Am I Ready for This Tournament?

Since the beginning of the summer, I have struggled to decide whether to play in the this year’s U.S. Masters Championship (to be held August 23-27 in Greensboro, NC) or the Atlantic Open (August 25-27 in Arlington, VA) as a break between my internship and school. Although various factors, such as cost, location, timing, and family had to be considered, it ultimately came down to how prepared I thought I would be for chess that week. After the considerations, I decided to give the U.S. Masters a try.

The Masters is clearly the more serious of the two and more expensive to match, while the Atlantic Open is typical Continental Chess fare, though FIDE rated as well. Opportunities to play in 9-round norm tournaments like the U.S. Masters are rare and possibly a great experience, but I must feel prepared; if I’m doomed to get crushed by higher-rated, more experienced masters the whole tournament, that’s not good after all.

If I had to make the choice in April after becoming a master, I would chosen the U.S. Masters without too much hesitation, time and money permitting. But since then, the time I’ve spent on chess, as well as my performances, have not been convincing. Having dropped a significant number of points since barely making master, it’s been difficult to feel like I belong in that relatively elite crowd. At least, I felt like I needed some more data points to justify playing in such a fancy tournament (compared to what I’ve played in so far).

I thought I’d have my chance at a Seattle masters-only event at the beginning of July. Alas, the event got rescheduled on very short notice, and I wouldn’t be able to make it after all. I was also planning to play in a popular and strong local tournament in late July, but wanted to make the decision earlier for logistical reasons.

I ended up turning to an unlikely measurement: the Chess.com Titled Tuesday, a monthly event for those holding verified NM, FIDE CM, FM, IM, GM titles or the women’s equivalents. If I got consistently crushed without a fight, it would be time to seriously reconsider.

Although it wasn’t a smooth performance or a good measurement by any stretch of the imagination, I came out feeling like I had passed my personal test:

  • I won my first game over an FM, although this was tainted by White’s resignation in a winning position (22. c3! cuts off the Black bishop on b2 and leaves Black helpless). The opening had been great for me, but 12…g5? was too greedy, and 13. Nxd5! was a nice find. Instead, 12…Qh4 was a safe way to leave me at least equal, with my active pieces, control over f5, and strong center.
  • The second game was even worse, as I had no idea what I was doing in the opening and promptly got my pieces tangled; with my queen trapped by move 18, I soon had to resign. Since this opening is not terribly uncommon for Black, I have since read up on it a bit.
  • The third game went about as well as I could have expected. I never let White get anything in particular, and was fortunate to not be affected by the weak light squares in the queen endgame.
  • The fourth game was a pure swindle, and although I am not proud by having to resort to my unlucky FM opponent’s blunders (allowing 35. Bxe3!), it is worth noting that I never play this opening as White (and probably shouldn’t without a decent amount of study).
  • The fifth game was embarrassing, and quite enough to remind me how better players can simply outplay their opponents in dead-equal-looking positions, as well as the value of activity in the endgame, even at the short-term cost of material (e.g. 44…Rd2! rather than the passive 44…Kb7? which allowed White an advantage for the first time).
  • The sixth game was fun, although I know it’s unlikely to occur in a long game. I’m guessing my opponent simply hadn’t seen this and underestimated it, and was arguably toast by move 9.
  • By the seventh game, I was feeling a bit lazy, and I got the feeling that my opponent might be too, and the game petered out to a draw quickly. The eighth game was a good display of Black’s trumps in the Classical Caro-Kann, particularly the weak h5 pawn.
  • My last round opponent did not show, which was disappointing; a game with a GM seemed to be a nice reward for the late comeback.

It might seem odd to make such a significant decision on a G/3;+2 tournament, but in my mind, this chaotic condition would more likely bring out my weaknesses: time management and lack of opening knowledge. If I could hold my own under such pressure, I could conceivably do the same in Greensboro over a few days.

The Wild g2-g4?

One of the more interesting phenomena in modern opening theory is the unabashed g2-g4 push on seemingly arbitrary (at least to the unfamiliar) opening occasions.

Predictably, most of these shots are based on more dynamic intentions, and since each situation is different, it’s hard to pin down a lot of general principles here. The Shabalov-Shirov (who else?) line of the Meran Semi-Slav is perhaps the most famous (and theoretically heavy) example, demanding specific knowledge and tactical foresight to play at a high level. Black can accept the gambit (note the hanging pawn on h2), flout White’s attack completely (castling into some potentially open kingside lines), or play it safe with …h6 (as is somewhat more common), but all give White compensation in various ways.

