I just earned the National Master title. Here's how.
(Note: If you want to avoid some random anecdotes and just want to get to the things I think may benefit players embarking on similar quests, just skip to the bold stuff below.) I've been working on this one for a while, and it's nice to finally have it under my belt. Funny enough, I achieved the World Chess Federation's (FIDE) Candidate Master (CM) title (2200+ FIDE) during my gap year before college in '06, yet never secured the NM title until now.* FIDE Master (FM) was my goal for the gap year, but I was happy to land a FIDE title for the effort. Still, I haven't lost sight of that goal...
Anyway, college and internships and grad school and jobs happened, and I really wasn't sure if I'd have the chance to pursue it again. I played on and off, but not enough to further any serious pursuit of the game. Along comes 2014. I get back into online chess when I learn about Chess.com (really -- I'm not just saying that to be a sycophant; I mean, I've got that diamond membership secure for life...right?...guys?). Naturally, I began playing late into the evenings in my apartment complex's office because, well, I didn't feel like paying for internet. Or cable. Who needs 'em when you've got a smart phone? (Just don't get hooked on Simon Williams videos if you don't have unlimited data!) Only problem was there was terrible reception in my building due to what were most likely signal jammers from an opportunitistic management company (now gone) or the Russians (I say that in the most endearing way) to "encourage" residents to buy overpriced internet (never gave in...though I'm 100% sold where I am now [minus cable...even the Super Bowl aired on CNBC.com] at about half what those guys were offering!), so free high-speed community computer was pretty much the go-to. And, by the way, no one used this office because they were all getting ripped off paying for internet. Aha! The perfect storm for a chess resurgence! People I didn't know knew me as "the guy who plays chess," if I heard them correctly (I was kind of busy playing chess, so I may have misheard, not to mention typing notes for work when I wasn't procrastinating...with scrabble...chess, however, can never fall into the "procrastination" category). Those evenings in the apartment office space, I came to realize that I loved the game too much and decided that I couldn't give it up. I was getting better and better, feeling it again. "I gotta go for it. I can't give up on my (unrealized) goal of becoming FM." I had recently moved to DC and the World Open was conveniently located in Arlington, VA, that year (just across the river) so I decided to go for it. At this World Open, I ran into my friend Ali, who resuscitated and then led the Chess Club back at U-Michigan where I played occassionally, and he told me about an opportunity where you could teach chess as a job. Chess...a job?! I was working with the homeless across DC at the time as basically a social worker, so teaching chess seemed like a totally different world (though I did enjoy playing with my clients from time to time). I pondered the idea, though, and eventually my curiousity got the best of me. I threw in an application.
Come early 2015, I was teaching chess classes in schools with Silver Knights Chess! And while doing that, I was naturally playing a whole lot of chess, too. And studying it. And working with students one-on-one who were just as passionate about the game as I was. Suddenly, chess was my life. Cool! When you really love chess, and you're learning and growing so much, believe me, all that chess immersion doesn't get old. It's totally fun. I get my kicks from helping my students gain new insights, from gaining new insights myself, from winning (duh), but especially from falling into a pit or two then soaring into the clouds -- hence the violent swings in my rating. And I did a lot of that. The graph speaks for itself:
Remaining in that limbo called "the 2100s" is a tough place to be (achieving exponential growth ain't as easy as it was when I was an 1100, though I wouldn't mind replicating it from here on out). It's that "so-close-yet-so-far" territory. I had been 2150+ a few times, but never quite made it to USCF 2200. You want to think, "ah, ratings don't matter that much anyway," but still, if that rating really just means a few more wins than losses, mix in some time, and boom, NM, why not do it? It gets into your head. Oh, it does. And the more you think about it, the worse it gets! "It shouldn't matter, but I want it, and I know I can do it..." which becomes, "I'm going to get this thing if it kills me!!" But oh, that frustration drove me! I was so close, I was knocking off IMs and FMs regularly, and yet I was still below 2200 after all that. I was too inconsistent. That had to stop! I knew I had to do it!
