Moving Cities, Moving Focus

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Homemade ramen!

So that’s it for the summer! After spending three months in Washington DC, I’ll be hauling boxes and moving back to Pittsburgh to complete my senior year at Pitt. While I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly ambitious student, I’m actually looking forward to the semester and graduating within a year. Not to mention (and no apologies or remorse here), I like living in Pittsburgh a lot more than Northern Virginia and DC, and I’m going to need that last dose of Pens before I graduate.

Beyond my course load, I’ll have a lot of activities on my agenda: writing articles here, getting the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers prepared for 2019, enhancing my chessTV stream, to name a few. Despite all of the distractions, I have yet to lose sight of my ultimate goal of making National Master, and thought this week would be a great chance to give you guys a check-in on my progress.

Last month, I shared some thoughts on balancing work and chess, and discussed how I’m setting myself a deadline to break 2200. Shortly after publishing the article, I received a lot of positive feedback from you all, more so than any other article I’ve written for Chess^Summit (that’s over 260!). It was incredible to hear how some of you overcame obstacles in your lives to reach various milestones in chess (ratings, committing to playing more often, reading chess literature), and your feedback helped me understand that as I transition to adulthood, I’m not alone in this process and I have a lot to fight for going forward.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been focused on improving my mental toughness to prepare for my next tournament in September. While I feel like I have a lot to work on to reach my best form, I’ve zeroed in on my calculation and endurance because I want to build good habits and routines before my fall semester begins.

Endurance and stamina at the chess board are directly related, and thus I’ve been focused on running a few times a week as the summer comes to a close. Building time in your schedule to exercise is tough, and though I previously managed to squeeze in a jog once a week, I haven’t pushed myself this much athletically since the build up to the 2016 US Junior Open… that’s a long time. Jorn already talked about the direct benefits exercising extensively in his article on Monday, so I’ll just say this:

I think what makes running a unique exercise for chess is that you get test your psychological limits and face them head on. I’m not going to pretend to be a marathon runner or anything here, but when you’re running, there’s almost always a moment where your brain says “that’s enough” or “it’s hot outside, I don’t want to do this” or “maybe tomorrow”, you get the idea. Health precautions aside, fighting your initial instincts to relax and stay indoors is the same kind of psychological opponent you face at the chessboard: you. We actually see this kind of ‘psychological laziness’ all the time, for example, when players stop pushing an advantage to offer a draw, or more commonly, players dismissing a line altogether because it is simply “too complicated”. Running alone won’t fix this problem, but it gives players a chance to isolate this psychological element from chess and really try to beat it head on.

51wzmocps5l-_sx359_bo1204203200_My work with calculation is a lot more concrete in terms of chess development. Per my coach’s recommendation, I’ve been working through Romain Edouard’s Chess Calculation Training book, and while I have yet to read enough of it to make a bonafide recommendation, it’s been a lot of fun using it so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas and patterns lie ahead.

Since we don’t do a lot of tactical work here on Chess^Summit, I thought it would be fun to try something new for today’s article. I’ll post a tactical puzzle and walk through me solving it in “real-time”. As you’re reading this, I’m looking at the position for the first time too. Then, after reaching a satisfactory answer, I’ll reveal the solution and discuss where I could improve from the calculation process. Imagine Jeremy Silman’s Amateur’s Mind (also a great read), but instead of talking to his students, he’s talking to himself – I guess that’s what I’m going for. Let’s begin!

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Rasmussen – Rydstrom, White to Move

Thinking: So off the bat, I really like White’s position. Visually, White has more space and there’s a lot more potential when it comes to piece play. All of White’s pieces look like they are in the best squares, so the logical place to start is forcing moves. I see two that I’ll start out with, and I’ll expand my list after that if I don’t find a satisfactory answer: 24. Nf6+ or 24. Bxf7+. I’ll work through them in this order.

24. Nf6+ forces 24…gxf6 otherwise the queen will be lost. Now that there’s a wide open king, it’s time to look for ways to continue the line. 25. Qh7+ and 25. Qg6+ are the only true forcing moves, and since checking on h7 is not going to work, I’m going to throw it out. 25. Qg6+ on the other hand, is interesting. If Black plays 25…Bg7 26. exf6 comes with mate on the next move since Black can’t defend the bishop or break the pin on f7. So 25..Kh8 is forced. 26. Bf7 threatens mate on g8 and holds the f8 bishop accountable for the h6 pawn to prevent mate, so 26…Bg7 seems forced. We could take the rook on e8, but then we’re down two bishops for a rook!

