The Bumpy Road to Chess Mastery

The Bumpy Road to Chess Mastery

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Hello, readers.  The article or, rather, series of articles you are about to read is unlikely to improve your chess in any way ­- it is merely a story about how to get to 2200 USCF, attain a National Master's title, and reap the endless glory, fame, splendor, and riches that that of course entails.  Btw, if anyone knows who to contact for the endless glory, fame, splendor, and riches, please let me know, all I've got so far is a cheap looking certificate from the United States Chess Federation.


Chapter One: The Blunder Years

My story begins as a child in upstate New York with a cheap chess set and a dream.  It then fast forwards about a dozen years because, well, nothing particularly interesting happened.  Then, in San Francisco around the year 2000 I felt a need accomplish something because the 90's were ending and I was starting to run out of ways to not have a real job.  My "master" plan was to play in the U.S. Open in Reno and take the chess world by storm with my encyclopedic knowledge of the first five moves of the Nimzo­-Indian and Schliemann Gambit(1) which, as a teenager, had more or less taken me from 1600 (USCF) to 2132 and the verge of greatness.

Unfortunately this plan of mine was not very good for a reason I had completely overlooked, namely that I wasn't very good.  Not only was I not very good but I wasn't very good at realising I wasn't very good: every loss felt as if an aberration and that I was doing fine until missing some trick in time pressure.  Incidentally, this is a common delusion among chess players, for it ignores the fact that time pressure is not a randomly occurring phenomenon like earthquakes and the New York Giants winning the Super Bowl but something caused by not knowing a given position sufficiently well and having to figure things out entirely over the board.  In any event, reality rapidly set in and I finished with an even score and a growing premonition that going from 2100 to 2200 might prove more difficult than 1600 to 2100.

Or would it?!...

Yes, yes, it would.

1) A piece of chess advice for pretty much anyone under 2000: play openings people think are bad.  Most people who think a given opening is bad don't know said opening very well and will play irrationally against it due to a combination of annoyance, confusion, and general overestimation of their ability to understand chess without a Cadogan book by some random English Grandmaster to guide them.  That said, make sure you understand the opening at least a little bit and that it's not utterly stupid or, worse, also the subject of some Cadogan book by some random English Grandmaster.

Chapter Two: The Philadelphia Story

My plan to quickly gain an international title, emigrate to England, and write Cadogan books on second rate openings foiled for the time being, I decided to instead move to Delaware and live with my girlfriend.  Though, as it turns out, this plan had a significant number of flaws, it did afford me the opportunity to participate in the 2002 U.S. Open in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (across the river from Philadelphia).  On the other hand, I had at Cherry Hill arguably the worst chess tournament anyone has ever had since Colonel Moreau dislocated the frontal lobe of his brain in 1903.

An ominous note sounded from the outset when, upon arrival at the tournament site/hotel, I could not locate an online friend with whom I was to share accommodations with.  This turned out to be especially important as the hotel was booked and I had no ride home.  At the time I wasn't terribly concerned as I was fairly sure my friend would eventually show up.  In retrospect, I probably should have been more concerned.

Anyhow, this was the day before the main event and there was an "action" side event I had decided to play in as a warm up.  This was an excellent idea in theory, but because I considered it a rapid tournament an unfortunate incident occured in my second game:

This is of course an instance of the dreaded Bishop and Rook vs. Rook endgame and I, though down to less than a minute on my clock, am nevertheless about to see if I can find a way to torture my opponent in spite of my complete lack of knowledge of how to actually play this position.  This ignorance is made immediately apparent by my next move...

...Ra4+??!? it is, as my opponent immediately and very loudly pointed out, illegal.  In shock, thinking this a blitz game, I blurted out something to the effect of, "Aaah! What now?  Do I lose?", to which my opponent responded with, "so you're resigning?", grabbed my hand, shook it, and left to report the result.  Shortly thereafter I learned that not only was the game rated normally, but the penalty for an illegal move would only have been to award my opponent an extra two minutes on his clock.  Thus I became the only player in chess history to lose a Rook and Bishop vs. Rook endgame... WITH THE ROOK AND BISHOP.

Painful though this was, worse was in store.  Locating my friend and/or a place to stay was proving more difficult than anticipated and reasonable ways to return to Delaware and come back in time for the first round were pretty much nonexistent without a car which, again in retrospect, might have been a good thing to have had/borrowed/rented/stolen/etc.  Undaunted, however, I kept my hopes up by playing skittles and using the ballroom piano to practice on (I was working at the time as a freelance musician), figuring, if nothing else, I might find someone to share a room with.

Suffice it to say, this did not happen.  One reason it did not happen is because I have shared rooms before with strangers at chess tournaments and the stories from such experiences really deserve an article in of themselves; particularly that guy in Martinez, California with the spiders and carpet of many strange colors.  But I digress.  Anyhow, around 11:00 PM I began to realize my options for where to stay the night were inevitably converging into a frightening singularity: being homeless in, essentially, Philadelphia.

Shortly after this realization I began to panic and, in the desperation that often precedes inspiration, I had an idea: since I had been playing the piano off and on throughout the day, it's possible that the hotel staff at this point thinks I'm actually an employee.  With this gambit in mind, I proceeded to move the piano into a quiet corner, waited until everyone had left, and attempted to sleep underneath it.

This was a really poor plan.  First off, hotels in the wee hours of the night/morning are not devoid of activity.  People (mostly employees) are walking about at all hours and security guards were becoming a definite concern.  One finding me sleeping under their piano would probably suggest to them that I was not actually an employee and instead a hobo to be tossed out in some particularly emphatic manner.  Therefore, whenever one seemed liable to explore "my" end of the ballroom I would be forced to get up, walk somewhere else as nonchalantly as possible, and return to the piano at a less conspicuous moment.  This basically meant I got more or less the opposite of sleep for the entire night.

Thus did it come to be that my games of the 2002 U.S. Open were of, to be kind, uneven quality.  If I recall correctly my chief accomplishment (outside of not getting arrested) was beating a 1400 player who, truth be told, was completely outplaying me out of the opening.   After all was said and done, my rating had fallen under 2100 for the first time since Middle School.  Things were grim.

And then I moved to Baltimore.


So endeth Chapters One and Two of "How to Make Master in Three Hundred Difficult Steps".  Stay tuned next week for Chapter Three, "Baltimore is a Scary City", here on


© (copyright) John Chernoff, 2013, all rights reserved