A Weekend of Grandmasters

While not the most difficult tournament I’ve played (being only 5 rounds instead of the 7-9ers with which I’ve been otherwise occupied recently), last weekend’s Potomac Open certainly featured one of the strongest set of opponents I’ve ever faced. Most notably, I was the only player in the event to face all three Grandmasters, a situation undoubtedly brought on by my first round upset of GM Larry Kaufman. When it was all over, I had scored an even 2.5/5, which, as my opponents were rated an average of 2399, was good for some hefty USCF/FIDE rating gains.

My first game ended in a nice win over GM Kaufman, but not without a worthy test of my endgame technique. I won a pawn via opening skirmishes and seemed to be cruising to an easy win, but a few inaccuracies in the ending made matters less clear.

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Li – Kaufman: after 27…Ke6

I knew 28. Nxg7+ should win, as after 28…Ke5 29. Ra7 should pick up the rest of Black’s kingside pawns quickly. However, with both of us in serious time trouble, I wanted to avoid any tricks involving a racing b-pawn or Black’s king moving too close to mine, so I went for the “safer” 28. Ne3?! forcing 28…Re2 29. Ra3 Nd5! (Black cannot relieve the pressure on c2) 30. Nxd5 Kxd5 31. Rd3+ Ke5 32. Rc3 f5 33. Rc7.

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Li – Kaufman: after 33. Rc7

Black correctly ignored the threat to the g7-pawn with 33…Kf4! (rarely a good idea to go passive in an inferior ending). With only a few minutes left, I made a few quick repetitions to get to move 40 faster in this 40/90,SD/30;+30 game: 34. Kf1 Rd2 35. Rc4+ Ke3 36. Rc3+ Kf4 37. Rc4+ Ke3 38. Rc3+ Kf4. And finally White is able to force Black’s rook off its perch: 39. g3+ Ke5 40. Re3+ Kd4 41. Re2.

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Li – Kaufman: after 41. Re2

White’s pieces are still pretty restricted so it will take some more work to untangle. However, Black continued 41…Rd1+ 42. Kf2 Rh1? Giving up the d-file is a critical error, as one way or another, Black’s king is cut off, giving White time to grab the kingside pawns more safely. Indeed, soon after 43. Rd2+ Kc4 44. Ke3 Rb1 45. Rd4+ Kc5 46. Rd7, I achieved two advanced kingside passers to Black’s tied-up b-pawn, giving me the win.


In Round 2, I played a great game against the even higher-rated GM Jesse Kraai (who went on to win the tournament 5-0), accepting a pawn sacrifice for which the GM ultimately found insufficient compensation. Although I lost the pawn back in a time scramble, it seemed that I could draw the ending relatively easily, until I learned (for not the first time) that there are always tricks.

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Kraai – Li: after 43…Na3

After repeating once, I had expected White to acquiesce to the only way to keep his pawns defended, 44. Nb4 Nb5 45. Nc6. But instead, he played 44. Kf1!!, leaving the c2-pawn undefended for no immediate reason. Unfortunately, I failed to see the point of this move until after 44…Nxc2 45. Ke2 Kf8? 46. Kd2 Na3 47. Na7! when my knight was trapped and ultimately forced to sacrifice itself on c4. Instead, the preemptive 44…Na3 should have drawn (see the notes to the full game).


My next opponent was young expert Madhavan Narkeeran, who knows me fairly well from my days in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, both of us played exceptionally poorly, each trading several major blunders that ultimately ended in a pawn-up rook ending that I should probably have won fairly easily. Instead, I missed several fairly straightforward wins and had to settle for Q vs. R, which I somehow failed to win.

Naturally, this did not leave me in the most confident of spirits in my next game against FM Justin Paul, especially when I found myself in this position:

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Li – Paul: after 8…Bc5

I had no idea if this was theoretical, but of course White can’t castle here, and Black is quickly pushing moves like …O-O and …Re8+, so it did not look good despite my extra pawn. Eventually, Black decided to nab two knights for a rook, leading to some interesting choices:

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Li – Paul: after 16…Ndf6

I thought I could get some material as compensation if I acted quickly enough, so I played 17. Bc3, which was met as expected with 17…Nf2 (although 17…Rb8!? works for the moment as well, since the expected 18. Bxf6? Qxf6 threatens to take on b2) 18. Qf3 N6e4, itself threatening 19…Bg4 and forcing 19. h3.

