At Long Last, A Taste of Caviar (And a Flashback to my 1400 Days!)
It took almost two years and an inordinate amount of frustration, but I have finally managed to defeat an expert for only the second time in my rated chess career.
To start off, I have to preface this by explaining that this post is going to be quite different from many of my previous blogs. Instead of being an examination into a tournament I played, it will be a sort of memoir about my experiences dealing with this specific problem I've been having over the past year or so. I imagine it will seem even more introspective and personal than my previous posts, since it's just a long page full of text and a few chessboards in which a chessplayer complains about his ineptitude (at least for much of the beginning) and discusses his thoughts and experiences with chess psychology. But after this weekend, I thought it might be worth making a post on this element of my chess career in the hopes that it either helps someone else with a similar problem or at least gives someone an interesting read (albeit a long one).
Before I continue with the post, I must address the title. At Long Last, A Taste of Caviar is certainly not a title I came up with on my own, but instead it comes from an old article in the St. Petersburg Times from the year 1977. The article was about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had entered the NFL as an expansion team in '76, and famously started their first season 0-14. In their second season, the Bucs appeared on track to finish winless again, as they were averaging fewer than 7 points per game midway through the '77 season. But motivated by some provocative words from Archie Manning (who supposedly said it would be a "disgrace" to lose to the hapless Buccaneers) and the desire to avoid another 0-14 season, the Bucs put together a late-season win against the New Orleans Saints, resulting in the aforementioned line from the local paper. The article, which I found a long time ago when (purely for my own enjoyment) I was doing some internet research on the worst sports teams of all time, discusses the relief the Buccaneer players felt after finally winning a game, and only two years later, the Bucs would make the playoffs.
The original article from the St. Petersburg Times
While I certainly can't claim to have experienced anything close to what the players on that football team must have gone through when they lost their first twenty-six games, I can relate to the experience a bit with respect to my chess career. Specifically, my record against expert and master opponents (2000+) has always been disastrous. Coming into the ACC Action-Plus tournament this past weekend, it wasn't quite 0-26, but darn close: 1 win, 6 draws, and 33 losses. That's 4/40 against people rated over 2000. What really got to me about this terrible record was that I was getting plenty of great chances! Here are just a few of them:
The very first time I ever played a master was in November 2014, and I managed to blow this amazing position against FM Boris Zisman:
If I had played the completely obvious 32. Rg4 in this position, instead of the dastardly 32. Kf2???, I would not only have beaten Alex Davydov but also changed MD chess history in a way, since he went on to win the Sweet 16 after this escape.
This next one was just terrible. I won a pawn for "negative compensation" in the opening and still managed to lose to Stephen Jablon. With white to move, the computer evaluates the position as -2 and some change.
And, last but not least, probably the most incredible of all: my loss to Ricky Wang after blundering a full piece for no reason in a winning endgame:
These are just a few of the numerous times I have stolen defeat from the jaws of victory against masters and experts. This mini-collection doesn't even include the time I was +4 against FM Larry Gilden (albeit in severe time trouble), my acceptance of a desperation draw offer in a +2.5 position against expert Darrin Berkely, or the various times I have lost from dead drawn positions against such players, including games against Trung Nguyen, Robert Cousins, and NM Franco Moncera Jose (the first time I played him, when I missed a completely forced draw by repetition).
After the Philadelphia Open, I thought a lot about this problem. In six games at that tournament, I faced five experts, and despite having good chances in a few of the games, I didn't get a single win.
At some point, I started thinking about the origin of the problem and what could be done about it. My record against 1900s is around 44%, which is quite good for someone who has never broken 1900 himself, but somehow when I jump up just another 100 points, I start having very bad results. I went back and I looked at a lot of my past games against experts and masters. In a lot of them, I just got outplayed from the start, often due to lack of confidence or lack of knowledge in an opening. Those sorts of losses happened a lot in the first eight months or so after I broke 1800 for the first time. What's been happening more recently, I started realizing, is more of the sort of thing shown in the positions above. In the last few months, I have had a lot more chances against these players than I used to, and even though I have invariably blown them, I can't help but realize that a lot of the problem is a matter of execution. I still have some games where I just get outplayed (such as games 1 and 5 of the Philadelphia Open), but I also have a recent streak of blowing games that I should have won (as in game 3) or wimping out when I should play for the win (as in game 2).
You may have noticed that I did have one win against an expert in my career record listed above. That game was the first time I ever played against an expert, as well as being the first game I ever played at the Fells Point Chess Club. But to call my opponent in that game an "expert" is really pushing it. Sure, his rating was (barely) over 2000 at the time of the game, but it barely ever broke 2000 in the first place, and since losing to me, it hasn't gotten back. Even so, I wasn't even 1400 USCF at the time of that game, and so it was an extremely memorable game for me. At some point last week, my recent struggles against experts caused me to think back to this game. I have reproduced it below with annotations from the time (I posted the game in a group on chess.com the week after I played it), but I have also revisited it and added my current thoughts, since 475 rating points and two years of study make a lot of difference. Here it is:
There's no question that my opponent in this game made a lot of errors, and his rating has not returned to expert level since losing this game. But still, somehow, for nearly two years, this game stood as the highest victory I had ever achieved in my chess career, and the only win I had ever gotten over a player rated above 2000.
