Caissa’s Unexpected Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composure Wins Games

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

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

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 7. Nbd2

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 9. Bb5

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 12…a6

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 15… axb5

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 16. Ne1

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 18. Rf2

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 20…Kxe7

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 26. Nc1

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 28…f6?

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 33. Rh1

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 39…Nc6

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

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

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Analysis after 45…Rh4

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 46…Rg7

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 48. Ng3!

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 51…Rf7

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

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Chen–Steincamp, position after 61. Kd2

61…Rxe2+!–+ 62.Kxe2 Nc3+ 0–1

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

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

Reality Check

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

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Mucerino–Steincamp, White to move and win

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

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

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Demetruk–Steincamp, position after 19. Be2

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

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Demetruk–Steincamp, position after 25…Rb8

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

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

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

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Özbek–Steincamp, position after 31…Qh5

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

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Özbek–Steincamp, position after 32…Rxf2!

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

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

Steady Finish

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 31. Kh2

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

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 33…Qg5

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 48… Ra7

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 51. Ke4

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 55…Rg6

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

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Magar–Steincamp, position after 58…Kg3

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

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

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

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

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What do I do Now?

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

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

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

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

There are two questions we can ask

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

Activate My Pieces

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Black to Move

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

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

Stopping Opponent’s Plans

what_to_do_2

White to Move

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

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

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


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

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

How to win in Winning Positions

The experience to lose half-point or even the full point here and there adds up, and it starts to rattle your head.

Whether it’s up a piece for the U1000 crowd or having small advantage for the sub-1500 players, it takes experience to develop winning techniques to finish games cleanly.

How can we practice to improve our technique?

Winning Games (1)

Before we get to the answer, let’s drill in the number one focus to win a winning position.

SIMPLIFY

  1. Trade Pieces
  2. Reduce noise

Trade Pieces

For my U1000 students, trading pieces when up in material is a lesson we repeat a few times until it becomes second nature.

The reason is to avoid counter attacks and mistakes from our side to give back the ‘gift’.

In the position below what is the easiest way to trade the dark-square bishop?

U1000_trade

Reduce Noise

For the more experienced players, trading pieces has become a second nature, and we’ll start to working more complicated positions.

We may not be winning, but rather tiny bit better in the position.

If we are defending when up in material, it is important to reduce the attack from our opponent.U1500_simplify

In the position above, if white retreats the knight to f3, then black will play Ne4 trapping the rook and getting ready to attack on f2 as well.

There are lots of noise in the position, so white needs to reduce all of the problems on the king side.

The best move is to swing the rook to b3, attacking black’s queen and then retreat knight to f3.

After Rb3, the rook will be much safer than it is on g3, and then white can start to develop the rest of the pieces and march forward with the two extra pawns.


Simplify is always the strategy when you are winning, and the way to do that is to trade more pieces and reduce noises.

Now you’ve learn the concept of simplify, it’s time to practice.

Setup a better position and try to play a computer level that is a bit more stronger than you, and see if you can simplify the position to get the full point!

Slow Start and Second Chances

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

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

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Steincamp–Schragin, position after 26. Bb2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21st Fred Sorenson Memorial (2), 25.09.2018

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 8. dxe5

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

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 12…Bxf6

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

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 16. Bd3

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

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

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Variation after 23…Nd4

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

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Schragin–Steincamp, position after 17…Nc5

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.06.13
Schragin–Steincamp, position after 20…Rad8

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.10.28
Variation after 22. R6d2

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.14.24
Variation after 23. Bd1

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.18.53
Schragin–Steincamp, position after 22…bxc6

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.22.20
Schragin–Steincamp, position after 25…Nxe4

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

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

42492196_1899786750330855_1146379285867528192_n.jpg
Glimpse from my over-dressed second round performance (photo credit: Finn Overlie)

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.42.27
Steincamp–Standley, position after 5. g4?!

