Hocus Pocus: What’s Up Pittsburgh?

Just a few weeks after returning from my European Expedition, I’m back here in Pittsburgh for the summer. Since I haven’t been to any tournaments since the Reykjavik Open, I thought for today’s post I would compile a bunch of smaller chess anecdotes from the past week for you all. So … let’s see what happens!

Moving in

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Something tells me this is going to be a fun year….

For some of our older readers, perhaps you remember the hassle of finding a roommate and an apartment during college (or maybe after, I wouldn’t know about that yet…). All the roommate “interviews”, apartment visits, contracts and paperwork – it’s a lot! Luckily, right before I took off in February, fellow Chess^Summit author Beilin Li offered a room in his apartment, and that was that! I’m curious to see what this does for our chess, if anything at all. Needless to say, I think this is going to be a fun year! In just the first few days, we’ve already completed round 2 of the Chess^Summit Challenge, in which Beilin walloped me in bullet, 30-19… I attached the replay below, but seriously, viewer discretion is advised – the number of blunders was disgusting, and so was my ability to manage the clock…

 

Being in Pittsburgh for the summer for my internship is going to make things interesting for my tournament opportunities in the coming months. While I now live across the street from the Pittsburgh Chess Club, I can’t say for sure when my next major open will be. I’m hoping to make National Master before the year comes to a close, but a lot of that will depend on how many more rating points I get from the latter half of my Europe tour (still pending, though it could be as much as 60 rating points!), and how much I can play this summer. Either way, my first tournament game back in the US starts tomorrow night, and I’m pretty excited about seeing how far I’ve come.

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Getting ready for the first day of my intenrship!

Speaking of the Pittsburgh Chess Club, I bumped into a former expert, who after 20 years, was looking to get back into tournament play. After playing a practice game with him, my opponent asked for some advice on what to study from home to get back into shape.

Perhaps this is generalizing, but I think for players in this situation, keeping a 2000+ rating after such a hiatus will feel like having to break 2000 once again. Knowing that this is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my chess “career”, I have quite a few suggestions for getting over the edge – and surprisingly, none of them really require a vast knowledge of opening theory.

Looking back at my own games from before I broke 2000, I think the biggest adjustment was shifting the focus from looking for tactics to looking for positional and strategic resources. This is why I recommend studying pawn structures! Learning how to play with (and against) certain pawn structures can help you dictate various positions, and I would highly recommend Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide by Mauricio Flores Rios. IM John Bartholomew has a glowing review of the book on his Youtube Channel, which you can check here. Of course, this is just the start, but it’s certainly a good one!

Processing Results

Having down time here in Pittsburgh means really trying to understand what worked (and didn’t) in Europe. Of course, my 186 FIDE rating point gain is euphoric, but admiring that alone won’t help me become a stronger player.

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One advantage of playing in Europe is that not every scholastic player has a vastly underrated FIDE rating – this was one of main factors that contributed to my meteoric gain

As I’m analyzing my games in finer detail, I’m learning a lot about how I lose games. With such a great sample of games, I can go a lot more in depth than I did a year ago when I was preparing for the US Junior Open in New Orleans. While I’m not interested in making my over-the-board weaknesses public, I decided to replicate this process on a game I lost last year at the Carolinas Classic, which coincidentally starts in a few weeks in Charlotte.

In this game, I had White against NM Karthik Ramachandran, a former US Junior Open Champion. Even though I lost, I think still to this date, it was my proudest defeat. I think often times with chess, we get so enamored with the result and computer evaluation that we often forget the quality at which a game was played. I really like this game because despite being lower rated, I kept on finding ways to create problems for my opponent – enough so to reach a complicated – but winning – position.

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6…Nh6?! was a surprise, but do you think my opponent expected 10. g4!? Here’s a photo from that second round game!
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Steincamp-Ramachandran, after 24. Rh3?!

This game taught me two things: 1) I needed to work on prophylaxis. As we saw, letting my opponent bring his knight to b4 let him back in the game. Even though I outplayed him once again later, this game may have tipped in my favor if I had taken this resource more seriously. Playing 24. Rh3?! proved to be an instructive point, as my opponent’s persistence started to pay off here.

2) Calculation and Endgames! Of course for our long-time readers, you’ll recall that around this time I was working on my Endgame Essentials series here on the site, which would pay off dividends in New Orleans just a few weeks after this game took place. Even though there were moments where I was clearly moving in the right direction by sacrificing pawns to create passers, there were questionable elements later in the game once time trouble became a factor. These are the kinds of things I look for in my losses (and some draws) for improving, and I would highly encourage this practice for our readers.

With only so much time to study, I’ve dedicated the remainder of my study time to looking at classics, particularly Jose Raul Capablanca. I’ve never put such an emphasis on studying classics, but after having made videos with Kostya in Iceland, I realized one of the biggest deficiencies I had compared to him was an ability to compare top level games to those of my own. While I’ve had some success applying my own games and lessons into my play, it’s about time I turn back the clock and learn from some of the greatest chess players who have ever walked the planet.

Blast from the Past

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Me at my first SuperNationals 12 years ago! I wonder who that guy on the right is?

Before last night, I think this article would have ended here – but let’s not forget that there was a pretty not-so-small tournament in Nashville this past weekend called SuperNationals!

While there were some pretty big names in the top section, I was following a much smaller subplot, the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School Class of 2017. Perhaps I’m a bit biased having been coach of many of the players in this graduating class, but upon the completion of this tournament, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this graduating class is the most accomplished high school chess team you’ve never heard of!

