Road to GM: Not Broken
By FM Daniel Rensch   
April 29, 2009
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Daniel Rensch, Photo Rebekah Silver
FM Daniel Rensch writes about earning his second IM norm, and his plans to earn the Grandmaster title. He also gives us insight into an unexpected detour at the height of his confidence. Daniel is the president of American Chess Events, which is hosting the Copper State International (Mesa, Arizona, May 29-June 3).

In September 2007, I was 21 years old, I was a failure, and I knew it. At the age of 18 I had it all: I was rated over 2400 USCF and 2350 FIDE; I had won numerous National Championships through out my years as a scholastic chess player; I was a six-time All-American Team Member; and I was the captain of the Shelby School chess team for ten years (a team that won 11 National Championships during that stretch). However, during the summer of 2007 I watched myself (practically from another person's shoes) lose over 70 USCF Rating points and 50 FIDE in just three tournaments: The World Open, The Canadian Open, and the New England Masters. It was a summer where IM and maybe even GM Norms were supposed to come to me easily. I was supposed to pick up right where I left off...

The low point of my terrible summer of tournaments was a loss to someone rated almost 400 points lower in a line I know very well.



2004 was my senior year in High School and it was "the best" chess year of my life. I won the High School National Championship, earned my first IM-Norm at the Foxwoods Open, and achieved my peak ratings in both USCF and FIDE. Many people around me observed that Daniel Rensch's "Road to GM" looked more like a Highway with a 75 mph speed limit and no stop signs. 
 

 
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4
I decided to repeat my opening from the 5th round against Asuka Nakamura.
 3...exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.e5 Qe7 7.Qe2 Nd5 8.c4
AFter8.c4.jpg
8...Ba6
Black decides to pin the pawn rather than move the knight. [8...Nb6 9.Nc3 Ba6 10.Qe4 is another variation, but not quite as good because White is able to develop his knight to the more active square c3.]
 9.b3
White defends the pawn and plans on continuing his development. In this variation black usually has an easier time getting developed which enables him to target white's pawn on e5 immediately. However, because of black's permanent weakness of doubled pawns on c6 and c7 as well as his misplaced and out of play bishop on a6, white gets compensation.
 9...g6 10.g3 Bg7 11.Bb2 0-0 12.Bg2 Rae8 13.0-0 Bxe5
 
Black chooses the "equal" variation. This line to follow is supposed to be equal according to most books and theory, but, in my opinion and experience, white has all the winning chances. I spent the few days before Foxwoods (my previous tourney) preparing this line and playing the "equal" position over and over. During those few days, by playing blitz games, I was able to pick up many ideas. So, come this game, I felt very confident, and I knew that, with focus, this game should be mine... 13...Nb6 this is the other choice Black has at his disposal. The line would continue: 14.Re1 f6 (14...d5! using the pinned pawns 15.Qd2 Qe6 (15...dxc4 16.Qa5! followed by Ba3!) 16.cxd5 cxd5 17.Ba3 where white has a clear advantage.) 15.e6! Qxe6 16.Qxe6+ Rxe6 17.Rxe6 dxe6 18.Bxc6 where White has a slight edge.
14.Qxe5 Qxe5 15.Bxe5 Rxe5 16.cxd5 Bxf1 17.Kxf1 cxd5 18.Nc3 c6 19.Rd1 Rfe8

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20.Bf3!
White is preparing to stunt Black's doubled rooks on the open file by placing his knight on e2. White will then lift his rook to d4 and begin targeting the a7-pawn by Ra4. If Black is then put on the defensive, white will be able to relocate his knight and bishop to more favorable locations and start assualting the black pawns.
 20...Kg7 21.Ne2 f5 22.Rd4 g5
 
Black realizes White's plan and tries to disrupt it by attacking the bishop. I had considered this idea before I began my maneuver on move 20, and I continued to play quickly...
23.h3!

