2001: A Chess Odyssey – Lessons Learned Making it to Expert

This month of August has been a crazy one for me chess wise!

On July 31, my rating was 1825.  3 days later it was 1952, and 8 days after that it was 2006!

As I am writing this, my rating is currently 2001.

You can see my rating history here: http://www.uschess.org/msa/MbrDtlTnmtHst.php?12718954

Tim_Brennan_Chess_History_GraphI had a lot of people congratulate me, and ask me questions, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts and “lessons learned”.

Note: I don’t want to come across as “bragging”.  There are tons of players who have made it to 2000, and way beyond that.  But it is rather unusual when an adult player does it.  Most of the players going over 2000 are age 25 or younger, not age 39, like I am.  Many players have it as their “lifelong goal” to make it to 2000, and I think that this is a very reasonable goal to have.

Lesson 1: You have to play

Now this sounds completely obvious, and it is, but it is also true.  Paul Anderson had predicted earlier in the year, that he thought I could make it to 2000, and I simply wasn’t playing enough.  I think that this was very true.  In August I went on a tear, playing in many different tournaments.  Some of the places I played just this month:

  • Colorado Springs Chess Club Downtown
  • Colorado Springs Panera Bread Tournaments
  • Brian Wall’s Denver Taco Bell 16th Street Mall Tournament
  • Buck Buchanan’s Pikes Peak Open in Manitou Springs
  • Fred Spell’s Monument Open in Monument, CO

I am lucky to live in an area where there are a lot of organizers running rated tournaments.  I could play a rated game almost 6 days out of the week this month if I wanted to (Monday is the only “off” day).

monument_open_banner So step one is that you have to get out of the house and play.  For some people this is not a problem, but for me, I actually kind of need a push to get out of the house sometimes. 

Lesson 2: It is better to be a “streaky player”.

The way the rating system works is that you get “bonus points” for a really good result. 

If you use the USCF rating calculator, you can actually see how many bonus points you got for any given tournament. 

For example, say a 1500 rated player plays in a 4 round tournament.

He his opponents are rated

  • 1400
  • 1600
  • 1800
  • 2000

and he wins all 4 of his games.

His new rating would be 1702, and out of that 92 points come from “bonus points”.

Bonus-Points2Now say in his next tournament he plays the same people (and their rating is the same) but loses all the games

Now his rating falls to 1635.

So there are no “negative bonus points”, otherwise his rating would be back at 1500.

So there were a total of 8 games – he won 4 in a row, then lost 4 in a row.  His rating went from 1500 to 1635.

Now suppose a different 1500 does the same thing, but this time, he wins one game, loses one, wins one, etc.

After the first tournament, scoring 2 points, his rating would be 1546. 

Then after the second tournament his rating would be 1577.

So both players won 4 games out of 8.  But one player ended up being rated 1577, and the other as 1635.

Why?  Because the streaky player got bonus points.

It is like bowling where it is better to get 5 strikes in a row, than 5 strikes, one on every other turn.

FFfredbowl1-720646So you can “exploit” this loop hole by getting lucky, having a really good tournament, etc. 

If not for the bonus points, I could not have got my rating so high, so quickly.

I went 4 for 4 at Brian’s Taco Bell tournament, winning against a 1300, 1700, 2100, 2200 rated players.  This got me 110 points.  Then at the Pikes Peak Open I went 3.5 out of 4 including two opponents rated over 2100.

The reason the USCF does this is because they don’t want players to be under rated.  They don’t care if people are over rated, because players like having high ratings, and don’t mind beating high rated players (even if the opponent may be over rated).  But players hate it when they feel their opponent is “under rated” or a “sand bagger”.

As Jeff Baffo said to me this past weekend, after getting blown off the board by an under rated player, “1600, my ass!”

One key is that to get bonus points, you have to play at least 4 rounds.  So if you are playing in a Quad, you cannot get these bonus points, even if you win all of your games.  So it pays to play all of your games, and not take byes, or early withdrawals, etc. 

The USCF also recently changed their rating formula.  So now it is easier than ever to get rating points, especially at the higher levels.  Who knows when they will change it again, so you might want to play some tournaments to take advantage of this.

Lesson 3: You have to believe that you can win

You have to really feel and believe that you have a chance to win each and every game.  If you don’t believe that you can win, then you really have no chance to win.

ditkawinI think a lot of stronger players win games simply because they are higher rated.  The opponent is defeated before the game even begins.  The whole game is just a self fulfilling prophecy.

After I got to 2000 in 8 days, including 3 wins against 2100+ players in a row, I noticed something very strange this past weekend at the Monument Open (where most people had heard about my meteoric rise).


Life Master Brian Wall said that he had never seen so many upsets in a tournament.

Fred Spell joked that they were going to change the tournament name to the Upset Open.

1700s were beating 2200s.  1400s were beating 1800s. 

There was even a 761 point upset!

Dean Brown for example picked up 142 rating points! Nice Work! http://www.uschess.org/msa/XtblMain.php?201308188472

Now, I am not trying to take credit for anything.

But it reminded me of when Roger Banister broke the 4 minute mile in 1954.  No one had ever done it before.  But as soon as he did, many other runners started to break this record.  Now there are high school students who can do it.

What happened was the Bannister broke their mental barrier that it was impossible.

By 1957 another 16 runners had also accomplished the feat. In other words, the sub 4-minute threshold was a mental barrier to a great many runners.

Bannister has said:

All sporting events are more mental than physical. You have to train the physical aspects for years. But eventually, even in the more complex movements, which have my respect, those who can pitch and bat or play golf and so on, the basis of it is laid down in the brain and the real question is whether the brain can be allowed to do its bit without being interfered with by psychological factors. The other aspect of the brain is that it must be positive.

