I have not competed in a USCF chess tournament in over four years. In fact, I have not studied chess in over four years. Grad school has a way of stymying such pursuits. Nonetheless, despite not having studied or played much more than an occasional blitz game (five minutes on each player’s clock), I am finding through chess tests, assessments, and online ratings that I might be as much as 400 points stronger than my last official USCF rating, which is 1567 with a 1608 peak. To give the casual reader some sense of how absurd that 400-point jump in strength is for an adult player —especially for one who has not studied in that period—, most adult players struggle to gain 50 points a year with significant study (e.g., two 3-hr. trips to the chess club and 5 hours of study per week of tactics, openings, master-annotated games, and endgames). I’ve had friends struggle to gain a total of 100 points over a few years. Intrigued by this increase in strength, and stimulated by my love of the game, I have decided to compete at the 2015 World Chess Open chess tournament in Arlington, Virginia.
I should tell my story of how I came to chess, to begin with. I learned how to play (i.e., how the pieces move) in December of 2007, and played in my first tournament February of 2008. By all standards and measures, my rating was probably closer to 1000 or 1050, but, in that first tournament, 1200 player hung a piece and immediately resigned (i.e., the win was not my doing), and another player was beating me when he proffered a largess, the unearned gift of a draw. I was gifted a provisional rating of 1181. Despite the inflated rating, I would add 400+ points to that rating in less than 25 months later. (It looks slightly less impressive to have gained 218 points per year than something like 279 points, but 218 points is unheard of for an adult, so I am not complaining.) At the end of that two-year stretch, I considered moving to NYC with a bunch of chess players for a year to see how good we could get with full devotion to chess. That hairbrained scheme unraveled when I found out I had diabetes and decided to return to graduate studies in physics at Carnegie Mellon University. The story about considering a move to NYC to hustle and play chess full-time is supposed to illustrate just how much I love the game. If I had started younger, I would have been crazed, and I am absolutely sure that I would have sought to reach the highest level of play. However, I didn’t start when I was six, or seven, or eight, and not even as a teen, but in my twenties; and so grandmaster (GM) status is probably impossible, as is international master (IM) status. That being said, if I can’t do any of that, the next best thing would be winning a World Class Championship, that is, a championship tournament that is open to all the world’s competitor’s in a given rating classification.
I am currently waiting to have an international master (IM) to loosely assess my current strength, and it appears that I could be 400 USCF rating points stronger than I last competed. I say that based on numerous self-assessments, such as tests I took when I last studied and played, and another metric has been tactics books I used to work through —I keep meticulous record of my performance when working through tactics books, including the date and number correct, e.g., this last month’s sweep through Lev Alburt’s Chess Training Pocket Book: 300 Most Important Positions I scored 84% (and I scored 66% in early 2009 when I was a 1600 USCF, and 30% when I was about 1100 USCF). Most noticeably, I have wrecked 1500-level USCF players in intermediate time controls, and my online blitz rating is 400-600 points better than it was when my USCF classic rating was 1600, and I tend to be a solid 400 points weaker at blitz games than classic long games. All of this comes together now, and brought about my decision to compete in the World Open.
If I am as strong as I suspect, the casual reader might think, “wow, this should be easy: the class is for competitors under 1600 ratings, so someone with a mid-1900-level strength should cream the crop.” It’s not that easy. With $10K+ at stake, I am certainly not the only player who has crept in the shadows, waiting for what they thought to be the right time. The USCF has a database with all of its tournament results and player ratings, so you can see how players do, and what their ratings tend to be very shortly after a big tournament performance. One name that I recall distinctly is Evgeny Shver. He pops into existence with a near-2300 provisional rating, then, by the time he’s playing big tournaments, he’s under 1800. Hmmm… He probably got the idea that, without a rating floor (i.e., a rating that is a lower bound, which the USCF wisely assigns to make sure sandbagging doesn’t become too egregious), he might as well win some money moving his rating up to where it should be. He played at the Miami International’s U1900 and obliterated the field, just doing enough to win (strategically taking a draw in the first round to ensure weaker competition throughout, then taking a draw to clinch and ensure his rating didn’t jump up too much). He probably cashed $5K+ there. Then he does the same thing less than a year later at the Chicago Open (another big money event), destroying a friend of mine, who was considerably stronger than 2100, often wrecking local national masters (NM). My friend remarked at the absurd strength of the player, and, rather uncharacteristically, didn’t beat himself up for the loss or get down. A point of particular note, here, is that my friend won every game except for the loss against Shver, who took a draw in the last round for the same reasons mentioned in the last tournament. That’s a hell of jump, 1781 to 2152 in 9 months. To give the casual reader and non-player some idea about what 400 points means in chess: 400 points means that person X will probabilistically and realistically never ever lose to a weaker player Y, who is 400 points weaker; to do so is equivalent of a high school team defeating a D-I college team or athlete in just about anything. What’s more, 400 points, for an adult (this was not child, by the way), represents a decade of learning at these A-class, expert, and master levels. My suspicion is that the organization running the USCF’s big-money tournaments caught on to this odd situation, and didn’t allow him to compete in the U2100 class of the 2009 World Open. I am sure he was not pleased. Nonetheless, Shver very nearly wins the U2300 division of the North American Open in Las Vegas. He took second place. Curious? You betchya!
