The 2017 US Women’s Chess Championship- A Player’s View

Hi everyone! I had recently just finished playing in the US Women’s Chess Championship held in St. Louis during March 27-April 10. For those of you who follow chess news, you may know that this tournament, held with the US Chess Championship, is highly publicized. Therefore, many of you have probably already read recaps about them on Chess.com or on US Chess. That is why I feel it would be redundant to simply go over popular tactics, blunders, or shocking opening moves from both tournaments as numerous articles about them have been published already. Instead, I want to share with you all a different perspective of the championships from a player’s point of view.

Before I start, I would like to congratulate both GM Wesley So and WGM Sabrina Foisor, the 2017 US Chess Champion and 2017 US Women’s Chess Champion!

This is the most unique chess tournament I have ever participated in, in my life. I have never played in tournaments with as much coverage as this tournament before. There is live coverage, online commentary, live commentary, media stories, and so much more. It doesn’t seem like it may be that much, from the spectator’s view, but for me it was overwhelming. With only 12 players in each tournament, there isn’t a wide range of people to be focused on. There are only six games each round. And in each game, each move would be picked apart, analyzed, scorned, admired. This year was my third time participating in this event. And every year, it gets slightly easier for me to play from the gained experience I had from the year before. But I, personally, still felt the nerves and pressure from playing in such a major tournament. I know what most people say and would think about this: Don’t worry about all that… Focus on the chess! Trust me, I get that, but it is much easier said than done.

Let’s start with the first year I went (After I finished writing this article I realized I went kind of off topic but now you get the ‘whole’ story). In the 2015 US Women’s Chess Championship, I was a wildcard competitor. I was fresh out of winning my World Youth gold medal and had high expectations. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what led me to inevitably have one of the worst tournaments of my life. Well, to be honest there are a multitude of other variables, like the fact that I was definitely not prepared up to my full potential, but what I said before made up a healthy amount. See, this was my thought process. I was a newbie. I can play good chess (sometimes). I have potential. Plus… I was a FREAKING WORLD CHAMPION! You see, I thought that this tournament was my chance to make a dramatic entrance. It could have been like one of those classic sports movies everyone loves where the underdog beats the champions. I mean, dream big right? I’m guessing, now, that some of you must be thinking that I got cocky and overconfident. That I wasn’t careful. But, in fact, the opposite arised. I got too careful. It was because the nerves got to me.

The first game was a strange wake up call that never actually woke me up. I was paired with White against WGM Anna Sharevich. It started off okay and I managed to get a winning position after a few misjudged sacrifices from my opponent. Unfortunately, later on I succumbed to time pressure and lost. And… that was that. WRONG! See what happened was on every single move I could literally hear my heart pounding. On every single move I looked at every single variation I could possibly physically see and then looked over every variation over and over and over and over again until I simply ran out of time. It’s funny to me now, that the real reason I lost the game was because I was so terrified to make a mistake. But I knew then that people were watching, and what they could be saying. And for the rest of the tournament, I boarded a one-way train to blunderville. I ended up tying for last place and scoring 2.5/11. However, I did learn valuable cliches like confidence (but don’t be too confident), hardwork (preparation), etc.

Anyways, the 2016 Championships went a lot more smoothly mentally. There were definitely some major mistakes I made during the tournament, but overall, it was much better than my disastrous 2015 Championships.

And that brings us back to 2017! I definitely improved my game skill-wise over the last two years and I had no pressure. Before the tournament, I was placed by rating somewhere in the bottom half of the pack. All I had to do was go ahead and play normal games. Well… normal, yeah, that totally didn’t happen. Observe my statement above, that I didn’t have any pressure, well that was pretty much a blatant lie. I wasn’t supposed to have any, but it is incredibly hard to forget about the outside world and only on the game when there is a camera two feet away from the board. And because my mind was on that camera half the time, I made some VERY strange choices in my games.

Here is a position in my round 8 game against WGM Tatev Abrahamyan. I was black in this position and had maybe a minute or so left. White had just moved 51. Re1. Take note that black was previously completely lost before the game suddenly turned around.

Black to move. How would you play?

7

The correct move here is 51… b2! Yes, I know that that is the most obvious move here, but it is the bold considering that black is ignoring the dangerous threat the white rooks made. After 52. Rhxe6+ Kd8 53. Re8+ Kc7 54. R1e7+ ( 54. R8e7+ Kb6 55. R7e6+ Rc6! and black promotes one of the pawns the next move) Kb6 55. Rb8+ Kc6! This is the critical move. It disrupts the coordination beteween the white pieces (Over the board, my brief analysis ignored this strange move because it walks into a skewer and instead looked at the king hiding along the a-file. That would not work because black will end up losing since the king will end up getting checkmated by checks on the e-file followed by a bishop check.) If 56. Bf3+ Kd6 and white suddenly has no checks left. If 56. Bf3+ Kd6 and white again, doesn’t have any checks left. If 56. Rc8+ Kd6 and one of the pawns will promote. Therefore 51…b2! is winning.

