Hans Niemann Reflects on his Perfect Grade Nationals

My first scholastic national was the 2013 Super Nationals, only 3 months and 28 days after my first rated US Chess tournament. I remember entering the famous Gaylord hotel with excitement, anxiety, and most importantly a powerful motivation to win. After walking past the lobby, I was in awe of the massive dome that housed a mini water park, a river with boat tours, an amazing ice cream shop, and thousands of chess players. I think I remember the tournament so fondly because I made friendships that I still have. My rating was 1486 at the time, and I only scored 4/7. I distinctly remember seeing all of the top players like Luke Harmon Velotti, Tanuj Vasedeva, and Atulya Shetty fighting it out on the stage. I have always been a single-minded person. I competed in cycling in the Netherlands and was one of the top cyclists in the nation for my age when I moved back to California, so my competitive spirit has always been what motivates me in everything, That spirit was re-ignited when I realized that if I dedicated everything to chess, I could be up on that stage holding that 1st place trophy. Four years later, I returned to the Gaylord Hotel for the 2017 Super Nationals with a rating of 2412 and the exact same competitive spirit. But this time, things were different. I was the top seed, playing on the DGT boards with my games broadcasted, and everyone wanted me to beat me. I drew against Alexander Costello in Round 5 and had to win my final game against Christopher Shen to win the tournament. Some might think that all that pressure would negatively affect me, but I found it invigorating. I won an extremely long game that lasted over 100 moves to take the 8th Grade title, but I was not satisfied. I realized that in order for me to be truly satisfied with my performance, I would need to go perfect. I would need to win the bughouse, blitz, and classical without a single blemish. In the 2018 Grade Nationals I won all three events, but I was a co-champion for the classical and bughouse. Still it wasn’t enough. Something about my drive changed. I transferred to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School for my Junior and Senior Year of High School. Columbia Prep has a rich chess culture that started with GM Marc Arnold and has been fostered and developed by International Arbiter Sophia Rohde. This was the first time that I went to Nationals and wasn’t focused on my individual results, roomed with a teammate, and had a team room where my teammates and I would analyze each others’ games. I realized that I had something to play for that was bigger than myself.

Hans Niemann (photo Kimberly Doo)

The K-12 Blitz Team Championship was a three horse race between Columbia Prep, Stuyvesant High School, and Dalton. I ended up going 12-0, scored crucial victories against Justin Chen of Stuyvesant in the penultimate round and against Gus Huston of Dalton in the final round. We were tied with Dalton for the lead heading into the final round with one player with 7/10 and a few players at 6/10. Unfortunately we had a tough last round and lost to Dalton by a half-point. Honestly, I didn’t care about my individual title. I really wanted us to win as a team, but we failed and I was not satisfied. Vincent Baker and I won the bughouse earlier in the day with a perfect 10-0 score. Our strategy for the bughouse was to to gain a time advantage so we could stall on one board and “chess” our opponent on the other. This technique was very effective because most of our opponent sacrificed pieces for an attack and then waited for more pieces. This depleted their pieces and lost them time, optimizing our ability to focus one board. With the bughouse and blitz over, I had to focus on finishing my goal of going 29-0 by winning the last seven games in the “Main Event.” After playing three Nationals, I have learned was that you should never underestimate anyone. My first four games were pretty smooth wins. My opponent had some chances to draw in round 3, but he had to find a series of very good moves with basically no time. My most important game was the 5th round where I faced the #2 seed, FM Justin Chen, who also had 4/4.

