The Biggest Obstacle to Chess Improvement

The biggest obstacle to chess improvement is not the innate difficulty of chess, at least not in my experience. Without exception, whenever I have spent a few weeks studying hard, and then played in a few tournaments, my game has shown noticeable improvement. That formula has always worked for me, at least so far. The biggest obstacle to chess improvement is what I might almost call a non-chess factor: maintaining your focus on chess for a sustained period of time—weeks, months, years, however long it takes to reach your chess goals.

As Shakespeare and many others have observed, there is an ebb and flow in everyone’s life. There are times when school is the most important thing, when sports are the most important thing, when work is the most important thing, when family—especially a newborn child—is the most important thing, when writing a book or engaging oneself in a creative project of some kind is the most important thing. Sometimes health is the most important thing, sometimes romance is the most important thing. According to Freud, work and love are the two central problems of a man’s life. No one, to my knowledge, has ever cited chess as one of the central problems of life. The reason, of course, is that chess usually must take a distant back seat to other more pressing issues, for all of us except perhaps a few monomaniacs or a special few whose lives have been arranged around the issue of chess improvement. One immediately thinks of Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, as two prominent contemporary examples of individuals who have family and professional helpers to ease their respective paths. Even Magnus, however, shows signs that he is beginning to tire of the grind.

It seems to me that it is easier for young people to stay focused on chess improvement. Everyone talks about youthful plasticity of the brain, but also young people have fewer distractions. When you get older, and you have been exposed to the wide world and its many facets, it will forever after be harder for you to shut yourself in your room and limit your focus to the 64 squares. I am reminded of the famous lines from a song, popular in the U.S. after World War I, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm/After they’ve seen Paree?” Bobby Fischer himself instinctively understood the threat to his concentration posed by the world beyond chess. He once famously demanded of a hotel clerk, “Give me a room without a view.”

If you think about it—and maybe you shouldn’t—there is a tremendous opportunity cost to hunkering down over the chessboard for 10,000 hours. During this time, which equals about three hours per day for 10 years with no days off, you aren’t traveling, you aren’t reading books, you aren’t playing a musical instrument, you aren’t learning languages, you aren’t learning math, science, or history.

You aren’t playing sports, you aren’t going to parties, you aren’t having conversations, you aren’t going on dates, you aren’t hanging out in cafes, you aren’t going to the symphony, you aren’t seeing movies, you aren’t going to plays.

You aren’t going hiking, you aren’t going camping, you aren’t climbing mountains. You aren’t going to the beach, you aren’t going swimming, you aren’t taking photos, you aren’t painting a picture, you aren’t writing a book, you aren’t composing music. You aren’t going for a run, and you aren’t running for office.

You aren’t having kids and raising a family. You aren’t fixing things or making things or building things. You aren’t making society better or safer, you aren’t working for social justice. Although Pascal did say, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” so perhaps we should give chessplayers more credit.

I hope I’ve made the point that there are many interesting, fun, and worthwhile things to do in this world besides play chess. (Some people may argue that chess is not supposed to be fun, and of course de gustibus non est disputandum, but for me and I do believe for the vast majority of chessplayers, playing chess is largely about having fun.)

I’m not going to go so far as to say, as has been said about pool, that playing chess well is the sign of a misspent youth, because I believe chess is a valid interest just like any number of other valid interests. Chess is not for everyone: it is only for those able to appreciate it. But that could also be said of knitting, pinochle, and crafting lifelike wooden duck decoys.

Chess can be fun—for most of us, it is more fun when we are winning—but includes far more than just fun. Chess opens for us a profound world of abstract intellectual beauty. It offers us puzzles and endless roads for exploration. It is also a venue for self-discovery and a wide range of social interplay, from whimsy to stern combat.

Perhaps we have to be older to understand just how rich chess is, and in how many ways it can enrich our lives. Paradoxically, the older we are, the more difficult it is for us to find the time and focus to appreciate chess. We older players understand how much bigger the world is than our favorite game. Just yesterday I had a conversation with my younger son, in which he compared his love of playing music to my love of playing chess. Ben said to me, “I can use my music to meet people, just like you have used chess to meet people.” I replied, remembering some of my trips to Europe, “Yes, I was able to meet many people through chess. But, you know, your music may be even better for that.”

Tim Hanke


All Openings Are Sound

Truth is merely our irrefutable error. –Friedrich Nietzsche

Here’s a Secret You Can Use

Below grandmaster level, all openings are sound. Even at grandmaster level, top players occasionally beat other top players with the Evans Gambit, Bishop’s Opening, Four Knights Game, Benko Gambit, and Sicilian Dragon. The first three openings on this list were consigned to the dustbin of history by theoreticians in the early 1900s, if not before. The Benko and Dragon, while perennially popular at club level, are considered dicey by theoreticians. And yet, grandmasters trot out all these openings, and many more like them or worse, from time to time.

Strong players can score surprisingly well against other strong players (not to mention against weaker players) with theoretically dubious openings, perhaps in large part because these openings are not commonly seen at high levels and few people know how to play against them. Boris Spassky once beat Bobby Fischer with the King’s Gambit, another relic. English grandmaster Tony Miles once beat Anatoly Karpov, while Karpov was world champion, by answering Karpov’s 1 e4 with the bizarre 1…a6?

