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!

 

 

 

The Kotov Training Method

Alexander_Kotov_1967aAlexander Kotov (1913-1981) was a strong GM (twice a candidate for the title) and celebrated chess author with his most famous book being “Think Like A Grandmaster”. In this book, Kotov gives advice on how to think in chess, when and what to analyse, how to reduce blunders and so on.

Also in “Think Like A Grandmaster”, Kotov gives his training method, one that is credited with greatly increasing his playing strength. It is based around analysis of positions.

 

  • First find a position to analyse, ideally one that is analysed in detail in a book (of course, close the book when finding the position, you do not want to be influenced!) This could be any position, from an opening, complicated or quiet middlegame position or an endgame.
  • Think about the position for a set amount of time, perhaps 20/30/60 minutes, without moving the pieces. Write down your thoughts in variations with as much analysis as possible.
  • At the end of a variation, write down your evaluation of a position. This could be in words (“White is winning”, “White has a winning endgame due to his protected passed pawn”), computer evaluation (“+3”) or symbol “+-“.
  • When the time is up, compare your notes to those in the book. This will show any differences between your perception of a position and those of the author (presumably a strong player).

Analysis can also be checked with a computer for accuracy, although this might not give you the understanding that a book might in some positions.

This training method will enhance your understanding of positions, your knowledge and, greatly, your skill at analysing.

If you would like a position to analyse right now, here’s one from Kasparov – Kramnik, Dos Hermanas, 1996. It is Black’s move.

 

KaspKram“Like Dvoretsky, I think that (all other things being equal), the analytical method of studying chess must give you a colossal advantage over the chess pragmatist, and that there can be no certainty in chess without analysis.” – Garry Kasparov

“Analysis is a glittering opportunity for training: it is just here that capacity for work, perseverence and stamina are cultivated, and these qualities are, in truth, as necessary to a chess player as a marathon runner.”  – Lev Polugaevsky

“It is not possible to become a great player without having learned how to analyse deeply and accurately.” – Mark Dvoretsky

“Chess mastery essentially consists of analyzing chess positions accurately.”  –  Mikhail Botvinnik

Yasser Seirawan on chess improvement

Yasser SeirawanPlay stronger players and learn from your losses

“I really feel that the more you play, the better you get. I think that everyone has to realise that you have to lose about ten thousand games before you can become a good player. I know that I became a good player when I started losing well. In other words, the games weren’t a wipeout. I was showing resistance and both my opponent and I had actually played a good game.”

“You really need to be allowed to play those stronger than yourself so you can pick up ideas and see what their motivations are at the chessboard. I would say expand your circle to meet much stronger players.”

Studying chess

“I don’t like to work when I’m tired. I want to come to my study period in the same way that you come from the shower, fresh. This way I’m ready to burst out and absorb information. I also need to feel physically, emotionally and mentally in shape, so for the next five hours or so I can have a good study session. My sessions are usually fairly long as I don’t absorb enough in short periods. I also like to arrange my day so that I won’t be disturbed.”

[Talking about studying with a friend of his] “We studied the Sicilian Najdorf for two weeks and we knew it inside out. We were literally boarding the plane to go when we discovered a major flaw in a crucial line and we were heartbroken. I thought we had wasted our time, but James said:” Yasser, all study is good. Even if your analysis is bad, you’re still analysing and even if that line is bad, we still learned a hell of a lot about the Sicilian Najdorf.” That’s my basic philosophy of study. I want to have the feeling I’m enjoying it.

If I’m on my own I like to study whole games, especially games that players have annotated themselves. Not because I want to have all the answers or have everything laid out on a plate for me, but because I want to know what and how they think. What I do is take an incredibly negative approach to their annotation. Specifically, I think: “You’re wrong. I don’t care who you are, you’re wrong, that annotation doesn’t make any sense at all!” Then I try to prove that I’m right and they’re wrong. Again, supporting the theory that any analysis is good.”

