U.S. Teams Cruising at the World Olympiad

Last time, I previewed the World Olympiad – the largest chess team tournament in the world.  We are now approximately halfway through the tournament, which is being held in Batumi, Georgia.  Unsurprisingly, there are already multiple worthy storylines forming.  Only time will tell whether these will still hold true at the finish line, but until then, we can marvel (or, in some cases, be surprised) at these headlines.

  1. The U.S. Women’s team is a powerhouse

Through the first five rounds, the U.S. women’s team has been unstoppable, and this might just be the biggest headline thus far.  GM Irina Krush is on a perfect 4/4, top-rated IM Anna Zatonskih is on 4.5/5, and FM Jennifer Yu has almost swept board four points, also with 4.5/5.  After five rounds, the team is the only one left with a perfect 10/10 score (two points per match win; one per draw).  Round six will present them with their toughest opponent yet with a match against the strong team from India, but at the rate that they are going, will momentum carry them all the way through?  Time will tell, but the best we can say is “good luck!”

  1. The U.S. Men’s team isn’t doing too bad, either

While the men’s team isn’t perfect anymore – as they drew their round 5 match with Israel – they are still at a solid 9/10, still good for tied-for-5th with three other teams at 9/10.  Four teams are still at a perfect 10/10, those being Azerbaijan, Poland, Czech Republic, and Ukraine.  They’ll need to fight hard for the next couple rounds to keep within arm’s reach of proving their top-seed status going into the tournament.  This should be possible, fortunately, since we are getting to the point where the top teams will begin to knock each other off the top.  They are paired against Bosnia & Herzegovina in round 6.

  1. Speaking of U.S. Men’s…Fabiano Caruana

GM Fabiano Caruana has been on fire as board one for the last two rounds on the U.S. Men’s team.  After sitting out the first round and drawing the next two rounds as black, Fabiano Caruana has picked it up quite quickly, executing two miniatures as white in the fourth and fifth rounds against GM Vishy Anand and GM Boris Gelfand, respectively.  In the fifth round, however, his win was canceled out by Sam Shankland’s loss to GM Emil Sutovsky, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Caruana has already been playing better in the more recent rounds.  The world championships challenger will continue to play board one in the rounds to come as he practices for the upcoming world championship match in November with Magnus Carlsen.

  1. Russia hits a speed bump

It seems as if the chess fans waiting for the much-anticipated U.S. vs Russia match will have to wait just a bit longer, and they might not even have their hope fulfilled.  After a strong 3/3 start, Russia lost a shocker to Poland, getting upset 2.5-1.5 by the significantly lower-rated team.  To be fair, Poland is one of the only four teams on 5/5 now, but just based on the rating differences on paper, most expected Russia to win that match.  Despite the loss, Russia was able to salvage a fifth round to finish with 8 points in the first five rounds, but it’s definitely an uphill battle from here for that team.

  1. Georgia’s host teams surprising

As the host country for the tournament, Georgia has three teams enrolled in the tournament, named Georgia 1, 2, and 3.  Interestingly enough, Georgia 3 is currently the highest in the standings out of all three teams with 8/10, despite being the lowest rated of the three and not having a player over 2500.  If anything, this just goes to show how much the dynamic changes when comparing a team tournament to an individual tournament.  In typical tournaments, if a player is higher-rated, they should perform better, and that is fairly expected.  However, when it comes to a team tournament, all members have to play well in order for the collective team to get points, so even if one player is very highly rated, it doesn’t guarantee anything for the team.

These are just some of the most interesting storylines that have come up in the first half of the Olympiad.  But, with that said, there are still six rounds to go in the tournament, and with many teams near the top, including the U.S. in both sections, it will definitely be interesting to see who comes out on top.  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!

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Gearing up for the 43rd World Chess Olympiad

The 43rd Chess Olympiad (September 23 – October 6) is less than a week from starting, and with it comes all the hype that this biennial event always seems to bring.  The largest team chess event in the world will surely attract many spectators and online viewers for its two-week duration.  This year, the event is being held in Batumi, Georgia, which is very close to the venue for last year’s World Cup held in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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The official logo for this year’s Olympiad!

