The Great Escape, Part 3

by admin on September 3, 2013

In my last two posts I wrote about two of my “great escapes” in the 2013 CalChess Labor Day Championship. (The first was a game I won against Myagmarsuren after blundering or sacrificing the exchange; in the second I drewm against Rand after being 3 pawns down on the board, and 10 pawns down in Rybka’s analysis.)

Today I’ll show you the third in my trifecta of miracle saves. This came in round five. I was Black against Igor Traub [who won the expert section — see below], and we reached the position below.

Position after 64. Ke3. Black to move.

FEN: 8/4k3/1p1n2p1/p1pBp1P1/P1P1P3/2PPK3/8/8 b – – 0 64

What’s your evaluation of this position? Should it be a win for White or a draw?

I had a practical problem here, which was that I was down to less than 3 minutes on my clock. (Traub still had 30 minutes or so.) I could feel the game slipping away from me, and I squandered two of my remaining three minutes before deciding on one last desperate gamble: 64. … Nf7!

I wish I could say that I calculated this all the way to the end, but to be honest I played it mostly on instinct. I just thought that in lines like 64. … Ne8 I would die a slow, agonizing death. By contrast, 64. … Nf7 is very forcing — White will have to trade his bishop for the knight or otherwise sacrifice the g-pawn, which would be a huge risk. My opponent didn’t think very long on his move, because he was sure that all possible K+P endgames would be won for White.

Well, a few moves ago that was true, before White pushed his pawn to g5, but it’s not true any more! In fact, Black draws by force after 65. Bxf7 Kxf7 66. d4 Ke6 67. de (After 67. d5? White has a beautiful protected passed pawn — but Black has a fortress!) Kxe5 68. Kf3 Kd6! (Only this move — not 68. … Ke6 69. Kf4 Kd6 70. e5+ Ke6 71. Ke4, and White gains the opposition.)

69. Kf4 Ke6 70. e5 Kd7 71. Kf3 Ke7!

Position after 71. ... Ke7. Draw.

FEN: 8/4k3/1p4p1/p1p1P1P1/P1P5/2P2K2/8/8 w – – 0 72

This is a good position for your mental database. Amazingly, White cannot make progress. Black will simply shuffle his king back and forth on d7 and e7 until one of two things happens. (1) If White plays Ke4, Black immediately plays … Ke6 and White’s king is forced back. (2) If White plays e6, then Black of course plays … Kxe6. Even though White can then gain the opposition with Ke4, it doesn’t do him any good, because he has no way to penetrate Black’s fortress. The static position of the pawns on g5 and g6 is a real bummer for him.

When we agreed to the draw, there were 28 seconds left on my clock! It was the second game in this tournament where the 5-second time delay saved me. The reason is that in a no-brainer position like this, I can shuffle my king on d7 and e7 all day long. As long as I take less than 5 seconds to move, my clock will never drop below 28 seconds.

As predicted in my last post, Bay Area Chess has posted the results of the tournament very promptly. In the expert section, Traub tied with Joshua Cao for first place with 5-1 scores, and Traub won the trophy on tiebreak. His near-miss against me cost him $200, because if he had won our game he would have had undisputed first with 5½ points.

In the master section, International Masters Ricardo De Guzman and Wen Liang Li tied for first with 5-1 scores, with De Guzman taking the state championship on tiebreak. But I think that the real story of the master section — really, the story of the tournament — was the amazing performance by Michael Wang.

This baby-faced 11-year-old looks as if he must have wandered into the wrong section by mistake. Surely he meant to play in the scholastic tournament for under-1200 players down the hall? But take a look at his results. Round one, beat Rayan Taghizadeh (another young prodigy). Round two, beat National Master Colin Chow. Round three, beat International Master Emory Tate to move into clear first place at 3-0. Round four, he finally lost a game to Wen Liang Li. But he wasn’t done! Round five, beat International Master Vladimir Mezentsev. That’s two IM scalps and one NM scalp in one tournament — for an expert! Finally in the last round, Wang lost to De Guzman. Final result, 4-2, with the only losses coming to the two tournament winners.

