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!

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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!

School’s Out: All Brains on Deck!

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Out on a much-needed coffee break before finals…

With my finals week over, an incredibly stressful semester has come to an end. In the course of four months, I changed majors twice, which meant taking a rigorous schedule to compensate. Ultimately, I had to leave chess behind to do well academically, as this term’s course load pushed me to become disciplined in my studies.

 

But that was yesterday! Even with the dreary Pittsburgh weather, I can’t help but feel a bit relieved, as for the next month, I get to be a full-time chess player! I’ve got four tournaments planned for May, so I’m looking forward to some over-the-board action. Here’s my schedule:

May 5-6: 2nd Haymarket Memorial (Chicago, IL)

After Beilin’s visit last March to the Chicago Chess Center, I decided I’d open my summer campaign here with a weekend tournament. I’ve actually never been to Illinois before, so that’s another state I can check off my list!

May 12: Marshall Chess Club G/50 Open (New York, NY)

I was hesitant to plan a trip to New York for two “rapid” tournaments, but a combination of wanting to play more games before the Chicago Open and frequent flyer miles convinced me otherwise. Besides, I won my first-ever tournament (I should clarify – non-scholastic) at the Marshall Chess Club!

May 13: Marshall Chess Club G/50 Open (New York, NY)

Playing in another tournament in back-to-back days is going to be exhausting. To prepare for this (and later the Chicago Open), I’ll need to work on my endurance and start running frequently. When I was preparing for Europe, I found the healthier I was, the better I performed.

May 24-28: Chicago Open (Wheeling, IL)

This one needs no introduction. I’ve signed up for the open section, which promises to offer a tough schedule of players. I’m hoping that by using the entirety of May to prepare, I can bring my best form to one of the toughest open tournaments in the country.

I’ve got ten days to prepare for my first tournament since last January, and I’m going to have to train intensively to play my best chess. While I’m going to have to push myself, I do think the semester has made me more mentally prepared to play tournament chess. Right now, I’m not too worried about breaking National Master, I just want to play good games by training right and focusing on the right things – long term, the title and the rating will both come as an affirmation if I’ve succeeded.

Based on some of my past results, I’m hoping it stays that way.

Bringing the Brain Back

One thing I’m curious about is what will my chess look like now that I no longer have the distraction of school. I’ve experimented a little – played a Pittsburgh Chess League match with an opening I had never used before, taking on new opponents on my Twitch Channel, managed the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, but more recently I entered a correspondence chess tournament on chess.com.

Typically I’ve been terrible in online correspondence chess, as being addicted to my phone means needing to terminate all notifications!! As you can imagine, this means that I usually blunder once every 15 moves because I’m multi-tasking, but during exam week, it made for a nice five minute study break. Nothing serious – just something to keep my mind off the Keynesian IS/LM model for a bit. Anyways, I had a nice win in an Italian Opening as Black that I thought would be worth sharing.

Tartan_Thistle vs NapoleonBonaparteIV (me), Chess.com Tournament

The opening was predetermined, as the tournament set all games to the position 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4

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position after 3. Bc4

I’ve had a lot of interesting games as Black, most memorably a game I won in the 2016 Pan American Championships for Pitt. One aspect I like about the Italian Opening is that it’s extremely rich with ideas, yet its fairly easy to learn at a basic level. To avoid the Three Knights theory, I opted for 3…Bc5 and “normal Italian play” ensued, 4. c3 Nf6 5. d3 h6 6. 0-0 0-0 7. h3 d6 8. Re1

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position after 8. Re1

This was my first real think of the game. One fairly common idea for Black is to play ….Nc6-e7-g6, but if I played 8…Ne7 9. d4! more or less punishes my tepid play after 9…exd4 10. cxd4. I don’t really know where my bishop on c8 should go yet, so I played the least committal useful move 8…a5, which takes away a potential plan of b2-b4, while also creating a square on a7 should my bishop need to retreat. Now, should White try 9. d4 I can play 9… Bb6, and the point is that my knight (on c6 and not e7) supports the e5 pawn, so I don’t have to break the tension on d4.

