China’s Ascension to the Top

I thought for today’s post, I’d share an ongoing development in chess – China’s sudden emergence as one of the world’s strongest national teams. China really caught my eye this summer with Wei Yi’s immortal game against Bruzon Batista, in addition to their 29-21 thumping of Russia last July. While the national team lost steam in their match against eventual World Cup winner Sergey Karjakin, I feel like the World Cup tiebreaker between Wei Yi and Ding Liren more than demonstrated the true strength that the country has to offer.

China has had a lot to offer to chess over the last few years, but their top players haven’t emerged at the top level tournaments on a regular basis (i.e. Sinquefield Cup, 2015 FIDE Grand Prix, Gashimov Memorial, etc). Former Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan may prove to be an exception, but her performances in the recent Tata Steel and the Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting proved she has a long ways to go to compete with the very best.

Two time Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan may be one of the most famous players in China besides Wei Yi, but who else is ready to compete at the top level?

When I was younger (seven years ago), I remember hearing a lot about Bu Xiangzhi through the Internet Chess Club summaries of major tournaments – particularly a game he played against Vassily Ivanchuk, where he managed to lose in the first nine moves! Bu for the most part has not been active on the highest level since 2010, but since then, quite a few young players have drawn the spotlight of the Chinese chess scene: Wei Yi, Wang Hao, Ni Hua, Yu Yangyi to just name a few.

At sixteen, Wei Yi is already being compared to Magnus Carlsen. Can the fan favorite live up to the hype?

I think that the recent renaissance of chess in China will see it offer a challenger to the World Chess Championships within the next four years. You’ve probably (and hopefully) already seen Wei Yi’s immortal game, so here are two games by two different Chinese Grandmasters that I think have a lot of potential in the near future.

Ding Liren

Ding might be one of the most modest chess players I’ve seen over the years, which makes him just as dangerous to play against over the board. When asked in a New in Chess interview about Wei Yi following the 16 year old’s ascension to 2700, Ding said:

“Maybe I’m just a little stream or a little hill in front of him and it’s just a matter of time for Wei Yi to pass me.” –New in Chess, 2015 Magazine #6

Even if this is true, Ding Liren is still the 8th best player in the World, and of all the players on the Chinese National team, the most deserving of international attention. Back in January, Ding tied for second in the Tata Steel with 8.5/13, only a half point behind Magnus Carlsen. In that tournament, Ding posted 7 wins (more than any other of his adversaries) including victories over Radjabov, Aronian, and Wojtaszek. In his book, After Magnus, Anish Giri praises Ding Liren as “one of the best players of our time”.

Its only a matter of time before Ding Liren qualifies for the Candidates tournament. The real question is, will Wei Yi beat him there?

Ding Liren – Boris Gelfand (Ding Liren–Gelfand, 2015)

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Qc2 Bd6 7.Bd3 O-O 8.O-O dxc4 9.Bxc4 b5

Gelfand grabs a tempo here to gain space, but the downfall to making this b7-b5 push is that the c8 bishop lacks active squares.
Gelfand grabs a tempo here to gain space, but the downfall to making this b7-b5 push is that the c8 bishop lacks active squares.

10.Bd3 Bb7 11.a3 h6 12.Rd1 a6 13.b4

Ding Liren plays b2-b4 to stop any opportunity for Black to play c6-c5. If Gelfand can open this long light square diagonal, he can put a lot of pressure on the f3 knight.
Ding Liren plays b2-b4 to stop any opportunity for Black to play c6-c5. If Gelfand can open this long light square diagonal, he can put a lot of pressure on the f3 knight.

13…a5 14.Rb1 axb4 15.axb4 Nd5 16.Nxd5 exd5

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Definitely the right way to take as cxd5 would forever block in the b7 bishop and create an isolated pawn on b5. This move does have its own problems though. Black’s bishop on b7 will likely need to relocate back to c8 to become active, and Gelfand now has a backwards pawn on c6. White has a weak pawn and a bad c1 bishop, but I prefer White here.

17.Bh7+ Kh8 18.Bf5 Re8 19.Bd2 Nb6 20.Ne5 Bxe5 21.dxe5

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A positional pawn sacrifice. By clearing the d4 square, White begins to open the long dark squared diagonal for his bad bishop. Meanwhile Black still has yet to solve his problems.

21…Rxe5 22.Bc3 Re8 23.Ra1 Qe7 24.Bd4 Nc4 25.Qc3 Qg5 26.Bc2 Kg8 27.Rxa8 Rxa8 28.Ra1 Rxa1+ 29.Qxa1

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Black’s knight on c4 seems annoying but it really doesn’t pose a threat to White’s position. Black’s pieces are not coordinated while White’s bishops bear down on the kingside and the queen can attack from the sides with the a-file.

29…Qg4 30.h3 Qe2 31.Bf5 Nd6 32.Bg4 Qd2 33.Qa7 h5 34.Qb8+ Kh7 35.Bxh5

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White bites the bullet. In all honesty, Black is playing down a piece and White’s defenses are too strong.

