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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Measure and Improve Your Chess

Optimize Your Chess Training

What gets measured, gets managed. - Peter Drucker

Several years ago, I was teaching a novice chess player the basics of chess. Although he loved chess and enjoyed our lessons, he never played a rated game. He played a lot of casual blitz and nonrated chess on the Internet Chess Club, but he never played a rated game. 

He often asked me how strong I felt he was. I basically told him that the only real way to know was to play some rated games and see where he stood. I encouraged him to do so partly because he kept asking me my opinion about his strength, but also because I believed that the competition would help him to get better. (You can read about why I believe that playing competitively helps your chess).

Well, after a few months, we amicably decided to part ways. He sent me a message about the lessons he was taking with a grandmaster who said he was probably a "Class B" player. Of course, I checked his profile and there were no rated games played.

Now I really didn't care whether he played a rated game either on the internet or over-the-board (although I think he really would have enjoyed the competition). The point behind this story is that you really don't know how you're doing on almost anything unless you measure it.

There's a reason why top performers in many high-stakes arenas such as business and professional sports measure everything - because it works! In this article, I will discuss how we can use measurement to improve our chess. 

How Measurement Can Improve Your Chess

There are two main ways that measurement helps you. First, when you measure what you want to accomplish, it motivates you (when done properly). Second, measurements can be prescriptive and help guide you in what you need to work on.

What You Measure, Gets Done

I first started measuring my activities when I started my career in business. I measured my calls, number of appointments, and results. I also applied this to physical fitness, measuring my minutes ran, sets and reps of my weightlifting exercises, and things like how many servings of vegetables I consumed daily. 

I think people in general like to see a numerical representation of their accomplishments. Think about your last over-the-board tournament when you played someone you didn't know. Either you or your opponent probably asked what each other's rating was (unless you copied it from the crosstables). 

I remember when I first started playing tournament chess. I couldn't wait until my rating was updated on the cover of my Chess Life magazine. When I started playing, the ratings weren't updated very often, so it also taught me patience.

Once you start using measurement for more than seeing your rating, you will find yourself accomplishing more than you could have imagined. We'll discuss what to measure in a little bit.

How Do You Know if You're Getting Better?

Besides the motivational benefits of measuring your activities (which would be worth measuring in itself), you can also use measurement to track your improvement in specific areas of chess, as well as tracking specific activities. 

Once you measure your activities and results in chess, you can start to make comparisons over time and adjust your training program. Accurate measurements can help you make very specific and effective changes to your regimen. Without measurement, you're just guessing.

What Should You Measure?

There are a ton of things you can measure, but where should you start? Before we can answer that, let me discuss two different types of measurements:
  • Performance measures
  • Outcome measures
Performance (or frequency) measures track the frequency or amount of an activity. This type of measurement is called a leading indicator as an increase in these typically happen before the desired change - in this case, improvement in a specific area. Here are some examples of chess related performance measures:
  • Number of tactical problems solved
  • Number of annotated master games studied
  • Amount of time spent analyzing
  • Number of blitz games played (for me this is a "negative" indicator as I am trying to decrease my volume of blitz play)
  • Amount of time spent studying
Outcome measures track the results of an activity. These are lagging indicators as they often follow from activity performed before. Here are a few examples:
  • Chess Tempo tactical ratings
  • Number of blunders made during a game
  • Bullet, Blitz, and Standard Ratings
  • Self-rating of levels of focus or attention during a game
  • Magnitude of errors made during a game (e.g. measured using a chess engine)
These are just a few examples that I am currently using or have used in the past. In general, you will want to use a mix of performance and outcome measures. 

Use performance measures when you want to increase (or decrease) the frequency of an activity. For example, Here are a couple examples of ways I've used these:
  • I felt that I was playing too much and not studying enough, so I started tracking how many minutes I either played, trained, or studied chess. I found after about a month that 25% of my chess time was spent playing, which was much lower than I expected (and perhaps as a result of measuring it in the first place). Below is an excerpt of the spreadsheet I used - created on Microsoft Excel. 
I found out I don't play enough!
  • I felt I wasn't sleeping enough and this was effecting my chess. I've started tracking when I go to bed and when I get up, and the spreadsheet calculates how much sleep I got that night. Ever since I started tracking this, the amount and quality of my sleep has increased, and so has my chess!
Use outcome measures to calibrate your chess activities as well as motivation to see your progress. Improvement in chess is a long term project (at least for most of you who are reading this article), and sometimes it is hard to stay patient. Using periodic measurement of outcomes can show you that you are progress, even though it seems slower than you would like.

Below is an excerpt of my current ratings tracking sheet. I've highlighted a calculation I do to show how much I've improved on a weekly basis and on a rolling 6-week basis. Doing this helps me stay consistent and motivated on the long journey.

Slow but gradual improvement

Once I've attained statistics for several months, I can start to make certain comparisons to see how my activities are affecting the results.

