5 Easy Ways to Improve Your
Getting Better at Chess Isn't as
Tough as You Might Think
by Steve Lopez
I've been in the chess software/publishing business for more than fifteen years and I think I've learned quite a bit about chess and its practitioners, both amateur and professional. But if I've learned one thing above all, it's this: dang near everybody's looking for a shortcut. If I had a buck for every time I've been asked "Will this program/book make me a Grandmaster?" I'd be lying on a sandy beach somewhere drinking a cold Shiner Bock with Reckless Kelly as my permanent "house band" and a bevy of Southern belles and Texas cowgirls rubbing suntan oil all over me. Nice thought, but it ain't gonna happen. Neither will "insta-improvement" occur simply by the purchase of a computer program or a particular book. In fact, "insta-improvement" doesn't happen at all.
Let's just face the fact: if becoming a Grandmaster was easy, we'd all be one. The sad truth is that fewer than 1% of the world's chessplayers earn the GM title, and fewer than 5% achieve any kind of title.
But it's not all gloom and doom. Every chess player has the potential to improve, even if we don't get good enough to earn the right to place some coveted abbreviation in front of our names. Best of all, it's not all that tough to get better at this game; even though chess' learning curve does become steeper the farther we progress, there's always a way to add a few more skills to our arsenal and a few more points to our ratings. It's really pretty easy, and that's what we're going to discuss here: five easy ways to improve your chess.
Note that I said "five easy ways". Not "the only five easy ways", nor "the five easiest ways". Just five easy tips - and if an idiot like me can figure them out and make them work, they'll work for anybody. Trust me on this.
So let's get started, huh?
1. Tactics, Tactics, Tactics
I spent a lot of years knocking around chess clubs and I've seen my share of upsets happen. You might have seen a few yourself; in the midst of a tournament game, suddenly the word starts going around that Jim, rated 13xx, is taking apart one of the 1900-rated or Expert-titled "top guns". Despite the normally quiet atmosphere, the "buzz" starts and you see players getting up on their opponents' turn and walking over to see what's happening in Jim's game. Sure enough, Jim's laying a whuppin' on one of the club's top players.
If you've seen this happen (as I have) and you take the time to find out what kind of chess reading material Jim's been carrying around in his tournament gig bag (as I've done), you're not likely to see "Winning with the Najdorf" or "Be a Killer with the Ruy Lopez". These books have their uses, of course, but what you're more likely to see in Jim's equipment bag is a battered, dogeared copy of "One Zillion and One Tactics Puzzles".
Yup, friends, it's true. Studying tactics is going to improve your chess game a whole lot faster than rote memorization of boatloads of opening variations. In fact, studying and practicing tactics will improve your chess a whole lot quicker than any other kind of chess study (although studying endgames runs a really close second). If you learn to recognize tactical opportunities as they present themselves, you're going to start racking up more wins. The next step, of course, is learning how to create those opportunites. But neither of these happy circumstances will occur if you don't even begin a program of tactical study.
It doesn't even have to be anything elaborate or terrifically well-organized. Just solve five or so tactics problems every day. That's it. It's just like an "easy weight loss program" except that this actually works. Don't spend two hours every day solving dozens or scores of tactics problems - that just turns your brain to mud. Simply solve five (or ten, if you're feeling ambitious) tactics puzzles each day and, most important of all, take the time to understand the problems. Look at them and figure out why they work as they do.
There are a truckload of tactics books available. The better ones offer text explanations of each type of chess tactic, along with examples and lots of problems to solve. Start with one of these; after you finish it grab one of the "Bazillion and One Tactics Puzzles" books and work your way through that.
A higher-tech, but no less effective, solution involves working your way through the numerous software programs which offer tactics training (descriptions and puzzles) in an organized manner. While not as portable as a print book, these programs often have the advantage of allowing you to finish the game - in other words, after you've solved the problem and won the material, you keep playing the game out to a conclusion. You cop off your opponent's Rook, then play the game out to try to use that overwhelming material advantage to polish off your opponent. (You don't often win a piece at the chess club and see your opponent fold up and resign on the spot; at least that never happened at the clubs I played at, so you may as well get used to the idea early that you're gonna have to finish out the game).
