Why do Blunders Happen? Recapping the 2017 Liberty Bell Open

I had a rough performance in Philadelphia last week, but after looking over my mistakes, I realized a lot of common themes that were worth sharing. One of my goals in putting this video together was to discuss how strong players make blunders, and identify what errors in calculation happen building up to the fatal moment.

While using my Liberty Bell Open performance as an example was not my intention going into the tournament, being able to review my games several times definitely helped me learn from my mistakes.

I’m hoping to get in one more tournament before I go to Europe, so we will see how that goes! Hope you enjoy my video!

Back to New York! Making the Most of Awkward Pairings

As I stepped into Penn Station last Friday afternoon, I entered the Big Apple with a renewed sense of optimism. Of course, the Marshall Chess Club has special meaning to me, being the site of the only adult tournament I’ve ever won, but I felt like I had more pushing me forward.

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Unlike last summer, I got to stay in Times Square for the weekend

While my result in New Orleans left me feeling incomplete, much of my team’s performance in the Pan American Championships showed me that anything is possible. John’s draw against Ray Robson and Hibiki’s crushing win over a grandmaster were both particularly encouraging, and my mouth was watering at a second opportunity to play a titled player after losing a very close game against a 2500+ International Master last week.

Admittedly, I entered the Marshall’s Weekend FIDE somewhat blind to the competition. Since the event was to be FIDE rated, I assumed that not only would I play tougher competition than I did last week, but that I would be one of the lowest rated players in the event. In reality, this turned out to be somewhat false, as I played both an unrated opponent and a 1300 in two of the four rounds of the event. That being said, I did get the second chance I wanted, both against the famous New York IM Jay Bonin and a young National Master. But to put things bluntly, my opening experiments in both games failed and I finished 2.5/5 (last round half-point bye).

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In meeting Vanessa this past weekend, I’ve “finally” met all of the senior Chess^Summit authors! Who thought it would have taken that long?

I think the position I’ve been in these last two tournaments can be very relatable for just about any tournament player. I remember when I was around 1500, my tournaments would bounce between opponents rated 1200 and 1800, leading up the last round where I finally got to play someone my own rating. This was even more exaggerated when I was still in elementary school trying to improve through scholastic tournaments. What can I say – these tournaments can be incredibly frustrating. You win when favored, you lose against the much higher rated folk, you still lose a couple rating points. What did you do wrong?

In such cases its really easy to be discouraged by the short term loss, and its even easier to forget the long term benefits of having played stronger opponents. But experience is so much more important. As of today, my rating is the lowest its been since August of 2015, yet I strongly believe that I would beat the player I was at my peak if I played him in a match.

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Me trying to save my second round game against IM Jay Bonin. Credit: Vanessa Sun

Just like my tournament this past weekend, many of my tournament appearances last semester whittled my 2142 rating all the way down to where it is now. I really wasn’t in control of who I was paired against in many of those events, and coupling that with the fact I’ve been learning a new opening repertoire as Black, gaining points has not exactly been easy. That being said, I know I am a stronger player for having endured this, and I hope to show this in a much more level field next week at the Liberty Bell Open.

For those of you who may recall, on my very first post upon the relaunch of the site, I proclaimed my intention to not look at my own rating until I make master. Quite truthfully, I’ve been a little lazy about this since I know I’m moving in the opposite direction, but I’m going to force myself to not look at my rating again since it’s a distraction from actual improvement.

Life lessons aside, in looking over my games from New York, I do see signs of improvement in my games – even in the wins against the much lower rated opposition. I really liked how I handled my first game against an unrated opponent. While I would guess that my opponent was no stronger than 1800 (I didn’t know this going in), I was posed with some not so trivial decisions as Black. Here’s an example:

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Position after 11. c3, Atakay–Steincamp

Black is clearly not worse, in fact, thanks to the pair of bishops, Black is fighting for the edge. Yet the best route isn’t so easy to choose, if White can complete his development quickly, he is probably only marginally worse and can play on with reasonable chances to equalize. I think many players would simply make a decision here (11…Bf5 for example) and play on, confident in their ability to outplay weaker opponents from equal positions. However, I happened to know that my opponent was an exchange student from Turkey, and perhaps he might be “x good”, just with no USCF experience.

So I decided to use my time advantage here to try to find the continuation that offered Black the best winning chances, and after thirty minutes, I managed to find a line that we reached on the board eight moves later with a clear plus for Black. I don’t really see many examples of such problems in books, so I thought I would pose one here – what is the best way for Black to maximize the advantage of the pair of bishops? There’s several reasonable ways to continue, but I thought my choice offered the most practical chances to get an advantage. When you think you have something, check my game out here!

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At some point I will have too many photos of this room!

As it turns out, this was my opponent’s first game, and after four rated games, he finished just shy of 1700. Regardless, I’m still proud of myself for coming up with this continuation in an over-the-board setting.

