A Golden Performance

The U.S. Junior Championships and the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championships were held simultaneously at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis from the 7th to the 18th of July 2017.  In impressively competitive sections boasting some of the strongest juniors (U21) players from around the country, there was much hype leading up to the tournaments.  In the Open section, we saw 7 of the 10 players rated well north of 2400 and all players within 20-30 rating points of each other.   In the Girls section, we saw much of the same.  But would that hype translate into the exciting, close combat play that many expected going into the tourneys?

2017GirlsJuniorsLogoFinal
The logo for the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship

In the Open section, the 14-year-old Arizona native Awonder Liang weathered the storm and was the last man standing when the tournament ended, winning with 6.5/9.  However, the path was far from easy.  The six players that finished behind Liang were all within 2 points.  Liang was not even leading the pack going into the last round.  Down half a point to Kayden Troff going into the last round, Liang was able to win and preserve his chances while Troff untimely lost his own game.  In the Girls’ section, the dust seemed to have settled much earlier, with Virginia native Akshita Gorti leading the pack by 1.5 points with two rounds left to go.  Drawing the two last games, Gorti cruised to a tournament victory while keeping the rest of the pack at arm’s distance away.  In fact, I was recently able to sit down with Gorti and ask about what she thought of the tournament and her overall performance in this tournament and in the past year.  The full interview is provided below.

 

Vishal Kobla:  First, major props.  Congratulations on your result!  How do you feel?

Akshita Gorti:  Tired, haha.  But happy, of course, I won the tournament.

Vishal Kobla:  What was your mindset going into this tournament? Obviously, you came in wanting to win the entire thing, but what were your true expectations?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I definitely wanted to win.  I mean, there were a lot of players, so I had to try to win against all of them.  But basically, I just wanted to win.

Vishal Kobla:  How has the year been so far for you?  I know you traveled quite a bit. Where all did you go and how did you do and what were those experience like?

Akshita Gorti:  First, I went to Iceland.  Iceland was a nice place, it was cool.  I played in the Reykjavik Open.  So, it was a good experience, saw a lot of top players, and I played with a couple IMs and GMs.  So, yeah, that was Iceland.  Then, it was Chicago Open, but that was more of a normal tournament.  After that, it was Russia [for the World Team Championships].  Yeah, I don’t play any other tournaments, really.

Vishal Kobla:  Did you prepare any differently for this tournament, maybe different from other local tournaments?  

Akshita Gorti:  Not really… cause I was busy this entire month because I had to go to Russia, Chicago Open before that, and then right after I came back, played in World Open, so I didn’t have much time to prepare for it specifically, so I just, you know, played basically.

Vishal Kobla:  Did you prepare in general before the whole string of tournaments?

Akshita Gorti:  Yeah, yeah, I did prepare stuff in general.

Vishal Kobla:  Obviously, you had a great start to the tournament, right?  After a draw and a couple wins.  Can you give me a round by round run down of what was going through your mind?  Where you eager, nervous, growing in confidence?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, usually, before every round, I was a bit nervous, but after I won a couple of games, I started to grow a little bit more confident.  In the middle of the game, if I’m in a good position or something, then I’m confident and I just try to win.

Vishal Kobla:  So, this was a one-game-per-day kind of schedule, right?  So did you have a daily routine that you would have before the game, after the game?  Or was it different every day?

Akshita Gorti:  Yeah, no…it was pretty much the same.  I would wake up, do some tactics, and then look at openings – that was my preparation.  Then I would eat my lunch and go for the round [at 1 pm].  That was really all.

Vishal Kobla:  Did you have a favorite game from the tournament?

Akshita Gorti:  I think my game against Agata [Bykovtsev].

Vishal Kobla:  Right, that was the game…you had a pretty crushing game.  Was there a game that you were maybe the least happy about?  Or did you get lucky in any games?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I wasn’t really happy with my first game because I didn’t really play that well.  Yeah, first game, it was equal, but I slowly got worse in the position, but then somehow I was able to get back and make it equal and it was a draw, but I didn’t think I played too well so I didn’t like too much about my first game.

Vishal Kobla:  So did you have a game that you believed was the most crucial or the toughest for you in the entire tournament?  Was that the first game, or was it another one?

Akshita Gorti:   The toughest game was probably the one that I drew against Thalia because I was actually worse in that position, but then it became equal again…and then it went to an ending where I had a piece for a three pawns and I had to hold that endgame, and I had barely any time left.  Well, we both didn’t have any time, so I didn’t want to lose that game, so I had to make it a draw, and I did, but it was pretty crucial because I had to make a draw there.  And I had trouble in the opening, too.

Vishal Kobla:  What was, I guess, your overall opinion of the tournament?  Was there anything that you would have liked to be different?

Akshita Gorti:  Uh, no, not really.  It was a well-conducted tournament, all organized well.

Vishal Kobla:  This clearly should check off another box on your wish list for chess – winning the Junior Championship. What are your next immediate goals, long-term goals?  Where do you go from here? 

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I want to become an IM, that’s a goal.  And, U.S. Women’s Championships, I’m playing in there, so I want to do well there.  Those would be my main goals right now.

Vishal Kobla:  In your opinion, what do you think were the major reasons for your success in the tournament?