The lesson for you and me is that we can play all these openings against our opponents. We can also play Bird’s Opening (1 f4), the Spike (1 g4), the Grob (1 b4), the Dunst Opening (1 Na3), the Max Lange Attack, Alekhine’s Defense, the Pirc Defense, the Schliemann Defense, the Dutch Defense, and so on.

The Hanke Gambit Versus Alekhine’s Defense

Every gambit in the world is sound, or close enough, at club level: the Danish Gambit, the Smith-Morra Gambit, the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, of course the King’s Gambit, and practically every other gambit that has a name and some that don’t.

Let me give you a ludicrous example of the last-mentioned category. Years ago in a team match between my club and another club, I opened with 1 e4 on board 1. My opponent answered 1…Nf6, Alekhine’s Defense.

I narrowed my eyes and pondered my options. I had never liked facing Alekhine’s Defense, and didn’t know any lines for White, although my USCF rating was over 1800 at the time. I considered 2 e5, 2 Nc3, and even the abject 2 d3.

Then the novel idea 2 d4??! entered my head, seizing control of more center squares. Having the two center pawns side by side looked pretty in my mind’s eye. With little or no thought I banged it out, only to see my opponent respond with the rather obvious 2….Nxe4 winning a pawn.

Chagrined by the loss of a pawn as White on move two, but determined to make the best of a bad situation, I played 3 Nc3, on analogy with the Boden-Kieseritsky Gambit in the Bishop’s Opening (1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6 3 Nf3!? Nxe4 4 Nc3). After 3…Nxc3 4 bxc3 I was objectively lost, but I followed up with Nf3, Bd3, 0-0, and eventually got a winning kingside attack.

If we are going to name this gambit after the first person who admits that he played it in a serious game, then I must claim pride of place. In his November 1999 Chess Cafe column Opening Lanes, Gary Lane unofficially blessed my claim by calling this line the “Hanke Gambit.” On the strength of my deposition I expect that future opening works will agree.

The Hanke Gambit Versus the French Defense

Here is another example from my own play, slightly less crude. I have always found the French Defense annoying, because I am generally not interested in, or very good at, openings that require patient maneuvering: life is too short, and I like to get on with things.

One day when facing the French, after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 I extemporized and came up with 4 a3!? Bxc3+ 5 bxc3 dxe4 6 f3!? Neither I nor my opponent knew whether this move was any good—I think we both suspected it wasn’t—but at least I had achieved the kind of unclear tactical position I liked, and my opponent was thrown totally off his game into uncharted swirling waters where he had to think for himself. On this occasion he sank rather than swam.

I used this variation three more times in tournaments, scoring +2=2 overall (beating two 1900s, drawing two 2100s), with an overall 2200+ performance rating. Later I discovered that this line actually had a name: the Winckelmann-Reimer Gambit. It has been written about in various sources, and is now discussed on various web pages. But I published one of my games with this opening in the magazine Chess Horizons, before any other published source that I am aware of. Therefore this opening is rightfully called the “Hanke Gambit Versus the French Defense.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Life among the grandmaster elite may be gray and disciplined, but amateur chess is a riotous colorful phantasmagorical world. Chess at the amateur level is not so much about truth, as whether you can successfully impose your hallucinatory vision on your opponent.

Tim Hanke


Fake Chess Improvement

There has often been something rotten in the state of chess dating back at least to the 1800s, when the so-called world champion could ignore his challengers for years on end to preserve his title and his preeminence. Today we have a new set of problems in chess organization: more or less complete anarchy may be a thing of the past, but the organizations we now have, tend to oscillate between incompetence and corruption. (Which suggests a question: which is better, to have a competent but corrupt group, or an incompetent but honest one? Would that we had even this Hobson’s choice: too often we seem to end up with chess organizations that are both incompetent and corrupt.)

To me, the widespread chicanery and incompetence in the world and national and local chess scenes, while regrettable, are nothing new. The persistence of such problems over time may even indicate they are inevitable and should be suffered with some degree of resignation. There simply isn’t enough money in chess to pay for all the work that must be done, so we must depend to a large extent on volunteers and part-timers. The resulting lack of professionalism in chess organizations leads not only to uneven standards but also to a lack of controls, which invites corruption of various sorts, on various scales.

The new problem which poses a serious threat to the viability of the game—even more so than computers, although computers are an element of the problem—is the inability of the chess world to diagnose and prevent sophisticated methods of cheating during games, such as we see allegedly being practiced by a young player who I’ll refer to as Zeberdee. In the opinions of many experts and informed observers, clearly he is cheating: there is absolutely no other plausible explanation for his pattern of results and the specific moves he has played. Yet he continues to win prizes. Personally I suspect a transmitter embedded in his ear, with an offsite assistant consulting Houdini and speaking the moves to Zeberdee; that would be the simplest explanation, and therefore the likeliest according to Occam’s Razor. What is chess going to do about this?

Worse, whatever technology Zeberdee may be using, that same technology could potentially be exploited by others (if it is not already!). Zeberdee is an insolent ass, who mocks the honest players he defeats. He is easy to dislike, and his results are easy to dismiss as cheating, even while the method he uses to cheat remains obscure. What if other players, stronger players, gain access to his methods and use them not in every game, but occasionally, as needed, so their pattern of results is not so egregious? What if a strong player uses this technology to play an occasional brilliant game, which could be explained as “a very good day” for him? What if a junior player uses this technology to play good moves—perhaps not the best or most brilliant moves—to win junior championships? All the junior player would need is a clever assistant whispering the moves in his inner ear, plausible moves that are good enough to win, but not so brilliant that the cheat is exposed. The possibilities for careful exploitation of this technology are endless.

As an unfortunate corollary, what about the implications for non-cheaters? I myself once played a queen sacrifice leading to forced mate in 11 moves, with only two or three of the moves being checks. The game was published in GM Patrick Wolff’s chess column in the Boston Globe. It was all my own inspiration, though I did not see clearly to the end when I played the first move. However, in an era when electronic cheating is rampant and cannot be detected, I can easily imagine an observer saying, “Look at this game: Hanke is only a weak amateur; how could he have played such moves? Obviously he is cheating.”

To conclude, I see nothing new in the fact that chess organizations are corrupt or incompetent: this has often, perhaps usually, been the case in the past. What I see new and dangerous to the game we love is the use of technology to cheat during games. Just as skilled magicians are always able to fool the lay public, the cheaters in chess may simply have become better than our ability to detect them, thanks to all the new technologies now available to them. Even if we could devise, say, a booth impermeable to electronic transmissions, and force a known cheat to play his games inside the booth, can we provide such booths for all players in every tournament? “Of course not,” I hear you say. Then I say, “We can’t prevent cheating.”

We should also mention another more common method of cheating, which has already been a notorious problem at tournaments for years. This method is to leave the board briefly at key points in the game, perhaps to visit the bathroom and sit in a stall, where you can consult your convenient pocket electronic chess brain. It is almost impossible to prevent this sort of cheating, which likely occurs far more often than it can be proved. It may not even be suspected in the large majority of cases. One recent case was exceptional in that the cheat was allegedly detected. A suspicious player followed his opponent to the rest room, looked over the top of the stall in which the opponent was sitting, and allegedly caught him examining the game position with electronic help. The outraged player hauled his opponent bodily out of the stall—with the result that both players, the honest one and the alleged cheat, were tossed out of the event. Surely that was a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but how was the tournament director to know which player was the valuable baby and which the worthless bathwater? Just as it is easy for anyone to cheat during a game, it is easy for anyone to accuse someone of cheating during a game. Perhaps more to the point, how many cheating victims are suspicious enough and bold enough to follow their opponent to the rest room, look over the top of the stall, and drag him physically out of the stall to face justice? Clearly this sort of cheating must happen all the time, and is much easier to perpetrate than to prove.

I used to play postal chess—as we called it then—but gave it up years ago, when it became easy for my opponents to outplay me by consulting commercially available chess computers. The same problem exists today, to an unknowable extent, in games played with invisible opponents over the internet.

Now over-the-board chess is under siege. In the most sophisticated cases, we don’t even know how the cheaters are cheating, let alone how to catch and prevent them. Where can honest players go now, to find an honest game? Perhaps at the local club, it may still be possible to find an honest game, most of the time. Of course, a dishonest player can still go to the rest room and consult his pocket computer during the club championship, or during any game that is important to him, if he so desires. But I believe most games played at local clubs, if not all, will probably remain honest for some time to come.

At higher levels, with money and titles and prestige and media coverage at stake, I’m not sure we can trust the results even now.

Tim Hanke

Editorial note: Any perceived resemblance to any Magic Roundabout characters or real life insolent asses is purely accidental. The Chess Improver has a strict policy to try not to say or imply anything bad about anyone whether or not they deserve it.


How Much Should You Play?

The correct answer will vary from person to person, depending on your particular learning style and non-chess factors.

For example, if you are married or in a relationship or have young children, it may not be easy for you to get away to play chess, especially on weekends. Three players I have known personally—two of them masters—were divorced by their wives, who didn’t approve of them playing chess on the weekends. (One of these players played chess almost every weekend, which most partners would probably find excessive.) As a dramatic cautionary tale, consider the example of the famous French artist and chess master, Marcel Duchamp, mentioned in a previous post here. On his honeymoon he spent so much time at his chessboard, ignoring his bride, that one day he returned to their room to find all his chess pieces glued to their squares, and his wife gone for good. Or perhaps I should say, for better or for worse.

Assuming the choice is yours, you will have to find the level of playing activity that suits you best. Mikhail Botvinnik thought 50 serious games per year was about the right amount for most people. I think this number is too low for many people, though it may have been right for Botvinnik: he earned his Ph.D. and had a career of sorts as an engineer, turning his full attention back to the chess world temporarily when it was time for him to play a world title match. In addition to being a great player, Botvinnik was also a great chess researcher, who developed or refined entire opening systems for his own use; much of his chess activity consisted of home preparation for his relatively limited playing schedule. You might almost say that Botvinnik’s relatively rare public appearances in competition were the tip of the iceberg of his chess activity.