Back in 2014, when this class entered MLWGS as freshmen, I had the pleasure of coaching them as a junior, and watching them win the U1200 National High School Chess Championship in San Diego, California! In just one year, a school with absolutely no past chess tradition was on the map and a local scholastic superpower was born in Richmond.

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The 2014 U1200 National High School Championship winning team (from left to right): Shreya Shetty (assistant coach), Bobby Grayson, Bryan Kaperick, Yang Zhang, Yaoquan Song (sitting), David Normansell, Jeffrey Song (sitting), Matthew Normansell, and myself

Of course, over the next few years, these players all had masive rating jumps – shooting up from sub-1000 ratings to as high as 1750! By the following year, the defending U1200 champs placed 5th in the U1600 section in Columbus, Ohio, another massive triumph for the class of ’17. While I would graduate that spring and leave north for the University of Pittsburgh, the team kept on getting results, as well as giving back to the local scholastic chess community.

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Jeffrey analyzing games at the 2015 Dragon Chess Camp

When I was coaching the team, we set up various chess camps and tournaments for younger scholastic players in Richmond, even managing to bring GM Sergey Erenburg to come out and run a few simultaneous exhibitions for us. Thanks to the dedicated work of the Class of 2017, these programs kept running after I graduated, and in many ways contributed to a “golden age” in chess in Richmond. For the first time in my chess-playing memory, there was chess culture in Richmond, and various elementary schools created chess clubs in the spirit of MLWGS.

It wasn’t always easy. In the weeks leading up to SuperNationals, there was great uncertainty if the team of seniors would be able allowed to compete, given that the tournament conflicted with the rigorous AP exam schedule, and available hotel rooms were already dwindling in single digits. But thank goodness they made it!

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Matthew Normansell, who has had games analyzed here on Chess^Summit, was crowned the K-12 U1900 National Champion!

Despite the team being split over several different fields (K-12 U1900, U1600, U1200, etc), the senior class finished with as loud of a statement as they started.

Even with only three players in the K-12 U1900 section, MLWGS flexed their muscles and took fifth – but the most surprising result was that of Matthew Normansell, as the senior notched an unbeaten 6/7 to claim a tie for first as joint- U1900 national champion!

As I called him last night to congratulate him on his biggest accomplishment to date, he was still in some disbelief. I guess sometimes with these things, they have to happen in order for you to believe they can happen. To Matthew and the rest of the MLWGS Chess Team, you guys should all be really proud of the work you’ve put in these last four years, and the accolades you have all received is a testament to the effort you have all put in. It’s been fun watching you all grow, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing where life takes you all, whether it is on the chess board or not! To any school adminstrators out there, let the efforts of this graduating class show you how having chess is an asset to your school. I have never seen as much accomplished in such a short period time, and it goes without saying that MLWGS Class of 2017’s efforts over the board was able to bring the Richmond community closer over just 64 squares. After all, much of my work with MLWGS led to the creation and inspired mission of Chess^Summit 😀

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Yours truly with much of the MLWGS Chess Team!

And on that note, that’s all I’ve got for this week! When I’m back, I’ll be sharing some of my games from the Abrams Memorial here in Pittsburgh. Fingers crossed I can keep some positive trajectory!

Learning From the Olympiad

When it comes to studying chess games I am still looking at the classics such as Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Rubinstein, Alekhine, my heroes in chess. My attitude has always been if I cannot understand these classic players and their games that I have no chance with today’s young and modern players of the computer generation. That being said, I am always looking to expand myself and the way I look at things – so I decided to tackle the challenge of learning from games that were played in the recently completed 2016 Olympiad in Baku.

After the Olympiad was completed I downloaded the pgn of all the games played from chess24.

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Now I needed a plan to organize how I would study this massive collection. There was a total of 3705 games from the downloaded list. First, I filtered the list by setting the minimum rating of games to be 2300.

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I could have just looked at top games by setting the filter to say 2600 and up, but I thought it would be instructive to see how 2500 players and up defeated their lower rated competition. Next, I set up  pgn files in Chessbase with different themes that I would categorize such as; simple tactics, attacking the weakness, king-hunt attacks, trading into a pawn endgame, bishop vs. knight, rook endings, pawn breakthrough, and winning the won game.

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Of course there are several more topics that I could have made files for, but since this was first time doing this type of study I wanted to keep it simple.

Now the work begins – playing through the massive list of games looking for positions that met my criteria. Once I started doing this it became very addicting! If you read my first article you will remember one of my main ideas of improving your chess is being an active learner vs. being a passive learner. During the Olympiad there was great commentary on every site from chess24, ICC, chess.com, etc…While being entertaining, I would definitely put this in the category of passive learning since you just sit there and enjoy the analysis and ideas of strong players, but you yourself are not putting in any hard work. Doing the above of playing though the games, putting positions that come up in categories, and asking the question why did they play that? (sometimes after every move!) made me feel like I was being an active learner. If I could not figure out the reason behind the move after analyzing I would consult the chess engine only as a LAST resort. Seeing the technique, tactics, and positional play of strong players was very inspiring. At the same time it was also refreshing to see that they are human and are capable of gross blunders as well! Studying this way made it easy to lose track of time – a couple hours would fly by, and I would feel totally exhausted!

Here is one of my favorite examples from my winning the won game file:

Adhiban vs. Pineda

I encourage everyone to give this study method a try! Could be a recent tournament, favorite player, or an event from chess history. Let me know in the comments of any ideas like this you might have on your journey to chess improvement.

