On November 20th I flew south for two 9-round tournaments in Central and Latin America, the first taking place in Mexico. The UNAM Chess Festival was a big event, with 5 different sections as well as a super GM tournament featuring the man himself – Magnus Carlsen. In the months leading up to the tournament I casually stated that Carlsen and I were following similar chess schedules. The festival took place on campus, and the layout of the room was such that tourists, onlookers, and students going about daily activities could stop by a massive white tent to watch the games. It was similar to an indoor tennis bubble, except with chess inside and doors on either side. The top 12 boards were DGT broadcasted online, with very nice wooden pieces and a separate stage to distinguish yourself. I have never been to any tournament in my life where chess was such a respected public activity that ordinary people took an interest in. For example, if you are 2300+ and playing on a top 12 board, you are immediately as captivating as Brad Pitt or any other Hollywood actor. I loved the atmosphere and can say without doubt that it was a huge motivation towards my success in Mexico. I wanted to do well because of the huge crowd of sometimes 100-150 people intently watching the top 12 broadcasted games live from behind the taped off area. The atmosphere was silently electric, which is the only way I can accurately describe it. I knew that at least 200 people were watching every move and I didn’t want to look bad in front of my new fans!
My tournament started off well, with two victories on lower boards and then just by the luck of the draw my rating was the perfect match for the #1 seed Macieja and I was suddenly paired up in round 3 to board 1! I had the white pieces as well, and could not ask for a better opportunity. I play very well under pressure, and I don’t give any unearned respect to GMs. I love the challenge and thrill of going up against them, which is why I boast a 8W-2L-7D record against Grand Masters in 2012! It was my first time on the nice wooden boards and it was also the first time where I knew every single person’s eyes were probably on me for most of the round. “Who is this young guy on board 1 against the top seed?” and “Well let’s see what he’s got” I could imagine them thinking, and this kind of stuff motivates me to do well.
I drew my game against Macieja in what could be called boring fashion. I didn’t do anything spectacular, and we each took our time the entire game. Queen’s were traded quickly in a Nimzo-Indian defense where I had the White pieces. I simplified into an endgame where Black had hanging pawns and it was simply too much to defend them completely in order to bring in the King. We repeated moves as I kept attacking different pawns – any further attempt to win was very risky for him, as he explained to me after the game.
Upon its conclusion I was asked something I’ve never been asked before: “Maestro, tu firma porfa?” and “Podemos tomar una foto contigo?” which translate to “Master, can I have your autograph” and “Can we take a picture with you?” In Canada we simply do not have this kind of an atmosphere! Over the duration of the tournament I got used to the amazing feeling of coming off a strong draw or a tough win and receiving the awe and attention of hundreds in the crowd. It was a very new and very welcome feeling for me. I would bet I took about 25 pictures and signed 75 autographs by the end of the tournament.
Another important goal for me was to stay on the top 12 boards, and after my draw with Macieja I shot back to board 12! So I was hanging on by a thread and I knew there was no going back now. I dominated with the French defense against a 2150 local FM. The Tarrasch (3. Nd2) was met with my pet line 3. … h6!? which is really a waiting move more than anything else. It allows me to see where White will deploy his pieces before doing so myself. Often White can use move orders to place his pieces favourably so the idea of this move is to pass the ball back to White. It’s not exactly a waste of a move either because h6 is almost always useful in the French as long as I can steer the game towards lines that see it so. He played a quiet variation and I was slowly able to take control of the game. First the dark squares, then the centre, then the two bishops and before long he was in very bad time pressure coupled with a difficult position. So I stood with 3.5/4 and couldn’t be happier. This meant that the tough games were only beginning though, and I was ready. Again, playing the tough players is something I yearn for, so I was excited more than anything about who my next opponents would be.
I’ll take a brief interlude to describe the hotel situation, which was very nice on the inside although annoyingly far from the actual tournament site. The only downfall with a nice outdoor facility is that it’s unlikely the hotel is at the tournament site. Alas it was not, which meant a 30 minute bus ride there and back every day where we constantly had to wait for all members of our hotel before we could leave, and had to leave at specific times. So in general it was too tedious and I really noticed how nice it is to have the hotel and the tournament room in the same building. The hotel rooms were very nice, with comfortable beds and all the basic amenities. Things were clean and it was without doubt one of the nicest places in the city, certainly in the neighbourhood. I’m not sure if it’s true with all chess players, but when I am in a nice hotel room I feel compelled to play better to prove I deserve to be treated to such nice hospitality. I am still a young student, which means I prefer to save money wherever I can – so when I have to splurge on a fancy hotel I always want to live up the expectation it sets.
My round 5 encounter was against the #2 rated player in Mexico, hometown hero and favourite Juan Carlos Gonzalez Zamora (2542). Again I had the white pieces so I was hoping to go for gold. I have played this player online on many an occasion, usually in 1-minute or 3-minute time control. I have the better record against him, but he’s always caused me some difficulty because he’s so resilient.
He decided to play the Dutch, which to my knowledge is not his main repertoire so I actually took it as a bit of an insult. I recently played in the Edmonton Fall Sectional where my game vs. Vladimir Pechenkin was the same variation. I decided to play the same way, with of course some improvements since my last encounter. I thought the opening was going well but my opponent was playing fast and always had an answer for my threats. He seemed just in time to consolidate everything and keep the position closed. His pressure on the Kingside was duly noted although I never gave it enough credit because I thought g5 Nh3 was always going to be strong for me (e.g. if he takes on h4 I gain control of the f4 square, and if he pushes g4 the same). My opponent was playing the fast, obvious moves and his play took a turn for the worse after I played 26. Nf3 a5!? I think my opponent just gravely misevaluated how annoying my Nxh4 move was going to be. Even with accurate play I am clearly getting myself out of a bind, trading pieces, and simplifying the position. He was forced to simplify into an endgame where I have the only winning chances, because I’m up a clean pawn. I don’t think he calculated how quickly things get traded off!
The game was the last top board in progress, and I could feel the eyes of at least 150 people on me, watching not only because of the general thrill but also because their local favourite was actually without winning chances. I knew the pressure was on and I tried to feed off of the energy. I was most impressed with my endgame play in this game: I tried to make inroads on the a-file with my K and R (Rb6 idea) which he stopped but at the cost of time on the clock. Then I calmly retreated my pieces back to the starting position and tried a different maneuver. I slowly was able to force Black to lose his f6 pawn and then once I had won it and everything was under control I made the huge error 69. Nf8? The entire game was based on not allowing him to play Kc8 and threaten to checkmate me with Ra5 and I constantly had the idea parried via Ne7+. For some reason I took my eyes off the board and played what surely should throw away my win… or so I thought. I had to sacrifice my rook, and after he recaptured he offered me a draw. I said nothing and played 71. g5 trying to scare him into thinking I had it planned out from the start. I believe this to be a draw because Black has some moves at hand e.g. Rb1 threatens mate en route to Rf1/g1 and getting behind the pawns. Then he should be able to bring his K over. My opponent made the error of walking his King over first, which allows for quite a simple victory. Using my N and 2P I am easily able to force a Q for myself, an idea he must have underestimated.
The game ended and you could cut the tension with a knife. He was as courteous as I’d expect for the back and forth loss he’d just endured, and I was greeted once again with warm congratulations from real fans. It’s a very nice atmosphere created around the top games and I would love to be back in a chess culture like this because it motivates me to play well. I slept well that night – 4.5/5 and without a scratch on the system!
In my 6th round game I was playing on board 2 against Holden Hernandez Carmenate of Cuba (2562) with Black. I was already getting very used to playing on the top boards, and people were in turn getting used to seeing me post strong results. The ratings are not posted on the pairing sheets, nor on the live broadcast screens in the playing hall so I think many spectators simply assumed me a GM! This kind of attention is what I’d expect an actual GM to get, so it was a nice taste of what I certainly hope is soon to come. I drew relatively effortlessly with Black. I say ‘effortlessly’ now but it’s really a lie … every single one of my games is hard-fought and well thought out, even the seemingly simple draws. I played the Black side of a QID position where White aims to take the centre and Black strikes back at it with Grunfeld-type bayonets except the main difference is a Be7 and not Bg7. The game simplified quickly on the open d-file and soon it resulted in a dead drawn K and P endgame. I was getting used to the GM-feeling of winning with White and drawing with Black and it felt good. With 5/6 I was still tied for 2nd place behind the cruising Macieja (5.5/6).
