Over the Memorial day weekend, I played in the Washington Open, which is a three-day, six-round chess tournament with time control of G/120+10, SD/30. 2 hours to each player to make all their moves with 10 seconds increment added per move, and you each gain 30 minutes extra if you go to 40 moves. Two rounds per day, one in the morning and one in the early evening, and games can go as long as five hours (my longest is 4.5 hours, which I had in the 2022 Washington Open).
Last year I finished with 3.0/6.0 (really 2.5/5.0 with a half point bye added) and got 2nd place in the U1000 bracket of the U1200 section. This year they adjusted the sections, so I played in the U1400 section (lowest possible) but did not qualify for any of the sub-brackets, since my state rating is 1200+ and the lowest sub-bracket was U1200. No big deal.
My specific preparation for the tournament was minimal at best, but I took about 3-4 days to prepare openings a bit more than usual, especially against 1. d4 as black, and did more tactics training than usual, which I generally neglect.
I made the conscious decision not to look up anyone’s ratings or online play before any of the rounds if I didn’t know the opponent; I don’t think at my level it matters at all, and if anything, it gives me the yips. I treat everyone opponent with equal respect and seriousness; I think that’s by far the best way to go.
Let’s get into it.
Day One: Rounds 1-2
Round One: Evelyn Huttelmaier
I’m not gonna spend much time here, because it was a 13 move game. I spent 44 minutes on this position, which is my longest single-move think ever:
This beat my record of 39 minutes in the 2022 Washington Open against Andrew Smith where I was calculating three different sacrifices inside the first 15 moves (and ultimately didn’t play any, which was correct).
Obviously this position is totally winning for white, but I wanted to remove any counterplay and to be sure of my next move, which was definitely going to be committal. In order, I calculated these three moves (I’ll leave out most of the variations):
- Nxe5 (10. Nxe5 Nxe5, 11. Qxe5+ Bxe6, 12. Qxb5+ Qxb5 is the most pleasant line but it isn’t forced)
- Bxe5 (same idea as above but it’s really not forced, and b4 is annoying)
- O-O-O (get all the pieces into the attack but ironically exposes the king to some extra weakness)
Ultimately I went with long castle, which is fine and only marginally worse than Nxe5, the engine’s top choice. Anyway, checkmate followed soon after. Postgame I realized she was rated 110 USCF, which is… well, not good.
Still, I’m very pleased about spending time and calculating against a very low rated player, because improving isn’t just about playing the game, it’s about all the actions within it. This theme comes up later in a less good light, as you’ll see.
1.0 / 1.0
Round Two: John Fawcett
John is a provisionally-rated player who plays at my club, South Sound Chess Club. He’s about 1500 rapid on chess.com, which is probably where I’d be if I played more online chess.
We play a Caro-Kann Exchange with Nc3 on move four, which is slightly dubious but comes with the idea of long castle and setting up an all-out assault on the king. It’s hardly a bad move, and I’ve lost more than once to people who do this, so it comes with plenty of venom. We end up in this pretty standard position in the Exchange Variation but with long castle instead of short castle, which is equal for black rather than slightly better for white, but it’s all the same in U1400:
I hang a two-move tactic and neither of us spot it, so the game oscillates between equal and him being slightly better with huge kingside expansion and my king under duress. However, he gives me the time to get my attack on the c-file going which usually leads to tactics for black, especially in a long castle variation. He unfortunately takes an outpost for his queen on f6 after I mistakenly play g6, and this hangs his knight, which I didn’t miss.
He compounds issues by playing Rf3 and I’ll let you work out the visualizations on how that ends.
Day one in the books and I have two wins, which is nice. However, I started last year’s tournament with the same record and entered a nosedive after being too smug, so I remember to keep some humility heading into Day Two.
Day Two: Rounds 3-4
On packed days like this, I tend to microschedule my calendar, which you can see here:
I did a 30 day challenge where every work day I would microschedule myself, and while I didn’t keep this habit for every day, I definitely do it on very busy days or days where I can only work a 6-8 hour shift due to family or other obligations to ensure I get the most out of any given day.
