2150 in (Eight Plus) Two Years!

Good morning, everyone! First, a quick note about me: I’m a rising third-year math student at Carnegie Mellon University. At most of my chess tournaments, I can be found in my Federer hat and walking around the playing area when it’s not my move. I’ve played the bulk of my chess since starting college (and met Isaac when he came to Pittsburgh a year later).

First meeting with Isaac over the board.

For my first post here, I’d like to discuss how my unconventional chess background led to the perspectives that guide my approach to the game.


Most strong players around my age (i.e. within 2-3 years) established some history of formal study and serious competition experience, and were naturally pretty good in the years leading up to their peak. This was not the case for me.

However, in the last two years I’ve been able to focus extensively on:

  • fundamentals: Consistently applying seemingly basic principles is a hugely underrated aspect of amateur chess, even among strong players. It’s often overlooked in favor of more specialized knowledge or simplified to mantras like “don’t hang pieces.” In a way, my relatively modest background forced me to master this on my own, since I couldn’t rely on theoretical knowledge to get me through games.
  • learning from mistakes: Since I’ve started annotating all my games, I’ve been good about internalizing lessons from tough experiences (especially since I can’t stand not knowing what I do wrong). I think most players are capable of identifying mistakes, but don’t always address them effectively. Being able to do pays off very well in the long run.
  • mental: Being able to swindle two strong masters from dire positions in this weekend’s World Open G/10 Championship was one good indicator of improvement for me, considering a year ago I’d have been shaking in my shoes when up material on anyone rated 2000+ (fear of blunders). Mental strength comes in many different forms, and we need them all.


2006 – 2009

I played my first tournament when I was 10 (probably a year or two after learning how to play) and played 15-20 local tournaments over the next few years. However, Indiana often faces a shortage of strong younger players due to its relatively low population and availability of tournaments, as well as the pressure on most kids to shift to other (usually academic) pursuits by middle school. I spent most of 2006-2009 in the 500-1200 bubble, as a typical squirmy kid who played too quickly.

I liked reading Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess TacticsWinning Chess Strategies, and Winning Chess Openings over and over again (this is how I knew 1-3 main lines of every major opening pretty well, as well as a few iconic games, but not much else until recently). I also had a coach, an interesting Class A player and son of the master who popularized 2. Qh5?!. Even though his weird openings held little interest for me, his enthusiasm (I think he charged $5/hour) was a big influence on my interest in chess.

Still, I was no exception to the middle school exit tradition. However, in 7th grade, rated 1125 at the 2009 scholastic championship (my last tournament before I stopped playing regularly), I narrowly missed a win against a rising 1700 player and notched a 1500+ performance overall. It was a nice indicator of my future potential and thus ensured I’d at least keep chess in my peripheral vision.

2010 – 2013

This is probably a good time to clarify the title. I’ve always taken online blitz seriously enough for it to be useful (to practice fast calculation, intuition, etc.), and after 2009 I certainly kept an interest in chess and played online a lot (I also kept up my habit of rereading those chess books, at least when I was really bored). When I started playing regularly again, my performance ratings were consistently at least 1800.

However, I only played in four tournaments from 2010 to 2013, which isn’t ideal for demonstrating a lot of improvement in case of slips. The most heartbreaking example:

Li (1323) – Cooklev (2162)

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 03.54.59
Position after 9. dxe5

This messy position, reached from the Ruy Lopez Schliemann after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 f5!? 4. Nc3 fxe4 5. Nxe4 Nf6 6. Qe2 d5 7. Nxf6+ gxf6 8. d4 Bg7 9. dxe5, is one of the last positions in which I’d expect someone to hold their own against an opponent rated 800 points higher. Somehow I managed to do that, but shortly after I declined my opponent’s draw offer, I blundered a queen to a bishop pin. The loss kind of ruined the mood for me and I lost to a 937-rated player next round.

To summarize, I’m definitely proud of going from 1332 to 2100+ in two years, but it’s not quite as impressive as it sounds. Just wanted to provide the full context.

Overconfidence and Forgetting Fundamentals

I was remarkably consistent in my first year of regular competition. In my first year of playing in Pittsburgh, I only lost to two players rated under 2000. I broke expert myself in August 2015, and planned to work on consistency under pressure against higher-rated players.

Unfortunately, I was still relatively inexperienced and being 2000, I started to believe in my own spontaneous ideas a little too much. This led to some inexplicable practical decisions that went against my whole approach to playing soundly. One, from the 2016 US Amateur Team East, was particularly disastrous (it would have been really funny if I wasn’t the victim, too):

Dewelde (1922) – Li (2058)

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 04.33.44
Position after 1. d4 Nf6 2. Bg5 Ne4 3. Bf4 c5 4. f3 Nf6 5. d5.


Somehow, I was afraid that if I played 5…d6, we’d go into a Benoni, so I played 5…b5?? which happens to be the second-worst move that doesn’t immediately lose material, after 5…c4. There was absolutely no objective reason (e.g. basic development principles) to choose 5…b5. Just for laughs, after 6. e4 Qa5+ 7. Qd2 Qxd2+ 8. Nxd2 a6 9. c4 b4 10. e5 Ng8 we reached:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 04.40.06
Anyone want to be Black here?

To make matters even worse, my 1800-rated teammate was upset by a 1200, so we ended up tying the match despite out-rating the other team by quite a bit. So much punishment for one move, but I guess 5…b5?? was bad enough to deserve it.

Mental Edge: Balancing Overconfidence and Underconfidence

This is also something I’ll explain more in a later post, but I wanted to share an example of the old fearful days. For the examples from the World Open G/10, I’ve written a little bit here.

At the 2015 Pennsylvania State Championship, I was shocked in the first round by a 1527-rated veteran but fought back to 3/4 going into the last round against Peter Minear of Eastern PA with a chance to catch 2nd place.

Li (2029) – Minear (2327)

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 04.58.38


Frustrated with a rare lack of counterplay in the Kings Indian, Black fatally weakened b6 and now 26. Qf2! Qb8 27. Ba7 Qc7 28. Bb6 won the Exchange and a pawn. Despite having plenty of time to boot, I basically only considered safe-looking moves and missed at least two immediate wins before ironically blundering back the Exchange into a losing endgame. The fact that I never considered moves that would have put away the game faster goes to show that there wasn’t a good balance between being careful and being confident in good moves.

Thanks for reading my long and tortuous self-introduction. It’s great to be a part of the Chess^Summit relaunch, and I am looking forward to sharing more in my future posts here!


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