Moving Cities, Moving Focus

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Homemade ramen!

So that’s it for the summer! After spending three months in Washington DC, I’ll be hauling boxes and moving back to Pittsburgh to complete my senior year at Pitt. While I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly ambitious student, I’m actually looking forward to the semester and graduating within a year. Not to mention (and no apologies or remorse here), I like living in Pittsburgh a lot more than Northern Virginia and DC, and I’m going to need that last dose of Pens before I graduate.

Beyond my course load, I’ll have a lot of activities on my agenda: writing articles here, getting the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers prepared for 2019, enhancing my chessTV stream, to name a few. Despite all of the distractions, I have yet to lose sight of my ultimate goal of making National Master, and thought this week would be a great chance to give you guys a check-in on my progress.

Last month, I shared some thoughts on balancing work and chess, and discussed how I’m setting myself a deadline to break 2200. Shortly after publishing the article, I received a lot of positive feedback from you all, more so than any other article I’ve written for Chess^Summit (that’s over 260!). It was incredible to hear how some of you overcame obstacles in your lives to reach various milestones in chess (ratings, committing to playing more often, reading chess literature), and your feedback helped me understand that as I transition to adulthood, I’m not alone in this process and I have a lot to fight for going forward.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been focused on improving my mental toughness to prepare for my next tournament in September. While I feel like I have a lot to work on to reach my best form, I’ve zeroed in on my calculation and endurance because I want to build good habits and routines before my fall semester begins.

Endurance and stamina at the chess board are directly related, and thus I’ve been focused on running a few times a week as the summer comes to a close. Building time in your schedule to exercise is tough, and though I previously managed to squeeze in a jog once a week, I haven’t pushed myself this much athletically since the build up to the 2016 US Junior Open… that’s a long time. Jorn already talked about the direct benefits exercising extensively in his article on Monday, so I’ll just say this:

I think what makes running a unique exercise for chess is that you get test your psychological limits and face them head on. I’m not going to pretend to be a marathon runner or anything here, but when you’re running, there’s almost always a moment where your brain says “that’s enough” or “it’s hot outside, I don’t want to do this” or “maybe tomorrow”, you get the idea. Health precautions aside, fighting your initial instincts to relax and stay indoors is the same kind of psychological opponent you face at the chessboard: you. We actually see this kind of ‘psychological laziness’ all the time, for example, when players stop pushing an advantage to offer a draw, or more commonly, players dismissing a line altogether because it is simply “too complicated”. Running alone won’t fix this problem, but it gives players a chance to isolate this psychological element from chess and really try to beat it head on.

51wzmocps5l-_sx359_bo1204203200_My work with calculation is a lot more concrete in terms of chess development. Per my coach’s recommendation, I’ve been working through Romain Edouard’s Chess Calculation Training book, and while I have yet to read enough of it to make a bonafide recommendation, it’s been a lot of fun using it so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas and patterns lie ahead.

Since we don’t do a lot of tactical work here on Chess^Summit, I thought it would be fun to try something new for today’s article. I’ll post a tactical puzzle and walk through me solving it in “real-time”. As you’re reading this, I’m looking at the position for the first time too. Then, after reaching a satisfactory answer, I’ll reveal the solution and discuss where I could improve from the calculation process. Imagine Jeremy Silman’s Amateur’s Mind (also a great read), but instead of talking to his students, he’s talking to himself – I guess that’s what I’m going for. Let’s begin!

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Rasmussen – Rydstrom, White to Move

Thinking: So off the bat, I really like White’s position. Visually, White has more space and there’s a lot more potential when it comes to piece play. All of White’s pieces look like they are in the best squares, so the logical place to start is forcing moves. I see two that I’ll start out with, and I’ll expand my list after that if I don’t find a satisfactory answer: 24. Nf6+ or 24. Bxf7+. I’ll work through them in this order.

24. Nf6+ forces 24…gxf6 otherwise the queen will be lost. Now that there’s a wide open king, it’s time to look for ways to continue the line. 25. Qh7+ and 25. Qg6+ are the only true forcing moves, and since checking on h7 is not going to work, I’m going to throw it out. 25. Qg6+ on the other hand, is interesting. If Black plays 25…Bg7 26. exf6 comes with mate on the next move since Black can’t defend the bishop or break the pin on f7. So 25..Kh8 is forced. 26. Bf7 threatens mate on g8 and holds the f8 bishop accountable for the h6 pawn to prevent mate, so 26…Bg7 seems forced. We could take the rook on e8, but then we’re down two bishops for a rook!

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Position in my line after 26…Bg7

But I have one other forcing option, 27. exf6, since it once again threatens mate on g7. Black cannot take the pawn since that allows 28. Qxh6#. So 27…Rg8, only move 28. fxg7+ Rxg7 29. Qxh6+ Rh7 30 Qf6+ Rg7 after which my intention was originally to play 31. Re3 (threatening a check on h3), but the bishop is hit on f7, so White needs to be accurate. 31…Qxf7 32. Rh3+ Kg8 33. Qxd8+ Qf8 34. Rh8!+ Kxh8 35. Qxf8+ and White is clearly winning:

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Position after 34. Rh8+, White is winning!

So this was pretty convincing. Black could have diverted from the line by taking on f7 with the queen, but that certainly doesn’t help his cause. Time to look at the other line.