Eugene Perelshteyn’s Big Announcement

For today’s video, Grandmaster Eugene Perelshteyn is back to tell you about his new website, ChessOpeningsExplained! You may have heard of his books, Chess Openings for Black Explained and Chess Openings for White Explained, and now they are coming to life online. Before I highlight some of the benefits of a ChessOpeningsExplained Membership, here’s GM Perelshteyn’s video on the importance of a consistent opening repertoire – in this case, the dark square strategy!

As mentioned in the video, becoming a member will not only grant you access to PGN versions of the Chess Openings Explained series, but also a video library with updated theory and high-level games, as well as a forum to ask specific questions you may have about the repertoire. As a bonus, becoming a member will give you a free game analysis code for AskAGM, the sister site of ChessOpeningsExplained, where a Grandmaster will go over any game you submit!

Make sure to check out the site, and let us know what you think!

Engine Shmengine?

Since it’s inception, chess has evolved a great deal with the emergence of computer engines. In fact, many opening variations have fallen out of fashion due to undesirable engine evaluations, and overall, the increasingly detail-oriented nature of chess has led many to be dependent upon the computer, to a fault. In particular, GM’s hold engines to a very high standard, regarding both preparation and self-evaluation. When I was in St. Louis, I met multiple GM’s and caught up with others, including Fabiano Caruana, Alejandro Ramirez, Eric Hansen, and Robin van Kampen. I remember I was at a cafe with them once and Robin explained to me how essential computers are to preparation – in fact it is so important to have a powerful computer that he is linked through a cloud-like program to a computer in Europe. GM’s however are different from us – their mistakes are made in relation to slight nuances in the position, so a computer evaluation is often necessary. But with the vast majority of players under the GM level, mistakes are made based on an understanding (or lack thereof) of seemingly simplistic principles. As such, it is significantly more instructive for these players to look at their games without the use of an engine. In finding your own mistakes and the reasons for which they are mistakes, you can hope to improve your understanding of your faults and avoid similar mistakes in the future. Going through this process helps the principles stick in your memory a great deal more than a quick engine evaluation. Complete dependence on a computer is in a way giving yourself all the answers to the questions you would pose during your analysis. In this case, the common phrase “learn from your mistakes” is applicable; it’s rather hard to learn from being given all the answers.

Here are two of my own games which show the importance of using one’s own analysis before an engine evaluation, the first against Maggie Feng (top girl under the age of 20) and Emily Nguyen (the winner of the 2016 US Girls Closed):

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Ba6 5. Qa4 Be7 (5… Bb7 The mainline,which leads to a slightly different pawn structure. However, the game variation is by no means a serious mistake 6. Bg2 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. O-O O-O 9. Nc3 Be7)

Maggie 1
Position after 5. Qa4

6. Bg2 Bb7 7. O-O O-O 8. Nc3 c5 9. dxc5 bxc5 10. Rd1 d6 (10… Qb6 Possibly a better variation, anticipating the weakness of the d-pawn and preparing to provide support with Rd8 11. Bf4 Rd8)

Maggie 2
Position after 10. Rd1

11. Bf4 Here, just by turning on the engine, one can see that white has a slight advantage after … Qb6. However, taking a look at the position without the use of an engine can facilitate a better understanding of why my next move was a mistake. When looking at any position for the first time, it’s important to identify what the weaknesses are, what the worst-placed piece is, and what your opponents ideas are. In this position, the obvious weakness is on d6. The worst placed piece is not entirely evident yet, but it’s clear black should aim to activate the rooks and get the queen off the d-file. White’s idea is to pressure the d-pawn. But, after paying more attention to this weakness, one can see that white also has a tactical threat with Bxd6 (as played in the game). By going through the process of pinpointing the weaknesses, the worst pieces, and white’s concrete threats, the obvious continuation becomes …Qb6 (eliminating the threat of Bxd6 and preparing to support the d-pawn with the f8 rook). In this case, it is important to analyze the position without the use of an engine, because identifying the reasons for which the mistake was made with  one’s own analysis can help to reinforce positional concepts and prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future.} 11… Nh5?

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Position after 11… Nh5?

 

12. Bxd6 Bxd6 13. Nb5 Bc6 14. Ne1 (14. Qb3!) 14… a6 15. Bxc6 Nxc6 16. Nxd6 Nd4 17. Ne4 Nxe2+ 18. Kf1 Nd4 19. Nxc5 +-

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Final Position

Here, down a pawn and with the more misplaced pieces, I went on to lose the game. 1-0

By conducting my own analysis of this game without the use of an engine, I discovered that by taking a closer look at my opponent’s ideas and my own piece placement, I could have avoided the mistake I made. This is important, as it means that I need practice with prophylactic play.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. g4 h6 7. h3!? Not the mainline, but aiming to get a similar game to the h3 najdorf, which I’ve also played. Nc6 8. Bg2 (8. Be3 +=) 8… d5?! Black would be best advised to just continue developing. After the game continuation, the isolated pawn on d5 becomes a weakness on which I was able to put pressure. (8… Bd7 9. Be3 Ne5 = An equal, but dynamic position)