Since each situation is different, discussing g2-g4 in general is more of a thought exercise (at least if you’re lazy or don’t study many openings, like me). Still, the potential of such a bold gesture is clear in many of these situations, compensating for what is often a gambit or positional gamble.

(By the way, g2-g4 can happen much earlier than move 7; for example, as 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4 4. g4!? or even 1. d4 f5 2. g4!? if you’re willing to relax your definitions.)

In a game I skimmed over last month, a young 1900-rated player chose an early-looking g2-g4 that I was vaguely familiar with due to having seen it in a book. The author, being a Caro-Kann expert, is a fairly no-nonsense player and I, feeling similarly, didn’t think too highly of the early g2-g4.

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In this position from the Three Knights Caro-Kann, White has just played 8. g4!?. Admittedly, this makes much more sense than I thought at the time (since an ambitious White was probably going to castle queenside and his queen is fairly well-placed for any kingside action), but since I hadn’t castled kingside and had played pretty reasonable moves to reach this position, I didn’t feel like White should have much here. Black has three possible reactions to a potential g4-g5:

  • Ignore it.
  • Curb it with 8…h6.
  • Prepare for it in some other way.

According to a very limited sample of games from chess.com, the obvious continuation of the third type, 8…Nfd7, is very reasonable. Obviously, any further kingside pawn pushes are stopped for the moment, and Black can easily maneuver the other knight to c7.

8…h6 is an obvious candidate, but this creates an obvious target if Black ever castles kingside. Queenside is not the safest option in the world at the moment and White has plenty of power for say, an f-pawn push to break open the center, as in this crushing win for White.

From my previous comment, you can probably guess that I went with the first choice. Again, since I’d played logically up to that point, it’s reasonable to expect Black shouldn’t be too afraid of White’s primitive-looking attack. However, I chose to do this in a rather awkward way, tangling the knights with 8…Nbd7? 9. g5 Ng8, after which White is not as extended as I hoped in most reasonable continuations.

Interestingly though, there are ways to decline this without tangling all the Black pieces on the first two ranks. 8…Na6 has been played, after which White had little to show for the moment after 9. g5 Nd7 10. h4 Nb4 11. Qd1. Even 8…O-O looks dangerous, but White still has work to do before breaking in after moves like 9. h4 or 9. g5 and Black will have chances on the queenside when White castles. An interesting battle is in store once the opposite-side castling is declared.


Even for someone who doesn’t think terribly highly of them, the myriad g2-g4 possibilities are still pretty intriguing to me. Feel free to give a shoutout to any particularly interesting (or early) ones.

Life After Master on the West Coast

Earning the National Master title in April has been one of the proudest achievements of my life, and certainly of my chess career. After notching several master-level (and better) performances to finish the job, there seemed to be little doubt that I was ready to see what lie beyond master. Alas, I soon had to deal with various life matters such as final projects and exams in school, visiting my family in Indiana, and preparing for my summer internship. Although I found time to stream a 49-game bullet match with Isaac during finals week, I haven’t been quite the force in the chess world as of late: my first tournament as NM (which included, among other things, losing to a 1900 despite winning a clean pawn on move 7) was one of my worst in recent times, and for the first time since starting college, I went a month (May) without playing a tournament. My most recent tournament (here in Seattle) was better, but it was clear that I wasn’t quite there mentally: everything seemed unusually complicated and unfamiliar, and I often found myself unwilling to make critical tough decisions.

Apparently, similar “post-master” syndromes are not uncommon. I wouldn’t say that dropping 40 points after becoming master is normal, but a dip in results after that milestone is not unheard of. After all, 1900-rated kids are no pushovers, and a 2200 rating is not that different from 2150, or even 2100. As FM Ethan Li wrote yesterday, the mental aspect of chess is undeniably important, and in many cases shows what makes master-level chess. So I still have a lot of work to do if I want to stay competitive among masters.

In last weekend’s tournament, I faced three rapidly improving but lower-rated kids in a G/90;+30 quad, scoring 2/3. In my first game against an 1853, against my usual instincts, I sacrificed a pawn for dynamic play. Although my technique was far from perfect, I eked out a fun win.

My second game against a 2021 was the main example of my lack of tenacity in recent times. My opponent erred early and allowed me to simplify into a positionally dominant endgame, but thinking it was nearly impossible for me to lose, I blocked up the position making it harder for me to break through, then straight-up blundered a pawn; I was fortunate not to lose.

My last game against a 1938 was a little too complex for me, as I was already tired from the long games. I’ll likely analyze this in more detail in a future post, but have provided the exciting game for viewing pleasure.