So that's when I really started doing some soul seaching. It began with the recognition that it was about time to stop analyzing my games all on my own and get a chess engine again (when I lived in LA growing up I worked with two excellent coaches, expert Chris Lee and GM Var Akobian, both of whom helped me to hone my game analysis skills, but doing it all on your own, without either a coach or computer, is just plain stubborn...and, for a while, I was!). So I gave in and finally got a new computer (remember, I had that apartment office computer at my old place, so it didn't matter that by 5-year-old computer -- I'm frugal, in case you didn't already pick up on that -- had a screen that no longer cooperated) and downloaded Komodo, which has been pretty cool in terms of helping me to rigoruosly analyze my games, sharpen up my repertoire, and sometimes whip up scary cyborg-like sequencing OTB that I didn't see coming. So yes, that's been helpful, but I refuse to become dependent on the machine! Never! Human intuition is the greatest! Kasparov was better (but how does a human defeat a thing that never tires?)!
Along the way, my continued soul-searching is elaborated in some of my (stream-of-chess-consciousness?) blog posts, such as "Learning from Loss" (not fun, but someone's gotta do it), "Write about your psyche to win with Caissa: scribe your signature winning concepts!" (this method helped me a ton), "5 things that set masters apart and how they can help your game" (which was written after, in Silman's language, "poring over reams of master games" and arriving at my own conclusions which I then applied to my own games and which you can, too), "Highlights, lessons learned & misadventures from the World Open and DC Int'l," "A chess epiphany: Talk to yourself" (really; don't take my word for it), "Finding a formula for chess success: Invent your own dictums" (basically a "Talk to Yourself" revisited), and "How I achieved my biggest comeback ever after starting 0-3 at the Marshall" -- the key 3 losses that led to the rage that led to this most recent surge of, yes, consistency (knock on knight). I suppose I'll stay angry for a while. (I still am.)
Okay, for those who are still with me, let's get to the essence of it. How did I get there? If you want to know how a GM became a GM you should go ask them; on the other hand, if you'd like to know how I won some games, lost some games, won some games, lost some games, won some games, then drew a GM to gain those extra few points to arrive at 2201 -- whether your goal at the moment is to achieve master or whatever barrier you're trying to bust down -- then you've come to the right place, my friend. Let me lay it down for you:
- I didn't take "no" for an answer. Look, I knew what I wanted to do and I did it. Granted, as someone fluctuating in the 2100-2150 range since getting back into chess, my proximity to 2200 made it feasible at the moment. But oh, it was frustrating (see above and blogs if you don't believe me). Very frustrating. I was close before and then I had other things to attend to. "Could happen again, right?" Chess takes a lot of effort. It comes down to the small things. You've got to figure out exactly what it is you need to work on, you need to work your ass off on that thing, and you need to achieve your goal. You will not take no for an answer, dammit! You will achieve it! Sheer determination is a must. Just put in the work, try different approaches, figure out what works, and go out there and win! This takes confidence. You must have it. It also takes efficacy which comes about through rigorous, objective evaluation and hard work. Confidence+Efficacy=Success!
- I had one solid opening repertoire and I stuck to it. I learned my lines with black and with white (many of which I had played for years and just required some honing), I viewed GM (or strong master) games in the lines that I played to become familiar with the sorts of plans/endgames that would arise from the positions I played, I analyzed those lines with Komodo to prep for tournaments and to review how those lines played out in practice, tweaking as necessary, and I stuck to those lines I knew. I've read at least one book on each of the systems I play. Mastery of your openings is very useful. Better to be a master of one trade than a jack of all.
- I got better with the clock. Not too fast, not too slow. I love speed demons. They tend to make mistakes or "this looks good, let's play it" moves that are inaccurate and don't fully respond to the complex needs of the position. On the other hand, I'm notorious for taking too much time trying to create a masterpiece then blowing it up in time pressure. So I've been getting better at blitz (I also play variants like Fischer Random and Crazyhouse on lichess.org...apparently chess.com's new version is introducing variants for live games, too--these variants help you react quickly and intuitively to new situations) and have been moving more quickly as a result, saving up my time to beat my opponents, not myself, with those positional "masterpieces." Don't walk around too much when your opponent is thinking; use their clock so that all you have to do when it's your turn is double-check your analysis, then make your move, keeping the burden on them, then (telepathically) thank them for the extra thinking time. Also, the previous point on openings is quite useful because it'll help you get to the good stuff more quickly. hmmm...so are opening wonks often just middle/endgame lovers who don't want to waste their time in the opening?!
