Preparing for the Washington International

A couple of weeks ago I made arrangements to play in my first nine-round tournament ever: the 7th Annual Washington International. Even though I will not be able to play in the top section, I am tremendously excited to play in the tournament because nine rounds against approximately equally rated opposition will be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate good form and make serious rating gains. As I do not want to let such an opportunity go to waste, my chess studies in preparation for the tournament have been more focused, intense, and consistent than ever before.

Since the beginning of June, I have split my chess practice into two basic components: tactics/calculation and book study. The calculation practice ensures that I stay sharp and improve my board visualization abilities, whereas consistent book study allows for the acquisition of new concepts that will improve my chess understanding in the long run. While this may seem like a relatively standard training regimen, some of the methods that I have found to be very effective over the course of the past month may not be known to everyone. Allow me to dissect some of my favorite training methods from the month of June:

  1. Timed calculation with a real board: Setting up difficult tactical problems from online tactical training sites on a real board, and then giving myself ten minutes to solve each tactic using a chess clock has helped me tremendously in improving my tactical ability. I believe that the use of a real board and clock significantly enhances the calculation training because it stimulates tournament conditions: better focus due to time constraints and three-dimensional element of tournament chess. It is a good idea to keep some form of a log for tactics as it can be very rewarding to track one’s progress.
  2. Reviewing book material with a chess software: Up until late December of 2017, I would study chess books over the board, moving the pieces as I flipped from page to page. While this seems like a decent method, I found that I would not absorb everything that I studied, and more importantly, I would start to forget old material after only a couple of weeks. This frustrated me because essentially only 10% of what I studied actually aided my improvement in the long run. One day, I ran across a blog post by FM Daniel Barrish. In the post, FM Barrish discussed the technique of plugging chess positions from books along with corresponding analysis into a database software. The point of this technique is not only to exploit the benefits of active learning, but more importantly to create ready-made chess lessons on one’s computer that can easily be reviewed at any point in time after having studied the material. I tried out this technique myself with Artur Yusupov’s book series that I am currently studying, and have found it to be incredibly useful. With periodic review of old lessons on my computer, my recall of material has risen tremendously.
  3. Chess note cards: The idea of chess note cards came to me recently after having used Daniel Barrish’s technique for a while, and I am already starting to experience the benefits. A few weeks ago, I printed out many positions from the exercises in Artur Yusupov’s books and glued them individually onto the front sides of note cards; I then wrote the solutions for each position on the backs of the corresponding note cards, along with the names of the two players and the setting of the game (place and date). By now I have amassed quite a large collection of note cards based on the Yusupov books and am reviewing them periodically. As a result, I am able to recognize positions in my games that reflect certain positions from a Yusupov book, and then apply the same concept that was shown in the book. I highly recommend this method because it is a fantastic form of active learning: writing the solutions on the back of the note cards as well as reviewing them periodically engages the mind actively with the given position.

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Note card review underway!

I apologize for the lack of actual chess content in this blog, but I will be back to playing tournament chess as soon as the Washington International comes along. Stay tuned and until next time!

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Keeping the Foot on the Gas

This week, I’ll be taking a quick break from the Opening Overhaul series to cover a topic that appeared in my most recent tournament last weekend, and I feel it is important enough to write about it now.

The Continental Class Championships were held from June 15-17 in Falls Church, VA.  Fellow Chess^Summit author Isaac was there, too, and he played in the Open Section.  I decided to play in the Expert (U2200) Section because it was my first tournament in a while and I figured I would perform better overall in my own section.  I went into the tournament as the fourth seed in the 3-day section, so I felt that I would have at least two rounds of playing down before the pairings would become a little more muddled.  Indeed, that’s how the games played out, as we will see.

In the first round, I was paired with an opponent I had beat before with White, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the opening in that game.  Thus, prior to this round, I prepared for that same line; such is my luck, as he played something completely different, and I was back to playing a normal game.

Kobla – Al-Hariri, Continental Class Championships, 2018

A standard Italian game out of the opening, there was mostly maneuvering.  By the time the middlegame came around, there were two distinct focus points on the board.  One of those was the pawn fixture on b5 and the tension between the a and b pawns for White and Black, respectively.  The second focus point was the tension in the center after Black got in d5.  Black arguably won both battles there, but I was able to keep the pressure along the central files. Eventually Black tried to trade material in a fancy way but it was ultimately flawed, and I won a piece.  The conversion was a bit shaky, but in the end, I was able to win the first game of the tournament, which is always nice.

Klenoff – Kobla, Continental Class Championships, 2018

In the second game, the middlegame was somewhat rough as my f6 plan became a failed experiment, but I got somewhat lucky by being able to get in d6 and d5, after which a trade of pawns and minor pieces opened up my position a bit and I was able to do some maneuvering to transfer my bad light-squared bishop to the kingside where it would be of use.  At that point, I was able to capitalize, and after White’s queen ventured a bit too far into my position, I was able to gain a few tempi by attacking the queen, allowing me to gain the initiative.  That initiative carried through to the end when I was able to win material and eventually the game.