One of the most intriguing storylines about the Olympiad has to do with a bit of history.  For the first time ever, the team from Russia will not hold the top seed in average rating.  In a way, however, it is almost fitting, as the new top-seeded team, the U.S., will try to defend their championship from two years ago in Baku.  The U.S. team will bring the same lineup as they did two years prior:  GM Fabiano Caruana, GM Hikaru Nakamura, GM Wesley So, GM Sam Shankland, and GM Ray Robson.

There are some changes to overall team makeup and standings as well, including regulars who are not playing and some newer faces.

Perhaps the least surprising of the absences is GM Magnus Carlsen, who has the World Championship match to prepare for.  Russian regulars GM Alexander Grischuk and GM Peter Svidler will both not be playing, too.  However, the Russian team is still very much in good hands with GM Vladimir Kramnik, GM Sergey Karjakin, and GM Ian Nepommniatchtchi on the top three boards.  Lastly, GM Veselin Topalov will be missing from the scene due to the banning of Bulgaria from international events by FIDE.

On the other hand, a number of players that have committed to playing might surprise us.  Firstly, despite being the challenger for the upcoming World Championship match, GM Fabiano Caruana is still playing in the Olympiad amid his already-busy summer schedule.  Secondly, GM Vishy Anand is playing for the India team for the first time in over ten years, and his presence should greatly improve India’s chance at the gold.

The top five seeds, in order, are:

  1. The United States
  2. Russia
  3. China
  4. Azerbaijan
  5. India

The Chinese team has greatly increased in strength as well, mostly due to the significant rating jumps of both Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi compared to where they were last time.  Azerbaijan, who is led by GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, has also increased in strength.  India now has GM Vishy Anand and GM Pentala Harikrishna as a 1-2 punch, and with three players over 2700, they also expected to be competitive.

In general, the return of most of the strongest players and some shifting among the top teams should make for an extremely interesting Olympiad, especially since team events are always fun to follow.

My next article is scheduled right in the middle of the event, so I should hopefully be able to pull together a few notable games to share at that time.  Until then!

Late Fireworks in St. Louis

The annual Sinquefield Cup recently came to a close and considering how the tournament has gone the last few years, we could venture to say that this year’s results were somewhat surprising.

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The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, the host of the annual Sinquefield Cup.

In this year’s edition of the Sinquefield Cup, there were three co-champions after nine rounds:  Fabiano Caruana, Magnus Carlsen, and Levon Aronian.  Due to this event being the second-to-last in this year’s Grand Chess Tour, “tour” tiebreaks were held after the main event, where Caruana and So went head to head to decide who would join Aronian, Nakamura, and MVL in the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour in London.  The first two games were rapid time control, and Caruana was able to take 1.5/2 and win first place.  But that wasn’t the surprising part.  They’re all great players.  Rather, it was the fact that two of the ten players finished with nine draws out of nine games in the main event, and two more players finished with eight draws in nine games.  Additionally, no player had more than three decisive games, which isn’t incredibly low by any means, but it’s also not very high.

Of course, that’s not to say there weren’t good games.  There were many good games, and I will share one of my favorites further down in this article.  But, it seems like this tournament will resurface comments about the number of draws in tournaments these days.  Despite the many draws, at least in the first eight rounds of the tournament, all viewers were rewarded with a climactic ending in the ninth round.  Caruana came into the round leading the field by half a point with 5/8, but four players were on 4.5/8, so there was bound to be some drama unfolding.  We were given just that when two of those players, Carlsen and Aronian, won their respective games to jump to 5.5/8.  Carlsen had a nice attack early and rode the advantage to eventually capture the full point.  Aronian gambled against Grischuk with a rook sacrifice and it paid off when Grischuk blundered, allowing Aronian to win.  Meanwhile, Caruana wasn’t able to do much as Black against Wesley So, who didn’t push for much himself.  As a result, we had three players atop the podium in the end.

