Tale of a Winter Rating Spike: An Interview with Matthew Herman
By Jennifer Shahade   
March 1, 2011
Hermanboard.jpgBetween a job at Goldman-Sachs and a new position at a hedge fund, 24-year-old Matthew Herman took time off to go on an incredible chess ride, raising his rating from 2149 to 2437 in just five tournaments. Along the way he also picked up two IM norms, narrowly missing his third at the Groningen Open in Holland. His achievements were even covered on the New York Times website, "Meteoric Rise for One Who Had Turned Away." 

CLO editor Jennifer Shahade first met Matthew Herman via John Fernandez, who suggested him as a under-rated player for the New York Knights. Jennifer, now in Philadelphia, caught up with Matt over the phone about how important talent is to success, what genius means to him, and his plans for the future.

Jennifer Shahade  (JS): Did you have a training program that got you ready for your amazing tear? 
Matthew Herman (MH): I give a lot of credit to the US Chess League, because that forced me to overhaul my opening repertoire. When we were on the Knights together, I was playing a lot of Czech Benonis with Black and getting a lot of frustrating positions from the openings.   I also did a bit of opening work-I had a lot of success with the Slav, and even some other openings against 1.d4.  I also did a lot of tactical exercises (Matt particularly recommends the book, Imagination in Chess by Paata Gaprindashvili.)

JS: I can definitely relate to having trouble against 1.d4! Why'd you pick the Slav and how'd you approach studying it?
MH: I was just getting sick of having no control over the light squares. I also thought the Slav was easy to pick up in terms of straightforward themes. As someone who plays the Sicilian, I found there is a lot of opportunity for the game to get sharp. You're not necessarily going to just play a dry game. I could have gone to KID, but it felt too much like the Czech Benoni and I was sick of not having much space for my pieces. 

JS: Many players take a small dip when trying a new opening, because in addition to not being as aware of the theory they may not be as comfortable with the themes. How'd you overcome this with such a drastic opening change?
MH: Well, I started by playing it in rapid games at the Marshall against guys like Rohde, Paragua, Lenderman.   I started with the 4...a6 lines in which, you can just sort of get "a playable position" and if you have a decent feel for the strategic factors you can get a good position.

JS: What were some of the highpoints, most memorable games and moments from the past few months?  
MH: The game where I really felt I was in great form was the fifth round in Philly, I beat Tom Bartell, who is a very strong player and usually very well prepared. I beat him in 25 moves in a Taimanov, playing a strong novelty that I found over the board. 

One of the games I was most proud of was the final game in Milan. I knew I needed a win to get the GM norm....I remembered the 24th game that Kasparov played against Karpov. The thing Kasparov did that was correct was keeping the tension. I built the position slowly and then sacked a piece. I ended up missing a mate in ten and drew the game, but still felt it was one of the most creative games I ever played. (See two annotated games by Matt, including this one, at the end of the article.)

Then there was a game from Switzerland in which I beat a pretty strong GM in Exchange Slav. That was great since it's the most difficult opening to play for a win. This was the peak of my form. 

Another memorable game, also from Milan was from round five. I had a good game against a strong IM.  I had a slight edge throughout.  If he offered a draw, I would have probably played on but would have considered accepting it. But then he decided he should win the game cause he was 350 points higher and he tried to flag me. When trying to flag an opponent, it's easy to lower your tactical alertness. I found a way to sack my queen and force mate in three. My heart was pounding through my chest.


Show Solution

JS:  Wow, what a great run. When did it all start? Who taught you chess?
MH: I started in 1994 when I was 7 going on 8. My dad taught me to play, he's probably around 1200 strength. I would lose to him every game, and I had the personality for which that was not a satisfactory outcome. I was going to continue to study and play until I could score against him. Then I started going to clubs and playing on the ICC, which was a great lab for developing my game. I probably played thousands of blitz games.

JS: When did you really begin to feel you were getting a lot better?
MH: The summer of 1998 was very successful. I won three class sections in a row, and at the end of the summer my rating was 1950. Although I did lose to you that summer, in the last round of the US Junior Open in Ithaca.

JS: Oh that's funny, I remember there was one other expert there, and once I beat him in the penultimate round, I felt pretty confident. I probably underestimated you, though that's not like me unless it's a MUCH lower rated opponent.
MH: I was only 1400 on the rating list used for the event so that's probably why. It was one of the only games I lost that summer. It was a fun summer. By the end of 1998 I was the number two under-13 behind Hikaru.

JS: Tell me about how it came to be that you entered college and graduated so early?
MH: A combination of really high SAT scores and a supportive family. My family was living in upstate New York. I think very few parents would be willing to send a kid across the country at 12 years old. If I did well (in college), I'd continue. If not, we'd re-evaluate. I ended up graduating in three years. I went to grad school, and pursued a PHD in math at Brown. I enjoyed it, but it brought to me a similar decision as in chess-where I realized academia was not what I wanted to do. So I started looking for other career opportunities after getting my Masters in Math, and then landed at Goldman as a strategist in January 2005. 