So where does the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships and this tournament at the Marshall Chess Club put me? Hard to say – I’ve scored a combined 5/10, and in each of my wins my opponents failed to put up some measurable resistance. That being said, I’ve also had five tough losses running the gamut from blowout to heartbreaker, each of them proving to be critical tests of my weaknesses as a player. While I haven’t exactly had many chances to prove it against simillar opposition, I would like to think that the sudden inundation of chess I’ve had since the conclusion of the fall semester is pushing me in the right direction. How much it really has, I’ll know next week at the Liberty Bell Open. No matter how I do, I’ll be well on my way towards being fully prepared for the Dolomiten Bank Open in Austria, an I’m looking forward to getting some competitive games in Philadelphia!

 

Creating Your Own Luck

Well, if I was looking for a Cinderella story to make it over 2100 this past weekend, I certainly didn’t find it. This year’s edition of the Pennsylvania State Championships pushed me to the limit – testing my stamina, resilience, and my composure in ways that I have never been tested before. Upon the tournament’s conclusion, I had convinced myself that the 3/5 result I produced simply derived from bad luck.

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Deep into my first round… where did my advantage go? Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

With a little over a day to rethink my results, I have to admit, there were a lot of elements working against me, but I also created my own luck in the latter half of the tournament, which saved me from having an even worse result.

What do I mean by bad luck? Until the last round (when it was already too late), I was never able to put together any serious momentum. In the first round, I got paired down against an ambitious youngster. Even though I got an edge out of the opening, I hyperextended and quickly lost my advantage. While I missed a chance late in the game to win, my opponent didn’t make any mistakes and was able to hold the endgame to a draw. Not an ideal start, but a comeback is manageable, right?

With only thirty minutes between the rounds to catch my breath, I learned that I would play defending State Champion and fellow Chess^Summit author Grant Xu for the first ever Chess^Summit v Chess^Summit tournament match up. Grant had taken a half point bye in the first round and was ready to play, surprising me out of the opening and catching me off guard.

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While I didn’t have the best weekend, Grant was able to successfully defend his state title, winning each of his four games and reaching a rating of 2396!

Though I somehow managed to equalize, I was too tired to complete the result and managed to blunder my way through the rest of the endgame, dropping my score to 0.5/2. This put me in a really tough tournament position, as I would need to win out to objectively have a “good” tournament.

At that moment, I felt like I had had some bad luck with the pairings, and went back to my dorm room to rest up for the last round of the night.

Sure, it wasn’t ideal to play Grant with so little time between rounds, and sure, my first round opponent wasn’t quite the game I was hoping to open with, but in reflection, given the positions I had, I think I had some opportunities to score better. Going into the last game, I took the right mentality, forgetting the first two games and telling myself that I was now playing in a three-round tournament. Now this was my chance to create my own luck.

I got paired against a 1500 that night, but still treated the game as if I were playing someone my level. The affair was rather one-sided, but there was an instructive moment during the game that I thought I ought to share.

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Steincamp–Boles, after 10…Kf8

In this position, it’s my turn, and I’m clearly better. Black has lost his right to castle and has a significant lack of space. Yet how should I press on as White? Black doesn’t have any structural weaknesses and actually has the idea …Be7-g4, attacking the d4 pawn and trying to pry open the dark squared diagonal for his a7 bishop. After some thought, I figured the right question to ask was where should I put my dark squared bishop? I think objectively the options are about equal, but my choice offered me long term attacking possibilities. Can you figure what I decided?

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My last round win, and the highlight of my tournament. Photo Credit: Pennsylvania State Chess Federation

Though this win wasn’t exactly the most challenging, it felt nice to get back into the habit of asking the right questions and making the most of good positions. To my discontent, I got paired down in the fourth round on Sunday morning, and once again got surprised by an opening sideline in which I promptly put myself in a worse position.

I could have been outplayed, but I found ways to keep the game going, eventually pushing the game to equality and even a slight edge for myself before forcing the three move repetition. While objectively a draw was a good result considering the way the game started, I couldn’t help but feel that had I known the theory better I could have outplayed my opponent and gotten a full point. This result meant my last round would be a consolation game, and breaking 2100 would have to wait again.

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Photo Credit: Beilin Li

While this was not what I wanted going into the tournament, I think this was the best situation for me at this time. Going into the last round, I felt no stress whatsoever, and having White with nothing to lose, I was more comfortable being creative over the board. This alleviation made me feel refreshed, and I produced one of the better games I’ve played since coming back to Pittsburgh.

This was a critical lesson for me, when I just focus on chess, when I just focus on making the best move every move, I can play a great game. Most of the tournament I felt distracted – either being bewildered by my early results, or feeling a need to make up for them later on. But when I was just worried about chess, removing all of the emotional stress of a long weekend of dissapointment, I can well. This is what I mean by creating my own luck.

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Grabbing some post-tournament dinner with Beilin and going over some games on the restaurant’s bulky chess board!

Not every tournament is going to be ideal, maybe it’s just bad pairings, or the TD makes the wrong decision, or you blow a won game in time trouble – this happens to everyone at some point. To be strong player, you have to put these moments behind you. It felt like most of this weekend I got hit with something new every game – an opening line I wasn’t prepared for (twice!), an underrated opponent, crazy pairings – all of these things were out of my control, but if I could have played as well as I did in the last round in each game, it would not have mattered and I could easily be 2100 again right now.

