“How are you so good?” is a question I am asked all too often.
Yes, it is true, I am a good chess player. I am in the top 1% of chess players in the world. But I do not say these things to be an arrogant jerk or to put on a show like some kind of peacock who needs attention. To be frank, I actually dislike being asked “How are you so good?” It doesn’t ruin my day or anything. I just think it shows something about a person when I am asked that question.
But here is the answer: hard work. It doesn’t matter if someone wants to become a chef, a city official, or a fisherman. If you want to excel at something, anything, it requires hard work. It baffles my mind when people ask me this question. What answer other than hard work are they expecting? “I took a magic pill and I won some state championships!”
But in this one post, a safe place for me to write and you to silently read and determine if I am full of bologna or not, I will be more thorough than “hard work.” Read this for yourself, your kids, or a friend, but read it understanding that what I have done can be done in any field or hobby. Read it knowing I am a national master and that there are higher titles I haven’t even obtained. Read it knowing that it is ok to wonder at other’s mastery of their crafts and respect their investment even if their craft is something you’re not interested in. Hint: There is a reason you only see the the results of mastery and not the hard work behind it in any field.
First, I read lots of chess books. I mean lots. Over 200 to be kinda exact. I’d say of the 200 I read I probably only fully understood 25 of them. The first chess book I read was Lasker’s Manual of Chess and I was rated 1300. That book is fairly advanced in terms of the used vocabulary and its chess concepts. I struggled, failed to understand the book, and I have had to rebuy 4 copies of it over the years because, as I have improved in chess, the things I highlighted have changed as I find different things to be important. Hint: There are different levels to every chess concept that must be learned, unlearned, relearned, and forgotten.
Secondly, I read even more books. Do you see a theme here? Some kids would come home from school, elect whether or not to finish their homework, then play video games or watch TV. I did my homework and then I did my self-assigned chess homework. Most of the chess books I read were garbage, or at least I recognize them as garbage now. In fact, most of my reading was discovering what was worth reading. Hint: most of the best authors are dead with very few still living but the living ones appreciate your support.
I also competed in tournaments. At great risk of sounding a little sinister, I actually think it is pretty funny when someone loses a chess game and gets angry. I mean, these people act like they are the only ones to go through this and they say things like “I had you beat” or “You are so lucky.” These are the same people who often refuse to go over chess games with their opponent after losing. So how did I wade through these angry situations to improve myself? I simply don’t get angry when I lose. All the best players are this way. Yes, we get disappointed when we lose, but we don’t blame someone for winning or begin making excuses for why we lost. Losing happens and it will happen to you. Super Big Hint: Whenever you experience negative emotions in chess that is a huge sign of an area for improvement in your game. This means it is possible you need to undergo personality changes to improve sometimes. For example, if you have a hard time losing then it isn’t your chess that needs work but you.
But yes, back to competing in tournaments. It is far more helpful to compete in tournaments face-to-face than it is to play online. Yes, playing online is fun and it can improve your game, but playing chess online is like playing poker for pretzels. Unless your rating is on the line, trophies or prize money is on the line, or some kind of championship title is on the line, chess is just a game. If you want it to be a mind sport, something that improves your brain and helps stave off Alzheimer’s, then you need the competitive aspect.
The main tournament I went to was Steve Dillard’s weekly tournament every Monday Night, which still goes on at the Yussman Chess Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Not only did I meet my lifelong friends at these events, I struggled to win against them, and others. I had to go home, look over my freshly notated games, and determine how to improve. Big hint: most people don’t change how they play so beating them only takes a little effort.
How else did I become “good”? I played in adult chess tournaments. Scholastic events are perfect for any kids rated below 1300. However, once you get to 1300, they become fairly easy to win somewhat regularly, not every time of course. I am also specifically speaking about events in Kentucky. If you take this 1300 attitude into New York, for example, the numbers would change dramatically. But yes, if you live in Kentucky, and you are a 1300 kid, you should be entering adult tournaments. Hint: if you have trouble competing with higher ranked opponents then you need to work on that personality flaw before you can improve.
Now, here are my two favorite pieces of advice that I give to people on almost a weekly basis. It is amazing how very few people actually take this advice: go over your games and go over grandmaster games. My recommendation to most people is to go over 1 game per day and write some notes. See, once you learn to notate, you can go over your games and find your mistakes. Most people think this means figure out where you lost a piece or got checkmated. No… it means go over enough of your games to find a trend in your mistakes. For example, if you lose 10 different games out of your last 50 games and in all of these games you declined a draw offer by your opponent only to play on and lose, that should tell you something. Biggest Hint: The sooner you find trends in your mistakes during games the sooner you will improve. There are only 2 things any coach can guarantee to a student that will result in improvement immediately: going over your games and tactics training.
We go over grandmaster games for a different reason: examples. Grandmaster games show us how to play properly. It is actually pretty rare to see a grandmaster lose a chess game in the opening – that on its own is enough reason to want to know how they play. Most people think going over a grandmaster game means playing through the moves on a chess board. That is true, but only doing that will have a minimal impact. What you’re doing is looking for trends in how to play well. For example, if you go over 50 grandmaster games in 50 days but you discover, through your notetaking, that in 12 of those games the player who brought out their queen early lost the game, that will tell you something. Another Biggest Hint: It is difficult to be taught how to go over a GM game properly because that skill is developed on your own by going over GM games regularly.
Understand that genuinely good chess players have put in tens of thousands of hours studying chess, playing through games, and finding ways to improve. You do not have to put in thousands and thousands of hours to become good at chess because there are different levels of “good.” I consider any chess player who is above 1300 to be a “good” chess player as they are above average. It all comes down to what you want from chess because, as you improve, you will find that chess helps you with an innumerable amount of aspects of your life.