How to get better at chess

boromir

… OR WHERE TO BEGIN?

Very recently a college colleague of mine has sent me the following FACEBOOK INBOX (sorry, EMAILS are so 20th century):

” Hey Vjeko, recently I have started playing alot of chess over the Internet. I have also done some chess studying, mostly openings, but I am confused whether that is the best way to start learning chess. Therefore, I am sending you this INBOX. Since I have virtually no idea how to start, perhaps you can share your thoughts and recommendations. “

To be honest, I had to resist a serious urge to quote the Bible in Dave Allen style, since it apparently states that ” IT ALL STARTED IN THE BEGINNING.”

the-beginning

On a more serious note, this is not the first time that someone has asked me something similar.  Considering that a friend of mine has recently started a student section at his chess club that has become enormously popular  (see HASK Mladost official page), I decided that it might be useful to devote a post to the subject.

Because I know how hard it can be to get yourself involved in the world of chess as an outsider. And how hard it is to start raising your playing level without the proper guidance and the proper tools, since I have started playing chess relatively late in my life (if you disregard childhood “traumas” that I have already described).

Additionaly, I think that recipe for taking the first chess steps is more or less the same as the recipe for improving your chess. At least untill my modest 2200 level.

Therefore, I though it might make alot of sense to cover both topics simultaneously. Naturally, with the purely ALTRUISTIC GOAL of helping the readers with coverage of the broader subjects.

And the fact that I have to write only one post instead of two is merely a coincidence.. I am glad to help

helping
[deep] Some people only ACT that they are helping [/deep]

CHESS VERSUS SPORT – advantages

First of all, before talking about concrete ways of improving your chess, I would like to say why I think that the expression “IT IS NEVER TOO LATE” is very much valid for chess in general. And why I think it is much easier to balance chess improvement with your other daily obligations, compared to some sport for instance.

old_chess

I would avoid elaborating my opinion about whether chess should be considered sport or not. I can merely briefly say that, although there are many arguments FOR chess as a sport, my opinion is closer to defining it as A GAME, rather than a sport, since I  think that physical activity is an important prerequesite of any sport. Check for instance this Oxford dictionary definition.

Anyway, definitions aside, the list below enumerates what I think are comparative advantages as a chess. As a benchmark for sport, I have used the table tennis, since I also train it on regular basis and can most easily asses its good and its bad sides.

  • AVAILABILITY

In the modern era, chess is available anytime, anywhere. Everything you need to play a chess game is an Internet connection, and Computer or a smartphone. Whereas some 30-40 years ago the whole world was immensly slower, nowadays it takes a few seconds to connect and play a chess game against someone on the other side of the globe.

Moreover, the beautiful point is the high probability that you will get paired with someone whose skill is similar to yours. Which makes the playing process might more enjoyable.

Perhaps this might not seem like a very big deal, but this advantage is ENORMOUS compared to any other sport.

For instance, in order to have a satisfying table tennis training, you have to find the playing hall with proper conditions and a partner whose playing strength is similar to your own.

This might not seem like a great problem, but believe me, it is much more complicated than it seems.

And that is just for an individual sport. Imagine the trouble you have to go through to assemble 10 players for a casual football match.

familysoccer
When you really really REALLY wanted sons, but got three daughters instead..

To make myself clear, I don’t suggest that sitting in front of a computer for a long period of time is neccessarily a good thing.

Unless you are playing anything that BLIZZARD made.

But chesswise, once you get fed up with the staring at the virtual chess board and clock, you only need one friend, and a real chess clock and a chess board.

  • NO PHSYICAL PREREQUISITES

The fact that chess requires very little phsyical prerequisites should be pretty SELF EVIDENT, and you might be wondering why on Earth am I mentioning it here.

The answer is rather simple. I think that the fact that chess is more INTELLECTUAL, than physical, allows people who haven’t been involved with the chess from the youngest chess to start doing it in their twenties (or potentially later) and still reach a reasonable level.

Now, I am not talking about becoming the World Champion. But I think that reaching a FM/IM level even while starting in your twenties is pretty much attainable.