The 2-0 start was the best I could ask for considering I hadn’t played in a long time and hadn’t even looked at chess, and it also confirmed that playing in my own section was the right decision.  Still, there were games left to play.  In the third round, I was paired up against a high 2100 who had merged in from the 2-day section.  I had no idea what he played so I went in with general preparation.

Kobla – Theiss, Continental Class Championships, 2018

I went for the quick draw for a couple of reasons.  For one, I figured that I should just take the points I get since I was playing a higher rated player.  I also figured that I didn’t want to risk it since it was my first tournament in some time, but I feel like that was the wrong mindset to have because I had already played two games and for the most part that rust would have been gone.  And, obviously this isn’t the mainline of the Sveshnikov for Black so I could have continued with the declining move Bd3, but in all honesty, I had forgotten the correct way to decline the draw, and that was another reason I took the draw.  In hindsight, if I had known the correct line, however, I probably would have played on.  Either way, this draw meant that I had 2.5/3 and just had to prepare for the next morning.

For the fourth round, I was paired against a good friend of mine in Alex Jian, someone I’ve played a number of times in the past.  Many of our previous games have been in the Grunfeld, so for this game, I decided to prepare something one-off.

Jian – Kobla, Continental Class Championships, 2018

This game is definitely the one I want to spend the most time talking about.  To start, my choice of preparation definitely threw my opponent off, as he prepared for something completely different as he told me afterward.  With that upper hand, I was able to equalize early on and soon in the middlegame I was in the driver’s seat.  I was able to increase the pressure as the middlegame went on, but there were a couple points where I could have cashed in that momentum into better endgames or otherwise better position overall, but I missed them or didn’t think highly enough of those opportunities.  Even in the end, I was still better, but I offered a draw feeling like I had done what I could.  In hindsight, I definitely should have pressed, as I could have in the third game as well.  As a result, I finished this round with 3/4.

I took a bye in the last round as I actually went to a concert with my family that night to see U2!

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It was a great performance!

But I digress.  Overall, the lesson to be learned here is that, if given the opportunity, one should always go for wins, even if already at or near the top of the standings.  As world-class players like Carlsen and Caruana have shown, it doesn’t hurt to press a little for wins when already winning a tournament because they can only help you.  When in a better position, if something happens down the road and that advantage is lost, then it is what it is and one can settle for a draw.  But, if that opportunity to go for a win exists, then go for it.  Especially in my fourth round game, there were a number of instances where I could have either cashed in or just played on and seen what would have happened, and if I could have won, it would have been better for me.  In the end, finishing with 3.5/5 gave me a tie for third, but considering that I started out 2/2, there was definitely room for improvement.

Next time, I’ll probably continue to play in my section with the hope of replicating the success I had in this tournament nevertheless.  But, if there’s one thing I’ll do differently, I’ll definitely press for wins when I can.

Surprising a Friend in the Caro-Kann

Hidden under the struggles of a large and Chicago Open is an unusually tense game (from an earlier Chicago tournament) that I narrowly managed to win against my good friend Megan Chen. With some free time at home in Indiana, I suppose now’s a good time to finally put that game to rest, or else Megan will be bothering me throughout next week’s National Open.

In the spirit of my last post, the game shows again, to some extent, openings only matter so much and continually seeking chances even in unpleasant positions can be very useful. This game, in many respects, is unremarkable: I wasn’t having a very good tournament, and certainly didn’t deserve more than a draw (having nursed a rather mediocre endgame for a long time – a product of some subpar plans in the opening).

However, this game in particular occurrs under somewhat special circumstances, Megan and I having known each other for a long time (since before our days of serious chess). The mentality is always interesting for opponents who are very familiar with each others’ specialties (especially for a first encounter). On paper, it must have looked like a fairly one-sided matchup (given the rating difference), but there were a few confounding factors at play. For instance, there is Megan’s exhaustive study of the Caro-Kann, which as you might guess, we both find to be borderline unbreakable. Since I figured Megan had long ago made a thorough analysis of what I play against the Caro, I decided to play a sideline in the Classical (3. Nc3) lines that I hadn’t, and probably won’t, play again.

I’d like to focus on my opening thoughts for a moment. The main line (not just in this line, but in the Caro-Kann) is usually considered to be 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Bd3, where after trades White obtains a developmental advantage against a nonetheless solid setup for Black.

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After 5…Bg6

However, White has a decent sideline in 6. Bc4!?, where White usually tries to harass Black’s light-squared bishop with other pieces. This often takes the form of a trick in which White tries to upset the kingside pawn structure of an unwary Black, e.g. 6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6 8. Nf4 Be7? 9. h4!, threatening to trap the bishop and forcing 9…h6 10. Nxg6 fxg6. Ouch!

