Kostya On Earning His Third (and Final!) IM Norm

kostya-photo-by-aman-hambletonKostya at the 2016 Autumn Invitational, Photo Aman Hambleton

“The first norm is always the hardest”, I wrote, naively, back in 2014. I had just earned my first IM norm at the 2014 Spice Cup and echoed this sentiment that many titled players had mentioned to me earlier. I hoped it would be true in my case but in the past two years it didn’t feel that way. So let me correct myself: the first norm sure is hard but the last norm is sometimes the hardest. After earning my second norm at the 2015 North American Open, I spent most of 2016 chasing the final norm and missing out, sometimes tragically. A draw would have sufficed in Round 9 of both the Gibraltar Open and the Isle of Man International—and both times, I lost. But despite these setbacks my ambitions (to make IM and eventually GM) did not waiver. At times I felt depleted of motivation to continue studying and training, but several good friends supported me and kept my spirits high. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Saint Louis to take part in the 2016 CCSCSL Autumn Invitational, where I finished with a score of 6.5/9, good for shared first place and yes, that final third norm! I really have to thank all my friends and fans who supported me. And I definitely have to thank my coach, GM Elshan Moradiabadi, who has given me some invaluable help and advice. This was definitely an enjoyable event. As I’ve said before and have no problem repeating, the Saint Louis Chess Club is my favorite place in the world to play chess. The playing conditions were superb. Big thanks and shout-out to Jonathan Schrantz and FIDE Arbiter Mike Kummer, who oversaw and made sure the event ran smoothly, along with the rest of the hard-working staff at the CCSCSL. I started well with 3/4, two wins and two draws. In Round 1 I managed to beat the top seed of the event, IM Michael Brooks. The game was far from perfect but I managed to take advantage of my opponent’s errors. 16…Ba6 was a large strategic mistake, as it allowed White to take over the queenside while Black’s kingside play was always hard to get going. A tactical blunder ended the game somewhat abruptly:

[pgn] [Event "2016 CCSCSL Autumn Invitational"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.11.17"] [White "Kavutskiy, Konstantin"] [Black "Brooks, Michael"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E94"] [WhiteElo "2344"] [BlackElo "2405"] [PlyCount "87"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.02.28"] 1. d4 g6 2. c4 d6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. Nf3 Nd7 5. e4 e5 6. Be2 Ngf6 7. O-O O-O 8. Be3 Re8 9. d5 Ng4 10. Bg5 f6 11. Bh4 Nh6 12. Qd2 a5 13. Bd1 Nc5 14. Bc2 b6 15. b3 Qe7 16. a3 Ba6 17. b4 Nd7 18. Nb5 Rec8 19. Qe2 Nf7 20. Nd2 Nd8 21. Qd3 Bh6 22. f3 Nb7 23. Rfd1 Bg5 24. Bf2 h5 25. Nc3 h4 26. Ba4 Nd8 27. Bc6 Bb7 28. Bxb7 Nxb7 29. Nf1 Kg7 30. Nb5 Nb8 31. Rab1 Na6 32. Ne3 Rf8 33. Re1 Qd7 34. Nf1 Rf7 35. Be3 Bxe3+ 36. Qxe3 axb4 37. axb4 c5 38. dxc6 Qxc6 39. Qc3 Nc7 40. Nxc7 Rxc7 41. Ne3 b5 42. Nd5 Rcc8 43. Qe3 Rf8 44. cxb5 1-0[/pgn]
In Round 2 I played against FM Lefong Hua, a friend who I met at the previous CCSCSL Invitational held in June of this year. Our draw was long, full of mistakes, and quite interesting, as analyzed in my article on the event. This time around we drew again, though in much fewer moves—Lefong found a nice rook sac that led to a quick perpetual:
[pgn] [Event "2016 CCSCSL Autumn Invitational"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.11.18"] [Round "2.8"] [White "Hua, Lefong"] [Black "Kavutskiy, Konstantin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E77"] [WhiteElo "2284"] [BlackElo "2344"] [Annotator "Kavutskiy,Kostya"] [PlyCount "56"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.02.28"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. f4 c5 6. d5 O-O 7. Nf3 e6 8. Be2 exd5 9. cxd5 Nbd7 10. O-O Re8 11. Nd2 c4 12. Kh1 Nc5 13. e5 dxe5 14. fxe5 Rxe5 15. Nxc4 Re8 16. Bg5 h6 17. Bh4 Nce4 18. d6 Nxc3 19. bxc3 g5 20. Bg3 Ne4 21. Bh5 Nxg3+ 22. hxg3 Be6 23. Bxf7+ Bxf7 24. Rxf7 Kxf7 25. Qd5+ Kg6 ({In case of} 25... Kf8 $6 {White has a clear advantage after} 26. Rf1+ Bf6 27. d7 $1 Qe7 { Forced.} (27... Re2 28. Nd6 Qe7 29. Nc8 $1 $18) 28. dxe8=Q+ Rxe8 29. Qd3 $16) 26. Qd3+ Kf7 27. Qd5+ Kg6 28. Qd3+ Kf7 1/2-1/2 [/pgn]