There is a second important point to note here, too. Shver effortlessly jumped 500 USCF points, but failed to win every big-money tournament he entered. This is really the point of mentioning this fellow. Being significantly stronger than the class one is in does not guarantee victory: human error, a little bit of luck (in terms of opponent’s opening choice in relation to what the stronger player knows, etc.), and other considerations factor. Simply not playing well can be the end of a tournament for an excessively strong player. How can that be? Suppose there are a couple of players stronger than the U1600 division of a tournament. If a player of 2000-level strength has a subpar performance of 1900, and an 1850-level player has a slightly better than usual performance, the latter could very well win the tournament. More realistically, there will be a field of players considerably stronger than 1600, perhaps as many as 30. This is why the outcome is not so clear to predict.
Over the next couple of months, I will, whimsically, choose to write blog posts talking about preparation in my quest for the World Open. I do intend to work with a professional chess coach (an IM) and receive regular lessons with a GM. More interesting than that, I will be doing the Seven Circle of Chess Hell, a training program designed by Michael De La Maza. I’ll say more about other things I intend to do for positional play prep, general strategy prep, endgames, openings, etc.; but I want to take a few minutes to talk about how I intend to do this. (Feel free to make suggestions and ask questions on this or anything.) Originally, I was considering doing Laszlo Polgar’s book of 5,334 puzzles, but I am having second thought. I haven’t finalized what content I will use for the program, so let me explain what the program entails. It’s pretty straightforward. The idea is to take 1,000 problems and do them over 64 days, spending a few minutes on each problem. This is the first pass of the seven circles. Then you do the same set of problems in 32 days, and that’s the second circle. Then you do it again in 16 days, 8 days, 4 days, 2 days, and then do them all within a 24-hour period, totaling 7 passes. There is more to program, such as chess mazes to aid with chess vision, but I will touch on that in a later post devoted to the Seven Circles. The idea of the method is to help develop one’s calculating ability, and then develop pattern recognition in circle numbers three through seven. I am considering modifying the program, because calculation is not a problem I have. If anything, my ability to calculated is the reason I have had so many draws against experts up to this point (I think I have six, which is bizarre for someone with my rating and past ratings); I am after the pattern recognition. My thinking is that, given my obsessiveness, I may be able to spend enough time getting the general patterns down in one sweep, effectively chopping off the first circle. I am also considering doing a hyper-accelerated three-week Seven Circles variation in May, between the time I complete my teaching obligations in Pittsburgh and the accelerated classes I am taking in the summertime at Harvard. The nature of that accelerated program is not clear to me, as I have some engineering yet to do. Again, suggestions on texts (please give reasons) are welcome. I may revisit renowned chess coach NM Dan Heisman’s website for books with 97% of the most important recurring patterns. I need the collection of problems to be as efficacious as possible, and I don’t want to have to go tracking down tons of problems from numerous sources. De La Maza recommends CT ART, but I am not sure those are the most efficacious, and my CT ART tactics rating is incredibly high at this point, so I think I want to look to other resources.
Feel free to communicate with me, as I blog about this journey.
 Classic ratings are calculated on the basis of outcomes in games that are sixty minutes (G60) or longer (i.e., each player gets sixty minutes on their clock), but I tended to play mostly 40/2 SD 30, which are games with a time control of two hours for each play to make 40 moves, after which an additional thirty minutes of sudden-death time is allotted.
 Though I have seen these jumps in children, it is still unusual.