Road to Grandmaster

Hello and welcome to Road to Grandmaster.  This blog will document my journey as I attempt to improve from a ‘Class A’ chess player to a Grandmaster, the highest title awarded by FIDE (the World Chess Federation).  I propose to do this without failing my degree (an MSci Joint Honours in Physics and Chemistry), without dropping my other hobbies (guitar, Go, Mandarin Chinese and more), without losing my girlfriend (who has not the slightest interest in chess), and even whilst maintaining a normal student’s social life.  To further motivate myself I have wagered £200 with William Hill at odds of 25:1 on me becoming a Grandmaster, and so stand to win £5000 should I succeed.

My current English Chess Federation grade stands at 152.  That’s about 1866 FIDE according to the ECF’s conversion formula (ECF*8 + 650 = FIDE).  My grade last year was 162, or 1946 FIDE, so I think my level can safely be approximated to 1900 FIDE, though I have no official FIDE rating at present.  As many of you will know, one of the requirements for becoming a Grandmaster is achieving a rating of 2500, which means I must improve by about 600 ELO points.

That’s a lot, but such gains are routinely made quickly nowadays by talented youngsters.  Unfortunately, at 20 years old (21 in two weeks), I’m no longer really a youngster and might even be considered over the hill (for those who don’t know, the current world no. 1 is only 19)!  Below is a graph of my ECF grade since I first started playing competitively.

As you can see, I have generally made steady progress, though 2006-2008 was something of a plateau.  My grade jumped in 2009, but at least part of that was due to the ECF adjusting grades because it felt deflation had been occurring, and my grade has dropped a bit this year.  The Grandmaster level in terms of ECF grades is around 230.

Next is a graph of my grade, along with the grades of the top three British players of my year group (James Hanley, Peter Poobalasingam and Tom Pym), and the grade of David Howell, a prodigy in the year below me who is now a strong Grandmaster.

Let’s look first at David Howell’s line.  This is the typical child prodigy graph – he rockets up to begin with, and keeps on improving pretty rapidly up to 230, the Grandmaster point.  Of course improvement slows a bit the stronger he gets, but it still takes only 8 years from his first ever grade until he’s about Grandmaster strength.  The lines of Poobalasingam, Hanley and Pym follow a similar trajectory, though somewhat lower, but they all seem to reach a bit of a plateau around the 180-200 mark.  Whilst very strong, this is still a significant way from Grandmaster, and the last 30 points are the hardest to climb.  Many players reach this sort of level and remain there or thereabouts for most of their chess career.  Well done to Pete who appears to be making a push off this plateau with his latest grade.

My grade line is significantly lower again.  Clearly the child prodigy Grandmaster route is no longer open to me – nor have I reached the level of the other three, where GM is in sight and probably achievable with a few years’ hard work.  Given my other time commitments, a third route – slow and steady – would appear to be the only option.  Perhaps, by using my study time efficiently, I can make my line look more like the start of the others up to near the 200 mark, but from there I suspect it will be a slow grind.  For this reason, I don’t expect to reach my goal for ten years at the very least.

Finally, readers needn’t worry that this website will only be about ratings, improvement, or lack thereof.  I expect to write about everything that interests me in, and to an extent out of, the chess world.  It’s going to be a long road, and I hope that some of you will join me, at least some of the way.

37 thoughts on “Road to Grandmaster

  1. I suppose we have to blame great uncle Maurice for this genetic inclination towards chess and betting, so I am sending him a copy of this document.

    Is it significant that said girlfriend fails to appear on your mailing list?


  2. Dear Will,

    Greetings. From Chessbase webpage, I learned about your quest to attain Grandmaster title. It is interesting to note that, while you have a FIDE equivalent rating of 1866; I am currently at the same FIDE rating!

    It has been three years since I started playing chess. I started a bit late. At the age of 28. However, almost similar to you, I have a long-term (20 years!) plan for chess improvement. My current job does not allow me to play tournaments but I am working, every single day on my own on chess improvement. I think I will be following your blog regularly in the next coming days.