I stuck with my schedule up through Round Three – got a light workout in, did some tactics, ate breakfast with my fellow adult improver Laurion, and we got Round Three underway.
Round Three: Fritz Mangan
Fritz is a teenage unrated player with no tournament history, so there’s not much to go on here. I had the white pieces and played the Jobava London, which surprised my opponent, though he played all fairly normal moves until Be7, which I don’t often see. I ended up mixing both the Nb5 and g4 attacks at the same time, which is not advisable, and basically got a piece trapped with an exposed king due to mismanaging the middlegame. I decided to complicate the position and get two pawns plus an initiative for a bishop, ending up in this position where Fritz played Rf7 instead of Kh8 to get out of check, which I thought gave me very practical chances to draw this game or even win it:
There’s no doubt this position is worse for white, but his a6 knight is somewhat displaced (though Nb4 is probably productive at some point) and he’s under pressure. Usually in equal material games I’m going to play Bxa6 here to double the outside pawns and lead to a positionally strong advantage for white, but I don’t believe I can go for this while down material. Fritz plays 16. Rb8 here to avoid losing the b7 pawn, which equalizes for me after I get 17. Bc4 in. He forces liquidation on f7 which somewhat equalizes the material, as I have RRN+2 pawns vs. RBNN, and one of my pawns is passed while he has doubled g pawns.
He’s able to trade a pair of knights and avoid me trading my knight for his bishop, and he uses his two minor pieces to set up blockades and a solid defense. I burned a ton of time getting to equal, and I’m burning even more in a situation where I don’t have a minor piece and he has two of them actively coordinating.
Running low on time with eight moves to go before hitting time control, Fritz offers me a draw, which surprises me, as I thought he’d lean on my clock. I think for awhile, not wanting to accept draws for no reason, but with my clock winding down and a non-simple late middlegame, I decide to take the draw.
Fritz would go on to finish in clear second, winning 5 games and drawing against only me, which was cool to see.
Round Four: Matthew McGrath
Matthew is a provisionally-rated player near 1200, but probably plays at higher strength given the fact he has so few USCF tournaments under his belt. He has the white pieces and for the first time in classical, someone plays d4 c4 against me, which is basically non-existent at the novice level (it’s almost always the London after d4). I play the Semi-Slav defense, and the vast majority of the time online I face the Meran variation, which is topical. He goes for the Stoltz Variation (early Qc2) which I don’t know very well, and we end up in a position where I think I really screwed up by letting him play cd4 while waiting for him to move the bishop. I put the dark square bishop on the wrong square (not d6 where I normally put it), compound this mistake by playing Bxc3 after he castles (pin is gone), and don’t enter the Carlsbad pawn structure since I recaptured with the c pawn instead of the e pawn, effectively shutting out my light square bishop and banking the entire middlegame on me breaking with e5.
I had to calculate if Nb5 lost me the game instantly since he had the Bishop-Queen battery targeting h7, and recalling an earlier game where I played h6 and got yelled at about it for seeing ghosts, I realized that he doesn’t actually have an attack after Nb5 (which is still a good move on its own). I play Re8 and Qc7 with the intention of breaking with e5, but Matthew figures it out and puts a knight there and reinforces it with f4, going for the Pillsbury Knight idea.
I figure he’s going for the rook lift, so I take the time to blockade and get in f5 myself after he effectively wastes a move with Bb2, making the knight pair look not so ridiculous and perhaps giving me time to extract my light square bishop while banishing his dark square bishop in jail itself.
I find what I think is a pretty clever idea in Qa5 followed by Qd2 after his pawn break to liquidate into a closed position where the knight pair can become an asset:
This position finally felt equal, and he started with Nxd7. All the pieces and both rooks got traded, and he pretty quickly realized he needed to trade a bishop for a knight otherwise he’d get run over in a closed board with 7 pawns each, so he did. He pushed his kingside majority and I was able to stop it, I pushed my queenside majority and he was able to blunt it with the king in time, and I made a number of attempts to get my king in there, knowing that he had a long-term static weakness with a bad dark-square bishop that could never attack me while I had a knight and plenty of time, but annoyingly if I move my knight, he can reposition the bishop, and while it can never attack my pawns, it can always defend his weak backwards pawns.