However, White can take a totally different path with (6…e6 7. N1e2 Nf6) 8. O-O, which at first glance looks harmless.

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After 8. O-O

However, if Black does nothing, White has the simple plan pushing f2-f4-f5 on the kingside which isn’t exactly pleasant for Black. Fortunately, Black has several reasonable ways to discourage this. One is to distract White on the b8-h2 diagonal as Megan did in the game. Another is to facilitate the trade of light-squared bishops followed by …g6, e.g. 8…Nbd7 9. f4 Nb6 10. Bd3 (10. Bb3 Qd7 prevents f4-f5) 10…Bxd3 11. Qxd3 g6. However, this doesn’t completely rule out f4-f5 as White can still consider pushing the pawn if he’s up for sacrificing a piece. The immediate 12. f5?! is probably a bit speculative (the more methodical plan is 12. b3 followed by Bb2, c2-c4, slower buildup) but White can consider this in several lines, and although it’s not always objectively sound, it’s difficult to tell how dangerous each case will be for Black. After 12. b3, Schandorff (in his Grandmaster Repertoire on the Caro-Kann) already considers 12…Bg7 13. f5! exf5 14. Nxf5 gxf5 15. Ng3! to be effective for White.

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A promising attack for White

However, as is usual when I study openings, I later discovered this was not the most common continuation of this line. Naturally, I was on my own, and didn’t manage to get in f4-f5 fast enough. I got what I thought was a promising position, but my horribly misplaced pawn on f4 caused a lot of trouble later on.

As I mentioned before, I was fortunate to survive a fairly long ending, and eventually swindled a win in the end. But as I’ve said before, these don’t happen out of nowhere – they’re a product of staying focused and watching for chances as they come!

My Summer Warmup

Tonight, the New York International starts, and it’ll be the first in my string of 9-round summer norm tournaments. As a local warmup, I played the Northeast Open last weekend. It turned out to be a big success, though my games did contain a few hiccups. At least I didn’t blunder any rooks this time…

My round 1 game against Daniel Diskin (2091 USCF) was strange. The position was fairly tense and unclear out of the opening, but I came out on top.

Diskin 1

White has a very nice position here. The c-file is all his, black’s pieces are fairly passive, and black won’t be castling anytime soon. With his last move 31… g5, black wants to create counterplay on the kingside. Nevertheless, white has several good options here: 32.Kh1 gets the king off the g-file, 32.Nd2 gets the queen into action… Instead, my move 32.Nc5? was godawful. After 32… Nxc5 33.Rxc5 gxf4 34.gxf4 my opponent played 34… f5! swinging the queen over to the kingside.

Diskin 2

White doesn’t have a trace of an advantage here. Somehow I snuck out… The game went 35.Kh1 Qh7 36.Bb6. I felt that I had to create counterplay against the black king. After 36… Be7 37.Qf3, my opponent arguably made his first slip-up with 37… Kf7?!. Though this is objectively equal, black has to play extremely accurately not to be lost. I went 38.Rc7 Qh4 39.Qf1

Diskin 3

This is the critical position, and my opponent made the losing mistake with 39… Re8?. After 40.Bc5 Kf8 41.Bxe7+ Rxe7 42.Rc8+! Re8 43.Rc3, the h3-pawn is dropping, and there’s nothing black can do about it. Black is just lost, and I went on to win a couple moves later.

What was black’s defense? The threat of 40. Bc5 can be dealt with by going 39…Kg6, but what if 40.Bc5 anyway? 40… Bxc5 41.dxc5 doesn’t look pleasant at all. 40… Bd8 41.Rc6 doesn’t look like fun either. Black, however, has a third move that I completely missed: 40… Bg5!!. If 41.fxg5 Qe4+ 42.Kg1, black actually has forced mate with 42… Rh4!. That’s why white needs to go 41.Rc6! Re8 42.fxg5, after which black has a perpetual. Anyway, this is hard to see, especially in time trouble. After 37… Kf7 the only way out is this 40… Bg5 idea. That isn’t the case after a “normal” move, and that’s why I don’t like 37… Kf7 on general grounds.

That game took quite some work, but I was never in danger of losing. My round 2 game, on the other hand, was a different story. I got an awful position as black against Yefim Treger (2217 USCF).

Treger

Black is a pawn up, but his king is in the center and his development is lagging behind. White has an insane amount of compensation, but somehow I escaped from this nightmare alive. What’s more, I even came out on top! Not quite sure how that happened…

This was sort of a shaky start, but starting with 2/2 is nothing to complain about! My round 3 game against Arslan Otchiyev (2380 USCF) was nice. After sacrificing a pawn for a strong initiative, I accepted my opponent’s defensive exchange sacrifice and continued to play actively after that. After reaching the time control, I was winning, but it took another 34 moves to finish him off. This game really drained a huge amount of energy from me, and I’m glad this wasn’t a morning game. I’ll give you a little puzzle from after the time control:

Otchiyev

Is 47.Qe6 a good idea here? Is it winning? Would you play it? Does white have anything better?

The fire continued into round 4 against Max Lu (2266 USCF). Minus a minor blunder in the opening, everything was okay. Wait, minor blunder? Yeah I’ll show it to you…

Max Lu

Max played 11.Ne5? and after 11… Bb7 I was completely fine. 11.Qg5 is tempting and does look like a strong move, but it fails to 11… Nxc6 12.Qxg7 Ke7! 13.Qxh8 Bb7 14.Qg7 Nxd4!, after which white is in huge trouble. What did we both miss? The answer is at the end of the article.

A few moves down the road, we reached a critical moment.

Max Lu 2

White has grabbed space in the center, and his position looks okay on the surface. 17… e5 will be naturally met with 18.d5, and white is probably just better after that. Another more reasonable plan is to pile up pressure on the d4-pawn, but white will go Nc3-e2 to defend it. What to do? Preventing Nc3-e2 is the key. I correctly played 17… b4! severely restricting the white knight. After all, it is still undeveloped! The game went 18.a3 Qa4! (still restricting the knight) 19.Qe2 Rac8

Max Lu 3

White’s position isn’t fun at all here. Both 20.Nd2 and 20.Rc1 run into 20… Rxd4. What else to do? There’s 20.axb4 Qxa1 21.Nc3 which is sadly white’s best option. After 21… Qxd1 22.Nxd1 axb4, black has two rooks for a queen and is clearly much better. Max decided to go 20.e5 but that didn’t help at all. After 20… Nd5 21.Nd2 Qc2 22.axb4 axb4 23.Qf2 Qxb2, white is just lost.

Going into the last round, I had 4/4, and several players were at 3/4. An epic 9-move draw against GM Sergey Kudrin sealed the deal for me. What’s the conclusion? I’m not really sure. It feels great to win a tournament like this by a full point, but my first two rounds were shaky! My next challenge starts tonight at the New York International. Fingers crossed.

Answers

Round 3 game: Yes, 47.Qe6 is winning, and I did play it, but it isn’t white’s most convincing win—47.Rd3! is a total knockout and takes that honor. After the forced sequence 47… Qxe6 48.dxe6 Bc6 49.Rd6 Bb5 50.e7 Kg7 51.Rxa6 Kf7 52.Rb6, I felt that white was winning, and it turned out to be true. White will advance his king and pawns, and the black e5-pawn will become an endangered species. Once the pawn falls, as it did in the game, white is just winning.

Round 4 game: 11.Ne7! Bb7 12.Nc8!! was white’s powerful shot.

Max Lu 4

This deserves a diagram of its own! 12… Qc7 fails to 13.Bxb7 Qxb7 14.Nd6+, meaning that black has to give up the exchange with 12… Bxc8 13.Bxa8. He’ll have compensation, but he’s clearly much worse. Anyway, don’t feel bad at all if you didn’t see this one. I was completely oblivious to it!

Winning through willpower

Are you watching closely?

Every great chess game consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called, well, the opening. The players show you something ordinary: a Ruy, an English, or — in this case — a Grunfeld. Perhaps you check against the database to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. Of course… it probably is. The second act is called the middlegame. The players take the ordinary something and make it do something extraordinary. Or sometimes they don’t:

PonoCarlsen1.png

Now you’re looking for the reason I’m subjecting you to this very very forced reference… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be… fooled.

Of course, you’re probably not impressed yet. That’s why every chess game has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call… “Magnus Carlsen popping off” (yes, this is the official term):

PonoCarlsen2.png

Ok, why am I showing you this nonsense? Well, every chess player has, at some point, witnessed a game that made a huge impression on them in some way. One of Kasparov’s many tactical melees, Tal’s sacrificial attacks, or Karpov’s positional dominations tend to be popular choices, as do games featuring incredible moves (e.g. Khismatullin’s brilliant 44. Kg1!! against Eljanov) or games with external importance (e.g. world championship-ending queen sacrifices). My formative game, displayed in two compelling images above, features nothing wild, nothing particularly counterintuitive, and was even a rapid (!) game. Yet the game was… magical. From one of the most boring positions you could possibly construct, Carlsen — cleanly (no blundering a rook or anything) — slowly outplayed a player (Ponomariov) known for their endgame ability over the course of 70+ moves!

Now, of course, while Carlsen is an incredible player it’s not like Ponomariov had any business losing this position. Personally, I don’t even think getting from point A to point B was a result of skill difference: rather, Carlsen just wanted to win badly enough that fate forced Ponomariov to comply. In doing so, Carlsen taught me (and us) two things: first, this Carlsen guy is just insane — at least for me, this was the first time I really realized that Carlsen was something special (and this was after he was #1 in the world). But more practically, that pretty much any position is winnable even against the best of opponents, and given that you and I aren’t exactly consistently playing against the best in the world (though if you are and you’re reading this, please sign my forehead) even the most apparently drawn positions are often very much alive.

