Caissa’s Unexpected Gift

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A rare break from Pitt (not pictured: cat clawing me five seconds later)

In the past few weeks, my relationship with chess has taken a drastic change. Between managing a full academic schedule and preparing to enter an arduous job search, my ability to study effectively and consistently has been effectively decimated. Honestly, knowing my schedule and workload now, I think my previous semesters pale in comparison, especially when you add on my chess.com streaming and responsibilities for the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers. Perhaps you’ve been waiting to call me out for being unusually mum here (sorry!).

With all of the recent changes in my regular schedule, it’s really forced me to evaluate how I can approach chess differently, especially given my 30 rating point collapse last September.

Historically speaking, I think some my poor quality of play has been plagued by my own unrealistically high expectations. Failure to have a strong performance pushes even more pressure on to the next tournament until I break the cycle, only to follow that up with another disappointing showing, beginning the cycle again. A lot of stress, a lot of work – very little improvement.

However, with the copious amount of stress that this semester has brought, I think it’s  actually engulfed my stress from chess entirely.  I literally/physically cannot be more stressed than I am now. Which, while not ideal from a work-life balance standpoint, has actually forced me to improve psychologically in the limited time I do have over-the-board. I don’t have time to prepare for my opponents like I used to, or dwell on upcoming games, so my tournament appearances now just feel like breaks from school – which is what chess should be for us non-professionals, right? Here’s a couple perks I’ve noticed over the last few weeks:

  1. I am more confident – Perhaps you could argue that my confidence is misguided given my lack of preparation, but my new mindset allows me to feel like I have nothing to lose. I know there’s a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t be playing well right now, but I’ve been pushing those externalities aside, and just embracing that chess is hard.
  2. I am more creative – We saw a bit of this with my 5. g4 adventure last article, but I’ve actually been experimenting with a few openings for both colors this past month, and it’s given me new positions to explore. Some experiments have been more successful than others, but my games have become more interesting as a result.
  3. I am less emotional during games – If you’ve ever watched me play in person, I usually wear my emotions on my sleeve. But lately, when I reach critical positions I’ve been surprisingly calm, and I’ve even rejected more draw offers than I have ever previously. I think it’s in these moments where I think to myself “take the draw and do homework, or keep on playing?”. Not a professional set of mind, but I’ll take it. In games where I’ve been offered draws this past month, I’ve played on and scored 3.5/4 from roughly equal positions.

In turn, I would argue that my time management has slightly worsened, but the tradeoff is not too bad. I think another element that’s really helped is that internally, I’ve stopped making excuses for myself like, I would have played better if I didn’t have a midterm, I could have prepared more if I wasn’t trying so hard to be involved in the online chess community, and so forth.

Strong chess players are successful because they can play well in spite of their other conflicts. Most players I’m playing now have jobs, families, other obligations – I’m not the only active tournament player in the room who’s busy, so why excuse myself for it? When I lose now, I’m working really hard to ignore the particular distractions that may have caused me to fail, but rather embracing the fact that chess is hard, and using that as a vantage point for my next round. I can’t drop out of Pitt to play chess (or rather, won’t), but I can at least have a more positive mindset about my play.

But does this work? Perhaps this is not a sustainable approach in the long-run, but Caissa has been a particularly generous friend of mine since I last shared on Chess^Summit. After starting 2/2 in the Pittsburgh Chess Club’s Fred Sorensen Memorial, I tried main line 1. d4 (surprise!) against National Master Kevin Carl, and managed a draw from a position of strength. Though I probably should have continued playing instead of offering a half point, this game gave me a lot of confidence going into the next two rounds.

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Both of us in a deep think early into round (Photo Credit: Franklin Chen)

Composure Wins Games

The equal decision pitted me in a match-up with my former trainer NM Franklin Chen with the black pieces. Ugh this is literally the worst time to get this pairing. Franklin played a significant role in preparing me for the 2016 US Junior Open, and was thus (I would argue) is most familiar with my opening repertoire and weaknesses, barring my coach. To add insult to injury, having the Black pieces meant that Franklin had a week to prepare with White on a specific line, while I had to generally prepare my responses against 1 e4, 1 d4, 1 c4, 1 Nf3 – you get the idea. I guess a draw would be a favorable result. I did not have any expectations going in as I had yet to beat Franklin in a competitive game, and his opening understanding is much deeper than mine. Just get out of the opening.

