The quest for a third IM norm

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
1/4/2020 – Improving one's chess rating is a tough task at every level, especially when one reaches an apparently insurmountable plateau. As we go up the rating ladder, things only get more difficult, as Anatole Vlachos (pictured) and Thal Abergel explain in this article by DHANANJAY KHADILKAR. A look into what it takes to go from FM to IM, and from IM to GM. | Photo: Dhananjay Khadilkar

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“If I put in a lot of work, it is possible”

It was a frustrating wait for Anatole Vlachos to get his third International Master (IM) norm. The 17-year-old Fide Master (FM) could have done it in July and September last year. However, in both the tournaments, he lost the must-win last round games which prolonged his wait for the final IM norm. He was therefore doubly determined and motivated to cross that milestone at the Grand Prix tournament in Cap d’Agde. But he almost didn’t make it again.

Vlachos began the tournament well by scoring three points in four rounds that included a draw each against a Grandmaster (GM) and an International Master. But, from round five, things started going south for him.

“I lost in round five because of a tactical blunder. But I wasn’t too affected by it as sometimes you get a bad round in a long tournament”, he says.

However, the fifth round loss wasn't an oddity. In the sixth round, he was in a completely losing position against Tsveta Galunova (2144). “I somehow managed to trick my opponent and win the game. After this encounter, I realized that in order to get the third IM norm, I needed to raise my game”.

But his form didn't improve in the next two matches as Vlachos’ opponent accepted a draw offer in the seventh round from a winning position, while in the eighth Vlachos again managed to win after being in a slightly worse position.

He got into his stride in the ninth and the final round of the tournament. “This was one of my better performances. I played really well and won convincingly”, he says. The victory in the ninth round helped him claim the third IM norm, one and a half years after he had claimed his first. 

“It took a lot of effort to reach this goal. One key element has been my regular online play. I spend two hours a day playing on the internet. For the past three months, I have also started taking lessons from a new coach (GM Iossif Dorfman, who was Garry Kasparov’s second for the Kasparov-Karpov world championship matches)”, he says. 

Julien Sohier, Anatole Vlachos

Anatole Vlachos, playing White against FM Julien Sohier, during the 28th Sevres Open | Photo: Dhananjay Khadilkar

Vlachos says that while becoming a FIDE Master is not very difficult, the leap from FM to IM is an entirely different ball game. “Before becoming FM, the games weren't that serious. Though it was a goal to achieve, I played mostly for fun. However, the way to the three IM norms was much tougher because you cannot lose to a 2200 player nor draw against a 2100 opponent. This is what Grandmasters do. They never lose against non-GMs. It's the same for IMs”.

Hard work and a positive mindset have been key elements in Vlachos' progress. “I don’t put pressure on myself when I am playing an IM or a GM. For me, it’s just like playing against a random player”.

Vlachos says that the level of confidence one has when facing a lower-rated opponent should be maintained against a higher-rated one. “When playing against GMs, many players aim for a draw. They exchange all the pieces but many times lose in the endgame”, he says.

He also mentions that one shouldn't give up the goals despite suffering some setbacks. “For example, I had a stroke of luck in the Cap d’Agde tournament and got my IM norm. But this has balanced the bad luck I experienced in earlier tournaments”, he says.

One important lesson Vlachos has learned from the Cap d’Agde tournament is to work more on building a better opening repertoire. He is hoping that this endeavour and the further sharpening of a couple of areas of his game could help him achieve the coveted GM title in two years.

“My coach thinks it will be at least three years before I become a GM. But, personally, I want to reach that milestone in two years. If I put in a lot of work, it is possible”.

 

A win by Vlachos from the 2018 Greek Youth Team Championship

“A GM is a more complete player”

French Grandmaster Thal Abergel says the difference between an IM and a GM is that “the latter has less big weaknesses". 

“A GM is more solid. He/She is a more complete player and has more of something than an IM. For example, some IMs could be lacking fighting spirit, some may lack strategic understanding or have endgame weaknesses”.

Abergel, who didn’t hold an FM title before becoming an IM, contends that the journey from IM to GM is much tougher than from FM to IM. 

“I became an IM in 2003 and a GM five years later. I realized that just having a fighting spirit, which was my forte as an IM, wasn’t enough. I had to work more on my openings. Then there was a problem with some of the basics: how important is the centre, how important is the space, which piece should or should not be exchanged in different positions. I had to raise that part of my game on my to become a GM”, he said. 

Thal AbergelAbergel says that the IM-GM jump is also more challenging than the one from FM to IM because of the Elo factor. "To become an IM from FM, you need a rating of 2400 and three performances of 2450. Also, you have a coefficient of 20 in this category which means you can get 18 or 19 points on beating a much higher rated opponent”. 

“But from IM to GM, the coefficient is 10, i.e. you gain 8 or 9 points on beating a top GM. On top of that, you have to not only reach a rating of 2500 but also do so with three performances of 2600 and above. That is mighty tough”, he says.

Abergel also points out that as a GM he sees the same position differently compared to when his rating was 2300. 

“As a 2300 (FM level) player, when I used to have good positions or a possibility of an attack, there would be a surge in emotions. My heart used to beat faster and I felt the pressure of winning. But as a GM, I see positions more calmly and with less emotion. Before embarking on an attack, I check the safety of my king, consolidate my advantage and only then decide if I should shake things up or continue smoothly and slowly”, he says.

He adds that before becoming an IM, he used to think he was in a better position most of the time. “In reality, in many instances, I was a bit worse. But if you think you are better in such situations, it’s a problem because your focus will be on how to win instead of thinking how to equalise”.

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Dhananjay is a Paris based journalist and a chess enthusiast. While he enjoys playing the game, he is more fascinated by the drama and history associated with it.

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