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GM Joel on How to Make FM Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
July 17, 2009
Hello GM Joel,   

I'm 16 years old and have been playing chess seriously for little over two years now. I have no idea what 'class' I am in (but it probably involves a grade I'd never want to see on my report card) but have noticed a growth spurt in skill ever since I've been studying. I even told myself that I'd practice, play, and analyze for at least 2.5hrs each night; however, this is exceptionally hard to do, for two reasons: one- I have a very busy high school schedule; and two- I have no clue where to foot myself to improve upon the groundwork that I've been doing. I do daily chess puzzles, and analyze previous matches, but could you give me some advice in working my way up to a much higher level? Crazy as my friends think I am, I want to be a FM and am willing to do the work required. I do not have any natural talent (seriously) and have to work for all the skill I obtain.

I have to say, I have never heard a developing player define FIDE Master as a career goal.  Master yes, grandmaster and international master of course, but an ill-respected title invented by FIDE to squeeze more money from title applications?  Well, to each his own.

Any way, GM Joel fans constantly ask what they need to study to become a strong player.  I believe any regimen developing a variety of skills (three phases of the game, strategy and tactics, game analysis) will give you an opportunity to improve.  But I don’t think there’s a curriculum that gives you everything you need to become a master (though I’m sure there are some out there who would like to sell you one).  Chess is not like a school subject where you accumulate knowledge until you are an expert.  Improvement comes mainly from the ability to process and interpret the information that comes your way, and put it to work in practice.  Knowing how to translate your knowledge into good decisions over the board is where talent comes in, and if you seriously believe you don’t have it, you will have a very difficult road ahead of you.

It makes sense to break down your master plan into more manageable segments.  For instance, pick an amount of time you want to give yourself to get to, let’s say 1500.  If you succeed, you can set another goal for 1800, or 2000 (you can pick whatever numbers you like).  Like many super determined players, you put too much emphasis on study and not enough on playing.  Frequent competition against challenging opponents is the best thing you can do.  Your games let you know if your study has helped and suggest what you need to work on.  Moreover, they provide concrete evidence of your improvement, and help you decide if you are going to be able to make your friends eat their words some day.  

You might consider taking lessons from a strong player who can guide your course of study (and give you further feedback on your progress).   Though GM Joel is happy to give a diagnosis from afar, a chess doctor who examines your game up close will be able to help you a lot more.  Good luck!

 GM Joel has been blogging more than answering in the past couple months, but he is now open for your inquiries! Ask GM Joel a question on anything from his favorite tournament structures to openings and endings. Email him at
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