People often say that they want to improve at chess and I am sure that many of you have chess improvement wrapped somewhere into your New Years' resolution. The plan will be to read books, solve countless exercises, and study openings on their computers and yet still make little to no progress. The truth is that the study of chess is not the same as the actual playing of the game. It is like someone who wants to be a runner yet only watches videos on running, takes walks, and reads books on the subject. To improve your ability at chess the main thing will be to examine your play and implement the adapted thinking techniques and gamesmanship to a higher level while actually playing. If you are playing against players that push you hard to examine yourself then the process is somewhat easier.
You might then wonder, “Well then, is it as simple as playing all the time rather than studying?” Truthfully I think the answer is yes with a few conditions. I know of many players who make their greatest breakthroughs in the years that they play the most games against high quality opponents. The second part is critical; if you play 100 games a year against players who are lower and or equal to your level you are simply not going to improve (much) and indeed may cement bad playing habits. And playing habits is the very root of the question of how to improve at chess. If you are somehow able to play over 50 games against much stronger opposition you will not only gain insight into how the stronger players think but you will also gain real time feedback into what is working and not working with your own thinking process and habits. That is, if you are willing to be honest with yourself and look at what you are doing wrong.
The value of playing a high quantity of games against high quality opponents explains the why and how of the massive rating spikes we see with junior players. A player who is new to the game does not have to look far to find quantities of stronger players. Furthermore young brains tend to absorb and adapt faster to new information and thus reach higher levels quickly.
For the somewhat more mentally calcified, there is another very important condition in the process of chess self-improvement: In the act of losing, drawing and winning games against stronger opposition we must actually realize why we are losing the games. We have to be honest with ourselves and retrace the exact thoughts (and emotions) that lead to our mistakes, was it a tactical oversight, lack of endgame knowledge, or just pure laziness? Chess players are very good at attributing their mistakes to lack of knowledge or bad memory, but more often than not the mistakes are a result of deep rooted and repetitive bias in a person’s thinking and ego.
Objectivity is a key word here as we tend to be subjective in our thoughts during a game and afterwards.
This is where having a good coach, someone to confess your thoughts to; someone who will patiently listen and help you gain insight into your mistakes and how you are being outplayed is invaluable. Writing notes to the games is also a way to gain insight. With or without a coach, putting your thoughts about the game down on paper (or a PGN file) will force you to think about how you are thinking about chess . I am not saying you should analyze the game with an engine, at least not right away. Getting all the answers fast and easy tends to cheat you out of the whole purpose of analyzing the game in the first place, namely to gain insight into your own thinking process. After all the goal is not just to learn what the wrong or right move was, but rather to uproot negative bias and subjective fallacies whilst learning how to successfully solve and create problems over the board. Once you have analyzed the game and made notes, try to let the notes sit for a few days and then look at it with a computer. This will help you gain more insight into your own process and perhaps even find valuable ideas that diverge from the machine mind, the real intuitive and strategic gems of chess.
I will close this confessional article by saying I have just laid out a blueprint in everything that I have been doing wrong in my own games for over ten years: Subjective, ego driven mistakes at the board; an inability to honestly look at the games and identify the underlying causes; over dependence on engine analysis; and far too many games against weaker players. I hope that by publically stating this I will not only inspire others but also myself to get on track.
In summary, by playing many games against strong players and then honestly and carefully analyzing them the end result hopefully will be adaption. You will either become satisfied with your current level or welcome the hard work of self-improvement which in chess means carefully examining all of your games and gaining insight into your own thought process, typical mistakes and faulty bias.
I wish you all enjoyable travels on the road to improvement in 2014
FM Carl Boor