The 5 Best Ways to Get Better at Chess

How to get better at chessChess is a competitive game and those who play it like to win. But it’s not always so easy when your opponent is hell-bent on winning too. If you want to win more games, more tournaments, more prizes and perhaps become a titled player, you need to be constantly improving.

But how? It’s a running joke that many chess players spend more time asking “what should I do to get better at chess” than they do actually training! And with the seemingly infinite number of suggestions out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and never actually start.

Now first off let me say that doing anything is better than doing nothing. If you want to practice the Knight’s tour daily, it’s not going to harm your chess… but your time could be spent better elsewhere.

The purpose of this post is to give you the 5 best (most efficient) ways to get better at chess. Don’t expect any massive secrets – you’ve probably heard all of them before. But do know that, if you take action and spend your time on these 5 things, you’ll get better at chess much quicker than if you do anything else.

Ok, let’s begin:

1. Analyse your own games

No doubt about it, analysing your own games is the quickest way to get better at chess. I know this from personal experience but let’s listen to what Garry Kasparov has to say:

By strictly observing Botvinnik’s rule regarding the thorough analysis of one’s own games, with the years I have come to realize that this provides the foundation for the continuous development of chess mastery.

Why is analysis of your own games so effective?

  1. You’re practicising all the skills you need in a real game. Sure, you can take more time and you can take moves back. You can see what works, what doesn’t and work your way back to find out why. But everything you notice will be something that will help you in your future games.
  2. You learn all about your personal strengths and weaknesses including mistakes that you consistently make. If you notice that you often start an attack without proper preparation or you underestimate your opponent’s Queenside pressure, these are things you can work on. On the flipside,if you notice that you tend to come out on top in complicated tactical positions, you might purposefully choose sharper moves in your games.
  3. You’re learning more about the positions you actually find yourself in. If you play the Sicilian Defence exclusively, you’re going to get a better return from your training looking at those positions than, say, Caro-Kann formations.
  4. You’re studying a whole game – not just the opening, middlegame or endgame – and learning something new about each phase.

2. Practice, practice, practice.

This means playing more games. How many you play is a personal decision but, if you want to get better at chess as quickly as possible, I recommend playing as many games as you can at 100% concentration. For some people this might be 1 a week; for others it might be 10. The number doesn’t matter so much, everyone is different. What is important is you are putting in your very best effort for every move of every game (or, at least, aiming for this ideal).

Referring back to point #1, analysing your own games, it’s best not to play more games than you have time to analyse. Get the balance right and you’ll have a beautiful cycle of study and practice, constantly eliminating weaknesses, building on your strengths and testing your strength on the battlefield.

A note: blitz games don’t count, bullet games don’t count, chess variant games don’t count. Not if your aim is to get better at classical chess, anyway.

3. Study the endgame

No, don’t run away! It’s not that scary, I promise! It’s fair to say a lot of chess players find the endgame boring and I understand why. Learning theoretical endings can be tedious. But I’m not talking about that (although there are a number that you really do need to know).

I’m talking about practical endgames, which normally revolve around promoting a pawn, winning material or perhaps even delivering mate.

“In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else,  for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame” – Jose Raul Capablanca

By analysing some famous endgames, you’ll learn a ton of surprising tactics (the endgame is full of them), game-winning strategies and, perhaps most importantly, how to coordinate your pieces. It stands to reason that if you can’t handle 3 pieces well, you’re not going to do great with 16!

You’ll also add to your ‘database’ of pattern recognition. A simple example being if your opponent has an isolated pawn, you know you can trade pieces, attack the pawn, force their King to stay defending it while you march your own pawns to promotion.

4. Train tactics

Nearly all chess decisions involve some level of calculation and improving this skill is perhaps the fastest way to get better at chess. So why have I put this at #4? Mainly because all of the above involve practicing calculation anyway!

The major benefit of training tactics on their own is to save time. If you’ve only got 10 minutes spare, you haven’t got enough time to do the 3 recommendations above – but you can solve a few tactics.

I really recommend solving tactics daily, even if it’s only a few. Every day off blunts your tactical ability. And make sure you give it 100% – no guessing, no “this looks ok”. Calculate everything, look for the strongest responses and try to find problems with your move. When you’re sure you’ve found the right idea, play it. Of course, this applies to your thinking during games too.

Want to solve some tactics now? Click here and solve the 500+ on this site!

