Reaching GM Potential And Compensation

Reaching GM Potential And Compensation

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Reaching One’s GM Chess Potential member Philippe Silex777 asked:

I have been reading your articles for a while now and have a question that I can’t find a satisfying answer to. It’s pretty simple: You wrote books about chess. You explain advanced concepts very well. You make amazing analysis. You probably understand any top-level game very deeply.

So why aren’t you “better?” Why aren’t you over a 2700 rating? What really separates someone like you from a super-GM?

I hope you don’t take offense for me questioning your skills. I’m genuinely curious about why someone's comprehensive chess understanding doesn’t necessarily translate into effective superiority in actual games with the elite.


Dear Philippe Silex777:

Thanks for the interesting letter -- absolutely no offense taken. Since quite a few people asked similar questions, I’ll go over several reasons why very talented players fail to reach their potential:

  • Alcohol (and, to a lesser degree, drugs) has destroyed many chess careers: grandmasters whose love affair with alcohol stopped them from reaching the highest heights, or international masters who were clearly GM-strength, but couldn’t leave the bottle alone. (Other than the rare glass of high-quality absinthe, I don’t drink.). I’ve known some grandmasters who drink heavily but still remain on a high level, but they would have been stronger and done better without it.
  • No work ethic. Some IMs and GMs reach those hallowed heights purely on the wings of talent. However, to get to the next level they need to work hard. Those that are lazy and refuse to put in the work fail to reach their potential.
  • Money. Chess books, chess software, college, traveling to tournaments, chess lessons/training, etc. All these things cost money, and families that can’t afford such “luxuries” won’t be able to give a young chess talent the tools he’ll need.
  • Survival. Many IMs and GMs become sick and tired of not having a regular paycheck and health insurance. So they leave the game and leap to another career, or they decide to write chess books and teach. Once you get a regular non-chess job, or once you put your energies into writing books and teaching, your game will never be what it once was or could have been.
  • Geography. In my prime years (70s and 80s) there were very few tournaments in the U.S. that offered title possibilities. Thus you had to move to Europe (or go back and forth) if you wanted a title. Since most chess players didn’t have much money; players would sleep in parks or super-cheap hovels while competing in Euro-events. Hardly ideal, but quite common. This often leads to “survival” (above) and -- prepare yourself for a filthy word -- a job, which in turn ends any real hope of reaching one’s chess potential.
  • Fear of losing/lack of confidence. There are many titled players that lack confidence or have a mind-numbing fear of defeat. Losing isn’t fun, but it’s going to happen. If you fear it, your game will never be as good as it could have been if you are fearless.
  • Living life. The vast majority of top chess players are completely focused on chess (the same as scientists are focused on science, and a boxer focuses on improving his boxing skills). You need that devotion to the game if you wish to reach the highest heights. When players branch out and immerse themselves (I’m not talking about a hobby, I'm talking about full immersion) into other things, they usually will leave a bit (or more) of their “chess-potential” behind.
  • Health. If you can’t handle stress, or if you suffer from any one of many possible physical problems, realizing your chess potential is doubtful.

Mr. Philippe Silex777, you mentioned me reaching 2700. In my prime I was good enough to reach the low grandmaster level (perhaps 2530 FIDE) if I fully devoted myself to the game, but nothing more than that. But life got in the way and I found myself going in different directions. It would have been nice to get that GM title, but I have no regrets.

Regarding 2700, if you want to reach that rating you need to learn the game by age six or seven (I didn’t learn how to play chess until I was 12), have enormous natural talent, have the ability to work very hard, never give up in the face of adversity, and totally dedicate yourself to the game. Even if I had completely devoted myself to chess and didn’t allow any distractions, I would have never reached that level. Never.


Compensation member polysciguy wrote:

I read your article on overprotection, and you mentioned that you like boiling things down so that player of all ratings can make some sense of the concept. I was wondering then, if you could do an article that boils down compensation. I have been having trouble understanding when a player has compensation for a sacrifice, especially positional compensation. 


Dear Mr. polysciguy:

You can have compensation for a loss of material or “other things.” An example of an “other thing”: one side has a horrible pawn structure but his active pieces give him full dynamic compensation for his static problems.

Here we’ll settle with material loss. Whether or not the compensation is adequate might not be answered for quite a while. Simply put, you are giving material away so you can gain something else. The million-dollar question: Is that “something else” worth the sacrificed material?

Here’s a case in point:

Another example of compensation is the Albin Counter Gambit:

These two examples show definite compensation, but it’s not clear that, at the highest levels, it will be enough. On the other hand, they offer full compensation in amateur chess, since non-professionals don’t have the same defensive skills (or opening knowledge) that the pros do. 

One of the most popular sacrifices is the Marshall Gambit: 

Here’s one more example. This time the person sacrificing material gets full positional compensation:

Mr. polysciguy, you’re not the only one that has trouble figuring out what is or is not adequate compensation. But that’s what the “material plus vs. something else” battle is all about! Each position has to be looked at with fresh eyes, and even grandmasters often get it wrong.

As with all positions, reading the imbalances will give you vital insight into what’s going on and what needs to be done. But will it always give you a definite assessment? No, such assessments often take years of practice and hundreds of games before the real truth surfaces.

That’s the beauty of chess. 

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