Sifting through the Rubble

by admin on September 18, 2022

For the last month, since I got back from my disastrous tournament in Minneapolis, I haven’t shown any games from it because I thought they would be too embarrassing. But in order to learn from a failure, you have to face it and ask what happened and why. So now I’m going to start analyzing my games. Heck, maybe I’ll even show you all of them!

The first one I’ll show you is really, really embarrassing. I played like a class-C player in this game, no better. I failed in every phase of the game. I failed the opening, which I didn’t know and didn’t have a plan for. I failed at positional play, creating weaknesses that led to more weaknesses. And finally, I failed at tactics, missing a little combination that turned my opponent’s advantage into a rout.

But from your point of view — the reader — it’s actually good that I played so badly, because it gives you a chance to see how a master clinically dissects inferior play.

Kevin Wasiluk — Dana Mackenzie

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 d5 3. c4 e6

I have experimented a little bit with 3. … Bf5, but I was trying to play sounder openings in this tournament. But I quickly ran off the rails anyway!

4. g3 …

As I said in an earlier post, I have never studied the Catalan Variation enough to know what I am doing as Black. In the early years of my chess career, no one ever played it. That began to change in the 1980s. By now, I would venture to say that it’s the main line in double d-pawn openings (or at least it’s fighting with the London Variation for the title of “main line”).

One of my readers, Roman Parparov, said that I should consider playing the Dutch Defense to avoid all of these Catalans and Londons. Ironically, in this game I did end up in a Dutch Stonewall-type formation. But I was improvising, and it didn’t end well.

4. … Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Bxd2+

After the game my opponent said that he considers 5. … Be7 to be the most annoying variation. The point is that Black has lured White’s bishop to d2, where it kind of gets in the way of the other pieces. An example variation is 5. … Be7 6. Bg2 O-O 7. O-O dc, where White could reply 8. Ne5 if his bishop were still on c1. But with the bishop on d2, 8. Ne5 is unplayable and White has to look for other ways to recover his pawn, such as 8. Qc2.

This is a good example of the kind of insight you get when you study an opening. But I haven’t studied the Catalan. My move isn’t bad, of course, but it doesn’t really have a plan behind it.

6. Qxd2 Ne4 7. Qc2 O-O 8. Bg2 Nc6?

This is too slow, especially in conjunction with my next move. If I’m going to play … f5, which is already a slow and time-wasting move, then I should not compound my problems by wasting tempi with my queen knight. If I’m going to play … f5, I need to play … Nd7 and … c6.

Basically, my play here shows a lot of confusion. Yes, there are many Catalan variations where Black does play … Nc6, trying to put pressure on White’s weakly defended d-pawn. But the combination of … Nc6 and … f5 does not work very well.

Why didn’t I know this? Well, I just don’t play a setup like this very often. I’ve spent most of my chess career trying to get to positions with active piece play and open lines, rather than variations like the Stonewall with static pawn structures.

9. O-O f5 10. Nc3 g5

Position after 10. … g5. White to move.

FEN: r1bq1rk1/ppp4p/2n1p3/3p1pp1/2PPn3/2N2NP1/PPQ1PPBP/R4RK1 w – – 0 11

A good case study of something I call “propagating weaknesses.” Because my d5 pawn is so shaky, I really want to defend it with … Ne7 and … c6. But if I play 10. … Ne7 right away, I didn’t like the way that his knight can just set up shop on e5, and then he can evict my knight from e4 with f2-f3 at some point. So I decided that first I would chase his knight away from f3 with … g5-g4, and then I would play Ne7, etc.

You might want to ask yourself, what’s wrong with this plan? Propagating weaknesses are the clue. By trying to rid myself of one weakness, I saddle myself with another.

11. e3 g4

I was actually pretty happy here. Because of the moves e3 and … g4, it becomes impossible for him to evict my knight with f2-f3. So what could possibly go wrong?

12. Ne`1 Ne7 13. Nd3 c6 14. cd cd 15. Rfc1 …

Position after 15. Rfc1. Black to move.

FEN: r1bq1rk1/pp2n2p/4p3/3p1p2/3Pn1p1/2NNP1P1/PPQ2PBP/R1R3K1 b – – 0 15

When we went over the game afterwards, my opponent (a FIDE Master) surprised me by saying that he thought he had a strategically won game at this point! My assessment during the game was very different. I knew that I was a little bit behind in development, but as compensation, I thought I had a strong knight on e4 that could not be dislodged.

Knowing what happened in the game, I think that his evaluation was much closer to the truth. Because of the “propagating weaknesses,” his knights now have two beautiful outpost squares, e5 and f4. And in fact, the threat of a knight coming to f4 is even stronger than the threat of a knight on e5, because the knight on f4 will target the most sensitive square in my position: e6.

15. … Bd7 16. Qb3 Bc6?

I hated playing this move. You can tell from my scoresheet, because I took 18 minutes on it, my longest think of the game. Actually, I hated all my options: 16. … Rb8, 16. … b6, 16. … Nd6, which are all purely defensive moves. What I really wanted to do was sac my b7 pawn, but I couldn’t find any variation that would give me plausible compensation for a pawn. The move I finally played was not good because it weakens e6 even more. Probably the least-worst option was 16. … Nd6, but of course this was hard to play psychologically because I thought the knight on e4 was the one good thing about my position. Emotion won out over objectivity.

17. Ne2 Ng6 18. Nef4 Nxf4 19. Nxf4 Qe8?

Again, not realizing how bad my position was. My last chance to stay in the game was 19. … Ng5. I need to keep at least one “good” minor piece on the board.

Position after 19. … Qe8. White to move.

FEN: r3qrk1/pp5p/2b1p3/3p1p2/3PnNp1/1Q2P1P1/PP3PBP/R1R3K1 w – – 0 20

Now comes White’s nicest move of the game.

20. Bxe4! …

What a shock this was! I had been operating under the assumption that White would never want to trade his bishop for my knight, which would open up the f-file and create huge light-square weaknesses on his kingside. But I wasn’t looking at the concrete position. White’s move is completely justified, both strategically and tactically. Tactically, it simply wins a pawn. I couldn’t believe I had just given away a pawn so easily! Strategically, Wasiluk correctly assessed that (a) he has the dominant minor piece, and my bishop will never be able to take advantage of the weak light squares on the kingside; (b) he has the superior development, and the invasion of his rooks on the c-file will trump my dreams of attack on the kingside; (c) Black’s king is every bit as vulnerable as White’s king.

20. … fe 21. Qd1 …

A simple, quiet move that leaves Black defenseless.

21. … h5

Alternatively, if Black gives the pawn back immediately, say with 21. … Rf5, then White might play something like this: 22. Qxg4+ Kh8 23. b4! (to pry open the c-file) 23. … h5 24. Qh4 Qf7 25. a4 Rg8 26. b5 Be8 27. Rc8 Rg4 28. Qd8! and White’s attack is stronger than Black’s. However, this kind of computer analysis is, to me, less convincing than the three points labeled (a), (b), and (c) in my note to move 20.

22. h3 gh 23. Nh5 Rf3??

Position after 23. … Rf3. White to move.

FEN: r3q1k1/pp6/2b1p3/3p3N/3Pp3/4PrPp/PP3P2/R1RQ2K1 w – – 0 24

My last move sums up my whole tournament in a nutshell. Having gotten in trouble through ignorance of the opening and positional mistakes (propagating weaknesses), I seal the deal with a catastrophic tactical oversight.

I was dreaming of trying to create some mischief on the kingside after 24. Nf4, when White awakened me from my dreams with

24. Qxf3! …

Oh, good grief. The rest of the game needs no comment.

24. … ef 25. Nf6+ Kf7 26. Nxe8 Rxe8 27. Kh2 e5 28. de Rxe5 29. Rd1 Kg6 30. Rd4 Kg5 31. Rg1 Re7 32. g4 Re4 33. Rg3 Rxd4 34. ed Bb5 35. Rxf3 Kxg4 36. Rxh3 Kf4 37. Re3 Bd7 38. Re5 Bc6 39. Kg2 a6 40. f3 b5 41. b4 Bb7 42. Kf2 Bc6 43. Re6 Bb7 44. Re7 Black resigns

Looking at this game, I feel as if I was in denial of reality all the way from move 10 to move 24, and it was only after 24. Qxf3 that I realized that I had been living in dreamland the whole time.

