Positional Exchange Sacrifices

Upon hearing the word sacrifice, most of us think about brutal sacrificial mating attacks, but that’s not always the case. Exchange sacrifices can be based purely on positional reasons in endgames. They can be a way out of a bad position, or they may be the best way to get winning chances.

How do you know that your exchange sacrifice is worth it? Obviously it all depends on your position, but I’d say that the following factors would be good indicators

  • Afterwards your pieces will be well-placed (that’s obviously a plus!)
  • Your opponent’s rook(s) is/are not active or will not have an easy time infiltrating
  • Your opponent’s pieces aren’t so active in general
  • Your position is relatively secure
  • You have passed pawn(s) that your opponent needs to worry about
  • Last but not least, the more pawns you have in return for the exchange, the better

Now I’m obviously not claiming that ordinary exchange-down positions are ok for you. No, no, no! A rook is better than a minor piece in most circumstances. And of course you have to calculate accurately, since you really can’t justify losing by force. Let’s look at a few examples.

At the recent U16 Olympiad, I did make a (good) exchange sacrifice.

isik

I was black in this strange position. White has passed pawns on g5 and f6 that are blockaded but do tie up black’s pieces. Meanwhile, white’s bishop does a much better job blockading the g5-pawn. Black doesn’t have a clear plan of action here, and if white can get a rook to the h-file (say after Kf2 and Rh1), black’s position won’t be pleasant.

Taking everything into account, I decided to play 24… Re5! here, with the idea of sacrificing an exchange on g5. This is a good idea from a practical perspective. White’s f6-pawn will still be a thorn, but I’ll be able to take care of it by playing Kd7-e6. Besides that, the only realistic problem with black’s position is that white invades with a rook and takes my queenside pawns, which will become an issue but doesn’t seem to be too concerning.

While white is still the one pressing, this is a better scenario for black than if he waited around and let white proceed with his plans. In the game, I was able to successfully hold a draw after some adventures.

While the idea of sacrificing an exchange came to me naturally there, I’ve had some mishaps in the past. Take this example from 2014, when I was ~2250 USCF:

davtyan1

Again, I was black in another fairly strange position. Black has a pawn lodged on d3, but white has his a knight lodged on d6 in return. How to handle this? Black is in check and obviously has limited options. A tempting possibility here is to remove the knight from d6 by playing 19… Rxd6! 20.exd6 Nf5.

davtyan2

White’s life is far from easy here. If black could simply play Nxd6-e4, he’d be dominating. Since 20.Rc1 attacking the c5-pawn is simply met with 20… Kb6, white will probably play 20.e4 Nxd6 21.e5, where black has lots of compensation after 21… Ne4, Re8, Nf5, etc. This is because black has a solid blockade on the light squares, his d3-pawn is strong, and white’s rooks simply don’t have open files to exploit. While it’s not so bad for white, black is for choice.

Instead of that, I played 19… Kb6, which isn’t a bad move. It’s after 20.a5+ Kc6 21.Rc1 that I made my howler.

davtyan3

Here I should have also gone 21… Rxd6!. After 22.exd6 Kxd6, black will have a lot of compensation for similar reasons like above. Instead of that, I played 21… Rb8??, preventing Bxb4, but after 22.e4 I found myself in a lost position, since I won’t be able to save my c5-pawn. I went on to lose.

Looking at this game now, I’m totally shocked I didn’t sacrifice the exchange. The first time is ok, but the second time!?

Those two games had some similarities. Both were fairly strange positions full of imbalances, though they were also fairly closed positions in which rooks weren’t that powerful. It was also easier for me to establish a blockade after sacrificing the exchange than to play the positon “normally” in both situations.

Scanning through my games, I’m surprised how rare these positional exchange sacrifices are in my practice. This goes to show that yes, being an exchange up is usually a good thing, but there are situations in which a minor piece and a pawn are more useful than a rook.

This painful experience of mine from a couple years ago shows that a rook can truly be dominated.

exchsac1

I thought I was doing all right in this position, but not after I got hit with the strong sacrifice 33.Rxc8!. After 33… Rxc8 34.Nxf5+ Kf7 35.Ne4, black is in big trouble.

exchsac2

White’s knights are quite well-placed and powerful, especially compared with their black counterparts. Moreover, they’re attacking the d6-pawn. If it falls, black’s position will be in ruins. I therefore played 35… Rd8, but after 36.Ba5 Rd7, my rook is literally stuck. To be more precise, it’s totally dominated. I went on to lose this position.

Long story short: positional exchange sacrifices do exist and can be quite good in various situations. If it looks like you have a lot of purely positional compensation after an exchange sacrifice, it’s worth a shot!

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Revisiting the Past

It’s always interesting to go back in my personal games database and look at some old games of mine. It brings back good and bad memories and highlights how much things have changed. The other day I revisited a game from 2014, when I was rated around 2150. At the time, I thought it had been a very nice game, except for a small theoretical slip-up. Upon taking a closer look, I found that that wasn’t exactly the case…

pascetta 1

In this French, I had sacrificed an exchange on f3 as black to reach this position. Back in those days, I was a bit of a chicken, and sacrificing an exchange was about as “wild” as I’d generally go. In this position, black has two pawns for the exchange in the form of a central pawn mass. Black’s rook on c8 is nicely placed, his knight on g6 is temporarily guarding the h7-pawn, and his queen can easily hop into the action. Meanwhile, white’s queen is fairly active, white’s h3-rook looks strange but it’s useful, and his a1-rook will join the game pretty quickly. Black’s plan is to play …e5, with ideas of e4, Nf4, piling up on the c2-pawn, etc. If white sits back and does nothing, things could turn sour for him very quickly.

Looking at this position today, it seems pretty natural that white should generate counterplay. He doesn’t have to perform an all-out attack on the king; he can just keep an eye on it. This could be accomplished with a move like 18.Rf1. 18… e5 could quickly turn into a disaster after 19.Qf5!. Black will probably play 18… Qb6 instead, but after a move like Rf2, Kh1, Rg3, etc. white is doing all right. Black will most likely not get away with 19… Qxb2, and it really isn’t clear what he will do next.

My opponent played 18.Re1, which is a pretty natural move, though it isn’t best. I replied with 18… Qb6. Then came 19.Rb1?.

pascetta 2

This is a move that sets alarm bells off in my IM brain. What really surprises me is that I didn’t make any comment about this move in my notes. 19.Rb1 defends the b2-pawn, but is that a serious issue in the first place? if white say plays 19.Kh1? If 19… Qxb2, white has 20.Qe2 Nf8 21.Rf3, generating counterplay against the black king. One critical resource to spot here is that 21… Qxc2?? loses to 22.Rxf8+! Kxf8 23.Qxe6 Qc4 24.Kg1. White doesn’t even have to play like this. Alternatives include 19.Rf3 and 19.Rf1 (yes, this does waste a tempo compared to 18.Rf1, but it’s still fine for white), after both of which 19… Qxb2 is actually bad for black. Black could play 19… e5 instead, but after 20.Qf5!, white’s counterplay is coming just in time. Another thing to point out is that playing 18.Re1 on the previous move, white is moving his rook right back to the awe-inspiring square of b1 in response to a reasonable move from black (18… Qb6). Wasting a tempo can’t be good, and the white rook will be doomed to babysitting the pawn.

To summarize 19.Rb1: no, no, no, and NO!!!

I naturally wanted to play 19… e5, but I was worried about 20.Rxh7 Kxh7 21.Qh3+, hitting the rook on c8. What I missed was that I actually don’t have to recapture on h7; I can go, for instance, 20… Nf4 21.Qf5 d3+ 22.Kh1 Rxc2, with a totally winning position. My d-pawn is close to queening, white’s king is suddenly shaky, and white’s attack is nonexistent.