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Li – Paul: after 19. h3

As it turns out, this does not completely solve White’s problems, due to possibilities such as 19…Bf5!? 20. g4 Bh7 21. Rhf1 Re8! which creates an incredible support network of the Re8, Qe7, Bc5, Ne4, Nf2. Instead, Black played the straightforward 19…Nxh1?! but after 20. Rxe4 Qf8 21. Be1 it was only a matter of time before I won the trapped knight on h1. This left me a healthy pawn up, and I eventually won.

It also gave me – quite unexpectedly, given the strong field – a chance to play for money if I could get a result in the last round. Unfortunately, my pairing against GM Sergey Erenburg threw a wrench into this possibility, especially since I was tired and didn’t feel up to thinking about long term plans – not a blessing for playing a GM as Black in the Caro-Kann. Nevertheless, I was able to keep the game interesting when White had to expend a lot of time to think about how to break down my somewhat inferior but solid position. Eventually though, I wasted too much time shuffling my pieces on the back rank and allowed him to develop a winning attack. Still an instructive game, and one I should probably look over a bit more before sharing it.


While this wasn’t quite enough for prizes, my performance over the weekend was quite high and quite good for my rating, and also a few nice personal milestones. I broke  further into master territory, finally broke 2000 FIDE, and for the first time, my record against 2300s (spanning the last 12 months) is over 50%.

This also happens to be my last major tournament on the East Coast for a while, as I will be moving in a few days to start my new job at Google in California. This will be quite a change, both in chess (as nearly everyone I know is from the eastern half of the U.S.) and life, but I have enjoyed my time here immensely, and will definitely try to make it back once in a while, and am excited to see what the future holds!

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Accept Draw, Reflect Later?

Unfortunately, useful statistics on draw offers are hard to find, but my guess is that on people believe draw offers are too common, on average. I am inclined to believe this myself, if nothing else because I have noticed a lot of players (at lower levels) accepting draws in clearly better positions. Of course, when we’re at the board ourselves, our perspectives are likely to change as our natural (for many of us) human risk-averseness kicks in. While I was stuck around 2000 USCF, I couldn’t even hold my winning positions against higher-rated players, so it was hard to imagine I could be upset with a draw against anyone 2200+ or so.

That attitude has changed dramatically in the 3 years since. Nowadays, I play more open sections where I’m the underdog, and thus more opponents that are not inclined to draw without a good reason. This occasionally presents some interesting dilemmas.

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Li (2159) – Velikanov (2403)

In this game (March 2018, Chicago), I managed to surprise my much higher-rated opponent in the opening, and he offered a draw in a very difficult position. Against most players, this wouldn’t be much of a decision, but a rare easy draw on move 12 against a 2400 seemed pretty welcoming. Objectively though, White has a huge advantage, and I concluded that if I couldn’t at least draw this position, I didn’t deserve the draw anyway. So I played on, and there were no regrets over that decision, although I royally messed up a 3-pawn-up rook ending later on and had to settle for a perpetual.

However, my fear of messing up such an advantageous position did not come out of nowhere. It’s quite possible that I simply had bad memories of declining a draw only to lose the game later. For example:

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Linde (2096) – Li (2093)

In the deciding game of this team match from the 2017 Pan-Ams, my opponent offered a draw after playing 19. Rd1. Black has avoided serious weaknesses and is getting close to a freeing …d6-d5 break, although that loosens up his pawn structure a bit and requires care. Probably the position is about equal. It came up in our post-mortem that my opponent wasn’t feeling well at the time, which explains the draw offer. Not knowing that, I decided to play on, as I felt pretty comfortable positionally, and I wanted to play a good game after playing mostly way up or way down the whole tournament. Unfortunately, despite taking the advantage late in the game, I blundered a piece in time trouble and lost.

The same scenario would play out twice more during an otherwise stellar 2018. At the Philadelphia Open in March, I decided to press on in a very symmetrical ending against a 2100, only to hang an Exchange and lose. And a month later in a rapid tournament, I declined a draw – and clear first – against a slightly lower rated opponent in a somewhat better position. This backfired yet again when I went on to reverse a winning position by hanging a piece in time trouble!

So by the time summer rolled around, I was feeling pretty cautious about the whole draw offer concept. Especially true at critical moments of the Chicago Open and National Open, which I talked about in my last two posts.

Although I escaped the humiliation of losing after turning down the draw offers, it started to dawn on me that I might have veered too much in the other direction. In the first game, my opponent took a long think before playing 18…Ne5 and offering me a draw, which I accepted despite a better position where he had only 40 minutes left. The second was in someways more questionable. I thought my only option was to repeat with 15…Qa5+ 16. Bb4 Qc7 17. Bd6 and take a draw in a position where my opponent only had 18 minutes. In reality, after 15…Qa5+ 16. Bb4, 16…Qf5 was completely fine (I was worried about my queen being vulnerable on the kingside, but White is not developed enough to exploit this). Unlike the Chicago game, this created some tournament difficulties as I had 2.5/4 and had little room for winning money.