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.45.48
Steincamp–Standley, position after 16…Nf5

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.50.12
Steincamp–Standley, position after 21…0-0

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.54.03
Steincamp–Standley, position after 42…h5

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 22.58.55
Steincamp–Standley, position after 48. e7+

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

My Favorite Moments from 2018 US Juniors Championship (Part I)

For the second year in a row, I was invited to do commentary for the US Junior and Girls Championships. The tournament has become a staple in the US tournament calendar, especially since it is now being held at the Saint Louis Chess Club and offers quite a nice prize fund along with an invitation to the US and US Women’s Championship to the winners. I really enjoy the tournament because there is less pressure on the commentators unlike in the GCT events, the games are fun and exciting and it’s interesting to watch the young talents in action. It was also fun to see them interacting between the rounds and after the tournament; so many of them are good friends outside of chess! It is also encouraging to see so many young girls around 2300-2400 FIDE, especially for the future of our Olympiad team. The junior section was extremely strong and featured 5 GMs. This list doesn’t include Jefferey Xiong, Sam Sevian and Kayden Troff, all of whom declined their invitations. Can you imagine a national junior tournament that has 8 Grandmasters?! By now I’m sure the readers are aware that Awonder Liang defended his title, thus qualifying to the 2019 US Championship.

This year the commentary team was just me and Robert Hess with no third person on the smart board. Robert really insists on not using the engine which is quite refreshing but also challenging. I noticed that I could remember the games better and figuring out the positions on our own was also a great learning experience for me. Of course, it also resulted in mistakes and mishaps which were later pointed out by YouTube viewers.

For example, in this game between Ruifeng Li and Annie Wang we reached the following position in our analysis:

annie vs ruifeng

In this position we were trying to figure out what to do after 19…Bc6 we tried 20. Qd2 but after Bc7 the queen cannot move away from the d file with check. Of course, simple 20. Qc4+ Kh8 21. Qe6 does the trick!

Later on in the same game, we couldn’t figure out a win by Annie in the following position:

annie vs ruifeng2

The game ended in couple of moves after:  33… Qxe3 34. R5xe3 Rdd1 0-1

I really love the fact that Annie accepted the wildcard to play in the Junior section. Although her result wasn’t spectacular, how often does a player around her rating get the opportunity to play in a tournament with 5 GMs? There is a lot of pressure in playing in these fancy events with live coverage and everyone watching, but at the end of the day it’s just another round robin event for her that I think will tremendously help her growth.

Awonder may have won the tournament but it wasn’t a smooth sailing for the young champ. Trouble came in round 5 in his game against Mika Brattain:

Mika vs Awonder

16. Nfxg5!? interesting sacrifice hxg5 17. h6 Bh8 18. Rh5?! (18. h7+ Kf8 (
18… Kg7 19. Nf6 Nd7 20. Qh3 Kf8 21. Qa3+ Re7 22. Rh5 the game is over after
White takes on g5) 19. Qa3+ Qe7 this line was pointed out by Robert and is
completely winning for White. Black can’t move any of his pieces) 18… Bxe4
19. Qxe4 Nd7 20. Rd3? (20. Bd3 time to finish the development. White can
play for the long term initiative) 20… f5! Awonder shows great resilience
21. exf6 Nxf6 22. Rxg5+ Kf8 23. Rf3 Ke7 brave! The king is completely safe now – great defense and nerves by Awonder! All is well that ends well.

I can’t talk about this event without mentioning one particular player. Alex Bian may not be a household name yet, but the young man had the tournament of his life. He qualified to Junior closed by winning the US Jr. Open and proved that he belonged in the tournament even though he was the lowest rated player. He started the tournament by defeating two GMs and finished with a respectable score of 5/9, gaining 50 FIDE points. Alex will be attending UC Berkeley in the fall and won’t have much time for chess, so this tournament was sort of his one last hurrah.

One of my absolute favorite games of the event is the one between John Burke and Alex Bian. I would suggest to anyone reading this to go take a look at that game and analyze before reading my notes.

BurkvsBian

22. h3 {preparing g4} Qh8! Robert loved this move. Can you blame him? 23.
g4 Kg8 24. Be2 Nc5 25. Kg2 a4 26. b4 Nb3 27. Rd1 Bb2 very brave decision to ignore White’s play and collect pawns on the queen side 28. gxh5 Bxa3 29. hxg6 Bxb4 30. f4 very creative play by both players. White is ignoring the a-pawn and is activating his bishop Bc5 31. Bg4 a3 (31… fxg6 32. Be6+ Kg7 computer suggestion that looks scary but Black can start bringing his rooks to the king side) 32. Rxb3 (32. Qa2 White can also put an end to all this}) 32…a2 33. gxf7+

BurkvsBian2

33…Kf8?? fatal mistake leaving the pawn on f7. The finish is
beautiful (33… Kxf7 34. Bxc5 bxc5 35. Rxb8 Rxb8 36. Qe1 Qb2+ 37. Kh1 Kf8 
according to the engine this is 0.00 but who plays chess like this?) 34. Be6
Qg7+ 35. Kh2 a1=Q 36. Rxa1 Qxa1 37. Bxc5 Ra2 38. Rg3 1-0

I have last track of how many times I have shown Alex’s last round win over Praveen Balakrishnan to my students. It is a great example of how to attack with opposite color bishops.

alexvspraveen

In this position Robert and I were trying to figure out how to launch an
attack for White. The straight forward way doesn’t quite work. 15. Rdg1 Qf3
the queen has to go here to cover f6 (15… Qh3?? 16. Rxg7+ Kxg7 17. Rg1+
Kh8 18. Qg5 threatening mate both on g7 and f6) 16. Qh6 (16. Rxg7+?? Kxg7 17. Rg1+ Kh8 18. Qh6 and there is nothing after the simple Rg8) 16… Bg4 17. Qg5 Rfd8 18. Bc3 h6 very annoying resource! Again, the engine spits this line out but can someone find this over the board? 19. Qxg4? Rd1+ winning the queen

15. Bc5! upon looking deeper into the position it becomes
clear that the bishop on d4 is misplaced. Where would the bishop like to go?
To f6, of course. 15… e3 Praveen collapses immediately. The point of this
move is to play Rfd8, but Rfe8 was necessary to guard the e7 square 16. Qxe3
Rfd8 17. Rdg1 Qd5 Black is looking for counterplay 18. Rxg7+ Kh8 (18… Kxg7
leads to mate 19. Qg5+ Kh8 20. Qf6+ Kg8 21. Rg1+) 19. Rhg1 Bf5 20. Qh6 Qxe5 21. Be7! the bishop is untouchable Rd6 22. Rg8+ 1-0

Although I praised Alex, I have to feature another one of his losses to none other than the winner. Black misplayed in the critical moment, and his opponent was unforgiving.

awondervsalex

13… Be6 Black has snatched a central pawn and plays a normal looking
developing move 14. Be3! taking advantage of the fact that the d4 bishop
cannot move due to the misplaced queen on a6. Now Black has a big decision to
make. Take a pause and think about how to proceed here Bxc4 (14… Bxe3 
is impossible 15. Nxd6+winning the queen) (14… O-O 15. Bxd4 cxd4 16. Qxd4 Black has to accept a worse position) 15. Bxd4 O-O Black hangs on to the material but his king is so weak 16. Bf6 Bxf1 another opposite color bishop position 17. Qd2?! surprisingly, this is an inaccuracy! (17. Qc1! is the more precise continuation d5 18. Bxe7 Rfe8 19. exd5 {and unlike in the game, there is no annoying Qd3 harassing the white queen}) 17… d5 18. Bxe7 Rfe8 19. Bxc5 Bd3 (19… Qd3 is a better defensive try but the endgame doesn’t look good for Black. White can also keep the attack going with Qh6) 20. exd5 Qc4 21. d6 Bf5 (21… Qxc5 22. Qxd3 the d6 pawn is deadly) 22. Bd4 Qd5 23. Qf4 forcing Black’s hand as g4 followed by Qf6 is a threat Re4 24. Rxe4 Qxe4 25. Qxe4 Bxe4 26. Bf6 Bc6 27. Rc1 1-0

