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I Got to Master!

By: Camey VanSant

By Benjamin

If you have been following my chess journey so far this gap year, you know that after a ton of hard work, I left off just short of National Master, the 2200 rating barrier. Now, I’m here to present some exciting news. I made it.

Reading a chess book

After hitting 2198, it wasn’t just a cakewalk to 2200. I had a pitfall after two consecutive bad tournaments, setting me back to 2173. I felt discouraged but knew my level was there as long as I worked hard.

I marked my calendar for MLK weekend, when I’d be playing the 2023 Charlotte Open. Unlike the previous few casual tournaments where I’d unsuccessfully attempted to “farm” 2 rating points, this one was a serious, formal tournament that lasted an entire weekend. The 3-day tournament joined international masters and grandmasters from across the country and beyond, setting up for a very strong field. Per usual, I trained pre-tournament, but this time I focused more on calculation and playing instructive training games.

Playing in my first round
Photo credit: Charlotte Chess Center

Once more, I was the underdog every round. Coming in, I was seeded in the bottom quadrant of players. In the first round, I played an international master(IM) rated around 2400. I knew I was underrated, but these guys are beasts. Most IMs have played for decades, and my opponent was no exception. I was clearly outmatched, but I was confident that with solid opening preparation, I’d be just alright. By seeing my opponent’s past games and understanding his repertoire, I knew exactly what moves he’d play in the starting phase of the game. I came to the board with my home-cooked preparation, surprising him with the black pieces. Eventually, it got incredibly unclear and under time pressure, he blundered. I seized my chance and took home the upset victory. I felt good, and was confident that I could take down these IMs.

Watching the NBA game mid-tournament

I took a scheduled bye in 2nd round to watch the Charlotte Hornets vs Boston Celtics. I figured that I’d already made it to the city, why not catch a break and watch the game? Along with chess, basketball has always been one of my favorite hobbies and I loved drawing parallels between my two passions.

The next day, I was paired against another strong IM. Just like in basketball, my momentum and confidence from the previous game carried me through the game, as I was the one on the attack for the majority of the game, but eventually settled for a draw. I was only going up from here, as I’d been paired with a grandmaster(GM)! I’ve never won or drawn against a GM, so my opponent seemed formidable to me. Even as black against a GM, I wasn’t going to let my momentum slip easily, though. It was a dogfight. After 57 moves and 5 hours of grueling back-and-forth battle, the game ended peacefully.

On the last day, I was still undefeated, and was clearly outperforming my rating. Still, though, I had to finish strong. Every game, my opponents were fully committed to winning, not settling for a peaceful draw against a lower-rated opponent. I used that to my advantage. In the 5th round I played another IM. Right out of the opening, he slipped up and I quickly got a winning advantage. Although it was quite difficult to convert, I managed to drive the advantage into a win.

In the last and final round, I played yet another IM. At this point, they have become frequent opponents, and I wasn’t scared of them. I felt that this game was the game I struggled most in, as I fought to understand the position, which soaked up so much time. At the end, I actually managed to get myself in a winning position but settled for a draw because I had so little time left. That capped off an undefeated performance in my breakthrough tournament.

Not only did I break the barrier from this tournament, I shattered it. With a post-event rating of 2246, I finally became a National Master. Earning the new title was rewarding, but even more useful were the lessons that came with the journey. Before this, I plateaued at 2100 for basically 4 years and thought getting NM was inconceivable. During my gap year, I turned my frustration of not improving into fuel to train. I became a sponge for chess content, consuming chess videos, drills, and puzzles every hour of every day. I’ve learning that the only solution to failure is hard work, no shortcuts can be taken.

Chess is obviously one of those sports with those cliche lessons like “never give up” and “work hard to get what you want,” but I’ve only truly realized how naive I was in understanding these lessons until I actually put these pieces of wisdom into practice. From keeping calm in tense situations to being patient to understanding what others are thinking, these nuggets I’ve learned from chess are listless. The game has armed me with lessons that extend far beyond the game, ones that are key in school, business, community, and finally, in my road to Grandmaster.

Categories: Benjamin