However, in spite of my excessive caution in both games, they exhibit the point that there is often no right answer in these draw offer dilemmas. Giving up a half point, after all, is much less disastrous than giving up a full point, and I ended up surviving both of my decisions, as in Chicago, I was primarily playing for improvement, and in the National Open, I ended up winning the rest of my games to tie for 4th in my section.

For most ambitious and alert players, premature draws clearly should not be too regular an occurrence. But it is always important to keep one’s ambitions in check (as I learned early on!) and realize as I did later, that thinking about draw offers does not have to be agonizing, merely a learning experience. This is, of course, important not only to offering and accepting draws, but to all of chess.

Winging The 2018 National Open

One of the problems with any type of pre-tournament preparation is that there are always surprises in chess – just ask the guy who played 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Bg5 h6 5. Bd2?! against me last Saturday. On its own, there is nothing to lose from that (besides time), but I see many seasoned players comment that they feel very prepared before a tournament but run into trouble as soon as there are surprises. I do believe there’s value in reining in big expectations and developing the skills to handle the unexpected.

That doesn’t mean I like to go into every tournament cold. After narrowly surviving last month’s Chicago Open, I decided to cover the holes in my opening repertoire for Black and replace some difficult lines that I’d only played because there was nothing else I knew. But completely revamping openings can’t really be done in a few weeks between tournaments, and in this case would have required me to learn two completely new openings featuring a lot of nuances in specific move orders. So I decided that wasn’t worth it for now, and thus arrived at my next big tournament – the National Open in Las Vegas, Nevada – ready to wing it. In the end, I came back from an early loss to finish 5.5/7 with some big rating gains (broke 2200 USCF for the second time, and gained about 40 FIDE points) to match.


On paper, the Under 2300 section promised a much more reasonable field (where I was seeded 40th out of about 100) than the Chicago Open. However, even in a 7-round tournament, it’s still fairly difficult to recover from a slow start, and in the first three rounds of the tournament, it was pretty clear that I would have to do a lot better.

In Round 1, I won a rather ugly game against my 1975-rated opponent on the White side of a Closed Sicilian. Objectively, my kingside attack wasn’t very sound, but Black’s position proved unpleasant to defend in practice. Despite missing numerous tactical shots, I eventually won on move 33.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same fortune in Round 2, where a few simple oversights turned the tables on a great position. Despite standing slightly worse out of the opening, I had managed to outplay my opponent on the kingside and seemed to be in the process of converting against a harmless kingside attack.Simply 27…Rag8 followed soon by …Kg8 would keep a large advantage, but unfortunately, I managed to bring my queen back instead, and after managing to “admit” my mistake with the genius maneuver …Qb6-d8-b6 fell into a mating net for which there was no good defense.

Round 3 was pretty much the opposite. A Classical French went very wrong as White, and I soon found myself in dire straits facing mate (and other) threats. However, after I managed to get the queens off the board, it seemed like I could hold, and my opponent offered a draw. Despite being close to losing a few moves before, I was already thinking about staying in prize contention and thought Black could make no progress. My opponent must have had similar thoughts, as he overpressed a few moves later into a losing ending.

Having gotten through Round 3 with a decent score, I started to think about staying in prize contention. In a Round 4 game reminiscent of Chicago, I acquiesced to an early draw, this time as Black. My opponent, a foreign master, played a harmless-looking opening (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Bg5 h6 5. Bd2?!) very slowly and had only 18 minutes on move 18, but I misjudged the position and thought I was worse if I deviated from the repetition. Acutely aware of my extraordinarily luck in Rounds 1-3, I decided to avoid any chance of overpressing. However, this meant I would likely have to win my last three games – typically, in most 7-round tournaments with a similar prize structure, 5.5 points are required for a significant prize.

If nothing else, I will remember Round 5 for taking an unreasonably long time. I played up again, and was close to winning straight out of the opening as White. However, when my opponent sacrificed the Exchange, I started draining a lot of time and quickly drifted into a much worse position trying to fend off a massive kingside attack that looked impossible merely a few moves earlier. However, after a few inaccuracies by my opponent I escaped into an Exchange-up ending. Despite some technical challenges (as there always are in my endgames) I managed to collect the full point.