Conclusion: I think Wang walked into the right section after all. With apologies to Traub and Cao, they weren’t actually the top experts at this weekend’s tournament. Michael Wang was. But he won’t be an expert any more, because his rating is going up from 2163 to 2228 (unofficially).

True story: In round five, two 16-year-old players, Joshua Cao and Jerome Sun, were playing on the top board of the expert section, right next to Igor Traub and me, who were on board two. Cao asked Sun, “How old are you?” Sun said, “16 years old.” Cao: “So am I!” Sun: “Dude, hardly anyone our age is left playing chess.”

At this point I cleared my throat and pointed out that a couple of over-16 types were sitting on the next board. (I’m 54 and Traub is, I would guess, in his upper 50’s.)

Still, Sun’s comment is interesting. The scholastic tournaments have dozens or hundreds of players, almost all of them under 12 or 13 years old. The number of them who are still playing at age 16 is really small — basically, the ones who have broken free of the pack and gotten their ratings into expert or master range. Where are the lifelong amateurs, who once were the backbone of the membership of the U.S. Chess Federation? I think that chess’s business model has changed. We’re now a sport for kids under 13 and experts over 14.

At least that’s the way it looks in the San Francisco Bay area. Maybe your part of the country is different.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane September 3, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Nice save!

One question to this note:
“(Only this move — not 68. … Ke6 69. Kf4 Kd6 70. e5+ Ke6 71. Ke4, and White gains the opposition.)”
Can’t you still hold the draw with 70 … Ke7, similar to what happened in the game?


admin September 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Yes, of course. What you’re reading here is my actual thinking process during the game, when I was still debating between … Ke6 and … Kd6 and had not yet grasped the essential point, which is that after e4-e5 you have to keep the king on the seventh rank until his presence is required on the sixth.


Michael Aigner September 3, 2013 at 2:15 pm

For the record, Michael Wang beat Ray Kaufman in round 1. That means he played 5 IMs and beat 3 of them! Sheesh!!

I must say that the number and strength of high school kids varies over the years. The 2006 CalChess States saw 4 masters all junior or senior in high school (Yap, Drake Wang, Matthew Ho and the winner Schwarz). Among the experts that year were guys named Shankland and Naroditsky. The 2008 event also saw a large number of older high school kids, topped by the champion Zierk.

Today we are in a cycle of strong 11-13 year old kids (Chow, Wheeler, Viswanadha, Panchanatham, Michael Wang, Vasudeva and Sevian*). In three years, we will be commenting about how strong the high school kids all are, assuming some or all of these kids still play locally. Caveat: The top two local high school students (Naroditsky and Liou) rarely play in the Bay Area.

* Sevian has recently moved to Massachusetts.


admin September 3, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Thanks for the correction on Michael Wang’s first game! I read the crosstable wrong. Yes, beating 3 IMs is a pretty good weekend’s work for an expert. Incidentally, Wang’s official rating went from 2187 to 2264, which is even more impressive. Wang should now be #3 in the country among 11-year-olds, unless of course his competition had similarly good results over the Labor Day weekend (or unless they turned 12).


Ashish September 3, 2013 at 3:09 pm

For those who weren’t there, Michael Wang is very small, or at least looks very small at the board. If you’re a strong player facing him, that adds a serious intimidation factor.

On the flip side, I think that the high proportion of kids can be self-fulfilling, and can drive away adults who feel “I want to spend time with peers, not with children half my size and a third my age.”


Hal Bogner September 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm

When I visit tournaments nowadays, I am struck by how rare the social custom of the post mortem seems to be visible to me. I spoke with a 2000+ player at the event on Saturday, and he says they are rare because the rounds are scheduled fairly tightly – something made possible by sudden death time controls. I visited with a handful of parents and scholastic players, and heard over and over again about kids who don’t go over their games with opponents, and kids who don’t have any friends at the tournament, and/or don’t have friends at home to play chess with.

