Simple but Effective: Minority Attack

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

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

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

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


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

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

Henninger – Li

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

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After 5…Qc7

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

6. Nf3

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

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

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

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After 11. a3

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

11…Bg6

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

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

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

14. Nf1 b5 15. Bg5 b4

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After 15…b4

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

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

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

19. Bxd6 Qxd6 20. Bxg6 Nxg6 21. c4

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After 21. c4

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

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

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

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

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After 6…Qc7

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

7. Bg5 Nf6!

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

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

 

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After 12…a6

 

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

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

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

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After 17. Nb3

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

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After 21…b4

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

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

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

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

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

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After 34. Rd1

34…Nxb4??

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

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


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

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My Toughest Tournament Ever

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

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

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


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

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

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Mulyar – Li: After 20…Qc7

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Li – Aaron: after 17…Rg8

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

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

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Li – Aaron: after 26…Qh8

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


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

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

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Saravanan – Li: after 8…c6

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

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Saravanan – Li: after 12…Nbd7

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

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

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Saravanan – Li: after 17. Rd1

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

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Saravanan – Li: after 22. O-O

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


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

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

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Virkud – Li: after 5…Nc6

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


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

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

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


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

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

Bucket List Item #2: A Puzzle

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

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

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After 18. Rg1

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

e4Najdorf – blitzcopter, Chess.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18…Re1!!

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

Taking the King for a Walk

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

 

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Li – Oliver, Seattle Seafair Open 2017

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

10…d5 11. f3

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

11…Bh4+

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

12. Kd2?!

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

12…Bh5? 13. Nf4

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

13…Bg5!? 14. Nfxd5

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

14…Bxe3+ 15. Kxe3

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

15…Na6 16. a3?

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

16…c5 17. dxc5?! Nxc5 18. b3?

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

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

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

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!