After the game we talked for a bit about chess, our ambitions, and so on. Lefong is a successful chess teacher up in Montreal and a member of the Chessbrahs, who I’m sure are well known to the US Chess audience (if not check out their YouTube channel!). With both of us at 1.5/2, we started rooting for each other for the rest of the tournament.

2016-autumn-invitationalLefong & Kostya. A quick photo-op after analyzing the game.

In Round 3 I drew a slightly worse endgame against FM Matt Larson and the following game against FM Doug Eckert, another friend, was well played:

[pgn] [Event "2016 CCSCSL Autumn Invitational"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.11.19"] [Round "4.9"] [White "Eckert, Doug"] [Black "Kavutskiy, Konstantin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E73"] [WhiteElo "2174"] [BlackElo "2344"] [Annotator "Kavutskiy,Kostya"] [PlyCount "58"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.02.28"] [WhiteClock "0:31:18"] [BlackClock "0:07:07"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Be2 O-O 6. Bg5 c5 7. d5 e6 8. Nf3 exd5 9. cxd5 h6 10. Bh4 g5 11. Bg3 Nh5 12. Nd2 Nxg3 13. hxg3 f5 14. exf5 $6 { I think this is where White's troubles start.} Bxf5 15. O-O a6 16. a4 Nd7 17. g4 Bg6 18. Nc4 {An interesting idea, Doug prepares Bd3 to exchange the light-squared bishops and transfer his knight to f5 via e3.} Ne5 $1 {Correctly judging that the exchange of pieces will favor Black.} 19. Nxe5 Bxe5 20. Bd3 Qf6 21. Bxg6 Qxg6 {Black is clearly better here, with such good control over the center and the superior minor piece.} 22. g3 ({Black gets a nice endgame after} 22. Qb1 Qxb1 23. Raxb1 Rf4 $17) 22... Rab8 23. Qe2 Rbe8 {Gaining a tempo.} 24. Qd2 h5 $1 {A nice find, opening the h-file to give mate.} 25. gxh5 Qxh5 {Now my plan is to transfer a rook to the h-file--White is helpless.} 26. Rae1 (26. Ne4 Rf5 {is similar to the game}) (26. Kg2 Qf3+ 27. Kg1 {Best is} Bd4 $1 28. Qxg5+ Kf7 $19 {and Rh8 next. White has no checks.}) 26... Re7 27. Ne4 Rf5 $1 {Everything is covered and there's no stopping Rh7.} 28. f3 Bd4+ 29. Kg2 Rh7 0-1[/pgn]
Then in Round 5 tragedy struck. I was playing White against FM Josh Colas and got a nice position from the opening. I then started aggressively advancing my pawns on the kingside under favorable circumstances. My position was good! But a few moves later I lost the thread of the game, and even went on to lose from an equal position. At this point despite having 3/5, still in norm contention and within half a point of the leaders, depression hit me and I let go of my hopes for the tournament. Scoring 3.5 from the last four games would be tough, so I didn’t think I’d to achieve it, honestly. I expected to continue to slide and braced my confidence to take another hit. After a nice dinner took my mind off things for a second I did, however, commit to giving it my all anyways, to use every bit of energy I had in the last few days. The next morning I was Black against FM Gauri Shankar, yet another friend. I knew this game was winnable but I did not expect to win. I tried and really focused, my motto was to just “keep the game going” and look for a chance to exploit a mistake, any mistake. Gauri gave me that chance, when he misjudged a simplified position after a few exchanges. I had control over the only open file and eventually transformed the advantage into a powerful passed pawn, which I then transformed into an attack on the king. It was a nice win.
[pgn] [Event "2016 CCSCSL Autumn Invitational"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.11.20"] [White "Shankar, Gauri"] [Black "Kavutskiy, Konstantin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B40"] [WhiteElo "2303"] [BlackElo "2344"] [Annotator "Kavutskiy,Kostya"] [PlyCount "134"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.02.28"] [WhiteClock "0:11:36"] [BlackClock "0:00:39"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. g3 Nc6 4. Bg2 Nf6 5. d3 Be7 6. O-O O-O 7. Re1 d6 8. c3 e5 9. Nbd2 h6 10. Nf1 Be6 11. Ne3 Re8 12. a3 a5 13. a4 Bf8 14. Nd2 d5 15. exd5 Nxd5 16. Nec4 f6 17. Nf3 Nb6 18. Nxb6 Qxb6 19. Nh4 Ne7 20. Be4 Rad8 21. Qh5 Bf7 22. Qg4 Be6 23. Qh5 Bd5 24. Ng6 Bxe4 25. dxe4 c4 26. Nxf8 Rxf8 27. Be3 Qc6 28. Rad1 Rd3 29. Rxd3 cxd3 30. Qd1 Qc4 31. Bd2 f5 32. Qf3 f4 33. gxf4 exf4 34. e5 Nf5 35. Qxb7 Nh4 36. e6 Qc5 37. e7 Re8 38. Bxf4 Qh5 39. Kh1 Rxe7 40. Qa8+ Kh7 41. Rg1 Nf3 42. Qd8 Nxg1 43. Qxd3+ Qg6 44. Qxg6+ Kxg6 45. Kxg1 Re4 46. Bd6 Rxa4 47. Kg2 Rc4 48. Kf3 Rc6 49. Ba3 Kf5 50. Ke3 Ke5 51. Bf8 Rc7 52. Kd3 Kd5 53. b4 a4 54. b5 h5 55. h4 g6 56. Ba3 Rc4 57. b6 Rc8 58. c4+ Kc6 59. c5 Re8 60. f4 Re1 61. Bb2 Rh1 62. Kc4 Rxh4 63. Kb4 Rxf4+ 64. Ka5 Rf8 65. Kxa4 g5 66. Bg7 Rg8 67. Be5 h4 0-1[/pgn]
Now I needed 2.5/3, and I was facing IM Vitaly Neimer next, who thus far looked to be in excellent form. I got a small advantage which then faded in the middlegame but eventually I was able to break through and reach a winning queen vs. two rooks endgame. I did everything right until the last moment, when I allowed Black’s king to get too close and hold the defense. Draw. This was mildly devastating. I felt I played well and deserved a win against the strongest player in the tournament, but a drop of energy in the final phase of the game cost me a half point. Now I needed 2/2 to get the norm. Not to be so obvious but it would have been really nice to just need 1.5! At this point Lefong was also on 4.5/7 and needed to win his last two games for the norm. In my head I didn’t think I’d make it but I really hoped he would. My Round 8 victory over FM Seth Homa is one of my most aesthetic wins ever, but as is always the case it does take two to create a brilliancy. Seth took a risk in the opening which didn’t pay off, and one mistake gave me a powerful initiative which I soon turned into a decisive attack:
[pgn] [Event "2016 CCSCSL Autumn Invitational"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.11.21"] [Round "5"] [White "Kavutskiy, Kostya"] [Black "Homa, Seth"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D07"] [WhiteElo "2344"] [BlackElo "2313"] [Annotator "Kavutskiy,Kostya"] [PlyCount "45"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.02.28"] 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e4 Nc6 4. Nf3 Bg4 5. Be3 Nf6 6. Nc3 e6 7. Bxc4 Bb4 8. Qd3 Bxf3 9. gxf3 O-O 10. a3 $1 {At this point I hadn't decided whether to castle 0-0, 0-0-0, or play Ke2 and play on both flanks! This move asks Black to make the decision for me.} Ba5 {From here the bishop won't be of much use to Black's kingside, therefore I decided to go for the direct attack.} ({ Against} 10... Be7 {I considered} 11. O-O {and playing b4, Rac1, etc. on the queenside. Though castling queenside here was also a serious option.}) (10... Bxc3+ $6 11. Qxc3 {and White's pair of bishops are quite good here in addition to the strong center.}) 11. Rg1 Nh5 $2 {This move allows White to get the initiative.} (11... e5 {was absolutely necessary.} 12. d5 Ne7 13. O-O-O Ng6 14. Kb1 $14 {and White has a small plus.}) 12. Rg5 $1 {Otherwise Black plays Qf6, Nf4, Rad8 and gets great play on the dark-squares.} g6 13. O-O-O {Here I felt quite good as I have two threats--Rxh5 with a direct attack on the dark-squares (in particular the f6-square), as well as d4-d5, exploiting the vulnerable bishop on a5.} Bb6 {A good move, getting the bishop to a better square and putting pressure on d4.} (13... Qf6 14. Rxh5 $1 gxh5 15. Rg1+ Kh8 16. e5 Qe7 17. Bg5 $18 {is winning for White.}) ({Against} 13... Ng7 14. d5 $1 {is powerful.} exd5 15. Nxd5 $36 {With ideas of f3-f4 and even b2-b4 and Qc3. Black's position is difficult.}) 14. e5 Ne7 ({Also possible was} 14... Ng7 { avoiding the sac, against which I had planned} 15. Ne4 Nf5 16. Nf6+ Kg7 17. Rxf5 $1 exf5 18. Qf1 $1 $18 {and the queen is coming to h3 with decisive effect.}) 15. Rxh5 {No exclam needed, this 'trade' is simply necessary.} gxh5 16. Bg5 $1 {Ne4-f6 is also tempting, but this is stronger.} Qd7 17. Bf6 Rfd8 ({ Objectively Black should give back some material with} 17... Qxd4 {but} 18. Qxd4 Bxd4 19. Rxd4 $18 {is a hopeless endgame. Seth decides to end the suffering, so to speak.}) 18. Qe3 Qe8 {Allowing a nice mate-in-five. Can you find it?} ({If} 18... Kf8 {the king won't get very far-} 19. Qh6+ Ke8 20. Qxh7 Qc8 21. d5 $18) 19. Qh6 Qf8 20. Rg1+ Ng6 21. Rxg6+ $1 fxg6 (21... hxg6 22. Qh8# ) 22. Bxe6+ Qf7 23. Qg7# {It felt pretty swell to be able to end the game this way, and kudos to Seth for allowing such a sporting finish.} 1-0[/pgn]
I couldn’t believe that after essentially giving up I managed to get within striking distance of the norm. In Round 9 I was paired with IM Angelo Young as Black. Known for his enterprising and uncompromising play, Angelo was the ideal opponent to face in the last round when one is needing a win. Lefong also won in Round 8 and needed to beat Josh Colas in the last round. We bonded for a bit the night before the final game, talking about the pressure, the highs and lows of the game, and other points where the philosophies of chess and existentialism seem to merge. My opening in the final game was an absolute disaster. After 10 moves we reached a position where I was simply devoid of any winning chances, and even in danger of getting mated quickly. I again started coming to terms with the certainty that I would lose the game, finish with 5.5/9, sans norm, and grit my teeth while waiting for the next opportunity. I started feeling guilt for all who were watching live and rooting for me, my father, my coach, my friends—I’m sure it wasn’t very fun for them to see me trying to win from a hopeless position! I spent some time in the land of self-pity and eventually came to the conclusion that I should probably not outright give up on the game. My goal shifted from winning to just “keep the game going”, survive long enough and hope that Angelo would make a mistake in our eventual time trouble. Well, the game was dramatic, that’s for sure:
[pgn] [Event "CCSCSL Autumn Invitational"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.11.22"] [White "Young, Angelo"] [Black "Kavutskiy, Konstantin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A48"] [WhiteElo "2318"] [BlackElo "2344"] [Annotator "Kavutskiy,Kostya"] [PlyCount "112"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.02.28"] [WhiteClock "0:01:34"] [BlackClock "0:00:32"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. d4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Bf4 Bg7 5. e3 {This system came as a surprise to me and I quickly misplayed the opening.} O-O 6. Be2 b6 $6 {Although there have been many games like this, after} 7. Ne5 Bb7 8. h4 $1 {White gets a free and easy attack on the kingside. There's just no way for Black to get good counterplay here. I already started spending lots of time over the next few moves, hating my position.} Nfd7 9. h5 Nxe5 10. Bxe5 Nd7 11. Bxg7 Kxg7 12. f4 $1 $146 {Preventing e7-e5 and seizing more space on the kingside.} ({Previous games have seen} 12. Qd2 $1 $16 {threatening to play e4, which also looks good for White.}) 12... e6 13. Bb5 c6 14. Bd3 c5 15. Qf3 f5 {This seemed necessary, trying to play Nf6-e4 and plug up White's position.} 16. hxg6 hxg6 17. g4 Nf6 18. g5 ({Against} 18. gxf5 gxf5 ({I had planned} 18... exf5 19. O-O-O Qe7 20. Rdg1 Kf7 21. Rh6 Rg8 {and White is clearly better.}) 19. O-O-O Kf7 $14 { is not that bad, according to Stockfish.}) 18... Ne4 19. Rh6 $2 {This natural move seizing the h-file actually gives up the bulk of White's advantage, since Black can at least hold the h-file with Rh8.} (19. Bxe4 dxe4 20. Qg2 cxd4 21. O-O-O $1 $16 {was the way to go.}) 19... Nxc3 20. bxc3 Rh8 {Now I am probably not getting mated, a sign of hope!} 21. Qh3 cxd4 (21... c4 22. Be2 Qf8 23. Kd2 Rxh6 24. Qxh6+ Kf7 $11 {is about equal, but I really wanted to keep at least a 1% chance of winning.}) 22. exd4 {Ambitious, weakening the f4-pawn but opening the e-file.} ({White keeps an edge after} 22. cxd4 Qf8 23. Ke2 Rxh6 24. Qxh6+ Kf7 $14) (22. O-O-O $1 Qg8 23. cxd4 $14 {is even better.}) 22... Qc7 23. Ke2 Rag8 (23... Qxf4 $4 24. Rh1 $18) 24. Rh1 Rxh6 25. gxh6+ (25. Qxh6+ Kf7 $11 { is simply equal.}) 25... Kh7 26. Qh4 {Amazingly (and I mean amazingly) the computer likes Black here, probably due to White's many weaknesses. During the game both I and Angelo felt that only White could be better, depending on whether he finds a way to break through or not. Here we both had about 10 minutes left, the next bunch of moves being played relatively quickly.} Qd8 27. Qg5 Qf8 28. Kd2 Qf7 29. Re1 Re8 30. Bb5 Rc8 31. Rg1 Rg8 32. Rg3 a6 33. Be2 b5 34. Re3 Bc6 35. Bf3 Re8 36. Bg2 a5 37. Kc1 Rb8 38. Bf1 Rc8 39. Bg2 Rb8 40. Qh4 Re8 41. Kd2 Qe7 42. Qg5 Qf7 43. Rg3 Rc8 44. Bf1 Be8 45. Be2 Qf8 {With about a few minutes left for both of us, Angelo ran his clock down and seized his chance--} 46. Bxb5 $5 {A dangerous sacrifice to break through. Black has a defense here, and I'm lucky I was able to keep my cool here and find it.} Bxb5 47. Qxg6+ Kh8 48. Qxe6 Re8 $1 {The only move.