The Road to Chess Mastery (Game#26)

The road to chess mastery.

The chess master title

Like most amateur players, my long-term goal is to attain a USCF rating of 2200 – a USCF national chess master. Sometimes the idea of attaining the title is more attractive than the work involved to get there. I often ask myself: Do I really want the title or do I simply want the playing strength of a master. After all, thanks to the Internet, there are many players who play master-level chess and have never played in a USCF rated tournament.

Getting the title of USCF national master (NM) is simply an acknowledgement from a recognized organization that you have a certain level of performance in rated chess games. It’s similar to a college degree. While you might be an expert in a particular subject, the degree serves as certification that someone other than yourself can say you really know what you’re talking about. But, like college, there are no shortcuts. You can’t get a degree simply by saying you know the material, you have to prove it. The same is true for chess. The only way to get a master title is by playing in classical USCF-rated tournaments and getting your rating to 2200.

Time commitment and energy

Playing in rated tournaments is time-consuming. Most formats will have you playing two tournament games per day. With each game taking three to four hours to complete, this amounts to 12-16 hours of your weekend devoted to playing chess. That’s a lot of time. And just because you commit to playing doesn’t mean you will win. It is a combination of risk vs. reward. The risk is losing and seeing your rating fall. The reward is winning to gain rating points.

Playing tournament chess requires lots of energy. Tournament play can be physically and mentally exhausting. Sitting at a board for six hours is a test of will and stamina. Your mind has to focus continuously – one lapse in concentration can be the difference between a win or a loss. Human beings are constantly distracted by unwanted thoughts. To win a chess game, players need to be able to put those thoughts aside so they can concentrate for long periods of time without distraction.

Chess and physical conditioning

In a TV interview, Bobby Fischer talked about the physical conditioning needed to play professional chess. He compared it to taking a long final exam. It takes mental and emotional energy to sit down and focus your mind for several hours. So, once the test is over, it’s only natural to feel drained. But how do you improve your stamina? Physical exercise.

ESPN published an article on how world class player Fabiano Caruana stays in shape. He incorporates distance running, aerobics, yoga and weight training to stay in shape. Exercise helps the brain focus and stay on task. The better shape you are in the less distracted your mind will be and the more energy you will have. For the chess player, this translates to being able to put more energy into your chess games which can lead to better play and better results.

Recognize your progress

The road to chess mastery is paved with improvements followed by setbacks. Progress ebbs and flows. My strategy consists of of both playing and studying. I play turn-based chess, online blitz/rapid. For study, I review GM games, tactics, endings, and middlegame strategies.

I meticulously analyze my own games, sparing no criticism of the bad moves I make. As much as I advocate critical objectivity, it’s important to recognize one’s improvement. This work has borne some fruit. I see small but measured improvements in my play. The following game is one example:

Game#26 – Positional play and the initiative

Paul H. – Deep_swindle
Four Knights Game [C47]
3 minutes 2 seconds


Getting to the chess master title takes work. It won’t happen solely through online play. While one might feel comfortable with their playing strength approaching 2200, the only way to validate this is by playing USCF-led classical chess tournaments.

Being a chess master is more than just strong play. It’s also about mental focus – being able to sit down and solve complex problems in a finite amount of time. Physical conditioning helps you to do that. It will help you concentrate and make you less distracted. Being in shape also calms the emotions which can hinder concentration depending on the type of match you are in.

Is your goal a chess master rating of 2200? Why or why not? Please post below!