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Getting Better in Chess: The Critical Mistake to Avoid

  • WGM Natalia_Pogonina
  • | Nov 20, 2009

Every day I get a lot of fan mail (thanks, guys!), and many of the messages are dedicated to the evergreen subject “how do I get better in chess?” I am trying to do my best to offer individual advice to everyone. However, there is a very widespread case which can be addressed in this column.  Let me quote one of the recent e-mails first (slightly edited for anonymity purposes):

I would like to ask you a question about learning the right way of thinking in chess. I hope you have time to answer me. If not, I'll understand.

I'm an amateur and I'm working a lot on chess trying to improve. Last week I read the book The Improving Chess Thinker by Dan Heisman. It focuses on our thought processes in chess. I have the impression now that the way I think during the game is not always as structured and disciplined as it should be. Sometimes I move without looking closely enough at the consequences.

Now my question to you is: how do you think we (amateurs) can develop a correct way of thinking during the game? Did you receive a special training for this? What would your advice be?

I hope I don't waste your time with these questions.

And here’s my answer (also with small edits and additions):

If you really want to become better in practical chess, you shouldn't fall for the typical amateur's mistake. That is, believing that chess requires some special knowledge, an incredible IQ, a phenomenal memory, etc. It helps, but isn't a must-have unless you're aiming at 2700+ FIDE level.

As I have seen at Chess.com and other chess websites, the typical problem is that many people are wasting too much time reading books on theory, middlegame, etc. without playing chess often enough. And then there is the classic story:

When World Champion Michail Tal was giving a simul abroad (not in the USSR) for the first time, he was initially very afraid. He came up to Sosonko and said something like: "(I often lose to Soviet amateurs in simuls), but these guys seem to be real pros - they know the theory as well as myself!"
GM Sosonko smiled and said: "Relax, after move 15 they'll start playing on their own...".
And, indeed, after that most of his opponents lost in about 10 moves, since they didn’t really know how to play chess, they only memorized openings…

The gist: success in chess is not about adopting a magic way of thinking or reading 100 books on the middlegame and openings. I've seen lots of people who made it to IM and even GM without any special software, having read just a few (but good!) books. The key to their success is that they kept playing a lot, and learning from stronger opponents. Don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting stone age technologies in studying. Of course, you should take advantage of the best modern learning methods. However, the most important component of success (at least at weak GM and below level) is practice.

Remember the Pareto optimum rule applied to amateurs in chess: success is 80 percent practice, 20 percent study. And don’t try to imitate the training programs of top GMs like Anand, Carlsen or Kramnik. It’s like trying to copy Arnold Schwarzenegger’s workout routine from the time when he was Mister Olympia with the same weights as he had been using –  you’ll just get crushed, both mentally and physically.

It’s also important to mention the psychological side: studying a lot builds tension in you, so you need to play live games to release it. Otherwise you’ll get stuck in front of your monitor playing blitz or correspondence games (no offense meant to these pastimes – I appreciate them a lot). Moreover, you will not be feeling any satisfaction with what you’re doing, lacking the sense of achievement. Let’s say you’ve been studying hard and have become 100 rating points stronger. Alas, if you don’t motivate yourself to play a few tournaments and prove it, your rating will remain the same. And that’s rather unfortunate, you know, not getting what you deserve.

On a separate note: some people are just afraid of losing their dignity and being made fun of if they appear at the tournament and do badly. However, the worst case scenario is that you might actually lose a few games. But every famous grandmaster has had a tournament where he lost more games than he won. Everyone has failures and successes. Besides, a failure in chess doesn’t indicate anything else other than that you haven’t been playing good chess at this event. There is no need to associate it with IQ, success in life, etc.

Also, speaking of fear: it’s the higher-rated people who should be afraid. Let’s say you’re playing against a GM (or NM, or an Expert – I mean someone “scary” for your chess level). His friends will indeed mock him if he loses even half a point against you, he risks losing lots of ratings points (and you maybe just 1), he may be a pro who needs to win a prize, etc. So, all the conditions are in your favor, just take your chance to learn from someone stronger than you, and try to beat him!

As to decision-making at the chessboard: it's a complex subject. Some people have tried to formalize it (starting from Steinitz). It usually begins with evaluating the position using different parameters, then deciding what move to make. The drawback is that all these schemes are somewhat artificial. There isn't a single GM who thinks about all that stuff before making a move.

For GMs playing chess is like riding a bike. It’s hard and of no use to describe in detail how it’s done, but after some practice you become pretty skilled.

You've just got to develop your instincts, your feeling of what is right and what is wrong. For example, when people are playing blitz or bullet, their moves are totally based on experience and instincts. And, as your skill level grows through practice and study, your understanding will allow you to make more balanced decisions.


