Suggestions for Improving Your Play
This article describes my personal Chess Education Curriculum. It’s presented as a companion to Kelly Atkins’ outstanding “The Path to Improvement.” Obviously, there will be some overlap, and perhaps even some differences of opinion, but that’s a good thing! It’s important that aspiring students of any subject (including chess) consider a variety of teaching methods and styles, in order to see which will suit them best. Moreover, there are some substantive differences in these two pieces: whereas Kelly’s focuses a bit more on a long-term study plan, mine concentrates a bit more on how to spend your day-to-day, week-to-week study time.
If you are completely new to chess, then I recommend reading the following three books in order to learn the essentials:
Teach Yourself Chess (2nd ed.) by Bill Hartston. There are a number of good books designed to teach chess to the absolute beginner or help the aspiring novice to improve, but this is my favorite. It provides all the basics, plus a taste of more intermediate opening, middlegame, and endgame strategy, plus a nice section which briefly describes the flavor of the standard chess openings, and a section of well annotated historically-famous chess games. It is also very affordable (about $10.50, last time I checked), and extremely well-written. Don't worry if some of it seems a little over your head at first; just master the rules provided in chapter one, and give the rest of it a good once-over to get the feel for the various aspects of the game. Then you can re-read various chapters later on when you're ready to tackle them. And even if you already know how to play, I highly advise that you read this book, including the first chapter on the basic rules, in order to make sure that there are no gaps in your knowledge of the basics, and to get you started on the more intermediate concepts.
Winning Chess Tactics, by Yasser Seirawan and Jeremy Silman. This book is the most thorough instructional treatment of tactics I have ever seen, and provides plenty of practice problems. If you never intend to be anything more than a casual player, you’ll find that most games will be won through tactics (and the ability to use tactics to take advantage of your opponent’s blunders), and this book will make you the toughest kid on your block.
Winning Chess Strategies, by Yasser Seirawan and Jeremy Silman. Once you’ve “mastered” tactics, your next question will be: “Okay, what do I do while I’m waiting for my opponent to blunder and present me with some tactical treats?” This book will tell you what to do. It provides all the basic strategies of middlegame play, including discussions of pawn structure, how to best use the various pieces, what to do with space and open files, etc. Again, it’s clearly and enjoyably written (Yasser’s enthusiasm for chess and teaching constantly shines through); and again, if you never intend to be anything more than a casual player, these two books by Yasser will teach you enough to beat most of your friends and family and all the kids on your block.
Once you've worked your way through these three books, here’s how I suggest you work on improving your game:
Practice tactics. As the saying goes, "Chess is 99% tactics." Practicing tactics is probably the single best way to improve your practical results. Try to spend at least a little time everyday solving tactical exercises, even if you only have time for a few. Ideally, spend about a half an hour or so per day. The way I see it, tactical skill involves at least two things: pattern recognition and calculation skill. You can develop your ability to recognize tactical patterns by regularly reviewing the same small set of tactical examples; to that end, I recommend that you re-read Seirawan’s Winning Chess Tactics on a regular basis. You can develop your skill at calculating by regularly tackling a wider variety of new and diverse exercises; to that end, I recommend that you get one or more collections of tactics / combinations. Fred Reinfeld’s 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations and 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate books come to mind. Lazslo Polgar's 5334 Chess Problems, Combinations, and Games is another excellent choice: I especially like the first 450 problems, which teach you to recognize all of the basic mating patterns through the repetition of simple motifs. [N.B.: This section should be reviewed regularly!] There are also lots of good CD-ROM products which teach tactics and provide plenty of test problems Two especially good ones are Chess Assistant's CT-ART and ChessBase's Renko's Intensive Tactics Course.
On a related note, I've noticed that a lot of tactics books and CDs tend to focus on middlegame tactics, but tactical opportunities are very common in the opening phase of the game as well, especially at the amateur level. To that end, you might want to check out Bruce Pandolfini's The Winning Way. The cover claims that it's a book on opening strategy, but it's really about opening tactics. It does a nice job of sorting out typical tactical themes in the opening phase of the game, and is certainly worth checking out.
