Grandmaster Versus Amateurs - Lessons from the 2022 U.S. Open

One of the best things about the U.S. Open is that it is one section. No masters and above section, and no U1600 group — instead, it’s all-play-all, with the result that in the early rounds, some amateur players get to take shots at much stronger competition. I know this firsthand, as I got to play GM Alexander Shabalov in two consecutive U.S. Open first rounds. (You can guess how it went.)

GM Elshan Moradiabadi was the only GM in the nine-day schedule for this year’s U.S. Open, and he was nearly 350 points higher rated than the second player on the list, IM Timothy Taylor. This is not an unalloyed good. On the one hand, Moradiabadi “should” have been able to run the table against weaker opposition, taking a perfect score into the merge without much difficulty.

GM Elshan Moradiabadi at the 2022 U.S. Open. Photo: Mark Cieslikowski
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GM Elshan Moradiabadi at the 2022 U.S. Open. Photo: Mark Cieslikowski

On the other hand, he actually had to do it. And anyone who plays lower rated competition regularly knows that, sometimes, things just don’t go according to plan.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at Moradiabadi’s first six games in Rancho Mirage, and try to discover whether there was something to be learned from them. Just how does a strong player go about defeating lesser-rated opponents? And what can we chess mortals do to maximize our chances against titled players?

Let’s go round-by-round and examine the games.

Round 1: Black versus Lawrence Reifurth (1700)

After a sixth move inaccuracy that Reifurth did not take advantage of, Moradiabadi got a good position out of the opening. Two inconsistent moves were all the GM needed to launch an irresistible attack on the white king, and the game was over after 19 moves.

Lesson: Play with purpose and be ready to take advantage of an unwary GM in the opening. This game is proof that sometimes even they make move order mistakes.

Reifurth (left) against Moradiabadi at the 2022 U.S. Open. Photo: Mark Cieslikowski.
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Reifurth (left) against Moradiabadi at the 2022 U.S. Open. Photo: Mark Cieslikowski.


Round 2: White versus Anthony Hung (1948)

Here we see the GM positionally outplaying the amateur player. Using his knowledge of Capablanca – Treybal (Karlsbad, 1929) as a guide, Moradiabadi conjures an overwhelming space and mobility advantage where Black’s light-squared bishop is a prisoner behind its pawns.

But even GMs overlook things. And Hung made things difficult after the breakthrough 26. b5! with the well-calculated 31. ... Bc6!. Fortunately for Moradiabadi there was a resource, ensuring that the full point was not thrown away.

Lesson: Know the classics. They’re classic for a reason. And don’t lose all hope if you’re in a tough position. Hung fought well and found some tricky moves to make the top seed’s life difficult.

Here’s the Capablanca – Treybal game; if you don’t know it, you should!


Round 3: Black versus Matthew Ng (2036)

Ng’s unambitious opening was rewarded when play got dynamic and both sides had chances. The story, however, is an old one: the GM took his chances, while the expert did not. And six or so moves after the missed opportunity, White’s pieces were jumbled and ripe for tactics.

Lessons: Don’t be afraid to shoot your shot! What’s the worst that can happen?


Round 4: White versus Saif Shawkat (2106)

A cramped position without counterplay is a recipe for trouble against stronger players. Here, Moradiabadi took the space and the material he was offered and suffocated his opponent. Note the way that the knights make use of the space advantage and the holes in Black’s pawn structure.

Lesson: Quiet suffering rarely works against stronger players. Try to make a mess — they miss things too!


Round 5: Black versus John Luger (2026)

Moradiabadi’s “rope-a-dope” strategy nearly got him into trouble in round five. Essaying the Hippo with Black, Luger played solidly, forcing the GM to take some chances to complicate the position. But Luger missed his moment to take it to the top seed, instead draining the tension from the position for a pawn. The black pieces came to life while White tried to consolidate the material, and soon Moradiabadi overwhelmed his opponent.

Lesson: Amateurs hate tension-filled positions. Learn to love them! And beware of Iranian-American GMs bearing gifts — sometimes a pawn isn’t worth the trouble that comes with it.

GM Elshan Moradiabadi spots the camera during round 5 of the 2022 U.S. Open. Photo: John Hartmann
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GM Elshan Moradiabadi spots the camera during round 5 of the 2022 U.S. Open. Photo: John Hartmann


Round 6: White versus Austin Mei (2265)

Not much to see here: Black got a little carried away, improperly giving the queen for two bishops, after which the GM was willing to give a bit of the material back to reach a risk-free winning position.

Lesson: curb your enthusiasm?

Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm


In these games we saw players commit a few different sins against Cäissa — passivity, failure to punish errors, inattention to critical moments, and releasing the tension without good reason.

But the amateurs weren’t the only ones erring in these games. Moradiabadi also had his share of slips, but the difference was that (a) his were usually more subtle, and (b) he didn’t fail to take advantage of the errors made by his opponents. He certainly knew more patterns than his opponents (see game two), and when to apply them, but in a messy position like we saw in the fifth round, anything can — and nearly did! — happen.

So, in summary, grandmasters are very, very strong, but they’re human. They make mistakes just like you or I do... just fewer of them. If you get the chance to take on a GM, whether it be in a simul, online, or in the first round of the U.S. Open, think of it as a freeroll for you to test yourself. Play your best chess, take your shot, and enjoy the ride!