How to (NOT) Play the Ruy Lopez

The Ruy Lopez has been considered one of the best openings to play as White due to its solidity and relative simplicity.  The opening has been around for many centuries, and some of the basic concepts and ideas in the opening are known to many.  Still, it’s not a two-result game every time White plays it.  Even with decent play from White, there have been many instances where very accurate play by Black has led to mind-blowing wins.

There was such a game quite recently.  The Candidates tournament is currently in progress in Berlin, where eight of the top players compete in a double round robin for a chance to challenge World Champion Magnus Carlsen to a match at the end of this year.  In the third round, there was a particularly crazy game between Aronian and Kramnik.  Let’s take a look:

Aronian – Kramnik, Berlin Candidates, 2018

That could definitely be one of the best performances by Black in the Ruy Lopez, if not the immaculate performance.  Granted, it did stem from some clever opening preparation, but with the knowledge that Kramnik didn’t go far into that specific line before going out of prep, it was a brilliant performance.  If there’s one thing we could take away from this game, it’s to never underestimate Black’s attacking prospects on the kingside if given the opportunity.   Kramnik didn’t hesitate to start attacking as early as move 7, and he never had to castle as he was always pushing with the initiative.

This also offers another instructive lesson – one cannot play opening moves in any random order, as playing certain moves earlier or later can change the dynamic of the position, allowing certain possibilities to come up that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.  For example, in this game, if Aronian had delayed castling and playing h3 in favor of Nbd2, Nc4, Qe2, etc, he wouldn’t have had to deal with a kingside attack from Kramnik.  It is little things like this that make chess the great game that it is.

And with that, I’ll see you next time!


Another Year, Another VA States

The Virginia State Scholastic Chess Championships is starting today, and by the time you see this article, I’ll likely be playing.  In honor of the tournament, I wanted to spend this week talking about the tournament itself and looking back at perhaps one of the more memorable games I’ve played at the annual event.

The VA State Championships is a unique tournament.  It always takes place during the first weekend of March, which is a rather uneventful two-day weekend in any other aspect.  It’s a six-round tournament, but because it takes place on a two-day weekend, these rounds are fast-paced and rapid fire, one after another.  Here, there are four rounds on Saturday, starting at 9 am and continuing at 12 noon, 3 pm, and 6 pm.  The last two rounds are on Sunday at 8:30 am and 12 noon.  The first three games on Saturday are G/60 + d/5, and the last three (last round on Saturday and the two on Sunday).  If I’m being honest, this is pretty murderous schedule.  In years past, I’ve always been exhausted by the end of the day on Saturday, and sometimes even before the last round that day.  In contrast, top-level open tournaments have a schedule calling for one, at most two, game(s) a day with the entire tournament spread over multiple days to sometimes an entire week, whereas here there are as much as four games in a single day!  Another interesting point is the location – because of Virginia’s relatively weird shape, it’s difficult to find a single location to host the tournament every year.  To add to that, the majority of the players each year are from northern Virginia, but hosting the tournament in northern Virginia every year would make it a long drive for people that do live in the southern portion.  Thus, in order to make it as even as possible, the tournament is held in the Norfolk/VA beach area, northern Virginia, and the Roanoke area on a three-year cycle.  Lastly, while I don’t know too much about other state tournaments, I think it’s safe to say that the competition in both the K-12 and the K-8 sections is immensely strong year after year since all of the strongest scholastic players show up every time.  This makes every tournament exciting and every year, there is always a nail-biting finish.

Going into the last round of the 2016 VA State Championships last year, I was tied with 4.5/5 for second behind the leader, Justin Lohr, who was in clear first with 5/5.  The last round pairing pitted me against WFM Jennifer Yu, who was also at 4.5/5.  I’ve attached the game below in the game viewer.

Kobla – Yu, VA State Championships, 2016

This was probably the most interesting game I have played to date at the tournament.  I ended up placing 3rd in the tournament as Justin won his last round to sweep 6/6 and guarantee a first-place finish, and Jennifer finished ahead of me on tiebreaks.

It’ll be interesting to see how I perform in this year’s edition as I haven’t played much at all in the last six or so months due to junior year and school in general.  Perhaps, for the next article, I’ll write about this tournament.

As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!

The Art of Balance:  High School and Chess

This week, I’m going to take a small detour to discuss something I think many of you have either already experienced or will experience in the future.  Specifically, I will be discussing the concept because I am currently experiencing it – junior year of high school and how it affects chess.

Junior year, or 11th grade, is arguably the hardest and most stressful year of high school.  In freshman and sophomore year, the workload is relatively light – most students aren’t at the point of multiple college-level courses yet, and classes are easier in difficulty in general.  Also, students have “chiller” classes like P.E.

Most of this changes when a student hits junior year.  Firstly, classes become somewhat harder, but the main point is that students take more of these college-level classes.  Thus, homework and studying take longer.  Additionally, in junior year, students have to take standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT in order to prepare for college.  These tests take weeks or even months of preparation, and for many students, the weekends are the only viable time to study for them.  Lastly, students have to start thinking about college, especially what schools they want to apply to, how they are going to manage applications, and maybe even what they will write their essays on.  While one might predict that senior year would be more difficult than any year past, from what I have heard, the answer is both yes and no.  Sure, the difficulty of classes may still increase.  However, by the end of first quarter or about ¾ of the way through the first semester, college applications are done, and from that point, students usually do not need to put as much effort into classes as they did earlier – put in just enough to maintain the grades earned last year, and the student will be fine.  Thus, in short, junior year in high school is very involved and time-consuming, at least more so than any year experienced thus far.

For chess players, this prospect can possibly be daunting.  I’ll use myself as a case study since I am currently in the middle of this junior year.  Up until last year, I would play in every tournament that came around and would just work on homework in between rounds or before/after the tournament.  And, almost every time, I would be able to finish it all while still being able to play in the entire tournament.  Very rarely did I have to take a last round bye or, worst case, skip a tournament due to workload.  Even then, that was only during sophomore year.  I find the situation very different this year.

Last year, I was aware that there would have to be more time put into school this year.  Yet, I still naively believed that I would have time to do everything that school required and play in chess tournaments at the same time.  Oh, was I wrong!  Since the school year started in late August of 2017, I have only played in three actual tournaments, and one of them was the K-12 Nationals down in Florida.  I’ve found that I have had to skip many tournaments either due to school work alone or having to study for the SAT/ACT.  Even now, the USATE is happening this weekend in New Jersey, which I’m skipping; next weekend is another open tournament that I will likely be skipping; and, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to play in the VA State Championships because it is the weekend before the SAT in March, and this is a tournament that I have attended every year since I started playing chess in 2010.

This brings me to my point about what someone can do once they reach junior year in order to balance school and chess as much as possible.  Although I have only played in three actual tournaments since the year started, I have still been able to play at least a game or two a month through the DC Chess League and NVA Chess League, both of which have matches once a month.  Playing in these leagues has allowed me to at least keep somewhat in touch with the game in the middle of everything else that is going on.  So, upon reaching junior year, if a chess player is able to play in leagues or even clubs that have single-day events, then it could be extremely beneficial.  One day or one night could be dedicated to chess, and the rest of the weekend could be used for doing homework and studying for standardized tests.  In this way, a respected amount of time can be allocated to each area.

As for the future, I took the ACT this February, and hopefully, after the SAT in March, I will be done with standardized testing.  At that point, I hope I can go back to playing in tournaments on a more normal basis.  But, until then, I hope that my experience and thoughts regarding balancing junior year in high school and chess will help those who have yet to experience it.  Thanks for reading, and, as always, I’ll see you next time!

Tactics ft. Gibraltar Chess

Is this a new song?  Not quite.  A reminder of the importance of studying tactics?  That sounds more like it.

We’ve all heard it before.  Any chess player knows the age-old saying, “chess is 99% tactics.”  One can argue on either side of that statement, or the extent to which it is true.  Yet, the point is that, in any case, the number can seem dauntingly high.  However, it doesn’t have to be scary – there are many ways to improve one’s tactical vision.  Let’s go through a few of them before continuing.

Tactics are important, whether they’re for football in the upcoming Super Bowl or for any chess game

Practicing is one of the easiest methods of improving tactical vision.  This can be achieved through online and printed sources.  For example, one website where one can practice tactics is – it is probably my favorite tactics practice program out there. also has its well-known tactics trainer, and while it is decent, I never got into it as Chesstempo had been my first platform.  Still, it is a perfectly viable method of tactics training.  Overall, those two websites are probably the two most popular on the internet.  Books are also a long-used method of tactics practice.  One of the most well-known tactics books on the market is Laszlo Polgar’s 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games.  Using practice tools such as these is one great way to improving one’s tactical acuteness.

Another method to improve tactical vision is to improve pattern recognition, something that I have written about in the past.  If you gave someone several tactical problems in a row, each testing the same motif, you would expect that person to, in general, solve each problem quicker than the previous one.  This is because of pattern recognition and the understanding that certain placements of pieces have increased probabilities of uncovering certain tactical motifs.  Studying basic patterns and motifs opens the door to a world of tactical possibilities.

So now that we know how to improve tactics, let’s take a look at a few particularly enterprising examples that I found from the recently-concluded Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival that show how important it is to have an eye out for tactics at all times.  For each position, I’ll show you the position for which you need to find the best move.  To best simulate game conditions, try to calculate all necessary variations while only looking at the given position.  I will also link the game viewer that has the entire game if you would like to play through it, but try to view the game only after you attempt the puzzle.  As a note, these puzzles are presented in chronological order, not in any order of difficulty.  Good luck!

