How Much Fun is Enough?

In a more casual setting at a local G/45 tournament last weekend, I took the opportunity to play some stranger openings that I don’t attempt in more serious play. Unfortunately, I took this a little too far when I barely managed to draw a 1192 (he was playing quite well for his rating, but still). In fairness, I wasn’t the only one (a fellow master lost to a 1377 who wasn’t scared off by an unsound Scandinavian gambit), and this incident was not really because of the opening (which began with 1. g3 h5!? 2. e4 h4). Ultimately, everything seems to come down to how one plays regular chess.

That disaster left me a chance to redeem myself against the only sane high-rated player left in the field, NM Franklin Chen. However, I was intrigued by his assumption that I would play the Closed Sicilian as White, and wanted to switch things up a little. But Franklin turned out to be a step ahead, surprising my 1. e4 with 1…e6.

Psychologically, that was not acceptable, and Franklin knows his openings very well, so I had to think up a good alternative to 2. d4. I ultimately settled on 2. Qe2!?.

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Li – Chen: after 2. Qe2

I’ve only seen one game in this line, but from what I understand the point is to hinder …d5, as Black would much rather take back with the e-pawn. In the only game that I’ve seen, the game continued 2…Be7 3. b3 d5 4. Bb2 Bf6 (4…Nf6 5. exd5 exd5 6. Bxf6 gxf6 leaves Black with riddled pawns) 5. e5 with a lot of space for White.


So Black decided to go back to a “closed” Sicilian after all, and after a few moves it’s clear I lost the opening battle (at least psychologically). Qe2 makes White’s development a bit smoother after g3/Bg2/O-O/etc. but that didn’t look very interesting. I tried to play for d4.

3. b3?! Nc6 4. Nf3 e5

I usually don’t think very highly of locking up the dark squares like this, but it’s so hard for White to play d4 here that it makes a lot of sense. Again, I still tried to stick to d4.

5. Nf3 d6 6. h3 g6 7. Na3?

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Li – Chen: after 7. Na3

Consistent at least, but admittedly way too slow (still going for Na3-c2/d4). However, …f5 is coming.

7…Bg7 8. c3 Nge7 9. Rd1

White is almost ready to play d4, but Black can play 9…f5!, threatening …fxe4 followed by …d5 with a big advantage. This can be done over the next few moves, but ultimately Black delays it too long.

9…O-O 10. Bg2 a6 11. O-O b5?! 12. Nc2 Bb7?

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Li – Chen: after 12…Bb7

This was Black’s last chance to get ahead with …f5, and with the d4 push, White is equal again.

13. d4 exd4 14. cxd4 Re8 15. Qd3 f5?!

Would have been a great idea little earlier, but now this looks rather suspect. Since Black’s bishop isn’t defending the weak light squares on the kingside, White has a lot of potential Ng5/Bd5/similar ideas.

16. Ng5

Threatening the devastating Ne6/Nxg7; relatively best, in hindsight, is 16…Bf6.


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Li – Chen: after 16…Nc8

Since this was a pretty fast game, I totally missed this, which is bad because White’s knight is nearly trapped; even if it moves (e.g. 17. h4 h6 18. Nh3) Black wins the e4-pawn because of the Bb7’s indirect attack on the e4-pawn. Of course, Black’s kingside is not held together very well, so simply sacrificing the knight and opening the f/g-files gives White (at least) decent compensation. I decided to sac the knight and hope for the best. It turns out that this is very sound.

17. f4! h6

Probably not objectively best, but it’s reasonable for Black to make White prove the attack at this point. Bailing out with 17…fxe4 leads to 18. Bxe4 Nb4 19. Nxb4 Bxe4 20. Nxe4 cxb4 where 21. f5 is unlikely to end well for Black.

18. exf5 hxg5 19. fxg5 Qxg5

Otherwise, it’s virtually impossible to defend g6 after 20. f6.

20. h4!

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Li – Chen: after 20. h4

A few other moves work too, but this, which I first saw after 19. fxg5, looks the simplest. If Black tries to hold onto g6 (as in the game), White just storms ahead with the f-pawn. Otherwise, f5-f6 followed by Qxg6+ is game over.

Black chose to just give up the e8 rook, but this leaves White up the Exchange with a still massive attack, so the rest of the game was relatively straightforward.