- I've accumulated a wealth of fundamental chess understanding over the years. You're not likely to make master if you're lacking when it comes to the fundamentals. Take a pause from bullet and study those Capablanca games. Read a middlegame classic of your choice (I mention some below). I'm a traditional learner and have acquired the core of my chess understanding (in terms of the self-taught time, which must be most of it, save for the few of us who can afford 10 hours of private coaching each week) from chess books, playing along with a real chess board and real pieces (I think the interactivity part is important, but study time is time well spent regardless of how you do it, and I know that many 21st century players like their e-books with the animated pieces and all). These are the main chess books I've read over the years that serve as the basis of my chess understanding. I recommend them all and often use examples from them when I teach my students:
- 1. Chess for Dummies by James Eade (first chess book I read and I recommend it to all my starting students)
- 2. How to Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman (This is the stuff; read it if you vie for positional mastery. Also check out his workbook.)
- 3. The Art of Attack in Chess (IM Emory Tate gave it his seal of approval)
- 4. Listening to Larry Christansen on World Chess Network (later merged with ICC) and then reading his book, Storming the Barricades
- 5. The Art of Defense in Chess (also recommend The Inner Game of Chess and Pawn Structure Chess as supplemental material by Soltis)
- 6. The Art of Positional Play by Samuel Reshevsky (it may as well be called How Reshevsky Destroys the King's Indian, which is amusing in its own right; definitely will help your positional chess with some good analysis of full games by positional genius)
- 7. My Best Games of Chess, 1908-1937 by Alexander Alekhine (note: even Alekhine didn't win all his games by brilliant combination!)
- 8. Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner to Master (a student lent it to me in exchange for the next listed book, and I like what I see so far, esp. the tribute to some of the endgame greats)
- 9. Exploiting Small Advantages by Eduard Gufeld (basically endgames, but I like the way it's framed in terms of converting advantages into wins, which is very useful; Gufeld also has some very good books on aggressive openings for Black)
- 10. 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate by Fred Reinfeld (if you haven't heard of him, he's written or co-written over 100 chess books!)
- 11. Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player
- 12. Combination Challenge! by Lou Hays and John Hall (incredibly difficult combinations, but once you get the hang of them your tactical vision and general calculation ability improves remarkably)
- 13. Endgame Challenge! by John Hall (fun to learn endgames by trying to solve puzzles and then seeing the instructive analysis, or you can just read the analysis of various problems)
- 14. Modern Endgame Practice by Alexander Beliavsky and Adrin Mikhhalchischin (this is very dense, and I'm not saying that you need to get through the whole thing -- I certainly haven't -- but it's great for learning some of the deeper and fascinating complexities of chess endgames)
- I've had some great coaches. As I mentioned earlier, I've been fortuntate to have worked with both expert Chris Lee and GM Var Akobian who were instrumental to my chess development. I remember the lessons they have taught me and strive to pass them on to my students.
- I've developed a positive attitude about loss. You're going to lose if you're in a competition. Thank your opponent for teaching you something when they beat you, encouraging you to come back with a vengeance! When it comes down to it, if we didn't lose, we wouldn't play. I think it's the thrill of trying to overcome that possibility -- that deathly possibility -- of a loss that gets a lot of us going. You've got to be gritty. You've got to have thick skin. You've got to fight on! No ifs ands or buts. Get back up, figure out what you did wrong, learn, and fuel up for your next battle.