Chen, Franklin (2123) – Steincamp, Isaac (2076)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.c3 Bg7 4.d4 cxd4 5.cxd4 d5 6.e5 Bg4 7.Nbd2

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 7. Nbd2

At this point in the game, I couldn’t tell if Franklin was actually playing out of his preparation, or was improvising. Either way, all I remembered was that I don’t take the knight on f3 in this line. 7…Nc6 8.h3 Bf5 9.Bb5 

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 9. Bb5

He spent some time here, which I took as him not expecting me to play …Bf5. While White has more space in the center, the knight on d2 slows down White’s queenside development. In the meantime, Black will set-up a French-like structure without the bad light-squared bishop. 9…Qb6 10.Qe2 e6 11.Nb3 Nge7 12.0–0 a6

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 12…a6

Presenting White with an awkward decision. Should White play 13. Bd3, he will lose a lot of time as 13…Bxd3 14. Qxd3 Nb4 followed by Ra8-c8 will give Black a lot of queenside counterplay. At that point, the knight on b3 would be misplaced since an eventual …b7-b6 would kick out any Nb3-c5 ideas. Avoiding the pressure, Franklin instead chose to give up the bishop pair with 13.Bxc6+ Nxc6 14.Be3 Qb5 15.Qxb5 axb5

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 15… axb5

At this point, I was really happy with how the opening concluded. Black is more active with the rooks ready to launch to the queenside, and I hold the bishop pair going into the queenless middlegame. While Black’s play is fairly simple, White will need to be both creative and accurate to hold the balance. Without any natural pawn breaks, White erred with 16.Ne1?, with the idea of g2-g4, followed by f2-f3 to snare my f5 bishop.

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 16. Ne1

This felt like a psychological turning point. White spent about 5 minutes on each of the next three moves, while my moves were mostly forced. This gave me a time advantage that I was able to keep for the rest of the game and press with in the late endgame. While the idea of trapping my bishop may be appealing, White’s voluntarily disconnected his knights, and its not quite clear where the knight can go from e1. 16…h5 17.f3? h4 18.Rf2 

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 18. Rf2

With the change in pawn structure, we can see that Black is now clearly better. White is having to spend time to find a new home for the e1 knight, and in the meantime, I can activate my dark squared bishop via f8. 18…Bf8 19.Bg5 Be7 20.Bxe7 Kxe7

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 20…Kxe7

While I give up my bishop pair, White now cannot play on the dark squares, so my h4 pawn is no longer a real weakness. With the simplification, I can revert to my queenside conquest. 21.Rd2 b6 22.Rc1 Rhc8 23.a3 Ra4 24.Kf2 Rc4 25.Rxc4 bxc4 26.Nc1

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 26. Nc1

While it’s not decisive yet, my advantage is growing. White’s pawns on the queenside are nagging weaknesses since the pawn structure is fixed. Furthermore, each of White’s knights are pretty anemic. As long as I can keep my hold an push it should be smooth sailing… 26…Na5 27.Na2 Nb3 28.Rd1 f6?=

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 28…f6?

I had a jolt when I played this move because I realized I had erred here. This gives White the opportunity to clear the e5 square for a knight, which make the position extremely difficult to win. Luckily for me, Franklin opted for a different continuation, but my advantage lessened since White’s active king is able to make up for his poor knight play. 29.f4 fxe5 30.fxe5 Rf8 31.Ke3 g5 32.Nf3 Rg8 33.Rh1

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 33. Rh1

As I was returning, Franklin offered me a draw and I made a point of declining before I sat down. The position is somewhat difficult still, and psychologically it can be easy to give up. That being said, only Black can win here – White’s knights are poor, and g2 and b2 are both promising targets. I wasn’t sure how I would carry it out, but I was seeing an idea of bringing my knight on b3 all the way to f5. Maybe a …g5-g4 insertion becomes possible. Why not keep playing? 33…Na5 34.Nc3 Kd7 35.Ne2 Bd3 36.Nc1 Be4 37.Ne2 Bd3 Always repeat! 38.Nc1 Be4 39.Ne2 Nc6

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 39…Nc6

Now my plan is coming to life! White can’t stop my knight from coming to f5. Once my knight reaches the destination, I’ll venture into various …Kd7-c6 ideas to activate my king and push on the queenside with …b6-b5. 40.Rg1 Ne7

It’s worth noting that 41.g4 is not a real option as after 41…hxg3 42.Nxg3 Bxf3 43.Kxf3 Rf8+ 44.Ke3 Rh8 45.Rh1 Rh4 Black is clearly better.

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Analysis after 45…Rh4

The game continued with a couple repetitions and slow progress from Black on the queenside. 41.Kd2 Nf5 42.Nh2 Bd3 43.Nc1 Be4 44.Ne2 Kc6 45.Ng4 b5 46.Nf6 Rg7

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 46…Rg7

Franklin’s managed to plop his knight onto the f6 square, but it must have been a cold shower when he realized that it doesn’t change the impression of the position. The knight has no targets from here, and Nxe4 will only help me create a passed pawn and open the d5 square for my king. With only limited time here Franklin tried his best to hold with passive play. 47.Kc3 Bd3 48.Nc1 Ng3!

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 48. Ng3!

Having to lose a tempo due to 49. Nxd3 Ne2+, White had to concede 49.Re1, giving me time to tickle the chronically weak g2 pawn with 49…Be4 forcing 50.Nxe4 Nxe4+ 51.Kc2 Rf7 and with the file, my advantage is near decisive.

