Off and Back On Again: How to Break out of a Slump

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Preparing for the Pittsburgh Chess League

This fall has truly tested my patience as a chess player. After coming back from a successful tour in Europe, I felt like my days as a Candidate Master were numbered, and the National Master title was soon to come. After beating my first 2400+ rated opponent in Columbus, my confidence doubled. Surely this was a sign!

But then came the stall. Lackluster performances at the Cleveland Open and the Pittsburgh Summer Open to close out the summer had me question my true strength as a competitor heading into the school year. With the pressure of my semester workload kicking in, my rating took a nosedive to the low 2100s after drawing a lower rated opponent in the opening weekend of the Pittsburgh Chess League. So much for the script…

Life in the Slow Lane

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Bumper cars at Kennywood Fright Night

After a lot of thought, I decided to take a break from chess – at least until my first wave of midterms passed. In place of tactics and opening preparation, I used this time to cook, explore Pittsburgh, and as you already know, direct the Sorensen Memorial at the Pittsburgh Chess Club.While I missed my usual dosage of over-the-board action, I got some much-needed stress relief. Forcing myself to get outdoors while taking care of my obligations with school and my internship search helped me clear my mind and relax. Every day wasn’t a high-speed chase to the finish line.

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Goat cheese does wonders!

I learned a lot in my month long sabbatical. Directing (and reporting on) the Sorensen Memorial really helped me appreciate how competitive chess in Pittsburgh truly is, giving me some perspective on my previous string of unimpressive results.Here’s the thing about slumps. They happen to everyone. It’s hard performing at a high level every tournament, but it’s easy to get obsessed with your own results. Watching the games of my fellow competitors showed me that I am not the only 2000+ rated player who makes mistakes, and that’s okay! Playing well doesn’t just mean making the best moves, but improving from the learning process. After a month of directing, I was ready to play, and my mentality was completely different. I will only get to earn the National Master title once, so right now, my focus needs to be on enjoying every step of the way – not just breaking the finish line.

With a redeeming win against an expert in the second round of the Pittsburgh Chess League, I could not have been more excited to enter the Pennsylvania State Action Chess Championship.

A New Dawn

G/30 has never been a good time control for me. The time control’s speed, paired with my desire to play a methodical game of chess have never meshed well – historically leading to a plethora of disappointing results. I think on any other given day, I would have been a bit more anxious going in, but this was my “big” return to tournament chess and a chance for me to warm up for tournaments to come. It’s showtime!

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Threw together a quick breakfast before the tournament for both me and my roommate and fellow Chess^Summit author Beilin Li

After a quick first-round win, I got paired with an ambitious unrated player. My tournament got off to a flying start when my opponent played 9…e6?:

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Steincamp–Bouajaja, position after 9…e6?

Without hesitation, I dropped 10. c5! claiming the d6 square and the advantage. After 10…Qd8 11. Bf4! Black had to concede the d5 square too with 11…e5 and I won the game with relative ease. Even though I erred a little later down the road, I was pretty pumped to win a game so convincingly. The final position makes quite an impression – Black can’t move any of his pieces!

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Steincamp–Bouajaja, position after 36. Rd6

After a 2/2 start, I somehow stumbled on a draw in the next round against the eventual tournament winner, which set up for the newest edition of my rivalry with my Chess^Summit coauthor Beilin Li. We’ve had some competitive clashes in the past, but in our recent blitz tournament encounters, Beilin has certainly been dominant. With a little more time on the clock, could I get my revenge?

In the spirit of avoiding any of Beilin’s preparation, I played 1 e4 for just the fourth time since my last round in Reykjavik. In return, Beilin surprised me by responding with the Sicilian – we were on our own. The opening wasn’t really theoretically driven, but I had a near decisive position after 11…d5?:

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Steincamp–Li, position after 11…d5?

With Black’s king still on e8, I quickly played 12. exd5 Qxd5 13. c4! ripping open the position. With the e-file now half open, Beilin tried to bail out win 13…bxc4 14. Bxc4 Nd4 but after 15. Qxe5+ Qxe5 16. Nxe5 but the damage was done – Black had a lost endgame:

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Steincamp–Li, position after 16. Nxe5

Moral of the story? If your opponent’s king is weak, open up the position and go for the kill! 1. e4 had served me well, pushing me to 3.5/4 with it in 2017!

