On Friday, June 1st, I finished my last exam for school and was ready for a fun weekend of chess: the Chess in Action Swiss in Katy, Texas. While the tournament was rather small, the player pool was quite ideal. Most players in the open section were in the expert rating range, with a few players a bit south of 2000 and one strong master.
Things got off to a good start in Round 1, when I won smoothly as White against one of the lower rated players in the field: Abhiram Chennuru (1822 USCF, 1557 FIDE). After achieving a nice edge out of the opening, my opponent made a tactical blunder in a slightly worse position.
Instead of simply moving his queen somewhere, my opponent played the unfortunate 20…Bd4, allowing the crushing 21.Bh7+ Kh8 22.Bxd4 Qxd4 23.Rad1. White is completely winning because after 23…Qh4 24.Bf5 Black is losing serious material without any sort of compensation. It is worth noting that 20…Ne5 loses to 21.b4 followed by f2-f4, attacking the pinned knight.
In the second round, I was paired against Anh Nhu Nguyen (1934 USCF, 1704 FIDE). I played the early middlegame in a very sloppy fashion and found myself in serious trouble after she seized the initiative on move 18 . However, I managed to complicated matters, and six moves later she erred with 24.Qg3?, allowing me to play 24…g5!
I was delighted at having salvaged a terrible position. The game continued 25.Be3 (25.exf6 gxf4 26.Qc3! is a super strong idea that we both overlooked. White threatens mate with f6-f7, so Black doesn’t have time to save his bishop. 26…Nd7 27.gxf5 Rxf6 +=) 25…Bxe5 26.Bxb6 Qb8 27.Ba7
I recognized that 27…Bxg3 leads to simple equality: 28.Bxb8 Bxb8 29.gxf5 Rxf5 30.Bxa6, with a perfectly acceptable endgame for Black. However, I instead decided to “repeat moves” with 27…Qc7??, only to realize in horror that after 28.Bd4 my queen is no longer protected by my rook and hence the d4 bishop is untouchable. After a couple minutes of checking to make sure that there were no more hidden resources, I resigned in disgust.
After the disappointing Round 2 loss, I was ready to bounce back with a win against my first expert opponent of the tournament, William Fan (2039 USCF, 1840 FIDE). The opening was a definite success after I played the strong 12.d5, which shuts in black’s light-squared bishop for good.
My opponent responded 12…e5 because he recognized that 12…exd5 13.cxd5 Bxd5
(13…Nxd5?? 14.Be4 Rc7 15.Bxd5 Bxd5 16.Bxg7 Rg8 17.Qxh7 +-) 14.e4 Bb7 15.Nc4 +/- offers White tremendous compensation for the pawn as all of his pieces are active and e4-e5 is coming. After 13.Ng5 h6 14.Nge4 (14.Ne6!! was perhaps even stronger, although not quite a knockout blow. 14…fxe6 15.Bg6+ Kf8 16.dxe6 Nb6 17.f4 e4 18.Bxf6 Bxf6 19.Nxe4 +/- White only has two pawns for the piece, but the compensation is overwhelming.) (14.Nxf7 was a move that I had checked, but I rejected it in view of 14…Kxf7 15.Bg6+ Kg8 16.Qf5 White could play something like f2-f4, aiming for compensation, but that does not lead to an easy mate. 16…Nf8 -+) 14…Nxe4 15.Nxe4 O-O 16.Ng3, White’s advantage is overwhelming. The game continued to go in my favor, and I achieved an excellent endgame, which I managed to misplay in epic fashion. However, the final position of this game is most shockingly embarrassing for me in retrospect.
Here my opponent and I agreed to a draw in mutual time pressure, seeing that after the trades on h5 and g2-g3, the position would be equal. However, the rather obvious 40.Nf5 leads to a completely winning position! I still can’t fathom how both of us overlooked this move during the game. It is worth noting that 39…Bc8 instead of 39…Be8 leads to a fortress for Black because White can do nothing active except for shuffle his king around (the knight is tied down to the defense of the h-pawn).
