Chess vs. College

Now that I’m a freshman in college, I’ve realized one of many things: I don’t have any. Time. Whatsoever. I find myself everyday running around between classes or going to and from the library hoping to find a nice quiet table (or one crowded with my friends) to study at or marching myself to my dorm – which, lucky me, is the only one off campus.

What baffles me is I have so many friends who still play chess in college – but how? Where in the world do you have the time? A time-turner? Was there a time machine especially made for chess players that I just wasn’t notified about? (if so, please let me know asap) With the chess Olympiads going on right now, I thought of how a grandmaster friend of mine was returning to college basically a month and a half late in order to play. A month and a half. For a freshman, that work would be overwhelming – but for a sophomore? I can’t even imagine.

Some of us are lucky, we have a chess team in our school or at least a club to just remind ourselves of how much we love the game. But some of us not so much. In fact, its up to me this year to create a chess community here, at Swarthmore. I will say though, the support from the people I’ve met here are amazing – everyone is astounded by the fact that I play, enthusiastic about the prospect of a chess club and maybe a team, and amazed that the competing chess community was so large.

Chess vs College.jpeg
Webster University Chess Team

So originally I was going to write about the Olympiads, but recently while working at my part time job, I realized just how great the college community is about embracing the game of chess and just had to write something about it. To thank everyone who’s supported me and everyone else who writes here on ChessSummit, and to just say to our younger readers – don’t give up, no matter your skill level chess is a game that will live with you forever.

Our Inner Underdog Selves

For those caught up with the recent chess events, you’ll know that Wesley So of Webster University won the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, staying half a point in front of the field from round 7 and onward. Wesley So actually began the tournament as the fifth seed out of ten people – right in the middle of the field. Now, of course, this being one of the prestigious tournaments in the Grand Chess Tour, everyone in the field is around the same level: the top of the top. But in a way he had it different, finishing in last place the previous year. Wesley So truly made an amazing comeback.


Most of us can only ever dream to be at the top of the world like the players at the tournament, but (hopefully) we can usually relate to what Wesley must have felt going into the tournament: the feeling of being the underdog – nothing to lose and experience to gain. It’s that feeling of being the ‘expected loser’ that gives us that adrenaline and courage to play those crazy, and sometimes brilliant moves that help us clinch wins or transform losses to salvageable positions.

I remember when I first breached that sacred barrier between 1900 and 2000 – it was my first tournament in 2011, where I beat an expert, a master, and drew a master in a quad. Growing up, I always played up a section – I was that fearless little girl who played the king’s gambit and constantly had my pawns extended towards my opponents king. I took risks. Risks that mostly paid off because my size and rating combination frightened my opponents.

So naive little me thought, “Now that I’m 2000, I should totally play in the open section at Liberty Bell this year! It’ll be fun!” Nope. Not fun. Out of seven games, I got 2.5 points – a bye, and a draw and win against two other experts. Sure, I didn’t do horribly, but my self-esteem was basically gone. I played the same kind of chess – but those who truly belonged in the Open Section had the experience that made it evident I was either bluffing or just playing unstable chess.

Sure, sometimes we have brilliant performances playing in the sections above us – but a question we really need to ask ourselves is “Can I beat those people lower rated than me if I were to play them?” Maybe you can – perfect! I strongly encourage continuing to play up to gain experience (unless you’re trying to win money of course). However, if you’re like me and you have a rather poor score against those lower rated than you, consider playing in your own section for once. Sometimes it’s necessary to lose and realize the necessity of creating a strong foundation for your rating. For me, it was accepting the fact that I needed to learn to beat those lower rated than me before challenging those higher rater that finally helped stabilize my performance and allow me to reach 2100 after four very long years.

To truly succeed as an underdog in a section, it’s necessary to build a solid foundation so that we don’t waste our points losing to those lower rated than us.

Engine Shmengine?

Since it’s inception, chess has evolved a great deal with the emergence of computer engines. In fact, many opening variations have fallen out of fashion due to undesirable engine evaluations, and overall, the increasingly detail-oriented nature of chess has led many to be dependent upon the computer, to a fault. In particular, GM’s hold engines to a very high standard, regarding both preparation and self-evaluation. When I was in St. Louis, I met multiple GM’s and caught up with others, including Fabiano Caruana, Alejandro Ramirez, Eric Hansen, and Robin van Kampen. I remember I was at a cafe with them once and Robin explained to me how essential computers are to preparation – in fact it is so important to have a powerful computer that he is linked through a cloud-like program to a computer in Europe. GM’s however are different from us – their mistakes are made in relation to slight nuances in the position, so a computer evaluation is often necessary. But with the vast majority of players under the GM level, mistakes are made based on an understanding (or lack thereof) of seemingly simplistic principles. As such, it is significantly more instructive for these players to look at their games without the use of an engine. In finding your own mistakes and the reasons for which they are mistakes, you can hope to improve your understanding of your faults and avoid similar mistakes in the future. Going through this process helps the principles stick in your memory a great deal more than a quick engine evaluation. Complete dependence on a computer is in a way giving yourself all the answers to the questions you would pose during your analysis. In this case, the common phrase “learn from your mistakes” is applicable; it’s rather hard to learn from being given all the answers.

Here are two of my own games which show the importance of using one’s own analysis before an engine evaluation, the first against Maggie Feng (top girl under the age of 20) and Emily Nguyen (the winner of the 2016 US Girls Closed):

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Ba6 5. Qa4 Be7 (5… Bb7 The mainline,which leads to a slightly different pawn structure. However, the game variation is by no means a serious mistake 6. Bg2 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. O-O O-O 9. Nc3 Be7)

Maggie 1
Position after 5. Qa4

6. Bg2 Bb7 7. O-O O-O 8. Nc3 c5 9. dxc5 bxc5 10. Rd1 d6 (10… Qb6 Possibly a better variation, anticipating the weakness of the d-pawn and preparing to provide support with Rd8 11. Bf4 Rd8)

Maggie 2
Position after 10. Rd1

11. Bf4 Here, just by turning on the engine, one can see that white has a slight advantage after … Qb6. However, taking a look at the position without the use of an engine can facilitate a better understanding of why my next move was a mistake. When looking at any position for the first time, it’s important to identify what the weaknesses are, what the worst-placed piece is, and what your opponents ideas are. In this position, the obvious weakness is on d6. The worst placed piece is not entirely evident yet, but it’s clear black should aim to activate the rooks and get the queen off the d-file. White’s idea is to pressure the d-pawn. But, after paying more attention to this weakness, one can see that white also has a tactical threat with Bxd6 (as played in the game). By going through the process of pinpointing the weaknesses, the worst pieces, and white’s concrete threats, the obvious continuation becomes …Qb6 (eliminating the threat of Bxd6 and preparing to support the d-pawn with the f8 rook). In this case, it is important to analyze the position without the use of an engine, because identifying the reasons for which the mistake was made with  one’s own analysis can help to reinforce positional concepts and prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future.} 11… Nh5?

Maggie 3
Position after 11… Nh5?


12. Bxd6 Bxd6 13. Nb5 Bc6 14. Ne1 (14. Qb3!) 14… a6 15. Bxc6 Nxc6 16. Nxd6 Nd4 17. Ne4 Nxe2+ 18. Kf1 Nd4 19. Nxc5 +-

Maggie 4
Final Position

Here, down a pawn and with the more misplaced pieces, I went on to lose the game. 1-0

By conducting my own analysis of this game without the use of an engine, I discovered that by taking a closer look at my opponent’s ideas and my own piece placement, I could have avoided the mistake I made. This is important, as it means that I need practice with prophylactic play.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. g4 h6 7. h3!? Not the mainline, but aiming to get a similar game to the h3 najdorf, which I’ve also played. Nc6 8. Bg2 (8. Be3 +=) 8… d5?! Black would be best advised to just continue developing. After the game continuation, the isolated pawn on d5 becomes a weakness on which I was able to put pressure. (8… Bd7 9. Be3 Ne5 = An equal, but dynamic position)

Emily 1
Position after 8… d5

9. exd5 Nxd5 10. Nxd5 exd5 11. O-O Be7 12. c3 O-O 13. Be3 Bf6 14. Ne2 Be6

Emily 2
Position after 14… Be6

A critical position. Here, turning on the engine would show you that white has a solid advantage after Nf4. But again, taking a look at a position with your own eyes and identifying the reasons for a mistake can help to a significantly greater extent in finding the trends in your mistakes and avoiding them in the future. In this position, again, it’s important to first look at the weaknesses, the worst-placed piece, and black’s ideas. The obvious weakness is the isolated pawn on d5. White’s worst-placed piece is not obvious, though the rooks and knight don’t have much of a role yet. Black does not have any apparent threats in the position – most likely to just continue with development. Considering the weakness on d5 however, white’s plan should clearly be to continue putting pressure on it. Therefore, the obvious move appears to be Nf4, activating the knight, and putting additional pressure on the isolated pawn. The game continuation didn’t give up all of the advantage, but it was a positional mistake. By going through the analytical process described, white’s best plan becomes more obvious. 15. f4?! The idea behind this is obvious, but it proves problematic in a few moves; it weakens the kingside and takes away the best square for the knight. (15. Nf4!) 15… Qe7

Emily 3
Position after 15… Qe7

My next move was a mistake which could have been avoided by carefully looking at my opponent’s ideas and the vulnerability of my own pieces. Black’s last move aims to tactically take advantage of the unprotected Bishop on e3 with …Bxg4. This leaves me with two options; Qd2 to protect the bishop, and Bf2 to avoid the threat altogether. Qd2 was what I played in the game, but by looking more closely at black’s idea, it’s evident that after … Re8, the same threat still stands, and in this case, Bf2 is not longer possible because of the hanging knight on e2. Thus, the prophylactic Bf2 is the best continuation, avoiding any sort of discovered attack down the e-file. 16. Qd2 $6 Rfe8 17. Rf3 d4 18. Bxd4

Emily 4
Final Position

And the game ended in a draw after several more exchanges, ending in a rook and minor piece endgame. 1/2-1/2

As was the case with the last game, in this game, better awareness and anticipation of my opponent’s ideas in particular could have helped me avoid the mistakes I made. Fortunately for me, this makes a trend fairly obvious, and it’s something I can hone in on to improve.

With new and improved engines constantly being released nowadays, it’s easy to get caught up in relying on the machine. The reality though, is that in looking at your own games, you are your own best evaluator. The process of identifying your own mistakes, the reasons for those mistakes, and practice material to fix your weaknesses makes learning and improving tremendously easier. This task, of course, requires quite a lot of self-discipline – the urge to turn on an engine and simplify the analysis is very tempting at times. But the payoff for doing your own analysis is more than worth the time put into it.

SPFGI Take Two

After playing chess for maybe a year in the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, I stared in amazement as I arrived at the Susan Polgar Girls National Open tournament in Corpus Christi, Texas. There were ballrooms upon ballrooms of just rows of tables with chess sets on top. There, I played and won my first ever all-girls tournament – well, I tied for first, but that’s close enough for a nine year-old who was the only one able to defeat the first seed. For the first time ever, I just knew that chess was what I wanted to do, not dance or gymnastics or any other ‘girly’ activity.

SPFGI rd 4 022.JPG

That was 2007. Five years later, I found myself invited to be the New Jersey representative for the Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational. In those five years, I never played in an all-girls tournament outside of the local New Jersey Girls Junior – where the open section was maybe ten people on a good year. When I arrived at the St. Louis airport for the first time ever, I felt that heart-wrenching pressure to win as the top seed. But something was different when I stepped on campus and the pre-tournament events began. For the first time ever, I was there not to win, not to just eat, sleep, chess. I went into the tournament with no friends, and just one acquaintance who I had met while in Greece for the World Youth Chess Championships two years prior. I came out of the tournament with at least a dozen new friends, most of which I still keep in touch with even today.

Five days ago, I again found myself here, in St. Louis. When I first accepted the invitation, all my friends asked me why I would even consider returning – it’s my last summer before college and I’ve already won the title, so why take that week out of my life to come back and risk losing that 2100 rating I’d finally achieved after four years? Shouldn’t I be relaxing on a beach somewhere, enjoying my last taste of freedom before I become shackled to college life? To be honest, I asked myself these questions even while I was on the flight here, but as I settled into my dorm room, I remembered the excitement of the tournament, the friendliness of the organizers and the fellow players and I knew I made the right decision to come back.

SPFGI Blitz 063.JPG
Round 4 of the Blitz Side-Event

In a way, it feels only right that I end my scholastic career here at the 13th annual Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational after launching it at the foundation’s National Open nine years earlier. It’s taught me that tournaments are not just a battleground – it’s a place to experience immersing oneself in chess completely for the first time ever, or a place to realize you’re not the only girl who loves this game, even if you are the only one in your school or even state. The SPFGI is an event that inspires, not only pushing me to keep playing chess, but also pushing me to promote chess with the NJ All-Girls Chess Camp.

Meeting a new Najdorf

Opening theory in chess is constantly evolving. However, being the stubborn person I am, my personal repertoire has barely changed since I first began playing tournament chess. Never the type to want to learn and understand extensive theory, I relied upon relatively rare lines to throw my opponents off. For example, I have always played 6. h3 against the Najdorf Sicilian, and while this opening worked beautifully in the beginning of my chess career, its efficiency has decreased as the line itself became more well-known and as I reached a higher level of play.

h3 Najdorf
Position after 6.h3

About two weeks ago, I was participating in the US Girls Junior Championship, where ten of the top girls under the age of 20 are invited to play in a round robin tournament. There, I had three games against the Najdorf and while I won two out of the three games, the game where I lost made me realize that with the right preparation, I could easily be outplayed straight from the opening. This realization made it evident that I needed to learn something new against the Najdorf. Upon asking around and researching on my own, I’ve realized that not only has opening theory itself changed, but so has the way in which we acquire opening knowledge.  Recently, grandmasters have been using correspondence games as a source for opening theory. In the annotations for a game between Caruana and Gelfand (which was, in part the inspiration for the subject of this article), Caruana says of his 14th move, “This had been played before by correspondence players. I didn’t fully understand the move, but I figured I should listen to them!”

In looking through correspondence games myself, I found a recurring variation in the Najdorf that seems to be gaining popularity; the 8…h5 variation in the Be3 Najdorf. The variation itself is very suitable for correspondence chess as it entails a lot of positional maneuvering and long-term planning. While I am not the most positional player, I still find the variation appealing due to its constricting nature, as white essentially aims to eliminate black’s counter-play.


Najdorf h5
Position after 8…h5

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e5 One of the mainlines — the others being …e6 and …Ng4 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 h5 A trending line nowadays. The obvious goal is to stop white’s king-side expansion; one of the central ideas in the mainline with opposite-side castling. The old mainline is 8…Be7 9. Qd2 O-O 10. O-O-O with white aiming for a king-side attack and black aiming for a queen-side attack (See Anand – Topalov, Stavanger 2013). 9. Qd2 Nbd7 10. Nd5 Bxd5 The more common variation – here white pursues similar goals to the variation with the knight taking instead: 10… Nxd5 11. exd5 Bf5 12. Na5.

Najdorf Na5
Position  after 12. Na5

The idea behind this variation is that white will opt for queen-side expansion with c4, b4, a4, and eventually a break with c5. Black will often opt for central play with an eventual e4 in conjunction with potential king-side play. In this position, the key recent game at the GM level was between Caruana and Nakamura (while Na5 is moved later in this game, it serves as the inspiration for the earlier Na5 line). Here, black has three main options: Be7, Qc7, and Rb8. Against 12…Be7, white should play normally as black is not creating any eminent threats. For 12… Rb8, white should make sure to stop black’s counter-play before developing naturally: 13. a4 Be7 14. Nc4 O-O 15. Be2

Najdorf f4
Position after 18. f4!

With 12… Qc7 13. c4 b6 (13… Be7 14. Rc1 Rc8, although 14…e4 is probably an improvement over the game
continuation (Zakhartsov -Bratus, Voronezh 2008), but white still holds a slight edge after Be2, 0-0, and b4 with the same queen-side expansion.) 14. Nc6 Nb8 15. Nxb8 Rxb8 16. Be2 Be7 (16… g6 Here, a game between two masters: Madl and Gerard, illustrates the queen-side expansion that is essential to white’s opening strategy). 17. O-O Bg6 18. f4! +=


Najdorf g4.png
1-0 Jensen – Krivic, ICCF 2014

Now, let’s return to what happens if the bishop takes back: 11. exd5 g6. Here, 11…Qc7 is also possible, to be followed by 12. c4. Should black play 12…g6, white should try to relocate his knight to its ideal square on c6 via c2 and b4. Another possible continuation is 12…a5 13. a4 b6 14. Bd3 g6 15. O-O Bg7. Here, white’s plan deviates as it becomes difficult to pursue queen-side play as black has locked down the b4 and c5 squares. White’s attention thus shifts to the center and king-side:  16. Rae1 O-O 17. Nc1 Nc5 18. Bc2 Na6 19. b3 Nb4 20. Bb1 Na6 21. Ne2 Nd7 22. Bh6 Qd8 23. Nc3 f5 24. Nb5 Nac5 25. Bc2 Qe7 26. Be3 h4 27. g4 (1-0 Jensen,E (2495)-Krivic,D (2528) ICCF 2014). 12. Be2 Bg7 13. O-O b6 14. Rac1 O-O 15. h3 Re8.

Najdorf Rc3
Position after 12. Rc3 +=

Caruana recommends 15…Nh7, but after 
16.c4 f5 17. Bd3 Bf6 18. f4 exf4 19. Bxf4 Be5 20. Bxe5 Nxe5 21. Nd4 Qf6 22. Bb1 Rae8 23. Rc3 
+= White’s knight has two potential squares on c6 and e6 and the queen-side majority yields an advantage. Should black play 15…Qc7, white should focus more on the center and king-side (A worthy game to look into is Jónsson,D (2538)-Magalhães,L (2540) ICCF 2014).


