The Art of Saving Your Skin, Part 2

At this year’s Northern California flagship event, the annual 6-round CalChess Championship, I landed in the middle of the pack – giving me plenty of time for the true all-around experience.

Picking Up From Last time

In my last article, I talked about how you can be the driving force behind a surprising and lucky swindle – “making your luck”, so to speak. Of course, having managed to score 3.5/4 in that event (despite being lost in three of the games), I was quite a bit biased. Even I would rather not be lost, let alone three times, in the first place.

As fate would have it, I continued my horrendously lucky streak by saving two very lost positions against two young experts. Like in the three nearly-lost causes from last month’s article, I was saved only by the grace of time in these (apparently not called “sudden death”) G/120, 30 second increment games. In my first game, I messed up a good Hedgehog position and was in the process of being overrun by connected passers, but in time trouble, my opponent’s inclination toward “safe” moves created enough chaos for me to level the position.

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Cheng – Li: after 27…Kg7

White has a few ways to win here – my personal preference is the simple 28. Bd3, followed by ramming the b-pawn up the board – Black’s pieces are just too passive to create any real counterplay. However, in time trouble, White understandably opted to close the door on any funny a8-h1 diagonal business with 28. f3, although this may already be a step in the wrong direction. This continued 28…Bd5 29. Bc4 Rc8 30. Bxd5 Nxd5 31. Rxc8 Qxc8. Trades are not easy to stomach here for Black, but surprisingly they’re the only chance for play here.

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Cheng – Li: after 31…Rxc8

However, the tempting 32. Bxe5+?, seemingly winning material, gave Black far too much counterplay after 32…dxe5 33. Qxe5+ Bf6 34. Qxd5 Qxa6. White is technically up material now, but the dark-squared weaknesses make it very hard to press. That said, there isn’t much else wrong with White’s position, so the game should be a draw, probably more than I deserved. With White having a minute left, I did try to press for a while but didn’t quite make it. But you can see my attempts here.

I don’t know if the entire Saturday was just an off-day, because my next game was even worse overall. I had a pretty bad position right out of the opening (move 15 or so) as White and it didn’t get better from there. But eventually, my opponent did fall below comfortable time, and missed a few shots she would have almost certainly found otherwise. That was the only chance I had down the Exchange for seemingly no (negative?) compensation. Slowly but surely, I turned it around, in the order below.

Drawing a 2400

Lest you believe the rest of my career will consist of me swindling players 200 points below me, there were some signs of hope. My first two games obviously didn’t bode well for a third-round matchup against 14-year old FM Andrew Hong (2472) with Black, but each game, each position is different. And in a surprising turn of events, it was I who found myself pressing in a solid Caro-Kann game, although after playing it a little safe, the game petered out to a 25-move draw.

The Grandmaster

Turns out that was enough for me to play GM Enrico Sevillano, who had been upset in the previous round. It was an interesting enough game, but I eventually got caught with the “classic” bad light-squared bishop in the Closed Sicilian, and weak pawns trying to escape that situation tactically. An instructive one by the GM that you can check out here.

The New Opening

After that, it was back to playing experts, and on the last day of the event, I thought it would be good to try something new. Against my 2150-rated opponent’s Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian line, I wanted to try a response that I had read about a little but hadn’t gotten a practical feel for yet.

Contrary to appearance, it didn’t go that smoothly. I tried a generic dark-square strategy, but it’s probably a little too primitive for equality and having no experience with the line before, I didn’t find the right moves so easily. That said, it was a far cry from the 5 experts I’d played before, in that I was not actually lost during the game, for once!

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Ne2 Re8!?

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Somalwar – Li: after 5…Re8

Honestly, I thought the concept looked cool. One author for this line describes a certain aesthetic appeal to retreating the bishop to f8 early in the game.

(5…d5 6. a3 Bd6!? 7. c5 Be7 8. b4 b6 is another line I’ve tried. Black’s plan is to follow up with an eventual …e5 but I can see how this is not to everyone’s taste.)

6. a3 Bf8 7. Ng3 e5

This might be probably playable, but definitely not a clear equalizer. But the idea is simple dark-square play. Unfortunately, Black is a bit passive for that to work.

8. d5 a5 9. Bd3 Na6 10. e4 Bc5

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Somalwar – Li: after 10…Bc5

11. Bg5?!

This didn’t make a lot of sense, and just seems to give Black some extra tempi – White is not going to trade off this good bishop, or move it anywhere else besides, perhaps d2. White would have been fine just making regular moves, as Black doesn’t have that many active opportunities.