With just this instance, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that the above was simply a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, but fortunately I’ve come armed with personal examples to convince you otherwise!

LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, FOR MY FIRST TRICK… let’s first set the stage a little. The event is the 2017 US Amateur Team East, one of the (if not the) largest events in the US. My opponent: FM Gregory Markzon, a local player who was about 200 points lower rated than me, but who I grew up playing against with… poor results. After some adventures in the middlegame involving both of us trying to force draws at different points for the match situation, eventually matters clarified to my team being down 2-1, forcing me to break out of a repetition into a losing position, and somehow surviving to the following almost symmetrical position with Black:

Q3vsQ3win.png

Obviously this position is very drawn, but actually things are not quite as simple as they appear. Black’s queen is slightly more centralized than its counterpart, and Black’s king is a single tempo more active than the enemy monarch. The latter is particularly important as it means many pawn endings would be winning for Black, allowing him to break out of potential perpetual checks by parrying with the queen. Thus, Black can at least hope for a situation where he slowly escorts his queen to the a-pawn, somehow corrals it while preserving the b-pawn in the process, then argues that the b-pawn is faster than the kingside connectors. In the game, White didn’t quite appreciate the danger of this idea until Black’s king had already managed to cross the halfway point, by which time some (mild) precision was actually required to survive. But psychologically speaking, going from a basically assured draw to suddenly having to find some accurate moves is often very tricky, and fortunately for us Markzon wasn’t up to the task. After well over 100 moves I managed to collect the match-tying point.

As a slight sidenote, if you take nothing else away from this article: **activate your king in queen endgames!!**. For some reason, basically all players under 2400 or so seem to be unwilling to activate their king and allow the possibility of checks, even when said checks are fairly harmless and can just be blocked. I understand the reluctance to risk blundering pawns to forks, but in general you really do need to play queen endgames like somewhat slower pawn endings (so the same principles apply: how far your pawns are is often more important than how many you have, and king activity is paramount).

Ok, this game wasn’t quite the same thing as Carlsen’s masterclass — there were some clear advantages in my position that made it reasonable to play on (even if the match situation didn’t mandate it). So let’s look at an even more blatant (and recent) example. Here, I am white against FM Arthur Guo, an 11-year-old 2300 who I fully expect to have a title by this time next year. The tournament is the Philadelphia Open, and this is late enough in the tournament that nothing but pride is on the line (we are both well out of money/norm contention. LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, FOR MY SECOND TRICK:

KatzGuo.png

This is about as symmetric a position as you can get, and if anything it can be argued that Black’s pawn structure is better off. But for reasons of personal pride (and annoyance at spoiling a close-to-winning middlegame), I badly wanted to find a way to at least try to press something. Of course, the only way to even pray for this is to engineer a way to get in h4-h5 under favorable circumstances, somehow compromise Black’s pawn structure, and then figure something else out from there, so this was necessarily my plan. In the meantime, I also need to find a way to get my queen onto a safe — but active — square, avoiding queen trades while simultaneously not allowing Black to come up with winning ideas of his own. This requires some dancing: 1. Qd4 Qb6 2. Qa4 Qb4 3. Qa7 Qe7 4. Qa8 Qc5 5. Qb7 Qe7 6. Qc6 Qc7 7. Qa4! (finally a “safe” square!!). This 7-move sequence allows White the time to get in a single tempo, so the “winning” plan becomes clear: use these 7 moves to get in g3, repeat the sequence to get in Kg2, repeat the sequence to get in h4, then finally repeat the sequence to get in h5. Oh, we also have to watch for Qc1-f4 ideas in the meantime. Phew.

In the game, this is more or less what happened, allowing me a glimmer of winning chances (though of course the position is still very drawn):

KatzGuo2.png

Here 1… Nxh5 is impossible due to 2. Qd7!. This forces 1… gxh5, which allows a cute trick: 2. Nd4 Qg5 3. Ne6!? fxe6 4. Qa7+ Nd7 5. Qxd7 when Black’s pawn structure is ruined and there is finally something to play for. Eventually, I was able to collect some of the pawns at the cost of a queen trade, leaving me with a still-drawn N+2 vs. N+1 ending. After some trickery involving a brilliant “bluffing face” (a subject for another day…), I managed to scam a win when Black, deceived by my fake confidence, erroneously resigned in the final position:

KatzGuo3.png

where 1… Nxf8 2. g7 Kf7! forces the draw immediately.

Of course I don’t mean to suggest playing on in every drawn position; sometimes, saving time and energy is the correct practical choice. But what I do suggest is “watching closely”: carefully considering when a position is truly dead vs. when it’s simply not easy to make progress. In particular, even just staying alert and focused throughout these endings where “anything” draws (often, not quite anything!) can earn you an extra half point here and there when your opponent goes to sleep (which is hardly rare). Even if this happens only one in 20 games, that’s an extra 3-4 rating points per event or so on average, which really adds up! Even full point swings are more than possible with such an approach.

