Seventy-six points. The past six months months had been particularly brutal stretch for me, as my rating hemorrhaged continuously and fell below 2100 for a third time in my career. Gone were the days of beating FMs in Europe, and gone were the days of consistent prophylactic play. Since June, I had only beaten two players rated over 2000 – hardly the score of someone seriously trying to become a National Master. Needless to say, I was pretty discouraged.
With the fall semester complete, I packed my bags and took a bus south to Richmond with only ten days to prepare for the Eastern Open. A beacon of hope or a chance to implode? Historically, I have always underperformed in this event, never reaching 50% across three attempts – even posting an abysmal 0.5/5 in 2012, one of my worst performances to date. However, with no team to represent the University of Pittsburgh this year at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships in Columbus, this was by far my best option for quality games.
With so much to review and a bad form to fix, ten days didn’t feel like a lot of time to address all of my weaknesses. To better prepare for this tournament, I made some key decisions early that helped me get back to fighting form.
Limit Opening Preparation:
Because I wasn’t stuck playing the same opponents anymore, I decided that opening surprises were less relevant. Knowing this, I cut out the London System and 1. e4 from my opening repertoire for White, and decided to shelf the King’s Indian and Hyper Accelerated Sicilian for another day.
This still meant I needed to spend a lot of time looking over my lines, as a lot of recent Grandmaster games meant important theoretical developments for both sides. While I prefer an even distribution of study time, reviewing my opening lines was a majority of my preparation.
Work on Calculation:
Opening knowledge is great, but calculation is essential. Throughout the semester, it became clear that my tactical abilities were atrophying, so this was an immediate area of concern. I started to feel really confident four days before the event when I pulled this stunt:
Regardless of the event, stamina should always be in the limelight. With the Eastern Open being a gruesome seven round schedule crammed into four days, I had no doubt that this would be a mental marathon. I probably could have done more here, but I was able to make some decisions throughout the event to compensate for it.
It’s really easy to say these things, but my decisions regarding preparation were pretty deliberate. I knew that to perform well in this event, I’d need to have a plan and stick to it. After a quick glance at the standings, I saw that while I was roughly in the middle of the cross table, the rating difference between me and the bottom was really small, while the difference between me and Aleksander Lenderman was … well, Lenderman certainly doesn’t need an introduction.
Knowing this, I decided to mix things up before setting foot in the tournament hall.
1. No chess in between rounds. This one proved to be really easy. With Tyson’s Corner just down the road and my girlfriend in town, there were plenty of (good) distractions to keep my mental energy levels high.
Of course, this meant no preparing for my opponents between rounds, but this is why I set a repertoire before the tournament. I felt really confident in my opening studies, and I managed to put together a plus score in games stemming from my preparation.
2. Don’t worry about ratings! As easy as this sounds, I had struggled with this in Pittsburgh, underperforming in games against lower rated opponents. My goal this tournament was just play solid chess each round, so I made the decision that if I drew a lower rated opponent but played a solid game, that’s a good result. Playing practical chess is really important in a long tournament, so draws aren’t necessarily the end of the world if you know when to take your chances.
These were big changes for me, but I knew I needed to change something to avoid another disappointing performance. After all, how often do I get to leave Pittsburgh during the semester?
During the tournament, I managed to (finally) pick up a copy of Thinking Inside the Box by Jacob Aagard from my childhood chess vendor Todd Hammer, and on pre-game mental preparation, Aagard writes:
“Personally I have always felt it useful to lay a strategy for the game. To think, in advance, of various situations that could arise. I did not always do this; but when I did not, I always regretted it.”
– Jacob Aagard, Thinking Inside the Box (page 44)
So I guess I was doing something right! After ten days, I felt ready – nervous – but definitely ready. I had a chip on my shoulder, and I really wanted to do something with my last tournament of the year.
Deja Vu on Opening Night
My first tournament outside of Pittsburgh since last August started with, well – an opponent from Pittsburgh. Paired with White against FM Gabe Petesch, I knew I had a good litmus test for the tournament. While I’ve never gotten a result against Gabe, I’ve always gotten an interesting game against him when in good form, so I wasn’t daunted by his new 2400+ rating.
