Many chess players dream of destroying their opponents and getting as high an Elo rating as possible, winning tournaments along the way, just like Bobby Fischer. Some may even daydream about facing chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen and giving him a run for his money!
Of course, it’s reasonable to say that most of us won’t be in a World Chess Championship match, but we should have chess targets and goals that we strive to aim for, whether that’s simply being able to beat a certain player in the local chess club, winning a tournament, or even trying to get an official FIDE master title, from Candidate Master right up to Chess Grandmaster.
So, who better to ask how it’s done than those who have already made it to the very top of the chess world? iChess sat down with FIDE Masters, International Masters and Grandmasters from all around the world and asked them the big questions: How does one get better at chess? What does it take to go from patzer to chess grandmaster? How much does natural talent play a part over simple hard work? Let’s dive into the mind of a chess grandmaster.
Nature vs Nurture in Chess
The first important question to ask is whether reaching the top of chess is possible for everyone, or only for those with natural talent. How can you become a chess grandmaster? GM Judit Polgar certainly knows all about hard work.
Judit is the strongest women’s chess player in history, and made it into the top 10 players in the world. From 1989 right through until 2015, Judit was the number 1 women’s chess player – a staggering record – and to date is the only women to have broken 2700 Elo. “You have to work hard,” she said, “no matter how talented you are. I believe my secret is practice, perseverance and passion about the game.”
The American GM Aleksandr Lenderman agrees that hard work is necessary, but adds that natural talent plays a part, at least at the upper echelons of the game. “If you want to become a top 10 player in the world, then you’ll certainly need… inborn talent, a lot of support; you’ll need a lot of practice and certainly hard work.”
GM Nadya Kosintseva told iChess, “I believe everyone who invests his time, his energy, into chess will be rewarded.”
“There’s this recent trend that’s been headlined by the publication of this book called Peak [Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool] and it’s all about hard work and talent and new looks at nature versus nurture,” said the American prodigy and chess grandmaster, Daniel Naroditsky. ”
Basically this book claims that in any kind of field of expertise, the role of nature is hugely overstated and talent almost doesn’t exist. Well, I don’t fully buy into that. I think that absolutely, talent does play some role, and if I had to give a percentage – I realise this is a gross oversimplification of this incredibly complex topic – then I’d say about 70% of chess is about hard work.”
One thing is clear. You won’t make grandmaster without putting in the effort, no matter how naturally gifted you are. That’s why it is crucial, says FM Alisa Melekhina, to start as early as possible. The more years you’re working at chess, the better you’ll be.
“To be good at chess you pretty much have to start at a young age. There are some exceptions, but chess is like learning a language, so better to start when you’re young and to that end, if you’re five years old and learning how to play chess, it’s not necessarily that you have to be a genius to understand the rules and how to play, but you have to have the discipline and the right attitude to learn and to take criticism and apply it to your game.”
Starting young is a sentiment all the chess players we spoke to shared, as we’ll see.
How Did You Learn Chess?
We asked these great chess players how they started their chess journeys, who taught them. It is clear that family plays an important role, and the support of parents can be crucial to the success of a player. Romanian chess grandmaster Mihail Marin learned to play chess from “around the age of four, from my father.”
It’s almost a rite of passage for chess players to be taught by a parent. GM Nigel Short, chess legend probably best remembered for defeating Anatoly Karpov in 1993 and qualifying for the World Chess Championship match with Garry Kasparov, recalls that he learned chess at around the age of five, “from watching my older brother, Martin, play against my dad. It was a wet and miserable weekend in the Northwest of England and my dad got out his old chess set and showed my brother how to play, and that’s how I began because I also asked for a game.”
“My grandfather was the one to teach me chess when I was about five years old. Afterwards, I studied chess in primary school as it was a compulsory course,” said IM Irina Bulmaga.
GM Liem Le Quang said, “I learned to play chess when I was six, by my older brother. He took a book about chess and taught me to play with him and soon after that I started beating him! Then my parents took me to a local chess club where I had some coaches.”
