Beating the Chess Funk: Making an Agenda for Success

Well. It’s been another long week here at school, but in just a few hours I will finally be on my spring break and focus on my chess. Though I’m thrilled that the day-to-day stress of going to class and getting my homework done will be put on pause, there’s still the one big elephant in the room: my chess.

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The weather here in Pittsburgh has been very inconsistent, somehow reaching a balance of snow and 60-degree weather.

If I’m totally honest about it, I am not exactly pleased with my results and level of play over the last few weeks, especially considering the amount of time I’ve dedicated to my preparation. After an extremely disappointing third round last Saturday, I decided to do something I haven’t tried since the summer: stop.

With two exams this week, in addition to several other deadlines, I limited my chess to just fun excursions on chess.com and checking the results of the Aeroflot Open and Women’s World Championships. That’s right, no openings, tactics, endgames – nothing.

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Staying away from the chess board wasn’t easy, but I doing so meant I had time to draw for the first time in a very long time. Recognize some of these characters?

I’ve only tried this chess-free week once before, but it actually proved very helpful. Last summer, I had been putting in a lot of work into my play, but not really seeing any return in my results. After a 1.5/5 finish in the Open section of the Potomac Open, I decided to not study chess before my next tournament (aside from reviewing my games), the Washington International, which was scheduled for the following week. A risky decision, but the time gave me an opportunity to focus on reducing my overall stress and relax for my return to Rockville. In that tournament, I produced some of the best games I had played all summer, ending the season on a high note and a 40 point spurt.

That being said I don’t have a tournament tomorrow, so how will this work? What’s my goal? Well, next week is the Pittsburgh Open, and choosing to stay here on campus means I will have a lot of time to myself to improve on last Saturday’s performance at the Metropolitan Open. Given the level of competition, I’m going to need to review my main opening lines, work on my calculation, but most importantly, get more sleep! Getting back to top form won’t be easy, and it will take dedication, but this is the kind of work that will get me closer to winning the US Junior Open in June.

A Call from Home – Games from the MLWGS Green Dragons

As some of you may know, I take a lot of pride in what my high school chess team was able to achieve in the three years I served as team captain and coach, which is why I’m extremely happy to have the opportunity to analyze some of their games from this season today!

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In three years, the MLWGS Green Dragons won several State League Championships, the 2014 U1200 National High School Chess Championships, and placed 5th in the most recent U1600 National High School Chess Championships last April.

One aspect of the MLWGS team that makes it unique from other schools in Virginia is that during practice, the players play rated games against each other to improve their openings and tactical knowledge. While its extremely difficult to gain points in these once-a-week ladders, it gives the players a lot of tournament experience and confidence when they play in competitive events. For the first game today, we will analyze a rated game between Vishnu Pulavarthi and Trey Johnson.

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Trey Johnson (left) has been on fire all summer, gaining nearly 300 rating points since last May, while Vishnu Pulavarthi (center), after having taken the summer off, hopes to continue the success he had at the end of last school year.

Pulavarthi – Johnson (MLWGS Rated Games, 2015)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.Nf3

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Vishnu opts for the anti-Benoni Structure, planning to meet cxd4 with either Qxd4 or Nxd4 to reach a Maroczy structure. Such positions are usually considered extremely playable for White, so Black has to pose problems to get a good game.

4…d5

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A popular opening choice, but not one completely backed by the MegaDatabase and recent statistics. Most games in this line typically lend themselves to a White win or a draw, as the simplifications in the center usually don’t give Black much to work with dynamically. The second most common move is to take on d4, but I would like to suggest an alternative, 4… b6, hoping to reach a Reti structure for Black where development is simple. Black will fianchetto on both sides and enjoy a stable position.

5.Bg5 Be7 6.e3 O-O 7.Bd3

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A sign of great maturity to not break the tension in the center, but the e2 square is the better square for the bishop, as the queen on d1 can enter the fight with ease. One idea White has is to take on c5 in the future, using the c4 pawn, c3 knight, and the queen to put pressure on d5. By misplacing the bishop on d3, White removes an idea from his tactical arsenal.

7…Nc6 8.Ne5

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Perhaps inspired from Catalan positions, as the idea is that if Black takes the knight, dxe5 will remove a defender of the d5 pawn. I think here it becomes apparent that the bishop on d3 is misplaced, as having the queen active would have allowed for a sharper line, 8. dxc5, where the natural 8… Bxc5 leaves d5 exposed. Black’s best move is 8… h6, where after 9. Bxf6 Bxf6, the d3 bishop stops White from winning Black’s central pawn.

8…cxd4

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8… Nb4 looks like a decent move, threatening to win the bishop pair, but this would just force the bishop on to a much better square, leaving Black with no clear plan. With this move, Black punishes White for not having castled, and stands better.

9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.exd4 Ba6

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A great move! The bishop weakens the structure of the queenside, and Trey plans to employ an idea from the QGD Cambridge Springs, Qa5 and Bb4! Another move also worthy of consideration was 10… Rb8, with the idea of taking on c4 and pushing c6-c5, further exposing the king.

11.b3 Bb4 12.Qc2 Qa5 13.Bd2

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Here White is resigned to passivity, but how to proceed? After Trey’s move, …Nf6-e4, simplifications to the endgame favor White since the king is already centralized. Unfortunately, the right motif here involves a sacrifice that requires precise calculation. See if you can find it!

13…Ne4??

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This move goes from completely winning to losing. Black had to find 13… e5!!, after which 14. dxe5 dxc4! and White’s king is completely exposed. If white tries to take on c4, the e5 pawn hangs to the queen with check, and taking on f6 with 15. exf6 loses to 15… cxd3 and White’s queen is trapped behind its own fortress. If Black chooses to castle instead of taking the e5 pawn, e5-e4 is simply crushing as White suffocates in his own lack of space.

14.Nxe4 dxe4 15.Bxe4 Bxd2+ 16.Qxd2 Qxd2+ 17.Kxd2 Rad8

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Perhaps Trey saw up to here and thought he was better, but his bishop’s lack of squares and the fact he is down a pawn is enough for him to be worse. The winning plan is to play Kc3 and protect d4 so Black is stuck behind his c6 and e6 pawns. Black gets little activity and is bound to his c6 pawn.

18.Bxc6?

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A big mistake as White trades his strong point for Black’s biggest weakness. Black now gets an opportunity to double his rooks on the d-file and save the game. In the endgame, activity matters much more than material, and here Vishnu should have realized that the c6-pawn will always be weak, so this is not the opportune moment to grab it. 18. Kc3 would have been enough, followed by activating the rooks to the third rank via rook lift.

18…Rxd4+ 19.Kc3 Rfd8

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White now sees the power of Black’s activity. White should bring a rook to e1 and cover Black’s entry point on d2.

20.Bb5?

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White makes a mis-step here, trading his only active piece for Black’s worst piece. From c6, the bishop stops the a6 bishop from entering the action, but also stops Rd4-d2 because of the Bc6-d5 interference tactic. By trading bishops and doubling pawns, the queenside pawn majority will be slightly more difficult to convert.

20…Bxb5 21.cxb5 R4d5 22.a4 Rc8+ 23.Kb4 Kf8 24.Rac1 Rb8 25.Rc5 a5+?

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Black missed the opportunity to complicate the game, and in doing so loses the game. Trying to count on a cheap tactical shot, Black gives White a protected passed b-pawn, which is more than decisive. Much better would have been to play 25… Rd2 26. Rf1 g6 and if White tries to infiltrate with 27. Ka5, 27… Rb2 exposes White’s weaknesses (note that 27. Rc7 a6 28. Rc5 Ke7 also puts Black in a better position than in the game). White will have to surrender kingside pawns to activate the rook, giving Black reasonable chances to play for a win.

26.Kc4 Ke7?

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In endgames where you have fewer pawns, you generally don’t want to trade pieces, as with each trade, the extra pawns become more valuable. Here Black cements his fate by trying to bring out the king.

27.Rxd5 exd5+ 28.Kxd5 Kd7 29.Rc1 Rb6 30.Kc5 Kc7 31.b4 axb4 32.Kxb4+ Kb7 33.Rd1 Rf6 34.f3 Rf4+ 35.Ka5 Under 5 minutes, White stop notating, and went on to win the game. 1-0

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White has a clear winning endgame, as Black can never stop the two passed pawns. White will bring the rook to the seventh, confining the black king to the back rank, and then push his pawns to win the game.

A very back-and-forth game, as both sides had winning opportunities in each phase of the game. Considering that both players at the time were rated under 1100, I would say that both players played a little bit better than their level. What can we take away from this match?

