How much do you want it?

Let’s be realistic: just as the rich are different from you and me, so too are the great chessplayers. Their brains are probably wired a little differently; they may have encountered chess at a crucial point in their intellectual development; they probably found suitable peers to practice with and the right mentors to learn from; perhaps they achieved early encouraging successes (or in some cases, galling failures) which spurred them on; various circumstances nourished their development; the stars aligned in various mysterious but propitious ways; and they discovered that the chess milieu suited them. Which is not to say that all great chessplayers are the same, or are formed by the same circumstances. It is possible to imagine, and to find examples of, very different personalities who developed in very different ways, yet became great at chess. But let us accept, as a plausible proposition, that the chess elite are “outliers” in the sense discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book with that title, who benefited from a fruitful combination of exceptional abilities and exceptional opportunities.

On the other hand (here comes my key point, which is meant to encourage you), the fact is, there is a great deal of basic chess material that you can just learn, without having to be extraordinarily creative or waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration to strike you. Once you have learned this basic chess material, and learned to apply it, and I don’t mean to belittle the enormous amount of work involved, I believe almost anyone can become a chess master. Endgame theory is vast and complicated, but with years of steady work, you can master much of it. Tactics are infinitely various and complex, but no less an authority than Richard Reti said, “It is a profound mistake to imagine that the art of combination depends only on natural talent, and that it cannot be learned.” Opening theory is as deep as the Marianas Trench and as granular as the sand on the beach, but here, too, with years of determined effort, you can expect to make significant progress and eventually develop a reliable personal repertoire that you understand and can apply with relative success.

Let us not forget the important role of play and subsequent analysis of your play. You must play competitive chess often, to knit together the sinews of your chess potential, and to realize that potential. As the American humorist Josh Billings wrote, “Theory looks well on paper, but does not amount to anything without practice.”

It all comes down to this question: how much do you want it?


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.