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


Author: Tim Hanke

Tim Hanke is a U.S. amateur who still believes, despite much evidence to the contrary, that he can become a decent chessplayer.