PRO Chess League: Pittsburgh Starts Season with Resounding Win over Buenos Aires

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2018 PRO Chess League season, emerging clear 2nd in the Atlantic Division after defeating the Buenos Aires Krakens by a higher-than-expected 10-6 margin.

The Pawngrabbers look a bit different this year as they look for a fresh start to their second season. With fewer teams in the league this year, we were able to solidify our bench with several strong players from across the lake in eastern Michigan that will have plenty of chances to shine in the coming weeks. And just last week, Pittsburgh scored a huge victory with the addition of 14-year old free agent GM Awonder Liang, who, like traditional powerhouse GM Alexander Shabalov, requires little introduction.

Finally, our stream team (originally my co-manager Isaac Steincamp) now includes NM David Hua and GM Eugene Perelshteyn.

Unfortunately for Buenos Aires, their chances were severely hampered by poor performance on their lower boards. Untitled Cristian Sanhueza, rated 2298 FIDE, scored 0-4 as the Krakens’ #4, while GM Leandro Krysa, who suffered from chronic connection problems, posted a dismal 0.5-3.5 on the night. This was clearly a bit of an extreme case, but does suggest that the more “top-heavy” lineups (Buenos Aires also fielded GM Federico Perez Ponsa and GM Alan Pichot) may be underestimating the importance of the lower positions.

In contrast, the Pawngrabbers seem to be quite strong in that regard. Many of our players last year were heavily outrated by many of the IM/GM powerhouses they faced, yet managed to score a respectable number of upsets. As we saw last night, being blown out 4-0 can be more damaging than it looks at first, so scoring a point or two as a low board goes a long way. A 1.5-2.5 was a respectable result for Pittsburgh #4 FM Edward Song (especially given how close his other games were), while IM Atulya Shetty scored a surprisingly strong 2.5-1.5.

Finally, time to recognize the obvious: our top two boards GM Alexander Shabalov and GM Awonder Liang. It’s never easy to predict Shaba, but he showed no signs of nerves, obliterating his first three opponents before falling to the Krakens’ MVP, GM Ponsa. Awonder took a more solid route, scoring two draws and a win against the Argentine GMs to also finish 3-1.

Let’s take a look at some of the key moments of the match.

Pittsburgh went 2.5-1.5 in the “weird” round (1v4, 2v3, 3v2, 4v1). Edward, not fearing his highest-rated opponent, played what was probably the most exciting game of the round. Unfortunately, time trouble proved fatal in an equal ending.

GM Perelshteyn offers his take on White’s spectacular opening.

Round 2 was a bit shakier, but Pittsburgh scored 2-2 to stay ahead. Shaba spiced things up with a scary piece sac.

Shabalov–Krysa, round 2

With the score so close, Round 3 was shaping up to be critical. Everyone was up to the challenge, and collectively scored 3-1, moving within a point of winning the match. Isaac and David recap the round below.

I have to repost another Shaba game14. c4! was a really nice find.

Ed promptly finished the match in style, clinching the match courtesy of an early tactic against the Krakens’ Sanhueza. Black was surprised to find that 18…Qc5?? loses the queen after 19. Bxf6! Bxf6 20. Rd8+!!.

And just like that, Pittsburgh had ensured victory over the Buenos Aires Krakens, a strong, 2017 Playoff team. However, now that Pittsburgh is a true contender for the league, tiebreaks matter, and Awonder and Atulya did well to pick up another point and a half, getting us to 10-6. A great start to the season for the Pawngrabbers!

Be sure to tune in next week/same time as we take on the Montreal Chessbrahs in what should be another tough and exciting matchup!



Patience With Black at the 2017 Pan Ams

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about team tournaments, it’s that when teammates underperform, they better do it at the same time! Two of our losses were to lower-rated teams by the thin margin of 2.5-1.5, which along with an unfortunately predictable 4-0 sweep by the all-GM Webster B team, gave us a 3-3 record for the tournament despite our relatively strong lineup of David Hua (2394 USCF as of December), Eigen Wang (2337), Maryia Oreshko (2151), and myself (2118). The timing of our individual results proved unfortunate in the tournament. It often seemed that no sooner had one of us had found our footing when someone else started struggling.

But as is often the case in these team tournaments, the chess often proved secondary to team dynamics as we found ways to enjoy our combination of struggles and triumphs. Trekking out to Pan Ams in the middle of winter break has never been easy for me, but Eigen (who, as an undergrad and masters student, has played Pan Ams more than the rest of us combined) convinced me I had to go before graduating, so I went to experience it myself for the first, and probably the last time.

Board 4 is a stranger experience in some ways, as Isaac explained after his own Pan Ams almost exactly a year ago. More than any other board, it sometimes seems like you’re always playing way down or way up. An expert is in an awkward spot, because they’re likely playing a lot of 1650-1800 players, who if motivated enough are dangerous in their own rights. Or players like GM Manuel Leon Hoyos (who presumably had no problem picking apart my 14th move pawn blunder); take your pick.

I also had the gift of an extra Black this tournament (4 of the 6 rounds). Given my opening repertoire, that means a lot of less glamorous chess that, depending on how much you appreciate it, can be described as methodical, patient, boring, or lucky. All my games as Black are reminders that you often have to grind your way out of equality to win. In “boring” positions, this often entails relying on tactical vigilance (less charitably referred to as “waiting for blunders”) and playing for smaller advantages.

The Unfortunate

My last-round game (and only even matchup of the event) would easily have been my favorite if not for an unfortunate blunder near the end. After declining an early draw from my opponent (who wasn’t feeling too well – something I didn’t catch on during the game), I maneuvered into a much better ending. Unfortunately, my time management was not nearly as good, and my opponent alertly picked up a piece – and the game – after my time trouble slip.

The Caro-Kann

A lot of Classical Caro-Kann middlegames look unpleasant for Black at first glance because White can often get more queenside space and more active pieces simply by playing natural moves. However, Black has plenty of tricks despite the cramped positions; White still needs to understand some of the positional themes to keep up pressure.

In my first-round game, my opponent lost the thread after a positional/tactical blunder. My fifth-round game, also a Classical Caro-Kann, was a little more difficult. I spent what seemed like forever engineering a …c5 break, but my opponent did not have a good plan and after some time-wasting moves fell victim to some well-timed tactics.

The Kingside Attack

This last game is interesting because it involves a Bh6 (trying to exchange off Black’s fianchettoed bishop) that is surprisingly similar to what I play in one of the Closed Sicilian mainlines. Many players play Be3/Qd2 and the subsequent Bh6 exchange automatically, and it seemed especially anti-positional so I didn’t give it much thought. But when I realized how I’d seen similar ideas as White many times in my openings, I realized it might not be that easy to defend. Ultimately however, the positional considerations were still in my favor and I was able to consolidate after my opponent impulsively sacrificed a pawn on the kingside.

As always, it is a bit strange playing on Board 4. I think it’s a good thing to revisit the basics once in a while, though when you have to beat just about everyone to gain rating it feels a little loose. However, it was great to end the year spending time with the CMU team at *the* college team tournament, and in February, I’m hoping to take another stab at team glory at the U.S. Amateur Team East. See you all in two weeks!


Structure vs. Activity

The question of whether to aim for a structurally sound position or active play is one of the most common dilemmas known to chess. A solid structure, almost by definition, is meant not to change so easily, and opening lines of play or creating weaknesses in order to play more actively almost always entails some risk or structural concession. It is very natural for most people to develop some kind of stylistic preference, but this is not always a good thing. Attacking for the sake of activity, for example, can be disastrous if you are undeveloped, have too many other problems to deal with, or are simply not tactically justified in attacking. On the other hand, trying to stay solid can easily turn into simply being passive, which may just as easily get you rolled off the board.

For the amateur player, it’s almost always a question of tactics and calculation, since in most positions it can clearly be determined what moves are certainly good or bad. However, as someone who fails to do this a lot, I know that it’s often not an easy task. In my case, laziness, fear of calculating incorrectly, or simply the preference to play certain types of positions (even if they might be worse) makes a more subjective judgment tempting. This has its ups and downs, as I discovered in a recent game against an 1800-rated player at the Pittsburgh Chess Club this week. My opponent’s interesting attempt at an active yet risky position did not prove its worth, but some ups and downs in my decisions made things interesting for a while, although I managed to stay ahead and eventually pulled off the win. Enjoy!

Lessons from a Painful Game

True lessons are rarely learned from just one game, but sometimes it takes an unexpectedly nasty game to make you realize what you’ve been missing! Before moving on, it might be helpful to see my most recent game (as much as I was able to record) to see what you notice.

Immediately, it’s apparent that there’s a lot of craziness in that game, and unfortunately, a lot of it is not good (from either side). Of course, from the vantage point of a computer (or anyone screening for perfection, really), there are many mistakes to be found in almost any amateur game. So that should not take away from this G/120 victory by local Class A veteran Jeff Schragin, who did well to pour on the heat throughout the opening and, despite losing the thread later on, saw the benefits of a good time reserve as he eked out the win in a tricky knight ending.

It bears repeating that basic-looking mistakes are surprisingly common even among strong players (who can get pretty forgetful), and that worthwhile lessons are rarely limited to just one game. But there are many that show themselves in this game more than many other games I’ve played:

  • First things first; any mention of why I lost this game must start with my ridiculous time management. In particular, Black (at least with my endgame skills) simply cannot expect to waltz through that knight endgame (dynamically equal, with Black trying to use the extra pawn before White cleans up on the queenside) with 2 minutes on the clock. That situation was undoubtedly caused by several terrible decisions earlier on, starting with a nearly 15-minute think on move 5 (see next point!). Along with my traditionally time-consuming habits in the more complicated positions, this gave me no chance to calculate accurately in the later stages of the game.
  • While deep expertise in specific openings is far from necessary at almost all levels, going in completely cold is not a reliable strategy; it is important to develop a sound opening repertoire. Being surprised by a novelty or taking time in an unexpectedly complicated early middlegame is fine, but it’s probably a good idea to be familiar enough to breeze through the first 5-10 moves almost every time. You are likely not in good shape if you are spending 15 minutes on move 5 (in my case, I had been aiming for a Hedgehog but didn’t bother to remember any move orders and ended up flustered early on – this is something I’ll definitely fix in future games). Black’s somewhat-forced 10…c5 is a testament to how positionally dominant White remained for the better part of the opening.
  • Wild computer evaluations usually means major mistakes were made, and in this game plenty were made from both sides. By a certain level, most players will roll their eyes at checking all “checks, captures, and threats” but when you forget this at a fundamental level, you’re vulnerable to errors like 24…Bd6? and 25. Nd3?, which both miss 25. Nxf7 just picking up a pawn. Probably the costliest error of the game, 36…Ng4?? (which still leaves Black better, but complicated to play with 2 minutes left) could have been prevented by just checking 36…Bxc1, which immediately wins as Black brings in Nd3-b4. For his part, my opponent, who ended the game with a whole hour on his clock, probably could have benefited from a few extra seconds of blunder checking (although it is understandable to save energy and save time for later), although it should be noted that more time does not imply more accuracy, as I spent too much time on several moves checking lines that ended up not being very relevant.
  • Sometimes, the most you can do is cause as many problems as possible for your opponent to win, and sometimes it works. The caveat here is that you have to go all the way. I thought my opening position was borderline unsalvageable, but all I could do was try my best to avoid any immediate tactical disasters (which led to some technically inferior moves such as 12…Kxd8 instead of allowing 12….Rxd8 13. Bc7). Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for me as I ran into time trouble near the end. On the other hand, it is also difficult to endure a much worse or losing position after having held an edge for so long, and my opponent did well to pull off the win after I missed the win on move 36.

This is certainly not the first or the last time I’ve seen these ideas in play, but this game really puts these principles in perspective. While it’s never easy to analyze these kinds of games in depth, they can be surprisingly instructive and make us stronger as players!

New Openings, New Struggles

Being in a low-stakes chess environment (for example, after becoming a master) is a good time to try out some new things. Unfortunately, I took this a little too far at the Pennsylvania State Action (G/30), where I lost to a slew of lower rated players in strange, unfamiliar openings, easily making it my worst tournament of the last few years. While it is not wrong to wade in uncharted waters, there is a wide range of unfamiliar that requires some reasonable judgment. All I can say is, when you find yourself in a close game against someone several hundred points lower, you only have yourself to blame for playing 1…a6.

