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Studying in Extremes: Jacek Stopa on Making GM Print E-mail
By Jacek Stopa   
May 30, 2015
JacekStopa300.jpgJacek Stopa, who earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Texas at Dallas (2006-2010), explores his development on the way to the Grandmaster title, and how it interlaced with his journey to learn the Mandarin language. He also gives tips to players of all ages looking to improve.

I crossed the 2500 mark three times, but could not make a GM norm for many years. This situation is rare as normally the opposite is the case, where a player struggles for the rating rather the norms. A case like mine is usually because a player is overly solid, with a consistent performance netting small rating gains. But you still need to beat enough higher rated players in one tournament to secure the right performance!

However, I have never been a solid player and enjoy playing highly creative set-ups, even as early as move one. For example, back in college I had a one-year-long dalliance with the move 1.Nc3, played entirely for the sake of starting the game in an unusual way, which dove-tailed with my attention-seeking attitude at the time.

I came close so many times. True, I may been choosing the wrong events. For instance, I made >2600 performances without the right average rating of opponents, or not enough GMs/federations. I also made a 2590+ performance a few times. However, I now believe the most likely explanation for my norm drought is the pressure I felt in the last rounds. There were too many failures at the very finish, which weighed on me. Ironically, until recently I firmly believed that psychology did not play in role in chess.

My first norm came unexpectedly right in the middle of my return to Europe after an adventurous three years in China. Upon having received my Master's degree in Quantitative Finance from the Peking University HSBC Business School in Shenzhen in the Canton Province, I decided I needed a major break from my hyperactive lifestyle on the Asian continent. And what better way can there possibly be to have a break than to play a bunch of chess tournaments?

My trip companion, Kang Chuanqi, a Chinese chess club owner for which I taught for almost a year to support myself, told me on the plane that I was exuding a desire to play a rated chess game. Shortly afterwards, I found myself clinching first place at a tournament on Crete and finally scoring the norm. My preparation consisted of two weeks of heavily celebrating my University degree in the nightlife center of Shenzhen, a 25-hour long trip from Hong Kong. 

The quality of my games was not inspiring and I got lucky in at least 3 games. But I did play more relaxed than ever before and I did not care if I made a GM norm or not. The momentum lasted for another month and I ended up reaching a new peak of 2525 after a series of 3 successful events.

That was when I decided that I needed to finish the job and score the remaining two norms as soon as possible. Hence, I began to sign up for more and more events and, after some ups and downs, I got my third norm in Reykjavik in March of this year.

I believe that if I had not won that first tournament on Crete I would now still be an IM. Fortunately, the motivation came at the right time and maybe I got a bit lucky this time, as if to compensate for all those 2590 performances in the past years.

My studying routine became very serious in September 2014 and I realized that hanging out in bars was not going to help. There were some parallels between my new approach to chess and what I learned from taking on the Chinese language.  

Back in Beijing a few months deep into my first year, I had a moment of a cold chill running up my back when I produced a few fantastic sentences in Mandarin in a manner which had my Chinese interlocutor strain her eyes in disbelief. It was the first time I said anything beyond ordering a coffee, greeting a neighbor and the like. The girl was a very attractive student of Peking University and I was tipsy in a bar.

The reason I was able to do that was my studying routine allowed me to reach a very high level very fast. I would study in extremes, either from nothing to very little, or intense long hours of heavy memorization. On one occasion I studied for 14 hours straight with no sleep or food in between. My highly random schedule in China was very conducive to that. I borrowed the idea, in some circles referred to as a second order effect, from the brilliant philosopher of our era, Nassim Taleb. 

In chess, on the macro scale (years, not hours), I believe that my Chinese break from active chess helped me overcome some of my weaknesses from the past. In essence, rather than doing the same I was doing before, I had a new perspective to take on the same game I had played for many years. On the micro scale, I would either spend more than five hours studying chess on a day, or nothing. The point is to trigger a feeling of hunger for looking at chess in the days to come as opposed to let it become a predictable routine.

However, with chess I have not been able to develop this intensity to the same degree as Mandarin. Partly because I have been playing a rather high number of events which greatly reduced the studying intervals. Even if I had not been playing such a busy schedule, I do not believe I'd study chess in the same way: I expect I'd burn out faster.

What I love about learning Mandarin is that it is so mysterious and magical to me.. I do, however, continue to tinker with methods of chess training and believe that there are some good unconventional methods out there to take advantage of.

The GM title is not my ultimate chess goal as there are so many more levels to climb to. I hope the reader finds this useful. I'd be happy to hear any feedback. Till then, travel and play well.