What Qualities Do Talented Chess Players Share?

Sergey Karjakin, right, plays against Magnus Carlsen during the World Chess Championship on Nov. 28 in New York. 

Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by John Fernandez, 2133 FIDE:

If you’re not a great player yourself, generally chess talent will manifest itself in six different areas:

Focus. Chess games are long (up to seven hours in some formats). If you can’t focus, you will struggle to play.


Memory. You have to memorize a lot of opening theory, middlegame theory, and endgame theory. You also need to remember the lines you’re calculating, as well as other games to see similar themes. If your brain can’t retain information, chess will be brutally hard.

Studiousness. You have to study. A lot. You have to like to study. A lot. If you don’t, chess is not for you. This can also be linked to a genuine like for chess—if you actually enjoy the game, you can be fascinated with and study it a lot more. That can be a fun thing to do in your life and make you a better player.


Self-critical. The ability to perform dispassionate analysis is actually really important in chess. “Why did I make this mistake?” “What did I miss?” “What did my opponent do that I didn’t?” are all questions you will ask yourself after a game. Being able to answer it in a way that helps you improve is a very important skill set to have.


Determined. You have to want to be a good chess player. You have to want to be better. Continuous improvement is the name of the game, and if you don’t desire it, you won’t get there. (Honestly, this was my biggest weakness. My big legendary goal was getting a FIDE rating. Once I got it, I couldn’t figure out an attainable next step that I felt passionate about.)

Pattern recognition. This is the biggest skill there is in chess (in my opinion). If you can recognize patterns—not exactly memory, since you haven’t memorized the position, but you have memorized the theme—you will get good at chess, very quickly. I think this is the biggie.


Any youngster with these six skills is likely to make a good chess player. In fact, if you have glaring holes in these skill sets, it’s basically impossible to be a very good chess player at all—you’ll abandon the game after a pretty short while without it.


For the super-top level, I think there’s three skills that come up a lot in my experience:

Harmony. I know that most folks expect chess players to be mathematical, but I’ve found that the true greats have an almost musical quality to them, using all of their pieces together in a way that conductors use all of the orchestra members at the same time.

Gamble. You have to have a little bit of gamble in you—a little bit of bluff. You have to know when you can’t solve a position perfectly and make the judgment to go with something that might not be the best, but that puts maximum pressure on your opponent.

Stamina. A bit different from focus, you have to be willing to grind, game after game, tournament after tournament.

The problem with chess, for me, is that if you are good at these things, you probably have more lucrative careers ahead of you than chess!

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