I’ve often come across people with unrealistic ideas about what it means to do chess for a living. This in turn can has serious implications for the amount of time they or their kids should spend improving their game and what they ought to prioritize. So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on the matter.
First of all I should state categorically that playing chess for a decent living is virtually impossible now for all but a handful of top Grandmasters. Tournament conditions (expenses, fees and prizes) for the rank and file of titled players have become steadily worse since the glory days of the 1970s and 80s when we were bathing in the aftermath of the Fischer boom. I don’t really see this getting better either, especially with things like computer cheating forming a major part of the chess news.
What sort of players can become a TOP Grandmaster, someone in the 2700 club? Well even to have a chance of reaching this level I think that IM strength (2400+) is more or less mandatory for someone by their mid teens, which rules out most of the players who are thought of as ‘talents’. To make up the next 300 points or so from there some serious dedication is required without any guarantee of success and then there’s the issue that this kind of lifestyle will take you away from home for much of the time. So let’s conclude that this is not an easy way to make a living.
The rank and file of chess professionals do not rely on playing at all but instead generate their income with activities such as teaching, writing, organizing, selling books and equipment, translating and publishing. It’s not nearly as glamorous as jetting around the World and staying in nice hotels and many would be better off financially if they worked on the check-outs at Tesco (you don’t get much for writing an openings book that will sell just 2-3,000 copies). But there can be compensations such as having a pleasant and rather free lifestyle with no boss to worry about.
Finally there are the weekend tournament pros who barely make a living at all. In the days of the UK’s Grand Prix for cumulative tournament performances things were rather better but prizes haven’t kept up with inflation and the number of events seems to be diminishing. The freedom may appeal to some but nobody should want this for their kids.
Where does this leave the chess improver who would like to turn professional? Well these days they should either be a teenage super-talent or look at cultivating other skills. There seems to be a buoyant market for teaching kids to play but you don’t need to be a strong player to do this. Just a well organized person with teaching skills that knows a bit about chess.