Greg on Norms Part I: Please Stop Caring!
By IM Greg Shahade   
November 2, 2011
Greg200.jpgGreg on Chess is a new series of CLO editorials by IM Greg Shahade, founder of the US Chess League and the US Chess School. His latest editorial was "Stop The Draw", which was recently elaborated upon in Tom Braunclih's "Keep The Draw--Fix the Flaw!" Greg's opinions do not reflect any official USCF views and we encourage discussion in the comment thread or on CLO's twitter, and facebook fan page,

Chess is a very difficult and competitive game. It’s extremely hard to become one of the best players in the world. To do so, you need to do almost everything right throughout your chess career. You should never squander opportunities to learn or grow as a chess player if your goal is to be one of the best in the world.

As strong and talented as you think a Ray Robson, Sam Shankland, Darwin Yang or Daniel Naroditsky may be, there are players of similar level in Armenia, Russia, China and all throughout the world. This is true even for our super talented 10-year-olds such as Jeffery Xiong and Sam Sevian.

They are great now, but what’s going to determine whether they become world class is probably what they do in the next six years. Our ultra talented kids are not completely unique in this world, and in order for them to emerge at the top of the heap, they are going to have to do more of the correct things than those kids from other countries. In this article I’m going to talk about one thing that is absolutely not a correct thing to do, and is unfortunately spurred along by the United States chess culture.

The time for greatest improvement in chess is in the younger ages, from 10-18. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to improve at an older age, it’s obviously very possible, however it is certainly at least a little bit more difficult. Whether this is due to changes in the brain, or due to increased pressures and responsibility of every day life I am not sure, but it’s clear that people improve most rapidly before they are 18 years old. If you aim to become one of the top players in the world, it should greatly increase your chances if you do all of the right things before you are 18 years old.

That means every time you have the chance to play a Grandmaster in a tournament game, you take advantage of that opportunity. You don’t take a draw in 15 moves, you don’t give a draw in a slightly better position to secure some rating points. Whenever one of our talented players does one of these things, they are hurting their chances at being one of the world’s best by a very tiny amount. The  problem is that we congratulate them for it!

I didn’t care a bit when Ray Robson became a GM, and I also don’t care whether or not Daniel Naroditsky gets a GM norm, nor will I fist-pump when Jeffery Xiong or Sam Sevian get their norms. These players were/are already absolutely guaranteed to become Grandmasters as long as they keep playing chess seriously, and if they obsess over getting norms, instead of taking advantage of every opportunity to have fight against a Grandmaster, it will help them get more short term accolades, but will  harm them when it comes to whether or not they will be one of the top players in the world.

Everyone congratulates our young players whenever they get a norm, no matter how it’s achieved. Is it achieved by making lots of non fighting draws against strong players and wasting opportunities to have extremely instructive and important character building fights against some of the best players in the world? No one cares, all they see is the norms and the rating points gained.

What would be much more impressive to me, and would be deserving of a lot more praise than making a norm, would be if one of these players needed a draw in the last round of a tournament to make a norm, yet refused a draw against a Grandmaster opponent, and instead took that opportunity to understand and feel the pressure of trying to play a chess game for a win under severe emotional pressure. However that the player would be congratulated more if they took a draw in ten moves than if he played his heart out, played a character building game that could serve as the building block for a future World Championship run, but instead lost. We have it all twisted around.

It’s an extremely competitive chess world out there. Ray Robson, who is a very highly ranked Grandmaster is only the number 17th ranked junior in the world (although he’s younger than most so will probably rise in the rankings in the future). We have a host of young players coming up who clearly have the potential to be one of the top 20 juniors in the world before they are 18. However it’s a very thin line between being number  1, number 10 or number 30 and if you waste even one or two major opportunities, or develop a poor mindset at a young age, that can be the difference. 

In order to become one of the absolute best it’s imperative that our amazingly young and talented players are taught at a very age to have their sights set high. As soon as someone who is as ridiculously talented starts thinking about getting IM norms or GM norms, and adjusting their play in order to make these norms, they have already lost that battle. There are about 1000 Grandmasters. If you are a special talent who has the rare opportunity to think about being one of the world’s best one day, put all of your focus on doing the things that it will take to become one of the top 10-20 in the world. Don’t spend energy worrying about whether you will become one of a group of 1000.

And I call upon the chess public and journalists to do the same. It is absolutely meaningless whether or not some players earn norms. Sure if I get a norm you can throw a party, write an article, tell me how great I am….why not, I am not going to be one of the best players in the world, and for many older players it may be the crowning achievement of their career, so go ahead and congratulate them and make a fuss about it all you want. But as soon as you demean players with the talent level of someone like Jeffery Xiong who is freaking 2300 at the age of ten, by caring about whether they get an IM norm, you are already fostering extremely bad habits. They read the news stories, they hear all the constant annoying questions from people “so did you get a norm?”, “how many norms do you have?” and of course they want to answer “yes and I have two norms” so they start doing stupid things in order to get these norms.

Does it matter that Samuel Sevian draws some GM in the last round of a tournament after 25 moves when he’s 11 years old? Nope, that isn’t going to help him become the next Kasparov. What’s going to help him is all of those times when he faced a GM with a slightly better or maybe an even but complex position, and he tells the GM “no I don’t want your draw, I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity to play a chess game against a strong GM now, so that I get experience fighting against top class opposition as soon as possible.”

Our young players are not going to become the best in the world by accident. There are kids all over the world who are talented enough and want the same thing. Our top players need to take advantage of every single opportunity in order to be the best, and unfortunately we have a bit of a results oriented culture that pushes our kids away from doing the right things. They should learn and be encouraged to never waste a single game, never sacrifice a learning experience for a short-term good result. Instead every single one of their actions should be focused on one thing, and one thing only: One day becoming the best player in the United States and one of the best players in the world. This probably won’t be possible until they are at least 18 years old, so the next 6-8 years should be treated as a learning experience.

For my next article I intend to write about my own personal feelings towards norms, and will be of a slightly different tone than this article. I hope you enjoyed this piece and I welcome your comments as always!