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!

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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.

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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

 

PRO Chess League: Pittsburgh Edges out Webster, Moves to Shared First in Division

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers secured a spot in the playoffs in last weekend’s Super Saturday, but showed they could still play for more with a narrow 8.5-7.5 win over the Webster Windmills.

Both teams have clinched playoff spots with two matches to spare, but are still playing for preferred seeding and, for added glory points, Atlantic division winner! With last night’s big win, Pittsburgh is tied with Webster in matches and game points, and shares the division’s first place going into the last regular season match.

With a seemingly endless stream of present and future elite players to choose from, Webster has long been a thorn in everyone’s side, but especially that of Pittsburgh, who becomes the first PRO Chess League team to defeat Webster this season. Webster University teams defeated the University Pittsburgh twice and Carnegie Mellon University once at the Pan-American Collegiate. More relevantly, they demolished last year’s Pawngrabbers 11-5.

But in the PRO Chess League format and in the face of Pittsburgh’s improved roster, Webster was forced to dig deep into its up-and-coming talent, and decided on two (relatively) lower-rated players on its lower boards. Still, the Webster lineup still beat Pittsburgh’s by average rating, and Grabinsky (who played a pivotal role in the two teams’ match last year) and Colas have been top young players for quite a while.

Pittsburgh, however, managed to keep a slight edge for most of the match. Both teams were tied at the halfway point after trading close Rounds 1&2, but Pittsburgh narrowly emerged ahead after Round 3, and held Round 4 for the final 8.5-7.5 score.

Some highlights from last night’s win:


1. Wait – is that Awonder at Webster?

If you followed the discussion before and in the early parts of the match, you might have noticed none other than our own GM Awonder Liang playing in the same room as Webster’s NM Aaron Grabinsky and FM Joshua Colas for what Susan Polgar calls a “family rivalry.”

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Awonder is currently training at Webster – shoutout to them for giving Awonder their support, even though he is – at the moment – their rival. 

2. Edward Song goes 3/4.

FM Edward Song was the lowest rated on last night’s Pawngrabbers lineup, playing just his third match, but you wouldn’t know it from how he played last night. Edward outperformed everyone else on the team, in part due to some meticulous preparation. He had a much better position against none other than 2739-rated GM Le Quang Liem in his first game, but blundered at the last moment in a dead-drawn position. That didn’t stop him from winning the rest of his games, including against Webster’s #2, GM Tamas Banusz.

Banusz – Song, Round 2
3. IM Atulya Shetty’s comeback against FM Josh Colas

Following close behind was IM Atulya Shetty on Board 3, who scored 2.5/4. Atulya has consistently outperformed his position this season, making him an integral part of the team’s success this season. He seemed to be dead in the water against FM Josh Colas, facing an inevitable mate on g7, but turned the tables around with a surprising 28…Qd1+!!.

Colas – Shetty, Round 4


Next week, Pittsburgh and Webster will be playing Miami and Montreal – two tied teams facing possible relegation. While the Pawngrabbers and Windmills are clear favorites in their respective matches given their results this season, we can expect Miami and Montreal to try very hard to get as many points as possible.

Be sure to tune in next Wednesday at 5:55 pm Eastern time at https://www.twitch.tv/napoleonbonaparteiv for our match against the Miami Champions!

Winning the U.S. Amateur Team East

When I first played at the U.S. Amateur Team East (also known as World Amateur Team) three years ago, I had never played a tournament with 285 players, let alone 285 teams. I never imagined my team, no matter how strong, could be the one to win the whole thing, let alone 6-0. There were always too many teams!

Still, the tournament was so fun that I went back every year despite the (many) inconveniences, but the the world’s largest team tournament continues to grow. This year, there were 324 teams, meaning the pairings would have to be drastically accelerated to just determine a winner. Just one draw could knock a team out of serious contention.

In 2017, Carnegie Mellon sent one of its strongest ever teams, rated 2154. We made it to 4.5/5 before falling apart in the last round, although we managed to win the Top College prize. After that, Grant and I started to more seriously scope out teams that could potentially take it all. It’s difficult enough to find four eligible strong players who are free for 3-4 days; even more so when limiting the selection to CMU students! We were lucky to pick up NM David Itkin, a first-year grad student from Canada. Ryan, an expert, who along with Grant and I had plenty of USATE experience, gave us a dream team with the maximum 2199.75 average! So our lineup for the tournament was

  • Board 1: NM Grant Xu (2403 USCF)
  • Board 2: NM David Itkin (2247 USCF)
  • Board 3: NM Beilin Li (2093 USCF)
  • Board 4: Ryan Christianson (2056 USCF)

Despite being the top seed (excluding ties), we couldn’t really expect to win, because there were so many strong teams (I’d estimate about 50 legitimate contenders out of 324 total teams). However, we knew Ryan was a very strong Board 4 and that David was likely underrated as he’s rated well over 2200 FIDE and 2300 CFC (Canada). As for myself, by USATE time I was on my way out of a slump, so I suspected I could perform a lot better than 2093 USCF. We accepted Grant might have the toughest time, but he has a lot of experience against opponents as strong as the ones he faced at USATE.