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Position after 8… d5

9. exd5 Nxd5 10. Nxd5 exd5 11. O-O Be7 12. c3 O-O 13. Be3 Bf6 14. Ne2 Be6

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Position after 14… Be6

A critical position. Here, turning on the engine would show you that white has a solid advantage after Nf4. But again, taking a look at a position with your own eyes and identifying the reasons for a mistake can help to a significantly greater extent in finding the trends in your mistakes and avoiding them in the future. In this position, again, it’s important to first look at the weaknesses, the worst-placed piece, and black’s ideas. The obvious weakness is the isolated pawn on d5. White’s worst-placed piece is not obvious, though the rooks and knight don’t have much of a role yet. Black does not have any apparent threats in the position – most likely to just continue with development. Considering the weakness on d5 however, white’s plan should clearly be to continue putting pressure on it. Therefore, the obvious move appears to be Nf4, activating the knight, and putting additional pressure on the isolated pawn. The game continuation didn’t give up all of the advantage, but it was a positional mistake. By going through the analytical process described, white’s best plan becomes more obvious. 15. f4?! The idea behind this is obvious, but it proves problematic in a few moves; it weakens the kingside and takes away the best square for the knight. (15. Nf4!) 15… Qe7

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Position after 15… Qe7

My next move was a mistake which could have been avoided by carefully looking at my opponent’s ideas and the vulnerability of my own pieces. Black’s last move aims to tactically take advantage of the unprotected Bishop on e3 with …Bxg4. This leaves me with two options; Qd2 to protect the bishop, and Bf2 to avoid the threat altogether. Qd2 was what I played in the game, but by looking more closely at black’s idea, it’s evident that after … Re8, the same threat still stands, and in this case, Bf2 is not longer possible because of the hanging knight on e2. Thus, the prophylactic Bf2 is the best continuation, avoiding any sort of discovered attack down the e-file. 16. Qd2 $6 Rfe8 17. Rf3 d4 18. Bxd4

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Final Position

And the game ended in a draw after several more exchanges, ending in a rook and minor piece endgame. 1/2-1/2

As was the case with the last game, in this game, better awareness and anticipation of my opponent’s ideas in particular could have helped me avoid the mistakes I made. Fortunately for me, this makes a trend fairly obvious, and it’s something I can hone in on to improve.

With new and improved engines constantly being released nowadays, it’s easy to get caught up in relying on the machine. The reality though, is that in looking at your own games, you are your own best evaluator. The process of identifying your own mistakes, the reasons for those mistakes, and practice material to fix your weaknesses makes learning and improving tremendously easier. This task, of course, requires quite a lot of self-discipline – the urge to turn on an engine and simplify the analysis is very tempting at times. But the payoff for doing your own analysis is more than worth the time put into it.

Better Late Than Never

I know of many adults in the world of chess who never seem to be able to reach the 2000+ mark. My questions is why? They are dedicated, very interested in chess, and enjoy the game. So why are they not able to crack the 2000 rating level? I have some theories about this based on my own painful process the past 15 years of chess playing and learning.

First, a little bit about my abstract beginning in chess. My first exposure to chess is drastically different than the young authors at Chess˄Summit. My journey started without the influence and resources that the internet provides today’s young players.

I did not learn how the pieces moved and rules of the game until I was 25 years old, and somehow I have passed the 2000 rating barrier a couple years before my 40th birthday, and believe me – if I can do it, anyone can! My beginning started at a college party where some friends of mine were playing chess on one of those cheap fold up wooden boards where the pieces fit inside. I was instantly drawn to the game and to what they were doing. They explained the game to me in a quick and probably not very instructive way. They just wanted new blood to beat up on! All evening they took turns crushing me and enjoying laughter at my expense. I think most people would have been defeated by introduction to chess, but it only added fuel to my fire. My college friends continued to beat me for a couple of months until I won my first game! Now I was really hooked! Next venue was a famous coffee house in Cleveland Heights Ohio called Arabica where local masters and class players would frequent daily playing speed chess and casual games. This place was heaven! Chess at any time of the day, day or night There was also an IM who frequented the coffee shop and would give dazzling displays of time odd blitz, and often times free lessons to anyone who would listen. The only down side to this place is that this was before the smoking ban, so by the end of the night one could barely see across the room. I played for hours here and started to slowly improve my game. One of the regulars named Ray took me under his wing and tried to show me the tricks of the trade. One thing he would tell me when he would review my games, “You know what I need? A bigger 2×4 to wack you over the head with!” Again, I think this would discourage many players and pound them into submission, but I guess I was a fool for punishment and would always come back for more. The most important lesson from this hazardous beginning was the development and passion for chess and learning . After this I started playing in a Friday night game 30 tournament once a week and have been captivated ever since.

After all these years I think I know how I could have made this journey a little easier and less painful. I knew once I reached 1300 or so that I would like to be 2000 someday. Something about having the number 2 in front of your rating made it seem more official. Looking back, I studied chess in an unorganized manner, and was never consistent on what I did. I would change openings all the time looking for the Holy Grail (no such thing when it comes to chess openings). I would switch chess books all the time without really reading one the entire way through. I would take every persons advice on playing and learning and would become even more confused! Then I met someone who had a love of the game, who enjoyed talking about chess, and more importantly liked to discuss and research ways on how to improve. This friend of mine is also an adult, and yes he conquered the 2000 rating barrier as well. What I took from him that has been and is still helpful is that chess really is just hard work. I needed to become more familiar with simple patterns (please read Vishal Kobla’s excellent articles!), and repeat the same problems over and over until they became part of my DNA. Once I started to do this my chess rating started to climb. We both did John Bain’s Chess Tactics for Students at least 15 times.

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I even cut the problems out, taped them to 3×5 index cards, and would shuffle them each session.

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We both got to the point that we could complete the entire book of 400+ problems in less than 30 minutes. We also did Gilliam’s book, Simple Checkmates over and over as well.

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I ended up taking a long break from chess due to starting a family, only playing 2 tournaments in the past 4 years. As a result, I dropped below my peak rating of 2050 to around 1967. In order to get back in chess shape I have started doing the same study and practice methods mentioned above as I am slowly starting to play more frequently.

I am currently using the massive Laszlo Polgar book of 5,334 problems to solve daily exercises after a conversation I had with GM Jesse Kraai

Polgar

One could take this one book and be busy for years! Every chess player out there eventually comes across this massive black book of chess, but I have never met anyone who has gone through the book. Well that changed after having a great conversation with Jesse. He told me he went through this mammoth book three times! The only thing he did not do was play through the short games at the end of the book. All the mate in 1, 2, and 3’s were completed. I guess it comes as no surprise that he became a GM. He then proceeded to tell me that what he did is nothing! His friend GM Becerra completed the book blindfold! Someone would simply tell him where the pieces were and he would solve the problem in his head. What I have found in doing these mates is it is not about just solving the mates, it is more about seeing how the pieces work together in harmony. The pieces find a way to coordinate and have some nice conversations! Sometimes I have to ask myself how dedicated are we really to improving and becoming stronger players when you hear stories such as these? Most adult players do not commit a fraction of this kind of time to their own self-improvement. One thing I learned more than anything else when talking to strong players is yes, talent is important, but just down and dirty hard work is the real key to chess improvement.

I started to ask some personal questions about my own chess study that some of you might be able to relate to and offer advice.

1.) How much am I learning by passively watching chess videos?

2.) How much am I learning playing countless hours of online chess?

I think online chess has much to offer the developing player if used in moderation and if it does not just become an addiction or an escape from life. There are many other healthier things that we can do besides passively taking in chess information. I have started to take long walks and just think about positions or a game I have played. You can get incredible insight this way.

I have also started writing out analysis in notebooks with just pen and paper, no computers! (see photo)

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It really does not matter if your analysis is wrong, just that you are starting to analyze and get your ideas on paper. This is something else that Jesse Kraai strongly recommended to me during our conversation. I guess the biggest thing is just being fully present when you are studying or playing – there are plenty of other things we can enjoy in life besides tricking ourselves that we are learning or improving our chess by trying to take in the overabundance of chess materials out there! Lastly, I have started to make goals that are not focused on ratings or results such as; 1.) Manage my time, 2.) Relax and eat healthy between rounds, 3.) Play with confidence, 4.) Do not offer or accept draw offers if there is any play at all in the position, etc… By doing this you remove extra external pressure that result goals create. See Isaac Steincamp’s excellent article Reflecting on the 2016 US Junior Open for more about not focusing on result based goals

Here is a link to one of my recent games in the DC Chess League as I make my adventure to getting back into playing chess tournaments more regularly. All of the notes in the game were done without the use of a chess engine. I think this is a great improvement idea to first analyze without the use of a chess engine, and only later to check your analysis with the computer.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2016/8/4/Game1723811625.html

Thank you everyone for taking the time to read my first article! I welcome and appreciate your comments and feedback.

Meeting a new Najdorf

Opening theory in chess is constantly evolving. However, being the stubborn person I am, my personal repertoire has barely changed since I first began playing tournament chess. Never the type to want to learn and understand extensive theory, I relied upon relatively rare lines to throw my opponents off. For example, I have always played 6. h3 against the Najdorf Sicilian, and while this opening worked beautifully in the beginning of my chess career, its efficiency has decreased as the line itself became more well-known and as I reached a higher level of play.

h3 Najdorf
Position after 6.h3

About two weeks ago, I was participating in the US Girls Junior Championship, where ten of the top girls under the age of 20 are invited to play in a round robin tournament. There, I had three games against the Najdorf and while I won two out of the three games, the game where I lost made me realize that with the right preparation, I could easily be outplayed straight from the opening. This realization made it evident that I needed to learn something new against the Najdorf. Upon asking around and researching on my own, I’ve realized that not only has opening theory itself changed, but so has the way in which we acquire opening knowledge.  Recently, grandmasters have been using correspondence games as a source for opening theory. In the annotations for a game between Caruana and Gelfand (which was, in part the inspiration for the subject of this article), Caruana says of his 14th move, “This had been played before by correspondence players. I didn’t fully understand the move, but I figured I should listen to them!”

In looking through correspondence games myself, I found a recurring variation in the Najdorf that seems to be gaining popularity; the 8…h5 variation in the Be3 Najdorf. The variation itself is very suitable for correspondence chess as it entails a lot of positional maneuvering and long-term planning. While I am not the most positional player, I still find the variation appealing due to its constricting nature, as white essentially aims to eliminate black’s counter-play.

 

Najdorf h5
Position after 8…h5

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e5 One of the mainlines — the others being …e6 and …Ng4 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 h5 A trending line nowadays. The obvious goal is to stop white’s king-side expansion; one of the central ideas in the mainline with opposite-side castling. The old mainline is 8…Be7 9. Qd2 O-O 10. O-O-O with white aiming for a king-side attack and black aiming for a queen-side attack (See Anand – Topalov, Stavanger 2013). 9. Qd2 Nbd7 10. Nd5 Bxd5 The more common variation – here white pursues similar goals to the variation with the knight taking instead: 10… Nxd5 11. exd5 Bf5 12. Na5.

