bishop and get coordinated. 12.Be4 Bf5!

I saw this and even felt it offered good chances to resist (perhaps equalize). I can’t even really “win a pawn”, as black can regain the pawn with …Na5 followed by taking on c4. It’s tough to say what’s the best continuation here. Maybe take on b7 anyway and on 13…Na5 move the rook somewhere along the b-file and after knight takes on c4, play something like 14.d4 with a little initiative. Or try the position with 13.d4 Bxe4 14.Qxe4 ed4 15.cd4 Rfe8 and well, queen somewhere. 13.Bxf5 gf5 He spent just about a minute on this. The endgame with 13…Qxf5 14.Qxf5 gf5 also offers decent chances to equalize. Taking on b7 can still be met by …Na5 followed by regaining the pawn on c4. Was also thinking about 15.Nh4 kind of forcing …f4 and for now maybe using the f5-square for the knight (i.e. 16.Nf5) but not sure if it really achieves much. 14.d4 e4? But this kind of tempting move is just really bad. A quick f2-f3 will seriously weaken black’s position. I was rightly unsure what to play against 14…b6! Now the b-pawn is no longer en prise and more importantly it guards against c5. White should be in no real danger, but it’s tough to see a way forward. 15.Ng5 A quick f2-f3 is in the air and the knight has a convenient retreat square on h3. It actually guards nicely against …Qh4 ideas hitting h2, and its position “on the rim” will be just temporary. h6 The white knight won’t get stuck on h3 for long so this merely weakens black (though 15…b6 16.f3! was still a big issue) 16.Nh3 b6 17.f3! Of course. ef3 Tough to suggest anything better. 18.Rxf3 Ne7 19.Nf4 c5 20.d5 Ng6

21.Bd2 A simple practical move and pretty strong, preparing to bring the queen’s rook into the game. It turns out, even stronger was 21.Nh5! It required concrete calculation though: 21.Nh5 Qh4 22.Qxf5! (just don’t play 22.Rh3?? Qe1#) Qxh2+ (or 22…Bxh2+ 23.Kf1 Qxc4+ 24.Kf2 Be5 25.Bxh6 +-) 23.Kf1 Qh1+ 24. Kf2 Qh4+ 25.g3 Qh2+ 26.Kf1 turns out to be basically winning, with 26…Qh1+ being met by 27.Ke2 and white will crash through before black can create enough threats. I can understand though, not wanting to calculate something like this. Now apart from Rbf1, Nh5 remains a threat. Bxf4 Black spent 15 minutes on this but it’s too late to offer advice. White has a serious advantage in kingside pawn structure, with a “protected passed pawn” on d5 to boot. Black’s chances of achieving and maintaining a Nimzovich style blockade on d6 in this position (isn’t the knight supposed to be there!?) are close to nil. 22.Bxf4 Kg7 23.Bc7 One of many strong moves. Now I’m willing to allow an endgame, where I can win with the passed d-pawn. Qe7 24.d6 For sure black has failed to blockade my passed pawn Qe4 25.Qxe4 fe4 26.Rf5 f6 What else? 27.d7 Simple and direct Ne5 While this is outright losing, there was no solution. Now white has to make a choice, even though all plausible moves win.

28.Rxe5 I kind of like this, as it involves a very concrete idea of forcing a won king and pawn ending. fe5 29.Rf1 Very important. First deflect the f8-rook, then play Rd1. The careless 29.Rd1?? would throw away the win after 29…e3! Now promoting would run into real problems after 30…Raxd8 followed by 31…e2. This move forces the f8-rook away, as trading will cost black the other rook for the d-pawn with a hopeless bishop down endgame. Rfd8 No choice, really. Black tries to give as little as possible, to stop the d-pawn. 30.Bxd8 Rxd8 31.Rd1 Kf6 32.Kf2 Ke6 33.Ke3 Rxd7 34.Rxd7 Kxd7 35.Kxe4 Ke6 Black has temporarily escaped with equal material, but the king and pawn ending is lost. The power of the outside passed pawn, you can say. 36.g4!

An important move and the culmination of white’s idea. I think Joel Benjamin would nod. White has liquidated into a won king and pawn ending. This concept is the theme of his book “Liquidation on the Chess Board”. Black played a few more moves here before throwing in the towel. a6 37.a4 Kf6 38.h4 Ke6 39.g5 h5 39…hg5 40.hg5 a5 41.g6 Kf6 42.g7 Kxg7 43.Kxe5 followed by eating up the b-pawn in 3 moves is of no avail. 40.g6 Kf6 41.g7 Kxg7 42.Kxe5 Kg6 43.Ke6! I think this is called outflanking. Have to review my Dvoretsky endgame manual vocabulary! a5 44.Ke5! Black resigns 1-0

His position never recovered after move 14 and for the last 30 moves it was basically one way traffic. It was good to be able to convert and achieve an important win. Now with 5.5/7 I was tied in the lead and performing in the FIDE high 26 hundreds. What a nice recovery from my unfortunate round 5. I’d been dreaming of a performance like this, ever since the Rilton Cup back at the end of 2016 (where I was performing like a FIDE 28 hundred after 5 rounds, just to lose a bunch of games in a row after that). Now with just 2 games left, would I take things to the finish line? Well, yes and no.

My pairing for Friday 6/21 was black against GM Cristhian Cruz of Peru rated in the FIDE mid 25 hundreds. What’s funny was that I’d both seen and played him once and only once before: in the May 2015 Texas tournament where I scored my 3rd GM norm (was also black against him that time, the game ending in a draw). How would I fare this time, compared to 4 years ago? As for my GM norm status, I was performing so well going into this game that a draw would likely clinch it regardless of last round result, based on my most probable 9th round opponent(s). Cruz had 5/7 so was trailing me by half a point. Let’s go over what happened. I don’t see a need to analyze the game in that much detail, but will recap the critical moment(s).

GM Cristhian Cruz (FIDE 2561) – IM Justin Sarkar (FIDE 2366) [D20] 10th Forni di Sopra (8), 21.06.2019

1.d4 His most probable first moves were 1.d4, 1.c4, or 1.Nf3 (in Brownsville 2015, he played an English) d5 It was a bit of a tough decision but I decided that on 1.d4 I’d aim for the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. 2.c4 dc4 Here we go, the QGA. 3.e4 You can say, the most ambitious and principled answer. I also had to be (slightly) ready for 3.e3 and 3.Nf3. e5 Most common and probably also most solid. Black has many alternatives and I also have certain experience with the 3.e4 QGA from the white side. 4.Nf3 Bb4+ The main and solid alternative to the more common 4…ed4 5.Bxc4. 5.Bd2 Slightly more common is 5.Nc3 ed4 (5…Nf6!? with the idea 6.Nxe5 b5 is a complicated alternative) 6.Nxd4. Bxd2+ 6.Qxd2 Was aware of the alternative line 6.Nbxd2 ed4 7.Bxc4 Nc6 8.0-0 playing for development and initiative, not worrying for now about getting back the pawn. The funny thing is that I’d tried this myself as white a month prior, in an unpublished game! ed4 7.Qxd4 Nf6 Knew about this little nuance in my prior study of this QGA variation, despite not having actually had this position yet with either color. Allowing white to take on d8 is of course at least a slight concession but I guess the thinking is that 7…Qxd4 8.Nxd4 lets white regain the pawn on c4 without making any structural changes and can argue to have the slightly easier game, with the for now slightly stronger central majority. It appears the move 7…Nf6 was introduced in Susan Polgar – Maxim Dlugy, Brussels 1987 (a few years before I got taught the game!). 8.Qxd8+ 8.Nc3 Be6 9.Qxd8+ Kxd8 transposes. Kxd8 9.Nc3 Be6

This temporarily keeps the extra pawn and leaves white with a decision how to regain it. This position has about 25 published games and a high drawing rate. 10.Nd4 Main alternatives are 10.Ng5 or 10.Ne5. Nc6!? This move was also introduced by Dlugy, back in 1990 against Petursson. I knew about it being the “main move” and chose to give it a go. It’s a rather committal decision, allowing tripled pawns, though it does force an immediate decision upon the white knight. 10…Ke7 also seems viable, as played by Ivanchuk, in a 1992 rapid game against Karpov (don’t think I was aware of this during the game). Black will always recapture on e6 with the pawn, while white can also try something like 11.0-0-0!? (as in Vachier Lagrave-Nabaty, 2012). 11.Nxc6+ Cruz thought over 20 minutes on this. White might as well inflict the tripled pawns on black, not being afraid of black’s tripled “extra pawn” (while arguing his kingside pawn majority is potentially better than black’s crippled queenside majority). bc6

Not the prettiest queenside pawn structure for black (aren’t the tripled c-pawns called “Irish pawns”?), but for now it’s an “extra pawn”. This is a bit of a confusing position to conceptually grasp, even if it should be dynamically equal. Guess an important thing is that the c-pawns control some useful squares and somewhat restrict white’s actions. Even if I knew in theory it should be fine, playing with tripled pawns felt kind of scary at the board. 12.0-0-0+ This natural move is strictly speaking a novelty, though already at the board I was having trouble recalling specifics despite my decision to play this position (was aware of 12.f4 g6). The main move is 12.f4, against which black plays 12…g6 (then 13.0-0-0+ Ke7). In the game I ended up getting better than this (somewhat defensive) structure on the kingside. Ke7 13.Be2 White can revert to 13.f4, when 13…g6 would transpose to 12.f4 g6. Guess black has an additional option like 12…Ng4 (not sure if I would’ve played it). Nd7 A natural redeployment of the knight, while creating new possibilities like meeting 14.f4 with …f6 (rather than …g6). 14.Rd4 Nb6 The biggest problem with this move was that I spent over 40 minutes to play it. Now I had 35 minutes (plus 30 seconds increment per move) to reach move 40. So, little over a minute per move, while he had over an hour on his clock here. Fortunately I was able to pick up the pace, over the subsequent course of play, and even avoid severe time pressure. I think my problem was not so much a specific issue in this position, but more my general concerns about such structure and the strategic risk(s). It did scare me that trading both pairs of rooks could be better for white, maybe even winning (though that’s a bit far fetched). Just the thought, that his 2 queenside pawns hold my 4 (thank you, tripled pawns), whereas he has a healthy looking 4 against 3 on the kingside with his extra e-pawn. 14…Nb6 defending the c4-pawn looked so natural but I was asking myself things like “Does my knight really want to go there?” “doesn’t it want the option to go to c5 (or e5)”? Also, is taking on c4 actually an immediate threat? Well yes it is. The reply …c5 runs into Nd5+. A move like 14…Rhd8 came into mind, when taking on c4 is not so strong due to 15.Bxc4 Bxc4 16.Rxc4 Ne5 17.Ra4 Nd3+. Instead white can play 15.Rhd1 when black should play 15…Nb6 but that’s when “my fear” of trading both rooks came into play (though it should be rather balanced here, as how will white really make progress on the kingside or find ways to penetrate?). Still, 14…Nb6 is very logical. It secures the c4-pawn. 15.Rhd1 g5 This looked like a positionally desirable move, something to play on principle when given a chance. I exploited white’s omission of f4 and now it’s tough for him to do anything with his kingside pawns. I might even consider doing a “minority attack” of sorts, such as with …h5. 16.g3 White took about 15 minutes on this. Renews the idea of f4, though the open g-file upon exchanging on f4 should benefit black. f6 Spent 5 minutes on this and have about half an hour left. 16…g4 trying to fix the f-pawn should be viable but didn’t really want to work out the consequences of 17.e5 (followed by maybe pushing the f-pawn anyway). Was kind of trying to not make unclear changes to the structure beyond this point. 17.f4 He took over 15 minutes on this. Not so promising really, but what else? Maybe the pawn sac 17.e5!? with idea 17…fe5 18.Re4 but white can’t really hope for more than equality. gf4 18.gf4 Rhg8 19.f5 This kind of surprised me. Not a desirable positional move to make, but what else can white do? I suppose he wanted to limit my active ideas on the g-file. Bf7 20.e5 Especially, in conjunction with this. Was concerned at first about what I’d missed, but it became apparent he was just trying to get some play, even at the cost of a pawn. fe5 Now I have 25 minutes plus 30 second increment per move, so 35 minutes to reach move 40. 21.Rh4

Nd5 Took 5 minutes on this move, aiming to basically liquidate and kill off the game. Had to double check that I wasn’t getting into trouble, in any of the various sequences of captures. Had I looked harder and seriously believed I was better and not automatically been content with the first draw I saw, I probably would’ve played 21…h5! The pawn is poisoned due to 22.Bxh5?? Rh8. Black is better for sure and white will have to fight hard for a draw. Well it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback about how I should’ve played 21…h5 but I have to put everything in perspective and in context of the situation. I was likely tired, after a long (mostly successful!) tournament while having a final 9AM game. Was still most likely mentally recovering from my 40 minute freeze on move 14. Before his slightly desperate pawn sac, didn’t really think I was likely to be better. And yes, the GM norm really meant something to me. I even knew at this point who I was almost certain to play as long as I don’t lose this. To me it seemed more time efficient to work 21…Nd5 22.Bxc4 out basically to a clear draw, make sure there are no unexpected problems in the more forcing lines. Well I have to consider holding (without much drama) with black against a higher rated player trailing me by half a point as a good result and I know I felt that way, especially by clinching something so great as a GM norm. 22.Bxc4 I expected this. The game is completely equal and will soon fizzle out. “All rook and pawn endings are drawn”. Well, of course not all, but this one is for sure. Nxc3 23.bc3 Bxc4 24.Rxc4 Rad8 Spent about ten minutes to double check the soundness of this move, and ease of the draw when trading a pair of rooks, after various sequences of mutual pawn captures. 25.Rxc6 Rxd1+ 26.Kxd1 Rg2 Just intuitively, this had to be fine for me, whatever order white tries to take pawns. His next move was the last serious think of the game, over 5 minutes. All resources have been exhausted and beyond this point we played the remaining moves quickly. 27.Re6+ Kf7 28.Rxe5 Rxa2 29.Rc5 Rxh2 30.Rxc7+ Kf6 31.Rxa7 Kxf5 Draw agreed 1/2-1/2

This draw clinched my norm and kept me tied in the lead, with 6/8. It’s not every day you clinch a GM norm with a round to spare.

I forgot there was one more requirement for the GM norm: to wake up on Saturday morning in time for the 9AM game and show up in time to make a move in that game. 4 others had 6/8 and I was playing white on board 2 against a FIDE 2583 who also had 6 points. In no way did I just want to play for a draw (and a hopeful tie for first). Wanted to try treating it as a regular game and in a way the difference between win and draw for me would be bigger than the difference between draw and loss. First place here would be a huge result. I was also left with the uncertainty of how seriously he’d try for the full point as black against me. Would this Peruvian GM judge me more by my rating, or my performance in the tournament?

M Justin Sarkar (2366) – GM Jose Martinez Alcantara (2583) [E00] 10th Forni di Sopra (9), 22.06.2019

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Bg5 Come again? Whatchamacallit. OK this was something I wanted to try in a real tournament game (at least once as a surprise weapon) sometime soon, and had even reviewed some notes this morning. Fair enough, but I’d already call it a mistake. Bottom line is it was too experimental for a last round 9AM game with white, when tied for first place. I could save it for another time (or a rainy day, as they say). While occasionally (as in my draw with Ivanchuk!) I might have real personal reasons to want to experiment with something new in a serious game, I believe I lacked sufficient justification in this situation. Although I approached the game willing to take risks and provoke (or get provoked into) double-edged play, even that never quite came about. While sad, I think it’s instructive to see how quickly the GM was able to achieve the “easier side of equality”. He equalized a bit too comfortably and was able to try for more, without even taking risks (often, against strong and solid opening play by white, black has to take certain risk in order to play for more than just a draw).