Anticipating a Black in Round 6, I assumed it would be tough to stay in prize contention. However, I also knew doing something crazy against a strong opponent just to keep winning chances alive would likely not work at all. As Black, the first order of business was to equalize. The opening took longer than usual, because White sprang 1. b3 on me, and I tried to play a main line (as much as there can be in such a rare opening). I managed a solid position with the bishop pair compensating for White’s more active position. On move 17, White, already playing quickly, lost the Exchange to a two-move tactic, and although there were some detours along the way, I managed to convert without major issues.

The tournament couldn’t have ended any better, in what was by far my best game of the tournament. I’m no stranger to last-round disasters, but the round went basically as well as I could have hoped for in every stage of the game. My opponent faced challenges early on navigating the unfamiliar opening as Black, and I emerged with a nice advantage, simply improving my position as fast as Black solved his problems. Black eventually gave up a pawn facing pressure on the queenside and center, trading into a pawn-up ending that culminated in this:

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The simplest way to end matters is the classic breakthrough 49. b5!, the point being White doesn’t care about the bishop after 49…axb5, since after 50. c6 bxc6 51. a6 Black’s tangled pawns+knight complex can’t stop the a-pawn! Even after seeing so many breakthroughs in endgame puzzles and the like, it was pretty cool to play it in a serious game.


Getting the critical last win in this way was not only enough to tie for the 4th place prize, but also enough for a solid rating boost (+31 USCF, +41 FIDE), notably pushing me above 2200 USCF for the second time ever, to an all-time high of 2209. After a lot of thoroughly documented ups and downs, I’ve rebounded with some great results this year, but it’s still been quite the challenge getting back to the master level. This time though, momentum is on my side, so hopefully I’m here to stay!

Surprising a Friend in the Caro-Kann

Hidden under the struggles of a large and Chicago Open is an unusually tense game (from an earlier Chicago tournament) that I narrowly managed to win against my good friend Megan Chen. With some free time at home in Indiana, I suppose now’s a good time to finally put that game to rest, or else Megan will be bothering me throughout next week’s National Open.

In the spirit of my last post, the game shows again, to some extent, openings only matter so much and continually seeking chances even in unpleasant positions can be very useful. This game, in many respects, is unremarkable: I wasn’t having a very good tournament, and certainly didn’t deserve more than a draw (having nursed a rather mediocre endgame for a long time – a product of some subpar plans in the opening).

However, this game in particular occurrs under somewhat special circumstances, Megan and I having known each other for a long time (since before our days of serious chess). The mentality is always interesting for opponents who are very familiar with each others’ specialties (especially for a first encounter). On paper, it must have looked like a fairly one-sided matchup (given the rating difference), but there were a few confounding factors at play. For instance, there is Megan’s exhaustive study of the Caro-Kann, which as you might guess, we both find to be borderline unbreakable. Since I figured Megan had long ago made a thorough analysis of what I play against the Caro, I decided to play a sideline in the Classical (3. Nc3) lines that I hadn’t, and probably won’t, play again.

I’d like to focus on my opening thoughts for a moment. The main line (not just in this line, but in the Caro-Kann) is usually considered to be 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Bd3, where after trades White obtains a developmental advantage against a nonetheless solid setup for Black.

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After 5…Bg6

However, White has a decent sideline in 6. Bc4!?, where White usually tries to harass Black’s light-squared bishop with other pieces. This often takes the form of a trick in which White tries to upset the kingside pawn structure of an unwary Black, e.g. 6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6 8. Nf4 Be7? 9. h4!, threatening to trap the bishop and forcing 9…h6 10. Nxg6 fxg6. Ouch!

However, White can take a totally different path with (6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6) 8. O-O, which at first glance looks harmless.

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After 8. O-O

However, if Black does nothing, White has the simple plan pushing f2-f4-f5 on the kingside which isn’t exactly pleasant for Black. Fortunately, Black has several reasonable ways to discourage this. One is to distract White on the b8-h2 diagonal as Megan did in the game. Another is to facilitate the trade of light-squared bishops followed by …g6, e.g. 8…Nbd7 9. f4 Nb6 10. Bd3 (10. Bb3 Qd7 prevents f4-f5) 10…Bxd3 11. Qxd3 g6. However, this doesn’t completely rule out f4-f5 as White can still consider pushing the pawn if he’s up for sacrificing a piece. The immediate 12. f5?! is probably a bit speculative (the more methodical plan is 12. b3 followed by Bb2, c2-c4, slower buildup) but White can consider this in several lines, and although it’s not always objectively sound, it’s difficult to tell how dangerous each case will be for Black. After 12. b3, Schandorff (in his Grandmaster Repertoire on the Caro-Kann) already considers 12…Bg7 13. f5! exf5 14. Nxf5 gxf5 15. Ng3! to be effective for White.

