Chess Skills are not Have and Have Not

A student often says to me something like "Kasparov and Fischer have it - I don't" - referring to chess talent. It's as if they perceive that chess talent is a single thing and it's measured in 1 or 0.

But that's not the way it works. Chess talent is not one thing - it is many, many things such as visualization, determination, persevance, the ability to learn from your losses, deductive logic, memory, stamina, board vision, and many others. And, in most cases (things like stamina and memory are exceptions), these abilities start near zero but can rise well above your current level.

So for a better model let's use 0-100 instead of 0-1 to get both more granularity and a more accurate picture. Let's suppose in some talents a Fischer or Kasparov achieved a 98. However, if you measured them during the first minutes they learned to play, their ability was close to 0 - they had the talent but it had to be developed. Nobody has board vision, criticality assessment, tactical vision, or visualization til they play a little bit. In the case of the Polgar sisters, where chess was learned like a second language, they may have started at zero but at a very early age they got moving toward their possible maximums.

Now take a typical adult who never played chess super seriously when he/she was young, but now wishes to improve. Like everyone, his skills began at 0 and likely he never had the talent in a particular skill to get anywhere near 98 but, if he started early enough and was devoted enough, let's suppose he could have gotten to 73. However, right now he is stuck on 15.

Likely he thinks that working on that "15" skill is worthless and he's no good. And it's true he can no longer achieve 73, not even if he quits his job, forsakes his kids, and goes full-time in chess (don't do it! Wink). But that doesn't mean he is stuck on 15 forever if he works at that (or any similar) skill. If he starts doing the right kind of practice and exercises, he can make his visualization, tactical vision, time management, or criticality assessment much better - maybe he can get to 37 or even 52. But it all starts with rolling up the sleeves, taking up a positive attitude, and doing some good, appropriate work.

For example, I always had a strong willingness to learn from my losses, but I took action by doing things like looking up most of my speed game openings in MCO-10 or going over every slow game I could with my opponents. I would pick their brain: "What would have done if I had played 17.b4?" or "Why did you lose a pawn on move 20 - did you see that I could just get a discovered attack when I took your knight?" One major way I improved my visualization was by playing many long time control games slowly, often taking 10 minutes or more on one move while I carefully moved the pieces in my head over and over, checking and re-checking.

You may never become an expert or a master but, if you just study openings and never learn how to analyze well or evaluate properly, then the skills that go into making those key "combined skills" will languish and your 15 will become a self-fulfilling promise. Develop those skills way up above 15 and watch the composite measure of your skills, your rating (which measures your overall playing strength), improve commeasurately.

I know you can do it - if you think you can't, then you will be right...


  • 3 years ago


    This is good stuff.

  • 4 years ago


    I have been kayaking and teaching for nearly 10 years on a professional level. Have led over 10,000 people on the water and taught many classes. One of the sayings is "Perfect practice makes perfect". The reason is that a person can practice badly every day. When we practive bad moves then we never see success. The issue is we dont know any difference. Or a person may think that they know, but are wrong. From my experience reviewing a skill via video or recording is the best way to see our failures but we need to know what we are seeing. Not only do we need to review our past performances, but we need to have experienced players teach us what to look for during our review. We can exellerate this process with the right mix of review, playing, perfect practice, and wisdom from the wise. For what it is worth I am taking up Chess again after taking off 10 years from when I played on the team in high school. I forgot a lot.

  • 4 years ago


    I believe Dan is right. Of course this is very simplified model, but it shows some important things. I can tell you from my OWN experience that most of you guys might improve their skills AS LONG as you make proper training. The higher level you get - the harder it becomes to improve: it is trivial.

    Nevertheless when you are working in an effecient way - you HAVE TO improve - expect when other elements comes into your improvement and hamper your level (f.e. health, lack of fighting spirit, problems with stress and time management, etc.).

    I think most people have their OWN (different) "number" of maximum level to achieve (no matter if it is 98, 73 or just 26). The good thing is - you NEVER know how high (or low) is that "point", but if you are working properly - you can be "much closer" to this point of maximum achievement (in short: POMA).

    The bad thing is that requires A LOT of efforts, practice and right attitude (like in the last Dan's article: "Improving vs. Maximizing Performance").

    You might not believe me, but I have tested MOST of Dan's ideas (in his "Novice Nook" articles and books) and nearly all of them are "solid" (I mean about 90-95% of them are such a solid, that I do not see any way if them might be "broken"/falsified).

    You can quote me anywhere you want: "If you are a player below 2200-level and you are working efficient and properly (I mean at least constantly reducing the most important mistakes) - you can get to the "ultimate" goal - just the specified time has to pass. It is up to you - if you are so determined and have a character to overcome all the obstacles. I believe this "rule" is valid to about 90-95% of people (who are not below 85-90 IQ).

    I am not sure if most (more than 33%) people might achieve a FM, IM or GM status (level) even if they are training and practicing very long and very much. There might be some elements (traits) that have stopped you at achieving VERY high level of achievement. It is very similiar to the "running example": Just like not everyone is able to run 100 metres below 10.00 seconds.