In the game, I played 51… c1?. I knew that after this move the game will end up in a draw. However, I was not entirely confident about the position after 51… b2!. If I had five minutes I would have played it for sure, but my opponent and I were both out of time and I decided not to risk it. It was an incredibly hard decision to make and I think how I played the tournament so far affected my decision. I decided that I needed every point I could get and therefore went for the safe decision. I guess that my logic here was correct but also flawed at the exact same time. Oh well…

 

9

In this game, I was black against 7 time US Women’s Chess Champion GM Irina Krush. She had just moved 38. g3 and we were both in a time scramble to get to time control. I decided to do a simple repeat to gain time. 38…Bh3 39. Kd3 Bf1+ 40. Ke3 Bh3 41. Kd3. Yes! Time! Here, I knew I was winning in this position. The question is how to?

8

Black to play

The main line I looked at was 41… Bf5+ 42. Kc4 (42. Be4 Be6 and the a2 pawn is lost) 42…Bb1 43. Bxc5 bxc5 44. Kxc5

10

At first, I dismissed this because black simply loses a pawn. Then I saw, 44…Bxa2. Now, the bishop is invincible because if it is captured, b3 and a3 will make sure at least one pawn promotes. But it’s not over yet! I was ready to play this when I realized that white didn’t have to take my bishop. What if she just moves it away like 45. Be4, ? Now, my b-pawn is attacked and I’m forced to move 45… b3. Well now it seems like I’m pretty much winning! All I need to do is push the b- pawn WAIT, WAIT what if I can’t move the b-pawn? What if 46. Bd5!

11

I remember that when I reached this position in my calculation, I did a mental face-palm and thought how grateful I was that I didn’t actually move 41…Bf5. All of a sudden, white can even play for a win now! The b-pawn is frozen because if it moves, the bishop will be lost. The a-pawn is dead now, and the b-pawn will soon fall. Therefore, this line and the valuable time I spent on it is complete trash. I took a major backpedal to the starting position. I guess I have to start from scratch.

8

Here, I decided that I should just simply move 41… Bf1+ Then, I have a simple plan of h5, bringing the king up, putting the bishop on e6, and that should suffice for the win.

Now here is a moment that I wanted to clarify. Many of the viewers and commentators thought that I was going to take a draw with this move since unknown to me AND to my opponent, we have a reached a position 3-times. I’m sure all of you now know that that wasn’t my plan, as I saw a straightforward win afterwards. I simply didn’t see the repetition [insert crying tears of laughter emoji]. The tricky part was, the moves didn’t repeat three times, the position did. The first time was after 38.g3, the second time was 40. Ke3, and if my opponent were to call the arbiter, she could have claimed the draw because 42. Ke3 would have been the third time the position repeated. Luckily for me, we both missed this trippy repetition. After 42… h5, I went on to win.

I definitely did not have a lack of interesting games this tournament (I also didn’t have a lack of interesting mistakes either ;D ). If I were to include all of the moments from this tournament I want to share with you all, I fear that would be way too long and probably bore you all out of your skulls. Anyways, I just have a few more words, so I’ll get along with it.

The 2017 US Women’s Chess Championship is one of the strangest tournaments I have played yet. If you don’t believe me, a brief look through my games should convince you. I have made the simplest of mistakes, but also have seen some beautiful ideas that I am quite proud of. I ended up with a great +1 result (6/11) with a very uneven performance. What I mean by that statement is that I scored 4.5/6 against the top 6 seeds (Zatonskih, Krush, Paikidze, Abrahamyan, Nemcova, and Foisor) while only scoring 1.5/5 against the lower 5 seeds (Sharevich, Virkud, Feng, Nguyen, and Yip). Oh, the irony in that! And I found out so many things… I learned that I am not too far off from the strongest American female players. I think I handled this tournament very well mentally, which was a challenge before. I also learned that, I , am a swindler??? (I never considered myself a swindler in chess before, but for some reasons I keep finding weird ways to swindle people in this tournament [insert thoughtful emoji].)

But most importantly, I had fun, and that’s all that really counts.

Thank you for staying with me and reading through this entire article… Until next time!

Kostya & Isaac Get Rekt In Round 5 Of Reykjavik Open

Hey guys, check out our recap of Round 5 of the 2017 Reykjavik Open! First I show what not to do in the Sicilian and how to lose in <25 moves to an effortless Nd5 sacrifice by GM Helgi Dam Ziska, the strongest player to come out of the Faroe Islands. Then Isaac shows a very practical rook endgame that will hopefully be instructive for y’all. Lots of dual commentary on this one, interesting stuff!

My First US Championships

Airport Misery

I had my fair share of airport struggles the weekend of the end of the U.S. Chess Championships. Although I may not have had as bad of an experience as the United Airlines man, I ended up miserable, defeated, and utterly enraged by the time I arrived in St. Louis. At some point, I was wondering if going on the trip was even worth it.

I had been planning to be in St. Louis on April 7th. It was a trip I had obsessed over for several months and would cover the last leg of the Championships and my spring break. However, my flight was cancelled due to weather conditions. I stayed on standby for 9 flights spanning 3 days, which were all overbooked flights.

I finally made it to the US Chess Championships on April 10th- to watch, of course, not to play!

An Exciting Playoff

The Games

 Although I missed all the normal rounds, I did get to see a playoff, which was a good consolation prize for having chosen to actually fly to St. Louis after spending more than 20 hours at the airport.

