Mix it Up! The Bad Wörishofen Turnaround

After twenty-seven hard fought games in Europe, I’m more than ready for my two week break in Italy and Austria before clocks start in Budapest for the First Saturday Tournament on April 1st. While I’m presently enjoying some time in Milan, what have I been up to since the conclusion of the Liberec Open?

A glimpse into the tournament hall before the start of round 1!
Last week I completed the Bad Wörishofen Open in Germany, notching a 5/9 score in a reasonably competitve field. This was a tough tournament for me – I actually played the first two rounds feeling under the weather, and by the end of the tournament I was exhausted from the collective stress three back-to-back-to-back nine round tournaments gives you.

While my posts have been a lot more analytical as of late, I wanted to spend today’s post talking about pregame routines, and how sometimes making the smallest changes mid-tournament can make a difference in your play.

To some extent, many chessplayers do something before a game to prepare ourselves mentally for the battle ahead – listen to music, go on a walk, take a nap. Or maybe it’s what you bring to the table – like a favorite chocolate bar or energy drink! This helps us get into the mindset of playing good chess. But what happens when you are having a bad tournament? Do you change your pregame habits, or do you take the risk of entering a cycle of inescapable tournament doom?

Sometimes a little change is nice. Last August, I brought up how changing out my flavor Gatorade from blue to “Darth Vader juice” (red) motivated me to play better in the Washington International – I won both games that day, with Black! A little silly, but in believing that a change in my approach to the game would make a difference in my over-the-board play, I came back re-energized half way through the tournament.

A board set up outside near the tournament hall… notice anything funny?
Admittedly, in the United States with the two rounds a day format, it can be difficult to find time to change your pregame habits, but in Europe the narrative changes a bit.

Thus was the case with the Bad Wörishofen Open. With one afternoon round each day, there was a lot of time between each round to prepare.

Despite a 1.5/2 start, my momentum had hit the fan after a loss to an International Master in the third round. I drew the next two games where I had held the advantage for much of each game, and then out of a combination of exhaustion and frustration, I played out of character in the sixth round, losing to drop to 2.5/6 with only three rounds to go, and tumbling 1.5 points behind the leader in my rating group.

Outside of the small shopping area, Bad Wörishofen didn’t exactly offer much in terms of off-board entertainment…
This was a critical moment of the tournament for me. I had Black going into the seventh round, and another loss would see me having to struggle for a 50% score – not to mention, I was still tired and had been failing to convert good positions for most of the tournament. Something had to change.

Yours truly, trying to get unlost in Milan!
At this point in the tournament, my coach made a bold recommendation: stop all opening preparation. This would spare me some energy going into each of the last three rounds, but more importantly, would force me to play principled moves should I get into any sort of unfamiliar opening territory. So great – energy saved? Check.

So that left the question, what to do in the meantime? Bad Wörishofen is a small town known for its thermal baths, but due to the awkward timing of the rounds as well as the limited (and busy) options for lunch, I was unable to visit prior to the rounds. Other than a walk through the German countryside, there wasn’t exactly much to do.

Luckily for me, there was one important I hadn’t answered before going into round 7: who is going to win March Madness? Every year since my hometown team, the VCU rams, made the Final Four in 2011, the college basketball tournament has been one of my favorite sporting events year round, and there was no way I was going to pass up on making a bracket this year.

Arrival at Milan Central Station
So while my opponent was (as he showed me post-game) preparing some deep Sicilian lines for me, I was looking at stats and putting together my Final Four (feeling pretty good about Michigan getting in … let’s ignore I picked Duke to win it all). What happened in the game? I played 1…e5 and produced one of the best games I’ve played this trip.

So by approaching the game with a completely different mentality, I was able to eliminate all the stresses and maximize my energy. This result helped me push for one last comeback, as I scored 1.5/2 in the last two rounds to end 5/9 and tied for a first place class prize! What a photo finish!

This tournament taught me a lot. At many points I was getting great positions, but things just weren’t clicking – kind of the opposite of the Liberec Open where I was getting terrible positions but kept finding ways to win. To untie the knot, all it seemed to take was putting chess completely aside between games and relaxing.

