Chess Earnings & the French Defense

Chess Earnings & the French Defense

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ankitthemaster asked:

I posted this same question on and most of them insulted and/or discouraged me. My query was simple: I am age 22, keen to play chess professionally, and I will say that I am an advanced beginner who has mostly played chess till now as a hobby. So my question is whether chess has good earning potential?

Instead of replying to my question, most members said that I am too old to play chess professionally. I, of course, disagreed with them. But my parents seem to have the same view and told me to pay attention to my studies. Should I follow my heart or should I accept my parent’s decision? 


Dear ankitthemaster, 

Instead of personalizing this, let’s look at it from a different direction. Does chess in general allow grandmasters to make a good income? Note that I left international masters off the list, and senior masters, and masters – we’re just talking about the best of the best here.

The answer to that is, usually not. In 1975 there were approximately 120 grandmasters, now there are over 1,200 – clearly, the competition for the little money that’s out there is intense. Most grandmasters tend to squeak by because they are willing to add to their playing income (which comes from team competitions and various tournaments) with teaching gigs, writing, and exhibitions. And, even by doing all that, players that aren’t in the top 20 are lucky to earn $60,000 a year (a very small percentage make that), while many earn as little as $15,000. When you take into account the lack of health insurance and retirement funds, a fairly bleak picture of a chess professional’s long-term financial outlook comes into focus.

On a national level, I have watched GMs and IMs compete in events that offer first prizes in the $200 - $1,000 range. The chess pro pays an entry fee, hotels and travel costs, and food – the winner will be lucky to take home a few hundred bucks. Pros that fail to win often end up losing money! That’s right, they work hard and pay for the privilege!

Let me ram these points home by quoting my dear friend (Grandmaster and former World Championship candidate) Yasser Seirawan, who discussed these issues with me a few days ago:

“Where a player lives plays a vital role in terms of making a living and a good living. If a player lives in Serbia, Croatia or Bulgaria for example, 1,000 Euros a month could constitute a very good living for these nations, whereas if a player lives in Germany, this would be bare minimum requiring subsidized housing. The bottom line is that as a profession, chess is not financially rewarding and a player really needs to make it to the top 100 and much more like the top 50 and even top 20 to support a family of four in a ‘Western’ nation.”

I should add that quite a few non-masters have managed to make a living teaching chess in various school programs. Such programs exist in many states (Arizona and New Mexico are two frontrunners), and chess coaches with 1600 ratings can pull in $20,000 to $30,000 a year. However, the work is very hard, and such teachers tend to quit (or get fired) since the responsibilities (for a relatively low income) are often overwhelming.

There is a lot of disinformation out there about chess earnings. One pamphlet appeared in Southern California exhorting people to quit their jobs and move into the (and this is a direct quote) “lucrative field of chess.” In one popular book, the author told readers to buy a computer (so they could use the latest chess study software) and assured them that they would regain the cash spent many times over in their subsequent tournament winnings. In my view, such ignorant recommendations border on the criminal.

Mr. ankitthemaster, it’s now time to address your question in a more personal manner. The odds of you making grandmaster are almost nil. It’s been done, but you would have to devote yourself body and soul to chess, 10 hours a day, 7 days a week for many, many years. Since earning money during those study years would be next to impossible, you would have to live with (off) your parents or take the starving artist route (like I did) and sleep on friend’s floors or even in the street from time to time (as for food, I was lucky to get one meal a day during my early chess years). And, even after all that, the chances of getting that title remain highly dubious at best. But, as pointed out earlier, even if you do eventually get an IM or GM title, life will still be hard and money scarce.

Having said all that, there are perks to being a professional chess player. We do what we love doing (chess), we travel the globe and see places that most only dream about. And we meet many fascinating people that those with normal jobs would likely never make contact with. I’ve been the guest of judges, dictators, politicians, sheikhs, famous musicians, actors, and filmmakers – but then, I’ve been extremely lucky. And, I’ve paid my dues – being homeless and starving with no visible hope isn’t something I’d wish on anyone!

If you want to be a world-beater at chess in this day and age, you need to be a grandmaster long before 20. However, to embrace chess as a passionate hobby is something anyone can do at any age – and, in my view, anyone can make 2200 (master) if they work hard for it.

My recommendation for you is to obey your parents, get a good education, and earn a degree in some field that captivates you. Afterwards, if you still want to try your hand at chess domination, take a few years off and live out your dream (with the security blanket of your education there to catch you).


jluekeTo asked:

A couple of months ago I decided to focus on the French Defense against e4. I noticed a few games played in the French during the London Chess Classic, and the game between Nigel Short and Hua Ni caught my eye. It starts out normally but by move 9 things get confusing. After …h6 White played Bh4, fine but then on the very next move White plays Bxf6. Why move the Bishop back at all then?

Second, why does Black recapture with the g-pawn instead of the queen? After this the game is quite odd to my eyes. My main question is what is the purpose for moves 8 and 9, and as someone just learning should I erase all memory of this game from my memory?

