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:


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):


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:


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:


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):


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:


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.



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.  


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.

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.


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!

Saving Worse Positions

The worst feeling in chess is losing a position where you were completely winning. Unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately as we will see!) this problem occurs at essentially all levels of the game from beginners to elite GrandMasters. There is a lot of literature out there on how to convert winning positions and finish off your opponent, but in this article I want to focus on the other side of the coin: When you reach a worse position and are almost lost how can you save it? Or even win?

The idea for this article topic came to me from a game I played at the recently completed Chicago Open. In round 6 I was playing a well established International Master, Michael Mulyar. After a complicated middlegame we reached the following position

Mulyar-Itkin after 29…Nb5

I (playing with the black pieces) had sacrificed two pieces for a rook and a pawn, but was quite optimistic about my chances. I thought my pieces were active and white was quite cramped. With my last move 29…Nb5 I was threatening the a3 pawn with dreams of marching my a6 pawn all the way to a1.

My opponent however was unfazed by this and played 30.Qe4! after which I realized that I had grossly misevaluated. Suddenly my pieces are far away from my king and only my lonely bishop on g7 is helping on defense. As a result there is no good way stop the immediate threat of Qe8 along with the ensuing attack.

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that I am close to lost (the engine gives over +3 after 30.Qe4!) against a higher rated opponent and also have over half an hour less on the clock to complete the next 10 moves and reach the time control. What should I do? I immediately starting looking for lines that were murky and left counterplay for black. My opponent had played the entire game quickly rapidly and so I was hoping to find something that might require a tough decision from my opponent. I thought to myself “if I can get him frustrated he might make a mistake”. To this end I decided on 30…Be5 to  propose a trade of pieces and change the pawn structure. The ensuing moves can be found here, but eventually we reached the following position.

Mulyar-Itkin after 36…Kh8

I had reached my goal. The objective evaluation of the position has not really changed, hovering around +3 for white, but I have managed to create a tough decision for my opponent. White has a strong attack and it looks like mate is close, but there does not seem to be anything forced. On the other hand black is offering a queen trade, which if accepted will lead to an ending where white should be winning, but it would take another hour to convert and there are still some practical chances.

After the game my opponent gave the line 37.Bf4 h5 38. Qg5 Nf5 after which there is still no mate (although white maintains a healthy advantage after 39. Bc1) and so rejected it. He also likely didn’t want to trade into an ending due to the reasons explained above and started to get frustrated — white is almost mating and is certainly winning, but can’t find anything concrete.

Not wanting to trade queens and rejecting Bf4 my opponent chose the seemingly logical, 37.g4?. This was the mistake I was hoping for and after 37… Nf5! it is now black who is winning.  Suddenly white’s attack is merely an illusion while black has serious threats coming against f2. The game continued 38.Qg5 Rb2 39.Bg7+ (there is no good way to defend f2) 39…Ng7 (and not 39…Kg7?? where 40.Nh5 following by Qd8 is checkmate.) 40.Qh4 h5 where now black is up material with a strong attack. White resigned after a few more moves.

Another example of this type against a strong opponent happened at the infamous 2017 Canadian Closed (infamous due to the events described in this article). I was playing IM (now GM) Aman Hambleton with black in round 6. This was an important point in the tournament as we both had 3/5. Aman was one of the tournament favourites and needed a win to keep 1st place chances alive (1st place would include a spot on Canada’s Olympiad Team and a spot at the 2017 World Cup in addition to prize money), while I was aiming for a score of 6/9 as such a score would grant me the FM title since this was a zonal event (I finished with 5.5/9, just missing my goal). After strong positional play from White we reached the following position.

Hambleton-Itkin after 47.Rb5

White is up the exchange for a pawn and pressing, but black is well positioned to defend. He has two bishops and all of the pawns are on the kingside reducing white’s winning chances. Overall black has a tough defensive task ahead, but with accurate play should be able to hold. After a lot of triangulation we reached the following position.