I think a similar thing might have happened here.  People saw me gain a ton of points in a short amount of time, and thought “hey, if he can beat these guys, so can I!”  and they are right!

Lesson 4 – Eliminate dumb mistakes

I have played through thousands of class player games.  The thing I realized is that class players make tons of blunders.  Most games are not being won or lost because one player had a brilliant strategy or plan.  It is because someone made a dumb move, and the other guy punished him.


Don’t be the guy who makes the dumb move!

You can win a lot of games just because your opponent’s blunders, and you punish them.

The blunders your opponents will make are often mind blowing. 

As you may know, I am a big Pittsburgh Pirates fan (Major League Baseball).

Their manager, Clint Hurdle, said something earlier in the year, which really stuck with me.

He said:

We are going to be extraordinary at the ordinary.

I really liked this idea a lot.

Now a few times during the season, the team has been the complete opposite.

For example, about a week ago Starling Marte dropped a routine fly ball in the bottom of the 9th inning, which sent the game to extra innings, and the Pirates eventually lost. http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/pirates/martes-drop-in-9th-lead-to-14-inning-loss-to-cardinals-4-3-699253/

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals In your chess these types of mental mistakes, the equivalent of dropping a routine fly ball, can cost you games and rating points.

I tried to be “extraordinary at the ordinary”.  Not hang any pieces.  Not miss any knight forks.  Not miss a mate in one, etc. 

You have to not only find good moves, but avoid making bad moves and blunders, which is something a lot of people don’t focus on.  If I don’t know what to do in a position, I will just make sure I don’t do anything stupid, and continue to wait for my opponent to make a tactical mistake. 

When most people look back at a game, they look at what happened.  But you also have to consider what didn’t happen. 

It is like the famous Sherlock Holmes story, where Holmes solves the case by looking at what didn’t happen.  He realizes the dog didn’t bark, so the dog must have known the criminal, and he solves the case.

sherlock_holmesThe genius of Holmes is that he looked at what didn’t happen – the dog didn’t bark.  Most people only look at what did happen.

It is the same with chess.  Part of the reason I won so many games this month, is that (for the most part) I didn’t blunder!  I may not have played brilliantly or perfectly, but I also didn’t play foolishly or carelessly, which is equally important.  In the cases where I did make a mistake, either my opponent didn’t punish me for it, or I was able to recover.  I didn’t win every game, but I didn’t throw away games with silly mistakes.


Lesson 5 – no excuses

You can’t blame anyone except yourself when you lose.  I hear chess players make all sorts of excuses:

  • Well I just ran out of time
  • I was in time trouble
  • I just made a blunder
  • It was loud
  • I was tired
  • I fell for an opening trap
  • I had the black pieces two games in a row
  • etc

They feel that “losing on time” isn’t as bad as if they had got checkmated.  But the result is the same.  It doesn’t matter if you fall for “fool’s mate” or lose on time after 6 hours of brilliant play.  Either way it is a loss.

No_ExcusesYou have to make sure you are getting lots of rest.  Chess is exhausting.  I try to take power naps between rounds, even if I have to go in my car to do it.

Figure out why you are losing games, and correct that mistake.  If you are losing games on time, work on your time management.  If you are missing simple tactics, work on those.  Find the holes, and plug them.

Lesson 6 – Chance favors the prepared mind

After I went on this streak, I had some people tell me that I was getting lucky.  Some of my games were rather crazy.

In one game I blundered my Queen, but still came back and won.

In another a Life Master missed a mate in one.

So while, I was fortunate to win both of these games, with improbable circumstances, I also had prepared myself before the battle to feel I could win in difficult circumstances (against a much higher rated opponent, with a losing position, etc).

I knew the basic tactics inside and out, so when a mate in one presented itself, I was ready for it, and played the move instantly.

I had the right mindset, so when I got a bad position, I didn’t just resign, I tried my best, and made a miracle comeback.


Lesson 7 Tactics Tactics Tactics

It is no secret that I am a big fan of doing lots of tactics study.

I can honestly say that I pretty much did nothing but tactics to make my final leap to 2000. 

Things I didn’t do:

  • Play over Grandmaster games
  • Watch Chess YouTube Videos
  • Develop an opening repertoire
  • Study endgames
  • have a chess teacher or coach
  • read a lot of chess books

I am not saying these are “bad” – I just didn’t do any of these things.  To me it was an “opportunity cost” if I spent my time doing the above, it meant I was not spending that time doing tactics.

Pretty much what I did was look at lots of AMATEUR chess games, and look at the types of tactics that are happening in REAL GAMES.

I did this so I could put those tactics in my kindle chess ebook, e-mail newsletter, and because I find that kind of stuff fun and interesting.  I am currently working on a new chess tactics book with Anthea that should be out soon. 

I think by doing these exercises, it really helped me understand how amateur games work.  And the way that they work is much different than how Grandmaster games work.

I realized how many mistakes are made at the amateur level, and that even the “good” players are making lots of mistakes.  This gave me a lot of confidence, and made me realize that I could be one of the “good” players also.

I didn’t follow any specific “plan” like the Michael de la Maza “7 circles”.  I just worked on tactics every day on a consistent basis.

I think that writing about tactics helped deepen my understanding as well.

I don’t think that doing a ton of tactics is the only way to get to 2000.  I know several 2000 players who are fairly weak tactically.  But it did work for me, and I think it can work for most people.  You might not get to 2000, but you can get higher than you are now.

So overall, it has been a really fun experience.  I am not sure how much further I can go on a “tactics only diet”, but I will continue the experiment for now.  If I get stuck, I might try some other things.

If you have any questions, feel free to post them below!  Be sure to check out my book, and sign up for my e-mail newsletter below, if you haven’t already!


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