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Position in my line after 26…Bg7

But I have one other forcing option, 27. exf6, since it once again threatens mate on g7. Black cannot take the pawn since that allows 28. Qxh6#. So 27…Rg8, only move 28. fxg7+ Rxg7 29. Qxh6+ Rh7 30 Qf6+ Rg7 after which my intention was originally to play 31. Re3 (threatening a check on h3), but the bishop is hit on f7, so White needs to be accurate. 31…Qxf7 32. Rh3+ Kg8 33. Qxd8+ Qf8 34. Rh8!+ Kxh8 35. Qxf8+ and White is clearly winning:

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Position after 34. Rh8+, White is winning!

So this was pretty convincing. Black could have diverted from the line by taking on f7 with the queen, but that certainly doesn’t help his cause. Time to look at the other line.

24. Bxf7+. This is also pretty forcing, Black needs to take back to not lose material, so I’m going to analyze 24…Qxf7 before looking at other options like 24…Kxf7. After the Black queen takes, we see that ideas like 25. Ng5 don’t work, thanks to the pawn on h6. So it looks like we have a winner:

24. Nf6+ fxg6 25. Qg6+ Kh8 26. Bxf7 Bg7 27. exf6 Rg8 28. fxg7+ Rxg7 29. Qxh6+ Rh7 30. Qf6+ Rg7 31. Re3 Qxf7 32. Rh3+ Kg8 33. Qxd8+ Qf8 34. Rh8!+ Kxh8 35. Qxf8+

Reading the answer: The answer gives up to 27. exf6+-. For the sake of this article, I checked the engine, and it said I was basically right on, except it gave preference to 31. Rf3 …I’ll explain in a second why. This was a reasonably difficult puzzle because 26. Bxf7 isn’t an obvious move (as compared to Qxf6+ in that position – keep in mind I didn’t put the diagrams until after solving the puzzle!), and psychologically, I had to push myself once I realized my bishop on f7 was hanging after 31. Re3 by not giving up the line entirely.

Take away: On a whole, not too bad on my end. I think my biggest self-criticism here was I needed to find one more resource for Black instead of 31…Qxf7:

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Position after 31…c4

I should have considered this move 31…c4 because it’s the last way for Black to stop Rh3+ thanks to the pin on g2 after 32…Qxh3. Unsurprisingly White is still winning here – 32. Rg3 Qxf7 33. Qxd8+ and there’s a win after 33…Qg8 34. Qh4+ Qh7 35. Qf6

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Position after 35. Qf6 +-

When I saw this, I thought, “if only my f1 rook were on e1!” – and that’s where it all connected. Remember how I said the engine gave preference to 31. Rf3 instead of 31. Re3? This is why! Had I left my rook on e1 instead of rover-ing it via e3, I’d actually have that rook on e1 in this position. I could go back and analyze the same lines, with the difference being 31. Rf3. In this endgame, it really doesn’t matter so much, but this turned out to be a really cool example of comparing moves.

So I guess that’s two takeaways:

  1. Look for tricky ideas for your opponent beyond the most testing lines.
  2. If time permits, compare maneuvering options.

This seems pretty manageable, and it should be. All this process did was help me find where I was subconsciously cutting corners.

As the summer comes to a close, I’ll continue working through these tactics one-by-one to get mentally sharper for this fall’s tournaments. What are you all working on to improve your chess? Let me know in the comments below!

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Streaming with Chess.com

As some of you may know, I host a partnered chess.com stream, Challenger’s Corner (originally named the Steincamp Show), and my audience has since grown quickly within the chess.com community.

Since it’s been a few weeks since I last discussed my stream on Chess^Summit, so I figured this week would be a good opportunity catch you all up on my new show! In this article, I’ll talk a bit about some of the most common chess mistakes I’ve seen, as well as dive into some of the behind the scenes work that goes into running a partnered stream.

Knowing your Audience

For the most part, I had been dabbling with streaming since the conclusion of the PRO Chess League season, sticking to a once a week schedule during the spring semester, and not really investing much time into my channels. However, after doing a hand-and-brain stream with professional streamer MikeySlice, I quickly saw the potential community-building opportunity I had in my own channel and through Chess^Summit:

As I hope you all can tell, when it comes to chess, I really enjoy coaching and making educational materials available online (for free!) for aspiring players. Knowing that chess.com is a big supporter of the work we do here at Chess^Summit, I wanted to create a bridge between the two platforms to help create a more interactive experience for both chess.com players and Chess^Summit readers.