But looking back on it, I had something of a realization. The ratings of both players in this game were very inaccurate! Without intending to offend my opponent (who is still a bit higher-rated than I am today), he was not expert-strength, and given that it would only take a few months after that game for my rating to improve to Class B territory and above, it's obvious that I wasn't exactly 1381 skill level, either. In fact, this event was part of a streak of nine consecutive tournaments in which I gained at least 20 rating points. That alone is further evidence not only of how underrated or overrated players can be, but of how ratings can change very, very, quickly. The rating system doesn't measure player skill level. It measures results, which often don't reflect skill level (and hopefully that's been the case with me recently). And the difference between a 2000 player and an 1800 player is just a few more wins against high-rated opposition, not some sort of magic chess forumula that only experts can understand. I realized that I had attached too much importance to ratings in some of my previous tournaments, and this might have caused me to become nervous, passive, or overly excited in my games against strong players.
So heading into the ACC-Action Plus event this past Saturday, I knew I would likely be paired against an expert or two (although it turned out to be a lot more than that!). It would be a fantastic chance to accomplish the goal I had failed to achieve in Philadelphia: to get my second-ever win against a player rated over 2000. I lost my first round to master player Mauro Boffa (2200), who outplayed me and benefited from my poor time management. In round two, I defeated Jamie Kowalski (1739) without too much difficulty. After having played in this event five times in the past, I knew that if I went 1-1 in my first two games, I would probably be paired against a 2000-type opponent in the third round. So it wasn't too surprising to see that I was paired against Justin Lohr, an expert player who finally seemed to be making a serious push at breaking 2200 and achieving NM. I hadn't ever played him before (or any of his brothers, who also play tournaments frequently), but I knew he had drawn my friend Sam Schenk in the previous round (and Sam told me he played 1. d4, although that was the extent of my preparation!).
Long story short, Caissa returns favors. After I had so spectacularly blown a serious chance to defeat expert Ricky Wang in Philadelphia, I got perhaps one of the luckiest "gifts" of my chess career.
As my clock was running low and my position was becoming more passive, I started to suspect that I was going to lose. When the move b4 appeared on the board, I spent a lot of my remaining time trying to figure out how to react. I decided not to take it, since that gives up the d4-square, and instead to try to force my opponent to find a way to win against passive defense. I began moving my bishop back and forth along the h1-a8 diagonal, challenging him to break through. I also played the move ...h5, preventing any future kingside pawn pushes from being possible, even if it did require me to put another pawn on the same color as my bishop.
I was a bit surprised at the way my opponent handled it, although probably it was objectively best. I expected him to try to keep the pawn tension until my time was lower, and perhaps try some trickier ideas like Nb5. Without hesitation, he released the immediate tension and pushed on with b5, and soon there followed a4-a5, creating threatening-looking pawns. He then pushed again with a6, trying to push through with b6 at a later point. I kept shuffling my bishop, figuring that it was somehow drawn (and probably, it was, according to the engine), until the following position arose.
As Alex Jian pointed out to me, it's quite amazing that of all the games I could have won against experts, this was the one that I finally pulled off. A game in which I could easily have lost out of the opening, in which I played passively in the ending, and in which I was very low on time throughout.
What this all shows me is that I had been taking the whole matter entirely too seriously. Ratings don't matter, since at the board, anything can happen. I thought that my breakthrough win over a 2000 would come in some crazy, tactical battle, not because of an incredible blunder like this. But maybe I've been giving experts too much credit. After all, rating is just a number, and the difference between a 1200 and a 2200 is one digit. True, I went on to lose my remaining two games that day and "only" gained 23 rating points, but hey, I'm working on improving my chess one step at a time, and getting over the mental hurdle of beating an expert was a big step, even if it came by pure luck.
Hopefully, if any of my friends reading this blog are experiencing any of the chess-psychology issues I was dealing with in the last few months, this blog can be of use. Maybe not. Who knows? Maybe I'll lose my next ten games against experts and then have to delete this blog. Then again, maybe I'll become an expert in the next few years and will look back on this blog with amusement. I can't say what will happen. But a monkey is off my back, and just for one moment, even if it was all due to a lucky break, I experienced my long-awaited taste of caviar.
For more thoughts on the psychology of chess, NM David Bennett has a fantastic blog which I'm sure many of you have read. Those who haven't can find his posts on his profile "eltenedor", and my favorite blog of his, in which he explains his thought process after having a very rough start to a tournament (and then making a fantastic comeback) can be accessed right here.
Thank you for reading this blog post, and please leave your comments below. Best of luck!