[pgn] [Event "11th Grade Nationals"] [Site "?"] [Date "2019.12.28"] [Round "?"] [White "Niemann, Hans"] [Black "Chen, Justin"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E17"] [Annotator "Niemann"] [PlyCount "99"] [EventDate "2019.??.??"] [SourceVersionDate "2019.12.28"] {In the 5th round, I faced FM Justin Chen. We were the only players with 4/4 with a lot of players trailing with 3.5 and 3. However, this game would ultimately decide the winner of the tournament, as the winner would play someone around 2100 with a half point lead. I vividly remember playing Justin at the Marshall Chess Club in a G/25 game where I won a nice game in the catalan. I understood that Justin was a very solid player, yet, his biggest weakness was his unfortunate proclivity to miss very important moves that drastically effect the evaluation. My intention was to get an unbalanced game that required detailed calculation at numerous critical moments.} 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 d5 4. Bg2 Be7 5. O-O O-O {I did not have that much time to prepare, as the pairings went up about a half an hour before the game. However, I did briefly look at this line. I have the obvious choice of D4, transposing into a traditional catalan, but I was afraid that he would play a drawish line and I wouldn't get the dynamic that I wanted. Also, since I have had very good results against Justin in the past, I believe that his mentality was to draw and to not be combative. Such a mentality can be useful when trying to gear the game to position where such a mentality can be unfaborable. However, if one fails to achieve a psychological advantage based off the mentality they believe their opponent to have, things can get sideways.} 6. b3 b6 7. Bb2 Bb7 { This is the second critical moment of the opening, as I had the choice of playing e3, following by Qe2. The delay of D4 keeps the bishop on b2 strong, but the possiblity of black playing d4 is double-edged.} 8. d4 (8. e3 c5 9. Qe2 Nc6 10. d3 {This keeps the tension and would probably have been a better choice. The time control was rather short, so I probably could have tried to out-maneuver him in this position and put pressure on him, draining down his time on the clock.}) 8... Nbd7 9. Nbd2 {The knight could go to c3, but I wanted the diagonal open for my bishop. I am also keeping the option of cxd5 open, as nxd5 could run into e4 in certain situations.} (9. cxd5 Nxd5 (9... exd5 10. Nc3 {This would transpose into a QID structure, but the bishop is poorly played on b2.}) 10. e4 N5f6 {I don't have enough firepower so solidify my center.}) 9... c5 10. e3 Rc8 11. Qe2 Qc7 12. Rac1 Qb8 13. Rfd1 Rfd8 { All my pieces are on their ideal squares and I was not really sure what to do. I spent some time contemplating Ne5, but that leads to a series of liquidations. The problem with this position is that there is so much tension. If the position remains static, then my opponent could blow it open and trade a lot of pieces in the process. I need to be left with some sort of tangible advantage if I want to win the game.} 14. Ng5 (14. Ne5 dxc4 15. Bxb7 Qxb7 16. Ndxc4 cxd4 17. Bxd4 Nxe5 18. Nxe5 Rxc1 19. Rxc1 Rc8 20. Rxc8+ Qxc8 21. Qb5 { I could argue that I have an edge here, but I didn't think that it was enough, and there is probably a cleaner way to liquidate.}) 14... h6 15. Ngf3 {Playing a game of chicken. I thought that h6 could be a possible hook, but in hindsight, this was an absolute waste of time. I am still not sure what to do here. I think that if I didn't really want to win, then I would play liquidate and try and squeeze a small edge.} Qa8 {I want Justin to play dxc4 and cxd4, giving me the hanging pawns, as this was the imbalance that I wanted. However, playing only dxc4, causes some problems because this Queen-Bishop battery on the a8-h1 diagonal is restricting my options.} 16. h3 {Another waiting move, hoping he goes crazy.} a6 17. a3 dxc4 {Finally, he bites, but I feel like I gave him too much to work with.} 18. bxc4 Ne4 19. Nf1 (19. Nxe4 Bxe4 20. Ne1 Bxg2 21. Nxg2 Nf6 {I could start to be worse here, my light squares are weak and my pawns are not as solid as I would like them to be.}) 19... Ndf6 20. Ne1 {Another backwards move, but I was hoping that he would play Nd6 and go into this very double edged position.} Nd6 21. d5 exd5 22. Bxf6 Bxf6 23. cxd5 { This is the classic pawn structure imbalance where one side has a queenside majority and rushes to queen, while the pawn majority in the center tries to plow through and get to the king.} (23. Bxd5 Bxd5 24. cxd5 {This is a worse version of the game, as my bishop on g2 is better than his bishop on b7.}) 23... Nb5 24. Qd3 {Instead of going for the pawn storm with c4, b5, a5, followed by b4, etc. He calculates a forcing way to reach a basically "winning" position. However, he misses a key move along the way that gives me te opportunity to reach a endgame that he misevaluated as drawn.} Nc3 25. Rxc3 Bxc3 26. Qxc3 Bxd5 27. Rxd5 $3 {I assume that in my opponent's calculation he only considered bxd5 as a candidate move, missing the powerful rd5 that takes advantage of the pin.} (27. Bxd5 Rxd5 28. Rxd5 Qxd5 {I still have some chances here, but the pawns should be too strong and my knights and queen aren't coordinating very well.}) 27... Rxd5 28. Qb3 {Double attack! Winning the pawn back and restoring the balance.} c4 29. Qxb6 Rb5 30. Qxb5 axb5 31. Bxa8 Rxa8 32. Nc2 {Rd1 needs to be played here, the rook needs to try and be active.} Kf8 {Things are a lot easier now, because I bring in my knight and completely paralyze his rook.} (32... Rd8 33. e4 Rd1 34. Kg2 $2 {Kg2 is key. If f4, then rc1 and I am lost.} Rc1 (34... Kf8 {Nfe3 would be a mistake, as the rook sits on d2, preventing the mobility of the king.} 35. f4 {Now the king will go to f2, then to e2, achieving a favorable blockade with the rook on c1, where the king is mobile.} Ke7 36. Kf2 Ke6 37. Ke2 Rc1 38. Nfe3 Rg1 39. g4 Rh1 40. Nd4+) 35. Nfe3 {This is a favorable blockade, as my king has a nice path to d2. Once everything is protected, black's position collapses. The rook loses all power without targets.}) 33. Nd2 Ke7 {Black can resign now, if the knight comes to c3, and the rook has to defend, I have all the time in the world to bring my king into action and win the game.} (33... Rd8 {This was the best try, trying to get some activity. After Nd4, it is still very hard to defend.}) 34. Ne4 f5 35. Nc3 Ra5 {Funnily, the king can not actually advance and protect the b5 pawn to free the rook.} 36. Kf1 Kf6 (36... Kd6 37. Nd4 Rxa3 38. Ndxb5+) (36... Kd7 37. Ke2 Kc7 (37... Kc8 38. Kd1 Kb7 39. Kc1 Kb6 40. Kb2 {It is too late, Nd4 is coming and attacks b5 and f5.} Ra8 41. Nd4) 38. Nd4 Rxa3 39. Ndxb5+) 37. Ke2 g5 38. Kd2 Ke5 39. f4+ {f4, creates another long term weakness on f5.} Kf6 40. Kc1 gxf4 41. gxf4 h5 42. Kb2 h4 43. Nd4 {Justin desperately tries to create a weakness on h3 with hopes of queening, but the knights are too strong. } Ra8 44. Nd5+ (44. Ncxb5 Rg8 {Probably still winning but not as clean. I am in no rush to take his pawns, they aren't going anywhere.}) 44... Kf7 45. Nxf5 Rh8 46. Nc3 Rb8 47. Nd6+ Ke6 48. Ndxb5 Rg8 49. Nd4+ Kd7 50. Ne4 {Two centralized knights, up 2 pawns and c4 and h4 are goners. Thankfully he went for it and things got very complicated. However, I did misunderstand the dynamic of the initial opening position which led to some problems. Overall, this was a good game, it really came down to evaluating positions 5-7 moves into calculation.} 1-0 [/pgn]
I was a bit lucky to face a 2100 in round 6. I played a KID hybrid, opened up my two bishops with a pawn sacrifice, and eventually won a nice game where my pieces coordinated beautifully. And then it all came down to my final game, where I faced my bughouse partner Vincent Baker.
[pgn] [Event "11th Grade Nationals"] [Site "?"] [Date "2019.12.28"] [Round "?"] [White "Baker, Vincent"] [Black "Niemann, Hans"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B08"] [Annotator "Niemann"] [PlyCount "138"] [EventDate "2019.??.??"] [SourceVersionDate "2020.01.01"] {This was the last round of the 11th Grade National Championships. I had 6/6 and a lot of players including my opponent were trailing with 5/6. One might think that I would be happy making a draw to secure the title, but going 29-0 was more important to me at this point. Since my opponent needed a win to fight for first place, I could use that to my advantage to tempt him with drawish lines and eventually pull him into a imbalanced position.} 1. e4 g6 { I could have played the sicilian, but I wanted to avoid theoretical lines and I had a specific type of position that I wanted to reach. One should also note that Vincent was my bughouse player so I knew his type of playing style. I also remember looking at his games from a lot of tournaments and seeing that he was more conservative. I was hoping that he wouldn't play a theoretical line here and simply play developing moves.} 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nf3 d6 4. Be2 { Be2 doesn't put too much pressure on me. I get the type of game that I wanted.} Nf6 5. Nc3 O-O 6. O-O Nc6 {I have pretty natural play here. Basically I am going to try and break down the center by playing moves like Bg4 and E5.} 7. h3 (7. d5 Nb8 {I have retreated, but since the pawn on d5 is ovextended, C5 and E5 are both viable options. I'd like to get a closed position where a lot of maneuvering and positional decision making is critical.}) 7... e5 {I give my opponent the opportunity to liquid by playing dxe5 and trading the queens. However, that would squander his winning chances, so he is forced to make a bad move. Also, in that position I probably have a very small advantage that I can probably try to squeeze.} 8. Be3 exd4 9. Nxd4 Re8 {I have reached a normal KID position up a few tempos. White struggles to defend e4 effectively without making any positional concessions.} 10. Nxc6 bxc6 11. Bf3 {The bishop on f3 is basically a big pawn and doesn't belong on the h1-a8 diagonal.} Ba6 12. Re1 Nd7 13. Bd4 {My opponent attemps my bishop on g7 off. I identified that it was my best piece, so I tried to figure out a way to keep it without losing my short term initiative.} Ne5 14. Be2 {My initial idea was to play bxe2 then c5, but then the bishop can retreat to e3.} c5 (14... Bxe2 15. Rxe2 (15. Nxe2 c5 16. Bc3 {I am not sure how big or even if I have an advantage here, because the bishop on c3 is placed very well. My double c pawns could end up being weak long term.}) 15... c5 16. Be3) 15. Bxe5 Bxe2 16. Rxe2 Bxe5 {I have achieved an imbalanced position where my bishop dominated my opponents knights. The pawns on b2 and e4 are weaknesses that I will use to gain tempo and effectively coordinate my pieces.} 17. Qd2 Rb8 18. Rb1 Rb4 19. Nd5 Rd4 20. Qe1 c6 {I initially calculated that I was basically winning here, but I missed a tricky move. Luckily, I saw this early enough. One should also make sure to double, triple, and quadruple check their calculations.} 21. c3 Rd3 {I also saw this move in my initial calculations. It looks a bit risky because the rook could get trapped. But it is actually very hard for white to play. I was having traumatizing flashbacks during the game, as in the 3rd round of the 10th Grade National Championships I got basically the same opening position and got my bishop trapped. I managed to fight back, but I declined a draw in a lost position and lost. Despite those horrific memories lingering in my head, I decided to go for it.