Hambleton-Itkin after 61.Ra5

Although the position hasn’t change too much white has managed to pose some small problems for black. If I leave my king on f5 then white threatens to play a timely f4 putting pressure on the 5th rank. Although objectively (i.e if black is careful) this is never a serious threat, it is quite an uncomfortable position to be in especially during time trouble. The possibility of f4 needs to be checked every move and slight changes in the position of white’s rook and black bishops could make an impact. On the other hand if I play 61… Ke6 white can play 62.Bg5 where I must either avoid the bishop trade and give up pressure on h4 freeing up white’s king from its defense or trade on g5. The latter would entail me to lose my two bishops and gives white a more active pawn on g5 where black may have some trouble defending both e5 and g6.

After some thought I realized that Bg5 is not so scary and set a deep trap.  For those of you that like problem-solving now would be a good time to stop reading and try to evaluate what happens after 61…Ke6. 62 Bg5. The solution as well as the continuation of the game can be found here.

After several moves we reached the following position:

Hambleton-Itkin after 71.g7

Comparing this position to the one in the first diagram makes it hard to believe this is even the same game! From a quiet ending where white was pressing we reach a position where black has managed to promote and has a winning position. Here I was excited that I managed to trick such a strong player and relaxed a little. My opponent seemed rattled after the turn of events and after calculating a series of checks where I win his g7 pawn I thought I would have no trouble converting the Q v R. The game continued 71…Qh3+ 72.Kf2 Qf5 where after 73.Ke3 black plays 73…Qf7 and picks up the pawn. My opponent however set a trap for me as well and played 73.Kg3!!. I had completely missed this move as it leaves the rook en prix, but suddenly black has no checks and no way of stopping white from promoting. In fact a move like 73… Qc8 would lose to 74.g8=Q Qxg8 75.Rg4+. The game ended in a draw shortly after 73…Qxe4.

Black is winning, however, in the diagrammed position, but an accurate sequence of checks is needed. After 71…Qh3 which was played in the game, black may not even be winning. Better was 71…Qc1+ 72. Kd3 Qa3+ 73. Kf2 Qb2+ 74. Kf3 Qc3+ 75. Kf2 Qxg7 where we reach the theoretically winning Q v R ending. In the end a draw is not an unjust result given the position in the first diagram, but the turn of events left both sides feeling unhappy with the game.

This just goes to show that even in seemingly dry endings or even with only 5 pieces on the board it is possible to cause problems for your opponents and induce a mistake! What I have learned from these experiences (and from others that did not make this article) is that despite being a game of perfect information, chess is still a psychological and emotional game. It is precisely in situations where we are completely winning or completely losing that our emotions are hardest to control and, in my opinion, is often the reason that even strong players make serious mistakes in good positions and let games slip. As a player in a lost position the best chance to turn things around is to play on these emotions and get your opponent frustrated or needlessly excited — you have nothing to lose! On the other hand it is important for the player in the driving seat to stay as calm as possible without letting his or her emotions get in the way of objective evaluation. This is much easier said than done and in my view is the principal reason behind many “unexplainable” blunders in winning positions. I leave you with an example of a world champion being a victim of this himself. So next time you’re in a worse position dig deep and create tough choices for your opponent — you may just save the game!

Language is Everything: Lessons from the Chicago Open

Attempt #2 at Deep Dish Pizza. Admittedly this one at Lou Malnati’s was a lot better than my first attempt!

If I’m being completely honest with myself, I was pretty demoralized after my performance at the Marshall Chess Club in the build up to the Chicago Open. My opening repertoire was incomplete, and it was pretty clear that my progression had hit a roadblock. With my showing at the Haymarket Memorial last month also not living up to my expectations, I had already made the decision to switch away from the Open to the U2300 section – probably correctly.

Even with the move down, I still felt poorly prepared. Moving from Pittsburgh to my hometown in Richmond took a fair bit of time, and I felt like I still had not addressed key problems from my games in New York. Chess-wise, the start of this summer has been quite frustrating for me. After starting 2018 with strong showings in both the Eastern Open and the Cardinal Open, my studies were forced to come to halt due to my spring semester course-load. Hoping to return with the same momentum I had to start the year, I quickly realized the toll of taking a couple months off of tournament chess had on my calculation and ability to assess positions. Needing to get back into fighting form, much of my preparation for the Chicago Open felt like review, but something was different – training was much more taxing and it took more time. I felt like a shadow of my former self. This Isaac was not going to make National Master any time soon.