When I went back to the hotel Saturday night with my friend, I knew that I had a lot of reflecting to do. I had played very inconsistently, sometimes calculating precisely while at other times misplaying good positions or simply blundering. My aim was just to “reset” my mind so that I would channel my most focused play on Sunday, the final day of the tournament.
Rounds 4 and 5
The second day of the tournament went much more smoothly for me. I was able to win my round 4 game against Charles Hawthorn (2060 USCF, 1784 FIDE) with the following nice tactic:
26…b5! is the beginning of a tactical combination that exploits the power of the passed pawn. 27.axb5 axb5 28.Bxb5 Rxc1 29.Rxc1 d2 30.Rf1 (30.Rd1 Rxd5 -+ White can’t stop both the threats of …Bf3 and …Bc2, which would pick up the exchange and hence the game.) 30…Bf3! 0-1
In the final round of the tournament I was paired against my previous opponent’s brother, Henry Hawthorn (2049 USCF, 1675 FIDE). This time I had the white pieces and was able to get the type of middlegame position out of the opening that I enjoy playing: calm yet with nagging pressure. After 24.Bg2, it was clear that my opponent was starting to feel uncomfortable as he struggled to find a clear plan while I slowly improved my position.
Ten moves later I was more or less winning:
After 34.Bc1 Bxc1 35.Rxc1, black’s defensive task is close to impossible. The game continued 35…b5 36.Ke3 Bd5 37.Bxe4 (37.c5 +- followed by Bxe4 also wins, although the conversion process would probably take a bit longer.) 37…bxc4 38.Bxd5 exd5 39.bxc4 dxc4 (39…Rxc4 40.Rxc4 dxc4 41.d5 +- is an easily winning king and pawn endgame for White.) 40.Rc3 +-,and my opponent resigned twenty-five moves later.
While I was certainly disappointed with some individual moments from the tournament, such as my blunder in Round 2 and draw in Round 3, the end result was undoubtedly a good one as I gained 19 rating points, moving from 2011 to 2030. However, the overall quality of my play in terms of calculation and intuition was even more pleasantly surprising than the actual end result. I am confident that my play will continue to improve as long as I maintain my current work ethic in the long summer months to come.
The worst feeling in chess is losing a position where you were completely winning. Unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately as we will see!) this problem occurs at essentially all levels of the game from beginners to elite GrandMasters. There is a lot of literature out there on how to convert winning positions and finish off your opponent, but in this article I want to focus on the other side of the coin: When you reach a worse position and are almost lost how can you save it? Or even win?
The idea for this article topic came to me from a game I played at the recently completed Chicago Open. In round 6 I was playing a well established International Master, Michael Mulyar. After a complicated middlegame we reached the following position
I (playing with the black pieces) had sacrificed two pieces for a rook and a pawn, but was quite optimistic about my chances. I thought my pieces were active and white was quite cramped. With my last move 29…Nb5 I was threatening the a3 pawn with dreams of marching my a6 pawn all the way to a1.
My opponent however was unfazed by this and played 30.Qe4! after which I realized that I had grossly misevaluated. Suddenly my pieces are far away from my king and only my lonely bishop on g7 is helping on defense. As a result there is no good way stop the immediate threat of Qe8 along with the ensuing attack.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that I am close to lost (the engine gives over +3 after 30.Qe4!) against a higher rated opponent and also have over half an hour less on the clock to complete the next 10 moves and reach the time control. What should I do? I immediately starting looking for lines that were murky and left counterplay for black. My opponent had played the entire game quickly rapidly and so I was hoping to find something that might require a tough decision from my opponent. I thought to myself “if I can get him frustrated he might make a mistake”. To this end I decided on 30…Be5 to propose a trade of pieces and change the pawn structure. The ensuing moves can be found here, but eventually we reached the following position.
I had reached my goal. The objective evaluation of the position has not really changed, hovering around +3 for white, but I have managed to create a tough decision for my opponent. White has a strong attack and it looks like mate is close, but there does not seem to be anything forced. On the other hand black is offering a queen trade, which if accepted will lead to an ending where white should be winning, but it would take another hour to convert and there are still some practical chances.
