Having now played chess competitively for over 14 years, Isaac holds the title of Candidate Master with a rating well over 2100. As just a junior in high school, he coached his school team to win 1st place in the U1200 National High School Chess Championships in 2014. Now a third-year student at the University of Pittsburgh, Isaac is the captain of the Pitt chess team and manager for the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers in the PRO Chess League.
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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!
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.
In 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!
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
Have a burning question you want to ask our team? Feel free to send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll give you our best answers!
I mean do you even know me? Of course I’ve been thinking about chess this whole time! But with less than a month until this semester finally finishes, the difference is that I’m thinking about chess again – like for real …what?
This semester has been hectic at best for me: changing majors, managing the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, becoming a chess.com streamer, and on top of that, the usual class course-load. Tied down with all of the commitments, I had to put my goal of earning the National Master on hold, and in doing so, I have only managed to play one tournament game since the Cardinal Open (I’ll get to this later). So while I’ve thought about chess in some capacity every day, I haven’t dedicated as time to my own chess as much as I would have liked.
Admittedly, with less than four weeks until the end of the semester, I’m thinking about playing tournament chess again, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve started running regularly, eating healthier, and gotten back to regularly solving tactics. This alone won’t get me back to my best form, but it’s a manageable start – especially since I still have finals to study for. Speaking of tactics, I found a nice tactical shot at the end of my most recent chess.com stream:
Had some fun games tonight on my @chesscom stream! Ended on a high when I put together this winning combination with 32. Rxh6! Kxh6 33. Bxg5+! 💪
What am I working towards? I’m planning on competing in the Chicago Open, and despite my eligible rating, I’m bypassing my chances of scoring big in the U2300 section to swim with sharks in the Open. In all seriousness, I’m going to be a massive underdog in nearly all of my games, but I want a chance to see how much I’ve improved since I last tried something like this at the 2016 World Open.
For those of you who’ve been Chess^Summit readers for a while, you may recall how the 2016 World Open was not exactly pleasant to me. In the aftermath of my 1/7 score, my coach GM Eugene Perelshteyn had a field day finding weaknesses in my play, and while enduring six consecutive losses is an ego-bashing no chess player should be on the receiving end of, I learned a lot from the experience, and it parlayed into my later success in Europe.
So I’ve got to start somewhere to get ready for Chicago, and last week I built up the nerve to play my first tournament game in months without any prior preparation – and by preparation, I mean any studying. I’ve got some tournaments planned in early May, but I really didn’t want to wait anymore and guaranteed White against another 2100-rated player was just too good to pass up.
Wanting to sidestep any my opponent’s preparation, I chose 1 e4 for just my fifth time (in a standard game) since the 2017 Reykjavik Open, and it was clear I had succeeded once we reached the conclusion of the opening with 11. Qf3 – the Scotch Four Knights:
While I failed to win, I built a reasonable advantage before squandering it after time control. Even with a few mistakes, I was more or less fine with my game – honestly, I was just happy to be at the board again. I’ll need to improve if I want to perform well in May, but knowing that I can play an opening I’ve never played before and do reasonably well is a good sign.
And with a somewhat amicable result, my preparation for the Chicago Open had begun. With just two months to go, I have a lot to do – but I’m mentally ready to make a comeback to tournament play.
What a season it’s been! With the Pawngrabbers falling short against the St Louis Archbishops last Tuesday night in the Round of 16, a historic run for Pittsburgh chess has come to an end. As this year’s team manager, I decided I wanted to retell some of the great moments from the Pawngrabbers’ PRO Chess League season while providing some behind-the-scenes insights as manager.
While I might not cover every detail from the past year, I hope I can share enough to help you appreciate what our players achieved this year.
Pittsburgh Offered Immediate Qualification to the 2018 PRO Chess League Season
In the closing days of my European Chess Tour, I received a notification that Pittsburgh was invited to participate in the 2018 PRO Chess League. As the League was consolidating to a more competitive 32 teams, it wasn’t so clear that we would get the bid. While we had an engaged fanbase on social media, the only Grandmaster on the roster at the time was Alexander Shabalov.