Najdorf Na5
Position  after 12. Na5

The idea behind this variation is that white will opt for queen-side expansion with c4, b4, a4, and eventually a break with c5. Black will often opt for central play with an eventual e4 in conjunction with potential king-side play. In this position, the key recent game at the GM level was between Caruana and Nakamura (while Na5 is moved later in this game, it serves as the inspiration for the earlier Na5 line). Here, black has three main options: Be7, Qc7, and Rb8. Against 12…Be7, white should play normally as black is not creating any eminent threats. For 12… Rb8, white should make sure to stop black’s counter-play before developing naturally: 13. a4 Be7 14. Nc4 O-O 15. Be2

Najdorf f4
Position after 18. f4!

With 12… Qc7 13. c4 b6 (13… Be7 14. Rc1 Rc8, although 14…e4 is probably an improvement over the game
continuation (Zakhartsov -Bratus, Voronezh 2008), but white still holds a slight edge after Be2, 0-0, and b4 with the same queen-side expansion.) 14. Nc6 Nb8 15. Nxb8 Rxb8 16. Be2 Be7 (16… g6 Here, a game between two masters: Madl and Gerard, illustrates the queen-side expansion that is essential to white’s opening strategy). 17. O-O Bg6 18. f4! +=

 

Najdorf g4.png
1-0 Jensen – Krivic, ICCF 2014

Now, let’s return to what happens if the bishop takes back: 11. exd5 g6. Here, 11…Qc7 is also possible, to be followed by 12. c4. Should black play 12…g6, white should try to relocate his knight to its ideal square on c6 via c2 and b4. Another possible continuation is 12…a5 13. a4 b6 14. Bd3 g6 15. O-O Bg7. Here, white’s plan deviates as it becomes difficult to pursue queen-side play as black has locked down the b4 and c5 squares. White’s attention thus shifts to the center and king-side:  16. Rae1 O-O 17. Nc1 Nc5 18. Bc2 Na6 19. b3 Nb4 20. Bb1 Na6 21. Ne2 Nd7 22. Bh6 Qd8 23. Nc3 f5 24. Nb5 Nac5 25. Bc2 Qe7 26. Be3 h4 27. g4 (1-0 Jensen,E (2495)-Krivic,D (2528) ICCF 2014). 12. Be2 Bg7 13. O-O b6 14. Rac1 O-O 15. h3 Re8.

Najdorf Rc3
Position after 12. Rc3 +=

Caruana recommends 15…Nh7, but after 
16.c4 f5 17. Bd3 Bf6 18. f4 exf4 19. Bxf4 Be5 20. Bxe5 Nxe5 21. Nd4 Qf6 22. Bb1 Rae8 23. Rc3 
+= White’s knight has two potential squares on c6 and e6 and the queen-side majority yields an advantage. Should black play 15…Qc7, white should focus more on the center and king-side (A worthy game to look into is Jónsson,D (2538)-Magalhães,L (2540) ICCF 2014).

 

16. c3 While 16. c4 might seem more logical, it lacks a future after a5. 16…Kh7 (16…Qc8 17. Kh2 Qc7 18. g4 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 20. Nxc5 bxc5 21. g5 Nd7 22. Bd

Najdorf Qc7.png
Position after 17. Qc7

3 += Black’s bishop is essentially trapped by his own pawns and white has the bishop pair and more space) 17. Rfe1 Qc7 (17…Ng8 is met with 18. g4 Bh6 19. g5 Bg7 20. Bd3 Ne7 21. Be4 Rc8 22. Kh2 with white looking to relocate the knight on b3 and looking for more play on the queen-side) 18. Bf1 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 (19…Qc7 20. a4 Qb7 21. Kh2 e4 22. f4 Rac8 23. Kg1 Ra8 24. c4 Nc5 25. Nd4 Nfd7 26. Qc2 Bxd4 27. Bxd4 a5 28. Re3 Rac8 29. b3 += 

Najdorf b3.png
Position after 29. b3 +=

White has an advantage with the bishop pair and a more favorable pawn structure) 20. Nxc5 bxc5
21. Bc4 e4 22. f4 Nd7 
(22…Ng8 23. Bf2 Rab8 24. b3 f5 25. Be3 Ne7 26. Rb1 a5 27. Red1 While white does not necessarily have an advantage here, his position is easier to play with space, the bishop pair, and a potential break on b4) 23. Bb3 Qb5

Najdorf Bb3.png
Position after 23…Qb5

(23… Rab8 24. Ba4 Red8 25. Rb1 f5 26. Bc6 Qc7 27. Qe2 a5 28. Rec1 += White has a tiny advantage here with better placed pieces, the bishop pair, and a queen-side majority) 24. c4 Qb4 25. Qxb4 cxb4 26. Ba4 Rad8 27. Re2 += In this endgame, white has a small edge and should be trying to play g3, move the king towards the center, place the light-squared bishop on c6 and play for a c5 break. Should …Nc5 happen, which should capture with the dark-squared bishop and then double rooks on the d-file and push through using the d-pawn.

Najdorf final position.png
Final Position

Overall, the …h5 variation poses an interesting problem to white, as he or she must switch strategies from the traditional king-side attack to a more positional game in the center and on the queen-side. In the Nxd5 variation, the knight maneuver Na5 to c4 in conjunction with a4 and queen-side play is essential to white’s strategy. White should also aim to contain black’s central counter-play with a timely f4. In the Bxd5 variation, white’s plans are more long-term and often the queen-side pursuit will not work out, in which case, one must focus one’s attention on the center and king-side. In many variations, white does not necessarily have an advantage, but the bishop pair and extra space provide for easier play and a potential advantage in the transition to the endgame. The variation on the whole contains fascinating positional planning, and has become a line I can’t wait to try in tournament play.

 

 

 

Beating the Maroczy Bind: Taking Advantage of a Misplayed Hand

For today’s post, I wanted to discuss the nature of a critical position of the Maroczy Bind. While I typically don’t share opening ideas, the line I will share today is usually only brandished by amateur-level players, and understanding its nuances will help you combat similar bind positions. Personally, comprehending the nature of such positions was a large part of why I broke 2000, and I hope that you too can reap the benefits of being able to break down such a position.

Before we get too deep analyzing the specific lines of the Maroczy Bind, let’s take a look at the basic pawn structure the opening presents.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 18.56.17

White very visibly enjoys a nice space advantage while Black is rather cramped behind his own structure. With an outpost on d5 for a knight and a potential kingside expansion, White stands well in most middlegame positions. However, Black has trumps of his own too. First, simply by trading pieces, space becomes a non-issue – and with two central pawns – Black can hope to be better in most endgames. Furthermore, if Black can find play on the dark square complex e5-d4-c5, the initiative can quickly shift in his favor.

The decision White has below will be the discussion of today’s article. White can push for an initiative with the standard Bd4-e3, or simplify with Bxg7. For many club players, the latter option is quite attractive as it eliminates Black’s dark squared bishop. In doing so, White hopes to eliminate Black’s dark squared counterplay on the long diagonal.

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However, with every trade, you must not only consider what comes off the board, but what stays on. In this case, White is left with a bad bishop on e2 – boxed in by his own expansion. The first game we’ll look at I covered in a post back in 2014, but I glossed over some important theoretical notes that I think are quite important

Chrisney – Steincamp (Virginia Closed Chess Championships, 2014)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.c4 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Nc3
d6 8.Be2 O-O 9.O-O Bd7?! 10.Rc1

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 19.18.33

A standard move in the Bind but White missed an opportunity to exploit my move order mistake with 10. Nc2!. Black’s plan is to take on d4 and then place the bishop on c6 to pressure e4, so such a move would not only stop my plan but highlight the fact that my bishop is misplaced on d7 in this version of the Nc2 Maroczy.

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Now my bishop really belongs on e6, so at some point, I will need to spend an extra tempo playing …Be6. This theoretical point was battled a week after this game in the US Chess League between Grandmasters Mackenzie Molner and Eugene Perelshteyn. White stands better because Black can’t use the standard plan of …Nf6-d7-c5, so he has time to expand with f2-f4 while Black untangles.

Much better for Black was 10… a5!. This move slows White’s queenside expansion, and if 11. Nc2 Nd7 and we reach a main line position where Black looks to bring his knight to c5 and his bishop to e6.

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That being said, White missed this novelty and we transposed back into a mainline position.

10…Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Bc6

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A thematic idea against the Maroczy Bind as the e4 pawn is hit. While 12. f3 might make this bishop seem bad, it slows a lot of kingside expansion ideas since moving the g-, f-, or e- pawns comes at the cost of weakening White’s own king. With White’s next move, he cements his structure, making his bishop on e2 bad.

12.f3 a5!

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 19.32.35

A strong move, though in an ideal world, it would have already been played. This move secures the c5 square for the f6 knight while limiting White’s queenside expansion. It’s critical that Black insert this move, or he can quickly enter a bad position.

Roughly a year later from this game, I got thrown off in a similar structure, and allowed the push 12. b4! giving White a good game. Though I managed a draw, I got a bad Hedgehog and was lucky to find a well timed …b5 break to secure the result.

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Tang–Steincamp, Washington International (2015)

13.b3 Nd7 14.Kh1

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I like this move from White as it gets the king off the weak dark squares, avoiding …Qd8-b6+ ideas. At the time, this was out of my theoretical preparation, but in all honesty, the structural integrity of the position stays the same, so Black’s plan of controlling the dark squares is still the right idea.

14…Nc5

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 19.06.32

And we’ve reached the critical position for today. In my experience, players rated above 2000 stick with the mainline move 15. Be3, and anyone below that is more likely to consider trading on g7. Since White signaled that he was worried about his king on the dark squares with 14. Kh1, the fact he went for the trade should not come as a surprise.

15.Bxg7 Kxg7 16.Qd4+ Kg8

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So what’s Black’s plan now? In a perfect world, I’m looking for this endgame:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 19.49.29

While White has a bishop, he doesn’t have a minor piece that can control the dark squares. By trading the light squared bishop for White’s knight, I’ve managed to eliminate White’s ability to create counterplay. This is actually a big issue for White, since his counterplay usually stems from Nc3-d5 and c4/e4xd5 to put more pressure on Black.

17.Rfd1 Ne6

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While I was later rewarded for this move, I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as the more thematic 17… Qb6.

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Though self-pinning, Black has two plans with this move. First, I can play Rfc8 before retreating the queen to d8, thus exectuing “Smyslov’s Formation” in getting both of the rooks on the same side as the king.

The more active plan, as diagrammed below is to bring the queen to b4 and march the a-pawn to undermine White’s structure.