    I wish you all the best and hope you achieve what you are aiming for.


  3. Good luck. I will be *very* interested in your progress. I have somewhat similar aspirations. But I will start preparing for them a little later. I am 38 at the moment. I guess in that case, my odds at achieving a similar feat are more like 100:1?

  4. Best of luck to you Will. I am a University student, 22 years old, with a similar rating and aspirations as yours. Although I am too busy to study at the moment, I hope to begin a consistent study program within a year or so. I plan on concentrating on the Dvoretsky series of books, if they are not too challenging. Particularly his endgame manual, as I’m weak in that area. I hope you achieve your goal, and I will enjoy following your progress :).


  5. Best of luck.

    Success is never final and failure never fatal it is the courage that counts. And by starting you have shown you have courage.
    I wish you all the very best.
    I am 33 and am on the same road of chess improvemnt. I started chess early but could not continue b’cz of studies but I am back now though.
    I will be following your blog. Let me know if you want to play practice games too.

  6. I am working on a similar project but my ELO target is almost 1000 points below your target. Anyhow, it will be very interesting to follow your adventures and to learn from your training experiences.

    Good Luck!

  7. I read about your bold project in the NY Times today (11 Oct) and wonder whether you would be available for an interview on BBC World Service radio. We’d love to have you on our programme this evening. Please get in touch on 020 7557 1409.

  8. Hi from Brasil! I will be following your blog as I have a similar plan. I am 29, have a Fide rating of 2059 and want to become an IM in 10 years or so. Lets keep in touch for information about books, trainers and training habits.

    Good luck in your journey!

  9. All the best! I’m on a same project – I am 1943 Elo, but have been inactive for 7 years. I got my rating at 15, now am 23. Have a pressure job (which I love) without time for chess. Planning to start out with 8 hrs a week. Giving myself 10 years to reach 2400 elo.

  10. Good luck, Will. I will be following with interest.

    My ambitions are much more modest – I’d be happy to die a FIDE Master – but I relate to your purpose and I hope you make it 🙂

  11. Teignmouth round 3
    taken straight from the notes – so think its accurate
    1e4 Nc6 2Nf3 e5 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 d3 Be7 5 Bb3 d6 6 0-0 0-0 7c3 Bg4 8 h3 Bh5 9 Nd2 d5 10 Re1 d4 11 Nf1 Kh8 12 Ng3 Bg6 13 Nh5 Nd7 14 Nxb fg 15 Bd5 Bh4 16 BxN cB 17 cd Qf6 18 Qe2 ed 19 b3 Ne5 20 Ba3 Rf7 21 Bc5 Nxd3 22 QxN Qxf2+ 23 Kh2 1-0

    Good luck in future events

    Cheers Jon

    1. Thanks. That agrees more-or-less with what I remembered (I had moves 18. Qe2 & 19. b3 the other way round, but presumably your move order is correct). Good luck to you too.


  12. I am 71 and still hope to improve (or get back to my highest ever rating of 1933 USCF-currently 1770). This must be humorous to many people. Improve! At 71! Impossible! Please post any methods of study or playing that are helping you.

    1. Hi Dennis,

      Sorry for the slow reply – I’ve hardly been chessing at all during my exams. Best of luck to you, and I don’t doubt that your goal is achievable.

      The vast majority of games below expert level are decided by a tactical oversight, and I’ve found doing regular tactics problems has helped. I’ve also been analysing my own games much more carefully than before I started this project, and with a strong player to help when possible. Finally, some slightly more controversial advice – I do think that knowing my openings more deeply than before has been pretty beneficial, as much for the confidence boost gained from being in a position you know something about more often as for the objective value of having relatively better positions.


  13. Benjamin Finegold of the US just reached GM at the age of 40. If you work hard, I’m sure you can be a late bloomer too!

  14. Hey there,

    Old blog but I read it now. So best of luck with ur Chess skills Will.
    Darn would do anything to reach where u at – at the moment ..