35…Ne4 36.Qf4 Qe1+ 37.Kh2 Qxf2 38.Bxf7 Qxf4+ 39.exf4

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White invites the queen trade. With the bishop pair, Ding Liren takes no risks in this endgame.

39…Nd6 40.Be6 Bc8 41.Bxc8 Nxc8 42.Bc5!

The final straw. White's bishop covers all of the knights squares and leaves Gelfand in passivity as Ding gets the time he needs to advance his kingside pawns.
The final straw. White’s bishop covers all of the knights squares and leaves Gelfand in passivity as Ding gets the time he needs to advance his kingside pawns.

42…Kg6 43.g4 Kf7 44.f5 Kf6 45.h4 Ke5 46.h5 d4 47.Kg3 1-0

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Gelfand resigns here as every move loses. For instance, if 47… Ke4 48. Kf2 Kd3 49. f6! and either the f- or the h-pawn will promote. if 47… Kf6 48. Kf4! The pawn isn’t going anywhere 48…d3 49. g5+ Kf7 50. Ke3 and Black cannot defend the kingside march.

A nice display from Ding Liren! In the New in Chess article about Ding Liren, there was mention that Gelfand was injured after two draws into the match, but I don’t think that it takes away from the quality that Ding brought to this game. From what was seemingly an equal position, Gelfand was constantly punished for having a bad light square bishop, while White managed to sacrifice a pawn for activity. Instructive stuff!

Lu Shanglei

If you’ve heard of Lu Shanglei before, I’m quite impressed. To be quite honest, he only caught my attention when he held Veselin Topalov in the 2015 World Cup to force a tiebreak. Despite losing that match, Lu pushed Topalov to the edge, and the duration of that match likely played a small role in Veselin’s exit the following round against eventual finalist Peter Svidler. A relative unknown to the greater chess world, Lu Shanglei is the 16th best blitz player in the world, making his 2599 standard rating seem extremely deceiving. I don’t think he’ll be playing for the candidates tournament anytime soon, but at the age of 19, I think he will have plenty of time to reach 2700 and play with the best.

Lu Shanglei proved he can take the world’s best in the recent World Cup. How will he build on that performance?

Mikhail Kobalia – Lu Shanglei (Aeroflot Open, 2015)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Nd7 4.O-O a6 5.Bd3 Ngf6 6.c3 e5 7.Bc2 b5 8.d4 Bb7 9.Qe2 Be7 10.dxe5 dxe5

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We’ve reached a critical position where Black has a weak d5 square, but White is behind in development. Lu Shanglei hopes to use combined pressure against the e4 pawn and the d-file to get an initiative.

11.Rd1 Qc7 12.c4?!

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I don’t think I like this move. White’s trump in the position was that he could play for d5 while the d4 square was covered by the c3 pawn. With this move, Kobalia surrenders his hold on the center and suffers a space disadvantage.

12…b4 13.Nbd2 O-O 14.Nf1 Rfd8 15.Bg5 h6 16.Bh4 a5 17.Ne3 a4 18.Nd5 Bxd5 19.exd5 Bd6

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The point of taking on d5. Lu Shanglei places his bishop on d6 to blockade the passed pawn while creating the threat of e5-e4, putting pressure on h2.

20.Bg3 Re8 21.Bf5 Nb6 22.Nd2 e4!!

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A brilliant shot! White cannot take the pawn thanks to the pin on the e-file. If 23. Nxe4 Nxe4 24. Bxe4 f5! and the pressure is just too much.

23.Bxd6 Qxd6 24.Bh3 g6 25.g3 Re7 26.a3 b3 27.Nb1 Ne8 28.Nc3 Qe5 29.d6 Nxd6

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White makes a short-term pawn sacrifice, but in the last few moves, its become increasingly clear how weak White is in the center. With moves like …b3, Lu Shanglei has made the pawn on c4 weak while dominating the long dark squared diagonal.

30.Nd5 Nxd5 31.Rxd5 Qf6 32.Rxc5 Qd4 33.Rc6 Rd8 34.Rd1 Nf5!

Brilliant! Black is winning in all lines. White has nothing better than give the two rooks for the queen.
Brilliant! Black is winning in all lines. White has nothing better than give the two rooks for the queen.

35.Rxd4 Nxd4 36.Qe3 Nxc6 37.Qc5 Rd1+ 38.Kg2 e3 39.fxe3 Rd2+ 40.Kg1 Rxb2

Who needs knights? Here the passed b3 pawn is the much bigger threat, and White lacks any coordination to do anything with his short-term material advantage.
Who needs knights? Here the passed b3 pawn is the much bigger threat, and White lacks any coordination to do anything with his short-term material advantage.

41.Qxc6 Rc2 42.Bf1 b2 43.Qc5 Re6 44.Qc8+ Kg7 45.Qb8 Rxe3 46.Qf4 Re1 0-1

A great display from Lu Shanglei! What made this game truly enjoyable for me was how he was able to combine long-term positional strategies with tactics to seize the advantage. Once White tried 12. c4, Black’s play seemed really fluid, and Kobalia really wasn’t able to make a real effort to win the game.