My twenty years of tournament chess preceded the sudden death era (and I’m only 55! – but until I can’t play ice hockey any more, I don’t think I’ll feel the need to play in tournaments). In my experience, the shared exploration of “what would you have done if I played this move?”, of “hmmm…maybe this move instead”, of “if this, I expected you to play that, and didn’t like it”, and so on, was both a voyage of discovery and a critical learning mechanism. Friendships formed with people who had minutes or hours before been opponents. Learning happened facilitated not by coaches, but by peer review – sometimes turning into a round table discussion, as other players joined in the game of “what if?”.

Perhaps the tight scheduling and reliance on review by coaches or with computers has changed the social dynamic of chess tournaments for the worse. If so, is this manifesting itself both in the churn of young competitors, and in the gap between the rising youngsters and the supposedly intimidated adults?

I discovered tournaments at 14, after playing with my Dad when 8 or 9, and with junior high friends in 7th and 8th grades. Within a few years, I made friends from nearby towns who also liked tournament play, and a loose social clique of seven of us gradually formed, hanging out at clubs (blitz indoors, frisbees out on the lawn), sharing what we learned and each matching one anothers’ breakthroughs until we all eventually reached master level. We had some local adult players as mentors, but no coaches at all. Does this still happen this way today?


admin September 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm

What a great observation, Hal. I’d be interested in what other readers think about this. I’d just say three things. First, a good post-mortem can indeed be a great learning experience, but it requires a level of sportsmanship that not all players can attain. My opponent in the third round resigned, shook hands and bolted from the room in about five seconds. I never saw such a quick vanishing act. No question of a post-mortem there!

Second, I do think that the young players today have strong peer groups. The amazing group of 11-to-13-year-olds that Michael mentioned in his comment all know each other and talk with one another a lot. I don’t know whether they analyze together, but I’ll bet they do.

Third, the amount of formal coaching today (at least in the Bay Area) is definitely higher than when I grew up, and perhaps “going over the game with your coach” has replaced “going over the game with your opponent” as a learning technique. I have no problems with that. But what I worry about is that “going over the game with the computer” is actually what has replaced the post-mortem. And if so, that is definitely a loss for the game and the players.


Michael Aigner September 4, 2013 at 4:43 pm

A very interesting post by Hal. He is absolutely correct that post-mortems are largely a relic from another era. Certainly this constitutes a topic worth writing about in the future.

My impressions follow: 1. Scheduling. After an exciting game, the players either need to eat before the next round, or are exhausted late in evening. It becomes a matter of priorities. 2. New generation. The kids frankly have never experienced a thorough post game analysis. And the adults often may be uncomfortable talking with a hyper energetic tactics machine. 3. Coaches and computers. The standard these days is to go to your hotel room (or another quiet place) and turn on your computer. The younger kids are also used to having a coach go over every game. 4. Many venues have little or no space available. A sign of the times. Skittles rooms are occupied by families, and the only games are blitz and bughouse.

However, you often do see opponents exchange a few ideas, either at the board (before they get hushed out) or in the foyer outside the playing room. These are less formal and focus on one or two key moments. Such post-mortems often conclude with one player saying: “I will look at it with a computer.”

Back in the 70s and 80s, a post-mortem constituted a necessary form of feedback after a game. An amateur would never find out about the 3-move combination that he missed on move 24 unless the opponent points it out. Today, players rely on the computer giving more precise analysis than any post-mortem could. The need to spend more time with the opponent who just vanguished you vanishes.

One of my favorite post-mortems came against GM Khachiyan in Reno. He pasted me in an evening round, and then spent a good 45 minutes analyzing and cracking jokes (more of the latter). We drew a crowd in the bookstore that was entertained nearly as much as this humble pawn!


Chaitanya September 5, 2013 at 8:16 am

Very nice thinking !! Good lesson for chess learners like me ..

When I was thinking of any move for black I think of Kd7 which I believe will lead to similar positions of the draw.
White’s Bishop is quite stuck in there on a8-d6 diagonal, surprisingly it can not escape to help any pawns to promote.


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