Fabiano Caruana is the No. 2–ranked chess player in the world. Fourteen years ago, he became the youngest American grandmaster, at age 14, beating a record set by chess legend Bobby Fischer. Still, the St. Louis–based Caruana—who trails Norway’s Magnus Carlsen by just 41 points—insists that he’s a pretty normal guy. “I like movies and sports, and I’m not a genius . . . plenty of people have the same skill level or ability as me,” he says. He credits his success to a strict training regimen and a strong work ethic. Here’s how he keeps his mental tools sharp enough to stay one of the best in the royal game.
Practice Makes Perfect
Caruana’s parents signed him up for a chess club in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when he was 5 years old. “I was having some disciplinary problems at school, and they thought this could help,” he says. After his coach noticed his potential, he began taking private lessons and competing in tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club, in Manhattan. Now, beginners can train on their own. “There’s really great open-source software, so practicing at a high level is very accessible to people,” he says, adding that “the next few generations will be stronger than my generation because of that.” As chess players gain a following on Twitch, he hopes that more kids will pick up the game (see below). However, he says, “there are some practical skills that you get from years of playing in tournaments, like learning how to play in front of people and assess your opponent sitting in front of you, that you can’t get in front of a screen.” For Caruana, embracing the game involved some personal sacrifices, including being homeschooled after age 12 in order to devote more time to tournaments.
Lean on Someone You Trust
Prior to every match, Caruana studies the way his opponents play, looking at their moves from previous competitions on an online database. For help, he works with a chess coach, who “helps me come up with a strategy for how to start my games” and often offers “a different perspective on how to approach a problem, which is really valuable.” Caruana also relies on a coach for emotional support during tournaments. “You want a coach that you click with. It’s a personal thing,” he says, explaining that “it’s hard to talk about a tough chess game with friends, because they may not understand [the game] at such a high level, and they may not understand how tough it is for me emotionally. When I need to complain or talk to someone, I talk to my coach.” Though he has made friends with other players and spends time with them on the circuit, he admits that it can be tough to get close to people he is constantly competing with. Outside of practicing chess, Caruana says it’s important for him to train physically—he plays tennis regularly—and decompress, which he does by watching movies. “When you play chess for hours at a time, it’s easy to be mentally exhausted, and you actually burn a lot of calories playing. It’s important to have an outlet for all the stress, and to do things where you don’t think about chess at all.”
Reframe Your Perspective
According to Caruana, the difference between the very top players in the world and everyone else doesn’t come down to ability or knowledge. “It’s a concentration thing,” he says. “It’s having the ability and the stamina to focus for a long period of time.” Although playing in front of an audience doesn’t bother him—he has, after all, been competing since he was 6—Caruana says that developing a winning mindset is key, especially after facing setbacks. “When you’re defending a bad position [on the board], it’s not fun. I get depressed. But you have to realize that your opponent could also make a mistake,” he says. He has developed several strategies to change his outlook when he’s in a tough spot. For instance, “If I feel like I’m fighting for something, it’s easier. I can decide to consider a draw a victory. I can also decide to make it as hard as possible for my opponent to finish off the game. I have to realize that I still have a chance.”