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Irina on Baku: Water From a Stone Print E-mail
By GM-elect Irina Krush   
October 4, 2013
  Irina on her way to Novkhani: with a new friend, who evidently appreciated the pieces of fish I'd fed him over lunch.

It's been so long since I've last written for CLO, that first of all I want to say hello to everyone!

For several years now, I've wanted to play in the Baku Open. Probably this tournament is not on the radar of most American chess fans, but it's actually one of the strongest open tournaments in the world. It doesn't have the brand name of Gibraltar or (the now extinct) Aeroflot Open, and yields to them in several big regards: lesser prize fund, no fixed date on the calendar, incomparably less effort to publicize the tournament and reach a wider audience.

You can describe the Baku Open as a tournament for professionals. Out of 69 players, 30 were grandmasters; 20, international masters- really a large percentage of titled players. My starting rank was 34, meaning that there were lots of higher rated people for me to play :)

So as you may have figured out from my description, my main motivation in coming to Baku was the strength of the field. There was also the novelty factor: I'd never been to Azerbaijan, but I like this region; I enjoyed my previous trips to Azerbaijan's neighbors, Armenia (1999) and Georgia (last year).
From my first walk in Baku- the building facades are beautifully lit up at night.
I spent three days in Baku prior to the start of the tournament, in a hotel within the Old City walls with the wonderful name Noah's Ark. I remember the night I arrived in Baku. I got to my hotel around 9 PM, settled in, and at around 11, decided to venture out to try to find the place for my meeting with my friend Emil (ed-GM Sutovsky) the next day. The exhilaration of walking around a new city, that's what I felt! The exhilaration of discovery.

Sometimes I'm asked if I get bored traveling alone, and the answer is no. I have my feet and my camera and it's almost like a safari, except I'm not on the lookout for wild animals, but for a unique shot, beautiful light, a falling shadow. That's the way I make my relationship with a place, through the pictures. I feel like a place that gives me beautiful pictures of itself has opened its heart to me.
Statue of armudu, pear shaped glasses used for drinking tea in Azerbaijan. Their shape is supposed to keep the tea at the bottom, for example, from losing its warmth until you get to it. In the background are the more modern Flame Towers, seen from everywhere in Baku, which are lit up and change colors at night.
Wall with engraving in Baku's old town 

Real life Ali and Nino from Baku's boulevard on the waterfront, where everyone is out taking a walk in the evening. I saw the actual Ali and Nino in Batumi (Georgia) last year, it is a statue of a man and a woman, whose figures ceaselessly merge and move apart.

While I'd prefer to photograph people, usually I have to settle for animals as my subjects :) The Old Town is filled with felines, but this is a rare beauty, look at those colors!

In the reflection of this Jeep is the minaret of a 1000 year old mosque!

woman baking bread in a tandir, a traditional oven which by the way is also used to make bread in Georgia.

 Baku's Old Town is very charming. This is one of my fave pics- I love the combination of the narrow street and tall tree.

From my last walk in Baku. It is very easy to tell which pictures are from within the Old City gates, and which from without. Outside the Old City gates, the architecture is grand, and looks like it could be from any European city.

But then, my three days were up, and it was time to head to Novkhani, a beach town about an hour's drive away from Baku.
I had no particular expectations for this tournament, no special preparation, no feeling that I was in good form.  In the last issue of New in Chess, there was an article on Mickey Adams' great win in Dortmund (a +5 score!), where he speaks incredulously about his own performance: “When I look at the other players around the world, a lot of these players are very strong. I am surprised that I can show such good results against them.” If you read that whole paragraph on page 16, it pretty much captures how I feel when I do well, especially this well.

But after my relatively easy first round pairing, I played an average of 2607 for the next eight games and somehow scored +1. My opponents were not blundering pieces or oversleeping the game, so I still have to come up with some reasons for my result.

Maybe the biggest one is that despite not having a lot of confidence, for the most part I play like I do. I know my opponent's rating, but it's just a number, not my sentence. For me, chess is a fight, sixty four squares where you lay out everything you have, and I believe in my ability to fight, because it's really just a function of your ability to give everything you have, to put it banally, 'to do your best.' I want to make the maximum effort, whether that means pushing myself to find the best moves, being resilient in defense, or overcoming any psychological weakness that can come up during a game: inclinations towards cowardice, towards giving up in difficult positions, or slacking off in better ones. So while I just can't see myself to be very good in the actual playing of chess, I do come into every game with the belief that I can give it 100%, and that's probably not a lot less than what my opponents can bring. That's where my confidence comes from :)

I came to my coach for some help with this question, saying, “well, you know I'm not very good in chess, so how do you explain my result?” He said “No, you've gotten better.” Oh. So simple!