I made a bunch of moves, offered a draw on move 37, seeing no clear path to progress, and he declined. He then tanked for 25 minutes, made his move, and I made one. I refused to break up the queenside pawns, keeping them as a barrier so his king could never infiltrate, and once he saw that I wasn’t going to greedily push on the queenside, he offered me a draw as we hit time control. I thought for a few seconds and accepted, since I had spent about 35 minutes trying to figure out a path to victory that carried little risk, and could not visualize one.
After the game we analyzed it a bit and I told him that I felt like I was losing the entire opening, which he was surprised about. He said he wasn’t familiar with the position he had and that few people play the Semi-Slav against him; he mostly sees QGD. He agreed the endgame was drawn but he wanted to see if I’d break up the pawn barrier, which is what I suspected he was waiting on, as that gives him serious winning chances. I was unwilling to play moves that let his dark square bishop out of jail, and because of that fact, I had no winning chances. It turns out I can take serious risk in the endgame, let his bishop out, and I’m winning, but I don’t feel bad about not spotting it given how I felt about the entire game.
Engine analysis shows that I wasn’t lost out of the opening, but I definitely played inaccurately and Matthew was better until we entered the blockaded position. He didn’t appreciate how bad his bishop pair would become, and ended up throwing away the initiative by not wanting to trade enough pawns.
This was a really good game that I learned a lot from. It might be one of the most instructive games I’ve played in awhile, fighting from behind in a positionally disadvantaged spot and equalizing.
Day Three: Rounds 5-6
The Two-Day schedule merged with the Three-Day schedule, which means I was able to get breakfast with friends from the other side of the tournament. We had a group of four for breakfast and got round five underway.
Round Five: Vladimir Federov
Vladimir is a young player who is around the same rating as me. I played him at my first classical tournament ever and lost a winning endgame to him due to time pressure. I think he’s probably around the same skill level as me; probably stronger tactically and weaker positionally (which is true about most of my opponents). He’s likely better in the endgame, which is unfortunately something that’s true about most of my opponents as well.
I have the white pieces and we get underway with a Jobava London. He mixes an early Bf5 and a6 in, which is a solid defense. I get in Nf3 and Ne5, and he goes for Bd6. He hasn’t yet moved his c pawn, so Nbd7 won’t blunder the c or f pawn, and I can’t remember if I can go for the g4 attack here. I played against a similar opening at the Issaquah Rapid Quads last week who I thought had this type of setup, and I went for g4 and got absolutely wiped out since black has enough pieces to take twice in a specific order and ruin my pawn structure on top of the fact that I lose a pawn. I calculate a bit but decide to simply go for Bd3, which is not much worse than g4 (if it works) and I know the resulting positions that come from it.
(Turns out g4 works just fine, but whatever)
I decide to liquidate a pair of pieces and leave him with a pair of static weaknesses I hope to target – doubled f pawns and a messed up queenside pawn structure, which makes it tough for him to castle profitably with the queens still on the board:
Somewhere shortly after this, I castle long and really expose myself to some tactics that not only allow him to win a pawn, but lift and double his rooks in the process, which I don’t see until it’s too late. Fortunately for me, he feels like he’s under serious pressure with rooks in the center and me with a better pawn structure, and he cashes a bishop in for a knight to relieve some pressure, heading into an equal position with major pieces still on the board.
For the next 15 or so moves, I absolutely positionally dominate my opponent with better spacing, better understanding of where the pieces go, and trading into a queen+rook late middlegame where his pieces are passive and mine are perfectly placed. I resolve to not draw this game (unless it happens naturally), and I pull off one of my dumbest moves in my chess-playing life, which is repeating a position a few times in order to get to time control (“always repeat” as Ben Finegold says) and accidentally repeat the position three times, which he calls an arbiter over to secure a draw. I explain the position was only reached 2.5 times with my next move completing the circuit, which I have no intention of doing, and he disagrees. The arbiter comes over and looks at the position and grabs the head tournament director to confirm his ruling; in the meantime, Vladimir asks me why I went for a repetition-based draw, saying that I was probably better with a pawn breakthrough, and I explain to him that I’m an idiot who can’t count to three.
