Opening Overhaul: A Preview

My last few posts have kind of been all over the place.  I’ve discussed blunders, shared some of my own games, analyzed grandmaster games from the top tournaments, given tournament previews/recaps, so on and so forth.   Admittedly, I haven’t been able to decide on a specific direction to go in for a few articles due to the juggling act that is the junior year of high school.  Since February, I’ve taken an ACT, an SAT, a couple SAT Subject Tests, and most recently, a couple AP Exams.  In fact, I just took the AP United States History exam yesterday, and thus, had to write up this article all last night.  But I digress.

Luckily, I only have one left during this upcoming week, after which I’m almost done for the year.  As those important aspects of the junior year come to an end, I’ll be able to focus more time on chess, whether it’s playing in tournaments, playing online, or even writing these articles – a prospect I am overly thrilled about.  And, with that, I wanted to announce a new series that I’ve been wanting to start for some time – Opening Overhaul.  In this series, I want to take some time to investigate a few openings in depth and share some of the new ideas that have come about in these openings.  These openings may or not be part of your existing repertoire, but as my former chess coach used to say, “All knowledge is good.” And, who knows, perhaps, one of these openings will strike you as worth trying out sometime.  Either way, I hope that these next few articles prove beneficial in some way or another.

chessboard

In each of these articles, I plan to focus on a single opening.  In these openings, I will try to show the fundamental moves, explain some of the general ideas for each side, and finally, elaborate on some of the newer ideas in the opening, supplemented with recent games from either myself and/or some grandmasters if I can find them.

As a bit of a preview, for the first opening, I plan to write about the London System.  The London System has been around forever, but at the top levels, it was never seen amongst the strongest players.  However, over the last six or so months, I’ve seen a bit of a revival of the opening, with so many players around my rating employing the system, and with good success.  Even some of the strongest players in the world have experimented with the newer ideas in the opening recently.  But before I go into it too much, I should note that you’ll have to wait until next time for the full story on that.

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

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A (Very) Basic Guide to Avoiding Blunders

Blunder [bluhn-der] – noun; the one unfortunate part of chess that everyone wishes didn’t exist.

If they didn’t exist, we’d all be masters.  But, obviously, that is not the case.  Everyone makes blunders, which is one of the reasons that make chess the amazing game that it is – every chess player, no matter how strong he or she is (I’m talking about you, Magnus), has blundered in games, sometimes even multiple times in the same game.  However, there are many things you can do to minimize the number of times you blunder.  So how do you do that?

Well, there’s no definitive answer.  It’s different for every person.

Many people try to solve the problem of frequent blundering at its root, such as by taking an introspective look to see if they can find what it is that they’re doing fundamentally wrong.   Are they lacking focus?  Are they moving too fast?  Are they weak on tactics?  Answering such a question can be extremely difficult, especially if blunders occur in different circumstances.  At times, trying to solve the issue only makes it more frustrating.  No matter the cause, though, it is certain to take some time, as many games would have to be reviewed.

But with that said, there is a very simple, straightforward, albeit temporary, way to limit the number of blunders you commit.  This type process likely isn’t my own creation, so if you have heard of it before, then bear with me.  All it entails is asking yourself a few questions before each move…

  1. What did my opponent’s move change in the position? Unless you’re Nakamura and playing blitz against Rybka, pretty much every move in the game changes the dynamic of the position.  Moving a piece may open a file, open up a square for another piece, or attack one of your own pieces.  At any rate, if your opponent made a meaningful move, it is helpful to try to reason out why that move was played since seeing what changed is the first step to identifying possible threats.
  2. Which of my pieces, if any, are en prise? GM John Nunn coined the term “Loose pieces drop off,” which couldn’t ring truer.  Anytime a piece is undefended, it is possible that your opponent can simply capture it – either directly or through some other tactic – without losing anything at all.  Simply protecting all of your pieces can minimize blunders, especially since the effect of the major pieces is limited.  A queen can no longer threaten a bishop if it is protected by a pawn, for example.
  3. What forcing moves does my opponent have? These include checks and captures.  A check is obviously forceful as you have to do something to get your king out of check.  With captures, if you can’t recapture that piece in question or another piece back, the material is lost.  Thus, these possibilities should be examined in order to avoid blundering checkmate or material through a series of captures.

