The masters are coming! The masters are coming!

After my game with Ricardo, I didn’t sleep well, being plagued by an unusual combination of excitement at having played such a good game against him and the disappointment of having let him off with a draw at the end. So, when I got up at the unusually late (for me) hour of 7:00, I was not feeling particularly well-rested. I checked the pairings and saw that I had white against IM Emory Tate. My brief “preparation” for him consisted of looking up a few lines in the Najdorf and also how to stay awake during the game without caffeine. Neither of these exercises proved to be particularly helpful: he played 1…Nc6 on the first move, and the advice on overcoming drowsiness I found online (Eat fruit! Eat 4–5 smaller meals a day rather than 2–3 big ones! Get some exercise! Avoid meat!) is all completely second-nature to me by now.

Well, there was one more bit of preparation I did: I repeated the mantra “no tactics!” to myself many times before and during the game. Emory is known to be a rather uneven player: he’s almost unmatched in his tactical prowess, but his positional play is at a much lower level. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. Of course, it would be fun an instructive to challenge him in his element, but one would be wise to exercise a bit of pragmatism from time to time!

Early in the game, Emory managed to break nearly every opening principle, undeveloping one piece after another, and I felt that I had a comfortable advantage throughout the game. But when he offered a draw on move 28, I felt that, in my less-than-fully-alert state, it would be prudent to accept. This was especially true given that I strongly expected that I would face IM John Donaldson with black in round 6, and taking a few hours to get my mind off of chess would be helpful. (Before my round 5 game, Salman explained to me how the pairings were likely to work that day as being a K_{3,3} graph with an edge deleted. Due to the lack of foresight of the pairing software, it ended up having two edges deleted.)

Indeed, I did get black against John in the final round. I found the game to be the most interesting one I played at this tournament.

IM John Donaldson (2390) vs. Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo (1989), New Year’s Open, Round 6

1. Nf3 d6

There are several points to this move order. The move I would really like to play is 1…f5, but dealing with some of the offbeat lines (especially something like 2. d3 and 3. e4) is annoying and quite dangerous for black. So, it makes sense to avoid them if possible. Since black will almost certainly play …d6 pretty early on in the Dutch anyway, this move doesn’t waste anything. Finally, white may transpose into an e4 line, so after 2. e4, I’ll be happy to play 2…c5, since the Sicilian is part of my repertoire as well.

2. d4 f5 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 g6 5. 0-0 Bg7 6. c4 0-0 7. d5

A bit more common is 7. Nc3, after which black generally chooses among 7…Nc6, 7…c6, and 7…Qe8. My choice is 7…Nc6, and it’s possible that my opponent knew that from observing my game against Ricardo from the day before. After 7.d5, the only main line I can enter is the Qe8 one.

7…Qe8 8. Nc3 a5

This and 8…Na6 are the main theoretical moves, but I guess they look a bit odd to the uninitiated. Black wants to play Na6 and (probably) Nc5 soon. So why a5? White’s plan is likely to include a push of the b-pawn in order to help destabilize the black queenside. After black has moved a5, it’s harder for white to make b4 work.

9. Be3

I felt that this move was a bit strange, since generally white tries to move the e-pawn as early as possible in the Leningrad. But my opponent was just trying to exchange the dark-squared bishops to play a quiet positional game. The point is that all my kingside pawns are on dark squares, so without a bishop to defend them, they may become weak and invite an invasion of the white queen.


Another option would be to try to punish white’s last move with 9…Ng4, but after 10. Bd4, I suspected white had probably benefited more than I had. Okay, I can play 10…Bh6 and keep the dark-squared bishops on the board, but my pieces find themselves on slightly strange squares. Then again, that sometimes just happens in the Dutch, and it should not be cause for grave concern!

10. Qc1 e5

Playing such moves always scares me, since they’re so committal. This move opens up the center, if white wants it, and I suspect that white’s king is a little safer than mine here, although it’s not so clear. Furthermore, white is able to activate his g2 bishop and target b7. But, without this move, it’s not clear what I’m trying to do.

11. dxe6 Bxe6 12. b3 Rd8

I wasn’t sure what to do about the potentially hanging pawn on b7. After Ng5, I can play Bc8 and keep the bishop there until I come up with a better idea. My opponent suggested in the post-mortem that I play 12…c6 here. I thought about that but felt that the d6-pawn could become a serious liability. But apparently that formation is known to be tough to break.

13. Bh6 Bd7

I’m intending to bring the bishop to c6 in some lines to counter the long diagonal.

14. Bxg7 Kxg7 15. Qb2 Kg8 16. Nd4

At this point, I began to panic a bit, since white seems to have all sorts of advantages. I have to do something about the b7-pawn, and meanwhile my pieces are on what appear to be very silly squares.

16…b6 17. Nd5

This looks very bad, as the white pieces are easily maneuvering to active squares. Fortunately, I have a strong move here that helps me solve some of my problems and that was highly praised by my opponent.


Here I felt that the queen on b2 was exerting too much pressure on the long diagonal, and I was eager to find a way to exchange it. So, my plan was to play 18…Qe5 next, if allowed. This essentially forces a queen trade, as I might be threatening 19…c5, winning a piece. But playing 17…Ne4 first is essential, as after 17…Qe5? immediately, white has 18. f4, which just wins immediately (18…Qe8 19. Nxf5! wins material) But with the knight on e4, 18…Qe5 19. f4 allows 19…Qg7, and black is fine.

18. Nf3

My opponent felt that my Qe5 was strong enough to require a retreat. But I have another way to exchange queens, or at least counter the diagonal.

18…Qf7 19. a3 Qg7

Here, I expected white to play 20. Qc2 to keep queens on the board. But he preferred to play the endgame.

20. Qxg7+ Kxg7 21. Rfc1 Bc6?

I wanted to trade off the powerful knight on d5, but this is the wrong way to do it. Instead, I should play 21…Nf6 with an equal game.

22. Nd4 Bxd5?

I ought to retreat with 22…Bd7 and admit that I made a mistake on the previous move, but I didn’t realize that something was wrong until after I made this move.

23. cxd5

And now I can’t prevent the knight from coming into e6 and winning material. I managed to cut my material losses to a minimum though.

23…Rfe8 24. Bxe4 Rxe4 25. Ne6+ Rxe6 26. dxe6 Kf6

It was unclear to me which piece I should use to win the e6 pawn. I could also play 26…Nc5 so as to be able to capture on e6 with the knight. But, after 26…Nc5 27. b4 Nxe6 28. bxa5 bxa5 29. Rab1 Nc5, we reach the same position as the game but with my king on g7 rather than e6, which has to be worse for me.

27. b4 Kxe6 28. bxa5 bxa5 29. Rab1 Nc5 30. Kf1 Kd5

I’m worse here, but it’s not obvious that white can win. I have a passed c-pawn (which, admittedly, is not doing much yet), a more active king, and a very well-placed knight.

31. Ke1 Re8

I decided to play for a trick. I threaten 32…Nd3+.

32. Rb5

When I saw this move, I was in a state of disbelief, but that’s because I failed to grasp its intention. I thought that I had figured out how to refute it earlier.


I thought that the intention of 32. Rb5 was to play 33. Rxa5 next, but that fails, as after 33…Kb6, I’m threatening the rook on a5 and Nd3+, so black must return the exchange with what I thought was a worse endgame for him.

33. Rcb1

Of course! The point was just to double the rooks on the b-file, and if possible to transfer them to the eighth rank.

33…a4 34. Rb8 Re7

One plan for black is to move the knight to b3 to block the other rook from getting to the eighth rank and then more or less do nothing, challenging white to come up with a plan. Of course, given enough free moves, white can win (for example, by playing Rh8 and then marching the king to h6), so black must take certain measures to prevent this sort of thing. But it’s not obvious that white can defeat something close to a “do-nothing” strategy. But, it’s very painful to play that for black.

35. e3 Nb3 36. Rb4 Re4!?

I thought this move would help me get my counterplay going, and this turned out to be true. However, my counterplay isn’t very meaningful if it’s ultimately going to fail anyway. I could also play 36…Nc5, simply asking white what he thinks the rook is doing on b4 in the first place.

37. Rxe4 fxe4 38. Kd1 Kd5 39. Kc2 Kc4

This looks great for black. The c- and d-pawns are ready to start advancing, and they’ll quickly become rather menacing to black. There’s just one problem.

40. f3!!

I think this may be the only move that wins for white, and in fact it doesn’t take much for him to lose. For example, 40. Rf1 d5 41. f3 d4! 42. fxe4 dxe3 43. Re1 Nd4+ 44. Kc1 Kd3 is curtains for white.

40…exf3 41. Rf1 d5 42. Rxf3 d4

I’m being tricky again here: the possible knight fork on d4 prevents white from taking the pawn. I was expecting 43. Rf4 or 43. e4, but his move is much stronger.

43. Rf7!

Apparently, white has more time that I expected. He can afford to grab the h7-pawn since my c- and d-pawns aren’t quite quick enough.

43…d3+ 44. Kb2 c5 45. Rxh7

The problem for me now is that it takes too long for my pieces to get to the necessary squares.

45…Kd5 46. Rh4 c4 47. Kc3

All my threats have now been stopped. I can only try a few more things before resigning.

47…Na5 48. Rg4 Kc5 49. Rg5+ Kb6 50. Rxg6+ Kb5 51. Rg5+ Kb6 52. Rd5 Black resigns. 1-0

I learned a tremendous amount from this game, and even though I lost, I had a good time playing it.

An observation I had from playing three international masters in a row is that, while I can more or less play up to their level, it takes all my energy to do so. There are lots of things that they know or understand intuitively due to their greater knowledge and experience; it’s completely possible for me to figure these things out at the board, at least for a while, but I tire eventually from having to do that repeatedly. But I now have much more confidence that I don’t need to curl up and die when facing stronger players; indeed, they should be more scared of me than I am of them, since they have so much more to lose!

This tournament easily sent me up to expert territory with a rating of 2033, so I finally achieved a long-standing goal in chess. I became an A-player more than three years ago, and progress since then has been noticeable but slow. Next stop: master!


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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