Quest to NM #3: Washington International Part 1

On August 8th through 15th I played in the expert section of the 7th Annual Washington International Tournament. It is fair to say that it was one of the most impressive tournaments I have every played in: the top section featured an enormous pool of very strong titled players (including numerous grandmasters), wooden boards with adequate space were provided, and rounds were limited to two per day!

Aside from the very pleasant playing conditions, the first half of the tournament could be best described as a cold shower for me. After rarely studying chess for over a month during my travels in Europe, I came back to the board with rather rusty calculation skills and a serious dent in my tactical vision.

Round 1

I got off to a shaky start in round 1 against Sathis Nath (1817 USCF, 1861 FIDE) when I played with excessive ambition, only to find myself defending a seemingly hopeless endgame:

WI Round 1 #1

Black has just played the direct 18…e5 in an attempt to dampen White’s activity along the e-file. White could easily play 19.Bd2 and try to nurture a slight spacial edge, but I instead chose the much more direct 19.dxe6 e.p. After 19…Nxe6 20.Nxe6 Rxe6 21.Qxe6+ (What else?) Bxe6 22.Rxe6 Be5 23.Bxe5 Nxe5 24.Ne3 Qf8 25.Bd5 Kg7 26.f4 Nd7?!, White has very decent compensation for the queen. However, after achieving my desired position, I made a serious strategic mistake…

WI Round 1 #2

In the following position, White has a couple of decent options: 27.Re1 is rather natural, to stop Black from trading off rooks on the e-file, while 27.f5 is in fact the most forceful and arguably strongest move. The computer offers the following sharp line to demonstrate what happens if Black tries to trade rooks: 27…Re8 28.Bxb7 Rxe6 29.fxe6 Qe7 30.exd7 Qxe3+ 31.Kg2 Qd2+ = with a draw in sight. However, in the game I played the rather poor 27.Ng4, allowing my opponent to comfortably trade off my rook on the e-file. 27…Re8  (Black is able to swap off his inactive rook for one of white’s active rooks.) 28.Rce1 Rxe6 29.Rxe6 Nb6 and Black’s position is already looking quite promising. A few moves later, my situation began to look hopeless.

WI Round 1 #3

After 34…Qxa3, Black is easily winning due to his two connected passed pawns on the queenside that will be ushered down by his queen. By some miracle, involving some help from my opponent, I was able to escape from this position alive and managed to draw the game.

Rounds 2-4

After coming so incredibly close to a round 1 loss against a significantly lower rated opponent, I played rather safe and uninspired chess in the following three rounds, finishing on 2/4 against approximately 1900-rated opposition. I knew that if I was going to make something of this tournament, I had to step up my game for the remaining five rounds. Step up my game I did!

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Quest to NM #2: Fitness and Chess

In the past year, fitness has become a critical part of my life: I am addicted to the direct and fairly linear strength progress that comes from consistent weight training. Meanwhile, my chess improvement seems to have come to a halt as I have been hovering around the low 2000 mark for quite a while, causing me to feel rather uninspired to continue working on my game. This got me thinking. If I applied the same principles from my fitness journey to my chess, could I possibly boost my results and be more consistent? Here are a couple of comparisons between chess and fitness that I have drawn up, and they seem to reveal quite a bit about how I should be approaching my chess training:

  1. Diet: There is no need for a comparison here! Just like good food is essential to nourish your body, your brain needs nutritious foods to function properly.
  2. Cardio/Endurance and Tactical Sharpness: The last thing you want during a difficult workout is to reach cardiovascular failure before muscular failure. Moreover, in a sport or competition of some kind, you won’t be able to apply your strength and skill if you are completely out of breath the whole time. This principle works the same way in chess: there is no point in having incredible positional and endgame skill if you are regularly dropping pieces or missing simple tactics. Tactical alertness is fundamentally essential for any chess player!
  3. Strength in upper body and lower body vs. strength in calculation/middlegame/endgame: In fitness it is standard to follow so called “split routines” where one works out legs on one day and upper body the next; these “splits” can be broken up in many different ways. The same principle can be applied in chess: it makes sense to concentrate fully on solving difficult tactical puzzles one day (calculation), studying a master game the next (middlegames), and finally learning endgame theory on the day after that (endgames). Splitting up chess study like this ensures that you get the most out of every session rather than jumping constantly from one aspect of the game to the next, without attaining complete focus.
  4. Consistency is key: You won’t get anywhere in fitness if you work out with intensity for 3 weeks straight, and then take a month long break, only to then repeat the cycle. Unfortunately, that is exactly what I have been doing with my chess: it simply doesn’t work! Having a set structure or plan for chess study that you follow every week will guarantee progress if you are patient.
  5. Warm up: Before a game or a difficult workout it is always a good idea to warm up and get blood flowing with some easy movements. The same is true in chess: there is no harm in solving 5-10 basic tactics before a study session or game to ensure that you are ready and focused.

