I’M an IM (Almost)

The Philadelphia Open, which is always held over Easter, is a popular 9-round norm tournament. It is also generally not one of my greatest tournaments. And that’s an understatement. If I made a list of my top 5 worst tournaments, 2 would be the Philly Open (2013 and 2015 to be more precise). Let’s just say I was hoping that this tournament wouldn’t join the club nor did I wish to test my abilities to recover from a horrible start.

I apologize ahead of time, but I will have to save some of the games for next time. There were just too many critical moments I would like to highlight, but you have only that much time to read this article and I need to hit the publish button at some point…

Rounds 1-2: Warmup

In round 1, I had white vs. Kevin Yang (2264 USCF) (2016 FIDE).

I didn’t commit harakiri this time, but still…

Yang

White to play

OK, I had some better ways to play before this moment, but here’s where things went wrong. After 27.Kd3, white is a little better. However, I thought I should have more and played 27.e5? completely missing 27… Rb5! winning my d5-pawn. Fortunately, white has enough compensation for a draw, which is what happened, but he has nothing more. Here we go again. A draw to a lower rated opponent just like last year. Last year I started with 3 draws straight all against lower rated opponents.

That just added to our Wednesday list of unfortunate events: closed roads, a long list of forgotten things, and an urgent care visit for my brother (which turned out fine).

In round 2, I had black vs. Alex Wang (2121 USCF) (1985 FIDE). My prep actually worked this game; I  thought he’d play the line he played, and since the round was at noon, I had a lot of time to doodle around in ChessBase. I won without any major problems.

Rounds 3-5: The rampage and opposite colored bishops galore!

In round 3, it was time to face the GMs. I had white vs. GM Mark Paragua (2627 USCF) (2521 FIDE).

Chaos. Chaos. Chaos. Here’s where the drama got spicy and gathered quite a few confused spectators:

Paragua1

White to play

This position is totally unclear and could go either way. White is a pawn up, but the black bishop on f6 is a really good piece. My threat was to play e5 Bxe5 f6, where I both attack the black rook and have mate threats on g7. The game went 24… Qe5 25.Rd5 Qf4 26.e5 Bh4 27.f6 Bf2!

Paragua2

White to play

A sneaky intermezzo. Now, if 28.Qg2, black can go 28… Bxe1 29.Bxc8 g6, and white no longer has Qxe1. The position is probably still unclear, but it didn’t appeal to me for white. Instead, I played 28.Rd4!? offering an exchange which black can take in two ways. I know it looks like complete lunacy, but it has a point. White actually has decent compensation if black grabs the exchange. Anyway, GM Paragua backed out of it by playing 28…Bxg1 29.Rxf4 Bxh2.

Soon after, we reached the following position.

Paragua3

Black to play

White has some pull here. The pawn is a problem, as it can possibly walk up to e7, and if black takes on e6, he loses the h7-pawn and gets exposed on the 7th rank. The game went 36… Bxb3 37.cxb3 fxe6 38.Bxe6+ Kh8 39.Bf5 Rd8 40.Rxh7+ Kg8 41.Ra7

Paragua4

Black to play

White will win the a6-pawn soon and will have 3 connected passed pawns on the queenside. Black’s one f-pawn is no match. I soon won the game.

Oops. I had just broken one of my norm rules – lose to all Filipino GMs. More on that later.

My reward for playing until midnight and beating a GM: the next round, I got to play the top seed, GM Alex Shimanov (2718 USCF) (2650 FIDE) with black! I also made it behind the ropes, where I would stay for the rest of the tournament.

Here’s the point where I took over:

Shimanov1

Black to play

A somewhat unusual position. White has the bishop pair and has grabbed serious territory, but his bishop on c1 and rook on a1 aren’t in the game yet. White is thinking of going f5, so I decided to prevent that by playing 21… f5 myself. I had expected GM Shimanov to capture en passant, but instead he played 22.b3 Nc5 23.e5 Rfd8 24.Qe2

Shimanov2

Black to play

I thought this should be good for black, as white’s bishop pair doesn’t have much scope in this closed position. Now, what to do? My pieces are probably going to get kicked back soon, especially my c5-knight. Where would it like to go? The e4-square!

