National Master: The Fun Never Ends


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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 3.23.22 AM

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.

10. f5!

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 3.34.17 AM


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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 3.39.44 AM

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 3.41.22 AM


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

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 3.44.22 AM


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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 3.46.09 AM

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!

Making Bullet Chess a Little More Productive

Deciding to tackle weaknesses in various chess areas is a matter of determining what they are, how important they are, and what specifically needs to be improved within those areas.

As I transitioned to playing stronger competition, it became more and more clear that openings were definitely a problem for me. I was advised of this somewhat bluntly by a certain training partner of mine, whose coach initially advised him to go for endings against me before realizing my openings were also rather weak. It also became increasingly common for me to get into:

  • System-like openings (Torre, Hedgehog, etc.) in which I was surprisingly clueless with plans in the resulting middlegames
  • More theoretical lines of openings I had decided to play regularly but hadn’t studied sufficiently
  • Games in which I would get outplayed in the opening, but miraculously unwind in the middlegame

While I did score some quick wins in some special lines (e.g. Closed Sicilian traps), I eventually realized my overall opening knowledge lacked a lot of depth compared to players at my level and above. The next question was whether this was actually a big deal, as I had nonetheless been improving rapidly (to just under 2200) and often got myself out of early jams.

Given the trend of my results this year and my proximity to 2200, it is conceivable that I could make National Master without any major changes. However, for me satisfaction comes from not merely being able to finish games, but understanding what I’m playing. To maximize, it would be helpful to improve both consistency (more reliably applying my primary openings) and versatility (developing several reasonable choices for different situations) in openings.

I’ve recently been experimenting with a more incremental approach than most players are used to. In the past, I have proven to be notoriously bad at acquiring opening knowledge in bulk (due to my unremarkable memory, lack of patience, and lack of discipline in setting goals on what I want to learn). And although I don’t know this compares to other players, I suspect that I play online bullet slightly more than I should.

When bad habits arise in chess, two ways to improve are to 1) get rid of them, and 2) channel them into something good. As an attempt at #2, my numerous bullet games are a part (not the only one – for later discussion!) of a means to choose openings to learn about: going through an arbitrary selection of games (ignoring ridiculous ones such as the ones that begin with 1. e4 g5), using opening databases, other resources on hand, and perhaps a sample game or two to learn a little bit about particular lines each time. The process is relatively simple, but also:

  • (very) incremental: This is obviously not a formula for producing quick results. Just being able to apply knowledge is already a long-term endeavor.
  • memory-based: Bullet can also serve as validation of earlier knowledge as later games provide many quick opportunities to test memory of earlier learned lines and basic plans. Of course, blindly memorizing opening lines is a bit of a taboo in the chess improvement establishment. However, this is not really intended as a standalone process, as it is also…
  • meant to be used in conjunction with OTB games: I’ve generally learned effectively from simply playing and analyzing tournament games. However, given how long games can run and how little control I have over the opening choices, it’s not reliable to use only these games in the same way I’ve described.

Hopefully though, one day I’ll be able to gauge the results of this exercise!

What methods do you use to study openings?

From Worst Tournament to Best Tournament Ever

With the exception of one Ohio chess club’s monthly Saturday Swiss, the 2017 Pittsburgh Open (held from March 3-5) is my best tournament to date. Although I missed a chance to make master by the narrowest of margins, my 3/5 score in the Open section was good for a 2368 performance rating and even a USCF Life Master norm.

Of course, the score doesn’t tell the whole story, as you’ve heard from us too many times.

I wasn’t in the best mood before the tournament, largely due to a long and draining weekend at the US Amateur East followed by some rather uninspired play in the Pittsburgh Chess League, which cost my team an important match and erased a few weeks’ worth of rating gains for me. Due to Friday afternoon commitments, I opted for the 2-day schedule, hoping to compensate for the shorter first two rounds by playing lower-rated opponents. Instead, I booked a first round with someone slightly more familiar.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 12.38.06 PM
Xu – Li: after 17. Ne4

In this rather standard Classical Caro-Kann tabiya, White is gearing up for g2-g4 on the kingside and Black needs a worthy counter. Both 17…Rad8 (threatening a timely …c6-c5) and 17…b5!? are reasonable choices, but I hastily tried to trade some pieces with 17…Nxe4?! 18. Qxe4 Nf6 19. Qe2 and instead of the more or less forced 19…c5 (allowing White a strong attack after 20. g4), I went passive with 19…Kh8? 20. Ne5.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 12.46.51 PM
Xu – Li: after 20. Ne5

The wasted tempi allowed White to reroute his queen to e2 and thus post a knight on e5, threatening all sorts of Bf4, g2-g4, etc. It was too late for 20…c5? 21. Bf4 Bd6 22. dxc5! Bxe5 (22…Qxc5?? 23. Rxd6) 23. Qxe5 Qxe5 24. Bxe5 Ne4 and White can simply keep the extra pawn with 25. Bd4 (25…e5 26. Rh4) or as in the game, play 25. Rh4 Nxc5 26. b4 Na4 27. Rd7 and with all my pieces offside, Grant won the ending easily.

