Happy New Years...Honestly, how to improve.

  • FM Boorchess
  • | Jan 1, 2014

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




  • 3 years ago


    I've just retired and at last have time to try to play chess properly, and this sort of article is very helpful for someone like me with very little knowledge, faced with so many choices of how best to use my time to improve. To put it in perspective, I aspire one day with focused work to make the exalted grade of patzer.

    One thing I have started doing with Online (i.e. slow) chess is to write down my thinking at the time I make a move - why I think it is a worthwhile  move and what I think my opponent might do in response.Then, when the game is over - or even later on during it - I can sometimes see where my thought process or calculation went wrong (or, far less frequently, right). It doesn't always make for pleasant reading! Any views on whether this is a good approach or is it largely a waste of time?

    Also I wonder about which type of chess to play. I've had a shot at "slow blitz" - 10 or 15:10 type - but to me it feels like rolling dice. I don't really have any opportunities for OTB where I live, so is "Online" chess the best bet?

  • 3 years ago


    super ayiki.

  • 3 years ago


    Great Article!

  • 3 years ago


    Nice read.

  • 3 years ago


    how encouraging

  • 3 years ago


    I'd agree - my New Year's resolution is to approach chess with the axiom "A win is just a win, but defeat is a chance to learn".

  • 3 years ago


    Wise words and very useful tips. Thank you very much. Wishing you much sucess in your fight. Leave no demon alive! :)

  • 3 years ago


    Thank you for your article. I think PLAYING MORE GAMES than STUDYING is the way to improving Chess.

  • 3 years ago


    Chess involves symbolism.  Do you not agree that each move has both symbolism for position, long/short term, strategy, and tactics?  It is true that a person can learn more from playing stronger players, and in so acknowledging, are you saying by default that players are too weak to survive the bad habits that may(or may not) accumulate in playing lesser ranked players?  Is this why higher ranked players do not play lower ranked players, because of less learning and possible bad learning?  And why is this?  Is it not true that attributions and self talk are why specifically ego gets in the way and bad decisions are made during games?  I believe that for every move there is a reason and this reason is specifically said in the persons mind during the planning and the execution of the move, and this is why specifically it is what each move means at many levels of why a player is ranked higher because there is simply more possibilities and reasons why each move is correct.  It is not a matter of calculation or the computer would be world champion.  It is a matter of judgement and attribution of how each move is perceived to interact.  Chess is a mystery that is fascinating.  By correctly noting specific moves in self talk there are many different routes a player can make.  I have found specifically playing too many games either live or correspondence can lead to impatience and possible so called ego problems.  At such times it is best to step back, and if fresh, review tactical problems.  If tired, read chess books and read games.  Even sitting a chair going through games move by move will program the unconscious and teach instinct.  Just by seeing the moves there is an effect.  The argument that a person must recall all the data studied in making a decision during a game is next to impossible, it cannot be done, because the mind does not work this way.  A person must allow the conscious and unconscious mind to work together.  Thanks for the psychology of chess article.

  • 3 years ago


    Probably the most accurate article on chess improvement I have ever read! Props to you good sir!

  • 3 years ago


    <Wappinschaw> This is seconded. I celebrate 42 later this month, and I've never played better chess in my life. This is absolutely the best and unprecedented. 

    My last 9 tournament games were +5 =4 against opposition averaging 1970 FIDE. 7 years ago, even 50% against such players would be unrealistic. 

  • 3 years ago


    With regards to the age thing,I started playing when I was 18,I'm now 47,my best chess days perhaps should have been my late 20s to early 30s,considering I only started playing at 18,but I'm now 47 and reckon,in general,I'm playing my best chess,experience and how you use that experience counts for quite a lot.

  • 3 years ago


    Great article, Carl! Looking forward to talking more about this.

  • 3 years ago


    very nice! perfect.

  • 3 years ago


    nice artical happy new year and thanks dear

  • 3 years ago


    Thank you. Will visit your site.

  • 3 years ago


    good article, thanks for the valuable input Smile

  • 3 years ago


    Thank's. Happy new year

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks.Great article.It was really helpful.

  • 3 years ago


    Nice...Very Nice!

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