How Do You Become a Life Master?

by admin on May 14, 2016

First, apologies for my long silence… more than two weeks! I know that there isn’t anything else worth reading on the Internet except for my blog, so I know you guys were suffering.   😉

This morning I had an interesting experience, being interviewed by a UC Santa Cruz student, whose name is Miranda, for an anthropology class. The assignment was very simple: they are supposed to interview a complete stranger who is over 70 and write about the interview.

“Wait a minute!” I know you’re saying. “You aren’t over 70!” Last time I checked, I was still only 57. If I’m wrong, I must have spent a whole lot more than two weeks away from my blog… Nevertheless, Miranda got permission from her teacher to interview me anyway. So now I’m an honorary 70-year-old!

To get special permission, Miranda must have really wanted to interview me. I don’t know how she found my name originally (probably through Google), but I think she was interested in two things: I’m a writer and I’m a chess player. She played on her high school’s chess team, and she even wore a chess t-shirt to our interview! That was cool.

The students in the class were given several suggested questions to ask in their interviews, but as far as I could tell, Miranda didn’t ask any of them. To be honest, I don’t blame her. I interview a lot of people for my work, and usually when I come to the interview with a prepared script and stick to it, it turns out to be a pretty bad interview. It’s much better if I ask one or two questions and the interviewees take over from there.

Even though she didn’t ask any questions from the script, I did answer one of them (because I had seen it on the paper). The question was, “If you could talk with your 20-year-old self, what would you say to them?”

I had two pieces of advice for my 20-year-old self. The first was: Don’t be afraid of failure. Before I was 20, all I did was succeed, succeed, succeed. (Except at things like sports, where I failed early and often. However, it is socially acceptable for a nerd to be bad at sports.) But three of my most formative experiences, the things that taught me humility and forced me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, were failures. One was my divorce, one was not having kids, and one was not getting tenure. (For those who aren’t familiar with academia, being denied tenure is basically the same as getting fired, but with velvet gloves.) Maybe if I hadn’t had so much success and been so afraid of failure early in life, I would have taken more risks and tried more things. I’ll never know.

The second piece of advice was one that I came up with just today. As we talked about her assignment, it dawned on me that when I was in college, I had absolutely no concept of what an adult’s life was about. The only adults I knew were my parents and teachers, and I didn’t really know them as people. I didn’t know their previous life experiences, what made them happy or sad, whom they had loved or whom they had lost. Those questions were just beyond the pale. It never occurred to me to ask. So for me as a 20-year-old, this would have been a really great assignment. To just sit down and listen to a stranger who was two generations or more older, and talk about those things … it would have given me a lot of perspective.

That’s why I think that this was a wonderful assignment, and it explains the second piece of advice I would give to my 20-year-old self: Talk with older people. Ask them questions, ask them anything. They’ve been around. They’ve been through the same things you have.

There was only one interview question that I’m afraid I really messed up on. As I’ve mentioned, Miranda was interested in my life as a chess player. She said she had read online that I’m a Life Master, and she asked me, “How did you get to be a Life Master?”

I’m afraid I gave her the absolute worst answer. I answered, “You have to get your rating over 2200, and then you need to get five master norms,” and I followed that with a rough explanation of what a master norm is.

After I got back home, I smacked my forehead because I realized that wasn’t what she was asking at all. She wanted to know what any amateur player wants to know, “How does one get to be a master?” You know, what are the steps in improving your game to that point?

Well, of course, volumes and volumes have been written about that, and probably every master has a different opinion. But at least I could have tried. I could have said something like this:

  1. Eliminate tactical mistakes. Of course no one, not even grandmasters, can do this completely, but class-B players and below make simple tactical mistakes in most of their games. If you get to the point where 75 percent of your games are free of major tactical mistakes (and I mean also that you spot your opponent’s mistakes, not just that you avoid your own), you’ll be a class-A player for sure.
  2. Learn strategic planning. I somehow made it to expert without doing this, but you can’t get much farther. Once you get to the point where neither you nor your opponent are making gross blunders, you can actually start painting coherent pictures. Start with Jeremy Silman’s Reassess Your Chess and learn about imbalances. It also helps a lot to talk with good strategic players; I’ve learned so much from Mike Splane and his chess parties (and put a lot of it into this blog). If you can form good plans that are based on concrete positional factors, not wishful thinking, and if you can execute them without changing your mind fifteen times, you’ll be an expert at least.
  3. Develop an identity and a strength. Figure out something that you do better than most people at your level, and play to it. Maybe it’s a particular opening that you like (although I’m on record as saying that openings are fool’s gold). Maybe you have a special talent for bold sacrificial attacks. Or maybe you are good at patient defense, grab a pawn and hold on to it. Maybe you are good at rook-and-pawn endgames. Whatever it is, find something that is your “ace in the hole,” and use it whenever you can. This will separate you from the other experts and make you a master.
  4. Eliminate your weaknesses. This is something I haven’t done yet. I haven’t eliminated my time pressure, or the lack of confidence that causes it. I haven’t learned the art of saving lost games, not just occasionally but regularly. A real master never crumples. I also haven’t learned the art of winning drawn games, not just occasionally but regularly. A real master doesn’t settle (unless, of course, he is playing another master in the last round…). Although I can’t speak from experience, I think that really eliminating your weaknesses makes you a professional. It should take you to 2300 or 2400.
  5. Develop more and more strengths. I think this is what characterizes the guys who get up to 2500 or higher. They become more and more multidimensional. They might start knowing rook-and-pawn endgames, but then they turn into virtuosos in all endgames. They might, like Tal, start as an attacking wonder and then morph into a player who never loses. Magnus Carlsen is, of course, the classic example of a player who can beat you in any type of opening, any type of game (though of course he prefers winning drawn endgames).