  • 4 years ago

    NM dcremisi

    Depends on the person,  but whatever happens,  hard work wont make you go down,  only up.

  • 4 years ago

    NM danheisman

    Draconis: I think you mixing apples and oranges. In my model (which is not meant to be perfect, just an example) the instantaneous value of ability is 0-100. But in the number you cite (73), that's peak value, and the peak values are going to range, on the average, as MUCH higher than everyone's instantaneous values. So even if the gaussian average of the instantaneous values are 50, the gaussian average of the peak values will be higher. Besides, my 73 was just a number I picked. This person could still be a typical adult without being perfectly average. In any case, my original point was that ability is not 0/1 and my numbers were just meant to be general examples, not mathematical averages or anything precisely derived.

  • 4 years ago


    I played a few years as a kid and stopped for 35 years - restart with 45. It was incredibly difficult - but now, after 4 years, I do not believe you, that I can not reach my top level anymore - but one thing is sure - no matter when you start - the hill to climb is high Wink

  • 4 years ago


    Good article. I wanted to quibble with a few things though.

    Abilities are normally distributed (bell curve). When we say "let's take a typical player" and then assume that he could have a chess ability of 73, that's a contradiction. 50 would be a better assumption. Or, within one standard deviation of 50. That's what it means to be "typical."

    It's important to understand that our "theoretical maxima" for each ability are not distributed uniformly from 0 to 100.

    It's also important to understand that improving by 5 points at the left end of the scale will be much easier than improving by 5 points near the right end of the scale.

    But yes, I agree, it's not a simple binary.

  • 4 years ago


    thank you very much Dan Heisman, for this words full of hopes for us, the all time intermediate level player, i never took time to practice chess in my earlie live (for diferent reasons), im tooking time to study an improve lately, im 32 now, you think its posible i can reach the 2000 elo FIDE???

  • 4 years ago


    Well written and I'm that example of the adult who never had experience as a youngster and is starting from scratch!  It's challenging to say the least.  But anything worth doing isn't going to be easy!   Practice, practice, practice and, as I've often heard, learn from your mistakes!  (I make enough of them, goodness knows!).  I do try to learn from mistakes and I also realize that I'm human.  There are going to be days where I feel like it's hopeless.  But to me, that means I go back to tactics, do some exercises and try to build up a little more confidence.   Of note, rather than a 15.... I might be a 6??   But I'm working at it and I am not giving up!  Thanks for a terrific article that was quite motivating!

  • 4 years ago

    NM danheisman

    KnightDreamer - Thanks. I fixed "board vision" to "tactical vision". As for the 10,000 hour rule, see the Quote of the Month at the top of "The Theory of Chess Improvement I have noted in several places that perseverance is a more important chess trait than determination...

    Asbnak: Thanks for the promotion (The NY Times once quoted me as GM!!), but at age 62 will always be relegated to NM (USCF) and CM (FIDE) Smile

  • 4 years ago


    Thank you hicetnunc.
    You are probably correct, I was using some old numbers when i first researched it some years ago.


  • 4 years ago


    @knightdreamer : I think the % of GMs among masters (2200+ FIDE rated players) is somewhat higher, like 10-15%

  • 4 years ago


    Great article as always Mr. Heisman.

    Misstype: 2nd paragraph, 4th sentence "board vision" listed twice.

    I assume that you are familiar with the 10,000 hour rule (approximately 3hrs a day for 10yrs). To become an world-class expert in any field requires 10k hours of deliberate study. In golf, going to the driving range and hitting two buckets of balls does not constitute deliberate study. Using an a 9 iron and trying to get as close to the flag as possible would be considered deliberate study hours.
        My first two years of chess, I logged 6k blitz chess games a year. I do not consider those hours as deliberate study. I also studied chess puzzle books, endgame books and how to analyze books. Those hours were deliberate study.

    Now that I have established my framework. Mr. Heisman stated that Kasparov’s talent was hypothetically 98 on a scale of 1-100. I believe with 10k deliberate study hours can get anyone to a world-class expert but anything over that might take something more ’talent.’

    Let me be the 73 gentleman from the above story. My ten thousand hours of study gets me to 70 (world expert level) but any more than that will be my personal limits. Kasparov had the hypothetical limit of 98.

    Clarification: World class expert is someone that has mastered the basics of the game. Traditionally it is the top 2% of a particular field. Masters in chess are the top 2% of tournament players and grandmasters are the top 2% of masters.

    Final Thought:
    Persistence is the difference from mediocrity and success. We have the ability to climb a little closer to our personal limits. Perhaps study visualization, tactical vision, time management, critical position assessment or even keep physically fit for the mind to work more clearly at Kasparov’s level.

    Join me for our next climb toward personal perfection,
    - A wood pusher with big ideas

  • 4 years ago


    @cognigames : in Dan's example, "73" might mean something as good as IM-level

  • 4 years ago


    Very motivating! Especially for the more serious player who takes losses to heart frequently, though I would have to disagree that the person couldnt to the 73 if he quit his job and took up chess full-time.

Back to Top

Post your reply: