How Do You Become a Life Master?

by admin on May 14, 2016

First, apologies for my long silence… more than two weeks! I know that there isn’t anything else worth reading on the Internet except for my blog, so I know you guys were suffering.   ;-)

This morning I had an interesting experience, being interviewed by a UC Santa Cruz student, whose name is Miranda, for an anthropology class. The assignment was very simple: they are supposed to interview a complete stranger who is over 70 and write about the interview.

“Wait a minute!” I know you’re saying. “You aren’t over 70!” Last time I checked, I was still only 57. If I’m wrong, I must have spent a whole lot more than two weeks away from my blog… Nevertheless, Miranda got permission from her teacher to interview me anyway. So now I’m an honorary 70-year-old!

To get special permission, Miranda must have really wanted to interview me. I don’t know how she found my name originally (probably through Google), but I think she was interested in two things: I’m a writer and I’m a chess player. She played on her high school’s chess team, and she even wore a chess t-shirt to our interview! That was cool.

The students in the class were given several suggested questions to ask in their interviews, but as far as I could tell, Miranda didn’t ask any of them. To be honest, I don’t blame her. I interview a lot of people for my work, and usually when I come to the interview with a prepared script and stick to it, it turns out to be a pretty bad interview. It’s much better if I ask one or two questions and the interviewees take over from there.

Even though she didn’t ask any questions from the script, I did answer one of them (because I had seen it on the paper). The question was, “If you could talk with your 20-year-old self, what would you say to them?”

I had two pieces of advice for my 20-year-old self. The first was: Don’t be afraid of failure. Before I was 20, all I did was succeed, succeed, succeed. (Except at things like sports, where I failed early and often. However, it is socially acceptable for a nerd to be bad at sports.) But three of my most formative experiences, the things that taught me humility and forced me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, were failures. One was my divorce, one was not having kids, and one was not getting tenure. (For those who aren’t familiar with academia, being denied tenure is basically the same as getting fired, but with velvet gloves.) Maybe if I hadn’t had so much success and been so afraid of failure early in life, I would have taken more risks and tried more things. I’ll never know.

The second piece of advice was one that I came up with just today. As we talked about her assignment, it dawned on me that when I was in college, I had absolutely no concept of what an adult’s life was about. The only adults I knew were my parents and teachers, and I didn’t really know them as people. I didn’t know their previous life experiences, what made them happy or sad, whom they had loved or whom they had lost. Those questions were just beyond the pale. It never occurred to me to ask. So for me as a 20-year-old, this would have been a really great assignment. To just sit down and listen to a stranger who was two generations or more older, and talk about those things … it would have given me a lot of perspective.

That’s why I think that this was a wonderful assignment, and it explains the second piece of advice I would give to my 20-year-old self: Talk with older people. Ask them questions, ask them anything. They’ve been around. They’ve been through the same things you have.

There was only one interview question that I’m afraid I really messed up on. As I’ve mentioned, Miranda was interested in my life as a chess player. She said she had read online that I’m a Life Master, and she asked me, “How did you get to be a Life Master?”

I’m afraid I gave her the absolute worst answer. I answered, “You have to get your rating over 2200, and then you need to get five master norms,” and I followed that with a rough explanation of what a master norm is.

After I got back home, I smacked my forehead because I realized that wasn’t what she was asking at all. She wanted to know what any amateur player wants to know, “How does one get to be a master?” You know, what are the steps in improving your game to that point?

Well, of course, volumes and volumes have been written about that, and probably every master has a different opinion. But at least I could have tried. I could have said something like this:

  1. Eliminate tactical mistakes. Of course no one, not even grandmasters, can do this completely, but class-B players and below make simple tactical mistakes in most of their games. If you get to the point where 75 percent of your games are free of major tactical mistakes (and I mean also that you spot your opponent’s mistakes, not just that you avoid your own), you’ll be a class-A player for sure.
  2. Learn strategic planning. I somehow made it to expert without doing this, but you can’t get much farther. Once you get to the point where neither you nor your opponent are making gross blunders, you can actually start painting coherent pictures. Start with Jeremy Silman’s Reassess Your Chess and learn about imbalances. It also helps a lot to talk with good strategic players; I’ve learned so much from Mike Splane and his chess parties (and put a lot of it into this blog). If you can form good plans that are based on concrete positional factors, not wishful thinking, and if you can execute them without changing your mind fifteen times, you’ll be an expert at least.
  3. Develop an identity and a strength. Figure out something that you do better than most people at your level, and play to it. Maybe it’s a particular opening that you like (although I’m on record as saying that openings are fool’s gold). Maybe you have a special talent for bold sacrificial attacks. Or maybe you are good at patient defense, grab a pawn and hold on to it. Maybe you are good at rook-and-pawn endgames. Whatever it is, find something that is your “ace in the hole,” and use it whenever you can. This will separate you from the other experts and make you a master.
  4. Eliminate your weaknesses. This is something I haven’t done yet. I haven’t eliminated my time pressure, or the lack of confidence that causes it. I haven’t learned the art of saving lost games, not just occasionally but regularly. A real master never crumples. I also haven’t learned the art of winning drawn games, not just occasionally but regularly. A real master doesn’t settle (unless, of course, he is playing another master in the last round…). Although I can’t speak from experience, I think that really eliminating your weaknesses makes you a professional. It should take you to 2300 or 2400.
  5. Develop more and more strengths. I think this is what characterizes the guys who get up to 2500 or higher. They become more and more multidimensional. They might start knowing rook-and-pawn endgames, but then they turn into virtuosos in all endgames. They might, like Tal, start as an attacking wonder and then morph into a player who never loses. Magnus Carlsen is, of course, the classic example of a player who can beat you in any type of opening, any type of game (though of course he prefers winning drawn endgames).

It’s also possible that, when Miranda asked, “How do you become a Life Master?” she was asking from the point of view of a non-chess player. That’s also a perfectly reasonable question. My answer would be:

  1. Start playing chess young.
  2. Play in lots of tournaments.
  3. Study your games (losses even more than wins).
  4. Play stronger players and talk with stronger players (of course a chess coach can help, but so also can a strong peer group).
  5. Just don’t quit.

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about talent. I think that a lot of “talent” boils down to how young you started, and how motivated you were when you were young (or when you were just starting in tournaments). There may be some kind of innate chess talent, but I don’t think that there is any empirical test that could discover it and therefore, from a practical point of view, I think talent is a useless concept.

Quite a lot of thoughts to come out of a one-hour interview! At the end of the interview, Miranda made a flower for me out of balloons. That’s also something that she learned in anthropology. This is why I love Santa Cruz. How many other colleges teach you to make balloon flowers in anthropology class?

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Dear Hikaru

by admin on April 28, 2016

Recently I wrote a post (Checkmate Patterns, Moral Victories) about a game by GM Jonathan Tisdall, and I was pleased and delighted when Tisdall himself sent in a comment. That wasn’t the first time that my blog has gotten a grandmaster comment, at least indirectly. Three years ago, in 2013, I wrote a post called Rock, Paper, Scissors, to which GM Sam Shankland sent an extremely insightful comment. He sent the comment to me by e-mail instead of using the comment button, but I wrote a followup post Rock, Paper, Scissors (part two) that entered it into the official record of this blog.

This morning I started thinking: What if I wrote a blog post that was deliberately intended to get a response from a particular grandmaster? Would it work? Well, the only way to find out is to give it a try!

Here is a letter to Hikaru Nakamura, asking him for his thoughts about a game that is of some interest to me: Dana Mackenzie — Hikaru Nakamura, U.S. Open 1999. At the time we played the game, he was an 11-year-old but already rated 2328. I was, well, 40 years old and rated 2111. We met in the second-to-last round, when we each had a score of 4½ out of 7. The fact that I lost the game was no surprise to me; I’ve lost to 11-year-olds before. However, the way I lost made a deep impression on me. There were no brilliant combinations, as you might expect from Nakamura today. Instead it was just a very calm positional dissection. As I wrote then in my notes to the game (not knowing how great Nakamura would become): “Throughout the game, Black’s play was a model of avoiding risks while capitalizing on his positional advantage. It’s amazing to see an 11-year-old play this way.”

Dear Hikaru,

Recently I’ve been looking at a game that we played in 1999 and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about it. Most of all, I’m curious if you remember the game and whether you learned anything from it.

The game took place in the 1999 U.S. Open. I was White, you were Black, and the game started 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bb5+ Bd7 4. Bxd7+ Qxd7 5. O-O Nc6 6. c3 Nf6 7. Re1 e6 8. d4 cd 9. cd d5 10. e5 Ne4 11. Nbd2 Nxd2 12. Bxd2 Be7 13. Rc1 O-O.

nakamura 2

Position after 13. … O-O. White to move.

FEN: r4rk1/pp1qbppp/2n1p3/3pP3/3P4/5N2/PP1B1PPP/2RQR1K1 w – - 0 14

So far, very standard. When White avoids such dynamic ideas as 5. c4 or 7. d4!?, which involve pawn sacrifices, this line is considered to be somewhat drawish. Did the possibility of conceding a draw to a player rated 200 points lower concern you at all? Were you hoping that I would play the gambit lines?