Instead, I played 19… Qc5?. Now I’m protecting the c8-rook in those variations and am “attacking” the c2-pawn. However, this is a mistake that gives white a second chance to activate his rook. If white simply moves the rook away with 20.Rf1!, 20… Qxc2 is no longer a threat on account of 21.Qxd4. And if black plays 20… e5 instead, he’ll be met with 21.Qf5! where white is clearly getting serious counterplay. My opponent instead played 20.Rc1?, another bad move. I replied with 20… e5 and got my pawn mass rolling. After 21.Kh1 e4 22.Qd2 d3 black is already winning. My opponent tried to generate counterplay with 23.Qg5, but I played 23… d4 24.Qg4 d2 25.Qe6+ Kh8 26.Rf1 Qc4 27.Qf5

pascetta 3

Wow, those pawns really are rolling. Comparing this to the starting position, it’s fairly clear that white has lost a gigantic amount of ground without getting anything real in return. I finished the game off with an elegant trick: 27… Qxf1+! 28.Qxf1 Rxc2. White has a queen for a knight and three pawns, but he is helpless in preventing 29… Rc1. Not bad! My opponent resigned.

After the game, I really liked my play. True, the ending where my pawns were rolling down the board was picturesque, but it shouldn’t have gotten to that point. One thing which strikes me now is how wrong my 2014 notes to the game were. Yes, it was nice to live in the bubble that this game had been a masterpiece and that my position had been good all along. I think I didn’t understand that the position is, in reality, around equal. I’ve had a few other such “masterpieces,” where my play was far from brilliant and where my opponents greatly helped my cause.

Takeaways:

  • Don’t judge a position by its cover. Yes, that position was easier to play for black, but white wasn’t helpless against black’s great plans.
  • Don’t just sit there and wait for your opponent to execute his plan. Try to mix things up. If it looks like you will get steamrolled if you do nothing, you should try to generate some counterplay ASAP.
  • Try not to be passive. In this case, white should have tried to keep his rook active instead of dooming it to eternal babysitting with Rb1 and Rc1.
  • Don’t automatically recapture pieces. We all do it, but once you figure out that things aren’t so good after recapturing, look for alternatives. When I was looking at lines with Rxh7, I was always recapturing Kxh7 and didn’t realize that I’m winning after Nf4.

2018 Wrap-up

2018 was a wild ride for me. There were ups and downs, highlights and lowlights, victories and failures, and more. Since the year is almost over, it’s time to reflect on what happened in 2018. Instead of giving a monologue about what happened, how about some statistics…?

Shortest game: 9 moves. It was (shockingly) a draw.

Longest game: 79 moves. That was the 5th round of the U16 Olympiad, the day after we beat the top seed Uzbekistan, where my game lasted “only” 77 moves. Chess is tough :(.

Highest scalp: GM Sergey Erenburg (2656 USCF) at the last round of the East Coast Open in May.

Lowest-rated loss: William Graif (2293 USCF). Considering that this is my worst lost over an entire year, this isn’t that bad.

Longest winning streak: 5 games. After beating GM Erenburg, I won my next four games at the Stamford Open before taking a draw in round 5 to win the tournament.

Longest losing streak: 3 games at the U16 Olympiad, which was a really awful time to pull something like that off…

Longest undefeated streak: 13 games. This was a streak from July-August that unfortunately ended in round 8 of the Washington International (more on that later).

Highlights: I had my fair share of successes winning a few tournaments. My most memorable victory was tying for first at the NY International. The fact that I lost my first round in that tournament made it special.

Lowlights: Two awful fails stand out: the first was at the Washington International, where I lost my last two game when 1.0/2 would’ve gotten me a GM Norm. The second was at the U16 Olympiad, where I lost three games in a row in rounds 5-7.

Funniest moment: That was for sure when the lights went off for the third (!) time during round 5 of the Washington Chess Congress.