Either way, solving tactics problems is easy and it's fun. You're not going to see "insta-improvement", but if you solve just a few problems a day (and understand why the problem works the way it does), you're going to start seeing and exploiting these opportunites in your own games. And that equals "better chess" in my book.
2. Replay the Games of Better Players
Chess history is full of great games which can be played and enjoyed over and over again. That's why chess notation was invented - so that games wouldn't be "lost to posterity". The act of playing over such games is easy (there's that word again), fun, and contains an immeasurable amount of instructional value. You can learn a lot about chess (by "osmosis" if nothing else) just by replaying the games of better players.
This is one reason why chess database programs are so popular. With a few mouse clicks you can find thousands of games to replay, searching for just what interests you: by opening, player name, tournament, board position, position fragment, material balance, and on and on. Even the makers of "mass market" chessplaying programs (the kind you can buy at Wal-Mart or a mall store) recognize the value of such a feature, which is why just about every chessplaying program offered in the last decade or so has contained a hefty database of thousands of searchable games as part of the software package.
It's best to try to find annotated (i.e. "commented") games to replay, but even if everything in your database is just a raw, uncommented gamescore, you should still use the games for enjoyment and improvement. Play through a game slowly and try to figure out why each player made those particular moves. Good chess players will play with a plan and a purpose, not just make aimless moves. Try to figure out the overall plan, even if you don't understand every last detail of each individual move.
If you prefer the "low tech" route, there are scores of game collections in print. Many of these books are all the games of a single tournament or the collected complete games of a particular player, but there are also lots of books of the "300 Great Chess Games" variety available. All are useful, and books containing games with commentary areespecially so. Playing through tournament collections can be especially fun if you follow it like a sporting event, playing the games in order, round by round, and cheering on your favorite player(s). This approach was recommended for years by my friend (the late) Ken Smith, and I had a great deal of fun following Ken's advice as I played through many games contained in tournament books.
You don't even have to replay the games of top-level chessplayers to benefit from the act of reviewing games. Many state chess federations (and some local chess clubs) publish newsletters (and even magazines) containing games from regional and local tournaments. I have a good-sized collection of these periodicals and have spent many an enjoyable hour replaying the games of "average joes" I've found therein. I've learned quite a lot from these games, even if it's a "negative example" lesson ("How to lose a chess game - don't do this!"). Replaying the games of other chess players is another easy way to improve your own game.
3. Play Chess as Often as You Can
Don't give up time with your family or lose you job over it, but do play as much chess as you have time for (or can stand). You can study chess for hours and hours, but none of that study time will do you a lick of good if you don't ever try applying that knowledge by playing the game.
We live in interesting times in which there's no excuse for not playing chess if you've a mind to do so. When I was a teenager in the 1970's, the only ways to get a game were to sit down physically face to face with anoOher person or by playing a postal chess game. The very few chess computers available were hideously expensive (and, truth be known, most were pretty poor players), and the Internet hadn't been developed yet. These days you can play chess any time of the day or night against a software program, a handheld or tabletop machine, or against other human players online. The opportunites for playing chess are myriad and varied. Take advantage of those opportunites!
Even if you choose not to study the game at all, you're bound to improve your chess just by playing the game. The more you play, the better you get. It's that -- ahem -- easy.
Chess is a pretty portable game, too. Handheld LCD chess games can be purchased for just a few dollars. Several chess software programs are available for Palm or Pocket units. I own several touch-sensitive "peg" chess computers which also double nicely as "analysis" chess sets for playing over games from books and magazines. In fact, if you just want a portable non-computerized chess set for "on the go", you can often find several cheap sets at toy/"dollar" stores. I seldom travel without one and I've enjoyed playing hundreds of games of "pocket set" chess with people in restaurants/taverns across several U.S. states and in two countries.
4. Record and Review Your Games
Write down your moves! If you don't know how, you'll find a tutorial about algebraic chess notation on this very Web site.
