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There is no such thing as chess talent. Some people just have f…ed up brains, and this is it!
International Master Vyacheslav Osnos, the coach of Grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi
This column was inspired by my recent conversation with a mother of a 11-year old girl who is into chess and studies it with a personal coach. Just like many other parents out there, the lady wanted to know whether her daughter has enough talent for chess to keep going. Her question was simple as pie: “How do I know if she is gifted chesswise or not?”
You may be wondering the same about your kids or even yourself. Indeed, how can you tell that you or your children have what it takes to become strong chess players?
You improve in chess faster than people around you. Having a natural talent in a certain field essentially means that you grasp things easier there than most people. It is similar to studying in school or at university. Some of us have to read the same page a few times to understand what it is all about, while others take a glance and can work out the details themselves. In any chess club where kids train in a group, there will be students who make impressive progress and those who lag far behind.
There are a couple of crucial disclaimers that I should make here. First of all, a lot depends on the environment. One thing is to be able to outshine the kids in your typical suburban chess club, where most of your competitors won’t progress beyond 1600 FIDE before quitting. However, if you were to enroll in the Kasparov-Botvinnik chess school and be pitted against the likes of Vladimir Kramnik or Alexei Shirov, you may easily become demotivated and decide that your chess talent is so-so. Everything is relative.
Can you imagine what it feels like to be coached by Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Botvinnik in a class featuring Vladimir Kramnik, Alexei Shirov, Vladimir Akopian, Sergei Tiviakov, Konstantin Sakaev, Konstantin Landa, and other top players?
Secondly, especially for kids, experience plays a critical role. Some parents become discouraged if they see that some other kids are ahead of their children. However, you must consider how long and under what circumstances the people have been training. For instance, your 7-year-old children may be making their first steps in chess, and the kid you are comparing them against may have been training with a couple of coaches and playing competitively since he was four. Now, regardless of how talented the kids are, the early bird may be currently miles ahead of your kids. However, it doesn’t mean that they can’t surpass him in the future. Of course, he has a better start, but nothing is assured. Quite a few prodigies reach their ceiling and get burned out at an early age, especially if their chess studies are mainly imposed by parents. This smoothly brings us to the second item, which is of utmost importance.
You genuinely love playing chess and studying the game. There are some kids who have an immense natural talent for chess, yet they are not interested in developing it. Basically, they do only the exercises the teacher gives them. Their scores might be close to perfect, but they are unwilling to take that extra step into the unknown. Of course, it is also essential to find the right approach to studying chess that fits you best. Some kids become demotivated to study chess just because they don’t like the coach, the format, or other class members.
To become truly good at chess, you should be immersed in the game and willing to study on your own for hours and hours. It is a good sign if you or your children jump at the opportunity to squeeze in a few more puzzles, check out a Magnus Trainer lesson, or play a couple of blitz games when you have the time for it. Becoming a professional chess player requires the right combination of talent, hard work, and environment. And, as Garry Kasparov once put it, the ability to work hard is a talent by itself. Focus, focus, focus.
Finally, if you love what you are doing, your time is not wasted anyway. Even if you don’t become a top pro, the chess journey will still be memorable and worth it.
You are ambitious and have a fighting spirit. Let us start from afar and travel to Ancient Rome. According to a popular anecdote, one of the ways how Julius Caesar used to decide if the recruit would become a good legionnaire was to check how the latter reacted to danger or insults. If his face became red, it was a good sign, showing that he was prepared to fight. If he turned pale, it was perceived as an intention to run away, which is not recommended for someone who serves in the military forces. There is a similar thing in chess. People who don’t care about losses, for whom chess is “just a game”, hardly ever make it to the top. However, overdramatizing defeats is no good either. There are GMs who collapse after a tough loss: they can’t sleep; they have to resort to alcohol to soothe their mental wounds; their performance drops. In contrast, there are true warriors who become enraged after a loss and bounce back. Kasparov, back in his heydays, or Carlsen as of today, are such examples. They may lose a game, but they usually come back in style and prove that they are legendary champions.
It is normal for kids, and not only kids, to cry after bitter losses. For instance, Bobby Fischer was doing this all the time when he was young. However, what is important is what happens next. If your son becomes dismayed and says he will never play chess again, this is a bad sign. Conversely, if his eyes shine furiously, and he says he will strike back and recover his rating, it is a sign that he may have a future as a chess player.
The three points above are probably the most important ones. Also, they have the advantage that you don’t even have to be proficient in chess to “diagnose” yourself or your kids using this short list. Now let’s mention a few more specific, purely chess-related items.
Magnus Carlsen is arguably the finest positional chess player of all time.
Do you have a natural positional feel? Of course, every skill needs to be developed. Still, some kids seem to intuitively feel where the pieces belong on the board. While some of their peers make random moves or ardently chase an irrelevant pawn in the middle of nowhere, these future Capabancas, Karpovs, and Carlsens are busy fighting for the center, occupying key outposts, targeting weaknesses in the opponent’s camp, and so on. They might not even be aware of what exactly they are doing, yet here they are! As long as you invest enough time and effort, this skill alone should generally take you at least to master level.
Ian Nepomniachtchi is absolutely amazing when it comes to spotting chess tactics.
Are you a tactical wizard? This is a different breed of kids. They blurt out long sequences of moves, calculating them in the blink of an eye. They are very inventive and effortlessly come up with mind-blowing tactical strikes, original defensive resources, and cunning traps. Similar to what has been said about being a strategy expert, it is possible to become a master if you are gifted at tactics.
Vasyl Ivanchuk is rumored to remember thousands of chess games.
How good is your chess memory? Whether we like it or not, chess is a game of patterns. Gifted players memorize them easily. Once they see a tactic, an opening setup, or a middlegame plan, they add the information to their memory banks and are able to use it in their own games. Also, modern chess is demanding in terms of the amount of computer-generated theory that you have to remember. Not being able to recall the one and only continuation at the critical moment of the game can lead to a quick and painful loss against a well-prepared opponent. Therefore, even though there are still some strong GMs who don’t remember their games and opening lines well enough, most chess pros have an admirable chess memory.
Naturally, similar to the previous items, this ability can be developed somewhat. With proper training, most people should be able to memorize a 15-move line or play one game blindfolded. However, you will probably need a much bigger talent to look at a dozen pages of analysis before the round and remember all the data or give a blindfold simul on ten boards or more.
Fabiano Caruana takes physical training extremely seriously and is known as a great calculator who can endure chess marathons without losing focus.
What about your health? Competitive chess is a grueling sport that requires maintaining full focus for hours. Even though laymen who have never played a serious event themselves tend not to view chess as physically challenging, you surely know that you should be fit and exercise a lot to play chess at the top level. Chess is an inclusive game that is quite popular with special people, but it is still demanding if you plan to pursue this activity professionally.
Overall, to become a Grandmaster, you must be multi-faceted. Especially if we are talking about super GM level, where you will likely require all the positive traits mentioned above. When comparing Carlsen to other top players, some of his colleagues noted that he is untouchable due to being extremely well-rounded. In most aspects of chess, his scores would be in the 80s or 90s on a scale of 100. There may be people out there who, let’s say, have 90 in a field where he has 85, but Carlsen will likely have 90 in an area where they have only 70.
Don’t hesitate to see how talented you are at chess by taking on Magnus Carlsen, Judit Polgar, Wesley So, and other remarkable opponents in the Play Magnus app!