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Things I Learned in Game One of the Foxwoods Open ("The Rat"? Or the Dragon?)

I'm playing in a tournament from last night until Sunday night. Two games a day but the first game was last night.

These lists will not be interesting. I'm just trying to hold myself accountable. When I have time between games (if I do) I will write down some things I learned. Some will be game specific and some will be more psychological or strategic which might be more relevant for other aspects of life.

It's hard for me to do this. To play again in these tournaments after a 25 year break. There's a much younger group of people here than when I last played. And they are strong.

Sometimes I ask my wife, "why do I give myself these challenges that can sometimes be so disappointing?"

Like, standup comedy is great. I LOVE doing it. But on the occasion when it does not go well , it's a miserable feeling. Why do I set myself up for miserable moments?

Same with entrepreneurship, although the rewards are much greater.

I like the challenge of hard tasks. I've always done that since I was a little kid. But sometimes I don't know if it's worth it. The highs are high but the lows are low.

Round one I lost. But I don't feel that bad about it for reasons I mention below.

In general, the biggest task when losing a game is not to learn from it but to make sure you bounce back for game two. But, that said, I feel I am getting better at learning quickly from my losses and being happy with the result.

(image: as embarrassing it is, this is the final position of the game. I am, of course, playing the black pieces here and he had just moved).
Things I Learned in Game One of the Foxwoods Open ("The Rat"? Or the Dragon?)

    1. Round one: was paired against a former World Under Ten Champion.

    Erick Zhao. In other words, he was super young and super good. He is 13 or 14 and has already been competing strongly at international levels (as mentioned, was a world champion for his age group).

    Most people in tournaments used to be older. Like the age I am now. And very few young players. Now a lot of sharp young players. There is a lot of discussion among "adult chess improvers" (i.e. people coming back to the game later in life) on how to deal with this new crop of young geniuses.

    I will discuss some of that in this game.

    2. Pre-game prep.

    About 45 minutes before the game everybody is texted who their opponent is. I got the text and saw it was Erick, who I knew to be very strong.

    At my peak rating I was 2250 (a national master title) but Erick, at age 10, was already stronger than that. And is now about 2300. Meanwhile, I'm lower than 2200 now.

    First I looked up any publicly available games he had. He had some games on And and had some games he had played in professional tournaments.

    There are two steps here:

    A) do I prepare my normal lines and see how he responds to them and then prepare for his specific responses to my normal lines?

    B) do I prepare something unusual.

    This is where the discussion of youth vs age comes in.

    Young people during Covid spent 20 hours a day sitting in front of the computer studying openings.

    Openings are the first 10-20 moves of the game (usually less than that but to really prepare, should be around 10 moves).

    They have coaches that help them really understand the lines they learn in the computers.

    I have the same thing. I use a coach. I use a site called to buy courses about my openings. And I use computers to confirm every move.

    But every move has three or more branches. So after a few moves, you might have to remember thousands of moves in different branching variations.

    And that's just for one opening. I play an opening for black against pawn to queen four, an opening for black against pawn to king four, and I when I am white I play pawn to king four (which was a big switch for me this year from pawn to queen four). When you play white you have to remember your lines in all the possible openings they can play as black against pawn to king four (the sicilian, the caro, the french, the alekhine, the modern, the scandinavian, and the italian game, etc).

    Recently I've been taking lessons from a former world memory champion, Simon Reinhard (who is rated around 2300 in chess) to help me with my memory.

    Kids have a good memory.

    Is it for biological reasons that age decreases memory? Or is it simply because I am not exercising my memory muscle for chemistry tests. I believe the latter but we'll see.

    Some people say the key to playing openings is to understand the ideas. This is, of course, true.

    For instance, in the Modern Defense, which I played in this game, the basic idea is to let white build a strong center (this is considered "classical" play to build a strong center, since it was the main strategic idea played in the 1800s), and then the modern approach for black is to develop on the outsides, let white overplay his hand, and then attack from the sides to invade the white position.

    Often white has what is called a "space advantage" in the Modern Defense. He has a lot of space in the center and Black is somewhat cramped.

    This is where knowing the ideas come in. White's goal is to not necessarily attack so fast but hold onto the space advantage while slowly cramping black even further.