Instructive endgame alert! The game between Annie Wang and Alex Bian was a crazy affair, but before reading my notes take a pause and figure out why Annie’s 70.Ke1? loses

AnnievsAlex

70. Ke1? up until now Annie defended meticulously, but got careless with
this move Kb6 Black misses his opportunity (70… Rxb5 unlike in the game,
White is now a temp behind 71. Bxb5 the pawn ending is lost but the problem
is the bishop has nowhere to go (71. Bf3 Rb3 72. Kf2 Rxf3+ same problem as
before 73. Kxf3 Kd4) (71. Be8 Rb8 72. Bf7 Rb7 73. Ba2 Kd4) 71… Kxb5 72. Kf2
Kc5 73. Ke3 Kc4 74. Ke2 Kc3 75. Ke3 h5 {the reserve tempo is key} 76. Ke2 Kc2
77. Ke3 Kd1) 71. Kf1 Rxb5 again, I would suggest pausing here and trying to
figure out a way for White to make a draw. I don’t want to give it away, so check out the rest of the game here.

Let’s end Part I with another Annie game. Advait Patel got a great position against her with the White pieces, but allowed the position to get unnecessarily wild.

adyvsannie

42… Rf8 Annie finds the only defensive move. Now White has to be accurate
43. Qe2 Qf6 threatening Qh4 44. Qxe4 going down a forced line Qf2+ 45. Kh1 Qxg3 46. Qxe6+ Rf7 47. Rc8+ Kh7 (47… Nf8 $4 48. Rxf8+) 48. Qxf7 Qh3+ 49. Kg1 Qxc8 50. Bb2 a practical try for White. Black should have a perpetual but the mate threat and the d6 pawn give White some chances Qg4+ 51. Kf2 Nf4?  this natural looking move fails! Robert and I also only analyzed this move as it makes so much sense: Black brings another piece close to the king and defends g7 (51… Qh4+ 52. Ke3 Qe1+ 53. Kd3 Qd1+ White either has to part ways with the d6 pawn or allow a perpetual. The king can’t escape 54. Ke4  simply loses the bishop Qe2+ 55. Kd5 Qc4# White can even get checkmated if he tries too hard) 52. d7 Qg2+ 53. Ke3 Nd5+ 54. Kd3 now the knight actually gets in the way and the black queen isn’t positioned properly Qg3+ 55. Kc2 Qg2+ 56. Kb1 Qe4+ 57. Ka2 Qc4+ 58. Ka1 1-0 You can also replay the ending here.

Check back in for part 2 of the article where I’ll talk about my favorite moments from the Girls Championship!

The Journey From U1000 to 1500

Going from a new player to 50th percentile in USCF rating (around 700) is about reducing oh-no moments and tactics.

The journey from USCF 700 to 1500 is a path that continues on tactic improvements, but a shift of focus on strategical ideas start to emerge.

In this post, I’ll talk about a few common themes and recommend a Strategy book in the end.

Here are three things I see on the path to 1500

  1. Zero oh-no moments
  2. Activate your pieces
  3. Gain more space

Zero Oh-No Moments

When you start to play in U1000 instead of U400 sections, the oh-no mistakes will be punished swiftly. Opponent’s are stronger, and they don’t give back the gifts that your present to them.

Activate Your Pieces

In U1400 section games, losing a piece in 1-2 moves does not happen often. The result of wins and losses generally occur based on active vs. passive pieces.

U1000_1

White is down a pawn in the diagram above, but is very much in control of the game. Black’s bishop and rook are out of the game, and it’s only a matter of time that white’s attack will bring to fruition.

Practice asking yourself how to improve my pieces, and try to get them to active positions as much as possible in your games.

Gain More Space

The concept of Space is less clear for U800 players, but after a few games of getting squeezed, s/he could sense the pain.