} 49. Qxd5 Qxh6 50. Qf3 $1 (50. Qxb5 Qh2+ $1 (50... Qxf4+ 51. Kd1 $1 $16) 51. Kc1 Re1+ 52. Kb2 Qxg3 53. Qxf5 Kg7 $19) {I panicked here, thinking there was no defense to Rh3. Finally I found} 50... Bc6 $1 (50... Qh2+ {with the same idea was a bit stronger:} 51. Kc1 Bc6 52. Rh3+ Kg7 53. Rxh2 Bxf3 $17 {and Black has good chances to win.}) 51. Qf2 (51. Rh3 Bxf3 52. Rxh6+ Kg7 53. Ra6 $11 {should be a draw with best play.}) 51... Rg8 {I decided to trade rooks to elimante my losing chances.} ( 51... Bd5 $1 $17 {fixing White's pawns gives Black better chances.}) 52. Rxg8+ Kxg8 53. c4 Be4 54. Qg3+ Kf7 55. c5 a4 56. Kc3 Qa6 $6 {Here the unthinkable happened. With about 35 seconds to make his move, Angelo looked over his options and when he had about 5-6 seconds left he reached to play Kb4, then hesitated (for less than a moment, even) and when I looked up he had flagged. I was astonished. We analyzed for a bit and came to the conclusion that the position was probably drawn nevertheless. I got the norm.} 0-1[/pgn]
At some point during my endgame I saw Lefong and his opponent shake hands and sign their scoresheets. Last I had seen, Lefong was down a pawn in a simple queen endgame--I assumed they had either drawn or Josh won. I felt depressed again—I wasn’t going to get the norm, but Lefong deserved it. You could imagine my shock when I saw their final position:
  With plenty of time on the clock, Josh mixed up his intended move order and blundered his queen. We had both made 6.5 and tied for first, each securing our norm. As you can imagine we celebrated the whole night. The event ended on November 22, and my 24th birthday was the very next day, so there was a lot to celebrate. To add to the excitement IM Akshat Chandra also made 6.5/9 and tied for first in the GM section with GM Priyadharshan Kannapan, securing his final GM norm in the process. (long overdue in my opinion)!

2016-autumn-invitational-5(L-R): Gauri Shankar, Atulya Shetty, Aman Hambleton, Seth Homa, Cyril Ponizil, Lefong Hua, Kostya Kavutskiy

Earning the final norm before turning 24 at midnight was a lovely birthday present, as about a few dozen people pointed out to me :) But in the contest of combined chess/birthday achievements I was to be greatly outdone just a week later, as Magnus Carlsen successfully defended his World Championship title precisely on his 26th birthday. It really means a lot that I actually managed to make International Master. This has been a large goal of mine for many years and there were many times when I thought it’d never happen. I’m so grateful for all that supported me, even if it was just a simple “you got dis” at an appropriate time. Looking forward I’ll be working hard to go for the Grandmaster title. Wish me luck and stay tuned! Kostya Kavutskiy is a professional chess player, coach, and author currently residing in Mountain View, CA. His first book, Modernized: The Open Sicilian was published in February 2015. For more of Kostya, check out his official Twitter and blog. Find out more about the Autumn Invitational here, including the GM section where Akshat Chandra earned his final GM norm.

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