On finally achieving the US National Master chess title at age 45: part 1
On December 18, 2015, I finally achieved the United States National Master chess title, at the relatively late age of 45 (I don’t have statistics, but I suspect the vast majority of chess players who reach National Master do so in their teens and twenties). I plan to eventually write about how I significantly improved my chess when I returned after a twenty-year break to start playing again ten years ago at age 35, and how I now teach and coach chess based on my experience in self-improvement. I will also write more about how I continue to work on self-improvement outside of chess.
For now, below is an interview that was published in the June 2016 issue of the Pittsburgh Chess Club publication, “En Passant”:
When did you learn chess? How old were you? Who taught you? What did you think or feel during that first experience?
I don’t actually remember a moment in my life when I didn’t know the basic rules of chess!
Here’s what I mean: my first life memories are from shortly before I was 3 years old (I remember celebrating my 3rd birthday), when I was already playing chess with my father. The story is that when I was 2 years old, the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match was happening and the result was that during the summer of 1972, my father and his grad school classmates decided to teach themselves chess. According to him, at some point I watched and deduced some of the movements, and he noticed my interest. I don’t remember any of that, but I remember that at some point he bought “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” (he may still have this in his library) and he led me through it after he had finished it himself. So that was my first chess book, and we did it before I was 4 years old, because life changed for me after my sister was born before I turned 4, and my father no longer had much attention for me for a while.
What I remember is simply the joy of seeing the geometry of the different piece movements fitting together. I was also extremely particular about setting up the board: I always wanted my Knights to face each other, and I still am, and at the beginning of every game, you will note that I always adjust my Knights accordingly.
What was the next big step in your chess life as a child?
After my father finished graduate school, he was very busy finding jobs, etc., and chess was put aside for a while, but finding chess sets lying around in school led me to find in the libraries some chess books written for children, and I enjoyed them very much. When I was 7, he found his first stable job in Morristown, New Jersey, so we moved yet again. We discovered that the Morris County Free Library had a huge chess book collection, and we started reading through it together. In the process, we finally realized that we had gotten some of the rules wrong when playing with each other at home!
I must have read through 30 or 40 chess books from that library between age 7 and 9 before we moved again. During that time, I had nobody to play with, because the one time in school recess I tried to play with a classmate who claimed he knew how to play, he captured my King after I overlooked a pin, and claimed victory, and would not listen to me when I said I could not make an illegal make and Kings cannot be captured! I did have one interesting experience with a chess computer.
I also started teaching my younger sister chess during this time period (at around age 4), because I had no one else to play with other than my father. And I lost every single game I played with my father, because he would not let me win; he would give me chances when I was losing, but never let me actually win!
How did you get into playing in chess tournaments?
First, my father had to learn that there was such a thing as chess tournaments for amateurs. This happened when he accidentally discovered a chess club.
Shortly before I turned 10, my parents and my sister and I were at the local community center (for a new job, my father had moved the family again, to Madison Heights, Michigan) when my father heard strange noises in the basement and wondered what was going on. He went down and came back up all excited. My sister and I went back down with him, and I still remember the thick cigar smoke and the men loudly banging on ticking chess clocks while swearing and trash-talking during blitz. My father and I joined the club and began playing in casual blitz as well as in unrated club tournaments.
Everyone said we should also join the Michigan Chess Association and the US Chess Federation and play in official rated tournaments. My father said “wait, we just paid for one membership and you want us to pay for two others already?“, but signed us up for MCA membership, so that we could get the newsletter and stay informed.
When was your first tournament? Do you remember what you felt when you won your first official game?
By summer, everyone was excited about the upcoming annual Michigan Open over Labor Day weekend, so we went, signed up with USCF, and played in our first USCF rated tournament, the under-1800 Reserve Section of the 1980 Michigan Open. I lost my first round game, but in the second round, I won a very long, 88-move game as White (I still have the original scoresheet and just looked over the game again) against a 1400-rated opponent. My opponent made the final blunder in an endgame, allowing me to trade into a King and Pawn ending I knew was a win. I took the opposition, won the Pawn Queening race, and knew how to win with a Queen against Knight Pawn.
It felt great to bounce back so quickly from a first round loss to winning my first tournament game. I ended up scoring 3.5⁄7.0 and winning a 2nd place Unrated trophy, while my father won the 1st place Unrated trophy. I achieved my first provisional rating of 1591, while his was 1574, lower than mine despite his higher score.
My father was so excited by our success that we continued playing in tournaments for a while.
What happened after your first tournament?