After going through these questions, you can start thinking of your next move, keeping in mind the answers to these questions that you asked yourself.  After coming up with a candidate move, imagine playing it in your head and ask yourself these questions again.  If your own move is forceful, keeping calculating through the variation to evaluate how viable the move is.  If possible, try to parse through this method on as many moves as possible.

It is true that following such a method can be very time-consuming at the outset during tournament games, but the idea is to avoid frequent blunders.  Eventually, asking these questions becomes a quicker and more fluid process, to the point where they don’t need to be thought of explicitly; rather, alarm bells will go off in our head if anything in the position seems out of the norm.  Of course, not every potential blunder will be caught by this method, but it is a starting point to help eventually see the chess board better.

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

A Rollercoaster Performance

It’s been a while since I’ve gone over some of my games, so this week I’m going to share some games that I played at the Virginia Open.  The Virginia Open was a 5-round open tournament held from March 23-25.  Since I hadn’t played in a tournament since the VA States a couple weeks prior and I hadn’t played in a long time control tournament since Nationals the previous December, I decided to take up the gauntlet and play in the open section just to see how I would fare.  Safe to say, the tournament overall was rather interesting, as there were some high points but also some low points.  Let’s take a look at some of the games that I played.

Kobla – Mundayat, Round 1

This game was likely rust from not playing in a long time.  Despite having a sizeable positional plus coming out of an early queen trade, in a span of a few moves I essentially threw that away, ending up in an endgame position where I was going to lose a pawn.  Nevertheless, I was able to hold the endgame, a task that was made somewhat easier by my opponent’s rush to trade rooks.  After centralizing my king on d4, I had created a fortress that my opponent wasn’t able to break through, and had the game continued, I would have kept shuffling my bishop.  Although this wasn’t an ideal start to the tournament, at least I was able to salvage a draw in a game that could have ended up much worse.

Knoll – Kobla, Round 2

After spotting that tactic to go up a pawn, I was pretty pleased with my position overall.  My pawns had mobility and I was able to protect them with my pieces while still pushing them.  I eventually gave up my bishop for a knight to go into a good knight-bad bishop endgame where I was also able to infiltrate with my rook.  After the last pair of rooks was traded, I could use my knight and king to nurse my passed pawns down the board, and my opponent resigned just before promotion.  I was much more satisfied with my play in this game, and overall it was smooth-sailing after picking up the pawn in the middlegame.  This win set me up to in the middle of the pack of 1.5 pointers going into round 3, so I could end up playing up or down, depending on how the pairings would work out.

Kobla – Lohr, Round 3

I feel like this game was much more of my style.  Following a weird transposition into a Sicilian-like position, I was able to start my attack before my opponent.  A key takeaway from this game is White’s dark-squared bishop – many players are hesitant to give it up as it’s generally considered White’s most important minor piece.  While this is at many times true, especially in the Dragon Sicilian, there are always exceptions.  Here, after the g and h files became locked, my only pawn break was with the f pawn, and that was only going to happen by allowing Black’s knight to sit on g4.  I decided to push anyway, and after my opponent played Ng4, I had the option of retreating the bishop to g1, but I figured it wasn’t worth it since I would have a bunch of pieces clogged on the back rank at that point.  Instead, I pushed forward with f5, allowing him to capture my dark squared bishop if he wanted.  The light square bishop ended up playing a more important role than what the dark-squared bishop would have, eventually allowing me to win an exchange.  After that, the endgame was fairly straightforward, and with promotion coming, my opponent resigned.

Del Mundo – Kobla, Round 4

This game was probably the most disappointing for me of all the ones I’ve shown.  After going into an endgame, I was able to play fine for the most part.  My opponent was definitely the one pressing, but I was holding, and after the trade of minor pieces, it was somewhat simpler.  His rook was able to infiltrate, but I found a way to keep material from dropping off the board.  However, it was when we reached the dreaded 40th move that I finally made a mistake.  After 40. Rb7, I didn’t want to play 40. … Ke6 again as I was afraid of 41. a4, making havoc of my queenside and likely allowing his king to finally penetrate.  In hindsight, 40. … Re6 was likely best, although it would bring about a change in dynamic after 41. Rd7+ Kc6.  Instead, I played a much worse move and lost a pawn and the game.  Obviously, if I had played Re6, I may have still lost, there is no way to tell.  But, it would have given me a better chance than what I played in the game.

