Chaos and Uncertainty

This position looks unclear. Every experienced chess players have heard that phrase at least a few times in their career.

Like many other things in life, chess is a complicated game. There are different approaches to different situations.

But that is what makes the game fun and interesting. By constantly looking at a convoluted puzzle, we will subconsciously find new ideas over time.

Four-time U.S. Champion Hikaru Nakamura is someone who loves to create complex positions out of nowhere and then constantly cause new problems for his opponents until they lose the thread.

I was watching the game Holt – Nakamura at the 2015 U.S. championship. Computers kept saying white’s position was much better, but by looking at Conrad’s body language, he never felt that way.

Rather it was Naka, who continued to show his confidence. Even though objectively he had a worse position, he kept putting more pressure and later on, Conrad blundered in time trouble.

Get used to the un-comfort zone – Make decisions to take chances

When I was playing, I often would search for clear paths, rather than to complicate the positions. I had the habit of looking for familiar patterns, and make decisions based on what I already knew.

I looked at the position objectively too often. I would forget that my opponent sitting across me is having just as many trouble accessing the position.

Now I know if I play chess again, I will be searching for chaos and unclear positions.

We tend to avoid chaos, but sometimes we should embrace uncertainties. That’s where the opportunities are.

Learn to dance in the rain. Thrive in chaos.

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Caissa’s Unexpected Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composure Wins Games

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

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

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 7. Nbd2

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 9. Bb5

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 12…a6

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 15… axb5

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 16. Ne1

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 18. Rf2

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 20…Kxe7

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 26. Nc1

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 28…f6?

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 33. Rh1

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 39…Nc6

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

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

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Analysis after 45…Rh4

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 46…Rg7

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 48. Ng3!

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 51…Rf7

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 61. Kd2

61…Rxe2+!–+ 62.Kxe2 Nc3+ 0–1

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

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

Reality Check

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

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Mucerino–Steincamp, White to move and win

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

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

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Demetruk–Steincamp, position after 19. Be2

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

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Demetruk–Steincamp, position after 25…Rb8

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

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

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

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Özbek–Steincamp, position after 31…Qh5

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

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Özbek–Steincamp, position after 32…Rxf2!

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

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

Steady Finish

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 31. Kh2

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

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 33…Qg5

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 48… Ra7

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 51. Ke4

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 55…Rg6

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 58…Kg3

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

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

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

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

What do I do Now?

This is a question I hear often from students when opening is finished and there are no clear tactical moves.

Let’s take a moment to think about this scenario.

The reason we often get stuck is because we’re looking prematurely for the final punch, even though there are plenty of game to be played.

Instead of thinking to finish the game, let’s take a step back, and make small improvement moves for our positions.

There are two questions we can ask

  1. How to activate my pieces
  2. How to stop my opponent’s plans

Activate My Pieces

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Black to Move

All the minor pieces are developed for both side, now black should consider to bring rooks to the center and find ways to open up the files for the rooks.

Re8 or Qd7 are two good choices here. These moves does not win the game or have any immediate threat, but we are ‘waking up’ our heavy pieces.

Stopping Opponent’s Plans

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White to Move

Similar to the previous position, white’s minor pieces are developed. Rb1 is a good idea to control the b-file, however, we can make this move later as well.

More importantly, what is black’s plan here. Where should black develop the light square bishop?

Once we ask this question, we can see g4 is the ideal square to pin white’s knight and queen. Based on this h3 would be a good prophylaxis move.


Chess can be a fast and furious game, but it can also be strategic in nature.

When the next time you don’t see clear cut moves, make sure to search for small improvements that will help you in the long haul.

Slow Start and Second Chances

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

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

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Steincamp–Schragin, position after 26. Bb2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21st Fred Sorenson Memorial (2), 25.09.2018

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 8. dxe5

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

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 12…Bxf6

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

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 16. Bd3

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

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

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Variation after 23…Nd4

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 17…Nc5

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

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 20…Rad8

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

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Variation after 22. R6d2

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

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

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Variation after 23. Bd1

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

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

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 22…bxc6

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

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 25…Nxe4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 5. g4?!

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

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

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 16…Nf5

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

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 21…0-0

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

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

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 42…h5

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

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Steincamp–Standley, position after 48. e7+

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

How to Deal with Losing

Fall seven, rise eight

My kid are not playing well. I’m so bad at chess. How can we avoid losing.

These are the comments from parents and chess players alike when the chess journey gets tough with a bad tournament or game.

Parents often ask how can we deal with losing, especially when the younger players cry after games.

When I hear these questions, my response often will be: I hear you, and I can understand your pain for the short term.

However, chess journey is a long game and there are ups and downs for every player.

Let’s first get the painful truth out first.

Losing sucks! No doubt about that. Just ask Magnus about it, this is the best player of our time, and he’s still having trouble handle losing.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about why losing is an important part of the chess journey, and why often losing early can be more beneficial than winning without progress.


