Chasing the Grandmaster Title
Β© Sunway Sitges Chess Festival

Chasing the Grandmaster Title

Jan 17, 2018, 12:12 AM |

As most of you know, grinding towards the GM title has been a personal and professional goal of mine for a very long time now. I became an International Master back in January 2013, and, since then, have always had my eyes set on becoming a Grandmaster.

After some ups and downs, I made a concentrated effort to secure the title in 2017. I started to train more regularly, read and transcribed various opening books, followed top chess a lot more closely, and broadened my repertoire to include a number of new openings. However, the most significant motivator I created for myself was a promise I made in March 2017 – that I would not shave my beard until I fulfilled all the requirements to become a GM!

Initially, I was just frustrated after having a bad event and decided that this would be an interesting way to motivate myself, but since I have an incredibly active life as a streamer, it quickly became public knowledge. While this did add extra pressure on me, it also fueled me with extra motivation. I’d like to share with you my account of the recent events that transformed me from a bearded mess to a clean-shaven Grandmaster.

London FIDE Open

I left Canada at the end of November and arrived in London Heathrow early in the morning on December 1st. I had two tournaments planned before the end of the year: the London FIDE Open, in the UK, and the Sunway Sitges Open, in Spain. I scored my second GM norm in Iceland at the Reykjavik Open earlier in the year, and I had already reached a published rating of 2509 back in 2013. There was only one requirement left – the third and final norm.

London started off badly. I couldn’t overcome the jet lag fast enough and actually found myself sleeping during the rounds in order to recover enough energy to make moves. Do not try this at home…

After drawing twice with 2200s I finally put some wins together and was paired up in round 6 against GM Alexander Motylev, the top seed. After struggling in the opening, a Taimanov Sicilian, I played a game that I’m quite proud of with the Black pieces. In the end, I should have converted a winning endgame but struggled to find the way and settled for a draw without putting any real pressure. I’ve included the game below, with some important variations. A big missed opportunity!

After this game, I won against a young IM and put myself in a position where I had a chance at the norm, albeit by winning my last two games against GMs. Nevertheless, a chance was better than nothing. Unfortunately, my game in round 8 against GM Donchenko from Germany was quite poor. I squandered my good opening position and gave up playing for a win after I had to sacrifice a pawn in the middlegame. Disappointing, but I blame my poor start to the event a lot more than my play in this game; it’s very hard to earn a norm after drawing two low rated players to start off the event.

A win in the final round meant that I still gained 6 ELO, but the norm was definitely off the table. I was in great spirits for the Chessbrah meetup we hosted after the final round though. Thanks to everyone who showed up!

Sunway Sitges Open

I had a small break after the tournament in London ended and before the tournament in Spain began. I decided to spend it in London under the roof of one of the Chessbrah viewers who had been hosting me during the whole event (thanks Lewis!). I caught up on my sleep and made a point to fix any issues that might affect my performance in Spain. On December 14th, I took an early flight from London Gatwick to Barcelona, Spain. After a short train ride to Sitges, a modest city on the coast of Spain, I checked into the official hotel and prepared myself for the final GM norm attempt of the year. I really felt as though it was now or never. To be honest, I’ve never felt more pressure on myself than I did in this tournament.

After a much better start to the tournament, with two clean wins against lower rated players in the first two rounds, I was paired up in round 3 against GM Zubov (2626) with Black. Despite a suspicious opening, I held the draw remarkably easily and was feeling confident going into the next round with White.

I was paired against GM Bologan, an acclaimed author of many of the books that I used to study and shape my repertoire! Because of this, I didn’t want to play 1. e4 or 1. d4 and play into theory that he has probably written entire books on. I decided to play the English and see what type of game we would get. After using a lot of time early in the game, I once again fell under the spell of feeling like I was playing for a draw just because my opponent was higher rated. As it turns out, objective evaluation would have me standing slightly better in positions I evaluated as almost losing. Luckily for me, my opponent got a bit too focused on winning the game due to my clock, and committed a series of blunders just to avoid a draw. Despite playing on increment, I was up to the task and managed to find very accurate moves to punish him and convert the full point. Below is the game, with what I thought were the important variations.

This unexpected victory meant that I was catapulted atop the crosstable with 4.5/5 and paired against GM Predke on board two in the next round. Since I had the Black pieces, I was not looking to be overambitious, rather just to stay solid and take any chances that were presented to me. By some stroke of luck, my opponent had a rather unique hallucination that he explained to me after the game. When he played 10. Nc5, effectively blundering a pawn, it was based on the assumption that he could play 12. b4 and defend it. He overlooked that I had two a-pawns and ...axb3 en passant was possible. An incredibly fortunate moment for a 2600 Grandmaster to forget about such a basic rule in chess, but I'm not complaining. The game still required some precision, but I think that I converted it quite well, albeit slowly. Below you will find the game along with some important variations.

After this win was the first time during the event where I really felt as though this could be the special tournament where I became a GM. Of course, it would be easier to focus without having to think about the pressure of scoring a norm, but that's part of having a stream - everything has to be public. I can confess to having poor sleep patterns and what would certainly be considered an unhealthy heartbeat during this event - way too stressful.
I drew rounds 6 and 7 against GM Saleh and GM Liang, respectively, although not easily. Both games could have gone either way, but with these results I sat down in round 8 as White against GM Peralta from Argentina. I decided to use the London System which had given me so much success recently. I reached a position which was slightly better for me, and offered a draw while practically holding my breath
My opponent accepted after a short think! Eric Hansen and many others back home had already done the calculations, and we knew ahead of time that this result was enough to confirm my 3rd and final norm, and with it the entire title! Here is the scoresheet - definitely keeping this one.

As you can see from the picture below, there is nothing sweeter than securing the GM title with a round to spare. My performance rating was high enough that I could afford to lose the final round game and still earn the norm, which really took the pressure off.

I flew home to Toronto on Christmas Eve and made it in time to share Christmas with my family, as well as my birthday (December 30th!). I also made it to Montreal just in time for the NYE party featuring Fabiano Caruana and many other good friends and guests. I shaved my beard in front of a packed Chessbrah stream full of people who have been supporting me for so long. A perfect end to 2017... couldn't have scripted it better myself!

If you want to catch me in action again soon, the PROchess League starts this Thursday, January 18th. We will be providing a live commentary broadcast of the Montreal Chessbrahs' games, complete with player webcams at

Thanks once again to everyone who supported me on this long and difficult journey to the Grandmaster title. It's a massive accomplishment for me, but I'm hoping for even bigger and better things for Chessbrah as a company in 2018. Keep that energy up