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I Got to Master!

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.

The Long Road to Master

By Benjamin

One of my longtime goals was to become a national master in chess, a game I’ve been playing since I was nine. In chess, an elo rating system is used to standardize each player’s approximate strength. In the US, to get to National Master, a title only the top 1% of players obtain, one must get to 2200 elo, and I got 2198, just 2 points shy! In this blog, I’ll take you along my chess journey in the past couple of months.

For the past few months, I have been studying a ton of theory, watching courses, doing drills, and practicing against strong opponents. After putting in the work, I have noticeably gotten much better, but I had to face the real test: using what I learned in a real competitive tournament game.

I set my sights on the NC Championship in October in Charlotte, a tournament that joined dozens of players from all around the state to compete for the state champion title. I was deeply committed to getting a good result, as I was rated 2133 and was close to reaching the threshold. I came in seeded around 10th out of 40 in rating but finished tied for 4th after winning 4 and losing 1 game. These games were real stepping stones, as it was the first time in a tournament game that I had implemented the openings I just learned, so I definitely learned a lot, especially from my one loss.

After this tournament I was rated 2155, a 22-point jump. Then, I sought to play in the US Masters on Thanksgiving weekend. This time, it was much different. The field was far stronger, and there were over 40 international masters and grandmasters, which are titles that are leagues above National Master. In fact, the tournament required you to be a master to play, hence the name. There were 200 players from all around the world, and I was seeded just 190th by rating. With such a strong field, it was going to be an uphill climb to get a good result, but at the same time, playing all these incredibly strong players was going to be a great opportunity.

I analyzed my games, practiced more, and memorized more theory for a month, striving to overperform. Then, it was go time. My first two rounds were rough, losing against two FIDE Masters (one step below international master), but they were very close, hard-fought battles, and the fact that I could even have chances against them was a sign of improvement. Because of my early losses, I was bounced to the back of the standings so I had to play players who weren’t rated as high as the first two. In the next 6 rounds, I bounced back quite remarkably with an undefeated streak, winning 4 games and drawing two, all against players who were rated much higher than me. By the 9th and final round, I reached the top quadrant of the standings with 5 points, and I was by far the lowest-rated player to do so. I even scored higher than a lot of top grandmasters and international masters. That set me up to play one of America’s top prodigies in the last round, an 11-year-old international master. It was a shameful defeat for me, but I still held my head high as I knew my overall performance would get me close to, if not to, 2200. A few days later, I saw that I’d jumped to 2196, a little bit disappointing but also encouraging.

With such a short distance to master, I strove to play some casual Saturday tournaments where I play much lower rated players and easily pick up a point or two without a ton of risk, but that only got me up to 2198.

The journey still goes on, and I hope I can get it in the next tournament without losing and digging myself into a deeper hole. Hopefully next time you hear from me, I’ll be a chess master!

A Realistic Day in the Life: At Home Edition

By Benjamin

As I have come to realize, being on a gap year is much more difficult than I thought it would be. For starters, you’re basically on your own, navigating a life without the rigid structure of high school and dipping your toes in everything. That’s why it’s so important to stay disciplined, striving to become at least 1% better every day. Have I been doing a good job at that? Ehhh let’s just say I could be better.

I’ve been staying at home pretty much the entire gap year so far, spending valuable time with family, studying chess and computer science, cooking, and playing. With this blog, I hope to share a realistic day in my life and reflect upon what should and shouldn’t be changed. Let’s begin!

11:30 am: Wake Up. I know, I know, we’re already off to a bad start. I’ve been trying to get a better sleep schedule, but without being forced to wake up for school, it’s been a little bit too easy to sleep in. However, I’m hoping that’ll change, and I’m actively putting in an effort to change that.

12 – 2 pm: Hoping to sharpen my skills and become more productive, I usually spend this time of my day learning computer science or reading. Sometimes, though, I get really lazy and get distracted by watching basketball highlight videos and current chess events. These days, productivity is something I struggle with a lot because I get distracted very easily. My goal is to build better habits that’ll make learning much easier, and carry those habits over to my studies at Duke.

Pasta that I cooked with my brother

2 – 3 pm: Lunch. I usually try to cook my own lunch, and although I’m relatively new to the art, I enjoy learning new recipes and seeing what beautiful concoctions I can cook up. I’m no Michelin star chef (yet), but I’m definitely trying and learning. What I cook ranges from something as simple as scrambled eggs with bacon to pasta, fried rice, spam musubi, Shakshuka (a North African/Middle Eastern dish), or an omelet.

2 – 7:30 pm: Chess. Whether it’s studying, teaching, playing online, or watching, the biggest part of my day is filled with chess. I love the game; it keeps my mind sharp and it’s fun. I wrote a whole Common App essay about my love for the sport, and if that isn’t convincing enough, I really cannot imagine anything that is. Throughout the gap year, I’ll take you along my journey of playing chess tournaments, which will be the culmination of my studying and work at home.

7:30 – 8 pm: Dinner. Nothing really special about this one.

This world jigsaw with 1000 pieces took 17 hours

8 – 12 am: Family time. I dedicate my evenings to scale it back a bit and just relax. We love to go on walks, play card games, or piece together a jigsaw puzzle. It’s always a merry time as we bond together, laugh, and spread happiness.

Today’s blog was both a reflection and a description of how my gap year is going. I hope that these blogs will not only serve as a medium for me to share my whereabouts, but also a source of accountability, motivating me to be more productive. This is just the beginning, and I’m so excited to see where this journey takes me!