Why Learning Chess Is Easy, But Mastering It Is Hard

If you want to learn how to play chess for fun, you could learn the game in a single day. Chess is not a hard game to get into. But if you want to be a chess expert, you’d need years of practice, dedication, intelligence, skill, and a bit of luck.

Chess is a game for everyone, but only the dedicated will compete on a high level.

Children in elementary school play chess for fun all the time. At the same time, grandmasters can play high-level chess for prizes of over $100,000 USD in a single tournament. Chess is easy, but mastering the game is very hard. Here’s exactly why that is.


1. The Goal Of Chess Is Clear

The goal of chess is to checkmate the opponent’s king, while simultaneously protecting your own king. This seemingly simple premise can be understood by a 5-year old, which makes the game extremely accessible to everyone.

At the same time, expert chess players have the ability to protect their own king in ways that most people would not have thought about. Playing against other experts of similar strength, a basic chess game will suddenly become an extremely high-level battle of the minds.

While the ultimate goal of a chess match seems simple, it can play out in a near-infinite amount of ways. That statement can be taken quite literally, once you know about the Shannon number: there are a whopping 10120 possible positions in chess. Excluding the illegal moves, there are still about 1043 possible positions left.


The Shannon number implies that there are more possible chess positions than there are atoms to be found in the known universe.


2. Moving Around Chess Pieces Is Simple

The basic rule of chess can be learned in a single day. That mainly comes down to understanding how chess pieces move. The only somewhat difficult part is understanding all the exceptions and special chess moves:

  • Castling
  • En Passant
  • Pawn Promotion


Once you know the exceptions to the rules, any rookie chess player has the ability to grow into a competitive player very quickly. In just a few days, kids will thrive in the friendly competitive environment of their own chess club.

That’s not a coincidence, but it’s exactly why chess is so popular.

It gradually challenges new players to learn more. While moving around chess pieces might be challenging at first, it will quickly turn into a habit. That’s when new challenges are found in finding the best way to corner a king, or choosing a good opener.

Next up is thinking ahead, and perceiving how your opponent looks at the game. Advanced players crawl into the minds of their opponents. They try to lure them into strategic traps. Or they simply adapt their playstyle to the opponent’s defensive or offensive moves. Once the snowball of knowledge is pushed down the hill, it only gets bigger over time.


3. Chess Opponents Of All Difficulties

Just like any other strategic board game, opponents come in all shapes and sizes. Children play against other kids their own age, experienced adults play among themselves as well. The increasing difficulty is what keeps chess interesting.

There is no better place to experience this than online. Player ratings on Chess.com or Lichess.org are constantly changing. If a player wins, they get a higher rating. If a player loses, the rating goes down. It’s that simple.

The matchmaking systems are made to find the perfect opponent. This balance is constantly shifting as players practice more and more. After all, with practice comes experience. Chess is only challenging if opponents help a player improve over time.

Online practice perfects this craft, but it’s always been an important matchmaking system in ‘the real world’ as well. The so-called FIDE-ratings are the holy grail in official chess tournaments.


4. Optimizing Chess Strategies Never Stops

Just like challenging better and better opponents, optimizing chess strategies will be a neverending grind. Even after centuries of playing chess, people are still finding new ways to mislead opponents into surrendering their king.

Remember the Shannon number mentioned before. There are more possible board situations than a human would ever be able to experience in a lifetime. This keeps things interesting.

Even with the combined effort of all professional chess players in the world, new chess strategies are discovered on a regular basis. These are often named after their inventor. Take for example the Jerome gambit, or the Caro-Kann defense. There is a huge catalog of such special moves that are ready to be discovered.

While interesting, beginners can start out by simply playing the game. These clever strategies are there to be discovered once players get more advanced. The point is: there is always more to learn in chess. And that process can certainly take a dedicated player multiple decades.


5. Mastering Chess Can Take Over 10 Years

To quote author Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers, “it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills and materials“. Chess is a classic example of a complex skill that takes over 10,000 hours to master. While some players can achieve chess grandmaster status in 10 years, others will work towards that goal their entire waking life.


Chess is a perfect example of a complex skill that can take over 10,000 hours to master.


Much like any skill in life, that journey will start with a single step. Explain the rules of chess to a young child, and they’ll have a lifetime of learning ahead of them. If they choose to go that path. Mastering a craft takes dedication and heaps of motivated effort, after all.

Perfecting a skill or craft is a process. Often, that process will take a lifetime. Chess is one of those skills that will tickle the brain long enough to remain interesting for a very long time. The barrier to entry is as low as learning the basic chess rules. After that, the sky is the limit. So take up the challenge and start playing that ‘easy’ chess match, so you’ll eventually be able to challenge the grandmasters.

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