After the game my opponent gave the line 37.Bf4 h5 38. Qg5 Nf5 after which there is still no mate (although white maintains a healthy advantage after 39. Bc1) and so rejected it. He also likely didn’t want to trade into an ending due to the reasons explained above and started to get frustrated — white is almost mating and is certainly winning, but can’t find anything concrete.
Not wanting to trade queens and rejecting Bf4 my opponent chose the seemingly logical, 37.g4?. This was the mistake I was hoping for and after 37… Nf5! it is now black who is winning. Suddenly white’s attack is merely an illusion while black has serious threats coming against f2. The game continued 38.Qg5 Rb2 39.Bg7+ (there is no good way to defend f2) 39…Ng7 (and not 39…Kg7?? where 40.Nh5 following by Qd8 is checkmate.) 40.Qh4 h5 where now black is up material with a strong attack. White resigned after a few more moves.
Another example of this type against a strong opponent happened at the infamous 2017 Canadian Closed (infamous due to the events described in this article). I was playing IM (now GM) Aman Hambleton with black in round 6. This was an important point in the tournament as we both had 3/5. Aman was one of the tournament favourites and needed a win to keep 1st place chances alive (1st place would include a spot on Canada’s Olympiad Team and a spot at the 2017 World Cup in addition to prize money), while I was aiming for a score of 6/9 as such a score would grant me the FM title since this was a zonal event (I finished with 5.5/9, just missing my goal). After strong positional play from White we reached the following position.
White is up the exchange for a pawn and pressing, but black is well positioned to defend. He has two bishops and all of the pawns are on the kingside reducing white’s winning chances. Overall black has a tough defensive task ahead, but with accurate play should be able to hold. After a lot of triangulation we reached the following position.
Although the position hasn’t change too much white has managed to pose some small problems for black. If I leave my king on f5 then white threatens to play a timely f4 putting pressure on the 5th rank. Although objectively (i.e if black is careful) this is never a serious threat, it is quite an uncomfortable position to be in especially during time trouble. The possibility of f4 needs to be checked every move and slight changes in the position of white’s rook and black bishops could make an impact. On the other hand if I play 61… Ke6 white can play 62.Bg5 where I must either avoid the bishop trade and give up pressure on h4 freeing up white’s king from its defense or trade on g5. The latter would entail me to lose my two bishops and gives white a more active pawn on g5 where black may have some trouble defending both e5 and g6.
After some thought I realized that Bg5 is not so scary and set a deep trap. For those of you that like problem-solving now would be a good time to stop reading and try to evaluate what happens after 61…Ke6. 62 Bg5. The solution as well as the continuation of the game can be found here.
After several moves we reached the following position:
Comparing this position to the one in the first diagram makes it hard to believe this is even the same game! From a quiet ending where white was pressing we reach a position where black has managed to promote and has a winning position. Here I was excited that I managed to trick such a strong player and relaxed a little. My opponent seemed rattled after the turn of events and after calculating a series of checks where I win his g7 pawn I thought I would have no trouble converting the Q v R. The game continued 71…Qh3+ 72.Kf2 Qf5 where after 73.Ke3 black plays 73…Qf7 and picks up the pawn. My opponent however set a trap for me as well and played 73.Kg3!!. I had completely missed this move as it leaves the rook en prix, but suddenly black has no checks and no way of stopping white from promoting. In fact a move like 73… Qc8 would lose to 74.g8=Q Qxg8 75.Rg4+. The game ended in a draw shortly after 73…Qxe4.
Black is winning, however, in the diagrammed position, but an accurate sequence of checks is needed. After 71…Qh3 which was played in the game, black may not even be winning. Better was 71…Qc1+ 72. Kd3 Qa3+ 73. Kf2 Qb2+ 74. Kf3 Qc3+ 75. Kf2 Qxg7 where we reach the theoretically winning Q v R ending. In the end a draw is not an unjust result given the position in the first diagram, but the turn of events left both sides feeling unhappy with the game.