Akshita Gorti:  Well, I think I worked really hard for it, and basically, I was tired after World Open, but still I prepared really hard and I tried to play my best so I think that’s also why I won.

Vishal Kobla:  Do you think that playing in all those tournaments right before helped in the end?

Akshita Gorti:  Yeah it does, because you stay in form, and you can see tactics and moves much easier, so yeah, it helped.

Vishal Kobla:  What do you think you will need to work on or improve upon going forward from here?

Akshita Gorti:  How, after getting into winning positions, how to convert them.  Like, in my last game and the previous game that I both drew, I had a good position, and I was not able to convert them.  And even before this tournament, like in World Open, I also had trouble with that.

Vishal Kobla:  So how do you plan on working on that, then?

Akshita Gorti:  Probably working at more positions at home in which I’m better and try to figure out how to win them.

Vishal Kobla:  Alright, thank you for the time!

 

Gorti – Bykovtsev, U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship (7), 2017

Notes by Akshita Gorti; my additional comments are in italics

1d4 

1. d4 was, by far, the most popular opening choice of the players in this tournament.

1. … Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. h3

GortiBykovtsev
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 5. h3

So, this is a King’s Indian, and this is actually my first time playing this h3 and Be3 setup.  Basically, the idea is that you can keep the option of g4 to prevent the f5 idea, because I know I saw a couple games and she always likes to play e5, f5, so anyhow, she would do that.  So, keeping that option open kind of frustrates that idea.

5. … 0-0 6. Be3 e5 7. d5 a5 8. c5

The idea of [a5] is to play Na6 followed by Nc5, so before that happens, I played c5 so the d6-pawn also becomes weak after I trade those pawns.

8. … Na6 9. cxd6 cxd6 10. Nf3

GortiBykovtsev2
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 10. Nf3

So this approach here I knew, but the right move [for Black] is Nc5 here, and then I would [play Bxc5, dxc5] and Bb5 to prevent this Ne8 idea.  So, if Ne8, I take it, actually.

10. … Bd7 11. Nd2

A staple maneuver in the King’s Indian.  The knight is better placed on d2 than f3 since it has the option of rerouting to c4 and applying pressure on the weak d6 pawn; it also vacates f3 for the pawn to advance, which would support the pawn on e4.

11. … Nc5 12. Bxc5 dxc5 13. a4 Ne8 14. Bb5 Bc8

GortiBykovtsev3
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 14. … Bc8

And here, she moved back, which she probably shouldn’t have.  Now, it’s literally the same position [from the analysis on move 9] except I have my knight on d2 and the pawn on a4, which is actually better.

15. Bxe8 Rxe8 16. 0-0 f5 17. Nc4 f4 18. d6

GortiBykovtsev4
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 18. d6

I thought this was a good idea, to get my knight to d5, and it’s really annoying, the passed pawn.

18. … Be6 19. Nd5 Qg5 20. Ra3

GortiBykovtsev5
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 20. Ra3

I really like this move, too.  It just prevents Bxh3 and f3 ideas.

20 … Rf8 21. Ndb6

I played this move because I saw some ideas where after [21. … f3 22. Rxf3 Rxf3 23. Qxf3 Bxd5] and the double pawns are just unnecessary.  So I thought like, if I just play f3, then she has no threats, and that would be pretty good.

21. … Rad8 22. Kh1 Rf7

A passive response from Black, allowing White to accomplish her plan of blockading with 23. f3.  A more active response was possible with 22. … Qh4, which prevents 23. f3 by White for now, at least, and also threatens 23. … f3 from Black’s perspective.

23. f3

GortiBykovtsev6
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 23. f3

Now, White has accomplished what she wanted to do and can return her focus to the center and the queenside.

23. … Bf8 24. Rd3

And she was taking a lot of time, so I just wanted to play simple ideas and not anything too complicated.

24. … Qh5 25. Qd2

GortiBykovtsev7
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 25. Qd2

She was threatening Bxh3, so now I have Kg1, Qg2.

The full variation that Gorti refers would go 25. … Bxh3 26. gxh3 Qxh3+ 27. Kg1 (protecting the f1-rook) Qg3+ 28. Qg2, which prevents any more checks.

25. … Bg7

DSC_5206
Akshita evaluates her opponent’s move.  Photo source:  uschesschamps.org

26. b3

She didn’t have much time, so I was just making moves that made sense.

26. … g5 27. Kg1 Qg6 28. Qxa5

I was thinking of taking on a5 [with the knight], but I’m like, “Why keep this knight undefended?”  And this just helps my position.

28. … Rdf8 29. d7

 

GortiBykovtsev8
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 29. d7

 

A truly suffocating bind by White.  Black has no counterplay and it is just a matter of time before White finds a way to break through, one way or another.

29. … Rd8 30. Qxc5 Bxc4 31. Nxc4 Bf8 32. Qc7 Qf6 33. Nxe5

 

GortiBykovtsev9
Gorti – Bykovtsev:  Position after 33. Nxe5

 

And from here, I think it’s clearly winning.  This game also gave me a 1.5 point lead, so it was very important.

The rest of the game will be provided without notes.