On another related note, I've noticed that a lot of tactics books and CDs tend to focus on middlegame tactics, but tactical opportunities are also much more common in the endgame than you might think. To that end, you might want to check out Jeno Ban's The Tactics of End-Games. It does a nice job of sorting out typical tactical themes in the endgame, and is definitely worth looking at. A more recent book which does the same thing is GM John Nunn’s Tactical Chess Endings. It’s more expensive than Ban’s book, but it’s in algebraic notation (which most people prefer over descriptive notation), and I suspect it has been computer-checked for accuracy (something undoubtedly unavailable to Ban at the time of writing his book).
For more detailed advice on how to practicing tactics, consult my article "Practicing Tactics" (natch).
Reduce Your Over-the-Board Errors. Probably the single biggest reason that amateur players (and perhaps even some Masters!?) lose games is that they make careless mistakes. If you can learn to play in a careful and systematic manner, you’ll already be head-and-shoulders above most amateur players. For more on this, consult my “Reducing Over-the-Board Errors” article.
Study. Everyday, spend a least a few minutes, and preferably at least a half an hour, studying the game. You need to study all three phases of the game: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame.
a) The Opening: I describe a practical and efficient way to study openings in "How to Learn an Opening” – go there for the relevant advice.
b) The Middlegame: For middlegame study, I recommend the following books, in this general order. [Make sure you’ve already read the three books I mentioned earlier: Hartston’s Teach Yourself Chess, Seirawan’s Winning Chess Tactics, and Seirawan’s Winning Chess Strategies.]
Logical Chess Move by Move, by Irving Chernev: A classic. This book will help you assimilate the chess strategy you’ve learned so far by seeing how it applies to real games. Chernev explains every move of each game. It’s especially good for novice players, since many of the games are relatively straightforward, strategically speaking. Make sure you buy the new, algebraic version (descriptive notation gives me a headache . . . ).
Weapons of Chess, by Bruce Pandolfini: A mini-encyclopedia of chess strategy, with a similar format to his Endgame Course. It’s full of lots of useful ideas: especially helpful is the section on pawn centers and how they determine middlegame strategy.
Teach Yourself Better Chess, by Bill Hartston: Learn how to think “outside of the box.” This book has tons of lessons to show you how to apply all of the chess rules and principles, and (much more importantly) when to break them, too.
How to Reassess Your Chess, (3rd ed.), by Jeremy Silman: A modern classic middlegame strategy manual. It’s basically a more sophisticated and in-depth version of the strategies taught in Seirawan and Silman’s Winning Chess Strategies. Silman clearly and accurately teaches the most important elements of middlegame strategy, including, but not limited to, space, the center, weak and strong pawns, weak squares, development, initiative, open files, sacrifices, use of and inter-play between minor pieces, etc.. He also teaches you the “Silman Thinking Technique” of how to evaluate positions, based on the imbalances present in the position.
Best Lessons of a Chess Coach, by Sunil Weeramantry and Ed Eusebi: Another excellent middlegame instruction manual for both the aspiring and “serious” intermediate player alike, and also an excellent review for more sophisticated players (though not just a review; even strong intermediates may come across ideas they’ve never explicitly seen before). All the elements of middlegame strategy (as well as many opening and endgame tips and ideas) are taught and reviewed through a thorough analysis of actual games. This book is the perfect complement to Silman’s book, especially since Weeramantry and Eusebi focus more attention on weak squares / square complexes / color complexes and the role of initiative and other temporary / dynamic imbalances than Silman does.
Art of Attack in Chess, by Vladimir Vukovic: A classic, but still absolutely of contemporary relevance. Everyone loves to attack the enemy king, and this book will show you how. This is the most thorough and systematic treatment of attacking the king I’ve ever seen: especially enjoyable is the chapter on the classic bishop sacrifice.
