Can Anyone Be An IM Or GM?

Can Anyone Be An IM Or GM?

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BeekeeperBob wrote:

“I am a 19 year old who has been toying with the idea of making chess a career for me (either playing professionally or teaching chess). Unfortunately, I currently have no official ranking. So before I go spending the many hours of studying chess and the many hundreds (and thousands) of dollars, I have several questions: First, am I really that good, that given enough time I can do well at chess? And if I am good, how long would you expect it to take for me to get my IM and/or GM? 10 years? 15? And finally the third and final question, has anyone actually started their chess career at my age, and achieved a ranking that put them in the top 50 chess players of their time?”

First, we'll toss a bit of reality your way.

Dear BeekeeperBob,

I get quite a few letters by people who dream of being a chess professional. Oddly, this question first led me to writing for IM Andrew Martin was here before me and doing a great job. He got a similar though less realistic letter. If memory serves (and it rarely does nowadays), the guy was 21 years old with a very low rating and wanted to know how long it would take him to be grandmaster. Andrew was insulted since he had worked extremely hard for many years to get to where he is now (an IM and a highly regarded teacher and writer), and the tone of the letter made it seem as if getting a chess title was a piece of cake.

Andrew made it clear that the gentleman writing that article would never get the grandmaster title. And, as is often the case, a zillion anonymous internet know-it-alls (or was it two zillion?) screamed that he had crushed the man’s dream. Apparently those no-names don’t like truth, so they (in effect) wanted Andrew to lie. He left as a result of abuse from ignorant trolls.

The funny thing about all this is that, when hired me, my very first letter was by a 19 year old who wondered how long it would take for him to become a grandmaster! LOL… I was horrified. I don’t recall what my answer was. Anyway, this will be the last time I answer this question. In future, I’ll tell anyone that does ask to read this article.

The reason that this question appears so often is that most people don’t know how much goes into attaining those titles, so their question is quite reasonable. The answer, though, isn’t what most people want to hear.

Getting an IM or GM title demands endless effort. You will fail, you will continue to study, you will fail again, etc. etc. for years. Pain (losing and failing is agony, and few can handle it as time goes by), time (as I said a moment ago, years and years), and money (chess books, chess software, traveling to tournaments, chess teachers, etc.) must all be dealt with to become a grandmaster.

Now we have to bring up age. To have any chance to be a top-10 player, you’ll need to start playing chess very early—best is 6 or 7 years of age. Yes, there are always exceptions, but for the most part, that’s the way it is. We now have an international master who is 10 years old and grandmasters that are 12, 13, and 14 years of age. Nakamura got the GM title at the “old age” of 15.

Though being a chess pro might sound romantic (it certainly did to me when I was young), the romance quickly melts away when you realize that you’re broke, starving, and living in a hovel. Iif you live in America, then you can forgot about health insurance … way, way too expensive. Other than the top 10 or 20 grandmasters, most of the rest will never make a lot of money. As a result, grandmasters usually have to teach chess and write chess books. It wasn’t what they wanted to do when they started out, but when reality hits you in the face, you have to bow to it.

Of course, being a grandmaster and teaching students and writing books isn’t that bad. But you would make far more money and have much more security if you went to university and got a great career. And don’t forget that very few people ever become international masters and grandmasters. Keep in mind that there are 600 million to 800 million chess players in the world and only 1522 grandmasters.

It's not all bad news!

Mr. BeekeeperBob, let’s discuss this in a positive light. I’ve known many very low-rated chess teachers who are absolutely excellent. Teaching is a skill, and even if you’re rated 1500, you might be just what the doctor ordered for children or beginners of any age. Of course, you will have to know a lot more about chess than you do now, but that is quite doable.

Nevertheless, let’s not leap into teaching quite yet. Instead, why not be more practical and see how good you can be? The questions about being a grandmaster or a chess teacher will fall into place once you get more experience with the game. Here are my recommendations:

Take a step-by-step approach.

  • Though your rating is in the 1400s, your tournament rating would be closer to 1100 or 1200. Online ratings are often higher than tournament ratings, and they may give you a false sense of where you stand. You need to be very honest about that.
  • You’ll need to figure out your weaknesses and look for articles and books that discuss those areas of the game. If the book is too advanced, put it away and look at it again when you’ve improved. A good coach can really help in these areas. However, as I always say, “If you don’t feel a connection with the coach (no matter how nice they may be) look elsewhere.”
  • Lots of practice and study will eventually lift your chess understanding to new heights. Take note of your improvement, and ask yourself, “Okay, I’m better than I was, but what is holding me back from being even stronger?” Once again, your coach will help you there.
  • Seek out opponents around 100 points higher than you. Beating players much weaker than you are might make your ego feel good, but it will ultimately stop your growth as a player.
  • Create a realistic goal! I started out (I was 12) with a very low tournament rating (something like 1068). My first goal was to reach 1400 since 1400 players would wipe me out. After that, 1600 was my goal. Then 1800. As you can see, I pretty much went for 200 point gains. Expert followed, then master, etc. Each time I reached a goal, I would sit down and honestly look at my strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t have a regular coach, so I had to be quite brutal with myself. Self-delusion is common in chess, so you need to make sure you don’t fall into that trap.
  • As time goes on, you’ll begin to see where you stand. You might leap forward at warp speed, or you might see that chess is damned hard, and improvement is harder than you thought it would be. Either way, you’ll have a better grasp about what needs to be done.

The Result

If hard work isn’t for you, then just play chess and have a great time. If you do study and train and play in tournaments yet find that you’ve only made meager improvements, you’re still a winner. You had a great time, and you’ll continue to have a great time for as long as you play the game. It really is a win/win.

As for being a chess pro, I would have to say that even if you were 2200 right now, it would still be extremely difficult for you to become an IM, let alone a GM. The fact that you’re just starting out makes the IM/GM dream almost impossible. I say “almost” since such things have happened. It is very rare, but you never really know.

Instead of mulling about world domination, why not do what I mentioned and walk step by step to a doable goal, then ratchet up the effort for your next, more difficult goal. If you eventually find that you are one of those rare people who can do the “almost impossible,” then great! I’ll certainly be delighted for you. However, even if you don’t become an IM or GM, you’ll find that all that study and effort will make you a very strong player.

Your Present Chess Skills

One weakness you have is attacking pieces even if the attack chases an enemy piece to a safer square. A good example is this:

In the actual game, White managed to win in a nice way.

White To Move And Win

Here’s another example of BeekeeperBob making his position worse by lashing out and attacking something.

So far we’ve seen two weaknesses: 

  • Attacks things for no good reason
  • Doesn’t have any positional skills

In our next example, we see another BeekeeperBob weakness: He often fails to castle, or he takes too long to castle (usually because he wants to make threats). Either way, it’s usually a bad idea to keep your king in the center for too long.


White has a very simple way to gain a huge advantage. Can you find it?

Now let's see how White chose to play in the actual game:

We now have four typical weaknesses for BeekeeperBob:

  • Attacks things for no good reason
  • Doesn’t have any positional skills
  • Avoids castling so he can make (often useless) threats
  • Doesn’t pay much attention to what his opponent should do. Instead, he immerses himself in his own ideas

His fifth weakness is something that all beginners suffer from—They hang stuff!

In general, hanging stuff goes under the weakness of not paying attention to what your opponent will do. 

BeekeeperBob, don’t get upset about these problems. Everyone has them when they start out. By playing as much as possible, getting a coach, and studying the right books (the coach will tell you what to get), all these weaknesses will (eventually) go away or only be seen on rare occasions.

Thanks for asking this question. A lot of other people have the same dream, so it’s a question that deserved a serious answer. Like just about everything that’s important and wonderful and worthwhile, the answer is dedication and hard workIf you can create a clear study program (you might want to pay a GM to put one together for you) and follow it with everything you have, then you’ll certainly make massive improvements. After that, who knows what you can accomplish?

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