Day 1: Smooth Start

Rest and confidence are sacred in a tournament as long as the USATE. Besides simply winning, it was important that we didn’t end up totally exhausted by Round 3 and fall to the first team over 2100. Fortunately, we won our first two matches easily.

Despite a scare from Ryan in a sharp French line, we swept the first round 4-0. I scored a relatively quick, nice win on Board 3.

Li – Kupersmith, 1-0

My second game was stranger, consisting of 17 moves of theory, a few checks, and two moves where I spent 80 minutes trying to find a win before accepting a perpetual (apologies to my bored opponent!). It turns out the position was indeed a dead draw in every conceivable way. Fortunately, that was our worst game of the match; everyone else won to finish the match 3.5-0.5.

Changolkar – Li, 1/2-1/2 

Day 2: Competition Heats Up

Day 2 was a massive snowstorm, which made everything non-chess pretty miserable. Over the board, we stayed perfect against increasingly tougher teams, ending the day 4-0 alongside 6 other teams.

We woke up to find ourselves paired against the “Stable Geniuses,” led by my friend IM Alexander Katz, who surprised Grant with 1…c5 to induce the Smith-Morra (are they the only two 2400+ players with extensive Smith-Morra backgrounds?). Unfortunately, Grant messed up the move order and had a miserable game, but that was his only loss of the tournament. We snagged two victories from Ryan, who had a nice rating edge on Board 4, and David, who beat NM Andrew Ardito in the 4. h4 Advance Caro-Kann.

Ardito – Itkin, 0-1

However, this nice win was overshadowed by my extremely sketchy save on Board 3. I played a questionable opening and was totally busted, but my opponent overcomplicated matters by sacrificing a piece and I managed to slip out when time trouble got to him.

Li – Klein, 1-0

Apparently, this was the only USATE game published on U.S. Chess. I guess it was our most critical game (the closest we came to not winning a match), though I wasn’t exactly proud at the time!

Our competition got tougher on paper, as every team we played after that was rated 2190+. However, my game in Round 4 was settled fairly quickly after my young expert opponent blundered the Exchange on move 15. Soon after, David’s master opponent flagged in a complex position, and Grant clinched the match with a win over FM Brandon Jacobson before Ryan drew out to finish the match 3.5-0.5.

Jacobson – Grant Xu, 0-1

Day 3: Deciding the Winners

Going into Round 5, there were 7(!) teams at 4-0. I had no idea how they planned to make a winner from two more rounds, but all we could do was try to keep winning. Our next opponents looked pretty tough, though – two 2400s and two 1900s. My opponent was my 2nd-lowest rated of the event, but was 4-0 (he ended up 5-1 against mostly experts, gaining over 100 rating points). However, I was able to get one of my favorite Closed Sicilian lines and he soon developed too many weaknesses to hold on.

Li – Espinosa, 1-0

On the next board, Ryan faced a scary-looking piece sac out of the opening, but managed to consolidate despite time pressure. After we won, David decided to force a draw in a complicated position against FM Levy Rozman to clinch the match. IM Alexandr Ostrovskiy fought hard for a win against Grant, but he held and we won the match 3-0.

This left CMU, “Very Fine People On Both Sides,” and MIT tied at 5-0. MIT was the odd one out, and had to play the strange lineup of GM Oliver Barbosa, two 2400s, and a 900. Meanwhile, we seemed fairly evenly matched against our very fine opponents, and as is often the case, much of the match looked a lot closer than the final score suggested.

Ryan converted a good knight vs. bad bishop position without too much trouble, but David looked equal against his slightly lower-rated opponent, and Grant seemed to be in trouble against IM Jan van de Mortel. I ended up choosing the Hedgehog despite not playing it seriously before. Despite my inexperience, it seemed like I had the right ideas and had built up a nice advantage, when I missed a simple tactic and was very lucky to not be much worse. However, my opponent soon missed a tactic of his own a few moves later, and ended up flagging in time pressure.

Fiske – Li, 0-1

Not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but 29…Qa8! was a nice way to top a great individual performance. Ryan won as expected, and David managed to outplay his opponent in the end. As a bonus, Grant managed to survive against van de Mortel, officially putting us at 6-0 for the weekend.

MIT, the only remaining perfect team, lost a close match to GM Barbosa’s team, who took clear 2nd. Tough luck for MIT on the last round pairing – it would have been extremely difficult for us to beat that kind of lineup. Congrats to both teams as well as VFPOBS on their strong performances!

