Lessons from the Philly Open / (My) Quest To GM
Well, it's been quite some time since I seriously thought about chess, but now - for whatever reason - the inevitable allure of the GM title speaks to me once more. I've never been what one might consider a particularly strong player, particularly recently with talents like Sam Sevian and Kayden Troff and dozens of other absurdly strong pre-teens tearing up the country's competitive scene, but through some strange combination of trickiness, decent tactical ability, and sheer plain luck, I've stumbled my way to a reasonably respectable position that includes the shiny red letters "IM".
Of course, it's still a bit of a stretch to consider myself an International Master. That "title" was earned by winning the 2014 NAYCC which, though still a strong tournament, contained a noticable lack of titled players. I was also not particularly pleased with my play in that tournament, following up some clean wins over lower rated players with truly awful performances against higher rated ones, but winning the tournament was one of the more memorable moments in my chess career. Nonetheless, if I want to continue to improve (which I do!), I think it's important to not think of myself as an IM. When the 2013 edition of that tournament was first announced - the first that awarded direct titles - a friend offered an interesting commentary: "I feel like whoever wins that tournament will never get GM [...] because they won't have IM as a stepping stone". I didn't really get it at the time, but now it makes a lot more sense. After winning that tournament, I sort of slowly lost interest in chess, largely because of the lack of clear goals. GM seemed like a completely impossible task, and it was getting difficult to justify putting more and more effort into chess when more practical things (such as college...) beckoned.
None of that likely would have changed, and I'd probably still be viewing chess as a remnant of the past, if not for what can only be described as a streak of impressively good luck. A couple weeks ago, I mentioned - in a completely unrelated context - that I wasn't playing in the Philadelphia Open that weekend (which started in about 36 hours), to which my mom replied "oh, let's go to Philly". Apparently she was serious, because the next day we were in Philadelphia for the opening round. Though this was a pretty crazy thing to even consider doing, I think it actually helped quite a bit in terms of mindset.
Lesson #1: Enter tournaments without expectations
Oftentimes, it's very possible to tank a tournament well before it begins. The anticipation of playing in an event - particularly one as large as the Philadelphia Open - can completely blow your mindset before you even make your first move. I've noticed this in the past - whenever I get excited for an event, or set goals for myself, and so on, I tend to perform quite poorly. While it's a difficult habit to break, I think it's a very important one to get out of; there's a good reason that many of the greatest recent performances are suffixed by "I had no expectations".
Owing to my lack of playing FIDE-rated tournaments, my FIDE was a relatively low 2265, placing me somewhere right in the middle of the field. In the end, I ended up just above the halfway point, putting me on the second-to-last board against an unrated (FIDE; USCF 2000) player. I'm certainly no stranger to allowing disasters against lower rated players, but this time I got to finish the game in style:
Though a win over someone 400 points below me might not seem like any big deal, it was a significant boost to the remainder of my tournament. Most directly, I got to finish this game inside of 2 hours, meaning I had the opportunity to go rest up before the tough fights began. But more importantly, it was a small confidence boost - I had not, in fact, forgotten how to play chess. The next game was even more important for me, a quite messy win over IM Justin Sarkar:
I must admit: around the 38th move or so, when both our clocks were rapidly ticking down, I strongly considered finishing the repetition and getting some rest. Of course, that's an absolutely ridiculous thing to even consider even if the position was objectively drawn, but it spoke to a strong lack of confidence in my own ability. Winning this game did a lot to turn that around: I now believed that I could actually win games against these strong players, which was probably half the battle.
Lesson #2: It's important to get off to a good start
One important aspect of chess that is rarely talked about is confidence. I've noticed that, whenever I play a strong player (even if they're slightly lower rated than myself!), I manage to psych myself out and do all sorts of stupid things as a result. When I go in with higher confidence, however, I tend to play much better. Getting off to a fast start, then, is very important to the rest of my tournament; good play follows good play and bad play follows bad play. This was most notable in the last round of my tournament, when I played black against IM Farai Mandizha. Normally, with Black against such a strong opponent (and one that had flattened me in the USCL this year), I'd be, basically, running scared. But with the strong results I'd had in the previous rounds, I went in believing that I was going to win that game - and ended up winning a crazy tactical battle, where I shocked myself by having the confidence to jettison a piece with 30 seconds on my clock (compared to his over an hour!)
Unfortunately, psychological effects and confidence boosters can only take you so far, and the following round I was squashed by GM Maghami. I'm not really sure how to describe the game in any other way - I just got totally outplayed in every phase of the game. Somehow I managed to get a piece-down sort-of-almost-fortress though, which at least kept the game interesting for a while. Nonetheless, the game brought me back down to earth, and set up a critical round 4 matchup against IM Dean Ippolito. This was a particularly interesting matchup for a few reasons: Dean is, of course, one of the faces of New Jersey chess, and also coached me for some time when I was much younger. I'd also faced him twice previously at the NJ State Championships, winning the first time to take the title and drawing the second. I'd never played him with White however, and having White against a strong IM put the question to me in a very real way: what was I playing for?