White took on a much more restrained approach, and so the next few moves were somewhat simple 9. Nbd2 Bb6 10. Nf1 Ne7:

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position after 9…Ne7

The difference in this position is that with my bishop on b6, 10. d4 is not as forcing so I can play 10…Ng6, having accomplished my relocation. Why is it that Black wants to put the knight  on g6?

This knight helps support the center, but also hints at a …Ng6-f4 jump in the future. Additionally, by moving the knight away from c6, I can now match White’s pawn structure with …c7-c6, with the ability of either playing for …d6-d5 or playing …Bb6-c7 to thrust forward my b7 pawn.

White’s been following the basic plans for White too, but can he keep it up? 11. Ng3 Ng6 12. Be3 c6 13. Qd2?!

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position after 13. Qd2?!

This didn’t feel right. I thought after 13. d4! White maintains a typical Italian Opening edge. Had White gone down this route, I think Black will need to find a long term square for the c8 bishop, and that’s not easy considering its presently safeguarding the f5 square. I figured White’s plan was to sacrifice on h6, so I just played 13…Kh7 to sidestep the threat and wait. I figured I can choose to play …d6-d5 later, so this didn’t seem like much of a concession on my end.

As it turns out, White actually had 14. d4! here, which I completely missed because it left e4 unprotected. Luckily for me, my opponent chose the move I had anticipated, 14. Nf5 but then erred – 14…Bxe3 15. fxe3? d5! and I won easily after that… even with a few careless moves.

What I liked about this game is that it really shows you why it’s important to know how to open a game of chess. In many openings, having insight into what your plan for development is, and why its effective is a lot more beneficial than purely memorizing moves. This is how I handle a lot of docile openings without needing to know complicated theory – take this game I played against the Glek in Germany last year.

As I gear up for my tournaments this month, I’m going to be looking through a lot of my opening preparation. If I tried to memorize it all, I would drive myself crazy! So instead, look for key pawn structures, how your pieces work together, and key attacking ideas – these are the very elements the computer will never tell you! What you’ll find is that you will learn more from asking yourself questions than answering them!

The US Championships Sweepstakes!

Join Chess^Summit and compete in our US Championships Sweepstakes with chess.com!

Who will win this year’s US Championships and US Women’s Championships in St Louis? This year boasts one of the strongest editions of the tournament in both fields, so we’re excited to bring you another edition of our favorite game with five 3 month diamond memberships up for grabs!

We’ve put together a Fantasy Challenge with chess.com for the US Championships, and you can win a chess.com Diamond Membership if you can choose your players wisely. Enter Chess^Summit’s Sweepstakes now!

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Here are the rules:

Speed Round (120 possible points): 

12 questions, 10 points a piece! Make your pick in this section, but don’t let it bust your entry! In this section, we ask you questions about players in both Championships. Will there be a playoff? How will the youngsters do? Will Irina beat Anna in their head-to-head match?

This is all fun and games, but this is only a prelude to…

You Pick’em – Predict the Championships!: You might be familiar with the rules from the Candidates, but we’ve added a twist! Not only will you need to rank the players in both the US Championships and US Women’s Championships, the scores of six different players will not count towards your final point total.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 00.57.53In this section, you’ll rank the players based on how you think they will finish in this year’s edition of the US Chess Championships and US Women’s Championships! But be careful – here’s the twist: the higher you rank a player, the more they will count towards your final score. Depending on your ranking, each player will have a different boost ranging from 0 to 9, and that boost multiplied by each player’s score will be added to your point total!

For example, if we picked Wesley to win the Championships, his final score is multiplied by 9. So if he scores 7/12, he would score 63 points (7×9) for our submission. Keep in mind, you’re only allowed to select a total of 9 players in each field, so choose them wisely! The total of all of our player contributions in each of the championships would be our score for this section!

