The Grandmaster Apartment
By Arun Sharma   
April 8, 2010
Arun Sharma of the GM Apartment vs. Jesse Kraai of the GM House, Photo Michael Aigner
I've played a lot of passive moves in my life. 
Now before anyone accuses me of plagiarizing either this article's title or first sentence from GM Jesse Kraai's amazing piece, The Grandmaster House, let me assure you that both bits of information have a great deal of truth to them.  Some might naturally argue that an apartment with a mere two inhabitants, one of whom is not a GM or even close to one (sadly, that one being me) can't reasonably be described as a "GM Apartment". But with the recent departure of GM Vinay Bhat from the area (who we greatly miss having around), I couldn't help but come to the realization that my humble abode now had a higher percentage of GMs than the famous GM House down the street. 

Whether you find the name to be appropriate or not, one thing does seem certain:  if I were to become a GM, thereby making our place consist of entirely GMs, it would undoubtedly silence any detractors who might question the legitimacy of the name.  So why don't I simply make that happen?  Well, at one point in my life that was something that I strove to do, but unfortunately that was about twenty years ago when I was around ten years old.  Like many other kids around that age I had the notion of making GM and then moving on to World Champion.  Unfortunately, like most aspiring youngsters I got a cold dose of reality soon enough.  I realized soon that the latter goal was impossible and the former was very unlikely.  That really has a way of changing one's perspective on things and when that realization hit me at about the age of fourteen, my days of playing mostly ended. 

My story took what I suppose is a pretty typical path after that, going to college then to graduate school, with chess falling further and further out of the picture as time went by.  After an approximate five year gap from the game in basically complete entirety (2000 - 2005), I really never had any expectation of returning to the chess world in any capacity.  That all began to change in late 2005 with the beginning of the US Chess League, something that at first was merely a source of entertainment to me but now something I'm heavily involved in.  That, having a GM (Josh Friedel) for a roommate, and living down the street from an "alleged" GM House reenergized the dying flame inside me.  But still, until very recently, I really had no aspirations to actually start playing again myself.

Between running the USCL and trying to complete my doctorate, free time to study or play chess myself was not exactly a hugely available commodity, but having finally completed my doctorate last summer, suddenly the possibility of doing so became much more feasible. A visit to the North American Open this past December rekindled my fire for chess, so I decided to take the plunge and continue the hunt for the GM title. Surely a fifteen year hiatus in the quest wouldn't be that hard to overcome, right? 

It's entirely possible that this second quest will end much sooner than I hope when I begin my new job this fall.  Unfortunately, that will put an end to my involvement in the USCL and may also put an end to this daring excursion.  But be that as it may, I felt if I was going to seriously attempt this comeback then I had to put the maximum effort into it.  Of course that meant modernizing myself to how things are done nowadays. The game has obviously changed a lot in my fifteen year absence. Fortunately, having Josh for a roommate proved rather useful in that regard - he was more than willing to instruct me on what I needed to do to get back into the flow of things.  Although I studied mostly by myself, it's also useful to have him available as he was willing to give advice whenever needed. 

Many big flaws in my play were pointed out to me by my panel of advisors, one of the biggest ones being the opening line of this article. Naturally the biggest step in this new quest would be the first tournaments on the comeback trail, a scary prospect after such a long layoff. I was determined to be ready before taking that big plunge - a poor result being likely to destroy my enthusiasm for making this comeback.  While I felt my studying was going quite well, one thing that I kept hearing over and over from my advisors was that I needed to actually play a tournament as soon as possible to really get back into the flow (and more importantly, to be included on the GM House's rating chart).   

With that in mind, when the opportunity to attend the Far West Open with GM House members GM Jesse Kraai and IM David Pruess arose, I decided that was the most appropriate moment to begin the comeback whether I truly felt ready or not.  In reality, no one is probably more surprised than me that this actually wound up happening.  Had someone told me a couple of years ago that I would start playing in tournament(s) again within such a time frame, I would have told them that they were crazy.  But then again, during my five year complete absence from the game, had someone told me that within a few years I'd be running something known as the US Chess League, I would have thought they were crazy also.  Clearly one can never really be sure what the future might bring. 

So with that in mind, after fifteen years my quest to make GM and to make the "GM Apartment" pure finally resumed in Reno on April 1, 2010 (and unlike CLO, this is no joke). 

My biggest fear in returning to tournament play was definitely the fact that my openings would be quite out of date, obviously something that needed to be rectified over time.  I spent quite a bit of time working on them as I felt avoiding opening surprises would be very important to my success.  However, Josh cautioned me to not devote too much time to my openings since in his vast experience, most people around my strength tend to feel exactly the same way but for most it simply is not their biggest weakness.  Whether that's true or not, my definite biggest initial worry in this tournament was being surprised in the opening and reacting badly.

So in my first game as Black against Douglas Anderson (2000), when I wasn't sure what to do on move four, that was not a promising start.  Being myself, I reverted to following the opening line of this article, essentially conceding my opponent a fair edge while still getting a very playable position for myself.  But when he went a bit awry in the middlegame, I quickly managed to turn the tide, switching the edge to my side.  My opponent defended fairly well at that point when he easily could have lost in the middlegame, and we ended up reaching the following endgame:


While my superior Bishop certainly guarantees me an edge, with White's only real target currently being f2, converting this edge does not seem trivial.  Afterwards, as pointed out to me after the game by David, there was probably one very good chance to win that I missed in the following position: 


Here with 37... Qe8!, Black gets in Rc6 next move and grabs complete control of the c-file after which he should be headed for victory.  I seemed to have the right idea of how to approach this endgame - creating two fronts on which to attack (something that Josh had explained to me in a recent game of his which actually had the same set of pieces as this ending), those being f2 and the c-file.  However, I simply was too mesmerized with the notion of attacking on the Kingside via f2 and the h-file to force White to rush defenders there before swinging back to the c-file, and I continued with 37... g5!? intending to do just that. 

Unfortunately, while I did succeed in forcing White's heavies to turn their attention to the Kingside, I underestimated the amount that 37... g5 had weakened my own Kingside, and by the time I succeeded in my aim, my opponent managed to garner enough counterplay on the Kingside to hang on to the draw. 

A fairly disappointing way to start as I did have my chances to bring home the full point. I knew when trying to make the leap from being a 2250 to the much higher echelons that squeezing endings like this for all that they are worth would be a key step, but I failed at it in my first attempt. 

My second game with White against a talented youngster, Daniel Liu (1982), went much better as my opponent played a bit too ambitiously in the opening and got tied down.  We eventually reached the following ugly position that I converted quickly:


A very smooth win which really helped my confidence level, and I went to bed reasonably confident that the rust was quickly wearing off.  Little could I dream how fast that ignorant bliss would come crashing down the next day though. 

In Round Three, I had a rather unfortunate pairing with GM Jesse Kraai (2550).  While I was happy to play a GM, obviously a vital step in my road to improving, I really could have done without playing one of my car mates.  This game had particularly high stakes for me since I had often boasted to the GM House members how badly I would crush any of them should I ever play them in a tournament - a fairly safe boast to make when resting under the ultimately incorrect assumption that the tournament game in question could never actually take place. It seemed fate had decided to deal me a cruel blow, but all I had to do to avoid severe humiliation was to actually win; I mean how hard could that really be!? 

Rather hard as the game went about as far the other way as it realistically could have. 

I played a very sharp line against a Nimzo Indian, a risky thing to do against an opponent who is almost certain to be better prepared. Nevertheless I was feeling just fine about my position at the following stage where I had just played 12. b4:


But I soon begin to worry when Jesse quickly banged out 12... Naxc5!, a move that I had totally missed which may or may not be hard to see depending on your perspective.  Either way, it was quickly apparent to be very strong as White simply cannot even think about playing 13. bxc5.  I did remember at that point Josh mentioning a Nimzo Indian position where this exact "sac" was playable, and I surmised this to be the same thing.  While somewhat shaken that I had missed that move, working under the assumption that we were still in theory, it seemed likely that I was probably still ok and didn't need to panic.  So here I debated between playing 13. e3 and 13. Rd1, both of which looked very reasonable to me.  I eventually settled on 13. Rd1? to avoid any of the potential Qf6 ideas that Black might spit out, reaching the following position:


Here Jesse quickly banged out another move:  13... Bd7!  Despite its simplicity, I somehow completely overlooked this just like his last move.  Unfortunately, this time my oversight was much more severe. I realized quickly that I was in big trouble as the unstoppable threats of Ba4 and Nb3, with tempo, will make Black's colossal lead in development quickly showcase itself.  Sadly White is basically lost already though I battled on gamely, with the computer even mostly agreeing with my admittedly feeble attempts to try to hold my position together.  But Jesse played very smoothly, and my position went further and further downhill every move. I resigned in the following position after move twenty two, where I'm up a piece and yet have one of the most depressing positions I've seen in awhile.


I won't embarrass myself further by showing the in between moves that lead to this final carnage though it also bears mentioning that resigning three or four moves earlier would not have been premature.  This definitely ranked as one of my worst losses in recent memory.  Yes I'm aware that not having played in fifteen years that the number of losses in my "recent memory" might be rather limited, but I'm sure all of you out there can appreciate the general sentiment. 

Being dead lost on move thirteen is pretty much never something to write home about.  However, in a very dangerous line like this, one innocent looking mistake (13. Rd1?, where 13. e3 is totally fine for White) is all it can take for a big disaster like this to occur.  As they often say, things like this do happen to nearly everyone, and if one does have to endure such a loss, it might as well be to a friend so I didn't feel especially upset about it. 

That however changed rather quickly when Jesse informed me shortly after the game that this line, in particular 12... Naxc5!, had actually all been shown to him by Josh!  So in effect I had gotten completely mauled in this game due to my own coach/roommate's preparation for my opponent - a rather tough pill to swallow!  I naturally did the only honorable thing available, calling Josh up to really give him a good piece of my mind.  But with him playing in the Philadelphia Open at the same time, the only target I was left with was his poor unsuspecting answering machine.  I eventually elected not to vent at it, instead leaving him a nasty text message and saving the angry phone call for later - unfortunately those being the only real bits of satisfaction I could derive from this monstrosity of a game. 

But more pertinently, I knew how important it would be to bounce back from this game as I've witnessed firsthand many times how losses, in particular bad losses, can affect people emotionally and lower their level of play in later games - something I was rather determined to avoid falling into.  Fortunately, I did make that happen despite misplaying the opening for the third time in four games (though obviously not as badly as the previous game).  I ended up winning a fairly smooth game with Black against Michael Da Cruz (2042) when he erred in the following position: 


Here after 32. Bd3 a5, while materialistically about even, the position clearly favors Black with his far superior placed pieces.  Still, Black is probably a long way from winning.  However, my opponent continued with 32. Bxa6? after which 32... Rxc2! 33. Qxc2 Rxc2 34. Kxc2 Qc3+!, either the white rook or knight falls and with it the game. 

So after the second day, having performed at about my rating expectation, I felt my showing was neither especially good nor bad.  As it often does, the last day would determine the success of my comeback. 

In Round Five against FM Edwin Straver (2174) with White, my opponent played the somewhat offbeat Chigorin Defense with an unusual line involving 5... Nc6-b8.  He didn't seem to get any compensation for the colossal deficit in development this wound up creating. I was able to win material in the following position: 


Here I played 14. Bf4 which wins a pawn as both 14... Qb6 and 14... Qc5 (as played in the game) are met with the simple 15. Bxc7!  My opponent complicated things shortly afterwards by surrendering an exchange in the endgame to win back the pawn and get some pressure, but I consolidated and then converted my extra material. 

So with this win, the tournament was guaranteed to be a fairly solid result.  My final game with Black against IM John Grefe (2373) would determine just how good it would really be.  My opponent played a very unusual opening, seeming to start with a Kings Indian Attack but then playing several moves suggestive of very different systems.  I have no idea how good his opening really was, but I once again managed to go a bit astray.  He seemed to gain a bit of an edge and initiative for the majority of the early middlegame.  But right when I had likely equalized, he wound up making a tactical error in the following position: 


Here he tried 22. Qf3?, and after 22... exd4 I was anticipating the line 23. Ne6+ Bxe6 24. Rxe6 Nd5 25. cxd4 Nce7 (the computer notes that 25... Ne5! is actually stronger, though I hadn't seen that at the time) where I felt that I was probably a bit better with White's pressure being trivial along with him having a very weak d4 pawn.  However, my opponent continued with 23. Re6 - apparently having missed 23... Nd5 there when he played Qf3, as everything is then defended.  With White's only reasonable way to proceed then being 24. cxd4, I continued with 24... Nxd4 (24... Ne5 again, which I did see this time, is also good, but I felt there was no need to make things messy at that point with Nxd4 appearing very clean) winning a Pawn, which I converted without much trouble.  This pushed my score to 4.5 / 6 into a five way tie for second with GM Khachiyan, GM Yermolinsky, IM Mezentsev, and NM Chen, all behind GM Kraai with 5 / 6. 

Tying for second place was better than I could have dreamed of finishing.  I received a nice pay check, but more importantly the fear that my first comeback tournament would be a miserable failure that would kill all my enthusiasm for continuing it - well this was about as far opposite of that as it could have been.  Though I was very happy with my eventual finish, I still couldn't help but wondering "what if".  What could have happened had I not been felled by my roommate's own preparation which caused my only loss of the tournament to the eventual winner?  Did I miss a potential chance to be in the winner's circle myself because of that?  One can only speculate, but either way I certainly can't complain about the actual result.

So does this tournament having been a big success mean that my comeback will now unequivocally continue with even more force than before?  That would be the natural guess, but having been away from the scene for so long, playing in a tournament again, well it was almost like a novel thing to me.  Like most "new" things there were some ups and downs, and I suppose it's a bit too early after the tournament to determine how much I really enjoyed this return.  But either way, the comeback can certainly not end immediately, and I'm looking for the National Open to be my second attempt on the road to trying to achieve one of my childhood dreams.

As much as I wish I could end this tale of my first comeback tournament on that note, the next day provided some rather unpleasant drama which probably should be mentioned here.  We had a rather nasty car accident in the snow in the mountains around Donner Pass which involved around five hard impacts to my car in what eventually wound up being a thirty car pileup.  I'll spare readers the rest of the gory details, but by some miracle no one wound up getting seriously injured.  At the hospital they checked us out a bit - well David and I at least. Jesse was too busy trying to locate internet access so he could cancel his date for that night to worry about trivialities like receiving medical treatment after a serious car accident.  Fortunately, none of us had any serious injury as the concussion they originally felt I probably had turned out not to be anything more than a bump.  This was only a small chunk of the story of the probably craziest twenty four hours of my life which involved a wide variety of other unusual things occurring.  However, describing all of them would need an article twice as long as this, and I doubt that's what people tuned in to read about.

So before I continue and wind up making this report too negative, I think I'll end the story here.  To end on a better note, I want to thank everyone who encouraged me on my road to this comeback.  Special thanks to: GM Josh Friedel and IM Sam Shankland for all their help in preparing me for my return (yes, even the former despite his eventual betrayal!), GM Jesse Kraai and IM David Pruess for making the majority of the trip very enjoyable, the tournament organizers, all the players from Seattle who were great company after the tournament, and finally everyone who offered good wishes and support to us after the car accident. 

See you at the National Open in Vegas in June when the second tournament on the comeback trail takes place!