Time is of the Essence

You have a lead in development. Great! But what do you do now?

Open things up against the king. That’s what all the textbooks say, but that isn’t always easy. Your opponents have also studied the textbooks. They are not going to give you ten moves to figure out how to crush them.

Time is of the essence. In a couple moves, your opponent’s king will be safe. This is your window of opportunity. Don’t be afraid to think for a while. This is a critical moment. Are there supposed to be flashy explosions? Not necessarily. Often, sneaky non-tactical, positional moves can make the difference.

How to find those moves? In his book, Positional Play (an excellent read), GM Jacob Aagaard lists three questions you should ask yourself:

  • What are the opponent’s weaknesses?
  • What is the worst placed piece?
  • What is my opponent’s plan?

These questions are useful in essentially all positions. They may not provide you with an answer, but they will hopefully point you in the right direction. Take a look at the candidate moves and calculate the consequences. I’m not saying calculate them out to the end, but get a general idea of what’s going on there.

Here’s an example.

Brodsky, David (2308) – Niemann, Hans (2237) Marshall GP Feb. 2015

Niemann1
White to move

Where are the weaknesses? – Nothing immediately comes to mind. Both players’ pawn structures don’t have any weaknesses and don’t leave behind any weak squares.

What is the worst placed piece? – Actually, in this situation I’d ask, “What are the worst placed pieces?” White’s undeveloped rooks aren’t doing much and his bishop on e3 isn’t the greatest. As for black, his worst-placed pieces are the ones he hasn’t developed yet! Still, nothing in his formation seems out of place.

What is my opponent’s plan? – Finally, a question that has an easy answer! Nxe5 dxe5 Qxe5 is clearly bad because of Qb5+. Instead, black is going to go Bd6, putting pressure on the e5-knight. He can castle next move, and if white doesn’t do something now, he’ll have no advantage.

White’s only real claim to an advantage is his lead in development. He has to act quickly, because black’s plan of Bd6 and castling will lead to white having no lead in development or advantage to speak of.

There are two plans that come to mind: c4 and f4.

14.c4 trying to blast things open doesn’t work because of 14… Nxe5 15. dxe5 dxc4. Probably the best white can do there is get his pawn back and get an equal position.

Looking at f4, the main line would go something like: 14.f4 Bd6 15. Nxd7 Qxd7 16.f5 0-0 (16… exf5 is risky on account of 17.Bf4+ Be7 18.Rae1) 17.f6 g6. It looks tempting, but how much of an advantage is it? Not much. Black should be able to hold his kingside. Still, that’s the best we’ve found so far.

Many people would plunge ahead and calculate 14.f4 more. In these situations, after crunching out the important variations, take a step back and think if you have anything better.

Still stuck?

Don’t give up on c4. That’s my final hint.

I played 14. Rac1! making c4 a lot more effective. The rook exerts pressure against the black queen. The game went 14… Bd6 15.c4 dxc4 16. Rxc4 Qd8

Niemann2

White to move

Remember I said calculate. What to do here?

  1. Qg4!

The key move. The g7-pawn is awkward for black to defend. 17… 0-0 loses an exchange because of 18.Bh6.

The game went 17… Nxe5 18.dxe5 Bxe5. Black has won a pawn; however, he won’t be able to castle. After simply 19.Rd1 Qf6 20.Bc5, black is stuck. Instead, I went 19.Qe4? Qd5 20.Qc2 thinking that 20… 0-0 fails to 21.Rd1 Qb5 22.Rc5. However, I forgot that black has 22… Qxb2!. Fortunately, my opponent returned the favor with 20… Qd8?. I went 21.Rd1 Qb8 22.Bc5. Black’s king is stuck in the middle and may get mated soon. I won a couple of moves later.

On the surface, that looked like a crushing win. However, had I not found 14.Rac1, it probably wouldn’t have ended up like that. There wasn’t too much calculation involved. Coming up with the idea of 14.Rac1 was the hard bit.

Another example.

Brodsky, David (2316) – Samuelson, Andrew (2313) National Chess Congress 2015

Samuelson1

White to move

OK, what do we have here? Let’s go through the questions again.

Where are the weaknesses? – Black has doubled e-pawns, but are those really weaknesses? No, I wouldn’t say so. In these structures, these pawns can be a good thing because they control a lot of squares in the center and aren’t easy to attack. Even with all the heavy pieces off, they aren’t so weak. Any other weaknesses? Not really.

What is the worst placed piece? – The black king is temporarily misplaced on d8. However, the piece which isn’t doing anything useful and doesn’t seem to have a bright future is the white knight on c3. It just can’t go anywhere!

What is my opponent’s plan? – Black’s plan is Kc8 most likely followed by Rd8. His king will be safe enough, and his rook will be nicely positioned on the d-file. If that happens, where will white’s advantage be? Nowhere.

Let’s see what happens after the most natural move 22. Rd1+. Black will go 22… Kc8 (22… Ke8 looks like suicide), and white doesn’t seem to have anything convincing. He can try poking around with moves like Na4 or Qa7, but black just goes Rd8 and white doesn’t have anything concrete.

Not impressive. What else can we do? It is fairly clear that the black king will not go to e8 under any reasonable circumstances. His majesty will go to c8 where he is safe. Say, that knight on c3 really does suck…

I played 22. b4!. The point is to go b5, blasting things open against black’s king. The game went 22… gxf3 23. gxf3 Kc8 24.b5 (24.a4 was also possible) 24… axb5 25.Nxb5 Rd8

Samuelson2

White to move

This looks really promising for white! Black’s king is barely surviving and white essentially has at least a draw by perpetual check in all variations.

Now, it’s 99% calculation. What’s the best way to proceed? Here’s how it ended.

22.b4 was the move which made that happen.

In both games, I had a lead in development. However, I had to come up with an immediate plan or my advantage would be lost. I did invest a lot of time at those critical moments, and it paid off. Again, don’t be afraid to take your time and ask yourself the three questions. If your calculations don’t bear much fruit, take a step back and look if you have other options.

Blindness in Winning Positions

It seems that every time after I write something, I prove myself wrong shortly afterwards. Write about a good tournament, play terribly in the next tournament! Write about openings, have an opening disaster (that game is really off limits)! If this trend continues, I’m going to start writing about some of my worst tournaments before major events!

After writing my article about the grind, I naturally had to prove myself wrong at my next tournament, the USATE. The tournament ended well, but I did mention the glitch I had in round 2…

Just look at this position. It’s winning itself. You don’t even have to be there and that’s when your mind goes on vacation. You start thinking about your rating gain, how much time you’ll have until the next round, who you might play, the food waiting for you in the hotel room, etc. You don’t pay as much attention to the game as you should.

The textbook says you should always tell yourself “It’s not over until it’s over”

Come on! It’s over! Really, it’s over! Enough nonsense Mr. Philosophical.

Brodsky, David (2450) – Qi, Henry (2220) USATE 2017

Qi1

Black to move

White is two healthy pawns up. Black has the bishop pair, but there’s only that much compensation provided by the bishop pair. Game over very soon, right? My opponent played 36… Be5 and offered a draw. A draw would win the match for the team, but really? You don’t give a draw in position like that unless you are really short on time, starving, or about to fall asleep. I may as well win this position. I played 37.Rc5 Bg6 38.Rc6 Kf7 39.Rxa6 (grabbing a third pawn) h4 40.Ne2 h3

Qi2

White to move

The time control was reached, and I nonchalantly played 41.Bf4? Can you find black’s best defense?

After my opponent’s reply 41… Bb8! I freaked out. I went into full defense mode and started fighting for a draw. (Spoiler: I’m still winning, can you figure out how? I failed that task.)

You can check out what happened here.

That game is still a mystery to me. I mean, you would think white should be winning easily, yet look what happened. I’ve tried finding some random improvements for white, yet none of them are instantly 1-0. Still, assuming white is totally winning does not seem to be at all unreasonable.

What is not unreasonable to say is that me going on autopilot cost me a half point. It did admittedly look suspect to allow black some chances for an invasion to my h2-pawn, but since I didn’t see anything concrete for him, I trusted my calculations and was punished for my lack of depth.

41… Bb8 was not the easiest move to find, but had I looked deeper, I probably would have found it. It was right after the time control, and I had plenty of time. There are no reasonable excuses.

 

Why do things like that happen? We are all guilty of not paying enough attention towards the end of the game. It’s natural after a long fight that you just want to relax a bit. Usually, our opponents are tired too, and we get away with it, but there are moments when you brainfreeze and forget about your opponent’s resources.

Your opponent’s rating may also have an effect. You will take a GM more seriously than a low-rated kid. Desperate GMs are supposed to be slippery in those situations, while the low rated guys are supposed to crumble… not really!

What I did in the Qi game doesn’t seem that bad. 41… Bb8 is not an obvious move at all to find. Everybody has moments like these, and I didn’t blunder anything huge and didn’t turn 1-0 into 0-1.

Still, these moments can be really frustrating, especially if things aren’t going well. When you start going into philosophical depths about human stupidity, your play does not improve. Trust me.

In the USATE, the team won the match 2.5-1.5, and I was happy I managed to save the game. I brushed it off without any big problems and found my form in round 5 by beating GM Larry Christiansen. Still, it had an impact…

David USATE

OMG, what did I just do!?! Photo by Vanessa Sun.

The following game, however, was awful. I was playing the Washington International right after a disastrous tournament. Things weren’t going so well, but if I won this game, I’d be around my expected performance, maybe a little bit above it.

It stands out clearly in my memory as my #1 non-stalemating fail in my career. Just look for yourselves.

Huang, Andy (2250) – Brodsky, David (2400) Washington International 2016

Huang1

White to move

We just reached the time control. It had been a bit of a scramble, but I emerged clearly on top. Basically, I just roll my pawns down the board and should win. White’s h6-pawn is a goner. After I play g5, his bishop won’t be able to protect it anymore.

The game went 41.c4 g5 42.Be5 f4. I decided to push my pawns a bit, since the h6-pawn wasn’t going anywhere. It went 43.Kd1 f3 44.Ke1

Huang2

Black to move

Game over, right? I just roll my pawns down the board and win with the help of my king. After 44… Kxh6 I could win this in my sleep. In fact, my dad could probably win that position. Sorry dad, it says a lot. Instead, I played 44… g4?????????????? allowing 45.Bf4!. Surprise! I can’t take the h6-pawn. Now it’s a draw. My king can’t get in to support my pawns. If you want to take a look, here’s how it ended.

I almost quit chess after that one. OK, I wasn’t that mad, but I couldn’t believe my stupidity. I proceeded to lose my next 2 games in abhorrent styles.

My mistake in that game was similar but worse. I simply forgot that he could go Bf4 and protect the h6-pawn. I was going on autopilot and didn’t take 10 seconds or even one tenth of a second to look at what my opponent could do.

 

The bottom line is: don’t totally autopilot. Don’t forget about your opponent. Look around and see if your opponent has anything obvious (Huang game). If things look suspect, look a little deeper (Qi game).

It’s not over till it’s over. Leave the mental celebration after the handshake. It’s natural, and no offense there, you will have an incident or two like this in your games. Just try to keep these things to a minimum. As your opposition gets tougher, keeping your focus towards the end of the game is crucial to winning those games you should win.

The Prize That Was Not – My USATE Recap

When I first played at the US Amateur Team East in 2012, my team’s goal was to play in the big room. Just a round or two would be good enough. We did not succeed. Next year, the goal was to stay in the big room. As time went on, we wanted to get behind the ropes and stay there. This year, the goal was to win the mixed doubles prize. We failed in a way none of us had foreseen.

This is what the team lineup was this year:

teampicvanessaLeft to right: Me, Aravind, Martha, and Dexin. Photo by Vanessa Sun

We Make the Best Team Names: Everybody Loves Them (2195.5 average)

Board 1: Me (2418 Jan. official/2450 pre-tournament)
Board 2: FM Aravind Kumar (2351/2342)
Board 3: WFM Martha Samadashvili (2165/2185)
Board 4: Dexin Li (1848/1880)

The drama began a few months before we made the first move. The USCF misrated an international tournament for a player of a similar name, awarding the points to Aravind. When the USCF made the January official rating list, Aravind’s rating was 26 points higher than it should have been. This is the last thing you want when you are trying to find the best fourth board match while keeping the team average below 2200.

Fortunately, Aravind’s father contacted the USCF, and both USCF and Steve Doyle were happy to help. It all got sorted out.

Without further ado, off to the tournament!

Round 1: Black vs. Flag Me If You Can (Average 1879, board 10)

There were 9 boards behind the ropes, and we were playing on board 10. Just one board to go. And we were not the highest-ranked mixed doubles team. Really?? With a 2195.5 average?

This round wasn’t too interesting. We won 4-0. We outrated our opponents heavily on board 1-3, and Dexin managed to swindle her opponent on board 4.

Round 2: White vs. 64 Squares Academy (Average 1986, board 12)

This is where things got interesting. First of all, our opponents were also a mixed doubles team. Competition! We had rating edges on all boards, especially on boards 2 and 3. Martha won first with a pleasing finish.

martha-position

White to play and finish black off in the most effective way! Here’s the solution.

Aravind then dismantled his opponent. We were up 2-0, Dexin was in a little trouble, but I was clearly winning. Match over, right? It wasn’t so easy. I proceeded to completely blow my winning position and having to fight not to lose. You’ll have to wait for my next article to see how I messed that up. Dexin lost. My opponent and I agreed to a draw around 1:30 a.m. Off to bed!

Oh well… things happen. Anyway, the team won 2.5-1.5.

 

Round 3: Black vs. Figler on the Roof (Average 2159, board 7)

Behind the ropes for the first time! This was a serious matchup. Out of my teammates, I had the biggest rating edge of 80 points.

On a sidenote, my dad won a Chess Informant book by playing “poker” with the serial number on one-dollar bills (his had four 8’s!).

When my opponent offered a draw on move 18, I was an itsy bit worse with small winning chances. I decided to take it, a decision I would feel somewhat guilty about in the hours of stress that ensued. When my game finished, Aravind already had a powerful advantage against Boris Privman which he later converted to victory. A critical moment from the game.

aravind-privman

White to play. How to proceed? Here’s how the game ended.

Martha lost an unfortunate game to her opponent. I thought she had decent chances, but what I didn’t know was that she was playing with a fever. Her position went downhill quickly. The match was tied 1.5-1.5, and it was all on Dexin’s shoulders. She was a pawn down but had compensation. Her opponent was toying with repeating moves and then went for a winning attempt. Great. Not. Was a draw the best we could do?

The stress went on until about 6(!) hours into the game. Things kept looking bleak. When I went to check for the 501st time, I found that Dexin was completely winning!! She had found a miraculous breakthrough. In Dexin’s own words, “He was up a pawn early on and I remember thinking that if I lost this game, after losing round 2, I really would have let down our team. 😦 This probably motivated me to keep on pushing for opportunities.”

She won what turned out to be the most important nail-biting game of the entire match and most likely the entire tournament. 2.5-1.5!!!! We pulled it off.

Round 4: White vs. Putin Gave Us Our King (Average 2175, board 6)

We only moved up by one board?!?!

Another tight matchup. Dexin and Aravind had decent rating edges, but they had black. Martha had a slight rating disadvantage and fever, and I had an even smaller rating disadvantage against GM Fedorowicz.

Looking around, I saw we weren’t alone in the mixed doubles competition. There were two other mixed doubles teams behind the ropes. Can you believe it?

GM Fedorowicz surprised me by offering a draw on move 18.

fedorowicz

I could have just agreed to a draw and gone to watch Magnus Carlsen’s guest appearance in The Simpsons. However, the team situation didn’t look the rosiest, and I felt guilty enough about my 18 move draws earlier that day. Watch my position spiral downhill.

Yeah, I have no idea how I managed to draw that. I was busted on so many occasions it wasn’t even funny. Dexin drew, Aravind won, and Martha lost. The match was tied 2-2.

The team had 3.5/4. That was the best performance any of my teams had ever had after 4 rounds. If we played well the last day, we had excellent chances for a prize. Carissa Yip’s mixed doubles team was 4-0, but there was no other mixed doubles team with more than 3/4. Aravind was doing great; he was 4-0. Dexin was holding her own on board 4 and was the heroine of round 3. Martha wasn’t in the greatest shape with her fever, and I needed to get my act together.

Round 5: Black vs. Knight on the Rimsky-Korsakov (Average 2176, board 5)

We were playing on board 5. Moving up one board per round?

This looked like a rough pairing. First of all, I was outrated by 200 points and had black against GM Larry Christiansen. Board 4 was playing slightly up which looked like a tossup. The good news was that we had solid rating edges on boards 2 and 3, but anything could happen, especially considering that Martha was sick.