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 51…Rf7

Now both in time trouble, I did my best to keep calm and bludgeon my way into the kingside. 52.Re2 Ng3 53.Rd2 Nf1 54.Re2 Rf4 55.Kc3 Ng3 56.Rc2 Re4 57.b3 I stopped notating here because I was confident that this was the final straw in White’s position. 57…Nf5 58.bxc4 dxc4 Opening the d5 square for my knight while limiting White’s potential counterplay with the a-pawn. 59.Ne2 Ne3 60.Ra2 Nd5+ 61.Kd2

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 61. Kd2

61…Rxe2+!–+ 62.Kxe2 Nc3+ 0–1

And just like that, I hit 3.5/4 in the tournament, a personal best for the four round mark at any Pittsburgh Chess Club event. My confidence soared following the match, and it was really feeling like all of my previous studies were finally paying off. Just a few days later I even managed a draw against a 2700+ (chess.com, not FIDE) rated International Master in the Royal Arena Kings event:

So things were going well… I was finally starting to feel in the driver’s seat with my play, which is hardly ever a bad sign.

Reality Check

Before my fifth round of the Sorenson Memorial, the weekend offered the Pennsylvania State Championships, and immediately, my level of play seemed much worse than the week before. I dropped to 0.5/2 when my opponent found this nice tactical gem to force immediate resignation!

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Mucerino–Steincamp, White to move and win

After an embarrassing blindspot early in the game to drop an exchange, I was starting to make a comeback, and if I can win the pawn on b3, I’ll actually have some winning chances. That’s why it was imperative that White find the showstopper 27. Bf6+! to close the curtains and prompt resignation. 27…Kxf6 28. Qe7+ Kf5 29. g4# and 27…Bxf6 28. Qf8+ Kh7 29. Qg8# so I fell back to earth.

My lone bright spot of the tournament was an endgame grind Sunday morning to reach 2/4 heading into the final round. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll share the critical moment:

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Demetruk–Steincamp, position after 19. Be2

This was a pretty tricky moment in the game, and while I wanted to play 19…Qe3 to stop White from castling, I couldn’t keep the attack going. White’s idea of Ng3-e4, followed by Qc7-Qc5 is quite strong since the queen trade is forced and the endgame is worse, since my lack of development is quite limiting. After 20. Ne4, I realized that neither …Ne7-d5 or …Ne7-f5 yields anything, and instead found the critical 20…b4!, opening the possibility of …Bc8-a6 should White dare take the b4 pawn. Play continued 21. Qc5 Qxc5 22. Nxc5 bxc3 23. bxc3 Nd5 24. Kd2 Nf4 25. Bf1 Rb8, with Black seizing the initiative:

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Demetruk–Steincamp, position after 25…Rb8

Now, unlike the endgames before, Black is clearly in the driver’s seat. My pieces are developing with tempi, and unlike before instead of having a weak b5 pawn, it’s White who holds the biggest weakness on c3! After four hours of grinding the position, White finally crumbled. I guess that makes favorable endgame transpositions tactics too!

Nice win aside, I mangled a completely winning position in the final round to finish 2/5, so the tournament as a whole proved to be a disappointment. While there were a bunch of small tweaks I wanted to make from my mistakes before my Tuesday night match-up, my coursework required attention, and the two days passed quickly, leaving me no real time to prepare.

I tried something new with Black, and immediately the position became quite double-edged. My opponent was very close to winning when he missed 32. Rxe2! +-

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Özbek–Steincamp, position after 31…Qh5

I understood that this was a winning shot before I played 31…Qh5, but there was really no way to avoid this. I tried to maintain a calm posture and let White’s clock work its magic. Under pressure, White opted for 32. Bg6?? which loses instantly with 32… Rxf2! and now White realizes the queen cannot be captured:

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Özbek–Steincamp, position after 32…Rxf2!

White tried to survive after 33. Rxe2 Qxe2 34. Nhf3 but 34…Rh2+ forced resignation since mate is inevitable. A scary way to jump to 4.5/5 – after checking the game with Stockfish, it’s quite evident that I probably did not “deserve” to win… What can I say? I guess in the eyes of Stockfish it’s a miracle that I win any of my games.

Despite an ugly finish, the win guaranteed a share of first place, and a peaceful draw this past Tuesday sealed the clear tournament win for me. While the competition was not significantly higher rated than me, it was a great feeling to win a tournament for the first time since my Marshall Chess Club appearance in 2016.

Steady Finish

I was able to end October on an emphatic note with my Pittsburgh Chess League match up against NM Thomas Magar, as the University of Pittsburgh took on the Monroeville Chess Club. With the match level at 1.5-1.5, my opponent offered a draw to lock a 2-2 tie in this position:

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 31. Kh2

I found rejecting this offer to be somewhat psychologically difficult – I had been defending the entire game, and not that it should matter, but my opponent was higher rated. So a deep think ensued…

With White’s last move, 31. Kh2, my opponent has blocked in his rook, and so …Qd7-e7 asks White to find resources to deal with …Rf6-f8. With this slowing down any Ng3-e4 ideas, I was able to convince myself that I wanted to see what he would do after 31…Qe7. After 32. Nxf5 Rxf5 33. Rh3 Qg5, I’m clearly better, as the resulting rook endgame gave me a material advantage:

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 33…Qg5

White lost the h-pawn, and after trading a pair of rooks, White realized that his rook has no way to become active, my h-pawn is an unstoppable force. After trading the a-pawns, we reached this position:

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 48… Ra7

Here White has an uncomfortable position. Aside from …Ra7-g7 ideas, I can always go after the b3 pawn or place my rook on the 6th rank to support my only weakness while assisting the h-pawn up the board. With no real active ideas left, White tried 49. f4 exf4+ 50. Kxf4 Rf7+ 51. Ke4

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 51. Ke4

Now we realize that Black’s position is improving. The White king looks active on e4, but it actually can’t make progress, as my rook and the d6 pawn cut it off. While White’s g1 rook cuts off my king, it can’t infiltrate my position effectively, which is a problem since he will need to stop my h-pawn after 51…h4. White tried to put his rook behind the pawn, but it’s already too late. 52. Rg4 Kh5 53. Rg8 Rf6 54. Rh8+ Kg5 55. Rg8+ Rg6:

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 55…Rg6

Should White trade the rooks, the pawn endgame is winning, so my opponent has to surrender the g-file. If he plays 56. Rh8, I will simply play 56…Kg4 and …h4-h3, so the only viable option was 56. Rf8, and after 56…h3 57. Rf5+ Kg4 58. Rf4+ Kg3, my opponent lost on time, but the result is fairly clear:

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 58…Kg3

Black will simply escort the pawn to a1, and should White attempt 59. Kf5 Rf6+! will win the pawn endgame, as the rooks will come off the board.

What a month! After a September that saw me drop as low as 2066, I somehow found a way to recover completely and re-break 2100 for the umpteenth time:

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Honestly in writing all of this, I think one thing has become extraordinarily clear – chess is hard. And it should be! We’re all going to hit rough patches, there will always be bad games, and we will always find a way to ask ourselves “how did I miss that??”. My biggest lesson from October is, don’t fight normal! Instead, actively look for ways to improve, and don’t find any external reasons as to why you lost. If you made a blunder, own it – don’t let it hold you back. Don’t give yourself an excuse to not play your best.

If you’re out there Caissa, thanks – this was exactly the kind of month I needed!

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Slow Start and Second Chances

Let’s just say that reacclimatizing to the fall semester and playing quality chess hasn’t gone according to plan. It’s been tough – adjusting to new responsibilities as a senior, entering the job search, trying to graduate on time – was I too naïve in defining my NM goal?

Despite a reasonably respectable performance in the Washington International Blitz tournament last August, I lost my footing in the Pittsburgh Summer Open scoring 0.5/3, and tanked again in the Pennsylvania State G/60 Championships when I failed to convert this position:

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Steincamp–Schragin, position after 26. Bb2

Thud. A thirty point rating drop in a week over the two performances, and my confidence took quite the hit. Things didn’t get any better when IM Alex Katz beat me in 10 consecutive games playing irregular openings in my Challenger’s Corner stream on chess.com. So, as you can imagine, I was really struggling to find something to hold on to. Nothing seemed to be going right, despite forcing myself to train even more throughout the week. Can I even call myself a 2100 rated player anymore?

Despite the downward spiral, my Tuesday night pairing at the Pittsburgh offered me a unique second chance: a rematch with Jeff Schragin – the very player who had swindled me in the aforementioned position. Knowing I’d have the Black pieces, I knew I could not afford to lose the rematch. Not just because I was supposedly the higher rated player, but I knew I needed this game for me.

Over the past year, a lot of my closest supporters have given up on me, telling me it’s time to move on, that the NM title not only isn’t happening, but will never happen for me. And it’s been really hard to block out the noise, as each tournament “failure” comes with an increasing sense of doubt in myself. Admittedly, I haven’t been strong enough psychologically to fight for myself, but I knew this game was a potential breaking point for me. Can the free fall stop?

I returned Tuesday evening from Pitt’s career fair, and in suit and tie, I cranked out my homework, leaving me just 30 minutes to prepare my lines for the upcoming match. Before I knew it I was plugging in my headphones and starting to head out the door.

There she goes, there she goes again
She calls my name, pulls my – Ouch!

As I was gathering my things, my leg hit the edge of my bed, leaving a nasty bruise. Shi*t, smart move genius. So I was off to a great start. With Spotify still shuffling, I caught the nearby bus, and passed by my old apartment as I picked up some things at the nearby convenience store. Perrier was the lucky drink of the evening. I headed out and starting walking to the club building.

The rails are caught now
And I am falling down
Fools in a spiral
Round this town of steam

I got to the board, and set my clock, dodging questions about how I had botched my game last Sunday. It happens, but I won’t let it happen again. I was running a few minutes behind schedule, but I felt relaxed. Even with all the pressure I had built up in my head, I could only think I’m the underdog now as we shook hands and started the clocks. As I predicted, we quickly walked through some main line King’s Indian theory:

Schragin,Jeffrey (1929) – Steincamp,Isaac (2066) 

21st Fred Sorenson Memorial (2), 25.09.2018

1.Nf3 g6 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 Bg7 4.Nc3 d6 5.e4 0–0 6.Be2 Na6 7.0–0 e5 8.dxe5

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 8. dxe5

Honestly, not the deviation I had expected. I’ve played Jeff a few times before, and he usually defaults to 8. Be3 or 8. d5.  Caught a little off guard, I was a bit relieved. This King’s Indian line usually favors Black, thanks to the superior central structure.