Things turned around next round, but only on paper. Against NM Ben Johnson of the Perpetual Chess Podcast, a promising Closed Sicilian went very wrong as early as move 15 and Black was +5 until the inevitable time scramble. Suddenly Ben flagged and I was horrified to discover that I had accidentally set the clock to 60 minutes and 10 seconds instead of G/60 with 10 second delay (clearly I need more experience with the DGT North American).

We called on a TD for clarification, but these situations are almost always irreversible so long as the gameplay and equipment function correctly. To my credit, I was up a pawn in the final position, but I couldn’t help thinking Black would have consolidated more smoothly if we had played with the delay and thus had more time earlier.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 1.12.51 PM
Li – Johnson: after 19…Rd8. Anyone want to be White here?

If nothing else, the game was apparently sufficient to steer me into shape for the rest of the tournament. The start of the long time control (40/100 SD/30) was a good opportunity to put the first two rounds aside (and set my clock correctly…) for a fresh start as we merged with the 3-day schedule. I caught a bit of a break against a young 2356-rated master from Upstate New York, in what turned out to be a surprisingly quick and painless hold.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.55.43 PM
Paciorkowski – Li: after 6…Na6

Isaac has given me plenty of practice against 7. g3, which is probably White’s best chance for an edge. The idea is to let Black double the c-pawns via …Nxc5-e4-xc3 in exchange for more active development. Instead, White settled for the tame 7. Bd2 which simplified to 7…Nxc5 8. a3 Bxc3 9. Bxc3 Nce4 10. e3 Nxc3 11. Qxc3 Qc7 12. Be2 b6 13. O-O. But with White lacking any active plans and uncomfortably placed on the c-file, I thought I might have some chances to pressure with 13…d5.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 10.15.17 PM
Paciorkowski – Li: after 13…d5

However, after 14. Rac1 Ba6 15. b3 Rac8 16. Qb2 I had exhausted most of my options. The game petered out to a symmetric knight and pawns ending and we drew soon after that. I was happy with the result, given how the first two rounds went and that Paciorkowski was my second-best draw to date. However, I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much since I hadn’t really been tested in the opening.

I ended up crashing in a friend’s hotel room that night because the blitz tournament had run late and getting back to my apartment would have taken too long. The next morning, I woke up from the couch to find myself paired against NM Jeff Quirke, who doesn’t play many major events but has been very strong in the Pittsburgh Chess League. A major opening gamble paid off perfectly, leading me to a surprising 15-move win.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 10.35.51 PM
Li – Quirke: after 6…d5

I ventured 7. f5!? which is uncommon but quite strong in my opinion. It wasn’t the soundest of decisions because I was basically committing to a piece sacrifice after 7…d4 or 7…b4 (as played in the game), which I knew were good but I hadn’t actually studied the continuations and trusted myself to find them over the board. Another option for Black is 7…exf5 but White has more space, more active pieces, and better center control after 8. Nxd5.

Indeed, Black spent 40 minutes before settling on 7…b4 (7…d4 is probably better; not really less safe, and gives Black a bit more space to shuffle around), forcing me to prove myself after 8. fxe6! bxc3 9. exf7+ Kxf7. And now I had to start thinking a bit, but I figured 10. bxc3 couldn’t possibly be good, so I settled on the only other reasonable choice, 10. Nf3.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.15.06 PM
Li – Quirke: after 10. Nf3

Being my materialistic self (not a good combination with a knight sacrifice, I know!), I started worrying about Black consolidating with, say, …cxb2 and …d4. The short answer is that Black should not consider giving White an extra tempo to castle, play, Ng5 or Ne5, etc. The long answer is a bunch of vicious forcing lines that end badly for Black. Indeed, I felt much better when I walked around the table to look at the game from Black’s perspective!

Nevertheless, in my haste I answered 10…Nf6? with 11. Ng5+?! (instead of the obvious and strong 11. e5), which wasn’t a game-changing mistake but nonetheless led to 11…Kg8 12. e5 when after 12…h6! White needs to play a little creatively to maintain the attack. For example, 13. exf6 hxg5 14. fxg7?? Bxg7 is simply losing as White has to deal with Black’s threat of …cxb2 and my king is not really safer than Black’s.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.29.40 PM
Li – Quirke: example of White’s attack fizzling out

However, facing a bit of time pressure (14 minutes left!) Black blundered with 12…Ne8??.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.42.07 PM
Li – Quirke: after 12…Ne8

The game abruptly ended after 13. O-O (13. Qf3! actually wins on the spot, but I missed 13…Qd7 14. e6!13…cxb2 14. Qf3! Qe7 15. Qxd5+ with mate to follow. As an added bonus, I once again had a chance at National Master (and to a lesser extent, the U2300 prize) if I could win the last round. How quickly everything had changed since Saturday morning!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite meant to be, even with a stroke of luck that gave me another White, this time against FM Arvind Jayaraman of Ohio.. I didn’t completely squander the opportunity; I successfully defended against a positional Exchange sacrifice and had a chance to win at the end, but succumbed to a perpetual in time trouble.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.23.21 AM
Li – Jayaraman: after 12…f5

Until I give up the Closed Sicilian, I guess I can never get enough practice with these positions. Simply playing fxe5 followed by Bh6 is always an option, but I should have considered exf5 in conjunction with that to solve the problem of White’s light-squared bishop. While Black will trade off White’s dark-squared bishop, his e-pawn will be weak on an open file, and his bishops not particularly useful compared to White’s on g2.

The game continuation, while not fatal by any means, does make the g2-bishop look a little silly.

13. fxe5 dxe5 14. Bh6 Bxf3! 15. Bxf3 f4 16. Bxg7 Kxg7 17. gxf4

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.38.16 AM
Li – Jayaraman: after 17. gxf4

It took me a while to settle on this, mostly because I thought Black might like 17…exf4. In reality, Black will find it difficult to make progress on the kingside as the pawn storm is rather risky for Black as well. So understandably the game continued with 17…Rxf4 which was a bit uncomfortable, but certainly better than waiting for …fxg3. While White’s bishop isn’t exactly the best piece on the board, it seemed the Black’s weak e5 pawn and weak d5 square could prove to be good compensation.

However, the course of the game changed dramatically after 18. Bg2 g5 19. Qe3 Ng6 20. Qg3 h6 21. Nd5 Raf8!?

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.44.51 AM
Li – Jayaraman: after 21…Raf8

My opponent told me later that he sacrificed the Exchange “for fun.” While I can’t personally imagine using that as a reason, he wasn’t wildly incorrect; Stockfish seems to think the sacrifice is relatively sound (though not better than, say, 21…Rxf2 which is probably still a bit better for Black) and it was pretty annoying to untangle from the sacrifice. Though at least I was able to insert 22. Bh3 Qf7 first, and after 23. Nxf4 exf4 24. Qg4 Ne5 25. Qd1 Rd8 reached this position:

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.53.45 AM
Li – Jayaraman: after 25…Rd8

I definitely fancied untangling with an eventual d2-d4, but with such an annoying position and only 17 minutes to make time control, I wasn’t keen on giving back any material. Unfortunately, after 26. b3 b5 27. c3 Ndc6 28. Rd2 a5 29. d4 I simply overlooked 29…cxd4 30. cxd4 Nxd4 when 31. Rxd4 just loses to 31…Qa7. To be fair, I’m not sure I had a much better choice on move 29, because Black was going to clamp down with …b4 anyway. Nevertheless, I was still a bit rattled, especially since I was low on time. But after 31. Kh1 I realized the position was actually getting a bit dangerous for Black, who has to deal with potential pins on the d-file and a1-h8 diagonal.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 1.01.39 AM
Li – Jayaraman: after 31. Kh1

After the forced 31…Nec6 I had 32. Bg2, suddenly threatening e4-e5 which is rather uncomfortable for Black. 32…Qa7 as played in the game is probably most natural (not 32…Qf6? 33. e5!). However it is important to note that White is not actually threatening anything yet (in particular, e4-e5 is met strongly by …f3!) Though Black was starting to get low on time as well, and after 33. Qa1 hastily played 33…Kf6? forcing 34. e5+! Nxe5 35. Rfd1 f3.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 1.12.54 AM
Li – Jayaraman: after 35…f3

At this point I had 4 minutes to make time control, but I just couldn’t calculate anything in the moment. For example, 36. Bf1 is completely winning, and rather painlessly, e.g. 36…Nec6 37. Bxb5. Unfortunately, time went by very quickly and I settled on 36. Rxd4? fxg2+ 37. Kxg2 Qb7+ 38. Kf2 (38. Kf1?? Qh1+ wins!) 38…Qf3+ and White can’t avoid the perpetual.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 1.24.37 AM
Li – Jayaraman: 38…Qf3+

Naturally, this brought my final rating to 2196 and, yes, I missed the U2300 prize by half a point (nonetheless, I did earn a nonzero amount of money in the mixed doubles with the help of my friend Megan, who tied for 3rd in the U1800 despite being the 2nd lowest seed!).

However, I definitely can’t be disappointed with the outcome; turning around a rough start with a great comeback (rare for me) is definitely encouraging. And one can always use a bit more of that when trying to break master. As for the near future, I’ll likely be playing at the Marshall Chess Club for the first time next weekend, and hope to bring back some good news in two weeks!

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!


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.

A Wildly Average USATE

Against my expectations, I was able to make the US Amateur Team East for the third (!) year in a row, and like David, saw a rare opportunity to push for some of the winner glory, with CMU fielding Grant Xu (2396), me (2136), Ryan Christianson (2059), and Alex Hallenbeck (2027) for an average January rating of 2154.5. Also, I had worked my way to 2180 through early February, so I was definitely pushing for master, and the tournament served as an important test of how I could handle that mentally.


There was no contest for the highlight of the event as we pulled off a huge upset in Round 5 and I drew an International Master for the first time.

Ryan and Beilin in Round 5 (photo by Vanessa Sun)

Our opponents were GM Eric Hansen and IM Aman Hambleton of Chessbrah fame, followed by an expert and a 1600 on the bottom boards. Their top-heavy strategy put a lot of pressure on the GM and IM to clean up, although it seemed to mostly work as I was the only one to score against either of them. On the other hand, it seemed like we would have to win the bottom two boards to stay alive in the match.

Alex delivered an early win on Board 4, while Grant looked to have a good Alapin against Hansen, but fell for an early tactic that left him in a positional bind for the rest of the game. Against Hambleton, I ended up on the Black side of the closed Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian for the first time. I was really nervous because I was playing an IM and had no idea how theoretical that line was, but I played it solidly, stayed even throughout the game, and we agreed to a draw on move 29 to close out my third encounter against an IM/GM. See the full game here!

At 1.5/3, this left the match in the hands of Ryan, who had struggled against some lower-rated players, but nevertheless defeated his expert opponent easily. For the first time, CMU was 4.5/5 going into the last round, and tied for 2nd with a legitimate shot at winning. With my unexpected draw, I also had a great chance to make master if I could win my last game.

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get the ending we hoped for as Grant, Ryan, and I were simply crushed by IM Justin Sarkar and young experts Eddy Tian and Nico Chasin in the last round. To his credit, Alex easily beat his young expert opponent on Board 4, but it’s hard to win the match when your teammates are all lost by move 20.

Nevertheless, our score of 4.5/6 was good enough for Top College and Top Pennsylvania team (the second was later removed due to duplicate prize policies). And after three long days, I had gained one (!) rating point. I had mixed feelings about this; the result was disappointing given what I did in Round 5 and the chance I had after that, but on the other hand, 2180 is around the point where many National Master contenders collapse, and I avoided that for the most part.

In hindsight though, it was kind of a fitting result for some interesting moments earlier in the tournament.

Round 1: Lucky Misses

We played down in Round 1, and the outcome of the match was never really in doubt. But at the time, I felt like my game was a lot more chaotic than it needed to be. My 1850-rated opponent quickly ended up on the wrong side of the 4. Nc3 Advance Caro-Kann:

Weinstein – Li: after 11…Nc6

I made some mistakes and tried to simplify too early. Eventually, I bailed:

Weinstein – Liafter 18. Be3

Thinking I’d at least grab a pawn for my troubles (great logic, right?), I ventured 18…Bc5 19. Qa4+ Kf8 20. O-O-O Bxe3+ 21. fxe3 Qxe3+ 22. Kb1 Nf6, but White won his pawn back with 23. Qb4+ Qc5 24. Qxb7:

Weinstein – Li: after 24. Qxb7

Black’s king is actually safe now, but it’s not easy to find a way to break through the kingside. White gave me an opportunity a few moves later, but that’s where the misses started. While I was better (or winning) throughout the sequence, it was a little disconcerting to have missed some of White’s moves, lest one of them be a spoiler!

Weinstein – Li: after 27. Ne4

I thought I calculated through everything, and went ahead with 27…Nxe4! After the forced 28. Qxf3 Qxc2+ 29. Ka1 Rb8 30. Rb1 Nd2 I missed 31. Qf4, gaining time by attacking the rook on b8. Same thing after 31…Rb7 32. Qh2. Again, neither move actually saved White, but I was a little nervous at having missed both of them.

I faced the final test after 32…Nb3+ 33. Ka2 Nd2 (a repetition to get closer to move 40) 34. Ka1 Nb3+ 35. Ka2 Qc4! 36. Rbd1 Nd2+ 37. Ka1.


It took me 18 of my remaining 19 minutes to find 37…Rxb2! and it’s mate in 3 (not including the Qb8+ intermezzo) because Black threatens to mate on a2 and 38. Kxb2 Qb3+ mates next move. Evidently I don’t do any tactics puzzles.

After the hiccups (if only mentally), that was over and our team followed suit, winning 4-0.

Round 2: Another Miss or a Blessing in Disguise?

Seeded 40th out of about 300 teams, we weren’t expecting to play up so early. Alas, pairings (accelerated, maybe?) are pairings, and we were paired against the 3rd seed team of IM Dean Ippolito, NM Eric Most, and a 2100 and 2000. Grant drew Ippolito comfortably, Ryan’s opponent offered a draw in a slightly better isolated queen pawn position, and Alex and I looked to be winning our games. Unfortunately, neither of us could convert our wins and we drew the match 2-2.