After watching us start the 2017 season 0-4, a lot of the League’s spectators bemoaned our invitation, perhaps forgetting that we won each of our final three matches. It may well have been that our narrow win over the Minnesota Blizzard to close 2017 spared us from having to enter the PRO Chess League through the qualification tournament… who knew that match nearly cost one of this year’s quarterfinalists a berth in the League?
Needing to prove our place in the League, the search began for additions to revamp the Pawngrabbers’ roster. With the season’s new expanded local rules, we added NM Mika Brattain from the relegated Columbus Cardinals fairly quickly, while also signing FM Mark Heimann and NM David Itkin from the area. This alone increased our team’s average rating significantly – but likely not enough to avoid relegation. Luckily for us, through extensive note-taking and stream watching, October’s conclusion meant a whole new batch of players were looking for teams.
Following the conclusion of the League qualifier, we were able to continue recruiting 2300+ strength local players, thanks in part to Michigan’s failure to get a team in the League. With that, Pittsburgh acquired IMs Atulya Shetty and Safal Bora, as well as FM Edward Song, who debuted for us in 2017 as a free agent. Now as local players, my managerial team (Beilin Li, Grant Xu, and myself) could begin scouting Free Agent talent to complete the roster.
From the outside, you all likely know the story – Pittsburgh signed GM Awonder Liang days before the start of the season, and the Pawngrabbers took off. However, for a few weeks it seemed like we were stuck with the line-up we had, as time-zone differences and financial constraints were proving to be a constant limitation for us. It was during this time we developed various match strategies to compensate for a much lower average rating.
Breaking Down the Gs and gs in Line-up
If you’re familiar with the League, you likely know that a team’s line-up for any given match is limited to an U2500 rating. Of course there are certain exemptions from this, but since we’re talking about a generalized match strategy, let’s pretend the highest rated players in the world are exactly 2700. With the exception of our clashes with Webster and St Louis, this assumption held true for all of our regular season matches. To represent this symbolically, I will use ‘G’ to indicate a player roughly rated over 2500, and ‘g’ for all other players.
The GGGg line-up proved to be the dominant strategy in 2017 as St Louis employed it throughout the playoffs and against Norway in the Championship match which they won, 9-7. This makes sense – you field three top tier Grandmasters, and hope your board 4 notches a point somewhere, totaling to at least 8.5/16 to win the match.
But the consolidation of the PRO Chess League to 32 teams also meant the average rating for each team grew. Now with 16 fewer teams (and 64 fewer boards on any given week), the demand for a spot on a team drastically outweighed the supply of talented players. As we saw in the case of the Archbishops and the Gnomes, the GGGg format was not so invincible, as more teams had two (or even three) grandmasters to field on any given week. The match break down between a GGGg and GGgg lineup (assuming both teams optimized their line-up to fit the U2500 constraint) would look something like this:
Team A (GGGg line-up): 2700, 2650, 2500, 2150*
Team B (GGgg line-up): 2550, 2550, 2450, 2450*
*maximum possible rating, given average constraint set by the three preceding boards
Ideal match strategy for Team B is to win each of the four games against Team A’s board 4, meaning that now Team B only needs to score 4/12 for the remainder of the match to avoid a loss. Given the rating gap between Team B’s players and the 2150 on Team A, I’d say this is highly likely – heck, I could probably give the 2150 a reasonable game, and I’m not PRO Chess League material.
To compensate for this, Team A’s 2700 must offset their 2150 by scoring 4/4, which is far more difficult than Team B’s task of beating the 2150 four times with four different players – only one player managed to do that against our line-up this season, and he happens to be the 2013 World Blitz Champion, GM Lê Quang Liem from Webster.
For the sake of evaluating match strategy, let’s give the 2700 the benefit of the doubt and assume he succeeds scoring 4/4, regardless of the actually probability of that happening. Here are the players’ remaining number of games for both teams:
Team A (GGGg line-up): 2650 (4 games), 2500 (4 games)
Team B (GGgg line-up): 2550 (2 games), 2550 (2 games), 2450 (2 games), 2450 (2 games)
With the match (theoretically) tied at 4-4, Team A’s best player is a non-factor to the outcome of the match, while all of Team B’s players are still capable to continue contributing to the score. All the sudden, Team A’s chances are winning the match are drastically reduced – if their Board 3 scores anything less than 2/4, the 2650 needs to make up the difference.