I had seen from previous rounds that he lacked theoretical knowledge and played very objective chess. This showed in the opening moments of the game when he played g6, h5, Bh6, Rxh6, Rh8 instead of a normal KID… just to trade off his dark Bishop given the pawn structure. I did something that may seem unorthodox, but I spent a lot of time on it during the game. I decided to close the position (probably in his favour) for attacking chances on the Kingside. I thought that the N maneuver Ng1-h3-g5 was very strong and that after f4,Be2,Rf1 he would be struggling to 1) develop his pieces 2) counterattack on the b-file which is his only source of counterplay. I ended up being exactly right, although I was inaccurate along the way. He secured the e5 square very well, with a Nd7 and Re8, so I switched my plan of opening the position only slightly. I played 23. f5 and essentially planned to take on g6 and play Rf1xf6 at the right moment. His queenside play was existent but not threatening; I always felt I was winning the pawn storm race. Although not the most accurate, I played a nice combination 26. Ne6+ Bxe6 27. Rxf6!? which was the most creative way I could think of to make this sacrifice work. His last move, Ra7, provided good lateral defense and this seemed to disturb the peace. 27. … Kxf6 dxe6 immediately creates the threat of Nd5+ winning the undefended Qa5, and I also have Rf1+, Qg5+ and Bf1-h3 ideas in the future. I thought this would certainly be enough compensation. My opponent seemed to agree, but didn’t calculate his next move properly (Bf7). This loses on the spot to Qg5 with the unstoppable idea of Bxh5xg6. He created a mate threat near my King which was easily dealt with and finally the pressure on the Kingside was too much and Black was caught in a mating net.
The live transmission of this game seems to have me playing Ke1 and then Rh8 by Black. In fact that’s just the pieces being set back up – as you can see here my final move was Kc2 to avoid all the checks for good and my opponent resigned. This was an important win towards my final standing in the tournament as well as my GM norm. It also meant I remained on the top 12 boards which was important to me.
My round 8 game was one of my most stressful, because I knew I was on GM norm pace but these last 2 games were incredibly important. I was paired as Black against GM Vladimir Dobrov (2497) and this was the only game in the tournament where I was much worse and deserved to lose.
The opening was played very quickly and it was the hedgehog which is an opening I’m very comfortable with. He played an interesting move order 14. Bf2 which surprisingly threw me off because I had expected a different move in my preparation. For this reason, I played a move without calculating properly in the hope he would play the other move and we would transpose. He didn’t and what resulted was a crazy (but very thematic) piece sacrifice with some new ideas I’ve never seen before. He was certainly better prepared in this match. After 20. c7 I should sidestep this pawn with Qd7 or Qc8 and accept the resulting difficult position because 21. … Nxc7 22. Bxb6 Rc8 (which is what I was counting on) failed miserably to 22. Bh3! which I neither saw, calculated, nor had ever seen before as an idea. I was caught off guard and suddenly a horrible bind was taking over my position. This move forces the unfriendly Nd7 and suddenly all my pieces are on e7,d7,c7,c8,d8,e8 and being held in position by a Rook and 2B! I knew I was lost or losing so I decided to play for tricks, which is a common last resort for any chess player. I calculated one line where it looked as though I was losing a piece but I saw a neat perpetual I could pull out of nowhere. He was playing very quickly so I thought it would be very likely he would fall for it. I know how excited I get when I have a completely winning position against a strong player; my first instinct is to play what I think to be a winning line as quickly as possible to show calculation strength. I think a bit of the male ego was present because he messed up what was really quite a nice game. The forced line was played 31. Rc1?? Qe6! and I could just see the colour drain from his face. The problem is that 32. Qxc7 is met by … Qe3+ with a perpetual check. He was forced to trade Q’s if he wanted to retain any winning chances but the resulting endgame didn’t pose me too much trouble to draw. I was also playing with momentum on my side and knew that I had dodged a bullet. I took my time and didn’t allow for any more mistakes. This was a very important 1/2 point that I saved, and with 6.5/8 I was still tied for 2nd place behind Macieja (7.5/8).
I went home and immediately set to preparation for the 9th and final round. I needed a draw to earn a GM norm which I had calculated at home so I knew what was at stake. I had the White pieces which is always nice especially when trying to massage a short draw. I was considering to play an Exchange Slav or something boring in order to secure my norm. When I arrived to the game the opening was about as good as I could ask for because we traded Queen’s on move 5 (and was headed towards a very drawn QG line with slight advantage to W) and he even offered me a draw as he did so! I immediately accepted of course and with it earned my GM norm in under 3 minutes. At the SPICE Cup last month I also was very stressed for my 9th round game because I needed a draw to earn my norm as well. To my surprise my opponent offered me a draw in that game as well – somehow I get very kind pairings in the last round…
My tournament concluded with 7/9 and a norm performance rating well above 2600. I exceeded my last IM norm by 1.5 points and 200 performance rating, and 7/9 also earned me a shared prize of roughly $950 USD. On tiebreaks I finished 3rd, despite being tied with 3 others, which makes for the best tournament of my career without a doubt. Macieja finished with 8.5/9 which made it even more sweet that I was the only player in the tournament to snag a draw off of him. Eric Hansen finished in typical stride by winning his last 4 games to equal my score of 7/9. We each took home the same prize and for two Canadians to tie for 3rd in a very strong international open shows great success. Amidst all the other top GMs and local players the only two Canadian boys that played each tied for 3rd – a tremendous international result!