33. … Rg7 34. Rfd1 h5 35. Rd5 g4 36. hxg4 h4 37. g5 Qxg5 38. Ng4 Qe7 39. Nh6+ Kh7 40. Nf5 Rxg2+ 41. Kxg2 Qg5+ 42. Kh2 h3 43. Rg1 Qf6 44. e5 Qxf5 45. Qxd8 Qc2+ 46. Kh1 47. Qh4+ Qxh4 48. d8/Q Qf2 49. Rd7+ 1-0

 

Being able to ask questions to Akshita Gorti about the tournament and about chess, in general, would not have been possible if it had not been for her, so thanks to her for letting me do this.  There are many things that I will be able to take away from this interview and the chance to go over a game with her, and I hope that is the same for all readers.  For one, we learned that preventing our opponents’ plans is just as important and following through on our own.  We saw this exemplified in Gorti’s choice to play an early c5, a move that she may have never been able to play later.  We also saw how opening plans tend to be relevant in most positions, even if they appear at unnatural times.  For example, Gorti knew that the main variation of the opening at move 10 would end up with her playing Bb5, inhibiting Ne8 from Black.  Although Black went out of book in that position, Gorti still found herself able to harness the same idea in a slightly different position.  Lastly, we saw how strong and effective prophylaxis can be.  In the middle game, White took the time to play Kh1 and f3 to ensure that Black had no lasting plan before continuing with her own ideas on the other side of the board.  By using all of these ideas, along with others that are probably beyond my own ability to explain, Gorti was able to deliver a crushing blow and all but ensure her first place finish.  Although Gorti states that she needs to work on converting wins, it is really something that all chess players must constantly work on; if anything, this just confirms what the great Emanuel Lasker said so many years ago:  “The hardest game to win is a won game.”

 

Quote
Some of Lasker’s wisest words

 

Either way, I wish Akshita good luck in her future games and may there be many more performances like this one to come!  And, as always, thanks for reading!

The Age-Old Question

With the recent conclusion of the Your Next Move leg of the Grand Chess Tour, we saw some things that weren’t surprising, and then some things that were in fact eye-opening.  We saw Carlsen and So perform exceptionally well, which wasn’t surprising at all, considering those two are probably the best players in the world at this point. We also saw the likes of Jobava struggle, which wasn’t all too surprising either, considering he was the lowest rated seed by 50+ rating points; however, some may say that the extent to which he struggled was surprising, considering that he won only one game and drew five out of 36 total games.

We also saw a few players uncharacteristically struggle, including Anand.  He finished with 16/36 and a minus score, which was surprising in its own right, considering that Anand was once considered one of the best blitz/rapid players in the world.  Anand also had a string of four straight losses in the home stretch of the event.  So why did he struggle?  Was it one thing that one could pinpoint?  Or was it a slew of reasons?  You may have an idea already, but let’s see exactly why and how this was made apparent.

Now, we won’t be focusing on the games that he lost as much as the games in which points were left on the board (i.e. wins into draws or losses, draws into losses) since mistakes tend to happen and everyone loses games.  However, games in which a player had a clear path to a draw or win but missed it are the true indicators of weak play.  The first case that we will take a look at was the game between So (White) and Anand (Black) in round 6 of the rapid section.

SoAnand
So-Anand, position after 31. f3

It’s Black to move, and Black has the bishop-to-knight advantage; however, the doubled b-pawns somewhat negate that plus.  The position is objectively equal since White has no clear entry into Black’s position without offering a trade of minor pieces, which Black would gladly accept since it would allow the Rook to enter through c4.  If White marches his king to b3 before trading, Black won’t be able to enter anymore, but that doesn’t change the evaluation of the position since Black can just sit and White can never make progress on the queenside.  Here, a move like 31 … f6 would do since it protects the e5 pawn and effectively prevents White from making any more substantial threats on the queenside.  However, Anand decided to force the issue and after a 5-minute think played 31 … Bg1?  The move looks fancy but in truth just blunders a pawn cleanly after 32. Rd6+ Ke7 33. Nxb6, which happened in the game.  White eventually won the game by nursing the extra pawn advantage from here on.  A fairly straightforward blunder by Black turned what could have been a draw into a loss.  You can play through the entire game here.

This next case that we will investigate was the game between Anand and MVL in the very next round, round 7.

AnandMVL
Anand-MVL, position after 20. …. Bg5

After MVL played the tricky move 20. … Bg5, Anand found the beautiful 21. Bb5!, and after 21. …. Bf4 22. Bxd7+ Kxd7 White had a clear advantage.  However, Anand’s technique was less than perfect, and in this position:

AnandMVL_2
Anand-MVL, position after 33. … Kg7

Anand played the blunder 34. Nc4?? which would have lost to 34. … Qh8 if MVL had found it.  Anand lucked out and MVL played 34. … Nxe4, which gave the advantage back to Anand.  No harm was done there.  Later, the players arrived at this position:

AnandMVL_3
Anand-MVL, position after 46. … Rf5

With the evaluation at a hefty +5, White could have played 47. Qa7 after which the threat of Qf2+ and Nxe5+ is enough for Black to resign.  However, White played 47. Qb6, which has a similar idea, but fails to impress on the account of 47. … Qg8 when both the knight on c4 and the rook on h7 are hit (If the queen was on a7, Qg8 would be met by b3).  Anand didn’t spot the key difference and continued with 48. Qf2+, and due to miscalculation, Black was, however improbable, winning the game.  This game was truly a heartbreaker for Anand as it looked to go down as another one of his brilliancies.  You can play through the entire game here.