For the record, I wasn’t particularly trying for a draw; this is a variation that I normally played at the time. However, my theoretical knowledge was not deep, and at this point I did not know what White’s plan should be. Today I looked it up on ChessBase and saw that the most popular move for White is 14. Rc3, which scores about 56%. This makes a lot of sense. The move Rc3 addresses many problems. It frees up the square c1 for the bishop (after White plays 15. a3, of course). The rook can swing over to the kingside for an attack (which is where White should be directing his attention; the pawn formation screams, “Kingside attack”). Also, in a pinch the rook can defend the d-pawn. Conceivably White could also double on the c-file if he wants.

Did you know anything about the position after 14. Rc3? Do you still like Black’s chances?

The actual game continued 14. Re2?! Rfc8 15. Be1 Rc7 16. R2c2 R8c8 17. a3 a6 18. Qd3 Nb8. The next two moves really changed the game.

nakamura 3Position after 18. … Nb8. White to move.

FEN: 1nr3k1/1prqbppp/p3p3/3pP3/3P4/P2Q1N2/1PR2PPP/2R1B1K1 w – - 0 19

Here I played the passive 19. Bd2. I bitterly regret this move. The bishop is like a ball and chain on my position, and this was my chance to activate it with 19. Ba5! After 19. … Rxc2 (possible is 19. … Rc6, but I think White is fine after 20. Bb6) 20. Rxc2 Rxc2 21. Qxc2 Qc6 22. Qxc6 Nxc6 (22. … bc?! 23. b4 with a bind) 23. Bb6 my bishop is outside the pawn chain, doing good work, and I think I should have no trouble holding a draw.

But looking at this line, it strikes me that your move 17. … a6 actually made this possible, by giving me a nice square at b6 for the bishop. Would you agree that the combination of 17. … a6 and 18. … Nb8 was a little bit inaccurate for Black?

You replied 19. … h6 and then I went all cuckoo and played 20. g4? The psychology of this move is interesting. Up to this point I have played boring, uncreative chess. Now all of a sudden I decide that I don’t like my lack of activity, and I play an “active” move that creates terrible weaknesses. Before this move my position was solid but boring. After this move I might still be alive — the computer says I’m close to equal — but my position is like a leaky boat, and I’ve got to keep my thumbs in all the leaks.

I’m not sure whether this move requires any comment from you, but I’d be interested in your thought process at the time and how you go about responding to a move like 20. g4? It seems to me that what you did was very instructive. You didn’t try to “refute” it, but just kept on playing calm moves that emphasized the looseness of my position: 20. … Rxc2 21. Rxc2 Rxc2 22. Qxc2 Nc6 23. Qc3 Qd8 24. Ne1 f6 25. f4 fe 26. fe. (Diagram.)

nakamura 4Position after 26. fe. Black to move.

FEN: 3q2k1/1p2b1p1/p1n1p2p/3pP3/3P2P1/P1Q5/1P1B3P/4N1K1 b – - 0 26

In this position you played a remarkable move, and even now I’m not sure whether it’s right or not. I would be very interested, and I think my readers would be very interested, in your thoughts on it.

You played 26. … Bg5!?, a move that I was absolutely not expecting. It seems as if this does White a great favor, by exchanging off his bad bishop. I think that very few amateurs would even consider such a move. However, I do think there is some point to it. While it does relieve me of an ineffective piece, the move emphasizes the passivity of my two remaining pieces, and it also opens lines that Black’s queen can use to penetrate the White position.

Would you still play this move today? Should we pay any attention to Rybka’s assessment, which is that the position is almost dead equal after the trade of bishops? Did you consider this the only way for Black to play for a win?

The game continued 27. Nf3 Bxd2 28. Qxd2 Qf8 29. Kg2 Qf7 30. Kg3. After the game, with 20-20 hindsight, I thought that this was the losing move and that I should have tried to contest the b1-h7 diagonal with 30. Qd3. Rybka agrees that 30. Qd3 leads to equality after 30. … Qf4 31. h3! (but not 31. Qg6? Kf8! indirectly defending the e-pawn because of 32. Qxe6?? Qxf3! 33. Kxf3 Nxd4+). However, Rybka also says that the move I played should equalize, so I haven’t given it a question mark.

You played 30. … Qg6! 31. h4 Qe4 and now I made what truly was the losing move.

nakamura 5Position after 31. … Qe4. White to move.

FEN: 3q2k1/1p2b1p1/p1n1p2p/3pP3/3P2P1/P1Q5/1P1B3P/4N1K1 b – - 0 26

Here I played 32. g5??, a move that looks unforgiveable to me now. White voluntarily restricts the mobility of his pieces and gift-wraps the f5 square for Black’s knight. It’s hard to fathom how I could have even for a moment thought that such a move was the right idea. This may be why I haven’t shown this game to my blog readers before. Moves like 19. Bd2 and 32. g5 seem to me not only bad but uncharacteristic of my chess.