  1. Putting your pieces on the right squares is crucial. In this game, White missed a lot of opportunities because the bishop was on d3, and not on e2.
  2. Don’t oversimplify. Trey cost himself a win when he put his knight on d4, offering White a pawn up endgame for no compensation. Just because its easier to calculate, doesn’t mean its better for you.
  3. Be active in the endgame. I think this game demonstrated the extremes of this before Black fell apart in the endgame. White took a really simple position and made it difficult by not developing his rooks and trading the bishop, his only developed piece.
  4. Lastly, tricks are for kids! I can’t stress this enough. Trey was practically lost when he played 25… a5?, but this cheap trick (which Vishnu saw immediately) cost him the key tempo to put his rook on d2, and really complicate the matter. Chances are, if the trick is simple and there is an easy way out, its not a move worth playing.

Wow, the most instructive analysis game so far, and we haven’t even gotten to the second game!

Our next game features the current MLWGS Chess Team Captain, and reigning MLWGS Chess Champion, Jeffrey Song. I’ve worked with Jeffrey since he joined the team as a freshman, and in recent months, his rating has skyrocketed, going from the low 1300s to the mid-1500s. As always, with every major rating jump comes a big adjustment to survive at the next level. Here’s a game from the high school junior from a tournament this past weekend.

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Jeffrey Song (right) playing Grandmaster Sergey Erenburg (left) in a MLWGS simul in December 2014.

Song – Phillips (Kemps Landing Scholastic and Quads, 2015)

1.f4

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Being a fan of the Dutch, Jeffrey employs the Bird’s Opening as White. Considered unsound by top grandmasters, Jeffrey uses this opening to reach unfamiliar positions from move 1. While the Bird’s is not effective at the top level, for a G/60 game among ~1500 rated players, this is a good opening choice.

1…d6 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d3 g6 4.e4

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By choosing to employ this structure, Jeffrey will not use a Stonewall, but rather an opening that resembles the Closed Sicilian. But if this is the desired position, then is makes much more sense to play 3. Nc3 g6 4. e4 because now White can meet Black’s Nb8-c6 with Bf1-b5, getting a true Grand Prix set-up. Here the bishop is not ideally placed, and should it be fianchettoed on g2, Black can play c7-c6 and e5 later to reach a less flexible position for White.

4…Nc6 5.Be2 Bg7 6.O-O O-O 7.Qe1

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White tries to go in for the attack here, but his pieces aren’t primed to do so. White’s plan is if Black pushes e7-e5, he will counter with f4-f5, shutting down the position with a massive attack on the kingside to follow. Unfortunately, with Black’s decision to play Nb8-c6 instead of d7, he loses the ability to play c5 and control the d4 square.

7…Bd7?!

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The bishop doesn’t really serve a purpose here on d7, and is much better served on g4. While this move wastes a tempo for Black, its hard to say what the long term plan should have been. My best guess is that since the position resembles a “flipped” Queen’s Indian, Bc8-g4 followed by e7-e6 can’t be too bad, as Black can aim for a d6-d5 push at the right moment, or engineer a double-edged f7-f5 break. Either way, without a white pawn on d4, this game is going to be slow paced compared to a King’s Indian if handled correctly.

8.Qh4 Bg4 9.c3 Qd7

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Connecting the rooks, but not truly changing the position. …e7-e6 would have been more effective, with the idea of moving the f6-knight and offering the queen trade. A sample line would go like 9… e6 10. h3 Bxf3 11. Bxf3 Nd7 12. Qg3 f5 and Black has a game, if 12. Ng5 is played to threaten checkmate, 12… h6 13. Nf3 Qxh4 14. Nxh4 Kh7, with the same idea of pushing for f5. Black has to solidify quickly to make up for lost time.

10.h3 Bxf3 11.Rxf3 e6 12.g4 b5

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A well intended positional move as Black’s goal is to attack the hook on c3. Unfortunately, there isn’t much venom here as White’s pawn storm on the kingside is much more critical. I’ve been reading “100 Chess Master Trade Secrets” by Andrew Soltis lately, and here I would like to apply his 6th ‘priyome’ (concept) to this position. Here Black faces the problem that if he does nothing, White will use his bishop pair and pawns to annihilate the kingside and win the game. Black doesn’t really have counter-attacking chances in this position as we see b7-b5 (which, by the way is another priyome, just much less effective here) doesn’t change the nature of the position. One option black does have though, is to play the move 12… d5. If White is compliant and plays 13. e5, a pawn thrust like f4-f5 becomes much more difficult to execute (in this position, we see that when the knight retreats, it would have been much more convenient to have the queen on d8 as the queen trade would be offered). If White chooses to be aggressive and play an immediate 13. f5, 13… dxe4 wins a pawn and busts open the center. Soltis’ 6th priyome states that when the opponent is pushing pawns so that he has pawns on e4, f4, and g4 (or e5, f5 and g5 if its the Black player), the first option to consider is if …d5 is playable, as it locks up the position.