While it was dissapointing to have trained so hard for this event to only get one opponent rated over 2000, I plan to continue pushing myself for my next tournament in early November. By then I’ll have reached my 20th birthday, and perhaps a little bit of “luck” can rub off on me then 🙂 I guess we’ll just have to see in my next post!

Ladia Jirasek on the 35th US Chess School Camp

Written by NM Ladia Jirasek

The U.S. Chess School, founded by IM Greg Shahade returned to the beautiful city of San Francisco during the last week of July 2016 to hold their famous Chess Camp. This camp was made possible through the generous sponsors of Dr. Jim Roberts, the Scheinberg family, John Donaldson and the Mechanics Institute.

Two years ago, I was invited to the 24th US Chess School Camp. At that time, I was the second lowest rated chess player to attend. The rating range of USCF 2100 to 2400 may have been challenging to deal with, but both of our instructors, IM Greg Shahade and IM John Bartholomew found a way to make everyone benefit from their lessons. I never had a coach, never took a lesson, so this was a new experience for me. I did not know what to expect, yet the chess camp in 2014 was the best, and most gratifying chess experience I had in my short chess career, and I couldn’t wait to go back.

uscs35-group-photo_origOver the summer this year, the 35th US Chess School occupied the famous San Francisco Mechanic’s Institute, the oldest running chess club in the U.S. I had been invited again and I was looking forward to another great chess camp. The camp’s full schedule started at 10:00am and ended at 6:00pm that last 4 days. Each day consisted small breaks and an hour long lunch break. The chess camp consisted of 11 strong players from California, and one strong WFM from Texas. The 12 attendees were: FM Rayan Taghizadeh (2336), (almost FM) Josiah Stearman (2315), NM Siddharth Banik (2309), NM Ladia Jirasek (2305), WIM Agata Bykovtsev (2297), WIM Annie Wang (2251), NM Alex Costello (2247), WFM Emily Nguyen (2241) from Texas, Balaji Daggupati (2108), Cristopher Yoo (2089), Seaver Dahlgren (2079), and Karthik Padmanabhan (2035). Our coach was the well-known International Master Greg Shahade, founder and president of the U.S. Chess School, founder of the New York Masters and the U.S. Chess League, and who is also a pretty good poker player. This year Greg had no help but was ready to go 1 against 12 and leave no chess stone unturned.

It was time to learn.

Day #1

The first day started with a quick introduction and a nice endgame study. It was early in the morning and this puzzle got our brains running.

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White to play and draw. (Solution at the end of the article)

That was hard! After, we immediately jumped into our lessons. These lessons were not any ordinary lessons, but carefully crafted chess art, so each and every player could be challenged to come up with their own idea, formulate a plan, or have a chance to uncover a GM strategic move. Kudos to Greg for making these amazing lessons! We started by talking about the legendary Mark Dvoretsky, and going over the games of one of his students, Sergey Dolmatov. We looked at critical points in each game and analyzed not only the position, but the psychology behind each of Dolmatov’s decisions. That is something you don’t find in any regular chess lesson. After an intense, yet fun-filled 3 hours, we took a lunch break. Time to eat, time to rest, right? Not so fast. Put 12 chess players in one room together and your lunch break turns into a continuous chess competition. The best part of having our chess camp at Mechanic’s Institute was that it is filled with chess boards. Most of us quickly ate our food so we could go play bughouse. It may not help your chess, but it sure is fun! After lunch, Greg started to analyze our games. He found mistakes typical of younger players and constructed a lesson around it. Many younger, less experienced players want to attack and attack right away. In some games, that could be the difference between a win and a loss. Greg explained to us that sometimes we have to be patient and keep things under control before going on an all-out attack. If your opponent can’t do anything, just build up your position improve your pieces to their best potential, and only then start attacking. Then, we took a quick break to let the material sit in our brains. After, each of us participated in a simul against Greg. Since we were a “strong bunch” according to Greg, it was only fair that he be white in every game. Greg won most of the games, drew a few, and fell only to Alex Costello. Day 1 was a blast, it went by fast, and there were still three more days to go.

Day #2

Day 2 started very similarly to Day 1. We started with another fascinating endgame study and then focused on the idea of prophylactic moves (stopping your opponent’s threats before they happen). Every serious chess player knows that there was nobody better at prophylactics than the great Anatoly Karpov. Any ambitious player can review the Karpov – Spassky 1974 Candidates game 9 and try to find Karpov’s prophylactic moves. The lesson was very instructive and Greg had no problem getting us all involved. Greg also analyzed our games and pointed out some of our mistakes and showed us how we could further improve our chess. Later, we had another lesson on prophylactics. When we were done, it was the time everyone was waiting for… the 1-0 (1 minute) bullet tournament! Pieces were flying all over the board, we were all having fun. In the final, FM Rayan Taghizadeh was able to beat the “bullet machine”, Josiah Stearman, in the final match to get first place. Day 2 ended with Rayan celebrating his victory as well as his birthday. Happy Birthday, Rayan!