It’s also possible that, when Miranda asked, “How do you become a Life Master?” she was asking from the point of view of a non-chess player. That’s also a perfectly reasonable question. My answer would be:

  1. Start playing chess young.
  2. Play in lots of tournaments.
  3. Study your games (losses even more than wins).
  4. Play stronger players and talk with stronger players (of course a chess coach can help, but so also can a strong peer group).
  5. Just don’t quit.

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about talent. I think that a lot of “talent” boils down to how young you started, and how motivated you were when you were young (or when you were just starting in tournaments). There may be some kind of innate chess talent, but I don’t think that there is any empirical test that could discover it and therefore, from a practical point of view, I think talent is a useless concept.

Quite a lot of thoughts to come out of a one-hour interview! At the end of the interview, Miranda made a flower for me out of balloons. That’s also something that she learned in anthropology. This is why I love Santa Cruz. How many other colleges teach you to make balloon flowers in anthropology class?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Hal Bogner May 14, 2016 at 9:15 pm

I just came across this, hot off the press, and it really resonates for me. (Of course it does: I’m a life master, and 57, too.)

I hope Miranda reads your postscript to the interview, because both sets of five things to do to become a master (and to lock it in) are how I did it, and I think they must be true for many who have done it.

For those out there who would like an explanation of “eliminating your weakness”, I figured out I had a serious one, and addressing it took extreme measures, and it might be useful to some to explain it. I had a big strength, loving to attack, which gradually became a big weakness as I rose past class A toward 2200: my attacks seemed to become more and more unsound, and I was afraid that even if I won a pawn or two before the middlegame was over, I had no assurance I would win unless I was going to be up a piece. So I finally got disgusted with my increasing wildness (though a strong IM told me I was probably unsound all along, and was simply encountering stronger defenders as I rose), so I decided to work on becoming a positional player, and to avoid tactics like the plague. First, I switched from 1.e4 and from the Dragon and Modern Benoni to hypermodern with white, and stodgy with black. But hypermodern with white just meant I had to tactically undermine my opponent’s center, so that didn’t help at all. So I started to play 1.d4, 2.Nf3, 3.g3, 4.Bg2, and 5.0-0, and then open my eyes and hope my opponent hadn’t played 1…e5, 2…e4, 3…exf3, and 4…fxg2. In the symmetrical position if my opponent played the same first five moves, after 6.c4 c6, I would play 7.cxd5 cxd5 8.Ne5, and try to learn how to win with a single tempo in a simple position. I learned how to find plans when there was “nothing to do”. I played til there was nothing left on the board. I became a strong positional player. And only then did I try to return to attacking, and with more work, managed to regain the “killer instinct” that I had eschewed during this phase. And along the way, I stopped losing to experts, and gradually learned to mow them down like clockwork.

Your second set of five is terse, and I think just as valuable as the first set. I think I played more games along my long, slow learning curve, than anyone I know. And I had a really strong peer group – perhaps unique in that I have not heard of similar groups to ours. We were seven kids growing up in nearby towns in southern New Jersey, who started hanging out together, and whenever any of us had a breakthrough, all of us just knew that it could be done now, so we did it too. By our early twenties, all
seven of us were masters. (You recently wrote of another of my cohort, Dave Gertler, one of the younger of us. My co-founder in Chess Magnet School, Harlan Lee, was also in our cohort, and after a 24 year gap that seemed like only one week when we reconnected in 2004, we started a new collaboration, producing our chess learning site.