20…Qg4 21. f6 N8e7 22. f7+ Kh7 23. fxe8=Q Rxe8 24. Rf4 Qd7 25. Rf7 Kg8 26. Raf1 Nd8

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Rxg7+ have been rather tempting for a while, but allowing Black to block the a1-h8 diagonal complicated matters a little. With that option gone, White mates in a few moves.

27. Rxg7+ Kxg7 28. dxc5+ Kg8 29. Qc3 Nf6 30. Qh8+ Kf7 31. Qg7+ Ke6 32. Qf6#


When to (not) Break Out …f6?

If you play the French often enough, you have probably seen the …f6 break as a common theme to equalize space. One common example comes from the 3. Nd2 Tarrasch main line:

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After 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. Bd3 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ne2 cxd4 8. cxd4

Here, Black can eliminate the cramping e5-pawn with 8…f6 with good piece play and open f-file, at the cost of a somewhat bad bishop and backward e-pawn.

However, there are many different variations and subvariations in which one can consider an …f6 break (in non-Tarrasch lines as well), and suffice to say that not all of them are good. Admittedly, I’m not an expert in the French, and I’m not sure how much studying one would have to do to cover all of these scenarios. My personal advice is to not break out …f6 when in doubt, since it does create weaknesses and in many cases can be delayed with few major consequences.

It’s easy to take the …f6 break for granted in lines like the above, but it does weaken Black’s center (two hanging pawns) and king. It (more or less) works for Black in the above Tarrasch because White’s pieces are not well-developed enough to take advantage of the weaknesses too soon and Black is positioned well to defend and even counter-attack due to the open lines created by …f6.

On the other hand, consider this position I recently happened upon from a Pittsburgh weekend tournament game between two experts:

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After 7. Be3

Black played 7…f6 here. At first it doesn’t look too bad because the center is relatively closed and White hasn’t castled. But White’s pieces are much more developed here than in the first example, so attacking the d5/e6-pawns is a lot easier. Note that White hasn’t committed the light-squared bishop and still has the option of g3/Bh3.

That wasn’t Black’s only mistake, but it quickly made things more difficult for Black. After the natural 8. Qd2 a6 9. exf6 Qxf6 10. O-O-O Bd6 11. g3! b5?? (not what Black needs to be focusing on!) 12. dxc5 Bxc5 13. Bh3 Black’s position is virtually beyond repair. Although it doesn’t immediately work out tactically, White is already entertaining the idea of Nxd5 (as happened a few moves later).

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After 13. Bh3

Unfortunately, the rest of the game was not particularly hard to predict. White soon won both the e6 and d5 pawns, and still managed to attack Black’s weak kingside. This goes to show how seemingly insignificant differences can completely change the positional assessment of an …f6 break!

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After 25. Bg6, Black resigns




Weak Squares In the Anti-Sicilians

Facing a tame-looking opening as Black often looks like a lucky break, as getting a solid, equal (or better) position out of the opening – often the dream as Black – seems to become much easier. I used to worry about this more from the White side, wondering if my openings were too cautious and balanced to create winning chances. But after playing a lot of these “boring” openings from both sides, it became clear that the better player always manages to create chances to profit. From the Black side, it’s always important not to get lulled into careless decisions when it looks like your opponent is not trying hard enough.

Despite blowing the second game in my last post against FM Petesch, the prospect of me closing out the Pennsylvania G/60 with two Whites made things a bit more comfortable. But with the next round starting immediately after that tough loss, I felt like I just wanted a quiet game without time trouble issues.

With that in mind, I decided not to grind out one of my usual Closed Sicilians against young expert Maxim Yaskolko, who I’ve played on and off since I was about 1500. I’ve been getting the better of him lately, but he had to be pretty familiar with my Closed Sicilian routine, so I went for the only other anti-Sicilian I knew anything about.

Li – Yaskolko

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bb5+ Bd7

I was ready for the more ambitious 3…Nd7, although it is probably a bit risky, so Black goes with an understandable and safe alternative.

4. Bxd7+ Nxd7 5. O-O Ngf6 6. Re1 e6 7. d4 cxd4 8. Qxd4 Be7 9. Bg5 O-O

White’s choices haven’t been particularly interesting. The queen on d4 looks solid at first as it eyes the d6-pawn, but Black can challenge the queen with …Qb6 and should have no problems defending on the d-file after …a6.

10. Nc3 a6 11. Rad1

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After 11. Rad1

For the above reason, 10. Nc3 was rather futile, and probably could have been replaced by 10. c4 or something, though Black is doing fine. The knight is pretty awkwardly placed now, especially after the natural 11…Qc7 and 12…Rac8. However, Black hastily tries to chase the queen out immediately.


A really unfortunate decision, as the rest of the game is basically me slowly exploiting the weakness of d5 and d6. It is very hard to justify this given the absence of the light-squared bishops.

12. Qd2 b5 13. a3 Qb6? 14. h3?

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 12.26.06 AM
After 14. h3

I’d been trying so hard to play relatively quick, safe moves to just improve my position that I missed 14. Nh4! g6 15. Bh6 followed by 16. Nf5! when the knight is immune due to mate on the g-file, and thus winning at least a pawn.

Nevertheless, even with that opportunity gone, Black’s problems continue, as there is little to be done to prevent White from piling on the d6-pawn.

14…Rfd8 15. Nh2 b4 16. axb4 Qxb4

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After 16…Qxb4

In my first big think of the game, I started calculating a lot of tempting Nd5 lines. They weren’t clear at all, so I simply continued my plan as to not cash in too early.

17. Re3 Nb6 

17…Qxb2?? 18. Rb1 Qa3 19. Nd5 wins.

18. b3 Rac8 19. Rd3 Rd7 20. Bxf6

Black does have chances at counterplay with …Rdc7, so this gets rid of one more useful Black defender and introduces the Nh2 with tempo.

20…Bxf6 21. Ng4 Be7 22. Ne3 g6

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After 22…g6

Black thought allowing Nf5 would be curtains, but it turns out Nd5 works immediately anyway.

23. Ncd5! Nxd5 24. Nxd5 Qxd2 25. R1xd2

25. Nxe7+ Rxe7 26. R1xd2 Rdc7 27. Rxd6 Rxc2 28. Rxc2 Rxc2 29. Rxa6 would win a pawn, but the ending looks iffy.


For better or worse, Black had to defend passively with 25…Bd8; this runs into a tactic taking advantage of the unfortunate position of Black’s rooks.

26. f4!


Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 12.30.37 AM

After 26. f4

 26…exf4 (26…Bd8 27. fxe5 is just a clear pawn) 27. Nb6 and Black ran out of time.


This was by no means the best way to play the position (eventually given that I arguably missed a win at move 14!) but the game does underscore that you only need one win, and sometimes simply improving your position and limiting counterplay is enough. While I might have missed some objective improvements, I was never in real danger, which is often more than one can hope for.

My last game, a nice win over NM Tom Magar, might not be boring in the same sense, but I know some people don’t think the Closed Sicilian to be challenging enough. Indeed, many of the positions look almost symmetrical on the important areas of the board, but in many games I’ve been able to show that many small-looking advantages can be more useful than people think.

Li – Magar

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. d3 d6 6. Be3

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After 6. Be3

I hadn’t had to spend too much energy in my third-round game, so it felt like a good time to get back to my roots. That said, Tom and I have played a number of Closed Sicilian lines before, so I didn’t know which one he’d choose.

6…e5 7. Qd2 Be6 8. f4 Qd7?!

This is a bit unusual and committal, since it largely immobilizes the Be6, making it vulnerable to Nf3-g5. Keep in mind that for now, this is Black’s good bishop.

9. Nf3 Nge7 10. O-O O-O

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After 10…O-O

I tend to think more of White’s chances than other people in these kinds of positions. Black’s position is reasonably solid, but White has a natural possibilities of doubling on the f-file and playing Bh6 or even c2-c3/d3-d4 if Black is slow. White’s bishop does not look great at the moment, but exf5 (if Black goes for the usual …f5 break) changes that outlook a bit. Note again that Black’s light-squared bishop is mostly stuck, and the potential loss of that bishop is a problem if he plays …f5.

11. Rf2 Rae8 12. Raf1 f5?! 

Black tries this anyway, but the task of defending the light squares (and dark-squares – see later) becomes a long term problem.

13. Ng5 Nd4 14. Nxe6 Nxe6



Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 12.39.09 AM
After 14…Nxe6

15. fxe5

I’m always a bit hesitant to break this out too early (in this case, rooks will be “traded” quickly) but otherwise Black plays …exf4 himself, unleashing the dark-squared bishop. As it turns out, White has plenty of options left.

15…Bxe5 16. Bh6 Bd4 17. Bxf8 Rxf8 18. Kh1 Bxf2 19. Rxf2 

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 12.41.24 AM
After 19. Rxf2

Since a lot of pieces have been traded off and all of Black’s weak points are defended, it looks like there’s a lot less play. But White’s pieces have a lot more potential; Black has to watch out for Nd5, and if the e4 and f5 pawns are traded, Ne4 and the light-squared bishop in general. Perhaps Black would like to trade rooks, but doing that too hastily would allow White’s queen to be too active. Finally, Black has still a number of weak squares – currently defended, but not necessarily in the long term.

19…Ng7 20. Kg1 b6 21. Bh3

Trying to keep Black’s pieces tied down on the f-file and c8-h3 diagonal.


One way to try and activate the queen, but this allows White’s queen an easy way in and now d5 (and e4 if the pawn moves) is a weak point White will try to exploit.

22. exf5! Ngxf5 23. Qf4 

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After 23. Qf4

23…Rf7 24. Qe5 

This immediately threatens 25. Bg2, either winning the d5-pawn or allowing the devastating Ne4 if …d4. Black’s only defense that I can see is to swing back with …Rf7-f8-d8.

24…d4?? 25. Ne4 Nd5

Forced, but White has quite a few ways to finish things off. One is to simply ensure Nf6.

26. c4 dxc3 27. bxc3 Re7 (otherwise, 28. c4) 28. Qxd5+ 1-0

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 12.44.42 AM
After 28. Qxd5

In the end, White won by exploiting the advantages from earlier. This goes to show how advantages that look small and manageable at one time are not necessarily the same later!


Simple but Effective: Minority Attack

One of the most surefire strategies in chess for either side is the minority attack. It is so effective because it arises directly from a certain type of pawn structure, is often nearly impossible to prevent, and almost always causes some structural problems for the other side when successful.

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Pawn minorities are usually disadvantages if anything, but given the above structure, White has the deceptively effective plan of attacking Black’s c6 link with a well-timed b2-b4-b5. Queen’s Gambit Declined Exchange players will recognize the pawn structure very well.

Once there’s a pawn on b5, there’s not a lot Black can do to prevent damage. If Black simply ignores White’s play, White takes on c6, leaving Black with a backward pawn on the open c-file or an isolated pawn on d5. Both …cxb5 and …c5 (after dxc5) also leave Black with an isolated d-pawn. White may be left with an isolated a-pawn, but it’s usually not very easily attackable and thus not a major factor.

Of course, those aren’t the only factors at play; as with many positions involving pawn weaknesses, the structurally weaker side often gets compensation in the form of open lines, space, and activity. But it’s clear that the victim of the minority attack cannot just sit and wait for the plan to unfold. Because of the static nature of the minority attack’s benefits, I personally try to avoid that pawn structure (as the victim) at all costs, and have been relatively successful, despite that structure being extremely common.

The minority attack can obviously arise from the Queen’s Gambit Declined, but another common pathway is through the Exchange Caro-Kann as Black. Many players like to describe it as a safe option for White, but in my opinion, the minority attack shows that it’s not as safe as it might seem.

Here’s a “typical” example of how I put it to use against a 1900 in the Pennsylvania G/60 last weekend.

Henninger – Li

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c3 Qc7!

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After 5…Qc7

In a previous game against the same opponent, I’d played 5…Nf6 in a tough game where White played Bf4, Qb3, Bb5, Nf3-e5, and more. This is a lot easier, as White will find it hard to develop the dark-squared bishop.

6. Nf3

Ideally, White would play Nf3 or Bf4 here, but it’s not so easy to challenge Black with that. The only real tries here, in my opinion, are 6. Ne2 (preparing Bf4 and ready to meet 6…Bg4 with 7. f3) and 6. h3 before Nf3.

Even in this early position, a seasoned Caro-Kann player would already be waiting to prepare …b7-b5-b4. There’s not a lot White can do to prevent this, but he can prepare for it.

6…Bg4 7. Be3 e6 8. h3 Bh5 9. Nbd2 Bd6 10. Qc2 Nge7 11. a3

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After 11. a3

White’s already sensing the minority attack, but interestingly enough, this rarely proves effective, as Black just plays …a5, daring White to force matters with b2-b4, which has its own problems.


Indirectly pressuring c2 to make an eventual …b4 more effective and lessen the chance of b2-b4.

12. O-O O-O 13. Rfe1 a5

It’s also worth noting that White is stuck defending the queenside, since Black has given White absolutely nothing in the center and kingside. White has a chance at the ugly b2-b4 (by getting rid of the pin on the c-file immediately), but ultimately chooses not to contest matters.