In this sweepstakes, every game matters, so make sure to follow the US Chess Championships and round reports from chess.com!

Enter the Candidate Sweepstakes now!

Want to know where you stand? Follow the Live Results here.

Only one submission per account, and submissions are due at 1:59 PM EST on April 18th. Good luck!

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Studying Chess: Over the Board or Over the Internet?

I was trying to decide which games to analyze for this post when I got a great question from a member of our Chess^Summit audience about how to allocate study time given the availability of study materials online. The mother of a young, up-and-coming chess player sent me the following:

“In your experience, did online play help improve you OTB? If you only have maximum two hours a day to study chess, should you play two slow games online or do tactics and positional study? I have one coach who wants [my daughter] to play three games online every day and one coach that says don’t. So I am very confused.”
This question comes after her daughter broke 1900 on tactics trainer and has begun growing skeptical of her growth while playing games online as compared to over the board play. With different coaches now giving her various recommendations, its easy as a parent to get lost in the weeds of chess improvement.
Again, great question, but first congrats on your daughter breaking 1900 on Tactics Trainer! If its any indicator, I was stuck at 1700 through much of middle school, so let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope this is a sign of great things to come!
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I guess it wasn’t that long ago when I too was asking the same questions…
I should probably preface this article by saying that my personal study methods should not be applied universally. However, in writing this, I do hope to provide a roadmap for how players (but more specifically parents) can best find the balance that works for them by explaining how I approach my studies. And to the mother who sent me this question – don’t worry – I’ll include my specific personal recommendations for your daughter at the end of this piece. I think you’ll be surprised what I say there!
My goal with this article is to help explain to non-chess playing parents how I study and why I make those decisions. The question I received is a good one because even though it’s narrow, it opens up a discussion as to when we should study with a board or with a computer. I think to do this effectively, I should take a step back and explain why I use both the board and my computer, and then discuss why it’s important to use both. Once I’ve established that framework, I’ll proceed by answering the questions.

Studying Over the Board

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Working through a Troitsky study in Schenley Plaza

Practice the way you play. My parents didn’t know much about formal chess training when I was younger, but they stuck with this mantra for much of my adolescence. By studying at the board and using a clock, it becomes easy to simulate the environment of tournament chess.

For me, there are two main reasons why I like studying on a board. First, by not studying on my computer, I’ve eliminated the constant distraction: email, Facebook messages, Twitter notifications, sports scores. For the next two hours, I don’t need to worry about the outside world. Living in a moderately sized apartment with two roommates, using a board also means forcing myself to get out of the house and study. Whether its a park, or a coffee shop, or a classroom at Pitt, putting myself in unfamiliar settings to study has its distinct advantages.
For example, I have a desk in my room where I’ll often eat snacks, read the news, catch up on emails, and play bullet chess – not exactly the most productive. This semester, I’ve noticed that when I try to do homework or study chess at this desk, and within 30 minutes I’ll find myself falling into my “normal” desk habits. The brain likes to make these kinds of associations with activities and locations. I’m not a psychology major or anything, but I remember my freshman year psychology professor discussing a study that concluded that sleep insomnia patients should avoid stressful activities in their bed in order to sleep better.
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Studying Aagard and watching the Russian Championships

I’m not sure what scientific studies have been conducted relating productivity and associations we’ve made with various locations, but I think you’re starting to get my point. This is why I enjoy playing casual games at chess clubs, in-person lessons, and most importantly, over the board study.