Shortly after my stream with Mikey, I started to revamp my channel making it more searchable and more importantly, visually appealing. You don’t have to be a tech expert to run a Youtube or Twitch channel, but knowing how to use apps like Adobe Photoshop, OBS, and understanding some basic SEO goes a long ways towards promoting your channel. It took a few hours and a couple coffee shop crawls to crank out my base design and re-tag all my videos, but I’m really proud of the end product I’ve put together:

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It’s become interesting for me to watch how important technical skills have become over the last five years in terms of promoting events for the chess community. If you have any interest in organizing online chess events, I’d strongly encourage you to start learning Photoshop now – it’s surprisingly easy, and after taking a 101 class on digital composition back in Pittsburgh, I’m basically self-taught. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun!

So that’s where I am – let’s talk some chess!

Karpov System Falls Short Again

If you’ve been following my chess.com blogs, you’ll know that the Karpov System offers Black a pretty simple set-up:

Last Monday night, I got to use a nice trap to win a piece out of the opening. As I mention in the clip, I’d actually had this position on the board (though somehow missed the tactic!!) in a tournament game years ago against a 1900+ rated player. People really miss this stuff! Since, I’ve used it as a opening trap in a fair number of games on chess.com.

This is a really simple tactic, but it shows how complacent your opponents can be in the opening – even in unfamiliar waters! Moral of the story: always ask what your opponent’s threats are, no matter what stage of the game it is in. Even though my opponent was 1300, I’m pretty sure if I gave him this position as White, he would be able to find the win. The game didn’t last much longer, and you can go through the rest here.

Make sure to remember this one for your own games if you decide to take up the English!

Punishing the Weak King!

I’m not sure why, but a lot of people have tried a particularly odd attack against me: moving the g-pawn in front of their king. While I enjoy getting free attacks against my opponents, it’s time to set a new rule: don’t play g4 if your king is on g1!

So I know what happens now – a bunch of you guys give me brilliant examples of exceptions, and try to prove me wrong. All I’m saying is, if Ben Finegold has a “never play f6” rule, I get to have a “please don’t play g4” rule! Let me try to convince you once, and I’ll get off my high horse:

How did the London System turn into this decisive position? I think the problems for White start in this position:

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White’s position is actually perfectly fine – perhaps not advantageous, but certainly enough for equality.

So why did he play 16. g4 here? If you look at White’s position, the obvious question is: Well this is nice, but what’s next? Because nothing immediately stood out, White probably thought with all of the pieces developed, it’s okay to take some risks. In my personal experience, I find it best to use these moments to identify what your opponent’s motives are rather than exposing yourself. For that reason, I’ll recommend 16. a3, with the simple idea of stopping Black’s thematic Carlsbad pawn structure ideas.

Endgames are Cool too!

I’ve noticed that a lot of my opponents offer me draws as soon as we simplify into endgames. The most memorable was probably this pure knight endgame finish:

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GMChessMaster1209 – Me, position after 40. gxf4

Funnily enough, I actually broke my own rule earlier in this game, in playing 16…g5!. However, this time the purpose was concrete, and was actually the engine’s best move! White offered me a draw in the above position, but I gave him one more test. 40…h5 41. h3? and surprisingly, White is now lost. Thanks to the simplification on the kingside, the game boils down to the superior knight after 41… hxg4 42. hxg4 Kg6 43. Kg2 Kg5 44. Kf3:

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GMChessMaster1209 – Me, position after 44. Kf3

Now if there were no knights on the board, Black would have to move the king away and lose the f4 pawn (and the game), so my job is to defer my move to White. I played 44…Nc4, because White cannot recapture without losing the pawn ending. Knowing that White is limited to moving the knight between b1 and d2, I was able to simply march my knight over to g4 and win.

Even though for a brief moment White had equality, we saw how easy it was for me to take over and win because there were a lot of factors in the position. The key to improving at endgames is simple – practice, practice, practice. Always play for two results and look for your opponent’s weaknesses. In the next example, I use Jonathan Hawkin’s method from Amateur to IM, planning in steps.

As you noticed, even with the pawns all on the kingside, I was able to make the most of my bishop by following these steps:

1) Create a Passed Pawn

2) Activate my King

3) Fix my Opponent’s Pawns on Dark Squares

4) Sacrifice my Bishop to Reach a Forced Win

Abstractly, this sounds difficult, but if you noticed in the video, breaking down this endgame into steps was surprisingly easy – the knight is a really clumsy piece anyways… Don’t be afraid to play out a position you can’t lose!

First Ever Daily Tournament!

As I mentioned before, my stream community on chess.com has grown, thanks in part to our official chess.com club! I’m hoping to integrate content I create here on Chess^Summit with my streams on chess.com, and as regular readers, you are all more than welcome to participate. With nearly 100 active members in just a couple weeks, weekly arenas are becoming a regular event, and now, my channel is introducing our first-ever daily chess tournament!

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Set to start on August 11th, this 3 days/move challenge will kick-off my channel’s off-stream activities. I’ll be playing alongside members of the Challenger’s Corner chess.com club, so if you want to play, make sure you join the club so you can register!

If you haven’t yet, follow me on Twitter (@isaackaito), as I’ll be tweeting some of my best tactics and moments throughout the tournament!

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Don’t have a chess.com account yet? No worries, you can create one here!

My Next stream: Sunday, August 5th at 8PM to 11PM EST

I got bumped from my usual Monday night spot for next week, so I’ll be on this Sunday night for an extra hour to play with all of you!  Make sure to join this weekend’s online extravaganza as the Challenger’s Corner Club puts on its longest arena challenge yet!

Follow me on Twitch to get notifications about when I go live, both on my own channel, and chessTV! 

Better Position != Winning

I don’t get to play Titled Tuesday much on chess.com.

When I do, I always want to make use of the opportunity to brush off some rust and study new opening ideas.

Here is the Full Game Analysis

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To summarize:

I played an interesting opening and got what I wanted out of the opening. In the middle game, I had the tide on my side and would have made small improvements to make it less complicated.

When it turned to the endgame and time scramble, nerves got in the way, and I couldn’t finish off the game.

In the end, mission to brush off rust and study new openings were accomplished for this game, but the result was not satisfactory.


This game helped me to feel even stronger about how blitz can help me improve.

For anyone in the Southeast, CCSCATL will have an in-person Blitz Tourney on Saturday, July 21. Hope to see you there!

Chess Training AI is Closer than We Think

My position just changed from +3.5 to -2.3. I often hear students say after analyzing a position with our silicon friends.

Have you ever wondered what all these numbers mean in the context of a game?

What if there is an English translation of the game analysis from the engines?

With growing AI advancement, the DecodeChess Team is putting the technology together to make translating chess engine language to English a reality.

Stockfish Analysis In English

For players U1500 and especially U1000, looking at the engine analysis feels reading an article in foreign language.

If there’s a brief English notation to go along the engine analysis, the experience of going over the Stockfish analysis will improve tremendously.

Let’s look thru a brief Demo of DecodeChess

Import the game

To get started, we’ll simply import a game using PGN format

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Once the game is imported, users has the option to decode any move during the game.

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After the the Decode: the app will provide a list of recommendation and notations

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We’re still in the early stage of the implementing AI into chess training.

However, with the hard work of DecodeChess team, we’re closer to have novice players utilize top-notch chess engines in a more effective way.

For anyone interested to try out DecodeChess, here is the link to the free trial experience.

 

 

Starting the Summer Strong

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.

Round 1

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.

Me vs. Abhiram Chennuru

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.

Round 2

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!

Anh Nhu Nguyen vs Me #3

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

Anh Nhu Nguyen vs Me #4

 

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.

Round 3

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.

Me vs. William Fan

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.

Me vs. William Fan #2

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:

Charles Hawthorn vs. Me

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.

Me vs. Henry Hawthorn

Ten moves later I was more or less winning:

Me vs. Henry Hawthorn #2

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.

Reflections

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.

Saving Worse Positions

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

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Mulyar-Itkin after 29…Nb5

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.

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Mulyar-Itkin after 36…Kh8

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.

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Hambleton-Itkin after 47.Rb5

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.

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Hambleton-Itkin after 61.Ra5

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:

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Hambleton-Itkin after 71.g7

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!

Language is Everything: Lessons from the Chicago Open

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Attempt #2 at Deep Dish Pizza. Admittedly this one at Lou Malnati’s was a lot better than my first attempt!

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.

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Zheng–Steincamp, position after 19…Nb4

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?!:

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Zheng–Steincamp, position after 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. 

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Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 15…f5

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:

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Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 18. Rab1!

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:

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Kaulule–Steincamp, position after 29. Rg1!

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:

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Steincamp–Karp, position after 12…Rfc8

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:

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Steincamp–Karp, position after 16. Bg2

I have to credit my opponent – despite the nagging pressure for the duration of the game, he proved to be quite resilient, and at the right moment, he found a simplification that forced equality and the game was drawn after I set up an amusing fortress in an opposite colored bishop endgame.

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With a solid tournament showing, I was able to relax. My first In-n-Out in Las Vegas!

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!