From occasional Indiana scholastics to Pittsburgh regulars to big Philly tournaments, it’s hard to believe what has happened since I first sat at the board. Nearly 11 years later, I’ve won my 359th rated game, pushing me over 2200 USCF for the National Master title!*
* As always, a slight technicality. My rating is officially 2200 (having gone through the weekly rerate) but the National Master certificate takes a little longer.
Surprisingly, the key turned out to be a rapid, strong start to the 2017 season, rather than the slow and steady progress I had imagined. In particular, unusually strong performances at the Liberty Bell Open and the Pittsburgh Open proved critical to my run. More generally, I was better able to stay consistent over a longer stretch, as well as improve my performance against higher-rated players.
That streak set up the critical game, which I won on April 2 against a fellow expert at the last meeting of the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Chess League.
In this topical Closed Sicilian position, White’s kingside is poised to support a strong attack, but until castling, the fragile f4-g3 chain demands some attention. In particular, 9. Nf3?! Nh5 is very awkward for White.
9. Nge2 Nh5?!
This natural-looking move, anticipating favorable trades on f4, runs into a surprising tactical refutation.
Black goes for the critical try, taking his chances with the loose knight on h5. The only plausible alternative was to admit the mistake with 10…Nf6, but after 11. g4, White has gained two free tempi for a big advantage.
11. exf5 Nd4 12. O-O!?
This might be a little flashier than necessary, but does guarantee White two pieces for a rook, minus a pawn or two. The simpler option was 12. g4, which might continue 12…Nxe2 13. Nxe2 Nf4 14. Bxf4 exf4 15. O-O Bxb2 16. Rb1 Be5 17. Nf4.
Although this might be a bit more balanced, with more space and the stronger bishop I’d prefer White here.
12…Nxf5 13. Rxf5 Bxf5 14. g4
I was getting back a piece anyway, but in such an open position, Black should go out of the way to keep the bishop pair. After 14…Bg6 15. gxh5 Bxh5, White’s chances on the kingside are less clear.
15. hxg4 Nf6 16. Ng3 Qd7 17. Bf3
The computer prefers the immediate 17. Nf5, but this leaves open the possibility of g4-g5, and besides, there’s no need to rush in this position. That’s another consequence of Black’s erroneous trade at move 14 – White’s pieces are much better in the short and long term.
17…Kh8 18. g5
This loses more material by force, but it’s difficult to suggest moves for Black at this point; if the Nf6 moves, White simply moves in with Bg4-f5 and Qh5.
19. Bf2 Rg8
The point; if the Nf6 moves, then 20. Bg4 Qh4 21. Nge4 traps the queen.
20. Bg2 Qh4 21. gxf6 Bxf6 22. Qf3, Black resigned.
White now has a whopping three pieces for the rook. While Black has three pawns to compensate, White’s powerful knights, bishop pair, and the unfortunate position of Black’s queen make them largely irrelevant.
So Black resigned, and with the win, I squeaked past 2200 for the first time.
I must admit that the actual moment didn’t feel so exciting, because it was largely a natural consequence of my progress in early 2017. Since I broke 2100 (almost exactly a year before this game) and began thinking seriously about the NM title, I’ve realized that being rated 2200 instead of 2190 or even 2150 would not make me a drastically different player. That said, after several missed opportunities on high-profile occasions (e.g. last rounds of the US Amateur Team East and Pittsburgh Open), it was nice to be back in a familiar place to simply play chess without all the distractions. And as someone with more of a “one game at a time” mentality, it’s amazing to truly look back for the first time and see how far I’ve come.
A more interesting question is what I’ll be pursuing in the future. I don’t have a clear answer for this, as it’s no secret that progressing beyond 2200 is much more difficult and less intuitive compared to lower levels; even by amateur standards, I am far from a perfect player! Nevertheless, National Master is probably the single most iconic achievement in American amateur chess, partially because of the rather steep path to FIDE titles, the natural next steps (even the FIDE Master title is roughly equivalent to 2400 USCF, well above my likely capabilities in the near future!). As a student with a busy non-chess life ahead of me, the prospect of anything resembling full-time chess (e.g. eventual Grandmaster title) seems rather unlikely.
Nevertheless, given how much I love the game, National Master is by no means the end of my chess pursuits, and I have every intention of continuing as circumstances allow. I believe it’s time to make progress on some more specific goals that have taken a backseat to pursuing NM but are nonetheless important for the future.
- Develop a strong opening repertoire. This wasn’t a critical component of my rise to NM, but now that I’ve earned the title, I have no excuse for putting this off. Reliable opening strategy (especially as Black) has been a long time coming, and consistently reaching solid and familiar positions will help me learn more from other phases of the game.
- Progress deeper into the 2200s USCF. This largely indicates “fitting in” with the master crowd, and will likely involve improving my consistency over tough but lower-rated players (experts) and holding my own against higher-rated players (even IMs!). At least, I don’t want to be that guy who barely broke 2200 once and dropped back to 2100 within a year 🙂
- Improve my FIDE rating. Through all this excitement, my FIDE rating was left more than 300 points behind, at 1889. Granted, this is largely due to having played in only 2 FIDE events, but the point stands. Goals #2 and #3 mean I’ll probably be a little more selective about tournaments in the future.
- Knock off a few firsts. Gaining the right five points can make one oddly confident, but this goal has more to do with drawing an International Master for the first time in February. Perhaps it’s time to toy with the idea of defeating a IM/GM (or similar) once in a while?!
Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who has played a part in this journey, from my friends at college and back home, to the many members of the chess community who’ve made my chess experience richer. That starts with those closest to me, my family, for being there from the beginning – even my sister, who has always refused to play me without queen-and-rook(s) odds.
Another well-deserved shoutout is for a great player and friend, Isaac Steincamp, for training with me, splitting room costs at tournaments, bringing me onto Chess^Summit, and more. Isaac is clearly on the rise in Europe, so you can probably expect to read some good news from him soon. And of course, thanks to my fellow Chess^Summit contributors for your work: I continue to learn not only from my experiences, but from yours as well!
I’d also like to thank Bernard Parham II, who coached me for a few of my scholastic years (and remains my only coach to date). As one of the chief practitioners of the Matrix System and openings like 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5?!, he is perhaps one of the stranger faces of Indiana chess. Admittedly, I’m still amazed that it works for him (he’s a strong Class A player), but it’s impossible to deny his approach is innovative, and he did coach me from 600 to 1300. Even years later, it’s hard to find players with his enthusiasm for exposing the interesting side of chess, which was important for keeping me in the game as a 10-year old kid.
It’s an amazing feeling to finally cross 2200, and I’m excited to see where I can take it from here!