Progress to GM: Quantity over Quality

As those of you who read my latest US Chess article know, I have three GM norms so getting the title is a matter of reaching ELO 2500. As of last August I needed over a hundred points. With my FIDE rating currently at 2430 it is now "only" 70 points. Just like Lowe's, Justin never stops improving :) Jokes aside, I battle with lows such as depression and feel like time has passed me by. I often struggle to get up promptly, let alone stick to a routine. On top of this, I still have no coach or training partner. Yet despite all that, I appear to be making strides. I must take credit for one thing: being very resourceful, on and off the chessboard. As Justin with 9 lives, I continue to surprise even myself with my resilience. For instance my result in Reykjavik last month seemed to follow a pattern of rebounding after a tough loss. This article will include a few games from Iceland and touch upon my self-training over the past 2 years including "quantity over quality" approach.
The Reykjavik Open was a near triumph. I was in contention round 10 for a GM norm. A 4th GM norm would be "not too shabby". Alas, I blundered early and lost to Aryan Tari. My best loss was against top seed super GM Mamedyarov as black round 4, while my best win was round 9 vs. #1 Icelandic GM Hannes Stefansson (FIDE 2600):
[pgn] [Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.05.01"] [Round "?"] [White "Sarkar, Justin "] [Black "Stefansson, Hannes"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E32"] [PlyCount "79"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 b6 5. e4 c5 6. d5 Qe7 7. Be2 exd5 8. exd5 O-O 9. Nf3 d6 10. Be3 Bxc3+ 11. Qxc3 b5 12. b3 bxc4 13. bxc4 Ng4 14. Bf4 Bf5 15. h3 Nf6 16. Qe3 Qd8 17. O-O Re8 18. Qd2 Ne4 19. Qb2 Nd7 20. Rac1 Qb6 21. Qxb6 axb6 22. Nh4 Bg6 23. Nxg6 hxg6 24. Rc2 g5 25. Bh2 Ra3 26. Bf3 Ndf6 27. Re1 Nc3 28. Kf1 Rxe1+ 29. Kxe1 Nxa2 30. Bxd6 Nb4 31. Rd2 Rc3 32. Be7 Nc2+ 33. Kd1 Nd4 34. d6 Nd7 35. Bg4 Ne6 36. Ra2 Rxc4 37. Ra8+ Kh7 38. Bf5+ g6 39. Bxe6 fxe6 40. Ra7 1-0 [/pgn]
As if to show that my 12 point gain in Iceland was undeserved, I proceeded to lose 13 a week later! From 3/23-7 I played in a 10 player round robin in Charlotte, NC. After "castling long" by losing 3 in a row, I managed to cut my losses and do an Anish Giri for the remaining two thirds of the event, drawing the rest of my 6 games to score 3/9. On my journey to 2500 I might need to focus on finding what types of tournaments best suit me. Will Justin with 9 lives bounce back yet again?
Blurryface To quote Twenty One Pilots from their song "Stressed Out", My name is Blurryface and I care what you think.
 I have no chess culture in my family. However I am grateful to my mother for supporting my quest to be a GM. Having no job (though I used to work part-time with the MTA in Grand Central) and few private students, I am barely getting by at the moment especially with tournament travel. It is certainly tough, though could be worse so am thankful for what I have. Going overseas is in itself a privilege.
As my last piece indicated, I relocated around May 2014 to a place in Ossining, NY that I and my mother find more comfortable than the old home. Before moving I was severely depressed at home and hardly able to work on chess outside of tournaments (or tournament hotel rooms) themselves. Thus, having for so long being forced to play almost exclusively on natural talent and memorization with minimal actual study, what do I do now to work on the game? I barely addressed this question when writing about my 3rd GM norm a year ago, so now is the time to talk about it.
I have been building my classical knowledge, playing through various classics usually ranging from the late 19th century until the 1980s. Also I make sure to get at least my slight dosage of Vitamin E (Endgame study). However, my main focus has been... learning openings. This might come as a surprise to many. I might be mistaken but believe the "word on the street" about me is that I am a booked up openings freak! Although I might call myself a bit of a freak for knowing the ECO codes of most opening positions, the rumor is at most partly true. Before elaborating I admit spending more time on openings than I would likely advise most aspiring players.
I have a principled style, naturally suited to playing sharp openings, sometimes wild and crazy ones (e.g. Botvinnik Semi-Slav or Anti-Moscow gambit). I also have good memory, albeit more for remembering moves than learning games by heart as other strong players seem to do. Sometimes I rely on memory more than understanding, and by entering sharp lines, I often take a big chance that I will know/recall enough relative to my opponent for the sake of a given game. I think people have found my games fun (or nerve wracking) to watch, whereas I also have my quiet positional days... my aforementioned last round loss to Aryan Tari was a case of not really knowing my stuff. Don't try this at home, but feel free to laugh at my move 19 (no comment):
[pgn] [Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.05.01"] [Round "?"] [White "Aryan, Tari"] [Black "Sarkar, Justin"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B96"] [PlyCount "53"]1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 Nbd7 7. Qe2 e6 8. f4 Qc7 9. O-O-O b5 10. a3 Be7 11. g4 h6 12. Bh4 Rb8 13. Bg2 b4 14. axb4 Rxb4 15. Be1 Qb6 16. Bf2 Qc7 17. h4 h5 18. g5 Ng4 19. Be1 Qb6 20. Nd5 exd5 21. Bxb4 Qxb4 22. exd5 Nb8 23. Rh3 Qa5 24. Rb3 Qa1+ 25. Kd2 Qa5+ 26. c3 Qc7 27. Re1 1-0 [/pgn]
This game was a little aberration as I think playing sharp theory is usually advisable, even more so against a higher rated, even if you have less than exceptional memory. To quote Sam Shankland in Part 2 of his excellent article on breaking top 100: play mainlines and don't be afraid to experiment.