AND NOW, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… FOR MY FINAL TRICK, I’LL MAKE THE LAST WORD

Opening Overhaul 2: Grünfeld

Last week, I discussed the London System in the first installment of the Opening Overhaul series.  In that article, I talked about the opening’s characteristic moves, plans for both sides, and some newer ideas that have become popular recently.  That same formula will be used this week in the analysis of the Grünfeld Defense.  

Overview

Although the opening first appeared in a casual game in 1855, the Grünfeld Defense received its name from Ernst Grünfeld, the player who popularized the opening in the 1920s.  In fact, in the first game that he used the opening, he beat future world champion Alexander Alekhine.  Overall, this opening was one of the trademark hypermodern openings at the time due to its lack of adherence to classical principles.  This made for a very dynamic, double-edged opening that procured a large following in a time period filled with traditionalist teachings from the likes of Steinitz and Tarrasch, among others.

The characteristic moves of the Grünfeld are as follows:

  1. d4 Nf6
  2. c4 g6
  3. Nc3 d5

From here, there are a number of continuations that have been tried for both White and black, some of which I will expand upon later.  Additionally, there are a number of possibilities of openings that can transpose into a Grünfeld.  However, overall, this concept of an early challenge to the control of the center (d5 from Black) is the fundamental basis of the Grünfeld Defense.  The general pattern is that White builds up a strong center, and Black tries to break it down with counterplay.

grunfeld1
The characteristic Grünfeld position

The Plans

For White, the typical plans, as aforementioned briefly, revolve around building up a presence in the center.

  1. Pawn center – Many of White’s positions and plans against the Grünfeld are based on a big pawn center, especially after the Exchange Main Line:  1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 where White has pawns on c3, d4, and e4.  With a large pawn center, White gains a lot of space early, especially in the center.  In optimal circumstances, White can continue to push these pawns down the board, often creating a passed pawn while restricting the movement of Black’s pieces.
  2. Quick use of rook on a1 – Much of Black’s early play hinges on the immense pressure that the fianchettoed g7 bishop exerts on the a1-h8 diagonal.  Although the mini-c3-d4 pawn chain is in the way, the rook on a1 is often targeted in many tactical sequences.  Thus, White can benefit from moving the rook to c1 or d1 early, which could help fortify the center as well.
  3. Attacking black’s king – If the pawn center holds up strong, White can sometimes switch focuses and attack the Black king.  This can be accomplished a few different ways, such as with a leading f2-f4-f5 push or even an h2-h4-h5 push.

For Black, the typical plans, as aforementioned briefly, revolve around trying to break down whatever White builds in the center.

  1. Attacking with flank pawns – the c5 and f5 pawns play a crucial role in Black’s attempts to liquidate White’s initial advantage in the center.  The c5 pawn usually exchanges on d4 at some point, transforming the focus on d4 to pieces-only and slightly weakening White’s center in the regard that the d4 pawn no longer has pawn support.  On the other hand, an f5 push from Black almost always forces White to react in the center by either pushing d5 or e5.  This can sometimes give Black more holes to occupy in the center.
  2. Pressure with minor pieces – the minor pieces play a huge role in pressuring the center.  Since the king’s knight is often traded off early (Nf6 – Nxd5 – Nxc3), Black has three minor pieces left, and they all play an integral role.  The g7 bishop obviously targets d4 and pressures the a1-h8 diagonal.  The queen’s knight often sits on c6 and attacks d4, and sometimes moves to influence other squares.  The light-squared bishop often moves to g4 and threatens White’s king’s knight, which usually plays an important role in protecting d4.
  3. Utilizing semi-open files – the c- and d-files are often open or semi-open for Black in the Grünfeld.  Thus, it typically benefits Black to put his rooks on c8 and d8.  In fact, in the exchange main line, Black usually gets his kingside rook to d8 very quickly, which increases the pressure on the center.  Additionally, the White queen is often one of the last pieces moved from its original square, so it behooves Black to place a rook opposite the queen on the d-file.

Games

One of the most important games in the Grünfeld Defense was the very first one, because a significant victory against a very strong player set the bandwagon rolling and led to many players taking up the opening.

Of course, there’s the Game of the Century played between Donald Byrne and Bobby Fischer when he was a mere 13 years old.  While this game technically transposed into a Grünfeld, it is still considered one in the record books, and the ideas used in the middle game are somewhat reminiscent of Grünfeld play anyway.

 

 

I’ve played the Grünfeld throughout my chess career as well, so there are a number of games that I’ve played that could be of interest.  I’ll show one here.

 

 

 

New Ideas

The exchange main line has somewhat decreased in popularity from the White side as Black has different ways to both limit the pressure White’s pawn center creates and create counterplay.  Thus, White has come up with a few different ways of approaching the Grünfeld.  One of these ways is a line that’s become more popular recently.  It goes:

  1. d4 Nf6
  2. c4 g6
  3. Nc3 d5
  4. cxd5 Nxd5
  5. Bd2!?

It’s a rather unorthodox-looking move, but the idea is quite simple.  In normal lines, when Black trades knights on c3, White recaptures with the pawn, which adds temporary support for the d4 pawn but is often negated if Black plays c5, cxd4.  But, in this situation, if Black trades on c3, White can recapture with the bishop, the difference being that the bishop can directly contest Black’s g7 bishop, and the d4 pawn is still protected.  As a result, Black typically doesn’t trade on c3 but rather retreats to b6 when attacked with e4.  This line, therefore, leads to a slightly different type of Grünfeld.

Meanwhile, Black has had some new ideas of his own that have increased in popularity recently.  One of these entails not trading on d4 after playing c5, but rather keeping the tension and at some point playing b6 to just protect the c5 pawn.  The difference in these positions is that Black can still create pressure on d4, but he can also safely move his queen to c7 now since, in the exchange lines, the queen would be in a precarious position on the open c-file.

And, with that said, thanks for reading!  I hope this article provided you with something useful, even if you don’t happen to play the Grünfeld yourself.  Next time, I’ll likely be covering another opening, but I don’t know which one just yet, so I will have to figure that out myself.  See you next time!

Beating Back Opening Trouble at the Chicago Open

May was my biggest month in a long time, as I finally graduated from college after four busy years of math and computer science! In August, I’ll be moving to California to start my tech career, but until then, I’ll have a few months (my first free summer in years) for family, travel, appreciating my Indiana homeland, and, of course, chess. What a better way to start off the last than with one of America’s largest and strongest open tournaments, the Chicago Open?

The 27th Chicago Open, held over this last Memorial Day weekend, easily beats all other contenders for my personal toughest tournament. In the top section, superior competition was all but guaranteed – my 1938 FIDE rating seeded me 8th to last seed (!) in a 128-player field dominated by strong masters, many of them GMs, IMs, and norm seekers. There’s also the question of fatigue over such a long event – in my only other event of this type (the 2017 US Masters), I started off with two wins over IMs in my first four games, only to manage one draw for the rest of the tournament. This time, I was hoping to avoid such a reversal.

But ultimately it was my openings that made me struggle. Of course, I had a general idea of what positions to expect from the openings I played, but the lines I faced in Chicago more varied than I was used to, and revealed that I was woefully underprepared. FM Aaron Jacobson’s descriptions of my positions out of the opening as “ranging from barely playable to completely lost” seems apt, while IM Alexander Katz deemed some of my positions indistinguishable from my ultrabullet games.

The above descriptions may give the impression that I barely made it out of the tournament in one piece. On the contrary, I scored a respectable 4/9 against all higher-rated opposition, for a solid 2174 FIDE/2245 USCF performance. But I’d be lying if I said it was a pleasant process, or that I could see that result coming based on my openings!

Days 1 – 2: Getting on the board

My first game certainly didn’t help my case on openings. I was destroyed by FM David Peng, despite entering a line Isaac had played against me several times in a bullet match a few weeks ago. Despite my play being supposedly theory, the resulting position was rather uncomfortable and I had no conception of the correct plans, making for a rather easy victory for White. My weaknesses were not limited to the opening – in the second round, I navigated a slightly worse opening position to reach an equal ending, but messed that up.

So if my openings were bad, my endgames were bad, and my middlegames were dubious, where did my results come from? The answer may be as simple as resilience. In the past, we’ve talked about how players can be distinguished by how they handle worse positions. Many inferior positions are lost not out of force, but because it’s much easier to make a mistake. Making an opponent work hard for the win in such a situation is useful, because in many positions it’s easy to tell how one side has a clear advantage, but not how they should use it.

I didn’t have to wait very long for a practice opportunity – in Round 3, I got this gem of a position as White right out of the opening.

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Li – Greanias: after 14…Be6

White is clearly much worse, if not completely busted; e3 is permanently weak, and Black has more space and more active pieces while White has no clear plan. In most situations, I wouldn’t waste too much energy trying to save the game, but a third straight loss would have tanked my tournament. Luckily, Black didn’t know what to do either, and proceeded to make rather unhelpful moves, some of them weakening. This eventually made the position equal, but because my initial position was so bad, I didn’t have any real chances to push for more.

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Li – Greanias: after 36…h6

As expected, the game simplified into a drawish ending, but I really needed a win here, so I tried one last trick. Try to see as much as you can before looking at the game continuation – let’s just say that it was not all sound, and my king eventually ended up on d8.

Day 3: Finally some decent opening positions!