And today, I am repeating the long slow learning curve again – having learned to ice skate at age 30. And in case you get no other enjoyment from this story, I’ll leave you with a math puzzle. Three weeks ago, the son of one of my teammates joined my beer league team, and I was put on a line with a player who, in six years, will be one third my age. How old is my newest teammate? (By the way, I told him that I’m really 19. In spirit, of course. Just as you are, too, I believe, Dana. And I’m still looking to find some adults who can tell me more of what it’s all about.)


paul B. May 16, 2016 at 10:05 am

I’m a former subscriber to Chesslecture so I’ll use Hal Bogner’s presence on this blog to flip the question “how to better play chess” to “how to better teach chess”.

Hands down, the best lecturers on Chesslecture were Dana, Eugene Perelstyn, and Jesse Krai. Dana’s lecture on the King’s Bishop Gambit was a seminal moment in my chess life, as was his lecture on sacking his queen. Eugene is great because like Dana, he explicitly explains the rationale for every move.

Here’s a tip for Hal Bogner. To a club player like myself, the LEAST informative lectures are those which replay games between evenly-matched GM’s. There is an audience for such games, but it is not what I as a club player come to see. Eugene is very interesting because even as he plays another GM, he illuminates his thought processes move by move, which can only be done by describing games that one has personally played. And, like Dana, he has a gift for teaching.

The MOST informative games are between lower-rated players or a stronger player vs a weaker player. Those lectures are great because they show how – to use the currently fashionable term – how imbalances develop and are exploited. Dana was great because he analyzed games by club players, which abound in errors that can be exploited if only they can be seen.

So in the spirit of Dana’s answer to Miranda, here is my recipe for being a Master Teacher on Chesslecture:
1 – analyze games that have imbalances, however small
2 – show where and why those imbalances arose
3 – show how those imbalances were exploited
4 – analyze your own games, whether wins or losses
5 – explain your thinking behind your every move
6 – explain your thinking behind strategic decisions – why did you attack the king instead of another plan?
7 – show how initiative was created, maintained or lost.

A word about Jesse Krai. He gave a lecture that changed my life. He said that the most important thing that you have to study is not chess openings or tactics but YOURSELF – how your personality expresses itself over the chess board. From that single lecture I developed a concept that I call “active thinking” that has worked wonders for me. Whenever I make a decision, I ask myself “how was this choice or decision an expression of my personality?” Very often I find that the first choice or decision is colored by my personality and is flawed. I then systematically search for alternatives and very often find much better ones. So Dana, when your wife urges you to mortgage the house and buy a new BMW, ask her to think how that idea is an expression of her personality…


Roman Parparov May 14, 2016 at 9:46 pm

talent in something that defines how easily you learn something. Genius is the extreme of talent, when you don’t even need to learn to know/do something, you just do by sensing that. The biggest talent in chess history was Jose Raul Capablanca, the next one is probably Karpov; possibly in Carlsen we see the talent that is bigger than Karpov.

You don’t need a “chess talent” to grow up to about FIDE master, just discipline, hard work and good memory development will take you there. Beyond the FM, you’ll probably need something special.


Dan Schmidt May 15, 2016 at 3:53 am

As someone who is an expert but not a master, I feel that one of the biggest traits I lack is the ability to consistently play and think hard through the entire game, as opposed to
– coasting when in a good position until the advantage peters out;
– playing moves by rote in a drawish position;
– offering and accepting draws in good positions against higher-rated players;
– lashing out in a bad position to get things over with one way or another;
– “playing out the string”, just making moves in a position that seems losing until I’m officially lost.

I had a “nice” game the other month against a master where I held a pawn-down same-colored-bishops ending for 40 moves, finding a few only moves in the process, while he patiently tried every possibility (something I probably wouldn’t have done) before acceding to a draw. I need to be able to play like that more consistently before thinking I have a shot at master.


Mike Splane May 15, 2016 at 4:10 am

Great column Dana. This set of topics could keep you writing for months.

I liked Roman’s definition of talent versus genius, I think it is quite useful.

I have a difference of opinion with Roman’s next to last sentence, since it implies that people who don’t make master are undisciplined and lazy, with poor memories. I have a more generous view of my non-master friends. I believe that most players maximize their potential. Every experienced player reaches a plateau and can’t get past it, no matter how hard he tries. For most people that plateau is well short of master. I think that Roman’s three factors, while necessary, are not the only limiting factors. I believe chess talent exists, sorry Dana, and it plays a key role.

Personally I remember exactly when I became a master strength player. I was sharing a house with Gjon Feinstein at the time. I returned home one night, after drawing a very dull-looking game at the Kolty chess club, and told him, “I found it! I found it!” He might even remember this, even though it was 33 years ago, because I was so excited. Two months later I officially earned the master title. Within a year my rating was at 2300.

What was the secret? Just play the moves that the position calls for and don’t waste time looking at anything else . Dana talks about this in his second point. Prior to that night I thought you had to play brilliant tactics to win games so I was always making weird, and often unsound, moves just to set up opportunities for the opponent to miss a shot. This is a bad habit I’ve gotten back into, so I shouldn’t be surprised that my chess results have fallen back to an expert level in the past decade.

