If someone had told me before Philly Open, that I would clinch my 3rd IM Norm with a round to spare, I wouldn’t have believed them. Going into the event, I did not have the highest expectations. The tournament’s highly demanding 2-game-a-day schedule, with a time control that can produce games that go more than 5 hours, is energy-draining and makes it difficult to be consistent. On top of this, I have been stuck in the classic chess player slump. Since 2011, my USCF rating has not budged from around 2400 and my FIDE rating has stayed around 2300. At this level, it is not always clear what exactly one needs to do in order to improve. The differences that separate myself from stronger players can be quite miniscule.
Here are some of the things I did throughout my preparation and the tournament which led to the great result. Although many of the readers may not be seeking their final IM Norm, I hope they can gain some insight into important areas to focus on and how to get out of a slump!
Key #1: Set goals that have nothing to do with rating
When you ask a typical chess player about their goals, they may something like, “getting to 2000” or “becoming a grandmaster.” While these goals are quite direct and easy to quantify, they have minimal value. They can also be discouraging if you don’t find yourself making progress.
Not long before Philly, I created goals for myself that focused on study, tournament habits, and play rather than rating or results. Here they are…
Study goals (applied before a tournament):
- Solve some tactics everyday (My favorite book: Imagination in Chess).
- Follow the games from strong tournaments closely
- Develop a solid and versatile opening repertoire for white and black
- Play out select endgames and middlegames against a training partner
Tournament goals (applied during a tournament):
- Keep Facebook, email, and social media to an absolute minimum.
- Don’t listen to music or watch television during or right before the tournament. (The stupidest things get stuck in my head during a chess game).
- Take every opportunity to rest between rounds
Playing goals (applied during the game):
- Do my absolute best to avoid time trouble
- Stay focused on my opponent’s time and stay at my board during the game. If I do walk around, continue to calculate the possibilities.
- Don’t be scared of taking risks, especially if I cannot find anything concretely wrong with the move in question.
I would highly encourage other players who are looking to improve to form similar goals. Instead of focusing on the final destination, focus on how you get there.
Key #2: Get off to a good start
In round two, I was paired against GM Bryan Smith. The momentum I gained from winning this game carried me a long way through the tournament: Below are my annotations.
Key #3: Avoid time trouble
Time management is one of the most important and overlooked factors in chess. It is important for chess players to ask themselves how often they get into time trouble. If you find yourself getting below 5 minutes in a fair number of your tournament games, then you have a serious problem which needs to be addressed.
Over the course of the Philly Open, I managed to stay out of time trouble in 8 out of my 9 games– a much better ratio than some of my previous tournaments. The one game I did get into time trouble was against IM Priyadarshan Kannappan. It lasted over 5 hours and was my only loss of the tournament.
Key #4: Opening Preparation and Surprises
One reason I managed to stay out of time trouble, was because I quite often got an early time advantage due to superior or surprising opening preparation. Below, I share some of my most notable openings from the tournament.
Round 3: In the 20 minutes of pre-game preparation for Alexey Dreev, I prepared the novelty 11. Nxd5 followed by Bd3. This sequence of moves seems quite counterintuitive as it strengthens the black queen and retreats the bishop. However, the idea is to maneuver the bishop to e4 where it restricts black’s queenside development. White had a pleasant edge for the whole game, but I ended up settling for a draw out of respect for my opponent.
Round 5: Against Cristian Chirila, I decided to play the ultra-aggressive 7.h4 against his Grunfeld. The position after 11… e5 was quite amusing, but the position liquidated relatively quickly into a draw.
Round 7: Against Praveen Balakrishnan, I noticed from past games, that he recently switched from e4 to d4. I decided to catch him off guard in a line that I occasionally play in ICC 1-minute: 1.d4 c5 2.d5 f5!? Although it’s safe to say this opening is dubious at grandmaster level, the resulting middlegame was highly dynamic and quite enjoyable to play. Praveen misstepped with 24.Ne1 allowing the 25…Rxb2 exchange sacrifice.
Key #5: Listen to Commentary from the US Championships
In addition to eating and resting between rounds, I got in the habit of following the live commentary from the US Men’s and Women’s Championships. Listening to Jen, Yasser, and Maurice enthusiastically discuss high level chess kept me in “chess mode.” If I had not been following the commentary, I don’t think I would have been as sharp and focused as I was during my own games. Of course, you can only do this a few times a year! Ed. Note- The shows are archived on the Saint Louis Chess Club YouTube Channel.
Key #6: Get Naked
Naked Juice that is. Before the tournament I stocked my hotel fridge with an assortment of Naked Juices. Because some of my games were brutally long, I didn’t always have time to get food between rounds. The fruit and veggie packed juices were like meals in a bottle. Because of this, I was well-nourished, well hydrated, and energized for each game.
Key #7: Grow facial hair
In the time I would have spent shaving, I spent preparing. I also lost my razor, so I had no choice.
A report from the Philly Open would not be complete without sharing one of the most inspiring stories from the event.
5-year-old Rachael Li (younger sister of top US Junior Rufeing Li) competed in the U1100 section. Despite playing exceedingly and more experienced competition, she netted 5.5/7 in the U1100 and walked away with a whopping 450 dollars. That’s quite a weekend’s earnings for a pre-schooler!