Improving Analysis

Your skills are like individual muscles and you have to work the right ones. I find that with calculation comes the need to do blindfold work. In other words, if you start to think about analysis and calculation, you can’t move the pieces. So what I would say to you is that we’re not going to analyse, we’re not going to play blindfold, I’m going to read out moves to you and I want you to tell me how far you can hold the position until it becomes unclear. And the point is that if you’re able to mentally picture the clarity of the game, even if it gets complicated with sacrifices, then you’re going to improve. So, I believe that being able to play blindfold chess is a very important skill.

(Check out our “Chess Vision: Checkmate Edition” book for visualisation training)

Excerpted from “Interview with a Grandmaster”, Aaron & Claire Summerscale.

 

Chess Endgame Practice

Learning Endgame Theory is all well and good – being able to win won positions when it counts is better!

Copy this FEN into your engine: 8/4b2k/3p2p1/4n3/7r/1N6/1PP3PP/4R2K b – – 0 39
eg1
In this position, Black has a big advantage. Take the Black pieces and play it against your chess computer and see if you can win. Play it out until there is a result and make note of tactics, ideas and difficulties. If you don’t win, start over and see if you can do better.

If you struggle, start again but swap sides and see how the computer makes progress against your defence. It is useful to get an idea of both the attacking plan and the defensive plan.

 

Chess Improvement: Openings

Having trouble with an opening? There’s no need to buy a book on it and learn scores of variations.

Look over each of your games involving that opening and make a note of the problems that you ran into. Perhaps you didn’t know what the best square was for your Bishop or how to defend against a threat or positional pressure.

Now look up (on chessbase or chessgames.com) games in which top players won in that opening and see what they did. How did they meet each threat? Where did they put their pieces? What was there plan?

Doing this will help you understand the ideas behind the opening and see the actual moves that solve the problems. Understanding the plans is of great benefit as it will help you find alternative moves if necessary too.

Remember, don’t just follow the moves without thinking. If your opponent makes a different move you will need to consider what, if anything, has changed about the position and whether the plan is still valid. However, it is a quick way to real improvement in your opening play.

Chess Training: You don’t know until you do

“Chess cannot be taught. Chess can only be learned.” – Mikhail Botvinnik

A strange thing to say from the famed head of “the Botvinnik School”, members of which included Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik. 4 World Champions – one teaching, three learning – and yet “Chess cannot be taught”?

Kasparov Botvinnik

 

Chess instruction, whether from a personal coach or from a chess book, can be very useful as long as it’s seen for what it is: a guide.

Chess improvers can absorb all the theory they can get their hands on but as long as the theory stays as just a series of words that the student repeats is not useful. Good (useful) information needs to be understood and applied.

It is the change in behaviour, theory that is reflected in our chess moves and plans, that demonstrates true knowledge.

By all means, take in all the theory and ideas that you can, but take the time to practice it. Set up positions on the chess board and practice until you “get it”, really get it.

“The amateur practises until he gets it right. The master practises until he can’t get it wrong”.

A classic example in chess is that of training tactics. The player attempts a tactic, gets it wrong and checks the solution.

“Ah, I see it now”

But do they? Will they get all similar tactics correct? Will they spot them in their games?

How do you think they will perform versus the player who creates a set of similar tactics and practises them over and over?

Or in the review of a player’s games. Getting the chess computer to analyse it and point out that 24. Nxd4 was a mistake is not going to help much. Working out why and practising your new idea until it becomes natural and the obvious move that jumps out of you in similar positions will help… a lot.

So go through your chess books, jump between them all you like as long as you practice what you read until it becomes truly learned, until you find yourself doing it, everytime.
It is this work on yourself that changes you, your play and your results.earned, until it’s as natural and obvious as a back-rank mate.

Remember, you don’t know until you do.

Learning to Win

winning-at-chessThis 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:

  1. Take responsibility for your results.
  2. Play your strongest chess until there is no further advantage to play for.
  3. Improve the weakest aspect of your game by practising it continually.