I played 24… Nd5!. The point is that if white plays 25.Nxd5 cxd5, my knight is going to be extremely secure on the e4-square, and I really like black’s position. The game went 25.Bb2 Nxc3 26.Bxc3

Shimanov3

Black to play

A pair of knights has been traded, and the e4-square thing seems like it won’t be happening. However, it is happening after my move 26… Ne4!. The point is if white plays 27.Bxe4 fxe4 28.Qxe4, black goes 28… Qxh3, which is deadly. GM Shimanov played 27.Be1, but after 27… Rd4 black is clearly on top. How I won the rest will be saved for next time!

This was my highest win by both USCF and FIDE in my career! That was a solid boost!

Round 5 was an even longer game than the previous two, and it ended in yet another victory for me. I was white vs. GM David Berczes (2587 USCF) (2500 FIDE), and it was a long grind with rooks + opposite colored bishops. I’ll save most of this game for my next article whose topic will be (surprise surprise) about opposite colored bishops, but I just want to show you the end:

Berczes

White to play

This endgame is winning for white (technically mate in 30 according to tablebases), but it is not as easy as it looks, thanks to the infamous wrong-colored bishop. I had seen a couple random examples of this in top games, but I couldn’t quite remember the winning technique. However, the good news was I had about 40 minutes on the clock to figure things out, while GM Berczes was down to 3(!) seconds (with a 10 second delay). The ride wasn’t that bad, and if you want to take a look…

I was on a roll! My performance was in the stratosphere! In the next round, I was black against GM Angel Arribas Lopez (2553 USCF) (2498 FIDE). 3 GMs in a row, what’s another one?

Round 6: the messup

Let’s just say I was the first game done in the Open Section. And it was not a short GM draw.

One excerpt should explain this game: the positon after move 16.

Arribas Lopez

Black to play

Have fun playing this for black! Spoiler: it’s dead lost for him, and I was black :(.

Yeah, that was a combination of me forgetting my preparation and not turning my brain on in time. Accidents like this happen from time to time, and they usually suck. Still 3 out of 4 against GMs!

Rounds 7-8: “solidifying”

Round 7 was not very solid. That’s why I put the double quotes there. I was white against IM Daniel Gurevich (2530 USCF) (2465 FIDE) who was, like me, fighting for a norm and at that point had a GM Norm performance.

Gurevich1

White’s position is pretty awful. Any bidders? After 27… Rxg1+ 28.Qxg1 Bxd4 29.cxd4 Nf5, white has a long road of suffering ahead of him. Instead, Daniel went 27… Rdg7? 28.Rxg7 Rxg7 29.Nc2!

Gurevich2

Now, it isn’t so bad for white. The game went 29… Qxd1 30.Rxd1 Rg2?

Gurevich3

What’s the catch? Daniel missed my next move 31.Ne1! winning material. White is probably winning here, but it isn’t as easy as I thought it should be after 31… Rxb2 32.Bxc5 Rxa2. I missed a couple accurate winning continuations a few moves later, messed it up, and the position went back to equality. Neither one of us messed it up enough after that to change the end-result.

Not exactly the cleanest game, but at the end, we were both relieved with a draw, as we were both lost at one point or another. After getting smashed in the morning, I was glad I didn’t lose both games on Saturday.

There were only 2 rounds to go, so it was time for norm number-crunching. Here’s what my status looked like:

An average of at least 2480 guaranteed me an IM Norm even if I lost my last two games. Under any other reasonable circumstances, 0.5/2 would be enough for an IM Norm. Interestingly enough, I reached this very same scenario (0.5 out of 2 guarantee) when I scored my two previous norms.

Scoring 1.5/2 against an average of at least 2526 would give me a GM Norm. Otherwise, I needed 2/2.

Round 8: a solid draw with black against GM Kayden Troff. OK, I was worse the entire game and didn’t have any real chances to win, but I held on.

My last IM Norm was secure! I would need to lose to someone unrealistically low not to get it, and there simply wasn’t such a person with 5.5 points. One round to go!

I knew that in order to get a GM Norm, I’d need to win against someone with a FIDE of 2560 or higher. To top that off, my FIDE would cross 2400, meaning I’d become an IM! Not easy at all, but with the white pieces I’d have my shot…

Looking at the pairings, playing a 2560 or higher looked unlikely. It turns out I did get to play someone who met the requirement…. GM Ruifeng Li, rated 2565 FIDE. With black.

“Don’t even joke about me getting double black today!” – Me sometime shortly before the start of the 8th round talking to a friend.

Desperate must-win games with black generally don’t look pretty for black (i.e. Carlsen-Karjakin game 4 of the tiebreaks).

My winning attempts backfired, and I was much worse by move 20 without any realistic hopes of winning the game. I defended for a while, but after the time control, I missed my chance to greatly improve the quality of my position and probably hold the draw. Instead, my move was most likely the losing mistake, and Ruifeng capitalized on it.

Where does this put me?

Philly Norm

Me getting my norm from Colonel David Hater

This was my last IM Norm. I got my first IM Norm at the NY International in June 2016 and my GM norm from the Washington Chess Congress in October 2016, which can be applied to both IM and GM title. Assuming all the paperwork goes through, I’ll be an IM-Elect! Once my last two FIDE tournaments get rated, my FIDE rating will be 2380, 20 points away from the required 2400. My title will be conditionally approved and become official the moment I reach 2400 FIDE (even in the middle of a tournament).

How difficult is it to get the rating? That depends. In order to get a norm, one needs not only to play really, really well, but he has to do so in a tournament where all the technicalities align: number of foreigners, titled players, ratings, etc. None of that matters for the rating. You don’t need 9-round tournaments or foreigners or titled players. What you do need is consistency.  Unfortunately, consistence and my FIDE rating don’t seem to go together. My FIDE graph says it all.  If you play badly, you won’t end up losing a norm or two, but you may find yourself at the bottom of one of your rating valleys being further away from your goal than you were a month ago.

Congrats also to Andrew Hong for getting an IM Norm with an extra half-a-point and 2 rounds to spare!

Last but not least, I must admit that I am a fraud. When I got my GM norm, I made a guide on how to get an IM/GM Norm… except that I disobeyed 5 out of my 8 rules this tournament!

To make up for that, I’ve decided to revise it.

My guide to getting IM/GM Norms (based on a strong statistical sample of 2 3):

  1. Get white against a significantly lower rated player in round 1, and win or draw a low-quality game.
  2. Draw round 2 as black against an IM (suffering is allowed). Wow, in this tournament, I didn’t even get black against an IM. I should throw this one out.
  3. Blow a winning position in round 3 as white and draw it.  Yet another problem with my round 3 game!
  4. Beat a foreign IM/GM with black in round 4. YES!!!
  5. Win against the same opponent, preferably someone you have a pathetic score against, in round 7. I never played Daniel Gurevich before, so this one can go to the wastebasket.
  6. Lose to all Filipino GMs you play. Oops… I need to find some other pattern(s) in my losses in these tournaments.
  7. Have at least 3 games where you prepare for something extensively, and your opponent doesn’t play it. In at least one of those games your prep should end on move 2 (or earlier #1.g4). Your prep ending on move 3 in another game is also a good sign. Have 2 games where you didn’t prepare for your opponent at all due to last-minute repairing.
  8. Get lucky! No problem there!

Clearly, my conclusions were completely wrong, but now I know exactly what to do next time :).

Harakiri and Comebacks in Charlotte

Last week I attended a norm invitational 10-player round robin held at the very nice  Charlotte Chess Center and Scholastic Academy (CCCSA) in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was my first time in Charlotte, and both the club and the City made a very good impression on me. The tournament consisted of 3 sections: A (GM Norm), B (IM Norm), and C (IM Norm). If you would like to find more about the participants, check out their bios.

I was seeded 5th out of 10 in the B group.   To achieve an IM norm, I needed to score 6.5 points out of 9.

Pairings were known two weeks ahead of time. I got 5 blacks and 4 whites and was to play the top 4 seeds in rounds 2-5 straight followed by the rest of the field. Were these good pairings? In retrospect, I don’t think so. Playing badly in those 4 games could knock me out of contention, and none of my other games were guaranteed to be wins, but I had worse pairings. My last invitational started with double black, playing 2 GMs and a soon-to-be IM in the first three rounds

As much as you pretend that you don’t care about the norm, well give it a try and see how well you can pull it off :).

My preparation was mainly for the early rounds. Yet, I had my minds on opponents to beat and opponents to survive, and that’s where my story of harakiri and comebacks starts.

Charlotte Round 1Before the first round…

In round 1, I was black against a local player, Tianqi “Steve” Wang. As Steve was the second lowest rated player in the tournament, this was a game I wanted to win, not only wanted to me it was a must. I was to play the 4 strongest opponents right after him, and I felt like my chances could get diminished right and there if I didn’t win. Well, I was wrong about the must win part but dead right about the aftermath of this game.

After a dubious opening from my opponent, I went on a little rampage trying to win, and ultimately ended up in this position. At this point I had had already turned down a draw offer.

Wang1

This position looks terrible for black, and it truly is. After 37.Bg4 and 38.Bf5+, black’s defenses will collapse. Instead my opponent played 37.Qxe5?? allowing 37… Rc6! 38.Re6 Rxe6 39.Qxe6 Qxc3. Black is not dead lost anymore! My opponent played 40.Kf2 and offered another draw.

Wang2

Objectively, it should be a draw, but objectivity took a backseat. Remember I was there to win! If I try some clever moves with the queen, then white will give perpetual check. But I can stop the checks with Qg7, right? The bishop endgame should be good for me with my c-pawn. No more draw!

I played 40… Qb2 41.Qf7+ Qg7?? (41… Kh8 42.Qf8+ would have led to a perpetual) 42.Qxg7+ Kxg7

Wang3

What’s the catch? My opponent played the simple move 43.Bf3!, and I realized I was busted. The pawn endgame is winning for white after 43… Bxf3 44.gxf3. I played 43… Bc2 44.b5! c3 45.b6 and not wanting to see the b-pawn queen, I resigned. Harakiri #1 was over

We’ve all had moments like this before, and it always feels so stupid and even more so at the beginning of an important tournament. I just gave away half a point, and that half point… Well, keep reading!

Round 2 was a fun slugfest against IM Roberto Martin del Campo that ended in a draw. I got a good position, but I tried a little too hard to run my opponent over. I almost lost the game. Nobody can say that I don’t try hard 😉

Round 3 was a boring draw. IM Vigorito offered a draw on move 16, and I decided to take it.

Charlotte Vigorito

The advantages of quick draws include more time to chat!

It was a boring draw, but at least I wasn’t losing at any point. At this point that was the best I had. I reached some stability. Next round, I wanted to exploit having the white pieces. I was facing John Ludwig who was one of the top seeds with a FIDE of 2397 and a USCF of 2470. We played once before at the 2016 US Cadet, and we drew with opposite colors. If I won this game, I would be at 50%, and I could get the tournament back on track.

Round 4 was the slugfest I had wanted… except that it went the wrong way for me. We both made some mistakes and soon reached the critical position.

Ludwig1

White to play

Things are getting sharp here. Black’s play on the queenside has gone pretty far, but white has some play on the kingside. There is no backing down from either side.

The critical variation was 23.fxg6. Black has two options 23… fxg6 runs into 24.Qxd6, where white now has a check on e6. 24… Bxb2 25.Qe6+ Kh8 runs into a nice shot 26.Nxc4! winning the game. Anyhow, black’s position looks a little too suspicious over there.

I was more concerned about 23… hxg6. The shot there would be 24.Nf5! with the idea that black gets mated after 24… gxf5 25.Rg1. However, after 24… Bxb2 25.Ne7+ Kg7

Ludwig2

White to play

I thought white had nothing better than a repetition with 26.Nf5+, and I wouldn’t go for one. Remember, I wanted to win this one too. In my calculations, I missed the move 26.Rg1!. White has multiple ideas, namely Nxg6 sacrifices. It turns out black is simply lost there.

Instead, I looked at different paths, trying to find something better than a draw. Naturally, what I found was worse. 23.Qg2? Ne5 24. Ng4 Nxg4 25.fxg4 Qc2!

Ludwig3

White to play

Now white is busted. 26.f6? fails due to 26… Bxf6 27.Rxf6 Qxc1+. If I trade queens, black’s queenside pawn(s) will run through. I tried to complicate matters with 26.Bf4, but after 26… Be5 27.Bh6 Rb8 white’s attack is not really there. Here’s how it ended.

Harakiri #2 completed.

1.0/4. Marvelous! Not. No more norm contention for me. That didn’t take long. My hypothetical maximum score was 6.0/9 which would happen if and only if I would win my remaining 5 games, but let’s be real…  At this point ending the tournament at 50% sounded like a success.

In round 5, I was facing the top seed, IM Zurab Javakhadze, with the black pieces. At that point he was 3.5/4. That’s another thing about round robins. In a Swiss, if you’re doing badly, you’ll play someone who is also doing badly. You’ll get some relief by being paired against an easier opponent. Instead, in round robins, your relief may come in a form of playing one of the top seeds or one of the leaders. I got both the leader and the strongest player. Thank you very much.

Charlotte JavakhadzeThe face of confidence… Photo courtesy of Charlotte Chess Center

I held on for most of the game. However, he got some chances. I was drifting a bit, and he could have played better. Eventually, we reached this position:

Javakhadze1

White to play

His thought process must have been similar to my first round position. I was a big target with a big sign on my back that read “I am having a horrible tournament. Beat me!”

After 50.fxg5 Nxg5 the position is simply a draw. So instead of essentially agreeing to a draw, IM Javakhadze went 50.f5?? which is suicide. His passer on f5 is blockaded and barely alive, and I have my own passer. White is putting his faith in his king run to b5, but it  won’t get so far. I went 50… Ne5 51.Bf1 (51.Ka4 Nxc4 is the problem for white). 51… Nf3 52.Ka4 Nd4. There may have been a more accurate way to play it, but in this version, I know I have at least a draw, and can play for a win with no risk at all. The white king cannot infiltrate to b5. Now, I have to pick up the f5-pawn and run my g-pawn down in an educated fashion. It requires some calculation, but it can be done. Here’s how it ended.

Harakiri #3 was completed. It wasn’t me this time, and it felt good! I was glad to know I’m not the only person who sometimes commits harakiri in drawn positions! This win gave me some boost. 2/5 wasn’t that bad. There was still time to turn this tournament around. You know from horrible to simply bad.

In round 6, I beat the bottom seed, Kapish Potula, without any major issues. It wasn’t a spectacular win, but a win is a win and a confidence boost.

After the round, we went for a walk in downtown Charlotte, and I still had to figure out what opening I was going to play against my next round opponent, FM Michael Kleinman!

Charlotte SignsWhich Charlotte am I in again??

Round 7 was a long, technical game with several glitches, but I came out on top with a win. I was better with black by move 15, got a winning position, and then proceeded to make my life significantly more difficult than necessary. He probably could have held a draw with best play, but it wasn’t easy.

Charlotte KleinmanThe start of a looong game… Photo courtesy of Charlotte Chess Center

I had won my last 3 games, and my rating was back in plus! Back in business!

Round 8 was a short and violent game against WIM Ewa Harazinska who was still in contention for a WGM norm. She needed to win both her games of the last day which was a tough bar. Here’s where things got spicy:

Harazinska1

White to play

12.d5 looks like a fairly normal move here, but my opponent played 12.Ng5??!!? which didn’t surprise me. I was fascinated by the consequences, but I correctly deduced they were good for black. I replied 12… Bxg2 13.Nxe6 Qe7 14.c5 (14.Nxf8 Bb7)

Harazinska2

Black to move

Now, white is thinking of grabbing both of black’s rooks! Time to pull that LSB out of there! But where? Black should stay on the long diagonal due to the abundance of mating ideas. I played 14… Bb7!. The other move I was considering was 14… Bc6, but it isn’t so effective because white can play d5 in some variations and gain a tempo on the bishop. It doesn’t seem so important, but it actually is. The game went 15.Nxc7+ (15.Nd8+ Kh8 16.Nxb7 was possible, but everything about that knight on b7 looks wrong. How is it going to get out??) Kh8 16.cxd6 Qxe2

Harazinska3

White to play

White is up a stump. 17.Nxa8 runs into 17… Bxd4!, where white is on the verge of getting mated. She decided to block my bishop out with 17.d5 (I told you, the tempo thing would come in handy!), but I replied 17… Na6! (17… Nd7! with the same idea was also good). Now, white can’t take the rook with 18.Nxa8 because of 18… Nc5!, where white can’t protect the rook anymore. Therefore, white is down a piece for two pawns, and black has the compensation. I won a few moves later.

4 out of 4. Here we go! Gosh, when was the last time I won four games in a row? At a scholastic tournament!?

In round 9, my opponent, Richard Francisco, was off-form, and he didn’t play too well. Had he been on-form, he probably would have exploited some of my mistakes and made a draw, but that was not to be. I won again!

5 wins in a row! From 1.0/4 to 6.0/9, half a point behind the norm. If I only got to replay the first game…

If only. Had I taken the draw that game, things may have been different. I might have had different attitudes going into my games. Maybe forgetting about the norm was better for my play: no insanity, no trying extremely hard to press for a win. Also, my opponents may have played differently against me and against each other. If only…

It would be nice to have Isaac update my bio to IM-elect, but let’s face it my FIDE rating is more than a touch away from 2400. Instead of that I learned something more important. I can do it. I can turn around a horrible tournament and make it into a great one. I can still play reasonable chess when things don’t go my way. And if I can do it once, I can do it again, though I hope I won’t have another opportunity any time soon.

I also learned that you cannot go into round robin thinking you HAVE to beat Player XYZ. You never know who will have a great tournament and whose form will be off. After all, both of my losses went to IM norm winners. In retrospect, a draw with either one of them would be a good result.

Also, preparation does not always mean success and is not necessary in large amounts. Over-preparing can make you feel tired, and it can make you feel stupid when your opponent plays something different than expected. Towards the end of the tournament, I decreased the amount of preparation I did. I didn’t entirely stop like Isaac did, but I did enough to get a general idea what I was going to do. It’s better to warm up your brain with some tactics than to prepare extensively for something your opponent may not even play.

Most importantly, a drawn position is a drawn position. By all means keep playing if you are NOT putting yourself into a significant danger. If the risks are too great, then agree to the draw even if it feels like a defeat. Trust me, losing the game will make you feel much worse.

Charlotte Crosstable 2The final crosstable, courtesy of Charlotte Chess Center

Big congrats to John Ludwig and Steve Wang for scoring 6.5/9 and getting an IM Norm and also to Gauri Shankar who got an IM Norm in the A Group. Also a big thank you to the Charlotte Chess Center for inviting me and running a well-organized tournament with excellent conditions.

Note to self: committing harakiri in round 1 of a tournament does not help improve my norm chances.

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.