In an interesting side story, official September ratings came out, and Carlsen (2839) is currently 12 points above Caruana (2827).  The Sinquefield Cup caused some shifting in the top 10, but most interestingly, if Caruana had beat Carlsen when they met in round 7 and the rest of the tournament had gone as it did, Caruana would have overtaken Carlsen for number one on the rating list.  What a story that would have been!  However, winning with Black against the World Champion is a tall order, so Caruana will have to wait for another chance.

And now, probably my favorite game from the tournament:

Carlsen – Nakamura, 6th Sinquefield Cup, 2018

This game was my favorite for a couple reasons.  Firstly, I loved the tactics and attack that Carlsen was able to command in the middlegame, seemingly out of nowhere.  However, perhaps more than that, I enjoyed how he could transition seamlessly from attacking with his major pieces to liquidating to a queen and rook endgame where he ground down his opponent.  For a while, it looked like Carlsen couldn’t make any progress on Black’s a-pawn, but once he decided to trade off queens and could position his kingside pawns optimally, he could march his king all over the board, eventually picking up the a-pawn and infiltrating Black’s kingside to secure the win.

Upcoming tournaments include the World Chess Olympiad at the end of September and the Isle of Man Open in late October, so stay tuned for those!  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.

Keeping in Touch with Chess

It’s that time of…life?

Yes, that’s right.  As some Chess^Summit authors have reached and passed this part of life, it’s now my turn – college applications.  With college applications has come the unfortunate effect of not being able to play in tournaments very often, if at all.  Frankly, sitting here while writing this sentence, I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what the last tournament I played in was, or even the last time I played in a rated game in general.  In other words:  It’s been awhile.

Sure, I could tell you that this is a situation could very well happen to anyone, or that it’s inevitable, but that wouldn’t exactly help you.  Rather, I can tell you a few things you can do to stay in touch with chess if playing consistently in tournaments or rated games, in general, becomes impractical.  So, without further ado…

  1. Online Chess

This one kind of goes without saying, but it’s really the closest one can get to playing rated chess, it’s just without the effect that rated games would have on actual rating.  Playing online chess comes with the ability to practice strategies, execute plans, and stay up to date with opening theory, assuming your opponent follows the book line to the end.  The opening theory part, however, might change based on the chosen time control for online chess, and that choice has some pretty significant implications.  There are pros and cons for short and long time controls alike.  Shorter time controls allow for refinement of intuition and quickly spotting tactics; however, they aren’t always ideal, as games can often become nonsensical in time scrambles.  On the other hand, long time controls allow for deep thinking, drawn out plans, and perhaps a better chance at good opening play; these too, however, have their own cons, as the games can take a long time, and sometimes that amount of time just isn’t available.  Either way, playing online if/when possible is one of the best ways to stick with the game when pressed for time.

  1. Solving Tactics

As briefly mentioned already, another well-known way to keep up with chess is to practice with tactics on a daily (or as consistent as possible) basis, as they help with keeping motifs engrained in our minds and calculation time consistent.  The benefit of practicing tactics is that they never become repetitive, as each subsequent problem is typically from a position we’ve never seen, and the motifs from problem to problem almost always change.  In this way, each problem can be engaging in its own way, and, as a whole, the method is very easy to get into.  In fact, my first real chess coach always praised the idea that doing “just ten tactics a day” is good enough to keep up with the game, and if time is a concern, doing only that much likely wouldn’t take all that long.  There are many ways to practice tactics, and one of the best is Tactics Trainer at chess.com.  The system is incredibly interactive – if you don’t find the correct answer on the first try, it allows you to retry with no effect on your tactics “rating,” or you can have it tell you the solution right away; having that choice in the first place is something that many other tactics websites don’t offer.  Overall, practice tactics is a fairly straightforward and less-time-consuming way to keep in touch with chess, and if you believe in the well-known phrase, practicing something that comprises 99% of chess can’t exactly hurt.

  1. Straight-up Think about Chess

This one might not sound all that familiar at first but bear with me, because this is actually one of my favorite ways to keep in touch with chess, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you do this already.  Thinking through chess moves, games, or crazy tactics is something that I love to do, especially when in situations that some might consider “boring.”  Say, you’re in a waiting room for some appointment and don’t have anything to do.  If I was in that situation, I might just start playing through an opening in my head, testing myself to see how well I remember specific lines.  Or, I might play through a game of mine that I happen to recall at the moment; or maybe even a game that isn’t mine, but I was fascinated with it enough to memorize the moves.  Or, I could try to construct as crazy of a position as I can to make a certain tactical move to work.  For example, I could ask myself, “What’s the coolest position I can come up with where a rook sacrifice leads a win by forcing doubled pawns?” and then proceed to create certain piece combinations and positions where it works.  Doing this on my own has actually helped two-fold: I’ve been able to stay in touch with chess in perhaps a “creative” way, and I’ve also found a way to occupy myself when necessary.

Perhaps, the next time you find yourself not being able to play in a tournament due to timing, you can compensate by keeping in touch in one of these ways, or maybe even others that I haven’t mentioned.  In fact, if any of you have other ways that you keep in touch with the game, feel free to share in the comments!

Somewhat ironically, I still won’t be able to play in tournaments anytime very soon because I’m leaving for Singapore on a field trip in a couple days, and I’ll be gone for about two weeks.  Thus, you probably won’t see me in two weeks, but I should be back in a month or so.  Until then!

New and Old at U.S. Juniors

With another year, another U.S. Junior Chess Championships have come to a close.  The field for both tournaments did not disappoint, even though they were markedly different from years past – another testament to the constantly evolving landscape of junior chess in the country.  In the end, the tournaments were engaging to follow, with action and the title up for grabs all the way until the end (if you remember the Girls section last year, it was decided before the last round!).  They were held from July 11-21 as a nine-player round-robin. 

U.S. Girls Junior Chess Championships 

First, the Girls Section.  After nine grueling rounds, youngster Carissa Yip came out on top by a full point at 7/9.  Although she lost one game later in the tournament, her six (!) wins more than made up for it.  It was evident from the start that Yip was going to be playing for wins all tournament, essaying the double-edged Grünfeld and eventually creating a lethal attack against an uncastled White king.  After winning the first game, she followed up with a second win, dodging and eventually capitalizing on her opponent’s overextension in the middlegame.  She continued to excel at the top of the standings throughout the tournament, winning games wherever possible.  By the last round, she was already up a full point on the rest of the field and just had to draw the last round to clinch the tournament, which she was able to do. 

One of the more interesting points about this tournament victory for Yip is related to the same tournament from last year.  In that event, while Akshita Gorti was able to power through to a convincing tournament victory, Yip somewhat struggled, finishing with only 3.5/9.  As a result, I would have to believe that this victory feels extra special for Yip as, 1) it is already one of the most prestigious junior tournaments in the country, but 2) it’s also a bounce-back performance relative to last year.  All in all, it made for a strong performance this year, and it’ll be interesting to see if she can keep it up next year. 

U.S. Junior Chess Championships 

The Open section of the tournament saw many new faces in this year’s edition, with five of the ten players not having played in this tournament last year.  That statistic comes with somewhat of an asterisk as Annie Wang played in the Girls section last year, but for all intents and purposes, it counts.  After nine action-packed rounds, it was Awonder Liang who came out on top with 6.5/9.  Unlike the Girls section, which had a relatively spaced out distribution of final scores, the Open section was very clogged up in the middle, with five players in the 4-5 point range and seven in the 3.5-5 point range.  This made for many critical games from early on, as every full point made a huge difference.  Even the tournament winner, Awonder Liang, “only” had four wins, compared to Carrisa Yip’s six in the Girls Section.  Still, Liang was able to finish a half point above Advait Patel, who earned second. 

Unlike Yip, who was able to reverse her performance from last year to win the tournament this year, it was sort of the opposite of Liang’s case.  He won the tournament last year, too!  So, this actually marks two in a row for Liang, who must certainly be feeling ecstatic after this performance.  While he faced significant competition in both events, he has been able to weather the storm each time out.  The question everyone will be asking this time next year will be:  Will Liang be able to three-peat?  Of course, only time will tell. 

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time! 

 

GM At Last!