A better idea is to start with smaller changes, which in my case (since I don’t study openings very heavily) means slight deviations in lines I otherwise play very often. Nevertheless, there are some difficulties to be expected along the way, like when I tried (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3) 3…a6 against rapidly improving 10-year old expert Evan Park. Although this looks like Black is just fooling around, this is in fact a useful waiting move, as White is tempted into the choices of:

  • 4. exd5 (a harmless Exchange Caro-Kann)
  • 4. e5 (an Advanced Caro-Kann where White has already committed to Nc3, making …c5 more attractive)
  • 4. Nf3 (what Evan played)

4. Nf3 was followed by 4…Bg4 and soon Be2, Bxf3, Nf6, e4-e5, etc. where Black has sort of a French Defense without the problematic light-squared bishop. Note that …a6 can be useful to Black in some lines (at worst it’s harmless since the position is relatively closed), unlike my try of 2…a6 against Isaac in a Sicilian. While I got a nice position for Black, I was unfamiliar with the plans and overlooked a tricky tactic around move 15, making the rest of the game a huge uphill task.

Games against lower-rated players are also good opportunities to try out new openings as long as they aren’t joke openings like I played a few times, but for example, some Open Sicilians I’m not so familiar with, like against a local 1609 in the first round of the ongoing Robert Smith Memorial. A much higher-rated player should still be able to outplay an opponent based on “normal” skill.

After my recent quick chess troubles, I was looking forward to start over at the Pennsylvania G/15. Unfortunately, things didn’t seem to be heading my way as Evan Park outplayed me from an equal ending in my favorite Classical Caro-Kann. A critical matchup developed in a crazy Round 6 against none other than Isaac to even our head-to-head record. Unfortunately, it just so happens sometimes that the most exciting games are the ones where you can’t keep score properly… but here is the game, to the best of my efforts!

With that victory and a final-round draw against NM Eigen Wang in Round 7, my score of 5.5/7 was good enough for 2nd place. While it’s not a particularly high-stakes victory (quick rating points and some pocket cash), it does give me a boost going into the end of 2017. Like Isaac, despite some rough patches, I very much look forward to finishing the year strongly!

How Much Fun is Enough?

In a more casual setting at a local G/45 tournament last weekend, I took the opportunity to play some stranger openings that I don’t attempt in more serious play. Unfortunately, I took this a little too far when I barely managed to draw a 1192 (he was playing quite well for his rating, but still). In fairness, I wasn’t the only one (a fellow master lost to a 1377 who wasn’t scared off by an unsound Scandinavian gambit), and this incident was not really because of the opening (which began with 1. g3 h5!? 2. e4 h4). Ultimately, everything seems to come down to how one plays regular chess.

That disaster left me a chance to redeem myself against the only sane high-rated player left in the field, NM Franklin Chen. However, I was intrigued by his assumption that I would play the Closed Sicilian as White, and wanted to switch things up a little. But Franklin turned out to be a step ahead, surprising my 1. e4 with 1…e6.

Psychologically, that was not acceptable, and Franklin knows his openings very well, so I had to think up a good alternative to 2. d4. I ultimately settled on 2. Qe2!?.

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Li – Chen: after 2. Qe2

I’ve only seen one game in this line, but from what I understand the point is to hinder …d5, as Black would much rather take back with the e-pawn. In the only game that I’ve seen, the game continued 2…Be7 3. b3 d5 4. Bb2 Bf6 (4…Nf6 5. exd5 exd5 6. Bxf6 gxf6 leaves Black with riddled pawns) 5. e5 with a lot of space for White.


So Black decided to go back to a “closed” Sicilian after all, and after a few moves it’s clear I lost the opening battle (at least psychologically). Qe2 makes White’s development a bit smoother after g3/Bg2/O-O/etc. but that didn’t look very interesting. I tried to play for d4.

3. b3?! Nc6 4. Nf3 e5

I usually don’t think very highly of locking up the dark squares like this, but it’s so hard for White to play d4 here that it makes a lot of sense. Again, I still tried to stick to d4.

5. Nf3 d6 6. h3 g6 7. Na3?

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Li – Chen: after 7. Na3

Consistent at least, but admittedly way too slow (still going for Na3-c2/d4). However, …f5 is coming.

7…Bg7 8. c3 Nge7 9. Rd1

White is almost ready to play d4, but Black can play 9…f5!, threatening …fxe4 followed by …d5 with a big advantage. This can be done over the next few moves, but ultimately Black delays it too long.

9…O-O 10. Bg2 a6 11. O-O b5?! 12. Nc2 Bb7?

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Li – Chen: after 12…Bb7

This was Black’s last chance to get ahead with …f5, and with the d4 push, White is equal again.

13. d4 exd4 14. cxd4 Re8 15. Qd3 f5?!