24. Bxf7+. This is also pretty forcing, Black needs to take back to not lose material, so I’m going to analyze 24…Qxf7 before looking at other options like 24…Kxf7. After the Black queen takes, we see that ideas like 25. Ng5 don’t work, thanks to the pawn on h6. So it looks like we have a winner:

24. Nf6+ fxg6 25. Qg6+ Kh8 26. Bxf7 Bg7 27. exf6 Rg8 28. fxg7+ Rxg7 29. Qxh6+ Rh7 30. Qf6+ Rg7 31. Re3 Qxf7 32. Rh3+ Kg8 33. Qxd8+ Qf8 34. Rh8!+ Kxh8 35. Qxf8+

Reading the answer: The answer gives up to 27. exf6+-. For the sake of this article, I checked the engine, and it said I was basically right on, except it gave preference to 31. Rf3 …I’ll explain in a second why. This was a reasonably difficult puzzle because 26. Bxf7 isn’t an obvious move (as compared to Qxf6+ in that position – keep in mind I didn’t put the diagrams until after solving the puzzle!), and psychologically, I had to push myself once I realized my bishop on f7 was hanging after 31. Re3 by not giving up the line entirely.

Take away: On a whole, not too bad on my end. I think my biggest self-criticism here was I needed to find one more resource for Black instead of 31…Qxf7:

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Position after 31…c4

I should have considered this move 31…c4 because it’s the last way for Black to stop Rh3+ thanks to the pin on g2 after 32…Qxh3. Unsurprisingly White is still winning here – 32. Rg3 Qxf7 33. Qxd8+ and there’s a win after 33…Qg8 34. Qh4+ Qh7 35. Qf6

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Position after 35. Qf6 +-

When I saw this, I thought, “if only my f1 rook were on e1!” – and that’s where it all connected. Remember how I said the engine gave preference to 31. Rf3 instead of 31. Re3? This is why! Had I left my rook on e1 instead of rover-ing it via e3, I’d actually have that rook on e1 in this position. I could go back and analyze the same lines, with the difference being 31. Rf3. In this endgame, it really doesn’t matter so much, but this turned out to be a really cool example of comparing moves.

So I guess that’s two takeaways:

  1. Look for tricky ideas for your opponent beyond the most testing lines.
  2. If time permits, compare maneuvering options.

This seems pretty manageable, and it should be. All this process did was help me find where I was subconsciously cutting corners.

As the summer comes to a close, I’ll continue working through these tactics one-by-one to get mentally sharper for this fall’s tournaments. What are you all working on to improve your chess? Let me know in the comments below!

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Streaming with Chess.com

As some of you may know, I host a partnered chess.com stream, Challenger’s Corner (originally named the Steincamp Show), and my audience has since grown quickly within the chess.com community.

Since it’s been a few weeks since I last discussed my stream on Chess^Summit, so I figured this week would be a good opportunity catch you all up on my new show! In this article, I’ll talk a bit about some of the most common chess mistakes I’ve seen, as well as dive into some of the behind the scenes work that goes into running a partnered stream.

Knowing your Audience

For the most part, I had been dabbling with streaming since the conclusion of the PRO Chess League season, sticking to a once a week schedule during the spring semester, and not really investing much time into my channels. However, after doing a hand-and-brain stream with professional streamer MikeySlice, I quickly saw the potential community-building opportunity I had in my own channel and through Chess^Summit:

As I hope you all can tell, when it comes to chess, I really enjoy coaching and making educational materials available online (for free!) for aspiring players. Knowing that chess.com is a big supporter of the work we do here at Chess^Summit, I wanted to create a bridge between the two platforms to help create a more interactive experience for both chess.com players and Chess^Summit readers.

Shortly after my stream with Mikey, I started to revamp my channel making it more searchable and more importantly, visually appealing. You don’t have to be a tech expert to run a Youtube or Twitch channel, but knowing how to use apps like Adobe Photoshop, OBS, and understanding some basic SEO goes a long ways towards promoting your channel. It took a few hours and a couple coffee shop crawls to crank out my base design and re-tag all my videos, but I’m really proud of the end product I’ve put together:

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It’s become interesting for me to watch how important technical skills have become over the last five years in terms of promoting events for the chess community. If you have any interest in organizing online chess events, I’d strongly encourage you to start learning Photoshop now – it’s surprisingly easy, and after taking a 101 class on digital composition back in Pittsburgh, I’m basically self-taught. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun!

So that’s where I am – let’s talk some chess!

Karpov System Falls Short Again

If you’ve been following my chess.com blogs, you’ll know that the Karpov System offers Black a pretty simple set-up:

Last Monday night, I got to use a nice trap to win a piece out of the opening. As I mention in the clip, I’d actually had this position on the board (though somehow missed the tactic!!) in a tournament game years ago against a 1900+ rated player. People really miss this stuff! Since, I’ve used it as a opening trap in a fair number of games on chess.com.

This is a really simple tactic, but it shows how complacent your opponents can be in the opening – even in unfamiliar waters! Moral of the story: always ask what your opponent’s threats are, no matter what stage of the game it is in. Even though my opponent was 1300, I’m pretty sure if I gave him this position as White, he would be able to find the win. The game didn’t last much longer, and you can go through the rest here.

Make sure to remember this one for your own games if you decide to take up the English!

Punishing the Weak King!

I’m not sure why, but a lot of people have tried a particularly odd attack against me: moving the g-pawn in front of their king. While I enjoy getting free attacks against my opponents, it’s time to set a new rule: don’t play g4 if your king is on g1!

So I know what happens now – a bunch of you guys give me brilliant examples of exceptions, and try to prove me wrong. All I’m saying is, if Ben Finegold has a “never play f6” rule, I get to have a “please don’t play g4” rule! Let me try to convince you once, and I’ll get off my high horse:

How did the London System turn into this decisive position? I think the problems for White start in this position:

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White’s position is actually perfectly fine – perhaps not advantageous, but certainly enough for equality.

So why did he play 16. g4 here? If you look at White’s position, the obvious question is: Well this is nice, but what’s next? Because nothing immediately stood out, White probably thought with all of the pieces developed, it’s okay to take some risks. In my personal experience, I find it best to use these moments to identify what your opponent’s motives are rather than exposing yourself. For that reason, I’ll recommend 16. a3, with the simple idea of stopping Black’s thematic Carlsbad pawn structure ideas.

Endgames are Cool too!

I’ve noticed that a lot of my opponents offer me draws as soon as we simplify into endgames. The most memorable was probably this pure knight endgame finish:

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GMChessMaster1209 – Me, position after 40. gxf4

Funnily enough, I actually broke my own rule earlier in this game, in playing 16…g5!. However, this time the purpose was concrete, and was actually the engine’s best move! White offered me a draw in the above position, but I gave him one more test. 40…h5 41. h3? and surprisingly, White is now lost. Thanks to the simplification on the kingside, the game boils down to the superior knight after 41… hxg4 42. hxg4 Kg6 43. Kg2 Kg5 44. Kf3:

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GMChessMaster1209 – Me, position after 44. Kf3

Now if there were no knights on the board, Black would have to move the king away and lose the f4 pawn (and the game), so my job is to defer my move to White. I played 44…Nc4, because White cannot recapture without losing the pawn ending. Knowing that White is limited to moving the knight between b1 and d2, I was able to simply march my knight over to g4 and win.

Even though for a brief moment White had equality, we saw how easy it was for me to take over and win because there were a lot of factors in the position. The key to improving at endgames is simple – practice, practice, practice. Always play for two results and look for your opponent’s weaknesses. In the next example, I use Jonathan Hawkin’s method from Amateur to IM, planning in steps.

As you noticed, even with the pawns all on the kingside, I was able to make the most of my bishop by following these steps:

1) Create a Passed Pawn

2) Activate my King

3) Fix my Opponent’s Pawns on Dark Squares

4) Sacrifice my Bishop to Reach a Forced Win

Abstractly, this sounds difficult, but if you noticed in the video, breaking down this endgame into steps was surprisingly easy – the knight is a really clumsy piece anyways… Don’t be afraid to play out a position you can’t lose!

First Ever Daily Tournament!

As I mentioned before, my stream community on chess.com has grown, thanks in part to our official chess.com club! I’m hoping to integrate content I create here on Chess^Summit with my streams on chess.com, and as regular readers, you are all more than welcome to participate. With nearly 100 active members in just a couple weeks, weekly arenas are becoming a regular event, and now, my channel is introducing our first-ever daily chess tournament!

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Set to start on August 11th, this 3 days/move challenge will kick-off my channel’s off-stream activities. I’ll be playing alongside members of the Challenger’s Corner chess.com club, so if you want to play, make sure you join the club so you can register!

If you haven’t yet, follow me on Twitter (@isaackaito), as I’ll be tweeting some of my best tactics and moments throughout the tournament!

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Don’t have a chess.com account yet? No worries, you can create one here!

My Next stream: Sunday, August 5th at 8PM to 11PM EST

I got bumped from my usual Monday night spot for next week, so I’ll be on this Sunday night for an extra hour to play with all of you!  Make sure to join this weekend’s online extravaganza as the Challenger’s Corner Club puts on its longest arena challenge yet!

Follow me on Twitch to get notifications about when I go live, both on my own channel, and chessTV! 

Adapting and Adulting

For today’s Chess^Summit article, I want to talk about something that’s new for me, but perhaps for many of my readers, will be relatable on a somewhat personal level. Rather than talking about chess and analyzing positions today, I want to discuss an element of chess (but perhaps equally important) that doesn’t get talked about a lot – adulting.

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Playing a game at the Folklife Festival in the National Mall

For the first time in my [short] life, I’m working a day job (internship – let’s not get carried away) and living in a studio apartment in Washington, DC. While I don’t have to prepare for classes during the week, the first thing I realized is that unlike being a student, I have a lot less free time now… It’s the hour-plus commute to and from work, it’s the 30 minutes it takes to cook dinner every night, and don’t forget – the additional thirty minutes it takes to clean your kitchen afterwards. After a long day of work and then errands, there’s not really a lot of time left during the week.

And for those of us who aspire to play chess competitively and improve, that can be quite frustrating.

Personally, after what felt like a promising showing at the Chicago Open, I felt like my momentum came to a full stop a few weeks later in the Continental Class Championships here in Washington. With three draws and two losses, my rating dropped to 2099, and even though dipping below 2100 again may have as well been a rounding error, it still really stung. In my last nine games, I’ve scored 6 draws and 3 losses, no wins. Since, I have really struggled to find time to invest in my chess at the level I want to.

I have to be totally honest here – for me, the concept of “making time to study” is a little foreign. When I was in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have to make time, there was time – the hour gap between classes, for example. Furthermore, I also had the benefit that many of my friends also played competitively, and we would regularly train together. It wasn’t a conscious decision to train because we needed to be ready for the next tournament – this is just what we did for fun, and it happened to be beneficial.

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Night out at the Washington Nationals game!

As someone adjusting to professional life, putting aside time to study can be difficult. Your non-chess playing friends might ask you last minute to catch a drink. Maybe there’s an event happening in the city you want to attend. Or perhaps you need to call your parents tonight because it’s been too long since you last called them. Is there a world in which you can possibly do everything?

I can’t promise the best answers or even enough experience in adulting (don’t forget I’m relatively new at this), but here’s three tips I’ve learned so far this summer:

1) Adjust Your Goals – What’s Reasonable?

This is the toughest pill to swallow, but it’s important to start here. For those of you all who read my articles, you know my career goal has always been breaking 2200 and earning the National Master title. But right now, at least until the start of the fall semester, I’m not in a place where that’s realistic. My new short-term goal is to learn how to find pockets of time to study, while simultaneously keeping chess stress-free.

That being said, it’s also important to not push back your long-term goals too far, or else the instant gratification monkey takes over forever:

So give yourself reasonable deadlines. Since I will graduate (hopefully) in August 2019, my goal is to break 2200 before then, with the understanding that I will have to use my time wisely during the semester. Seeing as I broke 2100 for the first time in October of my freshman year, that gives me more than four years to figure things out (25 points a year, right?). If it doesn’t work out and I’m not particularly close, I plan on taking a short break from actively seeking the title (I’ll still play) and writing a chess book – something I would prefer to do as an NM, but who cares about sequential order?

2) Manage Time Better

A lack of time might be temporary, but managing it is something I need to learn now if I want to become a stronger player. While my move back to Pittsburgh is around the corner, many of my chess friends have now graduated or moved. So with only six planned rated games left this summer, it’s the perfect opportunity for a test-run of independent study before the semester starts.

One thing I’ve started doing is bringing a chess book to work (not openings), and during my thirty minute lunch break, I take 15 minutes to work through it (unfortunately without a board). Doing this means that when I come home, I can spend 15 minutes on tactics, and I’ve already put in 30 minutes for the day. A minimal thirty minutes a day during the work week means two and half hours invested before even making it to the weekend… that’s starting to sound doable!

3) Chess is Hard, But it is NOT Work

You shouldn’t do things that will make your experience with chess more stressful. If you have a full-time job, you don’t need that in your life. Of course, we all have goals we want to reach, so it’s important to break them down into small, manageable pieces.

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View from the Lincoln Memorial.

First, if you have a full-time job, you are not a junior. You’re going to have moments in your life where you can’t dedicate as much time to chess. Maybe you have a really demanding job, or it conflicts with another activity, or perhaps you have kids! That doesn’t mean your goals aren’t attainable, it just means you have to not force your goals to happen to avoid unnecessary stress.

For example, I mentioned earlier that I’m officially 2099. Well, at this weekend’s Potomac Open, you won’t find me in the Open section, not the U2300 section, but yeah – really, the U2100 section. Admittedly, not the most courageous thing I’ve ever done, but tournaments can be kind of expensive, and if you aren’t prepared to play in the Open section, then why blow your paycheck on registration fees and hotels if you’re not going to be happy with the way that you play! Just because you aren’t playing in the Open section doesn’t mean that you are not getting valuable experience.

I’m going into this weekend knowing it won’t be a chance for me to make a monumental step towards master, I just want a chance to engage with chess in a low-stakes environment and see what happens. Regardless of how I do, it’s still something fun and a distraction from work – I’ll learn my lessons and be ready for the next open section.

Closing Thoughts

Having a full-time job and being a competitive chess player isn’t always easy. For me, adjusting from the junior chess mindset is certainly going to be the most challenging hurdle. That being said, it can be done – you just have to know how to study chess smarter… but for most of you reading this, you probably already know this. This is what adulthood (or attempting to adult) looks like kids!

What techniques do you use to budget study time and work? What’s the hardest part about transitioning into adulthood? Leave a comment below! 

Momentum in Chess: How Emotions Can Win Games

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and maybe you can relate with me. In a lot of my recent tournaments, I’ve noticed that the quality of my chess is stronger after a win than a loss. Winning seems to create some unstoppable force, and losing sees it all come to a screeching halt. When I started to think about my own results, this seemed odd – often I’m playing in the open section, and usually without much of a chance to win the tournament, so why the gap in quality?

You may recall my recent article about the Chicago Open, where my third round opponent hanging his queen gave my tournament a much needed spark. I played arguably my best game of 2018 in the following round, and despite a close loss in the fifth round, I had the resolve to get a draw against a higher rated player before closing out the tournament. This spark helped me find untapped potential, and “momentum” to finish with a respectable result.

What is momentum, and what is its role in chess? Without a lot of common ground for chess psychology, we should probably start with some foundational basis. Within a game of chess, we as players experience trends. Trends, positive or negative, describe if the natural flow of the game favors us or our opponents. As much as chess is about the quality of moves being played over the board, how we react to certain positions emotionally is equally important. Understanding the flow helps us ask questions like: how did we react to a dubious move? and what happened when we missed a strong move for our opponent? The stronger the trend, the harder it is to break the current and fight for a stake in the game – even if the actual moves required are not so difficult to find.

To demonstrate this, I found an example in one of my own games where the negative trend was so strong that I failed to find a basic resource to equalize the game:

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 21. Rac1

Up to this point in the game, everything has gone swimmingly for White. My opponent has more space and better piece coordination, so it’s clear that he has won the opening battle. He continued with a strong exchange sacrifice after 21…Rab8 22. exd5 Bxd5 23. Nxd5 cxd5 24. Bxd5 Nb2 25. Bg2 Nxd1 26. Rxd1

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 26. Rxd1

White has given up the exchange for two central passers, and Black’s chances of surviving look rather bleak. I could have chosen a more stubborn defense with 26…Rbc8 and held my ground, but feeling like I needed to do something, I played 26…Rb4? -+ to which not only can I not sufficiently explain why I played this move. Play continued 28. d5 Qb5 29. c6 Rc4 30. Bf1? Rxc2 31. Bxb5

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 31. Bxb5

If I gave myself this position without exposing myself to the prior frustrations the game brought, I would almost instantly find the blockade, 31…Rd6!= to which White can never hope to make progress. After 32. Re1 g6, White realizes he doesn’t have enough dark square control to promote his pawns, and would have to settle for a draw. But frustrated, and more or less convinced I already lost, I capitulated with 31…Kf8?? and after 32. d6 Rc5 33. a4, I resigned as I can never stop White’s passed pawns.

Negative trends are strong because they constantly force the defender to constantly keep the position secure under extreme duress. If you have analyzed your own game with an engine and realized you missed a simple tactical/positional resource to get out of a worse position and asked “how did I miss that?“, there’s a good chance that it was influenced by some sort of negative trend. We are human after all.

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

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Wesley had quite the roller coaster finish in Leuven! photo: Lennart Ootes

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

By “locking down”, we cramp our creativity – the emphasis is more on not making a mistake than playing our best chess. While this is an effective strategy to stop the bleeding, I’ve noticed that in my own games that the actual game play can seem rigid and unenterprising. In going all out for a win, we lose a lot objectivity in our emotional approach to the game, as chess is deemed equal from the start. Both approaches have their own form of blindness, which can prove to be detrimental in the long run.

Unlike trends, I think momentum is harder to see with over-the-board moves, and is best explained as an emotional approach to each round. Finding a strong idea or tactic in a worse position shouldn’t be attributed to momentum or confidence, but a string of results can be better understood in this light. Let’s take a look at Wesley So’s performance in the recent leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Leuven:

Rapid Results: W   W   D   W  W  D  W  D  D

Finishing +5 against GCT competition is quite the feat – even in rapid! In this stretch, it was clear that Wesley’s preparation was working, and his games had a natural flow to them. I was really impressed with his fourth round win against Anish Giri – Wesley was in second gear, and had established a significant lead over the competition.

Sure, you could argue in some of these wins (like his 2nd round win against Mamedyarov) Wesley shouldn’t have won, but he pressed as much as he could and his opponents collapsed. Sometimes to win, you have to create your own luck.

Blitz Results: D   D   D   D   W   D   D   L   L   L   D   D   D   W   D   W   L   L

Wesley’s blitz results will probably force him to ask what changed between formats. Is Wesley’s rapid genuinely better than his blitz? or Was Wesley trying to play more solidly to secure his lead in the tournament? or Did fatigue become a problem late in the tournament? I can’t speak for Wesley, but just by looking at his results some form of momentum was lost in the transition to blitz.

Admittedly, I missed much of this leg of the Grand Chess Tour because of my own tournament this past weekend, but I did catch his loss against Nakamura, where nothing seemed to go right, and then on top of that, he blundered in a theoretically drawn endgame:

After losing his first game of the tournament to Mamedyarov a round before, I think Wesley’s focus was to draw and enter the next day with a three point lead. As a result, Wesley didn’t do much with White and let Nakamura get an active position, got outplayed for a little, and then after saving the game, blundered.

So we now have some general sense of how momentum works, but how do we influence it without having to wait for our opponents mistakes? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I couldn’t speak from personal success here. But I think it can be done – just take a look at Fabiano Caruana’s recent stretch of good results:

Candidates (1st place): Won two consecutive games after loss to Karjakin in round 12

US Championships (2nd place): Finished +5 despite early loss to Izoria with White

Norway Chess (1st place): Won tournament after 1st round loss to Magnus

Caruana’s ability to bounce back from losses is admirable and should be studied further as it shows great emotional discipline in critical moments. Again, since I don’t know Fabiano personally, I can’t speak for his approach to handling losses, but in preparation for this article I looked over a lot of my games after losses and thought of ways to curb their effects:

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    Comeback King and World Championship Challenger. photo: Maria Emelianova

    Losses happen. Though obvious, I feel like this is a good starting point. Don’t beat yourself up for being human. Instead it might be more constructive to figure out why you made that mistake immediately after the game finishes. This way you enter the next game with a concrete reason of why you lost rather than the self-deprecating “I suck at chess” line.

  2. Treat all games equally. Not easy to do since tournament situations can dictate what results we need. But if you’re winning most of your games and you need a result to win a prize, why play for a draw when what you are currently playing seems to be working? If you’re struggling, maybe it would help to change openings for a game. I played 1. e4 in my final game of the 2017 Reykjavik Open without knowing any theory, and admittedly I was much more excited to play because of this switch – and I won! Different things work for different people, but make it fun!
  3. Take away positives from your games. I think with engines, it’s really easy to see where we went wrong more than right. Give yourself credit for the things you do right too! Maybe if you see that you are bringing good ideas to games, it will be easier to put aside a loss and mentally prepare for the next round.

It’s important to understand that I am not expert in chess psychology (or psychology alone for that matter), and that I’m struggling with this as much as you are as I write this – this stuff his hard. However, I think it is important to discuss how we approach games, especially if we want to hold ourselves accountable to a certain standard of play. If sports psychology is important for the development of athletes, why don’t we talk about it as much for chess? Let’s not forget that a lot of the beauty of chess is in its humanity, not what the engine thinks.

I’m curious to hear what you all think. Do trends play a factor in your results? Are your results what dictate your approach to a game? Any good anecdotes? Let me know in the comments!

Language is Everything: Lessons from the Chicago Open

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Attempt #2 at Deep Dish Pizza. Admittedly this one at Lou Malnati’s was a lot better than my first attempt!

If I’m being completely honest with myself, I was pretty demoralized after my performance at the Marshall Chess Club in the build up to the Chicago Open. My opening repertoire was incomplete, and it was pretty clear that my progression had hit a roadblock. With my showing at the Haymarket Memorial last month also not living up to my expectations, I had already made the decision to switch away from the Open to the U2300 section – probably correctly.

Even with the move down, I still felt poorly prepared. Moving from Pittsburgh to my hometown in Richmond took a fair bit of time, and I felt like I still had not addressed key problems from my games in New York. Chess-wise, the start of this summer has been quite frustrating for me. After starting 2018 with strong showings in both the Eastern Open and the Cardinal Open, my studies were forced to come to halt due to my spring semester course-load. Hoping to return with the same momentum I had to start the year, I quickly realized the toll of taking a couple months off of tournament chess had on my calculation and ability to assess positions. Needing to get back into fighting form, much of my preparation for the Chicago Open felt like review, but something was different – training was much more taxing and it took more time. I felt like a shadow of my former self. This Isaac was not going to make National Master any time soon.

Despite a full day onsite to relax and prepare for my first round, my Chicago Open debut brought out all of my insecurities in a quick loss: poor opening play, missed tactics, bad time management. A second round draw only compounded my distress when I mishandled a slight advantage as White against a lower-rated opponent and my poor time management forced me to bail out with a draw before the second time control. Paired on one of the bottom boards with Black, I desperately needed a win to close the second day and give myself some confidence. While my opening could have yielded me an advantage, I incorrectly sacrificed a pawn for no compensation.

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Zheng–Steincamp, position after 19…Nb4

Here I did the only thing that I knew could work – play both quickly and solidly, and put pressure on my opponent’s clock – one slip-up and I’m back in the game. My opponent started with 20. Qg4 Bf8 21. Bd4?!:

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Zheng–Steincamp, position after 21. Bd4?!

Back in 2016 when I wrote about winning my first adult tournament ever, a key theme I noticed was how my opponents then weighed checking my king as a better candidate move, simply because it was a check. Upon deeper analysis, I traced back White’s future problems to this move, where my only explanation for 21. Bd4 is that he prioritized this because it “checked” my queen. In just a few moves, my opponent collapsed under time trouble and I somehow emerged with a point.

An undeserved win for sure, but I had clawed my way back to an even score. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins as I left the tournament hall. Notching my first win was a relief, but with four rounds left in the tournament, I knew I needed to be better. I went to sleep telling myself that I needed to play chess that I could be proud of – I had prepared a month for this, I knew I could be better.

Change of Tone, Change of Play

Forcing myself to think more positively was an important first step towards playing better chess. My next round proved to be an incredibly difficult psychological test. 

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Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 15…f5

With my opponent’s kingside pawns barreling down the board, I needed to make a decision to change the course of the game. With the previous night’s game still fresh in my memory, I was slow to play 16. Bf3!, sacrificing a pawn for the initiative and the advantage. After 16…Bxf3 17. Rfc1 Ba6 18. Rab1!, Black realized that my idea of b2-b4 is quite strong, and my bishops on f3 and g3 are poised to carve Black’s queenside:

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Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 18. Rab1!

This was a good pawn sacrifice! My opponent put up a lot of resistance, but I gained my material back and got a strong endgame advantage to notch another win. To put it mildly, after three uninspired games of chess, I may have put together one of my best performances of the year!

Now I was really feeling the momentum swing in my favor. With a plus score late into the tournament, I played a Chicago native and promptly got chaos on board:

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Kaulule–Steincamp, position after 29. Rg1!

Here in time trouble I panicked and played 29…Ne2?, which while not losing on its own, puts Black on a very narrow course to get back into the game. Needless to say, I faltered and lost shortly after. What I really liked about this game however was how rich this position is. Sure – the rest of the game is also quite interesting (click here) – but try assessing this position. Black might have some “obvious” candidate moves, but deciding who is better is another story. It took my roommate IM Alex Katz and I about three hours to come to a conclusion after the game (without an engine). If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend setting this position on the board and try analyzing it without an engine. Remember, this isn’t a tactic – just try and evaluate the position.

Honestly I was more proud of the way I played and lost this game than how I played in the first three rounds combined. If I have to lose games, I want to lose them like this.

Next morning I had White against another 2200+ rated opponent, and I wanted to keep the momentum going. Out of an Exchange Slav, I somehow managed this darling position:

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Steincamp–Karp, position after 12…Rfc8

White has a slight advantage here, despite Black having the pair of bishops. This game really forced me to ask a lot of the questions pushed in Aagard’s books: What’s my opponent’s plan? What’s my worst placed piece? What are the weaknesses in the position? I don’t want to claim that my idea here is the best possible plan for White, but here I played 13. Nd2, with the idea of playing Bd3-f1-g2 in the future to put more pressure on d5. It took a while, but I finally achieved my set-up since Black has no real active options:

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Steincamp–Karp, position after 16. Bg2

I have to credit my opponent – despite the nagging pressure for the duration of the game, he proved to be quite resilient, and at the right moment, he found a simplification that forced equality and the game was drawn after I set up an amusing fortress in an opposite colored bishop endgame.

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With a solid tournament showing, I was able to relax. My first In-n-Out in Las Vegas!

Exhausted from my games and looking a little ahead to my west coast vacation, I decided to take a quick draw in the seventh round to finish on an even score. While I wish I could have my first three games back, I’m really proud of the effort I put into the second half of the tournament – especially considering how demoralized I was going into the event. Yes, I’l have my areas to work on, but watching how the stark effect of a positive mindset change my play, I should be more confident going forward into the summer. I think that this observation can be really instructive for players of all strengths.

That’s not to say that hard work is replaceable with a positive attitude, but if you work hard, own it! During a tournament, don’t get too caught up with your results at a micro-level. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you obsess about every mistake you make, that additional stress could make things even worse. Hard work does not always immediately translate into rating or winning, but it will make you a stronger player.

An old coach of mine asked me once “Do you believe the rating system works?”. If you don’t, then don’t have anything worry about! If you do believe it works, then you should also believe that in the long-run it will reward the right things. So work hard, do the right things, and be proud of the work you do, regardless of result!

Opening Lessons from NYC

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Enjoying Ramen in Pittsburgh before moving back to Richmond

Now a couple weeks removed from my tournament at the Marshall Chess Club, I’ve had some time to think about my performance and prepare for the Chicago Open. Admittedly, NYC didn’t go as planned. Playing more solid openings in a rapid tournament, while good review, kept my hands tied against talented youngsters, which forced me to concede some draws I would have preferred to avoid. All said and done, I finished 4.5/8 over the weekend.

I think what these tournaments did show me was that when I play an opening, it is much more important to understand the concepts than remember the moves. Now I’m sure many of you know this (as do I), but actually applying that can be difficult. Let’s face it  – you need to know openings for both sides, and inevitably when there’s a sharp line, it feels like you need to remember the move order to not fall for some tactical traps.

In some of my games, it felt like I was losing time between picking a move I felt like I had remembered versus a concept which I knew. In a G/45 game, that’s wasted time! As I’ve been reviewing my openings this week, I’ve found ways to improve by eliminating rote memory and looking for concepts by challenging my own openings with “human moves”.   Given how close we are to the Chicago Open, I don’t want to give away any of my opening secrets, so I decided to use this method but focused on a game I played against a ~1650 rated player in the Dutch:

As you can see, my opening moves are hardly impressive. I simply thought of what set-ups would be the most annoying for Black and took away his only ideas. And in the game Beilin beat me from last night’s stream, you could see how quickly I fell apart from not knowing the best response.

When learning a new opening, you really need to understand the key concepts. If you don’t remember the exact move you need to play in a given position, you can work backwards with: what’s your goal? what’s the ideal set-up?

If you’re just looking at the computer for the best move when you’re planning out your openings, you are depriving yourself of that exposure you really need to play sound opening chess.

As I mentioned in the video, I’ve decided to play in the U2300 section instead of the Open section. Even with a month to prepare since the end of the semester, I was asking a lot of myself to be on my best form going into the Chicago Open. I’m hoping that playing in the U2300 will help me continue to develop as a player and better prepare me for future opens later this summer.

Missed Moments: Chicago Edition

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Beilin and I trying our first deep dish… now that was a lot of pizza!

…and just like that, my first tournament of the summer is in the books. Having gained a few points with an even score (+1 =2 -1), I guess it’s fair to say my debut in Chicago turned out respectably. I scored a half-point against a 2400+ rated opponent, and on paper, I was reasonably solid throughout the event. Of course, as with all “big returns” to chess, there were a few things in my play that require improvement.

Now that I’ve gone over my games a few times, I’ve pinpointed a few areas I really want to work on, based on my performance. In today’s post, I wanted to discuss candidate moves and expanding your search. While I don’t think this is my biggest weakness as a chess player right now, there were three different moments this weekend where looking for candidate moves could have helped my play.

Follow along and try to see if you can find the flaws in my calculation!

Looking for All of your Opponent’s Resources

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Zhao–Steincamp, position after 72. Nxc7

To my opponent’s credit, he had put up a lot of resistance to reach this point, however Black is now winning. After much calculation I pushed 72…h2, believing I had found the winning idea. I had already seen this idea a few moves before, and confirmed that 73. Nd5+ Kd4! -+ just wins for Black, thanks to the threat of queening. My main point was that if 73. Kxh2 Kf2 White can’t be in time to stop the pawn from promoting because …g4-g3 comes with check. I had also calculated 73. Kg2 h1Q+ 74. Kxh1 Kf2 with the same concept.

My calculation had stopped after 75. Nd5 g3, and without a way to stop me from checking the White king on h1, I just assumed that the position was lost. But I missed an incredibly important detail in 76. Nf4!!:

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Zhao–Steincamp, position after 76. Nf4!!

And this would force a draw, thanks to the idea of stalemate! Without a way to take the knight, White is now in time to stop both of the pawns from promoting. Luckily, my opponent missed this idea and basically resigned with 73. Kxg4 h1Q, playing on until mate.

For those of you trying to figure out the correct plan for Black, 72…Ke3 is the simplest. I’ll now push the e-pawn, and White’s king cannot leave because of the pawn on h3. Even if White can sacrifice his knight for the e-pawn, its not enough since Black still has winning material.

This knight sacrifice on f4 was a pretty hard idea to spot, especially a few moves in advance. While my opponent could have definitely put up more resistance, I was busy asking myself the wrong questions: what am I trying to achieve? How do I queen my pawns?

By not thinking about what my opponent is trying to achieve (or rather, what he can achieve), I ruled out 76. Nf4 simply because my pawn on e4 was taking away that square. This is actually a common calculation problem – missing moves because your pieces are already protecting them… look out!

Redefining a Forcing Move

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 16…Ne7

Even though I drew a much higher rated opponent in the second round, I could have done much more with a little more accuracy. In this position, I am completely winning. The king on f8 is extremely weak, and it is only a matter of time before Black’s position falls apart. Here I opted for 17. Qh5, which is strong, but gives Black some time to regroup.

Now I’m sure you might be wondering: hey Isaac, what was wrong with 17. exf4 – isn’t that more immediate? During the game, I wasn’t sure if I liked 17…g4 18. Nf2 Bf5I knew I was better, but now my f-pawn is in the way of my attack, and f5 is an annoying outpost. So I decided to play the text move instead.

I’m sure at some point you’ve heard the mantra “checks, captures, and threats” at some point in your chess career. While its great for novice players, stronger players need a weaker definition of forcing moves: checks. In this case, both my opponent and I had missed 17. exf4 g4 18. f5!! +-, and now White is completely winning:

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 18. f5!!

Now Black does not have time to take the knight! The h6 pawn is suddenly hit by the c1 bishop, and I’ve cleared the f4 square for my h3 knight. Meanwhile Black is completely underdeveloped and cannot protect his king from danger. Again an easy move to miss, but nonetheless, a great showcase of why breaking basic chess rules can sometimes be beneficial.

Looking Forward One Move Deeper

This one can be difficult, because how do you know when to stop calculating and just make a move? My game against Velikanov gave me one last chance to prove my advantage:

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 17…Kg7

After analyzing 18. exf4 for an extended period of time, I opted for 18. e4, thinking I still had some edge and could extend the game, when in reality, the position already is equal for Black. So what was it about 18. exf4 that wasn’t compelling enough? In the game, I saw the following line (diagram posted below): 18. exf4 Qe8 19. Qxe8 Rxe8 20. fxg5 Bxh3 21. gxh6+ Kg6 22. gxh3 Nxe5

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Steincamp–Velikanov, position after 22…Nxe5

I’m up two pawns, but half of my pawns are h-pawns! This was a little concerning for me, but then I started to see ideas like …Re8-e2, …Ra8-e8 and thought that with Black’s activity I could actually be in a little trouble. I figured I was maybe slightly better, but not enough to have a serious edge.

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Overlooking UIC, the venue for the Haymarket Memorial

In our post-mortem, I pretty quickly found the idea 23. Rb1! which is enough to preserve the advantage. By hitting the b7 pawn, Black needs to pay attention to the queenside, giving me time to rook lift: Rb1-b2-g2. And now it is the Black king that is under immediate fire! The power of looking one move deeper can really do a lot to enhance your position!

Admittedly, these were all relatively tough finds, but moments like these are what I pay attention to after each tournament so I know where I can improve. With each of these examples, there was a key theme: stalemate, weak king, development. Building an intuition to weigh these ideas relative to material or pawn structures, can go a long ways towards looking deeper and making better decisions.

My next events are two G/50 tournaments this weekend at the Marshall Chess Club, which will be my last chances to play before the Chicago Open later this month. While I feel a lot better about getting my first tournament out of the way, I know that I’ll need to train harder to be better prepared for the Open section. I guess I’ll have a better idea of where I stand this time next week!