The next case was in the first round of the blitz section, with Anand pitted against Carlsen with White.  The players navigated through the opening and middle game to an eventually equal endgame.  Up until this point, it was only White that had had any winning chances, but each of them was squandered away.  The players reached the position:

AnandCarlsen
Anand-Carlsen, position after 53. … Rxa5

After the interesting move 54. Rd7, the position is labeled as a draw in the tablebase.  Black can’t make any progress since if Black tries to vacate a path for the pawn by moving his King, White checks him from behind and returns to d7.  If the rook threatens to check in any way, the king is always close enough to attack the rook with the king or escape some other way.  However, Anand blundered with 54. d6, which loses to Re5+ and Rd5+, which collects the pawn.  Moreover, Anand had 22+ seconds to Carlsen’s 15 but still blundered in this way.  This was yet another game where a draw became a loss because of a horrible blunder near the end.  You can play through the entire game here.

These three games weren’t even the only cases in which mistakes in superior or equal positions were made, with others occurring in the last few rounds of the blitz section.  In the end, this seemed like a recurring pattern rather than a rare occurrence.  Now, we come back to our question asked earlier in the article.  Why was Anand struggling so much in the tournament?  There are a few possible explanations.  The first is a very plausible one – the games were rapid- and blitz-rated, and the short time controls could have played a role, especially if critical positions occurred with low time left on the clock.  However, the fact that there were so many different examples of suboptimal play decreases the chance that it was just low time.  Additionally, Anand has never been “known” as a slow player; as mentioned before, Anand was considered one of the best quick players in the world just a few years ago.  So, if the answer isn’t the time control, the other possible answer that’s been tossed around before is stamina.  Stamina was discussed heavily during the past two Carlsen-Anand world championship matches as a possible decider in who would win.  Since then, it hasn’t been brought up much in press conferences or conversations.  But with Anand in his 47th year, recent tournament performances seem to beg the question to be asked again, and Anand has realized it as well.  After the conclusion of the rapid section, Anand said in an interview, “It’s nice to say ‘just a little bit off’ – I thought I was just mental! … There’s no point playing chess like this.”  It’s clear that the missed wins against MVL and arguably Carlsen that day had taken their toll.  All we can hope for is that the Indian GM is in higher spirits next time around and can still play for as long as possible.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

The Curse of the Top Seed

If you were going into a tournament as the top seed, what would your thought process be?  Would you expect to win the section?  Or at least have a decent chance of doing so?  Ostensibly.  Furthermore, let’s assume that as the top seed, you play lower rated opponents outside of your own class (Expert, A, B, etc.).  Would this make it significantly easier?  Again, an ostensible conclusion.

Let’s start with a scenario.  This top seed is playing in a U2200 section in a 7-round tournament.  Furthermore, it is known that the player will play against one 1900, three 2000s, and three 2100s, in that order.

To show how likely (or unlikely, for that matter) it is to win a tournament like this as the highest seed, several active players’ performances against lower- and equal-rated players were compiled from uschess.org with the ‘Game Statistics’ tool.  The weighted averages of the group’s probability of beating 1900s, 2000s, and 2100s were used.  These averages were then slightly increased/decreased to give us the potential performance of an “ideal” player that would theoretically be stronger than the average of the given players.

 

DataTable1
The table shows the probability of the result, as described on the left, against each opponent in a 7 round tournament

 

Shown above is a table with the rounded values for the probabilities of winning, drawing, and losing to each rating class that the opponent for that round would fall into.  We see how as the rating of the opponent decreases, the probabilities of winning increase – that’s expected.  On the flip side, the chance of losing a game decreases as the opponent’s rating decreases – also expected.  However, it is interesting to note how the chance of drawing games do not follow such a clear cut pattern; the chance of drawing to a 1900 and a 2000 player is virtually identical, but the probability spikes as the opponent’s rating approaches the rating of our ideal top seed.  In fact, it surpasses the probability of winning such a game.

Since we are looking at the chances of winning a tournament, the only possible scores we will look at include 7/7, 6.5/7, and 6/7.  After getting to 5.5/7, the different paths (loss + draw, three draws) to get to 5.5 points become so large that attempting to calculate the chance of reaching said points is flat out impractical.  Furthermore, the chance of winning a tournament with 5.5 points out of 7 is much less in its own right since many more players are capable of reaching that score.

The number of ways of reaching each distinct score was laid out, and the respective probability of each result was used to calculate the probability of each distinct path of reaching a certain number of points.

 

DataTable2
The only path to obtaining a result of 7-0
DataTable10
The 7 different possible paths of obtaining a result of 6.5-0.5
DataTable6
The 28 different possible paths of obtaining a result of 6-1

 

The combination computations led to 1 possibility for obtaining 7-0 (all wins), 7 possibilities of obtaining 6.5/7, (a draw in any of the 7 rounds), and 28 possibilities of obtaining 6/7 (7 possibilities of losing a game in one of the rounds plus 21 possibilities of two draws in two distinct rounds).  The probability of obtaining 7/7 was the only result of its class, so it was turned into a percent to find the actual percent chance of running the table in such a tournament.  The seven possibilities of obtaining 6.5/7 and their respective probabilities were summed to find the overall probability of obtaining such a score.  Lastly, the 21 different possibilities of obtaining 6/7 and their respective probabilities were summed to find the overall probability of obtaining such a score.  The resulting probabilities and their derivations are displayed in the following tables.

 

DataTable3
The probability of obtaining each result described in the left column
DataTable7
The calculations to find the overall probability of obtaining a result of 7-0; white cells signify a win.
DataTable8
The calculations to find the overall probability of obtaining a result of 7-0; white cells signify a win and yellow cells signify a draw.
DataTable9
The calculations to find the overall probability of obtaining a result of 6-1; white cells signify a win, yellow cells signify a draw, and red cells signify a loss.

 

As we can see, despite being the top seed in the tournament, our ideal player only has about a 0.53% chance to score 7/7.  Scoring 6.5/7 should be much easier, right?  Well, it is 5 times more likely, at about 2.66%, but it is still not overly convincing since that is still only a 1/40 chance.  We see this probability increase almost threefold when the score comes to 6/7, up to 7.28%.  Even still, this is relatively low!  Here we see that our ideal player would theoretically only go 6/7 in approximately one out of every 13.8 tournaments.  So, if the probabilities of a player are so low in regards to obtaining a high score in a tournament, why do we still see a fair amount of high scorers in 7-round tournaments (or the like)?

The answer to this question is similar to that of the birthday paradox.  If you haven’t heard of this, I encourage you to search it up, as it has some fascinating concepts.  The question simply runs, “If there are 23 people in a room, what is the chance of any two people sharing a birthday?”  As absurd as it seems, the answer is 50%.  That is because we haven’t established a specific reference; for example, if we said, “What is the chance that someone in the room has a birthday on January 1st,” then the probability would be exponentially smaller.  However, since no reference was ever given, the number is much less.  We have a similar situation in this case.  If you pick out any single player and calculate their probability of winning the tournament with any of these points, the probability would be as low as we calculated above.  But, if you have, say, 10 of these very strong players in a section, then the probability of one of these players obtaining a score of 6, 6.5, or 7 is increased tenfold from our original probabilities for the single player.  There are also other factors that could potentially increase or decrease a player’s chance at obtaining a high score in a tournament.  If a section is extremely competitive with not many players “playing up,” such as in the World Open, the probabilities decrease.  On the flip side, if there are many lower-rated players in a section, whether they are there because of the choice of playing up or if they have to, such as in grade-based scholastic national tournaments, then the probabilities increase.

Now that you have an idea of how hard it is to actually win a tournament, the next time a parent or friend asks why you didn’t win a tournament even if you were the top seed, you have statistics to defend yourself!  And, as always, thanks for reading!

A Game of Chance

On paper, if a player is paired against a significantly higher rated player, he or she is supposed to lose.  That is how the rating system is supposed to work.  However, we also know that upsets occur all the time when the higher rated player fails to win.  So, if they’re not supposed to occur, then why do they?  More specifically, how are upsets created?

While not always the case, the higher rated player is typically a better positional player than the lower rated counterpart.  Therefore, it is justified to assume that if two players are locked in a positional effort, the higher rated player will come out on top the majority of the time.  This leaves the flip side of the coin, a tactical game – when it comes to a tactical game, it comes down to which player is better at tactics and calculation rather than who is higher rated.  In general, it is easier to gain an advantage against a higher rated player through tactical means than it is through positional means.

We’ll investigate a case in point here with a game between a high 2300-rated IM and super-grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.

 

SamsonkinNakamura
Figure 1: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 16. … e5

 

The knight is attacked, so it has to move; the question is, where?  White has three safe retreat squares, but none of them are appetizing since Black will continue with Nf6 and d5, which will seriously question White’s control of the center.  In addition, White would not have a concrete plan, which comes as a consequence of losing presence in the center.  Thus, White takes a chance with a tactical sacrifice, justifying the decision with the knowledge that he will probably lose if he plays passively.  Let’s see how that decision held up.

17. Ne6!

A good practical decision, forcing Black on the defensive.

17. fxe6

Forced.  If 17. … Qb8, 18. Nxg7+ followed by Nh5 leaves White with a clear advantage.

18. Qh5+

The correct follow-up.  Once again, playing forcing moves makes it exponentially easier to calculate variations.

 

SamsonkinNakamura_2
Figure 2: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 18. Qh5+

18. … g6   

If 18. … Kf8?? 19. fxe6+ and mate comes next move.

19. fxg6 Nf6 20. g7+

An important intermezzo that allows the queen to enter deep into Black’s position.

 

SamsonkinNakamura_3
Figure 3: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 20. g7+

 

20. … Kd7 21. Qf7 Qe8 22. gxh8/N!

An important detail that really proves this variation worthwhile for White.

22. … Qxh8 23. Ne2!

 

SamsonkinNakamura_4
Figure 4: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 23. Ne2!

 

After the recapture by the queen, White had to really think about how to continue the attack, and he delivers with this accurate move.  The knight move clears the c-file for the rook, which cuts off escape squares from the king and simultaneously threatens Rc7+.

23. … b5

This move actually protects against Rc7+.  The key point becomes clear after 24. Rc7+ Kxc7 25. Qxe7+ Nd7 26. Rc1+ Bc6 and the option of 27.  b5 is no longer available.

24. Bg5 Qg8 25. Rxf6 Qxg5 26. Qxe6+ Kd8 27. Rc7!

White keeps mounting the pressure and creates a dual mate threat.

 

SamsonkinNakamura_5
Figure 5: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 27. Rc7!

 

27. … Qe3+ 28. Kf1 Kxc7 29. Qxe7+ Kb6 30. Qxd6+ Ka7 31. Qc7 1-0

 

SamsonkinNakamura_6
Figure 6: Samsonkin-Nakamura, Position after 31. Qc7!

 

The threat of Rxa6+ followed by mate is unstoppable and Black resigned.  This game was an example of when taking the risk with a tactical combination could pay off, especially against a higher rated player.  While this example was purely tactical, it should be noted that an early positional miscue by the opponent can also be exploited if played correctly.

As we have seen, timid/passive play against a higher rated player is not a good idea.  Although the game might last a long time, in the end, you will probably lose.  In contrast, playing actively and boldly is the best approach against a higher rated player if one wishes to have a chance at beating or drawing since many tactical combinations have the possibility of ending in a perpetual check as well.

Upsets happen quite regularly in tournaments, and it goes to show how hard it can be for top seeds to beat every lower rated player that they play.  Next time, we will investigate the opposite – how likely it is to beat lower rated players in a tournament.  That is, how likely it is for a high rated player to finish with a perfect or near-perfect score in a tournament when playing all lower rated players.  And, as always, thanks for reading!

Tournament Review: Supernationals VI

During the May 12-14 weekend, I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee in order to play in Supernationals VI, one of the most awaited tournaments for K-12 players around the country.  The tournament only comes around every four years, making it all the more prestigious if one performs well in the tournament.  The event was held at the Gaylord Opryland, which, in my mind, is one of the most accommodating hotel/convention centers that a tournament could be held in.

 

GaylordOpryland-DeltaAtrium.-superherojpg
Always love playing here!

 

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect heading into this tournament.  Knowing that I was going to be dealing with a relatively shorter time control (G/120 + d/5) and that I hadn’t exactly had a lot of free time to prepare for the tournament since I had multiple end-of-year exams to prepare for in the weeks prior.  In addition, scholastic tournaments are difficult in general, but that discussion is for another day.  Opting to take the 10-hour drive to Nashville rather than flying, I had more than enough time to prepare during the car ride and to take rest.  So, if there was one positive for me to consider going into the tournament, it was that I was fairly well-rested.

I began the tournament as the 49th seed out of 272.  Prior to the first round, the tournament directors announced that they would be using accelerated pairings for the first two rounds, which meant that if I was to win the first round, I would play up in the second round.  In the first round, I was paired against a newer player from Arizona who was rated 1965.  A late oversight by my opponent allowed me to capitalize and win the game from there.

BellisarioKobla_1
Bellisario – Kobla: Position after 22. Bxc5

Do you see what I played here?  Check here for the answer.

As expected, I played up in the second round, albeit higher than I had initially imagined – I was paired against the 8th seed, a 2449 rated player.  The critical positions were in the mid-20s when my opponent found an ingenious plan to crack my fortress, which led to his eventual win.

See if you can find what the best move(s) are in the position:

KoblaFeng_1
Kobla – Feng: Position after 26. Rc1

Check here for the answer.

Finishing the first day with 1 point out of 2, I went to bed content with myself anyway, since I had beat the players that I was supposed to and had given my best against a higher rated player.  The next morning, I woke up to find myself paired with an 1876 rated player; in fact, it was a player that I had played before in a previous national tournament, but the exact one I don’t happen to remember at the moment.  In regards to the game, my opponent found a good move in a critical position, at which point I had lost any advantage that I might have had.  The game ended in a draw.  Although I wasn’t too happy with myself for that result, I knew that the next round would be easier for me, and there was still a lot of tournament left.

In round 4 I was paired against another lower rated opponent that I had played in a previous national tournament.  In the previous encounter, I had lost the game due to a blunder made in time trouble; so this time around, I was determined to get my revenge – and I was able to in a fairly convincing fashion.  My opponent allowed a lethal double check at one point, which net me an exchange.  A few moves later, I played a move that kept my advantage and I eventually won.  However, the computer found a nice variation that would have ended the game much quicker, which I had not found due to its length and complexity.

KoblaYu_1
Kobla – Yu: Position after 31. … d5

Any idea what the silicon beast found in this position?  If you’re stumped (or if you think you got it), check your answer here.

Round 5 was the last round of the second day of the tournament, and I was paired against a 1956 rated player, and I’ll be honest, I was lucky with this game.  I had a solid -3 advantage (as black) before a series of inaccurate moves brought me back to around 0.00, when a horrible blunder on my part caused a jump to +6 for my opponent.  Fortunately for me, my opponent offered a draw in the midst of time trouble, and I accepted without hesitation.  I most certainly would have lost that game, but sometimes things just go your way.  I went to sleep that night knowing I was lucky, but I knew I shouldn’t dwell on it too much.  I still wasn’t able to win the game, and I had already drawn a couple games to lower rated players.  Thus, I had to focus on winning games on the last day.