Simply stopping g4.
23...Kg6 24.g4
White prevents Black's pawn from coming to h5 and creates a future outpost on f5 (Ng3-f5 is now an idea).
24...Rf8 25.Kg2 fxg4 26.hxg4 Re7!
Black won't quit! He tries to continue threatening white pieces (the threat now is Ref7) in order to prevent White from playing Ra4, which would force Ra8.
27.Ra4!
 
I played it anyway because I had seen that my 28th move would hold my kingside and thus force Black to defend the queenside.
27...Ref7 28.Ng1 Ra8
In a practical sense, this was the turning point. For the most part, Black must create enough play in this line to stop white from ganging up on his pawns. Usually Black can do this by doubling rooks or threatening to push his d5-pawn; however, here he was unable to do either.
29.Be2
Now that Black's rooks are no longer doubled White takes the opportunity to relocate his bishop and knight to better squares. Right now the bishop is heading for f5.
29...Kg7
29...Kf6 30.Nf3 Re7 31.Bd3 White has all the winning chances.; 29...Rf4 30.Ra5 d4 31.Bd3+ Kf6 32.Bf5! d5 33.Ne2 White is winning the black rook.
30.Kg3
30.Bd3 would have been interesting as well. I didn't choose this line because of his opportunity to force a rook trade after: 30...Rf4 although if I had just continued with 31.Rxf4 gxf4 32.Kf3 where white still retains almost all the winning chances. I feared Black might try and create counterplay by a5 and a4, and if Black was able to win the b3 pawn he would have two connected passed pawns on a6 and d5. Because I liked the way things were going for me, as I was slowly forcing him back, I didn't want to allow any sort of change in the position.
 30...Rf4 31.Ra5 Rb4 32.Nf3 Kf6 33.Bd3
after33.bd3.jpg
White has succeeded in relocating his pieces and he will soon improve his position greatly by Bf5.
33...h5?
 
Black decides to force the issue. Because it was hard to stop the threat of Bf5 and Bd7 followed by the winning of Black's pawns, it is understandable, but h5 didn't help matters for him. [33...h6 34.Bf5 d6 35.Bd7! Rb6 36.Nd4 c5 37.Nf5 where White will continue to press on.]
34.gxh5

Now White has achieved a passed pawn, which will be all he needs to create even more of an advantage.
 34...g4 35.Ne1 Kg5 36.Bg6!
White will not let go of this pawn...
36...Rd4 37.Nd3 Rf8
Black leaves the a7-pawn in hopes to create some sort of counterplay.
38.Ne5 Rdf4 39.Rxa7!
White allows Black to capture on f2, but Black will soon realize that he has no way to continue his attack after that, and the position will soon be lost.
39...Rxf2 40.Rxd7 Rxa2 41.Nf7+ Kf6 42.Rd6+ Ke7 43.Rxc6 Ra7 44.Nh6 Rb7 45.Nf5+ Kd7 46.Rd6+ Kc7 47.Rxd5 Rxb3+ 48.Kxg4
The rest of this game was a matter of technique...
48...Rb2 49.Kg5 Rg2+ 50.Kh6 Rh8+ 51.Bh7 Rg1 52.Ne7 Rd8 53.Rf5 Kd7 54.Ng6 Ke6 55.Rf2 Rg3 56.Kg7 Rd7+ 57.Kh8 Rc7 58.Bg8+ Kd6 59.Rf6+ Kc5 60.h6 Kd4 61.h7

after61.h7.jpg
61...Rxh7+
This sacrifice might have been a little early but, in the end, it would have been unavoidable.
62.Kxh7 Rh3+ 63.Kg7 Ra3 64.Rf4+ Ke3 65.Rb4 Ra7+ 66.Kf6 Ra5 67.Ne5 Ra8 68.Bf7 Ra1 69.Bg6 Rf1+ 70.Bf5 Ra1 71.Bd3 Ra8 72.Bb5 Rf8+ 73.Ke6 Rb8 74.Kd5 Rd8+ 75.Bd7 Rf8 76.Rb3+ Kd2 77.Rh3 Rf4 78.Be8 Rb4 79.Bg6 Ke2 80.Be4 Kd2 81.Nc4+ Ke2 82.Rh2+ Ke1 83.Kd4 Rb3 84.Bd3 Rb7 85.Re2+ Kd1 86.Ne3+ Kc1 87.Rc2+ 1-0


Like many of my peers who competed at that level, chess had always come "easy" to me. I was light heartedly weighing the options of accepting scholarships to UTD or UMBC, or continuing life as a "chess professional" for a while, in hopes of becoming a Samford Chess Fellow within a year or two. Nothing could stop me, and my confidence bordered on arrogance with regularity.



