Daniel Johnston on How He Went from 2100 to Master

On Wednesday, February 15, something special (if arbitrary) happened:

My rating of 2205 was published, officially bestowing on me the title of National Master. That’s me below, enjoying the cake the Community Chess Club of Rochester got for me – thanks, Mike Lionti!

johnston

It was a good moment. I first crossed 2100 in late 2014, though I believe I was probably somewhat overrated at the time. Despite a lot of hard work, I remained in the low 2100s (save for a brief spike early last year). It wasn’t until this past fall that my play finally started to show some serious signs of improvement.

On October 1st, I won the local Arkport Open, ahead of a 2300 and several other masters. Since that time, my play has been different in character in several ways. Maybe the momentum of winning that tournament helped, or it just happened to be the time when my work began to bear fruit. After all, we all know that progress in chess is often far from linear.

Either way, here are the main things that are different about my game, and how I went about incorporating them. Of course, I would not want anyone to think I am some great chess authority now just because I have a certificate! Actually it hasn’t come in the mail yet 🙂 But I take my relative success as a sign I’ve been doing some things right.

1. Made Fewer Blunders

This was huge for me. While knowing elaborate positional and endgame concepts is certainly essential, high rated players simply blunder far less.

Somehow, despite tactics always having been my strength, all through 2016 I was giving away games with simple mistakes. Here’s a typical example.

Luckily, I had my coach, GM Eugene Perelshteyn, to help me. In order to avoid blunders, he advised me to: Not get into time pressure, make sure to look for your opponent’s threats, double-check before you move, don’t calculate too deep, and trust your intuition.

All of this seems like simple advice. Of course I’ve heard this a million times. Practically following it is a different matter, and something I’m working on.

In addition to this, I think solving tactics puzzles and playing blitz and bullet online has also made me less likely to make mistakes. In the past I would go on a binge and study tactics for many hours over the course of a few days or a week, and then not at all for long periods. Practicing on ChessTempo for a consistent half hour each day has made a big difference.

2. Avoided Time Pressure

The biggest cause of my blunders, and consequently of my lost games, was time pressure. To illustrate this point, at the 2016 World Open I lost five games solely due to mismanagement of the clock. All of those games I otherwise should’ve drawn or won.

This has been an ongoing problem for me for some time. I worked hard at tackling this in late 2015. However, then I basically just played faster, without changing my thought process. While that yielded me success against some experts, it was not a good strategy against masters.

Playing online blitz was very helpful in getting me to change my decision-making process. It allowed me to get used to making fast decisions and to be confident in them.

Bolstering my opening knowledge was also crucial. Making decisions is a lot easier if you know what you’re supposed to be doing in the structure. If you blitz out the first fifteen or twenty moves, you’re much less likely to run into time trouble.

3. Corrected My Thought Process

This, however, was the biggest factor in me not getting low on the clock. It was also the most important for not making other mistakes.

Computer Scientists will be familiar with the concept of depth-first vs. breadth-first search. In depth-first, you go as deep as possible into your search tree. In breadth-first, you instead prioritize checking a lot of different possibilities.

In my calculation, I used to be in the habit of depth-first search. I would look at one line, and then calculate it five or six moves deep. I would do this before even looking at any other moves.

This was a big time suck, because I would take a significant amount of time to calculate a long line only to realize I missed something on the second move. Or not realize, and end up blundering.

Why was I doing this? I suspect part of the reason was because I simply enjoyed calculating long lines. As soon as I identified the problem, however, I realized that I had to be practical and stop doing this. A chess player should look at potential first, second, and maybe third moves. Only calculate deeper if there’s something forcing.

Correcting this habit has allowed me to save copious amounts of time on the clock, and make far better moves. It also gave me more time to double-check and make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Chances are that not many of you have this exact same problem. I would’ve had trouble figuring out this error in my thinking on my own. That’s why having a coach can come in very handy and help you spot what your specific weaknesses are.

4. Improved My Openings

At the 2016 Chicago Open, I did decently with white, scoring 3/4. With black, however, my results were less impressive. I lost all five games.

My openings were not up to scratch. To prepare for the tournament, I had been studying a lot of positional concepts from games of Capablanca and Karpov. In modern chess, though, you really need to know what you’re doing in the first stage of the game.

Not only was I not well-prepared, but I was playing the Grünfeld. This sharp system doesn’t really have a big margin for error. I thought I would be okay because my knowledge had proved sufficient for my local club. What’s necessary to succeed at a serious tournament, however, is a separate matter entirely.

After such a harrowing experience, I considered abandoning the Grünfeld in favor of something safer, such as the Nimzo. Since I already knew some of the Grünfeld, I decided to stick with it.

I went through Grandmaster games from The Week in Chess where the Grünfeld had occurred. I formulated lines with black (again with the help of my coach). Now I have a giant database that contains most of what I need to know.

I’ve taken to printing all my lines out and reviewing them on a chess board for a half hour a day. I still need to learn the lines better, and there are some big gaps in my white repertoire. But now my opening knowledge is at least good enough to compete. As I mentioned earlier, knowing the opening well also helps me not fall into time pressure.

5. Trusted My Intuition

This is something I’ve only made modest gains in. Knowing when and how to trust your intuition is something that comes with experience. I think playing shorter time controls has helped.

Many of my big mistakes have come after my intuition told me the correct move. I would calculate it, see something I didn’t like, and then make a poor move instead. This has been a little bit better since I’ve improved my calculation and am seeing more.

I think a big part of the problem was being afraid to take risks, to play original and dynamic chess. Maybe it’s partially a result of losing so many games due to the mistakes mentioned above. Reading the Judit Polgar trilogy has helped me to be more comfortable playing with imbalances. I recommend it for anyone wanting to improve their dynamics and attacking chess.

Being more relaxed during games has assisted me in being able to better listen to my intuition. In psychology there’s a theory known as optimal arousal, which posits that the best mental state to be in is not too loose, but not too tense, either. As sportsmen it’s our job to steer ourselves into that healthy medium.

My coach recently told me an important rule: I should always pay special attention to the first move that comes into my head. I’ll see where following that advice brings me.

I’ve been happy to find I now have the ability to compete at a level previously unattainable (though my ability to make bad mistakes has not gone away as of yet). Here is a game I played against IM Raven Sturt at the Marshall Club in January. Using the skills I outlined above, I was able to outplay my opponent in the opening/middlegame and achieve a pawn-up endgame.
Becoming a master gave me a feeling of accomplishment, but it also brought relief. Finally, I can stop worrying about an arbitrary number and instead put that focus into continuing to learn more about chess! Hopefully this is just the beginning of my adventure on the sixty-four squares. And best of luck on your own journey, to master and beyond.

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