This article is not about improving your tactical vision, your depth of theoretical knowledge or your understanding of positional elements or chess strategy. It is not about improving your chess ability at all – it is about improving your ability to win.
It is natural, and good, for chess enthusiasts to seek improvement in their play but many do not consider how well they are translating their current level into results. A player could have Grandmaster level ability but they will never attain that title if they offer a draw on move 12 of every game! Ok, that is an extreme example, but this is a very important area that is often neglected by students of the game.
If you have ever found yourself saying something like, “I could have won that game but… fell into time trouble/left a piece hanging/felt tired and so accepted a draw” or any other excuse then addressing this part of your game will probably have a quicker and bigger positive impact on your results and rating than any theory book you might find.
The first step to improving your results is to take responsibility for them. There are no excuses on the chessboard. It may feel better to console yourself after a loss with thoughts of how you are a much stronger player than your opponent and that they were just lucky but that kind of thinking is detrimental to your progress. As Tartakower famously said, “It is not enough to be a good player; you must also play well.”
A thorough examination must be made of the non-chess reasons for your mistakes. This will typically take into account your physical and emotional states, mental capabilities (for instance, concentration) and your ability to cope with the environment. Whilst you may not have intended to make them, blunders especially cannot be dismissed as “one of those things” – the root cause needs to be identified.
If you were too tired to press for the win then that is a sign that you need to work on your energy levels by improving your physical fitness, reducing stress or practising intense mental activity more regularly.
If you played superbly for 40 moves then left a piece hanging and had to resign a move later, then you need to form the habit of checking the safety of your pieces with every move. If your game deteriorates when you get close to time control, then you need to practice time management.
Be aware of how much time you have per move and be more efficient in your use of time. With regard to this, Botvinnik recommended thinking about generalities of the position when it was the opponent’s move and calculating variations when it came to his turn.
Take the approach that you get the results that you deserve. You will find it both helpful and liberating.
The next step is to play for the win. Chess players have a tendency to be competitive but there are certainly large differences in the intensity of that desire to win, and many players overestimate theirs. To put it another way, the winner in a match is often the player who wanted the victory that little bit more than his or her opponent. You should be that player!
There may be special circumstances where settling for a draw is understandable: your team only needs half a point to win a critical match or the draw will guarantee you first place in a tournament. And if it is impossible to win for reasons on the chess board then a draw is the right result.
Where a win is possible and desirable, however, it must be pressed for with all your might. There are many benefits to this. You might learn a valuable chess lesson in the remainder of the game that gives you countless victories in the future. You will strengthen your confidence and belief in yourself. After all, if you did not want to win, why play in the first place? Always playing to win will see you develop a reputation as a fearsome competitor and rightly so.
A lot of players develop the fear of losing and see a draw as a more acceptable result, especially if they have hang-ups about the effect on their rating or reputation. Some are scared when they player higher-rated opponents and are happy to leave the board undefeated, others are scared of their rating taking a hit if they lose to somebody with a lower rating. Forget about ratings and play the strongest chess that you can at all times. If there is still plenty to play for in a position then continue. Invest in yourself!
The great champion Kasparov says in his interview with Google (available to watch online) that the recognition that failure is, at some point, inevitable can boost our confidence and performance by freeing us from the fear of losing. As serious chess improvers should be looking to compete against those stronger than themselves as often as possible, defeats will be commonplace enough to help us lose the fear of them.
It is important in a battle on the chessboard to push for the win with every move. This does not, of course, mean playing recklessly, rather that we improve our pieces and position with every turn, increasing the pressure at all times even if it is only psychological pressure.
There is a great comment by Mikhail Tal after a game Bobby Fischer won from a theoretically drawn position where he says “Fischer has an amazing character! For example, I (and not only I) would not have played on this endgame, regardless of the overall score – it would have been a pure waste of time. But Fischer plays on to the bare kings!” Bobby Fischer’s drive to win was rewarded with phenomenal results including 11-0 in the US Championship of 1963/4 and 6-0 victories over both Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen in the Candidates Tournaments of 1971. In today’s game, Magnus Carlsen is known for maximising his results. In the recent “60 minutes” TV interview, Frederic Friedel of chessbase says of him: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player win so many drawn positions as Magnus”.
Each half-point must be fought for. If your opponent is to leave the chessboard with any of your points then they must prove that they deserve it.
Seek and play the strongest move you can at every turn and play until there is no further advantage to play for.
The final piece of advice is based on the famous phrase, “Practice makes perfect”. It is useful to consider it another way: we perfect what we practice. For instance, many players find it fun to engage in blitz games as a casual, less intensive alternative to regular chess. There is nothing wrong with this apart from the fact that the time spent playing these games is improving your ability at blitz chess and decreasing your ability at regular chess. If you intend on being a blitz or rapidplay tournament player, then this is good use of your time, otherwise it would be better to focus on practicing that which you seek to perfect. This view is one shared by Fischer (“blitz chess kills ideas” ) and Kramnik (“playing rapid chess, one can lose the habit of concentrating for several hours in serious chess. That is why, if a player has big aims, he should limit his rapidplay in favour of serious chess.”)
This thought about what you practice applies to far more than blitz chess. Do you play against mainly weaker players? You are perfecting being able to beat weaker players! Do you play certain openings more often? Do you find that you go for kingside attacks constantly or seek positional play? Open games, transposing to endgames… whatever it is that you do most often and with most attention is the area that you will improve. Now compare what you do most often to those areas that you know you need to improve to progress.
It is important to analyse all the information that you have about your games. Your performance with each colour, in each opening, in each phase of the game and discover where your real strengths and weaknesses lie. Substitute practice in the areas that you feel most comfortable in for the practice in the areas that are costing you most points. Deliberately seeking to play in a way that does not come as easily to you will almost certainly lead to inferior results in the short-term but will strengthen your confidence and results immeasurably over time. It makes sense to seek this play in games of lesser significance, perhaps online games, before competitive, over-the-board games.
So, there you have it: the 3 recommendations to improving your ability to win:
- Take responsibility for your results.
- Play your strongest chess until there is no further advantage to play for.
- Improve the weakest aspect of your game by practising it continually.