Road to Grandmaster

10/8/2010 – Can a 21-year-old Class A player become a grandmaster on command? Will Taylor of Bridgwater, UK, rated around 1900, believes he can. The English bookmakers William Hill believe he can't and offered odds of 25:1 against it happening. Taylor has wagered £200 with them, with a potential return of £5,000. We will be helping him along and tracking his progress.

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Road to Grandmaster

Will Taylor's father taught him the rules of chess when he was at primary school – perhaps around eight years old. But he didn't begin playing in earnest until the start of secondary school (age 11), when he joined his town chess club. Since that time Will has played regularly for my local club, and has generally been to a few tournaments a year, though never any FIDE-rated or big international tournaments. He spends a large proportion of his free time on chess one way or another, but for the most part not on systematic study or serious games, but rather on one-minute games and following the top international tournaments online. He also co-founded (re-founded) the Durham University Chess Club last year and will be acting as its President this year.

Now Will is attempting to improve from a Class A chess player to a grandmaster, and proposes to do this without failing his degree (an MSci Joint Honours in Physics and Chemistry), without dropping his other hobbies (guitar, Go, Mandarin Chinese and more), and without losing his girlfriend (who has not the slightest interest in chess). In general he will maintain a normal student’s social life. To motivate himself he has wagered £200 with William Hill at odds of 25:1 on me becoming a grandmaster, and so stands to win £5,000 should he succeed.

Will's current English Chess Federation grade stands at 152, which is about 1866 FIDE according to the ECF’s conversion formula (ECF*8 + 650 = FIDE). His grade last year was 162, or 1946 FIDE, so his level can safely be approximated to 1900 FIDE, though he has no official FIDE rating at present. As you probably know, one of the requirements for becoming a grandmaster is achieving a rating of 2500, which means he must improve by about 600 Elo points.

That’s a lot, but such gains are routinely made quickly nowadays by talented youngsters. Unfortunately, at 21 years old Will is no longer really a youngster and might even be considered over the hill. Today's new GMs are mostly under 20. Here is a graph of Will's grade, along with the grades of the top three British players of his year group (James Hanley, Peter Poobalasingam and Tom Pym), and the grade of David Howell, a prodigy in the year below, who is now a strong grandmaster.

David Howell’s line 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 little the stronger he gets, but it still takes only eight 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 rather 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.

Will Taylor's grade line is significantly lower again. Clearly the child prodigy grandmaster route is no longer open to him – nor has he 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," he writes, "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."

So how can we help. We gave Will a free premium account on Playchess and sent him the latest Maurice Ashley DVD, "The Secret to Chess", which could prove incredibly useful. We will keep track of his progress and take 15% of his William Hill earnings, should he succeed (just kidding). You can also follow the enterprise on Will's Road to Grandmaster blog.


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