To end 2012 with a bang, I decided to play in the Empire City Open tournament…I missed OTB chess a bit, having not played for almost a month because of all the December holidays. I finished in the shared second place in the U1900 group with 5 points out of 6 rounds (4 wins and two draws). My goal was to take the first place as I was one of the highest rated players in the group- 7th seed by rating, but two draws came along and I had to accept the second place. Still, it’s a very good result, and this performance is much better than my previous scores at other tournaments in the same rating group earlier this past year (where I also did pretty well). I think it will be useful to share my loose thoughts on how to approach this kind of event and what to do to (almost) win it. My advice may be less useful for players in rating sections other than the 1600-1900 rating group that I played in. There are several issues which I think are important and I’m going to list them below.
1. King safety.
This may sound trivial to some but I cannot stress enough how important it is. The goal of this game is to get your opponent’s king and to not let them get yours. You should start thinking about this right in the opening- which side do I castle on, what kind of pawn formation will I have in front of my king, which pieces (Nf3, Nc3, something else? )will be protecting the castle that my king lives in ? You have to be serious about it. Once you have a fianchetto formation in front of your king, will you be risking too much of your safety by pushing your h-pawn one square ahead? Are there any nasty back rank mates on the horizon that your opponent is waiting to catch you off-guard with? You have to be super-vigilant about this, because if you want to win your game, you have to not lose it first. Check if your opponent has been equally careful about this- are there any weak squares around their king? Can you prevent them from castling? Can you provoke them to push the pawns in front of their king ? It may seem like I’m spending so much time writing about such an elementary issue that every player has heard of hundred of times, yet I see players failing to take care of their king again and again. These are the positions from my 3 different games with White pieces from this tournament:
I’d take White over Black in any of these positions looking at kings placement only. I scored 2.5/3 out of these games. Another good aspect of having your king safe is just one less thing to worry about during your game- you can focus on calculating your attacks on the exposed king of your opponent, not the other way around. So keep your king safe, it will make your game easier.
2. Play for a win at all costs.
If you want to win a 6-round tournament, you can’t expect to achieve it with a score of less than 5 points. I scored 5 points out of 6 games and it only earned me a shared second place. So you cannot give points away, you cannot be lazy and agree to draws, your attitude should be to push for a win in every situation. If you have a theoretically drawn rook endgame, play it for an extra hour, there is always a chance your opponent will slip, it’s very easy to do. If you see no way through other than sacrificing material to get a winning chance, you should seriously consider doing that. Players at this level are not computers and most of them don’t defend correctly. In my 3rd round I had already had a draw from the second round when I got this position with Black to play:
Black is not worse, but he has very little to do- his queen can’t move, neither can his rook from f6, the rook from f8 can move along the back rank but it doesn’t lead anywhere, there aren’t many squares the knight from e7 can go to either. My opponent would have been content with a draw here, but I couldn’t afford that. I decided to risk with 30..Nh5 31.g4 fxg4 32.hxg4 Nxf4 33.exf4 Rxf4 sacrificing my knight for a couple of pawns. There is no direct win in sight and it’s a purely intuitive sacrifice, counting on opening the lines towards the king and pinning the g2 bishop with my heavy pieces along the g-file. I didn’t see a win here, but saw no other way to win. It took a long time for my opponent to make a mistake under pressure of the attack, but he finally did it. I won in another 60 moves. By the way, it’s interesting to see that the point 1- king safety- is relevant here as well- White pawns in front of the king have been pushed ahead and are easy to break with the attacking knight, while the Black ones at g7 and h7 provide excellent security for the king, while the knight from e7 will go to g8 in case of a check from the back rank.