14. Nf1 b5 15. Bg5 b4

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After 15…b4

White has the usual 3 choices (plus or minus axb4); unsurprisingly, none of them are particularly appealing as they all lead to weak b, c, and/or d-pawns.

16. Bh4 bxc3 17. bxc3 Rfc8 18. Bg3 a4

Black will quickly make White’s life miserable if allowed to play …Na5-b3 or …Na5-c4, so White lashes out.

19. Bxd6 Qxd6 20. Bxg6 Nxg6 21. c4

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After 21. c4

This simplifies things a bit, but White’s d-pawn is still very weak. Black is the only one with chances here.

21…dxc4 21. Qxc4 Nf4 23. Ng3 Qd7 24. Qc1?

White caves and simply blunders the exchange after 24…Nd3. Needless to say, White did not last much longer.

But that was a little too straightforward, as White didn’t really do anything to prepare for the minority attack. Let’s see how well this can work against one of my toughest opponents ever, FM Gabriel Petesch.

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After 6…Qc7

Same opening, but again, White has not pressed for much and Black is already comfortable. Still, there’s a lot of game left to play – White is not closing in on 2400 for nothing.

7. Bg5 Nf6!

Not fearing 8. Bxf6 gxf6, which can be followed soon by …e5! But that’s a story for another day.

8. Nbd2 e6 9. Qa4 Bd6 10. O-O O-O 11. Rfe1 Bh5 12. Bh4 a6


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After 12…a6


It looks like Black will get in …b5-b4 easy. But White can do a bit about it.

13. Rac1 Rfc8 14. Qc2 Bg6 15. Bxg6 hxg6 16. Bg3 b5 17. Nb3

And here we see one of the few downsides of the minority attack: the c5 (or c4 if you’re White) square is a bit weak because of …b5/…d5/bishops getting traded left and right. But this is not quite a save for White.

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After 17. Nb3

17…Bxg3 18. fxg3 Qd6 19. Qd3 Ne4! 20. Nfd2 Nxd2 21. Nxd2 b4

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After 21…b4

And White couldn’t stop …b4 after all. Still, White can plant a knight on c5, which makes it kind of tough for Black to break through. However, it’s clear that Black has the only real chances, due to White’s weaknesses.

22. Nb3 bxc3 23. Qxc3 Qb4 24. a3 Qb5 25. Nc5 a5 26. b3 Ra7 27. Rc2 Rac7 28. Rec1

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Black’s plan has been very straightforward up to this point, but 60 minutes is not a lot of time, and by now I was down to under 10 minutes to Gabe’s 5.

The fact that I eventually lost this game on a blunder should not detract from the simplicity and effectiveness of the minority attack. Although White’s knight seems powerful, the a, b, and d-pawns are still quite weak and White has no real targets anywhere else. I was happy to reach this point against a 2400.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just show the ending.

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After 34. Rd1


Almost any other reasonable move keeps a sizable advantage for Black, the most natural being 34…Rb8. 34…Na5 is especially cute. On the other hand, almost any move attacking the b4 knight wins for White here, so it’s amazing that I even considered this.

35. Rdb1 and I resigned in a few more moves.

Although that didn’t work out in the end, the first game and most of the second were pretty solid demonstrations of how simple the minority attack can be. If you want some more opportunities with that, I’d certainly recommend getting some Exchange games with the Caro-Kann!

My Toughest Tournament Ever

Norm tournaments are mostly about present and future IMs/GMs, but I thought it would be interesting to see what it’s like for a random master to play a big norm tournament like the U.S. Masters. Long story short, it’s really hard – evidently, I can only handle about half a tournament (Meanwhile, David plows through 10 of these things in a year.).

Admittedly, it seemed ridiculous given my recent results that I should jump right into the strongest edition of one of the strongest tournaments in the country. But the tournament has been on my bucket list since I became a master, and I ultimately had little choice in the matter, having locked myself in on the whim of a Titled Tuesday event.

Things didn’t look any easier on site, where I found myself the 4th-lowest seed in a field of IMs, GMs, and norm hopefuls. But to my amazement, I held my own in this field, defeating two IMs in the first four rounds! Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that these events are marathons and not sprints, but from the beginning this was meant to be for the experience than anything else, so there was a lot to learn and a lot of memorable moments. Aside from chess, it was good to see David and Vanessa again!

After earning the National Master title in April, I found it hard to stay motivated given my busy school and summer work life and the lack of uncertainty over what I wanted to achieve. The few times I did play chess were disasters; for example, in my last tournament before the Masters, I had to fight uphill to draw both an 1800 and 1500, and somehow managed to mess up a R+2 vs. R ending.

