Deep Thinking & the Differences Between Titled Players

Deep Thinking & the Differences Between Titled Players

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DT asked:

I would like to know what you think differentiates an EXPERT, MASTER, FIDEMASTER, INTERNATIONAL MASTER, and GRANDMASTER. Besides the obvious rating points.

How would you describe deep thinking in chess?

And last, I’ve seen a lot of talented young players reach their goal of making master, and then they don’t seem to get any better. How would a coach or parent get them back on track?

Dear DT:

The Differences Between Titled Players

The question about the differences between an Expert, Master, FIDE-Master, IM, and GM is a common one. In an old book where various famous players were asked this same basic question, the answer was, quite simply, tactical ability!

To a large extent, that’s true. A grandmaster calculates better than the lower groups (there are rare exceptions, of course).

An Expert suffers in comparison since he usually calculates badly and also has a very poor understanding of positional niceties. Experts are massively inferior to the other groups.

Masters … well, there are masters and masters. A 2200 might be a blown up Expert, and at the best he’s just a tad better then the guys with 2100 ratings. 2300 masters are superior, and have left all Expert traces behind them. These guys possess reasonable calculation skills (not good, just reasonable), reasonable positional skills, etc. They suck, but can do enough things at a solid level that they stand out.

2400 players have honed all the skills of the 2300 and have added other things to make them distinctly superior. They might or might not calculate better, they have more confidence, they have a better understanding of positions, and they have far superior openings. Nevertheless, a USCF 2400 player still sucks … he has major flaws in his game.

A FIDE master can be pretty bad. I’ve played FIDE masters who seemed to be Expert strength, but I would guess most of them are no higher than the (USCF) 2300 levels (of course, as is always the case, there are exceptions and you'll occasionally find a FIDE Master with 2400 skills).

The most interesting groups are IM and GM. Both groups have mastered tens of thousands of chess patterns, and where a 2300 or even a 2400 will stare at a position without knowing what’s going on, the IM or GM might glance and instantly know the position’s very soul. There are some really strong IMs. Elite IMs tend to be close to GM and are only held back by something small (that can be rectified by more training), by fear of losing (psychological weakness), or by a lack of playing opportunities (many places just don’t offer titled events). An elite IM might be a great calculator, or an opening expert, or have fantastic positional skills. But, usually, he doesn’t have all these things working for him at the same time. And, to be a GM, you need that elite kind of balance.

However, even a solid IM is far superior to a USCF 2400, and better than most untitled USCF 2500 players (IMs are usually in the FIDE 2400 – 2530 ranges).

Naturally, there are all levels of GMs too. Weaker GMs are not far above some IMs, while solid GMs (while standing firmly above IMs) are fodder for elite GMs. The elite GMs have very good to great positional skills, but stand out for super calculation abilities and a knowledge of openings that few others possess.

I need to make one thing clear: when I say a rating group “sucks”, that’s purely relative and it’s a blatant generalization. First off, there will always be people in a group that are far better than their rating and about to make a surge to the next level. Secondly, even class “A” (1800 – 1999) is a high rating, and players in this group are very strong (it’s a big accomplishment to earn an “A” ranking), so imagine how good Experts (2000 – 2199) are. In other words, all these people deserve respect. However, pushing ego aside, when compared to the world’s elite, everyone else does suck. And, as you get better and better, you begin to realize just where you really stand in the food chain.

Deep Thinking in Chess

A good question, and by far the one that most interested me. Please keep in mind that what’s “deep” for one group is obvious to another. The Expert to 2300 will often agonize over a position that IMs and GMs consider trivial. Thus the “deep thinking” of Experts to 2300s is only deep to them, while a walk in the park to their superiors.

I was lecturing at the 2003 U.S. Championship in Seattle (I kept 5 games going at all times on the demo boards). At one point I had to take a coffee break and my “understudy” – a good player/teacher with a 2300 rating – took over. He did a pretty good job, but when he was asked how one game (a King’s Indian Defense) was going he announced that it was more or less even (it wasn’t a tactical position – instead, it was ruled by solid positional considerations). The crowd of 200 agreed, and after a bit more discussion he moved on to another game.