In July of 2004, still riding high from the hot streak that carried me through the spring tournaments mentioned above, I headed off to compete in the US Junior Closed Championship in Lindsborg, Kansas. Despite playing the top half of the field to start, I was leading the tournament through the first 5 rounds of play. However, when I lost a drawn rook ending to Lev Milman (who went on to take first) in round 6, I completely self-destructed and finished with a mediocre score in the middle of the pack.



So no big deal, right? I had stumbled down the stretch of my second Junior Closed Championship, but I would have three more tries to make up for it anyway, so who cared... I gathered myself during the flight home, took a deep breath, and let chess go out of my mind. Feeling better, I let myself focus on the thing that had been bothering me since my trip to the Chicago Open two months earlier: My ears wouldn't stop ringing and pounding. Truthfully, I had been noticing some discomfort for sometime, but it was usually nothing that not swimming for a few days wouldn't cure (although living in the "Valley of the Sun", made swimming a practical necessity for most of the year).

When I got home, I finally confessed my ear problems to my parents. They admitted that they had noticed I'd become "hard of hearing" recently, but they figured I was just ignoring them (typical teenager). We decided that a trip to the "Ear Doc" was in order. There were no worries though, after a quick fix of some kind, I would be back to pursuing my chess dreams. Traveling the world, living the life of a "Chess Pro" on the rise, and surely winning the Samford Chess Fellowship along the way was inevitable. Being as confident and as self consumed as I was at the time, I never fathomed that any other outcome could possibly exist.

One month later, I was lying down "under the knife" for what would be the first of five major ear operations over the next two and a half years. The infections in my ear had, apparently, been eating away at my Stapes bones for some time (explaining my hearing loss, which was at 80% as my Stapes bone was almost completely eroded). The tumors, or growth, in both my ears had become a benign form of Cancer. Surgeries to remove the infection, replace my bone loss artificially, and install a Cochlear Implant (B.A.H.A.: Bone Anchor Hearing Aid) in my skull would be extensive and risky. I moved back in with my parents for what would become a "bed ridden lifestyle" for some time. I jumped in and out of the hospital over the next two years. The layoff between surgeries typically gave me just enough time to slightly recover, stay on heavy pain killers and medication, and then go "under" again. At one point during the age of 19, I was still the highest rated player for my age in the country... but that didn't last long, as I watched all my rivals and peers pass me in leaps and bounds. I would not play a serious chess tournament that required flying, by Doctor's orders, for almost two years. Lindsborg, Kansas, 2004 would be my last US Junior Closed Championship.

It was during this time, especially with my inability to "escape" on a plane to chess tournaments, that two things happened: First, the chess teaching/tournament organizing business my Grandfather, Steven Kamp, my brothers, Shelby School teammates, and I had started casually during our years as student chess players, began to truly blossom. Our local Master Trek tournaments (practically the only tournaments I played during this time period, as you can see from my MSA Tournament History) became known as the "best chess tournaments in Arizona". With a consistent draw of 2200+ players (mainly me and my teammates), American Chess Events, LLC tournaments became the place to play for Arizona kids really trying to improve their chess game. I picked up many private students during this time, and I began to fall in love with teaching the game I had played for so long.

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Daniel with his son, Photo Rebekah Silver
The second thing that happened during my forced leave of absence from the world of competitive chess was the best thing that ever happened to me. My girlfriend, Shauna, became my fiancé, my wife, and then the mother of my child. To put it simply, my life changed more than I ever could have expected, and it was now heading in a direction that could no longer just be about "Danny and his chess career." My business took on entirely new meanings, as did my expectations and reasons for becoming a Grandmaster.