In this set-up, it just takes one player on Team A to have a bad day, and as we saw in 2018, this strategy worked for Pittsburgh and Minnesota against St Louis in the regular season, and Norway even fell shy of qualifying for the postseason. In fact, this is exactly how the Blizzard toppled Webster in the Round of 16 last Tuesday.
When Awonder signed with Pittsburgh, we had our two G’s, but Atulya was our next highest rated player at 2403, meaning we could never match the desired line-up strategy on paper. Luckily, with Atulya consistently playing above his level, it meant that we just had to find a board 4 who could consistently score more than 1.5 points a game. This took all season, but in the end, we were surprised by how many players on our roster that could fit the role. I’ll discuss some of the shortcomings of the GGgg line-up in a bit, but lets start talking about actual results, and less about theory.
Pittsburgh Gets off to a Strong Start
We got to test our GGgg strategy immediately against the Buenos Aires Krakens, as the Argentineans fielded three strong grandmasters in FedericoPerez Ponsa, Alan Pichot, and Leandro Kyrysa. Of course, Buenos Aires would eventually be relegated from the League, but given that they brought the same line-up to the 2017 quarterfinals, we held our breath for much of the season opener.
Two hours later, Pittsburgh had its fourth consecutive PRO Chess League win, overpowering the Krakens on all boards 10-6. Following the script, Pittsburgh held Buenos Aires’ 4th board to 0/4, and while Federico Perez Ponsa notched 3.5/4, the aggregated total between their boards 1 and 4 was 4.5-3.5 in favor of Pittsburgh. With Shabalov and Awonder each scoring 3 points, Atulya’s 2.5 were enough to clinch the match before taking into account Ed’s tactical shot in his fourth round win:
The win proved to be a confidence booster for the team, and it quickly carried over against the Montreal Chessbrahs in another decisive decision. Awonder won all four games and produced a masterpiece against GM Robin van Kampen – an early sign of things to come for the 14 year old US Junior Champion:
While IM Michael Kleinman notched an impressive 1.5/4, RvK’s 2.5/4 forced Montreal’s second and third boards to perform, and they fell short. Once again a victory for the GGgg line-up. Of course Montreal would also go on to be relegated, but at the time, they too seemed like strong League title contenders given their prior semifinal finish.
The Defining Stretch
The next three weeks proved to set the course for the season, as the then-Atlantic division leaders Minnesota Blizzard, Super Saturday, and the St Louis Archbishops stood in our way of the season mid-point. Three consecutive losses would have likely derailed our playoff aspirations, so the team’s performance was critical in these next three outings.
Despite some late game heroics from the team, Pittsburgh fell short to Minnesota in our only loss of the regular season, 8.5-7.5. The loss was tough, but Awonder produced arguably the PRO Chess League’s most entertaining game of the season with his sac-sac-mate win over surging IM Sean Nagle:
With Super Saturday approaching, we signed bullet specialist IM Tuan Minh Lê to join the team. While Minh’s heroics impressed against superior competition, it was Awonder who muscled the Pawngrabbers to a half point, with critical wins over Nakamura, Dominguez, and a draw against Yu Yuangyi. In just four hours, Awonder became an icon in the PRO Chess League.
GM Eugene Perelshteyn from ChessOpeningsExplained.com and I got a chance to review Awonder’s games days after the event concluded:
A draw was a fantastic result given Shabalov’s absence from the line-up, and the confidence boost proved to come at the right time as we faced off with St Louis. As a manager, this was the real test for the GGgg line-up, as we had designed this strategy specifically because of juggernauts like St Louis and Webster – we were never going to out-rate these players on paper.
St Louis brought top grandmasters Fabiano Caruana, Vladimir Fedoseev, and Alejandro Ramirez – two 2700+ rated players. At one point, chess.com predicted we had only a 9% chance of winning the match!
One of the downsides of the GGgg strategy is simply that you don’t know if you’ve succeeded in shutting out the fourth board until the match is over. Thus playing out the match on paper feels a lot different than in real-time, as on paper, you have the knowledge that Boards 1 and 4 cancel each other out with 8 games remaining. This distinct lack of knowledge always favors the GGGg line-up, as going into the last round, the GGGg line-up is always favored to score more points than the GGgg one.