#1:  Tate – Nakamura


Position after 19. Qb3


#2:  Vachier-Lagrave – Batsiashvili


Position after 24. … Qd4


#3:  Pichot – Cheparinov


Position after 21. Rxb7


#4:  Le – Dubov


Position after 44. … Bc7

Hopefully, you solved most of those puzzles.  If you did not solve any one of them, perhaps it gives you one type of pattern to practice further.  Even if you were able to solve all of them, it is still important to get periodic practice in, as it is always beneficial to stay in touch.  As an added point, practicing tactics can be a quick and straightforward way to keep on top of chess when there may not be as much time to sit down and dedicate time to it.  Who knows?  Maybe in one of your next games, you can unleash a lethal tactic that your opponent never saw coming!  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.

Tata Steel Showcase

Every major supertournament has at least one game that makes you go “wow” when you see it, especially live.  Currently, the 80th Annual Tata Steel Masters is taking place in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands.  Even though the players are only through a portion of the tournament, there’s a possibility that a “wow” game has already taken place.  In round three, Vishy Anand faced off against Fabiano Caruana in a battle of two heavyweights.  In the first two rounds, Anand had a win and a draw, while Caruana had two draws, so neither player had to go all out in this game, especially this early in the tournament.  That said, this game quickly morphed into a tactical minefield.  In the end, the game was a beauty that brought along some interesting implications.

Anand – Caruana, Tata Steel Masters, 2018

As we saw, the game started with a Petroff, which signaled that Caruana was not playing for much more than a draw.  Black’s novelty on move 12 led to a 30+ minute think for Anand, likely for deciding whether to delve into the complicated tactics or continue in a more positional struggle.  In hindsight, Anand chose correctly, as the mobility and square coverage of the two pieces ended up trumping the extra rook for Black.  While Caruana was attempting to create play against White’s king in the end, Anand was slowly gearing up for an attack of his own – the only difference being that Anand’s was the attack that proved successful.

Currently, the tournament is a little past the halfway mark, with the 9th round underway at the time this is published.  Three players are tied at the top, including Magnus Carlsen and two others that may be surprising:  Anish Giri and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  All three of these players have played very well so far so it will be interesting to see how the last few rounds go as the tournament comes to a close.  Of course, there are a number of players just behind them that could catch them, which means that there is the possibility (as always) that there will be some more fascinating games down the line.

However, I will be leaving you with just one for now.  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!

Revenge (Kind of)

I spent the back end of my winter break last week playing in the Eastern Open alongside Isaac!  If I was to describe the tournament in a single phrase, I would definitely say it was a roller coaster.  I began the tournament by playing GM Alexsander Lenderman on the top board.  We were locked in an equal battle for the majority of the game, but one slip-up at the end near time control proved fatal for me.  Had I just avoided that one mistake, the game would have probably ended in a draw; one mistake is all it takes sometimes!  Either way, I was not too fazed, as I was rather pleased with the way I had played.  I followed up that game with a win as White before drawing twice against consecutive lower rated players.  In my fifth round, I found myself playing against the lowest seed in the section, who had been playing extremely well based on his pre-tournament seeding.  I managed to win a pawn but had to play into a passive position in order to keep it; in hindsight, I probably should have avoided passivity altogether.  In the end, I blundered two pieces for a rook and wound up losing.  Those few games in the middle definitely marked the low point in the tournament.  Fortunately, I was able to regain something with a win over a mid-2000 rated player as White in round 6.  The tournament culminated in being paired with FM Ralph Zimmer, an opponent of mine similar to what FM Gabe Petesch has been for Isaac.

Despite being “only” 2300, he has been one of those opponents that I have never been able to figure out.  Perhaps it is his rather obscure opening choices in the Trompowsky and the Scandinavian, or maybe the fact that he plays relatively quickly yet always seems to find good moves.  Before this encounter, I had already lost to him five (!) times over the board.  And, to cap it off, I had lost to him twice in the blitz tournament that was held prior to the main event.  So, it was safe to say that I was not overly enthusiastic about having to play him once more, especially in a tournament where I was already performing quite poorly.  That said, I spent the next twenty minutes I had by preparing something to play.  Since I was playing something different as black since the last time I played him, I had to “restart” my preparation, and I wasn’t exactly fond of going back and repeating lines that I had played before.

Towards the end of that 20-minute period, I found a rather interesting and exotic-looking line that I felt fairly comfortable playing, but it wasn’t the computer’s top choice.  I still decided to go for it if it came up, and I was able to look at a few variations before having to leave for the game.  Let’s see how the game went.

Zimmer – Kobla, Eastern Open, 2017

In some ways, this game was a heartbreaker, sure.  However, I’m still content that I was able to play well against my opponent for essentially the first time.  This happened for a couple reasons:

  1. Active play – I still believe that playing actively is the best way to play against higher rated players. Playing passively and “for a draw” will only result in being ground down in the long run.  In this game, I chose moves such as g4 over gxh4 and Nxf6 instead of Bxf6 in order to keep the initiative and my pieces active.
  2. Focused opening prep – I tried to find a line that was obscure but still fit with my style of play. A common mistake that players make in opening prep is to pay too much attention to the engine.  It’s fine to have an engine to make sure you’re not making blunders, but other than that, it doesn’t tell you much.  It’s more important to choose moves based on what positions you feel comfortable playing with.

So, in the end, I should have won this game.  However, I’m not overly disappointed with a draw, either.  It’s still a step in the right direction.  Hopefully, by showing this game, I was able to offer something instructive.  And, with that, thanks for reading, and, as always, see you next time!  Happy New Year to everyone once again!

The Exchange Sacrifice vs. Pawn Structure

This week, I’d like to visit what, in my opinion, is one of the most double-edged topics in chess – the exchange sacrifice.  When stripped to its core, the concept of the exchange sacrifice is one of the most intriguing and fascinating out there.  It’s still a sacrifice – in that when taking into account a hard count of material value, the propagator comes out in the negative.  Yet, the balance regarding the number of pieces on each side stays intact.  While the latter may seem like a rather primitive method of comparison, it can make a huge difference, especially when attacking.  They also create a dynamic imbalance in many positions, especially when considering square control, since one player has (or lacks) influence over certain sets of squares.

However, this week, I wanted to look at a different purpose for exchange sacrifices.  Specifically, I wanted to look at the use of exchange sacrifices in order to inflict pawn structure damage.  The reason for this is that I recently played a game where I was able to do just that, and while I wasn’t able to win the game, it could still serve as an instructional source.

First, let’s start with a few examples from more prominent players.

Szabo – Petrosian, Stockholm Interzonal, 1952


In this position, White really only needs one more move in order to claim the initiative.  If it was his turn, White could play moves such as Nc4, Be3, and even Qd3.  Thus, Black knows that this is a critical point in the development of the game.  Petrosian, sensing that the time to act was now, plunged forward with the exchange sacrifice

  1. … Rxc3

The main point of this is to destroy the king’s pawn cover.  However, it also accomplishes a few other things.  It loosens White’s grip on the d5 square, which allows Black to play d5 on his own and open up his dark square bishop against the newly-weakened queenside pawns.  You can see how Petrosian played against the pawns to eventually reel in the full point here.

Kramnik – Fridman, Dortmund, 2013


In this position, White lacks a clear target to attack in Black’s camp.  While White has started to push pawns on the kingside, Black’s pawn structure doesn’t offer any clear weaknesses.  Thus, Kramnik, with the intent of creating said weaknesses, decides to sacrifice an exchange with

  1. f6! Bxf6 21. Rxf6!

which shatters Black’s pawn structure.  With the clear weakness now on f6, Kramnik went to work on focusing essentially all of his pieces on that pawn and eventually broke through to get to the king, as you can see here.

For the last example, we’ll go back to that game I mentioned earlier.

Kobla – Stevens, K-12 Grade Nationals, 2017


In this position, Black’s centralized knight on d5 is the only thing worth writing home about.  Aside from it, the rooks are disconnected, and many of the pawns are immobile.  That said, Black has a fairly straightforward threat with Re8, since fork ideas with Nc3 are looming over White’s head.  In order to avoid all complications regarding that knight, I decided that sacrificing the exchange with

  1. Rxd5 cxd5 30. Nd6

would be best.  In addition, Black’s queenside pawn structure is severely weakened, as the pawns on b5 and d5 are both hanging and unprotected; the knight outpost on d6 combined with the queen’s positioning gives White full control over the e-file, at least for now.  The direct threat of Nxb5 followed by a secondary threat of Qh2+ gives White more than enough tactical compensation for the exchange.  While the game itself ended in a draw, this is still an example where sacrificing the exchange was the best way forward.

In these three games, we saw a player sacrificing an exchange for somewhat different reasons.  In the first game, we saw Petrosian sacrifice an exchange for a positional plus – White’s crippled pawn structure and control over the dark squares.  In the second game, we saw Kramnik sacrifice an exchange to give direction and coordination to his pieces such that they could converge on the damaged pawns and later the king.  In the third game, I sacrificed an exchange to get rid of my opponent’s strong point and give my knight dominance over some central squares and weak pawns.  Despite their differences, however, they all had one thing in common – making the opponent recapture with a pawn, thereby weakening their pawn structure and grip on the position.

To wrap things up, this will be my last post for 2017, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!  And, for the sake of resolutions, I challenge all of you to sacrifice an exchange and win if the opportunity presents itself at some point over the next year.  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!