This weekend, at the National Open in Las Vegas, I finally returned to the chess Valhalla: a rating of 2200, the minimum (and only) requirement to be a National Master.
Never mind that I’ve been rated 2200 before. Never mind that I am already, in fact, a Life Master (2200 plus five master norms). Chess players only care what your rating is now. And even if the certificate on my wall says that I’m a National Master, without the rating to prove it I feel just a little bit like a fraud.
It’s been a long time since I had a 2200 rating: 19 years, 10 months, and 3 days. Let’s put that into perspective. I started playing tournament chess in 1972. I reached a master rating for the first time in 1988. For the next seven years or so I bounced up and down, sometimes above 2200, sometimes below. It was never too hard to get over 2200, but I could never seem to stay there.
Then, on August 8, 1995, I played a single game in a match between two chess clubs. I drew against a class-A player, and that cost me eight rating points. I dropped from 2205 to 2197. I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. (I only know this because I can look it up on the USCF website.) Even if I had been aware of it, I would have assumed that my rating would soon go back over 2200 again, because it always had in the past.
But weeks turned to months, and months into years. The temporary pothole turned into a huge canyon of disappointment. I bottomed out in 2009, hitting a low rating of 2078. Even though I thought I was learning more about chess than ever before, I had to wonder if I was getting too old. Many, many, many chessplayers hit a rating peak in their twenties or thirties and then go inexorably downhill. In fact, I would say that is usually the case. So after a while it wasn’t just about trying to get my master rating back, it was about trying to turn back the hands of time.
Readers of this blog know that I have been gaining on Father Time for the last few years, and in January I got ridiculously, tantalizingly close to forcing him to resign. My rating reached 2199, mocking my hopes for 2200. In my next tournament, in April, I dropped to 2197. And that’s where things stood before this weekend.
The 50th annual National Open was a wonderful event. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s a huge tournament (561 players) but has a friendly atmosphere. After 50 years the organizer, Al Losoff, personally shakes the hand of every prize winner and gets his picture taken with them. Befitting an event held in Las Vegas, they shower the players with freebies. Did you score better than 50 percent? You get a free $50 gift certificate to the chess store. Did you win your game in the last round? You get to keep the commemorative set. That’s not to mention the raffles between rounds, the side events, etc.
But of course, the main thing is the chess. I decided to enter the under-2200 section, not the open section. My Facebook friend Mike Zaloznyy scolded me: “You’re a master. You should play other masters.” In fact, I do usually prefer to enter the master section. But I wanted to believe that this would be my last chance to enter an under-2200 section … for a long time. Maybe even forever! Also, I think that it has instructional value to be the favorite in every single game. When I’m playing against masters, I can get sucked into the psychology that just getting a draw is good enough. But in this tournament, I would be the highest-rated player in the section. Every draw would cost me rating points, so the pressure would be on me to win.
It didn’t start out very well. My first game was a draw against a class-A player. My second game was a draw against an expert. Those cost me a bundle of points. Realistically, to reach my goal I would have to win my last three games.
And that’s what happened! I went 3-for-Texas. Win against Travis Guenther from Dallas. Win against Duy Nguyen from Austin. And in the final round, I was paired against his cousin, Emily Nguyen, the #15 twelve-year-old in the country (and #2 twelve-year-old girl), in a must-win game.
It was an unbelievable roller-coaster of a game. The girl was as tough as nails. I got some pressure, and then an attack, but she wouldn’t go down easily. Then, just when I was on the cusp of victory, I blundered a piece. At least that’s what I thought for a few horrified seconds. But by some miracle, it turned out that it was the beginning of a brilliant combination! She had to give back the piece or get checkmated. It was a monkeys-typing-Shakespeare moment.
So we got to a rook-and-pawn endgame where I was two pawns up, but it was as technical as hell. I channeled my inner Capablanca and sacrificed the two pawns back to activate my king, while hers was trapped in a corner. She was forced to give up her rook to stop my passed pawn. And finally she had to turn over her king. Father Time had finally resigned. Yes, Father Time was a twelve-year-old girl named Emily.
It was easily the best endgame I’ve played in a couple years… one might say, an endgame played in true master style. Her coach, Michael Feinstein (who, in a small-world coincidence, is a friend of mine from when we were both at Duke in the 1980s), told me, “That’s exactly how you should play that endgame.”
So last night, I was feeling higher than a kite. Not only did I win a decent amount of prize money (enough to cover the hotel bill for three nights in Las Vegas), I was pretty sure that the tournament had put my rating back over 2200. I was like a kid who thinks he has aced the exam, but has to wait to see how the grades turn out. This evening, after I got home (a nine-hour drive), I logged onto the USCF website to look up my new rating.
The asterisks mean, I think, that it’s not official yet and could still fluctuate up or down. But in my experience, they never fluctuate by more than a point. It’s all done by computer, you know. So I believe I can say with a fairly high degree of confidence that my twenty-year quest is over. Now a new one can begin. Onward to 2300!