How to become a chess master

For an average beginner, the road to odds between 1400 and 1600 is quite simple. Learn as many tactical patterns as possible, familiarize yourself with some basic opening principles, and you’re there! Notice, I said the path is simple, but it’s not easy at all. Still, if you have desire and determination, it’s only a matter of time before you reach that level of ranking. We have already discussed the tools that could help you achieve this initial goal by this, this and this article.

If you progress quickly in chess and your rating increases faster than the price of a bitcoin, congratulations! The good news is that unlike the bitcoin price mentioned above, your rating will never drop to zero. The bad news is that unlike the price of bitcoin, the higher your rating, the harder it is to get it. I bet you’ve seen dozens of players in your chess club whose rating has permanently stayed between 1800 and 2000. What must these players do to become a master?

If you attend a large open tournament, you will see dozens of open games with the so-called neo London (1.d4 followed by 2.Bf4). It’s both funny and sad to see a 1200 player start his games this way. Ask these players what draws them to such a fancy opening (I almost used a “b” word, which rhymes with a “buzz” word), and they’ll proudly answer that it’s one of Magnus’ favorites. Carlsen. Never mind that Carlsen’s requirements for any opening he plays are completely different from what a club player might have in mind.

Also, while New London is a perfect opener, sometimes you can get yourself in trouble by blindly following someone else’s recommendation. A concrete example is the following position.

Even though a very strong grandmaster called this the winning position for white in a book, it’s still a draw. Poor Sam Shankland trusted the author of the book and therefore he resigned in a theoretically worthless position.

One of the most important skills for any chess player is the ability to think critically. You should never accept any statement (including this one) without asking a simple question: “why?” By critically analyzing every chess variation or statement made by a strong player, you will learn to think like them and eventually become one of them!

I would like to share a memorable episode from my childhood when it took me years to decipher one of Anatoly Karpov’s comments which consisted of only three sentences.

Anatoly Karpov, perhaps the greatest chess strategist. | Photo: Dutch National Archives.

In my old post, I have already mentioned one of my favorite chess books of all time. This is a collection of the best games of Karpov, which was part of the famous Soviet “Black Series” about the best chess players in the world. The book was translated into English in 1978 under the title “My best games”.

You can find the following typical Karpov masterpiece in the book:

In order to understand the depth of Karpov’s playing, you really need to read his annotations in the book. Here I want to talk about one of them after White’s 14th move. Karpov makes the following comment:

“The usual 14.Nd5 Qxd2+ 15.Rxd2 Bxd5 16.Bxd5 gives White a definite spatial advantage. But it is not easy to win this position, if Black plays carefully, refraining from pseudo-hasty pursuits. active like 16…b5??.You see, after the exchange of major pieces, the endgame two bishops against bishop and knight gives White excellent chances to win due to the presence of his pawn weaknesses opponent on the queenside.”

Thus, Karpov speaks of this variation:

At the age of 10, when I read the book for the first time, the whole commentary was absolutely incomprehensible to me. At the time, I thought a move deserved a double question mark if it blundered a checkmate or lost at least one minor piece. I just couldn’t figure out why the move 16…b5?? was lost. Again and again I have come back to this comment trying to capture the wisdom of the twelfth world champion. It took me literally years before I could put all the pieces of this puzzle together.

The future grandmaster Rustem Dautov, who was the Soviet junior champion at the time, taught me the first lesson. He clearly demonstrated that if Black does not play b7-b5, then it is indeed very difficult to win this endgame despite having a significant spatial advantage. Black simply has no weaknesses that white can attack.

Later I found the following play in an old book about the Petrosian vs. Spassky World Championship game. Notice GM Boleslavsky’s comment after White’s 17th move.

During my game, and especially afterwards when I analyzed it with Dautov, who was a great expert on variation, I learned that if black had played b7-b5 at any point in the endgame, it would have given me good practical chances due to the a2-a4 break. Boleslavsky’s comment was only a confirmation of my findings. It’s not the b5-pawn that gets weak after b7-b5, it’s the a6-pawn that may be in trouble!

Isaac Boleslavsky
Isaac Boleslavsky. Photo: Wikipedia.

The following game summarizes the results of my multi-year research. Note that I played Nc3-d5 only after the b7-b5 move had already been played. Then I actually pushed a2-a4 to break Black’s queenside. After that, as I expected, Black’s a6-pawn became very weak. At first he had to go to a5, but eventually it was all lost anyway. As a result, white gets a passed a4 pawn which decides the game.

It goes without saying that spending years trying to figure out the meaning of just one brief comment by Karpov is highly unusual, but try the following exercise. Find a really good game played by a great player with their own annotations. Then try to understand each comment. If the player says “white is better”, ask yourself: “Why is white better?” “. If he says the f4 square is getting weak, try explaining why it is weak to an imaginary student. If you don’t neglect anything in such a game, then you have really learned something from it, and you are on the way to your title of master!

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