11…h6 12. Bd2 d6 13. Na4 Ba7 14. Bxa5??

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It’s hard to imagine this could be a colossal blunder, but I always say there are things to look out for whenever there isn’t a knight on f3 (or f6 in Black’s case). After 14…Ng4! White is in a surprising world of trouble. Simply castling only seems to make things worse: 15. O-O Qh4 16. h3 Nxf2 and Black snaps up the knight next, guaranteed to win big on material. White opted for 15. Rf1 but after 15…Nxh2 the attack was still going, and I managed to collect the point.


Unfortunately, I played much too cautiously in the last round (I guess all those narrow saves against experts got to me!) and ended up with a vanilla 19-move draw against a young 2150-rated player. It wasn’t quite the ideal way to go out, but I did end up above water in a tricky section, and this was good enough for some rating gains on both the USCF (2226 to 2234) and FIDE (2039 to 2052) side. It was another exciting and tough introduction to the Bay Area chess scene, and all thanks goes to the Berkeley Chess School for their organization of such a high-quality event.

It’s too early to say which events next month will feature, but with new games and new faces, it’s the perfect time to ditch the act of simply saving my skin. Thanks for reading!

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The Art of Saving Your Skin

When wins slip away, the loser is rarely given much credit for saving the game. This may be justified, as the definition of a “lost position” implies that the winner must have messed up somewhere. But this does not mean the losing player must sit by idly, knowing the game is most likely lost, hoping for the other to mess up. There are specific ways to facilitate that kind of situation.

Of course, it may not be prudent to try too hard to save a truly lost position, and no matter how well one plays, lost positions are – well, lost, and should probably not be saved too often. But even if this only happens once in a while, the half (or full) point gained in the tournament is often significant, as are the rating points one saves from the better result.

More so if you are somehow able to pull this off three times in a row, as I managed to do about two weeks ago. Although the chaos of settling into the Bay Area has mostly pushed chess to the side recently, the area is, put mildly, overflowing with chess tournaments. So for my first weekend here, wanting to take a break from furniture, housing, and job setup, I went up to Berkeley to check out their monthly $50, 5-round weekend FIDE event. And despite being completely lost in three of my four games (I took a half-bye in Round 1 – it’s too hard to drive out of Silicon Valley on a Friday night), I emerged with a score 4/5 for clear first, with FIDE gains to match.

It must be stressed that, as always the case with swindles, there was an element of luck involved. My opponents (2100s USCF) were fairly strong, so I have no doubt that they would have converted these positions in most situations.

In two of my games, I was basically saved by running my opponents down on the clock (maybe if I had spent more time earlier, I could have played better!). In this situation, the conventional strategy is to hope for a more complex position.

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Li – Handigol: after 32. Rd5

In this decisive last-round game (in which I needed a win for first place), I’d spoiled a clear extra pawn and found myself in a losing position. Fortunately, the position was not so simple for Black (who had about 3 minutes to my 19 in this G/90;+30 time control) as the e-pawn dropping would be disastrous.

The upside of this situation is that the winning side (but with lower time) will often veer toward simple and direct moves, potentially overlooking… everything else. That’s not to say I (with a fair amount of time) was immune to this. After the forced 32…Qh4 33. Nd3 e2 34. Nh2, Black played 34…Ne3?! giving me the chance to sacrifice the Exchange with 35. Rxe2 Nxd5 36. Rxe8+ Bxe8.

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Li – Handigol: after 34…Ne3

Although that is objectively much best, I thought Black should be able to convert his slight extra material in that simpler position. Instead, I opted for 35. Rd4?? not realizing 35…Qxe1+! 36. Qxe1 (36. Nxe1 Rf1+ mates) Nxc2 wins. Although perhaps not such a complicated tactic, it’s not the first thing that came to Black’s mind with a minute on the clock. In the end, Black ducked with 35…Qh5? 36. Qd2 Bxd3? 37. Qxd3 and I was soon able to round up the e2-pawn with an easy win.

In Round 2, where my opponent also failed to convert a win in time trouble, it was enough for me to get to an ending that was comfortable, but not quite better for me.