Favorite move: Somehow, I haven’t had the opportunity to play any eye-popping brilliant moves this year. Instead, I’ll make a strange choice for this one:

Arias 2

This was the 8th round of the Philadelphia Open. On the previous move, white could have played 26.Re1 g6 27.Qf3 dxc3 28.bxc3, but the game is headed towards a draw. Instead of going for that, I spiced things up with 26.c4!?. This relatively sound pawn sacrifice bore fruit: the game went 26… g6 (26… g5 was possible as well) 27.Qf3 Bxc4 28.Re1 Ne3? 29.Bc2!, after which white magically wins a piece. While what happened in this game is far from brilliant, I’m glad that this kind of educated risk-taking worked out. If only that could be said about uneducated/irresponsible risk-taking…

Worst blunder: I’ve had a few, but this one is by far the worst and the most painful:

Ortiz Suarez 3

In this position, I playepd 35.bxa5???? and had to resign on the spot after 35… Bc8+. The worst part about this was that I would’ve gotten a GM Norm had I won this game.

New Year’s Resolutions: Uh oh, now is the time to make intelligent, realistic New Year’s resolutions. Well, that’ll be hard…

U16 Olympiad: the Second Half & Final Thoughts

Before the rest day, everything was good. We had miraculously defeated the top seed Uzbekistan and were tied for first with 9/10 match points. The day after the rest day, however, was absolutely brutal. I mean really brutal.

In the morning, we played Ukraine. After some adventures on the lower boards, the score was 1.5-1.5. Yours truly, after being marginally better for the entire game, lost control over the position and overreacted by blundering in an endgame that was, in reality, a fairly easy draw.

Matviishen
When you lose this kind of position with white…

It was a setback, but we were still tied for 4th. Then we got to play Iran. I lost perhaps the worst game I’ve played this year. Pretty quickly after my defeat, things went downhill on the other boards too. Long story short, we got crushed 3.5-0.5.

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Before the start of round 7 against Iran. Unfortunately, this mood didn’t last very long…

 

 

We had lost 2 matches in one day. To top it off, I personally had lost 3 games in a row, which is rare and never fun. Looking at the standings at the evening team meeting, we thought we’d get an easy pairing next round. Instead, we got Armenia, which was the 6th seed. Talk about a bad end of a horrible day.

That was the final nail in our coffin when it came to our medal chances. I managed not to lose a 4th game in a row (yay!)—I actually had very good winning chances, but I didn’t play it the best way, and it ended in a draw. Board 2 was also a draw (after some wild adventures), but we unfortunately lost on both boards 3 and 4 and lost the match 3-1.

IMG_1085
An accurate summary of the second half of the tournament…

In the last round, we got to play Hungary. We won the match 3-1. I finally won a game, despite blowing a very large advantage and even getting worse in the process.

Overall, we finished 10th. Uzbekistan didn’t let their loss to us stop them from winning the rest of their matches and deservedly winning gold. India won silver, and the massively underrated Chinese team won bronze. Our board 2 IM Hans Niemann finished with 7.5/9 and won a bronze medal for board 2—a medal which he forgot in his hotel room 12 hours later. Looking back at the final crosstable, we ended up playing 5 out of the 7 top teams, beating the overall winners, drawing the 4th place team, and losing to the 5th, 6th, and 7th teams.

Olymp Final Standings

Despite not playing as well as I had hoped to, I believe I still contributed to the team by facing tough opposition on the first board and helping with my teammates’ preparation. It’s hard to put in words what this tournament meant to me. Just spending a week doing chess, chess, and more chess (with a little bit of schoolwork spiced in) was fun. I got to meet so many people from around the globe, some of them the very best in my age group. Sorry American tournaments, but this is really hard to beat this experience. I really wish I could go next year, but unfortunately I’ll be too old.

Big thanks to my teammates and team coach GM Kudrin!

IMG_4775
Before the closing ceremony. No longer in matching uniforms, back to individual tournaments…

Now I’m back home and have settled back down to boring normal life (yeah, I had too much fun there for my own good). It’s time to relax and enjoy the upcoming holiday season—and study some chess of course. Time to regroup!