If anything’s clear, its only a matter of time before the best of the Chinese team make regular appearances at the top level. The thought of Yu Yangyi, Wei Yi, or Wang Hao taking on a Fabiano Caruana or Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is already making my mouth water.

Like this article? Make sure to check out my gofundme page to help me get to New Orleans for the 2016 US Junior Open!

Isaac’s Mailbag, 2nd Edition

If you read my blog last week, I introduced a new segment to my blog, Isaac’s Mailbag. Each week, I will answer 4 questions which I have been asked about chess. Without further ado, let’s get started!

1) What do you have against 1. e4 e5 for Black?

This often comes up when I talk about openings. The problem I have with 1 e4 e5 for Black is that after 2 Nf3, there is not exactly a dynamic positional approach for Black. Against the Ruy Lopez, Black can try the g6 lines, but as seen in the Nakamura–Carlsen game of the Sinquefield Cup, Carlsen could not get an advantage after trading the light squared bishop. The Four Knights and Giucco Piano does not really offer too much variety, and the Two Knights Defense relies a lot on prior memorization. This doesn’t even account for the King’s Gambit, where White forces the game into tactical game early. My problem with 1… e5 is Black doesn’t control the kind of position as much as he can in a Sicilian, French, or even a Scandinavian. The same lines get boring after a while.

2) Chess season is starting, and I’m a chess mom who needs help coaching kids rated below 1400. What would you recommend?

Many scholastic clubs are starting, but often times coaches don’t know where to start. Here is the ChessKid Curriculum. Many coaches use this for private lessons, and while it is kind of a cookie-cutter course, it does provide a framework to start with. If you have a competitive middle school club, try getting a USCF Affiliate to play rated games. Rated games are the best way to practice, and will force your players to calculate.

3) What is the coolest tactic you’ve seen this week?

Grandmaster Andrei Volokitin found this nice gem against Mushgev Asgarov in the 2014 Baku Chess Festival. See if you can find Volokitin’s brilliancy before seeing the answer (position courtesy of!

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1. Qc5!! and the game is over. If 1… Qxc5 2. Rd8#, and 1… Qc6 runs into 2. Rd8+ +- anyways. The knight cannot move as a result of the pin, so Black is totally lost. Good job Volokitin!

4) Who won the Bilbao Masters Last week?

Former World Chess Champion Vishy Anand drew easily to Ruslan Ponomariov in Round 5 to guarantee a first place finish. The section featured a total of four players: Anand, Ponomariov, Levon Aronian, and Francisco Vallejo Pons.

Feel free to leave your questions in the comments section if you want to have a question answered next week!

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!

Why Having a Team Can Make You Better


If you are a chess player from the Greater Richmond Area, you may know that I’m a team guy when it comes to chess at my school, MLWGS. I think that during my three years in the program, my perspective on why I played chess and how well I played changed as result of being on a team.

In middle school, I kind of hit a dry spell, and my rating stayed between 1250 and 1450 for three to four years. There weren’t many serious tournaments in Richmond, and frankly because of that, I didn’t have a reason to feel like I needed to be any better to improve at the scholastic level. A lot of coaches say that you have to give up scholastic chess to get beyond 1200, but honestly, I don’t think that’s entirely true.

In my three years at MLWGS, I have been a captain, a tournament director, and a coach to try to help my teammates get better. Most of the players on the team have hit the 1000 rating mark since I started coaching, some of whom have only been playing competitively for a year or less! This year, those guys won the U1200 National High School Chess Championships in San Diego, CA.

So how is that experience beneficial for any 1700+ rated player? In truth, I’ve gotten as much out of the program as anyone else has this year, and here’s the secret: coaching. By being a coach, you are forcing yourself to articulate why some ideas are good while others are bad in such a way that a lower rated player can understand.  It sounds silly, but honestly, by hearing yourself repeating the same ideas over and over again, you actually begin to hear yourself. Let me explain:

On a piece of paper, write down three concepts that you think are the most critical to playing a solid opening and three more for planning during the middle game (for example, one of mine is optimization, which is developing your pieces to their best possible squares so they are ready to use in the middle game). Now look over all the games that you have lost against higher rated players over the past year, and bookmark it if you lost as a result of failing to adhere to your three most valued opening principles or middle game stratagems. Surprisingly many, right?

When I started coaching my team, I was rated in the mid–1700s, and as I coached more, I quickly broke 1900 (October 2013). Though I did have to do a fair amount of bookwork on the side, coaching really helped me identify my gray areas as a chess player. Another crucial reason of how coaching a team is beneficial for highly rated players is that it makes you more competitive. As my school team became stronger and stronger this year, I also became more motivated to find my own ways to excel and improve (my team was winning tournament after tournament, shouldn’t I try too?). While my team was busy winning the U1200 National High School Chess Championships, I was meeting my goal of finishing in the Top 100 of the Championship section with a score of 4.5/7 (I placed 76th).

Playing at the scholastic level after breaking 1300 seldom reaps rewards, but sometimes it isn’t the playing that always matters. As long as you save time for yourself to study, coaching helps you improve as both a teacher and a player.


Feel like I missed something? Feel free to leave a comment below!