Journey to NM - Becoming a Champion
Found the photo from the Madison City Chess League (shoutout to them, they rock), did some slight editing, and made it the thumbnail. Boom.

Journey to NM - Becoming a Champion

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That hurts. That really hurts. It wasn't so much the fact that I lost, but the fact that I was thoroughly embarrassed, with the state championship on the line. The game barely lasted an hour! I made one dumb move and my position was falling apart. I felt pretty embarrassed to lose like that so quickly...

- Me after blowing it in the last round of the 2022 Alabama State Chess Championship

Why hello there, welcome to the Lightning Reports! A year ago I competed in the 2022 Alabama State Chess Championship and had a pretty good tournament. Heading into the final round, I had a 4/5 score with wins over 3 2000+ rated players, and with my lone loss coming against Alabama’s best player. Round 6, board 1, I’m facing a 2235-rated player. All I have to do is win and I’m state champion. What did I do? I completely failed in that game. I showed up with legitimately good prep that got me a good position out of the opening, only for me to throw it all away with one tiny positional mistake - 19…g5

A year later, that still haunts me. It hurts. It absolutely sucks that I came oh-so-close to the title only to no-show in the last round with everything on the line. Absolute pain. That haunted me for the past year. And now, heading into the 2023 state championship, that game is still firmly on my mind. I cannot do the same thing this year. I promised myself I would come back better and stronger and be a legitimate contender for the title again. 2023 will be my year, I said. This is my year. I’m more motivated than ever and I know I’m good enough to do it, so let’s get it done. 2023 Alabama State Chess Championship, here we go.


  • There are 38 players in my section, including myself. I am the 5th highest-rated player here. The players above me? 1 IM and 3 NMs.
  • 6 rounds, time control is G/120;d5
  • For once... rating is not my concern. I don't care about it here. If I have to lose rating to win the tournament, so be it.
  • The goal, simply put, is to win a state championship. Nothing more, nothing less. Either a clear first place finish or a tie for first place will do.
  • If a non-Alabama player wins the event, they cannot be the Alabama state champion - whoever finishes highest in the standings from Alabama is the state champion. So that's what I intend to do.


Heading into this tournament, I’m pretty confident in my chances, but I know it won’t be easy. I know I can’t look ahead. I can’t take anyone lightly. I’m confident, but I’m taking this one game at a time. I’m also nervous as heck. I’m always nervous before an event, and for about an hour before every round. Once the games are underway though, I’m in the zone. So when I was paired with the young talented Shawn Choi, who recently had a big (and long overdue) rating jump, I was nervous but very much looking forward to our game. Although I was hoping for a quicker game because the first round was at 7 on a Friday night. The sooner this wraps up, the better. Let’s play chess…

Alright, let’s go, a good start to the event! We played solid chess, but he got a little too fancy with the Re7-Qe8 idea, it backfired, I took the advantage and I converted smoothly. That works for me.

More interesting, however, is what happened on the other boards. Alabama’s top player took a shocking loss on board 1, and the NMs on boards 2 and 3 drew their games. Oh and the IM from Tennessee took a half-point bye. Which means I just vaulted up from the #5 seed pre-tournament to #1 after one game. That’s crazy! I’m all excited now cause I’m very much set up for success. I just have to focus, one game at a time, and control what I can.


After a decent night's sleep (about 7 hours - that’s fantastic for me at a tournament), I woke up the next morning atop the standings, ready for round 2. My next opponent, Xavier Bruni, poses quite the challenge for me though. He has been one of Alabama’s top scholastic players for a while now and, I think, has represented the state in the Barber and Rockefeller twice each. I knew he recently dropped below 2000 but had been 2000+ for a good while. Not long ago he was around 2050. He's obviously a strong player, I know I’m in for a fight. But I didn’t expect a surprise on move two…

Alright, that works. I’m fortunate for that random blunder, but my position was better anyway. I didn’t expect him to play 2. d3, that took me by surprise. We had an interesting game, but I ended up with so much more space than him space that I could slowly outplay him.

In addition to my win, round 2 really went my way with other Alabamians taking losses around me. After round 2, I was the only Alabamian with 2/2. The other players with 2/2 were from Tennessee and Georgia. This means if the event were to end right now, I would be the state champion because only an Alabamian can win the title of state champion. Essentially, in my mind, I’m in clear first right now. I’m super excited with how the event has gone so far, but I must temper expectations. Don’t look ahead, just keep working, take care of business, and hope for the best.


Alright, at 2/2 heading round 3, I’m thrilled by how things have gone. A win or a draw keeps me in at least a tie for first as far as Alabama is concerned. Just don’t lose. Hopefully my opponent in round 3, Anmay Chaudhury, will be nice and not beat me. This kid from Georgia has been on my radar for a year now as he keeps coming over to Bama and farming rating here. I thought it was funny. Until I got paired with him. But it’s fine. It’s not like this kid knows who I am online.