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A promising attack for White

However, as is usual when I study openings, I later discovered this was not the most common continuation of this line. Naturally, I was on my own, and didn’t manage to get in f4-f5 fast enough. I got what I thought was a promising position, but my horribly misplaced pawn on f4 caused a lot of trouble later on.

As I mentioned before, I was fortunate to survive a fairly long ending, and eventually swindled a win in the end. But as I’ve said before, these don’t happen out of nowhere – they’re a product of staying focused and watching for chances as they come!

Beating Back Opening Trouble at the Chicago Open

May was my biggest month in a long time, as I finally graduated from college after four busy years of math and computer science! In August, I’ll be moving to California to start my tech career, but until then, I’ll have a few months (my first free summer in years) for family, travel, appreciating my Indiana homeland, and, of course, chess. What a better way to start off the last than with one of America’s largest and strongest open tournaments, the Chicago Open?

The 27th Chicago Open, held over this last Memorial Day weekend, easily beats all other contenders for my personal toughest tournament. In the top section, superior competition was all but guaranteed – my 1938 FIDE rating seeded me 8th to last seed (!) in a 128-player field dominated by strong masters, many of them GMs, IMs, and norm seekers. There’s also the question of fatigue over such a long event – in my only other event of this type (the 2017 US Masters), I started off with two wins over IMs in my first four games, only to manage one draw for the rest of the tournament. This time, I was hoping to avoid such a reversal.

But ultimately it was my openings that made me struggle. Of course, I had a general idea of what positions to expect from the openings I played, but the lines I faced in Chicago more varied than I was used to, and revealed that I was woefully underprepared. FM Aaron Jacobson’s descriptions of my positions out of the opening as “ranging from barely playable to completely lost” seems apt, while IM Alexander Katz deemed some of my positions indistinguishable from my ultrabullet games.

The above descriptions may give the impression that I barely made it out of the tournament in one piece. On the contrary, I scored a respectable 4/9 against all higher-rated opposition, for a solid 2174 FIDE/2245 USCF performance. But I’d be lying if I said it was a pleasant process, or that I could see that result coming based on my openings!

Days 1 – 2: Getting on the board

My first game certainly didn’t help my case on openings. I was destroyed by FM David Peng, despite entering a line Isaac had played against me several times in a bullet match a few weeks ago. Despite my play being supposedly theory, the resulting position was rather uncomfortable and I had no conception of the correct plans, making for a rather easy victory for White. My weaknesses were not limited to the opening – in the second round, I navigated a slightly worse opening position to reach an equal ending, but messed that up.

So if my openings were bad, my endgames were bad, and my middlegames were dubious, where did my results come from? The answer may be as simple as resilience. In the past, we’ve talked about how players can be distinguished by how they handle worse positions. Many inferior positions are lost not out of force, but because it’s much easier to make a mistake. Making an opponent work hard for the win in such a situation is useful, because in many positions it’s easy to tell how one side has a clear advantage, but not how they should use it.

I didn’t have to wait very long for a practice opportunity – in Round 3, I got this gem of a position as White right out of the opening.

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Li – Greanias: after 14…Be6

White is clearly much worse, if not completely busted; e3 is permanently weak, and Black has more space and more active pieces while White has no clear plan. In most situations, I wouldn’t waste too much energy trying to save the game, but a third straight loss would have tanked my tournament. Luckily, Black didn’t know what to do either, and proceeded to make rather unhelpful moves, some of them weakening. This eventually made the position equal, but because my initial position was so bad, I didn’t have any real chances to push for more.

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Li – Greanias: after 36…h6

As expected, the game simplified into a drawish ending, but I really needed a win here, so I tried one last trick. Try to see as much as you can before looking at the game continuation – let’s just say that it was not all sound, and my king eventually ended up on d8.

Day 3: Finally some decent opening positions!

Round 4 came and went fairly quickly as I accepted an early draw from NM Gopal Menon (2200 FIDE, 2336 USCF). For the first time in the tournament, my opening went well and I’d achieved a nice advantage in a Closed Sicilian as White.

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Li – Menon: 18…Ne5 1/2-1/2

On move 18, Gopal took a long think, and then offered a draw. In retrospect, I should have played on, with the advantage on the board and on the clock. But my extraordinarily lucky Round 3 win had not made me confident about my play, so I made the safe choice.

