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On Chess: Norm hunting at the SPICE Cup

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2013: Beyond the St. Louis Chess Club and the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End, another important contributor to St. Louis’ thriving chess scene is the presence of GM Susan Polgar, one of the most recognizable women in the game and the coach of Webster University’s national championship team.
Much can be said about Polgar and her profound impact on chess, but one of a dozen talking points is SPICE – that is, the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence – which focuses on the gap between scholastic and adult chess.

One of the program’s highlights is the SPICE Cup, an annually elite event that Webster hosted recently. What keeps the SPICE Cup such a highlight is not just the event’s global prestige, but the chance for aspiring stars to earn a rare stripe.

A “norm” in chess is a term easily referred to in discussion, but not always understood – and no easier to achieve. Receiving a norm in chess is like receiving a badge, one that denotes a player’s performance in a specific high-level event, which is seen as milestones for players to attain titles.

The first titles to chess players are awarded simply through rating, a four-digit number that represents your strength and adjusts based on tournament wins and losses. Achieve a rating of 2200, and you become a Candidate Master (CM). Hop up to 2300, and you’re a FIDE Master (FM). FIDE is the international governing body of chess, and there are thousands of FMs around the world today.

The real separation comes for those who don the next titles, that of International Master (IM) and eventually Grandmaster (GM), which not only require a rating threshold but also a collection of three norms.

To say the least, these norms are difficult to obtain – I mentioned last week that freshly awarded GM-elect Irina Krush spent 12 years between her first and second GM norm – and resistance goes beyond bishops and knights. Each norm must be approved by FIDE, which maintains strict guidelines on what constitutes a norm event.

The basic threshold is scoring a certain amount of points in an event with a certain amount of rounds – a quality performance – against a collection of titled opponents. If you want to be an IM, you have to prove you can hang with other IMs – three times. And three more times against even more elite competition for the GM title.

If it’s not already difficult enough to find a high-level tournament using players from a pool that consists of only a couple thousand around the globe, it’s even more so for aspiring players in chess-starved countries like America. “Norm events” are few and far between around the states, usually prompting the motivated to seek opportunity over the oceans, amid more-active chess scenes. GM Daniel Naroditsky was an IM when he won the U.S. Junior crown this past summer, then he spent a month traveling around Spain to bag his new title by hitting up several consecutive norm events on a hot streak.

So an event like the SPICE Cup, promising a here-at-home opportunity for players to earn their badges, gets circled twice on the calendar. This year’s tournament cast featured nearly 40 international titled players and was headlined by the performances of Canadian IM Raja Panjwani, who earned his first GM norm, as well as IM Kayden Troff, who tied for first and earned his second GM norm.

Troff, 15, earned his first GM norm in the Central West End at the U.S. Championship this summer, after earning one of his IM norms at the SPICE Cup here in town last year – it’s clear he likes performing in St. Louis. This sets the stage for Troff to possibly return in November, when the Chess Club hosts the 2013 St. Louis Classic, also a norm event.

Achieving a norm is a reflection on the player as much as it is the event, prompting the St. Louis Classic to have no entry fee for players rated above 2250 – all but begging the game’s best to fill the seats and defend the rarity of their titles. These opportunities don’t come around often.

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.

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