  • 14 months ago


    I think it is helpful to play tournaments and when you lose try to figure out why you lost, go over your games (the losses) and try to figure out why you lost, also play better players than your self.If you are rated really low 1000 or 1100 or lower read simple books maybe Fred Reinfeld. I read one book and it said the difference between beginners and intermediate players is intermediate do not give away pieces for free. This may sound simplistic but there is logic to it ,how can you win a game when you are down material If you are rated below 1400 I would just study tactics this is  a sure fire way to bring your game up,also when you study tactics you start to win more games and this causes you to want to study more ,therefore  causing you to have even more success at chess. Try to avoid blitz ,I played it for years and it does not help your game ,and on the contrary it makes you play superficially. There is a great websit for tactics.it is called predator at the chess board ,this site not only has great tactical exercises it also explains tactic in a refreshing way, I hope this is of some use ,to you aspiring chess players

  • 16 months ago


    i agree with 80% practice and 20% study. I never studied theory when I was learning guitar. I felt like a lot of things were missing. I was learning to play without actually understanding the theory of music. After 6 years, I tried to understand bits of theory from here and there and found out that it really helped me improve more. I never study chess books also. I just keep playing. Maybe I should integrate a small amount of study to my practice. It really helps to hear these words from a WGM :)

    Thank you Natalia

  • 20 months ago


    my rating was 1146,  i went  donw 986 evything i try seems  toy get worst,  

    what can i do to coorect that i try not to trade peaces , but it dont seem to

    to helo  billyaikin@yahoo.com thanks

  • 21 months ago

    WGM Natalia_Pogonina

    Let’s stay in touch on social networks! Here are my official accounts:

    Account 1, Account 2, Account 3

  • 2 years ago


    Amen. Everbody. I. Love. And actually. Agree. With all. Of. These posted helpful. Comments. Experience is living. And. When you. Live. You. Learn but. When. You just. Read. Books. On chess. Sometimes. That. Author's. Thoughts will. Not. Always. Be. Applicable. Because. Every. Chess. Opponent's. Game. Is not The. Same.

  • 2 years ago


    I think this article helped me to make a decision, about my training plan. This pareto optimum rule about the ratio of  practicing/ studying for sucess in chess says to me that I should practice more and study less. But I know a lot of amateurs  that are playing a lot and don't improve because they don't analyse their games  by themselves but let Houdini make the whole work. So I think analyzing your games by yourself is a key factor for chess improvement.

  • 2 years ago


    This must just be me, but I once played about 10-15 standard games without a rest and the next day, I went from a standard rating of 1498 to 1390s. Did I overtire myself? Is there an amount of games you should play daily?

  • 2 years ago


    Very instructive article !

  • 3 years ago


    Yeah, i don't completely agree with this. I think a balance is always necessary in progressing in anything, i got good at guitar by only playing and not studying at all, but i can't play along to people or anything, so balance is key.

  • 3 years ago


    This was something I was thinking to myself recently! I was telling myself how I'd like to be a better chess player, while looking up books and deciding which one looked like the best, I asked myself a simple question. That was, "Why don't you just play and learn from your mistakes?" it's how I've grown up to be who I am and for the most part, at least I think, has worked. haha. Great article, thank you!!

  • 3 years ago


    This may sound like a broken record, but it's well worth repeating: To get to Carnegie Hall, you need Practice, Practice, Practice!

    Thanks for the article Natalia.


  • 3 years ago


    Really super advice.

  • 4 years ago


    very good advice!Smile

  • 5 years ago


    Really great Pogonina! You pointed the finger right on it :) You can't be a good player with just theory. It is practice.. It is the same as studying at university, you lear a lot of theroy... but you can be a very bad worker :) However theory is good to pick up now and then, when you have been stuck with your development...

  • 5 years ago


    thenks, natalia:)

  • 5 years ago


    this is what i want to hear ...thanks Natalia :)    and good luck to Karlovac from croatia ..i hope u can make it to much higher level than u are now :)

  • 5 years ago


    Quote, Natalia Pogonina said:

    "It’s also important to mention the psychological side: studying a lot builds tension in you, so you need to play live games to release it. Otherwise you’ll get stuck in front of your monitor playing blitz or correspondence games (no offense meant to these pastimes – I appreciate them a lot)."

    This is very good advice where you mention the 80 20 rule.  Study is of course very important, but class players need to play a lot of games (of course after the games find all the mistakes).  I fell into this trap and studied out of a book for hours a day for a few months without playing much, and that's exactally how I felt -- I found myself playing blitz to release the tension -- so I had to learn that the hard way Smile

  • 5 years ago


    Great blog. I have learned that you can NEVER get better at chess without first improving your tactics.

  • 5 years ago


    very much appreciated!

  • 5 years ago


    thanks for this article. my dad is constantly badgering me about how i don't read enough of the theory books which is why i haven't been doing so well in my games against him as well as other opponents lately (although I have improved significantly--so has he).  I know that it's kind of silly, but I have a mistrust of those books that tell you exactly what moves to make. I've been in too many situations where i stick to one of those books and it doesn't work out well for me. 

    (just a footnote, i did recently beat someone who was 400 points higher than me! I didn't stick to books either!)

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