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.”

Petrosian – Botvinnik, World Championship 1963, all games

Petrosian-Botvinnik_1963WorldChampionshipMatch

BotvinnikPetrosian1963

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.