While I have concentrated in my notes on the mistakes I made as Black (because I want to do better next time), I do want to point out how smooth and convincing White’s play was. Every piece was just where he needed it to be at just the right time.


  • Improvisation is a poor opening strategy against masters.
  • Don’t let your emotions get in the way of an objective assessment of the position.
  • Weaknesses beget other weaknesses.
  • If you have a “bad” minor piece, try to keep at least one other minor piece on the board so that you won’t end up in a hopeless good piece versus bad piece endgame.
  • Stay alert for tactics, always. Even if your position is already bad, don’t make it worse by allowing your opponent a tactical shot. Or if your position is already very good, stay alert for tricks that your opponent might miss because of discouragement. (Interestingly, this part of the game cannot be practiced by playing against computers, because computers never get discouraged and almost never miss elementary tactics.)

And finally, on the lighter side, here is what my foster kittens thought of my bad bishop on c6. Bad bishop! Bad, bad bishop!

Bishop to c 1/2 – 5 1/2.
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Americans Who Have Beaten World Champions

by admin on September 11, 2022

The latest news that has blown up the chess Internet came in two waves last week. First, at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, world champion Magnus Carlsen lost a game to a young but rapidly improving American grandmaster, Hans Niemann. Hans grew up in the San Francisco area, so people around here were full of pride — local boy makes good and all of that. Like the rest of the chess world, we were blindsided by the next act in the saga. Carlsen dropped out of the tournament, hinting but not actually saying that he suspected Niemann of cheating.

I would write more about the scandal, but I think that every chess blogger, commentator, podcaster and streamer has already offered their opinions. Nothing that I say is likely to change anybody’s mind. But perhaps some of you might be interested in my previous blog post, Hans Niemann and the Fifth Endgame of the Apocalypse, dating from 2015. It is actually one of my favorite posts ever, about an endgame I never understood (K+2N vs. K+P) until I saw Niemann play it in virtuoso fashion as a 14-year-old. I still can’t say I understand the endgame, but at least I learned a few things from him.

The only relevance of my previous post to the scandal is this: I think of cheating as a pathological form of shortcut-taking. As you play over the endgame, and see how much work Nielsen must have put in, how much obsession was necessary to master every obscure detail of an endgame so rare that you might never play it even once in your life, ask yourself: Does this look like a person who takes shortcuts?

Instead of writing about the scandal, I’m going to go a different direction with this post. With his victory, Hans Niemann has added his name to the not very long list of American chess players who have beaten a reigning world champion of (classical) chess at a classical time control. (I’m assuming that Magnus Carlsen is technically still the World Champion even though he has indicated his intention not to defend the title against Ian Nepomniachtchi this fall.)

Here is, I believe, the complete list of Americans who have achieved this feat, compiled by consulting I have not included exhibition games, simuls, blitz or rapid games, or games that were played before or after the World Champion’s reign. I am not a chess history expert, and is not necessarily a comprehensive source, so please correct me if you spot any mistakes or omissions.

Wilhelm Steinitz (3). Let’s not forget that Steinitz was an American citizen when he became the first World Champion. He defeated the second World Champion, Emmanuel Lasker, 3 times during the latter’s world championship reign: once at St. Petersburg 1896 and twice in the their championship rematch in 1896.

Harry Nelson Pillsbury (4). He went Steinitz one better by defeating Lasker 4 times while Lasker was World Champion: twice in 1895 at St. Petersburg, once in 1896 in Nuremberg, and once in 1904 at Cambridge Springs.

Frank Marshall (1). His moment of glory came in Paris in 1900, again with a win over Lasker.

Reuben Fine (2). It was a very long wait until the next American win over a World Champion. Reuben Fine broke the long drought with two wins over Alexander Alekhine at the AVRO tournament in 1938.

Bobby Fischer (7). Our champion World Champion-slayer, thanks to the seven games he won against World Champion Boris Spassky in their 1972 match.