The match format was 2 G/25 rapid games, then some mix of blitz and Armageddon if further play was required. The players tied for first were GMs Wesley So and Alexander Onischuk, who had both scored 7/11 in the tournament. With a huge unbeaten streak and much higher rating, Wesley was the favorite to win the playoff and therefore the championship.

So-Onischuk, 1-0

  1. c4 e6 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. e4 d5 4. cd5 ed5 5. e5 Ne4 6. Nf3 Bf5 7. Be2 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. Qb3 Nc6 10. Nd5 Bc5 11. Ne3 Bg6 12. Qb7 Nd4 13. Nd4 Bd4 14. d3 Nc5 15. Qb5 Rb8 16. Qc4 Ne6 17. f4 Bb2 18. Rb1 Qd4 19. Rb2 Rb2 20. Bg4 Rb4 21. Qd4 Rd4 22. f5 Nf4 23. Nc2 Ra4 24. Bf4 h5 25. Bd1 Bh7 26. Ne3 Ra2 27. e6 fe6 28. Bb3 Re2 29. fe6 Re8 30. e7 Kh8 31. Bg5

playoff1

So it’s clear that So won the first game. Onischuk had to fight hard in order to have a chance at winning the championship. He needed a win.

Instead, he was only able to pull off a draw against the opponent more than 150 points higher rated.

Onischuk-So, ½-½

  1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 c6 3. Bg2 Bg4 4. O-O Nd7 5. d3 Ngf6 6. h3 Bh5 7. Nbd2 e5 8. e4 Be7 9. Qe1 O-O 10. Nh4 Re8 11. Ndf3 de4 12. de4 Nc5 13. g4 Bg6 14. Ng6 hg6 15. Ne5 Bd6 16. Nc4 Nce4 17. Nd6 Qd6 18. Qd1 Qc5 19. Be3 Qa5 20. c4 Rad8 21. Qc2 Nc5 22. Rfd1 Ne6 23. Qc3 Qc7 24. Qa3 b6 25. b4 g5 26. Qa4 c5 27. bc5 Nc5 28. Qc2 Ne6 29. a4 Nf4 30. Bf1 Rd1 31. Rd1 Ne4 32. a5 Nc5 33. ab6 ab6 34. Qf5 f6 35. h4 Re5 36. Bf4 gf4 37. Qf4 Qe7 38. Bg2 Re1 39. Re1 Qe1 40. Kh2 Qe7 41. Qb8 Kh7 42. Qb6 Qe5 43. Kg1 Qd4 44. Qb1 Nd3 45. Qc2 Kh8 46. Qe2 Ne5 47. Bd5 g5 48. h5 Kg7 49. Kg2 Kh6 50. Kg3 Qf4 51. Kh3 Qd4 52. Kg3 Qf4 53. Kg2 Qd4 54. Be6 Nd3 55. Kg1 Nf4 56. Qc2 Qa1 57. Kh2 Qe5 58. Bg8 Nh5 59. Kg2 Nf4 60. Kf3 Ng6 61. Qe4 Nh4 62. Ke3 Ng2 63. Kf3 Ne1 64. Ke3 Nc2

The Atmosphere

The first playoff game was the first game of the tournament I got to see. A small group of photographers, journalists, and fans crowded around the players. It was eerily silent like most chess tournaments are, but it felt bizarre because activity was so focused on one board. I was afraid to move around and take pictures because the shutter sound would have caused attention.

behind the scenes playoff

I ended up roaming the other areas of the club.

Downstairs, fans watched the commentary screens obsessively.

playoff watching2

I found the glass chess set trophies that list the past U.S. Champions and Women’s Champions. They were beautiful and made of crystal. I typically don’t like the transparent/translucent chess sets, but the sets pass my approval test!

champs trophies

 

The young players from the U.S. Women’s Championship, Carissa Yip, Jennifer Yu, Emily Nguyen, Maggie Feng, and Apurva Virkud, all joined me, marveling at the trophies with me. We joked around, chatted about the playoff, and the girls posed for several pictures for and with me.

 

jennifer and emily
(L to R): Jennifer Yu & Emily Nguyen
me with the girls
(L to R): Me, Carissa Yip, Jennifer Yu, Emily Nguyen
me hugging carissa
(L to R): Me & Carissa Yip

I also caught Lotus Key, Wesley So’s mother, reading while Wesley played his playoff games. I postulated that she was too nervous to watch Wesley’s games. As a mother, I would probably feel the same!

lotus2
Lotus Key

The girls and I ventured to Kingside Diner for a change of commentary scenery. We watched GMs Finegold and Hansen talk about the games while the girls commented on their commentary!

girls watching commentary.jpg

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

In general, though, I think the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis is the most beautiful place to play chess and I have definitely never played in quite a place like it. My local club is the historic Marshall Chess Club, but it is definitely nowhere near as luxurious.

I would definitely describe the club with that adjective: “luxurious.” One of the biggest aspects that I loved about it was simply how new and therefore clean it was. Perhaps it is simply more well maintained than other clubs and has a bigger staff to keep it running so smoothly! The chairs are soft and comfortable, the sets are clean and new-looking, and portraits of chess players hanging on the walls glisten. It was simply a nice space to be in and play chess in. I even enjoyed editing my photos and writing articles downstairs.

I also have to commend the club for how well it was able to handle and organize the tournament. I heard good testimonials from so many people who thought that it was one of the most organized tournaments they had ever been to.

For example, GM Yaro Zherebukh, who placed sixth in the U.S. Championship, said of the tournament, “It was organized on the highest and best level.”

I cannot stress enough how excited I am to go back to St. Louis as well as the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis specifically. I hope to be back for the U.S. Junior Closed, Match of the Millennials, Sinquefield Cup, and St. Louis Rapid tournaments—and hopefully this time actually make it in time to watch some games!

 

I’M an IM (Almost)

The Philadelphia Open, which is always held over Easter, is a popular 9-round norm tournament. It is also generally not one of my greatest tournaments. And that’s an understatement. If I made a list of my top 5 worst tournaments, 2 would be the Philly Open (2013 and 2015 to be more precise). Let’s just say I was hoping that this tournament wouldn’t join the club nor did I wish to test my abilities to recover from a horrible start.

I apologize ahead of time, but I will have to save some of the games for next time. There were just too many critical moments I would like to highlight, but you have only that much time to read this article and I need to hit the publish button at some point…

Rounds 1-2: Warmup

In round 1, I had white vs. Kevin Yang (2264 USCF) (2016 FIDE).

I didn’t commit harakiri this time, but still…

Yang

White to play

OK, I had some better ways to play before this moment, but here’s where things went wrong. After 27.Kd3, white is a little better. However, I thought I should have more and played 27.e5? completely missing 27… Rb5! winning my d5-pawn. Fortunately, white has enough compensation for a draw, which is what happened, but he has nothing more. Here we go again. A draw to a lower rated opponent just like last year. Last year I started with 3 draws straight all against lower rated opponents.

That just added to our Wednesday list of unfortunate events: closed roads, a long list of forgotten things, and an urgent care visit for my brother (which turned out fine).

In round 2, I had black vs. Alex Wang (2121 USCF) (1985 FIDE). My prep actually worked this game; I  thought he’d play the line he played, and since the round was at noon, I had a lot of time to doodle around in ChessBase. I won without any major problems.

Rounds 3-5: The rampage and opposite colored bishops galore!

In round 3, it was time to face the GMs. I had white vs. GM Mark Paragua (2627 USCF) (2521 FIDE).

Chaos. Chaos. Chaos. Here’s where the drama got spicy and gathered quite a few confused spectators:

Paragua1

White to play

This position is totally unclear and could go either way. White is a pawn up, but the black bishop on f6 is a really good piece. My threat was to play e5 Bxe5 f6, where I both attack the black rook and have mate threats on g7. The game went 24… Qe5 25.Rd5 Qf4 26.e5 Bh4 27.f6 Bf2!

Paragua2

White to play

A sneaky intermezzo. Now, if 28.Qg2, black can go 28… Bxe1 29.Bxc8 g6, and white no longer has Qxe1. The position is probably still unclear, but it didn’t appeal to me for white. Instead, I played 28.Rd4!? offering an exchange which black can take in two ways. I know it looks like complete lunacy, but it has a point. White actually has decent compensation if black grabs the exchange. Anyway, GM Paragua backed out of it by playing 28…Bxg1 29.Rxf4 Bxh2.

Soon after, we reached the following position.

Paragua3

Black to play

White has some pull here. The pawn is a problem, as it can possibly walk up to e7, and if black takes on e6, he loses the h7-pawn and gets exposed on the 7th rank. The game went 36… Bxb3 37.cxb3 fxe6 38.Bxe6+ Kh8 39.Bf5 Rd8 40.Rxh7+ Kg8 41.Ra7

Paragua4

Black to play

White will win the a6-pawn soon and will have 3 connected passed pawns on the queenside. Black’s one f-pawn is no match. I soon won the game.

Oops. I had just broken one of my norm rules – lose to all Filipino GMs. More on that later.

My reward for playing until midnight and beating a GM: the next round, I got to play the top seed, GM Alex Shimanov (2718 USCF) (2650 FIDE) with black! I also made it behind the ropes, where I would stay for the rest of the tournament.

Here’s the point where I took over:

Shimanov1

Black to play

A somewhat unusual position. White has the bishop pair and has grabbed serious territory, but his bishop on c1 and rook on a1 aren’t in the game yet. White is thinking of going f5, so I decided to prevent that by playing 21… f5 myself. I had expected GM Shimanov to capture en passant, but instead he played 22.b3 Nc5 23.e5 Rfd8 24.Qe2

Shimanov2

Black to play

I thought this should be good for black, as white’s bishop pair doesn’t have much scope in this closed position. Now, what to do? My pieces are probably going to get kicked back soon, especially my c5-knight. Where would it like to go? The e4-square!

I played 24… Nd5!. The point is that if white plays 25.Nxd5 cxd5, my knight is going to be extremely secure on the e4-square, and I really like black’s position. The game went 25.Bb2 Nxc3 26.Bxc3

Shimanov3

Black to play

A pair of knights has been traded, and the e4-square thing seems like it won’t be happening. However, it is happening after my move 26… Ne4!. The point is if white plays 27.Bxe4 fxe4 28.Qxe4, black goes 28… Qxh3, which is deadly. GM Shimanov played 27.Be1, but after 27… Rd4 black is clearly on top. How I won the rest will be saved for next time!