Admittedly, I was pretty nervous as I ran a solo commentary stream that night, but in the end, the strategy worked exactly as it did on paper. With Awonder’s win over Caruana, Fabiano maxed out at 3 points, which when aggregated with NM Forest Chen‘s last round win, cancelled out Fabi’s contribution to the match. This left Vladimir Fedoseev and Alejandro Ramirez with the final 8 games, in which we won the aggregate total 4.5-3.5 to secure victory.
Even better, Pittsburgh had the lead going into the final round to account for the head-to-head on-paper advantage St Louis had. Brilliant. Shabalov put together one of the most crushing positional wins I’ve seen against Vladimir Fedoseev in the third round.
After the match, I congratulated him on his 3/4 performance on the night, to which he responded: “Safal won us the match”. IM Safal Bora had a tough night, only scoring 0.5/4, but his half point made the difference. Shaba was absolutely right – this was a team win. After this match, the focus of the team centered on the over-performing third and fourth boards – they were gaining confidence and had become an asset for the team.
Power of the Bottom Half
As the season progressed, it became clear that Awonder’s efforts needed to be supported by a strong secondary (“g” players). Atulya quickly did his part against Montclair, notching 3/4, including a win over Africa’s first ever 2700 rated player GM Bassem Amin.
Atulya had been a strong weapon for Pittsburgh, with a performance rating consistently north of 2500, but now with a playoff bid in sight, who would take on the role of the fourth board? There were too many options and not much time left, so the strategy shifted and the focus for the team became finding the right fit.
Super Saturday saw the Pawngrabbers clinch a playoff berth with a 4th place finish, despite missing both Shabalov and Atulya in the line-up. The early story of the event was the dominance of tandem Awonder Liang and Mika Brattain:
But by the end of the day, FM Edward Song impressed the most, scoring an unbeaten 6.5/8 from fourth board. Admittedly, he barely made the line-up for the event, but he got to spend the following four hours proving me wrong over the board. IM Tuan Minh Lê also returned for the Pawngrabbers, scoring an impressive 5/8 against Grandmaster competition.
His crowning highlight was this jaw-dropper against GM Helgi Olafsson:
Because of the limitations on number of Free Agent players during the playoff matches, this would prove to be Minh’s final event with the Pawngrabbers in 2018. Had we qualified for the semifinals in San Francisco, he would have been on the line-up (as allowed by League rules) – Shabalov, Awonder, Minh, and Atulya, chiming in at a 2496 average rating. Who knows what that line-up could have accomplished?
While upsetting St Louis will likely be remembered as our signature achievement this year, our next two matches were also quite noteworthy.
Despite Webster’s deep roster, our clash featured an all-GGgg match, and Pittsburgh won in a nail-biter, thanks to a 3/4 performance from Ed. His win over FM Joshua Colas is most memorable for me, as he swiftly dismantled Black’s Sicilian:
Discounting his (narrow) loss to Lê Quang Liem, Ed was now unbeaten in 11 consecutive games and his time management had improved drastically. The match win broke Pittsburgh’s extended losing streak to Webster – one that extended far beyond the PRO Chess League.
Pittsburgh's win over @WebsterWindmill tonight ends the city's 5 game losing streak to the Collegiate Champs: 2015: Pitt vs Webster C 2015: Pitt vs Webster Girls 2016: Pitt vs Webster A 2017: #prochess, Pittsburgh vs Webster Windmills 2017: Carnegie Mellon vs Webster B
The closing week match-up against Miami presented us with the toughest challenge we had all season as Shabalov, Awonder, and Minh Lê were all unavailable. Thus in one week, we had to plan out the ggggvsGGGg strategy. We knew Miami, trying to avoid relegation, would bring their best possible line-up, which boasted Iturrizaga, Quesada Perez, and Becerra.
In the gggg vs GGGg pairing, it is absolutely critical that the gggg outfit score 4/4 against against the opponent’s lone “g”. Failing to do this makes the likelihood of winning close to impossible, which among other things, is one of the main reasons why this kind of line-up is inferior and not sustainable long-term.
However, rather than focusing on cancelling out the top board, the gggg strategy now calls for every player to score 1+/3 in the remaining pairings to get to a minimum 8 points.
The team held on tight, and thanks to FM Mark Heimann’s 3/4 debut, Pittsburgh hit an 8-8 draw, as Miami rightfully avoided relegation. With Minnesota getting bashed by Montclair, Pittsburgh locked up the second seed heading into its Round of 16 clash with St Louis.