The skill that players need to develop is to build more confidence. The reason many 1000 players are afraid is because they worry if they push too hard, the ‘backyard’ would become empty.

U1000_2In the position above, many players would choose d3 instead of d4.

d3 looks like a safe move and keeping things solid, but d4 is what really showcases white’s development advantage.


Getting to 1500 is a longer journey, and strategic components of the game starts to get more important.

I’d recommend Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Strategies for anyone who are interested to improve their strategy understanding in chess.

Tragedies of a 1900 Rated Player

I thought for today’s article, I’d look back at one of my games from 2014 (and before) where my opponent played particularly well, and I much less so. I thought this would be a fun exercise, as you all will get an opportunity to learn from my positional and strategic mistakes, and I will try to salvage my position four years later. Hopefully, in analyzing these games, you will be able to see some of the shortcomings of a ~1900 rated player, and avoid the very mistakes that made it difficult for me to break 2000!

I want to review a G/60 game I played in the Kingstowne Chess Club against NM Srdjan Darmanovic back in early 2014. At this time, I had yet to break 2000, and my opponent was mid-2200 strength. When I chose this game for this article, I think the first thing that stuck out for me was my lack of a clear plan for development. Let’s take a look:

Darmanovic, Srdjan – Steincamp, Isaac (Kingstowne Action Plus #98, January 2014)

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. d4 O-O 6. h3

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 12.09.46.png
Position after 6. h3

Based on what I know now about King’s Indian Defense theory, I think it’s fair to say that I was out of book at this point. This h3 variation has gotten a lot more popular in recent years, and is considered an important tabiya for any KID player. White pauses development for a move to prevent various …Bg4 ideas Black may have. Taking away this resource from Black makes it difficult to chip away at White’s space advantage, so Black is already at a crossroads.

6…Nbd7 7. Bg5 h6?!

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 12.17.13.png
Position after 7…h6

I don’t think I would have played 6…Nbd7 if I got that position again, but I would certainly not be an advocate for this approach. White’s bishop will find refuge on e3, and will simply target this h6 pawn for the rest of the game. I think in this position I should have asked myself “What do I want to achieve in this position?” or “Does 7…h6 help me achieve anything?”

With …h7-h6 on the board, it’s easy to see how White benefits, but what does Black intend to do now? When playing the KID, it’s critical that Black not waste time or create unnecessary targets. Black starts out the opening by surrendering the center, and giving White lots of space. So here we understand that on principle, this move fails. A quick look in the database shows only only one GM who played this move, and White went on to win (Bareev-Svidler, 1997).

So what’s a more constructive use of time? I think the most common move, 7…e5 proves to be a lot more versatile. While it may feel awkward to self-pin the f6 knight, Black can always play …Qd8-e8.  With this move, Black finally stakes claim in the center with a normal KID position. Black will need to be creative finding a home for the c8-bishop, but Black should be comfortable here.

8. Be3 e5 9. d5 Ne8?

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 12.27.58
Position after 9…Ne8

Too dogmatic! Here I wanted to carry out ….f7-f5 as soon as possible, but I’ve failed to analyze the position for other ideas. For example, after 9…Nc5 10. Nd2 a5, we achieved a position where White stands slightly better, but Black’s pieces are better coordinated:

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 12.30.41.png
Variation after 10…a5

This idea of a forceful …Nc5 followed by …a7-a5 is a powerful one, as it secures an outpost on c5. Should White ever take this knight, Black can recapture with the d-pawn, and bring his f6 knight to d6 via e8. Already, we see the difference in potentiality for Black by comparison. Black hasn’t written off this idea of …f7-f5 yet, but I would have at least been able to place my bishop on d7 to connect my rooks.

10. Qd2 Kh7 11. g4!

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 14.26.04
Position after 11. g4!

And now the short-sightedness of Black’s plan is realized. Up to this point, my set-up has the sole goal of advancing with …f7-f5. Because I’ve given White the luxury of space and much better development, my opponent can afford to “weaken” his king for the time being. This move is not the machine’s top pick, but I think for a G/60 time control, White has a significant advantage.