Let’s draw a parallel with the table tennis once again. I am not saying that reaching a certain level is impossible in other sports, but I think it is much more hard.

Because the basic mechanicsm of learning the table tennis technique is the so called MUSCLE MEMORYIn other words, the more times the player repeats the stroke correctly, the sooner will that stroke become automatic.

However, this is very hard, if not impossible to achieve on your own. Since in order to repeat the stroke correctly, it is a must to have someone watching and correcting your every move.

Additionally, according to this article (but also my own experience), kids are faster “SPORT LEARNERS” than adults.

To conclude, since chess is a game based on logic and geometry, it is much easier to grasp things on your own later in your life. Many people I know have claimed that they have reached their intellectual heights in their later twenties.

  • LESS TIME DEPENDANT

From my perspective, this is the greatest advantage of chess compared to any sport. It is somewhat connected with the AVAILABILITY factor mentioned above.

Consider the following. In order to complete a meaningfull table tennis practice, you should spend at least one hour in the playing hall. And when you add the time required for traveling towards the hall and back, showering, etc., that number increases significantly.

In contrast to that, getting involved in chess even for 10 minutes per day may increase your playing strength if done consistently. Therefore, there is no reason for you not to solve tactics on your phone next time you are driving in a bus or holding bags while your girlfriend is shopping.

The additional benefit is that if you start doing that and your girlfriend doesn’t leave you, congratulations. You have found your soulmate! 😀

time

Anyway, I could go on for many more hours on this topic. But I think after listing the 3 main options above, it is time to move on. In the remainder of the post we will focus on the main theme of the article. And that is IMPROVING YOUR CHESS.

HOW TO GET BETTER AT CHESS

Finally we have arrived to the question that most often occupies the mind of the chess amateurs. And not only amateurs.
Too be honest, I often got the impression that people who ask this question are somewhat similar to the Croatian high scholars.

Because people often enter a lengthy discussion and philosophy about doing a certain activity.. Instead of you know… DOING IT..

Numerous articles have been written on the subject of improving your chess. And most probably following advice from any of them (as for instance from this one)  will do you no harm.

Therefore, there was no point in trying to be amazingly creative with the improvement tips.

Instead, I’ve tried to pinpoint some things that I consider especially important. I have to emphasize that this is only MY PERSONAL OPINION. And that is has worked for me only up to my current near-2200 rating.  

According to the Croatian saying, “OPINION IS LIKE AN ASS. EVERYBODY HAS IT“. Therefore, what worked for me, might not work for someone else.

But I think I have elaborated too much anyway. Without further ado, let’s look at the ways of improving your chess, one by one.

  • Play, Play, Play

The “ultimate” advice and also the most obvious one. Since it all comes down to moving the pieces on the board, without playing it is extremely hard to employ everything you have learned beforehand.

This TRUISM hold for any sport in general. And it is no accident that all of the world’s promising youngsters are constantly on the road, playing tournaments.

Naturally, the importance of the AVAILABILITY factor mentioned above comes into play here. Playing chess has never been easier. And whether it is correspondence, rapid or blitz, playing serious chess doesn’t necessarily require a huge amount of time.

Oh, and if you are really tight on schedule, you can always play some bullet instead.

bullet

  • Analyze your own games

The importance of analyzing your own games can’t be overemphasized. It still happens to me that I stubbornly play 10 blitz games in the same opening I don’t know deeply enough, one after another. And naturally, I always end up in positions I don’t know how to play and repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Whereas if I bothered to take a moment and analyze the first game briefly, I would inevitably learn something new. And it would be much more BENEFICIAL, than trying to go with my head through the wall.

In order to give you a better idea about the importance of analyzing your own games, I will quote the anecdote described by Garry Kasparov in his book My Great Predecessors, Part II, which involves the sixth World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik.

Ljubomir Ljubojevic, a promising Yugoslavian talent, was brought in front of Botvinnik. The Patriarch (Botvinnik’s nickname o.p.) asked him whether he analyzes his own games.

“What for??”, asked Ljubojevic in genuine surprise. 

“This is when I realized nothing worthwhile will come out of him”, Botvinnik later said.

Okay, the Botvinnik was probably not the most easy-going person around, but he knew a thing or two about chess. And as another Croatian saying goes: ” A SMART PERSON LEARNS ON MISTAKES OF OTHERS, A FOOL NOT EVEN ON HIS OWN.”

botvinnik

  • Study, study, study

I think this one should be self-explanatory. Without “HEATING THE CHAIR”,  there is no serious improvement. The good thing about chess is that once you spend some hours on it, it sooner or later reflects on your play.

The word that popped my mind in this context is the word REVELATION. Somehow, you “feel” that you have jumped to another level and deepened your understanding. And I can tell you that raising your level in any activity, and chess especially, is very rewarding feeling.

The good question, however, is how to study properly. My suggestion is that, unless you are willing to spend serious money on a personal trainer, CHESS BOOKS, are the way to go. I am a big believer in books in any field of human activity, and chess is no different. I think there is no better way of both grasping the basics, but also improving your strength afterwards. Books of high quality have been written about every aspect of chess play and for players of different strength.

  • Active instead of passive approach

This advice might come as a slight surprise, but it has motivated me to put a “FUNNY” Boromir MEME as a featured image on this post.

If you are serious about chess improvement, I think the best way is to engage every single of your brain cells. And like it or not, watching youtube videos, similarly as following games with the help of the engine, doesn’t force you to FOCUS and use your own brain. And FOCUS is really the key word here.

In order to make myself more clear, let me compare this situation with math learning. You are probably familiar with the “THIS – IS – SO -EASY” state of mind while the professor has been solving assignments during your math class, only to end up practising “DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT” phrase during the exam when you realize that Greek alphabet indeed has too many letters.

engineer

But how can you become ACTIVE in chess sense? One of the best tips is to watch the chess games WITHOUT THE ENGINE. Engine kills all the fun and really makes you lazy while kibitzing online.

Trying to figure the variations in your head instead of merely looking at the evaluation makes you appreciate the depth and the play of the grandmasters as well.

  • Be objective

One of the first chess websites I started visiting on a regular basis is the www.chessgames.com. And there I first encountered the art of trolling in chess, from the wonderful user named slomarko.

One of the quotes on his profile were etched forever in my brain:

” The ultimate goal in chess is objectivity. Maximum objectivity.”

I think this is very important aspect of improving your chess. Trying to be realistic and objective will help you asses your strengths and weaknesses.

It is not rare to hear something like: “I was winning, but you were sooo lucky.” after the game. I think this approach is very faulty. It is not opponent’s fault that you were unable to finish him from a position of strength. In contrast to table tennis, there are no net or edge balls in chess, and speaking about luck merely looks like an act of frustration and desperation.

Therefore, instead of concerning yourself with your opponent, you should rather think about where YOU went wrong. And although dealing with the cold truth that your play is indeed NOT THAT BRILLIANT can be harsh, if fueled correctly it can be a great tool for motivation and improvement.

  • Get chess database

As you start progressing down the road, a computer database will sooner or later become a must. If you are even remotely serious about chess, the possibility of checking your opponent’s past games beforehand is too important to be ignored. Additionally, since modern chess is very much about memorization, using a tool like opening’s book to memorize the opening variations is also very handy.

One of the most commonly used databases is Chessbase. There are loads of other possibilities apart from the ones mentioned here, but I think that laptop with the chessbase is the most important asset of any stronger chess player.

  • Using the engine

Finally, sooner or later you will start using the engine on a regular basis. Without going into a lengthy discussion about the good and the bad sides of the chess engines, I will merely express my own opinion.

I think that the development of chess engines has done wonders for chess. Nowadays, chess engines are stronger than humans. Therefore the ultimate chess truth is available to any amateur willing to put some time and effort. Similarly, as in science, I believe that knowledge should be available to anyone, and chess engines are one step toward making subtleties of the chess play closer to the broader chess public.