After our first tournament, my father and I were excited to continue playing. He decided to continue playing in the Reserve Section while I never played in the Reserve Section again after the first tournament, because unlike him, I was not in it for the prizes but for the challenge of playing against stronger opponents and getting better myself. I did well in the Open Section of my second tournament three months after my first, and my rating went up from 1591 to 1659, so that was exciting. I won no prize, while my father got what he wanted and won prizes for a fine performance in the Reserve Section. After this second tournament, everyone was taking note of my progress, and said I had talent. I didn’t think so highly of myself, because by then, I had met Ben Finegold, who was a year younger than me, but already much better than me in the tournament scene.
In January 1981, my father applied for a chess scholarship from the American Chess Foundation in order for fund some chess instruction for me, and we got funding for ten lessons in May from the winner of the 1980 Michigan Open, Master David Whitehouse.
Before the lessons even began, I had continued to do well in tournaments, beat my first Expert, and gotten my rating up to 1741.
I very much enjoyed the lessons, and still remember a great deal from them in retrospect. Mr. Whitehouse showed me some endgames, openings, and illustrative games of his, but most of all, gave me a tremendously useful book list, and I would even today recommend the study of many of the classics that he listed.
What was your first setback?
Unfortunately, despite the ten weeks of instruction, it turned out that I was stuck at a plateau for an entire year of tournament play, not having gone higher than 1765. In fact, during my second year of tournament play (age 11), I had my first loss against a lower-rated opponent, my first draw against a lower-rated opponent, and my first loss to an unrated opponent.
Meanwhile, my father himself had topped out at a rating of around 1774, I had finally beaten him at home (after which he never played a game of chess again for another 20 years), family life was in disarray as he looked for another job, and I was becoming a teenager and not getting along with my parents or my teachers in school. So my father let our USCF memberships expire, in July 1982, and my parents worried that I was too obsessed with chess (my mother never approved of it in the first place) and took away my chess set. I didn’t protest too much, because I had my own life problems at the time, plus had no idea how to continue to improve in chess. So that’s how I retired from chess at age 12. Life was in disarray for everyone, and I almost failed my classes in the fall during the 7th grade.
When did you return to chess after this setback?
Within the following year, some things had improved: my father had a new job lined up, and he renewed my lapsed USCF membership and gave me my chess set back. It was clear, though, that chess was only to be a hobby and he would not be supporting me in any substantial way. In 1983-1985, I concluded my chess career of my youth by playing two tournaments each of those years (during which my father had one more job change, the final one of his career, and we had moved a couple more times).
Through introspection, I did make a conscious effort to improve my play and broke through my 1700 plateau quickly during my return to chess at age 13, having missed age 12. I got up to 2050 when I was 15. All the while, though, I felt more and more that I still didn’t really understand chess, and Ben Finegold had long since made Master, and would drop out of high school to move to Europe for a professional chess career. I did still think enough about chess that I wrote my college application on how chess is simultaneously an art, sport, and science, and informed how I think about human endeavors.
Then chess ended for me for 20 years.
As your rating was rising, say after it past 1200, 1500, 1800, what types of thoughts did you have? Did you think you would one day become a Chess Master or Grandmaster? Can you share the emotions of reaching higher ratings?
In my youth, I never believed I was going to become a Master, and I never acted as though I wanted to give it a try.
I liked to play, hoped I was improving, but didn’t have the internal drive or family support to do anything really serious with chess. I didn’t really play that much chess as a youth: in 1980-1985, I played 16 rated tournaments, for a total of 83 rated games that took me from unrated to an initial rating of 1591 to a peak rating of 2050. Compare with my adult tournament career so far from 2005-2015, which consisted of 436 rated games: the vast majority of my chess playing has occurred in my adulthood, with rating range from 2057 up finally to 2201.
My plateau at age 11, during which I received no encouragement or support from anyone, made me pessimistic even when I recovered from it. To be honest, during the entire time I played from 1983-1985, I was afraid to have any serious expectations or goals. My own lack of confidence combined with my fear of family disapproval caused me to actually be relieved when I no longer had time for chess. In fact, I considered myself rather lucky to have made it to past 2000 and had a lingering fear that if I continued, I would just lose that.
What made you return to chess after a 20 year absence?
I did play a little bit of casual chess in my freshman year in college, but then never played a game again for 17 years, nor did I follow any chess world news during that time. Chess was dead to me during those years.
But in the early 2000s, a friend mentioned that there were strong free chess engines that were worth trying out. I was skeptical at first, because in my youth I could beat chess computers. But I started playing with some engines to see how much they had improved since my childhood. They were still not so strong, but were definitely much stronger!