The arbiter comes over and rules that we have repeated the position three times, and I take my half point. Whoops.
Afterwards, I tell my coach IM Marc Esserman what I did, expecting him to say he’s never done that before in his career, to which he says that he’s done it a bunch of times, which surprised me.
I decide to not play round six, not because of what happened in round five, but because I was pretty tired by this point, had work to catch up on, and wanted to watch Game 7 of Heat-Celtics, so I withdrew and headed home. I was also pretty sure 4.5/6.0 wouldn’t win any money since I wasn’t in a lower sub-bracket, and I was right about that.
All in all, I ended up with 3.5/5.0, which is an improvement over last year in a theoretically more difficult section, but the record doesn’t matter that much to me in these tournaments. What I care about is where I’m getting better or not and where my weaknesses clearly are from the games I play, and I got my answers.
Strengths and Weaknesses
- Not a single opponent knew more theory about the opening than I did
- Positionally outplayed almost every opponent, especially when worse and needing to fight back to equality
- Managed my time well in all games but one
- Superior opening preparation is largely irrelevant at this level and yields minimal advantage
- Still tactically weaker than most opponents
- Most importantly, I absolutely suck at endgames
The last point was the toughest one to grasp, especially because I know exactly why I’m bad at them – I simply don’t study them at all. While I barely focus on tactics and know it’s a weak point of my game, my endgame skills are pathetic because I don’t do any structured study around them. I play too much online chess and specifically too much blitz and increment bullet, and as a result of that plus Chessable opening course study, I absolutely crush openings and early middlegame ideas. But because I don’t like playing longer time controls online for a number of reasons (I love playing classical chess over the board, but long formats online just don’t sit well with me), I never have time to really focus on the endgame.
One of my coach’s last videos he published was a 30 minute deep dive on an equal-color bishop endgame he had that was completely equal, and it was titled “Depth of the Endgame.” Getting to hear him talk about the surprising nuances of a pawn/bishop endgame started to tip the scales, and a throwaway comment of his about an online blitz game where he mouseslipped in a mating net that blundered his queen basically hammered it home: “Yeah, that would happen in a real game of chess.”
Combine all that with my inability to convert equal-type endgames into wins or at least decisive results where I have confidence rejecting a draw and it’s clear what I have to focus on next if I truly want to improve.
30 Day Challenges
As I’ve alluded to before, I’ve done 30 day challenges like microscheduling and more recently, preparing a lot of my own food along with morning exercise. You set up a clear path that you must follow every single eligible day and never deviate from it, and after the month, you figure out the good/bad in the routine and keep the productive parts of it that fit inside your normal life.
What I’d love to do is give up online blitz and bullet for a month and resolve to play only rapid chess, but I actually hate rapid time controls online and fear I’ll backslide into playing “just one or two” games of blitz, which we all know how it ends.
After running Driveline Baseball for a decade, I innately understand that playing games doesn’t really make you much better; this is well-known skill acquisition theory in anything. At some point, yes, you need to apply what you’ve learned, and competing in anything is not the same as studying, but my problem is not wilting under pressure or fear of competition – I love it. My problem is that my skills are inadequate heading into certain parts of the game at my level and I know it, which needs to stop.
So for the month of June, I’ll be banning full online chess games entirely, and focusing 5 days per week on the following in rank order of importance:
- Thematic tactical puzzles in the openings I play (lichess has this option which is excellent)
- Training games against Maia bots (human-like opponents) slightly ahead of my skill level in prepared endgame positions (mostly rook and king/pawn endgames)
- Going wider – not deeper – with opening preparation against sidelines
I have some other ideas using the Maia bots and lc0 to do simulations that are more valuable than Stockfish for my level that I might get to, but that’s for another time.
I’ll update the blog in July with my thoughts on the process!
Thanks for reading, and here’s a shameless plug for the chess club I run in Des Moines, WA – South Sound Chess Club. We play on Thursday nights and rotate formats. Come on by sometime!