[On a related note, Keres' and Kotov's Art of the Middlegame in Chess has an excellent chapter on attacking the king -- you might want to check it out of the library or browse through it at a bookstore sometime, as it provides an excellent complement to Vukovic.]
The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, by Rudolf Spielmann (rev. by Fred Reinfeld and I. A. Horowitz): The perfect supplement to Vukovic’s Art of Attack. It includes a systematic discussion of every type of sacrifice: both “sham” sacrifices (i.e., sacrifices which eventually win back material or lead to mate) and “real” sacrifices (i.e., sacrifices which do not lead to a forced win of material or mate, but in which material is permanently sacrificed for some other advantage, such as those which create a lead in development, expose the enemy king, clear an important line or square, cripple the opponent’s pawn structure, etc.). It has a particularly good section on the exchange sacrifice (which I rarely see so thoroughly discussed in other books). Lots of fun and exciting games are analyzed in terms of their sacrifices. (Descriptive notation.)
The Art of Defense in Chess, by Andrew Soltis: There are quite a few books out there on attacking, but precious few on defending: here’s the only one you’ll ever need. Soltis gives a systematic account of all the important defensive themes (e.g., repairing weaknesses, redeployment, keeping attacking lines closed or under control, trading pieces for endgame safety, etc.), and also teaches the reader the general principles of defense. He especially emphasizes the importance of “active” defense and searching for counter-play, and also advises maintaining an optimistic attitude when defending. (Descriptive notation.)
Pawn Structure Chess, by Andrew Soltis: Soltis shows you how the appropriate middlegame plans and strategies are determined by the pawn structure. Each chapter focuses on a certain type of pawn structure which is typical of a certain opening or family of openings. For example, there are chapters devoted to Caro-Kann / Slav pawn structures, English / Sicilian structures, Isolated D-Pawn structures (which can arise from a variety of openings), the King’s Indian Complex, etc.. He also shows you how middlegame play revolves around the various typical maneuvers, pawn breaks, etc., for each structure.
Pawn Power in Chess, by Hans Kmoch: The perfect complement to Soltis’ pawn book. Kmoch tends to focus more on pawn sub-structures that can occur in many different types of middlegames, rather than focusing on entire pawn structures as Soltis does. Kmoch also emphasizes more of the dynamic aspects of pawn play than Soltis does, and spends more time talking about how to use the various pieces in relation to the pawns (and vice versa). Descriptive notation and Kmoch’s sometimes bizarre terminology can be confusing at times, but worth plodding through.
The Inner Game of Chess: How to Calculate and Win, by Andrew Soltis: Calculation is essential in chess, whether for attack, defense, positional maneuvering, endgame play, or anything else. Soltis discusses various ways of calculating and their respective strengths and weakness, and gives a variety of extremely helpful suggestion for improving your calculating skills, including how to select candidate moves, how to avoid various oversights and visualization blunders, rechecking your calculations, the debate between the relative importance of “practical” vs. “perfect” calculation, and more. Interesting and useful, but definitely for the more advanced player (at least “strong intermediate”).
I suggest reading through each of these books once carefully, absorbing as much as possible, but not trying to memorize every little detail, and not worrying if there are some ideas and concepts which seem above your head. Get out of it what you can, then move on to the next book, and so forth. After you've made your way through all of them (plus any other good ones you may have added to your collection on your own), go back to the beginning of your collection, and re-read. On your second time through your books, you'll find that you understand them even better, and will learn a lot more from them, hopefully having improved since the first time you read them, and having a lot more experience as a chess player which you can bring to your readings.
I recommend re-reading your chess books over and over again for the rest of your life, or until you've totally mastered and exhausted them (if that ever happens). I also recommend keeping a relatively small collection of first-rate books which you will re-read many times, rather than trying to buy and read every chess book out there. Many chess books tend to repeat the same information anyway, and a lot of them aren't worth reading even once.