Round 4 came and went fairly quickly as I accepted an early draw from NM Gopal Menon (2200 FIDE, 2336 USCF). For the first time in the tournament, my opening went well and I’d achieved a nice advantage in a Closed Sicilian as White.

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Li – Menon: 18…Ne5 1/2-1/2

On move 18, Gopal took a long think, and then offered a draw. In retrospect, I should have played on, with the advantage on the board and on the clock. But my extraordinarily lucky Round 3 win had not made me confident about my play, so I made the safe choice.

Unfortunately, fatigue set in that night, and despite getting a decent position on the Black side of an English (kind of a reversed Bb5 Sicilian), I made a simple oversight on move 19 and never recovered.

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Homa – Li: after 19. Rxe4

My kingside had become a bit exposed as a result of an earlier …g5 and a few exchanges, and moves like Rg4 and h2-h4 are looming. However, White is not without difficulties either; his kingside light squares are weak, and his inferior pawn structure on the queenside provides good counterchances if Black reaches an ending without further weakening the kingside.

Although Black’s position looks difficult, 19…Qe6! is quite effective; Black threatens 20…Qh3 to block h2-h4 for good, and the immediate 20. h4? is met by 20…g4 keeping the kingside closed, with moves like …h5 and …Rf3 to come. Black can’t stop h2-h4 after 20. Qe2 (see the attached game) intending to trade queens on g4, but his resources seem sufficient in the resulting ending.

Unfortunately, after a lot of thought, I decided on 19…Qd7? at the last minute, thinking I might as well leave the queen out of harms way. After 20. h4, I realized why I’d ditched 19…Qd7 in the first place – 20…g4? simply hangs the h6 pawn. White was able to open the kingside to his liking, and eventually won. See the rest of the game.

Day 4: Crush with White, crushed with Black

Day 4 started off with a nice win against NM Damir Studen. I didn’t play the opening very well; Black equalized rather easily despite choosing an inferior variation of the 3. Nf3 Scandinavian.

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Li – Studen: after 15. Rfd1

However, thinking he was out of danger, Black quickly played the natural-looking 15…Rad8? and was surprised by 16. c5! threatening to win the dark-squared bishop with 17. a3. 16…Rc8 was probably best, but White has several advantageous options, such as 17. Nd2 (going for d6, probably gaining the bishop pair) and 17. Bd6 which also looks uncomfortable for Black. Instead, Black accelerated his defeat with 16…Bxf3? 17. Bxf3 Rc8 18. Rd3!, when the threat of Rd3-b3 is a big problem. Black is always a step behind, and I finally cashed in about 10 moves later.

Unfortunately, in Round 7 it was back to opening trouble. Like in my early games, I was again nearly lost out of the opening. I had my chances later, but got into severe time trouble around move 25, giving White a winning attack. Instead, White traded into a much better, but tricky ending, and when both of us fell low in the second time control, I managed to swindle into a drawn ending.

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Posthuma – Li: after 60. Rb4

Instead of the obvious 60…Kg4 drawing after 61. Ke4 g5!, I played 60…Kg3 and after 61. Ke4 h5?! (61…g6) 62. Kf5 h4?? 63. Rb3+ my king was cut off along the 3rd rank, giving White the h4-pawn and the game. Throwing the game away like that was unfortunate, but I definitely came a lot closer to holding than I deserved to. See here for the game.

Day 5: Finishing strong

Round 8 started off rather unpleasantly, as I got the following position out of the opening, as White. Reasonably-prepared players probably shouldn’t find themselves in these situations as White, but anyway… no time to worry about that yet.

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Li – Chen: after 18…cxd5

Black’s superior center and White’s f5-pawn are a source of worry. On the other hand, Black’s weaknesses on b7 and f7 require some attention. Once again, the position looks difficult, but resilience goes a long way; the key for White is to keep Black tied down to b7 and f7, because until those are resolved, Black cannot immediately advance his center or grab White’s weak f5-pawn. As the game progressed, Black eventually got in his …d5-d4 and I fell into time trouble, but Black’s kingside provided enough counterchances for me escape unscathed into the second time control, and we drew a few moves later. See here for the rest of the game.

The last round had a rather lethargic feel to it, as many players without prize or norm chances are dropping out or making quick draws out of inertia. I was barely awake, but determined to make the last game count, even as Black. This was a fairly smooth win, except for one slip-up in the middle. My opponent and I both missed a strong, but not so obvious piece sacrifice; she attempted the same sacrifice two moves later but it was not nearly as good, and I consolidated without too much trouble.


This last win brought me to 4/9, which was good for a 15-point USCF gain and 40-point FIDE gain. I had gone into the tournament thinking an even score would be really good, so this is certainly a solid result. Nevertheless, I will be sure to catch up on my openings so I don’t subject myself to these unpleasant experiences again.

I’m planning to play next at the National Open in Las Vegas. This is a big event with a lot of great side events, so it should be a lot of fun!