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Probably one of the few pictures I can take in my building…

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that there is more to life than chess, and this summer, that means making the most of my time in the wonderful city of Seattle. Being from the Midwest, this is a pretty new experience that I have yet to figure out, but I’m looking forward to a lot of challenging work, meeting new faces, and exploring a lot of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, my photography skills are basically nonexistent and I have no hope of matching Isaac’s picture game, but I’ll do my best to keep chess^summit posted on my summer!

 

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Downtown Seattle from my room

As far as my chess plans are concerned, I’ve committed to a “quality over quantity” approach to choosing tournaments as I look to get the most out of each event I play. The two major events I am eyeing this summer are the Seattle Seafair Open, a local event that regularly draws many strong masters, and the U.S. Masters Championship in Greensboro, NC – one of the country’s premier national events. Stay tuned for information about these tournaments and my preparation for them in the coming weeks!

 

Free Game Analysis: Budapest Gambit

Today’s game is from aspiring Chicago-area player Megan Chen, whom I know from our overlapping time at CMU. Like me, Megan picked up chess again after a hiatus for school, and after two short but chess-filled years has established an undoubtedly conspicuous presence in Chicago, gaining over 600 rating points to close in on 1600!

It’s always interesting to see what little it takes to turn a game around. In one of Megan’s more flashy victories, a last-round win over a top seed in her section at the 2017 Mid-America Open, a grave positional error by White (her opponent) in a dead equal-looking position set the stage for some unexpected tactical flurries that surely made for a memorable game. Enjoy!

McCully (1698) – Chen (1530)

I’m not a big fan of the Budapest Gambit approach, which is not considered particularly sound. That said, it is certainly playable for anyone comfortable with it, so I understand why Megan, a more adventurous player going into the last round craving a win to even her tournament record, would be willing to go for it.

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e5 3. dxe5 Ng4 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. Bf4

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5…Bc5

As with the main move 5…Bb4+, Black gains a tempo, intending to quickly regain the sacrificed pawn with …Qe7. This plan is essentially forced, because otherwise, White will simply blow Black off the board after h2-h3. However, the game move has the drawback of allowing Nb1-c3-d5, giving White an obvious positional asset and potentially taking advantage of Black’s misplaced queen (Black’s c5 bishop is also vulnerable to a rapid queenside expansion). In contrast, 5…Bb4+ is safer, although it does give White the bishop pair and a slight edge after 6. Nbd2 Qe7 7. a3 Ngxe5 8. Nxe5 Nxe5 9. e3 Bxd2+ 10. Qxd2.

6. e3 Qe7 7. Be2 Ngxe5 8. O-O d6 9. Nc3

White sensibly chooses to finish kingside development first. Although Black easily regains the e5 pawn, there isn’t much to be done about Nb1-c3-d5, since something like …c6 just leaves d6 vulnerable. This gives White easier play on the queenside and a fairly stable advantage, underscoring the long-term disadvantage of eschewing 5…Bb4+.

9…Ng6?!

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This move actually gives White a tactical justification for a rapid b2-b4 push! In all fairness, it’s probably not the first tactic that comes to mind (see if you can find it before reading on), so I hesitate to peg the game move as a serious error. Still, the knight doesn’t do much in its new position – White can as easily play 10. Bg3 and ask where the knight is going from g6.

10. Nd5 Qd8 11. a3! Nxf4 12. Nxf4 a5

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With Black’s knight still on e5, this would have stopped b2-b4 forever, as that would allow Black to trade rooks on the a-file and grab the b-pawn. But in the game position, White can get away with 13. b4!, where Black would be well-advised to avoid 13…axb4? 14. axb4 Rxa1?? 15. Qxa1 Bxb4 (or 15…Nxb4) 16. Qxg7, when Black’s position falls apart. Instead, White overlooks the opportunity, and finds his queenside play stalled.

13. Qc2?! O-O 14. Bd3 h6 15. h3 Ne5 16. Nxe5 dxe5

Black has equalized comfortably. Notice in particular that Nd5 is rendered harmless, since the trade of knights on e5 allows the formerly-undesirable …c6. White had an advantage earlier, but failed to press it in a timely fashion.

17. Ne2?!

This traps the d3-bishop needlessly and allows Black to gain unnecessary tempi on the kingside, as 17…f5 immediately threatens to win a piece, and basically forces …e4 with tempo next move. More natural was to reroute the knight via 17. Nd5 c6 (to prevent 18. b4) 18. Nc3, which I would assess as roughly equal. Black has some chances on the kingside and the bishop pair, but White’s pieces are placed more harmoniously for the moment.

17…f5 18. e4?

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After this clear positional blunder, there is no going back for White. After just two moves, White is toast. Black is guaranteed a massive kingside attack, with pawns, bishops, etc. all ready to rip open the kingside.

18…f4 19. b4 axb4 20. axb4 Rxa1 21. Rxa1

White attempts to stave off …f3 by deflecting the dark-squared bishop. Although Black can certainly take the free pawn first, ignoring the threat to the bishop is apparently adequate as well. It’s a little flashy for my taste (remember that you just need *a* win, and usually the “sure” win is the way to go), but to each their own.

21…Qg5!? 22. bxc5 Bxh3 23. Nxf4 exf4 24. Bf1??

A puzzling decision, since it looked like the point of 23. Nxf4 was to clear the second rank for 24. f3. Granted, White is down a pawn after 24…Qxc5+ with a horrible bishop and king, but he’s not quite mated yet. The game move goes down quickly.

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24…Bxg2 25. Qd2 Rd8

Slightly unnecessary (time pressure?), since White has the “option” of 26. Qxd8+ and 27. Kxg2, after which Black must mop up White’s pawns and win the boring way. On the other hand, 25…Bxe4+ (as played a move later) just mates after 26. Kh2 Qh4+ 27. Bh3 Bf5.

26. Ra8 Bxe4+ 27. Kh2 Qh4+ 28. Bh3 Rxa8, White resigned.

A particularly brutal finish for White. Black did well to equalize after a sketchy opening (sorry, Megan), but White did not truly go wrong until 17. Ne2 and 18. e4. This just goes to show that it only takes one or two moves to truly mess up a position, even when the position looks solid. Congratulations to Megan for fighting back (both in the tourney and in the game), for the ruthless mating attack, and (hopefully) for soon crossing 1600 and beyond!

As always, if you would like a game analyzed, feel free to send it to chess.summit@gmail.com for us to see!

 

National Master: The Fun Never Ends

tarrasch-quote

From occasional Indiana scholastics to Pittsburgh regulars to big Philly tournaments, it’s hard to believe what has happened since I first sat at the board. Nearly 11 years later, I’ve won my 359th rated game, pushing me over 2200 USCF for the National Master title!*

* As always, a slight technicality. My rating is officially 2200 (having gone through the weekly rerate) but the National Master certificate takes a little longer.

Surprisingly, the key turned out to be a rapid, strong start to the 2017 season, rather than the slow and steady progress I had imagined. In particular, unusually strong performances at the Liberty Bell Open and the Pittsburgh Open proved critical to my run. More generally, I was better able to stay consistent over a longer stretch, as well as improve my performance against higher-rated players.

That streak set up the critical game, which I won on April 2 against a fellow expert at the last meeting of the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Chess League.

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In this topical Closed Sicilian position, White’s kingside is poised to support a strong attack, but until castling, the fragile f4-g3 chain demands some attention. In particular, 9. Nf3?! Nh5 is very awkward for White.

9. Nge2 Nh5?!

This natural-looking move, anticipating favorable trades on f4, runs into a surprising tactical refutation.

10. f5!

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10…gxf5

Black goes for the critical try, taking his chances with the loose knight on h5. The only plausible alternative was to admit the mistake with 10…Nf6, but after 11. g4, White has gained two free tempi for a big advantage.

11. exf5 Nd4 12. O-O!?

This might be a little flashier than necessary, but does guarantee White two pieces for a rook, minus a pawn or two. The simpler option was 12. g4, which might continue 12…Nxe2 13. Nxe2 Nf4 14. Bxf4 exf4 15. O-O Bxb2 16. Rb1 Be5 17. Nf4.

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Although this might be a bit more balanced, with more space and the stronger bishop I’d prefer White here.

12…Nxf5 13. Rxf5 Bxf5 14. g4

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14…Bxg4?

I was getting back a piece anyway, but in such an open position, Black should go out of the way to keep the bishop pair. After 14…Bg6 15. gxh5 Bxh5, White’s chances on the kingside are less clear.

15. hxg4 Nf6 16. Ng3 Qd7 17. Bf3

The computer prefers the immediate 17. Nf5, but this leaves open the possibility of g4-g5, and besides, there’s no need to rush in this position. That’s another consequence of Black’s erroneous trade at move 14 – White’s pieces are much better in the short and long term.

17…Kh8 18. g5

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18…Qh3?!

This loses more material by force, but it’s difficult to suggest moves for Black at this point; if the Nf6 moves, White simply moves in with Bg4-f5 and Qh5.