However, I should warn you that middlegame study does pose the improving amateur a serious problem: there's so darn much of it that it's incredibly easy to forget! By the time you make your way around your collection of middlegame books, you'll probably have forgotten half or more of it. One thing you can do to help prevent that forgetting process is to take notes as you read, jotting down important positions and writing a concise description of the essential information behind it. You could even make flashcards which you could use to review important middlegame concepts whenever you have a spare moment or two, like riding the bus to school or work, or on your lunch break.
If making a notebook or flashcards sounds like too much work (it sure is for me . . . ), there are some books which essentially do this for you. Pandolfini's Weapons of Chess book is organized in such a fashion. Jeremy Silman's Complete Book of Chess Strategy does the same thing; in fact, he even says in the introduction that the purpose of the book is to provide you with a ready-made notebook of essential positions and information. The only reason that I don't specifically recommend this book in my list is that it has quite a few typos, diagram errors, and downright omissions! For example, there are a whole bunch of things in his How to Reassess Your Chess that he forgot to include, or only included partially. I've actually talked with him about this a little via e-mail, and have asked him to consider printing a second edition with revisions, corrections, and expansions. If he does, and it meets my approval, then I'll recommend it for sure! :-) A third book which comes to mind is Lev Alburt's Chess Training Pocket Book, which (according to Lev) contains the 300 most essential positions and ideas for the tournament player. It's mostly tactical and mating patterns, but also some important endgame positions and middlegame ideas. It's small and handy to carry around, but the picture on the cover is silly and a bit embarrassing to be seen with (you'll know what I'm talking about when you see it . . . ). I taped paper over it . . .
c) The Endgame: It’s especially important that you not ignore the endgame; in fact, I'd say it ranks in importance right after tactics. Most amateurs avoid studying the endgame because they find it dull. That means you'll have a real advantage over them, and countless games are yours to win, if you understand basic endgame principles. I recommend that you read Pandolfini’s Endgame Course, and then Lev Alburt’s Just the Facts, and then re-read them once or twice a year. If you do that, you'll know and remember everything you'll need to know for 99% of the endgames you'll ever play, and you'll definitely know a heck of a lot more about the endgame than most amateur players. Once you’re ready for an advanced textbook, try Fundamental Chess Endings. Don't let the title fool you: it has plenty of advanced stuff! If you are looking for even more, you might go through Batsford Chess Endings and / or Fine's Basic Chess Endings and check out some of their respective discussions, though both books are probably better used as reference sources than instructional texts. [For more information on these texts, read my Endgame Books review.]
I also highly recommend that you analyze the endings of each and every game you play. This will guarantee that you are spending your endgame-study time as efficiently as possible, since you'll necessarily spend more time on common endgames, and less time on rarer ones.
"Hey, Evan! How much time should I spend on each of these phases of the game?" Well, that’s a tough question. From my research, it appears that different professional chess coaches recommend different ratios. Some of them suggest that the endgame should constitute the lion’s share of your study time; others, the middlegame; still others, the opening. Personally, I believe that all three phases are all equally important, though in a crunch I might slightly favor the endgame. I’d recommend starting out by spending an equal time on each phase, maybe a little more on the endgame, and then adjust the ratio depending on your personal needs and in response to your personal weaknesses.
One caveat: I don’t believe that you should necessarily devote the same amount of time to each phase of the game on a daily basis, or even a weekly basis, at least not all of the time. Sometimes I find it useful to spend months studying nothing but the opening phase of the game, then several months on the middlegame, then several months on the endgame, and around again. Other times, I find it useful to spend a few minutes each day on each of the three phases of the game. And other times, it’s something in between (maybe a week or two on each phase).
With all that in mind, just remember that exactly how you study these three aspects of the game is up to you, as long as you don’t neglect any of these areas altogether. Also make sure that whatever particular topic (however broad or narrow) you are studying, study it thoroughly before moving on to another topic: as Kelly mentioned in “The Path to Improvement,” jumping from topic to topic without first truly learning each is a sure way to waste your time.
Last on the topic of study, I also highly recommend that you check out Kelly’s excellent “Collection of Chess Wisdom,” and re-read it once a month.
