Making The Next Step
Well... the big goal has been accomplished. Just under 5 years of tournament play (about 190 games) has finally earned me the National Master title.
A couple weeks have passed now. I've spent these weeks taking a bit of a break from studying. I've still played every day, but that's it. While I was chasing the title, I hardly played at all. I spent hours every day studying endgame theory and tactics.
But now it's time to think about the next step. First off, I'm taking a long break from tournament play. The highest title you can get with a Canadian rating is National Master, and I've got it. Getting FIDE titles in Canada is next to impossible, and my FIDE rating is so low that it's not really feasible to aim for my FM or IM title - it would take too long. At any rate, I have a lot of non chess stuff to catch up on for a little bit. Sooo... there is nothing more to be gained from playing in weekenders down in the Toronto area.
So again I ask, what now? Well, there is one other way to get your FM/IM title. You can earn it by scoring 50% in a Zonal tournament (technically part of the world championship cycle). It seems like a cheap way to get the FM title, but it's probably the only realistic chance I have. So that's my next goal: get 4.5/9 in the Canadian Closed, and instantly become an FM.
Okay, so that's the goal... how am I going to get there? I have about a year to train, which is good news. The other really great thing is that I've been performing at an FM level (at least) in most of my tournaments this year, so I feel like I'm already pretty close... The bad news is that pretty close to half the people at the Canadian Closed (the zonal) next year are going to be IM's or GM's. Even though my performances lately have been exceptional, most of my games have been against 2100 and 2200 players, and several of my wins came from dead drawn endgames where my opponent collapsed inexplicably (in fact, looking back at my last 10 wins... 8 or 9 of them were just completely equal endgames where my opponent blew it)... I don't think IM's and/or GM's are likely going to be as generous... and I'm going to have to score at least a point or two against these monsters if I hope to get that FM title.
So here's what I'm thinking: My endgame study has obviously paid off in dividends, and I think I know enough to hold my own even against GM's in the most common endgames. I'm sure there are some technical endgames I don't fully understand, but I know enough positions to be able to work out the more likely endgames OTB.
My middlegame play has never been a serious problem, at least in terms of tactical play and calculation. Sometimes in positions I'm very familiar with, I tend to move a little bit too quickly, and might miss opportunities, but I'm not too worried about it... I really only do that against much lower rated players.
However! In the games that I've lost recently, I noticed a trend... in my past 15 games, I've lost 3... one to an FM, one to an IM, and one to a GM. In all those games, I ended up in a position I was not at all familiar with out of the opening. The GM played a Zukertort opening and it was the first time I ever faced an opening like that... I ended up in a worse endgame (objectively lost actually) and wasn't able to put up much of a fight at all. The IM played the Benoni, and I was crushed in 20 moves. The FM played a Hedgehog type structure, and I overpressed and was punished for it (typical hedgehog).
So I think it's time for me to go back to my old passion: Opening theory.
As black, my repertoire is very complete. I have a very solid system and a more aggressive system against both e4 and d4, and English/Reti players haven't taken even a single point off me since I broke 2000, so I'm not too worried there...
The problem is white. I've literally played 1. e4, d4, Nf3, and c4 almost interchangably ever since I broke 2000. I'm almost 2300 now, and I can't get away with playing openings I have almost no experience in.
So I believe that to become an FM at the Canadian Closed next year, I need to pick a first move and spend the next year playing it exclusively, and learning it inside and out.
1. e4 was my baby when I first started playing chess. I have the most experience here, but there are a few things I don't like about it. The biggest thing I don't like is the Sicilian, especially the Najdorf. There aren't too many 'risk free' positions in the Najdorf. The simple fact is that you can lose very quickly, even with the white pieces, in the Sicilian Najdorf. Obviously, I could play some sort of anti-sicilian... but that feels like taking a step backwards.
1. d4 - I like d4 because you can better control your opponent's counterplay. Quite often (even without knowing the exact theory) you can work out a way OTB to get either the 2 bishops or a little bit of a space advantage. The problem is if black gets ambitious. If you want to get anything against the ultra-theoretical Semi-Slav or Grunfeld, you need to know a lot of theory... which I'd be willing to learn... except even with all that theory it seems to me like black is doing fine. To make matters worse, a lot of the top players in Canada use one of those two defences against 1. d4
1. Nf3 or c4 - I consider these two basically the same, as if I start with one, I usually play the other on the next move. I don't like my lack of experience here. What I do like is that I can avoid the Grunfeld (sort of).
So what I'm thinking... is that I should probably take that last option and try to learn the little intricacies of it. As a relatively inexperienced chess player (some of those guys have 40+ years... I have 5), I might be able to balance the scales by spending the next year or so building up as much experience as I possibly can in the English. I won't be one of those players who insists on playing pure english lines no matter what... I will be willing to transpose into d4 lines if favourable... but I think playing this way will enable to me utilize both transpositional possibilities and recent experience to either get a true advantage, or at least get a position I'm comfortable in, out of the opening.
I'm prepared to accept that black equalizes against e4 and d4 a few different ways (Petroff, Najdorf, Caro Kann, Berlin... Grunfeld, Semi Slav, QGD, a6 Slav, etc...), so I might as well forget about spending all kinds of time studying theory there and just learn something a tiny bit less popular that still has a bit of sting.
So... My English project starts today.
Ps: I had no idea what I was going to decide while I was writing this blog lol