Write down the moves to every game you play. Record them later in a chess database program or, if you don't have one, a paper scorebook (you can even use a cheap steno pad or composition book for this purpose). Replay your own games and try to figure out what you did right and wrong. Very often you'll find that the answer isn't even anything mysterious or profound. In my pre-computer days I used to write all of my games down in a scorebook and replay them as I was transcribing them; you wouldn't believe the number of times I smacked myself in the forehead (while having an "Oh, #$%&$!" moment) as I saw something I'd done wrong - something perfectly obvious in retrospect but which had somehow eluded me during the actual game.
It's even better if you can get help in reviewing your games. See if a stronger player at the chess club is willing to sit down with you and review a few of your games. It doesn't even have to be a super-strong titled player; a player who's just better will do in a pinch. In fact, a lot of club players really love the "post mortem" activity of reviewing a just-finished game. I've learned an awful lot of chess simply by reviewing my latest thrashing with the guy or gal who'd just clobbered me.
These "post mortems" are also a strength of chessplaying software programs. Any chess program worth its salt over the last decade has included a game analysis feature: you can take literally any game and feed it to the computer, receiving information (usually provided in numerical format) on better moves which could have been played. Quite a few programs even offer a selection of different chess "brains" for playing and analysis; you often can have more than one chess program analyze your game and get slightly different information from each.
5. Take Chess Seriously, But Don't Treat it Like Work
Hey, it's certainly possible to play chess for years and never treat it as anything more than an interesting way to pass your free time or idle moments; in fact, the majority of people who know how the horsie moves treat chess exactly in this manner. Conversely, you can live like a "chess monk" and spend every moment (even in your dreams) thinking of nothing but chess, never enjoying a conversation unless it deals with the intricacies of the Richter-Rouser Variation and always greeting a new acquaintance with "What's your rating?" instead of "Pleased to meet you".
The majority of us fall somewhere in-between these extremes (at least I think you do - if you were a very casual chessplayer I doubt you'd have read this far, and if you were uber-serious you'd still be scratching your head over my first one-liner). But a mistake too many of us make is to look at time spent in chess improvement as some kind of drudgery. If you look upon your chess study time (or even playing time) as a grind, it's time to take a step back. Put chess aside for a week or two. Watch some movies. Play some Halo. Go to a ball game. Have a lemonade or a beer. Think about something besides chess.
You'll be surprised at how positively it'll affect your approach and attitude about the game. You'll come back fresh and suddenly the good moves come more easily, the chess problems are easier to solve, the instructional materials are easier to understand. Are you spotting the key word here? It's "easy". Sometimes the easiest way to tackle something is to start by putting it aside for awhile.
As for the "chess monk" angle I previously mentioned, chess is actually a social activity at its core. Other people are just that: people, not obstacles to be overcome or enemies to be trounced. Some of the most fun I've had as a chessplayer has occurred while just talking about the game with other players.
Back in the old days, I was part of a small "study group" of players. We were tired of some of our mutual opponents who treated each game as some kind of "life and death" struggle, the kinds of guys who seldom smiled or laughed, who often said something snottily sarcastic if they chose to speak at all, the kins of guys who play the same three openings over and over and over until their play became dry as dust. My friends and I started examining and discussing gambits and sacrifices, experimenting with ideas, and calling ourselves "The Kamikazes". We learned a lot of chess together and forged some good friendships (and years later I expanded the idea until it became an international online club called "Chess Kamikazes"). We all came together to "stick it in the eye" of stodgy unpleasant over-dogmatic players, and wound up having a whale of a good time and a ton of laughs along the way. And all of us became better players as a result.
I've been a chess writer for more than a decade; the vast majority of my work ends with the injunction "Have fun". That's been entirely deliberate; chess is fun when it's at its best. And when something is fun, engaging in it and improving at it becomes easy. The inimitable Yogi Berra once said of baseball that "Ninety percent of this game is half mental"; mangled thought the sentiment may be, it also applies to chess.
Change your attitude and change the game. (Re)learn to relax and have fun with chess, and the rest will come much more easily.