Play! Study is fine, but your game won’t come together without experience.
For people at the beginner or novice level, I suggest primarily playing G/30 games, (“G/30” means that each player has 30 minutes to complete all of his or her moves; i.e., the whole game cannot last for more than 60 minutes). One or two games a day would be ideal, but of course, sometimes life (school, work, personal commitments, etc.) gets in the way of chess, so aim for at least several games per week. If you don’t have anybody around to play against, play online: FICS seems to be one of the more popular servers.
As you become a more sophisticated player, I recommend concentrating on quality over quantity: play fewer games, but at longer time limits, perhaps G/60 or G/90, maybe once or twice a week on average. A lot of people don’t like to play longer time-limit games, so it can be difficult to find opponents. If that’s the case, consider a chess playing program like Chessmaster or Fritz. It’s not as good as playing against real people, but it’s better than nothing; longer time-limit games are essential for developing your chess thinking skills. You could also check out the Online Chess League for players who prefer longer time controls.
Another excellent way to improve is to play correspondence chess. Since it’s perfectly legal to consult books, databases, etc., (but usually NOT computer analysis) while you’re playing, and since you have so much time for each move (three days or more per move is common), you can really sink your teeth into each position before deciding what move to play. You learn a lot about chess that way, and it carries over to your Over-the-Board play. My personal favorite place to play correspondence chess (for free, nonetheless!) is ItsYourTurn.com .
Playing solitaire chess can also be useful. If that interests you, I suggest picking up an issue of USCF’s Chess Life and working through Bruce Pandolfini’s “Solitaire Chess” column.
I should also mention that I do NOT recommend playing blitz chess. In fact, stay away from any game with a time limit of less than G/30. It seems to me that blitz play does nothing but promote sloppy play. Once you are a decent player, you can probably play blitz chess without harm, but until then, stick with real games. I know other people will disagree with this, but that’s my opinion.
Analyze your games. It’s important to learn from your games, especially the ones you lose. Otherwise, you’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over, and never improve. Ideally, you should have your games analyzed by a stronger player, but this isn’t always possible: there may not be a master level chess player in you town, or if there is, you may not be able to afford lessons. There are a couple of alternatives, though.
You could get together with your chess buddies, and have everyone go through their games together. You can all try to analyze the game together. It may lead to some spirited discussions, and you may not always be able to come to a definite discussion, but you’ll definitely help each other learn a lot, even if it’s just by talking and reminding each other about various aspects of chess strategy. To this end, I highly recommend visiting Chessville’s Discussion Forum. You meet plenty of friendly folks who will be more than happy to discuss and compare analysis.
You might also want to consider purchasing a program that can run analyses on your games. Chessmaster and Fritz tend to be the most popular choices. (I’ve found that CM is usually favored by less experienced players, whereas Fritz is usually preferred by more advanced players, but that’s just a generalization.) Such programs are not always very helpful for pointing out strategic errors, since they tend to present their analyses mostly as series of moves and numerical evaluations, which don’t provide a lot of explanation as to why it is that those moves are (supposedly) good. On the other hand, these programs are excellent at clearly identifying tactical errors and blunders, which is extremely useful for the novice player.
So the first thing to do with your computer-analyzed games is identify these sorts of obvious errors. If this shows you that you are missing certain sorts of tactical opportunities (yours or your opponent’s), then you need to practice your tactics. For example, if you find that you tend to overlook knight forks, then you should get out your tactics books and / or CD-ROMs and practice knight forks for a while.
There are also much simpler sorts of blunders, such as “hanging your pieces” (leaving them undefended and subject to immediate and obvious capture), or overlooking opportunities to scarf up your opponent’s “hung” (“hanged”?) pieces free of charge. If this happens, then you know you need to think and play more carefully and systematically to reduce these over-the-board blunders. See my page “Reducing Your OTB Errors” for advice on this.
These sorts of errors are the single biggest and most important errors to identify and (hopefully) learn to avoid. Even this little analysis will go a long way towards improving your game. However, if you have the time and energy, there are a few other things which you should look at:
Openings: As I discuss on my “How to Learn a New Opening” page, I don’t advocate spending a ton of time memorizing brute opening variations. Instead, I think the most efficient way for amateur players to learn openings is through experience. After each game, look through the opening moves of the game, with your favorite openings manual in hand, and see where it is that you and / or your opponent went out of book. Then look to see what the next book move or two is, and why (again, consult the aforementioned openings page for a more detailed discussion of this process). Over time, you’ll find that you are remembering the lines further and further in, as well as coming to understand what to do when your opponent deviates from the book lines.
Endgames: Just as with openings, I think the most efficient way to learn endings is to look over the endgame of each game you play (assuming that the game actually made it to the endgame, rather than ending with mate in the first 10 moves . . . ). Identify the type of ending that occurred, and then review the relevant sections of your favorite endgame manual. This will guarantee that you are spending more time on more common endgames, and less on less. If you keep this up and make it a point to look over all of your endgames, then with time and experience you’ll become a formidable endgame player.
Middlegames: This is a lot harder. In the near future, Chessville will publish articles devoted to middlegame analysis. In the meantime, let me simply say that after identifying tactical errors and careless mistakes, you should look over the game and try to get a sense of where things started to go wrong, and if it wasn’t because of some obvious blunder or tactic, then do your best to evaluate the middlegame and the appropriate middlegame plans. If you are doing this yourself, you will simply have to reply on what you know about the middlegame from your studies. I also provide a detailed analysis system on this site entitled "'My' System" which you may find useful.
You can also submit your games to Chessville for consideration for analysis: click here to find out more!
Play through Master (and non-Master) Games. This is another excellent way to learn. Find a collection of games with lots of annotations, especially those intended as pedagogical texts rather than sophisticated analysis by-and-for Grandmasters. I’ve already mentioned Chernev’s Logical Chess Move by Move. Another book is John Nunn's Understanding Chess Move by Move, which is sort of like an updated version of Chernev's book. However, it looks like Nunn's book has a lot to offer to players of a variety of strengths, not just beginners / novices / lower-level intermediates. It’s the sort of book that you can get a lot out of each time you read it, re-reading it every few years as your play progresses.
It can also be very useful for the improving player to read / play through amateur games which have been analyzed and annotated by a stronger player. Such games are often more instructive for the improving novice than master games, because the moves and mistakes are more similar to the ones you yourself might make, and you'll learn about what to do and what not to do in a way which will be more relevant to you. There are some books out there along these lines, usually with titles like Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur, or something like that. Also, GM Lev Alburt's "Back to Basics" column in Chess Life includes very instructive analyses of amateur games (your local library might even have back issues you could look through).
Chessville also provides Annotated Games for your instruction and emendation. :-)
Take a break every once in a while! In weight-training, there's phenomenon known as overtraining: if you work out too hard, too long, and / or too often, you can actually start breaking down muscle tissue instead of building it up. In order to prevent this, experts recommend (among other things) taking some time off from training every so often.
The same thing applies to chess. It is quite possible to become "burnt out" if you spend too much time on anything, including chess. Warning signs include (but are certainly not limited to) playing poorly (especially blundering away pieces . . . ), poor concentration, having difficulty assimilating new information, and generally finding that you aren't enjoying chess.
When this happens, you should feel absolutely free to take some time off from chess. Completely. And for as long as you need. Chess will still be there when you get back. And it is very unlikely that you'll have lost anything in the interim. In fact, you will probably find that you'll be able to play and study chess much better than before the break. Most importantly, you'll find that your enthusiasm for chess has returned. So take a break. Go for a walk. Read a novel. Watch TV. Do whatever you have to do so that when you come back to chess, it will feel like fun again, instead of a chore. After all, if it's not fun, why do it?!
That’s my plan! Give it a try, and let me know if it works, or if you have your own suggestions. Good luck!
Copyright 2002 S. Evan Kreider. Used with permission.