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Feel free to ask me any questions about my trip so far on Twitter!
With the Bad Wörishofen Open complete, I’m going through Italy (Milan, Florence, and Venice) as well as Austria (Salzburg and Vienna) before reaching Budapest for my first round robin tournament. In all likelihood, my next post will come out before I start competing in Hungary, so for my next post, I will be answering any questions you may have about my trip – What’s it like to play in Europe? What’s my favorite city so far? – or any other chess travel questions you may have. If you want to ask me a question, tweet me at @isaackaito or email us at chess.summit@gmail.com!


Czech Mate! A Little Luck in Liberec

Crossing the bridge into the old city in Prague

For the second major stay of my tour, I left Austria for the Czech Republic. The narrative leaving Lienz was one of optimism – I had scored 4.5/9 in my first European tournament after starting slow, and gained over 50 FIDE rating points. Beginner’s luck? I certainly hoped not…

I only had a few days to rest before the Liberec Open, and Vienna and Prague were on my itinerary. As you may recall from my last post, I professed my love for Vienna, so how did the Czech Republic compare?

As I hopped off my train in Prague, the first distinguishing feature I took note of was movement. Life in Prague is fast paced; the city is busy day and night, and its never too late to find a good goulash or get a drink. Thanks to a lower cost of living, Prague (and much of the Czech Republic) is a hotspot for tourists all over the world. English isn’t as commonly spoken in the Czech Republic, so John’s arrival the day before the Liberec Open was perfectly timed!

Who is this John Ahlborg guy?

John’s gotten a few Chess^Summit mentions in the past few months. His draw against GM Ray Robson to close out 2016 at the Pan American Intercollegiate Championships got covered by guest writer Thomas Riccardi last January, and a win of his against me at last year’s Pittsburgh Open found its way into one of my recent posts about English Opening theory.

It also happens that John was one of the first chess players I met when I first arrived in Pittsburgh. We have travelled together twice for Pan Ams, and have played side-by-side several times for the University of Pittsburgh chess team. But Liberec, Czech Republic? This was new!

Unlike Lienz, Liberec has a population over 100,000, and is one of the biggest cities in the country. The city, like Lienz, is a destination for skiing, but also has plenty of museums and shops to explore. Though the directors of the Liberec Open didn’t plan any social events for players, John and I found plenty each day to keep us busy.

Awaiting the start of Spící Krasavice, Liberec’s rendition of The Sleeping Beauty.

Several highlights included a self-playing piano exhibit at the Severočeské Muzeum, Laser Tag (who do you think won that 1 v 1 battle?), and visiting the Liberec Zoo. Of course, when we were too tired to do anything else, we could simply visit one of many cafes in the city and prepare for our upcoming round.

Before I delve into the detail of my tournament performance, I must confess that this was simply my luckiest tournament I have ever played in. Despite having five Blacks, I scored a strong 5.5/9 and look to gain a significant amount of FIDE rating points again – yet, that score doesn’t really tell the whole story.

After winning in my traditional slow style in the first round, the following eight games tested my tactical acumen and ability to make decisions quickly. I got results in several games where I was simply much worse, and much of that had to do with my ability to manage the clock and make practical decisions. Though my mental fortitude was rewarded this time around, I believe if I don’t improve from this performance, I will quickly be disappointed with my future results. Let’s have a look!

I didn’t have a single easy game in Liberec – even the 1200 I played in the first round put up a tenacious defense!

After my first game against a Czech youngster, it didn’t take long for me to realize how strong the field was, despite the overall lower average rating than the Dolomiten Bank Open. I like this first round game, because it shows what happens when you put less experienced players in positions where they have to make uncomfortable decisions.

The following day, I got paired with Black against a WFM and member of Turkmenistan’s 2016 Olympiad team. After getting a great position out of the opening, I fumbled my advantage, and in time trouble, the game took a turn for the endgame. But my luck had just begun, and thanks to all the endgame study I did to write my Endgame Essentials series (here is my latest installment), I found a way to outplay my opponent and get the win.