The first good news came when Dexin won on board 4. From a seemingly equal position, her opponent allowed Dexin a generous opportunity.

dexin

White to play. To trade or not to trade? Here’s what happened (it’s instructive).

On board 3, Martha was in trouble despite her rating edge. As for me…

That was a boost! That is my highest USCF rating win. We were up 2-0 and Aravind was winning. At the start, I thought the position was a bit strange, but it soon became clear that Aravind was boss there. See for yourselves.

Things got even better when Martha managed to swindle her opponent and win her game before Aravind finished. 4-0! Wow!! That was really unexpected.

Going into the last round, we were 4.5/5. Carissa’s team lost, and we were clear first in the mixed doubles standings! If we won, the mixed doubles title was ours and we were extremely likely to win an overall prize. Going into the last round, we were 3rd on tiebreaks.  In the past couple of years, 5.5/6 has been enough to tie for first. Last year’s champions, the Summer Academy for Talented Youth, was the only team that was 5-0. I thought we might play them due to colors. We all rushed to prepare. Naturally, I was wrong.

Round 6: White vs. CKQ Arun’s Army (Average 2183, board 3)

Hey, 3 out of our 4 last board numbers were primes! That’s probably a good omen.

On boards 2 and 3, we had a big rating edge. Aravind was 5-0; he was in excellent form and had a lot of motivation to beat his opponent. Meanwhile, I was playing another 2600 USCF GM, and Dexin was playing a 2000. The basic plan was to win on boards 2 and 3 and survive on boards 1 and 4.

The big match to watch was on board 1: H.A.N.G. Loose vs. The Academy (abbreviation). Because the Academy was 5-0, I was really hoping they wouldn’t win, and we could tie for first. That match was a demolition. The Academy won 3.5-0.5. They won the match even before a single game in my match was done. Big congrats to the Academy for winning 6-0!

On board 2, Aravind was the first to win. I thought he was a little worse, but he took educated risks which paid off. 6-0! Monster! On board 3, Martha was grinding her opponent. At some point I honestly didn’t think it would be enough to win, but she pulled it off.

My game was a wild ride. I got a solid advantage out of the opening which I didn’t exploit in the best way. Things soon spiraled into complex dynamic equality.

arun-prasad-2

Anything can happen here, but black has to be careful not to allow an invasion on the c-file. 31… Re4 would have probably held the balance, but instead GM Arun Prasad went 31… Rd5? letting me get a pawn up queen endgame after 32.Rc4! Qb7 33.Qc3 Rc5 34.Rxe3 Rxc4 35.Rxe6+ Kxe6 36.Qxc4+. Unfortunately, white is most likely not winning there. I tried some things which weren’t so successful. After Martha won, I decided not to do anything stupid and just repeat the moves.

I didn’t win this one, but oh well. The draw was enough for the team to win. Compensation for my luck in round 4. Dexin lost, and the team won 2.5-1.5. We finished with 5.5/6. Wow!

And this is how we lost the Mixed Doubles prize. Wait a second? Didn’t I just say that a win would give us a clear first in the mixed doubles category? Didn’t we just win? Yes and yes. Yet, we missed the prize. Why? Because we had too many points!

To our huge surprise, we ended 2nd overall. If it weren’t for the Academy going 6-0 we might have even tied for first. Since category prizes (with the exception of state awards) are awarded only to those who didn’t place among the top 5, the Mixed Doubles prize went to the next team.

As they say, you win some, you lose some. We lost our mixed doubles prize by winning the overall 2nd.

team-picture-usateLeft to right: Me, Dexin, Martha, Aravind

Not only do we make the bestest team names (they’re great, don’t you agree?), we also make great teams. Aravind finished 6-0. Beast. Martha, NM as of yesterday (!!), wavered only on her fever day and won the rest. Dexin was a rare fourth-board find who saved us in round 3.

In conclusion, what did I gain from the weekend? 10 rating points, my highest USCF win, a new clock with a second place plaque, and a Chess Informant book.

clockBye bye Mr. Second Place Scholastic clock… you are getting replaced 🙂 Photo by Vanessa Sun

At the USATE, the prizes aren’t big, but the bragging rights are huge. But that’s not important. The USATE is all about spending the weekend playing on a team with friends and having fun. At that, the USATE is one of its kind. Big thank you to organizers (especially Steve Doyle), to my teammates, and everyone else who put the tournament together.

Where’s the Win?

You’re better, but you don’t have a clear winning plan. Where’s the win??

That’s where grinding comes in play. You have to grind the most you can out of the position. Grinding is not only about you finding a win, but it is also about tricking your opponent into letting you win.

The chess book which probably had the biggest influence on me in this department was Endgame Strategy by Mikhail Shereshevsky. I read it when I was around 1800. It is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.

If you could only learn how to grind just by reading a book or two… that would be way too easy. Grinding takes practice, skill, and most of all patience.

One thing I can relate to well is how not to grind.

  • Try too little – giving up early
  • Try too hard – essentially trying to find a forced win, not accepting a position with excellent winning chances, and doing something totally stupid instead.
  • Prematurely forcing events

Then how to grind?

It depends on how much help from your opponent you need. If you don’t need much and you have a winning plan, go for it!

Naturally, it is harder when you need help from your opponent, and I’ll spend most of this article talking about those kinds of situations.

First of all, in principle you should always calculate the most forcing line(s). If they aren’t too promising or you feel you may have something better, discard them for the moment and look elsewhere.

“Do not hurry”. That’s a phrase you will see over and over again in various chess books on the theme of the grind. Repeat the moves. Dance around. Improve your position.

When I first started studying the games of Capablanca, Karpov, etc., I was confused by all this stuff. What good does repeating the moves do?? You just get the same position you had a couple of moves ago. And dancing around is overrated. The author says Karpov played so amazing, blah, blah, blah, but he was just dancing around doing nothing. If it only weren’t for his opponent’s mistake, he probably wouldn’t have won. This is a rip off!!!

Soon enough, I learned the logic behind this. The hard way.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a defender. You are worse, and instead of trying to finish you off, your opponent is running a circus and scoffing on your defensive attempts.

Repeating moves is a psychological ploy. As the defender, you think along the lines of, “He has nothing better than a draw!” or maybe even “this position is such a dead draw, I defended so well!”

Then, when he pulls out of the repetition, your thought bubble bursts. “No draw? Hang on a sec, I’m worse here! I’ll have to defend more. Ugh.”.

More experienced players generally react better to this, but less experienced players can break under the pressure.

“If only it hadn’t been for my mistake…,” is something chess players say a little too often after their losses. Your opponents are (hopefully) human, and they make mistakes and so do you. That’s part of the game.

As for dancing around, first of all, what looks like dancing around to someone skimming through the game may not have actually been dancing at all. You try to break through, but your opponent thwarts your plan. Okay, no problem. Just go back and try something else. Your opponent may crack dealing with all the threats. Or your opponent might think he’s out of the woods and gets hit with a little surprise…

In some situations, improving your position before releasing the tension is a good idea, even in positions where there isn’t much tension. By that I mean improvements like gaining space, cramping your opponent’s pawns, securing good squares for your pieces, etc.

Even if those factors do not seem too relevant at the moment, they could be useful in the future. Also, they provide opportunities for your opponent to make a mistake. It sounds degrading, but it works. Instead of having to play forced moves, your opponent now has a dilemma. How to react? What’s my plan? Their reactions can sometimes be wrong. They can chose completely wrong plans. They can get intimidated by what you’re doing and bail out.

An example from my own experience. I had black against a 2000, and we reached this position.

paciulli1

Black to play. How to make the most out of the position?

White’s only real weakness is the d4 pawn. Black has a lot of pressure against it, but white has it well defended. The most forcing move 28… e5 leads to equality after 29.dxe5 Rxd2 30.Rxd2 Rxd2 31.Nxd2 Bxe5.

Then how to proceed? If you found the idea of trying to harass the white knight, you were on the right track. However, if black plays 28…g5, white will respond with 29.g4 and white’s knight is not budging.

Therefore, I played 28… h5! to prevent white from going g4 himself. Kudos if you found this move. 29.h3 is white’s best response, after which I was planning 29…h4 followed by g5, some preparation, and a g4 breakthrough. It may not be much, but at least it is something.

My opponent responded with 29.h4? which seems fine on the surface, but there’s a problem. Can you find it?

Here’s how the game ended.

However, striking at the critical moment is the tricky part of grinding. No more building up your position, dancing around… it’s now or never! First of all, realizing it is a critical moment is hard. Treating every position like a critical moment would probably lead to perfectionism (paralysis) and likely time trouble. Then when you get to the actual critical moment, you won’t treat it like anything special.

Honestly, knowing when it is a critical moment and correctly exploiting it is not an easy subject. It’s mostly an intuitive thing. That’s where experience and skill help. If your opponent is doing something suspicious, try to punish it. If a forced line looks good for you, calculate deeper.

Before agreeing to a draw, try everything reasonable you can. Your opponent might break under the pressure. There have been so many times when I was on the verge of giving up but managed to win after my opponent made a critical mistake. There is no harm in trying. Worst case it’s a draw.

In this game, I was trying to press this position.

flood1

I was not happy with my position. My c-pawn will most likely run through, but not before the pawns on the kingside will get traded. Also, the time situation was not in my favor; I had very little time, while my opponent still had a lot.

I played 62.g4+ hxg4 (62… Kf6 63.gxh5 gxh5 64.h4 was another possibility for black) 63.hxg4+ Kf6 64.c5

flood2

And my opponent shocked me by blundering 64… Nxc5?? His hope was probably to win my g-pawn, which is not the case. White is winning after either recapture. 64…Rg3 would have drawn. Here’s some more detailed analysis and how the game ended.

The second game is far more complex. First, a little tactic from earlier in the game:

forney1

Black to play.

Good job if you found 22… Nxe5! 23.Re3 Qd7!. After 24.Qxd7 Nxd7 the position is roughly equal.

Eventually, we reached this position.

forney2

Evaluate the consequences of 40… Kc4 which I played in the game. Calculate as deep as you can.

Here’s the game.

Let’s finish off with a fun one. This game was just crazy. I got a near-winning position out of the opening, was even more winning, blew it, was still much better, and then got back to winning. Soon after the time control, we reached this position.

matan1

My opponent surprised me with 42.Rxe6!? fxe6 43.Rxe6. How should black respond?

I responded badly and let white get into a fortress. Here’s what happened.

After some dancing around, we reached the critical position.

matan2

How should white react to black’s last move 59…h5?

Here’s what happened in the game.

Slow but steady is the synonym of grinding. Play crafty, try, try, and then try some more. Good luck!

Are We Done Yet? (When To Resign)

I bet you have been there

You’re completely winning. Not just winning, completely winning. You could win the position in your sleep. And your opponent still hasn’t resigned yet…

Okay, I stalemated my opponent twice in that situation. Once when I was 900, once when I was 1800. Both games were against girls. I insist, however, that correlation does not imply causation.

Stalemating someone when you are several pieces up is extremely rare. At say the 1500+ level it could be a one or two time per career thing. These things, however, show that humans are humans.

Okay, stalemates aside, when is the right time to resign?

“Play until checkmate, you have nothing to lose,” many say.

NO! That kind of stuff is often heard, and it is wrong.

It’s a waste of time. Really, in positions where the chances of swindling your opponent are essentially zero, it’s better to just resign. Don’t waste your and your opponent’s time playing it out. There’s no shame in resigning.

You get a break before your next game. That half hour spent dragging on the game until checkmate could have been spent eating, relaxing, or preparing for your next game. Even if it’s the last game of the day, you can spend that half hour doing something productive.

It’s also disrespectful. If you are playing a strong opponent, trust him, he can checkmate you with a queen or two.  One thing for sure, he won’t have much respect for you. Do you want to analyze after the game? Playing it out until checkmate is not the way. If you do that, your opponent will be annoyed and will probably just walk away and not even talk to you. Not today, not next time.

Still, this philosophy is heard a lot, especially among chess parents. At the beginner level, anything can happen, and I don’t think resigning is appropriate. At higher levels, however, things are different.

Recently, I played a kid who played until mate in a position K + 3 (connected) pawns vs. K. He was intentionally walking into mates in 1, and it was clear he wanted it to be over. Was he told to play till checkmate? I don’t know, but it seemed so. Okay, maybe I wasn’t the nicest guy when I ignored mates in 1 a few times and went on to promote to a knight before mating him, but hopefully I got the message across.

Playing till checkmate is not a beginner or kid phenomena only. There are 2300 players who do just that. To grandmasters. Yeah, I know. I saw a fine example during the Amateur Team East 2016. The 2300 was a queen, a rook, and a bunch of pawns down, and he let his clock tick down until he had maybe 3 seconds on it. The GM checkmated the guy and then refused to shake hands. Can you blame him?

Okay, playing until checkmate is one extreme. However, if I resigned every time I had an objectively lost position, I would have blown so many half and sometimes full points. Where is the balance?

It mainly depends how easily the position can be won. That is not necessarily proportional to what evaluation the computer would give it. That’s your job as a defender: make your opponent’s life as hard as possible, even if your play is not objectively best. Give your opponent some chances to mess up.

A simple example. You have two options as a defender. In option a, you are down a piece without any real compensation. In option b, if your opponent finds a key move, you are getting mated, while all other moves lead to a draw/loss for him. The computer may rate option a as +5 versus forced mate, but I would almost always choose option b. It depends how hard it is to find the key move, but your opponent can’t afford to make a mistake or two. In option a, however, as long as your opponent doesn’t blunder anything major, he should be pretty much winning no matter what he does.

If you’re sitting in option a (a piece down) and your opponent is strong enough, just resign. Your opponent should win no matter how inaccurately he plays. There’s no point for you to drag things on. If you’re sitting in option b, however, let your opponent find the key idea. If he figures things out, then you’ll have no real choice but to resign. However, if he messes up, then you’re (hopefully) going to swindle him. No need to resign there!

More recently, I witnessed a prime example of the stalemate phenomenon. It was in August 2016, and I was pretty much having the worst tournament of my life. Meanwhile, Praveen Balakrishnan needed to score 1 out of 2 on the final day to get an IM Norm. He was playing two GMs.

His game against GM Magesh Panchanathan was pretty wild, but at the end it was Magesh who got the winning position. Out of nowhere, I heard insane amounts of laughter coming from the other room. Yes, they were BOTH laughing. It was after the time control and my position was lost (and I did eventually lose), and I decided to take a peek at what happened. I soon found out why they were laughing…

Priceless!!! I also couldn’t resist laughing! White is completely winning (Qd5+ is mate in 10 according to my silicon friend), and he blundered into a stalemate. Magesh was lulled into thinking Praveen needed to blow off some steam and fell into the last trap. That is a rather convoluted version of scenario b, but the moral of the story is clear. If you still have a realistic chance for a swindle, try it!

If you think you’re lost, but you can’t find anything concrete for you opponent, play on. By not finding anything concrete, I don’t necessarily mean a knockout punch, but an effective way to continue. Usually, if you don’t see anything for your opponent, it’s a good sign. And if you end up losing at least you will learn how to play in such positions.

You may want to play on a bit if your opponent is in a bad time situation. Maybe complicate matters in the hope he blunders. In completely lost positions, your opponent’s time situation may not be a huge factor with delay or increment, but it is common knowledge that there is no such thing as resignation in bullet. Still, if your opponent starts messing things up, it’s a good idea to play on for a bit to see if he messes up a bit more.

When you blunder something, it’s totally okay to play on for a few more moves, even if you are completely lost. Blow off some steam. Get used to the fact you’re lost before you actually shake your opponent’s hand. As one master I know once put it, “In those situations I play on a few more moves… so I don’t say anything bad to my opponent”.

In conclusion, once you reach a certain level, don’t play until checkmate. Playing until a move before checkmate as some people do doesn’t make any sense either. Just resign at a reasonable moment. If you think your opponent will still need to work to win, play on. If there are some tactical complications and swindling chances, play on. There’s just no need to make your opponent do the stuff they could do in their sleep.

Openings: Why, Where, When, and How

“Improvement starts at the end of your comfort zone.” GM Jonathan Rowson

I took a look at my repertoire in part 1, and now I want to talk about some questions you might have about openings:

  • Why do strong players play multiple openings?
  • How risky is it to play a new opening?
  • When to add the new opening?
  • How useful is having a new system?
  • When do I know a line/opening is not working for me? Should I trash it?
  • When and where to practice your new opening?
  • How wide and how deep should your opening repertoire be?

Let’s start with the base question.

Why do strong players have multiple openings?

There are multiple reasons for this.

  • Don’t be a stationary target.

It’s so nice for your opponent to know what you will play with 99% certainty. Even if your repertoire is sound, your opponents can cook up or defrost some opening prep that may not be a refutation, but it may have practical value.  Or imagine lower rated player who just wants to draw you.

When you play more openings, it gets tougher for your opponent to prepare. Instead of spending all his time preparing against 1 opening, he has to divide time between various openings. As a result, your opponent’s prep will probably not be so deep and impressive.

I’ve been the victim of that quite a few times and so have my opponents. One time, I prepared for 30 minutes against my opponent, currently a GM-elect whose name will remain a secret, and then he played 1.d4 instead of 1.e4.

  • Have a choice.

You can choose what to do against a particular opponent. If they play something annoying against your plan A and something not-so-great against your plan B, then you can go for plan B.

You can play against your opponent’s weaknesses.  If they are not so good in tactics, you can try spicing things up in the opening. If they are not so good positionally, try to play something calmer in the opening. It may not work out, but you can try to steer the game in a certain direction out of the opening against certain opponents rather than playing the same thing against everybody.

That’s another reason why some people think for 5 minutes on move 1. They are deciding which opening to play against you specifically.

Go to the tournament with multiple plans. If right before or in the middle of the tournament one of your openings needs a last-minute visit to the repair shop, you have another opening to rely on.

  • Get fresh positions and get out of your comfort zone.

In order to become a top player, you need to be able to play a variety of positions. There’s no way of getting around that one. The best way to learn them is by playing them.

As a 1.e4 player, I knew very little about the positions coming from the Nimzo, until I got to play them as black. I was out of my comfort zone, and I was getting beaten badly, but I learned. At least I hope I did. No need to prove me wrong.

This all sounds very nice, but…

How risky is it to play a new opening?

Okay, playing a new opening is risky the first few games when you don’t have much experience. We are all told that rating doesn’t matter, but none of us likes to see it going downhill. Yes, there probably will be games you don’t win which you would win with your old opening. Still, those losses/draws are a learning experience. Maybe you won’t know the opening well enough and fall into a trap. Maybe you mishandle the ensuing positions. Whatever it is, you will be better prepared next time.

The further from your previous repertoire the new opening is, the more you will struggle in the short-term. Yet, in the long term, those are the openings you will benefit from most, as they will give you fresh positions that will expand your understanding of the game itself.

My stats when starting out in the Caro-Kann were pretty good. I went 5 wins and 3 draws against a 2123 average before losing in it to a 2436. Isn’t that a contradiction to my previous statement? Well, I did have some experience playing against the Caro from the white side. Also in general, Caro positions are quite similar to French positions.

The Nimzo was a totally different story. First of all, I had no experience in it from the White side. The Nimzo and Slav (my previous opening) positions aren’t as related as the French and Caro are. Honestly, there is probably a larger variety of pawn structures coming from the Nimzo than in the French, Caro, and Slav combined.

I started with a glorious 0.5/3 against a 2103 average. Okay, those weren’t my greatest tournaments, but still. Had I played my Slav, I probably would have done much better in those games.

However, my temporary gamble paid off. I won the next 8 games in the Nimzo as black against a 2120 average. I guess those first three games got me started.

Is it really that easy? Just play a new opening, have a rough ride the first few games, and then start crushing everybody? Well, not usually.

When to add a new opening?

When your younger sibling is beating you up… just kidding. That’s a question I cannot answer fully. Here are some reasons why you may consider adding a new opening:

  • you are bored of the old positions and want something new
  • your openings are too predictable and your opponents are taking advantage of that
  • you plateau and there no obvious weaknesses in your chess
  • when the guy sitting next to you plays something you want to try
  • you’re having trouble against an opening so you decide to play it yourself
  • just because

If you don’t feel like adding a whole new opening, consider a new system in your opening.

How useful is having a new system?

Three words: flexible, low risk, and cheap. It is definitely less risky than going for a completely new opening, since the positions should be similar to what you have experience in. Maybe you want fresh positions. Or maybe you want a main line to play against higher rated opponents and a sideline to avoid main line theory against lower rated opponents. Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing to be flexible.

Back in the day, I trashed many systems for a variety of reasons. I returned to some of them a few years later in my “recycling” process. Trashing systems was probably a mistake on my part. I probably should have kept them, at the very least as backup plans. There is no reason why I couldn’t have played a couple different systems in my French when I was say 1800-1900.

When do I know a line/opening is not working for me? Should I trash it?

If you have some bad games in an opening, it is natural to think it is not working for you, and you may want to trash it. I admit I have trashed various systems for a variety of reasons.

If you have insufficient theoretical knowledge and lose because of that, I suggest you study it more before giving up on the line. If there is a theoretical problem with the line, then there is a problem, and if the problem is big enough you have a full right to discard the line.

A pressing problem, however, is that you mishandled the ensuing positions. They don’t suit your style. Should you replace it?

Yes and no. If you feel you can play the ensuing positions well, then you should give the line another shot. However, if you feel you have had enough, set the opening aside for a bit and play something else. But keep it as a backup plan. Say you are playing somebody who you think will mishandle the ensuing positions even worse than you. Play it. There’s no harm in that.

When and where to practice your new opening?

Training games are an excellent way to practice new openings, even if they are blitz games. You can try out your new openings without any rating risk. You can find out what you know and don’t know about the opening.

Playing it in tournament games is something you have to do at some point.When is the right moment? I think that you should play it when you feel confident enough.

Personally, I like to play new openings when I know what my opponent will most likely play against them. I’ve had some bad experiences playing new openings against people whose repertoires I did not know anything about.

Now, for the big question.

How wide and how deep should your opening repertoire be?

It depends on your level. Below 1000, openings don’t play a significant role. It’s nice to know some, but concentrating on tactics would be better.

In the 1000-1500 range, openings do start popping up. I think that having a basic opening repertoire where you have a general idea what to do against most openings is best.

In the 1500-1800 range, openings start getting serious. Starting to work on some databases, like I talked about in part 1 [insert link], is probably a good idea. Study the ideas in the position more than specific moves.

In the 1800-2000 range, openings get even more serious. That may be a good point to start expanding your opening repertoire, even if it is a few systems in your main opening.

Between 2000 and 2200, you should probably consider adding an opening or two. In the 2200+ region, the more openings you can play the better.

However, don’t go too wide. It’s better to know 1 opening well than 10 badly. If you aren’t doing well in 1 opening, patch up the holes first instead of ignoring them and going headlong into studying another opening.

Conclusion:

In general, the wider the opening repertoire, the better. Don’t be predictable. Learn to play new positions. But don’t make it too wide. It’s like constructing a building: have a solid base and build up from it, not the other way around. Once you know an opening well enough and feel like moving onto another one, do so.

These are just my personal opinions. Feel free to share your ideas.

 

The History of My Openings: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Openings are an interesting topic nowadays. I would like to write a series of articles on openings and decided to start by talking about the history of my personal opening repertoire.

I learned to play chess in the spring of 2009, when I was 6. I started taking lessons in the fall of 2009 and played my first non-rated scholastic tournament in January 2010.

At first I had a standard beginner opening repertoire. I played 1.e4 e5 as black and the Giuoco Piano as white. I learned basic openings from Winning Chess Openings by Yasser Seirawan. The book didn’t go really deep, but it was an excellent introduction to the land of openings. I got a general idea about various openings which gave me a little bit of an advantage over my opponents.

Recently, I discovered a treasure trove of casual games I played against my brother during this period. A couple days ago I looked at one of them and thought “what kind of opening play is this???”. Then I looked in ChessBase and found that I played a main line for the first 10 moves of the game until my brother deviated. OMG!!! IN THIS OPENING I KNEW MORE THEORY WHEN I WAS 8 THAN I DO NOW!!!

Sometime in 2010, when my rating was about 1000, I was facing a disturbing situation. I was losing to my younger brother in casual games when I played 1.e4 e5 a little more often than was to my liking. Older siblings do not tolerate this. If that’s not a reason to update your opening repertoire, then I don’t know what is.

I eventually chose the French. Why the French? Okay, there is no such thing as “the best chess opening” (though there are things like bad openings). When choosing an opening, there is always a subjective reason or two why you want to play it. My “objective” reasons were:

  • I first faced the French in a chess camp in the summer of 2010 and I got crushed in both games with white
  • My opponents would likely be unaware what to do
  • A big hope of mine was that my opponents would play 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 and then they wouldn’t find the best move 5.f4, and would instead do something like 5.Nf3 and after 5… c5 I’d eventually win their e5-pawn

Bullet point #3 didn’t really happen, but French and I really suited each other, and I had success on the black side of it. I was slowly getting somewhat obsessed with openings, especially given my rating.

At 1500, I got Chessbase and started making my own opening “databases”. The analysis was low-quality, but it was mine. It consisted of me copying in semi-random games between top players. The games were sometimes old and not theoretically relevant, but I got an idea about the ensuing positions. I ran my openings through my coach but mostly to check I wasn’t completely off. Most importantly, I did majority of the work on my own and therefore learned a lot, not only about the openings but also about the resulting positions, and analysis itself.

You may find this shocking, but I didn’t use an engine till I reached 1950. It may be controversial, but I think it was good for me overall. I do admit it may have resulted in some flaws in my analysis, but I’m glad I used my brain in analyzing rather than the engine. However, above 2100, using an engine for openings is pretty much necessary. Without it, my analysis would just be too low quality.

At 1800, things started getting tough. Those 1900+ players knew their openings better than I did (usually), and I had to step up my game. My analysis started getting more serious. My main goal was to know the lines and positions really, really well. The improvements in my analysis included:

  • Concentrating on single lines — no more tree of variations I could play
  • Shortening the lines. If you want to review an opening quickly, going through 80 moves of random games is not really so useful. Instead, cutting the games around move 15-20 and putting an evaluation is a lot more practical.
  • Adding model games to my databases – those were games which I thought were model ways to play the opening. Those let me see general ideas quickly.

Those things worked. I soon switched from the QGD to the Slav after getting sick and tired of the Exchange QGD.

Fast-forward to fall 2014, when I was around 2250. My repertoire had pretty much the same infrastructure, and I knew the lines I played really well (with the occasional hiccup). The problem was my repertoire was super-duper narrow. Way too narrow. It was time to add an additional opening.

I decided on the Caro-Kann. Why the Caro? Well, it is supposed to be the next-door neighbor of the French, and there used to be times when the Caro really annoyed me from the white side.

I patched together some analysis on the Caro within a week of my decision and went on to play it in round 1 of the next tournament. I won the game, and my Caro soon reaped success. Don’t try this at home! One week is usually not enough to learn a new opening, but I had a general idea what I wanted to do against most of white’s replies and somehow put it all together.

The big project, however, was the Nimzo-Indian for black. This one took way longer than 1 week. It did not bring immediate success. Let’s be honest, it brought immediate disaster! However, after two tournaments, I started scoring heavily in it against lower rated players.

My personal history doesn’t end here. I continue working on my opening and have made changes since, but I better keep a few surprises up my sleeve.

You can say things have worked out pretty well for me, and I cannot really disagree with you, but looking back there are things I would have done differently. I believe I should have introduced a couple systems for both white and black when I was 1800-1900. Also, I probably should have added an additional opening for black earlier, say around 2100, rather than at 2250.

Next time I would like to address general questions about openings, like when to add them and how risky it is to do so. If you have any questions you would like answered, leave them in the comments.