I recently won the Northern California International, and I’d like to take you through what I believe were my three most important psychological decisions of the event. The first one came in round 3. I had won my first two games without much trouble, and I was playing IM Adam Hunt, rated 2462 FIDE, with the black pieces. I would have really liked to score a win here, but I reached a difficult decision in the early middle game:
At this point, I knew that I had thought black was at the very least comfortably equal, if not slightly better, from my preparation. However, I viewed 14. h4 as the more critical try, and I had more or less glazed over Bxf6. After Bg5xf6 Be7xf6 Nd4-f3 we get to the diagram above, and I sank into a deep thought, over 30 minutes long, trying to come up with my best plan of action. I ultimately decided that b5! was the correct move.
My second big decision came in round 6. I had been having a solid event thus far, and I was sitting on 4.0/5. However, the newly un-retired IM Greg Shahade was showing some very good form and that his return to chess and studying had been fruitful- He had 4.5/5, having already played 3 GMs! So he was clearly on good form and the guy to beat, and I had the black pieces. I looked him up in chessbase before the game, and I saw with white he played 1. e4 about 85% of the time, with the other 15% being 1. c4. He had one game with 1. d4, which I briefly looked at because it was recent and I was trying to get a sense of how he was playing in his new form, rather than his pre-2003 version. I was certainly glad I did!
Greg did not stick to his guns in this big game- this told me that he had probably prepared something specific. I also noted that his only 1.d4 game was a Meran, and the Meran is my main weapon against non-three knights lines in the Slav. I deduced he must have done some work there, and I did not want to find out what. I also realized that his c4 games could in theory transpose to the Meran, but there was something they could not transpose to…
1. … Nf6!
It was definitely time to give my backup line some attention. I haven’t played the Grunfeld as much as one would expect for the amount of work I’ve done in it, but it is still a mainstay in my repertoire and I bring it out from time to time. In this case I dodged my opponent's preparation, and when I played a somewhat uncommon move he did not know what to do, and by the time I was out of my prep the position was equal, but I had a huge time advantage. I went on to win in 24 moves and take the lead in the tournament.
The final good decision I made was in the final round. I was playing white against GM Josh Friedel, a former mentor of mine and occasional training partner. I was half a point ahead of him and IM Marc Arnold, who had black against a GM. A draw would be a great result here, and I would clinch at least shared 1st-2nd and probably clear first. However, I did not exchange all the pieces from the start of the game. I spent some time looking into lines which fizzled out to dull equality, but I thought that I would still have to play them out, and I knew Josh would not be giving me any gifts, no matter how equal the positions were. I’m a bit higher rated than him, but I think a restrained and patient approach to dull, equal positions is not the part of the game that gives me the rating edge. I decided my best bet was to try to get to a fighting position, but one without huge amounts of risks. The game went according to plan and I built up an advantage, only to mess it up with a ludicrous move e3 (Qa1 leads to a slight-moderate advantage for white), but after that I maintained the balance and even got some edge back later, but I decided to accept his draw offer to clinch the tournament.
All in all, I think the psychological and practical decisions I made this event were just as integral to my success as any of the moves I made. Hopefully I will be able to keep this kind of level headed mindset for all my future events.