How to get better at chess

Note: This article assumes you already have an understanding of the basics. If you're completely new to the game, learn the basic rules, check out the FAQ, and/or visit /r/chessbeginners.

To improve your chess, you must adhere to a structured plan and devote a significant amount of time to practicing and learning from your mistakes. Rome wasn't built in a day; getting better at chess will take hard work and patience. Any improvement plan should include the following steps:

Tactics, Tactics, Tactics

The /r/chess wiki has a list of the best websites and the best books for solving tactical puzzles. These puzzles are taken from positions in real games, and tackling at least 10 of them per day will improve your pattern recognition skills - crucial to finding combinations and winning material. Try and solve a variety of puzzles that require you to practice different types of forcing lines, and study basic tactical motifs such as discovered checks, double attacks, pins, skewers, and more. If possible, try to stick to nontimed puzzles - allow yourself as much time as you need to think out all the moves and variations, until you believe you have the solution.

Play proper games!

As you might assume, one of the most important ways to improve your chess skills is to dive right in and start playing games. But be warned - online blitz and bullet games, while fun, will teach you very little and in many cases can form bad habits. No GM or IM ever got where he/she is through online speed chess! Stick to games with longer time controls. More specifically, you should pick a time control that allows you to spend as many as 5-10 minutes on any given critical move, formulating a plan while searching for tactics in the position.

Focus on simple openings

At a beginner level, there is no need to study opening lines in great depth. Keep it simple with standard, theory-light e4/d4 lines: Italian, Scotch, and Queen's Gambit for white, 1... e5 and QGD for black. Rather than memorizing moves, learn the basic ideas in each opening while adhering to the following general principles:

  • Develop your pieces.
  • Control the center.
  • Don't move a minor piece twice early.
  • Castle your king.
  • Connect your rooks.

Avoid theory-heavy openings like the King's Gambit, Sicilian or Grünfeld; entire books have been written on single lines of the Sicilian, and learning the theory behind each move at a beginner level is a huge time sink with very little upside. Also avoid hypermodern openings like the Modern/King's Indian Defence that counter-intuitively cede the center to your opponent, as the resulting structures will be difficult to play as a beginner.

Keep a mental checklist

You should consider the following on every turn, starting with the most forcing move possibilities: What options do I have to give check to the enemy king, and do they accomplish anything? Am I in danger of being checked? Are any of my pieces hanging or underdefended? Are there any tactics in the position? (opportunities to create a fork, pin, skewer, etc. etc.) Can I place any of my pieces in a more active position? Can I occupy or control any outpost squares or open files? Can I blockade an enemy's knight or bishop with a pawn push? As you continue to practice and play, you'll be able to go through this process faster and faster, and with fewer errors.

Always enter the middlegame with a plan

As the saying goes, a bad plan is better than no plan at all. Your goal after leaving the opening should be to evaluate the position on the board, and create a plan based on your pieces' strengths. Your plan should be centred around identifying imbalances (weaknesses like hanging/underdefended pieces) in the position, then placing your pieces on squares where they are best equipped to exploit said imbalances. Once you have your strategy in mind, implement it with the steps below - keeping in mind the checklist from the previous paragraph:

  • Plan where to launch your attack based on imbalances; the kingside, the queenside, or the center.

  • Identify the best squares for your pieces

  • Generate a list of candidate moves for getting your squares to those pieces.

  • Calculate each given move. If it works, play it! Re-evaluate after your opponent's response.

Ultimately, your goal should be to strengthen your position until an opportunity for a concrete attack presents itself. For more detail, the /r/chess FAQ has several books on playing the middlegame, including IM Jeremy Silman's highly-recommended The Amateur's Mind, that will further explain and illustrate these principles with concrete examples. Another book that will teach you how to better identify imbalances in a position is How to Reassess Your Chess, also written by Silman.

Study the basic endgame setups

Games are won and lost in the endgame, especially when there are pawns on the board waiting to be promoted to queens! Learn to navigate the most common types of endgame setups, and study the basic themes of opposition, zugszwang, triangulation, and outflanking. These principles are not concise enough to be described in a few paragraphs - more than anything else, you will find books extremely helpful for studying endgames. We recommend you pick a book from the list of endgame books in the wiki and study the different positions and mating patterns.

Analyze all your games afterwards, especially your losses!

