WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A GRANDMASTER    by Andrew Soltis                 

Andrew Soltis has already advised us what  to do to become a chess master in his book "What it Takes to Become a Master" (Batsford 2012).  Now he is prepared to take us another step forward in his latest work "How to Become a Grandmaster".  The step between Master and Grandmaster is probably greater than that of Amateur to Master so this book contains "heavier" text and analysis.

It is a popular misconception that some magic ingredient is required in the making of a Grandmaster, but Soltis does his best to convince us that that is not so.  He argues that this "promotion" can be achieved by hard work, study, learning from experience and a clear understanding of positional techniques.  He sets out to demonstrate the difference between moves played by Masters and those played by Grandmasters.  Given that all but thirty per cent of the moves played in any game can be played by masters, then of these the first twenty-five per cent can be played by any Grandmaster and the remaining five per cent by world class players of the type of Carlsen and Anand.  It is these thirty per cent of moves that Soltis concentrates on identifying and clarifying.

Firstly he puts forward "Mysterious" moves that a grandmaster will play.  "Mysterious" because many people have no understanding of the purpose of the move.  Nimzowitsch called many rook moves "mysterious" If it is normal for a rook to be played to an open file, then why does a Grandmaster ignore the open file and place the rook on a closed or semi-closed file?  Among others, he chooses the game Shipov-Sakaev, Sochi 2004 to give one illustration of this phenomena.  In this position :

Shipov - Sakeath Sochi 2004
Black to play

The rook at h8 seems comfortably placed.   As it is on a half-open file and is hitting a backward pawn at h3, one would expect that the best continuation would be to double rooks on the h-file.  Now, however, Sakeath played 16. .... Rhf8!  What on earth persuaded him to play this?  He had decided that the h-pawn was easy to protect but with the rook on the f-file it was threatening White's queen after 17. .... f5 and then if 18.Qxe6 Rf6 would win it.

This can be called a "mysterious rook" and qualifies to be a "grandmaster" move placing it in the five percent of moves referred to above.

Another such move is called by Soltis "Uber-Luft".  We are all familiar with a "luft" move whereby a simple pawn move such as g3,or b3 is played to give the king a free square to move to in the event of a threatened back row mate.  With an "Uber-Luft" the pawn advances yet another square to g4 or b4 and has the dual purpose of an attacking sortie as well as a defence to a threat.

There are many other such moves or manoeuvres that come as second nature to a grandmaster, but is a struggle to find by an ordinary master.

Is such a gift just a question of intuition?  Soltis does not accept this  stating that although he sets out in the book many differences between a master and a grandmaster move, the book will not make a reader into a grandmaster.  This can only be achieved by experience, knowledge, study and perseverance taking many years to achieve that level of insight.

The text, covering 294 pages, falls into Six Chapters, the final section being answers to various quiz questions sprinkled throughout the other five chapters.  Each of the remaining chapters has been divided into 11  sub-sections covering specific points.  These are too numerous to list here but an example is :-

Good-bad bishops
Impossible moves
Outcast Outposts
Mystery moves @ Queen
Permanent Pursuit
Lasker Rooks
Backward Ho

It is noticeable that many of these subjects are "exceptions that prove the rule".  These are significant in Grandmaster play as it is one of the main grandmaster attributes, to successfully play a move or manoeuvre that goes against the generally accepted standard.   A good illustration of this phenomena is the "good-Bad Bishop" section, which is heralded by the following statement:-

"When a grandmaster looks at a position, it may seem he is using eyes that are slightly different from those of other players.

He sees enemy pieces entrenched on outposts and realizes that they are really misplaced.  He notices "impossible moves" hat other players are blinded to.  And he sees "bad" pieces that play better than their "good" enemy counterpart.  We'll start this chapter with:

                                                                          31. Good-Bad Bishops

The story of good and bad bishops is, by now, a familiar one.  What were once mystery moves are routine in grandmaster games.

      Shirov - Dubov, Moscow 2014.

     1 d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3 d5 g6 4. Nc3 Bg7 5. e4 0-0 6 Bd3 d6 7 h3 a6 8 a4 c6 9 Nf3 exd5 10 cxd5 Nbd7 11 0-0 Qe7 12Bf4 Nh5 13 Bh2 Bh6 14 Re1 Bf4                            .

White to play

         White to play


White retained his dark-squared with 15.g3!  GM Evgeny Naer said this "unaesthetic move" would have been awarded two exclamation marks 40 years before.

"But today both players and the computer consider it without hesitation to be the strongest and necessary," he added in 64.

White buried his bishop at h2 and weakened the h3-pawn.  But it was his better bishop and needed to be preserved.  It was bound to emerge after 15. .... Bh6 16 Bf1.

White would justify his play with 17 Kh1 and 18 g4!  That's strong for tactical and positional reasons.

For example, 18 g4! Nhf6? 19 g5 or 18 .... Nf4? 19 g5! Bxg5 20 Nxg5 Qxg5 21 Qc1 costs Black a piece.  And 18 .... Ng7 is strategic surrender (19 Nd2 and 20 Nc4 or 20 f4.

Black avoided that by means of 16 .... Ne5 17 Nxe5 Qxe5

shipov 2

   White to play

Best now was 18 a5! e.g. 18 .... Bd7 19 f4 Qe7 20 e5.  White's bishop strategy would have given him a nice edge."

Basically, the differences between amateur, master and grandmaster lies in the moves they play on the board.  Thus a master will look at a position and be able to judge a position according to traditional criteria of material, space, king safety and so on.  A grandmaster will see the same but he will also judge it in terms of it's potential for improvement.

To illustrate this, Soltis uses the game Torpugov-Petrosian, Moscow 1957, which reached this position after White's 21st move;

Black to play 21st move



Black's piece sacrifice looks speculative.  Instead of trying to evaluate it by calculating, let's imagine.

Let's imagine how the next several moves may go.

It is easy to see how Black can improve his position.  He can double rooks on the b-file.  He can plant his knight at f5 or b4.  He will figure out how to put his queen to best use, perhaps at a5.  We can safely foresee this happening because there is very little White can do to stop these moves.

Now consider the flip side.  How can White improve his side of the board?  Nothing major suggests itself.  That indicates a trend, a big one, may develop in Black's favor.

His command of the near future is so great that Tigran Petrosian didn't want to allow a counter-sacrifice.
( 21.  .... Nf5 22.Nxd5)  He slowly built up 21. .... Rfb8 22.Nb1 (22.Qe3 Qa5 23.f4 Nc6 24.Ne2? Nb4) Nc6 


White to play 23rd move

petro1 Black's superioriy (23.Qa3 Qxf2 23.Ba3 Nxe5!) is becoming evident.

After 23.Qg3? he finished off one of his neglected masterpieces with 23. .... Rxb1+! 24.Kxb1 Rb8+ 25.Ka1 c3 26.Bd2 ( .... Qh4 was threatened) Nh4 27.Bd3 Qc4! White resigns.

Soltis calls Black's manoeuvre in this game "trending" and gives several examples of how a grandmaster's judgement is superior to that of a master.

There are many other differences between moves that a grandmaster and a master will make in the same position.   On a 'one for one' basis these differences may appear to be slight but when such differences occur many times during a game the overall difference can be immense - possibly the difference between winning a game or losing.

A complete study of this book will take a long time as it has 318 pages but this is just the sort of hard work that makes a grandmaster.  It is very difficult to find a superior move which seems to go counter to accepted principles of good play, but this needs to be considered on practically every move that is played.  At times pure intuition will come to ones aid but this will need to be checked.  The principle of considering candidate moves in a tree o.f analysis can be curtailed by intuitive means and this is very important when playing against the clock. 

Being a Grandmaster himself, Andrew Soltis is well qualified to expound on this subject which he does with a nice flow of examples and clear precise English.  Whether you are trying to make this leap in title or you are interested in what makes a Grandmaster, this is fine course of study to follow one needs to know and study the entire contents of the book and there is no better syllabus than this.  I found it interesting to dip into certain subjects and then study some grandmaster games to see how this knowledge has been used. To do so I looked at a position and then decided what I would play and then see what the Grandmaster had played, linking this with the explanations that Soltis offerred.  It was a very agreeable surprise when I was able to find a solution that proved the worth of Soltis' explanations.

I would recommend this book to both students studying to become grandmasters and to inquisitive readers such as myself. At a recommended price of £15.99 this is a very worthwhile purchase.


Bill Frost

June 2016