2016 Philadelphia Open: Better Than Last Year, Still a Train Wreck
Those of you who have read my blogs in the past may recall that the 2015 Philadelphia Open was not only the worst tournament of my life but maybe one of the lowest moments of my life in general. Starting 0/5 against mostly lower-rated opposition was as frustrating an experience as I've ever had, and I hope never to have a tournament like it again. Now, a year later, I haven't really improved much at chess at all (despite making a concerted effort to do so), but I still hoped to do better at the tournament this year. In order to play tough competition and avoid having to play 1600s and 1700s as I did last year, I chose to play the U2200 section this time around. My goal for the tournament was simple: I wanted to win one game, even just one, against a player rated above 2000.
The good news is that I wasn't slaughtered quite as comprehensively as I was last year. The bad news is that I was still slaughtered, and it was still fairly comprehensive.
Just like last year, I seemed to have different problems every round. In my first game I was extremely careless (and didn't know basic theory), while in my second I completely misevaluated a position which should have been winning. Then there was the third round, in which I made one of my all-time worst blunders in a completely winning ending. After finally getting one win in the next round, I got blown out in my two final games by much stronger opposition.
My record against expert opponents (2000+) in OTB games remains appalling. I still have only one win and a handful of draws out of over thirty games. That's the type of record you might see a 1500 player put up against experts, certainly not someone trying to break 1900 as I am. This tournament was no exception. Sure, I had a winning position against two of them, but due to whatever curse the chess gods have put on me, I got scared and agreed to a draw in one of the games and spectacularly blundered the other one away. In this tournament, I made a conscious effort not to know the ratings of my opponents, which was possible because the pairing texts that CCA sends don't mention the ratings of the opponents, but it didn't seem to help me at all (and I also already knew the ratings of two of my opponents, my first and third to be exact, before the games due to having seen them at prior tournaments). At this point, there's clearly a psychological block going on; whenever I am paired against an expert, I always think about how terrible my record is against people of such strength, and so I either a) get scared or b) put too much pressure on myself to finally get a win against such a player. The cliche advice to "play the board, not the rating" is great in principle, but in practice, when I know my opponent is of expert strength, I can't help but think about it. I don't know what to do about this problem, but I know my chess will never improve until I solve it.
But enough about my problems; after all, I live in a good country, have food on my plate every night, and should be thankful that I am fortunate enough to be able to attend these events in the first place. This tournament sucked, but there will be more in the future, and if I play enough, maybe, just maybe, hopefully, someday, I will beat an opponent over 2000. In any case, here are my highlights (mostly lowlights actually) of the tournament:
Round 1: Half-Point Bye
Round 2: Black vs WFM Martha Samadashvili
Playing Martha Samadashvili was a bit intimidating because I knew who she was and knew she was very strong. Among other things, I knew she had attended USCS and had a lot of connections to strong players and teachers. Of course, playing a 12 year-old (or is she 11?) of any respectable rating is always a bit scary because you always know he or she is probably quite underrated. But still, this game was a disaster, and probably the easiest game she had all tournament.
So what did I learn from that game? I don't know. I guess it helps to know theory, but then it still should have been clear to me to take with the bishop and not the g-pawn. I hate losses that aren't instructive.
Round 3: White vs Kai Tabor
In this round I had white against an expert, although I had no idea what his rating was at the time (and since I knew there were a lot of people like me playing up in my section, for all I knew he could have been 1880 or something). My opponent got some sort of kingside attack, but I played well and managed to defend without too many problems. Then he played a very bad move (34...Qe6?) and offered me a draw. I had just been defending for ten moves, so I accepted, but that's just ridiculous. After 35. Qd5 (among other moves), white is clearly better, has survived the attack, and has real winning chances. So even when I play well on the board, I get scared and can't handle the pressure of a draw offer. Oh, well. I had a lot of much worse games this tournament (just about all of them actually).
I played relatively well the whole game but wimped out of playing for a win because...I don't know. Maybe I was afraid after having been defending the previous six moves, or maybe I just didn't understand how to evaluate the position. I guess I'm too tempted by draw offers.
Round 4: Black vs Ricky Wang
I spent much of my time the morning before this game preparing for 1. d4, mainly because I had lost confidence in some of my lines. Of course then I saw that I was paired against Ricky Wang, a hard-nosed 1. e4 player whom I knew to be very aggressive and tactical (case in point: his win over my good friend Sam Schenk at NCC in Philadelphia some months ago), and so all my time was completely wasted.
This game was a rollercoaster, but I generally thought I played very well, and then, after he made several huge errors in the endgame, I found myself, amazingly, with a winning position. And then the unthinkable happened. Here it is:
After this game, I didn't know what to do or think. You can't explain blunders like this. It wasn't time pressure, nor was it some sort of complex tactical error. No, it was just inexplicable. Was it because I was nervous at having a winning position against an expert? Or am I just a careless player in general? I figure it's some of both.
After this game, I mentally told myself something which, in retrospect, was probably extremely harmful for myself in the tournament. I thought that the game that had just finished would be the best chance I would have to beat an expert in the tournament, and that since I can only expect to get so many chances against players of such strength, I probably missed the last opportunity I would have. I knew I would probably be paired against more experts, but I thought there was no way I would have a chance as good as that ever again. And this turned out to be completely correct, but maybe if I had kept a cool head, it wouldn't have been.
Round 5: White vs Ryan Cassidy
In this round, I finally got paired against a non-expert. My opponent was also having a very rough tournament, but he seemed to be handling it even worse than I was, as he came to the board in a visibly upset state, almost fuming. He was complaining about a lot of things, saying that he was having a horrible tournament and mouthing off at a tournament director for re-doing the pairings five minutes before the round (he was originally supposed to play an expert until the section was repaired). He just struck me as a guy having a bad day, and I get that. But even though I had just made one of the worst blunders of my life the previous round, I felt pretty confident going into this one.
And yeah, he had a bit of a rough game for an 1800. I've never seen a player of such rating blunder a pawn on move four, and he followed it up with several questionable decisions such as 41...Nxg5??. Needless to say, he wasn't so happy with himself after the game, either. I don't have nearly as many annotations for this game as I do for some of the others since it was a) not as interesting and b) not relevant to my goal of beating an expert.
My opponent after the game was quick to tell me just how terribly he had played and about the crappy tournament he had been having. I completely sympathize with his feelings- after all, I had a terrible tournament as well- but while I try to keep these feelings to myself (or post them in blogs!) my opponent in this game expressed them outwardly, putting himself in a very negative state and probably affecting his play during the tournament.
Round 6: Black vs Connor Keuchel
This game was very frustrating because my opening experiment just completely failed. True, 9...Nc6 puts up more of a fight than 9...Be7, but white still gets a clear advantage. My opponent was very strong and did a great job converting his advantage into an endgame win, even though it wasn't immediately clear to me how white could win in the exchange-for-pawn endgame.
There are a few things to take away from that game. I didn't really do anything well in the game, but there were some things at which I was particularly bad. Firstly, the opening was a complete failure and I need a different line against the c3 Sicilian. Secondly, for whatever reason I insisted on not solving the problem of my king in the center, as I could have played Kf8 on two occasions which would have avoided some of the problems. And finally, I'm really bad at evaluating endgames. In retrospect, it's alarming that I actually thought there was some chance for me to draw that ending as black.
Round 7: White vs Derek Chen
My opponent had a listed rating around 2000, but his unlisted rating is apparently in the 1900s as he has lost some points lately. Regardless, I didn't know his rating but figured he was probably around expert level, and so I thought this would be my last chance to accomplish my goal. I got a dynamic position, sacrificing a pawn for an open b-file and active pieces, but then everything just died and I ended up being down material in an endgame. It's frustrating; maybe I just don't know how to play for compensation down a pawn. It was a lousy way to end the tournament.
In conclusion, I had another subpar performance in an open tournament. Well hey, at least I'm consistent! Unless you count World Amateur Team (and in that tournament I got extremely lucky in bad positions in Rounds 2 and 6), I have had bad performances in each of the three open tournaments I have played so far this year. As for this one, I would say that I'll learn from this experience and work hard to improve in the future, but I've been saying that for over a year now and it hasn't really happened at all. So instead, I'll just say thanks in advance to all the people who have taken the time to read this blog, and I encourage those of you with thoughts about the games or the tournament in general to post them in the comments section below.