After the correct move, 32. h5, White’s position is still extremely passive, but how is Black to break through? Black’s knight has no obvious routes into White’s position, except perhaps c6-e7-c8-b6-c4, but this is so slow that I think White will have no problem deterring it. Black also has no pawn breaks except … g5, but this move weakens Black’s kingside more than it weakens White’s, after the en passant capture. Finally, I would like to point out that White doesn’t just have to “sit” after 32. h5. After h5, a further g5-g6 break becomes a real possibility.

In sum, I feel that the position after 32. h5 is one where Black has “maxed out.” His position is optically impressive, but he has no way to improve it. Do you agree with this assessment? If not, how can Black play for a win here? If you agree, did Black make any mistakes earlier (perhaps the exchange of f-pawns?) that took the dynamic potential out of the position?

The rest of the game is pretty straightforward, but I will give it for the benefit of my blog readers. I like the confidence that you had in your ability to win the knight endgame, so that you were not afraid to offer queen trades. To me this shows an unusual maturity for an 11-year-old!

After 32. g5?? the game concluded 32. … h5! 33. Qf4 Qb1 34. Nd2? Qd3+?! (A slight inaccuracy, as 34. … Qg1+ is completely winning. But Black has a plan, and instead of winning material he just sticks to the plan.) 35. Nf3 Ne7 36. Qc1 Nf5+ 37. Kf2 Qc4! 38. Qd2 g6 39. Qa5 Qc2+ 40. Nd2 b6! 41. Qb4 Nxh4 42. Ke2 Qc7 43. Qa4 Nf5 44. Qe8+ Kh7 45. Kd3 Ng7 (A nice, unassailable formation for Black’s kingside pieces) 46. Qf8 Qd7 47. Qd6 Qb5+ 48. Kc2 h4 49. Qf8 Qe2 50. Qf3 Qxf3 51. Nxf3 Nf5 52. Kd3 h3 53. Kc3 Kg7 (Even here Black could have played his eventual winning plan of 53. … Ng3. But he is in no hurry, and takes his time to improve his king position before proceeding.) 54. Kd3 Kf7 55. b3 Ke7 56. Kc3 Kd7 57. Kd3 Kc6 58. Kc3 Ng3 59. Nh2 Ne4+ 60. resigns.

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to take a look at this game again. My readers and I will be interested in your thoughts!

Yours truly,


P.S. (Added April 29.) Congratulations on your win in the Ultimate Blitz Challenge! I hope you enjoy your short breather from the tournament grind.

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Annual Report Card — Most Popular Posts

April 25, 2016

About once a year I like to take a look at my blog stats, just to see what is happening. What are my most popular posts all-time? What are the most popular ones recently? The all-time list never changes very much — it’s always the same post at the top, and the same one in […]

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Straight Outta Delaware

April 19, 2016

Today was Tuesday, my regular day for Aptos Library chess club. A photographer came to take some pictures, because the library is preparing promotional material for a bond measure to support the public libraries in Santa Cruz. They wanted pictures of the good things that the library does for the community, and they sure picked the right […]

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Do Superhuman Moves Exist?

April 12, 2016

In my last post I asked readers for examples of games with “two shining moments” — in other words, one fantastic, seemingly game-winning move for each player. Mike Splane sent me a link to a game he played against Agnis Kaugars in 1993 that meets the description — and more! Both players were balancing over a […]

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Two Shining Moments

April 5, 2016

This will be a mostly off-topic post, for which I apologize, but I’ll bring it back to chess at the end. If you’re a college basketball fan in the U.S., you know what the title is about. Every year, at the end of the NCAA men’s basketball championship, the producers put together a montage of […]

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My First Hook!

March 29, 2016

Last weekend I played a 7-minute game that combined three of the things that I am best known for: the Bird Variation of the Ruy Lopez, the Hook and Ladder Trick, and … losing on time. Although I have written about the Hook and Ladder Trick many times and recorded a ChessLecture on it, I believe this […]

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And the challenger is…

March 28, 2016

In case you didn’t see it on any of the zillions of other chess news sites on the Internet, the Candidates Tournament in Moscow ended today with a clear winner: Sergei Karjakin. Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana entered the final round tied for first with 7½ points out of 13, and by a stroke of good […]

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Penultimate Round in Candidates

March 27, 2016

Let me start with an apology. I haven’t been following the Candidates’ Tournament in Moscow very closely — in particular, I haven’t been watching the live broadcasts, although I have been reading about the games on afterwards. I guess my apathy is partly because it seems to be all the “usual suspects” playing, and […]

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Sensational Chess Club Battle

March 23, 2016

At present the two strongest players in the Aptos Library Chess Club are named Luke and Alex. It’s so interesting to watch them play, because they have contrasting strengths. I think Luke overall has a more solid understanding of the game. He has actually done some reading on his own. I don’t think Alex ever […]

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