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Does Hard Work in Chess Pay Off?

User Rating: / 149
Written by Administrator   
Wednesday, 04 September 2013
By GM Daniel Gormally

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I recall once being told by this French guy I knew about a series of Big Brother they had in France.

Apparently there was a guy in it who used to sit around sleeping all day, basically he did absolutely nothing. Everyone else on the show was trying really hard to be liked by the viewers, the usual reality T.V. desperation for fame, but he couldn't give a toss. He just stayed in bed.

Anyway the upshot of all this was that despite this sloth like inactivity, he ended up winning the show. The reason I relate this story was that it illustrates that doing very little is often perceived as being very cool, whereas working your socks off isn't. But can the same formula be applied to chess?

You often hear a debate about work vs talent. The "10,000" hours rule is brought up again and again by those who like to champion the merits of hard work.

Basically the theory is, if you put in 10,000 hours of preparation, study, training and so on, you are certain to achieve a level of mastery of whatever subject or activity you are involved with. As if it can be boiled down to a  mathematical formula.

What a load of crap.

The truth is however hard you work, if you don't have a lot of talent to begin with, you are never going to reach the top. I know guys who work their tits off and never get any stronger. They are like, how do you do it? How do you reach grandmaster? I'm working every day and I don't improve! It's like they don't understand something fundamental.

It's the same reason why I'm not a good pool player or any good at golf, football, or any sports that I'd like to excel at. That would certainly make my life a lot  easier, if I was even a mediocre footballer I'd make a lot more money than I could ever do at chess. But I'm not.

And I'm not a great writer, or a composer, or a scientist either. Because I don't have any talent for those things. But I do have some for chess.

Don't get me wrong I have worked hard. Well in the past I did. When I was younger, I was a pretty poor junior. I never played any junior events, never represented England at junior level, or any of those things.

When I reached the age of about 16-17 I had already dropped out of school, and decided the only thing I had any talent for was chess. So I worked on the game. I'd spend 5-6 hours a day going through games of the top players in the world, going over their notes, from publications like New In Chess. I didn't do this over a prolonged period, but I might do this for a couple of weeks or so, which is certainly a lot more than I do now.

These days I work very little. To be honest as I've grown older I've started to realise there are far more interesting things in the world than studying chess all day. (Hard to believe I know.)

I'd far rather read a good history book than study the finer points of the Queen's Indian. The problem with chess is that it's very abstract, it's not really connected to anything else. It's a very insular game and gives you no sort of perspective on the wider world out there.

But to achieve a high level of excellence at chess you really need to be obsessed and single minded about it, at least at some point in your life. Realising that there's a bigger world out there beyond those 64 squares can screw with that tunnel vision.

So no I'm not against hard work, in fact I'm a great believer that hard work can turn a decent player into a great one.  Just that the reality is that hard work is only going to get you to your goal if you have some talent to begin with.

I must admit that chess is populated with workhorses these days. I only have to work my way down the rating list to start to fume, at the zero talents with ratings considerably higher than mine. But are they really zero talents? I think all of them had some talent to begin with.

Maybe I overrate my own talent. It certainly wouldn't compare to people like Carlsen and so on. Not even close, that's another level entirely. However there seems to be an army of Russian/Chinese players these days who work themselves into the ground.

My bet is these guys are doing at least 10 hours a day, if not more. The thought just boggles the mind. They must literally do so much chess that they actually just morph into chess pieces. Yes they are reasonably gifted, but if anything it does show the merits of hard work.

I think Fabiano Caruana amongst the top players is known for being a workhorse. This guy is chess chess chess. Very dedicated. But that's what you need to do to be the best. He's also pretty talented. You couldn't reach close to 2800 unless you are amazingly gifted. Garry Kasparov often makes an argument in favour of hard work. But the reality is that Garry Kasparov is a uniquely gifted chessplayer. A genius, in fact.

No my argument is not that hard work doesn't count- the proof is that it does. Especially in a game like chess where knowledge and learning is so important. My argument is that plenty of people without any talent for chess, believe they can achieve the same results and achieve master level, as long as they work hard enough. It's just as deluded as my thinking I can score 40 goals up front for Barcelona every year (ok perhaps not that deluded.)

The worse thing is the pushy parents who hire a chess coach for their kid, enter them in every competition possible, even though it's evident to anyone with a modicum of common sense, that their kid has no real affinity for the game. I must admit I used to jump on the gravy train myself- taking money to coach some kids or people I had no confidence in.

At least their kid generally has the judgement later to break away from that, and find some other activity they do have a talent for. We all have something we're good at- but don't waste time hitting your head against the wall, becoming frustrated because you don't improve, is my advice.

GM Daniel Gormally is open for chess lessons. You can contact him using this This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Other posts by GM Danny Gormally:

World Cup Final preview
World Chess Cup Semi-Final preview
World Chess Cup Quarter-Final preview
World Chess Cup 1/8-final preview
Why are Russians so good at chess?
British Champs-2013
Ghent and now the British
I'll never be fat again!
Lessons learnt!
The sad case of Borislav Ivanov: Part II
Does Anyone Have a Cure for Anger Problems?
The Depth of Chess
Fundraising in chess
Nurturing a Chess Prodigy
The Sad Case of Borislav Ivanov
4NCL Impressions: no country for old men - Part II
4NCL Impressions: no country for old men
One move, one line - Part II
One move, one line
Candidates Final Review & Preview of Upcoming World Championship Match
Would Carlsen have beaten Capablanca?

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Comments (7)
1. Written by Natalia on 17:03 04 2013 .
Fantastic post Danny! A delight to read. 
Totally agree re the importance of realizing one\'s talents.  
The one crucial point I wanted to make concerns this passage: 
\"The truth is however hard you work, if you don\'t have a lot of talent to begin with, you are never going to reach the top. I know guys who work their tits off and never get any stronger. They are like, how do you do it? How do you reach grandmaster? I\'m working every day and I don\'t improve! It\'s like they don\'t understand something fundamental.\" 
Imho, you forgot to mention the difference between working hard and working smart. Most amateurs don\'t know how to study chess. For them the key moment is to invest a lot of time. So they watch random videos about some openings, play bullet chess, solve tactics all day and so on. What they need is proper guidance and a lot of tournament practice. If one doesn\'t have a good training plan, it will be hard to progress.
2. Written by Sasa Kulic on 17:26 04 2013 .
I personally don't believe in talent, but the ability to focus and analyze, and the love for the game.  
Garry Kasparov twitted this the other day: 
I believe in existence of natural talent for certain areas, yes. But the ability to focus, to analyze and program yourself, also critical. 
A capacity for hard work IS a talent. If only this bad player or loser had worked more... So what? He didn't. He couldn't. Results matter. 
I did not think of it when I was world champion, but it annoys me to hear talk about "most talented, most potential" vs hardest working. 
Now I am retired. But self-discipline is a talent!
3. Written by Annoyed on 18:04 04 2013 .
the debate of Nature vs. Nurture (aka Talent vs Hard Work) has been as old as the chicken and egg one... 
I wonder what is the point?  
The intelligent people realized ages ago it is not an \"either or\" situation, but the smart and constant combination of BOTH. 
If you are a talented guy for chess with no work ethics, you\'ll get nowhere. At best will become a 3rd class \"coach\", an administrator for your local 5th division club or so... 
If you are a hard-working chess guy, lacking talent, chance is you\'ll be successful at your regular job and have chess as fun-loving activity. 
To be a professional chess-player, a world-class one, it obviously takes a genius-talent accompanied by many 10,000 of hard work. 
Can we call it a day on this one now?
4. Written by O_x on 19:50 04 2013 .
I used to have a stupid idea, when i started playing chess, that - chess is connected to our life & personality. And that, the choices we make while playing certain positions (unlike today's cyborg chess and memorised lines :p) in chess are always related to how we make our choices in life... 
5. Written by Norcliffe Otto on 01:17 05 2013 .
I had this debate with some guys at the local chess club who made me look like a fool because I share the same views as this article does. Simply because they had more experience and higher ratings than I did I pretty much lost the debate. There's a lot more research to be done in this area. Take for example, I know a guy who does not know how to read music yet can play back any piece of music he hears on a piano. That is raw God given talent. He is not a an idiot savant. Talent comes in varying amounts. There are some who have affinities for anything they want to learn. They have a passion with obsession for a skill, master it yet never become champs, jack of all trades, yet master of none. Then others like Carlsen soar, the geniuses for one particular skill. I'm glad I found this article. I'll print it and take it to the guys and see what they say!
6. Written by This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on 04:05 05 2013 .
I certainly agree that a degree of talent is required to excel in any area of study. 
The main problem isn\'t that though. 
How do you accurately measure one\'s level of talent? 
Do you believe in latent talents? 
Finally, if the wrong method of study is applied, can one still excel with the right amount of talent?
7. Written by 0_x on 16:45 18 2013 .
Does hard work really pay off? 
Not when its someone's Lucky day! lol :p 
Today i learnt how important 'luck' really is... 
A middle school girl,my cousin, answered a B.E multiple-choice type paper just for fun, and scored >40% after negative marks are deducted. The HOD was surprised! shocked! I said it was just a luck. 
Then she answered another paper from Math. department. She got above 60%! 
..this time she admitted she just got lucky and didnt understand any of the questions, not even one.  
Must be her lucky day. :p 
Strangely majority of the hard working students failed (got below 40%.. LoL) 
. . I hope tonight is my lucky night... 

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