My Second IM Norm!
I can still hardly believe it but it's true: last Saturday I scored my second IM norm, exactly ten years after my first! I played the best tournament of my life, finishing in clear second place at the Liechtenstein Open and winning 1500 Swiss francs along the way. So how did this happen??
A while back I decided to take a holiday during the last two weeks of May. I wasn't planning to do anything special, but by accident I found out that three of my clubmates were going to play a tournament in Liechtenstein, right in this period. I started looking for accommodation, and when I found a nice, small apartment, I decided to give it a go!
After a flight to Zurich and a train to Sargans (Switzerland) I was picked up by Yvonne, the very friendly owner of the appartment. We hopped into the car, and soon I added another nation to my growing list of visited countries: Liechtenstein. And a strange but beautiful country it is!
Officially called the Principality of Liechtenstein, it is 100% located in the alps, in between Switzerland and Austria, and its area is only just over 160 square kilometres. The estimated population is 35,000. Besides really small, Liechtenstein is famous for having the highest gross domestic product per person in the world when adjusted by purchasing power parity.
But what will remain in my memory is the beautiful sights of the alps. My Amsterdam friends had rented an apartment in Triesenberg, a small town about 400 metres up the mountain, and from there the view was absolutely stunning:
The chess was played in the town hall of Triesen, in the valley, where I was also staying. Besides an open group there was also a senior group, and this year a chess legend was participating: Nona Gaprindashvili of Georgia, the women's world champion from 1962–1978 and the first female to achieve the IGM title. She ended up winning the tournament shared with IM Laszlo Eperjesi of Hungary and Christoph Frick of Germany.
The main event was won by the top seed: 23-year-old GM Sebastian Bogner of Germany. As the clear favorite with 116 Elo points more than second seed GM Sergey Kasparov, Bogner scored 7.5/9, finishing clear first ahead of... well, yours truly! Yes, this mere 2215 player managed to finish in clear second place, ahead of eight GMs and five IMs! It was definitely the best result ever, of course closely followed by Amsterdam 2004, where I scored my first IM norm.
I guess this is a good opportunity to show once again my game in the final round back then. I had to beat a 2512, and somehow I did, putting a rook en prise on c3 twice:
What happened after this? Well, I reached a rating of 2292 thanks to this tournament, was pretty convinced I would become an FM soon, and perhaps I could try going for a second norm. I played a number of tournaments, beat more IMs, drew a few more GMs, but I never came close to this result in Amsterdam.
Then, in 2006 I started blogging, in 2007 I founded ChessVibes and for seven years I put all of my energy in my website, which was also my company. I kept on playing chess, but after a few tournaments in 2007 I cut down my play significantly. In recent years I played about one tournament a year, and some Dutch league games. To be honest, I had lost most of my motivation to play chess, and it showed in my results. My FIDE rating had dropped to 2215, and my Dutch rating even briefly went below 2150.
A lot has changed in the past year. Chess.com took over ChessVibes, I have started working full time for this company, and it was a great decision. I'm enjoying this new job, which still is all about chess news, tremendously. It gives me the opportunity to spend a lot of time on chess professionally, such as working on The Master's Bulletin, and surely that must have been beneficial for my own game! (And I'm sure it will be benficial for all our subscribers!)
And in the past few months I slowly but surely I got more enthusiastic about playing myself. It was mostly my team in the Dutch league, which is full of friends, that got me back to being motivated. Only a few weeks ago we managed to promote to the second league, which was very inspiring, and finishing with 3.0/3 this season probably gave me enough confidence to try another 9-round event.
I'll show a few moments which were critical to my tournament and my play. I think the overall picture is that I played OK, but I was also quite lucky. But nobody is successful without some luck.
After an easy win in the first round I played a small boy from Germany, who was born in the year that I scored my first norm! He had prepared very well for the game, and after I blundered a pawn I was simply lost at some point. We continued to make mistakes, and I was fortunate enough that he made the last. This game, not a very good one to be honest, made me realize that I still needed some more practice!
In the third round I lost without a fight against IM Gyula Iszak of Hungary after a blunder in the opening. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 I had spent hours preparing the ...c6/...d5 Grünfeld, but before I knew it I had put by bishop on g7! Out of habit, as a life-long King's Indian player, I went 3...Bg7 and after 4.Bg2, to my horror I realized that his next move would be 4.e4 and I was sentenced to playing another g3-King's Indian. Angry with myself for this silly mistake, I was hardly capable of putting up a serious fight and I lost in just 20 moves.
Luckily I then beat a 2038-player in the next round, so everything was fine: 3.0/4 with one loss against a stronger player. The next game, against an FM, would be quite important: was I going to play a good tournament, or a so-so tournament?
I can still feel the thrill that went through my body when he went 32.Bc4. “Is he falling for it? Yes! He's falling for it! I'm checkmating the guy!” It's not that I have never beaten such a player before (I must have beaten at least ten IMs in my life), but it was some kind of realization that I might actually play a good tournament in Liechtenstein.
The next round was a real test: an IM from Italy. I remember preparing many different lines, but not the one that he played. And still it went fantastic.
Of course this game gave me an enormous boost. Beating an IM is always a bit special for a non-titled player, and the way I did it was just awesome: he was with his back against the wall almost from start to finish. Besides, with this result I was sure of facing at least two more (much) higher rated players in the next rounds, and so my performance rating would remain excellent, and I was probably going to win some Elo points here. Note the way of thinking: I was taking it “game after game”, as Boris Gelfand famously said in Mexico 2007, and felt no pressure at all. I didn't HAVE TO do well.
My next opponent was Sergey Kasparov, a Belarus grandmaster with a famous surname which begs for jokes such as: “I didn't expect that I would ever decline a draw offer from Kasparov.” As it turned out, this is what happened in the game!
As you can imagine, by now I was walking around in Liechtenstein with a permanent smile on my face. I was playing better than I had done in many years, and that alone was enough for me to be very satisfied. The actual results of the games weren't even that important to me, and maybe that helped to keep my calm in the next game, against a Dutch IM, even though I was being outplayed for the first time in the tournament.
This game made it clear that I wasn't just playing decent chess, but I also had Caissa on my side. I deserved to lose, but my opponent just made mistakes (and I punished them nicely).
Only now, with one round to go, I started to think about an IM norm. As it turned out, I would have already secured the norm if I would be paired against Mr Bogner. Against all other opponents rated higher than 2000-something I needed a draw.
“Unfortunately” I was paired against a different grandmaster, again with the black pieces. What was very nice was that I got yet another chance to use my ...c6/...d5 Grünfeld preparation. The game was played early morning, and this was probably also to my advantage because my opponent made several inaccuracies. I did so too, naturally.
It's funny isn't it? Ten years after the first one!
A nice compliment came from Sergey Kasparov, who apparently didn't trust my play. After the tournament he said to a friend of mine, and later to me, that it “wasn't possible”. “You play like a machine!” he said, and he didn't mean it in a good way. But I guess I should take it as a compliment anyway!
My rating will reach something like 2264 in August. I'm probably one of the lowest rated players in the world with two IM norms. Maybe it's about time that I become an FM.