Having won the opening battle, I have a great position. Central control, fluid development, and a clear plan. White needs to push the a-pawn to a5 and bring the f1 rook to the queenside. Once I’ve asserted my control on the queenside, I can bring my knight to b3 or c4 and put a lot of pressure on Black. Great! This didn’t take too long – and to a spectator 15. Rfc1 seems like a natural execution of that plan.
While its a perfectly good move, I wasted 12 minutes here looking at 15. f3, trying to solidify my center before going to the queenside. 15. f3 isn’t a bad move, but because I looked at this first without really identifying my plan (I had just brought my knight from f3 to d2 and was thinking about this follow-up), I needed to take extra steps to get reacclimatized to the position.
How big of a deal was 12 minutes? It would have meant that on move 36 I would have had 16 minutes in the critical position, instead of just 4:
Needing to make time control, I lost my edge with 36. dxc6?, and when I got to move 40, I found myself with a worse endgame and went on to lose. I dismissed 36. d6! because I thought the pawn would be lost, but with more time I may have seen 36…Rd8 37. d7 Re7 38. Rcd4 Qe6 39. Qd2 with a big advantage.
Its always tough to lose a game like this, but I knew I played a competitive game and just needed to pick up the pace on the clock a little bit (click here to see the whole game).
After a quick draw in the second round, I got white again against an 11 year old expert, Pranav Prem. While I had never played Pranav before, he was already gaining massive rating points before I graduated from high school, so I knew this was a potential trap game for me.
This was the first real test of my solid opening repertoire, and I was rather pleased to get this roughly equal position:
With best play Black should be able to hold equality, but White is the side playing for the advantage. Thanks to my queen on f3 and my “Ulf Anderson” knight on d3, I can play for the standard Catalan endgame advantage of the weak c6 square. If my knight can reach the c6 square, the game is much more dangerous for Black – and that’s basically what happened. After five hours of methodical chess, I squeezed water from stone and got my first win of the tournament.
Nothing feels better than grinding out a 5 hour win to get back on an even score! Good stuff here at the #EasternOpen
Through three rounds, my tournament strategy served me well. I had an interesting draw with Black the next morning against Dennis Norman (who tacked on nearly 65 points to break 2000 for his tournament performance – congrats!), and followed that with an evening draw against FM Aravind Kumar from a position of strength.
Day 4 proved to be my real test, as I started the day with Black against two-time Virginia State Champion Andy Samuelson. Having lost to him convincingly twice before, I was a little concerned about the match-up, but once the position produced a symmetrical pawn structure. Determined to get more than a draw White pushed with 38. g5, trying to lose me in the complications:
While the game had a lot of critical moments beyond this, the trend shifted in my favor when I found the engine best 38…Be5!, asking White how he planned to extricate his knight on h6. From this point on, I felt like I was the biggest threat to myself, and I needed to stop my confidence from getting in the way of playing a good game. I made some mistakes and got a little lucky, but my hard work paid off and I converted my material advantage to a full point.
Not my best ever win, but with a plus score with Black guaranteed, I was thrilled (and tired) after another five hour win. Even more importantly, at 3.5/6, I was guaranteed to score 50%+ with any result in the final round. Phew! The Eastern Open isn’t cursed!
Unfortunately for me, having used up much of my energy, I was too content with a draw in the last round, and was punished after a drawn out ending (where I still had my chances to equalize!). But what can I say? Play for a draw and you better be ready to lose…
Last round aside, this was a great confidence booster for me as I jumped back over 2100 to end the year. Funnily enough after the last round, I thought I would only gain a couple points – 20 was a real holiday surprise!
What worked for me? To start the tournament, I really believed in my preparation, and it showed, even in my first round loss. After regrouping with a win in the third round, I played much more confidently and relaxed. Not obsessing about chess between rounds and store-hopping instead …helped? That’s bad news for my bank account.