I became very interested in whether the engines were strong enough to resolve some analytical questions I had about complicated games in my childhood in which I didn’t know if I played something correctly (in particular, some sacrifices). So my renewed interest in chess was not as a competitor but as an analyst. I started reading chess books again, and rejoining USCF, although not yet playing. In particular, around 2003, my life was changed when a chess book showed up in the public library, John Watson’s “Chess Strategy in Action”. I checked it out and it completely altered my perception of and understanding of chess.
Meanwhile, at this point in my life in my mid-30s, I was noticing small but clear signs of physical and mental decline (I had peaked in my 5K race speed) and thought to myself that I had unfinished business in my life, dreams I gave up or did not allow myself in childhood, that I should return to soon if I wanted to accomplish them at all before it was too late. One of those dreams was to actually see how well I can play chess if I committed to improvement, since I believed deep in my heart that I had stopped before reaching my full potential.
I discovered the existence of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in 2004, played a game of chess with my father while visiting him for Christmas, our first game in over 20 years, and in 2005, started playing in tournaments again.
What did you do to move your rating up? Did you study a lot? play a lot? What types of exercises did you do? Did you have chess boards set up at places in the house? Was there anything unique you could share that readers will enjoy knowing or reading?
In my youth, there were no chess engines or computers really worth using, so progress was much harder for someone like me who was on his own and did not have access to strong coaches (other than the ten free lessons I received at age 11). So, I initially just learned from playing blitz often at the club, playing in tournaments and reading books and magazines.
To break my 1700 plateau, I studied specific opening systems that had clear strategic goals for the middlegame. That made a huge difference moving forward because I was no longer playing just randomly, but with purpose. That worked to get me up to 2000+, but it was at that point when I realized that I was holding myself back by playing only these weird offbeat openings that I had studied. I had to go back to the classics in order to rebuild myself to go beyond 2000.
I had another plateau during my entire first year back to chess in adulthood, I was stuck at a plateau of the low 2000s and despaired of ever improving beyond my childhood level. I realized that I had to rebuild my chess understanding from scratch. I had never studied chess systematically before, had a really spotty understanding of every aspect of the game, from openings to middlegames to endgames. So in my second year back, in 2006, I started rebuilding myself, gradually transforming how I play. That paid off as I finally cracked 2100 and then 2150, during 2006 and 2007. It was not until I passed 2100 that for the first time in my life, I decided to set myself a goal of making Master!
The single most helpful tool to me in recent years has been analyzing my own games in detail with use of strong chess engines. I would say this is more important than anything else. Being confronted with reliable evidence of ideas or tactics that you missed (or your opponent missed) must be the single most useful tool for improvement available today that wasn’t available in the pre-computer era. In particular, computers make it easy to try “what if” by experimenting with different continuations, setups, and see how they measure up.
Were there times you were disappointed with yourself and thought about quitting? Were there other factors like friend, family, girlfriend who led you or tried to dissuade you to continue playing chess? Is there any story you would like to share on this topic?
I have often been disappointed in my chess play, but interestingly, never seriously thought about quitting except in one situation: I only thought about quitting once I came close to reaching Master and kept failing, which coincided chronologically with my meeting a young woman.
Every loss or draw that set me back as I approached 2200 had a tendency of making me feel like I didn’t have what it takes. And starting to date again in 2007 definitely began to take a toll on my chess, both because Abby actively opposed my chess activities at the time and because of my whole schedule and routine was disrupted, making tournament play difficult logistically. By the time we got married in 2009, I had basically quit chess, and I thought for good, and not willingly but as a concession. I periodically tried to come back and play, but always less well than I was capable, because of being rusty, unsupported, and tired. It wasn’t until the second half of 2015 that I was ready to try again to play the best I could, this time finally with complete emotional support from Abby, who had finally come to understand how much chess meant to me. I also canceled a lot of my usual activities in the second half of 2015 in order to focus my energy outside of work on chess, and all this paid off.
What is the single, most important factor a chess player must consider to move up his/her rating?
We all hit a plateau at some point, at which we are apparently making the same kinds of errors that stronger players are not making, so somehow we have to change the kinds of errors that we make.
I think the most powerful tool available is analysis of your own games. Each game you play has the fingerprints of your personal weaknesses all over it. Using a chess engine, and ideally a strong human guide who can explain concepts and variations that lie behind the engine’s numerical evaluations, you can learn to gradually remove errors. For example, if you lost an otherwise good game only because of one misconception during an endgame, avoiding that single error in the future could pay off in any number of similar situations. Or if you misplayed an opening, rebuilding your thought process that led to a strategic misunderstanding can help in all future games using that opening.
Have you been close to 2200 several times and then fell? (therefore postponing the Master level)? Can you give details of how you felt?
Yes, I have been close several times! In fact, a couple of times I had 2200 locked up, in the sense that if I had withdrawn from a tournament in progress, I would have guaranteed going over 2200 based on the wins I had already racked up in the tournament.
