To mere mortals, the elusive world of champion chess players seems either too complex or too boring to wrap our heads around. However, though it is often the former, it is never the latter.
Behind the game itself are enigmatic characters aloft on soaring intellectual quotients with egos full to bursting. We’re talking about grandmaster chess players capable of figuratively eviscerating opponents one fallen pawn at a time.
“Amberley excelled at chess—one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind.”
– Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”
These players consistently manage to eat their opponents alive – striking fear into the hearts of other players as though each match were ‘Wizard’s Chess’.
What Makes a Chess Player a Grandmaster?
The title of Grandmaster in chess is an official one. As such, only the sport’s international organizing body FIDE can bestow it. Players deemed worthy earn the right to be called Grandmasters.
“Fancy what a game at chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to a new square by the sly; if your bishop, in disgust at your castling, could wheedle your pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden. You might be the longest-headed of deducted reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own pawns.”
– George Eliot, Felix Holt, The Radical, (1866)
Many people wonder if chess-playing skills are intrinsically linked to intelligence or IQ. There does definitely seem to be some correlation between general intelligence and ability to succeed at a high level in chess, but the same could arguably be said for all fields of human endeavors.
What makes great chess players truly exceptional is their ability to reason in real-time not only about their own plans while playing, but those of their opponents as well.
Who Were Some of the First Grandmasters?
Players like Mikhail Botvinnik and Boris Spassky number among the earliest recipients of the title, but there are many more.
Modern Grandmasters include the likes of kid prodigies such as Sergey Karjakin and Bu Xiangshi who were given the title at the ages of 12 and 13 years, respectively.
Chess Skills – Nature vs. Nurture
Although studying how the game of chess is played and the myriad tactics one can employ in-game can help players improve their skills, it would seem the best players start off with great talent and build on its strong foundation.
“You know I’m finished with the old chess because it’s all just a lot of book and memorization you know.”
– Bobby Fischer
Jose Raul Capablanca y Graupera was a prime example of this, spending a surprising amount of time partying before tournaments and such instead of actively refining his techniques. Other chess legends like Paul Charles Morphy of 19th century fame attain their skills by similar explanation-defying means at especially early ages. He was dethroning master players at the age of 12.
If you are an absolute chess noob looking to up your skills at the game, then your best bet could be to play as much as possible. Many helpful resources exist and studying them when possible certainly can’t hurt your chances of improving.
But, it’ll take a lot more than a few books to help you beat Bobby Fischer.