How to Get Good at Chess, Fast: A simple, step-by-step guide to rapid chess improvement

Edit: This article on chess improvement was unexpectedly popular, reaching #2 on Hacker News and being linked to on LifeHacker. Thanks for your patience as I work through all the comments and emails I receive.

Last updated: July 27, 2017

There are many misconceptions about rapid chess improvement. In this post I’m going to lay out a simple but effective way to get good at chess, fast.

This system is based on lessons learned from my own chess improvement and from coaching others. The good news is that you can become better than the vast majority of other players with minimal but targeted effort.

What does it mean to be “good” at chess?

Magnus Carlsen’s meteoric rise to the top ranked player in the world (at age 19), the highest chess rating in history (age 22), and as of a few days ago, the title of World Chess Champion (age 22) has brought with it a renewed interest in chess. This is exciting, because Carlsen represents the first real hope of renewing chess’s mass appeal since the days of Bobby Fischer1.

In the context of discussions about Magnus Carlsen, many people mentioned that they enjoyed playing chess but quit because of the sheer time commitment it took to get “good.”

I define “good” as the 90th percentile among the player pool you’re competing against. In competitive chess in the United States, that means a United States Chess Federation (USCF) Elo rating of about 18002. If you’re a casual player playing against your friends, my guess is that 90th percentile is around 900. Even though I was only rated 1100 when I first began playing competitively, I was already able to beat the vast majority of non-competitive players.

The goal here is to help you get good, fast, with minimal effort.

Results with this system

I actively trained for a period of about 3.5 years using a (much, much less disciplined) version of this system, during which my rating increased from 1100 to 1950, a 135 fold increase I strength3. In one 12 month period I improved from 1198 to 1639. I improved even faster with my quick rating (games with less than 30 minutes per side), where I went from 1001 to 1740 in 15 months (75 fold increase in playing strength).

My first experience using these ideas with other players was in high school, when I began coaching the lowest ranked player in our chess club. Within a few months he had improved so rapidly that he represented the school in the state championships and won every single game in the tournament.

Given that I managed to do this despite my own inexperience and mistakes with studying chess and my own laziness, I’m convinced others can improve much more quickly if they follow this system strictly4.

The system

Since this article is meant for both casual and competitive players, I specify minimum rating requirements when appropriate. If you’re a casual player and this is overkill for your goals, skip to the footnotes for a much simpler system5.

Playing

To improve quickly you need to play often. If you are (or aspire to be) a competitive player, play as many over-the-board (OTB) tournaments as possible. In my heyday I played 3-4 tournaments per month. Online is not enough! Use online games (15 minutes per side or slower) to practice openings or for practice if there is no tournament for a while. If you’re a casual player, play OTB chess with your friends as much as you can, and play online if nobody wants to play with you.

Tactics

I did two types of tactics training. The first was “Chess Vision” and “Knight Sight” exercises, as described in this article. They may sound stupid, but they work. I did these exercises every day for two weeks initially, and then would do them the day of a tournament and once in a while as a refresher.

My primary method of tactics training was using Chess Tactics for Beginners, which is absolutely fantastic.

If you only buy one thing to help your chess game, this should be it. I did 50 puzzles per day, every day, and once I finished the entire CD I repeated the process six more times. Online tactics sites usually don’t cut it, because they aren’t structured so that you learn based off previous ideas and many don’t incorporate the pedagogical features of Chess Tactics for Beginners. Trust me, paying for CTB is worth it. If it becomes too easy for you (which won’t be a problem until you hit about 1600), use it as a refresher from time to time and get Chess Tactics for Intermediate Players.

If I had to recommend a book to accompany such study (which is helpful, since the above software doesn’t actually have any explanatory text), I’d recommend Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player for intermediate players, and Winning Chess Tactics for less experienced players.

 

        

I’ll admit, there is a bit of a leap between solving tactics puzzles and applying it to real games–obviously nobody’s going to tell you when a tactic is available, and you won’t be “primed” to find tactics the way you would be when solving a bunch of puzzles. To counteract this I created a binder of puzzles taken from tactics I missed in my games, and reviewed them from time to time.

Analysis

Analysis is by far the most undervalued part of chess training. As a kid I barely analyzed my games after tournaments, because I was lazy. This was a huge mistake—your games are worth their weight in gold! Learn algebraic chess notation so you can write down your moves, and analyze your games using the method outlined in this article. Use the analysis phase to brush up on your openings and endgames and practice your strategic play. If possible, have a stronger player go over your games with you after you’ve done your own analysis.

One big mistake is to rely heavily on computers for chess analysis. Too often, players use computers as a crutch to replace their own study of the game. Working through games on your own and trying to find the best moves and ideas is highly instructive. Computer analysis should be done only after you analyze the game on your own, so you can compare your analysis to the computer’s and unearth any mistakes you made in assessing critical positions in the game.

Openings

One of the biggest mistakes players make is to devote massive amounts of time to openings. This is because openings tend to be very concrete, and beginners think that simply memorizing an opening will give them an unassailable advantage over their opponents6.

Don’t bother spending any time studying openings outside of analyzing your games. Just make sure you know the basic opening principles. I teach my beginning students simple openings like the London System as white, and a kingside fianchetto system as black7. These openings are simple, solid, can be played against virtually anything.

Once you hit 1600, get a good opening book that gives you both specific moves and the ideas behind the opening. Don’t mindlessly memorize! Some good books here are Alburt’s Chess Openings for Black, Explained (I hear Chess Openings for White, Explained is pretty good but I’ve never used it), and Cox’s Starting Out: 1. d4!8.

         

Obviously this depends on your opening preferences. Even here openings should not be your main focus. I only consult these books when analyzing my games to see where I deviated from established opening theory

Strategy

Until you hit 1400-1500, you should be picking up strategic play from analyzing your games and going over annotated games. Once you hit that level, I recommend Silman’s The Amateur’s Mind and Seirawan’s Winning Chess Strategies. 

         

Once you hit 1800, Silman’s Reassess Your Chess, Fourth Edition.

Endgame

After learning the basic checkmates (King and Queen vs. King, King and Rook vs. King, etc.), Silman’s Complete Endgame Course is the only book you need. Study the appropriate section based on your rating, and only come back to it if it’s clear that you keep messing up endgames.

Annotated Games

Go over at least one annotated game a week (and more frequently if you’re a serious competitive player). A good annotated game book is Winning Chess Brilliancies by Seirawan. I hear the Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games is pretty good too, but I can’t personally vouch for it.

                

Psychology

Magnus Carlsen is my favorite chess player. In equal positions where many grandmasters would agree to a draw, Carlsen patiently pushes and probes, waiting until his opponent cracks and then grinding out a win. Magnus Carlsen is the world’s best player because he doesn’t give up.

When I was younger, I had an unfortunate habit of withdrawing from tournaments where I was doing badly. I made various excuses, but usually I withdrew because I had mentally given up after a few demoralizing losses. I did the same thing in chess games—after making a major mistake, I mentally gave up.

If chess is anything, it is a game of second chances. Chess, like life, rewards perseverance. I’ve turned countless losses into draws and wins because my opponents got overconfident while I dug in. I’ve also turned wins into losses because I was too intimidated by my opponent’s rating or reputation.

Chess psychology can be distilled to two simple rules:

  1. Don’t ever be afraid of your opponent
  2. Fight as hard as you can until the game is over9

Simply following these rules will add hundreds of points to your rating.

General Advice

Study broader topics, like strategy or endgame, only when you feel like that topic is causing you to lose. For instance, only open a strategy book if you keep getting outplayed positionally. Otherwise, your default state should be studying tactics and analyzing your games.

The tl;dr of this training plan is: play a lot, analyze your games, and primarily study tactics. Your knowledge of openings, endgame, middlegame, etc. will come from analyzing your games and going over grandmaster games. Only study one of those specific topics if it is clear you are specifically losing because of that topic.

Recommended Materials

This is just a compiled list of all the stuff I recommended in this article, and rating recommendations for each item.

Analysis

A hardcore guide to analyze your chess games (all levels)

Annotated Games

Winning Chess Brilliancies (1000+)

Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games* (1500+)

Endgame

Silman’s Complete Endgame Course (1000+)

Openings

The books will vary depending on your individual opening preferences

Starting Out: 1. d4! (1600+)

Chess Openings for Black, Explained (1600+)

Chess Openings for White, Explained* (1600+)

Strategy

The Amateur’s Mind (1400+)

Winning Chess Strategies (1400-1800)

Reassess Your Chess, Fourth Edition (1800+)

Tactics

Chess Vision and Knight Sight exercises from 400 Points in 400 Days Part I (all levels)

Chess Tactics for Beginners (all levels up to 1600)

Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player (1400+)

Winning Chess Tactics (1000+)

* I haven’t personally used these items

Tournament Materials

If you’re playing in tournaments, you’ll need three more items: a chess clock (pretty much mandatory, since tournaments don’t provide them), a tournament chess set (sometimes tournaments provide them, sometimes they don’t, and it’s useful to have a set to analyze between rounds), and a scorebook (optional, but highly recommended).

