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 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.


  • 7 months ago


    Thank you! great advice

  • 9 months ago


    Thank you Natalia!

  • 11 months ago


    i was playing around 1300-1350 for like 5 years eventually something just clicked like when you reach a plateau all of a sudden something just clicks in your head now i'm playing between 1450-1500 just practicing the same 2-3 black openings and 2-3 white openings depending on what my opponents play and sticking to my guns JUST KEEP PLAYING at this rate I'll be an G.M when I'm like 190 years old LOL

  • 12 months ago


    i keep playing and losing without getting better at it lol

  • 13 months ago


    yet theres people who play 10000+ games and are still around 1300

  • 14 months ago


    God bless you Natalia !!! Thank you for the so helpfull advices :-)

  • 14 months ago


    God bless you Natalia !!! Thank you fo

  • 14 months ago


    I used to study many openinglines and in my younger times, when I was young, managed to understand some of them quite well, which kind of helps as to net got surprised by those who do. If Tal felt discomfortable, imagine how amateurs like myself (FIDE 1836) feel if someone plays a well prepared opening ?

    On the other hand, reading/playing/studying is worth nothing if you don't practise this in. So in the end all is forgotten in weeks/months thereafter. So this makes it kind of timewasting (unless you have lots of time).

    So to me the more I play , the more my thoughts are trained, the better I play. To me playing against alike strenght or above strenght players also makes you focus more. I too feel more stress against a weaker player and sometimes get nerveous if he has the upper hand at some stage or can't open the game in my favour. So psychology is also very important.

    So from my point of view to become a better player:

    50% would be accomplished playing simply more (preferably at a challenging level (-200 till +200 ELO, being the 25%, 75% odds)

    30% psychology of the moment, get your nerves under control, remain calm, don't bother about your oppenents ratng, don't panic with something new/prepared on the board, don't offer draws for comfort, don't be too risk avoidant, amuse yourself and every minute the game lasts, don't get stressed if your opponent has lastly  good results,.... many aspects can kind of imbalance you psychologically, Consider yourself as a computer, not being afraid for a game against anyone & being feerless.

     20% study, not in particular opening, but tactics simply analysing your own games, I find the games of masters against amateurs with about 300 to 400 ELO difference usefull. There are many tournaments where PGNs can be downloaded & these can serve you understanding how a master exploits our simplistic approaches. First round SWISS tournaments in Open championships often are filled with thzese kind of games. We do not always understand the subtalities of GM to GM games. So we have to look for games where the imbalance is more visible.



  • 14 months ago


    practice doesn't help me in anything. It's very demotivating, since chess comes with an objective rating, so I can finally say, 'im not crazy, I'm actually somehow not getting any better'

  • 14 months ago


    motivative : )

  • 15 months ago


    I read Miss Pogonina's work very carefully.  I watched the WGM tournament too.  I am going to try this theory.  I've been studying a lot.  I need more board time at this point maybe.  I keep falling victim to blunders that are time pressure initiated.  I sholud be able to play 30 min per side games and not get bent in time trouble.  Invariably in the early end game I die to a tactical blunder like 5 moves ahead of the position.  5 moves isn't impossible for me to calculate but time pressure can make me miss these things.  Experience may help me to save time.

  • 16 months ago


    Man I suck at chess my rating at like 600 and ive been playing for years.

  • 18 months ago


    Thanks, this is just what I was looking for, I was caught in that trap of not playing enough. 80% practice is very important.

  • 18 months ago


    Very helpful.

  • 18 months ago


    thank you.

  • 19 months ago


    :) it was helpful

  • 3 years 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 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

  • 3 years 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

  • 3 years 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 thanks

  • 3 years ago

    WGM Natalia_Pogonina

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

    Account 1, Account 2, Account 3

Back to Top

Post your reply: