Fall Cleanup

After barely missing a GM Norm at the Washington International, my play took a downward turn. September turned out to be full of freak blunders and missed opportunities (though not always for me), and by the end of the month, things really were getting wacky…

When your opponent plays 42… Re6?? running into 43.Nc5!… what can I say?

After that, I wanted to turn over a new leaf at Washington Chess Congress, the 9-round norm tournament where I magically got my GM Norm two years ago. I was hoping that all the junk was out of my system

My first round game against Charles Bouzoukis (2160 USCF, 2054 FIDE) was a quick and powerful win.

Playing 18.Ne6! felt great!

The excitement wasn’t only in the playroom alone. Things got eventful that night when an emergency alarm went off at 1:30 am! Trust me, that was about as fun as it sounds. On the way down to the lobby (from the 10th floor), we learned that it was a false alarm, but at that point, it was quicker to go down to the lobby and take an elevator back upstairs than to walk. The alarm was caused by contractors, who among other things covered the results board with a tarp, so I couldn’t even find out how others did 😦. Well I guess there’s a first for everything…

In round 2, I got black against Andrew Samuelson (2309 USCF, 2186 FIDE). Things went great for me when he blundered a pawn on move 13! After that, however, I didn’t play very accurately and let him stabilize—into a situation where I couldn’t really consolidate my extra pawn. After some inaccuracies from both sides, the game ended in a draw. I was kicking myself for not winning this one. Though this was naturally bad for norm chances, making a draw in the second round with black is not a big deal.

In round 3, I got black (again) against Arvind Jayaraman (2331 USCF, 2169 FIDE). We reached a fairly murky position out of the opening, and then this happened:

Arvind CJ

Black has two pawns for a piece, and I was naturally waiting for the right moment to take the exchange on d3. Black’s pawn on b3 looks nice at first, but it isn’t actually of that much use (pushing it will most likely result in its loss). Play is mainly in the center for the moment. A direct plan of action like 18… Bxd3 19.Qxd3 c4 20.Qd2 exd5 21.Nxd5 Bc5 with an unclear position was most appropriate. Instead, after a long think, I blundered horrendously with 18… Qc7??, missing 19.Bf4!. I was either losing an exchange or a key central pawn by playing 19… e5 (I chose the latter), and there was no coming back from this.

Rest in peace tournament 😥. After such a game, I needed a win to pull myself up, and I did the job against Ernest Colding (2229 USCF, 2035 FIDE). It was a crushing 24-move win for me.

The 1:30 am false emergency alarm was not the only first this tournament. During the 5th round, the lights started seriously misbehaving. One half of the room suddenly got much darker. And then the other half went darker. Then whatever light was left went out as well. We had to stop the clock 3 times before everything went back to normal. Yeah, that was… interesting.

Fortunately, my play was better and more consistent than the lights. I won with black against Evan Park (2165 USCF, 2065 FIDE). He had excellent opening preparation, but he let me get too much “noise” going in the early middlegame, and I crashed through.

I was back to 3.5/5, not a bad score. My norm chances were obviously dead, but chances for a trademark comeback were still there. In round 6, I got white against GM Jesse Kraai (2558 USCF, 2499 FIDE). My fairly loose play really wasn’t sound. I was fortunate to get to an equal endgame, which was soon drawn.

In round 7, I got black against IM Alex Ostrovskiy (2518 USCF, 2423 FIDE), and original play in the opening on my part really didn’t work out. I have no intention of repeating it…

Ostrovskiy 1

White is clearly much better here. He has more space, better placed pieces, black’s knight on a6 is offside for the moment, etc. 16.Ne5! attacking the d7-pawn is the strongest move, but instead, he played 16.bxa5 bxa5 17.Ne5. The most logical move 17… Qe7, defending the d7-pawn, did not appeal to me because white could play 18.c5, where he could relocate his knight to d6/b6 via c4 and combine that with play on the b-file. True, black can get his knight to d5, but that’ll only be consolation…

Because of that, I went for activity with 17… Qf4. The reason why playing Ne5 before trading was a good idea is because b6 hangs in these variations, practically ruling out Qf4 ideas. Objectively speaking, it’s not good for black, but in this position nothing is. The game continued 18.Qe3 c5 19.Nxd7 Qxe3 20.fxe3 Rxf1+ 21.Rxf1 cxd4 22.exd4 Rd8

Ostrovskiy 2

After a forced sequence from moves 19-22, I’m winning my pawn back on d4. Obviously I’m not out of the woods here, but I managed to scrape out with a draw after 23.Ne5 Rxd4 24.Nc6 (24.Rb1! was stronger) 24… Rd7 25.Nxa5, where my activity was enough to keep white’s pawns at bay.

Phew! In round 8, I drew with white against GM Vladimir Belous (2627 USCF, 2530 FIDE). I may have had a few chances for an advantage, but I didn’t think very highly of my position and steered the game towards a draw. In the last round, I made a quick draw with black against IM Michael Mulyar (2472 USCF, 2384 FIDE), which concluded my 4-game drawing streak—this hadn’t been my plan, but from a rating perspective, it was a reasonable result, which did help to limit the damage.

This wasn’t what I was hoping for, but it wasn’t too bad either. I’m not quite sure what to make of my play as a whole, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ll be back! Without malfunctioning lights, alarms, or brains. Wish me luck.


Complicating Matters

Endgame defense can be difficult. Some endgames can be extremely tough to defend. In many, you may be able to spot a light at the end of the tunnel which saves a draw. However, there are times when you’re lost and conventional means won’t save you. Now, I’m not talking about insane swindles drawing from -5 positions. I’m talking about positions where playing the objectively best moves won’t necessarily help you.

What can you do in such positions? You’ve got to spice things up. You’ve got to create confusion. You have to make your opponent think and use his time. Your job is to make your opponent’s life as hard as possible. Is it unreasonable to assume that your opponent will let something slip after long hours of play and his time ticking away? Of course not. Besides, if you’re busted, what do you have to lose?

First, here’s an example of me on the receiving end of this from a couple years ago. After a wild fight (let’s not go there) against a strong IM, I emerged with a winning position. Here’s what happened:

PK 1

White is a pawn up, and more of black’s pawns are quite loose to say the least. Black’s only chance here is active play. 48.Ra6! is winning here. The point is that after 48… Kd5 49.Nxc6 Rf6, which looks like it wins the knight, white has 50.Ra8! attacking the bishop in return, and he’s just winning after that. I missed this idea, but I chose what seemed to be a reasonable path: 48.Rg7? going after the g6-pawn. Then I got hit with 48… Bf6 49.Rxg6 Ke7

PK 2

Black is giving up pawns left and right, but Rxc2 will save him. The b2-pawn will fall after that, ruining white’s winning chances. I ended up sacrificing an exchange with 50.Nxc6+ Kf7 51.Rxf6+ Kxf6. I did win black’s remaining queenside pawns at the cost of my c- and h-pawns. Though it wasn’t technically winning, I still had winning chances there, but I butchered those too and the game ended in a draw.

Now it’s not like this was a particularly complicated endgame, but I got bamboozled. All my opponent’s activity forced me to figure things out instead of just converting easily. Anyway, I had been lost earlier in the game, and went on to get my first IM Norm in that tournament, so everything ended happily…

A tricky pawn endgame

Hevia 1

I was black against a GM, had been much worse for most of the game, and after a difficult rook endgame reached this position. Though material is equal, black is in awful shape. His king is cut off along the 7th rank, while his counterpart is beautifully active on a5. Black’s pawns have barely gotten moving, while white has a passed pawn which is already on c5. Oh man.

How does white get through? One key idea is to go Ra7 with the idea of winning the a6-pawn. If black cleverly tries to stop that with …Kb8, white will go Rd7-d6, which (could) result in a winning pawn endgame. But ok, white can go 55.Ra7 right here, right now. The a6-pawn is going down, but there’s a catch: black is still kicking in the pawn endgame after 55… g4 56.Rxa6 Rxa6+ 57.Kxa6 h5. While white has connected passed pawns on the queenside, black is getting his own passer on the queenside, and only accurate calculation can determine who will win the race. Long story short, it boils down to a queen endgame after 58.b5 h4 59.b6 g3 60.hxg3 hxg3 61.Ka7 g2 62.b7+ Kd7 63.b8Q g1Q

Hevia 2

I saw all this during the game, and I thought it was a draw. I was, however, surprised after the game when I found out that this is mate in 44 according to tablebases. For me, queen + pawn vs. queen make up a mysterious class off endgames, where tablebases are more valuable than Dvorestky’s Endgame Manual. In this endgame, however, white’s queen will do an excellent job shielding the white king from checks (by “counterchecking” the black king), and white’s king will assist the queen in pushing the black king out and escorting the pawn to victory. Still, from the starting position, even getting here isn’t clear—not to mention the evaluation of the endgame.

Instead, my opponent played 55.Rh7. After 55… g4, the pawn endgames are now a completely different story. Still, 56.Ra7! ironically still wins here. The idea is that black is in zugzwang. If 56… Kb8, white goes 57.Rd7!, and the pawn endgame after 57… Kc8 (57… h5 runs into 58.Rh7!, after which black’s position collapses) 58.Rd6 Rxd6 59.cxd6 h5 60.Kxa6 h4 61.b5 g3 62.hxg3 hxg3 63.b6 g2 64.b7+ Kd7 65.b8Q g1Q, and even to my human eyes it’s pretty clear that white is winning after 66.Qc7+ Ke6 67.d7. Still, this is a long line which could easily get “fuzzy” in human calculation, and it’s not unlikely your opponent will miscalculate/hallucinate somewhere along the way. My opponent instead tried a different path 56.Ka4, which doesn’t blow the win but isn’t on the right track. He could attempt to sneak back around with Kb3, but it will run into …g3!, since after hxg3 Rxg3+, white obviously doesn’t have time to take the h6-pawn because he’s in check. He probably didn’t believe the critical lines were winning for him. The game continued 56… Kb8 57.Rf7 Kc8 58.Re7 Kd8 59.Re3? (this is what blows the win), and after 59… h5 I was actually completely all right, since I’ve finally managed to mobilize my pawns on the kingside. After 60.Rg3 we agreed to a draw.

While there were multiple paths to Rome for my opponent, they were all long and complicated. At the end of the day, that’s what saved me.

Mutual Confusion

Sometimes, things just get so complicated that neither you nor your opponent have any idea what’s going on. It can be a curse or a blessing (depending on whose calculations are more accurate), but if there are no reasonable alternatives, mutual confusion is not a bad idea.

Here’s a final example from one of my own games. I had been a bit worse for a while, and after both my opponent and I built up our positions a bit, things exploded.

Ludwig 1

(I was black) This goes to the old land of queen + knight vs. queen + bishop, filled with passionate debates about which combination is better… My personal rule of thumb is that, no matter the situation, whichever duo I have is worse. Just kidding, but it really depends on the situation. Here, white is for choice, not only because his queen + knight duo is better than queen + bishop, but because he has a passed b-pawn that is very dangerous. Black’s king is also fairly exposed, due to the kingside expansions, while white’s king is still fairly safe for the moment.

White is actually winning here with the move 50.Qb1!, hitting the f5-pawn and aiding the passer at the same time. After 50… Be6 51.hxg4 fxg4 52.b6 g3, however, it gets messy. The most natural line goes 53.b7 gxf2+ 54.Kxf2 Qf4+

Ludwig 2

The b-pawn is beyond black’s control, and white’s only job is to get his king to safety. The most natural move is to run back with 55.Kg1?, but that actually blows the win. After 55… Qxe3+ 56.Kh1, the desperado 56… h3! actually secures a draw! Yes, white can go 57.Qf1+ Ke7 58.b8Q, but after 58… hxg2+ 59.Qxg2 Qe1+ 60.Kh2 Qh4+, white can’t escape the checks.

Instead, white has to play 55.Ke2!, ironically going into the middle. The white knight, however, covers everything, and black has nothing. After 55… Bg4+ 56.Nxg4 Qxg4+ 57.Kf1, white’s king will run to the corner, and …h3 desperados no longer work, since black no longer has a bishop to provide backup.

Instead, my opponent played 50.hxg4? fxg4 51.b6!? (if 51.Qb1 black has Bg6! attacking the queen). Here’s where I returned the favor and slipped up as well.

Ludwig 3

51… Qxb6 52.Nxg4+ is obviously white’s idea, but I had 52… Kf5. What I missed was rather embarrassing: I thought that white had 53.Qxe5+ Kxg4 54.f3#, but the f-pawn is pinned. Oops!! After 52… Kf5, black is also all right after 53.Nxe5 Qe6 54.f4 Kxf4, where the situation looks scary but is actually harmless.

Instead of that, I played 51… Be6?, giving my opponent another chance to return to the winning variation by playing 52.Qb1!. I naturally didn’t know that that variation was winning during the game, and neither did my opponent, because he instead played 52.b7? Qb6 53.Qd1, giving up the b-pawn with the aim of collecting my kingside pawns instead. But after 53… g3! 54.Qf3+ Ke7 55.fxg3 hxg3 56.Qxg3 Qb1+ 57.Nf1 Qxb7, black is holding. The game was soon drawn.

These variations are naturally difficult to see during a game, especially after a long fight and with little time, and that’s what you’ve got to use to both ends. However, the moral of the story is clear: the more complicated the win is, the less likely your opponent will play it. Complications aren’t necessarily your enemy when defending. They can be a lifeline if conventional defensive means fail. And, as I hope these examples illustrate, complicating matters can save you half points here and there that just giving up wouldn’t do.

Winning Equal Positions: An Imperfect Job

My past few articles have all been about my tournaments, and it was about time I wrote about a different topic.

Getting an advantage out of the opening is far from guaranteed these days, especially with black. Even with white, it’s hard to get an advantage against a well-prepared opponent. Naturally, the opening isn’t the only part of the game, and it’s up to you to complicate matters and outplay your opponent. Doing this in a complex middlegame where one mistake from your opponent could seal his fate is one matter, but winning an equal endgame is another story.

Going from equal to winning in an endgame usually happens in baby steps. You put pressure on your opponent, who gives you a little bit, which then grows bigger and bigger, until you win. But how to provoke those mistakes? Playing the most primitive and forcing way usually won’t do the job, assuming there aren’t pitfalls for your opponent in the critical lines. Instead, keep the tension, improve your position, play healthy moves, and eyeball plenty of ideas without necessarily committing to any. Your job is to confuse your opponent into making mistakes. By mistakes I don’t mean blunders, I mean moves that will give you what you want.

Let me show you what I mean. I played this game a couple weeks ago against a 2250. After an early queen trade, I didn’t get anything real with black out of the opening, but it’s not like I made any mistakes. I went on to win after inaccuracies from both sides. I feel that in this game I managed to create enough pressure for my opponent to cave into my demands.

Carter 1

Both players’ positions are fairly solid. White’s rook on h1 isn’t doing anything for the moment, and his superfluous knights aren’t awe-inspiring, but he can improve his pieces. The e2-knight can get relocated to d3 via c1, and the c3-knight can support white’s center. He could also consider grabbing space in the center with f4 at the right moment. Meanwhile, black’s pieces aren’t great either. The bishop on e5 looks nice

As for moves. 17… Rd8 is what intuitively comes to my mind first (putting the rook on an open file), but it’s not really useful, since white has everything covered along the d-file. He can’t go 18.Rd1 because of the h2-pawn (yes, the bishop can get rescued here), but after a logical move like 18.Nc1, improving the knight, what does black do next? What does black have here? Nothing really.

I decided to play 17… g5!?. It’s a healthy move that secures my bishop on e5. I’m eyeing going Nh5-f4 and, more immediately, generating play on the kingside with …g4. But what if white responds to …g4 with f4? What have I accomplished? Nothing. After the strongest move 18.Nc1! here, I would not have gone 18… g4. I probably would’ve played 18… Nh5 with the idea of going Nf4 in the near future and 18… Nd7, with the idea of pulling my bishop back to f6 and taking it from there. Another reasonable option is 18.h4 g4 19.f4 Bxc3 20.Nxc3, where white should be able to hold his position together. The position is around equal in either case, though I do think black is for choice.

Instead, my opponent played 18.h3?!. This prevents …g4 and doesn’t force the white rook to stay and babysit the h2-pawn. However, it’s quite a committal move that weakens the dark squares, especially f4—a very nice outpost for my knight. My problem is that the primitive 18… Nh5 is met with 19.h4!, ruining everything. Here’s where I played a tricky move: 18… Rg8!

Carter 2

My idea is simple: I want to play 19… Nh5 and meet 20.h4 with either 20… gxh4 21.Rxh4 Rxg2 or 20… g4 (importantly there’s no f4). White will most likely have to allow the black knight to land on f4, and in case of a trade, I’ll recapture with the g-pawn, highlighting another advantage of having the rook on g8. Though it already looks suspect for white, it isn’t bad for him. After 19.b4 Nh5 20.g4!, followed by a quick h4, is actually equal despite appearing to be antipositional.

Fortunately, my opponent let me get what I wanted. He played 19.Nc1 Nh5 20.Nd3 Bc7 21.Re1 (21.g4 is now met with 21… Ng3!) 21… Nf4 22.Nxf4 gxf4 23.Re2

Carter 3

White’s rook is now tied up to the g2-pawn and doesn’t have any future prospects. Looking at the first diagram, getting this far is quite an accomplishment. My plan was to:

  • Solidify my bind with …e5
  • Improve my king, most likely by putting it on e6
  • Improve my bishop (a square like d4 looks nice)
  • Open up the queenside at the right moment

At least I have a concrete plan here! Unfortunately, I got a little ahead of myself by playing 23… e5?!, to which my opponent correctly responded with 24.b4!. White grabs territory on the queenside and will likely generate counterplay. Oops! I quickly realized I should’ve gone 23… a5! to prevent white from playing b4. What to do now? I decided to improve my king and act like nothing was happening. After 24… Kd7 25.a5 Ke6 26.Na4, I decided to prevent Nc5 once and for all with 26… b6

Cater 4

Again, I’m back to not having any advantage. After 27.axb6 axb6 28.Kb3, white’s position is fairly compact, and he has everything under control. Where’s my advantage there? More unnerving was the idea of 27.axb6 axb6 28.b5!?, temporarily sacrificing a pawn with the idea of breaking black’s position up and securing the d5-square. What to do after that? Looking at it right now, I’m genuinely stumped.

My opponent played 27.a6?!, keeping the queenside closed. This looks perfectly reasonable, but there’s the drawback that the a6-pawn could become vulnerable in an endgame. For that reason, his main idea is to still play b5. That’s why I should’ve played 27… b5 myself, no matter how counterintuitive it looks. After 28.Nc5+ Ke7, white’s knight is nice but is eyeing empty squares. Instead, I played 27… Rd8?!. White should have gone 28.b5! cxb5 29.Nc3 here. Yes, black does get to keep his pawn after 29… b4 30.Nb5 Bb8, but white has plenty of play after 31.Kb3. My rook will infiltrate, but white’s position will hold together.

My opponent played right into my hands by playing 28.Rd2? Rxd2+ 29.Kxd2. After 29… Kd7 (29… b5! is more accurate, but what I played shouldn’t blow anything) 30.Kd3 b5 31.Nc5+ Ke7, I got exactly what I wanted.

Carter 5

I’ll go Bd6, kicking the white knight out of c5, and will then march with my king to b6 and win the a6-pawn. White’s only counterplay is on the kingside, but for that he’ll have to pull his knight back to f1/e2 and play g3. That is what my opponent ended up doing, but it’s way too slow. I went on to win without any further adventures.


This is not a model game by any means, but I thought it was instructive. Here are my takeaways:

  • Try to complicate matters with ideas that actually may not be that good (17… g5 with the “idea” of …g4). You don’t have to follow through if it doesn’t work out, but who knows which your opponent may not want to allow.
  • Don’t cave in to your opponent’s demands (letting me get pressure on the g2-pawn for free).
  • Once you get a bind, make sure your opponent doesn’t get counterplay (me allowing him to play).
  • Don’t give your opponent second chances (me allowing him to play b5 twice, even if he chose not to do it either time).

How to Miss a GM Norm by a Whisker, Part 2

When we left off in part 1, I had 3.5/5 and was having an amazing tournament. Next up was getting a norm…

In round 6, I got white against GM Niclas Huschenbeth (2639 USCF, 2590 FIDE). I went for an ambitious and risky opening, and it worked out beautifully. I was winning after 20 moves.

Huschenbeth 1

Here, I missed the killer 21.Rxd5!, which is completely winning. 21… Nxd5 loses the queen to 22.g4, so black must go 21… Rxd5 22.exd5, after which he cannot effectively cover his e7-pawn. He’s dead lost. Instead, I played 21.g4? Nxg4 22.Bxe5 Nde3 23.Bb2 Nxd1 24.Qxd1, after which I still had a huge edge…

Huschenbeth 2

A few moves later we reached this position. I had played very well over the past few moves, but here my play was a bit too fancy. White’s simplest plan is to play 39.c4! and bring the king up, since black is more or less paralyzed! His king is stuck on the h-file, his knight is the b6-pawn’s only shield, and his rook is vital to the defense of the e7-pawn. Instead, I fancily went pawn hunting with 39.Bg8+ Kh8 40.Be6 Kh8 41.Bg8+ Kh8 42.Be6 Kh7 (I naturally repeated once) 43.Bg4, with the idea of relocating the bishop to d3 and winning the h6-pawn. Though this is probably still winning, it isn’t the easiest.

Huschenbeth 3

After another streak of playing high-quality chess, we reached this rook endgame. White is a pawn up, and his hopes lie in winning the queenside pawns. The simplest way to accomplish that is 54.Kc4!, which just wins. I had been worried about 54… Kg5, but 55.Kb5 Kxh5 56.Rxb6 leads to a winning pawn endgame, though 56.c4! may be even simpler. 55.Kd5!? should win as well. Long story short, everything wins there! Instead, in the heat of the battle, I irrationally played 54.b4? Rc6+ 55.Kb3 axb4 56.Kxb4 e5

Huschenbeth 4

Yeah, those split pawns really aren’t that effective… White may still be able to eke out a win after 57.h6 Kg6 58.c3! (not the logical move 58.c4 because it takes the square away from his king), but this has turned from a routine technical job into an endgame study. My next move 57.Rf8+? is completely pointless and blew all winning chances. After a few moves, we drew.

Aargh!!! True, I had gotten a bit lucky in the first half of the tournament, but there hadn’t been anything this crazy. Anyway, my performance was still 2620+, and there were three rounds to go. Not long after the end of this game, I saw that I’d get black against GM Sam Sevian (2741 USCF, 2645 FIDE) the next day. This wasn’t my dream pairing, but it sure helped my average rating. I didn’t have to worry that a series of draws would dip my performance below 2600.

After a lousy night’s sleep, it was game time. Despite my big miss the previous night, I played well. A topsy-turvy fight ended in a threefold repetition after the time control. There was one point where I was in trouble, but besides that it was all right. Yay!! When drawing a 2645 GM decreases your performance slightly, you know you’re doing something right!

In round 8, I got white against GM Josh Friedel (2638 USCF, 2553 FIDE). Now, two rounds to go. It looked like I’d need 1.0/2 to get a norm. So what was the masterplan? 2 draws? Well I couldn’t count on that one, since drawing with black against a ~2550 GM in the last round was NOT a guarantee by any means. Okay, I could get to play someone weaker than that. And who knows, maybe they’d switch my colors, and I’d get white again. Then again, winning this game would clinch the norm, and why not try to win?

I wanted to fight it out just like I had been doing the entire tournament. If it was a draw in the end, no problem. At least I tried. I settled on getting whatever slight edge I could out of the opening and milking it.

Here’s a comprehensive summary of what happened:


Naturally, I’ll show you the positional mishap and the unsound active defense.

Friedel 1

At this point, the position is approximately equal. Black is going to go …c5 next to solve his problems with his bad knight on a5. I should’ve just settled for something like 15.Nd2, just trading pieces. When he plays …c5, I’ll just capture without any problems. Instead, I naively played 15.b4?!. My plan was to meet 15… c5 with 16.bxc5 bxc5 17.dxc5, where black is left with an isolated d-pawn. I was aware that I had very little in the ensuing position, but I wanted to give it a ride because why not. Unfortunately, I got hit with 15… b5!. …c5 isn’t going to happen. Black will install a knight on c4. Oops.

There are several things I’m kicking myself about in this game. The first is allowing 15… b5. The second is overreacting to it. Sure, I like black’s position there, but he probably doesn’t have an objective edge—which I generously gave him when I decided to bail out.

Friedel 2

Here’s where I ended up a few moves later. It’s queen + knight vs. queen + bishop, and in this case, the queen and knight are the better combo. In fact, my bishop really isn’t good for much besides babysitting my b4- and d4-pawns. A queen trade not involving a change in pawn structure would be a disaster for white, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that position is objectively lost. Naturally white isn’t forced to trade queens, but that’s a danger he should keep in mind.

Black doesn’t have that much in the way of concrete plans. He’ll try poking around on the queenside, and if that isn’t successful, maybe he’ll go h5-h4 to gain some ground on the kingside. Who knows? He could do anything. White’s best policy here is probably to sit tight. His position should hold together, though it won’t be fun at all.

However, passive defense isn’t the easiest thing for humans, and there have been countless examples where passive defense has led to disaster. And to my credit, what I did almost works—but almost isn’t enough. I went 34.Bf4!? Nd5 35.Bd6. My idea was naturally to win the c6-pawn, and I thought black had nothing better than a perpetual. The game went 35… Qd3 36.Qxc6 Qd2+ 37.Kg1?. The “?” is from an objective standpoint, since my silicon friend tells me that white isn’t lost after 37.Kg3 Ne3 38.h4!, but it’s very shaky. Anyway, back to the game, which went 37… Ne3 38.f4 Qe1+ 39.Kh2 Nf1+ 40.Kg1 Ng3+ 41.Kh2 There’s no mate on h1, and white has a Qc8-f5-c8 perpetual check if black’s knight strays away. Everything appears to be defended, but there’s a little loophole:41… h5!.

Friedel 3

Black has a simple plan of cementing his knight with …h4 and following it up with Qh1#. There’s nothing I can do about it. If 42.h4, black’s knight will come to g4 via the Nf1-Ne3 merry-go-round. 42.f5 is useless since 42… h4 43.Bxg3 hxg3# is mate. The f5-square is covered so there’s no perpetual. I played 42.Qc8+ Kh7 43.Be7, but that was more of an excuse not to resign immediately than anything else. My bishop bit the dust, and black’s queen came back once more to mate me.

Ouch!! Another painful realization was that in the last round, it was possible I wouldn’t even play someone high enough for me to get a GM Norm. Playing a 2465+ was more or less guaranteed if I won/drew, but a loss didn’t cut it. What had I done???

Fortunately, I got lucky with the pairings. In the last round, I got white (yay!) against GM Isan Ortiz Suarez (2692 USCF, 2549 FIDE), who was having a rough tournament. I needed to win this game to get a norm, and I was going all-in. No doubt about it.

I did get outprepared in a sharp Sicilian, but I achieved what I wanted: a complicated position. And it wasn’t even objectively bad for me. I did miss one strong move/idea, but it was hard to see, and missing something like that isn’t unusual for a Sicilian slugfest. What I went for was very sharp, and I ended up in a situation where the most principled—and strongest—continuations would likely boil down to a perpetual check. I didn’t want that and spiraled downward instead…

Ortiz Suarez 1

White is in huge trouble here. His king is getting swarmed with pieces. The e2-pawn is a nasty thorn. White has no real counterplay. Everything is awful. I’m dead after just about anything: 30… h5, 30… Rc8, 30… Nb5, etc. Fortunately, my opponent let me back into the game with 30… Nd1+?. After 31.Rxd1 exd1=Q 32.Rxd1 Bxb6, I was happy with the change because a) I’m not dead, b) I’m only down a piece for two pawns, c) I have actual play here, and d) I’m not dead. I was even happier when I found the strong move 33.Rd6!

Ortiz Suarez 2

Black’s is having a few coordination issues here. If 33… Bc7 or 33… Bd8, 34.Rd7! will win since black can’t save himself with 34… Bc8. What else does black have here? Oh boy, I’m actually better here!! As my opponent was thinking and thinking on his next move, I was getting more and more excited. He played 33… Ba5. 34.Qa4! Qc7 35.b4 is objectively best. Black can’t hang on to the bishop, and after 35… Bxb4 36.Qxb4 Bxg2, white is slightly better. Instead, I played 34.b4?!, which I had prepared while he was thinking on his previous move. He replied with 34… Rb8?! (34… Bc8! is stronger, but it’s legitimately difficult to figure out what’s wrong with …Rb8)

Ortiz Suarez 3

Instead, 35.e6! Qg7+ 36.Qd4 was strong, though there’s a key detail, which I’m not sure I would’ve seen. Black appears to be holding everything together after 36… Bc8 37.c3 Qxd4+ 38.Rxd4 Rb7, but 39.Rd6! (not the easiest move to see from a distance) is very strong. Black is going to lose a bishop with his bad coordination. White will have excellent winning chances in the ensuing endgame. The simpler 35.c3 is also not a bad move, after which white isn’t worse at all.

Nerves, stress, tunnel vision, and an emotional rollercoaster cannot excuse what I did next: 35.bxa5????. Even after I played it, I didn’t see what was coming. 35… Bc8+ was a cold shower, and I resigned on the spot.

What happened?

That’s a hard question. Though I don’t have the full answers, here are my conclusions so far.

In rounds 1-5, I had a few shaky moments, but I played well overall and held my own. Round 6 was a huge miss where I played very well but got caught in the heat of the battle and lost my mind when I played 54.b4?. Round 7 was an excellent game where I held my own against a 2600+ GM. Then norm thoughts and fatigue started creeping into my head and really messed with my decision-making in my 8th round fail. I was just too naïve and unrealistic there. My last round was, well, a mess. I’ve been in and will be in must-win last round games, and they aren’t easy—especially with a GM Norm at stake.

If you think I’m upset about the tournament as a whole just because of the finish, you’re wrong. I played great chess for the first 7 rounds, and what happened in the last 2 was preventable. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ll be ready next time. And if I play this way, there will be a next time. Several next times and hopefully with happy endings.

GM, here we go. The hunt is on. For real.

P.S. All expletives were removed from the first draft of this article to suit my PG-13 audience.

How to Miss a GM Norm by a Whisker, Part 1

Well, I was hoping for a different headline, but let’s start from the beginning…

The Washington International is a very nice tournament. All equipment is provided, pairings are put up early, and the atmosphere is very pleasant. Also, the field was very strong. This year, there were over 20 GMs playing, making it one of the strongest Swiss tournaments in the US! With a “modest” FIDE rating of 2402, I found myself barely in the top half. For norm-hunters, this was paradise.

Yours truly in action! Photo by MD Chess.

For those of you who may not be familiar with norms, here’s a little crash course. To get a GM Norm you have to:

  • Play a tournament with at least 9 rounds (and take no byes)
  • Achieve a 2600+ FIDE performance rating (it’s 2450+ for IM Norms, 2400+ for WGM Norms, and 2250+ for WIM Norms)
  • Play at least 3 GMs (for IM Norms, it’s 3 IMs)
  • Play at least 5 titled players (CM and WCM don’t count for that)
  • Play at least 4 players not from your federation OR play in a tournament that is a Super Swiss (meaning there are 20+ foreigners, 10+ of which are GMs, IMs, or WGMs)

To earn the GM title, you need 3 norms (one of which has to be from a 6+ day tournament) and a 2500+ FIDE rating. I already have one GM Norm.

To earn the IM, WGM, or WIM title, you also need 3 norms and a FIDE rating of at least 2400/2300/2200 respectively.

Back to my tournament. In round 1, I was black against Eugene Yanayt (2200 USCF, 2081 FIDE), and I came close to not winning. Sounds familiar?

Yanayt 1

I had gotten an edge with black, but it only amounted to this. This endgame is a draw, and I hope you knew that. However, there are practical winning chances, and I got lucky this time around. My opponent played 34.h5?. This appears to be a move in the right direction, but it doesn’t work out. After a  move like 34.Kg2 or 34.Ra6, I probably would’ve gone 34… h5 myself, after which I’d have to magic my way to victory.

The game went 34… gxh5 35.Rh6 h4! 36.gxh4 Rg4+ 37.Kh2

Yanayt 2

I was eyeing the idea of just pushing … a4 and defending my pawn from the side which is a common idea in this type of endgame. White won’t have such an easy time there. Then I spotted another idea: 37… Rg6!. If 38.Rxh7, I’ll get my rook behind my pawn with 38… Ra6. The white rook has to rush back to stop the pawn. Though white has grabbed the h7-pawn, I felt I should be winning in the ensuing position with the white rook on a2 and black pawn on a3. My opponent helped me a bit when he played 37.Rh5?!, gifting me an extra tempo after 37… Ra6. I won a few moves later. Phew…

In round 2, I got white against GM Julio Becerra (2604 USCF, 2529 FIDE). This game didn’t quite go according to my plan. I misplayed the opening/early middlegame and got worse. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything serious, and I successfully held. I was totally fine with a draw. At this early point in the tournament, my job was to hang in there and keep facing good opposition—this tournament was strong enough that a massive score wouldn’t be necessary.

In round 3, I got black against GM Andrey Stukopin (2672 USCF, 2598 FIDE). This was a tough pairing, but I actually held with black without too much difficulty. Here’s a little snapshot of the game:

Stukopin 1

I’ve got the b-file for myself, and white’s pieces are strangely placed. However, white is threatening f4, trapping my knight, and white will try to generate play in the center. I could go 21… Qa4 to meet 22.f4 with 22… Nd7, but in the past couple moves, I had just moved my knight from d7 to e5. True, I had misplaced white’s rooks, but was it really worth those tempi? Instead of doing that, I chose a more active path: 21… f5!? 22.f4 Ng4

Stukopin 2

If white goes 23.Bxg4 fxg4 24.e4, I should be able to hold my kingside together, maybe by going Qa4-d7. I’ve got the b-file, and I should be all right. Instead, the game went 23.e4 Qe3+ 24.Kf1 Qxe2+ 25.Rxe2 Rb7, and after 26.exf5 we agreed to a draw. The position is approximately equal. Though it may not have been objectively best, 21… f5 set the tone of how I wanted to play this tournament. The more energetic, the better.

So far so good! Last year I also started 2/3, winning my first game and drawing the next two, but then I lost my 4th round game. This seriously hurt my norm chances, possibly beyond repair, and I got to play down the next round. I didn’t want the same thing to happen this year.

I got white against GM John Burke (2615 USCF, 2526 FIDE). We’d already played 7 times before then (my score was 6 draws and 1 loss). From an aesthetic point of view, the game was special. I could probably write an article just about this game. Out of the opening, I got a little edge—more like a pull to be precise. Here’s where it started getting good for me…

Burke 1

White has the bishop pair. Black’s knight on d4 looks nice, but it’s… stuck! It can’t go anywhere. Trust me, there’ll be a lot more of that to come. Black may want to open things up with 22…b5 and hope for the best, or there’s 22… a6 preparing b5. White nonetheless has a slight edge. Instead, John chose a different path: 22… Rd6?!. If I go 23.Ba4, my bishop will get harassed after 23… Ra6. Not a good idea. Instead, I immediately hit the b7-pawn with 23.Rb1, and black’s only convenient way of defending it is 23… Rb6. I responded with 24.Rxb6 axb6 25.a4

Burke 2

If that knight wasn’t stuck on d4 before, it sure is now. How about that? A knight on d4 that can’t move anywhere. But can white win? That is the question. I’m not sure, but white sure has very big winning chances in a practical game and will never ever lose this one. A few moves later, we reached this position.

Burke 3

What happened over the past few moves is rather self-explanatory. I further prevented f4 with g3, we traded rooks on the e-file, and I brought my king to d3 where the action is. My masterplan was to open things up with a g4 breakthrough at some point. John therefore decided to go 33… h5, and I replied with 34.h4. Now I have another winning plan: invade on the dark squares with my king. If that fails, I can always go f3 and g4 and engineer a breakthrough. In simple English, this is free torture for me. The game went 34… Bf6 35.Bf4 Be7 36.Ke3

Burke 4

36… Bf8! would’ve prevented my king from infiltrating for reasons I’ll explain soon. Naturally, I’ll still have excellent winning chances there. John’s move 36… Bf6? was actually a losing mistake. I played 37.Bb8!, and that seals black’s fate. If 37… Kc8, I have 38.Ba7 Kc7 39.a5! bxa5 40.Bxc5, and black’s knight is trapped! That’s why the black bishop had to be on f8 so that it could defend the c5-pawn. John had to go back with 37… Be7, but after 38.Kf4, my king is through, and it can’t be pushed out. I soon won the game. 3/4! Not bad!! At this point my performance crossed 2600+ FIDE, and I could start aiming to get a norm instead of just hanging in around the top.

In round 5, I got black against GM Sergei Azarov (2669 USCF, 2574 FIDE). I was doing fine with black up until a point, and then I got a little worse, and then…

Azarov 1

White has more space here, and my knight is fairly passive on f7. Still, it’s not clear how white gets through. White’s last move 30.h4 is tricky, as he’s trying to gain territory on the kingside. I should’ve gone 30… h6 or 30… g6 to prevent or reduce the power of Ng5. I was worried these moves would soften up my kingside in case of a Rh1-h3 rook lift, but I should be able to hold anything together. Instead, I naively played 30… Ra8? which was met with 31.Ng5!. After 31… Nxg5 32.hxg5 I had a decision to make.

Azarov 2

I could go active with 32… Ra2, but I wasn’t feeling confident at all about the endgame after 33.Rh1 Rxf2 34.Rxh7 Rxg2 35.Rxg7+. Though material is equal, white’s king is closer to the action, his g-pawn is a stronger passer, and my e6-pawn is awkwardly weak. Not my idea of fun. Instead, I chose to go 32… Rh8 33.Rh1 h5

Azarov 3

Here’s where I could’ve gone down. 34.gxh6! was strong. I, however, thought that the pawn endgame after 34… Rxh6 35.Rxh6 gxh6 was fine for me, missing that white wins after 36.Ke3 Kc6 37.Kf4 Kb5 (37… h5 38.Kg5 is no good either) 38.g4 fxg4 39.Kxg4 Kc4 40.f4 Kxc3 41.f5, where white will queen and black won’t. Therefore, 34… gxh6 was my best reply, but there, my rook will have to babysit the h6-pawn for quite a while. That wasn’t part of my plan. Fortunately, after 34.Kc2? g6, I was completely fine. I have no structural weaknesses, my rook is free to go, and white can’t break through on the kingside. The game was soon a draw, without any further adventures.

This is as good a moment as any to take a break. I was at 3.5/5. I admittedly did get a bit lucky, but I was playing very good chess. What more could I want? The answer was of course a GM Norm. I had a solid 2600+ FIDE performance, but I had plenty of tough opposition ahead of me.

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover my last four rounds full of adventures, blunders, and missed opportunities, and my downfall in the end.

Manhattan Open

And my summer chess adventures continue. This time I headed to the Manhattan Open, which took place only a few blocks from Times Square. Let me just tell you that going out for lunch was a test of ingenuity and persistence navigating through throngs of tourists. Manhattan Open was only 5 rounds, but it was surprisingly strong with 7 GMs in attendance! For me, it was an excellent local practice tournament with nothing big at stake.

In round 1, I won a fairly clean game with black against Juan Sena (2222 USCF, 1996 FIDE). An interesting idea in the opening worked very well, and I was much better by move 20. I went on to convert without problem. Yay, I finally won a first round!

Round 2 was a tough game for me. I got white against Stanislav Busygin (2293 USCF, 2167 FIDE). I nursed a slight edge and got a very good position, but it wasn’t easy to get through. His defense was sturdy, and he didn’t give me many opportunities. Eventually, after a few inaccuracies/mistakes from both sides, we reached this position.

Busygin_2 1

It’s a knight endgame with equal material, but white clearly has the upper hand with his Nc5. White should engineer a b3-b4 breakthrough to get a passer on the a-file. What else to do? However, black has Ne4 ideas, which will cause trouble. Patience with 53.Kd3 or 53.Kc2 is best, and white has very good winning chances. Instead, I decided to immediately go 53.b4?. The most critical move here is 53… Ne4+, leading to a pawn endgame after 54.Nxe4 axb4+ 55.Kxb4 dxe4. The key line there is 56.Kc3 Kb6 57.Kd2 Ka5 58.Ke3 Kxa4 59.Kxe4

Busygin_2 2

White has gone after black’s e-pawn, and black has gone after white’s a-pawn in response. That’s all fairly natural. Now, if white could take the d4- and c6-pawns off the board, he’d be winning because his king rushes in to the kingside. Black should therefore go back 59… Kb5, and after 60.d5 he has 60… Kc5! saving the day. I was toying with 60.Kd3, but white has no magic. 60… Kb4 holds without a problem since 61.d5 is again met with 61… Kc5!. It’s a draw. I did see this, though I’m not sure if I boiled it down to the end before or after I played 53.b4. I did (incorrectly) feel that I had blown a large chunk of my advantage in the past few moves, and I saw some ghosts if I waited with my king. In simple English, I bluffed and in retrospect am not sure why.

Fortunately, my opponent went 53… axb4+?, and everything was back on track. After 54.Kxb4 black is in a bad situation, and passive defense with 54… Nc8? didn’t help. White will push his a-pawn, go after black’s kingside pawns with his knight, and infiltrate with his king to c5 and beyond. I won a few moves later.

After that long game and lunch with a friend, there was no time whatsoever to prepare before the next round. I got double white against Justin Chen (2354 USCF, 2249 FIDE). The game didn’t go according to plan. My opening was fairly toothless, and my attempts to gain an advantage led to a worse endgame. Fortunately, I held it without any serious problems. I was hoping for more, but 2.5/3 was not a score to whine about—especially considering how I’ve been starting my tournaments recently…

In round 4, I made another draw with black against GM Sergey Kudrin (2537 USCF, 2456 FIDE). The game was approximately equal throughout, and when he offered a draw, I decided to take it. I had 3/4 going into the last round, and that’s the game where I wanted to take my chances. Since I got a double white in rounds 2 and 3, the pairing program didn’t object to me getting black again in the last round, this time against Wesley Wang (2408 USCF, 2328 FIDE). Out of the opening, we reached this strange position.

Wesley 1

White does appear to be a bit overextended and badly coordinated, but this should dissipate once he castles. 16.Qd2 and 16.Bxb6 Qxb6 17.g3 are white’s best options, after which the position is approximately equal. Instead, Wesley played the most logical move 16.Bb5+?. 16… Nc6 appears to be forced, and white shouldn’t have any real problems after 17.0-0 0-0 18.Bxb6 Qxb6 19.Nc3, to show one variation. But wait, is 16… Nc6 forced? It isn’t! I correctly played the cold-blooded 16… Bd7! which throws a huge wrench in white’s works. On the surface it looks impossible, but after both 17.Bxd7+ Qxd7 18.Bxb6 Nxg2+ 19.Ke2 Qb5+ and 17.Bxb6 Nxg2+ 18.Kf1 (18.Kd2 Qxb6 19.Bxd7+ Kxd7) 18… Bxb5+ 19.Kxg2 Qxb6, black is a pawn up. 17.Bxd7+ Qxd7 18.0-0 fails to 18… Bxd4 19.Nxd4 Qxd4! 20.Qxd4 Ne2+ winning a piece. This is a bad sign for white…

17.Nc3 and 17.Na3 were the least evils for white, though black will have an edge after 17… Bxd4 18.Nxd4 0-0. Instead, Wesley decided to go 17.Bxd7+ Qxd7 18.c3

Wesley 2

This looked precariously bad for white. Black just has so many ideas: Nd3+, Nxg2+, Qb5, etc. One of them is bound to work. 18… Nbd3+ 19.Kf1 Bxd4 is black’s best option. If 20.Nxd4 Nxe5, black is up a clean pawn, and white’s position is bad anyway. 20.cxd4 annoyed me, but I missed the simple idea that after 20… 0-0 21.g3, black has 21… Rc8! 22.gxf4 Rc1 winning the queen and the game. And that’s not the only good variation black has at his disposal… Instead of doing this, however, I overthought my next move and overlooked a simple hole in my main line. I went 18… Bxd4 19.cxb4 Qb5? (19… Bb6! was still very good for black). After 20.Nxd4 I realized what I had missed.

Wesley 3

I thought that after 20… Qxb4+ 21.Kf1 Qc4+, white has to go 22.Kg1, after which I have 22… Qxd4 23.Qxd4 Ne2+, winning the piece back. However, I missed that white can simply go 22.Ne2!. I had technically been planning on postponing operation Qc4+ by first going 21… 0-0, but white could go Ne2 there too. OOPS!! This wasn’t part of my plan. I decided to make the best of things by going 20… Nxg2+ 21.Kd2 Qxe5

Wesley 4

Black has two pawns for the piece, and white’s king is really shaky. Black clearly is a happy camper here, but what he could’ve had before was much better. 22.Kc1 0-0 23.Nc2 is probably white’s best shot, but Wesley went for the adventurous (but bad) 22.Qa4+? Ke7 23.Qa7 Rd8 24.Kc3

Wesley 6

White’s knight is awkwardly pinned in the middle, but if black carelessly goes 24… Nf4?, he’ll get hit with 25.Qc5+! trading the queens off and solving white’s problems. In light of that, I played 24… Kf6!. The point is that 25.Qc5 will now be met with 25… Rd5. Black’s Kf6 looks very strange, but it’s safe! Next up is Nf4 followed by Ne2+, further bombarding Nd4. 25.Nd2 Nf4 26.N2f3 is white’s best chance to hang on, but his king is an endangered species after 26… Qd6. Instead, Wesley chose 25.Na3, but after 25… Nf4 26.Nac2 Ne2+ 27.Kd3 Nxd4 28.Nxd4 Qd5!, white is going to lose his pinned knight after …e5. After 29.Qb6 Rd6 30.Qc5 e5, Wesley resigned.

Overall, I got 4/5, landed myself in a 7-way tie for second, and gained a few rating points. Not complaining. Congratulations to GM Aleksandr Lenderman who won clear first with 5/5. My summer run continues with the Washington International, a 9-round norm tournament which starts this Saturday. Over 20 GMs are registered, and I’m barely in the top half. Fingers crossed…

US Cadet Championship

The US Cadet Championship is an invitational round robin tournament for the top US players under the age of 16. I was first invited to play in the Cadet back in 2015, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend due to scheduling problems. In 2016, however, I played. I was around the middle of then 10-player field, and I had a great tournament. After leading the tournament 7 rounds in, I finished in a 3-way tie for first, but unfortunately I went down in an armageddon playoff and didn’t get the title. That is a story for another time…

In 2017, I yet again didn’t play due to a schedule conflict, but I decided to participate this year. The tournament moved from Rockville, Maryland, (2016) to Manchester, New Hampshire, to San Jose, California. The tournament also decreased in size from 10 players to 8 players. This is the last year I’m eligible to play, and I hadn’t been on the West Coast in ages, so I gladly accepted the invitation.

The participants (sorted by July USCF rating) were:

Me (2527)
Rayan Taghizadeh (2410)
Josiah Stearman (2375)
Akira Nakada (2329)
Gabriel Sam (2328)
Aravind Kumar (2315)
Jason Wang (2289)
Max Li (2247)

I knew and had played East Coast players such as Aravind and Akira before. As for the Californians, I knew a couple but hadn’t played them—or to be more precise I hadn’t played chess with them. At the 2015 World Youth, Rayan, a few others, and I went bowling! The results are classified.

I was the big cat, and after tying for first place 2 years ago, my pre-tournament goal was simple—to finish first. Being the top seed wasn’t an easy position to be in, since the pressure was on me to win. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have competition either.

On Sunday, July 8, I finished the World Open, and on Wednesday, July 11, I flew out to California. The flight was uneventful (yay!), and I had a day to enjoy the Bay Area and hopefully somewhat adjust to Pacific Time. The opening ceremony and the drawing of lots were on Thursday afternoon, and the first round was an hour after that. I got seed number 4, meaning that my colors were white followed by black followed by white, etc. Coincidentally, the top four seeds got numbers 1-4, while the bottom four seeds got numbers 5-8.

The players, organizers, TDs, and guests!

My round 1 win against Jason Wang (2274 USCF, 2187 FIDE) was fairly smooth. The homework I did before the round worked out very well, and I got a near-winning position after 20 moves. Not bad… After my last two tournaments, an uneventful start was a welcome change.

The start of a successful day at the office! Photo by Bay Area Chess.

In round 2 I got black against Gabriel Sam (2328 USCF, 2138 FIDE). He steered the game towards drawish territory, but I did manage to get an advantage. Here’s where I missed my chance:

Sam 1

In the past few moves, I’d made territorial gains with my pawns and had pushed white’s pieces backwards. This, however, all came at the expense of weakening my king; more on that later.

As for concrete variations. 30… Bxf2 is the first move to calculate. It will most certainly be me with 31.Nxe5 Qc7 32.Qb5. Though the white knight is pinned, black can’t win it as 32… Bc5 runs into 33.Qd7+. Not impressed with the idea of being a pawn down without any gain, I looked elsewhere. 30… e4 31.Nd4 was possible, but I was uneasy at the idea of letting the white knight anchor itself on d4. 30… Qc7 31.Kg1 a6 is reasonable for black, but I went for something else: 30… Bc7?. White responded to the obvious threat of …e4+ with 31.g3 and I went 31… Bd6. I had, however, underestimated the move 32.Qb3!

Sam 2

I had wanted to have control over the position, and this is not a good development. Ng5 is a serious idea by white which could lead to dire consequences for black is he isn’t careful. He can also go Qd5 centralizing his queen. I saw nothing better than to go back with 32… Bc7, but I had no real advantage after that. The game ended in a draw.

What did I miss? In that 30… Bxf2 line, I was winning at the end, but I just didn’t look deep enough. After the practically forced 31.Nxe5 Qc7 32.Qxb5 Bc5 33.Qd7+ Qxd7 34.Nxd7, black has 34… Bd6+ 35.Kg1 Kf7

Sam 3

The white knight is trapped! The pawn endgames after both 36.b4 Ke6 37.Nc5+ Bxc5 38.bxc5 Kd5 and 36.c4 Ke6 37.c5 Kxd7 38.cxd6 Kxd6 are lost for white, as his king is just too far away. The exact details are far from obvious when looking from a distance, but I totally missed this idea. It was tough luck that I didn’t win, but trust me, there are much worse things that can happen to a chess player…

Round 3 was an important game for me and for the tournament standings. I was white against second seed Rayan Taghizadeh (2410 USCF, 2327 FIDE). The game was very interesting, and I really could write an entire article about it. The opening went well for me, and I managed to keep one of Rayan’s knights grounded on a5 with nowhere to go. He wisely went for counterplay, spicing the game up. I was clearly better, but it wasn’t obvious how much I actually had. We reached this position:

Rayan 1

White has a queen and two pawns for two rooks, and there is a pair of bishops on the board. At this point, the b-pawn is mainly for decoration, as it won’t be running up the board anytime soon. The main target is the f7-pawn and the black king in general. White’s bishop is going to assist the queen in doing this. But how? 35.Bf3 with the idea of Bd5? 35.Bg4 aiming at e6? Or 35.h4 going at the black king from a different direction? I spent most of my remaining six minutes on my next move, and it was well worth it, since I found a win.

35.Bf3 will be met with 35… Rcb6 36.Bd5 Bc8! 37.e6 is no good for course, and white doesn’t have anything convincing. Therefore I threw 35.Bf3 into the wastebasket. There weren’t too many concrete variations after 35.h4, and that could always be a backup. Then I crunched out the details of 35.Bg4! to the end and saw that it was winning. White intends to go e6 next, and that could fatally open up the black king. 35… Bc8 is no good, since after 36.Qd8+ Kg7 37.e6, black is all tied up and can’t stop anything. Rayan played the critical move 35… Rcb6 which I had been expecting. I replied with 36.e6 fxe6 37.Qd7!

Rayan 2

This was the key idea. The e6-pawn is going down which will more or less be mate. That is unless black goes 37… Bc8 which fails to a nice tactic: 38.Bxe6+! Rxe6 39.Qd8+ Kg7 40.Qc7+. Black is losing the b8-rook, and Rayan resigned here.

Everybody in action in round 3. Photo by Bay Area Chess.

That win felt great! The next morning, I was in an even bigger clash against Josiah Stearman (2411 USCF, 2285 FIDE). Josiah was leading the tournament with 3/3, and he was clearly my biggest threat in the tournament. Early on, it looked like the game would be a pretty dry ride until I got a pleasant surprise.

Josiah 1

A couple minor pieces have been traded off already, and neither side has any real claims to an advantage. Though I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t too disappointed with this development. If we drew, there was still a large chance that I’d outrun Josiah in the last three rounds, and besides, I shouldn’t be expecting anything special with black after only 13 moves… I though Josiah would play either 14.Qxe6 or 14.Qc2 with rough equality, but he decided to go 14.Qxb7? instead. That was a bad idea. 14… Rfb8 15.Qxc7 Rc8 16.Qb6 Rcb8 leads to a repetition, but I rightfully wanted more. After making sure there weren’t any problems, I went 14… c6! (14… c5! with a similar idea was also strong). I had a simple threat: 15… Rfb8 16.Qc7 Ne8, trapping the white queen. 15.Ba7 does stop Rfb8, but it is met with 15… c5! followed by 16… Qd7, where the white bishop is trapped. Josiah instead chose 15.d4 which is probably white’s best move. The game went 15… Rfb8 16.Qc7 Ne8 17.d5 cxd5 18.exd5 Nxd5 19.Qc6 f5!

Josiah 2

I had a lot of tempting alternatives in the past few moves, but what I did was strongest. Though material is equal for the moment, white is in big trouble. My threat is 20… Ne7 trapping the white queen (as if her majesty hadn’t gone through enough trauma). If white gets out of there with 20.Qc4, I’ll simply snag the b2-pawn with 20… Rxb2. Josiah tried 20.Ne1!?, but black is clearly much better if not winning here. I soon won the b2-pawn and went on to convert, even if the game did get a bit wild before the time control…

With 3.5/4, I was leading the tournament. Josiah had 3/4, Rayan had 2.5/4, and the rest of the field had 2/4 or less. This was fantastic! It got even better when I won my next game against Max Li (2267 USCF, 1788 FIDE). It was a tough fight where I didn’t have much but managed to win. Adding to the masterpiece, both Josiah and Rayan lost. That meant I was leading by 1.5 points going into the last day. Oh man. This was perfect…

Unfortunately, my round 6 game against Aravind Kumar (2309 USCF, 2153 FIDE) didn’t go according to plan. I got a dry but harmless position with black, until I slopped it up.

Aravind 1

This is a Carlsbad structure with all bishops off the board. Both sides’ plans are fairly textbook: white wants to create a minority attack with b4-b5, while black wants to play on the kingside. I should’ve just gone 17… f5!. 18.b4 worried me, but after 18… Nb6! eyeing the c4-square, black may even be better. Instead of doing that, I naively went 17… a5?! which was met with 18.Ndxe4! dxe4 19.Rd1

Aravind 2

White has a simple plan here: blast things open with d5. He will have the d-file and more active pieces. One thing that black has in his favor is that he will be able to go Ne5-d3 after d5, but I jeopardized that possibility by going 19… Nb6?. Instead, 19… f5! 20.Rfd2 Rfd8 21.d5 Ne5 is still acceptable for black. After 20.Rfd2 Rfd8 21.d5 f5 22.dxc6 bxc6 23.Ne2 I was in big trouble.

Aravind 3

White has the d-file, better pawn structure, and a safer king. There aren’t many volunteers who would want to be black here. Adding to my misery, I walked into 23… Nd5 24.Nd4 Qf6 25.Nxc6! Qxc6 26.Qe5 which cost me a pawn and the game.

That hurt. Josiah won his game, meaning that he was now half a point behind me going into the last round. In case of a tie, there would be a playoff, and I wanted to avoid one if possible. I played for a win in my round 7 game, where I was white against Akira Nakada (2308 USCF, 2154 FIDE).

Akira 1

I had been up to original shenanigans in the opening, and I reached this position. I wasn’t impressed with what I had here, especially because of the move 17… Nd5!, after which I didn’t see a better alternative than 18.Bxd5. Black is for sure completely fine after that one. Instead, Akira played what I was hoping he’d play: 17… Nc6?!. After double-checking the consequences for a few minutes, I played 18.Nxf7!?. If 18… Qxf7 19.Bxe6, white will a dangerous attack and large amounts of compensation. While my silicon friend evaluates the position after 19… Qf6 20.Rh3! as 0.00, I don’t think many people would envy being black here. Compared to this, the position after 17… Nd5 seems much nicer for black.

Akira had other ideas, and he quickly played 18… 0-0?. The white knight is trapped, and black is in great shape after the obvious 19.Bxe6 Rxf7 20.Bxf7+ Qxf7. There, however, was a hole in black’s idea: 19.Ng5!. After 19… hxg5 20.Bxe6+ Rf7 21.hxg5 white will have a rook and three pawns for two minor pieces, and black’s king is in serious danger of getting mated on the h-file. I went on to convert this position successfully, though I did have smoother ways to win…

All’s well that ends well! Josiah drew, meaning that I won the tournament by a full point with 5.5/7. While I didn’t gain much on rating, 5.5/7 is not a score to complain about! Considering the scare I had on the last day, I’m glad it ended this way.

Judith Sztaray,  yours truly, and Tom Langland.

A big thank you to Bay Area Chess for organizing and running a smooth event! Everything was as good as it gets.