When I finished my coffee, I once again took control of the games and was asked what I thought about the King’s Indian Defense game. I quickly said that it was hopeless for Black and that he would resign at any moment! The crowd seemed shocked and wasn’t sure if I was joking, but I explained the ins and outs of the position and showed why Black had failed in all his strategic goals, thus making the position a complete disaster for him. And, sure enough, a short time later Black indeed resigned.

A. Shabalov - A. Fishbein, U.S. Championship 2003

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0–0 6.Be2 e5 7.0–0 c6 8.d5 Na6 9.Be3 Ng4 10.Bg5 f6 11.Bh4 c5 12.Ne1 Nh6 13.f3 Bd7 14.Nd3 g5 15.Bf2 f5 16.Rb1 g4 17.fxg4 Nxg4 18.exf5 Nxf2 19.Nxf2 Bxf5

I’m sure many players would think the game is evenly balanced here. Black has the two Bishops (a later …Bh6 might give Black some serious dark-square control), his f8-Rook is sitting on an open file, and his Queen can leap to the kingside via …Qg5 or …Qh4. However, the truth is that black’s in terrible trouble. In fact, the opening has proved to be a strategic train wreck for the second player!

20.Bd3 Nc7 21.Bxf5 Rxf5 22.Qb3

This move gains a tempo (by hitting b7) and connects the Rooks in anticipation of Nfe4.

22…Rb8 23.Nfe4 Rxf1+ 24.Rxf1

Suddenly white’s Knight rules the world from its unassailable e4-perch (where it hits d6 and threatens Nf6+ if the Bishop moves to h6 or f8), black’s c7-Knight is poorly placed, black’s Bishop is bad, and white’s the one that owns the f-file.


Desperation. However, trying to get the c7-Knight into the game by 24…Ne8 (a move that also gives d6 some support) fails            to 25.Qd1 (heading for g4) 25…Qh4 26.Qf3 Qe7 27.Ng3 when one Knight will jump to f5 while the other Knight will leap to e4 (super Knights!).

25.cxb5 a6 26.b6 Nb5 27.Nxb5 axb5 28.Qh3 h6 29.Qe6+ Kh7 30.Rf7 Qh4 31.Qf5+ Kg8 32.g3 Qxe4 33.Rxg7+ Kxg7 34.Qxe4 Rxb6 and Black resigned without waiting for a reply. 1-0.

So, is “deep thinking” nothing more than a person of one level thinking beyond what’s expected of him, or is it the ability to find things in a position that non-masters would never imagine, or could it be the ability to view a position’s inner workings in ways that defy normal (whatever “normal” is) paradigms?

No, I’m not sure what deep thinking is. Suffice it to say that some might consider me a deep thinker, while the many, many people that dwarf my humble chess-IQ will view me as a chimpanzee.

What to do if a Young Player Gets Stuck After Achieving His/Her Goals

A young player that achieves his goal (in this case making master) but then stalls for a long period of time has, in most cases, moved on to other interests (school, sports, dating, other intellectual passions, etc.). For him to improve, he’ll need to study hard AND, most importantly, get jazzed by chess again. In other words, if he doesn’t find chess more than a fun pastime, then it’s doubtful that he’ll make another surge until some future time when he decides that’s what he wants to do.

Of course, there’s no doubt that a talented young player could be much stronger if he decided that this was a life priority, but I’ve seen the passion for chess vanish in many promising kids once that master rating was achieved and university beckoned. This might or might not change at some point in the future. If the newly minted young master does decide to go to another chess level, and he understands and embraces the need for hard work to achieve that goal, then his talent will easily take him there.

I should add that those young men who become grandmasters by their early teens are driven to do so. To them, chess is usually life itself – it’s all they can think of. They eat it, breathe it, and live it in their dreams. The young men and women you asked about don’t have that kind of obsession, and I think that’s usually a good thing!

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