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Kostya on Norm #1: Staying Present Print E-mail
By Kostya Kavutskiy   
November 18, 2014
Kostya Kavutskiy, Photo Paul Truong

"The first norm is always the hardest." - If I had to count the number of titled players who've said this to me over the past few years, I'd run out of fingers. Fortunately, I recently earned my first IM-norm at the 2014 Spice Cup Open (October 21-26), organized by Susan Polgar and Paul Truong, who run the wildly successful SPICE program at Webster University.

I hope the above sentiment turns out to be true as I've been chasing this first norm for a couple of years now. There were a few close calls, but the closest was the 2013 Spice Cup, where I posted a performance above 2450 yet missed the foreign player requirement by exactly one. Honestly, I had completely forgotten about last year's "tragedy", gripped by the notion that if I should continue to play at IM-level, the norms would come eventually.

Moreover, my unabashed goal is to become a Grandmaster, meaning short-term results aren't as important to me as the long-term process itself - learning from mistakes, expanding my knowledge, and working to reach my full potential. Nevertheless, I was thrilled and relieved to finally get this first norm, a stubborn road block. The praise I received from both chess playing friends and non-chess playing friends was lovely as well, so I'm grateful for that.

Ironically, after writing the well-received piece "Breaking 2366", which was about breaking out of my first chess slump (and earned #3 in that year's Best of CLO honors), I fell into yet another chess slump!! This one was different - previously my issue was failing to realize that improvement would become exponentially more difficult as I got better and faced stiffer competition. This time (meaning the last few years), my play became inconsistent, to put it mildly. My level of play in any given tournament ranged from 2000-2500, often starting strong and finishing poorly. I'd blown a lot of games with silly blunders, and rating points gained in one tournament were lost in the next.

My performance at the Spice Cup seems like a fairly peachy sign for the future. I'd describe my play as solid, but unspectacular -- My final score was 5/9, good for a performance of 2474. Here are two wins that contributed to my result. I didn't have to do anything special to win either, it was rather a case of my opponents not playing their best:



The organization at the Spice Cup was fantastic, and I would strongly recommend the tournament for any norm-seekers out there. Susan and Paul put in a lot of effort to run the event.

The SPICE Cup norm-earners with GM Susan Polgar, Photo Paul Truong

The field itself was incredibly strong, with twelve GMs (most representing Webster) and many IMs in attendance. Last year's co-winner GM Kayden Troff started out brilliantly, scoring 5.5/6 with wins against top seeds GM Le Quang Liem and GM Ray Robson. Kayden then to Webster freshman and fellow prodigy GM Ilya Nyzhnyk, who ended up winning the overall event.




Also congrats to FM Safal Bora, who earned an IM norm and IM Razvan Preotu, who earned his second GM norm. Full results can be found here: http://chess-results.com/tnr149389.aspx

Kayden Troff, Photo Paul Truong

Keeping up the tradition of my articles, I'd like to offer some practical chess advice:

Stay Present

What I mean by this is, don't get lost in thought. There's this misconception that when a chess player takes a deep, long think, they're going to come out of it with some epiphany about the position at hand. I believe this is rare and a more likely scenario is that a long think will lead to errors. In my experience I often found myself lost in thought at the board, only to later be baffled by my play and assign many of my moves an annotation of "what in the world was I thinking here?". If I looked at many of those positions with "fresh eyes", meaning if the position was shown to me for the first time, I would probably find the best move (or at least a good move) quite quickly.

I remember Nakamura saying something similar during the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, criticizing moves he made after spending 15-20 minutes at the board, lost in thought.

When we're too concrete and get lost in thought we tend to miss the forest from the trees.

Keep things simple

 Try to make use of your pieces and pawns in the most effective way possible. Depending on the opening you played the position will range from dull and simplified to extremely sharp. The sharper the position, the more concrete you need to be in your calculation. If the position is quiet, look for a natural, strategic plan (gain space, improve your pieces, etc). Remember that you're playing against a fellow human being - most chess players make each of their moves with some rational idea in mind...try to figure out what that may be!

If you feel you're facing a critical moment, take a deep breath. In fact, take two breaths. Spend twenty seconds and focus on your breathing. This will ground you, and then you can reacquaint yourself with the position. After coming up with some candidate moves, put yourself in your opponent's shoes. Empathize. What would you really do in response to each of the candidate moves/ideas you've selected? Then go from there. I believe this process is the best way to limit crass blunders, and so far it's been working for me.

Take the Pressure Off

The event took place in Saint Louis, my home for 2013, which gave me a chance to reunite with my pals from Lindenwood University. Having something to do other than chess during a tournament can often be distracting, but it can also be beneficial to spend time with close friends, have some laughs and take pressure off of the event. This was definitely my experience here...norm or not, I was happy just to come.

With that, I continue the norm hunt at the CCSCSL Invitational, which starts in just one week and coincides with an exciting match between super-GMs Levon Aronian & Hikaru Nakamura. Until my next slump, so long!