13.Be3 Qe7

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Realizing that the queen needed to be on the same diagonal as the queen, Black plays this move at the cost of weakening his b5 pawn. This move isn’t bad if Black can hold on to the b-pawn, and can immediately move the f6 knight to offer the queen trade, and play f7-f5. While Black has lost a lot of time, the slow nature of the position has stopped him from falling completely off the grid. b5-b4 isn’t that helpful, because taking the pawn on c3 to create a weakness develops the knight on b1.

14.Nd2 a5 15.f5!

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Good technique! Even though Qh4 was premature, White waited to get the rest of his pieces out to time this push at the right moment. Black needed to be able to play …f7-f5 to hope for equality, and without this option now stands worse in the position. While this moves seems to be weakening the e5 square, White can always play d3-d4 later and reclaim it.

15…exf5 16.gxf5 Ne5 17.Rg3 Qd8 18.Bg5 c5

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Probably the best practical chance, but now Black can see the penalty for moving the bishop twice and the queen three times in the opening. While White’s pawn storm was aggressive, the game really came down to better piece play and maneuvering.

19.Nf3 Ned7 20.d4 cxd4 21.Bxb5?!

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After playing a strong game of chess, White begins to lost the thread of the game. There really wasn’t a need to take the b5 pawn when cxd4 followed by e4-e5 was simple enough. Black gets a tempo back with this move … Qb6, getting out of the pin and preparing to expose the king.

21…Qb6 22.Nxd4 Nh5 23.fxg6??

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White loses all of the advantage, and is actually losing here! If Black plays 23… fxg6, the f8 rook springs to life and the White king is truly exposed. With White’s pieces all over the board from having gone after the b5 pawn, it becomes much more difficult to regroup and protect the kingside.

23…Bxd4+ 24.cxd4 Qxd4+?

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Going from an unclear or slightly better position to a completely losing one. After White’s next move, its Black that has the exposed king, and the knight on h5 will fall as well.

25.Be3 1-0

This is a difficult game to assess because after White’s preparation panned out, Jeffrey was not the most effective in the conversion process, nearly costing himself a win. Black on the other hand, played passively for most of the game, but was at least willing to take some chances before the game was over. Considering the game was at a much higher level than the last one, the takeaways are also a little more complex:

  1. Don’t just count on opening preparation! This game felt like a cookie-cutter attack gone wrong, as White lost objectivity when he took on b5, opening the game back up. Furthermore, with Black opening with 1… d6, White missed some opportunities to transpose into more challenging lines by playing quickly.
  2. Don’t waste tempi. Black moved the same pieces multiple times throughout the game, costing him an opportunity to play for the initiative out of the opening. I can commiserate with Black having to play against an unfamiliar opening and not knowing what to do, but playing a few tempi down is always going to be difficult.
  3. The …d5 ‘priyome’ against the kingside pawn storm is definitely an advanced idea that was much needed in this game for Black to stay competitive. If you’re interested in other such positional concepts, I highly recommend Soltis’ book. With the exception of the quizzes, this book is easy to read without a chess board, and really instructive!
  4. The game is over when the opponent is checkmated, runs out of time, resigns, or agrees to a draw. I’m definitely not the one to be saying this as I’ve fallen prey to late mistakes in winning positions, but White needed to see this game out before making artificial decisions. Taking on b5 and relieving the tension on the kingside were both moments that let Black into the game, really showing how it takes only one mistake to lose a game – even at this level.

These were some great games, and I hope to see more next week for my next game analysis! Make sure to send your games to chess.summit@gmail.com, and if you’re lucky, I’ll choose your game to be featured next week.

Chess Season Starts Saturday

Well, not literally. Chess is all year round, but everything will be in full swing after this weekend. This weekend I will play in the Kingstowne Chess Festival, and I will round out the month with the Washington Chess Congress and the Emporia Open. In addition to my tournaments, my school team is hosting its first free chess clinic of the school year on Monday, and will have a match against George Mason University on Wednesday.