If you’re a 2000 rated player, and hypothetically let’s say you can play in the U1200 section.  More likely than not, you’ll be able to win every single game. 

Losing may not be part of the equation in this hypothetical scenario, but will you improve chess skills over 1-year?

Not likely.

Every game, you’re playing weaker players, basically you’re providing training opportunities to the new players.

For anyone to improve, it is necessary to play against stronger players. And each time we jump to a higher section, it is part of the process to struggle against stronger players, but then improve thru the learning experiences.


The Chess Journey is a marathon, and losing in chess sometimes feeling like struggling on the 3rd mile on your first practice run.

That’s why we all need to practice many trial runs before the final marathon run. The first practice will be far from perfect, the second will be a little better, but still long way to go.

However, each time, you’re building stronger muscles physically and mentally, and by the show-time, you’ll be more robust and less likely to be bothered by small aches in the run.

Chess tournaments works the same way, in the first tournament for a child, losing feels like the end of the world.

Then it becomes less annoy, and soon many kids wants to play again especially after a lost because there are more fire in them now.

It’s not easy seeing your child cry from their first loss, but remember many players have the same experiences, I cried twice from chess games when I was younger (details in a future post).

The more a chess player experiences the ups and downs, the better s/he will handle in the future.

Next time you or your child experience a painful lost, please keep below quote in your back pocket.

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

                                                                -Mae West

Why Tournament Matters

Have you traded stock with paper money before?

Most of the time, this is an exercise used in High School or College finance classes, and it’s an opportunity for the students to learn about financial literacy.

I’ve done that.

When I traded stock with paper money, I did not check the daily ups and downs of stock trend for months.

During a good market (2009, right after the 2008 crash), when I returned to check results nonchalantly six months later, paper money have risen over 20%. I wish I could turn the time back and put in some real money instead.

Now fast forward to the first time I put $100 of real money into the stock market. The market had ups and downs as usual, however, this time my psychology changed completely.

I was checking stock tickers over 10 times a day on my phone, and everytime there’s a $1-2 of movement in price, I wondered whether I made the right decision to buy and when should I sell.

What does this story has anything to do with chess tournaments?

The title of this post tells you.

Playing in rated chess tournament versus casual games is like trading stock with real versus paper money.

The difference is in a player’s psychology.  To truly improve in chess, you have to go thru the trials of tribulation in facing tough times from tournament games.

Whenever I talk to parents of new students, we discuss how to improve in chess (topic for another time) and when should a student start playing in tournaments.

My recommendation: once basic chess skills are developed and the student has played 1-2 unrated tournament to get a feel of the environment, it’s time to get into the action of rated games.

Sometimes I hear parents say I want my child to work more at home and be ready to play in tournaments where we know s/he will have a good showing.

I politely disagree.

Chess tournaments are not like school tests.

School teachers often give students study guide after study guide.  If the student is well versed in all the practice questions, s/he is ready for the test and getting an A or 100 is no problem.

In chess tournaments, doesn’t matter how prepared you’re, you may face any of the following circumstances

-Other player’s strength; Stronger than their rating indicates

It’s often hard to gauge exactly how strong is your opponent. They can come from a different country or state, or they took time out from chess and only came back recently.

-You’re own emotional response to meaningful games

The way you feel in a casual game is not the same as a meaningful game. The stock analogy earlier in the article covers this point. The oh-no moments will be much more painful than a skittle room’s game.

-Tournament Surroundings

There are tensions in the tournament room. In any given moment, the room is quiet, you can hear chess pieces move but nothing more. The nerves and the tension become less intimidating for the more experienced players.

————–

You can only get better in tournament chess by experiencing more.

And remember, you’ll never be 100% ready.

Treat chess tournaments as job interview instead of school test, there is no guarantee, but the best practice to improve your odds of success is to experience more and learn from these experiences.

Focus on the Craft

Result of wins and loses are easy to measure and powerful to experience.

But often these are short-term thrills, and across the many ups-and-downs, it is easily dismiss-able from our memory.

When we focus on short-term results, our mind are buried into looking at certain outcomes, and chess improvement is anything but certain.

On the other hand, the process to improve the craft is what matters in the long term, and we are in control when making the effort.


As many of you know, I’m not currently active in playing tournaments (albeit a fan of in-person blitz tourneys). Instead, my focus in chess is help more students reach 1000.

While working on the side hustle of teaching, I see the parallel of improving teaching methods to the process of chess improvements.

Rinse and Grind

In any training day, the calculation exercise that you work on, or the endgame study that you struggle with will not show result immediately.

They are, however, the seed of improvements. And it is by repeating the exercises day in and day out that the seed will blossom.

Teaching chess is similar, looking thru 1 game or 1 puzzle will not give me enough information to understand what is the student missing.

But the process of continuing to observe will slowly reveal patterns.


No one knows how long it will take us to the promise land. But we CAN control the effort.

Focus on the Craft!

Put in more effort and worry less about the result.