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Is Being a Chess Pro Worth It?

User Rating: / 55
Written by Administrator   
Friday, 20 September 2013
By GM Daniel Gormally

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I once taught in a primary school in London, back in the days when I used to do a lot of coaching.

There wasn't a lot of kids in this class. Maybe 6/7. One of the kids could get a bit rowdy, although he was one of the better ones in there.

When he'd get a bit out of hand, I'd say something like "if you pay attention, you can be a chess professional like me one day." Half-jokingly. He'd reply with utter conviction, "but I don't want to be a chess professional!"

Looking back, I'm starting to see he might have had a point.

Essentially I'm starting to wonder if being a chess player these days is worth the hassle. The money is unquestionably getting worse and worse.

Going back to the seventies, the prizes were greater than they are now. It was possible to make a living. Trying to make money from playing chess tournaments in this country now though is nigh on impossible.

In England there are weekend tournaments you can compete in, offering various prizes. If you are a weaker grandmaster like me, unlikely to be invited to the top events, it is likely that you will need to play in these tournaments from time to time.

The usual schedule is something like five or six games over the Saturday or Sunday, quite a gruelling schedule. You play people of various levels but it's likely that I'll be amongst the top seeds. However the first prize is likely to be something like 300 (if you are lucky) and there's no guarantee of winning anything.

Take this weekend as an example. I'm playing in the e2-e4 weekender in Bedford. Now fortunately my hotel is covered (which is better than most tournaments) and the first prize is 500. I'm the top seed.

But that's the good news. Scroll down the entries you see there are three other grandmasters and at least two I.M.s. Not easy to win and the prizes tail off pretty quickly, 200 for second and fifty for third.

Factor in the travel, which in my case is going to be about 120, and the money you are spending when you are there on food etc, and you can see I am hardly playing for financial reasons.

Besides, even if I were to clear 500 profit, would that be a good reward for something where you're up near the top of your profession? I don't think so. And 500 isn't a lot of money these days. It would hardly cover the cost of renting for two weeks in London, for example. And as I said before, most tournaments don't even offer that much. It's more like 250/300. In the seventies the prizes were similar, but everything else has gone up hugely in price of course, just that the prizes haven't.

There used to be something called the Annual Grand prix, which rewarded the best tournament players over the course of the year. I finished second in that once and picked up £2,000, not bad. Back in the day it was even better.The first prize of the grand prix in the 1970s I believe was something like £2,000. In line with inflation, that would be over 10k today. Now there is no yearly grand prix anymore. Well there is but there's no prize money, due to lack of sponsors. Another nail in the coffin of chess players in this country.

Part of the problem is the lack of people in England who are willing to go out and look for sponsors. You could argue I could go out and look myself, although I must admit I wouldn't know where to start. Or maybe I'm just lazy. The English chess federation is run by dinosaurs. You even have to pay an annual fee to be a member if you are a grandmaster, they have very little consideration for professional chess players, but the biggest problem is that there is no one there driving chess forward, looking for sponsors.

It should be pointed out that tournaments are little better on the continent. Your average first prize is something like 1,000 euros, but then you'll get about 6 or 7 grandmasters turning up. You probably need to get something like 7.5/9 to make a profit. Not easy. Lose one game and you are scrambling around, desperately trying to get your expenses back. The better tournaments, will be massively over subscribed with far more grandmasters applying for conditions than actually end up playing. Most get knocked back.

Actually in Asia the prize money is much better now, a guy I met recently in a tournament, Grandmaster Andrey Deviatkin from Russia, was telling me playing in somewhere like India is much better than in Europe, for prize money at least. In Europe most organiser's he writes to won't even bother replying (and when he told me this he was about 2570) but in Asia things are much better. Probably because of the economic boom over there. Maybe I should move to Asia?

In Europe there's a recession, so prizes are going down, not up. The problem is chess will never be that popular with your average man on the street, who finds it difficult to follow the game, so we'll always struggle to find sponsorship. What we need is for chess to have an explosion in popularity like what happened with poker, but I doubt that's going to happen. Also in poker it's much easier to understand what's going on, any moron can see that a king is higher than a queen, a jack is better than a ten, for example, while chess is more complex, to the layman at least.

If you do happen to play fulltime on the continent there are a lot of travel costs to take care of. You can see why a lot of chessplayers barely play anymore and just sit at home, knocking out dvds and commentary work, coaching online, because the expenses are non-existent. But is that what I got into chess for? Not at all, I love the game. I love playing. But the money in commentary work is enticing. I recently did a two hour commentary stint for playchess, which paid me 160 euros. That's a far better rate of pay than anything I might get through playing, so you can see why so many have leapt on the gravy-train.

Basically what I'm saying here is that if you are a 2500 grandmaster like me you can't just play and make a living. You have to do other stuff, or forget about it. Which is probably a big reason I still live at home with my parents at the age of 37, as I'm not a great fan of coaching or chess writing. The gravy-training stuff.

Call me embittered or twisted (I am) but the reality is I don't see much of a future for me. I'm not qualified to do anything else, and have little work experience. The future is indeed bleak. I could coach in schools which does pay well, but such coaching I've done before and it's little more than babysitting anyway. Screaming kids throwing pieces around. Dealing with irate mothers. No thanks. Besides, repeating the same stuff over and over again (like the three move checkmate) is soul-destroying in the extreme.

It's not like other players have it so easy either. I was talking with a FIDE 2650 player, and he told me he only cleared 18 grand last year (Statistics regarding income distribution in the UK - It's getting harder and harder, even for those players. People like him just keep going because of the possibility of getting to 2700 and breaking into the big time.

The big tournaments like the FIDE Grand prix, I think anything there or above and you are on the gravy-train. But of course it's very difficult to get to that level. I'm a mile off 2600 even, and not particularly young, so I might as well forget it.

But even for 2650 players it's not that easy either, as I said. Tony Kosten told me recently he tried to get that guy in a French team, in the French league (which takes place over the best of two weeks) but no one was interested. That's because these Ukrainian 2700s will play for much less. They'll go for 150 euros a game, which is very cheap. So a 2650 isn't that interesting to these teams. Scary isn't it?

I suppose the reality is that I've always been quite ambitious. So the idea that I'd do chess coaching or so on for the rest of my life fills me with dread. But at the same time it's probably better than being stuck in Alnwick for the rest of my life, so in a sense I'm caught between the devil and the blue sea. I've lived here in Alnwick for over five years now, but not made a single friend. Not a single person to go for a drink with. Sad isn't it? No wonder I'm depressed. But the reality is most of the friends you make is through work, and I'm a chessplayer, so most of my friends are chessplayers.

Maybe there is a future for me, but I probably need to retrain to do something else as quickly as possible, because chess offers little in the way of long-term financial security.

It's not just the money either, it's the sitting around, which I find rather limiting. A lot of chess players I know seem quite happy with the inactivity, (in truth most of them are completely unambitious, and happy to take a poor deal in life) but I get bored rather easily. I need to do stuff, to interact with people. Not sit around studying chess positions. Study some games from the week in chess. Write another chess article. The reality is I'm bored stiff of chess writing. "Your knight goes there, the bishop goes back.." zzzzz. Unlike a lot of chess players who are just chess chess chess, I like to think I have a personality. But maybe I'm just flattered myself?

There are people I know who do chess writing everyday as well, but I just couldn't do it, it would do my head in. I think of chess as a creative game so you need breaks from it occasionally, to fuel that creativity. If it just becomes a chore or a job solely to make money, that's the worse thing.

So yes I rather do emphasise with my student, when he said "I don't want to be a chess professional!" the question is what do I do about it. It's my biggest challenge to date. I need a radical change, something to freshen me up, because quite clearly I'm tired of life. I'm completely stuck in a rut.

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:

An Elitist Game?
Does hard work in chess pay off?
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 (10)
1. Written by Peter on 10:42 20 2013 .
This article got me thinking. In Russia the situation seems to be much better. However, maybe it only applies to members of the national team, or at least the candidates. Someone rated around 2500 would be out of the national top-100 and struggling as well...
2. Written by Daniel on 11:27 20 2013 .
What is so wrong with coaching? 
You're in a position like many others in the sports industry (if we are to assume chess is a sport), tennis for example. Lots of tennis centres and coaches in the country, but very few make it pay playing. 
You are highly competent at your sport, but not good enough to compete at an elite level (No disrespect intended). 
Where are you ranked in the world? 500 odd? (educated guess) Team sports aside, any sportsman ranked outside the top 200 in any sport would struggle to make a decent earning playing.
3. Written by This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on 11:51 20 2013 .
Some thoughts..
Very frank and interesting article. I understand the financial obstacles to being a professional player and wish that the federations would somehow at least cover the main expenses of GM players.  
I just know that writing does not have to be boring. Writing actually is one of the most creative and inspiring arts out there. And if you can use it to make chess more interesting, inspiring and appealing to ambitious amateurs, or amateurs who respect and love chess, but do not have the technical knowledge to follow complex chess books, you would have achieved something.  
I have often laid books by top Gms aside, because its all about variations. No inspiration, no motivation. The amateurs admire and respect chess as something that is not merely a math problem. Also I often feel that professional players have lost the respect and admiration for the sport. They forget how unique is what they do. 
Of course, the question is whether you enjoy the process of writing, something creative is not necessarily creative for everyone. In the end, its all a matter of perspective and where we can shift our mental position to get a better one. 
All the best
4. Written by This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on 12:49 20 2013 .
Some thoughts..
I can relate to some of what you said, though I never played at your level. In the mid 90s I was in my early 30s,living with my parents, and had a low paying job unrelated to chess. I amassed chess books, worked chess problems constantly, and played at a local club for hours every Saturday. I loved the game, but even then it was apparent that I'd never make a living wage at chess. 
The ability of outstanding chess players to think ahead, to see and mentally replay variations and permutations, and to logically break down a problem in steps is very valuable. You can apply those aptitudes to science, math, or engineering, and be quite successful in your domain. I became a computer programmer, and it's been a great fit. 
Ultimately you're dealing with a supply and demand problem here. There are more professional chess players than the current market will reasonably support, as your essay points out. If you are the world chess champion, of course the big money is there. but that slot is reserved for one person. It's not that way in the information technology industry. We need talent, and companies are willing to pay for talent. 
As a self-taught programmer, the expense of formal education was not an obstacle. I still love chess, and admire the games of better players. But at some point I had to let go of it as an all consuming passion, and pursue an alternate career path. 
Good luck. I wish you the best.
5. Written by me on 05:02 21 2013 .
Some thoughts..
Try to apply for a position to teach English in Japan. If you get it, you will be able to live in a very interesting country, contact new people, and play chess in Asia from time to time ...and you will perhaps find a beautiful Japanese wife ...
6. Written by This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on 06:38 21 2013 .
Some thoughts..
I could see why coaching would be boring to you, but it seems better than the alternative.  
I teach a chess class at the school I work at (I am a science teacher) and even though I want the kids to study and apply themselves, I know chess is just something to do. 
Kids just want to have fun, so you gotta make it fun for them and teach chess for other reasons. Not every kid wants to be a master, but every kid wants to have fun. You might be able to teach some life lessons along the way!
7. Written by Dimos on 16:26 24 2013 .
Some thoughts..
The reality of modern sports is indeed an ultra-competitive one: every aspect of a cerebral sport should now become simulated by technology and the best of the best look more and more like cyborgs! 
As for the opinionated ones, there should exist a lot of opportunity in journalism as well as in lecturing, even beyond the framework of their own sport, while moving to countries where the flame is still burning will always be a good idea!!
8. Written by This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on 02:29 27 2013 .
Some thoughts..
No, it is not.
9. Written by This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on 16:19 07 2013 .
Good story and touching as well,from GM Gormally. I wish u some luck and success. 
-Regards, Jari
10. Written by This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on 02:25 31 2017 .
5. Written by me on 05:02 21 2013 
\"Some thoughts.. 
Try to apply for a position to teach English in Japan. If you get it, you will be able to live in a very interesting country, contact new people, and play chess in Asia from time to time ...and you will perhaps find a beautiful Japanese wife ...\" 
It doesn\'t seem right here though does it... he\'d have to deal with irate mothers screaming at him... in Japanese... and kids throwing samurai swords. That\'s what my research into ALT\'s has provided.  
Serious: As a fellow 30-year-old it feels like all the stories told about artists is as true as it ever was, every bit of it. But at this age it\'s what you get most entranced by. As a master I still look up to people like GM Gormally and that won\'t change whether you live with your parents forever or not.  
Anyway thanks for the comment Ken Palmer, I'm kinda in the same boat as you were and trying to jump into CS. Man, the salaries posted on Monster, etc. are enticing. ...and it gives you an excuse to do problems totally unrelated to anything else you\'re supposed to be doing.

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