Yasser Seirawan (2). I did not expect to see Yasser on this list. But he beat Karpov in 1982 at Phillips and Drew, and Kasparov in 1986 at the Dubai Olympiad. A fantastic and maybe under-appreciated achievement by one of the two best American players of my generation.

Boris Gulko (1). He defeated Garry Kasparov at Linares in 1990.

Gata Kamsky (1*). Another Soviet emigre who moved to America, he defeated Kasparov at Dortmund in 1992. He also won three games against Anatoly Karpov in their 1996 match for the “FIDE World Championship.” However, like many other chess historians, I do not consider Karpov the bona fide classical World Champion at that time. So I’ve given a Kamsky an asterisk. If you are a Karpov or Kamsky fan, feel free to change the 1 to a 4.

Hikaru Nakamura (4). Now we enter the twenty-first century, and there’s a new complication. Nakamura has tons of wins against Magnus Carlsen, but as far as I can tell, almost all of them have been in rapid or blitz games. As far as I can tell from consulting the database, his only wins at classical chess were three games against Anand (London 2011, Norway 2013, Tal Memorial 2013) and one game against Carlsen (Bilbao 2016). Please correct me if I am wrong!

Fabiano Caruana (2). His total would be higher, but his two wins against Anand (Zurich 2013, Tal Memorial 2013) came when Fabi was still playing under the Italian flag. So his only two wins against World Champions as a player for the United States were against Carlsen (Norway 2015, Norway 2019).

Wesley So (2). He defeated Magnus Carlsen at Norway 2018 and again at Norway 2022.

Hans Niemann (1). That brings us to the newest and most controversial member of this list, and also the youngest. He is the first American teenager ever to defeat a reigning classical World Champion in a classical chess game. What a stupendous accomplishment! I hope that the controversy will not discourage him but will instead motivate him to even greater achievements in the future.

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One Day in Reykjavik

September 2, 2022

Sadly, I was rooting for the wrong guy. This month’s Chess Life has an interesting 50-year retrospective on the Fischer-Spassky match. I thought that the most insightful article was a short interview with IM Anthony Saidy, who hosted Fischer at his house before Fischer left for Iceland. Here is one thing I did not know. […]

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Chess, Capitalism, and

August 28, 2022

To take my mind off my recent “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” chess tournament, here are some thoughts on other things going on in the chess world… My friend Gjon Feinstein has alerted me several times to a YouTube channel called “Chess Dojo” (, a project of GM Jesse Kraai, IM David Pruess, and […]

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Epic Success and Epic Fail

August 25, 2022

For the last week I have been in Minnesota, playing in the Minnesota International Chess Festival, which was organized superbly by Alex Betaneli. It may have been the strongest event held in Minnesota since the HB Global Challenge in 2004. But that event was done in by its enormous ambition: a half-million dollar prize fund, […]

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Hail Mary

August 4, 2022

Generally speaking, when you are in a bad or losing position, you should not count on finding a single miraculous move — a hail Mary — to save your position. Hard-nosed, patient defense will save more games than prayers will. But on the other hand, you should keep an eye out for the rare case […]

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Summer of ’72

July 31, 2022

Fifty years and one week ago I completed my first USCF-rated chess tournament, the U.S. Booster Championship in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve never really considered this to be my “first tournament,” because I had played earlier that summer in the 1972 Indiana State Championship. But a funny thing happened — that tournament never got rated. I […]

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Mutual Delusion

July 24, 2022

A couple weeks ago I wrote about an online game that I played against Grandmaster Mackenzie Molner. We agreed to play a second game with the same conditions: game in 30 minutes, 5 second time delay per move, and each of us would write our comments on the game for the blog. Just as a […]

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Mike Splane in Chess Life

July 12, 2022

If you look through the July 2022 issue of Chess Life, you might find a familiar name on the last page. Mike Splane, whom I have mentioned many times on this blog, is featured in the column “My Best Move,” which ends every issue. The game that he writes about also appeared on this blog, […]

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Mackenzie v. Mackenzie

June 22, 2022

Last month I received a surprise e-mail from Mackenzie Molner, a grandmaster who is launching a “chess academy” at He asked if I would be interested in having him write a guest post for my blog, as a way of cross-promoting both my blog and his website. I had never spoken with Mac before, […]

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