You can get really creative with measurement, but remember that these are only tools to our greater objective - to improve at chess.

Getting Started with Measuring Your Chess

Now that you understand the difference between performance and outcome measures, here are a few steps to follow when getting started.

Step #1: Assess Your Needs

Before you incorporate measurement into your chess improvement program, assess what you need to improve. This should start with an objective review of your games - perhaps with a coach if you have one. 

Where do you need to improve - tactics, positional play, endgame, openings? 

Are there certain chess improvement activities you know you should do but don't? 

The answers to these questions are great places to start measuring.

Step #2: Start Simple

Maybe it's just me, but measuring my chess activities has become fairly enjoyable. However, I encourage you to start simply with just a few measures. After you've assessed your needs, you can start with your most pressing need.

For example, after you've made a comprehensive review of your game, you decide that you want to improve your chess tactics. We all know that solving tactical problems is an effective way to improve our ability in this area. We can create a simple spreadsheet with the following measures:
  • Number of tactical problems (or amount of time spent on tactics)
  • Number solved correctly
  • Rating (if using a program that gives a rating such as Chess Tempo)

Step #3: Use Performance Measures First and Often

Typically, we want to measure what we want to improve or increase. This often involves adding to our current program. Use performance measures to track these. Track these daily. Don't worry if you miss a day. Over time, you'll develop consistency and your progress will follow.

Step #4: Measure Outcomes Regularly but not too Often

As you develop the habits you want within your chess activities, use the appropriate outcome measures to track your progress. For example, the various tactics servers on the internet often give ratings. You can enter your rating on regular intervals (e.g. once a week or once a month) and see your steady progress.

I would set a specific day of the week or month to record outcome metrics. I caution you against doing it too often. If you record these measures too often, you might find yourself getting discouraged as your improvement may be too gradual to notice in shorter time periods. Similarly, when it comes to ratings, there are often peaks and valleys, but a longer interval (such as monthly or quarterly for OTB ratings) will show a more useful trend line.

Step #5: Assess and Adjust

Once you've started measuring your activities and results for several months, you can start to evaluate the effectiveness of your training.

For example, suppose you are tracking your tactical rating on a server and your OTB chess rating (or say a standard rating on ICC or chess.com). If you notice that your tactical rating is improving dramatically while your chess rating stagnates, it would be reasonable to conclude that tactics are not your biggest weakness.

For another example, I found that I was "testing" myself too much - doing tactical problems are analytical exercises - but not "studying" - reading chess books and looking up games - enough.

The positive side of this was that my ability to assess and come up with plans at the board was improving. However, I was often finding myself in situations - particularly between the opening and middlegame - where I knew I had played similar positions, but felt like I had to figure it out again. It was like I had to reinvent the wheel over and over again.

So I shifted some of my training time toward looking master games in the lines I was playing. Here I could see what much stronger players did in similar situations and adjusted my thinking and my approach for future games.

I wouldn't have realized this in my training had I not meticulously measured how much time I was spending on each part of my training and study program.

Long Term Project

Improving at chess is a long term project - unless you happen to be one of those teenage grandmasters. If you want to systematically and accurately improve your play, start by measuring aspects of your training and play.

Metrics and statistics are tools. Some people I know (and myself at times) get too caught up in the how and why of statistics. When I first got into this, I felt like I spent almost as much time measuring as I did studying and playing chess. 

I recommend starting with one simple rule: Measure what you want to improve. 

Use the steps above to pick just one or two areas that you want to see a dramatic improvement. Measurement can be very powerful, so be careful of what you measure. One of my friends started tracking various aspects of his tactical training. Unfortunately, now he only does tactics and barely plays! You have been warned.

Your Turn

If you decide to try out some of this advice, I'd love to hear what measures you are using and how it's helping you. If you enjoyed this article and want more elaboration on how to go about this, let me know what you need help with and I'll write more articles detailing this process. 

Good luck and good chess!


Here are a couple articles you might find helpful:

4 Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement: This is an article I wrote on how to analyze your games and if you don't already do this, it will be hard to know where to start measuring.

Pat Riley on the Remarkable Power of Getting 1% Better: James Clear wrote an interesting article on Pat Riley's philosophy that shows the power of gradual but consistent improvement and the importance of measurement.


  1. Please consider my free training software (for Windows) at https://sites.google.com/site/fredm/ which will help you measure your progress in chess.

    1. Dear Fred, thank you for writing. You have several very interesting apps and software that I will check out (and perhaps include in a future article). Also, it is good to see a Rochester-area chess player. Years ago, I had spent many a Saturday afternoon at the Rochester Chess Center.

  2. Hi Bryan - watched you win New York State Championship - Rochester New York - like to keep in touch - adamde14@gmail.com ever in Rochester Call me. Adam. DeSantis. 585 747 7615.

    1. Greetings Adam! Wow! What a blast from the past. I sent you an e-mail. I hope all is well.