Despite a full day onsite to relax and prepare for my first round, my Chicago Open debut brought out all of my insecurities in a quick loss: poor opening play, missed tactics, bad time management. A second round draw only compounded my distress when I mishandled a slight advantage as White against a lower-rated opponent and my poor time management forced me to bail out with a draw before the second time control. Paired on one of the bottom boards with Black, I desperately needed a win to close the second day and give myself some confidence. While my opening could have yielded me an advantage, I incorrectly sacrificed a pawn for no compensation.

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 22.37.10
Zheng–Steincamp, position after 19…Nb4

Here I did the only thing that I knew could work – play both quickly and solidly, and put pressure on my opponent’s clock – one slip-up and I’m back in the game. My opponent started with 20. Qg4 Bf8 21. Bd4?!:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 23.15.24
Zheng–Steincamp, position after 21. Bd4?!

Back in 2016 when I wrote about winning my first adult tournament ever, a key theme I noticed was how my opponents then weighed checking my king as a better candidate move, simply because it was a check. Upon deeper analysis, I traced back White’s future problems to this move, where my only explanation for 21. Bd4 is that he prioritized this because it “checked” my queen. In just a few moves, my opponent collapsed under time trouble and I somehow emerged with a point.

An undeserved win for sure, but I had clawed my way back to an even score. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins as I left the tournament hall. Notching my first win was a relief, but with four rounds left in the tournament, I knew I needed to be better. I went to sleep telling myself that I needed to play chess that I could be proud of – I had prepared a month for this, I knew I could be better.

Change of Tone, Change of Play

Forcing myself to think more positively was an important first step towards playing better chess. My next round proved to be an incredibly difficult psychological test. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 22.43.08
Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 15…f5

With my opponent’s kingside pawns barreling down the board, I needed to make a decision to change the course of the game. With the previous night’s game still fresh in my memory, I was slow to play 16. Bf3!, sacrificing a pawn for the initiative and the advantage. After 16…Bxf3 17. Rfc1 Ba6 18. Rab1!, Black realized that my idea of b2-b4 is quite strong, and my bishops on f3 and g3 are poised to carve Black’s queenside:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 22.49.25
Steincamp–Shamugasundaram, position after 18. Rab1!

This was a good pawn sacrifice! My opponent put up a lot of resistance, but I gained my material back and got a strong endgame advantage to notch another win. To put it mildly, after three uninspired games of chess, I may have put together one of my best performances of the year!

Now I was really feeling the momentum swing in my favor. With a plus score late into the tournament, I played a Chicago native and promptly got chaos on board:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 22.53.56
Kaulule–Steincamp, position after 29. Rg1!

Here in time trouble I panicked and played 29…Ne2?, which while not losing on its own, puts Black on a very narrow course to get back into the game. Needless to say, I faltered and lost shortly after. What I really liked about this game however was how rich this position is. Sure – the rest of the game is also quite interesting (click here) – but try assessing this position. Black might have some “obvious” candidate moves, but deciding who is better is another story. It took my roommate IM Alex Katz and I about three hours to come to a conclusion after the game (without an engine). If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend setting this position on the board and try analyzing it without an engine. Remember, this isn’t a tactic – just try and evaluate the position.

Honestly I was more proud of the way I played and lost this game than how I played in the first three rounds combined. If I have to lose games, I want to lose them like this.

Next morning I had White against another 2200+ rated opponent, and I wanted to keep the momentum going. Out of an Exchange Slav, I somehow managed this darling position:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 23.05.56
Steincamp–Karp, position after 12…Rfc8

White has a slight advantage here, despite Black having the pair of bishops. This game really forced me to ask a lot of the questions pushed in Aagard’s books: What’s my opponent’s plan? What’s my worst placed piece? What are the weaknesses in the position? I don’t want to claim that my idea here is the best possible plan for White, but here I played 13. Nd2, with the idea of playing Bd3-f1-g2 in the future to put more pressure on d5. It took a while, but I finally achieved my set-up since Black has no real active options:

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 23.10.22
Steincamp–Karp, position after 16. Bg2

I have to credit my opponent – despite the nagging pressure for the duration of the game, he proved to be quite resilient, and at the right moment, he found a simplification that forced equality and the game was drawn after I set up an amusing fortress in an opposite colored bishop endgame.