A visit to the Science Museum with John!

My opponent missed her chance, but nonetheless, not a game to be disappointed in. The fireworks began in the third round when I pulled an upset against an FM from Scotland! After getting a fantastic position out of the opening, I managed to drop a rook(!) but still was able to find a way to get the win in the endgame. Starting 3/3 was a great feeling, but it had been quite an emotional roller coaster ride – usually I don’t play so carelessly…

The script quickly changed for the next two rounds. Dropping both, I found myself at 3/5 needing to stop the bleeding and get a result. My fourth round game wasn’t much of a contest, as it was only hours after my win against the FM and I was too exhausted to calculate anything. My fifth round game had reached an interesting position, but I missed a nice opportunity for me and fell into a worse ending and lost again. In one of his first Chess^Summit posts, Grant explained how important it is to avoid losing two games in a row and going into my 6th round game, it felt like there was a lot of momentum going against me, even though 3/5 against the level of competition I was playing was a very reasonable score. This number nearly became three against another Olympian and WFM from Turkmenistan but I managed to save this position and draw.

Atabayeva-Steincamp, position after 26…Qb7

I have a lot more I want to share, so we’ll skip over this game, but saving this game this was the starting point of a lot of luck for me. My next game I had another Black and got into an even worse position, but I got the gift of my career and won, keeping me on a plus score at 4.5/7. Of course, I was well aware that I should have lost both of these games thanks to opening disasters, but I was reminded of how I broke 1900 before I worked with my current coach, GM Eugene Perelshteyn.

Stopping by the Liberec Botanical Gardens

When I was rated roughly 1700-1800, I found myself getting into a lot of worse positions and having to outplay my opponents a lot. Even in my chess.com games, I would drop material all the time and force myself to play on (ever wonder why I love sacrificing the exchange now?). Forcing myself to get results when I had worse positions was the biggest reason I made 1900, though I can no longer get away with playing like this at the 2000 level. I talked about this a lot in one of my first YouTube videos, and this sixth sense I developed years back was extremely useful for me this tournament.

If you still aren’t convinced that Lady Luck was on my side, getting a win in the eighth round should show you otherwise. In a game that made my third round win look like a cake walk, we both had a lot of chances to win, and in my opponent’s time trouble, I escaped and came out on top. Sure, lucky is a word to use here, but as we all know, whoever makes the last mistake generally loses!

My over-the-board luck ended during the final round when I lost on the Black side of a King’s Indian. Funnily enough, I probably finished that opening better off than I had in the three rounds prior. As a last dose of luck, a bunch of results went my way, and I was able to win a class prize with a 5.5/9 score. Let’s just say I won’t be rated around 1800 FIDE for a while… John had a strong performance too, placing 9th with a score of 6.5/9!

Claiming my class prize at the award ceremony!

What a tournament – and so much over-the-board drama! If only my brain and pieces could have gotten along better, maybe I could have played for more! My next tournament is in Bad Wörishofen, where I expect to play against the toughest field I’ve seen so far this trip. I’ll have to pick up my form a little, but either way, I’ll be sharing some key moments with you in just a couple of weeks!

Visiting Saxon Palace grounds in Dresden, where I will be staying the next few days!

The featured photo is the John Lennon Wall, which I visited in Prague.


From Germany to Austria: The Dolomiten Bank Open

Me on top of the Haus des Meeres-Aqua Terra Zoo in Vienna. What a view!

Two weeks ago, I set foot in Europe for the very first time. Seven countries, five tournaments, three months, and a once in a lifetime trip.

I had a vague idea of what I was getting into, and it didn’t really occur to me that I would be roughly four thousand miles away from home until I woke up in my small hotel room in Munich and thought “well, what am I going to do today?”

Fast forward to the present, and after becoming familiar with the European metro and guarding myself with some very basic German phrases, I’ve started to get into the groove of being a full-time tourist. Thus far, I’ve visited Munich, Lienz, and Vienna, with most of my time thus far spent in Lienz for the Dolomiten Bank Open.