This just goes to show that even in seemingly dry endings or even with only 5 pieces on the board it is possible to cause problems for your opponents and induce a mistake! What I have learned from these experiences (and from others that did not make this article) is that despite being a game of perfect information, chess is still a psychological and emotional game. It is precisely in situations where we are completely winning or completely losing that our emotions are hardest to control and, in my opinion, is often the reason that even strong players make serious mistakes in good positions and let games slip. As a player in a lost position the best chance to turn things around is to play on these emotions and get your opponent frustrated or needlessly excited — you have nothing to lose! On the other hand it is important for the player in the driving seat to stay as calm as possible without letting his or her emotions get in the way of objective evaluation. This is much easier said than done and in my view is the principal reason behind many “unexplainable” blunders in winning positions. I leave you with an example of a world champion being a victim of this himself. So next time you’re in a worse position dig deep and create tough choices for your opponent — you may just save the game!
If I’m being completely honest with myself, I was pretty demoralized after my performance at the Marshall Chess Club in the build up to the Chicago Open. My opening repertoire was incomplete, and it was pretty clear that my progression had hit a roadblock. With my showing at the Haymarket Memorial last month also not living up to my expectations, I had already made the decision to switch away from the Open to the U2300 section – probably correctly.
Even with the move down, I still felt poorly prepared. Moving from Pittsburgh to my hometown in Richmond took a fair bit of time, and I felt like I still had not addressed key problems from my games in New York. Chess-wise, the start of this summer has been quite frustrating for me. After starting 2018 with strong showings in both the Eastern Open and the Cardinal Open, my studies were forced to come to halt due to my spring semester course-load. Hoping to return with the same momentum I had to start the year, I quickly realized the toll of taking a couple months off of tournament chess had on my calculation and ability to assess positions. Needing to get back into fighting form, much of my preparation for the Chicago Open felt like review, but something was different – training was much more taxing and it took more time. I felt like a shadow of my former self. This Isaac was not going to make National Master any time soon.
Despite a full day onsite to relax and prepare for my first round, my Chicago Open debut brought out all of my insecurities in a quick loss: poor opening play, missed tactics, bad time management. A second round draw only compounded my distress when I mishandled a slight advantage as White against a lower-rated opponent and my poor time management forced me to bail out with a draw before the second time control. Paired on one of the bottom boards with Black, I desperately needed a win to close the second day and give myself some confidence. While my opening could have yielded me an advantage, I incorrectly sacrificed a pawn for no compensation.
Here I did the only thing that I knew could work – play both quickly and solidly, and put pressure on my opponent’s clock – one slip-up and I’m back in the game. My opponent started with 20. Qg4 Bf8 21. Bd4?!:
Back in 2016 when I wrote about winning my first adult tournament ever, a key theme I noticed was how my opponents then weighed checking my king as a better candidate move, simply because it was a check. Upon deeper analysis, I traced back White’s future problems to this move, where my only explanation for 21. Bd4 is that he prioritized this because it “checked” my queen. In just a few moves, my opponent collapsed under time trouble and I somehow emerged with a point.
An undeserved win for sure, but I had clawed my way back to an even score. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins as I left the tournament hall. Notching my first win was a relief, but with four rounds left in the tournament, I knew I needed to be better. I went to sleep telling myself that I needed to play chess that I could be proud of – I had prepared a month for this, I knew I could be better.
Change of Tone, Change of Play
Forcing myself to think more positively was an important first step towards playing better chess. My next round proved to be an incredibly difficult psychological test.
With my opponent’s kingside pawns barreling down the board, I needed to make a decision to change the course of the game. With the previous night’s game still fresh in my memory, I was slow to play 16. Bf3!,sacrificing a pawn for the initiative and the advantage. After 16…Bxf3 17. Rfc1 Ba6 18. Rab1!, Black realized that my idea of b2-b4 is quite strong, and my bishops on f3 and g3 are poised to carve Black’s queenside:
This was a good pawn sacrifice! My opponent put up a lot of resistance, but I gained my material back and got a strong endgame advantage to notch another win. To put it mildly, after three uninspired games of chess, I may have put together one of my best performances of the year!
Now I was really feeling the momentum swing in my favor. With a plus score late into the tournament, I played a Chicago native and promptly got chaos on board:
Here in time trouble I panicked and played 29…Ne2?, which while not losing on its own, puts Black on a very narrow course to get back into the game. Needless to say, I faltered and lost shortly after. What I really liked about this game however was how rich this position is. Sure – the rest of the game is also quite interesting (click here) – but try assessing this position. Black might have some “obvious” candidate moves, but deciding who is better is another story. It took my roommate IM Alex Katz and I about three hours to come to a conclusion after the game (without an engine). If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend setting this position on the board and try analyzing it without an engine. Remember, this isn’t a tactic – just try and evaluate the position.
