TL;DR on how to become a Grandmaster:
- 3 Grandmaster norms and a FIDE rating of 2500+ qualifies you for a Grandmaster (with some exceptions). A GM norm is achieved with a 2600-rated performance in a tournament with at least 9 rounds, where at least 50 percent are titled players.
- Learning openings, middlegames, and endgames is important—but focus on learning how to learn first. The right training methodology can work wonders. Learning how to learn, and how to think in chess can supercharge your journey to Grandmaster-dom.
- Get a good coach who will help you shape your playing technique, train you based on your strengths and weaknesses, and build up your game psychology. Choose wisely! This person will be by your side for a long time.
- Start playing, competing, losing, and winning. There is no other way to become a GM. Win games, one after another, and keep winning until you fulfil point no. 1. Know that you will have to fight countless battles over the board from now on… and you need to be battle-ready!
To become a chess Grandmaster (GM) is a dream shared by chess players the world over. Aside from becoming World Champion, it is the most coveted title in chess, yet in 2021 just over 1,700 players have achieved this goal in the entire world. This should not put off an aspiring GM; part of the allure of becoming a chess Grandmaster is the fact this title is so difficult to attain. And once you get the title, it is for life (unless you are stripped of it for, say, cheating). So let’s look at how it’s done.
How to Get the Grandmaster Title
If you are interested in the details of how to achieve the Grandmaster title, we recommend you consult the official FIDE handbook, as there is some fine print to absorb and there are some exceptions to these rules, but in short you need to complete the following two feats:
- Get a FIDE rating of over 2500
- Win three GM norms
A GM norm is achieved with an excellent performance at a viable tournament. Again, the rules here are subject to various conditions, but essentially to win a GM norm you need to achieve a rating performance of 2600 in a tournament of at least 9 rounds, in which ½ of your opponents are titled (FM, IM, GM, WGM, WIM) and ⅓ of your opponents are themselves Grandmasters.
No small task, I think you’ll agree.
But don’t worry! This article will focus on the steps you need to take to be able to meet those requirements, including where to start, how to learn and train, how to gain the mentality of a Grandmaster, and how to leverage the latest in chess science to become a chess Grandmaster.
Lifetime Repertoires: Wesley So's 1. e4 - Part 1
11 Steps to Become a Chess Grandmaster
So here we go, this is how to become a chess grandmaster in 11 (unfortunately not so simple) steps.
1. Start Early and Learn to Love Chess
The very first thing you will have to do if you are going to be a GM is to learn how to play chess. Ideally, you would have done so at the youngest age possible. Magnus Carlsen started at age 5, and the world’s youngest ever GM, Abhimanyu Mishra, started playing the game when he was just 2 years and 8 months old. While it is not necessary to start before the age of 10 to become a GM, the general wisdom on reaching the chess elite or becoming a GM is: the younger you start, the better. At such a young age, our minds are simply better at learning and internalizing patterns, and starting young gives you an ideal base upon which to build your chess knowledge. This is important as it has been estimated that GMs need to be completely at ease with some 100,000 patterns to be able to gain their title.
That said, it’s never too late to begin. There are examples of players who started late before blooming into some of the greatest players in history, like Mikhail Chigorin, who learned to play at 16 and did not start playing seriously until late in his 20’s. Although this could be seen as an analogous or exceptional example, while today’s technology is driving the quality of play ever higher, it is also making it easier than ever for adults and children alike to learn the game, and learn it well. Circling back to the example of GM Mishra, he epitomizes not only the power of modern chess learning technology —he is a Chessable power user— , but also the determination it takes to become a GM; he travelled to Budapest in a pandemic to win his final GM norm in time to win GM Sergey Karjakin’s world record for youngest ever GM.
In summary, to start your chess journey is simple enough; all you need to do is learn how to move the pieces, learn the essential opening principles, learn an opening or two, and play as much as you can. But beyond that, the most important task for a young aspirant is to learn to love chess. It will take several years of hard work to become a GM, and it is a long-term investment, requiring determination, perseverance, and a strong will. You will spend a lot of time at the board, so it is important that you love the game. Maintaining a healthy relationship with chess, your goal, and what drives you to succeed will be a deciding factor in whether or not you achieve the GM title.
2. Learn How to Learn
Assuming that you now know how to play chess, and have assessed your love for the game as adequate to continue on the path to Grandmaster-dom, the next step is going to be to learn how to learn. In a chess24 interview, former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik said: “I think the definition of talent, and of talent in chess, is the ability to learn.” Combine that with Kramnik’s arch rival, former WC Garry Kasparov, who said: “Hard work is a talent. The ability to keep trying when others quit is a talent” and you begin to get an idea of what it takes to reach the top in chess.