I wound up dropping my next round to Perpetual Chess Podcast host Ben Johnson after a critical tactical miss, and then drawing a complex game with an established National Master to finish the tournament at 4/6.

While some of my games left more to be desired, I was relatively pleased with my first weekend tournament outing since Labor Day weekend. I will need to work on my calculation and endurance to improve from this performance, but considering the time control, I count this as one positive step out of my slump. Enough of these and I should be able to start walking!

Big Things

During my break from tournament chess, I somehow stumbled upon an opportunity to become a partnered streamer with chess.com! Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about this, and I hope to make the most of it.

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In The Steincamp Show, I have three goals:

  1. Create an alternative to banter blitz. Watching other players play blitz has been a staple of chess streaming, but in my streams, I’ll spend more time teaching than playing, and encouraging viewers to think along the way.
  2. Be relatable. I hope to build your intuition by sharing my successes and failures on my way to expert and beyond, much like my articles here on Chess^Summit
  3. Be honest. As I work towards my National Master title, you’ll get to hear my thoughts first-hand, and see how much work goes into earning a title beyond my contributions here.

I’ve gone ahead and created a Twitch channel, and I’m hoping to be on air soon. If you want to watch, follow my channel to get updates of when I go live and share instructive clips. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I’m curious to see where this adventure takes me!

 

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Losing in Chess

My costliest defeat was against GM Dmitry Gurevich at the North American Open (NAO) in 2006. And I realized that was the case after I scanned through the cross-table one last time after I resigned.

As I marked the result, I realized a draw could have gotten me a great U2450 prize and a spot to the U.S. Championship, and a win would gave me the outright first U2450. But all the ‘could haves’ turned into a painful loss.

I had a great year in 2006. Winning the Georgia State Championship and a few other tournaments in Atlanta. I also got my peak rating at 2347.

At the end of the year, I played at the NAO again, my favorite tourney, at least result wise. My first GM scalp was against the late Walter Browne at NAO. I’ve also won the U2300/2450 prize in the Open section twice.

This time, things continued to go my way. After getting a good start, I was paired against Dmitry in the last round. I had a draw and a loss against him before, but this is the first time I got the white piece.

I played my favorite opening, Sozin, and got a position I wanted. I was attacking, putting pressures constantly.

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In the position above, 28. Rxe7 would have netted a perpetual check, and here is the complete game with the above mentioned variation.

The game continued, Dmitry found a way to trade queens to limit my attack. But I still got a good endgame position.

As we approach the first time control, my old headache of time trouble kicked in. This is the problem of INDECISIVENESS, and I’ll have much more to say about this topic in another post.

I knew I could have traded the bishop and go for 3 pawns against 3 pawns on the opposite sides. For some reason, I dismissed it.

Then, he had a powerful pin on my bishop, and things started to go from bad to worse until the end where he had three pawns against my double a-pawns, when I resigned.

That was it.

At the time, I didn’t think too much, but after I stopped playing chess, this game often crossed my mind while dealing with missed opportunities.

The reason I like chess and many other games is that no matter how bad a defeat was, I know I can ALWAYS start a new game.

Onto the next journey!

Photo Finish: The Battle for Squirrel Hill

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Pittsburgh Chess Club Veteran Jeffrey Schragin (White) taking on Steve O’Conner (black)

After Kevin Carl’s 3/3 start, it seemed like the Sorensen Memorial was headed down a familiar plot line. Top seed enters, wins games, and cleans house. But winning in Pittsburgh as we’ve seen isn’t easy, and a bloodbath ensued over the next three rounds. From Kevin’s win over Nabil, four different players juggled the position of sitting atop the standings until the close of the final round.

With three rounds in the books, we knew a lot about the field. Kevin Carl was unbeaten but shaky. Chip Kraft and Evan Park were both underdogs and dangerous, and both Melih Özbek and Nabil Feliachi were only one mistake away from a 3/3 score. The fourth round promised to challenge the narrative.