} (21... Ra4 22. b3 $3 {The a2 pawn is defended and the rook has to retreat to a6 where it is terrible. I could start to be worse soon, as my pieces don't coordinate and d6 is a serious weakness.}) 22. Ne3 Bf4 23. g3 (23. Nf1 Qe7 {White's pieces really don't coordinate. My bishop dominates the knight on F1, as it can be taken anywhere it goes. D5 and F5 are also big threats.} 24. Rd1 Rxd1 25. Qxd1 f5 26. Qb3+ Qf7 27. Qxf7+ Kxf7) 23... Bxe3 24. Rxe3 Rxe3 25. Qxe3 f5 26. Rd1 (26. f3 fxe4 27. fxe4 Qe7 28. Re1 Qe6 {I believe that my opponent reached this position in his calculation and missed that the a2 and h3 pawns are hanging.} 29. Kg2 Qxa2 30. Re2 Qe6 {I have decent chances to win here.}) 26... Rxe4 {My opponent is down to about 15 minutes and blunders a pawn.} 27. Qd3 (27. Qxc5 Re1+ 28. Rxe1 (28. Kg2 Rxd1 {I guess all the puzzle rush paid off.}) 28... dxc5) 27... c4 {I use the same tactic again to gain a tempo.} 28. Qf3 (28. Qxd6 Re1+ 29. Rxe1 (29. Kg2 Rxd1 30. Qxd8+ Rxd8) 29... Qxd6) 28... Qe7 29. Kg2 d5 30. b3 Qe5 31. Rb1 cxb3 32. axb3 Re1 33. Rxe1 Qxe1 {I decided to liquidate into the queen endgame here. My king is pretty open and the a pawn will be a hard weakness to protect while creating play.} 34. Kh2 Qe4 35. Qd1 f4 {I realized that I needed to open the king if I wanted to win this game. If white's king stayed safe then I probably wouldn't be able to coordinate. However, I can harass the king with checks and target the weak c3 and b3 pawns. There are also some tricky triangulations that you can do in queen endgames that you will see later on.} 36. Qg4 Qf5 37. Qh4 fxg3+ 38. Qxg3 a6 39. b4 Qf6 40. Kg2 Kg7 41. Qe3 Qf5 {I am not in any rush, he is starting to use a lot of time. I want to let him think and get really low on time.} 42. f3 {F3 is a big mistake because I have the entry square on g3 for my queen now. He should have sat there and avoided the trade of queens.} Qf6 43. Kf2 h5 44. Qa7+ Kh6 45. Qe3+ Qg5 46. Qd4 Qe7 47. h4 {Now white has h4 and c3 as permanent weaknesses that I can attack. Now I need to figure out where to put my king. It is pretty safe on f7 and is shielded from most checks.} Kh7 48. Kg2 Kg8 49. Kf2 Kf7 50. Kg3 {I have put all my pieces on their ideal squares and it is time now to breakthrough with g5.} g5 51. hxg5 Qxg5+ 52. Kf2 Qf6 {This is the first triangulation, as I could play h4 immediately but there is a problem.} ( 52... h4 53. Qa7+ Ke6 54. Qxa6 Qd2+ 55. Qe2+ (55. Kf1 Qxc3 56. Qc8+ {There are a lot of checks here, I might still be winning but one should never willingly take on unecessary}) 55... Qxe2+ 56. Kxe2 Kf5 {Black wins here but there is a better defense.}) 53. Qd3 Qh4+ 54. Kg2 Qg5+ 55. Kf2 {I have achieved the exact same position but the Queen is on D3. One might think that this helps white because you can take the a6 pawn directly. However, the king is better on f7, as it can escape to g6 and avoid all checks.} h4 56. Qh7+ (56. Qxa6 Qd2+ 57. Kf1 Qxc3 58. Qb7+ Kg6) 56... Ke6 {The queen has no checks. The game is basically over because I will collect all of his pawns now.} 57. Qc7 Qd2+ 58. Kf1 Qxc3 59. Qc8+ Kf7 60. Qd7+ Kf6 61. Qd8+ Kf5 62. Qf8+ Qf6 63. Qc8+ Kf4 64. Qg4+ Ke3 65. Qg1+ Kd3 66. Qf2 Qf4 {I am up two pawns and my king is very active. I have reached optimal coordination of all my pieces.} 67. Qe2+ Kd4 68. Qxa6 Qxf3+ 69. Kg1 h3 {Qg2 is an unstoppable threat. If it isn't checkmate then it will force the trade of queens and win me the game.} 0-1 [/pgn]

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