Day #3

Day 3 began with another endgame study. This time, having two days of practice, Greg made the endgame puzzle much harder and more challenging, yet many people still figured it out.

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White to move and win. (Solution at the end of the article)

Halfway through the study, we ended up in this position.

We felt that in those last two days, Greg stimulated our brains into a different chess zone. Ideas were coming out of the woodwork, the possibilities were endless and we felt good! After the endgame study, Greg came up with an engaging concept. We started a training game from a position of a GM game. We did not know who were the players or the correct ideas in the given position. We had 20 minutes to play and figure out the correct plans for the side we were playing. This is a great way to study and practice chess. When we finished the training game, we analyzed the actual game and found out what each player did. At the end of the day, we had our 3-2 (three minutes and two-second increment) blitz tournament. As with the Bullet tournament, Rayan emerged victorious again. This time he had to fight much harder for the win. In the final match, he was facing Josiah again. The game started out in the Italian opening, but in the middle game Rayan left his rook undefended. What was going on? Was it a trap? Did Rayan blunder? Everyone was wondering how a great blitz player could make a move like that and at the same time, how Josiah would miss an obvious attack on the rook. Both players were focused on other pieces and the rook remained unnoticed. The game ended as a draw so the players switched colors and began a 1-1 (one minute and one second increment) bullet game. This game was won by Rayan and his reward was a large bag of Ghirardelli chocolates. A very tasty motivation! Rayan Taghizadeh is the only person to have won both the Bullet and Blitz tournaments at the US Chess School. Congratulations Rayan!

Day #4 

Our final day at the US Chess School was going to be different from the previous three.  Except, we still started with another endgame study to get our brains running and then we finished analyzing our games. Afterwards, we played another training game. Just like yesterday, we did not know the players or the plans, but this time, we only had 15 minutes to play and figure out the correct plans for the side we were playing. After we finished, we analyzed the game so we could understand the correct concepts.

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White to move. Try to find black’s plan and prevent it! (Solution at end of article)

Later on, we took a really interesting test: “The Intuition Test.” There were 30 puzzles of varying strengths and we only had 45 seconds to write down our intuition move (the first move you think of) before the next puzzle starts. Some of us found out that our intuition was great and mostly correct, but others learned that they needed to work on their first instinct move. Either way, it was a great learning experience. For our lunch break, we were invited to a mobile advertising company called Fyber. They provided lunch for us and then challenged us to games of chess and video games. Some of us played chess and others took turns playing Ping-Pong and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Going to Fyber was a great way to end our time at the US Chess School. The people at Fyber were gracious and fun to be with.  Thank you to Fyber for providing us with lunch and entertainment. All of the students won’t forget it!

Thank you, Greg, for being an amazing coach and I hope to see you at the next US Chess School.

Also, a huge thank you to our main sponsors Dr. Jim Roberts and the Scheinberg family.

Thank you to John Donaldson and the Mechanic’s Institute for providing us with their space throughout the camp free of charge. It’s one of the bet chess clubs in the country, and they support us chess players year after year.

Afternote:

As the US Chess School Camp was over, five of us went to the People’s tournament in Berkeley. I wanted to put my newfound knowledge to the test. During the games, I found out that many moves I was thinking of now were not moves I thought of before. I would always try to find out what my opponent’s long-term plan was and I tried to stop it (prophylactics). I’m pretty sure that the knowledge I acquired from the camp over these four days helped me hold a draw against the one and only Mechanic’s own Grandmaster-in-residence Nick De Firmian. Other students demonstrated their newfound knowledge at this tournament too. Josiah Stearman saw that his opponent was threatening to move his knight to d4, and that the c4 square was weak so he maneuvered his knight (a lesson we had on day 1). He played knight from c3 to b1 so he could follow up with c3 to prevent the black knight from coming to d4. Then, he followed up with Nd2-c4 and had a nice position. Siddharth Banik used prophylactics to prevent his opponent’s only attacking idea and then followed up with an amazing rook sacrifice to have a forced win of material in four moves. And lastly, Seaver Dahlgren secured a position very similar to one of the Dolmatov games we were analyzing. Because of this, he was able to play the position well and got a winning advantage.

I know that we all learned a lot from the US Chess School and I can’t wait to go again!

Solutions to puzzles:

  1. 1. Ng4+  hxg4,  2. d4+  K anywhere,   3. Rh1!!  Qf8   4. Ke1  Qa8   5. Kf1  Qa6+ 6. Kg1 with stalemate
  2. 1. Bg2+!  Kxg2,  2. Nf4+  Kg1  3. Ke1!!  g2  4. Ne2#
  3. Black’s plan is to maneuver his knight from c6 to c4 via the a5 square. White has to stop that. White’s best move is Rc1 with the idea of Qb1 and Rc5. Check out the game to see what actually happened. (This position is just after black’s 23rd move …h6.)

http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1068393

Finding Form in Short Time Controls

As some of you may have noticed, my results following the US Junior Open have been uncharacteristically poor. After taking a beating in the top section of the World Open, I followed up with an uninspired showing at the Southern Open, eventually dipping below 2100 despite much-improved play at the Washington International. Was there an end in sight?

