Last fall was far from great. My play was off, and my rating progress looked like a mudslide. The U16 Olympiad in Turkey was a breath of fresh air for everything… except my chess. With my schedule getting even more hectic than usual, the winter wasn’t looking very good for chess, but failure is not an option.
Over Presidents’ Day weekend, I flew to the Southwest Class Championships in Dallas, TX, to play a strong 9 round tournament, have a good time, and hopefully do well or at least not badly. OK, OK, let’s not pretend that getting a GM Norm wasn’t at the end of that list. And a great tournament it was!
There was just so much content in the tournament that I’m splitting this article into three parts: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame. Yes, even tournaments have an opening, a middle, and an end.
As in a real game, a good opening is a good sign. The “opening” of a tournament, aka the first three rounds, is where many norm chances—and tournaments—go downhill. A bad start could easily mean spending most of the tournament playing lower-rated opponents which can tank your average beyond repair. Even if you score well and get back up to the top boards or even win the tournament, you may come nowhere close to a norm. Been there, done that!
In round 1, I was black against Austen Green (2080 FIDE, 2278 USCF), a local TX player. Out of the opening, we reached this position:
This position looks fairly normal where white has tried to open the center with c4. With my last move 13… Bd7-e8, I wanted to bring my bishop into the game by moving it to h5 or g6. White has to decide what to do here.
A natural move like 14.Rfe1 will be met with 14… Bh5, leaving white in an awkward situation with his knight on f3. 14.Nf4 can be met with 14… g5!? 15.Ne2 (15.cxd5 Qxf4 16.dxc6 Bxc6 should be slightly better for black) 15… dxc4! (15… Bh5 16.c5 is OK for white) 16.Bxc4 Bh5, where white is in an unpleasant position. White’s best option is most likely to play directly with 14.c5! Qd7 15.b4!, intending to play b5 next. Black can naturally strike with 15… e5, but after 16.dxe5 fxe5 17.b5 e4 18.bxc6 Nxc6 19.Ned4, white is actually doing all right, though his position does look somewhat suspect.
Instead, my opponent played 14.Qf4?! offering a queen trade. 14… Qxf4 15.Nxf4 didn’t appeal to me, though black actually can stay afloat with some …Nb4 tricks. 14… Rd8!? was a strong possibility, but I chose 14… Qd7 instead, because I felt that the white queen was misplaced on f4. It blocks the e2-knight from reaching its natural destination and could get attacked in lines after …Bg6 or even …e5. White should play 15.c5 or 15.b3, though black is already somewhat better after 15… Bg6. However, my opponent played 15.Qh4?, which played right into my hands. I replied with 15… Bg6
White is in a tough spot here. If 16.Bxg6 Nxg6 17.Qg4, black wins a clean pawn with 17… dxc4. 16.cxd5 Bxd3 17.dxc6 Nxc6 doesn’t look good for white, but it was probably the lesser evil. My opponent played 16.Nf4, and after 16… Bxd3 17.Nxd3 Nf5 18.Qg4 dxc4 19.Nc5 Qd5, I found myself a pawn up, which I went on to cash in in a rook endgame.
All in all, it was a fairly smooth game, especially for a first round…
In round 2, I was white against GM Bartek Macieja (2527 FIDE, 2615 USCF). Already playing up in round 2 was a treat! I was by no means going all-in this game, but it got flashy pretty quickly…
So far, so good. White has a nice positional grip on the position, and I also had a serious lead on the clock. Black’s last move 21… g5 was a practical necessity to prevent me from simply playing Bxf6, occupying the d5-square, and positionally squeezing black. Now I had to decide what to do.
22.Bg3 is a perfectly reasonable move. I wasn’t quite sure what white’s plan would be after it, but it probably involves some kind of play on the kingside with h4 while maintaining a bind in the center. However, I couldn’t resist the temptation of playing 22.Bxg5!?. The game continued 22… hxg5 23.Qxg5+ Kh8 24.Re3 Nh7 25.Qh5
White is obviously planning to play Rh3 next threatening mate, and stopping that threat is easier said than done. 25… Rg8 is possible, but after 26.Rf3!?, with the idea of capturing on f7 with the rook, black’s position looks very dangerous. Black’s other option is to bring the c7-rook into the game, and this is actually best accomplished by 25… Bd8! 26.Rh3 f5! 27.exf5 Rg7, where black is getting some counterplay of his own. My opponent chose the reasonable looking 25… Bg5 26.Rh3 f6, which I had somehow missed when I played 22.Bxg5, and now I had to decide how to proceed.
This is the point where I messed up. Black is still pretty tangled up here. 27.Be6!, with the idea of bringing the bishop into the attack with Bf5, is the strongest move here. Black can double rooks on the 7th rank to protect the h7-knight, but it will take him forever to untangle after that. Meanwhile, white might even bring his a4-rook into play with Rc4, causing even more headaches from black, who could easily make a fatal mistake.
My move 27.Nd5 was fine, but after 27… Bxd5 I recaptured the wrong way with 28.exd5?. My goal was to win the a6-pawn, but this move allows black to get some much-needed privacy and counterplay of his own with …f5. 28.Bxd5, with the idea of installing a positional bind, was much stronger. The game continued 28… Rg7 29.Rxa6 Qd8 30.Rg3 f5 31.h4! Bxh4 32.Rxg7 Kxg7 33.Ra7+ Be7 34.Bb5
Over the past few moves, I sacrificed a pawn with 31.h4! to renew play against the black king. In this position, black is pinned on the 7th rank, and I’m threatening the powerful Rd7. 31… Rf7! was the best way to stop this, and white has nothing better than a draw, for instance after 32.Bd7 Ng5 33.Be6 Nxe6 34.dxe6 Rf6 35.Qg5+ Kh8 36.Qh4+ Kg8 37.Qg5+ Kh8. My opponent played 34… Rf6? instead, and this turns out to be a serious mistake. 35.Rd7 doesn’t work on account of 35… Qf8, but I found another idea: 35.Be8!, threatening Rd7 again. 35… Nf8 is more or less the only move for black, but he’s really tied up now. This was as good a moment as any to get my queenside pawns marching with 36.b4!. The game continued 36… f4 37.b5 Ng6?! (37… e4 would have provided better resistance, though white is probably still winning there). 38.Bxg6 Nxg6 39.b6
Black has almost succeeded in untangling, but he’s too late. The b-pawn is out of black’s control. Combining the b-pawn and threats against the black king, I won in a few moves.
Not bad! This was far from a clean game, but chess is still… a game!
In round 3, I got a double white against GM Angel Arribas (2454 FIDE, 2518 USCF). Again, I had no intentions of going all-in; I just wanted to play and see how it’d go…
This appears to be a fairly normal Sicilian position, except that a) black has a pawn on h5 and b) black hasn’t castled yet. However, he’s gotten the bishop pair, and my pieces aren’t that impressive. Still, if black simply plays 17… 0-0 here, he’ll run into 18.Rd4! Qc6 19.Nd2!, after which his queen is simply getting harassed. He has to play the rather ugly move 19… Be8, and after 20.Rd1 white is much better. Therefore, to prevent Rd4, my opponent played 17… e5, which I decided to directly counter with 18.f4.
18… 0-0 is a bad idea on account of 19.fxe5. 19… dxe5 loses to 20.Rxf6!, and 19… Nxg4 20.Qd2 Nxe5 21.Nd5 is very bad for black. Instead, black should play 18… Be6 or 18… Bc6, and my opponent chose the latter. After 19.fxe5, however, the game took an unexpected turn.
Black should play 19… dxe5. White does win a pawn after 20.Qg3 0-0 21.Qxe5, but after 21… Rfe8 black has reasonable compensation. Instead, my opponent played 19… Ng4? which more or less loses (!) after 20.Qg3!. After 20… dxe5 21.h3 Nf6 22.Qxe5 (22.Rf5! is even stronger), black is just lost. After 20… Nxe5, as was played in the game, I played 21.Qxg7 Ng6 22.Nd5 (22.Nd4 may have been even stronger) 22… Bxd5 23.Rxd5
Black’s position is truly busted, and my opponent resigned.
3/3. My performance was well over 2600, and I had already played 2 GMs and 2 foreigners. Oh boy. This was looking good. Onward!