But more importantly I treated all of my opponents the same way. I didn’t take any risks unless I felt it was the absolute best move on the board. I think in playing solidly, I successfully blocked out external distractions like rating and the disappointment in losing my first game. I had a lot of respect for everyone in the field, so it didn’t matter who the big fish were. We were all in the shark tank.
Have you ever watched Jimmy Kimmel’s Halloween Prank Segement? When they hear the “bad news”, you can see many of the kid’s reactions as if the world is ending.
We all have bad days, bad games, or something that doesn’t go our way. These things happen to anyone. But when it happens to us, we feel the world is dropping on us.
My USCL game
I played a couple local tournaments in Atlanta in 2015 as my mini-comeback, and then chatted with the Atlanta Kings team to play in the USCL. My local tournaments had some ups and downs, but they all ended well.
I played two games for the Kings. The first game was a complete whack, I played 1.e4 e6 2. b3?!. Possibly due to too many blitz games at home, I thought this was a good opening choice. Needless to say, I was punished swiftly.
That game didn’t bother me too much, as I was more in a ‘let’s give this thing a try’ mood. And my game was not the determining factor for the team. But after this game, I got serious, and wanted to contribute more for the team.
Before the next game, I prepared for the opening, which was something I haven’t done since 2007.
The game was played on a Wednesday night. I had a normal work day, and then drove over 45 minutes to the playing site, not unusual for Atlanta traffic. A little tired, but excited to play.
The game took close to three hours, I got to use what I had prepared, and it was up-and-down until we traded queens.
Around move 40, the feeling of ‘all that work is gone’ started to sink in. It felt like déjà vu again. I resigned soon after.
We lost the match 1.5-2.5. And yes, my game mattered a lot.
The drive back home didn’t take 45 minutes, but it felt much longer, because of my mood.
I run my first Spartan competition a week after the game, which was physically hard and painful. But mentally I gained more perspective.
While jumping over each hurdle, I knew I joined this competition as a choice. Whereas many people in the world are running in much worse conditions to escape.
My thoughts became broader, and I realized a bad game, or a bad day is really nothing compared to many tough battles in the world.
Chess is just one example. I’ve had unsatisfied school experiences, bad job interviews, or even just an annoying drive that typically takes 10 minutes turned into an hour due to road constructions (happened to me this week).
At that moment, it’s hard to swallow. But by practicing to look at the big picture, I feel more at ease, and whatever is bothering me is not much of a problem.
So the next time you have a tough day: Please try to do the following
Look at the Sky.
Enjoy the Ride.
Step Out from the problem.
Happy Holidays! And I hope 2018 will be the best year yet for you.
I’m sure you’ve heard the big headline this week from the Grand Chess Tour … 23 draws out of 25 games in the London Chess Classic: Snoozefest 2K17. While frustrated chess fans discuss ways to kill the draw offer in chess, its our job here at Chess^Summit reassure you that top-level chess isn’t dead, and that strong players do make mistakes!
Let’s start in London – where alongside the London Chess Classic is the British Knockout Championship and the London FIDE Open. In round 4 of the London FIDE Open, Swedish GM Nils Grandelius tricked his younger opponent into snacking on b2 before completing his development:
With his queenside still undeveloped, grabbing on b2 was proved to be an invitation for White to attack Black’s king after 12. Ng5!. Without the use of all of his pieces, Black’s position began to crack: 12… Rf5 13.Rb1 Rxg5 14.Rxb2 Rf5 15.Qc2 Rf8 16.Be4
Both of White’s bishops are now primed to attack the monarch, and Black has yet to make any progress developing his queenside. Black decided to give up the exchange after 16…h6 17.Bc3 Na6 18.Bh7+ Kh8 19.Qg6 Rf6 20.Bxf6 Qxf6 21.Qxf6 gxf6 22. Be4, and resigned shortly after.