19. Bf2 Rg8

The point; if the Nf6 moves, then 20. Bg4 Qh4 21. Nge4 traps the queen.

20. Bg2 Qh4 21. gxf6 Bxf6 22. Qf3, Black resigned.

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White now has a whopping three pieces for the rook. While Black has three pawns to compensate, White’s powerful knights, bishop pair, and the unfortunate position of Black’s queen make them largely irrelevant.

So Black resigned, and with the win, I squeaked past 2200 for the first time.


I must admit that the actual moment didn’t feel so exciting, because it was largely a natural consequence of my progress in early 2017. Since I broke 2100 (almost exactly a year before this game) and began thinking seriously about the NM title, I’ve realized that being rated 2200 instead of 2190 or even 2150 would not make me a drastically different player. That said, after several missed opportunities on high-profile occasions (e.g. last rounds of the US Amateur Team East and Pittsburgh Open), it was nice to be back in a familiar place to simply play chess without all the distractions. And as someone with more of a “one game at a time” mentality, it’s amazing to truly look back for the first time and see how far I’ve come.

A more interesting question is what I’ll be pursuing in the future. I don’t have a clear answer for this, as it’s no secret that progressing beyond 2200 is much more difficult and less intuitive compared to lower levels; even by amateur standards, I am far from a perfect player! Nevertheless, National Master is probably the single most iconic achievement in American amateur chess, partially because of the rather steep path to FIDE titles, the natural next steps (even the FIDE Master title is roughly equivalent to 2400 USCF, well above my likely capabilities in the near future!). As a student with a busy non-chess life ahead of me, the prospect of anything resembling full-time chess (e.g. eventual Grandmaster title) seems rather unlikely.

Nevertheless, given how much I love the game, National Master is by no means the end of my chess pursuits, and I have every intention of continuing as circumstances allow. I believe it’s time to make progress on some more specific goals that have taken a backseat to pursuing NM but are nonetheless important for the future.

  • Develop a strong opening repertoire. This wasn’t a critical component of my rise to NM, but now that I’ve earned the title, I have no excuse for putting this off. Reliable opening strategy (especially as Black) has been a long time coming, and consistently reaching solid and familiar positions will help me learn more from other phases of the game.
  • Progress deeper into the 2200s USCF. This largely indicates “fitting in” with the master crowd, and will likely involve improving my consistency over tough but lower-rated players (experts) and holding my own against higher-rated players (even IMs!). At least, I don’t want to be that guy who barely broke 2200 once and dropped back to 2100 within a year 🙂
  • Improve my FIDE rating. Through all this excitement, my FIDE rating was left more than 300 points behind, at 1889. Granted, this is largely due to having played in only 2 FIDE events, but the point stands. Goals #2 and #3 mean I’ll probably be a little more selective about tournaments in the future.
  • Knock off a few firsts. Gaining the right five points can make one oddly confident, but this goal has more to do with drawing an International Master for the first time in February. Perhaps it’s time to toy with the idea of defeating a IM/GM (or similar) once in a while?!

Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who has played a part in this journey, from my friends at college and back home, to the many members of the chess community who’ve made my chess experience richer. That starts with those closest to me, my family, for being there from the beginning – even my sister, who has always refused to play me without queen-and-rook(s) odds.

Another well-deserved shoutout is for a great player and friend, Isaac Steincamp, for training with me, splitting room costs at tournaments, bringing me onto Chess^Summit, and more. Isaac is clearly on the rise in Europe, so you can probably expect to read some good news from him soon. And of course, thanks to my fellow Chess^Summit contributors for your work: I continue to learn not only from my experiences, but from yours as well!

I’d also like to thank Bernard Parham II, who coached me for a few of my scholastic years (and remains my only coach to date). As one of the chief practitioners of the Matrix System and openings like 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5?!, he is perhaps one of the stranger faces of Indiana chess. Admittedly, I’m still amazed that it works for him (he’s a strong Class A player), but it’s impossible to deny his approach is innovative, and he did coach me from 600 to 1300. Even years later, it’s hard to find players with his enthusiasm for exposing the interesting side of chess, which was important for keeping me in the game as a 10-year old kid.

It’s an amazing feeling to finally cross 2200, and I’m excited to see where I can take it from here!

Making Bullet Chess a Little More Productive

Deciding to tackle weaknesses in various chess areas is a matter of determining what they are, how important they are, and what specifically needs to be improved within those areas.