To become a GM there is a lot of learning to do, so it follows that an intelligent course of action would be to invest some time thinking about how you learn, and how best to optimize this process. Here at Chessable, we are dedicated to investigating, developing, and promoting the science of chess education. Boils down to three main concepts: gamification, spaced repetition, and scheduling.
Reduced to its essence, the wisdom behind Chessable’s spaced repetition-fuelled learning technique is the fact that you learn best not when you learn something just once, but if you revisit and review that learned knowledge in increasing time increments until that knowledge passes from your short-term memory into a more permanent home in your brain.
So, by providing flexible and personalized schedules to reinforce newly acquired knowledge, and adding a dopamine-inducing system tracking and rewarding progress, Chessable’s technology uses the way your brain works to help you to obtain and – crucially – retain the knowledge you need. Though this is by no means the only way to succeed in chess, it is safe to say the road to becoming a GM has become significantly less gruelling thanks to technological and neurological advances in the field of learning.
3. Build a Serious Opening Repertoire
Once you know how to learn, what’s next? Like a lot of the steps on this list, the next three tasks are not something you can do and forget about, but disciplines that will become an intrinsic part of your life if you decide to become a Grandmaster. They are:
- Study openings
- Train your tactical instincts
- Master positional chess
- Learn how to win endgames
This section will be devoted to openings. Everyone loves studying openings. It is fun, addictive, and at lower levels a relatively small amount of study can go a long way to getting you results. As a wannabe Grandmaster, you need to step it up a level. As well as a blanket knowledge of main lines in basically every major opening, you need to have a range of opening weapons in which you are extremely confident.
Magnus Carlsen famously said: “Having preferences means having weaknesses”. This is the level of competition that aspiring GMs face today. With the possibilities of computer preparation, your opponents will be extremely prepared. Not only will they likely have a diverse and deep opening-related knowledge, they will have studied your previous games, know your approaches, and (if the competition is strong enough) they will have a plan tailor-made to beat you. This means that you can’t play the same trusty opening in the exact same way you did when you won your last tournament; you need to be up to date on the very latest theoretical developments in an opening. You need to constantly be updating your knowledge of opening theory.
Luckily, this is much easier to achieve now than it was only decades ago. Instead of relying on books and elbow grease, Chessable allows aspiring players to prepare in the depth required to face the best in the world in a few clicks. If you’re not convinced, take it from a recently crowned GM! Here GM Abhimanyu Mishra explains how Peter Svidler’s Gruenfeld course helped him win his final GM norm!
4. Train Your Tactical Instincts
The next step is to develop and train your tactical chess instincts. Tactics are an unavoidable and critical part of the game of chess, and the ability to sense what the right move is or that danger is around the corner is a vital element of any GM’s arsenal. This skill is largely gained, as you might expect, from experience. Thousands of games, similar positions, knowledge about structures, possible endgames, tactical patterns, historical master games… all of this information is taken into account in a GM’s mind when scanning a position for tactical shots or threats, and often this instinct is what allows a master player to focus their calculations on the best plan of action.
In many ways, the best way to develop this skill is through years of play. However, there are also more direct approaches you can take to consciously develop this instinct. As noted in GM Alex Colovic’s description of his daily training routine, his approach to preparation is based on an understanding of myelin – the substance that makes the synapses in our brains fire faster.
Colovic says: “When a task is repeatedly done, myelin is created as if to grease the neurons so that they can work faster and better… I refer to the daily tactical training as mental hygiene. Just like you do morning and evening hygiene, if you want to be good at chess you need to keep your brain in shape, you cannot just neglect it.”
In short, to speed up the process of leveling up your chess antenna, you need to find a way to incorporate rigorous chess study into your daily routine. Like, for example, having GM Judit Polgar quiz you on opening tactics from her games until you get them right:
There are plenty of resources available to develop a keen tactical eye, and move repetition is one of the most proven ways to achieve long-term understanding. To choose just two examples of excellent candidates to get GM-level tactical resilience are the classic, The Art of Attack in Chess presented by GM Simon Williams, and Winning Chess Tactics, presented by IM Jeremy Silman and GM Yasser Seirawan.
5. Master Positional Chess
Developing your positional (or strategic) chess understanding is often one of the chess skills that is put on the back burner as you learn the game, falling behind opening preparation and tactical considerations in the pecking order. This is perhaps due to the fact that many games are won or lost in the opening, or due to a tactical oversight by one player. But the higher you climb in pursuit of becoming titled, the more important having a solid strategic understanding becomes.
Strategy covers a wide range of concepts including initiative, pawn structures, prophylaxis, material vs positional gains, and more. The better you get at chess, the more strategic concerns tend to drive your decision-making process. The reason behind this is that strategic understanding is what allows players to see beyond the immediate position that is on the board at any one point, and consider it in the long-term context of how the position may develop. It is this understanding that will allow a master player to decide when it is the right moment to launch an attack, when eliminating a key defender is more important than improving a minor piece, when keeping a position closed is beneficial to them, and the myriad of key decisions that decide the outcome of a chess game.
For this reason, would-be Grandmasters need to have an extremely good positional chess understanding. Not only because it will allow them to better conduct long-term practical strategies, but also because their opponents will be applying the exact same logic.
To develop positional mastery, there are various routes to take, including meticulous study of master games, dedicated study of positional theory (such as, for example, pawn structures), and practical exercises, but as so often is the case, experience is the most beneficial element in a GM’s toolkit. For some resources to get you on the way, consider the excellent course, Grandmaster Thinking by Grandmaster Boris Avrukh, Chess Structures – A Grandmaster Guide, by GM Mauricio Flores Rios, or the aptly named Mastering Chess Strategy by GM Johan Hellsten.
6. Learn Endgames
Any club player will have heard this a million times: if you want to gain rating points, you need to study endgames. Though beginners often tend to prefer studying openings and middlegame positions than endgames, if you want to be a GM, there is no getting around it: you need to live and breathe chess endgames.
Pawn endgames, pawn and rook endgames, opposite-colored bishops endgames, you name it —there is a vast repository of positions and concepts that you need to know to make correct decisions towards the end of a chess game. It is only by knowing your King+Pawn endgames that you can, for example, confidently decide to trade (or not to trade) the remaining rooks on the board.
In terms of how best to study endgames, there is an interesting discussion to be had. Is it most productive to simply learn endgame positions by rote, or learn how endgames are successfully played? The reality is, to become a GM you need to do both (sorry). Though this is perhaps a less enticing prospect than expanding your openings repertoire, the cold truth of the matter is that no other element of your chess technique will have more of a direct impact on your ability to win chess games, climb rating ladders, and get results than developing your endgame technique.
Once again, Chessable has great options to make this onerous task slightly less daunting, from a digital version of the classic 100 Endgames You Must Know to courses based on more practical and strategic learning, like Practical Endgames Volume I from GM Alex Yermolinsky, to expert territory like Nunn’s Chess Endings Volume 2.
7. Build up a Knowledge Base of Grandmaster Games
If you’ve made it this far, nice work! However, even mastering the last three elements alone will not be enough. You need to gain a complete and complementary knowledge of all aspects of the game, from positional strategy, to resource assessment, initiative, sacrifice, and psychological elements such as imagination, and thinking patterns, not to mention the pressure of competing. Any weakness will be noted and exploited by your opponents, so your chess mastery must be complete.
One of the best ways to master and improve your game in a holistic way (and a crucial task for any aspiring GM) is to build up your knowledge of master games from history. Ask any GM, they will tell you how important studying and memorizing classic games was for their game. Or, check out the below video in which the current World Champion shows his prowess in identifying historical games:
Here Chessable is again a helpful resource to memorize games. Beyond dedicated courses to brilliant games and moves such as The Best Moves of All Time, Best of British, or Paul Morphy – 25 Games to Memorise, you can also simply find a classic game, import it into the tool, and play the game out yourself. Then, in days, weeks, or even months’ time, you’ll be able to see how much you remember – and reup your knowledge in the areas that need it.
8. Learn How to Think
The other mountain to climb on the way to the peak is a somewhat abstract one, but an essential one nonetheless. How do you learn to think like a GM? How do you approach positions in which various plans, concerns, and tactics are pressing you for attention, and the clock is ticking? How do you stay present in every position, and avoid automatic moves that give away your advantage? Achieving the correct mindset is a non-negotiable step on the path to becoming a GM.
From visualization techniques to psychological analysis to philosophical ponderings, there are several routes to take to better understand this area of your game, and so to improve upon it. According to GM Jonathon Rowson, the revered Chess author of the excellent The Moves that Matter, Chess for Zebras, and The Seven Deadly Chess Sins (now available on Chessable!) among others, recognizing and eliminating psychologically and emotionally driven blunders and mistakes is the key step to climbing the upper echelons of the chess ratings ladder.
And if you’re looking for a mentor in psychological chess, you could do significantly worse than former World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik, and his free masterclass on Thinking in Chess: A How To Guide.
9. Get (Really) Good at Analyzing Your Own Games
Though it may be painful, learning from your own mistakes is perhaps the most beneficial learning tool at your disposal in chess. After every game, you should go through what happened, consider how the game developed, and ask yourself the most probing questions you can. If you won, what was your opponent’s key mistake? And what would you have done if they hadn’t made it? If you lost, what went wrong?