- My analysis has become more objective. This is very important in over-the-board play. It's so easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment and play to the whims of our heart's desire. Don't (usually)! Yes, there is much intuition in chess, but there is also science. Let that balance remain. Rigorously check all lines. That's why you have so much time in a standard chess game! You've got to use your clock (and, as mentioned above, especially your opponent's!) to deeply inspect your candidate moves, and to genuinely search for best moves for your oppponent. I think this may be especially useful for classs players: Often, I believe that games are won by anticipating the best moves of your opponent. This will help you to not only avoid enemy counterplay through that timely prophylactic move (which is utterly frustrating for the opponent who is pushed back down every time he/she tries to get up), but also will help you to create more accurate lines in your analysis tree (i.e., more accurate moves for both sides of a line, not just the ones you want to play irrespective of the possibilities of that foe across the board trying to crush you) which will ultimately lead you, through the process of elimination, to (more often) select the correct candidate move. Also, there have been many times where I've strayed from my initial idea because I was attracted to some new idea, then went with the new idea and lost. Thus, I have developed a dictum for myself: Don't make a new move unless you have proven to yourself that it's better than the "blitz" move. In other words, the "blitz" move is your intuitive move (see, intuition still plays a role here). The second you start searching and want to play something "novel" or "cool," you must do the proper analysis to ensure that it's better than the standard-looking candidate move you'd probably play in a blitz game (that is, simple chess, which is usually best). Long games can lead to great moves, but they can also get us into self-destructive trouble! But by maintaining a clear head, and almost approaching the analysis of your moves like a computer (though we can never match them in this arena of brute calculation), you're much more likely to make strong moves consistently. I've heard World Champion Magnus Carlsen describe how he'll sometimes spend a lot of time just confirming his analysis, even though he already essentially knows what he wants to do.
- I don't fear higher rated players. I view them as opportunities to gain additional experience and rating points. They are a challenge. But they aren't insurmountable. No one is. In fact, you have the psychological advantage playing against them -- you're much more likely to bring your best game against them than they are against you. (Honestly, how much effort do you spend when playing against an opponent with a rating 300 points below your own? Probably not enough, and I'm just saying it to demonstrate the point, but don't fall into that trap! Put all your effort into every single game!). If you lose it's normal, if you draw you win, and if you win it's awesome. I sometimes like to use the Opening Explorer function to look at how, say, a 2300 beats up on a 2000 or how a 2600 beats up on a 2300. So let's say you're up against a 2300. Imagine how they'd lose to a 2600 or a computer. You've seen how it can happen. They're not rated 2900 for a reason! It's all about mindset; if you have the right mindset your mind can do amazing things. Like crush them. Here's the key: Never just play "solid" against strong players and hope that you'll draw. This likely means you'll be playing passively and actually exposing yourself to attack, in many cases, or at least reducing the pressure enough to grant the initiative and allow them to puruse the plan of their choice...which is bad. Try to outplay them and crush them like you were teaching a lesson to a much lower rated player. Invert. They're still dangerous; everyone is. You must always be vigilant. But don't grant them god-like status, either. They're beholden to the same laws of chess and psychology as everyone. A strong attack on your part, or one mistake on theirs, can lead their position to crumble by force, regardless of their rating or title. As with every game, always look for and try to create opportunities, then pounce. When it comes down to it, you're just two people playing chess. So play chess.
- I supercharged my calculation ability. I never really focused too much on this before. I was more interested in positional play, and from doing a few problems each week and competing regularly in tournaments I figured I was "good enough" in this arena. But of course there's nothing like missing a win over-the-board. Through the honest self-assessment that I talked about earlier (I did a lot of that, too, as my blogs detail, and it helped a lot), I realized that I needed to work on my tactics/calculation. So I studied a bunch of really challenging tactics from Combination Challenge! and started taking advantage of Chess.com's Tactics Trainer to train for the World Open. It must have helped, because I knocked off two IMs there. I like to talk about a marriage of tactical and positional play -- the two are inextricably linked, and mastery of both is essential.