As I transitioned to playing stronger competition, it became more and more clear that openings were definitely a problem for me. I was advised of this somewhat bluntly by a certain training partner of mine, whose coach initially advised him to go for endings against me before realizing my openings were also rather weak. It also became increasingly common for me to get into:

  • System-like openings (Torre, Hedgehog, etc.) in which I was surprisingly clueless with plans in the resulting middlegames
  • More theoretical lines of openings I had decided to play regularly but hadn’t studied sufficiently
  • Games in which I would get outplayed in the opening, but miraculously unwind in the middlegame

While I did score some quick wins in some special lines (e.g. Closed Sicilian traps), I eventually realized my overall opening knowledge lacked a lot of depth compared to players at my level and above. The next question was whether this was actually a big deal, as I had nonetheless been improving rapidly (to just under 2200) and often got myself out of early jams.

Given the trend of my results this year and my proximity to 2200, it is conceivable that I could make National Master without any major changes. However, for me satisfaction comes from not merely being able to finish games, but understanding what I’m playing. To maximize, it would be helpful to improve both consistency (more reliably applying my primary openings) and versatility (developing several reasonable choices for different situations) in openings.

I’ve recently been experimenting with a more incremental approach than most players are used to. In the past, I have proven to be notoriously bad at acquiring opening knowledge in bulk (due to my unremarkable memory, lack of patience, and lack of discipline in setting goals on what I want to learn). And although I don’t know this compares to other players, I suspect that I play online bullet slightly more than I should.

When bad habits arise in chess, two ways to improve are to 1) get rid of them, and 2) channel them into something good. As an attempt at #2, my numerous bullet games are a part (not the only one – for later discussion!) of a means to choose openings to learn about: going through an arbitrary selection of games (ignoring ridiculous ones such as the ones that begin with 1. e4 g5), using opening databases, other resources on hand, and perhaps a sample game or two to learn a little bit about particular lines each time. The process is relatively simple, but also:

  • (very) incremental: This is obviously not a formula for producing quick results. Just being able to apply knowledge is already a long-term endeavor.
  • memory-based: Bullet can also serve as validation of earlier knowledge as later games provide many quick opportunities to test memory of earlier learned lines and basic plans. Of course, blindly memorizing opening lines is a bit of a taboo in the chess improvement establishment. However, this is not really intended as a standalone process, as it is also…
  • meant to be used in conjunction with OTB games: I’ve generally learned effectively from simply playing and analyzing tournament games. However, given how long games can run and how little control I have over the opening choices, it’s not reliable to use only these games in the same way I’ve described.

Hopefully though, one day I’ll be able to gauge the results of this exercise!

What methods do you use to study openings?

From Worst Tournament to Best Tournament Ever

With the exception of one Ohio chess club’s monthly Saturday Swiss, the 2017 Pittsburgh Open (held from March 3-5) is my best tournament to date. Although I missed a chance to make master by the narrowest of margins, my 3/5 score in the Open section was good for a 2368 performance rating and even a USCF Life Master norm.

Of course, the score doesn’t tell the whole story, as you’ve heard from us too many times.

I wasn’t in the best mood before the tournament, largely due to a long and draining weekend at the US Amateur East followed by some rather uninspired play in the Pittsburgh Chess League, which cost my team an important match and erased a few weeks’ worth of rating gains for me. Due to Friday afternoon commitments, I opted for the 2-day schedule, hoping to compensate for the shorter first two rounds by playing lower-rated opponents. Instead, I booked a first round with someone slightly more familiar.

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Xu – Li: after 17. Ne4

In this rather standard Classical Caro-Kann tabiya, White is gearing up for g2-g4 on the kingside and Black needs a worthy counter. Both 17…Rad8 (threatening a timely …c6-c5) and 17…b5!? are reasonable choices, but I hastily tried to trade some pieces with 17…Nxe4?! 18. Qxe4 Nf6 19. Qe2 and instead of the more or less forced 19…c5 (allowing White a strong attack after 20. g4), I went passive with 19…Kh8? 20. Ne5.

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Xu – Li: after 20. Ne5

The wasted tempi allowed White to reroute his queen to e2 and thus post a knight on e5, threatening all sorts of Bf4, g2-g4, etc. It was too late for 20…c5? 21. Bf4 Bd6 22. dxc5! Bxe5 (22…Qxc5?? 23. Rxd6) 23. Qxe5 Qxe5 24. Bxe5 Ne4 and White can simply keep the extra pawn with 25. Bd4 (25…e5 26. Rh4) or as in the game, play 25. Rh4 Nxc5 26. b4 Na4 27. Rd7 and with all my pieces offside, Grant won the ending easily.