On the morning of the next day, I spent some time with my family because it was Mother’s Day!  How often does that happen?  For round 6, I was paired against a 2008 rated player.  The game was perhaps the most autonomous game I have ever played against a decently high rated player.  Taken out of book early, I developed my pieces, castled, doubled rooks on the e-file, cemented a knight on the central d4 square, and virtually paralyzed my opponent’s position.  Then I proceeded to push the kingside pawns for an attack until my opponent decided to sacrifice a pawn to trade queens, but I converted the endgame without much sweat.

KoblaZhao_1
Kobla – Zhao: Position after 20. Re5 Anyone want to Black here?

For round 7, the last round of the tournament, I was paired against a 1969 rated player.  The opening was weird, but somehow, my opponent misplaced a piece, which allowed me to win a pawn early in the opening.  After winning that early pawn, it was a matter of simple technique from there.  When compared to the other days, the games I had on the last day were of much easier difficulty, which is ironic, since games are supposed to become harder as you progress in the tournament.

YuKobla_1
Yu J. – Kobla: Position after 12. … Qd8 The threat is the simple Qb6, and White can’t defend both pawns in time

After 7 rounds, I finished with 5/7 points, with one loss and two draws as the results that cut off points from the final result.  With the enormous amount of competition in the top section, 5/7 was barely good enough for a tied-for trophy in the end.  However, considering the difficulties I had earlier in the tournament, my rating did increase a few points in the end.  Overall, I wish I had been able to perform better since this was my last chance at Supernationals.  The next time this tournament comes around, I’ll be in college!  Yet, 5/7 still wasn’t a horrible score, and I was still able to take some hardware home, and I had a lot of fun, which is what counts in the end.

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

Online Blitz: Yea or Nay?

When this article is published, I will be taking the AP World History test back at school.  Fortunately, this is the last of the AP tests I am taking this year, with AP Computer Science being held the week prior.  In the midst of all this, Supernationals is this upcoming weekend.  With the conflicting timing, I was stripped for preparation time for this tournament.  With the little time I had, I decided that playing online blitz was going to at least get me somewhat prepared for this tournament.  This led me to think about how beneficial of a preparation strategy that online blitz truly is.

While there are definite merits, there can also be unintended negative effects.  We will attempt to examine both sides and come to a conclusion at the end.

We will start by examining the positive effects of playing blitz.  To me, there are a few effects that constitute as beneficial to a player’s game:

  • Improved tactical vision
    • Explanation: If a player’s tactical vision is slow, or he/she finds it hard to spot tactics in general, blitz may be of help.  Blitz requires a player to make fast, accurate moves.  In some positions, there may be a move that could work, but immense calculations would be needed to decide for sure.  Obviously, that time isn’t available in blitz games.  However, the prospects seem decent, so the player makes the move anyway.  Whether the move works out in the end is a different story, but the fact that the player actually saw the move and experimented with it makes the difference.  Continually experimenting with such tactical moves will help the player spot similar moves in real games.  At that point, the time is available to calculate variations and decide whether it is a good move.
  • Openings
    • Explanation: Playing games online can aid opening play if done correctly.  There are two ways to help openings through playing online.  One of these ways is to practice already-known openings.  Of course, one cannot assume that every game will follow the desired path; but, for those that do, the player can play as far as his/her opening knowledge allows, then play out the rest of the game.  Then, the player can load the game into an engine (or whatever tool you use) in order to find an improvement in their own play or how to capitalize on an opponent’s miscue.  The other way for a player to improve opening play is to keep playing games until he/she stumbles upon an opening that is relatively unknown.  This game can then be analyzed to reinforce the depth of knowledge in these unknown openings.  Both of these methods can greatly help to improve opening play for players at any level.
  • Time management
    • Explanation: This is probably the most obvious benefit, and is also the most important.  I know that I play blitz for this benefit myself.  As stated before, blitz requires a player to play fairly quickly, and these have to be safe moves.  In this way, blitz helps by allowing the player to be more confident in his/her ability to play quick moves that improve the position rather than spending a great deal of time trying to find the one best move in each position.  Over the long run, these methods will save a lot of time and put more pressure on the opponent since he/she has the clock on their side for a greater portion of the game, and they may even end up in time trouble.  Playing blitz online can help decrease the average time spent on moves as well since calculations have to be parsed at a faster rate.

While these are all great benefits that could be maximized by spending a lot of time playing blitz, there are also possible downsides that one has to be aware of.  While these reasons are geared slightly more towards inexperienced players, they can apply to anyone of any strength:

  • It can cause players to play too fast
    • Explanation: With playing blitz comes a responsibility, and that responsibility is to make sure that it doesn’t affect your game too   Sometimes blitz can make a player too trigger-happy in terms of moves, which can come back to hurt the player if not enough time is spent on a move.  It is important to clarify that blitz should be used for playing quicker in slow positions that aren’t rich in tactics and require positional improvement and/or allow a player to see tactics quicker – it should not be used to play faster overall and without care.
  • Results can be misjudged
    • Explanation: Despite the practice gained from online play, results are based on very different parameters.  For one, moving pieces using a mouse is very different than moving with hands over a board, and “knocking pieces over” isn’t a thing online.  In addition, many online interfaces now support “premove,” which allows a player to preload a move on the board before the opponent has made his/her move; obviously, that is not allowed over the board.  Lastly, illegal moves aren’t allowed online and waste precious time when the clock is ticking, whereas illegal moves may be played and not spotted in games over the board.  So, it is important to take all of these factors, among others, into account when considering online play as practice for real tournament play.
  • Frustration
    • Explanation: Online chess is notorious for becoming very frustrating when a player loses multiple games in a row; this is only due to the sheer number of games being played a time.  If this occurs, it can completely undermine any possible benefit coming out of the time spent.  In order to avoid this, it is best to only play a few games at a time and focus more time on analyzing the games played rather than binge-playing with no end goal.

So, we’ve examined a few of the pros and cons of playing online to practice for a tournament.  However, there are a few things a player can do to maximize the benefits of playing online.  One of these things is to play with a time control that reflects the time control of the real tournament.  This means playing with the same increment/delay online as the real tournament since all competitive tournaments these days have one or the other.  This will allow the player to be better suited making decisions as they would in a real tournament.  For example, if a player plays with 30-second increment online, but the real tournament is 5-second delay, then the player would be practicing with 30 seconds per move online when they really only have 5 seconds per move over the board (when in time trouble).

Another follow-up question that some people ask is, “At what point does too much blitz become bad for you?”  Well, to give a few examples, too much laughter can cause asphyxiation, too much oxygen can cause hyperventilation, and too much water can make you drown.  Basically, too much of anything is bad.  As discussed earlier, too much blitz can cause one to speed up their game too much, to the point where moves are actually rushed, and mistakes can result.  So, it is best to limit playing online to a few games per session, and spend more time analyzing the played games.

In conclusion, we have examined the pros and cons of blitz, we have discussed the extent to which one should play, and that players should focus on analyzing blitz games in order to receive feedback on the opening phase of the game.  And, as always, thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Out of Book, [Out of] Luck

Often times, tournaments have a book vendor on site with loads of good reads.  Naturally, most of them are opening books, whether popular or sidelines.  Take a stroll through the skittles room, and more often than not there will be players analyzing an opening or a game in the opening phase.  Minutes before the round, most of the top-rated players will be focused on their computers, preparing for their upcoming opponent.  For those who have coaches, chances are, the time they spend on openings is significant enough to count as a substantial amount.  So much emphasis is put on opening knowledge these days, and players are often compared to each other by the depth of opening knowledge that they have stored in their brains.  As sometimes is the case, games are won based on superior opening knowledge.  A couple decades ago, if someone had a deep opening knowledge, they were often given the upper hand over opponents of similar strength.

Nowadays, however, preparing for a game by memorizing as many lines as deep as possible in your favorite lines tends to be inadequate for a clear upper hand over a similar-strength opponent, due in part to the fact that the opponent probably prepared in the exact same way.  So, other methods of preparation need to be experimented with.  One of these methods is the polar opposite of the type of preparation we just examined, and it just may take you by surprise – preparing something you’ve never played before.

This technique is especially effective against a frequently-played opponent who probably prepared for whatever opening you would typically play.  By preparing something completely different, you have an immediate upper hand out of the opening, especially if it is an obscure line that probably hasn’t been prepared against by your opponent.  However, this technique has the potential to work against almost anyone, as long as the line is prepared for deep enough and in enough different directions.  If prepared correctly, obscure openings can become your strongest weapons.

There is also the other side to it all – assuming that you will never see an opening over the board and thus choosing not to study it can be disastrous.  Not having a clue what to do in a position can lead to making a seemingly innocuous move, only for it to be a blunder; and that’s not even mentioning the possibility of extreme time discrepancies resulting from it.  I’ll admit, I’ve been on both sides of this – I’ve prepared sidelines for frequent opponents just before a game, and I’ve also had to face obscure lines without any clue of knowing what to do as well.  Luckily, I was able to pinpoint and dig up the exact games I was thinking of so I can share some of them with you.

Del Rosario – Kobla, Potomac Open, 2014

In this game, right from the gates, I didn’t have a clue what the best moves were.  However, I should have realized in the middlegame that the position was similar to typical Pirc setups; this would have allowed me to at least stand a better chance.  However, playing aimless moves while bleeding time wasn’t a good recipe, and White won fairly easily.

Kobla – Schenk, ACC Action, 2014

Just a month after the aforementioned game where I was surprised out of the opening, it was now my turn to return the favor to another unsuspecting opponent.  After the first few moves, knowing basic ideas of the position allowed me to build up a menacing attack that eventually allowed me to win the game.

Kobla – Theiss, NVA Chess League, 2017

Although I got off lucky with a good position, this game had all the ingredients for a possibly bad game.  As White in the Sveshnikov, no player ever wants to trade off the beautifully-placed Nd5.  However, that was something I had to commit to if I was to avoid the three-move repetition.  If Black had seen the idea behind 17. … f4, it would have been interesting to see what the outcome of the game would have been.

From the examination of a few games, a few conclusions can be drawn:

  1. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone for openings. At the end of the day, it could be the key to winning the game, and playing new openings/positions always adds fun to the game.
  2. Never neglect sidelines. They are just as important to study as the main lines, since losing a game due to not knowing a sideline could occur in the worst possible circumstances.  Such losses are definitely preventable, but it is up to the player to make it that way.
  3. When playing someone you have played multiple times before, switch it up if you’re up for it. Keep in mind, the earlier the deviation, the better, since you don’t want to get stuck in a situation where your opponent is able to spring a surprise on you before you can play your own!

And, as always, thanks for reading.  See you next time!