U16 Olympiad: Free Day after the Storm

The tournament goes on. The smog is gone, the food continues to be good, and we’ve settled into a routine. The English in the hotel continues to provide entertainment. Some of the food translations really give Google Translate a run for its money…

IMG_4577(1)
Who knew ovens tasted so good? I already had a chicken oven, a turkey oven, lamb frying, and many more delicacies that I had never even heard of.

The chess got even more unpredictable than the translations. We scored a massive upset against Uzbekistan, winning 2.5-1.5. At the end of that match, we were leading 2-1, and I was defending an unpleasant endgame, but I held, and we won the match. The following match with Belarus ended in a 2-2 tie after some serious drama. I’m surprised no spectators had heart attacks while watching this match… Yours truly contributed by gambling in a drawn endgame when the team didn’t look so good. Then everything turned 180 degrees, my game included

Today is a rest day. We went for an excursion of Konya. We visited a mosque/museum and a butterfly garden, and in the process we bought souvenirs, trashed talked, socialized with other teams, and just had a good time.

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IMG_4613
Not bad!

Tomorrow we’re back to business, another double round day. We’re tied for first with Belarus, and we get to play Ukraine. Onward!

Fingers crossed. Wish us luck.

U16 Olympiad: Hanging in There

The US team arrived in Konya, Turkey, 2 days ago for the U16 Olympiad, and we’ve been quite busy since. The first evening we managed to sneak in an exciting dance performance, courtesy of the organizers. The hotel is nice (except for slow elevators, but taking the stairs provides us with some exercise). The food is good, and the playing hall is literally right next door, so there’s no need to deal with buses. That sure helps relax the schedule. As for jet lag and the smog that hit us and Konya today, well… they’re not as good, but hopefully tomorrow there won’t be any trace of either.

Enough weather, time for chess. We’ve made it through the first three matches and have won them all. Today we survived the first of the two double round days. Currently, I’m at 3 draws (the games were actually much more exciting than the result suggests).

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The Round 1 Scoreboard
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The start of round 1

Tomorrow, we are playing the #1 team, Uzbekistan. Wish us luck!

Onward! Here’s the official website if you want to follow. I’ll be back, internet-permitting.

What’s Cooking for Thanksgiving? Turkey!

My Thanksgiving/early December schedule usually consists of going to Philadelphia for the National Chess Congress and then playing the Marshall Chess Club Championship. Come to think of it, I’ve done it for the past 4 (!) years. Those tournaments are both FIDE rated and usually attract plenty of GMs and other strong players. My adventures playing in them have ranged from drawing GM Gata Kamsky at the National Chess Congress to battling snowstorms while trying to get to the Marshall. This year, however, will be different. I’ll be playing the World U16 Olympiad in Konya, Turkey.

Go to Turkey. Represent the US. Play chess for eight days with a rest day in the middle (which is almost unheard of in the US). All in one go. On top of that, since I’ll be too old to play next year, this is literally a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. What’s not to like about it? Sorry, American circuit, but I’ll pass this year …

Out of the 44 teams registered so far, we’re ranked 8th. I’ll still be in the US on Thanksgiving (being in Turkey on Thanksgiving would be so thematic), but I’ll be flying to Turkey the next day. I’ll get settled in on Saturday, November 24th, and the fun will begin the next day.

Just like the regular Olympiad, the U16 Olympiad is a team tournament, where teams consist of 5 players, 4 of which play each round. The tournament has 9 rounds played over 8 days, with a rest day (never had one of those in the US!) and two double round days. The US’s lineup is:

  • Me
  • Hans Niemann
  • Wesley Wang
  • Josiah Stearman
  • Akshita Gorti
  • GM Sergey Kudrin (coach)

Believe it or not, I’ve actually played my teammates 14 times in total and the coach 12 times! Now we’ll be on the same side…

This isn’t the first time I’m going to play abroad, and I have no intention of it being the last time either. This kind of tournament is a brand new experience for me (the US Amateur Team East and this really aren’t comparable).

Time and internet permitting, I’ll keep you updated on how it’s going. Stay posted here at Chess^Summit! The fun begins on November 25th

Wish us luck!