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The Four Tiers of Chess Skill

May 2, 2012

I was thinking about my recent games, and the scholastic games I’ve watched, and I would suggest that their are roughly 4 levels of chess ability, defined by how the player comes up with his moves.

Level 1: Random chess (roughly 0-1000 by rating)

These players know the rules, and maybe have an idea about really basic tactical ideas (e.g., what a fork is), really basic positional ideas (e.g., put rooks on open files), and what pieces are worth. But these players are defined by making the first move that pops into their heads, maybe stopping to consider if their opponent has an obvious reply. Within this level, better players will have a better understanding of tactics, and may have a better idea of what kind of move is good, but without developing a more practical thought process, they won’t break into class E.

Level 2: Hope chess (roughly 1000-1700 by rating)

These players have started taking their opponent’s moves into account, but not in a methodical way, and they still make the first move they like. The rule for these players is, “if you see a good move, make it.” As they go up the ladder from E to A, they improve their tactical vision, develop a better understanding of imbalances, and learn how to win simple but nontrivial endgames, and their instincts improve, but they’re still not using an efficient thought process. They’re playing what Dan Heisman calls “Hope Chess,” where they are only looking at the first possible move their opponent might respond with rather than really looking to see if their move fails against any opponsing response.

Level 3: Real chess (roughly 1700-2300 by rating)

The top amateur players reside here, where having developed impressive tactical skills and an effective thought process, they are now troubled by the difficulty of positional evaluation. Whild players here are much less likely to make obvious tactical errors, their errors are likely to be either in insufficient analysis (such as stopping short in a position that requires 6 or more ply of analysis to really figure out) or incorrect evaluation (such as incorrectly determining whether closing the position with a pawn push or exchanging is better for the position). Players above this are Masters, and are thinking about the game in a very different way from amateurs.

Level 4: Master chess (roughly 2300+ by rating)

Players at this level have developed a positional vocabulary; they know from memory who’s better and why, and what to do, in a wide variety of position types, and so when they analyze positions not in their vocabulary, they can rely on this vocabulary rather than on heuristic positional concepts. A 2000 player analyzes a Najdorf Sicilian middlegame and looks to see how each side keep control of critical squares and activates their pieces. A 2400 player looks to see if the line of moves leads to a position he knows is winning. Studies show that as you move up from expert to master to grandmaster, players have fewer and fewer positions each game where they have to figure out what to do from heuristic principles.

There’s a reason that only the most dedicated players can start playing Master chess. It requires a level of dedication and study that the average weekend player can’t match. Which is why my goal, for now, is just to reach first Expert (and the 61 point bump from the New York International will help with that!), and then maybe at some point NM. IM is the realm of professionals with a lot more time on their hands, and of child prodigies (who also have a lot more time on their hands).

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