However, word of caution is necessary. Similarly, as any computer software, you have to know how to use the engine purposefully.

Once again let me draw a parallel with “real life”. In engineering, for instance, everyone is capable of entering some input data into computer software and obtaining some results. However interpreting those results and evaluating whether they make some sense is the harder part.

Similarly, it is very easy to make some moves and obtain the computer variations. I think that real effort behind using the chess engines includes TRYING TO UNDERSTAND why a certain move is good or bad.

If you followed any of chess game analysis on this blog (for instance Carlsen – Karjakin match, or London Chess Classic 2016 ), you may have noticed that I also use engines on a regular basis. I hope I have improved the way I analyse a great deal in the last couple of years.

However, I still vividly remember preparing for tournament games with the engine. Usually, I would reach a point in my analysis where the engine showed that the position is equal (THE ETERNAL 0.0 EVALUATION). 

Thinking everything is alright, I would happily go to a game and reach the very same position. And only here would I understand that I am not at all certain how to handle that “EQUAL” position, and would usually go to lose miserably.

Many years later it comforted me that even World Champions are not immune to relying on the computers too much.

Therefore, the important thing to remember is, “DON’T LET THE COMPUTER CONTROL YOU, BUT RATHER TRY TO MAKE IT OPPOSITE.”

engine_use

CONCLUSION

Phew… This turned out to be much longer post than I initially intended.

If you managed to last until the end of it, I have to thank you for your attention. If you have any thoughts, suggestions or comments, feel free to express yourself in the comments below.

I wish you good luck with your chess improvement and your chess goals 🙂

5 thoughts on “How to get better at chess”

  1. Hi Vjeko, WHAT A READ. Very nice reading about your thoughts about chess. I agree with you. What works for me, probably does not work for you. In my opinion the most important is, that it has to be funny to study. If not you will soon find your thoughts somewhere else.

    The problem for me is: what to study? I have several chess books and dvds. But quite seldom I get to the last page. My self-descipline is simply too low.

    Lately I tried to say: Lets go for the most difficult book to study: Dvoretskys analytical Manual. A very very nice book, filled with analysis and good advices. But it seems simply to difficult for me. So that is where I am right now. In the middle of nowhere!!
    Do you have a good advice for me?
    Thanks for a nice blog.

    Best Regards
    Henrik

    1. Hi Henrik,

      First of all I think you shouldn’t despair 🙂 To every disease there is a cure, and your problem is certainly not an unsolvable one.

      It is good that you admit that your self-discipline is too low. I think that solving this internal motivation issue is more benefitial than any chess advice I can offer.
      What makes you give up before the end? Is it because it is not interesting, you don’t enjoy it or you don’t see the purpose of studying particular material?

      I think it is quite important to determine one’s goals in chess.
      For instance, I have set myself goal to be a better chess player every day. As simple as that. That’s how I sometimes endure studying some boring material, that I still consider neccessary.

      Another principle that has helped me alot is Mark Manson’s DO SOMETHING PRINCIPLE: https://markmanson.net/do-something.
      Sometimes i procastrinate, or play blitz chess, or waste time on facebook. And then I simply open a book and solve a tactics puzzle. And suddenly I want to solve another one and another one.
      And once I have organized myself to solve 5 tactical puzzles every day, everything became much easier.

    2. Additionaly, concerning the chess studies, it is natural that one studies most what he likes. For instance, I can study the openings forever. I sometimes sit a couple of hours in front of the chessbase reading GM commentary, running engine analysis and finding out variations.
      I often try to base my opening analysis on the openings that set me big problems. For instance for quite a while I had serious problems with the Reti and English openings. Then I found a system that suits me and studied it to some extent. Then I realized i have nothing against the French. Etc.. etc…
      Therefore, for an average 2200 player openings and tactics are I think enough to at least keep that level. Naturally, for more improvement it is neccessary to devote yourself to learning strategy and serious endgame more deeply.
      But if you asked me, regular tactical exercise together with opening preparation is more than half of the work.

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