Things turned around next round, but only on paper. Against NM Ben Johnson of the Perpetual Chess Podcast, a promising Closed Sicilian went very wrong as early as move 15 and Black was +5 until the inevitable time scramble. Suddenly Ben flagged and I was horrified to discover that I had accidentally set the clock to 60 minutes and 10 seconds instead of G/60 with 10 second delay (clearly I need more experience with the DGT North American).

We called on a TD for clarification, but these situations are almost always irreversible so long as the gameplay and equipment function correctly. To my credit, I was up a pawn in the final position, but I couldn’t help thinking Black would have consolidated more smoothly if we had played with the delay and thus had more time earlier.

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Li – Johnson: after 19…Rd8. Anyone want to be White here?

If nothing else, the game was apparently sufficient to steer me into shape for the rest of the tournament. The start of the long time control (40/100 SD/30) was a good opportunity to put the first two rounds aside (and set my clock correctly…) for a fresh start as we merged with the 3-day schedule. I caught a bit of a break against a young 2356-rated master from Upstate New York, in what turned out to be a surprisingly quick and painless hold.

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Paciorkowski – Li: after 6…Na6

Isaac has given me plenty of practice against 7. g3, which is probably White’s best chance for an edge. The idea is to let Black double the c-pawns via …Nxc5-e4-xc3 in exchange for more active development. Instead, White settled for the tame 7. Bd2 which simplified to 7…Nxc5 8. a3 Bxc3 9. Bxc3 Nce4 10. e3 Nxc3 11. Qxc3 Qc7 12. Be2 b6 13. O-O. But with White lacking any active plans and uncomfortably placed on the c-file, I thought I might have some chances to pressure with 13…d5.

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Paciorkowski – Li: after 13…d5

However, after 14. Rac1 Ba6 15. b3 Rac8 16. Qb2 I had exhausted most of my options. The game petered out to a symmetric knight and pawns ending and we drew soon after that. I was happy with the result, given how the first two rounds went and that Paciorkowski was my second-best draw to date. However, I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much since I hadn’t really been tested in the opening.


I ended up crashing in a friend’s hotel room that night because the blitz tournament had run late and getting back to my apartment would have taken too long. The next morning, I woke up from the couch to find myself paired against NM Jeff Quirke, who doesn’t play many major events but has been very strong in the Pittsburgh Chess League. A major opening gamble paid off perfectly, leading me to a surprising 15-move win.

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Li – Quirke: after 6…d5

I ventured 7. f5!? which is uncommon but quite strong in my opinion. It wasn’t the soundest of decisions because I was basically committing to a piece sacrifice after 7…d4 or 7…b4 (as played in the game), which I knew were good but I hadn’t actually studied the continuations and trusted myself to find them over the board. Another option for Black is 7…exf5 but White has more space, more active pieces, and better center control after 8. Nxd5.

Indeed, Black spent 40 minutes before settling on 7…b4 (7…d4 is probably better; not really less safe, and gives Black a bit more space to shuffle around), forcing me to prove myself after 8. fxe6! bxc3 9. exf7+ Kxf7. And now I had to start thinking a bit, but I figured 10. bxc3 couldn’t possibly be good, so I settled on the only other reasonable choice, 10. Nf3.

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Li – Quirke: after 10. Nf3

Being my materialistic self (not a good combination with a knight sacrifice, I know!), I started worrying about Black consolidating with, say, …cxb2 and …d4. The short answer is that Black should not consider giving White an extra tempo to castle, play, Ng5 or Ne5, etc. The long answer is a bunch of vicious forcing lines that end badly for Black. Indeed, I felt much better when I walked around the table to look at the game from Black’s perspective!

Nevertheless, in my haste I answered 10…Nf6? with 11. Ng5+?! (instead of the obvious and strong 11. e5), which wasn’t a game-changing mistake but nonetheless led to 11…Kg8 12. e5 when after 12…h6! White needs to play a little creatively to maintain the attack. For example, 13. exf6 hxg5 14. fxg7?? Bxg7 is simply losing as White has to deal with Black’s threat of …cxb2 and my king is not really safer than Black’s.

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Li – Quirke: example of White’s attack fizzling out

However, facing a bit of time pressure (14 minutes left!) Black blundered with 12…Ne8??.

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Li – Quirke: after 12…Ne8

The game abruptly ended after 13. O-O (13. Qf3! actually wins on the spot, but I missed 13…Qd7 14. e6!13…cxb2 14. Qf3! Qe7 15. Qxd5+ with mate to follow. As an added bonus, I once again had a chance at National Master (and to a lesser extent, the U2300 prize) if I could win the last round. How quickly everything had changed since Saturday morning!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite meant to be, even with a stroke of luck that gave me another White, this time against FM Arvind Jayaraman of Ohio.. I didn’t completely squander the opportunity; I successfully defended against a positional Exchange sacrifice and had a chance to win at the end, but succumbed to a perpetual in time trouble.

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Li – Jayaraman: after 12…f5

Until I give up the Closed Sicilian, I guess I can never get enough practice with these positions. Simply playing fxe5 followed by Bh6 is always an option, but I should have considered exf5 in conjunction with that to solve the problem of White’s light-squared bishop. While Black will trade off White’s dark-squared bishop, his e-pawn will be weak on an open file, and his bishops not particularly useful compared to White’s on g2.

The game continuation, while not fatal by any means, does make the g2-bishop look a little silly.

13. fxe5 dxe5 14. Bh6 Bxf3! 15. Bxf3 f4 16. Bxg7 Kxg7 17. gxf4

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Li – Jayaraman: after 17. gxf4

It took me a while to settle on this, mostly because I thought Black might like 17…exf4. In reality, Black will find it difficult to make progress on the kingside as the pawn storm is rather risky for Black as well. So understandably the game continued with 17…Rxf4 which was a bit uncomfortable, but certainly better than waiting for …fxg3. While White’s bishop isn’t exactly the best piece on the board, it seemed the Black’s weak e5 pawn and weak d5 square could prove to be good compensation.

However, the course of the game changed dramatically after 18. Bg2 g5 19. Qe3 Ng6 20. Qg3 h6 21. Nd5 Raf8!?

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Li – Jayaraman: after 21…Raf8

My opponent told me later that he sacrificed the Exchange “for fun.” While I can’t personally imagine using that as a reason, he wasn’t wildly incorrect; Stockfish seems to think the sacrifice is relatively sound (though not better than, say, 21…Rxf2 which is probably still a bit better for Black) and it was pretty annoying to untangle from the sacrifice. Though at least I was able to insert 22. Bh3 Qf7 first, and after 23. Nxf4 exf4 24. Qg4 Ne5 25. Qd1 Rd8 reached this position:

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Li – Jayaraman: after 25…Rd8

I definitely fancied untangling with an eventual d2-d4, but with such an annoying position and only 17 minutes to make time control, I wasn’t keen on giving back any material. Unfortunately, after 26. b3 b5 27. c3 Ndc6 28. Rd2 a5 29. d4 I simply overlooked 29…cxd4 30. cxd4 Nxd4 when 31. Rxd4 just loses to 31…Qa7. To be fair, I’m not sure I had a much better choice on move 29, because Black was going to clamp down with …b4 anyway. Nevertheless, I was still a bit rattled, especially since I was low on time. But after 31. Kh1 I realized the position was actually getting a bit dangerous for Black, who has to deal with potential pins on the d-file and a1-h8 diagonal.

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Li – Jayaraman: after 31. Kh1

After the forced 31…Nec6 I had 32. Bg2, suddenly threatening e4-e5 which is rather uncomfortable for Black. 32…Qa7 as played in the game is probably most natural (not 32…Qf6? 33. e5!). However it is important to note that White is not actually threatening anything yet (in particular, e4-e5 is met strongly by …f3!) Though Black was starting to get low on time as well, and after 33. Qa1 hastily played 33…Kf6? forcing 34. e5+! Nxe5 35. Rfd1 f3.

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Li – Jayaraman: after 35…f3

At this point I had 4 minutes to make time control, but I just couldn’t calculate anything in the moment. For example, 36. Bf1 is completely winning, and rather painlessly, e.g. 36…Nec6 37. Bxb5. Unfortunately, time went by very quickly and I settled on 36. Rxd4? fxg2+ 37. Kxg2 Qb7+ 38. Kf2 (38. Kf1?? Qh1+ wins!) 38…Qf3+ and White can’t avoid the perpetual.

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Li – Jayaraman: 38…Qf3+

Naturally, this brought my final rating to 2196 and, yes, I missed the U2300 prize by half a point (nonetheless, I did earn a nonzero amount of money in the mixed doubles with the help of my friend Megan, who tied for 3rd in the U1800 despite being the 2nd lowest seed!).

However, I definitely can’t be disappointed with the outcome; turning around a rough start with a great comeback (rare for me) is definitely encouraging. And one can always use a bit more of that when trying to break master. As for the near future, I’ll likely be playing at the Marshall Chess Club for the first time next weekend, and hope to bring back some good news in two weeks!