The tournament started well; I came out with a big win in a long game against Sergei Azarov in round two.


How does White wrap things up?

Show Solution


This put me in the leaders group, and I was paired with the top seed, Evgeni Alekseev in round three. I played rather naively in the opening, took a dangerous pawn, ran into his computer-assisted knowledge of the line, and was crushed very aesthetically.


I didn't feel too bad after this game. My opponent played well and punished me for my naivete.

Round four was another tough and long game against a very interesting player with a very different style from me, Georgian GM Pantsulaia. This guy plays only the Benoni against 1.d4. Yes, that is right. A 2600 GM who plays only the Benoni, no matter against whom. Just from that, you can see that this is not a typical player. He must be very confident in his dynamic abilities to consistently take on worse positions. The game was as hard fought as it was supposed to be, and ended in a draw.


Fifth round I got Black against Russian GM Denis Khismatullin. I didn't display much opening knowledge, middlegame understanding, or dynamic resourcefulness, and was solidly worse for much of the game. Solidly solidly worse. I remembered my coach's words though about my opponent having a time pressure affliction, and when things were going poorly, I speeded up, knowing that's where my chances lay. And sure as day, it's precisely in the time pressure phase that my opponent let me escape, going for a concrete approach that turned out to have a major tactical hole in it. He had to abandon his initial idea, and I immediately equalized and even turned down a draw offer, but my position was not better enough to win.


This round was definitely something of a sign to me. When I drew this clearly worse position with barely any suffering against such a high rated player, I felt like this must be my tournament, that things were going to keep breaking my way. I was in high spirits.

And then, paradoxically, all my energy just vanished. For five rounds, I was eagerly going to my games, pleased at what good fighting games I was having. But then I perceived that mentally, I was almost empty. Ten minutes of preparation time now made me tired. As you can imagine, if you feel like you have zero mental energy, you're not going to be very excited about yet another game. So here began the next part, the grinding it out.

My coach gave me good guidance before my game with his compatriot, my second Georgian GM, Konstantin Shanava, and my opponent waded into a position he was clearly uncomfortable with, spent reams of time, and played badly. Meanwhile, I was familiar with this type of position because I'd already played it before in a U.S. swiss, and didn't have to come up with anything new to achieve a clear advantage.

Truly, this was a present. But then I missed a simple tactical shot to end the game, and my endgame technique was subpar too; Mr. Shanava took away half a point.


I was definitely dissatisfied with this game. The fact that I got a winning position was irrelevant, because that had been easy, so the real test had been conversion, and I completely failed in that.

Round seven I played a young Russian IM with a GM rating. Later on, I learned that he had qualified to the next Russian Super-Final from the Higher League. I made a poor move right out of the opening, and was immediately under pressure. Things were looking so bleak that I could see myself losing, both easily and quickly. But survival mode kicked in, and I pressed down hard on whatever lever it is that gets the brain calculating. My calculations weren't perfect, but apparently neither were my opponent's, since he let me escape with a draw very easily.


I saw my round eight pairing as lucky. My opponent is a solid Azeri GM, but he'd had an awful tournament here, losing rounds two to four. Yes, that is three games in a row. He was climbing out of this hole when we were paired. He played a line in the Slav that immediately goes into an endgame, which was employed by Anand in his title defense against Topalov in 2010. However, it has not caught on like the Berlin endgame. Maybe the difference is that the Berlin won Kramnik the match, but this Slav endgame was broken down on Topalov's third attempt during their match, and Anand abandoned it. I remembered practically nothing about it, but whatever I figured out over the board was enough to get me a significant edge. Black was definitely suffering. But then an only defense sprung up for Black, and suddenly the worst was past.

Compared to what I thought I'd had, I now had very little. Mentally, I acquiesced to a draw, and we repeated the position three times. My opponent was obviously sure I was agreeable to a draw, as he didn't claim the three move repetition and simply made the move. But then I had a change of heart. See, there was this feeling of disgust that I could not get over at having my edge dissipate into this repetition. And even though I didn't believe I had much to play for, I asked myself: would I play this against a 2100? The answer was yes, so I decided to play it against my opponent as well.

By this point in the tournament, I knew a win here, in round eight, would guarantee me a norm. I felt obligated to try to win. And so I started to try to outplay my opponent once again. In this, I was successful. Step by step, I increased my advantage, until I started to win material. We were in the final time control, playing on increment, and after five hours of play with thirty seconds to calculate variations, I slipped up big time.