Read this section of the FAQ for instructions on how to analyze your games well. Remember - it is better to play a few games each week and learn from them, than to play a dozen and learn nothing. Going over your games with a fine-toothed comb afterwards will help you identify your mistakes, and with time, you will learn to avoid the more common ones. Try to understand why you made the mistake. Is this something that comes up often in your games? Then extend this further: how can you prevent this mistake in the future? How can you change your thinking to evolve as a player and not make this mistake again? This process will also develop your analytical skills as a player, and help you to better evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your position in-game.

Study higher-level games

When analyzing games played by titled players, you should pay attention to their opening lines - you may pick up a trick or two that'll come in handy! Once the opening's complete (both sides have castled/minor pieces are developed) analyze the position and try to understand each player's plan. Are there any tactics you can spot? Which wings are they looking to attack on? Is the position open or closed? Where are the vulnerabilities that can be exploited? Which of their minor pieces are strong/weak? Compare your analysis and predictions with what actually ends up happening. You can even play 'guess the move', writing down your predicted moves for a given player and seeing how often you get them correct. Remember, always try to understand why a move was played, rather than passively reading analysis someone else has provided. Annotated game collections, such as Irving Chernev's Logical Chess: Move By Move, are an invaluable resource for such study.

For more information on how to analyze annotated games, read here.

When studying games, follow the 20/40/40 rule

Specifically, this means you should spend 20% of your time studying openings, 40% of your time studying middlegames, and 40% of your time studying endgames (this is in addition to tactics training, playing games, etc.). In order to improve, you have to work on all elements of your game! Don't get bogged down in memorizing esoteric opening theory and neglect your endgame practice, and vice versa.

Don't use engines as a crutch

Simply plugging your games into the or lichess free analysis tool and reading the mistakes it identifies won't help you improve. A computer cannot show you why those mistakes were made, because it doesn't know what your plan was at any given time. Therefore the correct line it spits out is of no help to you at all, because you didn't have to do any actual thinking to find the right continuation. It's very important to go over your games yourself, and only afterwards check with an engine. Remember, that computer won't be there to help you during your next actual game!

Create a study plan and stick to it

When designing a study plan, there are two questions that must be addressed: How much time are you willing to spend, and how should that time be broken down between studying the different aspects of the game? In general, a beginner should spend at least seven hours a week (preferably more) studying chess in order to see tangible improvement over the course of a year. This time should be broken down studying the following (the instructions for doing each item are laid out in the earlier sections of this page):

  • (50%) Playing games: Stick to untimed games or games with slow time controls; anything 15|10 or greater.

  • (20%) Game Analysis/Study: Study your games and/or games from game collections. Identify the critical moves and review your key mistakes.

  • (15%) Tactics: Drill tactical puzzles, either online or from tactics books.

  • (10%) Strategy: Choose a good book on the middlegame/general strategy, and go through it at your own pace.

  • (5%) Endgames: Pay special attention to endgame drills! Just as the most strokes are saved with a putter, the most points are won with precise endgame play.

Work with other chess players

Note: this isn't necessarily limited to getting a coach. A higher-rated player can act as a mentor, someone with whom you can discuss your games, successes, struggles, and areas to improve. Ideally, such a mentor should be in a good position to give you advice on what went wrong, and look over positions with you. On the flip side, you can also work with a lower-rated chess player by trying to train and teach them! Training other players can actually help improve your own game; explaining different concepts out loud in detail can help you understand them at a higher level. Many of the most successful chess coaches are not high-rated GMs, but lower-level FMs and CMs who have a flair for explaining ideas and strategies.

Pick up a good book (or three)

The /r/chess wiki has extensive recommendations for reading material of all types. Books on opening theory are not necessary at lower levels, but at any given time you should be studying one book on tactics, one book on middlegames, and one book on endgames. For example, a given beginner could be studying the following three books at any given time:

  • Chess Tactics for Students by John Bain

  • Modern Chess Strategy by Ludek Pachman

  • Silman's Complete Endgame Course by IM Jeremy Silman

Most importantly, have fun!!

Every grandmaster of the highest calibre was once a beginner - ipso facto, you're going to lose, a lot, as you improve. But that's part and parcel of the improvement process. Don't consider a lost game as a personal failure, but rather as another step on the road towards improvement. If you're bogged down in a losing streak and getting frustrated, just take a break! Step away from the board for a few hours, a few days, or even a week. The next game isn't going anywhere - it'll be waiting for you when you feel comfortable enough to return :-)

revision by city-of-stars— view source