What a long couple of weeks it has been! Since my return from Philidelphia, improving from one of my most nightmarish tournaments of my career has been at the forefront of my agenda. With new openings to learn and grandmaster games to review, I had exactly two weeks to prepare for this past weekend’s Southern Open in Orlando. While such a short period of time to prepare is by no means ideal when preparing a new repertoire, I was ready to play some new lines as Black. In fact, in each of my games as Black I got to play new openings and reached much more solid positions! So progress has been steady, but there’s still a long ways to go.
On top of my own personal opening preparations, my first week back from the World Open was also spent volunteering at a program I had started back in 2013, Dragon Chess Camp. Back in my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to push our team to become much more competitive and provide my teammates with competitive opportunities across the country. The first edition of the summer camp had twenty participants and raised enough for our team to travel to the National High School Chess Championships in San Diego the following year where we won clear first in the U1200 section. Since, the team’s outreach has really taken off – running free chess clinics, more summer programs, and hosting a plethora of scholastic tournaments – and the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has become the pinnacle of chess in Richmond.
This summer, fifty-one scholastic players registered, which will help next year’s team compete in their first SuperNationals in Nashville, Tennessee! With such high attendance, I was tasked with the largest group I had taught in all four editions of the program. For that week, our class focused on theoretical rook endgames – the Lucena, Philidor, Vancura, known draws – whatever you could think of! Despite the relatively young age of my group, by having the players practice both converting and defending, they proved to be extremely fast learners and one of the players even used the ‘building a bridge’ technique to convert a win at the weekend’s tournament.
The second half of the course focused on principled opening play, which I had put together after my performance at the World Open. Halfway through the week, I had realized that many of the players in the camp only knew “unprincipled” openings – for example, various Pirc and Modern structures as Black – and were constantly having problems because they didn’t know theory. Thinking back to the thousands of pages of chess literature I’ve read, Greg Serper’s chess.com article on Inexperienced Player Mistakes comes to mind, where he calls a 1500 rated player’s choice of 1. c4 a mistake (of course this means I sinned in this same way six years ago) because a player of that caliber needs to learn chess by fighting for the center first with 1. e4 or 1. d4.
I think part of the openings-craze among scholastic players is driven by coaches who themselves don’t know classical openings, or perhaps think that changing openings will solve all of the problems their pupils may be having. Of course, this may temporarily improve the student’s performance, but long term – as I too have recently found – could be more of a hindrance than a strength. As a gift to all the 1. e4 players in my class, I showed them a simple plan Amonatov used in similar structures to demonstrate how Black’s failure to fight for the center was the root of his problems.
So that’s enough banter, how did my first tournament back from the World Open go? Admittedly, not what I had hoped for. Without any opportunities to really practice my new openings or demonstrate improvement in an over-the-board game, I lacked a lot of confidence in my own abilities. This definitely had an impact on my overall play, but the bigger problem was that in spending all of my preparation on openings for this event, I was not as sharp tactically, and that proved to be the most apparent reason why I underperformed.
In my first round, I had a Deja vú experience, getting once again surprised in the opening and completely dismantled by International Master Daniel Fernandez – not exactly what you want when you’re confidence is already at a low! For my next two rounds, I focused on staying solid and earned two easy draws, though I figured they would not be the most entertaining games to share today. I nearly repeated the task in the fourth round, but a simple blunder saw me lose a pawn and enter a hopeless endgame. So once again, I had to look to my last round game to avoid disaster. After some impractical opening decisions, I reached the following position:
While White might be able to hold a fortress, it’s clear that only Black can really play for a win. Beyond the fact that I have the thematically bad Maroczy bishop, Black also has the advantage that he can play for several weaknesses. First against the e4 pawn, in either tying down my pieces or making me play f2-f3 weakening my dark squares. But perhaps the idea that will really prove to be the most annoying is that Black can simply play …a7-a5-a4, and then put pressure along the half-open b-file, using the principle of two weaknesses to create pressure. If needed Black also has the …f7-f5 break as an added resource he can use to try to put an end to my existence. So strategically Black is winning. Over the board, I figured my best chance in this position was to find a way to generate kingside counterplay and reroute my light-squared bishop to a more active position. 21.g3
Here I decided my only way to improve the position was to expand at the right moment with f2-f3 or f2-f4, but playing this move first leaves my options open. More importantly, this is the beginning of a long road trip for my bishop on d3, starting on f1, and re-entering the fray on g2. With the next few moves, my opponent made it clear that he didn’t know how to proceed. 21…Bc6 22.Bf1 Qd4 23.Bg2 Kg8 24.Rd1 Qg7 25.Rde1 Qd4 26.Rd1 Qg7 27.Rde1 Ba8 28.h3
As you can see, my opponent has done very little to improve the nature of his position, simply waiting for me to make a mistake. Of course, there’s nothing I can really do at the moment to punish him, but the more I continue to evolve my position the better suited it will be to fend off any attack from Black. With this move, I create a little room from my king on h2. I was considering 28. f4?! but after 28… Qd4 starts to get annoying and tactical complications ensue after …f7-f5. Though h1 seems like a suitable square for the monarch, it’s on the same diagonal as Black’s bishop, and I would rather avoid that if possible. With Black not doing much, I have time to place my pieces as I would like. Realizing I was planning f2-f4, my opponent lashed out with 28…g5? and then the party really started!