8…dxe5 9.Qxd8 Rxd8 10.Bg5 Re8 11.Rad1 h6 12.Bxf6?! Bxf6

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 12…Bxf6

Opening theory at this point has basically concluded. White has elected to give up his bishop pair, which will bode well for me in the long run. Structurally, my plan is quite simple. I will play …c7-c6 to take away the d5 outpost, and as White tries to contest the d-file, I will aim to place a piece on the d4 square, since White has already extended with e2-e4 and c2-c4. White shouldn’t be much worse at this point, but if he isn’t careful, it would be particularly easy to fall behind

13.Rd2 c6 14.Rfd1 Nc5 15.b4 Ne6 16.Bd3?!

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 16. Bd3

This move didn’t make a lot of sense to me. In the past few moves, I’ve rerouted my misplaced knight on a6 to e6 where it hits the d4 pawn, and managed to make White structurally commit to b2-b4. On the other side of the board, White doubled his rooks on the d-file so he could block it with Be2-d3.

I kind of have a free move here with this extra precautionary measure from White. I could try to launch my knight on to the d4 square, but tactically, it’s not as strong after 16…Nd4? 17. Nxd4 exd4 18. Ne2, and my pawn on d4 seems to be more of a liability than a strength. Seeing this, it didn’t take long to find the right plan, 16…a5!, trying to pry open the c5 square. White could try 17. a3, but in the game I had seen axb4 18. axb4 Ra3 19. Nb1 Ra4 20. Rb2 Rd8 21. Bc2 Rxd1 22. Bxd1 Ra1 23. Nc3 Nd4

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Variation after 23…Nd4

Black is clearly better here, so instead White opted for 17.b5, but this clears the c5 square, and after 17…Nc5, my c8 bishop could finally get into the game.

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 17…Nc5

This is a big development. My plan was to trade my light squared bishop (which can never attack d4) for the f3 knight (which can attack d4). A dream position would be if I could trade my f6 bishop for his c3 knight, leaving his useless light squared bishop on the board, as my knight finds comfort on d4.

18.Be2 Bg4 19.h3 Bxf3 20.Bxf3 Rad8?!=

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 20…Rad8

A bit too weary of an incoming Rd2-d6 idea, I decided my best chance to play for an advantage was the minor piece endgame, missing the strong idea 20…Bg5! 21. Rd6 Be7 22. R6d2 =+

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Variation after 22. R6d2

There’s still a long ways to go, but Black is really flexible, and White’s pieces are misplaced. Here I can continue to play for …Nc5-e6-d4, with the added perk of a potential …Be7-b4. Black stands better.

Instead of going for the ending, White erred with 21.Bg4?, and was never able to fully recover. I had anticipated 21. Rxd8 Rxd8 22. Rxd8+ Bxd8 23. Bd1 with the following endgame:

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Variation after 23. Bd1

I was fully aware that with best play, White should hold. However, I liked that I didn’t have any clear weaknesses in the position. Even if I allowed White to play 23. Bf3-c8 in one move, it still cannot dislodge my pawn structure.

Speaking of pawn structure, my knight still stands strong on c5, and its powers can be augmented with a future …f7-f5 push. There’s a lot of chess to be played still, though I admit, 20…Bg5! was a key miss.

Luckily enough, 21.Bg4? allowed me to insert 21…Rd4 22.bxc6 bxc6 -/+, and there was no doubt that I was clearly better here:

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 22…bxc6

White’s center is about to collapse, as both e4 and c4 are weak pressure points. White’s bishop on g4 still isn’t compatible with the pawn structure, and I have the luxury of playing …Rd8 or …Rb8 if needed. With not a glimpse of activity left in the position, White is basically strategically lost. My opponent fell apart in just a couple moves.

23.Bf3 Rxc4 24.Ne2 Bg5 25.Rd6 Nxe4

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 25…Nxe4

Clipping a second pawn. Here White realized that the point of 24…Bg5 was that if 26. Bxe4 Rxe4 and there isn’t time to win the pawn on c6 because the knight on e2 is hit. Instead, my opponent blundered immediately with 26.Kf1?? Nxd6 With the rook hung, White tendered his resignation.

Even with what’s proven to be a difficult September, I doubled my point total with 2/2 with four rounds to go. Emotionally this was a big win for me, but I’m not going to pretend like all of my problems are fixed now with this result. Looking beyond some of my confidence issues this month, a lot of my recent games have shown me that I really need to revaluate how I make some of my decisions over the board. This is going to be a long rebuilding process, and I need to be vigilant in these next few months.

