Chess Earnings & the French Defense

  • IM Silman
  • | Feb 22, 2010

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.


  • 6 years ago


    what do you think about this line ?

  • 6 years ago


  • 6 years ago


    Seriawan became a GM at 19.

  • 7 years ago


    Thanks! Never thought The French defence could be so aggresive :)

  • 7 years ago


    hmmm ... I just noticed ... the February 2010 issue of Chess Life Magazine features Ben Finegold on the cover with the heading: "America's strongest IM conjures up the GM title ... at 40 years old." Granted he's been involved with the professinal Chess Community for decades ... ... still ... ... more proof that the 40s are the new 30s.

    Also ... interesting to note ... Jesus of Nazareth began His ministry at the age of 32 and died approximately three years later at a time when the life expectancy for males was 35 and for females it was 38 (approximately), and the average marrying age for males and females was around 14-16 and was generally an arranged marraige --- generally. So I guess in our day and age ... where the life expectancy for a male is doubled to 72 and for a woman it is 78 (approximately) and most men and women co-habitate and either marry or reproduce between the ages of 19-25 (generally), then ... ... that would mean that Jesus would be starting His ministry at "the modern day age" of 64.

    Apparently ... Jesus and His Ministry became such an important event in our human history ... that our time-line and "the time of modern civiliation" is measured according to His birth (that is, A.D. and B.C. for Anno Domini and Before Christ --- now changed to BCE and CE ... Before the Common Era and Common Era) .. .. ... ... .. ....



    ..... .... .... ... ... ... .... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... not bad for an old geezer.

  • 7 years ago


  • 7 years ago


    Thank you Mr. Silman.  I absolutely love your writing. I own several of your books, and can base most of, if not all, my improvment on your "How to reassess your chess" work. Thank you sir, keep em coming.

  • 7 years ago


    Excellent article, Mr. IM Silman.

  • 7 years ago


    I too would like to tip my hat to the sound career advice from the author!

  • 7 years ago


    Malcolm Gladwell has written that it takes 10,000 hours of study to become an expert in a complex field.  That's 40 hours per week for about 5 years. If you have a job and/or family, it might be 10 hours/week for 20 years.  That sounds about right to become a master (2200 rating).  To go beyond that level I suspect you need to be born with a gift.  

    Consider that someone rated 400 points above you will beat you 90% of the time.  So Magnus Carlsen will beat a 2400-rated IM 90% of the time, who will beat a 2000-rated expert 90% of the time who will beat a 1600-rated club player 90% of the time.  Getting to GM (2500+) is a huge mountain to climb.

  • 7 years ago


    YThere was a story about Carlsen being one of the youngest GMs ever to win the world title well maybe you can be one of the oldest GMs ever to win a world title,but it takes hard work and sacrifive to be successful at whatever you try in life-the harder you work the luckier you become,so best of luck and make sure i don't get there before you

  • 7 years ago


    This article was written a week ago!

  • 7 years ago


    Its all I play for black....even if white opens D4 I play e^ in the hopes it will transpose back!

  • 7 years ago

    FM BecomeanIM

    i was thinking about this last night, i woke up in the middle of the night, hard time catching some sleep or "shut eye" as the Jamaicans would say. The fridge and the clock that lays over my head were real loud. I am also in my 20's. Its been evident to me that making a living out of being a chess professional is not the way to go. We could go back and forth about whats truly fulfilling.

    The world, and the chess world is not cut out to be a chess professional.

    I think if your a professional chess player, you can have a lucrative career by being an entrepreneur. its pretty clear the chess industry is far from being exploited. 

    now the amount of time and effort invested will more than likely be equally rewarding in any other field, whether it be financial or personal.

    there is also a lot to say about the education required to be a successful entrepreneur.

    if your in school or in a career and have aspirations of more as a chess player or as far as education just remember that learning doesnt end once your education is complete, or once you become a grandmaster.

    if your participating in this discussion your fortunate because you fit in to the lifestyle required to live the life.

    I concluded my thoughts on chess yesterday by realizing that this process of being consumed in complete concentration over a chessboard makes me feel as if i lived longer for that period of time in comparison to anything else, and if i were to simulate that intensity throughout my day. well what a dream that would be.

    i feel very lucky to be able to have that ability, and do it for everyday for the rest of my life. hopefully it reaps fruits in the form of some sort of higher accreditation, but in terms of making a living out of it, even in the most industrialized, and developed nation in the world its not possible.

  • 7 years ago


    My current dream is to go to medical school, work for 20-25 years saving while working extremely hard on Chess on the side. Then begin to work part time instead and concentrate far more on chess. I'm not exactly an expert, but I don't think grandmasters need to sprout early. People who are older and more experienced can study in a far more organised way and understand concepts better which is why I still hold thoughts of being one.

  • 7 years ago


    @ ankitthemaster:

    I'm 23 years old and play chess at a level similar to yours (USCF rating 1500) and I work as a chess coach at the Elementary School level.  I make $2000+/month which isn't fantastic but it's enough to pay the bills and get me through school.  Not to mention that the practice with other coaches (several rated in the 2000's) has made me a much stronger player.

  • 7 years ago


    Saying that someone's too old, or not good enough to be a grandmaster is just a generalization, in most cases you have to start when you’re really young, and in most cases being an advanced beginner at your age isn’t good enough.  Don’t take any of this as advice.  There’s nothing to say you can’t be exceptional.

  • 7 years ago


    Dear IM Silman, thank you first of all for clearing up my confusion about that game.  Your explanation makes perfect sense.  White is indeed quite sane!  Black maybe less so, since Bb5+ still happened and he went on that king march but even that makes more sense than the alternative.  As for the French in general, I think I meet most of not all the qualifications but something still bugs me.  I don't know if it's because most people have played the Advance or Exchange or if it's something else.  I think I may have to go back to the Pirc which waits a little longer to counter-attack and maybe that's what I like. 

    As for being a proffesional, I've just completed my first year and after the last tournament my rating should be 1320-1340 or so.  I have improved each time from my 970 start, but that was a low start :p.  But it is a lot of work to get better, even just to some day become an expert or a master.  The time to $ ratio for a GM has to be insanely poor compared to almost any other profession.  At 22 you could actually spend quite a lot of time studying chess and finishing school, it's really a good time.   

  • 7 years ago


    I don't like french. In Caro-Can you can change the bishop and in french

    you have the weak bishop on Ld7 or so..

  • 7 years ago


    Just my two cents--I turn 40 this year and really only discovered how much I love chess last year.  I too have a dream of being a GM one day, I imagine myself playing in tournaments around the world--the difference between myself and the questioner is that I have already finished my degrees, I teach at the High School and Community college level.  I have 15 years until retirement and after that I intend to devote myself to my dream.  Just remember, anyone who tells you life is short hasn't been paying attention--I went to school until I was 27, worked in various fields until I found teaching at 30--can retire at 55 and still have (average life span) 23 years to reach my goal.

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