5. Healthy body, healthy mind – exercise!

I almost left this off as it’s not strictly chess related – but it makes such a huge difference to your performance, it would be wrong not to mention it.

Chess requires concentration and a lot of tiring mental work. You need energy, you need to be getting oxygen to your brain and exercise is the way to improve this. It’s no coincidence that top-level chess, despite not being a physical sport as such, is dominated by young, healthy players.

Avoid heavy meals before playing, take a walk, stretch, do some deep breathing. These are things most people can do regardless of physical shape. Of course, the fitter you are, the more you do, the greater the benefit.

You’ll stay alert longer and find it’s your opponents who blunder on move 40 instead of you.

So there you go – the top 5 ways to get better at chess. Sure, you’ll hear a million others: read this or that book, study openings, analyse a complex position for 20 minutes and so on. But if you want the biggest bang for your buck, do the above.

Make a commitment to yourself, decide what you’re going to do to get better at chess and how often. Keep it realistic – very few people can manage 3 hours a day. Perhaps you can only commit to 2 study sessions of 1 hour each per week. That’s fine. Steady progress is better than doing nothing (and trying to do too much usually ends up as doing nothing).

Good luck with your chess improvement!

 

 

 

Hou Yifan and the Bizarre 5 Move Loss

Hou Yifan 5 Move Loss GibraltarWomen’s World Champion Hou Yifan (2644 Elo) played a shocking game in the final round of the Tradewise Gibraltar chess tournament, resigning after just 5 moves – the quickest loss by a Grandmaster.

Of more interest was just how bad those 5 moves were and why she played them.

Playing White against Indian GM Babu Lalith (2584), Hou Yifan opened with the rarely seen 1.g4. GM Lalith calmly played 1…d5 then came the shocking 2.f3?? Note that if Babu had played 1…e5, this would lead to Fool’s Mate with 2…Qh4#

Sensing something strange was going on, GM Lalith played 2…e5, Hou Yifan made a flight square for her King with 3.d3 and Black checked with his Queen on h4. Already, this is a winning advantage for Black – one a GM would easily convert.


2 more moves and Hou Yifan resigned. Obviously she had played these terrible moves intentionally – but why?

After the game we found out. Hou Yifan was annoyed with what she viewed as disrespectful pairings – she had faced 7 women in 10 rounds, a statistically unlikely event given the majority of participants were male.

However, Hou Yifan’s fears were misplaced. All of the pairings were made by a computer based on the usual factors: previous results, rating, colours played and so on. There was no bias; there was no conspiracy.

Hou Yifan apologised for her protest – an action that seems quite out of character for a popular, normally calm player.

This bizarre incident gives us a new record (the previous quickest loss by a Grandmaster was by Viswanathan Anand, incredibly, who resigned after just 6 moves after dropping a piece in his 1988 game against GM Alonso Zapata) and a hypothetical question: would Hou Yifan have played 2.f3 if GM Babu Lalith had played 1…e5?

 

Instructive Rook Endgames: Nakamura – Giri

NakamuraGiriHikaru Nakamura and Anish Giri played out an instructive Rook endgame at the Grand Chess Tour Paris Blitz event this year.

Material is level but Nakamura (White) has his Rook ideally placed behind his pawn and his King is helping out too.

Nevertheless, this is a drawn position. Only 1 move gets the draw however, the other 21 lose.

Anish Giri chose 68…Rb8 covering the promotion square – and lost.

This position isn’t really about stopping the a-pawn. White will get it to a7, Black must play …Ra8 then White brings his King to b7. Black is going to have to give up his Rook for the pawn eventually. The question is “will Black be able to do anything with his pawn?”

NakamuraGiri2Let’s see what happened in the game 69.a6 Kf6 70.a7 Ra8 71.Kb7 Rxa7+ 72.Kxa7 Ke5 (diagram)

Now there are many ways for White to win. He can cut off the King with 73.Ra4 forcing Black to protect the pawn, advance 1 square, protect… while White’s King races to help Kb6-c5-d4.

When the White King is close, the Rook goes behind the pawn (Ra8-g8) and the pieces combine to win it.

What Anish Giri should have played is 68…Rf5! with the idea of perpetually checking. Clearly f5 is the only square to operate from as here (and on f6/f7/f8) it is protected and it can’t go to the h-file as the Black King and pawn would get in the way.

