When I was interviewed for the Perpetual Chess Podcast a few months ago, host Ben Johnson described my path to the International Master title as a kind of 'hero's journey', and thinking about it I really had to agree with him. It's been a long road, with serious ups and downs and all kinds of adventures along the way.
It all started back in 2010 or so, I had either just became a FIDE master or was about to, and I began to wonder about the Grandmaster title. I had just started to follow top tournaments and learning the names of all the best players in the world. I followed the U.S. Championship (which had just started to take place in Saint Louis) and hoped to end up playing in the event one day. On the way to that, of course, was to become an IM first, which I thought would be a lot easier than it ended up being!
So I started playing a lot of these so-called 'norm tournaments'. A lot of round-robins and some 9-round swisses. I wasn't even close to a norm until 2012, when I needed to win the last two rounds against IMs in order to clinch my first norm. I won the first game, but not the second. I fret a little bit, but nevertheless this gave me the confidence to keep working on my chess, and I did. I then got another opportunity at the 2013 Spice Cup, when I needed to win in the last round against another IM in order to get that elusive 2450 performance. I did win, but then I found out that the tournament did not have enough foreign players, hence failing the foreign player requirement.
This time, however, I didn't fret at all. I knew that if I was strong enough to be an IM, the norms would come one day anyways. As it turns out I did earn my first norm in the following year's edition of the very same tournament -- the 2014 Spice Cup! I played well, faced enough foreign players and sealed the deal with last round draw against a GM. I was happy. It took me a year to gain Norm #2, at the 2015 North American Open. That was a topsy-turvy event but eventually I made it with another final round draw.
Then at the beginning of 2016 I embarked on a journey to gain that final IM norm. I played a series of tournaments in Europe and missed out on the norm by a half-point. I was basically as close as you can get without making it! Another miss in the 2016 Isle of Man International really put me in a dark spot. I felt like I was so close to the title but something was getting in the way. Fate, perhaps?
I finally made the last norm at the 2016 Saint Louis Autumn Invitational, held at the gorgeous Chess Club & Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. It was a fitting end--I lived in Saint Louis for 15 months to attend Lindenwood University, and in that time played a number of norm tournaments at the club. It made sense to achieve my title there. Having already secured the 2400 rating earlier, that was it! It was such a relief, I celebrated for a bit, and immediately started feeling this pressure of "OK, so what now?"