At this point, I wasn’t going for anything in particular other than staying solid as much as possible against whoever came my way. There was no warmup period, as I was immediately dealt Black against IM and 2-time U.S. Open champion Michael Mulyar. At first, the game looked like what you’d expect of this type of matchup:

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Mulyar – Li: After 20…Qc7

I’d played the opening reasonably, but after wasting time with dubious knight maneuvers, I found myself facing an imminent e4-e5. To make matters worse, I was down 40 minutes on the clock.

White surprised me by playing 21. f5!?. 21…f6 was the only “permanent” answer, but that would invite an eventual Ne6, which looked extremely unpleasant. Unsure of what to do, I stalled with 21…cxd5, which was immediately met by 22. f6!?. Clearly, moving anything on the kingside is a disaster, so 22…dxe4 followed. Instead of simply playing 23. Ng5 with fxg7 soon to follow, White attempted the more immediate 23. Qg5, and after the forced 23…Ne6 24. Rxe4 Nac5, erred with 25. Rfe1? Nxe4 26. Rxe4.

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I’m guessing White just overlooked 26…h6! (probably the simplest way to resolve matters), and after 27. Qh4 Qc5 28. Qg3 g6 29. Kh1 Bd7 30. Rh4 Qe3 31. Ng4 Qc1+ 32. Kh2 h5, I was basically out of the woods with an extra Exchange. Still, even though Black is completely winning, this is completely possible to mess up, especially with only 5 minutes to make move 40. Fortunately, I closed out the win without too much trouble.

Beating an IM for the first time was a huge accomplishment for me, but looking deeper, I didn’t do anything too fancy here; I just tried to make the most of a bad position and took the chances I got. This is not to say that you can just simply for chances and win, but even very strong opponents make simple-looking mistakes.

On the other hand, I was definitely a little too confident going into the next two rounds, even though my opponents were better than almost everyone I’ve ever played. Since I had White in both games, I hoped I could sustain a solid position without too much effort. Alas, there’s a lot more to the chess than that, and I was soundly outplayed by IM Guillermo Vazquez and Deepak Aaron, a strong master rated over 2300 FIDE.

One of the more questionable decisions could have been avoided pretty easily:

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 1.22.59 AM
Li – Aaron: after 17…Rg8

The most straightforward continuation is 18. Qf2, even if it requires Ke1. I believe White should be somewhat better with the king relatively safe and the h6-pawn likely to fall.

Instead, I charged ahead with 18. Qxh6?I’m not sure how to explain why I chose this. I even calculated everything pretty much correctly; I just completely misjudged the resulting position. After 18…Bg5+ 19. Qxg5 Rxg5 20. Rh8+ Ke7 21. Rxa8 Bc8 trapping my rook, I assumed playing g4/Ng3-f5+ would be enough compensation for losing the Exchange. But after 22. g4 b6 23. Ng3 Qb7 24. Rxc8 Qxc8 25. Nf5+ Rxf5! 26. exf5 Qh8, Black’s queen proved too powerful due to my weak f3 and c2 pawns.

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Li – Aaron: after 26…Qh8

Overconfidence with White would prove to be a recurring problem – I didn’t score with White for the whole tournament, even against lower rated players (more on that later).

With a 1/3 score, I had to wonder if I was headed for a bye as one of the lowest seeds (not a disaster by any means, but I wanted to play as many games as possible and there was little else to do around the area). It’s not often that someone at my level finds themselves in a must-win situation as Black against an IM, but that seemed to be the case here!

Since my opponent was a 1. Nf3 player, I decided it was important to try some preparation – otherwise, I’d be simply trying to match a much stronger player. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the best at openings or preparation – in fact, I had never successfully prepared for a specific opponent before. But I noticed my opponent had played a pretty specific line against two GMs before, who had both gotten great positions due to a temporary pawn sacrifice. I also didn’t think my opponent would suspect I’d prepped for him (mostly due to my strength), so I gave it a try. Long story short, it worked great!

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Saravanan – Li: after 8…c6

White deviated from the games I’d looked at, playing 9. Nb3 instead of 9. Nc2. This was probably an improvement, but I suspected that the GMs would not have played 8…c6 if it was just hope chess. This gave me the confidence to play 9…d5 anyway, and the game continued similarly with 10. cxd5 cxd5 11. exd5 Qb6 12. Qd4 Nbd7.

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Saravanan – Li: after 12…Nbd7

This is when I realized the point of 9. Nb3: protecting b2 and giving White more options, e.g. 13. Bg5. Black has good compensation for the pawn with a powerful dark-squared bishop and White’s king still in the center, but I didn’t see how exactly I would get the pawn back and White has ideas of Nb5.

So I played 13…Qxd4 14. Nxd4 Nb6 15. d6 Nfd5, intending to open up the a1-h8 diagonal and develop my other bishop as soon as possible. After 16. Nxd5 Nxd5 White had a choice between the game move 17. Rd1 and 17. O-O-O. I think White missed a chance here even though it looks like the e2-bishop would be hanging, since the d5-knight is loose and White has possible Bb5 and Bc4 counterattacks.

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Saravanan – Li: after 17. Rd1

Instead, after 17…h6, 18. Bc1 was forced and I played 18…Rd8 intending 19. Nb5 Be6 20. Bc4 Rac8. But instead of simply blocking off the c-file with 21. b3 (saving the extra d6-pawn for the moment) White tried to force matters with 21. Bxd5?! Bxd5 22. O-O?

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Saravanan – Li: after 22. O-O

21. Bxd5 already makes White’s position fairly uncomfortable, and 22. O-O is simply squashed by 22…Bc4; White resigned a few moves later.

Unfortunately, the overconfidence with White kicked in again when I played FM Hans Niemann; I overextended quickly and blundered a pawn on move 15, and later the Exchange while trying to win the pawn back. Although I hadn’t been favored to win any of my games as White, I definitely felt like I could have put up more resistance in those games.

My next game against WFM Apurva Virkud was only marginally better, as I essentially played into a bad version of the Bogo-Indian and got pretty passive early on.

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Virkud – Li: after 5…Nc6

In this position, I expected White to transpose into the mainline Bogo-Indian with 6. Nf3 (having opened with 3. g3 instead of 3. Nf3), where 6…Bxd2+ 7. Qxd2?! is met with 7…Ne4 8. Qc2 Qb4+. Instead, I was surprised by 6. e3! giving White the ideal setup after 6…Bxd2+ (necessary to play …d6/…e5) 7. Qxd2 d6 8. Nc3. Soon after 8…e5 9. d5 Nb8 10. Nge2 a5?! 11. Nb5, I got tied down defending c7. Later, I blundered in an already difficult position and lost soon after.

In the next round, I bailed with a 9-move draw against NM Sam Copeland after accepting an interesting gambit in the Two Knights Caro-Kann. Early draws are admittedly not something I would encourage in general, but since he wasn’t feeling great and I was having second thoughts about the line, I guess we thought it would be prudent to call it off early. Furthermore, I wanted to save energy for my last round (I had to skip Round 9 to fly back to Pittsburgh) especially as White, and I think that was the right decision.

Unfortunately, even though my opponent was the lowest-rated (although by no means a weak player) I’d faced all weekend, I managed to overextend on the kingside in an Exchange Berlin and ultimately did not come close to winning. This was disappointing, although it goes to show how each game is really different; I definitely relied on my intuition more, perhaps due to beating strong players early on. This is definitely a game I’ll have to analyze more, but I’ll show the (effective) ending, since it was pretty surprising.

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24…Bxd3! 25. Qd1 (otherwise White will be down at least 2 pawns) 25…Rxd4! 26. cxd4 Bxd4+ 27. Kh2 Qxb2+ and I played on a bit longer than I should have, but with best play White is down too many pawns for the Exchange.

That’s a lot to take in for one’s first norm tournament. I wish I could have been a bit more consistent throughout, but for someone just trying to make some noise in the tournament, I am pretty satisfied with what I got out of it. In fact, my lifetime record against International Masters is now a curious 2.5 – 2.5 (with all my scores coming as Black).

Last but not least, I’d like to thank the tournament staff, especially organizer Walter High, for such a strong and smoothly run tournament. I definitely hope to be back someday!

Bucket List Item #2: A Puzzle

As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I’m rarely the most likely candidate for flashy, memorable moves. Trying to take the solid route in any competitive play (even online blitz) often entails a waiting game. The answer to the following puzzle, however, may be a step in the more exciting direction.

Unfortunately, the following is not from a tournament game (it’s from a 3-minute game against another National Master), and yes, Black is utterly winning after several moves, but can you find a quick way to finish off White?