Where else is chess happening right now? St. Petersburg! The Russian Men’s and Women’s Championship Superfinal are just four rounds in, with a gold mine of decisive results. WGM Olga Girya smashed IM Anastasia Bodnaruk in today’s round using a popular move order trick in the London System:
Using the move order 1. d4 Nf6 2. Bf4 g6 3. Nc3!, Girya had tricked her opponent into a less flexible set-up and began her kingside assault early. Trying to refute the attack, Black held her breath and played 5…0-0, encouraging White to go on the offensive with the famous exchange sacrifice, 6.h5 Nxh5 7.Rxh5! gxh5 8.Qxh5.
It may not have been wise to enter into White’s preparation, but Black’s next few moves were puzzling, as she failed to bring her queenside pieces to aid her king: 8…f5 9.Nf3 c6 10.Bd3 Nd7 11.O-O-O Nf6 12.Qh4 Qe8 13.Rh1
Maybe it was now that Bodnaruk realized that g2-g4 is a serious threat because after 13…h5, Black’s position was in shambles. With dark squares e5 and g5 both being weak, Black was too undeveloped to stop the infiltration.
The assault continued with 14.Ne5 Ng4 15.Nxg4 fxg4 16.Qg5 Rf6 17.Be5 Qf7 18.Rxh5, and with the kingside exposed, Black was left with a completely lost position! Black tried to generate counterplay, but to no avail and had to resign.
You might be picking up on a theme here, but let’s look through one more game for good measure…
Do you know where the Faroe Islands are? In a last round clash between two FMs at the recent Runavik Open, Black found himself pawn-grabbing before tucking his king away after 11…Bxe5?
White was quick to punish Black, and there was no time to scramble after 12. Re1d5? 13. Nxd5cxd514. Qxd5O-O 15. Rxe5
White’s now regained his material and picked up an extra pawn, and meanwhile Black has failed to fix his development problem. The pair of bishops alone were enough to discourage Black from getting back in the game. 15…Be616. Qe4Nf6 17. Qe1Rfe818. Bxe6fxe619. h3Nd7 20. Re4Qf621. Bxh61-0
Black resigned here. Arguably premature, but with a material deficit and four isolated pawns, Black decided that it was not worth playing on.
What do these three recent games tell us about chess? Here are some key takeaways:
Develop your pieces! Even strong players mess this up, and the consequences can be lethal.
Take the initiative! If you’re opponent is not developing, see if you can prevent your opponent from getting back into the game by forcing them to respond to threats instead.
Keep that king safe! Just because your king is castled, doesn’t mean it’s safe. As we saw in Grandelius’ game, a king is weak without sufficient protection.
Maybe this theme of development is what Levon was getting at after all…
Maybe the London Chess Classic will pick up now that Caruana is at +2, but if not there are plenty of other great games happening across the world!
Maybe I spoke too soon. After a triumphant performance at the Pennsylvania State Action, I collapsed just over a week later in the Pittsburgh Chess League when I made this faux pas:
Thinking I could delay capturing on f6, I played 43…h4??,only fall prey to 44. f7! and the game ended shortly after, as the paralysis of my rooks made it impossible to stop White from queening. My stroll along euphoria lane had come to an end, as this game was easily one of the worst I’ve played in all of 2017. Luckily for me, my teammates bailed me out, and Pitt won by a final tally of 3-1.
So how to pick up the pieces from here? I had only 48 hours until my next rated game, and I needed to play well for my Pittsburgh Chess Club return. The next morning, I woke up, pulled myself out of bed and went for a four mile run through Oakland. I need to be fit again. After a quick shower, I pushed myself tactically. I need to be sharp again. After pushing past 2600 on chess.com’s tactics trainer, I was feeling good. Okay, I can do this.
To recover from an inexplicable loss, I just needed some perspective. These things happen – don’t freak out! Relax, focus, and identify what you can do to improve. My goals for the upcoming week? Simple:
Sleep better. Well, if you’re a college student (or grad), you know how easy it is to stay up late and binge watch videos on Youtube and Netflix. This needed to change. I decided I would only stay up late to do schoolwork, but otherwise, I needed my sleep.