Honestly I was more proud of the way I played and lost this game than how I played in the first three rounds combined. If I have to lose games, I want to lose them like this.
Next morning I had White against another 2200+ rated opponent, and I wanted to keep the momentum going. Out of an Exchange Slav, I somehow managed this darling position:
White has a slight advantage here, despite Black having the pair of bishops. This game really forced me to ask a lot of the questions pushed in Aagard’s books: What’s my opponent’s plan? What’s my worst placed piece? What are the weaknesses in the position? I don’t want to claim that my idea here is the best possible plan for White, but here I played 13. Nd2, with the idea of playing Bd3-f1-g2 in the future to put more pressure on d5. It took a while, but I finally achieved my set-up since Black has no real active options:
Exhausted from my games and looking a little ahead to my west coast vacation, I decided to take a quick draw in the seventh round to finish on an even score. While I wish I could have my first three games back, I’m really proud of the effort I put into the second half of the tournament – especially considering how demoralized I was going into the event. Yes, I’l have my areas to work on, but watching how the stark effect of a positive mindset change my play, I should be more confident going forward into the summer. I think that this observation can be really instructive for players of all strengths.
That’s not to say that hard work is replaceable with a positive attitude, but if you work hard, own it! During a tournament, don’t get too caught up with your results at a micro-level. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you obsess about every mistake you make, that additional stress could make things even worse. Hard work does not always immediately translate into rating or winning, but it will make you a stronger player.
An old coach of mine asked me once “Do you believe the rating system works?”. If you don’t, then don’t have anything worry about! If you do believe it works, then you should also believe that in the long-run it will reward the right things. So work hard, do the right things, and be proud of the work you do, regardless of result!
As you can see, there are more strategic themes for U1500 then the lower rating groups.
Tactics is still very important for U1500 players. however, the opponents they are playing against will have just as much tactical prowess, therefore learning more strategic knowledge will be advantageous.
Let’s discuss Focus on important targets briefly here.
Many newly-1000 players would play the passive looking move Rab8, protecting the b7-pawn.
For stronger players, b7-pawn here is not important. The main focus now is to activate one or both of black’s rooks.
After scanning the board for 10 seconds or so, a stronger player would immediately see Rad8 and then Rxd2 taking control of the 2nd rank will soon take control of the game.
On the other hand, for the U500 players, even if they did play Rad8, the game may still take a few twist and turns to get to an unknown outcome
To summarize: players at each level should focus and improve on certain themes.
It’s good for newer players to see the the higher-level topics, but it’s much more important to hammer down the fundamentals.
…and just like that, my first tournament of the summer is in the books. Having gained a few points with an even score (+1 =2 -1), I guess it’s fair to say my debut in Chicago turned out respectably. I scored a half-point against a 2400+ rated opponent, and on paper, I was reasonably solid throughout the event. Of course, as with all “big returns” to chess, there were a few things in my play that require improvement.
Now that I’ve gone over my games a few times, I’ve pinpointed a few areas I really want to work on, based on my performance. In today’s post, I wanted to discuss candidate moves and expanding your search. While I don’t think this is my biggest weakness as a chess player right now, there were three different moments this weekend where looking for candidate moves could have helped my play.
Follow along and try to see if you can find the flaws in my calculation!
Looking for All of your Opponent’s Resources
To my opponent’s credit, he had put up a lot of resistance to reach this point, however Black is now winning. After much calculation I pushed 72…h2, believing I had found the winning idea. I had already seen this idea a few moves before, and confirmed that 73. Nd5+ Kd4! -+ just wins for Black, thanks to the threat of queening. My main point was that if 73. Kxh2 Kf2 White can’t be in time to stop the pawn from promoting because …g4-g3 comes with check. I had also calculated 73. Kg2 h1Q+ 74. Kxh1 Kf2 with the same concept.