After a long, suspense-filled journey, chess phenom Praggnanandhaa has officially become the second youngest to ever achieve the grandmaster title.  To say the least, it was a very long road.  Nevertheless, the achievement is still magnificent, although possibly bittersweet for him.

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Praggnanandhaa at the 2017 World Junior Championships

Let’s take a trip through time to examine how Praggnanandhaa came to reach such an achievement at this incredibly young age.  Praggnanandhaa first broke onto the scenes as a FIDE Master just before turning 8 years old when he won the U8 Open section at the Asian Youth Chess Championships in 2012.  Fast-forward three years later, and Praggnanandhaa became the youngest-ever International Master in 2016 at the age of 10 years and about 10 months after gaining the third and final IM norm at the KiiT International Chess Festival.  At this point, the chase for the GM title was officially on, and to break Sergey Karjakin’s record at 12 years and 7 months, Praggnanandhaa had about one and three-quarters years to gain three GM norms (performance rating of 2600+) and peak his rating above 2500.  Plausible, right?

The First GM Norm

Praggnandhaa earned his first GM norm at the 2017 World Junior Chess Championships.  This was a big story, but it was probably overshadowed by the potentially bigger story – one that never materialized.  This event was (and still is) one of several around the world that offer immediate titles to the top finishers of each section.  In the top section, the first-place prize was, in fact, an immediate GM title.  Unfortunately, Praggnanandhaa fell half a point short with “only” 8/11.  Still, he had finally gotten the first norm that he needed, and he had about five months to gain two more in order to beat Karjakin’s record.

The Second GM Norm

After winning his first norm in November 2017 and with a large number of events coming up, many believed Praggnanandhaa could feasibly gain his last two norms before March 2018, when he would become the same age as Karjakin when he won his title.  Unfortunately, Praggnanandhaa never seemed to catch a lucky break, and he came very close on many occasions, but could never seal the deal.  Thus, the March 2018 deadline came and passed.  But, it definitely wasn’t the end of the world for him, since Praggnanandhaa still had six months to beat the second-fastest time, which was held by Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan.  Indeed, about a month after the deadline in April of 2018, Praggnanandhaa gained his second GM norm at the 4th Heraklion “Fischer Memorial” GM-Norm tournament, finishing in clear first half a point ahead of the rest of the field.  He only had one more to go.

The Third GM Norm

The band Linkin Park has a song that goes: “Night gets darkest right before dawn / What don’t kill you makes you more strong / And I’ve been waiting for it so long.”  Indeed, that seemed to ring true for Praggnanandhaa, who had one of his worst performances in early June at the Schaakweek Apeldoorn GM tournament in the Netherlands, going a frightening 3/9.  Yet, all seemed to work out in the end, as later in the month, he played in the 4th ad Gredine Open in Italy and captured the last GM norm and the GM title in the 8th round of the tournament.  To put on the finishing touches, he won the last round as well and tied for first place in the end.  A fitting finish.  Congrats to Praggnanandhaa!

While he wasn’t able to break Karjakin’s record in the end, Praggnanandhaa’s journey was still fascinating and fun to follow.  And, what’s bad about being the second fastest to GM?!

Some now even call him the 2nd Tiger from Madras, as his hometown is in Chennai, India, and it happens to be the same as former World Champion Viswanathan Anand.  Those are big shoes to fill, but it seems very possible as he is yet to 13.  Once again, congrats to Praggnanandhaa, and I’ll see you next time!

Keeping the Foot on the Gas

This week, I’ll be taking a quick break from the Opening Overhaul series to cover a topic that appeared in my most recent tournament last weekend, and I feel it is important enough to write about it now.

The Continental Class Championships were held from June 15-17 in Falls Church, VA.  Fellow Chess^Summit author Isaac was there, too, and he played in the Open Section.  I decided to play in the Expert (U2200) Section because it was my first tournament in a while and I figured I would perform better overall in my own section.  I went into the tournament as the fourth seed in the 3-day section, so I felt that I would have at least two rounds of playing down before the pairings would become a little more muddled.  Indeed, that’s how the games played out, as we will see.

In the first round, I was paired with an opponent I had beat before with White, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the opening in that game.  Thus, prior to this round, I prepared for that same line; such is my luck, as he played something completely different, and I was back to playing a normal game.