I ended up losing the last game as well to finish at 50% with 2.5/5 despite starting 2.5/3.  What began as a promising start ended on the flip side.  While there was much I wish I could have done differently, there were still good things to take away from this tournament.  I’m not sure what the next tournament I’ll play in as SAT subject tests are on the horizon, but until then, I’ll have to keep in touch.

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

How Caruana Conquered the Candidates

After more than two weeks of grueling competition between eight of the world’s best players, Caruana emerged victorious by a full point in the 2018 edition of the Candidates tournament, meaning that he will challenge current World Champion Magnus Carlsen in November later this year.  The tournament is structured as a 14-round, double round robin, and winning it is no simple feat.  In many cases, these players have been preparing for this tournament in lieu of playing in other events in recent months.

This year, Caruana rode to a +4 performance, scoring 9/14 with five wins, one loss, and eight draws.  The only loss came in round 12 against Karjakin, which made the race much more interesting as it sprung both Karjakin and Ding into the race; Mamedyarov, the runner-up at the time, lost as well.  Still, Caruana was always at least tied with the lead after round 4.

So, how was Caruana able to stay head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in this tournament?  We may (unfortunately) not be able to pick his brain directly, but we can look at his games in the tournament and see which ones had the greatest significance.

  1. Caruana – So, Round 1

This game was significant mostly for its embodiment of a “hot start.”  Fighting off dangerous counterplay from So in the middlegame, Caruana was able to catch a break after the critical move 23. … Ba6?!, giving him the opportunity to build up pressure on the kingside.  Caruana wasted no time in opening lines for his major pieces, and before long, he had a mating attack.  This huge turnaround likely had a substantial boost to Caruana’s confidence, setting the tone for him for the rest of the tournament.

  1. Kramnik – Caruana, Round 4

This game was significant for its situational implications.  Prior to this round, Caruana was trailing Kramnik by half a point in the tournament standings.  With Kramnik having White in this game, it was a critical moment for these two players.  If Kramnik was to win, it would set Caruana back 1.5 points behind the leader, making the rest of the tournament an uphill battle.  Thus, it was important for Caruana to keep pace in this game, and he did more than enough.  This game was another instance of the double-edged queen-less middlegame, somewhat of a commonplace in the Petrov.  Comically, the critical move was once again on move 23, when Kramnik lunged forward with 23. c5, attempting to undermine the support of the knight on e5.  However, when looking at the bigger picture, this endeavor was flawed, as Black was able to capture twice to get a passed pawn on g2 in exchange for a couple queenside pawns.  Compounded with back-rank issues, this became a troubling issue for Kramnik to defend.  Caruana won a piece, and with sufficient dark square control to prevent the promotion of White’s d7 pawn long enough and mating net ideas on the queenside, he was able to secure the win.  Especially with the Black pieces, this win was monumental for Caruana, as it also gave him the lead in the tournament.

  1. Caruana – Aronian, Round 13

After losing the previous round and allowing Karjakin and Ding to gain ground, this game was perhaps the most crucial of them all, as Caruana needed to right the ship once again with two rounds to go.  His opponent was Aronian, who, despite is poor performance in the tournament up to this point, was a solid player.  After a slow start with much maneuvering, Aronian ventured to sacrifice a piece for White’s three kingside pawns.  However, Aronian missed the key move 31. … Nxb4, which would have kept the pressure on White in protecting the kingside.  The misstep with 31. … e4 allowed Caruana to build up his pieces on the kingside and get an attack of his own, and he never looked back after that, eventually ending the game with a nice tactic.  This win proved crucial as Caruana was able to negate the loss from the previous round and keep at the front of the pack with one game to go.

Caruana fittingly ended the tournament in a Carlsen-like style, pushing and winning a game when he only needed a draw to clinch the tournament victory.  Nevertheless, he won the tournament and the right to challenge Carlsen for the World Championship title later this year.  Interestingly enough, the tournament comes with a quick turnaround as many of the players will play in the GRENKE Chess Classic in London, and Caruana-Carlsen in round 1 will play out as a preview for the upcoming World Championship match.

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

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!