Why Is Chess So Hard?

Chess is one of those games that is easy to learn but hard to master.

It takes less than an hour to learn the rules and start playing. But it can take more than 10 years to really become good at it.

And there are a lot of people that have played chess for over 20 years and are still far from mastering the game.

Let’s take a look at 10 reasons why chess is so hard.

1. Piece movement

Each player starts the game with 16 pieces: 8 pawns, 2 rooks, 2 bishops, 2 knights, a king, and a queen.

This means that there are 6 unique pieces in chess, and each of them move differently.

Remembering how each piece moves will be the first hurdle you will have to overcome as a beginner.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to memorize the movement patterns. Especially the knight can be a tricky piece to master, since it moves in a strange L-shaped pattern and is the only piece that can jump over other pieces.

And besides learning the basic movement rules, there are also a few special rules such as castling, taking en passant, and pawn promotion that you need to know as well!

All in all, it can take a while to learn the basic rules of the game.

2. Opening theory

People have been playing the modern version of chess for several centuries by now. And although the game hasn’t been solved, people have definitely come to a consensus on which opening moves are good and bad.

Learning and memorizing a chess opening takes a lot of time, since there are so many side lines and small differences in move order.

Strong grandmasters can easily play up to 15 moves of opening preparation. And even average chess players normally know at least the first 10 moves of each opening they play.

On top of that, you don’t always have full control on which opening you’ll play, because it also depends on your opponent’s response. So you’ll have to learn several openings from both the white and black side.

An example of an opening that someone might memorize.

If you are not sure which opening to study first, I recommend you take a look at my articles on king’s pawn openings and queen’s pawn openings

3. Pattern recognition

Every chess game you will play will be different, because there are just so many different moves you and your opponent can play.

However, that doesn’t mean that you will have to come up with a completely new and brilliant plan or tactic on every single move.

Pattern recognition is a large part of playing chess.

An experienced player can look at a completely new position and still give a pretty accurate estimate of which player is better in the position.

This is why a strong player can beat weaker players even with very little time on the clock.

Unfortunately, it takes a long time to improve your pattern recognition.

But if you play enough games, you will eventually be able to recognize simple tactics, bad pawns structures, checkmate patterns, etc. within seconds.

A simple checkmating pattern any strong player would recognize quickly.

4. Visualization

Although pattern recognition is very useful, you can’t completely escape having to calculate long and complex move sequences from time to time.

You can either visualize the chess board and all the pieces in your head, or you can image the pieces moving on the board without actually touching them.

Regardless, you need to be able to visualize and calculate many moves ahead if you want to outsmart your opponent.

And besides a lot of practices, there isn’t a lot you can do to improve your visualization and calculation skills.

To come up with a good plan in the middlegame, you’ll have to consider many moves to find the best option.

5. Creative thinking

So you remembered a chess opening and decided to play it. But on the 8th move, your opponent decides to play the a pawn to a5 instead of a6.

This small change might not seem very important to beginners. But experienced chess players know that every small difference can alter the course of the game.

Perhaps your opponent’s move created new weaknesses that you can attack, maybe the pawn move is the beginning of a pawn storm, or maybe you need to change the way you’ll develop your pieces now.

In chess, you’ll often have to use your creative thinking to come up with a plan, since no two games of chess are the same.

And the tricky part is that your opponent’s have their own plans you need to prevent, and often your opponent is actively trying to sabotage your plans as well!

Having to find the best way to deal with all these small positional differences and an opponent that is actively trying to make your life hard are just another reason why chess is so hard.

Black has slightly deviated from standard opening theory, and it’s up to white to find the best plan to highlight this weakness.

6. Positional play

Besides the rigorous calculations that some concrete positions require, you also need to know how to slow down and play around your small positional advantages.

It’s difficult to get a good grasp of chess strategy, because it involves many conflicting concepts that you all have to balance throughout the game.

Moreover, finding a weakness in your opponent’s position and figuring out a way to use it to your advantage often takes many moves.

A good example is the knight vs bishop imbalance. Both pieces are equally strong, but require types of positions to really shine.

But it’s not really possible to give a simple rule that tells you exactly how to win with a bishop against a knight. There is just a long list of ideas and rules of thumb that you can use to get the better position.

Knowing how to dominate your opponent’s bishop with your knight or vice versa is a true sign of a strong chess player.

Endgames with all pieces on one side of the board favor the knight, but white still needs a lot of positional finesse to turn this positional advantage into a victory.

7. Time pressure

Almost all games nowadays are played with a chess clock. This is to make sure that neither player spends too much time during a game.

Depending on the time control, you can have just a few minutes up to several hours per game. But most tournament games are at least 90 minutes per person.

This might sound like a long time. But once you find yourself in a difficult position and you aren’t sure what to do, you burn through your time a lot faster than you might expect.

So time control is also an important part of the game. You want to take enough time to find the best move in the position, but you don’t want to lose by running out of time either.

Even some super grandmasters are well known for their bad time management. So no matter how good you become, time pressure will always be a problem.

An analogue chess clock used to keep track of the time used by each player.

8. Physical exertion

Physical exhaustion might not be the first thing that comes to mind when listing all the reasons why chess is so difficult.

But anyone that is familiar with playing classical time controls knows how taxing chess can be.

Chess games can easily last for 3 to 5 hours. And during most of that time you will be sitting still behind the chess board calculation possible moves.

Focussing for such long periods at once is both physically and mentally difficult.

It’s not surprising that chess players can burn thousands of calories just by playing the game.

Two chess players focussing on the game.

9. Learning from mistakes

Another reason why chess is so difficult is because it’s difficult to learn from your mistakes.

You probably know that you should write down all your moves, so you can analyze and learn from them afterwards.

But unless you blundered a piece by overlooking a simple tactic, it’s normally very difficult to pinpoint exactly which move lost you the game.

You often need the help from a stronger player that can explain where you went wrong and what to do instead.

But it’s not easy to find someone willing to help you on a regular basis, and hiring a private tutor can be quite expansive.

Using a chess engine can be useful to find concrete lines, but these engines can’t really tell you why to make certain moves or what was wrong with yours.

A chess engine is analyzing a game and showing the best candidate moves.

10. Your opponent

Maybe I should have started off with this, but the biggest reason why chess is so difficult is that you are playing a two player game, and your opponent wants to win just as badly as you.

You’ll often see how all your ingenious plans come crumbling down because your opponent manages to play the only move you did not want him to play.

Since the board and all the pieces on it are symmetrical when you start the game, you can only win the game if your opponent makes a mistake.

Similarly, you can’t really force an advantage. If you are playing against a good player, you’ll often have to sacrifice something to get what you want.

How to get better at chess

Although I just gave you 10 reasons why chess is so hard, I don’t want you to get the impression that chess is impossible to learn or only for super smart people.

With enough time and practice, anyone can learn how to play chess and become a good player.

The problem is that most people don’t have a lot of time available or don’t want to dedicate a whole lifetime trying to master the game.

But to get you started, here are 15 quick tips to help you play better and win more games:

That’s a lot of things to keep in mind for your next chess match. You can read my article on how to win at chess, where I go into more detail for each bullet point.

Or if you keep losing, you can also read my article called “Why am I so bad at chess“, which might highlight some weaknesses you should work on to become a better player.