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Glimpse from my over-dressed second round performance (photo credit: Finn Overlie)

It wouldn’t be Pittsburgh if the week didn’t finish with another opportunity to get in a game. Sunday afternoon marked the opening weekend for the Pittsburgh Chess League, one of the oldest chess leagues in North America. After grabbing brunch with a friend in Oakland, I found myself with a couple hours to warm up on University campus before my game started. It didn’t take long to find the computer lab in the library to play some music and online blitz.

I’m looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something help – is that mate?

So yeah, I was feeling pretty good. Now with the White pieces, I decided to take some opening liberties against an expert: 1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 c6?! 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e3 e6 5. g4?!:

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 5. g4?!

Maybe a bit too confident here, but why not? Black has willingly boxed in his c8 bishop, and basically wasted a move with 2…c6. I don’t play this kind of stuff often, but it’s not like the g2-g4, h2-h4 ideas are totally original in these structures…

To his credit, Black actually defended reasonably well, but it came at the cost of time.

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 16…Nf5

I needed to keep the pressure on Black, so I immediately sacrificed the exchange on f5 to win a massive pawn center. During the game, I figured it was justified since all of the files are closed and d5 falls. It isn’t the machine’s top choice, but I maintain that it was still an extremely practical decision since the knight on f5 is well suited. 17. Rxf5!? exf5 18. Nxd5 Qa5+ 19. Nc3 Rc8 20. Bf3 b5 21. Kf2 0-0

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 21…0-0

Here I hold a nice advantage, my goal is to bring my knight to f4, while cementing my central hold with c2-c3, and expanding on the kingside with h2-h4. Already in a massive time hole, Black traded queens and bishops, making the endgame even more favorable for me.

As I was cruising, our team was already down 0-2, so I had to be careful and avoid any mistakes to save our outfit from losing the opening match of the season. The final critical position required some brute force calculation, but the idea was straightforward:

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 42…h5

Nearly all roads lead to Rome, but I forced myself to see the entire line before continuing. Let’s see if you can too: 43. Ke5 h4 44. Nh5 h3 45. Nxg7 h2 46. Nf5+ Kd8 and now the best move is not 47. Ng3 (though it will also get the job done), but rather to play for mate! 47. Kxd6! h1Q 48. e7+ and now Black realized that he had to let me promote, and the game ended shortly after.

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 48. e7+

So after a week of drowning in bad chess, I got to finish September on a high note. There’s a lot of tough games ahead, and I need to hold myself to a higher standard as they approach. But if this week taught me anything, I’ve earned the right to tell myself: you got this, bro.

Tragedies of a 1900 Rated Player

I thought for today’s article, I’d look back at one of my games from 2014 (and before) where my opponent played particularly well, and I much less so. I thought this would be a fun exercise, as you all will get an opportunity to learn from my positional and strategic mistakes, and I will try to salvage my position four years later. Hopefully, in analyzing these games, you will be able to see some of the shortcomings of a ~1900 rated player, and avoid the very mistakes that made it difficult for me to break 2000!

I want to review a G/60 game I played in the Kingstowne Chess Club against NM Srdjan Darmanovic back in early 2014. At this time, I had yet to break 2000, and my opponent was mid-2200 strength. When I chose this game for this article, I think the first thing that stuck out for me was my lack of a clear plan for development. Let’s take a look:

Darmanovic, Srdjan – Steincamp, Isaac (Kingstowne Action Plus #98, January 2014)

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. d4 O-O 6. h3

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Position after 6. h3

Based on what I know now about King’s Indian Defense theory, I think it’s fair to say that I was out of book at this point. This h3 variation has gotten a lot more popular in recent years, and is considered an important tabiya for any KID player. White pauses development for a move to prevent various …Bg4 ideas Black may have. Taking away this resource from Black makes it difficult to chip away at White’s space advantage, so Black is already at a crossroads.

6…Nbd7 7. Bg5 h6?!

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Position after 7…h6

I don’t think I would have played 6…Nbd7 if I got that position again, but I would certainly not be an advocate for this approach. White’s bishop will find refuge on e3, and will simply target this h6 pawn for the rest of the game. I think in this position I should have asked myself “What do I want to achieve in this position?” or “Does 7…h6 help me achieve anything?”

With …h7-h6 on the board, it’s easy to see how White benefits, but what does Black intend to do now? When playing the KID, it’s critical that Black not waste time or create unnecessary targets. Black starts out the opening by surrendering the center, and giving White lots of space. So here we understand that on principle, this move fails. A quick look in the database shows only only one GM who played this move, and White went on to win (Bareev-Svidler, 1997).

So what’s a more constructive use of time? I think the most common move, 7…e5 proves to be a lot more versatile. While it may feel awkward to self-pin the f6 knight, Black can always play …Qd8-e8.  With this move, Black finally stakes claim in the center with a normal KID position. Black will need to be creative finding a home for the c8-bishop, but Black should be comfortable here.