    1. Hi Sahil.

      Thank you. Well, I don’t know your current level but if you work hard I’m sure you can reach my current level within a reasonable timeframe. Good luck. 🙂


  15. Nice to read your bold statement, I am father of chess player with ambitions to become Grandmaster at 14+(he is currently 12 yrs) with arating of 1420. We want him to make improvements in chess along with academic progress.

    Please let me know the current status, as I have read this quite late. Me & my wife are very much with your thought process.

    All the very best, I am sure we will see you as Grand master.

  16. Will,

    A Chess friend told me of your project, who is a2400+ and a very strong International Master, but who has yet to achieve the GM title. He has played since he was a junior and was very strong then. Indeed I know many strong IM’s who have yet to achieve the GM title. Hence your plan to become a GM from your age and current strength is clearly a self delusion, and more importantly gives false hope to others.

    1. I e-mailed the guy in charge of special bets (Graham Sharpe, I think), and was directed to Joe Crilly, whose contact details can be found here.

  17. Hi Will,

    I agree with the other commenter that your quest is unrealistic/self delusional. Grandmasters are the very best of the best, who spent 10+years full-time studying the game (with only a few prodigy exceptions who did it faster). How are you ever going to reach that level studying only part-time?
    The Polgar sisters are not a good example that hard work trumps talent. They are geniuses who received the best training and worked hard for 10+years (Judith the hardest.) Try the same experiment with people who have average intelligence/talent and you will never make them Grandmasters.
    If you have unusual talent (say IQ >150) and 10+ years to dedicate to the game full time, maybe you have a chance. Of course, the question is also: why would you? Chess, like most other games/sports is winner takes all. If you don’t get into the top 10, you’re not going to make a good living with chess and would likely be much better off using that big brain to become a successful engineer/doctor/layer/banker/ etc.
    Josh Waitzkin, Parimarjan Negi and Luke McShane are just some prominent examples of players who more or less gave up (in the case of Negi and McShane after becoming strong GMs) because they realised that they would be better off doing something else with their talent.
    In any case, best wishes to you on your quest.

    1. Hi Luke,

      I agree that I need to be able to dedicate more time to it. The problem is not only the number of hours I need to spend on work/other priorities, but also the energy that takes and the fact that my focus is divided. The opportunity to do so may arise in the future, but for now I will have to make do with what I have.

      Do you have a source for your claim that the Polgar sisters are geniuses, or that IQ is strongly correlated with chess strength? (I’ve read Short’s recent NiC article.)

      As for why… for now, it interests me.



  18. Hi Will,

    Spatial intelligence is a cornerstone of chess ability and a significant part of any IQ test so the two are obviously correlated. Levitt famously wrote about the correlation and even suggested a formula: Elo ~ (10 x IQ) + 1000. You can read more at:

    Other than that, just look at the (Wikipedia) biography of any (super)grandmaster.

    Judit Polgar defeated a family friend at chess blindfolded at age 5 (try teaching your average 5-year-old blindfold chess — good luck!)

    Bobby Fischer had an off-the-charts IQ (180+).

    Magnus Carlsen “showed an aptitude for intellectual challenges at a young age: at two years, he could solve 50-piece jigsaw puzzles; at four, he enjoyed assembling Lego sets with instructions intended for children aged 10–14.”

    Another example from your country: John Nunn. “At fourteen, he was London Under-18 Champion for the 1969/70 season[2] and less than a year later, at just fifteen years of age, he proceeded to Oriel College, Oxford, to study mathematics. At the time, he was Oxford’s youngest undergraduate since Cardinal Wolsey in 1520.[3] Graduating in 1973, he went on to gain his doctorate in 1978 with a thesis on finite H-spaces (titled “Some Problems in Algebraic Topology”[4]), and remained at Oxford University as a mathematics lecturer until 1981, when he became a professional chess player.”


  19. Hi Will. Let me start with what a great blog. Very well done. I just found this blog after having a similar idea of mapping my own Chess improvement. I have been playing for a few years and absolutely have fallen in love with the game and now i wish to pursue this game seriously. Your blog is adding inspiration to my love for the game. Thank you and greatest of luck for your endeavour.

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