NakamuraGiri3To stop the checks, the White King must go to e4 69.a6 Rf6+ 70.Kd5 Rf5+ 71.Ke4 Rf8 72.a7 Ra8. Now it’s going to take White 3 moves to get to b7, compared to 1 in the game. 73.Kd5 Kf6 74.Kc6 Ke5! (staying close to the pawn but making it tougher for the White King to get to d4) 75.Kb7 Rxa7+ 76.Kxa7 g5 (diagram).

Black has gained 1 tempo (pawn on g5 instead of g6) and it makes all the difference. 77.Ra4 Kf5 78.Kb6 g4 79.Kc5 g3 80.Kd4 g2 81.Ra1 Kf4 Draw (diagram).

Of course, you don’t need to calculate all this out in a game (and this was blitz). If you have a similar position as Giri where you’ll have to give up your Rook for a pawn, make your opponent use the maximum number of moves to do it!

You can use the extra tempi to carry out your own plan.

What did you think of this endgame? Any comments or questions? Leave them below!

The 5 people you meet in online blitz chess

BadLoserBlitz chess: fast, exciting and fun. Who cares if it doesn’t do much for your overall game? Blitz is about reactions, pattern recognition and speed of both thought and movement. As long as you don’t confuse it with actual chess training, go for it!

Play online chess enough, though, and you’ll surely meet a few recurring characters. I’ve listed some of the most familiar faces below. How many do you recognise?

All blitz, no chess
This guy has only one thing on his mind: keep making legal moves until your clock runs down. Pre-move features heavily so expect him to avoid conflict with 1…d6, 2…c6, 3…g6, 4…Bg7 and so on. In the endgame he’ll waltz his King around the board without a care in the world as you snaffle all his pawns… only to lose on time.

Thinks you’re Houdini
You’ve just beaten him with a sweet tactic – and he’s not happy about it.
“Go to hell, ****ing engine!”
He’s not interested when you point out you blundered away a pawn earlier, something our silicon friends would never do. Take this outburst as a sign you’re playing well.

Player has disconnected
You’ve already played 5 games and you’re leading 3-2. He’s desperate for revenge but when he meets your Bg5 with a pre-move 0-0 you capture his Queen. He disconnects. You have to wait 1 minute to auto-win.

Claims to know your mother
Upon realising your pawn will promote 2 moves before his will, this guy reacts rather oddly. No “good game, sir” here. Instead he claims to be intimately acquainted with your mum – on a regular basis.
Two things: one, you’re pretty sure your mum has never been to Kazakhstan and, two, she’s like 60, ewwww.

The Gentleman
Let’s end on a positive note with this character worthy of playing the Royal Game. Win or lose he reflects positively on the art you created with “gg” (good game). In a position completely even on the board but with you only having 3 seconds on the clock, he offers a draw. When you sac a Knight then a Rook to invade with your Queen and make mate inevitable, he resigns and declares “nice tactic!”
You like him. You become friends.

Who do you meet most often? Do you know any not mentioned here?

 

The 6 Types of Chess Player – Which one are you?

Yuri_AverbakhYuri Averbakh, Russian GM, author, endgame expert and currently the world’s oldest living GM at 93 (!), revealed in a 1997 interview in New in Chess that he placed chess players into 6 categories.

Here they are with his description of each and the names of some famous examples (as given by Yuri).

  1. The Killers – “players who are, figuratively speaking, trying to kill their opponent. As a rule, the main definition of a killer is a man who was raised without a father.”
    1. Fischer
    2. Botvinnik
    3. Korchnoi
  2. The Fighters – “They try to win with all means, but it’s not necessary to kill. ”
    1. Kasparov
    2. Bronstein (“He tries to pose as an artist. Maybe he has something of the artist but his main strength is that of the fighter.”)
  3. The Sportsmen – “For them chess is a sport like any other kind of sport. They are normal people, but when they play it is for them just like any other sport.”
    1. Spassky
    2. Keres
    3. Capablanca
  4. The Gamblers – “He wants to play any game.”
    1. Karpov
  5. The Artist – “For whom not only the result is important.”
    1. Simagin
    2. Rossolimo
    3. Zukertort
  6. The Expolorer
    1. Averbakh
    2. Nimzowitsch
    3. Rubinstein
    4. Fine

” Of course, not everyone fits just in one category. For instance, Tal had something of both the fighter and the artist. Karpov and Kasparov also have some killer characteristics, but not as strongly as Botvinnik.”

Nakamura beats Bareev in 11 moves as Black!