    Black's goal is to chip away from the sides so White's center space goes away. Then Black wants to trade off minor pieces. Then invade with rooks and queen perhaps on the queen side or to attack the king after hitting at white's "hooks" on e4 or g3 or h3.

    I am simplifying what happens but that's some of the ideas.

    I first started playing the Modern Defense in 1985 when a strong Grandmaster told me it was how he moved up the ranks. I lost forever with it until i started getting the point. It's very easy to lose in the Modern (as can be seen in this game) but if you get the ideas you can end up with a ferocious attack and white has nothing to defend with.

    For references, my first books on the Modern were "The Modern Defense" by Vlastmil Hort, and then "The Modern Defense" by Raymond Keene. Now I am studying "The Tiger Modern" by TIger Hillarp Persson, but after last night's game I might put more time into "The Modern Defense" by my friend, Cyrus Lackdawala.

    So the first question is: do I play The Modern or my new Plan B: The Rat?

    I know that kids are booked up. They memorize every line and with their coaches they often prepare secret weapons where if I don't know every variation I can get killed fast.

    Some Grandmasters say, "Don't waste time on openings". I did a recent stream with Grandmaster Ben Finegold who said that to me. I mostly agree. But if you are up against something prepared for fireworks it's hard to deal with.

    If I wanted to avoid booked up prep I would play "The Rat".

    Meanwhile, here's a video from 2018 about Erick tieing for first in the World Under 10 Championships. A prodigy!

    3. Pre-game prep #2: The Rat?

    I don't know where the name of the opening comes from. But I find it's a great way to get a good game against kids who are BOOKED up.

    It goes like this:

    1. e4 d6. 2. d4. e5.

    That's it. Then white often goes into an endgame (where queens are off and the game becomes more maneuvering instead of straight out attacking).

    3. dxe dxe and then queens come off. 4. Qxd8 Kxd8 and the attached image is the position.

    It's harder to get booked up in this. It's not a real opening that professionals play. And yet I have had good success with this in blitz play. But I prefer to play this when white starts off with 1. d4. 2. c4 then e4 and d4. So I decided to go for the Modern.

    And also, I've been playing this for over 30 years. Why be afraid of a kid playing it?

    I saw that Erick started with e4 in his games so I wouldn't get my preferred version of the Rat. Instead I opened up my notes on the Modern.


    4. Pregame-prep #3

    It looked like Erick played the classical Modern. I decided to go for Tiger Persson's suggestion.

    The critical position is in the image. I prepared what I would do in this case and I felt pretty good about it.

    Well, Erick didn't play that. He played a much much sharper line that I felt I understood but he got such a good position so quickly it might change completely how I play this opening.

    5. The g4 Flexible Dragon Unleashed.

    A Sicilian Dragon is 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd 4. Nxd4 Nf6. 5. Nc3 g6 and the Dragon players are off to the races.

    In the Modern, there's a Dragon-like line but without the early c5.

    I play this a lot as Black and White so I am familiar with both sides. UNTIL LAST NIGHT!

    On move 5, f3 or Qd2 is typically played by White. I play Qd2 when I am white against this.

    The idea is, he castles kingside, I castle queenside, and we both go for a quick mate.

    He played a move I don't think I had ever seen before.

    5. g4.

    I get the idea. He wants to throw his kingside pawns at me, cramp my pieces on the kingside, then open up lines on my king and checkmate me.

    I thought I had an understanding of how to play against this. So I wasn't sweating it. But I quickly messed up.

    Ben Finegold once said to me, "Nobody ever loses in the opening. You always get more chances."

    Well, I think Erick had preparepd this line very well and this is one of the few times I have lost in the opening. Hopefully the rest of the games won't be like this.

    So this was an exception to the rule of you only need to learn the ideas of the opening.

    Still, there are things I learned.

    The image below is after g4. According to my database it is the 8th most popular move in this position among professionals. Which means Erick was booked up on this and knew what he was doing and I didn't.

    6. How to fight against g4

    Against 5. f3 or 5. Qd2 I always black 5...b5.

    The idea is: Cramp his development on the queenside just in case he castles there. And eventually open up lines on c5 and attack down the c-file with rooks or attack his pawn on e4 and then, as they say, "it's a game".

    Against a move like 5. h4 I would've done h5 to block his play on the kingside. The problem with this is that maybe then I make my king a little weak (never move pawns in front of your king if you can avoid it) and maybe he takes advantrage of that with f4-f5.

    But I've done this strategy before and was ready.

    So I figured against g4 the right approach is to do h5 if he does h4, else develop like I normally do.


    7. Should've not been so open.

    He followed g4 with h4.

    Normally a game-losing mistake doesn't happen so early. In fact, since I've started playing in tournaments again, I have never been in such a bad position so early.

    But my response to h4 was a mistake.

    I did h5 (as mentioned above).

    The problem:

    - I am opening up the position with h5
    - the side with better development (i.e. more pieces out and more space) is happy when the position opens.

    So: I NEEDED to focus on development.

    But I'm still not totally sure what to do.

    I was looking at Nbd7 (developing a piece) but I was uncomfortable with h4 c5 h5 b5 then h6 Bf6 g5 Bxd4 Bxd4 cd Qxd4 (see attached position).

    I can't really look at that image and say "black is doing fine". It looks like black is being crushed. Of course, it doesn't have to go that way but that was one of the options.

    Now, looking at it more deeply.

    Maybe after 5. g4! I could do Nd7, 6. h4 c5, 7.h5 g5! I have to take a deeper look at this as it seems scary for black but all the pawns on the board are basically hanging. If Bxg5 I can do cxd4. And if dxc5 first I can do Nxc5 attacking e4. I don't know. I'd have to study this.

    8. What about the "push-pass" against h4?

    I was thinking about h6 after h4. This is called a "push-pass". If he does g5 I do h5. If he does h4, I do g5. But I had a hard time justifying either move. I was afraid he would eventually do f4-f5 and overwhelm my king with his pawns.

    For instance, if g5 h6 and then he castles and prepares f4 but we might end up in a position that looks like the image attached. Again, I can't look at that and say "black is doing fine". It looks like black has no good plans and is about to get crushed.

    Ugh, I think I have to re-look this entire line. Instead of Tiger's 4. a6 I might go to Cyrus's c6. Or just stick to the Rat.

    After the game I looked at the course I have on the Modern.

    It discusses "g4" but the author says it's very rare and he has never seen it in practice.

    Specifically, this is what he says,

    Is another interesting (and flexible) move, maintaining White's options. He can go for Qd2 and O-O-O, but this might also be a preparation for an extended fianchetto with Bg2. According to Tiger Hillarp Persson, this approach was championed by Grandmaster Solodovichenko. It has to be said, though, that this is a move you won't encounter often. I can't recall if I ever met it in practice."

    Well, I've seen it.

    9. This is the rest of the game:

    I really had no chances after my choices of h5 and gx5, Rxh5 Bf3. My bishop on b7 is in constant "x-ray" trouble. And he is just messing up my pawns on g6 and f7 and will bring his Knight around to mess me up even more. Plus his queen. And I can't bring my pieces around to defend.

    This is called "force count".

    He will simply have more pieces attacking my king then I will have defending it and I am too cramped to get it out of trouble quickly.

    So I sacrifice a rook for a knight.

    There's a saying, which applies to business, "When you are unhappy with the position do something drastic to give yourself a different position." I did that but it wasn't enough. I'm simply losing. But I was losing before I did that

    Again, since returning to tournaments a few months ago, this was the fastest game where I found myself in an utterly lost position and I never had any chances at all afterwards.

    In one sense it's not an interesting game for that reason.

    But I did learn one thing.

    Here is a link to the game:

    And the image is right after I give up my rook for a knight, thinking I would have some fighting chances. But my king is just sitting there looking pathetic while my pieces on the queenside can't participate in defense.

    10. thing I learned.

    It just so happens I play this "dragon" variation as white against the Modern. Sometimes it's hard to find a line to play against the openings you play on the other side. I play the Modern as black so I have always struggled against it when playing white.

    But, now I know what to do. I'm going to play this 5.g4!? line. After the game I spent an hour or two looking at the variations after g4. It's really difficult to face.

    11. Overall perspective

    I have yet to win the first game of a tournament since returning to tournaments. 8 more games to go so hopefully I learn something and move on to the next one.
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