This was my highest win by both USCF and FIDE in my career! That was a solid boost!

Round 5 was an even longer game than the previous two, and it ended in yet another victory for me. I was white vs. GM David Berczes (2587 USCF) (2500 FIDE), and it was a long grind with rooks + opposite colored bishops. I’ll save most of this game for my next article whose topic will be (surprise surprise) about opposite colored bishops, but I just want to show you the end:

Berczes

White to play

This endgame is winning for white (technically mate in 30 according to tablebases), but it is not as easy as it looks, thanks to the infamous wrong-colored bishop. I had seen a couple random examples of this in top games, but I couldn’t quite remember the winning technique. However, the good news was I had about 40 minutes on the clock to figure things out, while GM Berczes was down to 3(!) seconds (with a 10 second delay). The ride wasn’t that bad, and if you want to take a look…

I was on a roll! My performance was in the stratosphere! In the next round, I was black against GM Angel Arribas Lopez (2553 USCF) (2498 FIDE). 3 GMs in a row, what’s another one?

Round 6: the messup

Let’s just say I was the first game done in the Open Section. And it was not a short GM draw.

One excerpt should explain this game: the positon after move 16.

Arribas Lopez

Black to play

Have fun playing this for black! Spoiler: it’s dead lost for him, and I was black :(.

Yeah, that was a combination of me forgetting my preparation and not turning my brain on in time. Accidents like this happen from time to time, and they usually suck. Still 3 out of 4 against GMs!

Rounds 7-8: “solidifying”

Round 7 was not very solid. That’s why I put the double quotes there. I was white against IM Daniel Gurevich (2530 USCF) (2465 FIDE) who was, like me, fighting for a norm and at that point had a GM Norm performance.

Gurevich1

White’s position is pretty awful. Any bidders? After 27… Rxg1+ 28.Qxg1 Bxd4 29.cxd4 Nf5, white has a long road of suffering ahead of him. Instead, Daniel went 27… Rdg7? 28.Rxg7 Rxg7 29.Nc2!

Gurevich2

Now, it isn’t so bad for white. The game went 29… Qxd1 30.Rxd1 Rg2?

Gurevich3

What’s the catch? Daniel missed my next move 31.Ne1! winning material. White is probably winning here, but it isn’t as easy as I thought it should be after 31… Rxb2 32.Bxc5 Rxa2. I missed a couple accurate winning continuations a few moves later, messed it up, and the position went back to equality. Neither one of us messed it up enough after that to change the end-result.

Not exactly the cleanest game, but at the end, we were both relieved with a draw, as we were both lost at one point or another. After getting smashed in the morning, I was glad I didn’t lose both games on Saturday.

There were only 2 rounds to go, so it was time for norm number-crunching. Here’s what my status looked like:

An average of at least 2480 guaranteed me an IM Norm even if I lost my last two games. Under any other reasonable circumstances, 0.5/2 would be enough for an IM Norm. Interestingly enough, I reached this very same scenario (0.5 out of 2 guarantee) when I scored my two previous norms.

Scoring 1.5/2 against an average of at least 2526 would give me a GM Norm. Otherwise, I needed 2/2.

Round 8: a solid draw with black against GM Kayden Troff. OK, I was worse the entire game and didn’t have any real chances to win, but I held on.

My last IM Norm was secure! I would need to lose to someone unrealistically low not to get it, and there simply wasn’t such a person with 5.5 points. One round to go!

I knew that in order to get a GM Norm, I’d need to win against someone with a FIDE of 2560 or higher. To top that off, my FIDE would cross 2400, meaning I’d become an IM! Not easy at all, but with the white pieces I’d have my shot…

Looking at the pairings, playing a 2560 or higher looked unlikely. It turns out I did get to play someone who met the requirement…. GM Ruifeng Li, rated 2565 FIDE. With black.

“Don’t even joke about me getting double black today!” – Me sometime shortly before the start of the 8th round talking to a friend.

Desperate must-win games with black generally don’t look pretty for black (i.e. Carlsen-Karjakin game 4 of the tiebreaks).

My winning attempts backfired, and I was much worse by move 20 without any realistic hopes of winning the game. I defended for a while, but after the time control, I missed my chance to greatly improve the quality of my position and probably hold the draw. Instead, my move was most likely the losing mistake, and Ruifeng capitalized on it.

Where does this put me?

Philly Norm

Me getting my norm from Colonel David Hater

This was my last IM Norm. I got my first IM Norm at the NY International in June 2016 and my GM norm from the Washington Chess Congress in October 2016, which can be applied to both IM and GM title. Assuming all the paperwork goes through, I’ll be an IM-Elect! Once my last two FIDE tournaments get rated, my FIDE rating will be 2380, 20 points away from the required 2400. My title will be conditionally approved and become official the moment I reach 2400 FIDE (even in the middle of a tournament).

How difficult is it to get the rating? That depends. In order to get a norm, one needs not only to play really, really well, but he has to do so in a tournament where all the technicalities align: number of foreigners, titled players, ratings, etc. None of that matters for the rating. You don’t need 9-round tournaments or foreigners or titled players. What you do need is consistency.  Unfortunately, consistence and my FIDE rating don’t seem to go together. My FIDE graph says it all.  If you play badly, you won’t end up losing a norm or two, but you may find yourself at the bottom of one of your rating valleys being further away from your goal than you were a month ago.