With a loaded schedule, here is what I hope to accomplish by December:

1) Break 2000

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but with five tournaments on my agenda between now and December, earning 55 points seems perfectly reasonable. By breaking the expert threshold, I could be ranked as high as 60th nationally for my age when I turn 18 in November.

2) Beat a Titled Player

This was also one of my summer goals. However, with my only chance being my Virginia Closed opening round against Grandmaster Sergey Erenburg, I still have yet accomplish this feat. With a much more solid opening repertoire and tactical arsenal, I think I’m in a much better position to accomplish this goal.

3) Earn my first Candidate Master Norm

One of my long term goals is to earn the CM title before I head to college next year. Earning a norm now means getting a title later.

With my chess calendar full, I’m looking forward to the competition.

Teaching Group Classes

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For starters, sorry for the hold–up on the posts. This past week, I’ve been directing Dragon Chess Camp (see teachmechess.com) as a fundraiser for my school. Between my school friends and I, we helped teach 40 campers (double that of last year) how to play better chess.

Yesterday, as we were running our end of camp tournament (see results here), a highly rated player from a nearby high school asked me how I prepared a curriculum for my class. I thought that I would share my answers to you all in this post.

In my class, I taught five students rated 820–1280, and had to prepare nine and a half hours of curriculum to fill the blocks of the camp. As I developed my lesson plans, I made a couple observations that made it both easier for me to teach, but also made the material more accessible for the students.

1) Use your own games as exemplars

Stay away from the Grandmaster games. Yes, they are high quality, and yes, the tactics are spectacular, but for a class rated 1000 on average, its asking a lot for them to grasp your points. Mistakes made by Grandmasters are generally really subtle.

By using your own games, you don’t need to calculate every move before the lesson because you are already familiar with the position. Also, if you’ve gone over the game with your opponent, you might be able to talk about what your opponent was thinking, and whether it was good or bad. You can’t do that by picking up games on ChessBase. Furthermore, the blunders that you and your opponent make are far more easy to understand.

2) Explain Basic Themes

For kids rated about 1000, the biggest problem is generally hanging pieces. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can dedicate a week’s course to not hanging pieces, but you can at least show them how to get in positions where they won’t lose material.

For this week, my main theme was optimization, putting pieces on their best possible squares in the opening, so they don’t have to be rerouted later. One issue I’ve noticed with scholastic players is that they love developing their bishops to e2 or d2, even though there is no plan with that piece. Furthermore, they usually box in this bishop with their center pawns and play practically down a bishop with limited space. So in my first lesson, I showed a game where I optimized my pieces, and where my opponent played the aforementioned passive structure. By talking about optimization, I was able to teach the concepts of space, pawn structure, and thematic opening ideas for the rest of week.

The key is, have one major theme, and all the sub–themes should connect back to it. More connections will help the kids learn.

3) Ask questions

If you lecture, your students will sleep. Try to let the students collectively talk as much as you are. This is hard to do, but if you can make the kids feel like they are beating the 1800+ rated player and not you, it will be a lot more exciting for them.

4) Assign Homework

This past week I assigned some pawn endings and interesting studies to get the kids thinking as a warm–up. Even if the homework is really hard. Having a crazy tactic to start the day might impress upon the kids. The critical point is to talk about the ideas behind the right move and show the students why it works and other variations don’t.

5) Practice Games

Get the kids to play practice games against each other, in tournament–like conditions. This will not only help you gauge the talent of your players, but also give you an opportunity to work one–on–one during game analysis. While it is critical to show them the best moves throughout the game, it is even better if you can connect the moves back to your lesson.

With those five tips you can be well on your way towards teaching a group lesson!

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment!

 

Brooklyn Castle – A Movie Review

This is a fun documentary to watch! Brooklyn Castle tells the story of the IS 318 Chess team from New York, and their ascent to chess dominance despite overwhelming economic setbacks. Having coached a national championship team, I was able to relate to this movie easily, as this documentary depicts the raw emotions of teenage players while undergoing tremendous pressure to perform. IS 318 symbolizes what chess teams should be at schools nationwide. Their top players are all rated nearly 2000, and in total, the team has over 40 members. If you’ve ever been on a competitive chess team, I’d highly recommend this documentary!