What about 95 million miles, the distance from Earth to the Sun? Or 4.5 billion miles, the distance from the Sun to Pluto? It's already difficult to even imagine how big those distances are, yet compared to the width of the entire Milky Way galaxy we've barely gotten started. That length is about 100,000 light years, and 1 light year equals about 6 trillion miles.
|The Milky Way is huge but is still nothing compared to the scale of the whole universe.
Now let's come back to Earth and talk about chess.
What does "really good" at chess mean to you? Perhaps for you it means being able to play a whole game without a major blunder, or maybe to be able to play king and pawn endgames perfectly or maybe to be able to quickly calculate basic tactics 2-3 moves ahead.
Well, maybe this will somewhat shatter your perspective. I would venture to guess that although people know "GM" is a lot better than "expert", not everybody really recognizes just how astronomically huge the difference in skill is between groups like "club player", "expert", "master", "International Master", and "Grandmaster".
|What a typical playing hall of a large tournament looks like.
After you've played in enough brutally competitive tournaments and lost to enough GMs (and won some too), you come to realize what "really good" actually means in chess. It's quite a humbling experience.
So I'll break things down into rating groups and do my best to convey just how much better a GM is than a club player or a master.
|Carlsen-Caruana in their World Championship match, November 2018.
You don't get to be top 10 or even top 100 in the world by having chess as a mere side hobby. These people work hard and perhaps most importantly, work smart. They figure out what weaknesses they need to fix and then diligently work on improving them.
|Sergey Erenburg, seen here giving a simultaneous exhibition, might be a "typical" GM to fall into this category. With a USCF rating of around 2660, he's a very strong player, but not as strong as Carlsen or Caruana.
Now get this: there are only about 1500 people in the entire world who fall into the above two categories - that's roughly 0.1-0.3% of all chess players.
|Daniel Rensch (USCF ~2500) is a well-known American International Master.
If you're curious, I probably fit best into this category, as my current USCF rating in the 2450-2500 range is probably too high for the next group down; however, so far I do not have an official IM or GM title.
|The strongest players in scholastic tournaments are usually talented masters who are still quickly advancing in strength.
However, things can go both ways too. It's highly unusual but certainly not unheard of for people even in the 1800-1900 category to upset a master (I most recently lost a game to an under-2000 rated player in January of 2018).
This can be an exciting rating range to be in. The jump from 2200 to 2400 is different from the jump between 2000 and 2200. Likewise, making it from 2200 to 2400 by itself does little to prepare you for going from 2400 to 2600, which is truly a giant leap.
Rating: 2000-2200 (USCF System):
|At most chess centers around the US, the strongest players around are usually experts (2000+).
|Your garden-variety chess hustler in New York City might be a Class A player or expert.
|Many in this category simply see chess as an enjoyable hobby and may not be interested in the stressful competitive nature that is tournament life.
In the vast majority of cases, games in the 1000-2000 rating category are decided by tactics. We typically see some vague opening and get into a random middlegame, but the specifics are often irrelevant to the final result because usually the game ends when someone overlooks a fork or walks into a skewer, or even just blunders a pawn and then loses from there.
In this exciting world, whoever makes the second-to-last mistake usually wins. I say exciting because the unpredictable nature of errors can be part of the fun! You might blunder a bishop in the middlegame, but if your opponent later blunders a queen you could still win.
On the other hand between GMs, barring some knockout opening preparation, decisive games tend to be won in the late middlegame or endgame, where either by carelessness or time pressure someone overlooks an important detail and loses. However, it's well-known that many GM-GM games end in draws. Ergo the phrase "they took a grandmaster draw", used to describe the situation where two GMs sit down, play 10 or 15 moves on the board, and then quickly agree to split the point.
|Rightly or wrongly, the "grandmaster draw" is widely criticized by lower-rated players.
Broadly speaking, grandmasters are simply pragmatists who don't shy away from hard work. They know what their weaknesses are and actively seek to remedy them. They know how to study chess and how to improve. They learn from their mistakes and do everything they can not to repeat them.
|Perhaps contrary to popular belief, grandmasters know they're not perfect and frequently look for ways to improve their understanding of chess.
That being said, next time I'll share my take on how one improves as a chess player. After all, I was once a rank beginner, but I improved and today am a strong master and state champion. What is that path like? How does it happen?
Maybe you're just happy with going from Earth to the moon, or maybe you have big goals and want to go all the way across the galaxy. Regardless, you start at the same place and the journey begins in the same way.
USCF statistics - the author of this blog is a former administrator at US Chess Live.