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Three myths about chess

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Tue, May 26, 2015 20:52:55

By WIM Jen Hansen & GM Lars Bo Hansen

Chess is a game that everyone knows – either from playing the game, watching others play, or at least from hearsay. Despite this – or maybe because of it - the game is surrounded by thousands of myths.

Here are three of them that Jen and I have observed throughout the years, starting ages ago when we were introduced to chess and all the way through to earning international titles at Chess Olympics and World Championships to our current roles as chess coaches. Feel free to comment below.

Myth 1: He or she is so talented; she will surely become a Grandmaster one day.

Truth: Let’s start with the numbers. Out of 80,000+ registered members of US Chess Federation, only 54 hold the title of Grandmaster. That’s less than 0.07% of registered tournament players. While the percentage may be slightly higher in other countries – for example, in my home country Denmark it is about 0.2% of tournament players – it is clear that statistically the chances of making it to Grandmaster are very slim.

How come? Becoming a top player in chess is extremely difficult – much more than most people imagine! It really takes A LOT to become a top player in chess and earn international titles of IM or GM. It’s not impossible, but do you know what it really takes to do it?

When a parent tells me that a coach told her kid that he or she surely is on the way to becoming a Grandmaster, I am sure of one thing: the coach is not a Grandmaster himself. Most likely something like 1000 rating points away from that level. A Grandmaster would NEVER say that to young talents or their parents. In fact the more talented the kid, the less likely it is that the GM coach will direct his focus on a potential future GM title.

There are many talented 8 or 9-year olds out there – just look around at your next tournament - but very few of them will actually make it all the way to Grandmaster. Why, what is stopping them? The illusion of an easy path! As coaches, we should not feed into that illusion.

Even if the kids belong to the rare group of super talents – the Carlsen, Caruana or Nakamura kind – it is counterproductive for their growth to focus on immediate results, rating points and the illusion that you are almost there – let’s say as a 1700 player. This puts an immense pressure on the young player. Shifting focus away from mastering the game and growing your skills to obsessing with points, there is a huge risk that the young talent will become discouraged. He or she will realize how far away the dream title really is, and what sacrifices are needed to make it to the top. We have met many young talents who have left the game because of discouragement when suddenly facing adversity or slowed progress.

Myth 2: My kid is really special; he doesn’t need to spend that much time on chess, there must be a shortcut to the top.

Truth: There are no short-cuts to the top level; if you want to make it you have to give something up.

Every now and then, a parent would contact us basically asking “My kid is so smart and learns so fast, don’t you have some shortcut that can make him progress in chess without spending too much time on it?” Unfortunately, the honest answer is “no, shortcuts to the top do not exist”. Chess takes the time it takes. Every Grandmaster has spent thousands of hours on the game, playing, studying, analyzing, reading, reflecting…

Most parents want their kids to be well-rounded and try a lot of different activities. That is certainly fine when they are very young. But if they really want to pursue a path to the top in chess, you cannot spread to 5 or 6 different activities - at some point some tough choices need to be made!

Our experience is that most top players at an early age zoom in on two activities (not counting school work) – one physical sport and chess. For example, I (Lars) divided my time between chess and soccer but gave up handball and swimming; Jen focused on chess and running. This combination of physical sport and mind sport is useful to build the stamina needed for high-level competitive chess. World Champion Magnus Carlsen is known to do a lot of sports (mainly soccer and basket) next to chess.

Myth 3: Chess is a cheap sport. All you need to get started is a 5$ chess set.

Truth: If your chess ambitions go beyond the beginner level, chess costs a small fortune!

After the $5 chess set, you realize you need some books. Then some lessons, memberships for club, federation and online chess sites, databases, DVD’s, digital devices, classes, travels to tournaments, entry fees, chess camps, coaching… And don’t forget to take into account the time and money parents will be spending driving to lessons and tournaments.

Why do people spend all this money on chess? For the same reason they spend on education: To grow smarter, more creative, to make sound decisions and build a more fulfilling life. I like the famous quote by former Harvard University President Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

And here we start talking about the returns. Not only the most immediate ones like winning prizes or making money by coaching others. But also the long-term returns of building a strategic mindset.

For both Jen and I, chess has been a highly rewarding passion, in spite of all the hard work we have put into excelling in the game, and all the hard choices. We have traveled around the world playing tournaments, met awesome people and seen amazing places. And most of all, chess has always been fun and still is!

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