8. Be3 e5 9. d5 Ne8?

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Position after 9…Ne8

Too dogmatic! Here I wanted to carry out ….f7-f5 as soon as possible, but I’ve failed to analyze the position for other ideas. For example, after 9…Nc5 10. Nd2 a5, we achieved a position where White stands slightly better, but Black’s pieces are better coordinated:

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Variation after 10…a5

This idea of a forceful …Nc5 followed by …a7-a5 is a powerful one, as it secures an outpost on c5. Should White ever take this knight, Black can recapture with the d-pawn, and bring his f6 knight to d6 via e8. Already, we see the difference in potentiality for Black by comparison. Black hasn’t written off this idea of …f7-f5 yet, but I would have at least been able to place my bishop on d7 to connect my rooks.

10. Qd2 Kh7 11. g4!

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Position after 11. g4!

And now the short-sightedness of Black’s plan is realized. Up to this point, my set-up has the sole goal of advancing with …f7-f5. Because I’ve given White the luxury of space and much better development, my opponent can afford to “weaken” his king for the time being. This move is not the machine’s top pick, but I think for a G/60 time control, White has a significant advantage.

Black needs to shift focus to the queenside with a move like 11…c6, but I opted for the much worse continuation, 11…f5? 12. gxf5 gxf5 13. exf5 Ndf6 14. Qc2 e4?

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Position after 14…e4

In this series of moves, I’ve made numerous positional blunders to continue with my plan. 11…f5 allowed White to open up the position, where White clearly stands better. On the other side of the board, I somehow managed to get a superfluous pair of knights on e8 and f6.

Even worse is the more recent strategic sin, 14…e4?. I should have probably forced myself to stop here and look for some plan to salvage the position, but based on my game notes, this came quickly, with thew idea of opening the g7 bishop. Of course, with every pawn move, two squares grow weaker, and here the d4 square is a prime example. My opponent was quick to play – if I had this position as White, I’d say this is fairly automatic too: 15. Nd4 Qe7 16. Ne6 Bxe6 17. fxe6 Kh8

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Position after 17…Kh8

Visually we see the irreparable damage I’ve brought to my own position. Black has no chance now to be active, and White will simply queenside castle and throw both of his rooks at my king.

The lesson here? Don’t play dogmatically! My play has been influenced by one idea up to this point, but it’s so simple to find ideas outside of the …f7-f5 push. Maybe it’s easier to say this four years later, but perhaps a couple more minutes spent would have yielded more.

White finished the game off quite nicely, but it’s hard to offer anything for Black, so we’ll be moving on. If you want to see the rest of the game, click here.

1900-rated Bonehead Lesson #1: A lot of coaches say focus on concepts in openings over memorization. I think the distinction between that notion and this game was that as Black, I only focused on a singular concept, without adapting to White’s twist on the opening. If you find that the opening you play doesn’t give you that flexibility, you might want to consider looking elsewhere.

1900-rated Bonehead Lesson #2: When things clearly aren’t working slow down and make a plan! In this particular game, this went hand-in-hand with lesson #1, but even beyond the opening, I had several chances to stop and not play …f7-f5 and find other avenues of play.

These things sound really basic for a 1900 to be messing up, don’t they? And they are! What I’ve seen now, four years later, is that when playing sub-2000 opponents, they are susceptible to variations on these kinds of basic planning errors too. Let’s flip the script and I’ll show you what I mean.

In this game, I had Black against a 1900 rated player in the April 2017 First Saturday Tournament in Budapest. My opponent opted for the Scotch, but after a couple moves it became clear he lost his way:

Lukacs, Albert – Steincamp, Isaac (First Saturday Tournament, April 2017)

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d4

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Position after 4. d4

Prior to my trip to Europe, I had switched to 1…e5, so I had to prepare quite a bit beforehand. Luckily for us, I have quite extensive post-game notes on this game:

“Admittedly my knowledge of this version of the Scotch is quite limited. All I remember is White usually avoids this line because Black always has …Bf8-b4 and its inconvenient for White”

So – to be fully transparent, at the time I couldn’t quite remember theory here as well. As I include my game notes, compare the thought process from the first game to sense the difference! Out of book does not mean out of luck!

4…exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 6.f3!?

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Position after 6. f3?!

“I’m on my own here. This seemed dubious, so I thought the simplest
way to play would be for …d7-d5″

And I still don’t like White’s choice – this isn’t really an idea in this line of the Scotch, so my best guess is that White is reacting to the pin on the c3 knight, and didn’t know to play 6. Nxc6, the main line here. Kind of like my move in the last game, …h7-h6, this move can only really help me, the opponent.

I continued with 6…O-O, but as American IM Will Paschall pointed out immediately after the game, I could have just played 6…d5 here with a bit more of an edge.

We played the next sequence of moves reasonably quickly:

7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.Bd3 d5 9.O-O Re8 10.Bg5 Qd6

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Position after 10… Qd6

And here I wrote in my notes:

“I sensed here that the position was roughly equal, but I sensed one of three things would happen: 1) my opponent would prove equality, 2) my opponent will give me a position where I play for two results, or 3) he will blunder in just a few moves”

A little abstract – but now that I’ve had this sense in some of my other games, let me attempt to explain:

White’s position doesn’t make sense. Normally, White would take on d5 and try to play against my dark squares, but opening up the position favors Black – thanks in part to the pawn on f3. I have a couple potential plans here – pushing …d5-d4, breaking the center by trading on e4, or sitting and waiting for White to break the tension. I still need to identify which route I want to pursue, but I have options. But where does White play?