My calculation had stopped after 75. Nd5 g3, and without a way to stop me from checking the White king on h1, I just assumed that the position was lost. But I missed an incredibly important detail in 76. Nf4!!:
And this would force a draw, thanks to the idea of stalemate! Without a way to take the knight, White is now in time to stop both of the pawns from promoting. Luckily, my opponent missed this idea and basically resigned with 73. Kxg4 h1Q, playing on until mate.
For those of you trying to figure out the correct plan for Black, 72…Ke3 is the simplest. I’ll now push the e-pawn, and White’s king cannot leave because of the pawn on h3. Even if White can sacrifice his knight for the e-pawn, its not enough since Black still has winning material.
This knight sacrifice on f4 was a pretty hard idea to spot, especially a few moves in advance. While my opponent could have definitely put up more resistance, I was busy asking myself the wrong questions: what am I trying to achieve? How do I queen my pawns?
By not thinking about what my opponent is trying to achieve (or rather, what he can achieve), I ruled out 76. Nf4 simply because my pawn on e4 was taking away that square. This is actually a common calculation problem – missing moves because your pieces are already protecting them… look out!
Redefining a Forcing Move
Even though I drew a much higher rated opponent in the second round, I could have done much more with a little more accuracy. In this position, I am completely winning. The king on f8 is extremely weak, and it is only a matter of time before Black’s position falls apart. Here I opted for 17. Qh5, which is strong, but gives Black some time to regroup.
Now I’m sure you might be wondering: hey Isaac, what was wrong with 17. exf4 – isn’t that more immediate? During the game, I wasn’t sure if I liked 17…g4 18. Nf2 Bf5, I knew I was better, but now my f-pawn is in the way of my attack, and f5 is an annoying outpost. So I decided to play the text move instead.
I’m sure at some point you’ve heard the mantra “checks, captures, and threats” at some point in your chess career. While its great for novice players, stronger players need a weaker definition of forcing moves: checks. In this case, both my opponent and I had missed 17. exf4 g4 18. f5!! +-, and now White is completely winning:
Now Black does not have time to take the knight! The h6 pawn is suddenly hit by the c1 bishop, and I’ve cleared the f4 square for my h3 knight. Meanwhile Black is completely underdeveloped and cannot protect his king from danger. Again an easy move to miss, but nonetheless, a great showcase of why breaking basic chess rules can sometimes be beneficial.
Looking Forward One Move Deeper
This one can be difficult, because how do you know when to stop calculating and just make a move? My game against Velikanov gave me one last chance to prove my advantage:
After analyzing 18. exf4 for an extended period of time, I opted for 18. e4, thinking I still had some edge and could extend the game, when in reality, the position already is equal for Black. So what was it about 18. exf4 that wasn’t compelling enough? In the game, I saw the following line (diagram posted below): 18. exf4 Qe8 19. Qxe8 Rxe8 20. fxg5 Bxh3 21. gxh6+ Kg6 22. gxh3 Nxe5
I’m up two pawns, but half of my pawns are h-pawns! This was a little concerning for me, but then I started to see ideas like …Re8-e2, …Ra8-e8 and thought that with Black’s activity I could actually be in a little trouble. I figured I was maybe slightly better, but not enough to have a serious edge.
In our post-mortem, I pretty quickly found the idea 23. Rb1!which is enough to preserve the advantage. By hitting the b7 pawn, Black needs to pay attention to the queenside, giving me time to rook lift: Rb1-b2-g2. And now it is the Black king that is under immediate fire! The power of looking one move deeper can really do a lot to enhance your position!
Admittedly, these were all relatively tough finds, but moments like these are what I pay attention to after each tournament so I know where I can improve. With each of these examples, there was a key theme: stalemate, weak king, development. Building an intuition to weigh these ideas relative to material or pawn structures, can go a long ways towards looking deeper and making better decisions.
My next events are two G/50 tournaments this weekend at the Marshall Chess Club, which will be my last chances to play before the Chicago Open later this month. While I feel a lot better about getting my first tournament out of the way, I know that I’ll need to train harder to be better prepared for the Open section. I guess I’ll have a better idea of where I stand this time next week!