Black needs to shift focus to the queenside with a move like 11…c6, but I opted for the much worse continuation, 11…f5? 12. gxf5 gxf5 13. exf5 Ndf6 14. Qc2 e4?

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 14.30.46
Position after 14…e4

In this series of moves, I’ve made numerous positional blunders to continue with my plan. 11…f5 allowed White to open up the position, where White clearly stands better. On the other side of the board, I somehow managed to get a superfluous pair of knights on e8 and f6.

Even worse is the more recent strategic sin, 14…e4?. I should have probably forced myself to stop here and look for some plan to salvage the position, but based on my game notes, this came quickly, with thew idea of opening the g7 bishop. Of course, with every pawn move, two squares grow weaker, and here the d4 square is a prime example. My opponent was quick to play – if I had this position as White, I’d say this is fairly automatic too: 15. Nd4 Qe7 16. Ne6 Bxe6 17. fxe6 Kh8

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 14.35.47
Position after 17…Kh8

Visually we see the irreparable damage I’ve brought to my own position. Black has no chance now to be active, and White will simply queenside castle and throw both of his rooks at my king.

The lesson here? Don’t play dogmatically! My play has been influenced by one idea up to this point, but it’s so simple to find ideas outside of the …f7-f5 push. Maybe it’s easier to say this four years later, but perhaps a couple more minutes spent would have yielded more.

White finished the game off quite nicely, but it’s hard to offer anything for Black, so we’ll be moving on. If you want to see the rest of the game, click here.

1900-rated Bonehead Lesson #1: A lot of coaches say focus on concepts in openings over memorization. I think the distinction between that notion and this game was that as Black, I only focused on a singular concept, without adapting to White’s twist on the opening. If you find that the opening you play doesn’t give you that flexibility, you might want to consider looking elsewhere.

1900-rated Bonehead Lesson #2: When things clearly aren’t working slow down and make a plan! In this particular game, this went hand-in-hand with lesson #1, but even beyond the opening, I had several chances to stop and not play …f7-f5 and find other avenues of play.

These things sound really basic for a 1900 to be messing up, don’t they? And they are! What I’ve seen now, four years later, is that when playing sub-2000 opponents, they are susceptible to variations on these kinds of basic planning errors too. Let’s flip the script and I’ll show you what I mean.

In this game, I had Black against a 1900 rated player in the April 2017 First Saturday Tournament in Budapest. My opponent opted for the Scotch, but after a couple moves it became clear he lost his way:

Lukacs, Albert – Steincamp, Isaac (First Saturday Tournament, April 2017)

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d4

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.30.13
Position after 4. d4

Prior to my trip to Europe, I had switched to 1…e5, so I had to prepare quite a bit beforehand. Luckily for us, I have quite extensive post-game notes on this game:

“Admittedly my knowledge of this version of the Scotch is quite limited. All I remember is White usually avoids this line because Black always has …Bf8-b4 and its inconvenient for White”

So – to be fully transparent, at the time I couldn’t quite remember theory here as well. As I include my game notes, compare the thought process from the first game to sense the difference! Out of book does not mean out of luck!

4…exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 6.f3!?

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.34.21.png
Position after 6. f3?!

“I’m on my own here. This seemed dubious, so I thought the simplest
way to play would be for …d7-d5″

And I still don’t like White’s choice – this isn’t really an idea in this line of the Scotch, so my best guess is that White is reacting to the pin on the c3 knight, and didn’t know to play 6. Nxc6, the main line here. Kind of like my move in the last game, …h7-h6, this move can only really help me, the opponent.

I continued with 6…O-O, but as American IM Will Paschall pointed out immediately after the game, I could have just played 6…d5 here with a bit more of an edge.

