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On Chess: Johnny B. good enough for GM norm

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2013 - Friday didn't look so black for John Bartholomew. The 26-year-old International Master picked up chess’ hottest item before the holiday rush this year: his first Grandmaster norm, last week at the St. Louis Classic.

The annual event, put on by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, is designed to award these norms, or milestones toward earning chess’ highest titles IM (international master) and GM (grand master.) Per the requirements of FIDE, the world’s governing body of chess solely in charge of awarding both titles, a player must not only pass a rating threshold but also collect three quality performances in high-level tournaments. These norms are as much a reflection of the player – who must ultimately execute – as they are the event, which must pass several strict guidelines for FIDE recognition.

In a nutshell, a norm is earned by a player who scores at least 6.5 points out of 9 rounds, against a field with an average rating of 2450. Three of those opponents, however, must already be wearing the title you seek – proving you can hang – and four of those opponents must represent different federations, acknowledging the title’s global recognition.

There are several other technicalities, creating a myriad of hoops to jump through for norm qualification – many factors that are outside the player’s control. Large “open” tournaments with big prize funds often draw a hefty number of nationalities and title-seeking players, but the randomness of pairing systems never guarantees the norm prerequisites of your opponents.

This puts on a pedestal those norm-oriented “closed” tournaments, such as the St. Louis Classic, which hand-picked 20 players for two round-robin pools, designed to qualify for both IM and GM norms.  

“It happens a lot in Open tournaments: everything goes correctly, but you still don’t make the norm – because you don’t face enough titled players, or you don’t hit that average,” said the Minnesota-based Bartholomew, who jumped at the opportunity to play in the St. Louis Classic, confirming within hours after being invited. “It’s better in a closed tournament, because you know exactly what’s on the table; it is organized with the hope that people secure those norms. It becomes enticing for everyone.”

Enticing, that is, for everyone who can get an invitation. Closed norm-specific tournaments are rare, not half a dozen annually around the chess-starved United States, prompting many American title-seekers to travel overseas to find opportunity. Perhaps the current poster child to the elusiveness of the norm is GM-elect Irina Krush, who spent 12 years between her first and second GM norms. She nabbed her last two this year, her third and final coming at the Baku Open in Azerbaijan last September. FIDE recently approved her as an official GM, but not before much debate over the technicalities of her second norm.

Krush, also the reigning U.S. Women’s champion, was in town for the Classic as part of the GM title pool – this time sitting on the other side of the title chase.

“It does feel different, in a sense there is not any pressure that way,” Krush said about playing specifically for a norm. “For me now, there is not much difference between a plus-3 or a plus-4 score, I’m just looking for good results. It’s very different than being in a position of someone who needs to make that norm and needs to have a great event. My approach is the same, but there is less pressure that I don’t need a concrete number of points.”

Krush, now playing as gatekeeper, lost just one game – to Bartholomew, who won the event and scored the minimum 6.5 points needed to achieve the GM norm. He also notched a win against Israeli GM Anatoly Bykhovsky, with draws against Hungarian GM Denes Boros and Brazilian GM Andre Diamant.

Of highlight is his fifth-round win over IM Justin Sarkar, where Bartholomew’s nifty 23. Nf6+ led to his opponent’s resignation six moves later.

“I don’t often win games with that attacking style of chess,” he said. 

Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.