Back to September 2007: But like I said, I felt like a failure. Regaining my playing form would certainly take some time after a near three year layoff, and surely I was smart enough to know that...but I wasn't. As much as I would like to think that I was mature enough to know that my chess accomplishments and bad games didn't define me as a person (especially given the way my life had changed over the last three years), truth is, I wasn't very mature at all. I still considered myself the child prodigy I once was. My bad results were devastating, and over the next year and a half I would mainly focus on family and business. Without regrets, I can say that that time was extremely wonderful and valuable; however, I don't believe that my opinion of myself as a "failure" of some kind ever really went away.

Chess had been my whole since the age of 10. Accepting the fact that I might not get the titles I "deserved", and certainly not in the way I imagined, was very difficult for me to do. During that time period, my wife, children (our second son was born August 2008), and supportive family helped keep me busy and remind me of just how wonderful my life was, with a growing family and business. In the end though, we all knew that at some point I would have to face the demons that waited for me "over the board." I would have to get back on the "Road to GM"...

Perspective is everything, and with perspective, it is easy for me to see now how destructive the "child prodigy mindset" was for me in my return to a chess playing career. In a "hype" and "media driven" society, many of us our made to feel that if we haven't "taken over the world by 25", then we have failed in some way. What I experienced over my "three-year medical leave of absence", if you will, was just as important, if not more, to my life and future as anything I ever achieved or won as a child chess prodigy.
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Daniel Rensch and Gregory Kaidanov, Photo Rebekah Silver

My approach to the game of chess changed, in large part, because of the guidance of two men: GM Gregory Kaidanov and GM Alex Yermolinsky.  Both have been extremely influential in my chess both on and off the board. Perhaps it was their words of encouragement (both saying important things in different ways) or maybe it was that both of those men seemed to "get better with age" during their own chess careers. Although very different in personality, both Greg and Yermo have a knack for seeing the bigger picture when times are hard for a chess player.



In any case, when I started playing tournaments again in at the end of 2008, my new mindset was simple: I would stop trying to make up for every game I had ever lost with every new game I played - in other words, I was going to focus on what I could control and let go of what I couldn't;  Secondly, I was going to accept who I had become, which was a chess teacher who loved and enjoyed his work and who had let go of aspirations of becoming a Super-GM and the lifestyle that required; Finally, I was going to stop being flustered when something didn't go my way. "I am now in chess for the long haul", I told myself, "which means that even if I don't make GM overnight, I plan to get better for the next 20 years, and my sights are set on being U.S. Champion at least once or twice before I am done :) (gotta dream right)."

My hearing has recovered almost completely now, and although it took over four years, I finally earned my second IM-Norm just a few months ago at the Berkeley International. I narrowly missed a GM-Norm by half a point (or a few performance points), but when you are looking ahead, you don't have time to regret a blown half point here or there. I plan to compete in several strong tournaments over the summer, starting with the Copper State International here in my own backyard (the first ever International tournament that American Chess Events, LLC has ever attempted.)





As I sit here and watch Kung Fu Panda with my son, Nash, for what could be the 80th time, I now know the meaning of what the wise old turtle says: "One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it"...

I know that chess, like life, is not easy. Most of the time, it is an extremely difficult and tricky game. Although I still struggle with bad habits of self consumed thoughts and self doubt when I have a bad tournament, most of the time I am able to find balance between what really matters in life both on and off the chess board. We all have different personalities, struggle with different things, and feel different senses of purpose in our endeavors. The bumps in the road, wrong turns, and flat tires I have experienced on my "Road to GM" have helped me to see the value in being able to play and teach a game that I love for a living. And when I look in the rear view mirror as I restart the car on this road, I know that it isn't broken. I realize that I wouldn't change the outcome of any of those stops along the way. Wish me luck, and good luck to you on your winding chess road!