We played the next sequence of moves reasonably quickly:

7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.Bd3 d5 9.O-O Re8 10.Bg5 Qd6

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.39.45
Position after 10… Qd6

And here I wrote in my notes:

“I sensed here that the position was roughly equal, but I sensed one of three things would happen: 1) my opponent would prove equality, 2) my opponent will give me a position where I play for two results, or 3) he will blunder in just a few moves”

A little abstract – but now that I’ve had this sense in some of my other games, let me attempt to explain:

White’s position doesn’t make sense. Normally, White would take on d5 and try to play against my dark squares, but opening up the position favors Black – thanks in part to the pawn on f3. I have a couple potential plans here – pushing …d5-d4, breaking the center by trading on e4, or sitting and waiting for White to break the tension. I still need to identify which route I want to pursue, but I have options. But where does White play?

For example, if he continues with 11.Bxf6 Qxf6 12.exd5 Bxc3 13.bxc3 cxd5 I can already play for two results – simplifying now only helps me.

Because White’s development doesn’t suggest an obvious plan, I knew that there was already some pressure on him to respond to my ideas before creating his own. Somewhat surprisingly, he collapsed in 12 moves.

11.Re1 d4 12.a3?!

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.47.08
Position after 12. a3?!

“The engine’s best move, though during the game it seemed like an admission of guilt”

My opponent spent 25 minutes here, and to only come up with this move was the sign of a trend in my favor.

After the game, my opponent said that he missed the following attempt to defend:

12.e5!? Rxe5 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Ne4 Qe7

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.49.52.png
Variation after 14…Qe7

“I saw this position – I thought White had some compensation, but believed I could fend it off. Though if White is to prove equality, this is it”

I would need to see a little deeper to confirm my analysis (specifically 16…Bxc3!), but my position is still on the right track. Black has the bishop pair and is certainly for choice. I continued to analyze the line after the game with an engine and came up with: 15.c3 dxc3 16.bxc3 Bxc3! ( 16…Ba5? 17.f4 ) 17.Nxc3 Qc5+ 18.Kf1 Qxc3

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.52.10
Variation after 18…Qxc3

And Black nurses a material advantage. There’s still some work to do, but as I said before, I have gotten a position where I can play for two results.

So, back to the game:

12…dxc3 13.axb4 cxb2 14.Ra3?

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.55.01
Position after 14. Ra3

“The real culprit, the positioning of this rook is particularly unfortunate”

Again, like my 2014 game, White continues to move with a particularly short-sided view. Black not only has the advantage, but gets to dictate the flow of the game.

14…Rb8 15.Qb1 Rxb4 16.Rxa7? Nd5!

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 16.58.59
Position after 16…Nd5

This more or less seals the deal, as the threat of Nc3 is incredibly strong. If 17.exd5 Rxe1+ 18.Qxe1 b1=Q-+ and if 17.Bd2 Qc5+! wins a piece after 18.Kf1 Qxa7 19.Bxb4 Nxb4 20.Qxb2 Nxd3 21.cxd3-+

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 17.01.14
Variation

My opponent tried to save the game with 17.Ra3 but after 17…Qc5+ 18.Kf1 Nc3 19.Rxc3 Qxc3 20.Ke2 Ra4 21.Bd2 Qa3 22.c3 Be6 0-1 As Black’s b-pawn will promote or be traded for copious amounts of material.

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 17.03.14.png
Position after 22…Be6, 0-1

And so just like the first game, the clearest problem was lack of a clear plan! This is not to suggest that ~1900 rated players aren’t capable of coming up with plans, but it should show you the difference in how to carry out a game. It’s incredibly easy to play artificially, or look for the most aesthetically pleasing move, but it’s another thing to have a deep understanding of the position. Notice some key themes for improvement for both games:

  1. Where do my pieces belong?
  2. Why is this move useful? Do the negatives outweigh the positives?
  3. What are my other options?

I think if the losing side in both games had just asked these simple questions – they would have put up a lot more resistance. I think one of the biggest differences between me as a 1900 and me as a 2000+ rated player is that I’ve had to force myself to open my mind and adapt to other options within a position.

What are some other things that helped you break 2000? Any noticeable changes? Let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for our readers trying to cross the hurdle!