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!

 

 

 

Book review: What it takes to become a Grandmaster – Andrew Soltis

Publisher: Batsford Chess Author: GM Andrew Soltis 318 pages ★★★★½

soltis_what_takes_grandmasterGM Andrew Soltis returns with a sequel to his popular book “What it takes to become a Chess Master”. Whereas “Chess Master” talked about the new skills you need to move from club player to master level, “Grandmaster” points out the things only GMs do.

Right at the beginning Soltis warns that reading this book alone will not make you a GM. Instead he refers to a Kasparov quote to outline the book’s goal:

“70% of the moves could be found by any competent player,” was Garry’s view of the play between Carlsen and Anand in their first World Championship match. “25% could be played by any GM but 5% could only be played by World Championship level players”.

This book aims to show the kind of moves that form the 25% that “could be played by any GM”. Soltis includes 50 plans, formations and ideas that GMs have used to win games which might well appear counter-intuitive to start with.

Topics include:

  • Mystery Moves: Rook Pawns – the hidden advantages of pushing your a or h-pawn in the middlegame.
  • Delayed castling – Mikhail Botvinnik’s advice on getting more out of your opening than just King safety.
  • Hidden 3rd move: Why there is often a sting in the tail of 2 move combinations.
  • Endgame anchors – how to save an endgame an exchange down.
  • Piece nullification – the art of making your opponent’s pieces useless.
  • Impossible moves – the thought-process that finds moves normally reserved for chess engines.

Each section includes the author’s clear explanation of the idea and real world examples taken from games between top players, mainly from the modern era but including Capablanca, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov among many others.

There are plenty of diagrams, normally 3-4 per 2 pages and the book is full of great quotes and anecdotes from/about famous players about each idea. One tells how the 14 year old Kasparov had adjourned a position down an exchange for a doubled pawn (2R3P v RB4P). Garry wanted to discuss the position in detail with Botvinnik but the Patriarch cut him off with a question, “Garry, just tell me one thing. Is your Bishop protected by a pawn?”
“No,” came the reply.
“Then you’re lost” was the brutally honest evaluation; and so it proved,

Some care is needed to make sure the ideas aren’t taken as universal solutions. Often they are exceptions, but powerful exceptions to be aware of. For instance, when talking about “uber-luft”, giving the King room to escape back-rank issues by advancing a pawn 2 squares instead of 1, Soltis admits that “in the vast majority of cases, one square will be better. But in that minority of positions, the benefit of two squares will be considerable”.

What I really like about this book is the ability to read it in almost any order, dipping in, picking up a new idea before skipping to another one that catches my attention. It’s pretty easy to follow the games without having to get a board out and it’s lightweight too so you can really reduce your exercise to a minimum!

While “What it takes…” probably won’t make you a GM on it’s own, it is sure to teach you a load of new concepts and understand chess at a deeper level. There are Quiz questions and answers to test your ability with too, a very important part of consolidating knowledge and making real progress.

All in all, a great book and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys learning new chess ideas.

Buy the book from the publisher 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.”