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Reunited with friends at late night Fuel and Fuddle!

Though I had been looking forward to my second year of college, moving back to Pittsburgh also posed a potential distraction from my ability to study chess. As Alice mentioned last week, with all of the academic and social obligations, the time remaining is not ideal for a chess player aspiring to become a master. In an effort to continue where the summer left off, I continued to wake up at 6:30 each morning to exercise and work through tactical exercises and opening preparation. Admittedly, getting out of bed has been quite difficult, as there haven’t been many opportunities for me to prove to myself that the preparation was making a difference.

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Killing some time before the Student Activities fair during Orientation week.

To make up for this, I’ve been meeting with Beilin each week to play practice games and identify holes in my theoretical knowledge. While this doesn’t quite compensate for a lack of rated games, we really push each other to the brink when we play each other. So far, each of the six games we’ve played this year have been decisive.

For my first month back in Pittsburgh, I had two events I wanted to be ready for: the Pittsburgh Chess League season opener and the G/60 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships. The Pittsburgh Chess League, as Beilin discussed last week, is one of the most exciting chess events in the city, and is the oldest league of its kind in the United States. That being said, amidst the opening match confusion, our opponent’s forfeited three of the four boards, leaving me with no game to review going into the G/60 Championships. Forfeits seem to be really common, but this was actually the first time in 13 years (and over 800 rated games!) that this has ever happened to me. Certainly not ideal timing for a first.

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Breakfast at Pamela’s! I try to grab breakfast here before I play in Pittsburgh – easily some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had!

One weakness I always felt I had is an inability to play in quick time controls, which is why, somewhat understandably, I was extremely nervous about competing in a G/60 time control against a very talented field. My fears tripled when I was paired against my US Junior Open trainer, National Master Franklin Chen, with Black in the first round. Franklin opted to reach an endgame where he could play for two results, but luckily for me, I only had one weakness and managed to hold a draw. While that game was interesting, and certainly instructive, I wanted this article to focus on my second round win against a National Master.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the posts here on Chess^Summit over the past week have been focused on attacking chess, but how do you punish your opponent for attacking prematurely? I played my second round opponent last year in the same event and thought I should quickly share that game first before comparing it to my win.

Even though I lost, you can see how White’s unorthodox way of play created too many weaknesses and surrendered the center making it far too easy for Black to equalize and more. In our second game, we reached a similar position but a tempo down. One of the things I love about the English against 1…e5 is that it’s a hyper-accelerated Sicilian a tempo up and colors reversed, so it forces Black to come up with creative solutions to make up for the lost tempo. Having played on the Black side of a closed Sicilian many times, much of that experience has helped me develop optimal play with the White pieces. In this game, Black carried through with his …g6-g5 play, and being a tempo up, I didn’t have to slow play the position with Nf3-e1. What a difference a tempo can make!

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That moment when you realize you are playing chess again!

I wound up getting Black in each of my last two games, drawing each with far less impressive play than I started the day with. That being said, my ability to hold positions was strong enough to finish the day undefeated despite three blacks over the four rounds.

This is easily the best performance I’ve had since leaving Charlotte last May, and it’s an even bigger success considering I got paired with three blacks and my predisposition of not playing my best in shorter time controls. I have to attribute some of my success to my practice games with Beilin, as each of my first two games each stemmed from practice games of our own (shout-out to Beilin for beating his first 2300+ rated opponent and finishing 3/4, by the way – I hope he’s getting as much out of our matches as I am!). Of course, this one weekend alone will not make up for the past few months of poor performances, but it’s a great first step and shows I was able to build off of my Washington International performance. Hopefully, this success will make it a lot easier to continue waking up at 6:30, and realize that yes, it makes a difference!

Wake Up Washington!

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Mid-thought in my third round draw. I swear I’m not sleeping!

What makes for a good tournament performance? Rating gain? Total number of wins? Winning prizes? Well, for me, it was none of the above. Last week’s Washington International marked my final tournament before returning to Pittsburgh for the fall semester, and a return to one of my favorite tournament venues.

Just like last year, I entered the U2200 section hoping to find some sort of clarity going into the fall. Since the US Junior Open, I think it’s fair to say that I have had a particularly tough stretch between a poor showing at the World Open and some uninspired play at the Southern Open – only tallying two wins over my last eleven games. Of course, these past two months have also given me a lot of insight into my own weaknesses as a player, forcing me to work on a new opening repertoire, my calculation skills, and my overall endgame understanding.

After a few days on Sanibel Island following the Southern Open, I was ready to get back into tournament form!

To an extent, I do think putting so much emphasis on my preparation for the US Junior Open resulted in a bit of a backslide in my studies upon my return from New Orleans. I didn’t really grasp this in Philadelphia as I was preoccupied, getting torn apart in the Open section, but this became apparent to me when my performance in Orlando was punctuated with a very lucky win despite my poor form and inability to find any tactics that weekend. But naturally, I have greater aspirations than to obsess about a tournament I played in two months ago, and making master is certainly a good first step.