Shake-up on Top

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Chip clashes with Kevin on board 1

Having prepared for the Dutch, Chip Kraft got his chance to tackle the top seed with White. In my opinion, Chip is one of the most improved players in Pittsburgh this calendar year. Having trained with him personally over the summer, I know first-hand how much work Chip puts into chess, and his recent rating jump has given him a lot more confidence and swagger in his play. After downing Melih last week, this was Chip’s chance to boost his tournament.

In what proved to be a tight game, Kevin’s middlegame advantage didn’t prove enough in the time scramble, and he stumbled to his first defeat of the tournament, pushing Chip to 3.5/4. With first place changing hands, only one question remained: would the youngster Evan Park join him?

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Evan entering the Open Sicilian

Evan is the youngster in Pittsburgh. Fresh off competing in the World Cadets in Brazil, Evan is one of the most ambitious players in the city and its clear that he will be a big part of it’s future. In the meantime, the 10 year old had a game with Melih Özbek, who was on a hunt for much-needed tournament redemption. In what proved to be one of the most interesting games of the tournament, Melih saved a worse position, and then some – meaning Chip was a half-point clear of the field.

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Park–Özbek, position after 17…Ne5

With an early space advantage, Evan had to make critical decisions early. Here he played 18. fxg6 fxg6 19. Bh3, but after 19…0-0, Black was able to hold a worse position. Instead, switching the move order and keeping the tension with 18. Bh3 could have proved an interesting alternative.

But the game continued – and with Black weathering the storm, the question of the Sicilian endgame took center stage. In what seemed like an equal position, Melih asked Evan one last crucial question with 33…Nf3 – how do you defend the h-pawn?:

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Park–Ozbek, position after 33…Nf3

Evan responded correctly, first with 34. Rxb5 axb5, but then with 35. Kb4? Nxh4 36. c4, realizing he had wasted a tempo with his 35th move. Unfortunately for Evan, this single tempo cost him a half point, and Melih won the endgame with relative ease.

Push in the Penultimate

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Having spent a week preparing for Nabil’s repertoire, 1 e4 came as a surprise for Chip!

With Chip now on board 1, it was National Master Nabil Feliachi’s turn to push with the White pieces. Nabil surprised Chip with 1. e4, prompting Chip to enter his battle-tested Scandinavian. White had pressure from the early middlegame, working the clock to a 25 minute against 9 second (!) edge with a positional advantage. But Chip stayed resilient, and after a few missed chances from Nabil, Chip saved a half-point and continued to stay on top the wall chart.

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Melih beat both Evan and Kevin with Black in consecutive rounds to join the lead

Outside the top board, the penultimate round serves as an elimination game for players with 3/4. Even in a tight field like this, 4/6 seldom claims top prizes. In my experience competing at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, this round (as well as the second) often proves to be the most stressful, as the pairings are reasonably competitive and the stakes are high. Such was the nature of Melih’s clash with Kevin Carl. In a loser-goes-home match-up, it was Kevin who flinched first, giving Melih a tactical hit on f2 and a tie for first heading into the final round:

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Carl–Özbek, position after 16. Nf3?

After some thought, Melih realized the power of his a7 bishop and essayed the stunner, 16…Nxf2! with a clear advantage. The game didn’t continue much longer after 17. Nxg5 Nxd1 18. Nc5 Nxe3 -+. Kevin’s perfect 3/3 was now reduced to a 3/5, and after having played two Blacks in a row, Melih would get his chance on board 1 with the White pieces.

Hold Your Ground

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Paul Cantalupo taking on eventual U1600 winner Yirael Isaacson

Entering the final night, Chip had the most to lose with both his claim to first and a Candidate Master norm on the line. Who did he have to go through? Evan Park. With Evan recently having beaten Chip twice head-to-head, Chip played it safe with White, essaying a Queen’s Gambit with some simplification to work his way to a draw. Norm achieved – but would Nabil pull through against Melih?