Though I'd gotten basically crushed against GM Maghami, the game lasted a very long time, so my preparation time that night was limited. In the morning - as my brother reminded me every 60 seconds - I was taking far too long to prepare and actually showed up almost 15 minutes late. Fortunately, the round hadn't yet started, so I didn't even take that penalty for the prep. I'd noticed, during my prep, a couple of interesting things: firstly, he played the Petroff a lot, making the obvious course of action finding a line against the Petroff. What turned out to be more interesting, however, was that he recently played the Caro-Kann a bit, but had never faced the main move 12. Ne4. This meant I felt relatively comfortable going into the main lines, despite having only played the main line twice before! This worked a bit too well, as we quickly went into a line that I knew was excellent for White, but had no idea why, so I had to try and work everything out over the board...
Which brings me to...
Lesson #3: Opening preparation is very important
This probably holds more true for me than it does for others, owing to the fact that my regular opening repertoire... well, doesn't really deserve to be called a repertoire, but the point stands. Up until some level, it's more than sufficient to learn a couple of openings - almost any openings, as long as you know them well - and play them against anyone and everyone. I think, unfortunately, I've probably passed that level to some extent. Perhaps surprisingly, this is far more important for white than it is for black - with black, equality is a completely valid result of the opening, so the onus is on White to prove that there's something there. Sadly, and as much as I hate to say this, I think it's finally time to put the Smith-Morra aside.
My next game was, on paper, the easiest of the tournament (not counting the first against the unrated), but it was a rather awkward pairing. I had to play against FM Daniel Gurevich, who I've played a couple hundred blitz games with, and who I know to be quite underrated. I was a bit surprised that he didn't try and punish my opening, given that he had to know what I was going to play, but anyway it seemed that I was steadily outplaying him. Indeed, I played quite reasonably, built up a nice stable advantage... and proceeded to self-destruct in time pressure. Instead of taking a free pawn and trying to win the ending, for some reason I went for something "more concrete" and was quite lucky to not be on the other side of a pawn-up ending. Luckily I escaped to time control in a dead drawn rook ending, which we agreed to after a couple of useless moves.
Lesson #4: Avoiding time pressure is a must
Yes, I know, I'm probably the last person in the world who has the right to say this. I've been down to one second in probably about half my games over the last couple of years, and somehow I manage to play quite well despite the time pressure. The sheer number of swindles I've pulled off with just a tick of the clock remaining could probably fill a book - most memorably, I once won a position evaluating to -145 (!!) while having one second left - and apparently swindling your opponent with low time has colliqually been recognized as "pulling a Katz". But I'm going to say this anyway. In 9 games this tournament, I was in heavy time pressure in three of them. In two, I blew a great position and had to hold a worse endgame, though admittedly in the last I sacrified a piece and won a nice game. In the games where I avoided time pressure, however, my results significantly improved even if I was slightly less accurate.
In the next game, I played against GM Bryan Smith. I certainly wasn't expecting to get too much, especially with Black, but somehow my position had a lot more resources than either of us gave it credit for (I didn't even see ...b4 or ...Nd5 until the position appeared on the board), and the game was over surprisingly quickly. This is also the first time I've beaten a GM in a serious game (not counting rapid/blitz games of course), so it was nice to get that under my belt.
This also leads to the 5th lesson I took away from this tournament:
Lesson #5: Trust yourself
When I recounted the story of this game to a friend, their reaction was (paraphrased) "you sacrificed a pawn with black against a GM in ten moves?", then they looked at me like I was insane. I didn't really understand this reaction, but I do understand the underlying foundations of it. In the actual game, it took me a couple minutes to see the move b4, but then I assumed I was probably missing something and spent another 15 minutes checking the lines. In my younger years, I may well have assumed there was something else there, played something else, and missed out on the chance to win a miniature. This goes back to the confidence issue I mentioned earlier - indeed, if this were round one, the story of that game might have concluded "so I played a6 and slowly got ground down by a GM".
Unfortunately, this comeback story didn't have quite the ending I would have preferred, as my GM norm chances were squandered when I badly miscalculated against GM Chirila (the eventual co-winner) and he converted quite cleanly:
Black has just played the break 12...d5, which I had assumed was impossible due to the continuation 13. exd5 Bxd5 14. Nxe5 Nxe5 15. Rxe5 Bxf2 16. Kxf2 Ng4 17. Qxg4 Qxg4 18. Rxd5, when White apparently has a healthy three pieces for the queen, and just needs to untangle his queenside for a huge advantage.
Unfortunately, my plan against 18... f5! was insufficient, since I realized my intended 19. d4 f4 20. Nf5 Rae8 21. Bd3? would fail to 21... Qd1! when White can resign. Instead I had to setttle for 19. Rd4 f4 20. Kg1 c5 21. Re4 Rae8, where the f-pawn proved to be the decisive factor.
In the following round, I played quite poorly against WGM Atousa Pourkashiyan (apparently I played both the Iranian champion and the Iranian women's champion in the same tournament!), and was somewhat fortunate to hold a draw in serious time pressure. This set up a final round clash against IM Farai Mandizha, in which we both needed a win for prize purposes. There was another factor at play: a draw would be enough to earn an "IM norm" (though I'm already an IM, I'm still keeping track of these to make "IM" an artificial goal), so I would have been reasonably happy with that result. Nonetheless, I wanted the full point, and after a crazy game managed to get it: