How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

It’s an old joke. An out-of-towner asks a New Yorker, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and the New Yorker says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

If you are a classical musician, you may have to practice eight hours a day to be competitive in your field—and even that level of effort doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a paying job. It just means you are putting yourself in position to succeed.

The chessplayer who wonders how to improve at chess should take a hint from the musicians, who after all may be considered fellow performing artists. They work very hard at their craft. Do you?

As a chessplayer, you should ask yourself: “Am I playing enough serious games, with a long enough time control that I can actually try to apply what I am learning in my chess studies? Am I studying enough material, of the right kind, in the right way?”

Playing too much chess without enough study, especially if it is fast chess, is not conducive to learning and improvement for most players. Rather, it is a good way to engrain bad habits. On the flip side of the coin, spending too much time in your lonely room studying even the best books, without playing enough serious chess on a regular basis, will not allow your ideas to coalesce into practical applications. (You probably won’t get many dates either, but that’s a different problem.)

There are exceptions. Some great players—Karpov comes to mind—loved to play speed chess in their youth. (This may have been one reason Botvinnik disdained the young Karpov, once famously saying of him, “He has no talent.”) Botvinnik was the epitome of the scholar-chessplayer, taking months and even years away from competition, developing his deep understanding of chess by analyzing games and complete opening systems, while also earning a doctorate in engineering. Fischer was so completely devoted to chess, that eventually it didn’t seem to matter much how often he played: he continued to learn and develop during the 1960s and early ’70s, while playing serious chess only occasionally, all the way up to his victory over Spassky in their 1972 world championship match. After that, he succumbed to his mental problems, perhaps because he could not imagine a meaningful next step in his life.

Few of us, however, need to worry about what we will do after winning the world championship. For the rest of us, there will always be another step to take. If we want to take that next step, we must practice, practice, practice.