As this was transpiring, National Master Franklin Chen put on a clinic with Black to beat the Closed Sicilian with a quick h-pawn push:

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Kennedy–Chen, position after 9…h5

Black quickly asserted himself in control of the game with 9…h5!, and after 10. f4 h4! 11. e5 Nd4, Franklin was in cruise control. In what felt like a near-miniature win, this game proved to be one of the most instructive of the tournament. After a slow start, Franklin finished 4/6, but was just one missed queen sacrifice away from knocking on the tournament’s front door.

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Franklin taking on Michael Kostyak in Round 5

Melih’s game was slow – with both sides maneuvering. While Nabil was building an edge with Black, the game wasn’t decided until its final minutes, with Nabil taking the point in the rook and pawn ending. With Nabil winning, both he and Chip clinched first place at the Fred Sorensen Memorial with 4.5/6 in an impressive tournament finale:

T-1 Nabil Feliachi – 4.5/6

T-1 Chip Kraft – 4.5/6

T-3 Kevin Carl – 4/6

T-3 Melih Özbek – 4/6

T-3 Franklin Chen – 4/6

T-3 Evan Park – 4/6

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Chip and Nabil analyzing at Stack’d. Post round hangouts became the norm throughout the tournament.

And that concludes this series on chess in Pittsburgh. This tournament was a lot of fun to direct and spectate – fighting chess each round, high stakes games, and plenty of upsets. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Pittsburgh is one of the most dangerous places to play. Learn how to play here, and you can play anywhere. I’m looking forward to see what the Robert Smith Memorial will offer in November – but this time I’ll be throwing my hat in the ring.

 

The Pressure in the Room: Return to the Pittsburgh Chess Club

As we left it, the Sorensen Memorial at the Pittsburgh Chess Club was in full swing. In the first round, the lower seeds put up resistance against their higher rated counterparts, but the favorites ultimately prevailed, setting up an intriguing second round.

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NM Nabil Feliachi taking on PCC regular Vassil Prokhov in the second round

Though there were still a few mismatches in the top bracket, all eyes were on the top board, as National Masters Franklin Chen and Kevin Carl clashed in the first all-2000+ matchup of the tournament.

Having competed in this format several times, I’ve always found the second round to be especially dangerous. Get a slightly worse position against the wrong opponent, and you might just find yourself starting at 1/2 with four rounds to go. That is an incredibly small margin of error if you’re hoping to win a prize!

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Kevin’s game captured the spotlight for the round!

While convenient, this tournament schedule can also be extremely unforgiving. Winning a tournament like this means playing consistently good chess for six consecutive weeks against the best players in Pittsburgh – not an easy task by any means! If you want to beat the best here, you really have to be the best. This of course is what makes chess in Pittsburgh so much fun!

Brilliancy of the Tournament

…and I’m not really kidding either. Things seemed to be headed Franklin’s way after the opening, but had a crucial miss when he essayed 21. fxg5?

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Chen–Carl, position after 21. fxg5?

Just like in his first round game, Kevin found a way to rebound with the stunner, 21…Bxf3!!, offering his queen for an unstoppable attack. After 22. gxf6 Rg8-+, the game reached a quick end with mate on the board!

The Long Haul

While there was an abrupt end to the top board, there were still other players in the field  trying to reach the 2/2 mark. NM Nabil Feliachi improved to 2/2, and with half point byes Chip Kraft and Evan Park each improved to 1.5/2. That left Melih Özbek in the chase for a perfect score.

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Melih was the last player on the night to reach a perfect score of 2/2

Out of a Tarrasch, the opening didn’t seem to promise much until White erred with 16. h3?!, unknowingly weakening his own king.

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Kostyak–Özbek, position after 16. h3?!

After 16… Ne5 17. Nxe5 Qxe5, White quickly came to the painful realization that 18. f4 is forced, as 18. g3? collapses to 18…d4!, opening up Black’s light-squared bishop to wreak havoc on the White king.

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Kostyak–Özbek, position after 18. f4

Now, having moved so many squares in front of his king, White stood much worse, and Melih was able to use his bishops to ground out a nice win.