Congrats also to Andrew Hong for getting an IM Norm with an extra half-a-point and 2 rounds to spare!

Last but not least, I must admit that I am a fraud. When I got my GM norm, I made a guide on how to get an IM/GM Norm… except that I disobeyed 5 out of my 8 rules this tournament!

To make up for that, I’ve decided to revise it.

My guide to getting IM/GM Norms (based on a strong statistical sample of 2 3):

  1. Get white against a significantly lower rated player in round 1, and win or draw a low-quality game.
  2. Draw round 2 as black against an IM (suffering is allowed). Wow, in this tournament, I didn’t even get black against an IM. I should throw this one out.
  3. Blow a winning position in round 3 as white and draw it.  Yet another problem with my round 3 game!
  4. Beat a foreign IM/GM with black in round 4. YES!!!
  5. Win against the same opponent, preferably someone you have a pathetic score against, in round 7. I never played Daniel Gurevich before, so this one can go to the wastebasket.
  6. Lose to all Filipino GMs you play. Oops… I need to find some other pattern(s) in my losses in these tournaments.
  7. Have at least 3 games where you prepare for something extensively, and your opponent doesn’t play it. In at least one of those games your prep should end on move 2 (or earlier #1.g4). Your prep ending on move 3 in another game is also a good sign. Have 2 games where you didn’t prepare for your opponent at all due to last-minute repairing.
  8. Get lucky! No problem there!

Clearly, my conclusions were completely wrong, but now I know exactly what to do next time :).

Who is GM Yaro Zherebukh?

Past Performances to Present

Ukrainian-born GM Yaro Zherebukh received much attention for winning the 2010 Cappelle-la-Grande Open ahead of 82 grandmasters and beating Pavel Eljanov and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the 2011 World Cup. He largely disappeared from the headlines since then, focusing on his education at Texas Tech University, although he also played on their chess team and switched federations to play for the US in 2015.

Now pursuing a Masters in Applied Financial Economics at Saint Louis University and playing on SLU Chess Team’s Board 2, he is in the right city to reach more acclaim— St. Louis. The chess capital in the country boasts the beautiful Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis  and supports many chess activities and initiatives. His recent move has given him the chance to enter the chess spotlight again, starting from the U.S. Chess Championship.

Before the Games Began

GM Zherebukh was selected as the wildcard for the U.S. Chess Championship, as he was just shy of qualification by rating. The selection may have surprised many including the grandmaster himself.

“I thought it was a lot more likely that they would pick some young talents. I guess it was a coin toss, though, so I started preparing for the tournament in advance before I even got the decision, just in case.”

With a rating of 2605, he was the second-to-last seed (out of 12) of the tournament and not expected to perform exceptionally. Nonetheless, IM Greg Shahade gave him a little bit of a benefit of the doubt in his US Chess article with predictions for the championship, predicting that he was probably going to place around 9th.

GM Zherebukh admits to having glanced at Greg’s predictions, which I’m sure many American chess players and fans did. He commented, “I did read his article before the tournament. 9th place was reasonable, but I was hoping for better, of course.”

After all, 9th place would have put him out of the running for the World Cup, one of the most important tournaments in the world. There was the looming pressure of potentially qualifying for the whole championship, as this was a FIDE zonal tournament. The top 8 players would advance to the World Cup and he wanted to be part of that select group.

“My main motivation was to qualify to the World Cup because I wanted to prove to myself that my only World Cup wasn’t just an accident. I wanted to prove to myself that I could play some chess.”

The Mid-Tournament Shocks

Going into the rest day, GM Zherebukh was doing quite well and satisfied, claiming, “I felt happy I drew the world’s #2 and it called for celebration. I got to have a nice dinner, relax for the first time in three weeks. I played in the STL invitational, Final Four, then US Championship back to back, so I felt happy that I would not have to do chess for at least one day.”

Little did he know, more success was on the way. The grandmaster ended up shocking viewers after the one day break and most likely gained many fans throughout the U.S. Chess Championship.

As arguably the most surprising occurrence of the tournament, GM Yaro Zherebukh defeated GM Fabiano Caruana in the 7th round, which was the game that catapulted Yaro to tying for first place (temporarily). It was quite a dominating performance, and many admired the style of his win.

Zherebukh-Caruana, 1-0

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Scoresheet from the game!
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. h3 Nb8 10. d4 Nbd7 11. Nbd2 Bb7 12. Bc2 Re8 13. Nf1 Bf8 14. Ng3 g6 15. a4 c5 16. d5 c4 17. Bg5 h6 18. Be3 Nc5 19. Qd2 h5 20. Bg5 Bg7 21. Rf1 Qc7 22. Bh6 Bh8 23. Ng5 Nh7 24. Nh7 Kh7 25. Be3 Qe7 26. f4 ef4 27. Bf4 Kg8 28. Rf3 Bg7 29. Raf1 Nd7 30. Bh6 Bh6 31. Qh6 Qf8 32. Qd2 Ne5 33. Rf6 Rad8 34. Qg5 Qg7 35. Bd1 Bc8 36. Qh4 Kf8 37. Qf4 Qg8 38. Kh1 Re7 39. Bh5 ba4 40. Bd1 Qg7 41. Ba4 Qh7 42. Qg5 a5 43. Kg1 Qh8 44. R1f4 Qg7 45. Rh4 Nd3 46. Rh6 Ne5 47. Rf4 Bd7 48. Qh4 Kg8 49. Qe7 Re8 50. Qg5 Ba4 51. Rf6

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GM Zherebukh poses below his portrait at the club
After his stunning win, GM Zherebukh was tied for first place, remaining atop players like GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Ray Robson, some of the country’s Olympiad team members. I’m not sure anyone expected him to win the tournament from the beginning and even at that point, though. Of course, it was never his aim in the first place.