16. c3 While 16. c4 might seem more logical, it lacks a future after a5. 16…Kh7 (16…Qc8 17. Kh2 Qc7 18. g4 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 20. Nxc5 bxc5 21. g5 Nd7 22. Bd

Najdorf Qc7.png
Position after 17. Qc7

3 += Black’s bishop is essentially trapped by his own pawns and white has the bishop pair and more space) 17. Rfe1 Qc7 (17…Ng8 is met with 18. g4 Bh6 19. g5 Bg7 20. Bd3 Ne7 21. Be4 Rc8 22. Kh2 with white looking to relocate the knight on b3 and looking for more play on the queen-side) 18. Bf1 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 (19…Qc7 20. a4 Qb7 21. Kh2 e4 22. f4 Rac8 23. Kg1 Ra8 24. c4 Nc5 25. Nd4 Nfd7 26. Qc2 Bxd4 27. Bxd4 a5 28. Re3 Rac8 29. b3 += 

Najdorf b3.png
Position after 29. b3 +=

White has an advantage with the bishop pair and a more favorable pawn structure) 20. Nxc5 bxc5
21. Bc4 e4 22. f4 Nd7 
(22…Ng8 23. Bf2 Rab8 24. b3 f5 25. Be3 Ne7 26. Rb1 a5 27. Red1 While white does not necessarily have an advantage here, his position is easier to play with space, the bishop pair, and a potential break on b4) 23. Bb3 Qb5

Najdorf Bb3.png
Position after 23…Qb5

(23… Rab8 24. Ba4 Red8 25. Rb1 f5 26. Bc6 Qc7 27. Qe2 a5 28. Rec1 += White has a tiny advantage here with better placed pieces, the bishop pair, and a queen-side majority) 24. c4 Qb4 25. Qxb4 cxb4 26. Ba4 Rad8 27. Re2 += In this endgame, white has a small edge and should be trying to play g3, move the king towards the center, place the light-squared bishop on c6 and play for a c5 break. Should …Nc5 happen, which should capture with the dark-squared bishop and then double rooks on the d-file and push through using the d-pawn.

Najdorf final position.png
Final Position

Overall, the …h5 variation poses an interesting problem to white, as he or she must switch strategies from the traditional king-side attack to a more positional game in the center and on the queen-side. In the Nxd5 variation, the knight maneuver Na5 to c4 in conjunction with a4 and queen-side play is essential to white’s strategy. White should also aim to contain black’s central counter-play with a timely f4. In the Bxd5 variation, white’s plans are more long-term and often the queen-side pursuit will not work out, in which case, one must focus one’s attention on the center and king-side. In many variations, white does not necessarily have an advantage, but the bishop pair and extra space provide for easier play and a potential advantage in the transition to the endgame. The variation on the whole contains fascinating positional planning, and has become a line I can’t wait to try in tournament play.




Static Growth

Hey everyone ~ For those of you that don’t know me (let’s be honest, that’s probably all of you), I’ve been playing chess for around 10 years now, qualifying for numerous tournaments as a representative of both my state and the U.S. at the National Girls Invitational Tournament and the World Youth Chess Championships respectively.


Compared to all those young prodigies that occupy the top scholastic ranks nowadays, I started chess relatively late – at the age of 8. And for almost an entire year, I lost just about every single game I played. No joke – I spent most of 2nd grade as the worst player in my elementary school’s chess club. While I ascended to expert level relatively quickly after I finally learned how to checkmate, my years in high school have kept me there – it wasn’t until this last April that I finally reached 2100.

Now, you’re probably thinking ,”Oh, she must have had more time to study or gotten a new coach or something to get to 2100!” I wish that were true (as it’d make going forward easier), but that’s not what happened. At all. Going into my senior year of high school, I hadn’t had a coach for around two years, I barely studied chess (if at all) since I was preoccupied with college applications, and I had previously decided that rather than focus on tournaments, I was going to devote my time to the NJ All-Girls Chess Camp that I had just founded. If anything, the only “change” that I committed to was growing older (which, let’s face it, wasn’t even a choice).

However, against all odds this past March/April, I performed at master level at both Philadelphia Open and High School Nationals and broke 2100. But how? Maybe I magically adopted a better understanding of chess. Or maybe I was just incredibly lucky two tournaments in a row.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that even if your rating is not going up, the experiences you get help you improve, and the pressure that comes from performance expectations doesn’t help. All we can do as chess players is take the games one at a time, and worry about what move to make next.