Chronos Chess Clock: This is the clock most serious players use, because it’s built to last. Mine is ten years old and still running strong, despite lots of drops and falls. Two cheaper clocks I bought before my Chronos eventually broke; in the long run, the Chronos is the cheapest clock to buy. Nonetheless, if $100 is too much, I recommend the DGT North American Clock.

Triple Weighted Tournament Chess Set: A chess set is another long-term investment; you want one that’ll last. Weighted pieces feel so much nicer than hollow, plastic pieces, and are less likely to get knocked over during time scrambles when both sides have little time on the clock. However, here’s a cheaper, unweighted set as well.

Deluxe Chess Tournament Scorebook with Lay Flat Binding: This is the scorebook I use to notate my chess games (required in most chess tournaments). The cheaper, spiral bound scorebooks with paper covers eventually rip and tear, while this holds twice as many games (100, versus 50) and lasts forever.

United States Chess Federation Official Rules of Chess, Fifth Edition: This is strictly optional, but the official USCF rulebook is useful to have in case of disputes (for US players, of course). I’ve used my copy to successfully appeal unfair rulings made by tournament directors.

What about all the chess books I already have?

If you’re like many other chess players, you’ve accumulated many chess books that you simply don’t need for rapid chess improvement. My advice: trade them in for Amazon gift cards.

Other posts on chess improvement I’ve written:

Using Data to Improve Your Chess

Footnotes:

1 – Fischer’s appeal was that he was a sole American fighting against the Soviet machine that had dominated chess since World War II, and is 1972 World Championship match against Russia’s Boris Spassky was imbued with Cold War symbolism. Carlsen’s appeal is his incredible talent, his youth, his normalcy (compared to Fischer’s infamous egotism and antics) and yes, even his looks.

2 – I couldn’t find recent aggregate percentile data, but the USCF provides percentile data for individual active players, so I determined rating percentiles by looking up individual player ratings. The 50th percentile is around 800.

3 – I stopped playing serious competitive chess about four years ago (when I was 16, rated about 1950) because I got burned out. I still plan on someday making a return to competitive chess, and when I do I’ll pretty much be using this system to train and improve.

4 – I think the only reason I managed to improve reasonably quickly despite being so undisciplined about training was because I was young (my main competitive years were from age 13-16), I played a lot, and I had at least some natural aptitude. How quickly could I have improved if I had followed this system in a disciplined way? Probably about twice as fast.

5 – Here’s a very simplified guide for beginning players who want to improve rapidly in a month or two

  1. Learn the basic opening principles: control the center, develop your pieces, and king safety. Googling this should yield useful articles.

  2. Learn the basic checkmates: King + Queen vs King, King and two Rooks vs King, and King and one Rook vs King

  3. Get Chess Tactics for Beginners and do 50 puzzles a day

  4. Do the Chess Vision and Knight Sight exercises from 400 Points in 400 Days Part I

  5. Play as much as you can

  6. If possible, go over your games with a stronger player

6 – A lot of this is just to impress other players. It’s a common sight at chess tournaments to see players rattling off complicated sounding opening variations. At first these players intimidated me, but as I grew stronger I realized that these players were often the easiest to beat. Just get ’em out of the openings and crush ’em with tactics!

7 – This setup involves the moves Nf6, g6, d6, Bg7, and O-O, resulting in a setup as seen below. Experienced players might point out that this could lead to the King’s Indian Defense or the Pirc Defense, which turn out to be rather complicated openings. This is true, but you can play both these openings with little theoretical knowledge up to the 1600 level and still be fine.

8 – Incidentally, I own but don’t recommend the book’s counterpart, Starting Out: 1.e4!

9 – This doesn’t mean never, ever, resign. If you’re down a queen in an absolutely hopeless position against a strong opponent, it’s good etiquette to resign rather than needlessly drag on the game. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “If my opponent were playing Magnus Carlsen in this position, would Carlsen be able to win?” If the answer is yes, keep playing. If it is no, then resign.


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Using Data to Improve Your Chess

Using Data to Improve Your Chess

When I was 16, I went on a hiatus from competitive chess. Although I would occasionally play in tournaments for fun and out of habit, I stopped actively training and sure enough plunged in the rankings. But by early 2012, I had grown frustrated with losing and was ready to come back. I spent all of January studying and playing training games, and I registered for a four round tournament in early February.

As is typical in Swiss paired tournaments, the first round was heavily mismatched, and I quickly dispatched a lower rated opponent. In the second round, I played black against a strong opponent. My opponent played an offbeat opening that gave me a nice, nearly winning advantage, which I promptly threw away. I had to settle for a hard fought draw.

The third round was a quick win with white against another fairly strong opponent. Although I wasn’t familiar with the opening, I was in control the entire game, leading to this flashy sacrificial win:

I was 2.5/3 moving into the final round, and winning this game would assure me first place in the tournament. I played as black, and the game started in a familiar opening. But by move ten I was feeling uncomfortable with my position. I struggled under the mounting psychological pressure, and collapsed on move 16, resigning a few moves later.

As I drove home from the chess center, no prize money nor rating gains in hand, I wondered about the results. Was it just a coincidence that I had struggled so much with black and dominated with white? Or was there something deeper going on? When I reached home, I looked through the results of all of the tournaments I had played in the last year. Was there a connection between my performance with white and black?

Here were my results:

White
Score: 7.5/13
Rating Performance: 2009

Black
Score: 3.5/10
Rating Performance: 1661

The weighted average of my performance rating was 1858, identical to my rating after the tournament. Converting the rating difference to statistical predictions, my performance suggested that I was 7.3 times stronger as white than I was as black. What was causing this enormous disparity? The advantage white gets from having the first move is so slight that it shouldn’t have any impact below professional level. I analyzed my games, and noticed a pattern with the ones I played as black. In those games, I would often struggle in the opening, and make uncharacteristic positional mistakes or blunders. I often got far behind on time, overthinking positions. I didn’t have confidence in my play, and usually thought my position was much worse than it was objectively was. Eventually the psychological pressure would reach a breaking point and I would collapse.

This all had to do with the psychological effect of openings. With white, having the first move allowed me to steer the position into one that I was comfortable with, even if the opening was unknown. With black that comfort often isn’t there, and in many of my games the psychological pressure of being in an uncomfortable (though not necessarily bad) position and taken out of book1 caused me to make some terrible positional mistakes and outright tactical blunders. In the best case, I would hold onto a decent position but get far behind in time.

I spent the next week focusing on two things: improving my opening knowledge as black, and keeping my cool in psychologically uncomfortable positions. At the end of the week, I played in a large, multi-day tournament. There were some close calls, but in the end I won the tournament with a score of 4.5/5, 1.5 points ahead of the next player and with the widest margin of any section winner in the entire tournament. This was the first time in two years—since the time I was at my peak—that I had won a major tournament. My performance was as follows:

Overall

Score: 4.5/5

Rating Performance: 2075

White

Score: 2/2

Rating Performance: 2270

Black

Score: 2.5/3

Rating Performance: 1920

There’s a viable argument that I just had a good tournament, since I outperformed with white as well as black, and the difference in performance rating was still about 350 points. But then, maybe it was a positive feedback loop from doing well with black. After all, there is a large psychological carryover from previous games in chess. I could have played much better as white by not being as psychologically or physically drained from games I played with black. It’s hard to tell from one tournament.

Nonetheless, I noticed a definite shift in the way I was playing and how I was psychologically reacting to unfamiliar positions. And regardless of the result after merely one week of training, I was able to pinpoint a weakness and target my training regimen appropriately. I seemed poised to make my comeback to chess. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Chess Center, where the vast majority of tournaments in Georgia are held, went bankrupt just a few weeks later and so my return was put on indefinite hold.

There is a lot of potential for this sort of approach. When chess players decide what to study, it’s typically off of gut instinct. It’s easy enough to see which specific areas of your strictly chess abilities are weak (there are books for that), but data driven analysis can give insights into the less obvious areas of chess performance. In addition to performance with each color, you could analyze performance at different time controls, different levels of tiredness (rounds early on in a tournament versus later rounds), and even individual opponents2.

It would be interesting to develop machine learning and data analysis algorithms to look at these areas. The main problem here is that data is not easily available. Although the United States Chess Federation (USCF) keeps a database of wins, losses, and rating changes, they have no API for access, and they only recently started (sporadically) tracking which games were played as white and black. Popular chess software, like Fritz and Chessbase, can automate this somewhat, because they allow you to filter games by ratings, openings, and dates. This would help narrow down the games to analyze, but most of the useful data analysis still has to be done by hand. Writing data mining software for chess would be a cool project, but it wouldn’t automate everything. Some components of chess performance (tiredness, psychology) are qualitative. Data mining can find patterns, but it’s up to you to figure out what those patterns mean. Using this software would also require the user to keep many detailed records that the USCF doesn’t: time control, color, notes on psychological and physical conditions, etc.

But in the end, the effort would be well worth it. Facebook and Google are successful because they mine data to offer targeted advertisements to their users. Amazon and Netflix use machine learning to predict what products and shows you’ll like. And using data, you can target your chess training for better results.

 

1 “Out of book” means out of the previously established opening theory.

2 Analyzing results against individuals can actually be a very useful exercise. Many times, a statistically poor score against an individual (say, scoring 2/7 against an equally rated opponent) can reveal weaknesses against particular openings, playing styles, or psychological conditions.

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