So what does it mean to be a national master?
It’s kind of like a black belt without stripes. Then you have the international titles, your stripes, and then norm-based titles like international master and grandmaster. That would definitely be a lifetime achievement.
When did you first get involved in chess?
Well, my dad first taught me when I was about 5, but I really got into it around eighth or ninth grade. I remember playing with a friend, and he kept on doing the four-move checkmate on me. He got me a few times in a row. I’m like, Ahhh, how do I stop this? I think it was just that competitive instinct, combined with my dad and my brother playing and giving me a hard time, and I was trying to beat them. So I started reading books on my own and stuff. And I went to a coffee shop where the chess scene was pretty thriving. That’s where I met my first coach. He started training me and taking me to tournaments. I took a gap year after high school just to go as far as I could.
Chess is often seen as rather rarefied. Do you think everybody has the capacity to play?
I think anyone can become good. You just have to give people access. And it’s phenomenal for kids, because it’s fun and they’re absorbing all these concepts of logic and strategic planning: thinking ahead, having patience. And psychological things, too — everybody can benefit from that.
Is there a moment it all came together for you?
It was at the historic Marshall Chess Club championship in Greenwich Village. I lost three games in a row at the very beginning and was pretty mad at myself. Then I had this moment of clarity. And I wrote down every single thing I had done wrong. Maybe things I had done well, too. Just this relentless self-critique, probably four pages long. But that worked, because then I won five out of my six next games. And looking at that note before every game is actually one of the things that led me to finally break through and become a master, to find that flow where I began to play more consistently.
So if someone’s going in for the chess match of their life, what advice do you give them?
Don’t worry about your opponent. Just play the board. And to my younger students, in particular: Take your time. Your opponent is trying to exert their will, trying to make you play their game. But you’ve got to do your thing. That’s one of the key things that distinguishes masters, I think, just this inexorable implementation of [their] ideas. Because ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: a struggle of ideas.
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