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On the Way to Breakthrough: Sarkar on GM Norm #2 Print E-mail
By IM Justin Sarkar   
September 26, 2013
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Justin Sarkar, relaxing from his active chess schedule at a karaoke bar.
Sometime shortly before the US Masters (held in Greensboro, NC), which was going to be my last big event for awhile, I was brainstorming CLO article ideas without needing an outstanding result to justify it with a big win. I've been wanting to write another article for CLO ever since my article on my “Golden Win” ranked as #2 in the Best of CLO 2012. 

There has been a lot going on in my life lately, from little things like learning the expression "shnoppety shnop" from Nigel Short (the most significant addition to the new Webster English Dictionary), to bigger life-changing events like the shocking death of my father 4 months ago just upon turning 66. Given my lackluster results and series of tough breaks over the summer in my tournaments, the chance of having a breakthrough event too soon seemed implausible. That's precisely what happened though when I picked up my second GM norm at the US Masters.

As for the tournament itself, I think I made the most of my extremely lucky break against Shabalov in round 5 to play fairly well in the final 4 games, including my final round win over Shmelov.


Special thanks to Alex Betaneli for an inspiring/motivational phone conversation helping me get back on track after a tough second round loss, along with other people who were rooting for me (including the organizers). Also look for some of my annotations from the US Chess Masters in an upcoming Chess Life Magazine article. Here I’ve indentified some components to my improvement:

Relaxing
I attribute my success to working on myself as a person outside of the game more than chess work itself. Becoming more comfortable and relaxed around people plays a significant part. For instance I had a nice time playing pool (billiards) with a couple of fellow chess players last month (upon conclusion of the Washington International in Rockville, MD). Even though had not played pool in a long time, the key was to have fun in a fairly interactive yet "low-key" type of setting, which was a refreshing change of course from the rigors of the grueling chess competition itself. In the future, I might pack a tennis racquet, as playing non-chess games with fellow competitors is a great idea. It's also a great ice-breaker for people like me who aren't extroverted.

Leaving New York
In February, I  temporarily relocated to New Mexico for a few months to stay with a couple of friends who generously gave me a chance to live more independently for a little while. Since New Mexico has little tournament chess, let alone suitably strong competitions, I realized that this endeavor might involve a true break from tournament play, possibly even going for a couple of months or more without competing in a single event.

Having been the most active titled player in the country not named Jay Bonin, this was a real change of course for me. I think many players who know me were getting curious about my extended absence and it seemed like various people from the Marshall Chess Club were asking one another "Where is Sarkar?" I was "in hiding" and felt willing to make this sacrifice of no tournament play in exchange for the potential benefits of being away.

Being away from home seemed to give me a great opportunity for self-reflection. I tried new things like weekly karaoke (giving me the opportunity to develop my singing) and even rode the Sandia Peak Tramway (the world's longest tram). I saw a couple of private students on a weekly basis.   I also went from watching virtually no TV to getting acquainted with and watching almost daily episodes of the Big Bang Theory.    

Giving in to the Bug
 I had an interesting idea of playing the Pan Am Continental Championship in Bolivia in early May. My friends in New Mexico really liked the idea and helped arrange the practical details (including getting a yellow fever vaccination). My original intention was to take a full 3 month break from tournaments and not play ANYTHING until Bolivia. However, by trying to take such a long hiatus from tournament play I almost started going cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

By the end of March I began checking for possible April events that were practical. One of them was the Cherry Blossom Classic held in Sterling, VA (near Dulles airport, to which there was a surprisingly convenient direct flight from Albuquerque), followed by the Western Pacific Open in Los Angeles, CA the next weekend.

I finished reasonably (clear 2nd) in the Cherry Blossom event, having suffered just a tough loss in the middle to a then mid 23 hundred USCF youngster (Sean Vibbert) who had a truly phenomenal 6-0 clean sweep against strong opposition!

My next event Western Pacific Open was a notable success of clear first with 4.5/5 in a fairly strong field.


Bolivia
The following weekend it was off to Bolivia for me. Overall Bolivia was a memorable experience. Something about the atmosphere including the people there (regardless of occasional language barriers) made an impression on me. The food was good if eaten in modest quantities, the fruit juices were delicious, the internet signal in the hotel room was so-so, and the mosquitoes weren't too much of a nuisance! As for my result itself, I was performing pretty well (aside from a true heartbreaker round 6 against the Cuban GM who ended up placing 2nd.


I found out the shocking news about my dad near the end of the event and ended up rushing back to NY.

Fighting Depression
Let me next touch upon dealing with depression, not because it's the most stimulating topic but rather to fill a gap. Although I'm undoubtedly far from alone in this world in my struggles with it, I can tell from vast personal experience that it's one of the worst feelings ever and a problem with chemical (not character), thus a true handicap and even unfortunate source of misunderstanding at times with people.

I'm living at home but seeking to move out. I've found staying at home to be a trigger for bad feelings, so I've been taking proactive measures to try and address that. There's no substitute for actively seeking to change the situation. One must decide to change one's thinking to get out of the quagmire of bad feelings. I know too well how easy and tempting it can be for depressed people to use depression as a great 'excuse' to slow down, to 'justify' things that happen to them, and not work on themselves! I can't overemphasize the significance of consciously working on changing oneself.

When you really think about it, surprisingly often change is easy whereas it's the resistance to change that gets in one's way. Depressed or not, it’s important to do what we love. And this is the key point: my depression eases when I play chess. Naturally, I am one of the most active players in the country.
Now left for attaining GM status is 45 ELO points along with a final norm in an event lasting at least 6 days. In addition to playing a few US Chess League games for my Connecticut Dreadnoughts team this season, I will probably play the Continental Class coming up next month in Arlington, VA.
  
Although each individual has their own unique set of challenges, hopefully parts of my story might serve as inspiration and hope, whatever your personal obstacles. I'm satisfied with performing at a high level in such a demanding mental game despite my particular difficulties (especially depression) and definitely feel like my pulling through with a GM norm was a real accomplishment, probably making the hardships and chess reversals leading up to it worthwhile. My dad would be proud. 

 
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