I Quit My Job to Study Chess for 7 Months and Beat a National Master

The lessons learned from 57 tournament rated games, 200+ hours of deliberate practice, and finding out who I really am in the process.

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Playing against 2150 rated chess hustler in Washington Square Park
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The beginning

I started playing chess casually as a kid with my younger sister. During summer break, my dad would bring us both to his computer repair shop and we had to find some way to pass 8 hours of time. For some strange reason, my dad had this glass chess set under his desk (even though he doesn’t know how to play) and that was where the story began.

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How far could I go?

I am fascinated by people who go “all-in” into their craft. Athletes, Olympians, fighters, artists, writers, you know it. They push themselves to their full potential and live and die with their results. I wanted to know for myself… how far could I go with chess?

Going all-in on chess

I didn’t get myself a specific deadline, although that may have been a wise thing to do in retrospect. But I was off to the races. I had all this time now that I was back in the states and finished the last pieces of my work contracts.

Solve Tactics

Some say chess is 90% tactics, basically spotting common patterns and seizing the opportunity to gain an advantage. You can understand almost nothing else in chess and be a decent player with strong tactical ability.

Play tournament rated games

This is what performance nerds would classify as “deliberate practice.” These games give you the opportunity to critically think about every move you make because of the longer time format. An average game might last 30 moves but a player can take up to two hours to make all those moves. Imagine you and your opponent make one move every four minutes, for four hours, for five games over the weekend. Welcome to tournament chess.

Analyze your games

After every tournament game, every chess player looks at their notation sheet (everyone must record their moves) and reviews the game in its entirety, to see how they could have improved. When analyzing, I’d normally pause at critical moments where I felt stuck to dig deeper into other variations that I didn’t have time to calculate or other candidate moves that I haven’t considered making. Only after you analyze your games is when you compare your notes to a computer, where they can instantly tell you the objectively best move, and promptly cry when your analysis is wrong and you are affirmed that you are not as smart as you think you are.

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Study your fundamentals

Winning technical endgames should be your first priority. Imagine that you have a king and a pawn vs. your opponent’s king. You both know that when a pawn reaches to the other side, the pawn can evolve into any piece they’d like excluding the King. Do you know how to successfully get your pawn to the other side and promote? Then do you know how to checkmate with a King and Queen vs King?

Mini Chess lesson before we dive in

During every game, players are forced to notate the moves that each person plays. Similar to Spanish or Vietnamese, chess has its own language that players communicate with. Bc4 means that the bishop moved to the c4 square on the board, every single one of the 64 squares has a “name” like from a1 to h8. Kb1 means that the King moved to the b1 square. Nxd4 means that the Knight captured a piece and landed on the d4 square.

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Game 1 — My first tournament game in 7 years vs 1915 player

I sit down at Mechanics Institute Chess Club, the largest active chess club in North America based in San Francisco, for my first tournament in 7 years. I’m playing a skinny Indian teenager that’s rated 1915 ELO. Compared to my 1459 rating, that is a solid 400 points higher than me and I felt incredibly intimidated.

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Game 17 — Playing a chess expert for the first time

Anyone rated over 2000 was like a walking miracle to me. How the hell did you get so dam smart? To a 1400 player, a 2000 player seemed invincible. But after my first win against my first opponent rated 1900 and a few close losses and draws against other higher rated players, I realized that they weren’t unbeatable. Chess experts were human just like everyone else. This game proved to be a wild ride.

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Game 24 — Losing to a player 400 points lower than me

I couldn’t sleep after this game.

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Game 27: Winning the game in a drawn position

Some new news for you: Chess games played at the highest level mostly end in a draw.

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Game 31 — Being too scared to push for the win against 1st seed

I’m tied for 2nd place in the 4-round weekend tournament. I’m in the final round against the number 1 seed, this kid named Priyadarsi that I’ve seen around at literally every tournament I’ve been going to. This guy has been competing hard and I don’t know why I feel so intimated by teenage Indian kids. Maybe I think everyone’s a secret prodigy or have some kind of gene that I don’t.

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Game 36 — Playing a chess master for the first time

You think playing a chess expert scared me? Imagine me paired up with a National Master, rated 2200!

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Game 39 — Facing the same national master I lost to 4 days later…

Who would have thought the chance to play a national master would be 4 days later at a weekend tournament. Not only that, but I’m playing the SAME guy. I had analyzed our game extensively over the last few days with my friend Luiz and my coach Eric Rosen. I had spent the week prior, analyzing his games preparing for our first match together. So I’ve been thinking deeply about this guy for the last 7 days and here we meet again.

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This hit me hard. Thanks, Eric.
  1. Pros Losing Really Quickly | Play Like a Pro — IM Eric Rosen
  2. Akobian at the 2014 Olympiad | Mastering the Middlegame — GM Varuzhan Akobian
  3. Ben’s Great Endgames… and Stories | Endgame Exclam!! — GM Ben Finegold
  4. Knight Studies — GM Maurice Ashley

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I value kindness, growth, and curiosity. http://www.tampham.co/

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