Eat healthier. More veggies and fruits in my cooking. I guess I should’ve been listening to my mom all along…
Work out more. Working out builds endurance, which means more energy for long chess games. Also, its a great way to destress, so there’s that too.
Train smarter. This is the big one. My studying to this point was all over the place. I needed to direct my studies more effectively. A balance between calculation, opening studies, and looking over top level games – with a strong emphasis on calculation. This should keep me in form for a while.
Things are going to be fine! With my plan set, I was ready to play again. Which Isaac was going to show up?
Return to the Robert Smith Memorial
It’s fitting that my return to the Pittsburgh Chess Club was the very same as my first major tournament in Pittsburgh: the Robert Smith Memorial. In that edition of the tournament, I played for first in the final round against my soon-to-be trainer Franklin Chen and lost to score 4/6. As a result of that game, Franklin earned the National Master title, and I claimed my share of second place – my best finish to date at the Pittsburgh Chess Club.
Hoping to put together a strong opening night performance, I managed to weave a 16 move miniature with Black:
Had a nice miniature last night in round 1 at the @PghChess! 💪🏻
After 13…d5 14. Ba2 a5! White learned the hard way that the b4 pawn is lost after 15. b5? Nb4 and I’m winning a piece thanks to 16. Bb3 a4! 0-1
My opponent deviated with 16. Ba3 and resigned after 16…Nxa2 as the position proved too much. But what if 17. Bd2? … here’s where all that tactical training comes in!
Somewhat amusingly, this game still took over two and a half hours despite its brevity. I guess some combination of ambitious opening play from White and a higher than usual level of caution will do that! I felt pretty good about this game, but there are still five tough rounds ahead. With nine players rated over 2000 competing, a bloodbath seems quite likely. Back to training!
Back to Rapid: Endgame Success and Opening Blunders
The G/15 State Chess Championships proved to be a mixed bag of results for me. I had some good moments like this one:
My main strategy for this tournament was to win in the endgame against lower rated players. I scored a perfect 3/3 when employing this strategy, and here I played 1…g5! (I was able to recreate this position from memory, so I don’t know the move number) making sure to stop f2-f4 so I can play a well-timed …c5-c4 to create a queenside passed pawn. With a passive position, White couldn’t do much, and I simplified down to a dream endgame for Black.
Other moments? Not so great… Take this position from my “clash” in the French with local National Master Nabil Feliachi:
Here I realized I had missed the incredible 11…Bb5!! almost immediately. Nabil missed this, but luckily for him, my position was so miserable that it was impossible to mount a serious comeback. Turns out that experimenting with 1 e4 in rapid with no theoretical knowledge is an easy way to lose with White… While this opening was particularly painful for me, I figured I might as well attach it so you all can learn from my awful mistake. Ouch – don’t do this in tournaments!
Ultimately, my tournament really came down to a rematch with Chess^Summit author Beilin Li. That round was insane – as all my games with Beilin are. In a tense, roughly equal but dynamic game we both found creative ways to steal the initiative which resulted in a pawn race with two extremely weak kings. In what felt like a coin-toss game, Beilin prevailed to tie up our non-blitz head-to-head record at 2.5 apiece. Luckily for Chess^Summit, Beilin recorded the game, so you’ll get your chance to relive our rapid game later this week!
After the loss to Beilin, I won my last round with some minor piece endgame technique, and pushed my score to 4.5/7, which was enough to tie for 7th place. It’s kind of hard to know how to assess a performance like this. I got paired down a lot throughout the tournament, so if anything, it was just a great warm-up for my upcoming Robert Smith Memorial match-up.
It’s going to take a lot to overcome the jaw-dropping rating drop I had from my Pittsburgh Chess League slip-up last week. But I’m confident in my training and the work I’m doing towards my chess, and that’s all that matters. Sometimes the US Men’s National Team loses to Trinidad and Tobago, Appalachian State beats Michigan, and I lose to a significantly lower rated player. It’s part of sports. True strength is being able to get up the next day and pick yourself up. I’m ready to fight, and I’m ready to finish 2017 on a strong note.