Having a coach, then, is an important step on the road to a successful chess career. GM Irina Krush, 7-time US Women’s Chess Champion, learned from her father at about five years old, but soon needed a professional trainer. “He taught me for the first four years of my life, and when I was about nine years old and getting to be an advanced player, around 1800 [Elo], he decided to find a professional teacher for me.”
What Was Your Playing Style When You First Learned Chess?
When we asked the current US Chess Champion and new member of the 2700+ Elo club, GM Sam Shankland, he said, “I’ve always been a calculator in my nature, so in the beginning I was playing an extremely tactical game, so I was attacking and stuff like that. I am very aggressive. I still am very aggressive, but now I am a bit more mature about it.”
By contrast, the French GM Axel Delorme told iChess that his style of play is quite different from Sam’s. “I have always been a positional player and I think I still am a positional player, but I improved my play in style in the sense that I have more experience and can adapt to more situations than before, especially when I face an aggressive player.” Well, then, we’d like to see Sam Shankland and Axel Delorme face off with their clashing styles! That would be an interesting game.
The popular US player and coach GM Bryan Smith says that he started as a defensive player, but that has changed over time. “I, at some point, became the kind of player who played as White, for instance, the London System and as Black the Stonewall Dutch and French Defense – very closed openings, but at the same time I did like to attack and so on and later I became much, much more an attacking style player. Now, almost everyone sees me as being kind of a loose cannon as far as my style of chess.”
Often, a player’s style is influenced by the great players that came before them. In GM Ivan Sokolov’s case, this was particularly true. “My play style has not changed very much because my chess generation grew up with Garry Kasparov… and we all kind of followed him, and still it was not so long ago that Tal-mania was around this world, so dynamic style was what occupied me from the very start.”
Was There a Turning Point in Your Chess Career?
Of course, if we work hard on something, we want to see results! If you’re putting in so much effort and you don’t see your play getting better, it can be discouraging. So, we asked these popular chess players whether there was a turning point in their careers.
Super GM Arkadij Naiditsch says that working with a coach really helped him – an idea that many of the chess grandmasters we spoke to agreed with. “I think the most important thing in chess is to work with somebody who is stronger than you. It is very important to have a trainer, especially in the younger years, who can really teach you something special, who can really show you where are your biggest weaknesses, so I would strongly advise you work with strong trainers.”
GM Irina Krush echoes this point, saying, “My first coach, he really laid a good foundation for my future improvements and I covered a lot of chess miles with him, going from 1800 to like 2450 [Elo] – that’s a very long road and I did all of that with him.”
But it’s not only about chess skills, as the popular iChess presenter GM Damian Lemos pointed out. Damian told us that his turning point was “when I got my first grandmaster norm and that helped me get some confidence, but also, apart from getting confidence, I was also able to understand I needed to work much harder in order to improve.”
So, how to become a chess grandmaster? It’s pretty much universally agreed among the best chess players in the world that you need to study hard. Which leads us to the next question:
What is Your Chess Study Routine in Preparation for Tournaments?
GM Simon Williams is a very popular chess grandmaster from the United Kingdom, better known as the GingerGM and for pushing ‘Harry the h-pawn” up the board, playing in true Tal-like fashion. “I’m constantly working on my chess,” he told iChess. “I’ve been doing chess throughout my life and I always want to improve… I think one of the key things is locating your weaknesses and working on them, but also you’ve got to know where your strengths are and you’ve got to get your strengths out in your own games. So, if you’re an attacking player like me, play attacking openings – don’t play boring openings!”
French GM and chess author Romain Edouard concentrates on a few things before a tournament. “I am playing many tournaments. I’m trying to prepare as much as possible for tournaments and I’m trying to keep some energy for them, so that means I am trying to focus on long-term work and to always be ready in my openings so that in tournaments I only have to fill in some gaps.” He raises an interesting point that you also need to be mentally prepared and have energy.
Five-time Spanish Chess Champion Francisco Vallejo Pons expands upon this point. “It’s not only about chess. You need to be in good mental shape with a lot of confidence. You need to be able to come back when there are bad moments.” He says that losing a game in a tournament can be tough and feel devastating, but you need to pick yourself up for the next round.
FM Alisa Melekhina points out another crucial piece of advice that every aspiring chess player should follow. “If you have a tournament coming up, you have to be sharp with tactics. I learned that the hard way several times. I would go for months without playing in a big tournament, and I would show up… I’d still get good positions and play at my level but then I would miss a tactic or I would spend a lot of time because I was rusty.” One of the most beneficial things you can do for your chess is to do chess tactics every day. IM Irina Bulmaga said, “I had many opening ideas and I solved lots of tactics before the event.”
According to chess grandmaster Nigel Short, “There are two main aspects to becoming a good player. One is the playing, and secondly there is the studying, and you need both!”
How To Become A Chess Grandmaster – Understanding versus Memorisation
So, what does study entail? How to become a chess grandmaster by studying the right things? Should players spend time simply memorising moves and variations, making sure they are up to date with their opening theory? Or is it more useful to understand the moves you’re playing? According to the top players we spoke with, it’s probably a combination of both, but with emphasis on understanding.
GM Simon Williams said, “Well, you have to memorise some things, but understanding is the key thing in chess. You need to understand ideas, so constantly, every move you play, you should be asking yourself, ‘Why? Why am I playing that? What purpose does that move have?'”
“You know, memorisation has a big place in chess,” said GM Irina Krush, “and it is very helpful at times to just remember concrete things, but of course the real focus should be on understanding.”
It’s also not very efficient to spend so much time simply memorising, says chess grandmaster Axel Delorme. “You shouldn’t learn by heart all the variations, but just try to understand why we say that that move was better than the other one, and why this player played this variation.”
Because, as IM Irina Bulmaga rightly points out, “The memory can let you down. You can forget something in a specific variation. but, when understanding, you can use the patterns of thinking.” Even if you forget a variation or a specific move, if you understand the main concepts of the opening and know what your goals are, you can still analyse the board and find a good move.
Favorite Chess Player?
We couldn’t let these chess players go without asking them who their favorite chess player was! GM Judit Polgar said, “My favorite player was Garry Kasparov because I loved his style, his aggressive winning games.” GM Nadya Kosintseva and GM Ivan Sokolov both agree!
Mikhail Tal was popular with GM Irina Krush and GM Simon Williams. The GingerGM said, “He was a bit of a legend. He was this crazy, aggressive, attacking player. He had a bit of a crazy life as well, but he was just a genius.”
“Garry Kasparov was just amazing,” said GM Arkadij Naiditsch, “as well as current World Champion Magnus Carlsen. From a chess point of view I think he is the strongest chess player who ever existed.”
GM Damian Lemos agrees, “Carlsen is the best player in the world, but apart from that, I think he’s got a unique style.”
But not everyone is convinced – it’s a contentious topic, as GM Nigel Short pointed out. “People like Emanuel Lasker. Emanuel Lasker was World Champion for 27 years, which is longer that Magnus Carlsen has lived! So, where do you put Lasker in the scheme of things? And Bobby Fischer probably burned brighter than any other player in history.”
“I consider Bobby Fischer the greatest of all time,” said GM Mihail Marin, who closed on a good point: “Kasparov and Karpov weren’t bad either!”
As we’ve seen in this article, plenty of skills and attitudes are needed in order to become a chess grandmaster: Hard work, talent, playing experience, tournament preparation, understanding and memorisation, working on your weaknesses, using your strengths and many more.
Still, every journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step. If you want to get even more great insights into the mind of a chess grandmaster, you can join Super GM Arkadij Naiditsch (peak rating 2737) as he takes on 4 of the world’s top 10 players in a chess tournament. In a unique format, GM Naiditsch shares his thoughts, feelings, and plans before and after each round, giving incredible insight into the world of a competitive player. Click here and get a special discount on “Naiditsch’s Tournament Preparation Guide”.