The city center in Lienz

Just a city of roughly 12,000 people, Lienz is surrounded by the Alps and is not too far off from the Italian border. Known for its nearby ski resorts, the quaint Austrian city finds itself open to tourists year-round from Europe and across the world.

Of course, I wasn’t here to ski, but rather to compete in the Dolomiten Bank Open, one of the premier chess tournaments in Austria. While relatively unknown in the US, the tournament brought players from across the globe: Singapore, Australia, India, Norway, and (with my participation) the United States, to name a few. Even Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Romanov and Magnus Carlsen’s former coach Simen Agdestein tried their hand in what proved to be a tough open section!

I couldn’t ski during the tournament, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the view!

Aside from all the packing and planning my accommodations, much of my preparation for this trip was on the chessboard. As you may recall, my last tournament in Philadelphia didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and I was a little worried about how I would fare against European competition. Before I left, I made some decisions about how I would approach tournament play.

1) Don’t get too carried away with prep. Unlike tournaments in the US, most major European events are one game a day, meaning that every game is just one database search away from a comfortable opening position.

While getting a good feel for your opponent’s repertoire is a good idea, trying to put together targeted preparation for an opponent you don’t know isn’t impractical (for players rated 2000-2200). In my tournament, three of my nine opponents played a completely new opening or move order, rendering some of my preparation useless. In short, spend an hour reviewing some lines, but then spend the rest of the day exploring the city!

2) Don’t worry about ratings – at all! After the Liberty Bell Open, I decided to not apply to get my European tournaments USCF rated. I was a little worried with how shaky my play was in Philadelphia, and I thought if I had a bad tournament in Europe, the stress to perform could ruin my trip. My FIDE rating started at 1882, so international titles are really out of question. As I’ve said a few times here on Chess^Summit, when in doubt, just play chess!

… of course, in deciding to not make this “tour” USCF rated, I passed on a roughly 35-40 point gain (after the FIDE to USCF rating conversion), which would have been my greatest gain in a single tournament since August of 2015. We’ll see how this pans out by the end of  my trip, but at the end of the day, there’s no deadline to make master!

On the way to the tournament hall! Pictured here is the Grand Hotel in Lienz and the mountains in the background.

3) Don’t be afraid to try new things! With ratings out of the way, tournaments here also give me a chance to play new openings, as well as practice some old ones. I had five whites this tournament, but I chose not to play my favorite opening, the English, at all! Barring a single game against fellow Chess^Summit co-author Beilin Li, I had played the English with every game as White dating back to 2014. In what proved to me to be my biggest surprise of the tournament, I scored an unbeaten 4/5 against stronger opponents from the White side of the board.

I couldn’t get a result in the second round, but I did bring the “surrender cobra” to Europe!

So how did I do?

In my first European tournament, I put together a solid 4.5/9 in a strong open section. My FIDE rating looks to gain upwards of 50 points, and I’m a lot more confident in my play with less than a week to go before the Liberec Open. I still think there are areas of my game that need to improve, but when comparing this tournament to past outings like the Liberty Bell Open or the World Open, I’m very pleased with my progress. Here are some of my over the board highlights!

Steincamp – Tilman, after 10…Ba6

It wasn’t clear I would get an even score until the end of the tournament. Thanks to some jet lag  and poor calculation early in the tournament, I started 2/6 and was in need of some points. Luckily, I was able to finish the last three rounds 2.5/3, thanks in part to a quick win in round 7. Black just played 10…Ba6, what’s the easiest way for me to attack Black?

I would say I thought the most on this move, and then the rest of the game finished relatively quickly. This was a great win, especially since I tend to win more positional games than tactical ones. I think winning this game the way I did gave me a lot of confidence in the last two games.

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Steincamp – Pregl, after 36…Nd7

After putting together a weird draw in the eighth round, I sat at 3.5/8 with one chance with White to get an even score. While it’s a known  cliché to draw the last round, I really wanted to win, and I pushed myself.

Luckily for me, I was rewarded and after dominating the whole game with White, I managed to put away my opponent with a nice move here. Can you find it?