Familiar Faces

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PCC regular Yisrael Isaacson looking over his third round game

The Sorensen Memorial’s third round pairings proved to be extremely difficult for the field. Evan Park, back from his half point bye, had Black against his former coach Franklin Chen for their first ever tournament encounter. Tournament Titans Kevin Carl and Nabil Feliachi squared off on board 1, while further down the list, long time friends Finn Overlie and Jeffrey Schragin were paired for their 22nd contest.

In my opinion, the tournament narrative really develops here. Pittsburgh lays claim to a handful of experts (and stronger), but with so many local tournaments each year, rematches among the top players are the norm. Preparation can play an integral role at this stage – weak opening repertoire? Good luck moving beyond these match-ups.

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Paul Cantalupo and Melih Özbek catching up before the start of the round.

Clash of the Titans

Kevin and Nabil seemed to be on collision course when they entered the tournament, though to see the pairing with three rounds to spare was a bit of a surprise. Nabil was in cruise control until he erred with 28…Qxa3?, thinking he was winning material:

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Carl–Feliachi, position after 28…Qxa3?

But imagine his surprise when after 29. Nxb5 Qc1+ 30. Nf1! +- keeping the full piece. As I mentioned before, chess is particularly cruel. Just a few moves before, Black had missed his chance when he played 24…Rac8 instead of 24…Qa4! winning on the spot.

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Carl–Feliachi, position after 23. Rb3

The rooks lack oxygen, and after 25. Rb1 Bxe2 26. Nxe2 Ne4 28. Rd3 Qc2! -+, Black is simply winning material and the game.

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Doesn’t matter how you get there, 3/3 is still 3/3!

Elsewhere, there were nearly upsets on every board. Chip Kraft won with Black against Melih, and Evan Park triumphed in his showdown on board 3. Even more surprising, was that 1800-2000 rated players only scored 50% against lower rated opposition. When trying to beat familiar opponents, you have to be willing take risks. But as this night showed, sometimes taking chances can backfire.

Onwards

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Student meets Coach

After a dramatic three rounds, only NM Kevin Carl holds a perfect score, but both youngster Evan Park and Chip Kraft are only a half point behind at 2.5/3 and should pose interesting challenges over the next three rounds.

With 1900+ rated players scoring anywhere from 1/3 to 3/3, I think the current standings are proof for the original claim I made in my first tournament report: Pittsburgh is one of the toughest places to play chess. 

As the tournament moves into the second half, I will be particularly interested in who can play the most consistently. In the race for first, the remaining three rounds is practically a single-elimination tournament.

Endgame Essentials: Making Your Opponent Press the Self-Destruct Button

Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably knew what was coming: endgames! Last Tuesday, I had an instructive win with Black against a lower rated player at the Wild Card Open. While my opponent was guilty of playing for a draw, he did put up some tough resistance in the endgame, which made it fitting to cover in today’s edition of Endgames Essentials.

For long-time readers of Chess^Summit, you may be familiar with my Endgame Essentials series that I started last year, studying the games of Magnus Carlsen and other top level Grandmasters. For our newer readers, welcome! In Endgame Essentials, I focus more on endgame technique than converting technical positions. So far, I’ve discussed critical factors like pawn structure, king safety, and piece activity which can effect the overall assessment of a position.

But let’s say you have the advantage – you’ve done your homework: induced a weakness, gotten a small material advantage, or stopped all of your opponent’s counterplay. How do you convert from here? Sometimes its a good idea to let your opponent hit the self-destruct button…

Perhaps Napoleon says it best:

“…when your enemy is executing a false movement, never interrupt him.”

– A biographical magazine from 1852 quoting Napoleon Bonaparte

While Napoleon was never considered a member of the chess elite, this is actually great advice, especially for practical endgame play! If you have a long-term advantage in the endgame, it is your opponent’s responsibility to generate dynamic counterplay and change the nature of the game. So be patient and don’t complicate the position!

This idea of being patient during endgames is exactly what I wanted to talk about in my game from last Tuesday. I’ve made a video recap with my thoughts, but if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, you can play through the game here at your own pace!

As I repeated throughout the video – if you know you have the better position, let your advantages accumulate before doing anything drastic in the position. And never – ever – let your opponent get counterplay.