House of Cards
Unfortunately, you all know how this one plays out. St Louis got out to an early lead, and with a 7-5 advantage in the last round, and Pittsburgh failed to score three points to take the upset. While a 10-6 loss does seem like a blowout, the match was actually a lot closer on paper. NM Forest Chen’s lone win cancelled out Fedoseev’s 3/4, leaving Akobian and Zherebukh for Pittsburgh.
Even with Ed putting up another monster 3/4 performance on board 4, Zherebukh continued his dominant League form with 3.5/4, and Pittsburgh couldn’t close the gap on Akobian. Shabalov had a tough night on the top board being an underdog in three of his games, and the Pawngrabbers couldn’t seem to catch a break for the entirety of the match.
You can rewatch the match in full here:
This match was humbling as it showed some of the shortcomings of the GGgg vs GGGg match strategy. Thinking long-term, our line-up did ask our players to consistently over-perform, and while they succeeded for much of the season, inevitably there was some burnout. This makes sense – while a player may initially score a few upsets, over time that player’s performance rating will regress to their expected performance level.
For our “g” players, we managed to avoid this by constantly rotating them. Funnily enough this was intended to decide which player we wanted on board 4 for the Round of 16, but it benefited all of our players in the long-run (at least on paper).
Does this mean the GGgg line-up is impractical? No, I don’t think so, and for the PRO Chess League format I think both the GGgg and GGGg lineup have their distinct advantages. As teams continue to get stronger, I think at some point both of these strategies will become obsolete – ratings in long-time controls don’t truly represent how a player does in an online rapid format, and it will be up to team managers to decide which players are too highly rated and which players are diamonds in the rough. At some point, teams will feature a GGGg line-up, where “G“is a hybrid player – a “g” rated player who consistently performs at a “G” level with no burnout.
Finding such a line-up will take a few seasons of data, and naturally runs the risk of said “g” rated player becoming “G” rated. That is the fun of the U2500 average!
Outlook for Pittsburgh
Okay, this is turning out to be a longer article than I envisioned, so let’s put aside the theoretical “improbability” of Pittsburgh’s success in 2018, and talk about next year’s potential. Even with the abrupt end to our season, I think Pittsburgh will be much stronger force next year in the League. FM Edward Song finished the year on a high, but NM Mika Brattain and FM Mark Heimann also showed they are more than capable of playing at a high level this season. IM Atulya Shetty will continue to give the Pawngrabbers an anchor.
At the rate she’s improving, I think FM Jennifer Yu will also become a much more frequent member of the Pawngrabbers’ outfit in 2019… and that only rounds out the potential for boards 3 and 4!
Of course its much harder to predict what will happen on the top boards during the offseason, so I will rightly keep my mouth shut about our options and new enhanced match strategy we are already developing for 2019. Stay scared, PRO Chess League, Stay scared.
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The Bonus Boost: Predicting the final standings just got more fun!
In this section, you’ll rank the players based on how you think they will finish in this year’s edition of the Candidates Tournament! 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 bonus boost ranging from 0 to 7, and that boost multiplied by each player’s score will be added to your point total!
For example, if we picked Kramnik to win in Berlin, his final score is multiplied by 7. So if he scores 7/14, he would score 49 points (7×7) for our submission. If we picked Grischuk to finish last, his bonus boost would be 0, meaning that if he scored 7/14, he would score 0 points (0x7). The total of all player contributions would be our score for this section!
Freebies! In this section, we’ll give you ten tough questions. Does checkmate get delivered on the board? Who draws the most? How many times will Anish Giri tweet about the Candidates? We cover everything – answer carefully, each question is worth 5 points!
The Pawngrabbers are in! With 19.5 points and a 4th place finish the Pawngrabbers are guaranteed a spot in the 2018 PRO Chess League Playoffs! On a day that featured a Pittsburgh Line-up without GM Alexander Shabalov and IM Atulya Shetty, the Pawngrabbers squad showed how deep their roster is with over-performing Board 3/4 displays from NM Mika Brattain(3.5/8) and FM Edward Song (6.5/8). GM Awonder Liang (4.5/8) and IM Tuan Minh Lê (5/8) starred on Boards 1 and 2 to bring home the result. The Pawngrabbers unit clinched the win half way through Round 7 with 5 games remaining in the competition.
Fielded against teams from the Central and Eastern Divisions, Pittsburgh had 32 games scheduled, and things got out to a fast start when Awonder and Mika both put together big wins against the Volga Stormbringers, 3.5-0.5. GM Eugene Perelshteyn stopped by to give us his thoughts on the two games.
Next up was the Mumbai Movers, and even without the Former World Champion (or Current Rapid World Champion!) Vishy Anand on their line-up, the GM Baskaran Adhiban-led squad squeaked by Pittsburgh 2.5-1.5. Even with the head-to-head loss, Pittsburgh’s fast start kept them ahead of the pack, and were propelled into the the next round with this tactical shot and conversion from FM Edward Song.
Notable absences from European Division teams proved to be their downfall, and a Marseilles Migraines team without Maxime Vachier-Lagrave or Etienne Bacrot proved to be particularly toothless, only scoring 5/32 and finishing dead last in the event. Pittsburgh cruised by with a perfect 4-0 score, thanks to Awonder’s win over GM Jean-Marc Degraeve.
In what proved to be a growing theme of the day, Awonder punished another risky opening choice! Awonder followed this attacking win by crushing GM Luka Lenic from the Ljubljana Turtles. Lenic was one of the League’s top scorers going into Super Saturday, so the win, along with a 3-1 score in favor of Pittsburgh was a big achievement for the Pawngrabbers.
Following a 2-2 draw with Cannes, Pittsburgh was solidly in the top six in the standings, and solidified their position with a 3-1 head-to-head victory over the Reykjavik Puffins. Awonder once again played a great game, but it was Minh Lê from Board 2 that gave Pittsburgh the nicest moment of the round with this crushing blow against GM Helgi Olafsson:
Did you see that coming? From Board 2 Minh held his own, scoring 5/8 playing from Hanoi against higher rated opposition. The 22 year old has proven himself to be a strong free agent behind Awonder, as he’s scored an impressive 8.5/16 in his rookie season against a Grandmaster-level schedule.
Now three hours into the match, fatigue began to play a factor as Pittsburgh fell 1.5-2.5 to the Armenia Eagles. However, even with the loss, Ed’s win over the Eagles’ manager CM Artak Manukyan was enough to clinch the win and playoff bid. Ed put together a 24 move miniature with mate on the board.
Pittsburgh dropped the last round to the Delhi Dynamite 1-3 with draws from Mika and Ed, totaling 19.5 points for the team and clincing 4th place behind St Louis (24 points), Chengdu (23 points), and Montclair (21.5). If you missed the commentary, you can watch it with NM David Itkin and CM Isaac Steincamp in full here:
With the Playoff Picture set, Pittsburgh fans had to wait to see how Atlantic heavyweights Webster and Minnesota stacked up. Losing to the Norway Gnomes in the last round, Webster finished with 19.5 points with a 4th place finish and a win, but Minnesota was jumped last second by the Estonia Horses on tiebreaks, leaving the Blizzard with only a half-point on the day. With Minnesota slipping, Pittsburgh got some breathing room in the standings, sitting at clear second by a full point:
Pittsburgh has little time before the all-Atlantic clash on Wednesday night with the Webster Windmills (5:55 PM EST). While both teams have claimed spots in the playoffs, the match will likely decide 1st place in the Atlantic Division and serve as a litmus test for Pittsburgh before the postseason.
As you know, lately I’ve been drowning in school work since the conclusion of the Cardinal Open. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about chess – in fact, today I wanted to share the most informal chess lesson I’ve ever received. Consider this:
In my bouts of procrastination, my roommate and fellow Chess^Summit columnist, Beilin, noticed that in a week my bullet rating had atrophied by over 100 points. After watching me play, Beilin commented that I flagged a lot in winning positions, simply because I got too excited when I had less than 10 seconds left in a game. Hmm… time to make adjustments.
Then this happened:
In the course of one evening, I regained 100 rating points. It’s amazing what objectivity can do for your chess. By simply ignoring how I felt about the position until the end of the game, I saved precious seconds on my clock and won a lot more. Is this a meaningful lesson for chess in longterm time controls?