An interesting miniature occurred at the Millionaire Chess tournament recently. The game was a rapid tiebreak between Evgeny Bareev (2669) and Hikaru Nakamura (2812).

The position shown was reached after Bareev tried to capitalize on the undefended h5 Knight with the ill-fated 8.Ne5?

BareevNakamura

Nakamura promptly took the Knight 8…Nxe5 but after 9.Qxh5 (9.dxe5? Qb4+ 10.Nd2 Qxh4) 9…Ng4! White’s Queen found herself embarrassingly short of squares.

The game continued 10.Bg3? (10.Bd3 was required to meet any …g6 ideas with Bxg6) 10…g6 11.Qh4 Bg7, Bareev had to resign.

The simple threat of 12…Bf6 13.Qh3 Nxe3 trapping the Queen was too much.

Bobby Fischer: Icelandic Kibitzer!

In 2006, the Icelandic TV station Ríkisútvarpið RUV broadcast a rapid match between masters Arnar Gunnarson and Bragi Thorfinsson  in which the position below was reached.

FischerCombination

Gunnarson, playing Black and short of time, picked up his King before noticing the move would get him mated. He replaced his King and tried to play a Queen move instead but his opponent and the arbiter enforced the touchmove rule, resulting in 37…Kg8?? 38.Qxg8#

This was a blitz playoff game and these events are common enough. What happened next, however, was certainly not common.

The TV station received a call from a viewer suggesting that in the pictured position, Black could have won the game with a brilliant combination. The name of the caller? Bobby Fischer!

Iceland was Fischer’s adopted home from 2005 until his death in 2008 and it is clear that Bobby retained at least some of his love for chess.

The combination?

37…Rxg2+! 38.Kh1 (38.Kxg2 Rg4+ 39.Kh2 Qg2#) 38…Rh4!! 39.Nxh4 (best) Rxf2+ 40.Nf3 Rxf1+ 41.Kh2 Rxf3.

Wesley So and the forfeit

Wesley-So-300x168

In the ninth round of the US Chess Championships 2015 Wesley So was spectacularly and controversially forfeited after just 6 moves for writing notes on a sheet of paper. This incident brought a lot of other things to light, some of which might explain why his performance had not been as strong as expected at this Championships.

Why was he forfeited? FIDE rules state that only the moves and certain other information related to the game may be written down on the scoresheet. For instance, players can write down how much time they have used/have left after a move and to mark when the time control is. However, writing the move down before playing it is not allowed (although used to be) and neither is reading ‘notes’. It was the latter category that Wesley’s misdemeanor fell into. He has a habit of writing reminders to himself during games. This one was to check variations 2 or 3 times. Previous reminders had been about using all his time and not getting up from the board during the game. Does this give Wesley an advantage during a game? It must help him or he wouldn’t feel the need to do it and he is giving himself good advice but I doubt anyone would see it as being such an unfair advantage as if he had Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual open in front of him.

However, the rule is in place and Wesley So had been warned about his note-taking twice in previous rounds. Indeed, he had been told that doing it again would result in him forfeiting his game. In this round, So decided to write on a separate sheet of paper believing that he was getting around the rule by not writing on his scoresheet. This was not the case however. His opponent, Akobian, brought the matter to the attention of the arbiter who promptly awarded Akobian a win with just 6 moves on the board.

Should Wesley have been forfeited? I think so. He had been warned in this tournament and others (the Millionaire Chess Open, which he won) and, according to Paul Truong, his former coach and husband of Susan Polgar, constantly whilst he was at Webster University. The arbiter had other options available to him than forfeiting So, however if a player is forfeited for their mobile phone going off, for arriving an hour late or for refusing to shake hands before a game, this keeps everything in line.

Was Akobian looking to score an easy win? He claimed that the note-taking was “distracting”. Anyone who plays OTB chess will know there are far more distracting things that opponents do, unwittingly or not. Coughing, rocking a chair, constantly “J’adoube”-ing , drinking noisily and so on. Writing one small note would not be any more distracting than writing the moves down so I don’t believe this. I am sure Akobian knew that reporting the incident would get him a win as he would have known about the prior warnings. Akobian also happened to be on the appeals committee which, although he wouldn’t sit if So appealed, might have given his complaint some more weight with the arbiter. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Akobian did it just to get the win. He might have been irritated by Wesley’s constant breach of the rules and wanted to do something about it. Perhaps tellingly, Akobian remarked that the incident might do So some good and that everybody needed to respect the rules, even the top players. So has since said that Akobian is no longer his friend and that he just wanted a free point.