Kobla – Al-Hariri, Continental Class Championships, 2018

A standard Italian game out of the opening, there was mostly maneuvering.  By the time the middlegame came around, there were two distinct focus points on the board.  One of those was the pawn fixture on b5 and the tension between the a and b pawns for White and Black, respectively.  The second focus point was the tension in the center after Black got in d5.  Black arguably won both battles there, but I was able to keep the pressure along the central files. Eventually Black tried to trade material in a fancy way but it was ultimately flawed, and I won a piece.  The conversion was a bit shaky, but in the end, I was able to win the first game of the tournament, which is always nice.

Klenoff – Kobla, Continental Class Championships, 2018

In the second game, the middlegame was somewhat rough as my f6 plan became a failed experiment, but I got somewhat lucky by being able to get in d6 and d5, after which a trade of pawns and minor pieces opened up my position a bit and I was able to do some maneuvering to transfer my bad light-squared bishop to the kingside where it would be of use.  At that point, I was able to capitalize, and after White’s queen ventured a bit too far into my position, I was able to gain a few tempi by attacking the queen, allowing me to gain the initiative.  That initiative carried through to the end when I was able to win material and eventually the game.

The 2-0 start was the best I could ask for considering I hadn’t played in a long time and hadn’t even looked at chess, and it also confirmed that playing in my own section was the right decision.  Still, there were games left to play.  In the third round, I was paired up against a high 2100 who had merged in from the 2-day section.  I had no idea what he played so I went in with general preparation.

Kobla – Theiss, Continental Class Championships, 2018

I went for the quick draw for a couple of reasons.  For one, I figured that I should just take the points I get since I was playing a higher rated player.  I also figured that I didn’t want to risk it since it was my first tournament in some time, but I feel like that was the wrong mindset to have because I had already played two games and for the most part that rust would have been gone.  And, obviously this isn’t the mainline of the Sveshnikov for Black so I could have continued with the declining move Bd3, but in all honesty, I had forgotten the correct way to decline the draw, and that was another reason I took the draw.  In hindsight, if I had known the correct line, however, I probably would have played on.  Either way, this draw meant that I had 2.5/3 and just had to prepare for the next morning.

For the fourth round, I was paired against a good friend of mine in Alex Jian, someone I’ve played a number of times in the past.  Many of our previous games have been in the Grunfeld, so for this game, I decided to prepare something one-off.

Jian – Kobla, Continental Class Championships, 2018

This game is definitely the one I want to spend the most time talking about.  To start, my choice of preparation definitely threw my opponent off, as he prepared for something completely different as he told me afterward.  With that upper hand, I was able to equalize early on and soon in the middlegame I was in the driver’s seat.  I was able to increase the pressure as the middlegame went on, but there were a couple points where I could have cashed in that momentum into better endgames or otherwise better position overall, but I missed them or didn’t think highly enough of those opportunities.  Even in the end, I was still better, but I offered a draw feeling like I had done what I could.  In hindsight, I definitely should have pressed, as I could have in the third game as well.  As a result, I finished this round with 3/4.

I took a bye in the last round as I actually went to a concert with my family that night to see U2!

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It was a great performance!

But I digress.  Overall, the lesson to be learned here is that, if given the opportunity, one should always go for wins, even if already at or near the top of the standings.  As world-class players like Carlsen and Caruana have shown, it doesn’t hurt to press a little for wins when already winning a tournament because they can only help you.  When in a better position, if something happens down the road and that advantage is lost, then it is what it is and one can settle for a draw.  But, if that opportunity to go for a win exists, then go for it.  Especially in my fourth round game, there were a number of instances where I could have either cashed in or just played on and seen what would have happened, and if I could have won, it would have been better for me.  In the end, finishing with 3.5/5 gave me a tie for third, but considering that I started out 2/2, there was definitely room for improvement.

Next time, I’ll probably continue to play in my section with the hope of replicating the success I had in this tournament nevertheless.  But, if there’s one thing I’ll do differently, I’ll definitely press for wins when I can.