For example, if he continues with 11.Bxf6 Qxf6 12.exd5 Bxc3 13.bxc3 cxd5 I can already play for two results – simplifying now only helps me.

Because White’s development doesn’t suggest an obvious plan, I knew that there was already some pressure on him to respond to my ideas before creating his own. Somewhat surprisingly, he collapsed in 12 moves.

11.Re1 d4 12.a3?!

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Position after 12. a3?!

“The engine’s best move, though during the game it seemed like an admission of guilt”

My opponent spent 25 minutes here, and to only come up with this move was the sign of a trend in my favor.

After the game, my opponent said that he missed the following attempt to defend:

12.e5!? Rxe5 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Ne4 Qe7

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Variation after 14…Qe7

“I saw this position – I thought White had some compensation, but believed I could fend it off. Though if White is to prove equality, this is it”

I would need to see a little deeper to confirm my analysis (specifically 16…Bxc3!), but my position is still on the right track. Black has the bishop pair and is certainly for choice. I continued to analyze the line after the game with an engine and came up with: 15.c3 dxc3 16.bxc3 Bxc3! ( 16…Ba5? 17.f4 ) 17.Nxc3 Qc5+ 18.Kf1 Qxc3

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Variation after 18…Qxc3

And Black nurses a material advantage. There’s still some work to do, but as I said before, I have gotten a position where I can play for two results.

So, back to the game:

12…dxc3 13.axb4 cxb2 14.Ra3?

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Position after 14. Ra3

“The real culprit, the positioning of this rook is particularly unfortunate”

Again, like my 2014 game, White continues to move with a particularly short-sided view. Black not only has the advantage, but gets to dictate the flow of the game.

14…Rb8 15.Qb1 Rxb4 16.Rxa7? Nd5!

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Position after 16…Nd5

This more or less seals the deal, as the threat of Nc3 is incredibly strong. If 17.exd5 Rxe1+ 18.Qxe1 b1=Q-+ and if 17.Bd2 Qc5+! wins a piece after 18.Kf1 Qxa7 19.Bxb4 Nxb4 20.Qxb2 Nxd3 21.cxd3-+

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Variation

My opponent tried to save the game with 17.Ra3 but after 17…Qc5+ 18.Kf1 Nc3 19.Rxc3 Qxc3 20.Ke2 Ra4 21.Bd2 Qa3 22.c3 Be6 0-1 As Black’s b-pawn will promote or be traded for copious amounts of material.

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Position after 22…Be6, 0-1

And so just like the first game, the clearest problem was lack of a clear plan! This is not to suggest that ~1900 rated players aren’t capable of coming up with plans, but it should show you the difference in how to carry out a game. It’s incredibly easy to play artificially, or look for the most aesthetically pleasing move, but it’s another thing to have a deep understanding of the position. Notice some key themes for improvement for both games:

  1. Where do my pieces belong?
  2. Why is this move useful? Do the negatives outweigh the positives?
  3. What are my other options?

I think if the losing side in both games had just asked these simple questions – they would have put up a lot more resistance. I think one of the biggest differences between me as a 1900 and me as a 2000+ rated player is that I’ve had to force myself to open my mind and adapt to other options within a position.

What are some other things that helped you break 2000? Any noticeable changes? Let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for our readers trying to cross the hurdle!

Moving Cities, Moving Focus

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Homemade ramen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rasmussen – Rydstrom, White to Move

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

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

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Position in my line after 26…Bg7

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

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Position after 34. Rh8+, White is winning!

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

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

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

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

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

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Position after 31…c4

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

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Position after 35. Qf6 +-

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

So I guess that’s two takeaways:

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

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

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

Streaming with Chess.com

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

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

Knowing your Audience

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

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

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

Starting Soon.jpg

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

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

Karpov System Falls Short Again

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

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

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

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

Punishing the Weak King!

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

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

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

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

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

Endgames are Cool too!

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

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GMChessMaster1209 – Me, position after 40. gxf4

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

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GMChessMaster1209 – Me, position after 44. Kf3

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

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

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

1) Create a Passed Pawn

2) Activate my King

3) Fix my Opponent’s Pawns on Dark Squares

4) Sacrifice my Bishop to Reach a Forced Win

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

First Ever Daily Tournament!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting and Adulting

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

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Playing a game at the Folklife Festival in the National Mall

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

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

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

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

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Night out at the Washington Nationals game!

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

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

1) Adjust Your Goals – What’s Reasonable?

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

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

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

2) Manage Time Better

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

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

3) Chess is Hard, But it is NOT Work

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

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View from the Lincoln Memorial.

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

Momentum in Chess: How Emotions Can Win Games

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

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

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

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

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 21. Rac1

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

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 26. Rxd1

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

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 31. Bxb5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Comeback King and World Championship Challenger. photo: Maria Emelianova

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

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

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

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