A Bitter Burnout, But an Overall Success

After his fabulous win against Fabi, GM Zherebukh started to falter, losing against GMs Akobian and Nakamura. Still, he held other opponents to draws.

“I just got burned out,” said Zherebukh on his last few games. “Still, it was the best tournament I’ve ever played and probably the strongest.”

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6th place!
I mean, who wouldn’t be satisfied with a win against GM Fabiano Caruana, a 14 point rating gain, 6th place, and a $10,000 prize as the 11th seed out of 12? He will no doubt have some fans watching his performance in the World Cup in September to see if he can pull off similar shocking feats. No matter the case, his triumphs at the 2017 U.S. Chess Championships will be discussed admiringly for years to come.

 

National Master: The Fun Never Ends

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From occasional Indiana scholastics to Pittsburgh regulars to big Philly tournaments, it’s hard to believe what has happened since I first sat at the board. Nearly 11 years later, I’ve won my 359th rated game, pushing me over 2200 USCF for the National Master title!*

* As always, a slight technicality. My rating is officially 2200 (having gone through the weekly rerate) but the National Master certificate takes a little longer.

Surprisingly, the key turned out to be a rapid, strong start to the 2017 season, rather than the slow and steady progress I had imagined. In particular, unusually strong performances at the Liberty Bell Open and the Pittsburgh Open proved critical to my run. More generally, I was better able to stay consistent over a longer stretch, as well as improve my performance against higher-rated players.

That streak set up the critical game, which I won on April 2 against a fellow expert at the last meeting of the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Chess League.

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In this topical Closed Sicilian position, White’s kingside is poised to support a strong attack, but until castling, the fragile f4-g3 chain demands some attention. In particular, 9. Nf3?! Nh5 is very awkward for White.

9. Nge2 Nh5?!

This natural-looking move, anticipating favorable trades on f4, runs into a surprising tactical refutation.

10. f5!

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10…gxf5

Black goes for the critical try, taking his chances with the loose knight on h5. The only plausible alternative was to admit the mistake with 10…Nf6, but after 11. g4, White has gained two free tempi for a big advantage.

11. exf5 Nd4 12. O-O!?

This might be a little flashier than necessary, but does guarantee White two pieces for a rook, minus a pawn or two. The simpler option was 12. g4, which might continue 12…Nxe2 13. Nxe2 Nf4 14. Bxf4 exf4 15. O-O Bxb2 16. Rb1 Be5 17. Nf4.

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Although this might be a bit more balanced, with more space and the stronger bishop I’d prefer White here.

12…Nxf5 13. Rxf5 Bxf5 14. g4

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14…Bxg4?

I was getting back a piece anyway, but in such an open position, Black should go out of the way to keep the bishop pair. After 14…Bg6 15. gxh5 Bxh5, White’s chances on the kingside are less clear.

15. hxg4 Nf6 16. Ng3 Qd7 17. Bf3

The computer prefers the immediate 17. Nf5, but this leaves open the possibility of g4-g5, and besides, there’s no need to rush in this position. That’s another consequence of Black’s erroneous trade at move 14 – White’s pieces are much better in the short and long term.

17…Kh8 18. g5

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18…Qh3?!

This loses more material by force, but it’s difficult to suggest moves for Black at this point; if the Nf6 moves, White simply moves in with Bg4-f5 and Qh5.

19. Bf2 Rg8

The point; if the Nf6 moves, then 20. Bg4 Qh4 21. Nge4 traps the queen.

20. Bg2 Qh4 21. gxf6 Bxf6 22. Qf3, Black resigned.

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White now has a whopping three pieces for the rook. While Black has three pawns to compensate, White’s powerful knights, bishop pair, and the unfortunate position of Black’s queen make them largely irrelevant.

So Black resigned, and with the win, I squeaked past 2200 for the first time.


I must admit that the actual moment didn’t feel so exciting, because it was largely a natural consequence of my progress in early 2017. Since I broke 2100 (almost exactly a year before this game) and began thinking seriously about the NM title, I’ve realized that being rated 2200 instead of 2190 or even 2150 would not make me a drastically different player. That said, after several missed opportunities on high-profile occasions (e.g. last rounds of the US Amateur Team East and Pittsburgh Open), it was nice to be back in a familiar place to simply play chess without all the distractions. And as someone with more of a “one game at a time” mentality, it’s amazing to truly look back for the first time and see how far I’ve come.