Him: ”I read your blogs”

Me: “Oh, I’m sorry”

Him: “I’m gonna play your favorite opening”

It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything is fine.

Welp. That’s alright. He played well. I had chances but failed to capitalize. Ng4 was just silly, I didn’t deserve a win after that. In one move I completely gave away all my initiative and any winning chances I had. I’m just glad I recognized my stupidity and didn’t keep pushing for a win. I knew pretty quickly after I played Ng4 that it was likely gonna be drawn. And that’s fine. A draw is a good result, not a bad one. I’m still in first place. But now others are catching up, including the IM and one of the NMs. Not ideal, but I still have everything to hope for, one game at a time.


Heading into round 4 I’m still feeling very optimistic here. With my 2.5/3 score, I’m still tied for first, and I’m facing a lower-rated opponent. I’m set up for success here. However. My next opponent, Tennessee’s Beau Sensing, is quite the mystery. Based on his tournament history I would think he's just your average 1800. But nooo, here he is in Alabama with a 2.5/3 score in our state championship. All he’s done is beat two solid experts and drawn a 2100 (who he also should have beaten). All this 1800 has done is play at a 2100+ level. Nothing crazy ya know.

Yeah no, I was impressed lol but I was not scared. If I was worrying about my rating in this event, then perhaps I’d be scared. But I’m not here for rating, I’m here to win a championship. I even considered playing for a draw because I thought it would give me an easier matchup next round. I didn't end up doing that, I'm better off winning this game. But hey, whatever it takes. I’m a man on a mission, and this apparently underrated 1800 is just the next obstacle. 

Wow. Gotta say he gave me my most entertaining game of the event. It was apparently better for me mostly the whole game, but it was one of those games that I just couldn’t tell while playing. Looking at it now, yeah of course I was better. I was always pressing and had initiative, I was better most of that game. During the game though I didn’t know. It was super sharp and dynamic and I very much enjoyed it. Gg man.

Now at 3.5/4, I find myself tied for first place with the IM, who is from Tennessee. And that's it. So once again I’m clear first among Alabamians. I could lose to the IM and still have a chance. Regardless, I’ve got a great opportunity here, I can’t mess it up. 


After playing for 4 hours Saturday night, I got back at the hotel around 11:30 and then snacked around cause I was hungry, and then I showered and ended up falling asleep around 2. So I gotta ask…. Who the heck thought it was a good idea to have us get up early the next morning to play an important round 5 game at 8:30? They had a meeting after round 5 and before round 6 that most people don’t bother attending (I was busy eating lunch and relaxing before the last game), but surely you can hold that at a different time (Friday before the first round…?) and not make the players get up even earlier than normal for a game at heckin 8:30 in the morning. Cmon man. Ahem, okay, end rant.

Anywho. I have no shame in telling you that I slept in as much as I could and showed up late to my game Sunday morning. My mom was questioning me for that 😅 but hey I mean it's totally worth it for the extra sleep when you've got 2 hours on the clock. I showed up 10 minutes late. But. My opponent, IM Ronald Burnett, showed up 12 minutes late. Ha! All good. Now regarding the game itself, I went into this one thinking… just get a draw. Don’t push for the win, be happy with the draw. I intended to be as solid as possible for this one. I don’t need a win, a draw will do. A win would be great of course... but a draw would be a huge win for me here.


Ok, ok, I know, it’s just a draw. But my gosh I was so excited, I was literally skipping out of the playing area with a huge grin on my face. Which is very much out of character for me. I probably looked ridiculous. But whatever. I got an important draw there! After choking so many times against strong players because I refused to be solid and would push too hard for a win, it was awesome to earn this draw here. Furthermore, it keeps me in a tie for first place, meaning it all comes down to the last round. Just one more game… one more.


It all comes down to this. On board 1 we have IM Ron Burnett playing black against fellow Alabamian NM Matthew Puckett. On board 2 I play white against Georgia's Vishnusankar Jonnalagadda. Ron, Matthew, and I all have 4/5. My opponent has 3.5/5. I knew Matthew was very likely going to draw Ron on board 1, which meant I could not lose my game.

I was a little put off by how similar this was to last year. Just a little. I mean, round 6 at the state championship, first place on the line, against a strong young player from Georgia. Seriously... almost the same script as last year. A little different this time, but still. I saw this as the final obstacle to fully redeeming myself from a year ago. I knew, I just knew, if I found a way to lose this game it would haunt me forever. It would be sooo depressing to have this amazing tournament only to blow it in the last round - AGAIN! So I had decided before the game that if Matthew and Ron drew on board 1, I would not hesitate to take a draw on board 2. I don't care about winning outright. I will gladly take a tie for first place. That makes me a state champion. I will gladly take that any day. I will not take any risks in this game. I will play safe, solid chess. 