N.Short - Ni Hua, London Chess Classic 2009

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nbd7 6.Nxf6+ Nxf6 7.c3 h6 8.Bh4 c5 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Qf3 cxd4 11.Bb5+ Ke7 12.Ne2 Qd5 13.Qxd5 exd5 14.Nxd4 f5 15.O-O-O Kf6 16.Ne2 Be6 17.Nf4 Rd8 18.Bc4 d4 19.Bxe6 fxe6 20.Rxd4 Bc5 21.Rxd8 Rxd8 22.Nh3 h5 23.Re1 e5 24.Re2 e4 25.Kc2 h4 26.f3 Re8 27.fxe4 fxe4 28.b4 Bd6 29.Rf2+ Ke5 30.Ng1 Rg8 31.g3 hxg3 32.hxg3 Rxg3 33.Ne2 Rf3 34.Rg2 Kd5 35.Nd4 Rh3 36.Nb5 Be5 37.Rd2+ Ke6 38.Nd4+ Bxd4 39.Rxd4 Rh2+ 40.Kb3 Re2 41.a4 e3 42.Kc4 Ra2 43.a5 e2 44.Re4+ Kd6 45.Kd3 b6 46.axb6 axb6 47.Rxe2 Rxe2 48.Kxe2 b5 49.Kd2 Ke6 50.Kd1 Kd5 51.Kc2 Kd6 52.Kd2 Ke6 53.Ke3 Ke5 54.Kd3 Kd5 55.c4+ bxc4+ 56.Kc3 Kc6 57.Kxc4 Kb6 58.b5 Kb7 59.Kc5 Kc7 60.b6+ Kb7 61.Kb5 Kb8 62.Kc6 Kc8 63.b7+ Kb8 64.Kb6, ½-½.


Dear Mr. jluekeTo,

The French Defense is an excellent choice vs. 1.e4. It’s actually quite an aggressive counterpunching system, and of course it often features fairly closed positions. Thus, it takes a certain kind of person to be comfortable with the French. In general, a French Defense aficionado needs to:

* Be willing to play positions where he has less space.

* Be willing to face some kingside attacks.

* Be willing to counterattack in the center with all the energy he can muster!

* Be willing to leave his King in the center for longer periods then many other openings do.

* Not be freaked out by his apparently poor light-squared Bishop.

* Be willing to worship John Watson as his lord and master.

* Not panic if the e5-square appears weak.

Understand that many French positions can erupt into a tactical melee at any moment – thus you need to have a good imagination, a reasonable command of basic tactics, and the ability to calculate at least a couple moves ahead.

When playing the French, you will have some interesting choices about which lines you do and don’t wish to play. Here are the basics:

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 and now --

3.e5 c5 4.c3 and now the main move is 4…Nc6 but you can also consider 4…Qb6 with the idea of following up with …Bc8-d7-b5, exchanging your bad Bishop for white’s good one.


3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 (4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 is the space-gaining alternative – Black has scored quite well in this line in recent years) and now Black can play the main line via 4…Be7 5.e5 Nfd7, or try to keep things simple (though perhaps a bit more passive) with 4…dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nbd7 (a fun alternative – a favorite of mine when I was 14 years old – is 5…Be7 6.Bxf6 gxf6 when Black hopes to make use of his two Bishops and open g-file, while also depriving White of the use of the e5-square).


3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 and in this very sharp position Black has tried 6…Ne7, 6…Qc7, 6…Qa5, and 6…Nc6. I should note that after the most popular 6…Ne7 White has to decide whether to play positionally with 7.Nf3, or enter endless complications with 7.Qg4 when Black once again has a decision: should he go for the gusto with 7…Qc7 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9.Qxh7 or enter the complications of the more modern 7…0-0 when White’s kingside chances (after 8.Bd3 Nbc6 9.Qh5 Ng6 10.Nf3) counterbalance black’s obvious structural superiority.


3.Nd2 (not allowing the …Bb4 pin and also keeping the c-pawn free to bolster white’s center via c2-c3) and now Black usually chooses either 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 (leading the extremely sharp play after both 5.f4 or 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2) or 3…c5 4.exd5 when Black must choose between 4…Qxd5 or 4…exd5, accepting an isolated d-pawn (after 5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5 Bd6 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.0-0 Nge7 9.Nb3 Bd6) for the sake of the free development of his forces.


If all this seems like it makes the French an impenetrable forest of complicated variations, may I suggest a far simple (and more manageable) idea that requires minimal memorization and can be used against both 3.Nc3 and 3.Nd2, namely 3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 and now 4…Nf6, 4…Nbd7 followed by …Nf6, 4…Bd7 followed by …Bc6, and 4…Be7 are all fully playable and avoid the sharper, more theoretically crucial lines.

Now on to your question – as it turns out, the “mystery” isn’t a mystery at all!

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nbd7 6.Nxf6+ Nxf6 7.c3 h6 8.Bh4

Taking on f6 doesn’t give White anything at all after 8.Bxf6 Qxf6 since 9.Bb5+ is moronic due to 9…c6.

8…c5 9.Bxf6

However, now this capture forces Black to weaken his pawn structure since 9...Qxf6? walks into 10.Bb5+ and …c6 is no longer possible! That’s why White only took on f6 AFTER the c-pawn advanced to c5. Now (after 10.Bb5+) Black would have to decide on three unpleasant choices: 10…Bd7 11.Bxd7+ Kxd7, 10…Kd8, and 10…Ke7.

I should note that 9.Bxf6 is Short’s try at an improvement from an earlier game of his vs. Korchnoi (Najdorf Memorial, 2001). That thrilling contest went 9.Qf3 Be7 10.Bb5+ Nd7 11.Bxe7 Qxe7 12.Ne2 0-0 13.0-0 Nf6 14.Rfe1 Rd8 15.Rad1 Bd7, ½-½.

9…gxf6 10.Qf3 placing pressure on the f-pawn and giving White a slight plus.

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