An unexamined life is not worth living.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Becoming a chess master

What is involved in becoming a chess master, and why is that so hard for most people? What differentiates a master from an expert, and what distinguishes a master from a grandmaster? One experienced player told me that there is little difference between his understanding of the game, and that of Kevin Spraggett, but Spraggett, being an active professional player is a lot faster at making correct decisions, making speed at evaluating positions and calculating variations is the main factor. True or false, the gist of this statement is that there is nothing magical in being a grandmaster. You can "simply" be slightly better than weaker players at every component of the game, and that already can boost your rating by a couple of hundred points.
But of course, it's not just about speed. It's also about the depth of your knowledge and preparation. Let me give you my personal example, without hopefully not turning it too much into a rant. In Canada, a master is considered to be any player rated over 2200 CFC. I crossed that mark around 10 years ago, and remained slightly above it since then. To become a FIDE master, one has to be rated 2300. So why after 10 years of playing and studying – I am nowhere close to getting to 2300?
1) One obvious reason is, of course, that I have not studied for these years as much as I did 10 years ago. Simple metrics show that I started to play a lot less after I finished high school. So lack of practice and effort surely is to blame. You need to play regularly in tournaments to improve.
image Things have kind of slowed down for me after year 2002…
2) A related reason for slowed down progress is age! Arguably, once you turn 20, your brain does not absorb information as quickly. Try to improve as much as you can while you are young!
image Don't wait till you're too old!
3) All these personal reasons aside, there is one more big reason why I have not gotten to that 2300 mark yet, same reason as why there are several thousands IM's in the world, but probably less than a thousand GM's. The further you improve at anything, the more effort you have to put into it.
image Are you ready to work hard?
Opening repertoire is one good example: to get to 2200, it was sufficient for me to have one defence to 1.e4, and 1.d4 for Black. For White, I knew one simple anti-sicilian system, so that I could get out of the opening and outplay 1800 rated players. Against 1…e5, I knew the difference between the Zaitsev and the Breyer in the Spanish opening, but my knowledge stopped there.
As I started to play players 2200 and over, I realized that I need to be able to surprise them with my choice of opening, or else their home preparation would put me into a worse position in every game. I also realized that I need to play more complicated systems than that simple anti-sicilian, that is never supposed to give White any advantage. So partially out necessity, partially out of boredom, I expanded my repertoire for both Black and White. The amount of opening information I need to be familiar with now is about 10 times larger than it was in 1999. I also need to know each variation a lot deeper. A book like MCO is no longer sufficient, it just scratches the surface.
The same applies to the middlegame as well – by virtue of expanding my repertoire, I also need to be familiar with a lot more middlegame structures than I used to. For example, I now need to play IQP not only for White, but also for Black! (yes, now I have to face that same anti-sicilian that I used to play myself as White).
4) You also need a mentor. Someone not necessarily to coach you weekly through rook endgames, but to observe your progress and make suggestions from the point of view of more experience. I was very fortunate to have this kind of mentoring from a couple of strong players between 1996 and 2002 and that helped me with my progress tremendously. Remarks about positional subtleties or flaws in your understanding you hear from another chess player stick to your mind a lot better than something printed in a book you flip through at local Chapters book store.
Of course, one could just be _good_ at chess, and become 2300, but unfortunately I don't know how to magically do that!

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