Bb4+ One of a few good moves. 4.Nd2 4.Nc3 would transpose into a Leningrad Nimzo. h6 5.Bh4

This position has been tested just under 2 hundred times in published tournament practice. The main line is 5…g5 6.Bg3 Ne4 7.Ngf3 Nc6 8.a3 Bxd2+ 9.Nxd2 Nxg3 10.hg3 Nxd4 11.Ne4 when white is considered to have compensation for the pawn. Or 5…c5, and now either 6.a3 Bxd2+ 7.Qxd2 or 6.dc5. But after thinking over 10 minutes my opponent chose the best scoring move that has been played less than ten percent of the time. 0-0!? Both 5…c5 and especially 5…g5 are rather concrete decisions. But incredibly, I was clueless what to do against castling as I’d failed to ask myself what happens if black just castles. It can be easy to neglect to ask oneself such questions, especially in an early morning rush. Still not even sure I know the answer! Incredibly there are no examples to follow from any high rated players let alone GMs. 6.a3 Even this might be slightly inaccurate, as the bishop actually WANTS to go back to e7. It’s a bit more stable there whereas the queen knight is misplaced on d2 instead of c3. 6.e3 or 6.Nf3 are alternatives. Be7! 7.e3 7.e4 d5 (or 7…d6!?) is risky to say the least, while behind in development. 7.Nf3 might be a slight improvement, though as we’ll see I had other ideas in mind. b6 I anticipated this, but had no good solution in mind. 8.Be2 Took ten minutes on this but my idea is too creative and can only risk a worse game. Bb7 9.Bf3 This feels a bit too artificial. After 9.Ngf3 black has no problems whatsoever but it seems like a more normal position. d5 Played in 5 minutes. I saw and got concerned by this. Black shuts in his b7-bishop but gains central space and my bishop is clumsy on f3. 10.cd5 ed5 Recapturing with the knight or bishop equalizes but this is more challenging. 11.Rc1 The first tactical point is that 11.Ne2? runs into 11…g5! 12.Bg3 g4. Nbd7 12.Bg3?! This clumsy move is suspicious. White should just try 12.Ne2! with the idea on 12…g5 13.Bg3 g4 to sac a bishop for two pawns with a not so clear position. c5 13.Ne2 Ne4

14.dc5? An early morning oversight, but really such a terrible move in many ways. Somehow white has to take on e4 and hope to not be worse by very much. Ndxc5 15.Nb3 Wanted to castle, but of course that drops an exchange to taking on d2 followed by 16…Nb3. Ng5 16.Nbd4 Nxf3+ 17.Nxf3 Ba6 18.0-0 Rc8

19.Nfd4? A real lemon. This knight does not belong here. Much better is a move like 20.Rc3! trying to untangle with Re1 or Be5 (or maybe 20.Be5!?).

Qd7 20.f3? This just seriously weakens white, especially the e3-pawn. 20.b4 had to be tried, even though after 20…Ne4 I’d rather be black. Bg5 21.Bf4 Bf6! Even stronger than doubling the white pawns on f4. Spent most of my remaining time here trying to find a way to continue, but it’s too late to offer white good advice. 22.b4 Bxd4 23.ed4 Nd3 24.Rxc8 Bxc8 25.Bg3 Qc6 26.Qd2 Qc2 27.Qxc2 Rxc2 28.b5 Bxb5 29.Rb1 Rxe2 30.Rxb5 Rb2! 31.Rxb2 Nxb2 32.Bb8 Hastens the end, but it’s lost. a5 33.Bc7 Nc4 34.a4 Kf8 35.Kf2 Ke7 36.Ke2 Kd7 White resigns 0-1