There wasn’t too much to do after that, since we had to grab food and drive 5.5 hours back to Pittsburgh that night. However, we did realize that if Grant had lost all his games, we would have still won every match – either Grant is useless (nah), or that’s a lot of dominance for such an intense team event! David, Ryan, and I scored 5.5/6 individually, and Grant “only” scored 4/6, but performed well over 2500.


Aside from simply being a strong team, we can attribute our victory to a number of less obvious factors. We recognized our chances early on and prioritized things like proper rest a little more than usual (e.g. skipping the bughouse tournament for the first time in years!). Our exceptional team bond as students and friends from the same school was predictable, but critical to our success and enjoying the long event. David (probably the MVP if we had to pick one) was an incredible addition to our team, overperforming in a tough position and gaining 43 rating points, which is insane for someone of his rating.

For me, it was the ultimate highlight of my last year competing with CMU. I’d like to extend thanks not only to my 2018 teammates, but to everyone who’s competed with me at USATE over the last 4 years, as well as the perpetual organizers of the tournament. It’s never easy to manage any event with 1200 people!

Chess-wise personally, it was a very welcome boost. Since becoming a master 10 months ago, it’s been kind of a tough road as I’ve slipped in ways I didn’t foresee after such a big achievement. Earlier this month, I rebounded with a nice victory in Baltimore, but I didn’t quite get the feeling that everything was coming together. After a string of great results in such a long tournament, it’s starting to feel that way as I’ve gained 42 rating points (my largest gain in a serious event) to end at 2159. I’m not back to 2200, but for the first time in a while, I’m on the right track!


Finally, as the Team East champions, we’ll be playing in the National Playoff against the winners of the U.S. Amateur Team West, North, and South (probably in late March or early April) on ICC. They’re also very strong teams who won big over a long weekend, so it should be a great match!

* Credit to Vanessa Sun for our team picture

Winning The Baltimore Open U2100

Having recently fallen back into the <2100 club, I decided to give the money sections one last try at the Baltimore Open last weekend, in case I wasn’t doomed to being embarrassed by 1800-rated kids!

I played in the fast schedule (Rounds 1-2 G/45+inc/30, Rounds 3-5 40/90 SD/30 inc/30) and went 4.5/5 for clear first. Overall the accommodations were pretty good and it made for a good U.S. Amateur Team East warmup. It was also an interesting throwback to my 1900 days, but I have learned a lot since then and it showed in a lot of the critical moments. The clearest example was the losing ending I defended in Round 3 (seemingly forever while down an hour of time) that I don’t think I would have contested as seriously 2-3 years ago. More than any other group I’ve observed, 1800-2100 sections seem to favor who avoids blundering in the wrong moments (and not necessarily the least). I still don’t get it.

Sidenote: so many kids! I was told there would be lots of old people (I think those were the 2000s who dropped off the map in Rounds 3-4), but only one of my opponents was age 16+.

Here are the games:


Round 1: Li – Chong

In Round 1, I won a (very) clean pawn early but time trouble made matters much more interesting than it should have. My opponent actually had a draw at one point, but alas he was low on time too and missed it. Most of the game was pretty squarely in my corner – too bad my technique leaves so much to be desired!

Round 2: Power – Li

The second round was even more embarrassing as I was apparently -7 (Stockfish) at one point. Some of these Caro-Kann lines are the stuff of nightmares and a good example of not blindly regurgitating thematic opening ideas. Even though I was down a few minutes to 20-30 throughout some dangerous positions, I managed to escape. Again, if you get a dire-looking position in the middlegame, don’t worry about your mistakes and keep a level head – my opponent had the win in his sights, but got too impatient at the critical moment.

Round 3: Li – Shoykhet

Unfortunately, my good luck had to come to an end… or did it? In the span of one game, I showed I still don’t understand the Closed Sicilian, then got a won position, then found myself in a lost ending with no time left. Somehow I survived time control at move 40 and then dug myself to equality in 25 moves, ending the day tied with five others at 2.5/3.


Round 4: Gorti – Li

Day 2 ended up a lot smoother because the end was near(er) and I didn’t mess up! I was paired against Atmika Gorti (FM Akshita’s sister), who despite being one of the lowest players was also undefeated. I got to execute the “normal” plans in a very familiar opening – structurally favorable Exchange Caro-Kann – so there weren’t too many surprises.

Round 5: Zhao – Li

Going into the last round, three of us had 3.5/4, including my opponent from Round 3. As the highest rated of the three, I faced off against my last co-leader. In the end, both of them just self-destructed — I was lucky to get a simple, positionally superior position in another familiar opening (Caro-Kann Panov), and my opponent just didn’t get any chances to unravel. On Board 2, Mr. Shoykhet – who had played a great tournament – played a bad opening and was lost early – too bad. The player who wins these sections is often the one that’s able to keep a straight face the whole time!