With a solid tournament showing, I was able to relax. My first In-n-Out in Las Vegas!

Exhausted from my games and looking a little ahead to my west coast vacation, I decided to take a quick draw in the seventh round to finish on an even score. While I wish I could have my first three games back, I’m really proud of the effort I put into the second half of the tournament – especially considering how demoralized I was going into the event. Yes, I’l have my areas to work on, but watching how the stark effect of a positive mindset change my play, I should be more confident going forward into the summer. I think that this observation can be really instructive for players of all strengths.

That’s not to say that hard work is replaceable with a positive attitude, but if you work hard, own it! During a tournament, don’t get too caught up with your results at a micro-level. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you obsess about every mistake you make, that additional stress could make things even worse. Hard work does not always immediately translate into rating or winning, but it will make you a stronger player.

An old coach of mine asked me once “Do you believe the rating system works?”. If you don’t, then don’t have anything worry about! If you do believe it works, then you should also believe that in the long-run it will reward the right things. So work hard, do the right things, and be proud of the work you do, regardless of result!

Opening Repertoire For Different Ratings

It’s summer time and there are many chess tournaments all around the country. This is the time to put your work into practice.

While preparing for different tournaments, parents and students alike often ask how should they organize opening repertoire.

After some back and force debate in my own head and observing student’s results, here is my current point of view.


As with my last article on topics for different levels, I believe different ratings should focus differently on their opening preparations.

My current opinion

  1. Casual players up to USCF U1200: Play any opening that catches your curiocity
  2. USCF 1200 – 1700: Be more specific; Prepare a package against d4 and e4 for black, and choose your favorite 1st move for white
  3. USCF 1700 and Above: Depending on your training regimen and work with coach to personalize best approach

Let’s dissect these in more details

Casual Players (U1200)

When starting chess, the most important opening focus is understanding the basic opening principles. The main ones are: Control the Center, Develop Pieces, and Castle Early.

When you see a brilliant game in the French, go try it out. Find ways to experiment, learn openings that bring out your curiosity to chess.

Regardless what opening you try, make sure to focus on the main principles. Avoid losing games because half of your pieces were not developed.

If your opponent does not follow opening principles, find ways to take advantage of that.

USCF 1200 – 1700

This group is when the training gets serious, and there are certain commitment to improve in chess.

I would suggest build a specific repertoire for both white and black pieces. Stick with the same openings for a while.

The idea is to learn the ins and outs of that opening, and improve your chess in general by understanding deeper concepts such as pawn structures and positional middle game concepts from the same opening.

One example repertoire:

  1. e4 for white; Alapin against Sicilians
  2. French for black against e4
  3. Queen’s gambit declined against d4

USCF 1700 and Above

Now we are pushing towards Master level and beyond. More personalization will be required.

What is your goal in chess? How often do you play in tournaments? How do you train to prepare for tournaments?

These are the questions you want to answer and possibly work with a coach to dive in deeper.

If you have aspiration to become a master and gain international titles, then you’ll need to start playing in many tournaments.

From these tournament experiences, you’ll learn about your strengths and weaknesses in chess, and figure out the amount of time focused on openings accordingly.


These are my strong opinion now, but I held them loosely.

For all the active chess warriors, Good Luck to all of your summer chess adventures!




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!


Rook Blunders at the East Coast Open

Chess took a backseat for a few weeks due to AP Exams. I was still studying chess, but I didn’t play for a while. Fortunately I wasn’t missing out on anything important. With the exams over, it was time to concentrate on chess again.

There are plenty of places to play over Memorial Day weekend. Of course, the Chicago Open is the big one, and I’m hoping to play in it one of these days. In the past I’ve played at the Massachusetts Championship and the Cherry Blossom Classic. This year I decided to give the newly established East Coast Open a shot. The tournament is organized by Maryland Chess, and I have had only the best experiences with them.