This controversy brought another story to the front, one of Wesley So being hassled and pressured by various parties including his own family and ex-coaches at Webster University. So had disappointed family and coaches alike by leaving Webster to concentrate on being a chess professional after winning the Millionaire Open. It does seem that he has had a lot to deal with and that this affected his overall play at the Championships. The whole story relating to this can be read here.

I had tipped Wesley to win this US Championships ahead of the favourite Nakamura but this tournament has not gone well for him and there is surely a number of reasons for that, many not his fault whatsoever and we can feel a degree of sympathy for him. However, with regards to this incident, after being warned twice before, he can only blame himself. Honestly, I cannot imagine any amateur player ignoring warnings and getting forfeited. Wesley So is an excellent chess player and I hope that he comes back much stronger but he would do well to consider all elements of being a professional.

I am happy to say that Wesley So scored a fine win as Black over Gata Kamsky in round 10.

Missing ideas when calculating.

I had a couple of games this week that saw me miss things during calculation. Fairly simple things that should have been seen. The problem wasn’t one of awareness, ie. not looking for tactics, I found some ideas but missed others. The interesting thing for me is the thought process that blinded me to these other possibilities.

HorrocksWardThis is the position from the first game. I am Black and my opponent has just played 14. Qg4 and I found an interesting line with 14…Nf6 15. Qxg7 Bxh2+! 16. Kh1 (to avoid a Knight fork in a couple of moves) 16…Rg8 17. Qh6 Ng4 18. Qxh7 Qg5

 

 

 

 

HorrocksWard219. f4 what I expected but it is actually a slight mistake. White is going to force the Queens off and lift the Rook to h3 via f3 to defend against any h-file attack. The f4 pawn also stops the Bh2 getting to safety so I thought I’d have to let the 2 minor pieces go for the Rook with good compensation because of the open files and being able to double my Rooks as well as White’s undeveloped Knight and Queen’s Rook. After looking at this the next moves were played quite quickly. 19…Qg7 20. Qxg7 Rxg7 21. Rf3 Rh7 22. Rh3

 

HorrocksWard323…Nf2+? 24. Kxh2 Nxh3 25. gxh3 Kd7 followed by Rah8 and winning the h-pawn. The game was drawn on move 47.

There is better in the diagram however. 23…Rxh3! 24. gxh3 Nxe3 and White can’t take the h2 Bishop because Nc2 would win the Rook! Not too difficult to see but I had decided that I was going to lose the Bishop and so was satisfied when I saw a line where I got good play for a 1 point material deficit. When I reached this position, I played Nf2+ immediately, oblivious to the better continuation.

WardWalmsleyIn the second game, I am White and have just played 12. Qg3 which threatens to win the exchange and does after 12…Nd7? (12…Kh8 is necessary) 13. Bh6 Bf6 (my opponent played this quickly and had seen that he could defend g7 adequately) 14. Nxf6 (14. Nf4! is even better) Qxf6 15. Bg5 Qf5 16. Be7 forking Rook and the loose Knight on b4.

 

 

WardWalmsley316…Nxc1? taking a pawn and attacking my a1 Rook. I had looked at this and, knowing I was winning material, decided that I had a choice of moves. I could play Rc1, Black would move the Knight and then I’d capture the Rook on f8 or I could take the Rook immediately which I did 17. Bxf8? the point being that 17…Nxa1?? fails to 18. Qxg7#. However, 17. Rc1! wins the Knight as it has no safe squares to move to! A simple move but I was so sure I was going to capture the Rook and could do so immediately that I didn’t look at Rc1 properly. 17…Rxc8? natural but tactically wrong. 18. Rac1 Nb4 and now another mistake.

 

WardWalmsley419. Qc7? (I’ll let you find the best move) I’d seen this possibility a long time ago and saw that it would force Black’s pieces into a horrible formation after 19…Bc8 which it did and I won fairly comfortably.

If I had looked at this position ‘with fresh eyes’ I would have found the best move but, having had the Qc7 idea in my mind for a while, I didn’t try to find anything better. We might be reminded of Emanuel Lasker’s “When you see a good move, look for a better one” which is apt but the bigger issue for me was an automatic following of my previous idea, instead of looking at the position afresh.

The hope is that by being aware of this issue in the thinking process I won’t make the same mistake again.