Patience With Black at the 2017 Pan Ams
Cross-posted from Chess^Summit.
If there's one thing I've learned about team tournaments, it's that when teammates underperform, they better do it at the same time! Two of our losses were to lower-rated teams by the thin margin of 2.5-1.5, which along with an unfortunately predictable 4-0 sweep by the all-GM Webster B team, gave us a 3-3 record for the tournament despite our relatively strong lineup of David Hua (2394 USCF as of December), Eigen Wang (2337), Maryia Oreshko (2151), and myself (2118). The timing of our individual results proved unfortunate in the tournament. It often seemed that no sooner had one of us had found our footing when someone else started struggling.
But as is often the case in these team tournaments, the chess often proved secondary to team dynamics as we found ways to enjoy our combination of struggles and triumphs. Trekking out to Pan Ams in the middle of winter break has never been easy for me, but Eigen (who, as an undergrad and masters student, has played Pan Ams more than the rest of us combined) convinced me I had to go before graduating, so I went to experience it myself for the first, and probably the last time.
Board 4 is a stranger experience in some ways, as Isaac explained after his own Pan Ams almost exactly a year ago. More than any other board, it sometimes seems like you're always playing way down or way up. An expert is in an awkward spot, because they're likely playing a lot of 1650-1800 players, who if motivated enough are dangerous in their own rights. Or players like GM Manuel Leon Hoyos (who presumably had no problem picking apart my 14th move pawn blunder); take your pick.
I also had the gift of an extra Black this tournament (4 of the 6 rounds). Given my opening repertoire, that means a lot of less glamorous chess that, depending on how much you appreciate it, can be described as methodical, patient, boring, or lucky. All my games as Black are reminders that you often have to grind your way out of equality to win. In "boring" positions, this often entails relying on tactical vigilance (less charitably referred to as "waiting for blunders") and playing for smaller advantages.
My last-round game (and only even matchup of the event) would easily have been my favorite if not for an unfortunate blunder near the end. After declining an early draw from my opponent (who wasn't feeling too well - something I didn't catch on during the game), I maneuvered into a much better ending. Unfortunately, my time management was not nearly as good, and my opponent alertly picked up a piece - and the game - after my time trouble slip.
A lot of Classical Caro-Kann middlegames look unpleasant for Black at first glance because White can often get more queenside space and more active pieces simply by playing natural moves. However, Black has plenty of tricks despite the cramped positions; White still needs to understand some of the positional themes to keep up pressure.
In my first-round game, my opponent lost the thread after a positional/tactical blunder. My fifth-round game, also a Classical Caro-Kann, was a little more difficult. I spent what seemed like forever engineering a ...c5 break, but my opponent did not have a good plan and after some time-wasting moves fell victim to some well-timed tactics.
The Kingside Attack
This last game is interesting because it involves a Bh6 (trying to exchange off Black's fianchettoed bishop) that is surprisingly similar to what I play in one of the Closed Sicilian mainlines. Many players play Be3/Qd2 and the subsequent Bh6 exchange automatically, and it seemed especially anti-positional so I didn't give it much thought. But when I realized how I'd seen similar ideas as White many times in my openings, I realized it might not be that easy to defend. Ultimately however, the positional considerations were still in my favor and I was able to consolidate after my opponent impulsively sacrificed a pawn on the kingside.