Secondly, I think there are certain chess skills that need to be developed away from the computer, the most important of which is evaluation. When I’m on chess.com, or using Stockfish, I can turn my brain off with the click of the button. Suddenly because I’m choosing a move that has a +0.21 advantage compared to a +0.15 one, I feel like a genius, yet am blind to the most critical details of the position.
For some of our higher rated readers, let’s imagine we went through Aagard’s Positional Play book on a computer… You would be cheating yourself of one of learning from one of the most instructive positional books for 2000+ rated players! Setting up these positions on the board removes the temptation of knowing all together. Rather than asking about a particular line, we force ourselves to come to our own conclusions, no matter how long it takes. At least if we move pieces on our board, we still need to actually try and make good moves and understand why!
Now you’re probably thinking: hey, only use the engine after I have a solution to each problem! One thing I’ve learned while both training with others and on my own is that our brains loathe effort. I recently read an article where GM Alex Colovic wrote:

“The brain doesn’t want to work, it’s lazy. Forcing it to work is extremely uncomfortable. It tires quickly, having grown out of the habit to calculate on a daily basis.”

And I wholeheartedly agree. When solving tactics, endgame studies, or strategic exercises, its easy to find a move/idea you really like and tell yourself it’s right. You’ll look at a few candidate moves, but you won’t really challenge your idea because you think what you have is sufficient. When you check it with an engine, you got it right – someone gets a gold star!
But in doing this, you’ve really only tested your intuition at a surface level. Great, but in a tournament game, is your thought process going to be the same? Of course not, this is how blunders happen! You know this, so you start calculating, but you haven’t calculated with this kind of intensity that often at home. You’ll take longer, maybe play a few good moves, but ultimately get in time trouble and find a way to blunder later on because of it. Practice the way you play.
Things like deep calculation, endgame studies, positional exercises – these all take time and need to happen without a computer to be fully understood. Don’t worry about cramming a certain number of exercises into a certain time period. Speed comes if you build the muscle, so just focus on accuracy.

Studying on my Computer

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Working through tactics at The Bagel Factory on Carnegie Mellon’s campus

Let’s not get too caught up in the romanticism of studying chess over-the-board. Sure, being able to physically move the pieces and go through the motions of being in a tournament are beneficial, but sometimes its just inconvenient.

If you’re studying openings, its becoming impossible to analyze a position without the assistance of an engine. Nearly everyone who actively studies chess has a “grandmaster repertoire” these days (I find this debatable, but this seems to be the trend), so you absolutely have to know the best moves in your repertoire. With a computer, I can search all of the games played in a position with one click, which I can’t exactly do with a book. As you can imagine, this is extremely helpful!

Beyond all of this, there are tons of instructional mediums online now with deep analysis available: online videos, broadcasts, tactics trainers. I remember after taking an extensive break from chess in middle school, I was overwhelmed by the amount of new online material when I returned… and that was in 2011.

So from a research perspective, I think a computer is mandatory. It’s hard for me to quantify how much time someone should study on the computer based on skill level due to my own limitations as a 2100 rated chess player, but I imagine if we were to construct a representative function, it would be hyperbolic. While a novice player doesn’t need a computer to learn the Four Knights opening, a 1900 rated player would benefit from one to learn how to play against the Marshall Gambit.

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Can you use a board on a bus?

As the mother mentioned in her question, the computer also offers the potential to play games online. Being from Richmond, Virginia, online games were at one point of extreme importance to me. For much of the time since I’ve crossed 1800, I’ve been one of the roughly five strongest players from my hometown, which when discussing opportunities for growth over the board is really bad. Conversely, despite now being over 2100 and in Pittsburgh, I’m not even sure if I’m in the top 15 of Pittsburghers – more opportunities for high quality games, and less of a need to find games online.

I know quite a few people who love playing games online, but there are a couple elements of it that I’m skeptical of. First, I have less patience than in a real game. I can’t get up and look at other games like I might in a tournament, so I have to spend extra energy staying focused and not checking my emails. Because of this, I start wanting to play faster games, and sooner or later, I’m trying to bring my bullet rating back over 2200…

Ignoring all the emails and texts I’ll get during a game, I can’t take my opponent super seriously. Why? I can’t see them – I don’t get the same cues I might get in a real game. Are they playing the game with the same intensity? To further this point, I also feel like players behave differently online than they do in tournament games. Maybe they won’t resign after making an obscene blunder, or maybe you’ll feel more willing to take greater risks without the needed calculation. Lastly, you never have time for the most important parts of the game. And isn’t the endgame the most complex anyways?