JS: How were you able to reach such a high degree of academic success at such a young age?
MH: I had a stay-at-home mom who was very highly educated and loved to teach (she went to Cornell pre-med and later got a master's degree). I started to read at around two years old. I really enjoyed learning. There was recently a Wall St. Journal about Amy Chua's new book on the Eastern style of parenting.

JS: Yes! The Tiger Mom style of parenting...
MH: In essence, I think she (Chua) said that kids are not motivated to learn, that you have to have a parent pushing. It's possible that's true in the majority of cases. But for me, I really enjoyed learning. If I was interested in a subject, I'd go to the library and read every book on it. I was doing that a lot at the age of 5-6-7.  

I was always one to speak up and my parents were really good at being advocates for me. Fortunately, I had the flexibility to go to a higher grade. Actually that was around the time that I started to play chess. I spent a lot of time on chess, six to seven hours a day, studying and analyzing-the same algorithm that I used to learn other subjects I would apply to chess.

JS: Did you ever feel sad that you didn't get to hang out as much with kids your age?
MH: That stuff is always a trade-off. It's not that I didn't enjoy kicking a soccer ball around with people my age...but it was always more interesting to me to interact with people that were at the same grade level than the same birth year. I spent a lot of time three younger siblings.

JS: Are your younger siblings also advanced academically?
MH: They're all very very smart. They opted for a more traditional route. One reason is that all three are pretty accomplished athletes. I was pretty good basketball player, my dad was a star basketball player. Both of my brothers played varsity basketball and my sister played varsity tennis.   All three are also doing very well academically.

JS: What do you think about the perennial debate between genius and talent?
MH: It's impossible to get to a high level in almost any discipline without hard work. It helps to start with a high IQ or however you want to classify it. However, you have to have both to get to the elite level. Clearly someone like Anand or Aronian is a genius in addition to a hard-worker. You can probably get to 2500 with hard work. I don't think you have to be a super-genius to get 2500. To get to the stratosphere, you may have to have some genetic disposition.

Still, I think genius is over-rated. It can even hurt...one thing I always had to watch out for was getting lazy, you have a slight edge because you have a good memory or spatial ability. There always comes a point where that's not enough, and you may not be prepared for the drop-off.

JS: Is there anything you can pinpoint that your talent for chess really helps you in that someone who put in an equal amount of work might have trouble attaining?
MH: If I could point to one thing, it would be the ability to make cross-applications. For instance a theme that would normally come up in one position, you're able to recognize it in another position.  But of course part of that can be trained by looking at a wider list of candidate moves.

JS: Does the word genius make you uncomfortable?
MH: I hate being called that. I think it's a word that has kind of lost meaning, because it's overused in the English language. Feynman and Einstein, I'm picking examples from physics-but it could be from any field, people who are creating revolutions in their field. They are seeing things that no one saw but afterwards is obvious. I see this as genius. I think of myself more as a smart guy who works hard and occasionally has flashes of insight.

JS: It seems that with your rating and recent success, the question of GM norms, not just the last IM norm, must be popping into your head. Are you looking toward that as well?
MH: Obviously you don't want to put the cart in front of the horse. But still, I think of the 27 games in Europe, the first 21 I was playing at 2600 level, so I think I'm capable of getting there. Getting the rating may be hard as getting the norms. A lot depends on how much time I'll have with my new job to focus on chess and get into physical shape and play myself into great form. When you go and play a tourney every six months, it's hard to do. You may or may not be in form. It would be great to get another chunk of time, probably 3-4 weeks maybe this December and get another chance to play back to back to back. As long as one does not run out of energy, it is the best way to do it.

JS: Interesting advice! I think a lot of people would guess that it's also important to practice on a more regular basis, like what they say about studying languages.
MH: Well, playing on the ICC may be a good way stay in holding form while waiting for the opportunity to really jump in.

JS: Shortly before Hikaru won Wijk Aan Zee Tata Steel Chess, he tweeted that your amazing rating graph was an inspiration to him. Seems like your inspiration worked!  Are you two friends?
MH: We talk a fair amount - during Wijk Aan Zee, we chatted about a few things. I didn't know Hikaru when I was a junior. I met him through John Fernandez, and we're all mutual friends. I'm super-excited about the success Hikaru's had. He has stepped up his focus on the game and it's paid off remarkably. It's great to have someone to root for.
Samson Benen, Matthew Herman, Jing Wang Herman and John Fernandez

JS: What do you think of Hikaru's chances to become World Champion?
MH: The bigger question is "What will the world Championship process look like?" I think Hikaru could easily be #1 in the World. He holds his own vs. Vishy. Against Magnus, that was a poor opening choice (by Hikaru at Tata Steel Chess), but he can clearly stick with him. I see no reason why Hikaru couldn't be #1.