Position after 74...Be2

In this position, I threw everything away with the awful 75. b5??, which loses a pawn for nothing. (75.a6 was winning.)

I even had to be careful to not lose. For the computer that's a laughably easy task, but for me in that situation, it was entirely possible to toss in another half point.


It was a devastating lost opportunity for me. I had really put my heart into this game, pushing myself past my disbelief that I could win a position where I had so little to work with. Emotionally, I had already believed in victory, and it was traumatizing to lose everything so quickly, in the space of one move, and come away having gained nothing for my efforts. Everyone knows that when you don't make a goal on your turn, your opponent will on his. And the next day I'd have to fight for a draw with Black.
Emil and Irina in Baku

It was a good thing Emil was there to support me. He had come to root for me during the final part of my game, so he knew exactly how I felt.

We went out of the hotel for dinner, Emil and I, Anna Muzychuk, and a local guy.

I let go of my disappointment pretty easily. In the books I read on the spiritual life, I often come across the advice to thank the Lord for everything that comes your way. I tried to remember to thank the Lord after every game, win, loss, or draw. Well, I did not get everything I wanted in round eight. I'd have to try again in round nine.
 I definitely didn't think my last round opponent was a sheep.

Round nine was another lucky pairing. I got White again! Wow, what incredible fortune, it is infinitely easier to make a draw with White than with Black. Plus my opponent had also been having a dismal tournament; he had half a point less than me and had scored .5/3 against the three ladies he'd played thus far (I will not even tell you their ratings). We took a look at what he played, and my coach said “take on d5 if he plays the Slav.” Then he instructed me to offer a draw on move seven, and appealed to Botvinnik's authority: “Botvinnik said to do this.”

Now, I've gotta tell you, none of this stuff was obvious to me. On my own, I would never offer a draw, not on move seven, not on move twenty-seven, not unless there was a lifeless position or a repetition. One time six years ago, I offered a draw in some level middlegame which my opponent turned down and then beat me. I felt I'd made a psychological mistake, and after that I think no one ever turned down a draw offer from me again, because I don't offer draws when there is any play left. So even as a “strategic” decision to find out my opponents intentions and take the burden of uncertainty off myself, I found this to be quite difficult to carry out. But I trust my coach and have seen many times the power of obedience, so I set aside my personal feelings, took on d5, and offered a draw on the seventh move. My opponent wanted to win. But his attempt to do so never really went anywhere, and gradually Black's position got worse and worse, and while I had conversion problems in this tournament, I didn't have any in this game. It was a clean win and also resulted in my favorite move of the tournament.


White is up a rook, but still, what's the best way to win?...

Show Solution


In hindsight, I could only be grateful about the more difficult path I took to this norm; for an extra day of suffering, I had the joy of ending the tournament with a win, and not just reaching, but exceeding, my goal.


The result was beautiful, but as you can see, it wasn't reached through a flight of inspiration. Four days of squeezing water out of stone :)

I wanted to thank my close friends, Pascal, Iryna, Alex; they are great supporters. And Emil, my friend of many years, who ardently rooted for me during the event and shared my happiness at the end.  And all the people who wrote to congratulate me.
I wonder why Jen's intuition told her to place this picture into this particular spot in the article, but I don't doubt the wisdom of her choice. Indeed, I could not have done anything without the Lord. This is in front of the church of Michael the Archangel, built around 1850, which I was very happy to find and visit a couple of times during my stay in Baku.

There was no plan for my coach to assist me during this event. This happened spontaneously, a spur of the moment whim on my part. I just arrived in Baku, just arrived at my hotel, and ran into him online, doing an ICC lesson. At the end of our conversation, the idea crossed my mind:

me: perhaps you want to help me?
me: I think I would do better
Wolf (GM) tells you: ok
me: vaa, you agreed so easily
me: thank you
Wolf (GM) tells you: since you think so, why not

A fateful conversation, as it turned out. I have little doubt that this request, casually tendered and casually accepted, was the first seed planted for my tournament. Thanks to my coach, who was busy with other things and had a million reasons to say no, for saying yes.

I wanted to end this article with a picture. It was taken about ten minutes after my last game.

Everything is worth it to be able to smile like that!

Update: Irina Krush's GM title application was submitted at the FIDE congress in Tallinn, Estonia (see details here), and she is expected to be awarded the official title in December. Congrats to Irina!