One other thing that Dana didn’t mention is finding openings systems that mesh with your unique and special skillset, so you can reach the types of positions where you can shine.

In regard to Hal’s comment about having a group of players getting better together being a unique experience, I had always thought that was the norm, rather than the exception.

Hope more people write in with comments. I’ll be following this blog-post with great interest.


Roman Parparov May 15, 2016 at 12:04 pm

The people hit the plateaus earlier usually because they’re unable to commit to chess sufficiently, or because they’re working on wrong things.

Dana’s point 4, about playing the stronger opposition, at least when you’re younger, is in my opinion also extremely important.


paul B. May 15, 2016 at 8:48 pm

Dana, surely you must have understood early in your mathematics career that academic tenure is an unlikely outcome – just divide the number of available tenured positions by the pool of qualified candidates and you have your odds of success.

You’re a very gifted teacher and that’s a rare gift; never stop searching for new ways to use that gift.


paul B. May 16, 2016 at 7:20 am

What surprises me about the comments is that there is no mention whatsoever of the place of computers in chess self-improvement. So, here is a thought experiment – a beginning chess player is stranded on a desert island for ten years with nothing but Shredder on a laptop. He decides to use his isolation to improve his chess. Can he reach GM ability by the time he is rescued?


admin May 16, 2016 at 8:37 am

This is a good point. I think that most or all of the commenters so far grew up playing against humans, rather than computers. So we need some younger voices on how to use computers effectively to reach master level.

What you suggest is an interesting experiment. I would say, “No way!” But who knows, if he was obsessed enough he probably could get pretty good. But I think he wouldn’t understand human strengths and weaknesses, and also I think that playing only against the computer (even if it’s “dumbed down” so that its strength is theoretically equal to the castaway’s) will make his play too passive and defensive.


Roman Parparov May 16, 2016 at 9:24 am

The answer to this question depends only on the talent of the stranded.

For the FM level, it would be 99.9% yes.


Todd Bryant May 16, 2016 at 8:23 am

Nice post. It’s a coincidence that she asked you the question about advice to your 20 year old self. I recently fell in love with Tim Ferris’s podcast (which I first discovered because he interviewed Josh Waitzkin), and he gives that exact question to many guests.

In fact, I was thinking about what I would say this morning as I was walking into work. It’s kind of a silly exercise, as I am 29, but maybe not so silly–my life has changed a lot since 20. Mostly, I came up with specific advice about saving money, what weightlifting program to follow, and so on. Not super inspiring stuff.

Now please write a post about how to become 2400 USCF, so I can study it 🙂


Rob May 16, 2016 at 11:00 am

I rate this blog entry as one of the best you have posted since I began reading it some years back.

Back in December I decided to quit playing chess after so many years with all the ups and downs (mostly downs) which reduced much of the joy I once found in this game.
However I am going to go over your list and perhaps consider one or two items to study as away to regenerate some energy for another go.

And one last comment. I would not consider “not having children” as a failure. Under ideal circumstances having a child may be a wonderful experience, but there is no guarantee that that would be the case. Sometimes life just works out that way…as Momma Gump once said; ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’”



admin May 16, 2016 at 1:04 pm

As for the children, how you look at it depends on your attitude. Perhaps a better description of it would be a major life event that didn’t go according to plan, and that forces one to regroup and change one’s priorities.

I think I might compare accepting childlessness to accepting an isolated pawn. (To anyone but a chess player this analogy would surely look ridiculous, but bear with me…) For the longest time I viewed isolated pawns as a defect in a position, something to be avoided. But really it’s not a defect, it’s just a feature. Pure and simple. It has good sides and bad sides. Once you open yourself up to playing that sort of position, you will have possibilities that you might not have had otherwise.

In fact, in recent years I have toyed (as White) with the opening 1. e4 e6 2. c4 d5 3. cd ed 4. ed! to force myself to play an isolani position. Childless by choice!


Bryan Castro May 19, 2016 at 4:43 am


This is an awesome post. Thank you for the advice. I particularly like your advice to “Develop and identity and a strength.” I discussed this with a friend about a non-chess topic, which was convincing her to write a book. I think we all have a “voice” and for chess it may be something like a particular opening or style of play as you mentioned, but it was very insightful to me because it connected with a few of my non-chess conversations and thoughts as well.

Best regards,


Walter May 25, 2016 at 6:29 am

Thanks for sharing this one. Enjoyed it very much.
Perhaps not the main message but one I liked very much: wearing a chess t-shirt is cool.



Timothy Takaki February 1, 2017 at 12:54 am

Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have really loved surfing around your weblog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing in your feed and I hope you write again soon!|


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