5P: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. By the time you have reached this rating level, you have most likely developed your own opening repertoire. Work on it, it really greatly helps your confidence to be able to play the first 10 moves in two minutes without thinking( but knowing what you’re doing, of course) while having your opponent spend 20 minutes on as many moves. When you know the book moves and the main variations that you know are good, you will recognize inferior moves on the spot and then you can stop and think how you want to deal with them. You should know at least the first 10 moves or so in every variation of your repertoire, White or Black (Black perhaps probably deeper than White, because with White there is a broader range of Black’s responses that you have to deal with). Few weeks before the tournament, think about your openings and write down on a piece of paper which ones you need to work on- what have you been recently having problems with ? Before this tournament, I worked out my lines in the Alehkine, Caro-Kann, French and its subvariations, Scandinavian as White and refreshed my main line Accelerated Dragon and Grunfeld lines as Black. None of these openings appeared on the board during the tournament, but I had a pleasant feeling that I was never caught off-guard in the opening because I played book moves in every single one of them. I’m not saying that all of your study time should be spent on finding novelties in the Najdorf from the last Ukrainian Junior Championship, but be accurate within the variations that you have as your own- for example if you play Two Knights variation against the Caro-Kann don’t play secondary stuff like 5.d3 after 1. e4 c6 2. Nc3 d5 3. Nf3 Bg4 4. h3 Bh5 , etc, etc.
4.Endgames. I’m terrible at endgames and need to work on them the most. I hate when the game reaches that stage and I don’t understand anything. Yet it does happen all the time- all of my games at this tournament went beyond 40 moves and two out of my six games reached R+p vs R+p endgames. And this is where the half-point differences between wins or draws or draws or losses are decided. If I knew anything about the endgame, in this position with White to play:
I would have considered playing the best move Kc2, understanding that it’s OK to give up the d4 pawn, because the Black rook will not be allowed back into the 3rd rank to attack my queenside pawns which are much more important here. Instead I played the automatic Rg4 and was forced to give up the g-pawn soon and later even got into a lot of trouble having to fight for a draw. So I clearly have to work hard on the endgame if I want to get that extra half-point and I would recommend the same to all of the players rated less than 2000.
5.Tactics. I don’t need to explain to anybody that it’s necessary to be tactically sharp at all times in these games. There will be positions on the board with opportunities for you that may not happen again in a given game, so you don’t want to miss these. They don’t have to be hair-raising positions from Tal’s games, most of the time these will be seemingly simple positions which you will not find in a puzzle book, but accuracy will make a difference between better and worse result. In my 2nd round game in the following position I was White:
I had just sacrificed an exchange and needed to make time control, but the pressure of the clock cannot be the reason to playing the wrong move. I played 30.Qxe4 without thinking- this is the key problem- not thinking about what you’re doing, in every position you have to stay focused and think about the move alternatives. I didn’t think about the alternatives here- his pawn wants to take my queen,but it’s my move so I’ll take the pawn first! This is not taking everything the position has into consideration. My opponent’s rooks are not connected, neither of them has protection, his king is on the d-file- if my pawn from d4 magically disappeared, I could check it with my rook from d1 , etc. I did not think about anything like that. If I did, maybe I would have found a move which gives me an advantage- 30.Qb3.
To stay sharp, you have to have time assigned in your training to regular sessions of solving tactical examples from puzzle books/ software and going over grandmaster games and asking yourself why a certain move was or wasn’t played. In a week (at least) before tournament you have to increase the number of puzzles you do every day and the time you spend on them, to get used to having to deal with positions. I’m in strong favor of solving the positions by setting them up on a real board instead of having them on the computer screen- you will be playing your games on the board, not the computer, get used to that. Set the position as you found it in the book, stare at it for how long you need to (without moving the pieces), choose the move to play, write it down, set the next position, and so on. At the end of the session check the answers. Also, when you study grandmaster games, whether it’s for tactics or for anything else, doing it on a computer screen is an easy but yet again, inefficient way to do it. Think about it- all the technology is being made for us because we are lazy and we want to get everything easily. But studying chess is meant to be hard, there’s no escape from this. Scrolling over the moves with your mouse you will miss the point of the half of them if not more. Play them on the real board, move pieces from one square to another and think why, like you will during your tournament game. And one more thing- I’ve heard lots of times people talking how playing blitz improves their tactical ability. Maybe it works for Nakamura, but for the U1900 mortals this only develops bad habits- playing too much blitz will make you move too fast in your slow game (or move too slow, relying on your blitz skills to save you in the end, but why put yourself under pressure deliberately?). And in a blitz game you really don’t see all of the complexity of the position, 3 or 5 minutes that you have to spend for the entire blitz game will be easily spent on a single move in a serious game, so its training value is really questionable. Instead of playing a 5min blitz game, which takes 10 mins of your time, you could spend it on solving 2 puzzles from the book and this will be time better spent. If you have to play online, play slower games- at least 20 mins, and then have them saved to your database where you should analyze and annotate them immediately after you have played them.
6.Time management- play smart, play slow.
Time control you get in these tournaments is 2 hours for the first 40 moves and an extra hour after you have made these 40 moves and the game is still going, plus there is a 5 second delay on each move. This is the slowest of all the different time controls I’ve had in my games, and for old and slow guys like me, this is a blessing. I’d work hard to hopefully get an advantage by move 30, then will make the 10 moves to reach time control, and then will be rewarded with an extra hour to finish the game off. In my opinion, in general you should not move fast in this type of game, with an exception of an opening when you’re still in your theory, and in situations where there is just one sensible move (e.g. recapture) to be made. Other than that, don’t rush, you have plenty of time, be in charge of the clock instead of the clock being in charge of you. Let’s say that you have made your first 10 theoretical moves in 5 minutes. The time on your clock has decreased by only 4% but the number of moves you have to make to reach move 40 is now smaller by 25% already. This means that starting from move 11, which reaches a position which you have never seen before, you can spend more time on thinking. And don’t hesitate to do that, there are positions where you just don’t see a plan or have hard time calculating all of the variations. Calm down, you have time, stop looking at the board, look away focusing on calming yourself down and then return your sight and thoughts to the board. I had this situation a few times during this tournament when I would stare at the position for 5 minutes and couldn’t decide what was really going on, so I would turn my eyes toward the ceiling and focus on breathing for the next 2-3 minutes. Just think about the air coming in and out, nothing else. Then look at the board again, and often you’ll see things you didn’t before. In my experience if I had 3mins remaining for each move till making time control, that was a safe enough cushion to have. In one game I had less than an hour remaining before reaching move 20, but I understood that this was necessary because the positions in it were very sharp and making one mistake would have detrimental effects. I took my time and by the time I played move 40, I was 3 pawns up. You may be used to playing fast games too much where people with better positions would often lose because of their low time on the clock- there is much less of it here, where your opponent will usually have enough time to finish you off once you gave them an opportunity, so the real emphasis should be put on playing the best moves possible. So, when it seems that your opponent is approaching time trouble, let’s say it’s move 30 and they have less than 10 mins, don’t fool yourself that you can win the game on the clock by making moves fast- they have played a good number of games like this in their life before and probably play bullet games on the internet like everyone else, they are aware of their clock, but of you’re not aware of everything in the position and rush the moves, once you are past move 40 you will be punished for making the position easy for them. Ignore their seemingly difficult situation on the clock and focus on making the board situation difficult for them instead. Also, I think you should repeat the position to get closer to time control whenever possible- if you are at move 20 and make two moves that don’t change your position but you don’t spend any time on them, you just cut the number of required moves by 10% and your time remains the same. An important psychological moment may arise right after move 40- you have just been given an extra hour, that’s a lot of time, don’t rush, you’re not under pressure anymore, go stretch your legs, get a snack, there is still a long game ahead of you, you don’t want to blow it up by rushing with moves that will have consequences you’ll never be able to deal with.
7. Non-chess stuff that may be not important that you think it is.
We all heard about things that help you play better- drinking a lot of coffee or orange juice, sleeping a lot before the games, eating salmon or wearing your hockey team’s jersey to the game. Hard to say whether any of these things matter, but if they do for you, take care of them ahead of time so you won’t have to think about them when you’ll have to be focused on playing. So a week before the tournament make a list of foods to eat, yoga exercises to make, inspirational movies to watch, clothes to wear etc. so when you win you can tell everyone how important it was on your way to the win. Good luck and have fun playing chess in 2013!