A more interesting question is what I’ll be pursuing in the future. I don’t have a clear answer for this, as it’s no secret that progressing beyond 2200 is much more difficult and less intuitive compared to lower levels; even by amateur standards, I am far from a perfect player! Nevertheless, National Master is probably the single most iconic achievement in American amateur chess, partially because of the rather steep path to FIDE titles, the natural next steps (even the FIDE Master title is roughly equivalent to 2400 USCF, well above my likely capabilities in the near future!). As a student with a busy non-chess life ahead of me, the prospect of anything resembling full-time chess (e.g. eventual Grandmaster title) seems rather unlikely.

Nevertheless, given how much I love the game, National Master is by no means the end of my chess pursuits, and I have every intention of continuing as circumstances allow. I believe it’s time to make progress on some more specific goals that have taken a backseat to pursuing NM but are nonetheless important for the future.

  • Develop a strong opening repertoire. This wasn’t a critical component of my rise to NM, but now that I’ve earned the title, I have no excuse for putting this off. Reliable opening strategy (especially as Black) has been a long time coming, and consistently reaching solid and familiar positions will help me learn more from other phases of the game.
  • Progress deeper into the 2200s USCF. This largely indicates “fitting in” with the master crowd, and will likely involve improving my consistency over tough but lower-rated players (experts) and holding my own against higher-rated players (even IMs!). At least, I don’t want to be that guy who barely broke 2200 once and dropped back to 2100 within a year 🙂
  • Improve my FIDE rating. Through all this excitement, my FIDE rating was left more than 300 points behind, at 1889. Granted, this is largely due to having played in only 2 FIDE events, but the point stands. Goals #2 and #3 mean I’ll probably be a little more selective about tournaments in the future.
  • Knock off a few firsts. Gaining the right five points can make one oddly confident, but this goal has more to do with drawing an International Master for the first time in February. Perhaps it’s time to toy with the idea of defeating a IM/GM (or similar) once in a while?!

Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who has played a part in this journey, from my friends at college and back home, to the many members of the chess community who’ve made my chess experience richer. That starts with those closest to me, my family, for being there from the beginning – even my sister, who has always refused to play me without queen-and-rook(s) odds.

Another well-deserved shoutout is for a great player and friend, Isaac Steincamp, for training with me, splitting room costs at tournaments, bringing me onto Chess^Summit, and more. Isaac is clearly on the rise in Europe, so you can probably expect to read some good news from him soon. And of course, thanks to my fellow Chess^Summit contributors for your work: I continue to learn not only from my experiences, but from yours as well!

I’d also like to thank Bernard Parham II, who coached me for a few of my scholastic years (and remains my only coach to date). As one of the chief practitioners of the Matrix System and openings like 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5?!, he is perhaps one of the stranger faces of Indiana chess. Admittedly, I’m still amazed that it works for him (he’s a strong Class A player), but it’s impossible to deny his approach is innovative, and he did coach me from 600 to 1300. Even years later, it’s hard to find players with his enthusiasm for exposing the interesting side of chess, which was important for keeping me in the game as a 10-year old kid.

It’s an amazing feeling to finally cross 2200, and I’m excited to see where I can take it from here!

CHESSanity: A Unique Class Tournament

*A quick update on my plans to cover the US Championships: My flight was canceled and I have no idea when I will make it to St. Louis. Chess^Summit still puts its support behind one of our writers, Jennifer Yu, for the tournament. However, we may be unable to report d8irectly from the US Champs in St. Louis*


Photos courtesy of Winston Wang

We have all grown up ascending through class sections in tournaments: U1000, U1200, U1400, U1600, U1800, U2000, U2200, and finally, Open. I recently discovered a newly imagined tournament section structure. The rating restrictions were 2100+ scholastic, 2200+ adults, 2050 girls- basically anyone who would typically play an U2000-Open section. Obviously, this tournament proved to be relatively exclusive with the strong rating necessary in order to play.

CHESSanity, a non-profit founded by National Masters Warren and Wesley Wang, hosted this tournament, its first Weekend Open on April 1st and 2nd. Held in Edison, NJ, it was accessible to many strong Tri-State Area and Northeastern players. The premise behind the creation was that there were not many “strong”, “quality” tournaments in the area and 2000+ rated players often find themselves playing lower rateds in their section, which can be problematic toward development and strong games to learn from. I found this concept to be intriguing and most likely never popularly done before.

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NM Warren Wang

To organize and afford the tournament, NM Wesley Wang had to give up playing in the World Youth and the Pan American Youth tournaments. These are two of the most important tournaments for many young American players and his sacrifice, therefore, was not lost on the chess community. IM John Burke, for example, pledged his support by agreeing to play all the tournaments and six players committed to the first 5 tournaments- Wesley Wang, Christopher Yu-Shuo Shen, Eddy Tian, Alan Zhang, Winston Ni, and Evelyn Zhu. 28 players played in the tournament (including 1 GM and 3 IMs). I consider this to be a resounding success- sometimes I don’t even see that many players at the Marshall Chess Club’s weekend tournaments!

What makes the tournament even more notable is that it will soon be FIDE rated. FIDE tournaments are often hard to find in the United States, so many players are forced to travel abroad in order to rack up those FIDE points. Because this tournament can boast such a standing, I have no doubt that strong players will be attracted to the future tournaments.

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There will be more tournaments coming up, namely the second installment on June 3rd and 4th. The hope is that there will be enough enrollment to start organizing every month from September 2017 forward. You can find out more about CHESSanity and their Weekend Opens at www.chessanity.org.