So I’ve decided that my online games shouldn’t exceed 15 minutes a side, with the sole purpose of reviewing or trying out openings. Even when I try this, I hardly count it as studying, because I feel the effort I bring to an online game is hardly my best. Just compare my online ratings to my USCF rating, and you’ll recognize one is significantly lower.

Building a Balance

Okay, that was a pretty hefty summary on my thoughts on using a board or computer. But then there’s actual practice. As a college student, I feel like during the semester, my studies are limited to my desktop, but during breaks I have more time to use a board and analyze. Not optimal, but my study habits for now will have to do.

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Flashback to the 2016 US Junior Open in New Orleans

Chess is fun, and its important to study what you find most interesting. But you also can’t afford to neglect parts of your game if you hope to improve, and sometimes you have to do things you don’t like as much.

In my case with online games, when I was preparing for the 2016 US Junior Open, much of my practice at home was through playing online games and analyzing them deeply. Sure, sometimes it felt like pulling teeth, but I knew it was my only option in Richmond to get quality games. It wasn’t a pure substitute for over-the-board games, but at least it was something!

So to answer one of the original questions, if given two hours a day to study chess, I wouldn’t stick to one activity each session. First off, I just want to say, I would do anything for two hours a day of chess now… luckily I only have to wait two more weeks until I’m free for the summer!

But more seriously, given how young your daughter is, developing her ability to calculate and assess positions of extreme importance. If I had to rank tiers of training for U2000 players it could look something like this:

1st Tier: Calculation – Tactics, Pattern Recognition, Endgame Studies

2nd Tier: Intuition – Positional Exercises, Strategic Exercises, Reviewing GM games

3rd Tier: Mechanics – Reviewing opening lines, playing practice games

4th Tier: Preparedness – Cardio, Physical fitness, Psychological training

I’ve deliberately made these tiers vague because I think there can be a lot of overlap between them. That being said, based on my experience, if I were your daughter and only had two hours a day, I’d want to maximize my ability to calculate and develop a strong intuition. These are the kinds of qualities that I think are most important when trying to become an expert level player. Note how the study recommendations for both calculation and intuition have a limited use of engines, if any at all.

Playing online games are helpful in developing these skills as well, but they are less direct. In my opinion, I think there’s only so much you can get out of a game without the help of an engine or a stronger player analyzing it with you. Reviewing games on your own is an important part of growing as a chess player – but, chances are you’ll find better moves based on the knowledge you already have (you can’t see what you don’t know). Rather than using your entire time every day playing games, its much more important to build that foundation by increasing your overall knowledge of chess doing other activities.

Be Your Own Doctor

Finally, to answer the question fully of the mother who’s had to read this article in its entirety while anxiously waiting for a solution. Your daughter has three coaches right now. The two coaches who formally teach her, and herself.
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Working with kids back in 2015

When it comes to training, I think your daughter is her best coach – that’s not to say that she doesn’t need formal chess instruction, but she knows how she likes to study best. That’s not to say that her coaches aren’t giving quality recommendations, its just that your daughter is becoming increasingly aware that there are several ways to reach the same goal. Her coaches should respect her preferences, and suggest alternative training methods to accommodate for them.

If she doesn’t think playing online games is what she needs, then she’s probably right. She’ll definitely need a way to practice what she’s learned (more tournament games, in-person practice matches), but based on what you’ve told me, it really is starting to seem like your daughter has begun to develop a self-awareness that some players take years to recognize when studying (not to mention these skills are great for school too).
I guess as a parent this can be a difficult time to give the best recommendations to your daughter, but don’t worry – this is the fun part! Once your daughter learns how to study independently, she’ll be well on her way on her journey upwards!
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Have a burning question you want to ask our team? Feel free to send it to us at chess.summit@gmail.com, and we’ll give you our best answers!