Would have been a great idea little earlier, but now this looks rather suspect. Since Black’s bishop isn’t defending the weak light squares on the kingside, White has a lot of potential Ng5/Bd5/similar ideas.

16. Ng5

Threatening the devastating Ne6/Nxg7; relatively best, in hindsight, is 16…Bf6.


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Li – Chen: after 16…Nc8

Since this was a pretty fast game, I totally missed this, which is bad because White’s knight is nearly trapped; even if it moves (e.g. 17. h4 h6 18. Nh3) Black wins the e4-pawn because of the Bb7’s indirect attack on the e4-pawn. Of course, Black’s kingside is not held together very well, so simply sacrificing the knight and opening the f/g-files gives White (at least) decent compensation. I decided to sac the knight and hope for the best. It turns out that this is very sound.

17. f4! h6

Probably not objectively best, but it’s reasonable for Black to make White prove the attack at this point. Bailing out with 17…fxe4 leads to 18. Bxe4 Nb4 19. Nxb4 Bxe4 20. Nxe4 cxb4 where 21. f5 is unlikely to end well for Black.

18. exf5 hxg5 19. fxg5 Qxg5

Otherwise, it’s virtually impossible to defend g6 after 20. f6.

20. h4!

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Li – Chen: after 20. h4

A few other moves work too, but this, which I first saw after 19. fxg5, looks the simplest. If Black tries to hold onto g6 (as in the game), White just storms ahead with the f-pawn. Otherwise, f5-f6 followed by Qxg6+ is game over.

Black chose to just give up the e8 rook, but this leaves White up the Exchange with a still massive attack, so the rest of the game was relatively straightforward.

20…Qg4 21. f6 N8e7 22. f7+ Kh7 23. fxe8=Q Rxe8 24. Rf4 Qd7 25. Rf7 Kg8 26. Raf1 Nd8

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Rxg7+ have been rather tempting for a while, but allowing Black to block the a1-h8 diagonal complicated matters a little. With that option gone, White mates in a few moves.

27. Rxg7+ Kxg7 28. dxc5+ Kg8 29. Qc3 Nf6 30. Qh8+ Kf7 31. Qg7+ Ke6 32. Qf6#

When to (not) Break Out …f6?

If you play the French often enough, you have probably seen the …f6 break as a common theme to equalize space. One common example comes from the 3. Nd2 Tarrasch main line:

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After 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. Bd3 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ne2 cxd4 8. cxd4

Here, Black can eliminate the cramping e5-pawn with 8…f6 with good piece play and open f-file, at the cost of a somewhat bad bishop and backward e-pawn.

However, there are many different variations and subvariations in which one can consider an …f6 break (in non-Tarrasch lines as well), and suffice to say that not all of them are good. Admittedly, I’m not an expert in the French, and I’m not sure how much studying one would have to do to cover all of these scenarios. My personal advice is to not break out …f6 when in doubt, since it does create weaknesses and in many cases can be delayed with few major consequences.

It’s easy to take the …f6 break for granted in lines like the above, but it does weaken Black’s center (two hanging pawns) and king. It (more or less) works for Black in the above Tarrasch because White’s pieces are not well-developed enough to take advantage of the weaknesses too soon and Black is positioned well to defend and even counter-attack due to the open lines created by …f6.

On the other hand, consider this position I recently happened upon from a Pittsburgh weekend tournament game between two experts:

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After 7. Be3

Black played 7…f6 here. At first it doesn’t look too bad because the center is relatively closed and White hasn’t castled. But White’s pieces are much more developed here than in the first example, so attacking the d5/e6-pawns is a lot easier. Note that White hasn’t committed the light-squared bishop and still has the option of g3/Bh3.

That wasn’t Black’s only mistake, but it quickly made things more difficult for Black. After the natural 8. Qd2 a6 9. exf6 Qxf6 10. O-O-O Bd6 11. g3! b5?? (not what Black needs to be focusing on!) 12. dxc5 Bxc5 13. Bh3 Black’s position is virtually beyond repair. Although it doesn’t immediately work out tactically, White is already entertaining the idea of Nxd5 (as happened a few moves later).

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After 13. Bh3

Unfortunately, the rest of the game was not particularly hard to predict. White soon won both the e6 and d5 pawns, and still managed to attack Black’s weak kingside. This goes to show how seemingly insignificant differences can completely change the positional assessment of an …f6 break!

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After 25. Bg6, Black resigns