The first time was in the 2007 PA State Action Championship. I went in at 2171 and had won the first three rounds. In the fourth round, I had a totally won game against a Master and nerves got to me and I fell apart and lost. In the final round, I had a totally won game against an 1800 and fell apart and lost. This was my first experience of completely choking under the pressure of knowing I was very close to 2200.
Then in January 2008, I had a rating of 2197 from a Pittsburgh Chess League round. The thing you have to understand is that in January-February, I was simultaneously playing in the PCC Championship held on Tuesday nights, and had won my first three rounds by February, which meant that if I had withdrawn, I would have secured far more than the 3 rating points necessary to go over 2200. But I had never withdrawn from a tournament in my life, and didn’t want to achieve Master through calculated cowardice. So I played on. But I choked, and proceeded to draw the fourth game and lose the fifth. I continued to play worse as I got engaged to be married, and quit chess the year of my marriage in 2009.
I periodically came back in 2010-2012 but just played worse and worse, unforced errors. In 2013, I started recovering, and in 2014, I again almost made Master. At 2195, I choked, losing a won game against a much lower-rated player while a Rook up! All I needed was to win that game to make Master. And I kept on choking in tournaments after that.
In fall of 2015, I more or less stopped choking. I still played badly sometimes, but I distinguish between poor quality of play and just plain choking. How did I stop choking? I stopped paying attention to my rating. In fact, in my final tournament games of 2015 that led me to go over 2200, I did not do any calculations to determine whether I would or would not go over. I knew it could be close, but did not want to calculate. I tried to focus on my games and nothing else.
I’m still proud that I made Master without the trick of withdrawing from any tournaments.
Can you discuss which is more important for chess improvement: studying the opening, middlegame, or endgame? Explain why.
The short answer is that everything is actually interconnected, and I wish I had known this earlier. A quality game will have a story behind it that connects all phases of chess. Because of this, I think the study of complete, annotated games (including annotating your own games) is the single most useful technique for improvement.
For example, opening study is popular, but studying the opening in isolation, apart from understanding fundamental principles and knowing not to fall into tricky traps, is almost irrelevant at under-2000 level, where games will mostly be decided not by opening subtleties, but by later parts of the game.
My main improvements have come from understanding the middlegame better, learning how to assess positions and create plans based on features of the positions, especially through considering Pawn structure. If you think of an opening as a way to try to get to a certain kind of middlegame, and think of the middlegame as a way to get to a certain kind of endgame, then everything starts to fit together. The middlegame is the core.
Improving in the endgame is important at all levels. When I look at my first tournament games at a 1500-1600 level, I see that the vast majority of them went into endgames where anything could happen because none of us really knew what we were doing, but I managed draws and wins because I was a bit better there than opponents who otherwise matched me in the opening and middlegame.
With my young students, I go over the opening phase with them only enough for them to survive it (by playing classically and avoiding needlessly complex and subtle variations), but focus my instruction primarily on how to get to a desired middlegame by means of opening choice. I also add endgame instruction incrementally as it becomes a bottleneck in overall performance: when they get good enough to get a dominating middlegame and then fail to win in the endgame, that’s when we work on the endgame. But I feel like spending a lot of time on the endgame up front is not realistic if one is not even surviving the middlegame.
Were there any special, small or large celebration when you became a Master?
No, there was no celebration. I have to confess I’m not really a celebration kind of person.
What are your plans now?
I will continue what I’ve already been doing in chess since 2012: writing and teaching.
I started writing about chess on my personal blog around 2012. I really enjoy sharing my analysis and thoughts with others, and this eventually led to my writing for GM Nigel Davies’ The Chess Improver site and giving private chess lessons since 2013. I am still teaching now and very much enjoy helping others improve their chess. So teaching has been my main focus in chess for a while now.
I will continue to play in local tournaments as time permits. I am not done improving yet! Also, I enjoy being a role model for my students, to walk the walk as I give them advice about how to study, improve, and compete. I have even been inspired to try to play model games to illustrate specific themes I teach. For example, last year when the subject was isolated Pawns, I played a game in which I chose an opening aimed specifically against an isolated Pawn structure.
(Update of 2016-06-25)
I still play chess with my father whenever I see him. He’s still playing pretty well at age 78. I feel he is possibly even better than when he was in his 40s, probably because he has all the time in the world to play casual games regularly at his local community center since retirement. It’s actually harder for me to beat him now than when I was a kid. Here’s a photo from the last visit to my parents’ in May 2016; I barely managed to win this game, where I took advantage of the weakness of his isolated Pawn in the endgame:comments powered by Disqus