If you haven’t been playing a lot of games, maybe it’s best to build up gradually and not overdo it. A friend of mine, a strong USCF Class A player who certainly could have become an Expert or National Master if he had made it a priority, is (like Botvinnik) an engineer with a Ph.D. His chess activity in recent decades has mostly been limited to occasional games at our local weeknight club. One year we took him to the U.S. Amateur Team East, a huge event held every February in Parsippany, New Jersey, over the three-day Presidents Day weekend. Six long tournament games in three days proved too much for him. By the afternoon of the second day he was lying face-down on his bed in the motel room, his face in a pillow, moaning pathetically, “No more chess!” Obviously none of us wants to get to this point—didn’t we originally start playing chess because it was fun?—so it is important that you find a sustainable level of competitive play that allows you plenty of study time with, I hope, enough time left over for a well-rounded life beyond chess.

I will add one rule of thumb that I have heard: you should not play more games than you have time to analyze later. The point being, that you are not going to get the full benefit from each game—you will not squeeze all the juice from it—unless you go over it carefully afterward: first with your opponent if possible, assuming you both have time to talk and neither of you is too enraged or depressed by the result to stick around; then at home with a book or two and Fritz or some other chessplaying software program that can blunder-check all the moves for tactical errors and missed opportunities.

Tim Hanke


Study Endgames

Tactics are all very well; you can go reasonably far in chess if you are very good at tactics and not much else. But that is crude hacking, not chess, and adopting such a primitive style would put a ceiling on your possible improvement. You will do better in the long run if you are well-rounded.

In particular, the hallmark of the master has always been endgame skill. Think of Emanuel Lasker, Akiba Rubinstein, Jose Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Anatoly Karpov, and Bobby Fischer. Some of these famous masters are known as tacticians, some as strategists, but they were all great endgame players.

Nowadays opening study is all the rage—there must be twenty opening manuals published for every book about endgames, or maybe the ratio is 50:1 or 100:1. Tactics books are also popular. One book out there—written by an amateur, not a master—encourages players to improve by studying only tactics. This is not the time-sanctioned way to become a better player.

I have always had great respect for the hard-won wisdom of the past. The fathers that begot us may not have had iPads or smart phones, but they knew what they were doing, in chess and other areas of life. Their good advice includes:

Business before pleasure.

Don’t spend more than you earn.

Study endgames.

Tim Hanke


Chess Master vs. Chess Mastery

There is a burgeoning popular and professional literature on how to acquire expertise. This literature specifically targets those of us—the vast majority, the great unwashed, the hoi polloi—who may not have outstanding natural ability in a specific field. We need guidance in how to become expert at something, and achieve the success we all believe we so richly deserve. We also need encouragement, because those of us not naturally gifted may well have wavering confidence in our abilities. The older and more jaded we are by life’s ups and downs—as I can testify—the more our confidence may be wavering. We need reassurance that there is a path to expertise, and success, for people like us. Indeed, I do believe the path exists, and I believe the literature is helpful in pointing the way.

Not only does the path exist, but I have more good news: it may not be as steep as you fear. In all the discussion and debate about how to “master” chess, we chessplayers need to remember that the term “chess master” is defined by chess administrators. For example, the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) has defined a National Master as anyone who achieves a 2200 rating on the USCF scale. (For comparison purposes, a 2200 USCF rating is roughly equal to a 2100 FIDE rating.) Chess administrators are kinder in bestowing the chess master credential than the fates are in bestowing actual chess mastery.

Ironically, the USCF defines an Expert as anyone who achieves a 2000 USCF rating, 200 points below Master. So in the U.S., at least, you can become an Expert at chess without becoming expert at chess.

Much of the literature on expertise, encouraging though it tries to be, cites a truly sobering requirement that one spend 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” developing expertise. (“Deliberate practice” is a term of art, whose precise definition is elusive. A short, circular definition might be, “what experts do to become expert.”) Expertise is allegedly available to anyone who invests 10,000 hours. We are supposed to find this revelation heartening, but who has 10,000 hours lying around the house? Ten thousand hours is a hellacious amount of time to spend on anything, if you will pardon my French. If you devote about three hours a day to chess for ten years with no days off, that’s 10,000 hours. If you are a full-time student or have to work for a living, you might as well kiss goodbye any other hobbies or interests for the next decade.

I have known several chessplayers who also had to kiss their unsympathetic girlfriends or wives goodbye. Speaking of French, one famous example of a chessplayer who loved and lost is the artist Marcel Duchamp, who gave up his short but brilliant art career for a rather longer but less distinguished chess career. Duchamp played in the French Chess Championship several times and on the French Olympiad chess team from 1928 to 1933. The story goes, he spent so much time on his honeymoon playing chess, that he returned to his honeymoon suite one day to find all his chess pieces glued to their squares, and his bride gone for good. We can picture Duchamp telling his friends later, “My wife gave me an ultimatum: It’s chess or me, Marcel. Zut alors, I’ll miss her.”

In the USCF universe, you may not need to spend 10,000 hours to become an Expert, and maybe not even to become a Master. After reading the literature on expertise, entering the USCF universe is like stepping into Alice’s looking-glass world.

Just as it is not necessary to be expert at chess to become a USCF Expert, it is not necessary to master chess to become a USCF Master. It may be possible for you to achieve a coveted 2000 (or even 2200) USCF rating by being very good at one or two aspects of the game. For example, you may achieve your rating goal by being very good at tactics alone, a Philistine strategy touted by Michael de la Maza in his notorious magazine article “400 Points in 400 Days,” and his subsequent book Rapid Chess Improvement, which is longer but not more substantial than the article. Or you might possibly achieve your rating goal by knowing your openings very well, and staggering through the rest of the game as best you can. (Warning: This method doesn’t work for most people.)

The bottom line is, you simply don’t need the whole package of opening knowledge + tactical skill + positional skill + endgame skill to achieve a 2000 (or even 2200) USCF rating. More than once, I have read comments by players to the effect, “I only began to learn about chess once I became a master.” This statement provides anecdotal evidence that some players can achieve the USCF Master title on talent and experience without working very hard, or possibly because they are very good at one or two elements of chess but not others.

Of course, to maximize your potential as a chessplayer, you must be well-rounded. But remember, we are talking here about becoming an Expert or a Master, not about developing expertise or achieving mastery. When an administratively defined standard is the goal, our task is simplified.

A similar problem exists in academia: it is difficult to master a field of knowledge, let alone achieve true wisdom. Fortunately for strivers after academic success, a similar solution has been proposed and generally accepted. It is relatively straightforward, if time-consuming and expensive, to earn the M.A. or Ph.D. credential. And that is what chess titles are: credentials.

In my observation, it is also possible to become a USCF National Master by accident, as it were—almost randomly. The key is to achieve a 2100 USCF rating and then play a great deal. I know more than one player who has briefly spiked up from 2100 to 2200, due to a “hot streak,” and then fallen back to his customary level. This “spike” may be largely due to an artifact of the Law of Large Numbers, i.e., if you flip a coin many times, you are bound to get some improbable local sequences of all heads or all tails, within an overall total of 50% heads, 50% tails.

I suppose it would be no great injustice for a player to “make Master” as the result of a temporary statistical anomaly, if the title lasted no longer than the anomaly.

Unfortunately the USCF Board, over my objections and negative vote, passed a motion ten years ago, stating that “The USCF National Master title is a lifetime title.” This motion makes a mockery of the USCF Life Master title, which requires holding a 2200 rating for 300 games. (These 300 games may be non-consecutive. In other words, your rating may dip below 2200, at which point you stop accumulating games toward the necessary total of 300; but if your rating later reaches 2200 again, the count resumes with no penalty.)

The USCF Board motion is illogical, because it ignores the existence of the Life Master title. The Life Master title was created to reward players who sustain a Master-level performance for an extended period. The Board motion also leads to an embarrassing situation, which we might call a contretemps, except that it was easily foreseen, and in fact was already a commonly observed phenomenon. A great many players who briefly achieve a 2200 USCF rating later end up clustered at their 2000 rating floor, and would certainly fall into Class A (USCF 1800-1999) if not for their floor. To call this group of players “chess masters” stretches the definition of “master” to the breaking point, and cheapens the title.

I know one good-natured older player who was languishing in Class A ten years ago, and should have remained there based on his performance (which, after all, is what a rating is supposed to measure and predict). But he contacted the USCF office, and told them he had briefly achieved a 2200 rating a few decades ago, which they were unaware of, perhaps because their computerized database goes back only to 1991. As a further wrinkle—if I recall correctly—his ancient 2200 rating had occurred between rating lists, so it was never published. Because his rating had once touched 2200, he argued, he was entitled to a 2000 rating floor. Apparently his facts were correct, so the USCF office raised his rating from the low 1900s to 2000, where it remains.

Considered as an isolated case, this player’s 2000 rating is a slightly disturbing but ultimately inconsequential distortion of reality, like someone’s face pressed against the glass of a window. But when you consider how many other players are in his exact same situation—USCF masters who perform like Class A players—that’s a lot of faces pressed against the glass, with staring eyes, flattened noses, and crushed lips open in a drooling snarl. “Slightly disturbing” becomes “Spooky,” maybe even “Creepy.” If this were a movie, it might be called Attack of the Zombie Masters.

The USCF also mailed him a National Master certificate to make good on their earlier omission. According to the USCF Board motion, he is now a master for life, although by USCF rules he is emphatically not a Life Master—a paradoxical state of affairs.

But wait, there’s more. Even if you can’t achieve a 2200 USCF rating, you can still be a USCF master. The USCF also awards the master title based on “master norms,” i.e. good scores in individual events, in pale imitation of FIDE International Master (IM) and Grandmaster (GM) norms. However, the USCF does it a bit differently from FIDE (an acronym for Fédération Internationale des Échecs, to continue our French theme). To gain the FIDE IM or GM title, you must achieve a certain number of norms and you must achieve a certain rating. FIDE norms expire after a certain time has passed. To gain the USCF master title, you must achieve a certain number of norms or you must achieve a certain rating. USCF norms never expire, as far as I can tell, at least until the next USCF Board vote changes the rules again.

You can also earn the USCF Expert title by scoring Expert title norms, without ever earning a 2000 USCF rating. Similarly, you can earn the USCF Class A, Class B, Class C, and Class D titles through norms, without earning the corresponding ratings of 1800, 1600, 1400, and 1200 respectively. I’m not making this up. Each lower title becomes more desperately irrelevant to the quest for chess excellence, until we sink to the squalid gutter where groundlings grapple blindly in the mud for Class D title norms, which are barely a Platonic shadow of the FIDE norms they emulate.

The current USCF title norm system was established by the USCF Board in 2009, replacing but not improving upon an earlier norm system so lax that self-respecting title recipients scorned their own titles. Many players have understandably failed to keep up with the ever-changing regulations. This may explain the slightly frenetic language currently seen on one U.S. chess club’s website, suggestive of a late-night TV infomercial: These titles were applied to USCF rating history data going back to 1991. You may have already earned a title. Find out if you already have a title here!

There are so many ways to get a USCF master title, and USCF masters are of such varying quality, that one wonders what the word “master” means now. Humpty-Dumpty asserted in Through the Looking-Glass, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Apparently the USCF Board arrogates to itself the same privilege.

So take heart, if you find chess to be a hard game. You do not need to master chess, to become a chess master. Just as “only God can make a tree,” only chess bureaucrats can make a chess master. If you fulfill the requirements they set, they will grant you the credential. And then, if you are ambitious, you can start to pursue actual chess mastery.

Tim Hanke


The Mystery of Deliberate Practice

What is deliberate practice, and what can it do for us?

A recent Dilbert cartoon has the following verbal exchange between Dogbert and the obtuse company CEO.

Dogbert: What is the key to success?
CEO: Hire the right employees!
Dogbert: How do you know you hired the right ones?
CEO: You know because the business is successful.
Dogbert: So the key to success is circular reasoning?
CEO: Yes, because circular reasoning is the key.

To me, the whole conversation has a slight echo of the old Abbot and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” The last two lines recall the Thomson and Thompson (sic) characters in Hergé’s Tintin books, two blundering and indistinguishable English detectives in matching black mustaches, suits, and bowler hats, who specialize in spoonerisms like this one:

Thomson (or possibly Thompson): It all looks very fishy to me.
Thompson (or possibly Thomson): To be precise: the whole thing looks like me, very fishy.

In yesterday’s blog post, Grandmaster Nigel Davies suggests that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice,” as popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers, may not be enough to achieve “excellence,” if one “‘deliberately practices’ the wrong thing.”

I think I see what he is getting at, and certainly it is possible to practice the wrong thing as part of one’s campaign to get better at chess. However—I apologize for getting into semantics here—I think it is not possible to “‘deliberately practice’ the wrong thing.” Why is this? As I understand the term—and perhaps I don’t—“deliberate practice” is a method which (and here we glimpse the problem of circularity) by definition consists of effort applied in the right way to the right things.

K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has been a pioneer in researching deliberate practice and what it means. Ericsson has written, “we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” An expert performer breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks daily. Key elements of the process include immediate feedback from a skilled coach, and continually striving to practice the skills at more challenging levels with the goal of mastering them.

In fact, “deliberate practice,” if it has any meaning more precise than “what experts do to become expert,” sounds to me rather like the approach to learning chess that GM Davies espouses himself. It is always better to let people speak for themselves, but as I recall from my reading, GM Davies urges the chess student to “focus on the how, not the what.” In my lame layman’s interpretation, I think he is saying, “Chess is not a body of knowledge so much as a skill set.” Of course, these are my words and he might put it rather differently. But if that is what he is saying, I agree!

GM Davies would also say, I believe, that good coaching is part of the solution to improvement; and I know for a fact that he recommends gradually practicing chess skill at more challenging levels: in a recent private email, when I bragged that I had scored 7.5 of my last 8, he replied, “Time to play better opposition!” or words to that effect. In short, everything I know, or think I know, about GM Davies, indicates to me that he actually does espouse the concept of “deliberate practice” as I understand it.

But even if we all agree on what “deliberate practice” is, and I’m not sure I even agree with myself, the real question remains: Is deliberate practice sufficient to master a complex skill? GM Davies says no, and refers to a recent study of musicians and chessplayers cited at, with the provocative headline, “Practice Makes Perfect? Not So Much, New Research Finds”. The problem with the study, in my opinion, is that (as far as I can tell) it merely looks at total practice hours, and not the quality of the practice. The “10,000 hours” crowd does not argue that practice hours alone will lead to the desired result—it has to be the right kind of practice. So the researchers seem to have set up a straw man, and then—no surprise—knocked him down. We don’t know if the students who failed to achieve elite performance were challenging themselves appropriately; we also don’t know if they were getting appropriate feedback. The study data seems to have been limited to arid sums of hours spent practicing.

Here’s one more thing we don’t know about the students in the study: their state of mind. Were they practicing their skills “with the goal of mastering them” as Ericsson, the doyen of deliberate practice, would say was necessary? The element of ambition is a necessary catalyst to the process, and an element of confidence may be implied. Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Ford was a practical man, and he believed a can-do attitude was crucial to success.

State of mind, of course, is an elusive and changeable thing, hard to measure in studies. In fact, there is a great deal about this concept of “deliberate practice” that is hard to pin down. In our Dilbert cartoon at the start of this article, Dogbert exposes circular reasoning in the idea that the key to business success is hiring the right employees. I am afraid there may be a similar problem with the claim that “deliberate practice” is the key to mastering a complex skill. There is a danger that we will look at individuals who succeeded, and decide they must, ipso facto, have done things “the right way,” while their less-successful colleagues evidently went about things “the wrong way.”

In the words of the old saw, we may decide “the proof is in the pudding.” If the pudding was tasty, the cook must have studied cooking the right way; a failed pudding is proof the cook did not study the right way. In fact, both cooks may have gone to the same cooking school and spent the same number of hours in the same classes, but one was ambitious to master cooking and one was not; one had self-confidence and one did not; one had a teacher who gave good feedback and one did not; and finally, dare we admit, perhaps one simply had a knack for cooking and one did not.

After struggling to define and understand the nature of deliberate practice, I conclude that the concept is elusive, and its role in mastering complex skills is also elusive.

Also I conclude, as other wiser people have before me, that the road to success is winding and hard to follow. But if you have certain personal qualities and use certain methods, your odds of success increase. The “deliberate practice” crowd and the collective wisdom of those who came before us, would seem to agree on the following list:

Hard Work.
Getting Help from Others.
Learning from Experience.
Breaking Down a Problem into Its Parts.
Seeking Advice from Those Who Have Gone Before You.

If you read Gladwell’s book Outliers with any attention, you will also include the tremendously important factor of being in the right place at the right time, which we may summarize in one word:


In conclusion, here is a link to a classic 1913 poster, “The Road to Success.” (When the page loads, click on the poster to view it even larger.)

Tim Hanke


Youth Will Be Served

When I left the infantry to join military intelligence some years ago, my younger son Ben, then about 10 years old, asked me, “Dad, so what do you do now?” I thought for a moment and replied, “Well, I’m kind of like James Bond.” Ben, no fool even at 10, looked at me skeptically and said, “Not really.”

It’s easy to get in trouble, in chess and in life, by pretending to be what you are not. According to one definition of tragedy I have seen, tragedy results when a weak soul strives to do things beyond his strength. If I ever tried to do the things James Bond does—such as seducing a beautiful Russian spy or skiing off a cliff—my comeuppance would be quick. My fate would not even qualify as tragic—more like idiotic. I am reminded of a redneck’s last words: “Hey, watch this!”

Playing good chess often seems to be one of those things beyond my strength these days. As we oldsters know, our chess strength tends to slowly decline while the youngsters we encounter are getting stronger by the week. In a recent game I was paired against a boy about one-fifth my age (I was 54, he was 11). He had slain a number of much older players in his last tournament and his rating was now approaching my own. Fortunately, I had the white pieces.

Unlike many older players, I enjoy playing much younger opponents. This is not because I view them with the benevolent eyes of an old codger sitting on a park bench, soaking up the sunshine and warming my old bones while the children gambol about in the grass. On the contrary, my goal is to stomp on them. I may fail in the attempt, but experience has taught me that young players tend to play a ragged game of chess: strong at times, but with weak moves thrown in. I usually have my chances against a young player, even if I fail to make the most of them. Oddly, I have typically found young players to be weaker than their rating in the opening, which is contrary to their reputation. And of course young players tend to be weak in the endgame, exactly why I don’t know: perhaps because they lack the patience to sit and learn endgame theory from books, which is almost the only way you can learn much of it. Where young players are most dangerous, in my experience, is the middlegame, where they may come up with startling moves I have not foreseen. Young players are also particularly resourceful in defense, perhaps because they remain optimistic in bad positions.

Here is the recent game I mentioned above, with light notes.

In the long run, older players fighting against younger players are defying the tide, like King Canute. As the saying goes, youth will be served. But in this one game, at least, youth was served on a platter.

Tim Hanke


10,000 Hours to Mastery

In recent years, a good deal of attention has been paid to the idea that 10,000 hours of intelligent effort is required to master a complex activity, such as playing classical music—or chess.

There are many problems with this idea. Exactly what kind of effort qualifies? What kind of activity qualifies? Perhaps an even more fundamental question is, how do we define mastery?

Many chessplayers struggle to improve at chess all their lives, but after the first few years, simply don’t. One English grandmaster has even concluded that adults can’t improve at chess. Perhaps the adults he teaches haven’t improved at chess, but as Shakespeare might ask, does the fault lie in his students, or in himself? What we can agree on, is that not all effort seems to result in chess improvement. But what kind of effort is needed? We can look at players who have improved, and conclude, “Well, what they did was correct.” And by the same token, we can say that the non-improving players did the wrong kind of work. But arguing from results seems unscientific, especially if neither group was closely observed.

Even if we assume the 10,000 hours rule has validity, surely it is not equally valid for all activities. Chess has hardly any physical component, while performing classical music certainly does: over-use injuries are rampant among musicians. Then again, the degree of complexity among activities varies widely. Obviously it takes a good deal less than 10,000 hours to master tic-tac-toe, for example. Whereas unaided human flight probably cannot be mastered, no matter how many hours the diligent student invests. (If you object that unaided human flight is simply impossible, and I would tend to agree, make up your own extreme example.) Most human activities probably fall somewhere on a spectrum of complexity between tic-tac-toe and unaided flight (or your substitute activity). We may logically conclude that some of these activities can be mastered in considerably less than 10,000 hours, whereas other activities may take even more time, if indeed they can be “mastered” at all. We end up with a sliding scale, rather than an arbitrary fixed number. (For reasons that probably reflect badly on my character, I am reminded of an old joke. On a cruise ship, a man approaches a beautiful woman and asks, “Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?” The woman replies, “Of course!” Then the man says, “How about if I give you $20?” Indignantly the woman replies, “What do you think I am, a slut?” The man says, “We’ve already established what you are. Now we’re just dickering over the price.”)

Finally, what is “mastery”? The U.S. Chess Federation awards the master title to players who achieve a 2200 rating. My guess is that many players who earn this title do so after investing less than 10,000 hours, while many players who spend more than 10,000 hours on chess never become masters. (10,000 hours = about 3 hours per day x 10 years. That’s a lot of time.)

So the 10,000-hours-to-mastery concept may need some detailed explanation, some refinement, in order to become comprehensible and potentially useful. In future posts I will look at the burgeoning literature on this concept and try to find value for the chess improver.

Tim Hanke


Waiting for Bobby Fischer

When I was a teenager, my father decided it was worth a little of his money for me to learn the rudiments of self-defense. So he paid for me to attend a series of lessons at Ozzie Sussman’s Gym in Rochester, New York. Ozzie was a Jewish middleweight whose heyday had been the late 1940s. Photographs of a younger, more belligerent Ozzie in action poses adorned the gym walls.

I gave no thought to becoming a serious boxer. All parties concerned understood I would have no further connection with boxing when my lessons were done. Meanwhile I would gain some familiarity with skills that might come in handy if I were ever physically attacked, though that was not likely to happen in the white-collar life I was expected to lead. Perhaps I would gain some self-confidence. No doubt my father believed I would become a more well-rounded person.

And so once a week for several weeks I drove myself downtown to Ozzie’s small gym, where Ozzie and I would spend a vigorous half-hour together. He taught me the names of various punches, demonstrated them for me, then stood in his boxer’s crouch with a red pad strapped to one arm while I tried to deliver the correct punches on demand, one by one and in combinations. Now and then he would reach out with his free hand and forcefully poke my bony chest, effortlessly penetrating my flimsy guard. A stocky man in his sixties with Levantine coloring, Ozzie was still remarkably fit. I remember the sweat gleaming on his rounded muscles. I was tall, pale, scrawny, and uncoordinated: hopeless as a boxer, much better suited for chess.

One week I forgot to go to my lesson, or was late; I forget which. After that incident Ozzie referred to me as “The White Hope”—explaining to his audience, “He’s white, and I hope he shows up for his lesson.”

I look back on this brief interlude of pugilism as largely irrelevant to my development, but harmless, perhaps even mildly benign. Was it worth my father’s money and my time? I have not yet been physically attacked by another adult, but you never know, it could happen. If it does, I hope I don’t let Ozzie down. Perhaps I learned a few things about the art of boxing, foremost how exhausting it is to box even one round. Ozzie certainly benefited: the modest fees my father paid helped him earn his living. Perhaps not a very good living, but Ozzie was his own boss and got to do work that was at least related to what he loved, which is worth something.

There has been some discussion here about the proper training of young chessplayers, and I expect there will be more. I don’t make my living from chess, so perhaps I can afford to be laissez-faire, but my attitude is, Let the people who want to be serious about chess be serious, let the other people find their own level of engagement, and good luck to everyone.

We all know from experience that the best way to engage people with the game is to offer them compelling role models. For a few brief years, Fischer was that role model in the West. There is no one remotely as interesting to the Western public nowadays, or on the horizon. If I had to identify any American player who might conceivably be able to make an impression on the public psyche, perhaps I would name Sam Shankland, a young GM who recently received the lucrative Samford chess fellowship that will help pay his expenses for a couple of years while he works on his game. Shankland is a goodlooking young fellow who also has an edge to him—qualities that will appeal to the mainstream media. Whether he is ever going to make a significant impression on the American public partly depends on how dedicated to chess he decides to be.

Meanwhile, many chess professionals, especially in the U.S. and U.K., have decided that dependable money is to be made not by competing in tournaments or trying to develop serious players, but by serving the transitory youth market: teaching in after-school programs, giving lessons, and selling chess sets, videos, books, and software to the kids, i.e. to their parents who write the checks. Few of these kids will ever amount to anything in the long run, if we define “anything” as strong chessplayers who persevere to gain master titles and more.

What is wrong with this picture? I say, maybe nothing at all. Every year many kids are getting exposure to our wonderful game, chess retains a toehold in the mass culture, and a few people are able to make a living (or part of a living) from the game they love.

I do agree the current system is not likely to produce a large crop of elite players, and I also agree we could probably devise a system better calculated, in theory, to give such a result. But is the public ready to engage with a chess training program that demands significantly more effort and long-term dedication from American or U.K. youth and their parents? I think not—at least not till that next compelling chess figure emerges to inspire others to emulation. In the meantime, we are all waiting for the next Bobby Fischer to arrive and transform the scene, which is much the same as waiting for Godot.

Tim Hanke