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After 18. Rg1

A brief analysis of the short game follows to avoid leaking the answer prematurely. Enjoy!

e4Najdorf – blitzcopter,

1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. Bc4?! Nxe4 4. Bxf7+ Kxf7 5. Nxe4 d5

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White’s third move is dubious as it allows Black to attempt the well-documented “fork trick.” Understandably, White tries to avoid this by making Black’s king slightly uncomfortable, but this is more than compensated by Black’s strong pawn center.

6. Ng3 g6 7. d4 Bg7 8. Nf3 Re8 9. dxe5 Nc6 10. O-O Nxe5

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This actually looks reasonable for White, so perhaps I slipped (what can I say; it was a 3-minute game). White goes astray very quickly soon after, however.

11. Ng5+?! Kg8 12. f4? Bg4 13. Nf3

After this, White’s pawn structure is wrecked, but it was already hard to suggest moves, as 13. Qd2 Nc4 is very uncomfortable.

13…Nxf3+ 14. gxf3 Bh3 15. Re1 c6 16. c3 Qb6+ 17. Kh1 Qf2 18. Rg1

…giving the same position as in the opening diagram. After one move, White is essentially mated.


Taking on e1 with either piece (and other moves) leads to mate on f3/g2; other than the frivolous 19. Nf1 and 19. Qxd5+, White has no way to delay mate. That’s flashy enough for me.

Taking the King for a Walk

In the midst of an otherwise rough tournament, I was at least able to check an item off my chess bucket list (I get the feeling that it’s something that a lot of people would like to do occasionally, or at least once, for their personal story). Wise? Perhaps not (see explanation below), but enough to get me the win in that game, and memorable enough. Enjoy!


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Li – Oliver, Seattle Seafair Open 2017

With more central space and active pieces aimed at Black’s kingside, White has a quite safe and sizable advantage. Black, understandably attempts to spice things up.

10…d5 11. f3

11. c5 is also fine, but allows 11…Nc4 when it’s a bit annoying to avoid giving up the bishop pair, as moving the bishop away from e3 opens the door for …Nc6 and …Bf6 targeting d4.


It was only now that I realized that after 12. g3 allows 12…Bxf3. Interestingly enough, 13. O-O! is complicated, yet good for White after 13..Bxe2 14. Qxe2 when 14…dxc4 allows 15. Be4 threatening b7 and h4, and Black must also look out for Bxh6. This is probably something you’d want to see before playing 11. f3, or else…

12. Kd2?!

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With the center possibly to be opened with …dxc4, …c5 etc. what could possibly go wrong? In all seriousness, I figured Black would have to deal with his bishop on g4, and I would quickly develop the a1-rook and hide the king on the queenside. Instead of 12…Be6, which would have forced …Nc4, I was rewarded with:

12…Bh5? 13. Nf4

The automatic response, attacking d5 as well, because of 13…dxc4? 14. Bh7+.

13…Bg5!? 14. Nfxd5

Supposedly my “safe” option, as 14. Nxh5 is squashed by the surprising 14…Bxe3+ 15. Kxe3 and not 15…Qg5+ but 15…Qh4! threatening the deadly …Re8+. However, the game move was evidently not as safe as I imagined.

14…Bxe3+ 15. Kxe3

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Since I didn’t feel like this sequence was worth it if I had to give back the pawn, this seemed oddly logical. In reality, it will take White several moves to protect the d4-pawn with anything else, so even 15…Nc6 poses some problems for White, as Black again threatens the ugly …Qh4, essentially forcing White to give back the pawn. Though there is still the option of:

15…Na6 16. a3?

16. Kf2 was likely the safest choice to get out of any danger right away, but I was worried about 16…Nxd5 17. cxd5 (17. Nxd5 c6) Nb4. After 16. a3 though, Black has simply 16…Re8+ 17. Kf2 (or 17. Kd2 Nxd5 18. cxd5 Qg5+ doesn’t look fun for White) 17…c6 forcing White to give back the pawn.

16…c5 17. dxc5?! Nxc5 18. b3?

Again, once I intended to keep the pawn, there was no going back, even if the computer considers this too dangerous. The familiar theme is 18…Qh4 (probably other options are good for Black as well), but after meekly trading on d3, Black’s opportunities fizzled out.

18…Nxd3? 19. Qxd3 Bg6 20. Qd4 Nxd5 21. Nxd5 Re8+ 22. Kf2

With White’s active queen and king relatively safe, it was hard for Black to create any problems after this. Despite some far from perfect play from both sides, I ended up winning in the end, and had survived trying to hold onto a pawn with a king on e3.