Lessons/Drama from the 2016 US Amateur Team East
This weekend, I went to Amateur Team East for the 2nd time, with three CMU teammates. This was a 3-day trip, with us leaving Saturday morning and coming back Tuesday morning.
Personally, I had a disappointing tournament, mainly because I didn't get as much as I wanted out of my losses. Our tail-end teammate was the victim of two (very) major upsets and also had a bad tournament overall. This was clearly reflected in our tournament progression: after losing to the strong Cornell team in Round 1 and a draw against a much lower-rated team, we played down until the last round, when we lost to another high-rated team.
Also, a comment on our "board order" issue. The rules specify we play in rating order, but many team competitions, including the Pittsburgh league, allow some discrepancies between teammates who are close together in rating (e.g. 50-75 points). We sent in the registration hoping that the NJSCF would contact us if changes needed to be made, but they put us on the wallchart in our preferred order until our fourth (!) round opponents called us out.
I'm not really in the position to judge how NJSCF handles registration but I don't see how it could have been hard to check the first two digits of 2026, 1996, and 2028 before sticking us on the wallchart. In the end, this resulted in me switching to Board 2 (which probably would have been a better choice from the start, as the 2028, who had considered himself rusty/wanted to play lower, played much better than me).
Fortunately, it's Amateur Team East, which should basically always be fun regardless of results. Certainly a lot was learned, even if the learning was rather painful.
Warning: even this post is really long. So I'm not analyzing all the games before posting, but I'll try to post at least one position from each game.
Some of what I learned, in roughly decreasing order of importance:
1. Rest is important.
In the past, sleep had surprisingly little correlation with my performance. However, these differences were usually between getting 5 or 9 hours of sleep on a single day, while at USATE, I got about 2, 8, 4 hours of sleep before each day (the first due to having to take care of unrelated business before I left and not bothering to sleep on the way to NJ; the third because I had to finish a school assigment due Monday).
This was very evident in 1st, 2nd, and 6th games. My handling of this first round position against FM Adarsh Jayakumar was extremely disappointing, but instructive.
On the surface, White has the safer king and queen, more active pieces, and better center and pawns in this Meran Slav position. Stockfish gives this as +1 for White, and Adarsh opined that White is somewhat better.
I went for Ng5-e4, advantageously repositioning the knight and gaining the bishop pair or wasting more of Black's time, as soon as I saw it. However, after 14. Ng5 h6 I realized 15. Ne4 loses a pawn to 15...Bxh2+. "Admitting my mistake" with 15. Nf3 was also unattractive (see point 4), so I settled for the awful 15. Nh3?. White's still reasonable, but I was getting really tired already, could not carefully plan anything (required now that Black has the activity and chances on the kingside), and basically just moved aimlessly. After just 7 more moves, I was completely losing.
In my second and last round games, I just played terribly. In the second (against a 1922), I was in a completely losing position by move 10, and even though my opponent let up a little, I kept missing random tactics for the rest of the game. Against NM Levy Rozman (2381) in the last round, again I was really tired and tried to simplify, but ended up just playing boring, anti-positional moves and getting crushed in the endgame.
2. Play the board, not the opponent.
Virtually everyone active in tournament chess knows this, but it's not always an attractive rule to follow, especially when tired, lazy, or unusually confident/overconfident. In Round 3, my opponent was a 1340-rated little kid (listed as under 1100 in January supplement) but it was a slow grind to convert a positional advantage. Instead of paying attention to the game, I kept wondering why this kid hadn't collapsed. My breakthrough worked, but it would have been more complicated if he had been more resilient.
Round 4, where I had similar thoughts, was much tougher. This time, I didn't bother too much with solid plans, hoping my 1620-rated opponent would collapse tactically. However, he didn't, despite playing really fast, and I even got in a little trouble with my weak passed pawn. Still, I managed to pull off that win as well.
On the other side of my rating, it's too bad that I didn't get a good fight going against Rozman in the last round. Instead, lacking any confidence and wanting to get some rating back, I just wanted the best practical chance at holding and this led to some boring (and bad) choices. After seeing my teammate's exciting (but surely fun) loss to another expert, there were definitely many regrets on my end.
As I mentioned, 15. Ne4 was a big miss in my game against Jayakumar. I think my exhaustion had the most to do with losing that game, but I'm left wondering if I would have the confidence to sac the pawn had my opponent not been rated 2400.
There is no way the tournament experience can be improved by focusing on the opponent.
3. Never play to hold from the beginning.
This is often an extension of #2, but the game against Rozman displeased me so much that I am dedicating a section to it, to make sure I never play another game like that.
As I mentioned, I started feeling the exhaustion again in the last round, during a Dutch Defense of which I had no knowledge. Eventually we reached this position:
I guessed White could try some queenside advance, but the rating fear started again, and I assumed after 13...Qd6 that Black knew he had a stronger kingside attack. Subsequently, my first thought was to trade queens and lock up the position.
Since I was too tired to calculate anything nontrivial on either side of the board, I played 14. Nb5 Qe5 15. Qc3? (Stockfish liked Nd4, but I had already committed to the cowardly, lazy way) thinking at worst I'd get something like 15...Qxc3 16. Nxc3 Bxc3 17. bxc3 c5, which should hold.
Black was better after 15...c6 16. Qxe5 Bxe5 17. Nc3 Rd8. I panicked and tried to lock everything up with anti-positional moves, quickly "verifying" that Black couldn't break through on the kingside or queenside. This could not be more false; Black broke through both with his eyes closed (Rozman was also half-asleep).
I would have much preferred to lose like in my teammate's game. Can't remember the exact position but it looked vaguely like this (teammate was Black) but somewhat less worse for Black:
Black, who lost the h7 pawn earlier and was already losing, went for 1...Bxg3! 2. Rxe8! Bxf2+! 3. Kg2. White played well and won, but it was cool to watch.
(In fact, Black had some earlier ...Ng4/Nxf2!! possibility earlier that with best play from both sides, was an exciting draw. Pretty exciting but hard to visualize without the position at hand!)
4. It is better to play familiar openings.
The best (worst?) example is from Round 2.
After 1. d4 Nf6 2. Bg5!?, I could have stayed in normal channels with 2...e6. However, having read a page of a book on meeting threats with one Trompowsky sideline (which didn't match up with the game past move 4), I decided I was an expert on 2...Ne4, and after the normal 3. Bf4 c5 4. f3 Nf6 5. d5 reached the above position.
5...d6 and 5...Qa5+ (and others) are normal here, but I was worried about having to go into some sort of Benoni (which I personally regard as really sketchy). So I played 5...b5?? which is probably the worst move that could possibly be considered reasonable when looking at the position for a fraction of a second.
After 6. e4 Qa5+ (trying to protect b5 and stop e4-e5) 7. Qd2 Qxd2+ 8. Nxd2 a6 9. c4 b4 10. e5 Ng8, I had managed to trade off or undevelop all of my pieces. White could have won the c5 pawn early, after which the position would probably be resignable.
This is not to say that one should be familiar with as many opening ideas as possible (although that would be ideal); just that it is good to steer into positions of a familiar nature or opening, and continually flouting this may have... unintended consequences.
On the other hand, in Round 5 I was able to trust in my (relative) familiarity with the nature of the Caro-Kann and outplay my opponent even in a sterile variation of the Exchange, since I am more of a "structural clarity" player and many lower-rated players are not so focused on keeping that kind of soundness in their position.
The position in the game arose after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c3 Qc7 6. Ne2 Bg4 7. Bf4, eschewing 7. f3 Bd7 8. Bf4 e5! with an arguably more interesting game. My Caro-Kann book gives a similar position to the game as =+ but I didn't feel that White was in any real long-term danger.
