To many practitioners playing chess is easy, to play it well is difficult and to all but a few, becoming a chess master is impossible.  So how does one bridge the final gap?  Already in his Batsford publication, "Studying Chess Made Easy", Andrew Soltis has provided the format on how to acquire the skills to become a strong player and now in "What it takes to become a Chess Master" he describes the magic ingredients necessary for one to take the final steps. 

Andrew Soltis has a happy knack of putting his points in a matter-of-fact manner in clear and concise language and in this book this helps to strip away the mystery that surrounds chess mastery.  He concedes that an innate talent is to a certain extent the main attribute needed to become a master, but here he investigates and expounds other properties needed by an aspiring chess master.  In broad terms these amount to blood, sweat and tears.  A scan of the chapter headings encapsulates these attributes:-

What matters most


Little tactics






These brusque headings need a little more explanation:

What matters most - what is the most important feature(s) of any given position.  In assessing the merits of a position, the master will isolate the most important aspects and play accordingly.

Habits - a master will acquire skills in recognising standard positional features that give him an advantage  or a target.  This will become a habit that will not require a conscientious effort to implement.

Little tactics - these a small tactics as opposed to major tactics that are forcing manoeuvres that yield a win.  In Steinitzian language "Little Tactics" are a number of small manoeuvres that will provide a plus until such time as they add up to a major, winning, advantage - the accumulation of small advantages.

Sense - quite simply this is the employment of intuition.

More - a master will play a position with more intensity than normal players, this being a greater determination to win.

Winnability - the ability to recognise when an advantage is sufficient to win the game.

Easier - the choice of moves available in any given position, can be assessed as being difficult to easy.  A master will invariably select the "easier" solution. 

Comp - in various positions that exhibit an imbalance of forces, what compensation is available and how this can be exploited. 

These concepts are the skeleton of Soltis' propositions that he fleshes out by providing numerous examples that exemplify the various points. 

For a long time I have considered it a test of the quality and appeal of a chess book when I find myself looking for further examples of the arguments that an annotator puts forward.  This is very much the case of my reaction to this book.  You will find in many writings a reference to these attributes of a master. Here is one example of a comment made by Soltis that tickled my senses as I felt certain that somewhere in my library was a note made by a grandmaster that gave this remark some credibility. 

When discussing the concept of "Compensation", Soltis has this to say by way of explanation of a master's intuition when making a sacrifice:-

"When considering a sacrifice a master might look just two moves into the future.  That's when he can conclude that he would receive worthwhile goodies in return for the material he's giving up. "This move must be sound", he may say to himself.  He can stop calculating there."

No doubt Mikhal Tal had more reasons to think in such a manner than other masters when one considers the many famous sacrifices he launched, but other masters have similar thoughts and responses.  After some time I found the sort of comment I was looking for that supported Soltis' contention .  In his book of best games, Vishy Anand wrote the following about a sacrifice he made against Gelfand in a game played in Wijk aan Zee in 1996:-

"I didn't think much about this piece sacrifice since it seemed to be the natural follow-up to White's earlier plan. I just checked that Black had no obvious defence, and then played it. While this may appear reckless, it fitted in with my ambitions to play interesting chess during the tournament."

A feature of Soltis' writings is his use of simple language and common sense.  Not for him a loquacious explanation when a simple down to earth comment is more apt and certainly more understandable.  This gives his writing an impact that one remembers the points he makes far easier than a more lengthy exposition.  In fact many of the arguments he makes for the small differences that lie between we mere mortals and a chess master, would not succeed if he did not write in such a matter of fact manner.  Consider the following as an examplet of such simplicity:

"Positional, not Material

There are many, many examples of that: A passed pawn - a positional advantage - turns out to be superior to an extra pawn - a material advantage.  Yet the golden rule is difficult for many amateurs to accept.  Part of the reason is that they're confused by the somewhat vague, somewhat imposing word "positional".  If we replaced it with "non-material" they'd have an easier time grasping positions like the following.



    Carlsbad 1923

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Another feature of Soltis' authorship which is particularly exemplified in this book, is his reluctance to reproduce complete games when an extract is sufficient to make the point.  This saves considerable space and in any event it is easy to look up the full game if one is so inspired.  This is a feature which other authors may well follow.

In addition to the discussion of each section, there follows a short section of positions to test the readers understanding of the topic.  It is well worth working through these "puzzles" and then studying the explanations that follow. This helps to appreciate the selection of examples given.  Many authors try to illustrate their books with the most recent games available in order to appeal to the readers sense of topicality.  Soltis does not subscribe to this inducement.  One gets the feeling that no matter the modernity, each example has been carefully chosen to best illustrate the point being made.

Each section of the book is further sub-divided into examples of particular themes to illustrate the point being made.  One such sub-section that appealed to me was contained in the section named "Knowing"

"Pawns and Priyomes

    Obtaining the pawn structure you want to play is typically the first step of a two-step process.  The equally important second step is knowing how to exploit it.  The Russians gave us a word - priyome - to describe the technique that is appropriate for a particular pawn structure.

    You already know some of these even if you've never heard of the word priyome.  Suppose you're playing a rook endgame with seven pawns apiece.  There is one open file.  The priyome is simply to seize control of the file with your rook.  It is virtually an automatic no-think move for most players and it typically obtains an advantage.

   Most priyomes are much more sophisticated than that.  They are both tactical and strategic.  They can provide you with just a hint of what the next move should be.  Or they can hand you a full- blown middlegame script, leading almost to mate.  Here's an elaborate priyome that became familiar in the last 20 years and defeated some of the strongest players."               



Linares 1994

White to play

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     Another such priyome was described by Bobby Fischer in "60 Memorable Games" (Batsford 2008):



Portoroz 1958

Position after 16.b3

Here Fischer writes:

"He won't get a second glance to snap off the bishop!  Now I felt the game was in the bag if I didn't botch it.  I'd won dozens of skittle games in analogous positions and had it down to a science.  Pry open the h-file, sac, sac .... mate!" 

   If you are making a serious attempt to reach a master status - this is the book for you.  If you are merely playing to enjoy your chess - this is the book for you.

 The book contains 208 pages and is formatted in the usual faultless Batsford style with a recommended price of 14.99.


Bill Frost

July 2012