JS: Do you ever regret not going the route of a pro chess player?
MH: It pops in my head from time to time. On balance, I'm happy with how things turned out. I am able to live in New York and support myself and I recently got married. At the same time, the reason I decided to focus on chess during my break, and am excited about the US Chess League every year is that I love the game. I feel fortunate that I'm able to play at a competent level and thankful that I have the time and opportunity to see what I'm capable of.
We close this article with Herman's annotations of two of his games from Milan.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Bc5 6.Nb3 Be7 7.f4 d6 8.Be3 Nf6 9.N1d2 Nc6 10.Qf3 Nb4 11.g4 Qc7 12.g5 Nd7 13.Ke2!?

Connecting the rooks and preparing to occupy the c-file.  The king is safe on e2.
13...b6 14.a3 Nxd3 15.cxd3 Bb7 16.Rac1 Qd8 17.Nd4 Rc8 18.h4 g6 19.Rcf1 e5 20.fxe5 Nxe5 21.Qf4 O-O 22.h5 Qd7 23.Rfg1?!
23. Qh2 is superior and gives White a sizable edge
23...Rfe8 24.hxg6 fxg6 25.Nf5!? Bf8 26.Bd4 Nc6 27.Bc3 d5 28.Qh4

28. Ne3 with the idea of going to f6 via g4 is also strong
29.Ng7! Qxg7 30.Bxg7 Rxg7 31.Kd1 Ne5 32.Rg3 Rc8 33.d4 Nc4 34. Nxc4 Rxc4 35.e5 Bc5 36. Rg4 Bxa3 37.bxa3 Rgc7 38.Re1 Bc6 39.Ke2 Bb5 40.Kf2
A great way to get the trip started!

1.e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nc6 4. Ngf3 Nf6 5. e5 Nd7 6. Nb3 Be7 7. Bb5 Ndb8 8. c3 a5 9. a4 b6 10. h4 Ba6 11. Ba6 Na6 12. h5 h6 13. Rh3 Qd7 14. Qe2!

Preventing 0-0-0
14. ..Nd8 15. Rg3 Bf8

Now the king is stuck in the center.
16. Be3 Nb7 17. Kf1 c5 18. c4!

Just in time; at this point I looked over at board 1 and noticed that David was giving Solodovnichenko a difficult time with the black pieces and knew that a win might also get me first place outright!
18. ..Nb4 19. dc bc
If 19. ..Nc5 20. Bc5 bc 21. cd ed 22. e6! with an even stronger effect than in the game.
20. cd ed 21. e6!?
21. Re1 is objectively stronger as black really lacks a good way to hold his position together, but I felt that with such a massive lead in development and black playing a Rh8 down, with many perpetuals as a backup, it was time to go for the jugular.
21. ..Qe6 22. Nfd4! cd 23. Nd4 Qa6 24. Nb5 0-0-0?!

24. ..Kd7! amazingly holds the balance after 25. Rc1 Rc8 26. Rc8 Kc8 27. Bd4! Kd8 28. Rc3 Nd6 29. Qe3 Nb5 30. ab Qb5 31. Kg1 Na6 32. Bb6 Kd7 when white has no better than a perpetual with 33. Qh3 Ke7 34. Qe3, but Tratar could not see this in time trouble and decided to "bail-out".
25. Rc1 Kb8 26. Ba7 Ka8 27. Nc7
Also interesting was 27. Rg4!? Qf6! 28. Bd4 Qf5! 29. Nc7 Kb8 30. Na6 Na6 31. Qa6 Bc5! and white should end up in a much better R+P ending after 32. Bc5 Nc5 33. Rc5 Qb1 34. Ke2 Qb2 35. Kd3 Qb1 36. Kd2 Qb2 37. Rc2 Qb7 38. Qb7 Kb7 39. Rg7, but who can pass up Nc7??
27...Ka7 28. Na6 Na6 29. Qb5 Nac5 30. b4! ab 31. a5 Ne6 32. Qb6 Ka8 33. a6 Nd6

And now, with the norm within sight, I somehow "forgot" about the Rg3 and missed forced mate!
34. Qc6?
34. Re3! leads to forced mate - one line is 34. ..Rb8 35. Qc6 Ka7 36. Re6! fe 37. Qd7 Ka6 38. Qc6! Rb6 39. Ra1#
34. ..Ka7 35. Rb3 Rb8 36. Qd7 Ka8 37. Qc6 Ka7 38. Qxd5??

Throwing away the last clear win with 38. Rf3!! when black's structure collapses.
38. ..Be7! 39. Rc6?!
In time trouble now the last vestiges of an advantage disappear - 39. Qd2 would have allowed white to continue fighting.
39...Rhd8 40. Qe5 Bf6

Having made time control, certain that I had thrown away a win, I now looked to salvage what had become an inferior position.
41. Qe3! Bd4 42. Qf3
And with board 1 confirmed as a win for David, I offered a draw which Tratar accepted.  This gave me a tie for first and the thrill of my chess life when every last round result broke my way to give me a tiebreak victory by 0.5 Bucholz points!

The trophy for Matt's win in Milan

Also read CLO's recent interview with GM Hikaru Nakamura, conducted by Alan Kantor.