Unfortunately, fatigue set in that night, and despite getting a decent position on the Black side of an English (kind of a reversed Bb5 Sicilian), I made a simple oversight on move 19 and never recovered.

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Homa – Li: after 19. Rxe4

My kingside had become a bit exposed as a result of an earlier …g5 and a few exchanges, and moves like Rg4 and h2-h4 are looming. However, White is not without difficulties either; his kingside light squares are weak, and his inferior pawn structure on the queenside provides good counterchances if Black reaches an ending without further weakening the kingside.

Although Black’s position looks difficult, 19…Qe6! is quite effective; Black threatens 20…Qh3 to block h2-h4 for good, and the immediate 20. h4? is met by 20…g4 keeping the kingside closed, with moves like …h5 and …Rf3 to come. Black can’t stop h2-h4 after 20. Qe2 (see the attached game) intending to trade queens on g4, but his resources seem sufficient in the resulting ending.

Unfortunately, after a lot of thought, I decided on 19…Qd7? at the last minute, thinking I might as well leave the queen out of harms way. After 20. h4, I realized why I’d ditched 19…Qd7 in the first place – 20…g4? simply hangs the h6 pawn. White was able to open the kingside to his liking, and eventually won. See the rest of the game.

Day 4: Crush with White, crushed with Black

Day 4 started off with a nice win against NM Damir Studen. I didn’t play the opening very well; Black equalized rather easily despite choosing an inferior variation of the 3. Nf3 Scandinavian.

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Li – Studen: after 15. Rfd1

However, thinking he was out of danger, Black quickly played the natural-looking 15…Rad8? and was surprised by 16. c5! threatening to win the dark-squared bishop with 17. a3. 16…Rc8 was probably best, but White has several advantageous options, such as 17. Nd2 (going for d6, probably gaining the bishop pair) and 17. Bd6 which also looks uncomfortable for Black. Instead, Black accelerated his defeat with 16…Bxf3? 17. Bxf3 Rc8 18. Rd3!, when the threat of Rd3-b3 is a big problem. Black is always a step behind, and I finally cashed in about 10 moves later.

Unfortunately, in Round 7 it was back to opening trouble. Like in my early games, I was again nearly lost out of the opening. I had my chances later, but got into severe time trouble around move 25, giving White a winning attack. Instead, White traded into a much better, but tricky ending, and when both of us fell low in the second time control, I managed to swindle into a drawn ending.

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Posthuma – Li: after 60. Rb4

Instead of the obvious 60…Kg4 drawing after 61. Ke4 g5!, I played 60…Kg3 and after 61. Ke4 h5?! (61…g6) 62. Kf5 h4?? 63. Rb3+ my king was cut off along the 3rd rank, giving White the h4-pawn and the game. Throwing the game away like that was unfortunate, but I definitely came a lot closer to holding than I deserved to. See here for the game.

Day 5: Finishing strong

Round 8 started off rather unpleasantly, as I got the following position out of the opening, as White. Reasonably-prepared players probably shouldn’t find themselves in these situations as White, but anyway… no time to worry about that yet.

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Li – Chen: after 18…cxd5

Black’s superior center and White’s f5-pawn are a source of worry. On the other hand, Black’s weaknesses on b7 and f7 require some attention. Once again, the position looks difficult, but resilience goes a long way; the key for White is to keep Black tied down to b7 and f7, because until those are resolved, Black cannot immediately advance his center or grab White’s weak f5-pawn. As the game progressed, Black eventually got in his …d5-d4 and I fell into time trouble, but Black’s kingside provided enough counterchances for me escape unscathed into the second time control, and we drew a few moves later. See here for the rest of the game.

The last round had a rather lethargic feel to it, as many players without prize or norm chances are dropping out or making quick draws out of inertia. I was barely awake, but determined to make the last game count, even as Black. This was a fairly smooth win, except for one slip-up in the middle. My opponent and I both missed a strong, but not so obvious piece sacrifice; she attempted the same sacrifice two moves later but it was not nearly as good, and I consolidated without too much trouble.


This last win brought me to 4/9, which was good for a 15-point USCF gain and 40-point FIDE gain. I had gone into the tournament thinking an even score would be really good, so this is certainly a solid result. Nevertheless, I will be sure to catch up on my openings so I don’t subject myself to these unpleasant experiences again.

I’m planning to play next at the National Open in Las Vegas. This is a big event with a lot of great side events, so it should be a lot of fun!

 

Surprises for a First-Time Nationals TD

I had been directing local Pittsburgh tournaments on-and-off for a year and a half when Boyd Reed asked if I’d be interested in directing the 2018 National Elementary in Nashville. Now, this was after he’d told me all the “fun” tournament director stories… but to be honest, I was pretty interested in seeing what the tournament was like, having never been to any national scholastics as a kid. Since I had nothing to do in between finals and graduation, I was all for it.

It seemed a bit strange to go in barely knowing anything about national scholastics, and more generally tournaments of that size. My home state of Indiana has never been big on the national scholastic scene, so for a long time I barely knew anyone who had been to any of those. And the largest tournament I’d played in was the U.S. Amateur Team East, which features at most half of the number of players of the National Elementary – factoring in all the potential parents, coaches, and kids running around shows how overwhelming the thought of the event was to me. But Boyd, who is basically the most experienced TD you can find (in addition to being the USCF Director of Events), was on board, which was good enough for me. In that line of work, surprises are a necessary part of the experience.

Not everything was a surprise. Friday (the first day of the tournament) was, as expected, not the most relaxing day ever. Having my my last exam Thursday evening meant scrambling to Nashville in the early morning, unlike most TDs who arrived Thursday. I ended up staying up till 3:30 a.m. (in solidarity with a few other friends cramming for their exams) before heading out for my 5 a.m. flight and getting a solid 2(!) hours of sleep along the way.

The enormous staff and the general nature of directing was also pretty much what I expected. There were slightly more than 40 floor TDs (including me) and one chief TD for each section, in addition to the backroom/overall chief TDs. The mechanics of tournament directing are not that exciting, although that is obviously not the purpose of the job. It is often said that it is better if a tournament director is invisible, usually indicating that there are no major problems or disputes created for or by the TDs. Most of the job of a floor TD is to be alert for questions, of which there are more than you’d expect at a normal large tournament (kids being kids), or in the case of national scholastics, taking results. However, it’s a mostly quiet endeavor, and is probably best left that way.

However, over the weekend I truly realized (for the first time) that that playing chess makes me feel very old, but directing makes me feel rather young. There is a pretty obvious explanation for this – wealth of organizing/directing experience is much more tied to age than chess skill (which, if anything, is considered to be stronger in young players). Most of the other TDs had clearly been around for a long time, if not at the national level.

The Gaylord Opryland Resort, where the National Elementary is often held, is a unique experience in itself, and pretty iconic to many players growing up (including most of my fellow authors here). I had been duly warned how huge the place was, and how chaotic it would be with thousands of kids and their parents, but it’s impossible to describe the magnificence of the Gaylord complex without being there. The challenge of walking outside into the high-80s heat and the abundance of rivers, islands, sunlit domes, and (typical resort-level expensive) food ensured I didn’t need to set foot outside throughout the weekend. As a tournament director mostly running around trying to squeeze in a meal between rounds or get some much needed sleep, the perspective is a bit different than it would have been a few years ago, but I assume that as a kid the place would have been a lot of fun.

But ultimately, the two biggest surprises were the walking and the eagerness of the players with rules.

The walking is probably something I could have seen in advance; walking around anywhere for 3 straight hours (per round!) has to have some effect. Apparently, Isaac warned me about this before, but I wasn’t really listening at the time. In any case, I knew it was going to be a tough weekend when I discovered in the middle of Round 1 that’d I’d already walked 4 miles (it took another day before I felt like never walking again). One of the chief TDs (hopefully in jest) claimed 30 miles, having been awake from 7 am to 10 pm.

Most of the disputes between players seemed to be, as I predicted, touch-move disputes. Those are never smooth, because the case almost always relies on player testimony, and kids at the elementary school age often don’t understand what it takes to convince someone impartial (e.g. a tournament director) of much. The usual instinct of a TD is to deny the touch-move claim (and warn both players to be clear to avoid future ambiguities) because forcing someone to move a piece in the face of shoddy evidence is far more damaging than the other way around. Unfortunately, this isn’t always accepted by the players in question (yes, there was crying).

Touch-move aside, the players seemed to be very eager to apply their knowledge of tournament rules. Even in the K-5 Under 1200 section where I spent most of my time, there were many questions about rules that are, if I’m not mistaken, not discussed widely in the traditional chess curriculum. Given the misunderstandings, I’d have to say that it’s probably a distraction from what’s really important, but I can’t say that I (or many of my peers) would have acted differently as a scholastic player – everyone wants to feel in control of the game and its procedures, whatever they might include. However, for instance, quite a few players called me over to claim a three-move repetition because they had moved the same piece back and forth three times. The explanation (that the same position has to occur three times) is relatively simple and usually accepted, but it does seem like the kids have rushed into learning these rules.


By all accounts, the Elementary Nationals stayed alive and well throughout the weekend. It takes an enormous effort from the top down to keep a 2000+ player event (especially one with as many auxiliaries as the National Elementary), and both players and directors owe a lot of thanks to Chief TD Jeff Wiewel, as well as organizer/Director of Events Boyd Reed, for their continued support throughout the event. Thanks to the rest of the staff for making the 2018 National Elementary such a big success!

Leaving Philly in Style

Performance in big chess tournaments are largely defined by a few critical moments, and we often think of good players as rising to the occasion, delivering when it matters. When the stakes are low, those qualities are far less noticeable. Many players are noticeably tired and less ambitious by the last round of a long tournament; I’ve had my fair share of those moments.

The last round of the recent Philadelphia Open could have been one of them. I’d been dogged by errors the whole weekend, and finally knocked out of prize contention after squandering a beautiful +2 position in 5 moves.

caro
Taken right before Round 6, this might have been a bad omen…

Nevertheless, I was still quite awake, and not done with playing chess yet. But I didn’t want to play “just another game”; more than anything else, I was looking to convince myself the tournament had been worth. Two hours later, I had my answer.

Due to my more cautious style, I don’t often get to finish games, much less tournaments, in this fashion. This is definitely one of my best games ever!


Li – Gangaa (2017 Philadelphia Open, Round 7)

1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. d3 Bc5 4. Nc3 d6 5. f4

This solid and aggressive structure is my go-to for the Bishop’s Opening, but Black’s unusual move order give him another option than simply transposing to the main line with 5…Nc6.

5…Ng4

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How can White deal with the seemingly unstoppable threat of …Nf2?

6. f5! h5

Black decides to play it safe for now, as 6…Nf2 is rather dangerous after 7. Qh5 (for example, 7…O-O?? 8. Bg5 Qe8 9. Nd5 threatening Nxc7 and Nf6+). However, if the tactics don’t soon work out, this will make Black’s development very difficult.

7. Nh3 c6 8. a3

Probably a little overcautious, but I wanted to stop any …b5-b4 ideas in case I wanted to castle queenside. 8…Qh4+? is fruitless, as after 9. Kf1 the queen must retreat to avoid Bg5 (9…Nf2?? 10. Qe1).

8…b5 9. Ba2 Bb7 10. Qf3

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With no immediate breakthroughs, White turns to stopping …d5. Black doesn’t have a lot of options here, as castling weakens h5 dangerously, and …Nf6 is met by Bg5.

10…f6 11. Ne2! Ke7?

Black quickly defends against White’s apparent threat of Ng3-xh5 (12. Ng3 Qe8) but misses the real idea. For better or worse, Black had to try for counterplay with 11…d5.

12. d4! Bb6

White quickly clears the way for Qb3 with immediate threats on the a2-g8 diagonal. Of course, 12…exd4 13. Nhf4 is all sorts of bad news for Black.

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13. Ng5!!

White needs to clear the a2-g8 diagonal, draw Black’s knight from e5, and open up the kingside a bit. The immediate 13. dxe5 Nxe5 14. Qb3 Qd7, while clearly better for White, allows Black to defend e6 and f7 and keep everything relatively closed for the moment.

13…fxg5 14. Bxg5+ Nf6 15. dxe5 dxe5 16. Qb3 Qe8

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17. Bxf6+! Kxf6

17…gxf6 18. Qe6+ Kd8 (18…Kf8 19. Qxf6+ mates next move) 19. O-O-O+ Nd7 20. Qxf6+ Kc7 21. Qd6+ Kc8 22. Be6 wins. Now Black’s king is rather paralyzed; White can pretty much attack from either side.

18. O-O-O Bc5?!

18…Bc7 puts up a little more resistance; White’s cleanest is 19. Qc3! with the idea of Nf4.

19. h4 Ke7

19. Rd8 apparently wins a rook on the spot (19…Qxd8 20. Qxf7#) but when I find an idea that works, I generally stick to it. In this case, White threatens a quick Qg3-g5# and Black can only prevent this by stepping back.

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20. f6+ Kf8

Again, a simpler win was available: 20. Qe6+ Kf8 21. Rd8 with mate in 2. Fortunately, Black has no other alternatives; 20…gxf6 21. Qe6+ Kf8 22. Qxf6+ mates, and 20…Kxf6 21. Rhf1+ Kg6 23. Qg3+ and 24. Bh7 wins the queen.

21. Rd8 1-0