King safety once again proves to be the key theme! With this nice zugzwang idea, I clinched my third win of the tournament and finished 4.5/9!

The Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna

With a few days to rest before my next tournament, I’m visiting Vienna and Prague on my way to Liberec, Czech Republic.

In interior of the Natural History Museum

Though I have yet to see Prague, I have to say Vienna is a must-see city. While the city has grown to meet 21st century demands, its maintained its historical foundation and culture. Though I’ll only have two full days here, there’s so many things to do – visit the Schönbrunn Palace, go to the Museums Quartier, or simply just walk the streets near Stephensplatz. Hopefully when I spend a day here in March on my way to Budapest, the gardens across the city will be greener!

My next post will be on March 7th, where I will be writing from Dresden after having finished the Liberec Open alongside Pitt teammate John Ahlborg! Until next time!

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A polar bear about to dive in the Tiergarten Schönbrunn. The zoo was founded in 1752!

PRO Chess League Recap: Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers vs Webster Windmills

Last night the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers faced the Webster Windmills, a top tier PRO Chess League team. While the Windmills would carry the night 11-5 in this week 4 clash, Pittsburgh kept the match close and has a lot of reasons to be optimistic going into the last two weeks of the season.

I put together a video recap of the match for Chess^Summit, and you can enjoy it here!

Opening Evolution: Nakamura’s Rb1

Back in late 2015, I made the argument that despite his record against Magnus, Hikaru Nakamura was the player most in form going into the Candidates Tournament. I even boldly went so far to claim he would beat Magnus in a match with the way he played that year. Things didn’t pan out as a slow start in Moscow put a kibosh on Nakamura’s Challenger aspirations, but it is worth mentioning that shortly after the Candidates he did net his first win against Carlsen in Bilbao.

While Hikaru’s current standing among the world elite won’t be the focus of today’s article, I did want to revisit a game I analyzed in my aforementioned article.

An Opening Reborn: 8. Rb1

Millionaire Chess 2 pitted Nakamura against young Grandmaster Sam Sevian early, in which we reached our tabiya for today.

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Nakamura–Sevian, after 8. Rb1

If you aren’t familiar with the game, you should quickly look over it here, as it will give you an idea as to White’s main ideas in this line. This win was particularly attractive for me as an English player, and for a short time, I even incorporated it in my opening repertoire.

The underlying idea is pretty simple! With an early b2-b4 thrust, White intends to make Black choose between a having a weaker center, or letting White expand quickly on the queenside. If Black isn’t familiar with White’s ideas, these positions are quite dangerous. I remember a particularly euphoric win I had on chess.com against WGM Camilla Baginskaite (granted it was bullet, but the quality of chess was reasonable), after which I decided that this move 8. Rb1 was a legitimate weapon and sideline.

A year removed from this game, its been really interesting to see how Black’s play has evolved at the Grandmaster level, and I thought the development of this line would make for a fascinating conversation today. For such a minor sideline to evolve so quickly, I can only imagine the headache it is to catch up with Najdorf or Grünfeld theory!

Origin Story: 8…g5!?

As the last sub-title suggests, 8. Rb1 was not Nakamura’s creation – in fact, Kasparov even played it in 2001! However, Nakamura’s win against Sevian (and later Topalov) played a huge role in its return to prominence. So why did this line disappear among Super GMs in the first place? White’s plan seemed so easy – why would English players not play 8. Rb1? My best guess is because of the complications the crazy move 8…g5?! caused.

With his rook still on h8, Black intends to punish White for castling so early!

There’s actually quite a number of games here. Black’s intent is to quickly throw everything at the kingside and punish White for a slow 8. Rb1. This line was first really fashioned in 1993 in a clash between then top Grandmasters, Grigory Serper and Viktor Kortschnoj. Kotschnoj blew White off the board, and this move 8…g7-g5 really took off from there. I did a quick search by ChessBase in this line by Black’s rating, and was amazed by Black’s results.


So it makes some sense that 8. Rb1 went out of fashion – this move really gave White a headache. But there’s a story untold here – Black’s wins in this line for the most part predate the development of super computers like Stockfish and Houdini.