- I began to focus more on the move and obsessed less about the end result. Of course I knew I wanted to and needed to win; I always do. Who doesn't? This is useful insofar as it fuels our passion, drive, and irrepressible will to win. These are very important things. But when it comes down to it, at least for me, I've found that simply focusing on the move before me and giving my all to make the very best move I possibly can every single move works extremely well. (Note: I literally have a note saved on my phone with a few lessons I've compiled, including focusing on making the best move every move, that I now refer to before every single game to remind me of those lessons so that I can internalize them and incorporate them into every game, effectively training me to avoid my own weaknesses. Try it!) In addition, I borrowed two pieces of advice from two books I've recently thumbed at: First, Jonathan Rowson, in The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, describes playing in "plus over equals mode." That is, being content with a small yet (ideally) enduring advantage (trust me, your opponent won't be very content with it!). That's how Capablanca won many of his games in such instructive fashion; he nursed those tiny edges beautifully, and tactics often flowed from the superior positions that resulted. So it's less about needing some crazy attack all the time and often it's more about patiently outmaneuvering your opponent. If your opponent gives you an opportunity, take it. But if not, just grind 'em down. Magnus has shown us how to do this a myriad of times (but of course he has also chalked up many a tactical brilliancy)! More recently, I picked up How Karpov Wins by Edmar Mednis, which I've had sitting around forever but never opened. Mednis does an analysis of all of Karpov's games to determine the patterns that have led to his long, consistent record of chess success (which for Karpov, in more traditional fashion, basically means win with white, draw with black) at the top level of the game. One of the things that he notices Karpov does is to trade into an endgame when it promises him some chances of winning and virtually no chances of loss, instead of staying in an uncertain middlegame where the odds are more mixed. I used this approach to score several nice endgame wins recently in my run-up to the 2200 mark. While dynamic, aggressive, attacking chess has its place and is a lot of fun, a more sober approach to the game, when appropriate, can also bring about excellent results. The key is to keep your eyes open and be ready to jump at any opportunity that may give you some winning chances. It may mean hyper-aggressive play that results in a tiny edge and subsequently a grind...that's the wonder of chess, you just never know. And you've got to be ready for anything.
- I've stayed healthy. Exercise is essential for immunity, vitality, stamina, and hormonal balance. Karate as a child and wrestling as a teen taught me to be disciplined about physical fitness. I exercise rigorously several times a week (this is beginning to sound like the American Psycho intro, but hopefully not as hilariously creepy). I don't walk my dogs, I run them. Every opportunity for physical activity is important (we all know that nowadays, the notion is marketized via a wristwatch). I run up hills in my area, lift weights, and stretch. I eat healthy, with a plant and fish based diet. Make sure to get plenty of those veggies and nuts (lots of "healthy fats") and stay away from too much meat. And drink lots of water (regularly and during matches; gotta keep that brain hydrated). Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik has actually recommended eating dried fruits during matches as a relatively healthy source of sugar to power the brain (also, like a marathon runner, make sure to get plenty of healthy carbs beforehand, which will be utilized as energy as well). Kramnik then settles into his man-cave for a few days (read an interesting interview about his approach here). I try to keep a balanced lifestyle. You can't let chess take over your entire life! Balance is important for mental health, which is important for playing good chess consistently. Watch some comedies. Cultivate and maintain healthy relationships. Explore different areas of interest and gain knowledge in new fields of art, science, etc. Try out an instrument. Volunteer in the community (I look forward to doing a lot more of that this year). Get into nature. Do what you enjoy. While these things ought to help your chess, they're also parts of living life, which will be there whether or not you achieve your chess goals!
- I love the game. Don't forget why you're in this in the first place. I love chess. You love chess. We all love chess. Respect your opponent, shake hands, relax, delve in, give it your best effort and have fun. Fischer put it best yourself: "You can only get good at chess if you love the game."
Thanks for reading. I hope you found the lessons I've learned thus far in my chess journey useful. My next goal is, of course, to finish what I started and get the FM title, then to see what happens from there.
What has worked for you in your quest to become master (or the next level, whether you're there now or still on your way)? What frustrations have you had? What's working and what's not?
* Since I played in more FIDE rated tournaments during my gap year, when I was at my peak, the fact that my FIDE (max. around 2230) was about 100 points higher than my USCF, which looks pretty unusual at first sight, makes more sense in context.