Even in my poor form, I immediately recognized this as a positional blunder. While temporarily stopping f2-f4, Black has just weakened his light squares around the king. Already I can think about mounting my g2 bishop on f5 where it would actually be a decent piece and at the very least give me very good drawing chances. Furthermore, thanks to 28. h3, I can put my king on h2 and consider opening the g-file at my own convenience. With this one move the entire dynamic of the game starts to change, and luckily for me, my opponent has yet to realize the gravity of the situation. 29.Kh2 Kh8 30.Qe2 Qg6 31.Qb2+ Qg7 32.Qe2 Kg8
If you compare this position to the previous diagram, you’ll see that Black’s position is identical to the one before it, while I’ve had the luxury of making two moves and am on turn to take a third. Here I decided to take control of the game with 33.f4 since now seemed the most logical time to change the structure in the game. Black’s ability to use his long-term trumps are starting to wear off, and it almost seems like the a8 bishop is every bit out of the game as mine on g2. 33…f6 34.Bf3 Kh8 35.Bh5?
Trying to execute a bishop pendulum before locking in on g4. Positionally not bad, but tactically problematic if Black finds 35…gxf4! the critical zwischenzug that turns the game upside down. Luckily for me, as the game has shown thus far, Black was beyond trying to proactively solve his problems and reacted to my threat as I had anticipated. 35…Rg8 36.Bg4 gxf4 37.gxf4 h5 38.Bf5
Not taking the pawn! Positionally it is much more important to have a bishop on f5 and control the critical light squares in the position. This enables my queen to enter the game on h5 if Black isn’t careful, which wasn’t an option if I had taken with the bishop. Tactically, Black probably retains an edge if after 38. Bxh5 f5! attempting to open the long light square diagonal. I awkwardly managed to set-up a defense until making this critical mistake some moves later. 38…Qh6 39.Rf1 Reg7 40.Rff3 h4 41.Qf2 Bb7 42.Be6?
Black to move and win. I’ll attach the answer further down in the article if you want to try and solve it first. Positionally though, my goal was to lock down the e-file by playing f4-f5 and use the f4 square for my rook to attack h4. This is precisely what happened in the game, but even from a positionally better side of the board, tactics are still everywhere! 42…Re8 43.f5 Bc8 44.Rf4 Rh7 45.Bf7!
I had seen this when I played 42. Be6, and perhaps I was too quick in missing its initial refutation. The game is now lost because Black cannot take on f7 without losing the queen via Rf4xh4 with a pin, and now my bishop will go to g6 and win the exchange. Sadly for Black, there are no practical winning chances once the position simplifies. 45…Re7 46.Bg6 Bb7 47.Bxh7 Rxh7 48.Rg4 1-0
And the game meets its rightful end. Black cannot save the h4 pawn, and my pressure on the kingside will be too much to handle. Black’s light-squared bishop, once the proudest piece in the position, now is utterly useless to aid Black in his struggles.
Not a particularly well-played game, but I thought it illustrated how at the 2100 level, how tactics and poor endgame technique still plague our games. And to some extent, the once abysmal d3 bishop’s road trip was quite amusing – it moved eleven times from d3 to reach h7 to win the game!
I’ve already thoroughly discussed endgames here on Chess^Summit, but if you missed my series on Carlsen, you can check them (in order) here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here – I swear they are all different links! It was a lot of fun putting together those articles, and it certainly helped my endgame play, and hopefully it can help you too! As for tactics, it’s a never ending improving process – speaking of which:
How easy it was to miss 44… Bxe4!!? Well, luck was certainly on my side this game.
I’m closing out this summer with my next tournament, the Washington International, before heading back to Pittsburgh for my fall semester. While I was flirting with the idea of trying the open section early in the summer, I’ve decided to compete in the U2200 section to iron out some of the weaknesses in my game. The Washington International is certainly the most accommodating tournament I’ve ever played in, and I’ve had this event marked on my calendar since I left Rockville last year. I’m hoping to make the most out of this tournament, and hopefully, it can be as good to me as it was last year! Until next time!