My only viable option seemed to be an eventual minority attack on the queenside, but it yields real results if successful so this demands some attention from White. Instead, White played too many slow moves and the lack of preparation for the minority attack along with some positionally weakening moves, gave me a clean win.
The other games exposed some room for opening improvement on my part, especially on the Slav, which has a lot of interesting and popular ideas. On the Dutch... anyone who plays the Dutch probably has commentary on my play in the last game, most of which is probably not nice.
5. Stay vigilant.
Chess punishes single mistakes very cruelly. I was lucky in this tournament with the positions/strength of my opponents, but there were two times in the tournament where things could have gone quite differently if the circumstances were tougher.
My Round 4 opponent had been squeezed the whole game but I had to open the kingside at the right time. With my level of carelessness, a somewhat more complicated position against a somewhat stronger opponent would be unnecessarily messy.
34. e4! threatens Qg3+ and opening the b1-h7 diagonal with devastating effect. Instead, I went sloppy with 34. Bd3 Raa8 35. Kh2?! Nf6 36. f3 Ng8? (36...Kh7) 37. Qc2 Ne7 38. Qg2+ when after 38...Kh7 White still has more work than ideal as Black has ...Rg8.
Instead Black played 38...Kf6?? which loses on the spot to 39. Qg3. I didn't pay attention and followed up with my earlier-planned 39. h5? and Black followed up with the even more inexplicable 39...Be8?? (39...Rg8 again!) and resigned after 40. Rg1.
Another minor example is from my fifth-round Caro-Kann game.
White dawdled too much and now I had a winning minority attack. White could have at least saved some pieces with 20. Nc5+, but blundered with 20. Rhe1??. Even though I had an hour on my opponent, I completely forgot about the intermediate Nc5+ and hastily played 20...Nxe2?! 21. Nc5+ Ke7 22. Rxe2. Fortunately, the ending was still winning, but there was no reason to give up such an easy win. Give me a slightly different position, and things might be a lot tougher.
6. Annoying exists.
The issue with our board order came up during a dispute with our Round 4 team. After that was cleared up, we just played chess like normal... with a twist near time control.
As I mentioned, I got into a little trouble with my weak d5-pawn against my 1620-rated opponent (who supposedly brought up the dispute, but didn't say anything), but I pulled out of it and my opponent soon collapsed tactically. At move 38:
My opponent had 40 minutes here and decided to play on, if by "play on" I mean eating chocolate and getting water for the next 25 minutes. The real issue here is that I had 30 seconds left, so I couldn't leave the area for any reason without getting flagged.
I'm not big on these tangentially-related sportsmanship issues, but I can't think of any reasonable situation where the opponent would "unintentionally" stall for almost half an hour in the same way. But I guess this comes up once in a while.
7. No more BS psychological reasons for moves.
As of late I sometimes wonder about how draw offers, retreating pieces, and "undo" moves project weakness (also, overthinking motivations of opponents' moves or trusting the their abilities too much). Unfortunately, sometimes this overrides the objective part of deciding moves, especially when I'm lazy or tired. The main examples are, unsurprisingly, the first and last round. Against Jayakumar, I assumed 15. Nf3 was psychologically weeeeakkk and of course I couldn't play Ne4 because, can't sac a pawn against a 2400! Against Rozman, I decided ...Qd6 preparing an unstoppable kingside attack (since the intent was obvious, and a 2375 knows what he's doing) was enough to go into panic-trade-queens-lock mode.
8. Never play Qd4 in bughouse.
I played in the bughouse tournament with my teammate/partner from last year. We did well, finishing 4-1 in a massive tie for 2nd, but in the second round, I messed up a good position by playing the seemingly developing Qd4??. Apparently in previous games I haven't been beaten up enough by ...N@f3+ winning the queen (there was a knight on e5), after which I couldn't defend anything in this game. My partner had some kind of attack but had to stop because giving up more pieces would be death on my board.
(One should also never play Qd3 but I've learned that enough from getting pawn-drop-forked on e4)