In the three weeks leading up to the Washington International, I completely changed how I attacked my studies. Every morning, I woke up at 6:30 to go running  to improve my endurance while beating the heat. After pushing my physical limits, I then tested myself mentally, doing tactical exercises for about two hours before working on my opening repertoire and then testing out some lines in online practice games. On most days, I was able to put in about five hours of preparation, though there was one day where I somehow had the stamina for ten! This wasn’t enough to fix all of the problems my game has had over the month prior, but it made up for a lot of poor preparation – think of it as a “spring cleaning”, if you will.

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Boards and sets! The Washington International is the most accommodating tournament I have ever played in – breakfast, mid-game coffee, provided boards and pieces – what more can you ask for?

So, as you can imagine, I entered Rockville the most prepared I could be, and easily the most confident I have been in a very long time. I knew it would be hard to replicate the success I had last year with a completely new opening repertoire, so my only goals were to focus on getting solid positions out of the opening and limit the number of unforced blunders in my play – both of which were places I had failed in my two prior events.

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20. Qf2 +/-, Steincamp – Imada

My first three games were extremely uneventful, though I managed to outplay my first round opponent from an equal endgame to secure a win. My score of 2/3 wasn’t a bad start, but my tournament really started in round 4, where my inability to play quickly cost me a beautiful position and the game. Even though I’m not particularly happy with how this game ended, I think it’s instructive and worth sharing here on Chess^Summit.

Ouch! Well, I guess that’s one way to lose to a lower rated opponent… Not quite what I was hoping for in my “back to form” tournament. One thing I’ve noticed about some of my tournaments pre-dating the US Junior Open was that if I had a closely contested game and lost, I generally would underperform in my next few games and it would kill my ability to have a consistent tournament performance. Knowing that my ability to rebound quickly from this loss would define how I did in this tournament, I played my best chess in each of my next two games as Black.

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18…Bf6, Boris – Steincamp

Pushed for what felt a “must-win” in round 5 to bounce back from a tough loss the night before, I opened with a move I hadn’t played since 2007! Typically, I bring blue Gatorade to each game, but when I feel like I need to win, I switch it out for “Darth Vader” juice (red). While superstitions are silly (I have others!), there was no messing around this Monday morning, and Caissa rewarded me with some creative play, and a great win to really start my scoring spree this tournament.

While I won this game with some nice technique, I was much prouder of myself for completely ignoring my opponent’s time trouble, and forcing myself to find the best move at my own pace, even once the endgame had been reached and it was clear the game was continuing for the sake of formality. I feel like my ability to handle such situations has come a long way since I blew a State Championship last February trying to push my opponent further into his own time trouble.

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9…Bd7, Nath–Steincamp

So I was back! Just a few hours later, I was back at the board again with the Black pieces. Any guesses as to how I responded to 1 e4 after that previous round? I was really confident in my play again and by move 13 I reached a completely winning position, and unlike my earlier loss, I once again forced myself to use my time more effectively to put the game away in style!

Now 4/6 with three rounds to go, I was feeling optimistic again about my chances to place in the event, but as luck would have it, things just did not work out. Paired against one of the strongest players in the field I managed secure equality, but quickly found myself distracted by some off-the-board behavior related to my opponent that I do not wish to discuss at this time. I had my own mistakes and know what I can take away from this game to become a stronger player, but unfortunately, this once again killed the momentum I had worked so hard to build. I did well to draw my last two rounds with Black, but on paper, 5/9 certainly didn’t seem to make up for that round 7 loss.

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Coaching at the first ever Virginia Scholastic Chess Association Intensive! A small group of kids, a lot of material to cover! Since I don’t know where my future will lead me, this might be the last scholastic event I run in Richmond for a while.

So we return to the opening question – what makes a good tournament? Dropping below 2100 for the first time certainly doesn’t sound like a good result, but when I look at the goals I set for myself going into Rockville and then compare these nine games to my previous eleven, only one word comes to mind: progress. In this tournament, despite playing with a new opening repertoire, there was only (arguably) one game where I left the opening slightly worse (my round 8 draw), and while I had my mistakes, it was still not nearly as many as I had at the Southern Open. Even though I was fully prepared for this tournament, I got hit with everything this section could offer me, and each of the lessons I learned will be valuable towards future improvement.

Good is a strong word in chess because it’s too general to really describe every aspect of a performance. At this year’s Washington International, I didn’t have the breakthrough tournament that I had the year prior, but I certainly had a very encouraging result. The way I played showed a lot of improvement, but in pulling together a solid showing, I also saw my play with White isn’t getting me enough, and that my ability to manage time trouble can still use some work.

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Cathy calling!

As I pack my bags for another term at Pitt this week, I’m excited about the prospect of being able to play more frequently in various local competitions. With the Pittsburgh Chess League, as well as the various Pennsylvania State Championships on University campus, I’m confident that I will not only have an opportunity to regain the points I’ve lost the last half of this summer, but soar beyond if I continue to attack my studies. Of course, I likely won’t have five hours a day anymore given my workload, but I hope I can make up for that with ambition and get back to the results I’m used to.