*deep breath*

*Breathe, Isaac, breathe*

I DID IT!!!!!!!


Oh my goodness. Wowww. Okay. So. Matthew and Ron drew their game very quickly, at which point I offered my opponent a draw. But he was playing to win. I did my best to stay solid... in the end, I got the draw. And earned a tie for first place. As I said, I didn't need to win outright. A tie for first place isn't as cool as winning outright, sure. But I made sure to get my name on that list of Alabama state champions. I did what I had to do. I have no regrets. And I'm quite thankful for how things turned out. 

I actually ended up winning the tiebreak in the end! A 4-way tie for first place between myself, NM Puckett, IM Burnett, and NM David Jackson (the latter two from Tennesssee - Jackson kinda came out of nowhere, winning his last game to join us draw masters at the top). Absolutely crazy. But I won the tiebreak! And I never win tiebreaks! I even got the first-place plaque (I've always wanted to win a plaque for some reason, one of my random ambitions)!

My mom took this photo. Look I'm actually smiling for once - a real, genuine smile! Don't mind the messy hair and the tired look in general... as happy as I am, I'm also sleep deprived and brain dead 😅

This is awesome. For that whole night, I won't lie, it felt amazing. After that of course it was back to normal life. But in the moment, and for the rest of the day, it was amazing. As far as Alabama chess goes... I've accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in Alabama. Winning the state championship is the greatest accomplishment I could have in Alabama, and I've now done that.

Now okay, sure, I didn't have to play 11-time state champion Scott Varagona, and I didn't have to play Alabama chess legend Bill Melvin, and I didn't have to play Matthew Puckett. I also only played two Alabamians. I didn't have to beat anyone better than me. 3 wins and 3 draws, this is very much not a normal state championship win. This isn't even my best state championship performance. But. I took first place by playing safe, solid chess, avoiding the upset bug that plagued seemingly everyone around me, and simply not losing games. Normal or not, I care not, I got the job done. I'm a state champion. The youngest Alabama state champion in 9 years, and perhaps one of the youngest ever, if I'm not mistaken. I'm pretty happy here. I've made it to the top of Alabama chess... I have now truly joined the elite of Alabama chess 😁

Pretty hectic event where 4.5/6 was enough to win it. On tiebreaks, yes, but even that's pretty crazy. What a tournament... congrats to Matthew Puckett, we're co-champions! Congrats to Ron and David as well, they aren't from Bama but they came down and tied for first as well.


Well, now I'm a state champion. Awesome! But what's next for me? As far as Alabama chess goes, I plan to continue avoiding playing here. The only Alabama events I currently feel are worth playing in are the state championship and the Falcon Invitational - if I get an invitation of course. Nothing else is worth the rating risk. I'll continue looking for events outside Alabama. Georgia and Tennessee are my top options as far as the location goes, and competition is great in both states, I just have to find the right event.

As far as my journey to NM goes, I did manage to gain 16 points from this event, going from 2120 to 2136. That's the highest my rating has been in a year, and I'm now 6 points away from my peak. That's fantastic to me, it would seem I'm finally trending in the right direction. Only 64 points to go! I hope to play otb again next month, but other than that I don't have many good options over the next few months, not right now at least. I need to go to a big event and do well. Hopefully I'll get the chance to do so. I believe I'm stronger than I've ever been now. Time to go out and show it.


Good job, you made it to the end. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed your time here. Becoming a champion... pretty crazy to me that it actually happened. Glory to God, man, He blessed me with this ability to play some darn good chess, and I'm quite thankful. Gotta say thanks to my coach as well, he's helped me so much over the years with improving my game, I know I wouldn't be the player I am without his coaching. And of course, thanks to any friends and family who have supported me. My family has been there the whole time. Friends, admittedly, come and go, but I've got a couple today that have proven to be real ones, they know who they are and I thank them. Also thank you to any of my readers here who have cheered me on, I appreciate y'all and I'll continue to keep y'all updated on my little otb chess adventures 🙃

As can be seen above, I don't have much planned for the rest of 2023. I expect to play otb in October, and will of course recap it. Regarding November and December, I really don't know what will happen, but I'm hoping for at least one event during those two months. We'll see. As I said in a previous blog, I'm not currently interested in blogging about other topics, I'm focused on other things right now - such as my otb chess progress. So if I don't end up playing otb again this year... see ya in 2024 😅

Anywho. Thank y'all so much for reading, I appreciate you guys and hope you enjoyed your time here, and I'll cyall in the comments!