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18.Qe3 Qb8

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I recall finding this move, and I think it’s one of the more difficult choices I had to make. With the queen on d8, White threatens e4-e5, breaking Black’s solidarity in the center. The idea of moving to b8 not only evades White’s plan, but prepares …Qb8-a7 with the aim of trading queens or controlling the dark squares. While conecptually this move isn’t too difficult to find, precise calculation is required for the next position.

19.Nd5 Bxd5

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White has three ways to capture, and I had to be sure I was at least equal in all of these lines. White opted for the least challenging option, 20. Rxd5, so we’ll discuss that last.

If 20. cxd5 Nc5 and 21. e5 can be ignored with 21… b5 with an interesting position.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 20.00.46

With the d6-pawn secured, 22. exd6 exd6 will only favor Black, as I’ll be faster in claiming the file. White still has a bad bishop despite the more open position, so Black cannot be dissatisfied.

White will find that the e-pawn is posioned if he tries 20. exd5 thanks to his bishop on e2, as 20… Nc5 21. Qxe7?? Re8 -+ is simply winning a piece.

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So I maintained that I was at least equal with some chances with 18… Qb8.

20.Rxd5

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I was least afraid of this response since it didn’t push me to come up with a positional answer. Now I can execute my idea of …Qb8-a7.

20…Qa7 21.Qd2 =+

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With this move, White cedes the initiative to Black. Now White must always be weary of the queen entering on f2 or e3, as well as potential knight jumps to f4. White could reach equality with 21. Qxa7 Rxa7 22. g3 stopping the …Ne6-f4 fork, and Black’s awkward rook on a7 gives White time to expand with f3-f4.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 20.19.07

Black of course is in no risk of losing, but is very clearly playing for a draw. This is why I believe I would have been better served with the strategic choice 17… Qb6.

21…Rfc8 22.f4 Rc5

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 20.20.45

Still a little cramped, I offered to trade pieces before White has time to activate the light squared bishop. With each trade, White will find it more difficult to secure the dark squares.

23.Rf1 Rxd5 24.Qxd5?

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 20.22.39

This move is strategically losing, as it gives up control of the e3 to the Black queen, which will force a lost endgame for White. Neither pawn capture is really great either, as I have an intermediate …Qa7-d4, and the dark squares will prove too difficult to defend.

24…Qe3 25.Qd3 Qxd3 26.Bxd3 Nd4

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Finally! With the d4 outpost secured, I will play …e7-e5, locking up the position, giving Black the only winning chances. The following moves, while not directly related to the opening strategies are illustrative of the woes of a bad Maroczy endgame. Here the light squared bishop simply neve finds play.

27.Kg1 e5 28.fxe5 dxe5 29.Rf6 Ne6

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A simple move to play, but simply demonstrative of Black’s resources and potential in this position.

30.Kf2 Kg7 31.Rf3 Rd8 32.Re3 Nf4

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With a fair amount of time on my clock, I calculated a forced win for Black from this position. Can you do the same?

33.Be2 Rd2 34.a4 Rb2

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Black has tied down all of the White pieces. The king is stuck protecting g2, the rook is covering the backwards b3 pawn, and the e2 bishop is pinned. As White tries to untangle, he is powerless to stop …Ne6-d4, picking up a pawn at the very least.

35.h3 Ne6 36.Kf1 Nd4 37.Bg4 Rxb3

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Now a pawn down with three isolated weaknesses, White is hopeless to defend the position.

38.Re1 Rb4 39.Bc8 b6 40.Ra1 Rxc4 41.Bb7 Nb3 42.Ra3 Nc5

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Once again, the theme of this game – weak dark squares! Black captured on a4 and got the point a few moves later.

43.Bd5 Rxa4 44.Rf3 f6 0-1

In that game, we saw that slow play doesn’t always favor White, even if Black doesn’t find the most accurate moves. The following game I played a few weeks later, though this time my opponent tried to be more aggressive.

Ling – Steincamp (Kingstowne Chess Festival, 2014)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.c4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Nc3
d6 8.Be2 O-O 9.O-O Bd7?!

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 20.36.25

Remember the refutation? Black should have played 9… a5 because of what resource? Scroll back up to the first game if you need a refresh.

10.Rc1 Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Bc6 12.f3 a5 13.Qd2 Nd7 14.Nd5

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The first break from our earlier game. White executes this thematic idea before resolving the tension between the bishops. In this position I chose to wait with the standard …Nd7-c5 manuever.

14…Nc5 15.Bxg7 Kxg7 16.Qd4+

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White tries to put together a central attack here, but Black has a nice defensive resource. How to punish White?

16…e5!!

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This move is not only forcing, but already wins over the d4 outpost. Without a dark-square bishop, White must make positional concessions if he wishes to stop …Nc5-e6-d4.

17.Qe3 Ne6 18.f4?

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Realizing that he was already statically worse, my opponent panicked with this dynamic push, but tactically it fails.

18…Bxd5 19.cxd5 Nxf4 =+

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Black already has a winning game. For the sake of completion, I’ve included the attack that proved enough to convert.

20.Bd1 Qg5

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Thanks to the threat of …Nh3+ and …Qxg2# White must give up the exchange, and in turn, any chance of saving the game. The resulting position proved rather easy to convert, and I won rather quickly.

In today’s post, we discussed Black’s dark squared strategy if White opts for the inferior Bxg7 lines. With solid manuevering, Black should be able to at least get an equal position, and quickly it’s White that’s left asking questions about how to find play.