One could reasonably make the case that this saved us from some future obstacles, as it set us up for our remarkable Round 5 win and it was the only half point we gave up before the last round. But it was really hard for me to not be disappointed at my own game.

Li – Most: after 20…Qg5

The opening wasn’t great, but my opponent thought he would just trade queens en route to destroying my queenside. I was very happy to find 21. Nf4!, threatening Nxe6 and exploiting the loose knight on c4. The game continued 21…Nxf4 22. gxf4 Qf6 23. cxb4 Qxd4? (23…Ba6 put up a lot more resistance) 24. Rd1 Qxb2 25. Qxc4, leaving me up a piece for two pawns.

From there, it was a series of rash yet timid simplifications on my part. I eventually bailed into an ending, which admittedly wasn’t the easiest to win, though with an hour more on the clock, I should have done way better.

Li – Most: after 39. Nxb2

And after Black tried to break up the e- and f-pawns, I got a passed d-pawn:

Li – Most: 45…Bd7

The simplest route seemed to be 46. Nc6! forcing 46…Bxc6 (otherwise, 46…a6 47. Bh3+ g4 48. Bxg4+ Kxg4 49. Ne5+) 47. dxc6 Ke6. And I naively assumed that: 1) I had to deal with the a-pawn before anything else, and 2) the bishop would hold the kingside pawns easily. One issue at play is that White has the wrong-colored bishop should I end up with only the h-pawn.

I was very, very wrong on both points. If the king is away, the kingside pawns are not nobodies, as I found out the hard way. And while the a-pawn is a bit of a nuisance, White can simply tie Black’s king to the passed c-pawn while marching the king over to the kingside. White may end up with only the h-pawn left, but if calculated correctly, White should have enough time to take Black’s pawns and prevent Black from reaching the h8 corner. For example, 48. Bd5! Kd6 49. Ke4 a5 50. Kf5 a4 51. Kxg5 a3 and White takes the f7 and h7 pawns while Black is distracted with c6.

But after 48. Kd4 Kd6 49. Kc4? f5 50. Kb5?? g4 it’s a dead draw:

Li – Most: after 50…g4

I played this out for completeness, but Black’s pawns are too fast by one tempo: 51. h3 h5 52. hxg4 hxg4 53. Ka6 Kc7 54. Kxa7 f4 55. Be4 (otherwise 55…f3 wins!) 55…f3 56. Ka6 f2 57. Bg2 f1=Q and we wrapped up the game at 12:30 am.

Round 3: Durkin’s Folly

We went back to playing down for two rounds, this time against a team of kids each rated around 1500. I’m embarrassed to say that this was more interesting that it should have been, but…

On Board 3, Ryan tried the Durkin Attack (1. Na3) because the tournament was giving out prizes to the best games in a few openings, which included the Vienna, the King’s and Queen’s Gambits, and the Durkin Attack. Ryan’s game started with 1. Na3 e6 2. Nc4 d5 3. Ne5 f6 (later, we decided that 2. c4 followed by Nc2 was a better plan). Meanwhile, I had ruined a good position by miscalculating a tactic and had to trade into a microscopically worse rook ending with seemingly no winning chances. It seemed that we were going to have to resort to the bare-minimum 2.5-1.5 win against a team we outrated by 600 points.

Mak – Li: after 16…Na5 =+

But things turned really hairy later, when White tried a last-ditch h-pawn storm on the kingside:

Mak – Li: after 28. h5

I immediately played 28…Qa2?, which I thought was forcing 29. Rb4 (which he did play). Apparently, 30. Qd1! is good for White, because 30…Qa5 31. b6! threatens Ra1 trapping the queen, and 30…Qa4 31. Ra1 wins the a7-pawn with a winning advantage.

Be that as it may, the game continued 29. Rb4 Be7 30. h6 Rg8?! 31. hxg7+ Rxg7 32. Be5 f6 33. Qxe6, and I made my pre-planned escape with 33…Rxc3 34. Rxc3 Qa1+.

Mak – Li: after 34…Qa1+

Although this is not an easy find, 35. Rb1!! likely wins after 35…Qxb1+ 36. Kh2 (White threatening Rc8+ and Bxf6) and 35…Qxc3 36. Bxf6. Even disregarding that, 35. Kh2 Qxc3 36. Bd6 (I missed this!) forced 36…Bxd6 37. Qxd6 Qc7 and we reached this ending:

Mak – Liafter 38…Rxc7

Somehow, I managed to win this ending as Black. That wasn’t very nice of me, but a win is a win. That happened in several monumental steps. First, White immediately played 39. b6, which led to trading his d-pawn for my f-pawn.

Mak – Li: after 41…Rxd4

Now Black has a passed pawn. White should still draw this without trouble. In fact, I think I could lose this as Black if I was careless enough. Though, White played f4, let me activate my king, and traded his f-pawn for my h-pawn.

Mak – Li: after 47…Kxf4

Now Black’s king is somehow active. I didn’t see that coming from the beginning position, to be honest. Nevertheless, White’s king is very near and with the rook behind the Black pawn and king, it’s still a dead draw. In fact, this is a draw even without White’s g-pawn.

Mak – Li: after 52…Rh2

This might look a little scary, but in fact White is still fine. Even without the g-pawn, this is the famous Philidor position. The next position isn’t so easy for White though:

Mak – Li: after 56…Rh8

And White finally cracked with 57. Rg1?? (57. Rf2 was necessary, to jump to the back ranks for some annoying checks). And after 57…Kd4 58. Rf1 Ra2+ 59. Kd1 Kc3 60. Rg1 Ra2 61. Ke1 Ra1+ he resigned.

This clinched the match with 3 points, but Ryan was still losing against his 1500-rated opponent with the Durkin. However, his opponent offered him a draw in a likely winning ending, so it was a 3.5-0.5 match. One wouldn’t exactly have guessed that from the positions earlier in our games.

Round 4: Finally Clean Sweep

In our last match leading up to our Round 5 upset, we played down once more, but got the job done 4-0. For once, my game didn’t make me completely nervous. I’ll leave it at this:

Li – Gindi: after 14…g6

I switched gears slightly with 15. Qh2!? and it’s actually pretty awkward for Black to defend the c6 and d6 pawns (best is probably the counterattacking 15…b4). Instead, Black tried 15…Qb6 16. Nde2 c5? 17. g5! Nh5 18. Nd5 which wins at least a pawn.

And that’s how you work your way to drawing an International Master!

The Chess^Summit Picture That Wasn’t

With DavidGrantVanessa, and Vishal (and some former guest authors to boot) all at the tournament, it was kind of expected that we’d get some unifying picture of us all. Unfortunately, with one round left, Vanessa insisted on trying to find Vishal first, which didn’t materialize. That left us with a few individual pictures of us, all taken by Vanessa:

Vanessa with David Brodsky
Vanessa with Beilin
Grant playing IM Sarkar in Round 6

Maybe next year!

Free Game Analysis: Taming the Benko Gambit

With Isaac still slugging it out in Austria, I’ll be doing the Free Game Analysis for the first time. As always, if you’d like your game(s) covered, drop us an email at and we’ll be happy to cover your game in one of our future posts!

Today’s game is from Adam Collier, a 9th grader from Western Pennsylvania who just picked up an impressive 100 rating points from the Pennsylvania G/75 U1600 Championship to reach 1254, losing just one game. Overall, he played well against a much higher-rated opponent, focusing on a lot of the right things, but his opponent did well to create complications a pawn-down and turn the tables in some critical moments. Consolidating a material advantage is a very underemphasized part of chess, so there’s a lot for any player to learn from games like these.

Adam provided annotations, so I’ve included some of those below with my own comments. Enjoy!

Adam Collier (1153) – Evan Unmann (1498)

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5


Adam: I’ve never played against this before, but I know the ideas.

4. cxb5 a6

Adam: I don’t think taking the pawn here is that good.

Beilin: Taking the pawn is actually the main line of the Benko. Of course, Black has some open lines and development, but it’s not clear that it’s worth a pawn (for what it’s worth, the Benko is probably viewed somewhat skeptically at high level). If White is not that comfortable with the open Benko stuff, 4. Nf3 (instead of 4. cxb5) is a solid way to decline.

5. Nc3 d6

Beilin: After 5. Nc3?! axb5 6. Nxb5, White’s basically down a tempo on many of the 5. bxa6 positions, since Black can kick the knight with tempo with 6…Ba6 or 6…Qa5+; note White can’t play e4. Instead, the game move 5…d6? just allows 6. e4 with a big advantage for White.

6. e4

Adam: I thought about Qb3 or Qa4 here but when I play b6 after Qb3 my pawn is pretty weak, and after Qa4, Bd7 is really good, so I decided to play normal.

Beilin: “Normal” is a good mindset when up a pawn, e.g. play naturally, develop normally, cover weak points, etc. 6. e4 is simple and strong; Qb3 and Qa4 are risky and unnecessary.

6…g6 7. Nf3 Bg7 8. Be2 O-O 9. O-O axb5 10. Bxb5

Adam: considered Nxb5, but I think my Bishop is better there

Beilin: Even more importantly, Nxb5 just hangs the e4 pawn. Fortunately, White played the right move here, but a lot can change in one move – so it’s always important to pay attention to these basic things.

10…Ba6 11. Bxa6 Nxa6

Adam: considered a3, but the Knight on b4 doesn’t really have any good squares after that (good point -Beilin)

12. Bf4 Nh5


Adam: he thought about that move for a pretty long time

13. Bg5 Qd7 14. Qd2 Rab8

Adam: completing development and wanting to play Bh6

15. Rab1

Adam: time situation here is 1:02-1:02



16. Nd1

Adam: considered Ne2, but the Knight on d1 has both more and better squares to go to than the Knight placed on e2, AND it protects the pawn again, however it disconnects the rooks, but it’s a small price to pay in my opinion

Beilin: I think White is starting to go wrong here. A lot of players have a tendency to overreact to threats with overly passive moves, without considering the actual benefits and consequences. Here, 16. Nd1 doesn’t actually help White, since it allows the Bg7 to attack b2, cancelling out the knight’s “defense” of b2. And if the knight is tied down, disconnecting the rooks could become a more permanent problem.

So White would have done well to ask himself why (or why not) he had to move the knight and what Black was truly threatening. Note that Black is not actually going to win b2 in the near future; even if White plays 16. h3 and Black plays 16…Rfb8, he’s still safe (and something like b2-b3 is probably on the cards; a2 is a little weak, but Black has to shuffle around quite a bit to attack it.


after the hypothetical 16. h3 Rab8

16…Rab8 17. Bh6 Bh8 18. Ng5


Adam: aggression is key: also I considered b3 here, but it’s kinda passive.

Beilin: Here, we’re seeing a bit of the opposite problem (playing aggressive for the sake of playing aggressive). White’s clearly intending f4, but this runs into …Bd4+ ideas (typical of many Benko/Benoni games) and more importantly, leaves the bishop stranded on h6.


Adam: didn’t realize this move had a duel-purpose, I thought that he wanted to bring his Knight to e8-f6 or something, but it actually allows f6 here if he wants because he’s now defending the hole on e6 twice.

Beilin: Or (spoiler) …f5!

19. f4

Adam: again: aggression (time situation is 53-53)


Adam: good move I think

Beilin: Major problems await White after …fxe4 (e.g. d5 is falling). This line could have used some calculation!

20. Re1 fxe4 21. Rxe4


Adam: I considered Nxe4, but that seems kind of passive.

Beilin: Rxe4 is a big mistake, as 21…Nf6! threatens 22…Ng4 winning the trapped bishop on h6. Thus, White will have to cough up at least an Exchange (note 22. Re3 runs into 22…Bd4). After the (much) better 21. Nxe4, 21…Bd4+ followed by 22…Nxd5 wins a clear pawn with a dominating position.


Adam: I missed this move, but somehow this move only truly attacks the d5 pawn (which I actually overlooked in game), I actually thought I could move the rook, but it’s pinned to the other rook (kinda funny, you don’t see that often)

Beilin: Missing 21…Nf6 as mentioned above, and White now gets out of the jam with a nice tactic.

22. Ne3 (! – Beilin) Bd4 23. Qxd4 exd4 24. Nxf5 gxf5


25. Rxe7

Beilin: White is temporarily up two pawns – emphasis on “temporarily”, since almost every pawn on the board is on the verge of falling. 25. Rxe7 is the more ambitious of the two reasonable options (the other being 25. Rxd4) and as speed-checked with Stockfish, should work out – as long as White keeps the passed d-pawn under control. 25. Rxd4 peters out more simply, though both options should be calculated out in a real game (assuming reasonable time).

25…Nxd5 26. Rxb7 Rxb7

Adam: I considered a plethora of moves here including a4, Ne6, g3, and Rd1, but I went with [Re1].

Beilin: All 5 seem okay (for now), and would probably draw (assuming reasonable play by both sides).

27. Re1 Rb8 28. Nf3

Adam: This is too passive I think (I offered a draw here and he instantly declined).

Beilin: Remember it’s much more important to be correct than active/passive/etc. That said, going after the d-pawn is fine (as are several other moves).



29. g3

Adam: I don’t want him to take my f4 pawn (time situation is now 20-33)

Beilin: So I think White got a bit worried here because of the passed pawn, and because the a2, b2, and f4 pawns are falling. However, White is already up a pawn and is also on the way to winning the d-pawn(s).

The other possibility is that Black just takes on f4, but White will be able to round up the d-pawn (e.g. kick whichever knight defends d3 and possibly bring the king in) before Black is done taking his pawns. Specifically, after 29. Rd1, 29…Nhxf4 is at least met by 30. Bxf4 Nxf4 31. g3 (31. b3 might be even better) 31…Ne2+ 32. Kf2 Rxb2 33. Ke3 Rxa2 34. Rxd3 followed by picking up the d6 pawn.

29…Rxb2 30. Ng5

Adam: Threatening mate.

Beilin: Again, that shouldn’t be the primary concern here. Adam mentioned that he overlooked Black’s easy defenses of the mate threats, which of course mean White has basically wasted some tempi just to threaten mate while Black is carrying on his original threats. 30. Rd1 was probably best, but 30…Ne3 31. Rxd3 Rb1+ 32. Kf2 falls to 32…Ng4+ picking up a piece.

30…Nhf6 31. Rc1 Rc2 32. Rb1




Beilin: Given White’s upcoming tactical resource, one might wonder whether Black can stop the mate some other way and just promote the d-pawn. Indeed, after 32…Nc7! (blocking on e8 if necessary) White has to drop at least a piece (e.g. 33. Nf3 d2) to stop the d-pawn from queening.

33. Re1 N5f6 34. Re7 (!)

Adam: my last hope (also the time situation is now 9-27)

34…d2 35. Rg7+ Kf8 36. Rxd7+ Ke8 37. Rxd6 Rc1+ 38. Kg2 d1=Q 39. Rxd1 Rxd1


Beilin: The last few moves have all been forced, and White basically did all he could to get a playable endgame. However, in a 2 vs. 3 situation on the kingside (or even 1 vs. 2) Black should be able to win with the extra Exchange, especially given White’s misplaced pieces.

40. Bg7 Ng4 41. a4

Beilin: I think the last chance for White to put up resistance was 41. Nf3; with the game move Black should pick up the h2 and g3 (and a4) pawns.

41…Rd2+ 42. Kf3 (?? – Beilin)


Beilin: Hopefully White and Black have seen it by now, but 42…Rf2 is mate!

42…Nxh2+ 43. Ke3 Ra2

White stopped notating here and lost in time trouble, but as I mentioned earlier, Black should also pick up the g3 pawn, likely via …Nf1+ and …Ra3 if necessary.

In this game, White started well with solid plans to punish some questionable opening choices by his opponent, and was resourceful to the end of the game. However, in diagnosing White’s problems during the game, one aspect stands out in both the moves and Adam’s commentary – the focus on playing aggressive or passive moves. This brings me back to a point I made earlier that is much easier to state than to apply – one should focus on playing good moves, regardless of how active or defensive they look. Most of us would like to play more active moves, but if you play an “active” move when the position doesn’t demand it, you may be disappointed!

Some of the more “aggressive” moves White played created long-term problems (e.g. misplaced pieces) or met strong responses from the opponent that he didn’t see. So before considering the aesthetics of a particular move, it is more important to realize how the basic tactics work out and what your opponent can do. Having the right priorities when looking for moves will create a stronger framework for game decisions, and make you a better player.

Feelings on the Home Stretch

After a few detours, I’m finally closing the gap between myself and the National Master title. However, the pressure from the chess world does not get any easier at this point, so as a rare and temporary escape from all the complexity, I’m taking some time to reflect on the more subjective and personal side of this journey.

Even though I’m merely 20 points from master, I’m not oblivious to what it takes to make the final push. I wrote about some of the pitfalls for my second Chess^Summit post and received several humbling over-the-board lessons to that effect upon breaking 2150 for the first time. And Vishal, who is actually a bit closer than I am, has already sampled the NM roadblock after reaching 2197 a few weeks ago. Both of us have a chance at the US Amateur Team East in two weeks, but could take much longer than that!

Still, although I don’t make a lot of assumptions in the chess world, I believe very strongly that anyone who invests the time and energy and is good enough to reach a certain rating, will get there, whether that’s 1200 or 2200. A while ago, I decided that I would not force changes to my tournament habits for the sake of securing master safely, e.g. purposely withdraw from events early or seek weaker competition. Note that I am not branding these methods as unethical in any way; I just don’t think they are necessary, and they take away from an invaluable experience. I anticipate the moments leading up to master will be some of the most memorable.

I actually had a chance to finish the deed at last weekend’s Pennsylvania G/75 Championship, before taking my pre-planned half-bye. A few people were curious as to how I was feeling about being close to master; in general, the players around here look forward to seeing others (especially young players) succeed, which is nice. However, that sense of community has its limits. My third-round opponent (a 2373-rated FM) allowed me to relentlessly chase his queen out of the opening, and eventually, I had an opportunity to force a repetition. I knew I was still better (albeit dangerously) and a win would seal my 2200 rating, so I took the risk and eventually lost my way in a tactical minefield.

While disappointing, it’s nonetheless characteristic of my competition style, as I’ve always tried to fight for the best result possible while being realistic. A few people at the tournament thought I would have taken the guaranteed draw to bring myself to 2190, but the NM goal notwithstanding, I think I still would have pressed given a similar opportunity. In some sense, I see myself as creating a reputation, at least to myself.

Overall, I’ve done relatively well to carry on like usual; after all, psyching myself out is the quickest way to rule me out producing master-level play, and I have been competing well recently. However, I’m not the most patient person ever, and there’s a chance I may not play from March to September, so I’m definitely sensing a bit of urgency. Still, that won’t stop me from making the most of a big chance at the US Amateur Team East, where I’ll play Board 2 for one of CMU’s teams alongside fellow Chess^Summit author Grant.

Be sure to tune in next week, where I will likely unveil a mini-project designed to eventually get me up to speed on various theoretical chess topics!