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?
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…
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?
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
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!
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.
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!