The Next Chapter

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Whether it’s the night-time view from Mt Washington (see cover photo) or watching the Pirates get blanked by St Louis, there’s a lot to do in Pittsburgh!

My next test in the Wild Card Open is a toughie. Remember FM Gabe Petesch? I’ll have White in my chance to avenge my two-game match defeat from earlier this month. I’m not sure what to expect, but I think it should be a fun, hard-fought game … and hopefully something worth sharing on Chess^Summit!

 

My mentality for this tournament is reminiscent of my Columbus Open performance, but the added wrinkle of playing opponents I know well makes this event much more challenging than the latter. While I will be pushed in ways I haven’t really been pushed before, my goal is to play smart chess, and be on the right track to play good chess in Cleveland – the finale to my summer.

 

Fantastic Flaws and Where to Find Them

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Without many games to worry about, I’ve had a lot more time to cook. Hope everyone had a fun July 4th!

After a euphoric performance in Columbus, I got a chance to step back and process my results. Getting such a great result was certainly an achievement, but keeping up with disciplined study can prove even more difficult.

Luckily for me, I got in a two game rated match against FM Gabe Petesch, and though I wound up losing both games, I learned a lot and thought I should share a particularly instructive moment for my post here on Chess^Summit today.

 

Practical Play over Tactical Play

As the title suggests, the mistake I’m going to share illustrates the importance of maintaining a balance between tactical and practical play. Not every move should be handled with the charisma of a blitz game! I managed to surprise Gabe with some opening preparation I did about a year ago in Orlando, and after some thought, we reached this position in the early middlegame:

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 13…Qd7

White has a small plus. Given the cramped nature of his position, Black really has no active plan and must play carefully to stay in the game. Here, trying to punish Black for his awkward play, I erred with 14. h5?! an optimistic exchange sac with the intention of clearing the f5 square for my knight. After 14…Bxh5 15. Rxh5 Nxf3 16. gxf3 gxh5 17. Rg1 (see diagram below), it seems like I have reasonable compensation, but in opening the position I’ve made it easier for Black to simplify the position.

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 17. Rg1

Play continued 17…Kh8! 18. Ne3?! Bh6 19. Nf5 Bxf4 20. Qxf4 Ng5 (see diagram below), and now we realize White doesn’t have enough pieces to have a coordinated attack. With correct play, Black will seize the g-file and emphasize his plurality of rooks, leaving me with insufficient targets and thus, a worse position. Sure, 18. Rh1! would have been a much stronger continuation, but let’s not kid ourselves – White’s position is not better than it was before I played 14. h5?!. Black let me hang around and create some counterplay as time pressure became a factor, but the result was never really in doubt, and Black went on to win after a good defensive effort.

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 20…Ng5

To my dissatisfaction, the caveman approach failed here. As much as I love strategic exchange sacrifices, this position didn’t call for one. So what should I have played instead?

Finding the right idea here means correctly identifying what Black’s main problem is. During the game, I thought the ugly f6-g6-h7 structure begged for an attack on the kingside, but as we saw, Black’s pieces hold this side of the board reasonably well. Perhaps this is an idea in the future, but for now, White should be looking for more glaring problems in Black’s position. The biggest issue lies in Black’s superfluous knight on f7.

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Steincamp – Petesch, position after 13…Qd7 

Black would love it if White traded off a pair of knights. Black would get more space for his pieces, clarify the purpose of the f7 knight, and perhaps even consider …f6-f5 pushes now that his f8 rook can support this central break. In fact, part of the reason why 14. h5?! didn’t work was because Black got to insert an in-between move with a trade on f3! The problem of the superfluous knight really slows down Black’s play, and this is why 14. Nd4! is a much stronger move than what I played. After 14…Bxe2 15. Qxe2, now White can really carry on a kingside attack, and it’s not clear how Black will use his knights to defend his position.

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variation after 15. Qxe2 – how does Black regroup his pieces effectively? 