I took a quick look at the Almasi-Wang game played in 2011, and White managed to solve his opening problems (though his game was spoiled later on – perhaps thanks to the rapid time control). Since this game, 8…g5 has been played only ten times, with White scoring a splendid 7.5/10.

Black Starts Digging with 8…a5

Nakamura has most certainly looked at 8…g5, and for him to play 8. Rb1 means that he’s found something satisfactory for White as well. While this sideline had been played by GMs prior to Nakamura, his games accelerated the evolution of this line. As we see below, many of the strongest players who tried their hand at 8. Rb1 tried it after 2015, this putting it in the brief spotlight of Grandmaster level chess.


So what can Black do? As we’ve seen in each of these games so far, Black failed to come up with an intuitive solution to 8. Rb1 and was punished for it. However, with 8. Rb1 starting to catch the eyes of strong players, it didn’t take long to find Oleg Romanishin’s tries in 1993 – 8…a5!

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Black plays the simplest move to stop b2-b4!

This move simply asks White why the rook is on b1! This is the most simple move for Black, and moves us to the next chapter of opening evolution. Luckily for us, this move was featured three times in the Paris leg of the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, starting with Topalov’s try against Nakamura.

Topalov’s idea of simplifications in the center backfired, leaving the American a position where he could play for two results. Vesilin actually liked this game so much he tried 8. Rb1 as White later in the same tournament against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and won! We’ll get to that game later as it will be the starting point of a future chapter.


Unfortunately for me,  I did not learn about 8…a5 through this game, but rather three months earlier in an over the board game against my Pitt teammate John Ahlborg!

John hadn’t studied this 8…a5 line, but found it over the board and the game was smooth sailing for him from there. After the tournament, I started looking into this 8…a5 line and decided to stop playing 8. Rb1 entirely. It’s a great weapon against someone unfamiliar with theory, but with a little time, there’s not reason a strong player can’t find 8…a5 and play from there.

Of course, opening theory evolves beyond my understanding, and its been an interesting journey to watch how 8. Rb1 progressed. Just ten days before I played John in the Pittsburgh Open, Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky neutralized White playing 8..a5, and needless to say, had I analyzed this game, I would have reconsidered playing 8. Rb1 in my own game.

Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky

Trades on b6, a Last Gasp?

Now we’ve seen 8..a5 a few times, it would be easy (like I did) to dismiss the 8. Rb1 line altogether, but one of the great things about opening evolution is that Grandmasters are always looking into new ideas!

In each of the losses against 8…a5, White tried Bxb6 at some point, giving up the bishop pair for control of the b5 square. Topalov, as I briefly mentioned before, also tried this idea but with a lot more success against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave!

Topalov may not have had a stellar event in Paris, but taking a play out of Nakamura’s book got him a crucial win!

Black seemed powerless in that game! The novelty MVL came up with 11…Qd7 hardly challenged White, and the game quickly went into a lost endgame. So perhaps giving up the bishop pair for control of b5 is the right approach! Of course Black had some solutions too, and when a nearly 2600-rated  Grandmaster went for 8. Rb1 against Sergey Karjakin in the recent World Blitz Championships in Doha, Karjakin quickly put an end to the shenanigans.


I think this 8. Rb1 line is a fun line to try, especially in shorter time controls, but having played it myself, I don’t think I would advise it as a primary weapon. As we’ve seen through the evolution of this line, whenever Black’s found ideas to slow down White’s play, its become difficult for White to find ways to improve the position.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-11-51-54Objectively, I think White surrenders his opening advantage if Black plays 8…a5. At some point the rook will have to move from b1, costing White a critical tempo, as a b2-b4 push is no longer really possible.

On principle alone, we could say this violates moving the same piece twice, and White therefore fails to maintain the initiative. This is not necessarily to say that 8. Rb1 is a bad move – just not the most effective when trying to prove an advantage against 2000+ rated players. While I’m sure White may come up with new ideas in the future with this line, Black will always have solutions given his extra tempo in development.