Road to NM (an extraordinary National Open)

Road to NM (an extraordinary National Open)

Last year, I co-won the National Open U2100 in June with a score of 6.5/7, increasing my rating from 2063 to 2133. I worked to increase my rating over the next six months in hopes of attaining the National Master title, peaking at 2178 after last year’s North American Open in December. In case you didn’t know, the National Master title is a title awarded by the US Chess Federation to players who achieve a USCF rating over 2200. However, the next six months, with the end of a stressful junior year approaching, left me demotivated, as a series of bad tournament results tanked my rating all the way to 2108.

My six month tilt where I lost all hope of ever becoming a National Master

Nevertheless, I packed my bags for Vegas in time for the US Women’s Open, a side event occurring before the National Open. I was determined to make a comeback and get to National Master this summer, and I scored 2/2 in the first two rounds. In round 3, I thought I had the win sealed against WCM Sandhya Goli, and after navigating a difficult position for 37 moves under serious time pressure, I managed to get a completely winning position but threw it all away with one wrong move the moment I began to relax.

I played Ree8??, which loses to Rdxd4+!

I was devastated by this game and spent some time chatting with a friend, receiving some very helpful advice along the way, which will come up again later. Though I lost my chances to win the tournament, I focused on salvaging my rating points at the end, winning the last two rounds of the 5-round Swiss and finishing with a score of 4/5.

Now I braced myself for the National Open. Realistically, I knew that I had a very small chance of winning in a very stacked field of NMs and FMs and all these 2200 players as the 39th seeded 2133-rated player. However, I was determined to do my best and won in the first two rounds against an 1880 and a 2045, as expected (though the 1880 missed a draw opportunity in the first round!). 

In the third round, I faced FM Henry Contreras, my first encounter with a player higher rated than me in the tournament. This critical upset gave me the momentum and confidence I needed to continue my winning streak and eventually win the National Open.

After emerging from the merge round (where the 4-day and 3-day schedules combine) unscathed, I felt like I had a chance to do well in the tournament, considering that I had not survived the merge in previous tournaments for a very long time. I won against Timur Aliyev (2287 USCF) in the fourth round and swindled Brandon Xie (2168 USCF) in the fifth round.

He missed h4! in severe time pressure which would have been winning for him

I pushed my a-pawn to distract his rook, winning his h-pawn, and after Ke3? I went Rc2!, later going Rxc6, Rc7, and b5 to win the game

In round 6, the first round of the last day, I was getting more excited and nervous and had a lapse of concentration, blundering after over 20 minutes of thinking against French CM Alexandre Samuel Houhou.

Nc4?? loses to Rxe6+! With the idea of Nd4+ regaining the rook and emerging with an extra pawn after Kxe6

However, I managed to save this position, resulting in not only a draw but rather a win as my opponent fell into time pressure, messing up his position despite being up a pawn.

h4? Is a mistake because of h5! which freezes the pawn in its tracks, making it a target for my knight and bringing the evaluation to about equal

The nail in the coffin came when he blundered his knight, allowing me to win the game and making me the most undeserving player to ever win the National Open U2300. With 6/6, I was guaranteed first if I drew the next round, and I still had second place under my belt if I lost. I will let you find the simple tactic that wins the knight after Kd5?? in the position below.

My last game ended in a quick draw against FM Arvind Jayaraman, sealing my tournament win with a score of 6.5/7. I gained 100 rating points from this event, going from 2108 to 2208 and becoming a National Master in the process. Because of the USCF bonus system, I gained a lot more rating points than usual, as the system awards bonus points for outstanding performances. I cannot say that I had a particular game that made me a National Master like most other people, but I can look back on my performance and say that this is the tournament that made me a National Master.

A lot of factors contributed to my win, but I think the most important thing was my mentality (the second most important being luck). Because I played in the US Women’s Open right before the National Open, I got all of my mistakes and nerves out and was more warmed up for the National Open. I also tried my absolute hardest to focus on only the game during every round and didn’t think about my previous blunders or how close I was getting to NM, a helpful tip I learned from a good friend. Additionally, the momentum I had from winning multiple games in a row carried me all the way to the end of the tournament with a little bit (ok, a lot) of luck as well. As I was atop the leaderboard for most of the tournament, I was able to predict who I would be playing in the next round and could prepare for my opponents early on, which was very helpful since I am an opening-reliant player.

Reflecting on this tournament and journey, I’ve learned a lot about my own chess and also learned from countless others in the process. Although I still have a long way to go, I would say the biggest change I made that helped me reach my goal was my mentality. It was definitely hard when I hit a long tilt, but in retrospect, I realize that even when I lost games, I was still learning from them. I definitely came close to quitting at times, but I kept telling myself that I was bound to have a good result after having a string of bad ones. It takes dedication and hard work, but if you put your mind to it, you can become a National Master too. I hope you learned something from my experience, because I certainly did!

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