Many people work hard on their chess. But while some seem to easily climb up the Elo ladder others get frustrated as they get stuck way behind. Only about 1,500 players or 0.3 % of registered Fide players currently hold a grandmaster title.
In this post, I want to shed light on the requirements beyond the board that are required to reach grandmaster level. Obviously, this post is not autobiographical by any means. Honestly speaking, I guess the gap between IM and GM level is enormous. However, over the years I’ve had plenty of experiences and feel that I got some sense of what it requires to become grandmaster.
It seems that they are entirely different personalities that took quite different paths to become elite players. However, they might actually have more in common than what we see on the first glance. I finally identified seven aspects that in my mind are crucial to reach grandmaster level.
You might actually apply these aspects to yourself and check why you are not a grandmaster (yet) 😉
I split those aspects into the two categories I. characteristics and II. environment.
You can only excel in your work if you are passionate about it, if you truly believe in what you do.
The above quotation sounds pretty logical and there is no exception with regard to chess:
The most basic characteristic necessary to become chess grandmaster is a true passion for the game. It’s not enough to just like it – you must be absolutely thrilled, almost be obsessed about it. After all, this is the key feature to create positive emotions and thus keeping up motivation to work on your chess permanently. Chess provides a variety of manoeuvres, structures, motifs or combinations that express its inner logic. With these rich and unique combination of elements it particularly attracts people that enjoy solving abstract and logical puzzles. You either get fascinated rather quickly or you will likely never do.
I remember when I started to go to the local chess club where I met many kids that were around my age. Most of them actually weren’t interested and spent the time chasing each other around the tables. It seemed that they were more physically energetic but didn’t have patience to sit down and think. Needless to say that these guys didn’t proceed for long and finally turned to other sports.
However, its excellent public reputation indicates that chess generally attracts a great amount of people including many who never actually got into it but feel its intellectual richness.
Once infected chess becomes a great part in . A good indicator is when you get emotionally strongly affected by your games and keep those emotions for days. What really makes me sure I will stick with chess for the rest of my life is the fact that I do love the game and it makes me happy to play and share the joy with other enthusiasts.
An illustrative example of what chess can do with you shows a current video below of our beloved Vasily Ivanchuk (although it actually shows a game of “checkers”).
If you just love the game but don’t get fascinated by competitive events you might actually become a very decent player but will likely never achieve top results. Although there might be different forms of motivation to play chess its very nature consists of a one on one fight on the board. What makes chess even more competitive by nature is the fact that it’s a mental battle with no influence from outside. In other words winning a chess game feels like mental or even intellectual superiority over the opponent. Strong players tend to be particularly emotionally affected by their games. As a result, this puts them into the position to even try harder to win more games and get even stronger emotional rewards.
A competitive attitude also enables you to mobilise the last possible resources in the decisive moments of a game such as time trouble. I actually think that you can feel the difference in body language at the board if someone is not ready to fight.
As an example of missing competitiveness I have a good friend who has played (competitive) chess for almost his entire life. Despite being quite intellectual and interested in the game he is stuck at a 1700 rating. He does enjoye chess but just has a more theoretical approach and doesn’t care too much about results.
Above you see a very emotional Magnus after his loss against Grischuk in the Blitz WCH 2015. Obviously, one should learn how to control oneself in public. However, it does show how incredibly competitive he is.
Even some of the very best players have the image of being lazy in terms of training intensity including World Champion Magnus Carlsen himself. But let’s face reality! Getting to the top means a tremendous amount of work! In fact, all of these guys have pretty much dedicated huge parts of their lives to chess from their early childhood. They all missed or sacrificed to a smaller or greater extent activities such as family vacations, friends’ birthday parties or just hanging around with friends. Instead, they’ve all spent many hours day by day, month per month and year by year dealing with chess by analysing games, reading chess books, using software or playing in tournaments. All in all it is a somewhat very specific and one-sided way of life a kid must enjoy and hence be ready to adapt.
You might have heard about the 10,000 hour rule in which Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson argues that an investment of 10,000 hours (equals 20 hours for 50 weeks a year for a period of ten years) of “deliberate practice“ is necessary to reach peak performances at any skill. Just imagine the impact of an appropriate schedule to cover this time. Needless to say that such an effort comes at a high price as you basically need to devote yourself to this one single area while other interests defer. Therefore, serious chess players tend to lack basic understanding beyond the board and often struggle in their private life.
I’ve occasionally heard people arguing everyone would have the potential to reach grandmaster level if they would just be pushing hard enough. If you read carefully the article on the 10,000 hour rule linked above this is essentially what Anders Ericsson assumes. In other words he denies there would be any other factor than training intensity to become an outstanding chess player. It’s a minority viewpoint though and despite the study mentioned in the article I personally feel it does not apply to chess in particular.
As shown above I pointed out that it requires certain characteristics to even get started playing chess. The 10,000 hour rule is a very theoretical hypothesis if you agree on the fact that many people don’t have the above characteristics that enable them to apply the rule. It’s a requirement as such to be physically and mentally prepared to invest those 10,000 hours which for “normal” people would be totally ridiculous. But even if you only choose serious players as group of reference I doubt it’s likely that all of them could potentially (have) become grandmasters. For example, a kid in a competitive training group that due to a lack of talent doesn’t improve as quickly as others will likely lose motivation and be further left behind. As a consequence he or she won’t develop the characteristics mentioned above to the necessary extent and will never become a strong player.
The video above shows Indian prodigy R. Praggnanandhaa (no surprise he has his idol in his name already!) showing his impressive win over GM Bachmann to chess24 front woman Fiona Steil-Antoni. Last year Praggnanandhaa became the youngest IM in history at the age of 10!
As with all sort of skills you’re a lot more likely to reach a high level if you start at an early age. This is particularly true for chess as the brain’s development has an enormous pace from the very beginning. The more synopses you build the better they get connected to deal with new incoming stuff. Therefore, it’s not surprising that hardly any chess grandmaster was older than 10 when he/she started to play while players like Carlsen and Karjakin began at the age of 5! I read about John K. Shaw and Jonathan Hawkins who had a 1900 rating at the age of 19 and later became grandmasters but these are very rare exceptions. Obviously, starting at such an early age comes along with serious questions regarding the children’s development. We’ve all seen those overly ambitious parents trying to push their kid’s career in a dubious way. I guess there’s a thin line between the needed support to let them unleash their potential and the often-selfish approach to push them without or even against their very nature. During the years I’ve seen many kids who were subjected by great pressure. They either quit playing as (already stagnating) teenagers or proceeded in a sort of depressing love-hatred relation towards chess.
Kids need a supportive environment to feel comfortable und thus being able to concentrate on chess. They naturally have a more sensitive filter for external conditions and therefore get even more affected by them. You might argue that even World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the documentary admitted that as a kid he was an outsider being mobbed at school. However, it is quite obvious he always had strong support by his family and especially his father who always travelled with him.
The term supportive doesn’t necessarily mean that parents or coaches have to push a lot. It is really important to let the kid unleash his or her potential though. Many parents have a very clear imagination about what their kids should pursue in their leisure time (e.g. forcing them to learn a music instrument) and to what extent. However, it’s hard to develop passion and competitiveness in one area if you are going for other things simultaneously and thus lack time and energy to improve.
I personally used to be part of a training group with players of equal age and strenth which I regard an ideal environment. We became good friends and spent much time together analysing or going on chess trips.
Professional chess education
Nowadays, you can find plenty of high quality material to improve your chess just by reading books, using software and analyse with an engine. In fact, I think it’s absolutely possible to even reach grandmaster level by studying on one’s own nowadays. However, a good coach makes your training a lot more individual and thus substantially more effective.
I have a very good friend who played chess for his entire life (not the same as mentioned above) with superb intellectual skills. Even though he recently became FM he seriously lacks a profound chess educations which you can easily notice watching his games. Often these type of players play rather unorthodox and have some very unique playing style with brilliant ideas that opponents struggle to cope with. On grandmaster level, it’s not enough to have specific strength (e.g. in certain types of positions) though as you need to have a profound understanding and skill in a variety of fields. Therefore, it’s highly beneficial to do some systematic work that a coach might easier provide you as you could ever do it yourself. It’s no surprise many grandmasters came out of the legendary “Soviet chess school” where a systematic approach had been practiced.
Although each of the characteristics or environmental requirements mentioned above must comply to a large extent a lack in one area can be compensated by other more dominant factors. Be aware that they all interact with each other in some way. As an illustrative example, passion and talent obviously help to improve quickly. This will result in better success and positive emotions that strengthen your motivation to continously working on chess with dedication. It’s all like a self-reinforcing process that once started can pave the way up to the highest title in chess.
As you can see from the aspects examined it mostly depends on the players’ characteristics whether he or she will become a chess grandmaster. Going for the GM-title is a tough way and we have all great respect for those who accomplished it. However, when heading for the title other serious questions arise such as whether there will be an adequate compensation that will allow you to make up a living by playing chess. There is a lot to be said about it but let me keep this for another post.
What do you think? Would you come up with other requirements? Please feel free to leave it in the comment section!