While some of these points may seem very intuitive, I have found thinking about the parallels between fitness and chess to be very helpful as they have inspired me to form a chess routine that I will stick to. Until next time!

Quest to NM #1: Building Good Habits

With summer coming to an end, I have been thinking a lot lately about what I can do to facilitate chess improvement during the inevitably busy school year that lies ahead. As my daily schedule will be packed with course work and other activities, it will be quite difficult to find time for chess or even just find the motivation to put serious effort into studying the game.

When time is lacking and motivation is low, I find good habits to be a fantastic way to keep hopes of attaining a certain goal afloat. When it comes to chess, I have been working diligently on integrating a few positive habits into my daily routine that I can rely on to sustain my improvement during the upcoming school year. While I will no longer be able to study chess for large chunks of time every day like I was during the summer, smaller chess training habits will allow me to keep improving even during the busiest of times.

Training Habit #1: 30 minutes of tactics

The title explains it all: half an hour every morning of focused tactical training on an online tactics trainer. Daily tactics training is extremely beneficial because it reinforces tactical patterns that crop up perpetually in games and keeps one’s tactical eye very sharp. Since reintroducing tactical training into my daily chess routine, I have been blundering much less often and calculating more efficiently during games.

Training Habit #2: Book review

Every day after completing my tactical training, I spend about thirty minutes reviewing a lesson from the Yusupov book that I am currently studying. I strongly believe that reviewing old or previously studied material is just as important as reading new chess material because it ensures that more information is retained.

Training Habit #3: Read one chess article

Taking as little as five minutes every day to read a chess article about a recent GM tournament, a strategic principle, or a neat endgame can go a long way to maintain interest in the game. Personally, I have not only thoroughly enjoyed following but also learned a lot from articles covering recent top level events.

Over the course of the next month, I plan to stick to these three habits every day so that by the time school comes around, the three activities above will be second nature. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Preparing for the Washington International

A couple of weeks ago I made arrangements to play in my first nine-round tournament ever: the 7th Annual Washington International. Even though I will not be able to play in the top section, I am tremendously excited to play in the tournament because nine rounds against approximately equally rated opposition will be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate good form and make serious rating gains. As I do not want to let such an opportunity go to waste, my chess studies in preparation for the tournament have been more focused, intense, and consistent than ever before.

Since the beginning of June, I have split my chess practice into two basic components: tactics/calculation and book study. The calculation practice ensures that I stay sharp and improve my board visualization abilities, whereas consistent book study allows for the acquisition of new concepts that will improve my chess understanding in the long run. While this may seem like a relatively standard training regimen, some of the methods that I have found to be very effective over the course of the past month may not be known to everyone. Allow me to dissect some of my favorite training methods from the month of June:

  1. Timed calculation with a real board: Setting up difficult tactical problems from online tactical training sites on a real board, and then giving myself ten minutes to solve each tactic using a chess clock has helped me tremendously in improving my tactical ability. I believe that the use of a real board and clock significantly enhances the calculation training because it stimulates tournament conditions: better focus due to time constraints and three-dimensional element of tournament chess. It is a good idea to keep some form of a log for tactics as it can be very rewarding to track one’s progress.
  2. Reviewing book material with a chess software: Up until late December of 2017, I would study chess books over the board, moving the pieces as I flipped from page to page. While this seems like a decent method, I found that I would not absorb everything that I studied, and more importantly, I would start to forget old material after only a couple of weeks. This frustrated me because essentially only 10% of what I studied actually aided my improvement in the long run. One day, I ran across a blog post by FM Daniel Barrish. In the post, FM Barrish discussed the technique of plugging chess positions from books along with corresponding analysis into a database software. The point of this technique is not only to exploit the benefits of active learning, but more importantly to create ready-made chess lessons on one’s computer that can easily be reviewed at any point in time after having studied the material. I tried out this technique myself with Artur Yusupov’s book series that I am currently studying, and have found it to be incredibly useful. With periodic review of old lessons on my computer, my recall of material has risen tremendously.
  3. Chess note cards: The idea of chess note cards came to me recently after having used Daniel Barrish’s technique for a while, and I am already starting to experience the benefits. A few weeks ago, I printed out many positions from the exercises in Artur Yusupov’s books and glued them individually onto the front sides of note cards; I then wrote the solutions for each position on the backs of the corresponding note cards, along with the names of the two players and the setting of the game (place and date). By now I have amassed quite a large collection of note cards based on the Yusupov books and am reviewing them periodically. As a result, I am able to recognize positions in my games that reflect certain positions from a Yusupov book, and then apply the same concept that was shown in the book. I highly recommend this method because it is a fantastic form of active learning: writing the solutions on the back of the note cards as well as reviewing them periodically engages the mind actively with the given position.

IMG_2427

Note card review underway!

I apologize for the lack of actual chess content in this blog, but I will be back to playing tournament chess as soon as the Washington International comes along. Stay tuned and until next time!

Starting the Summer Strong

On Friday, June 1st, I finished my last exam for school and was ready for a fun weekend of chess: the Chess in Action Swiss in Katy, Texas. While the tournament was rather small, the player pool was quite ideal. Most players in the open section were in the expert rating range, with a few players a bit south of 2000 and one strong master.

Round 1

Things got off to a good start in Round 1, when I won smoothly as White against one of the lower rated players in the field: Abhiram Chennuru (1822 USCF, 1557 FIDE). After achieving a nice edge out of the opening, my opponent made a tactical blunder in a slightly worse position.

Me vs. Abhiram Chennuru

Instead of simply moving his queen somewhere, my opponent played the unfortunate 20…Bd4, allowing the crushing 21.Bh7+ Kh8 22.Bxd4 Qxd4 23.Rad1. White is completely winning because after 23…Qh4 24.Bf5 Black is losing serious material without any sort of compensation. It is worth noting that 20…Ne5 loses to 21.b4 followed by f2-f4, attacking the pinned knight.

Round 2

In the second round, I was paired against Anh Nhu Nguyen (1934 USCF, 1704 FIDE). I played the early middlegame in a very sloppy fashion and found myself in serious trouble after she seized the initiative on move 18 . However, I managed to complicated matters, and six moves later she erred with 24.Qg3?, allowing me to play 24…g5!

Anh Nhu Nguyen vs Me #3

I was delighted at having salvaged a terrible position. The game continued 25.Be3 (25.exf6 gxf4 26.Qc3! is a super strong idea that we both overlooked. White threatens mate with f6-f7, so Black doesn’t have time to save his bishop. 26…Nd7 27.gxf5 Rxf6 +=) 25…Bxe5 26.Bxb6 Qb8 27.Ba7

Anh Nhu Nguyen vs Me #4

 

I recognized that 27…Bxg3 leads to simple equality: 28.Bxb8 Bxb8 29.gxf5 Rxf5 30.Bxa6, with a perfectly acceptable endgame for Black. However, I instead decided to “repeat moves” with 27…Qc7??, only to realize in horror that after 28.Bd4 my queen is no longer protected by my rook and hence the d4 bishop is untouchable. After a couple minutes of checking to make sure that there were no more hidden resources, I resigned in disgust.

Round 3

After the disappointing Round 2 loss, I was ready to bounce back with a win against my first expert opponent of the tournament, William Fan (2039 USCF, 1840 FIDE). The opening was a definite success after I played the strong 12.d5, which shuts in black’s light-squared bishop for good.

Me vs. William Fan

My opponent responded 12…e5 because he recognized that 12…exd5 13.cxd5 Bxd5
(13…Nxd5?? 14.Be4 Rc7 15.Bxd5 Bxd5 16.Bxg7 Rg8 17.Qxh7 +-) 14.e4 Bb7 15.Nc4 +/- offers White tremendous compensation for the pawn as all of his pieces are active and e4-e5 is coming. After 13.Ng5 h6 14.Nge4 (14.Ne6!! was perhaps even stronger, although not quite a knockout blow. 14…fxe6 15.Bg6+ Kf8 16.dxe6 Nb6 17.f4 e4 18.Bxf6 Bxf6 19.Nxe4 +/- White only has two pawns for the piece, but the compensation is overwhelming.) (14.Nxf7 was a move that I had checked, but I rejected it in view of 14…Kxf7 15.Bg6+ Kg8 16.Qf5 White could play something like f2-f4, aiming for compensation, but that does not lead to an easy mate. 16…Nf8 -+) 14…Nxe4 15.Nxe4 O-O 16.Ng3, White’s advantage is overwhelming. The game continued to go in my favor, and I achieved an excellent endgame, which I managed to misplay in epic fashion. However, the final position of this game is most shockingly embarrassing for me in retrospect.

Me vs. William Fan #2

Here my opponent and I agreed to a draw in mutual time pressure, seeing that after the trades on h5 and g2-g3, the position would be equal. However, the rather obvious 40.Nf5 leads to a completely winning position! I still can’t fathom how both of us overlooked this move during the game. It is worth noting that 39…Bc8 instead of 39…Be8 leads to a fortress for Black because White can do nothing active except for shuffle his king around (the knight is tied down to the defense of the h-pawn).

When I went back to the hotel Saturday night with my friend, I knew that I had a lot of reflecting to do. I had played very inconsistently, sometimes calculating precisely while at other times misplaying good positions or simply blundering. My aim was just to “reset” my mind so that I would channel my most focused play on Sunday, the final day of the tournament.

Rounds 4 and 5

The second day of the tournament went much more smoothly for me. I was able to win my round 4 game against Charles Hawthorn (2060 USCF, 1784 FIDE) with the following nice tactic:

Charles Hawthorn vs. Me

26…b5! is the beginning of a tactical combination that exploits the power of the passed pawn. 27.axb5 axb5 28.Bxb5 Rxc1 29.Rxc1 d2 30.Rf1 (30.Rd1 Rxd5 -+ White can’t stop both the threats of …Bf3 and …Bc2, which would pick up the exchange and hence the game.) 30…Bf3! 0-1

In the final round of the tournament I was paired against my previous opponent’s brother, Henry Hawthorn (2049 USCF, 1675 FIDE). This time I had the white pieces and was able to get the type of middlegame position out of the opening that I enjoy playing: calm yet with nagging pressure. After 24.Bg2, it was clear that my opponent was starting to feel uncomfortable as he struggled to find a clear plan while I slowly improved my position.

Me vs. Henry Hawthorn

Ten moves later I was more or less winning:

Me vs. Henry Hawthorn #2

After 34.Bc1 Bxc1 35.Rxc1, black’s defensive task is close to impossible. The game continued 35…b5 36.Ke3 Bd5 37.Bxe4 (37.c5 +- followed by Bxe4 also wins, although the conversion process would probably take a bit longer.) 37…bxc4 38.Bxd5 exd5 39.bxc4 dxc4 (39…Rxc4 40.Rxc4 dxc4 41.d5 +- is an easily winning king and pawn endgame for White.) 40.Rc3 +-, and my opponent resigned twenty-five moves later.

Reflections

While I was certainly disappointed with some individual moments from the tournament, such as my blunder in Round 2 and draw in Round 3, the end result was undoubtedly a good one as I gained 19 rating points, moving from 2011 to 2030. However, the overall quality of my play in terms of calculation and intuition was even more pleasantly surprising than the actual end result. I am confident that my play will continue to improve as long as I maintain my current work ethic in the long summer months to come.