Looking back, I used to play tournaments like crazy, being the most active titled player not named Jay Bonin. I never consciously thought about it but my style of aiming mostly for mainlines led to a wide variety of rich and exciting battles over the years and no doubt broadened my horizons. Playing continuously without detriment to my game while maintaining a high IM rating (with at most low maintenance work between events) was no cakewalk and I highly doubt I could have done this by resorting to sidelines. Therefore I must agree with Sam.
My present openings work includes hundreds of personal Chess Base files of varying length. That alone might suggest sometimes sacrificing quality for quantity. Indeed, my notes sometimes end by move 15, as my work generally tends to focus more on collecting data than on heavy personal analysis. I call it quantity over quality, partly in a self-mocking way, though there might be certain benefits: for example in tournament games an opponent will often surprise you in the opening, so "deep preparation" has its limits whereas overall breadth of knowledge might be useful in order to play well when out of your pregame preparation. I apply this quantity based approach not just to openings but to my chess work in general. I might add that "openings work" is a bit of a misnomer, as learning opening theory, even if not always in great depth, incorporates a certain amount of middle and even endgame work.
I agree, depth is very important, absolutely essential at the elite GM level for instance, whereas trying to know a bit of everything is overly idealistic and rarely works in chess. However, I believe there might be smart ways to go about it and acquire basic knowledge of many things. I am open to further discuss such topic. Being a bit handicapped without a trainer, the silver lining might be my extra freedom to try and test a personal approach. Hopefully the time spent working on my breadth of knowledge will improve my quality of in depth analysis when working/training with someone in the future. I am no Larry Kaufman in my usage of computers to analyze opening variations, but I think that my overall chess knowledge might have improved a bit over time by the sheer quantity of positions examined in my filing work.
Lately I have been trying new openings, surprising opponents with 1.e4: Round 7 in Iceland I faced a near 2600 GM and got a great position early on. I let him back in the game, yet managed to set up a tricky tactic in a knight ending to win in the end.
[pgn] [Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.05.01"] [Round "?"] [White "Sarkar, Justin"] [Black "Dvirnyy, Danyyil"] [Result "1-0"] [PlyCount "105"] [EventDate "2016.05.01"]1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 h6 6. O-O Ne7 7. Nbd2 Nd7 8. Nb3 Bh7 9. Bd2 Ng6 10. g3 Be7 11. h4 O-O 12. h5 Nh8 13. c4 f6 14. cxd5 exd5 15. e6 Nb8 16. Nh4 f5 17. Ng2 Rf6 18. Nf4 g5 19. hxg6 Nxg6 20. Bh5 Na6 21. Bxg6 Bxg6 22. Nxg6 Rxg6 23. Qh5 Rf6 24. Bxh6 Qe8 25. Qh3 Rxe6 26. Bf4 Qg6 27. Rae1 Re8 28. Rxe6 Qxe6 29. Be5 Qg6 30. Kg2 Bf6 31. Rh1 Re7 32. f4 Nc7 33. Qh5 Kf7 34. Qh7+ Bg7 35. Nc5 Qxh7 36. Rxh7 Kg6 37. Rxg7+ Rxg7 38. Bxg7 Kxg7 39. Nxb7 Ne6 40. Kf2 Nxd4 41. Nc5 Kf6 42. Ke3 Nb5 43. a4 Nd6 44. b4 Ne4 45. Nb3 a6 46. a5 Nxg3 47. Nd4 c5 48. b5 cxd4+ 49. Kxd4 Ne4 50. bxa6 Nd6 51. Kxd5 Ke7 52. Kc6 Nc8 53. Kb7 1-0 [/pgn]
Physical exercise is vital, given the amount of time spent by a screen. While my workout routine is a work in progress, I get in plenty of walking. What I lack in terms of solving tactical exercises I make up in walking exercises. Other activities to keep mentally and physically fit include auditing classes at my Alma Mater (Columbia University), skiing, cycling (such as Tour de Bronx), along with starting early on this article. Call that "prophylactic thinking"  :)
Over the past couple years I established a personal training system and persevered with it, not worrying so much about what other players might do similarly or differently. However, I suffered a psychological blow: around summer/fall 2014, my tournament results declined. Probably the brain was used to staying in a rhythm of tournament play and not in study mode, so my attempt to substitute work for play failed to keep it sharp. My apparent decline undermined my confidence to say the least. I didn't panic though. I realized maybe it was a sacrifice in the short term for long term benefit. While I retain Justin-like inconsistencies, especially in faster time controls, overall I can say I am moving forward. Never give up!

See Justin Sarkar's article on earning his third GM norm here.