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Canessa – Li: after 23. b4

After some earlier miscalculations, I found myself getting steamrolled in the center and on the queenside. At the same time, I had some counterplay, with …g5-g4 to come. Would it be enough? Probably not, I figured, but with 30 minutes to my opponent’s 10, there was no reason not to try.

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Canessa – Li: after 33…Qh7

The situation changed dramatically over the next few moves. With my opponent having only 2 minutes left, I was hopeful that my threat of 34…Rh8! 35. Bxh8 Qh2+ would keep me in the game. But had White found 34. Rd1! threatening 35. Nxa7#, I would have been a step behind. Instead, White hastily plowed ahead with 34. Nxa7+ Kd7 35. Rd1+ Ke8 36. Bf4, which is of course completely winning, but led to 36…e5 37. Bxe5 Bg5.

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38. Bf4+ wins rather easily. But at long last, White finally cracked with 38. Bf6+?? Be3+ overlooking check. White doesn’t quite lose his queen for nothing: 39. Qxe3 Nxe3 40. Rd8+ Kf7 41. Rd7+ Kg6 42. Rxh7 Kxh7 wins it back and leaves White with some pawns to compensate for the Exchange, leaving a dynamically equal (according to the engines) ending. But practically speaking, White’s fragile queenside pawns are not easy to hold, and with one minute left, White could not hold against my extra Exchange.

But those games were nothing compared to my lone draw, in Round 2. If completely lost wasn’t bad enough, try completely lost down time. A simple oversight early on left me in a tough position and scrambling for time for the remainder of the game.

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Kim – Li: after 17. Qh5

I hastily played 17…g6, thinking I would follow up soon enough with …Nf3+ with favorable trades. Until I realized 18. Qh6 threatened my rook on f8, and left me in a rather terrible position after 18…Rd8 19. Kh1 Qg7 20. Qh4.

In a position with so many issues (the pin, the dark squares in general, a looming f4-f5, and time), it’s important to know when to jettison material for relief or counterplay. After 20…Be6 21. f4 Kg8 22. f5 I was not in the mood to bunker down and hope White didn’t crash through, so I decided to sacrifice the Exchange with 22…Nxf5. White could accept with 23. Qxd8+ Rxd8 24. Bxg7 Nxg3+ 25. hxg3 Rxd3, but Black’s bishop pair will provide good compensation in the ending.

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Kim – Li: after 22…Nxf5

Understandably, White saw a brighter future in 23. Bxf5 Qxb2 24. Bxe6 fxe5 25. Ne4. Such a dangerous position would have been a good time for lots of concrete calculations, but I figured that with 20 minutes left, I might regret that decision later. So I went with my intuition, which was to finally take care of the systemic dark-square weaknesses on the kingside, 25…Bd4.

Matters improved greatly over the next few moves until I tried to be clever (a terrible idea in a dangerous position with little time). This culminated in 26. Ng5 Rd7 27. Rab1 Qxa3 28. Rf3 Bc3? threatening the cute 29…Qxb4. Never mind that I was on the run again after 29. Qc4 Rad8 30. Qxe6+ Kg7.

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I was very lucky that my opponent eschewed 31. Qxd7+! Rxd7 32. Ne6+ with mate next move (it happens!). Unfortunately, his continuation of 31. Rf7+ Rxf7 32. Qxf7+ Kh6 was still quite winning. However, instead of the simple 33. h4 threatening mate next move, he gave me an opening with 33. Ne6 Qxb4!. I would say that it is again important to have a feel for when to sacrifice material – White continued with 34. Qf1 with the dual threat of Rxb4 and Nxd8. But in this case everything else simply got mated – not much choice there.

However, the resulting ending turned out to be far from simple for White to win. The ending was undoubtedly scary to hold as Black with little time (by now about 5 minutes), but White’s bank rank proved surprisingly problematic.

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Kim – Li: after 37…Qd2

Ordinarily, Black should worry about losing the c3-bishop to forks, but White’s checks are largely useless, as any scenario winning the bishop (unless with check) allows mate on the back rank! g3 and h3 don’t help – the former gets bombarded with checks, and the latter gets hit with …Be5 when White’s queen and rook definitely should not leave the back rank. White played on for about 15 more moves, but burned a lot of time in the process and eventually agreed to a draw.

It must be reemphasized that a losing position is a losing position, and there is always some luck involved to execute these swindles. But it doesn’t have to be a passive effort, and if you take the time and energy to save a few games, you might just surprise yourself!

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!

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!