White has a clear positional advantage, and without Black’s light squared bishop on g4, a kingside attack is a much more considerable option since it doesn’t come at the cost of any material. I actually saw this option of 14. Nd4! during the game, but the immediacy of 14. h5?! was appealing to me because I thought I could keep a lot of pressure on Black’s king, though I didn’t have a concrete line to convert the position into a win. While the move I played is certainly testing, it’s a failure of calculation on multiple levels:

  1. I failed to really pinpoint Black’s problem in the position. Looking at the pawn structure alone was a really superficial way of trying to find a concrete problem. Two of Aagard’s questions would have helped my search: What is my opponent’s plan? and What are my opponent’s weaknesses?
  2. I failed to effectively compare the final positions for both 14. Nd4! and 14. h5?!. This is the most important step that should have helped me make the right decision. Without a doubt, 14. Nd4! gives White a better position. Meanwhile 14. h5?! might result in a better position for White (hindsight is 20/20 – I didn’t realize how quickly Black could seize the g-file after 17…Kh8!), but unclear is probably the more accurate assessment. Even if the evaluation were the same, on a practical level, why sacrifice material when there is another option just as strong?
  3. I needed to be more concrete with 14. h5?!. Seeing that I can play for the f5 square was not a bad concept at all – if anything, it’s a nice idea to save for later since Black can’t really stop this h4-h5 push. But to play it now means paying attention to all of Black’s options. While it’s already not practical to go into deep calculation here, this would have been the last chance for me to really know what I was getting into.
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With the long July 4th weekend, I had plenty of time to relax and keep being the same old goofy me!

Failure may seem like a strong word, but these are things I take note of after losing a game where I fail to really make the most of a critical position. In one of my first posts back from Europe I mentioned that “solving” positions like these will decide whether or not I can make National Master. What we saw here was the difference between a mid-2100 rated player and a nearly 2400 rated opponent!

 

As I prepare for the Cleveland Open in August, I’ll be doing more exercises like this where I can test my tactical and positional understanding to find the right strategic approach. Right now, in my chase for NM, its more important to play smarter, not necessarily better, when making critical decisions. To help me get there, I’ll be playing in the upcoming Wild Card Open at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, a one game a week format with a long time control. Hopefully I’ll have an interesting game to share in my next post!

 

Jedi Mind Trick: Fooling Myself to Victory

It took nearly two months, but this past weekend I finally saw the benefits my European excursion had on my play. A performance rating over 2350 at the Columbus Open and my first win against a 2400+ rated player were certainly unprecedented, and proved to be my next big jump towards National Master. Where did this performance come from? Here is a story about how I needed to trick myself to start playing good chess again.

Welcome to the Dark Side

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Getting into trouble on a Tuesday night. I was lucky to save a half point here…
A week before my trip to Ohio, I played in a local rapid tournament to prepare for the grueling two day schedule. I’ve never been a particularly strong rapid player, but I was fairly dissapointed by my 2/4 score, as my games were marred with mistakes and uninspired play.

I was ready to brush it off as a bad day at the office, but the last round of my Tuesday night tournament also screamed the same word: Slump! After getting a great position out of the opening, I somehow found myself getting outplayed by a lower rated player and miraculously got a draw.

So the script going into the Columbus Open was already written. Those glory days I had in Europe were long over – my undefeated triumph in Budapest and opening creativity in Reykjavik were just memories now. Clearly I had bad form – it was Tuesday night, and I had until Saturday morning to stop atrophying.

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Burger night in the ‘Burgh
But across three days, what can you do? Not much really – of course I did about an hour of tactics each day, but I just tried to relax and focus on my cooking. With each passing day, I just braced myself for a rough weekend, as the competition in Columbus seemed to be toughest I had faced since last summer’s World Open (and I didn’t need any reminders as to how I did there). That National Master title seemed really far away, so I just wanted to play good chess. This would just have to be another one of those dreaded “learning experiences”.

Making the Most of Things

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Chess^Summit co-author Grant Xu sharing his round 3 draw!
It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote about how changing a pregame routine for the sake of one game can help a lot, but what about for a whole tournament?

For the sake of convenience, I decided to limit my packing to a backpack, which meant some wholesale changes to my tournament approach. Typically, I like to dress fashionably for my games – button down shirts, sweaters, and so forth. If the pros do it, why can’t I? Not this time – I didn’t want to draw attention to my games, so t-shirts it was! Instead of the wooden set I have brought to tournaments for most of the last decade, I brought a cheap plastic set. I packed to just play chess and have a fun weekend away from Pittsburgh. Road trip!

What I didn’t realize was that I had already tricked myself. Backpacking? I just did that for three months in Europe. Just play chess? That was my exact mantra going into the Dolomiten Bank Open last February. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Columbus was the next stop on my European trip.

By believing National Master was out of reach, I tricked myself into throwing all stress out the window.

Taking Down the Death Star

As Grant and I walked into the Union at Ohio State University, our phones buzzed with our first round pairings, and I had quite the test. Paired with Black against a 2400+ rated FM, I’d have to take on one of the top 50 blitz players in the country in a G/60 game – a simillar time control to the previous week’s rapid event. My record against 2400+ opposition hasn’t been great, so my expectations were minimal going into this early morning round.

In a pairing that had all the makings of a blowout win, the result proved to be exactly that – though after only needing 8 minutes on my clock, it was my opponent who extended his hand to tender his resignation. My first 2400 scalp, and a masterclass against the London System at that!

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I wonder if Brutus plays chess…
I was fairly relaxed for my next two games against 2300+ opposition. I finished the day at 1.5/3, which was impressive considering the level of competition. Admittedly I could have had an even better score, but I was just having fun, remember?

I opened Sunday morning with an easy draw against a National Master, giving me White in my last game against an expert. A win would mean finishing on a plus score with a great overall tournament performance, and a loss would flip the narrative.

Playing 1 e4 was not my Intention!

As I needed it in Reykjavik, I needed to count on my opening creativity and willingness to explore to get the point. After 1. c4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. cxd5 cxd5 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. e4 e6 6. d5 we reached a French by transposition:

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Steincamp – Jakob, position after 6. d5
Now if I were a 1 e4 player, and my opponent a French (or Sicilian) player, this would have just been a normal position reached by 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 cxd4 5. cxd4 Nc6 6. Nc3 or 1. e4 c5 2. c3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. cxd4 d5 5. e5 Nc6 6. Nc3. But I’ve only played two King’s pawn openings in recent memory, and as I had researched prior to the game, my opponent played the Alekhine’s against 1. e4, so we were both out of book.

Luckily for me, I wrote an extensive article about the French last year here on Chess^Summit, and so conceptually I was able to identify plan’s for White. As I discussed in the aforementioned article, the French is inherently strategically risky for Black because it lets White grab space in the center and locks in the c8 bishop. In return, Black gets dynamic possibilities to break the center with various pawn breaks, but should Black fail to prove a homeostasis in the position, White will have a simple static advantage and no risk position.

One thing I really liked about this transposition was that Black has already “released the tension” on d4 since we reached this position through the Exchange Slav. This early trade is not to most French players’ liking, as sometimes its helpful to insert …Qd8-b6 before trading on d4. After 6…Nge7 7. Nf3, my opponent erred with 7…Ng6?, giving me a lasting edge with 8. h4!

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Steincamp–Jakob, position after 8.h4!
I actually think Black is already strategically lost because he loses the ability to play …f7-f6 by force, so he has no ability to counter the center. Even though 7…Ng6? was an obvious error, this just goes to show how thin the line can be between equality and a lost position in the French for Black. Black’s play must be action-oriented. I got a dominating position in just a few moves, and even though I blundered later in the game, my position was still strong enough to get the win.

The Force Awakens

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Fried chicken in an outside restaurant in Columbus! Food in the city was easily one of the many highlights of this trip.
Ideally I won’t need regularly deflating performances to help me play better chess, but what this tournament showed me was that when I throw stress out the window I’m a much stronger player! Going forward I’ll be treating these tournaments more as weekend getaways than chances to make National Master. So it may be a while before I wear a button down shirt to a game again…

My rating jumped from 2134 to 2159, so I can start to smell the title, but it’s still a few good performances out. Since I have a while before my next weekend tournament, I’m going to focus a lot on tactics and calculation as I try to close the gap to 2200. I definetly feel a lot more confident in my play than I did a week ago, so I’m hoping to keep it up!