How did it go? The tournament was a bit strange for me. After a rough start, I managed to get my game rolling. My games were fairly short, but there were a few interesting moments.

Rounds 1 & 2

I won my first round against Robert Forney (2032 USCF, 1835 FIDE) in a fairly smooth game, even if some of my ideas were a little suspicious. I lost my second round game to GM Priyadharshan Kannappan (2620 USCF, 2530 FIDE). It was an interesting game, but long story short, I didn’t play well and got rightfully beaten.

A fascinating and strange game

My round 3 game, against FM Ivan Biag (2298 USCF, 2322 FIDE), meets the above description. I got a very nice position with white out of the opening and eventually reached the following position:

Biag 1

What’s the deal here? The d6-pawn is a thorn in black’s position, and he is really cramped. On the plus side, black has a knight on d5. How should white get through? It’ll certainly involve Bxd5, and the first move to consider is playing 25.Bxd5 right at this moment.

If 25… cxd5, then white is really happy. He piles his rooks on the c-file, and by the time black jams it up with Bc6, he’ll be able to sacrifice an exchange on c6. White will be dominating if he manages to do that, no question about it.

Black can also play exd5, and that’s where my problem lay. After Rde1 (or Rfe1, I don’t think there’s a real difference), black can go Re8 and Kf7-e6 on his next moves, barricading the white pawns. I saw that I have e6 Rxd6 Bc5 but wasn’t convinced after Rxe6 Bxf8 Rxf8. Still, white is better there, and maybe I should’ve gone for it.

Is this endgame actually winning? I asked the computer and even let it run overtime. It gave a wonderful evaluation of +1.80 and suggested 25.Be2. What? This really confused me. Isn’t white’s position supposed to revolve around Bxd5? The computer’s idea is to play in one order or another g3, Bf3, and h4. Black, in the meanwhile, can run with his king to the queenside, while white doesn’t gain much on the kingside. My silicon friend’s other top suggestions include 25.g3 (going along with operation Be2) and 25.Rc1 (a rook which goes back to e1 in a couple moves in the engine’s top line), neither of which particularly impress me.

I played it a bit against the engine, and it’s quite fascinating. I had to prod it to do something constructive (i.e. bring the king to the queenside), since it was suggesting seemingly random moves with no plan while giving everything the same high evaluation.

Is the position actually winning? I don’t have an objective answer to that, and it won’t be easy to find. Computers are useful for blunder checks and calculating potential sacrifices/forcing lines, but they won’t be too handy in finding a plan. The computer’s high evaluation doesn’t convince me that white is winning. One thing is clear: white has excellent winning chances, and in a practical game, figuring out the mathematical evaluation of the position is the least of white’s concerns. When given an opportunity to reach this kind of position, just go for it! Don’t obsess if you’re objectively winning. You have excellent winning chances and, with a bit of luck, your opponent will help you win.

In the game, I decided to open a second front which turned out not to be the wisest idea. I went 25.h3 with the idea of going g4 in the near future, and I was met with 25…Be8. Now, if 26.Bxd5, he’ll go 26…cxd5, and he’s in time to jam up the c-file with Bc6. I decided to continue engineering the g4 break which somehow helped black more than it did me. A few moves later we reached this position:

Biag 2

I was getting tired of all the threats, namely those against my f4-pawn, and I decided to jam things up on the kingside with 32.g5. If 32… h5, my plan was to swing back to the queenside and aim for Bxd5 at the right moment. Instead, my opponent played 32… hxg5 33.Rxg5 Rh8 trying to get play of his own.

Biag 3

Black may be planning to go Kg8 and Rgh7 with the idea of tying me up to the h3-pawn. That doesn’t seem to be a serious problem, since I can defend the pawn by putting a rook on the 3rd rank. My f4-pawn, however, is annoying. I decided to relocate my bishop from its idealistic home on the g1-a7 diagonal to d2 to defend the pawn. Looks good, right? I calmly played 34.Bc3?? casually forgetting about 34…Ne3. Oops!!! What just happened??

Now, had I been in my right mind, I would’ve just gone 35.Be2 or 35.Bd3, because after black takes the exchange, there’s no way he’s going to win. The position is too closed. Instead, I overreacted and went on a suicide run with 35.Bxe6??! (the ! is for creativity). This looks good, but that’s the only positive thing I can say about it. The game went 35… Nxf1+ 36.Kg2 Ne3+ 37.Kf3 Nd5 38.Bxd5 cxd5 39.e6 Bc6 40.Ke3 Re8 41.e7

Biag 4

With my last move, I decided to keep my bishop and my pawns and claim to have compensation for the rook I’m down. My opponent thought for a bit and offered a draw which I, of course, accepted. It isn’t easy to get through with black, though I suspect he’s winning.

A strange game. I could spend ages analyzing it and could probably write several more articles about it. If I have a bit of spare time, I may try to find the objective evaluation of that endgame. Note to self: always look for simple tactics, even when feeling extremely safe. Nobody is above that!

My comeback

My round 4 game against Evelyn Zhu (2193 USCF, 1983 FIDE) was pretty good. I came out on top with black in a positional struggle where I played fairly accurately. My round 5 game against Stanislav Busygin (2287 USCF, 2213 FIDE) was fun. Really fun.


I was white, and if I expected the game to be quiet, I was wrong. Things really exploded when he played 13…Nxg4!? 14.hxg4 Qh4 here. I took a long think on my next move, trying to figure things out.

Busygin 2

White clearly has to bring defenders to the party. 15.Qe1 Qxg4+ 16.Qg3 looks promising, but on a second glance, I found that black can go 15…Qh3! hitting the bishop and threatening Bd4+ at the same time. That’s no good. 15.Rf2 and 15.Rf3 are possible but aren’t impressive. Black will just go 15…Nf6, and white doesn’t have a clear follow-up. I played the best move, 15.Kg2!, but not before calculating the consequences. If 15…Qxg4+, white has 16.Ng3 after which black’s attack is in shambles. After 15… Nf6 16.Rh1! Qxg4+ 17.Ng3, black’s attack doesn’t amount to much either. My opponent played the move I had been expecting: 15…Ne5!. I correctly went 16.Rh1!. After 16.dxe5 white indeed has nothing better than a draw, but I didn’t see all the details correctly. The main line goes 16…Qxg4+ 17.Ng3 Qh3+ 18.Kf2 Bxe5 19.Nce2!

Busygin 4

White is two pieces up, but his king is really shaky to say the least. The last move 19.Nce2 was forced to both protect the g3-knight and stop Bd4+. I rejected this on account of 19…Bg4? and missed that white has 20.Rh1! which wins for him. It turns out black has a slick defense here: 19…Qh2+ 20.Kf3 h5! (including Bxg3 Nxg3 is also fine).

Busygin 3

Black is threatening mate on g4, and white has nothing better to do than go 21.Nf5 or 21.Bf5, after which black will secure a perpetual. I’m glad I didn’t go for this! Yeah, I did miss things, but intuitively white’s position is rather alarming.

Back to the game. After 16… Qxg4+ 17.Ng3 Nxd3 18.Qxd3, my opponent played 18… Bxc3?!. Fighting for compensation after 18…Bf5 19.Qd1 was better. I replied 19.bxc3 (19.Qxc3 was also good) 19…Bf5 20.Qd1!. White isn’t losing anything and can enjoy his material advantage. I went on to win in a few moves.

Suffice it to say that I was relieved once this game was over, but it also felt great to win in this style.


The last day was arguably my best. I drew my round 6 game against GM Alexander Fishbein and won my round 7 game with GM Sergey Erenburg, both with black. What a finish! It was a really nice way to end the tournament. After starting with 1.5/3, I plowed my way back up and got 5/7 landing myself in a 4-way tie for first with 3 GMs in the process.

Not bad after a break! Of course, the rook blunder was a wakeup call… Obviously, I’m not 100% immune to 1200-level blunders.

I was pleased that I got to play 3 GMs in 7 rounds in this tournament which was much better than the 1 GM I got to play at the Philadelphia Open over Easter this year. Big thanks to Maryland Chess and Mike Regan for running a well-organized tournament!

Until next time!