For the past few years, since the fall of 2011, I had a really bad period in chess. I was really having trouble concentrating, not enjoying playing chess, and making many blunders. My nerves were shot and I couldn't calculate variations. In a short period I lost about seventy rating points from my high of about 2515 (between FIDE lists), and didn't recover. There were a few short tournaments I played in the fall of 2012 where I did all right, but other than that it was pretty bleak.
In the summer of 2013 I had a plane ticket back to Europe (since, for some reason, one way tickets from Europe to the US are more expensive than the round-trip ones, I had to get a round trip when I came home in 2012), and with a return trip from frequent flyer miles, and a subletter for my apartment in Philadelphia, I decided to spend the summer in Europe. Although I planned to play five tournaments, I actually only played three, and of those three I withdrew from two. I was feeling unwell physically the entire time, not to mention that I was not enjoying chess nor able to concentrate. I had no desire or ability for an actual fight, and my wish to end the game as soon as possible one way or another caused me to play badly. The following game pretty much sums it up (although it has several brothers and sisters which would be equally representative):
Some time after coming home at the end of July, I played a small tournament in Ohio. Although I managed to win clear first place, again my play was very poor. I avoided losing to a 2100-rated (US rating) player only because he offered me a draw in a completely winning position, and won against 82-year old GM Anatoly Lein because he put a rook en prise in a totally won position. During the tournament I was absurdly nervous, in addition to being tired and having a headache nearly the entire time.
The first ray of hope was in the Continental Class Championships in Arlington, Virginia, which started October 9th. I covered this tournament in a previous article, Endgames and Endgames. Starting with 5/6 for a performance rating of 2680, I needed only 1.5/3 for my last GM norm and the title, and had white against two IMs. However, I collapsed at the end, losing the last two games. Although the finish was very upsetting, it was at least a sign that things were turning around. I had been able to concentrate, I was enjoying chess, my games were interesting and I had more confidence. I was able to get into "flow", which is crucial in chess. This means you forget about yourself, forget about outside worries, and just live in the moment.
However, that tournament had ended terribly and it looked unlikely that I would be able to play in any tournaments where I could make a GM norm until January at least. It was 100% clear that the bad times for the last couple of years was largely because I just needed one good tournament to become a grandmaster. I hadn't forgotten how to play chess, but I was feeling pressure because of this. I was in some kind of trap where I couldn't play well because I felt pressure to get the grandmaster title, but couldn't do that because I couldn't play well.
Still, the promising tournament in Arlington gave me the sense that things had finally changed and I had broken the cycle. In addition, the fall is always a good time for me. I saw a tournament advertised which I had never heard of before, which said that GM norms would be possible there. It was starting only a week after the Arlington tournament ended. The organizer was seemingly a local one in Michigan. I didn't know if the GM norms would actually be possible, but if they were it would be my last chance this year. But however much I wanted to play, it was not a realistic possibility because I simply had no money whatsoever. If only I could find a way to play! But it was impossible, or at least it would be reckless, even if I could borrow money.
But then a surprising thing happened. My grandfather had passed away in July, and my parents decided to give some of the money they inherited to me and my siblings. It was three thousand dollars, and that was naturally enough for me to be able to go. Still there were questions such as whether norms would actually be possible, and whether I should perhaps wait until a later time when I had more time to get ready. Additionally, it didn't look like I could get the money into my bank before the tournament started. Thus there was the prospect of becoming stranded halfway across the country during the tournament.
I contacted the organizer, Alan Kaufman, and determined that norms would probably be possible there - the players listed as playing were likely to show up. I managed to convince another IM to travel with me, thus cutting down on the expenses a bit. I made hotel reservations for us at the "Victory Inn", near Dearborn, Michigan (another possible hotel also had a promising name - "Magnuson Hotel"). This was Sunday night, and we would need to leave on Tuesday.
However, after talking to the other IM the next day we decided not to go, and I cancelled the hotel. I had found that I would be missing two classes during the tournament rather than one, so essentially the tournament would cost me a little more. I made the basically emotional decision that I should wait for another time, maybe play in Las Vegas in December.
But later that day I started to re-think. Finally late in the evening I decided to just go. I reserved a new hotel (this time the "Evergreen Motel"), and started getting ready. I would leave the next day after the class I was teaching, drive to some random place in Western Pennsylvania, spend the night there, and finish the trip the next morning.
So the next day I drove for about five hours and reached Barkeyville, Pennsylvania, where I had reserved a hotel two minutes before walking out of my apartment. At some point I realized that, at least on the surface, this was one of the most peaceful places on earth.
The next morning I set off on the remainder of the trip. Unfortunately I got a speeding ticket in some random place on I-80 in Ohio. 82 miles per hour in a 70 mph zone. In fact, the officer first said I was going 79, and then said he also caught me going 82. I wonder why he would add that I was going 79. On the ticket it shows that 11 miles per hour over the speed limit is a higher infraction. Unfortunately it is too far away for me to go and fight the ticket, which was pretty costly.
I went and checked in at my hotel, which was in the suburb of Inkster, about five miles west of the hotel in which the tournament was held. It didn't look like such a nice area, with the sides of the road lined mostly with liquor stores and cheap motels. The registration desk had bulletproof glass, on which was a mug shot of a woman. It said that this woman is not allowed in the hotel, and if you take her into your room, you will be kicked out of the hotel with no refund. I began to wonder if this hotel was going to cause me problems during the tournament. Who knows what could happen there - loud people, fights, drug dealing, other crime.
I then went to the tournament site to check in. It was held in a huge, fancy, and somewhat unusual-looking hotel called the Adobe. My first impression was that the hotel had a rather European style.
The tournament was very strong, with fifteen grandmasters; and players came from sixteen different countries. Everything looked very nice and professional. The room where the tournament was held was nice, boards, sets, and clocks were provided; and there was sufficient space in between the boards.
In my first round I played a local player, John Brooks, rated 2131 FIDE. He played extremely quickly, using no more than twenty minutes for the whole game. I was thankful for this because the game finished quickly and that night I got to watch a movie, A Clockwork Orange, which I had been planning to watch for some time since I had finished reading the book. I was nervous during the game, as I have been in some first round games recently. It's also some psychological thing - basically that I could ruin the whole thing before I even got a chance, if I failed to win in the first round in these tournaments.
The tournament had a useful feature, in that they sent text messages with the pairings to the players. This was very important for me, since I had no internet in my hotel, so otherwise if I wanted to make any preparation I would have to drive back to the tournament in the middle of the night when all the games were over. It turned out I was playing the top seed GM Timur Gareev with black in the second round. That was a tough pairing, but somehow I felt certain I would win - which is odd, because I have never beaten such a highly rated player with black.
This was obviously a great start to the tournament, winning a beautiful game against the top seed, with the black pieces in addition.
It is a strange thing that practically every game in which I was black in both this tournament and the Continental Class Championships began with 1.d4. The only exception was my must-win game in the last round in Arlington against GM Rakhmanov, who began with 1.b3. And nearly every one of these games featured the Nimzo-Indian defense.
I have a good friend, Amanda, and she used to have flashcards with the names of the openings on them. She is a player around 1100 rating, and felt that it was useful to learn the names of the openings. Apparently the Nimzo-Indian was her favorite, because she would often ask me how my game went, and the conversation was usually like this:
"How was your game?"
"Well, the opening was..."
"Was it a Nimzo-Indian?"
In these two tournaments, the answer would have invariably been, "yes, it was a Nimzo-Indian". It worked out well for me, as I did not lose a single game with it in either tournament.
Having the white pieces in the next round against GM Carlos Matamoros of Ecuador, I certainly hoped to start with 3/3. But that was not to be as I just played really badly. First I didn't really know how to get a position that I liked against the line he chose in the French. I chose not to play 11.exf6 after he played 10...f5, although I would have had to anyway had he played 10...f6. And then I didn't want to accept that I had got nothing out of the opening, and played the reckless 14.c4? (instead of the obvious 14.Nf2), even though I knew it was wrong. As a result I got a bad position immediately, which I couldn't manage to hold.
This was definitely the darkest moment of the tournament. I could have just played carefully and 2.5/3 would still leave me in great shape. Now I had undone about half of what I had achieved by winning against Gareev.
That night I was able to sleep, although someone did knock on my door at about 2 AM. I looked out the window and some guy was making some gestures like he wanted to talk to me. He didn't really look like a Jehovah Witness, and he remained standing outside for quite some time.
The next day was almost the end of my tournament, as I played a bad opening against WGM Lisandra Ordaz Valdes. Again it was a Nimzo-Indian, this time the 4.Qc2 line. This can be a little annoying because there are many drawish lines, but I wanted to win. I played Vitolins' gambit with 6...b5 - actually hardly a gambit in most cases, since White normally returns the pawn with 8.Bg5, as she did. Seeking to create chances for myself, I chose the risky 10...h6 and 11...g5, gaining time and chasing White's pieces at the cost of weakening the kingside.
Some good players, such as GM Arkadij Naiditsch, have chosen this line, but now I don't believe in it. My 13...Na6 was supposed to be the reason why 13.Qd3 should be preferred to 13.Qc2. However, as I see it, her 14.Nd2 simply refutes the line, since I cannot see a way to get a decent game for Black. If Black cannot justify all the liberties he has taken (giving up the two bishops, weakening the kingside, and putting the knight on the bad a6 square), then he will simply stand badly. However, I made things much worse by 15...Nc7, which allows White to get a practically won game by playing the most obvious moves.
I was beginning to wonder if I could withdraw from the international tournament and enter a shorter open tournament which was beginning at the same site to at least make my expenses back. But then she started to surprise me with some of her moves. The first point was 20.Rc1?, which not only gave me counterplay because White's back rank becomes weakened when this is exchanged, but more importantly neglects the winning 20.Bf4. After that I was back in the game, since the white king had some long-term problems. Some later moves also surprised me, and my queen finally infiltrated her position. In terrible time pressure she made her final mistake with 32.e5?, although by that point I was expecting that I would win since the white position was much more difficult to play.
After this lucky win, I got black again against GM Alex Lenderman, who I had just played in Arlington the week before, also as black that time. This time the game was not very interesting. He avoided facing the Nimzo-Indian again, choosing 3.Nf3 instead. I surprised him with the Queen's Indian, an opening which I hadn't played in years, and got easy equality when he played the inaccurate 9.Qb3. Unfortunately he had enough activity to compensate for his broken pawn structure, and I didn't find a way to get any real advantage. In the final position Black doesn't really have any clear plan, and White can eventually trade the strong b5 knight by Kd2 and Nf4-e2-c3.
Despite my loss to Matamoros, I was still in reasonable condition to make my last grandmaster norm. I had stabilized after the loss and the scare in the following round. I went to sleep with the thought that if I could somehow score 2/2 the next day, I would almost certainly become a grandmaster. However, I couldn't sleep well since it was windy outside and something was making an annoying knocking sound. After putting up with it for a long time, thinking it was something outside that I couldn't do anything about, I finally discovered that it was the bathroom fan. I opened the cover, a piece of metal fell out and into the toilet, and then I closed the fan again. The sound stopped and I managed to get a few more hours of sleep. I had white the next day against IM Mackenzie Molner (Molner had actually just become a grandmaster, but was still officially listed as an IM).
I will leave you now and the story will continue next week!