Photo by Vanessa Sun
A little background. After being stuck in the 2300-2370 USCF range for over a year, in June, I managed to break through by getting an IM Norm at the NY International. A solid performance at the World Open and a tie for first at the US Cadet (U16 Championship) put me above 2400 USCF and back to 2300 FIDE…
Then it all went downhill. Two disastrous back-to-back tournaments in August cost me a huge amount of rating, not to mention confidence, and put me back on the other side of the hump I had just crossed. I played two tournaments in September. The first was fairly good, the second was fairly bad.
And then it happened. I scored a GM norm. Yes, GM as in “great mystery”. I have no idea how I got a 2603.7 FIDE performance and tied for first at the Washington Chess Congress (October 5th-10th), but I’d like to walk you through it, and maybe we’ll find the magic potion.
There I was, going to play a 9-rounder. The highest realistic goal I had was to get my second IM Norm, but let’s face it, I was just trying to get a good solid result to reverse the downward trend.
I started the tournament barely in the top half. I got white in the first round against a significantly lower rated player. There were some tactical mishaps, but I prevailed.
In round 2, I got black against IM Prasanna Rao (2466 FIDE) from India. I thought that a draw would be a good result. It was a rock solid affair. He didn’t get any real advantage from the opening, and I never let him get anything real going. We agreed to a draw in an equal position after move 40.
So far so good. In round 3, I got to play against Wesley Wang (2076 FIDE, 2239 USCF), down for the last time in the tournament. I played him before with reversed colors and we drew. This time I had white, and I was looking to win.
That was a disappointment. I had white against a lower rated player, got a winning position after 19 moves, and couldn’t finish him off. At least I didn’t lose though.
The next round was the next day at 7 pm. The pairings were up in the morning, and I found out I was black against the 2nd seed, GM Denis Kadric (2594 FIDE).
So what to do in that situation? Just walk away! I don’t know about you, but I went to see that National Archives (sorry, pictures weren’t allowed inside). The weak American colonies being victorious over the powerful British Empire must have worked as subconscious motivation!
After I got back, I prepared for a while. Kadric does not always play theory and even opened some games with 1.d3. I’m not joking, he did it against some GMs. However, I didn’t expect he’d play something that offbeat on move 1. All I have to say is that my prep ended on move 2! Spoiler: This was a repeating theme throughout the tournament.
That was a boost! It was strange that I beat someone 500 FIDE points higher with black than I had drawn in the previous round, but I took it. Things were looking good.
In round 5, I got to play another GM, Danny Raznikov (2531 FIDE) as white. A draw would not be a bad result, right? Well, I was really surprised how nicely the game developed. It was a Najdorf that went wrong for him, and I got a powerful bind.
Whoa, how did that happen? I was actually tied for first with 4/5. IM Norm time?
The next round brought me back down to Earth. I got black against GM Julio Sadorra (2573 FIDE). I made some inaccuracies past move 15 which turned out to be pretty serious. I got a position which on the surface seemed slightly worse but holdable, but in reality it was terrible for me. White just had a huge advantage which he converted into a full point.
Okay, that was an awful game from me, but the tournament was still going fantastic. I started looking into the numbers. It turned out I had had a GM Norm performance going into the previous round! Anyway, if I played strong enough opponents, as it happened, 1 out of 3 would be enough for an IM Norm.
The next round, they gave me a double black against Praveen Balakrishnan (2458 FIDE). This was NOT the first time we played. I lost three games to him a long time ago, and then we played three times this summer. I won the first one with a lot of luck; I was clearly worse practically the entire game with white and was probably lost when he messed up. This was followed by two losses with black in the same line in the French. Okay, I had some improvements there, black should be fine… but I had lost two games there, I needed a change of scenery. A solid draw would be a reasonable result, right? Well, the game was far from solid, and it was not a draw.
That was a fun game. Now, there were 2 rounds to go, and it was time to crunch the numbers. The bottom line was that 0/2 would be enough for an IM Norm if I played an average of 2456 FIDE or higher, which was likely but not guaranteed. A draw would basically secure an IM Norm.
Then, there was the seemingly hypothetical shot for a GM Norm. I’d need 1.5 or 2/2, most likely against two GMs, to get it.
Before round eight, the pairings at the top were a mess. When the dust settled, I was white against GM David Berczes (2478 FIDE). We played once before in the Philadelphia Open this year with reversed colors, and he beat me fairly convincingly.
Going into the game, I didn’t know if I should play for a draw to secure an IM Norm or for a win to try to get a GM Norm. I decided to let the game progress naturally and see which result to play for.
The game was an offbeat line of the Ruy Lopez which morphed into a Benoni structure. I was a bit biased, probably from nerves, thinking I was doing great positionally speaking (as almost ALWAYS happens in the Benoni). Then, he surprised me by sacrificing a piece for two pawns, taking advantage of the fact that my queenside was undeveloped. I played some bad moves and drifted into a lost position. The only thing which was on my side was his time, or to be more precise, the lack thereof…
Luck, luck, luck. I guess that’s a mandatory part of every norm. My IM Norm was firmly secured!
It soon became fairly clear what would happen with the pairings. I was tied for first with GM Gil Poliski and IM Ruifeng Li. Because Popilski and Ruifeng already played, I’d get to play Popilski as white. Yes, I would be playing on board 1 in the last round of a major tournament. A draw would be enough for a GM Norm. No stopping when I was so close.
Another factor to take into account was that Ruifeng needed a draw for his final GM Norm. It was unlikely he’d press hard for a win. I thought Popilski would likely play for a win to try and get clear first.
I played a fairly harmless but solid line against his Scandinavian. I drifted into a position which was probably a tiny bit worse for me, but nothing convincing for him. I managed to restore the balance, and he offered a draw in a position which was equal, without too much for either side to do. I accepted immediately!
And so I got my GM Norm and tied for first. Ruifeng also drew and became the current youngest American GM. Huge congratulations. GMs Stukopin and Sadorra both won to join the tie for first. Praveen Balakrishnan, whom I played in round 7, won his last two games and managed to get his last IM Norm, so big congratulations to him too.
How did I do it? I still wake up in the morning and wonder if it really happened. The best explanation I can offer is this:
My guide to getting IM/GM Norms (based on a strong statistical sample of 2):
- Get white against a significantly lower rated player in round 1, and win a low-quality game.
- Draw round 2 as black against an IM (suffering is allowed).
- Blow a winning position in round 3 as white and draw it.
- Beat a foreign IM/GM with black in round 4.
- Win against the same opponent, preferably someone you have a pathetic score against, in round 7.
- Lose to all Filipino GMs you play.
- Have at least 3 games where you prepare for something extensively, and your opponent doesn’t play it. In at least one of those games your prep should end on move 2 (or earlier #1.g4). Your prep ending on move 3 in another game is also a good sign.
- Get lucky!