These past few tournaments have been a test, and the finish line is near. My only hope is I cross it sprinting.

The Southern Open: A Comedy of Errors

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The 2016 edition of Dragon Chess Camp brought in a record 51 campers for the week long program.

What a long couple of weeks it has been! Since my return from Philidelphia, improving from one of my most nightmarish tournaments of my career has been at the forefront of my agenda. With new openings to learn and grandmaster games to review, I had exactly two weeks to prepare for this past weekend’s Southern Open in Orlando. While such a short period of time to prepare is by no means ideal when preparing a new repertoire, I was ready to play some new lines as Black. In fact, in each of my games as Black I got to play new openings and reached much more solid positions! So progress has been steady, but there’s still a long ways to go.

On top of my own personal opening preparations, my first week back from the World Open was also spent volunteering at a program I had started back in 2013, Dragon Chess Camp. Back in my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to push our team to become much more competitive and provide my teammates with competitive opportunities across the country. The first edition of the summer camp had twenty participants and raised enough for our team to travel to the National High School Chess Championships in San Diego the following year where we won clear first in the U1200 section. Since, the team’s outreach has really taken off – running free chess clinics, more summer programs, and hosting a plethora of scholastic tournaments – and the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has become the pinnacle of chess in Richmond.

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Watching the kids practice the Lucena and Philidor positions – better now than later! And that screen in the background? We were watching Nakamura’s big win over Carlsen too.

This summer, fifty-one scholastic players registered, which will help next year’s team compete in their first SuperNationals in Nashville, Tennessee! With such high attendance, I was tasked with the largest group I had taught in all four editions of the program. For that week, our class focused on theoretical rook endgames – the Lucena, Philidor, Vancura, known draws – whatever you could think of! Despite the relatively young age of my group, by having the players practice both converting and defending, they proved to be extremely fast learners and one of the players even used the ‘building a bridge’ technique to convert a win at the weekend’s tournament.

The second half of the course focused on principled opening play, which I had put together after my performance at the World Open. Halfway through the week, I had realized that many of the players in the camp only knew “unprincipled” openings – for example, various Pirc and Modern structures as Black – and were constantly having problems because they didn’t know theory. Thinking back to the thousands of pages of chess literature I’ve read, Greg Serper’s chess.com article on Inexperienced Player Mistakes comes to mind, where he calls a 1500 rated player’s choice of 1. c4 a mistake (of course this means I sinned in this same way six years ago) because a player of that caliber needs to learn chess by fighting for the center first with 1. e4 or 1. d4.

I think part of the openings-craze among scholastic players is driven by coaches who themselves don’t know classical openings, or perhaps think that changing openings will solve all of the problems their pupils may be having. Of course, this may temporarily improve the student’s performance, but long term – as I too have recently found – could be more of a hindrance than a strength. As a gift to all the 1. e4 players in my class, I showed them a simple plan Amonatov used in similar structures to demonstrate how Black’s failure to fight for the center was the root of his problems.

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The tournament venue – good thing the US Junior Open in New Orleans taught me how to cope with the heat!

So that’s enough banter, how did my first tournament back from the World Open go? Admittedly, not what I had hoped for. Without any opportunities to really practice my new openings or demonstrate improvement in an over-the-board game, I lacked a lot of confidence in my own abilities. This definitely had an impact on my overall play, but the bigger problem was that in spending all of my preparation on openings for this event, I was not as sharp tactically, and that proved to be the most apparent reason why I underperformed.

In my first round, I had a Deja vú experience, getting once again surprised in the opening and completely dismantled by International Master Daniel Fernandez – not exactly what you want when you’re confidence is already at a low! For my next two rounds, I focused on staying solid and earned two easy draws, though I figured they would not be the most entertaining games to share today. I nearly repeated the task in the fourth round, but a simple blunder saw me lose a pawn and enter a hopeless endgame. So once again, I had to look to my last round game to avoid disaster. After some impractical opening decisions, I reached the following position:

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Steincamp – Teodori, White to Move

While White might be able to hold a fortress, it’s clear that only Black can really play for a win. Beyond the fact that I have the thematically bad Maroczy bishop, Black also has the advantage that he can play for several weaknesses. First against the e4 pawn, in either tying down my pieces or making me play f2-f3 weakening my dark squares. But perhaps the idea that will really prove to be the most annoying is that Black can simply play …a7-a5-a4, and then put pressure along the half-open b-file, using the principle of two weaknesses to create pressure. If needed Black also has the …f7-f5 break as an added resource he can use to try to put an end to my existence. So strategically Black is winning. Over the board, I figured my best chance in this position was to find a way to generate kingside counterplay and reroute my light-squared bishop to a more active position. 21.g3

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Here I decided my only way to improve the position was to expand at the right moment with f2-f3 or f2-f4, but playing this move first leaves my options open. More importantly, this is the beginning of a long road trip for my bishop on d3, starting on f1, and re-entering the fray on g2. With the next few moves, my opponent made it clear that he didn’t know how to proceed. 21…Bc6 22.Bf1 Qd4 23.Bg2 Kg8 24.Rd1 Qg7 25.Rde1 Qd4 26.Rd1 Qg7 27.Rde1 Ba8 28.h3

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As you can see, my opponent has done very little to improve the nature of his position, simply waiting for me to make a mistake. Of course, there’s nothing I can really do at the moment to punish him, but the more I continue to evolve my position the better suited it will be to fend off any attack from Black. With this move, I create a little room from my king on h2. I was considering 28. f4?! but after 28… Qd4 starts to get annoying and tactical complications ensue after …f7-f5. Though h1 seems like a suitable square for the monarch, it’s on the same diagonal as Black’s bishop, and I would rather avoid that if possible. With Black not doing much, I have time to place my pieces as I would like. Realizing I was planning f2-f4, my opponent lashed out with 28…g5? and then the party really started!

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Even in my poor form, I immediately recognized this as a positional blunder. While temporarily stopping f2-f4, Black has just weakened his light squares around the king. Already I can think about mounting my g2 bishop on f5 where it would actually be a decent piece and at the very least give me very good drawing chances. Furthermore, thanks to 28. h3, I can put my king on h2 and consider opening the g-file at my own convenience. With this one move the entire dynamic of the game starts to change, and luckily for me, my opponent has yet to realize the gravity of the situation. 29.Kh2 Kh8 30.Qe2 Qg6 31.Qb2+ Qg7 32.Qe2 Kg8

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If you compare this position to the previous diagram, you’ll see that Black’s position is identical to the one before it, while I’ve had the luxury of making two moves and am on turn to take a third. Here I decided to take control of the game with 33.f4 since now seemed the most logical time to change the structure in the game. Black’s ability to use his long-term trumps are starting to wear off, and it almost seems like the a8 bishop is every bit out of the game as mine on g2. 33…f6 34.Bf3 Kh8 35.Bh5?

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Trying to execute a bishop pendulum before locking in on g4. Positionally not bad, but tactically problematic if Black finds 35…gxf4! the critical zwischenzug that turns the game upside down. Luckily for me, as the game has shown thus far, Black was beyond trying to proactively solve his problems and reacted to my threat as I had anticipated. 35…Rg8 36.Bg4 gxf4 37.gxf4 h5 38.Bf5

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Not taking the pawn! Positionally it is much more important to have a bishop on f5 and control the critical light squares in the position. This enables my queen to enter the game on h5 if Black isn’t careful, which wasn’t an option if I had taken with the bishop. Tactically, Black probably retains an edge if after 38. Bxh5 f5! attempting to open the long light square diagonal. I awkwardly managed to set-up a defense until making this critical mistake some moves later. 38…Qh6 39.Rf1 Reg7 40.Rff3 h4 41.Qf2 Bb7 42.Be6?

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Black to move and win. I’ll attach the answer further down in the article if you want to try and solve it first. Positionally though, my goal was to lock down the e-file by playing f4-f5 and use the f4 square for my rook to attack h4. This is precisely what happened in the game, but even from a positionally better side of the board, tactics are still everywhere! 42…Re8 43.f5 Bc8 44.Rf4 Rh7 45.Bf7!

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I had seen this when I played 42. Be6, and perhaps I was too quick in missing its initial refutation. The game is now lost because Black cannot take on f7 without losing the queen via Rf4xh4 with a pin, and now my bishop will go to g6 and win the exchange. Sadly for Black, there are no practical winning chances once the position simplifies. 45…Re7 46.Bg6 Bb7 47.Bxh7 Rxh7 48.Rg4 1-0

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 18.31.45And the game meets its rightful end. Black cannot save the h4 pawn, and my pressure on the kingside will be too much to handle. Black’s light-squared bishop, once the proudest piece in the position, now is utterly useless to aid Black in his struggles.

Not a particularly well-played game, but I thought it illustrated how at the 2100 level, how tactics and poor endgame technique still plague our games. And to some extent, the once abysmal d3 bishop’s road trip was quite amusing – it moved eleven times from d3 to reach h7 to win the game!

I’ve already thoroughly discussed endgames here on Chess^Summit, but if you missed my series on Carlsen, you can check them (in order) here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here – I swear they are all different links! It was a lot of fun putting together those articles, and it certainly helped my endgame play, and  hopefully it can help you too! As for tactics, it’s a never ending improving process – speaking of which:

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 18.24.4242. Be6?? Rg2+ 43. Qxg2 Rxg2+ 44. Kxg2 Bxe4!! 45. Rxe4 Qg6+ -+

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How easy it was to miss 44… Bxe4!!? Well, luck was certainly on my side this game.

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Last summer I took third in the U2200 section, which set me well on my way towards breaking 2100.

I’m closing out this summer with my next tournament, the Washington International, before heading back to Pittsburgh for my fall semester. While I was flirting with the idea of trying the open section early in the summer, I’ve decided to compete in the U2200 section to iron out some of the weaknesses in my game. The Washington International is certainly the most accommodating tournament I’ve ever played in, and I’ve had this event marked on my calendar since I left Rockville last year. I’m hoping to make the most out of this tournament, and hopefully, it can be as good to me as it was last year! Until next time!