To quote GM Kasparov again: “With the years I have come to realize that this (the thorough analysis of one’s games) provides the foundation for the continuous development of chess mastery.”
The best way of analyzing your games will be personal for every player, but generally the process will include importing the game into the analysis tool of your choice (like this one, perhaps) replaying the game without computer aid, recalling your thought process and candidate moves from a key moment. Once you have done that, you can also replay the game with the engine turned on to verify or dismiss your calculations and to identify a weak spot in your repertoire or general play.
That said, there is skill and patience required to know how to objectively and successfully analyze a position. To level up your own analysis skills, we can recommend the excellent free course, The Art of Analysis, from Senior International Correspondence Chess Master, Kirill Oseledets.
10. Get a Good Coach
You can’t become a Grandmaster on your own. As you improve and get closer to your goal of becoming a Grandmaster, having someone in your camp to help you analyze, train, improve, and prepare for games is essential.
Not only does this person know your game as well as you do, they can bring fresh perspective and valuable insight that you alone would be likely to miss. Besides coaches, high-level players also have ‘seconds’, who are similar to coaches, and help with various important tasks like preparing opening strategies to face a particular opponent, playing training games designed to address a specific weakness identified in analysis, and so on.
Selecting an appropriate coach is one of the most important decisions an aspiring Grandmaster can make; this person will be your guide on the way to achieving your goal, and they will shape your play, technique, and learning curve more than anyone else, so choose wisely!
11. Win and Keep Winning
Finally, there’s no avoiding the fact that to become a chess Grandmaster you’re going to need to win a lot of chess games. To reach the top, you have to have a serious drive to win that will keep your motivation at an extremely high level for a number of years. This is important not only to maintain the level of training required to reach your goal, but also to stay in the fight on the board when all hope seems lost.
Consider the following quote from chess great, Bobby Fischer: “Chess is a war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.” When it comes to competition, these are the terms in which you need to view each and every game.
To this end, you will need to get very comfortable competing and to finely hone your ability to perform under a wide variety of pressures. To do this, there is no better advice than to jump in and start competing! No matter your level, there will always be something you can learn from an OTB tournament. So what are you waiting for? Jump right in. And good luck on your road to the GM title.
Lifetime Repertoires: Wesley So's 1. e4 - Part 2
1. How long does it take to become a chess Grandmaster?
It can take as little as 12 years and 4 months (the age of the youngest ever GM) or as many as 88 years (the oldest anyone has received the title). The road to becoming a Grandmaster depends entirely on each player’s personal journey to achieving the feat, but it is very likely that from the moment you learn chess to the moment you win the title, it will take at least 8-10 years – and very likely more. As well as the immense challenge of reaching the required chess level, the logistical challenges involved in attaining the title should also be taken into account, including finding and travelling to appropriate tournaments in which to win GM norms, and other considerations.
2. Can normal people become chess Grandmasters?
People from all walks of life, from all over the world have become chess Grandmasters. However, you could say that the level of dedication and years spent in pursuit of a single goal renders these people less ‘normal’.
3. How much do Grandmaster chess players make?
Grandmasters today have a variety of revenue streams available to them, including tournament revenue, coaching, creating and selling educational content on great sites like Chessable, as well as streaming and related money-making online endeavours. The actual amount a Grandmaster makes depends on how good they are at monetizing the skills they have acquired.
4. What IQ do you need to be a chess Grandmaster?
Though someone with a high IQ may also be well-suited to becoming a chess grandmaster, the skills you need to achieve this goal are not well reflected by your IQ score. Having a high IQ does not necessarily mean you will be good at chess.
5. Can a Grandmaster lose his or her title?
Most commonly, once a Grandmaster title has been awarded it is held for life. However, in exceptional circumstances this title can be revoked (if the player is caught cheating, for example).
6. Who is the youngest Grandmaster in the world?
The youngest Grandmaster in the world is Abhimanyu Mishra, who became a GM at the age of 12 years, 4 months, and 25 days.
7. Are there any female Grandmasters in chess?
As of September 2021 there are 39 female Grandmasters in the world. There is a female-only title of Woman Grandmaster (WGM) which requires an ELO of 2300 rather than 2500 (for the GM title), but women can also achieve the GM title, and many have.
8. Which country has the highest number of grandmasters?
Russia is the country that has the most Grandmasters in the world, with over 250. However the country with the most GMs per capita is Iceland!
9. How many hours per day should I practice chess to become a GM?
There is no established minimum amount of daily study that can guarantee you will become a Grandmaster. However, players seriously dedicated to climbing the ladder are likely to require at least 3 hours a day to maintain and improve their level.
10. Are chess player geniuses?
While some chess players are probably geniuses, it is not true to say that all chess players are geniuses.