With this win, my opponent captured clear first place with 7/9. The others with 6/8 drew. I was left with the 9th place prize and my GM norm certificate. As much as the young Peruvian GM deserves credit, for beating me and winning the tournament outright with a very high GM performance and 18 point rating gain from 2583, I really think this was a brain malfunction for me. At least, I didn’t try to do an AlphaZero with h4-h5-h6. After my accomplishment, maybe somehow it was tough to be in the most focused mindset to play a 9AM game against a GM who *might* try to beat me with black due to my much lower rating (clear first in a tournament like this might be a career accomplishment for a GM, while a tie for first with 5 people and win on tiebreaks is nothing extraordinary). Still I hope it was instructive to see how he was able to go about it without even taking risks, after my overly experimental play. I took one liberty too many, and he rightly punished me. So my last round stupidity got me the low end of a GM norm (2602, by GM norm calculations). For the sake of tournament standing, I failed to quite take things to the finish line. Yet took it close enough to the finish line, for the sake of my extra GM norm certificate. What were the odds of doing so well as to be able to afford to lose the last one and still get a GM norm? Far exceeded expectations, along with any of my serious tournament results in the last few years. Strikingly enough, it’s tough to really attribute this result to luck. If anything, in some ways luck was against me. Had I gotten lucky and won a game by a fingerfehler or something, then I probably wouldn’t have seen anything to write home about. But I felt like I played strong and inspired chess throughout (most of) the tournament and that meant something.

Chess-results would tell you my final performance was just 2590, which is wrong. As many norm seekers themselves likely know, that site just uses a raw average when calculating rating performance, without making any adjustments. That means your performance can “go down” with a win against a low rated player. In this case, my first round opponent was rated 2091. So by GM norm calculations he gets raised to 2200. So that in itself adds 12 points to my actual performance and there you go. For some reason it bothered me, that a few people quickly looked up my performance on that site and thought I missed it, though not sure why 🙂 Well it was a rough end for sure, to a fabulous tournament. I’ll have to properly get over the bitter aftertaste produced by the last game and hope it helped to write about it along with certain lessons, while acknowledging credit to my opponent where it’s due.

Funnily enough, every GM norm of mine involved performing heavily with one color and just OK to slightly well with the other. In my very first GM norm I won 5/5 with black (including against 3 IMs). In my second GM norm I scored 4.5/5 with black (including beating a GM, drawing a GM, and beating an IM-elect in the final round to get the norm). In my third GM norm I scored 4/4 as white (beating a GM and 3 IMs, while doing just so-so with 2.5/5 as black). Now in this 4th GM norm I scored heavily with 3.5/4 as black (beating a young master, IM, GM, and drawing with a GM). My white score of 2.5/5 was OK (including, the draw with Ivanchuk!) but of course could’ve been better. It’s interesting that 3 times out of 4 my strong color was black, as I’ve usually been stronger with white. Anyway I played overall such a strong opposition this time, for 6/9 to be worth a FIDE 26 hundred performance.

My real task ahead will be the rating climb to FIDE 2500. That will of course require increased consistency. As my ceiling seems quite high, I’ll probably have to raise my baseline performances. Easy to say, and I think we all struggle with consistency to a certain degree. By the way I think “extra GM norms” ARE relevant. ESPECIALLY, while still an IM. Many players know firsthand how tough they are to achieve. Even if you can say I don’t strictly speaking need any more norms for my GM title application, they still DO count. Totally, 100 percent. Plus, surely a norm certificate with the name Ivanchuk is priceless.

I hope my article gave a good picture why this 4th GM norm meant something, at least to me. I’d carry on about my personal situation and elaborate more on specific personal challenges, while trying to put it in perspective with my recent accomplishment, but think I’ve covered enough ground both with the chess and my personal reflections. With this, along with my prior two parts on the tournament in Italy last month. I truly hope you enjoyed reading my detailed tournament recap, just as I truly valued putting it together and reaching out to an audience of fellow chess players. This can mean more to me than you realize.

So, what’s next? Well so far my attempted rating climb has NOT been steady. Had a rough tournament in Philadelphia at the end of June, followed by the recently finished American Continental in Brazil where I was doing well just for it to go south near the very end (11 rounds is tough, I guess!). Lost a combined total of 21 ELO points in my events. I’ll try to keep in mind something David Brodsky wrote 2 years ago, in an article on crossing 2400 for his IM title: https://chesssummit.com/2017/06/28/2400-4/ “Generally, when people get a norm, get a title, or in simple English have a big success, they very often have a bad tournament shortly after it. I don’t know why exactly that happens, but it just does”.  I don’t know why, either, but will try to take heart in this. Next up is the Pardubice Chess festival, which I’ve just begun (I do manage to get myself around). Hope to be back again, before long!

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