Wednesday, June 4, 2014

3 Key Ways to Improve Your Chess

Help! I want to get better in chess! Where do I start?

This is a question I found in a forum post recently and some of the things I find routine may not be so routine to others - particularly those who have recently decided that want to get more serious about learning chess. So in this short article I list the 3 key ways that you can improve your chess whether you are a beginner or a master!

Study Your Games

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” ― Lao Tzu

One of the simplest ways that you can improve is by studying your own games - especially your losses. If you don't know what you're doing wrong, it is very difficult to correct it. This advice is not original, Alekhine and Botvinnik became world champions by deep analysis of their own games.

Check out this detailed article on how to get the most out of studying your games, but here are a few points you want to look for:
  • The opening: Did you follow theoretical or repertoire lines? Who deviated first? Were you ahead, even, or behind after the opening phase? How could you have improved your opening. This is where you can look up your opening in your reference books or in an online database like that found on Chess Tempo.
  • Shifts in advantage: At what point in the game did the evaluation in the position change (e.g. winning or drawn to losing or vice versa)? Why did this happen?
  • Tactical errors: Why did you miss specific tactics (e.g. was it an oversight due to distraction or lack of thought process, etc.)? Was there a new tactical motif that you didn't know before the game?
  • Any points of confusion: It is important to note any positions during the game where you were confused or didn't understand what was going on.
Once you identify these points, you should try to figure out how you should have played instead. To do this, there are several options:
  • Your own analysis: This is often very insightful, but sometimes flawed.
  • Using computer chess engines: These are very useful particularly in tactical situations, but you must be careful not to develop an dependence on them, so I recommend first doing your own analysis.
  • Stronger players or coaches: If you can find stronger players or coaches to help you analyze the games, it can be very helpful, because they can explain why certain moves are better than others.
Once you have analyzed your game and feel like you've picked up some new patterns, ideas, and knowledge, it is important to store these nuggets of wisdom for future review. I find using a computer database program such as Chessbase very helpful - I'll be creating several videos on how I do this as well as writing articles about it. However, you can also use things like notebooks with notes or creating flashcards. However, you do it, reviewing the material is very important - read my article on the 4 Dimensions of Learning for more discussion of the time factor in learning. 

For more detail on analyzing your games, check out my 4-Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement.

Study from the Masters

Before I could engage my creativity, I had to learn enough of the classical theory clearly evident in the great works of art of my heroes. - Greg Allen

Just like in art, music, and sports, we learn from those who are better than we are. Fortunately, there is a rich culture of preserving the games and thoughts of the masters through the vast number of chess books (and now chess videos) available. By studying the games and theory from the masters, we stand of the shoulders of giants and gain ideas and systems that we can use in our own games.

As a little example of what I'm talking about, here is a recent position from one of my games:

The idea of 27...Qh4! is not too difficult to find. However, it is made that much easier by understanding that I had recently studied the following position from a master game (Van Wely-Giri from the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee earlier this year):

This type of example is common once you study many master games and positions from the masters.

There is an enormous amount of literature out there, so here are some starting points for studying the masters of chess:
  • Look for annotated books or collections meant for instruction on different aspects of chess such as openings, strategy, tactics, and the endgame (for beginners, check out my foundational books for beginners).
  • Look up games or books covering your opening repertoire (although make sure the books is at your level).
  • Look up games or books by or about your favorite players. My chess took a great step up after studying Capablanca's Best Chess Endings: 60 Complete Games by Irving Chernev. 
As you study the games, positions, and ideas from the masters, it is again important to store these for future reference. My recommendation is Chessbase, but there are other database programs out there as well as the old-fashioned index card or binder (although that takes a lot of work).

Study Tactics

Chess is 99% tactics.  -  Rudolph Teichmann

This is perhaps the most frequent suggestions for improving your chess, particularly at a beginner level. This makes sense because tactics are the foundation for everything else in chess. Just like fueling and nourishing your body with food, tactical study is the nutrient rich diet for the chess player. I write a more detailed article about how to improve your tactics, but here are a few considerations to get you started:
  • Do some type of tactical training daily. It is the same as eating your vegetables and fruit. It's good for you, but better to do a little daily than a lot only once in a while.
  • Start out with simple problems. At first, you are just trying to pick up patterns that you will apply to more complex problems and in your games.
  • Find a chess tactics server on the internet and sign up. This way, you can track your progress because many of these servers have ratings for you and for the problems you do. My favorite one is Chess Tempo, partly because each of the problems have comments by other users to help you understand the problems.
  • When you get a problem wrong, don't go on to the next one, until you understand the solution.



Studying chess doesn't have to be a complicated thing. These three ways to improve your chess can be the foundation of your study and training program for the rest of your chess career. As with getting better at anything, although the path may be simple, it doesn't mean it is easy. Come back often to this site as I will give you advice on how to optimally implement each of these training methods. Let me know if this has been helpful to you. Best of luck in your journey and as always I wish you Better Chess!

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