Ok, first a disclaimer – bullet is not a replacement for proper chess training. So the takeaway from this article should not be to play more bullet, but rather to realize that the psychological factors in both may not be so different. From there we can start the discussion of this article.
This general ‘nervousness’ I had in bullet is similar to the feeling that haunts us in tournament games because we let it affect our objectivity. We’ve already talked about managing time, so today I want to talk about how our emotions can get in the way of our objectivity in winning positions.
Let’s start with an example from a recent tournament game I shared:
Here I have a decisive advantage – the knight on h6 is trapped, and if I can consolidate quickly, White will not have enough compensation for the piece. However, the game isn’t over and I should have lost after 41…Qa8? 42. Nd3 Qb8 because White had the decisive blow 43. Nxf4! +- Bxf4 44. Rd6+ Ne6 45. Qxf4+ with mate coming soon. Luckily my opponent erred with 43. Nxe5? and after some complications, I managed to win the game.
Honestly, I played 41…Qa8? quickly, without realizing the true dangers in the position. I remember feeling optimistic, and confident in my ability to pull the upset. But my level of excitement should have been punished – in adapting the mindset like the game was over, I stopped playing for one move. And in chess, we know how much of an impact one mistake can make…
Correct would have been 41…Qc2, but after some analysis, I decided here that I needed to have really spent some time here. The act of regrouping isn’t easy here, and I haven’t won until I’ve done so – material alone won’t cut it.
After thinking about this game, I realized I’ve actually made this mistake a few times before. Take this position from my most recent Pittsburgh Chess League match-up:
Out of a Berlin sideline, I’ve played really well to get this position. I’ve kept the bishop pair, and White is relatively passive in this position. All Black needs to do is keep pressure on the queenside while holding off the kingside expansion.
Already thinking I couldn’t lose this position, I played 36…Ra8? expecting to play …gxf4 at the right moment and bring my rook to the g-file. But just like the last example, confidence like this leads to blindness. I missed 37. g4! and White was no longer worse. In fact, the dramatic switch in initiative proved too much for me to recover from, and I lost ten moves later.
The more I looked through some of my previous games, the more I realized this is actually a really common weakness for both me and my opponents. Take this dramatic example from a game I played in the Czech Republic last year:
White is a lot better after a terrible opening display on my end, and my continuation here was one out of inertia than a belief I could salvage a draw. But my 2100 rated opponent showed how simple it is to lose a game with 27. g4?? Nf3+, and now I’m completely winning. Sure this is a horrendous blunder, but goes to show that once we let our guard down, our brain also tells us to stop looking at counterplay.
This isn’t just an amateur/expert-level phenomenon either, as we’ve seen it creep up in the games of professionals too. I can think of no better than Nakamura’s outing against Carlsen in the 2014 Zurich Chess Challenge. Going into this game, Nakamura had never beaten Magnus, with an unusually poor record of 0-8 (excluding draws), but after 33. Rxh2, that all seemed to be going away as Hikaru had a completely crushing attack:
Magnus was forced into 33…Qg6 34. Nf5 Re8, and after some thought, Hikaru repeated the position with 35. Qg4 (threatening Rh2-h6, trapping the queen) Qb6 36. Qh3 Qg6. And now Nakamura needed to find the win:
Trying to block out the emotions, Nakamura pushed through with 37. d6?, missing a critical detail. After Magnus’ 37…Nxd6 38. Nxd6 Rd8!,Nakamura realized that his first rank wasn’t defended, leaving his king open to attack. Hikaru tried to bail out with 39. Nc4, but it was already too late. After 39…Qxe4, Hikaru couldn’t adjust to the new position and played 40. Qh5?, going on to lose the game.
It’s not hard to put yourself in Hikaru’s shoes. So close to winning against his rival for the first time, Hikaru relaxed for one moment and botched a two move calculation. As it turns out, d5-d6 is the correct idea, but a 37. Rh1 or a 37. Ka2 needed to be inserted first to reduce the power of Black’s counterplay. 37. Qf1 is also completely winning.
So now we see how dangerous it is to think “I’m going to win” during a game. Just like how I learned in bullet this week, push that feeling to the end of the game and remain calm until the desired result is secured. While this mentality in bullet is to prevent your opponent from having counterplay on the clock, thinking like this will limit your opponent’s counterplay on the board.