How Can You Consistently Improve Your Chess Game?

How Can You Consistently Improve Your Chess Game?

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The member Cubronzo asked: “I’ve been playing chess for about a year now and my playing strength keeps going up and down. My main problem is my ability to see ahead in a chess position. Do you have any advice on how I could calculate more accurately and consistently improve my game?” 

JS: This is a question I get quite a lot, while others wonder how to improve their positional IQ, and others their tactics, and others…well, people just want to get better and they want to know how.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of players don’t make it past the 1500 rating (that’s over-the-board tournament chess). And that’s actually pretty good since the average tournament player’s rating (USCF or FIDE) is in the 1400-to-1500 range. Since the vast majority of non-tournament players have no chance against a player in that range, 1400-to-1500 tournament players should be pretty proud of themselves. 

Of course, this doesn’t answer your question, but I’m (slowly!) getting there. 

I’ve taught or coached many chess players, from beginners (I no longer teach beginners) to the 1400-and-1500 range (I really enjoy players at that level), all the way to master and beyond. One thing I’ve noticed (not only from my students, but also from other players with other teachers) is that the majority of these players don’t get much better (perhaps a 200-point rise at most over a long time).

Since I and other teachers usually look at their student’s games, I started to wonder how useful that approach is. 

Now I've changed my teaching method. I look at my student’s games (and I show them grandmaster games too), but only key moments. The rest I ignore. Instead, I train them to learn a long group of patterns, which calls for lots of repetition. And, as they start to notice these patterns (it’s not enough to know a pattern, it’s also important to notice it during play!), my students become more confident, and clearly stronger.


Now let’s leap into your problem. Quick calculation tends to be more talent than something learned. However, books like Kotov’s THINK LIKE A GRANDMASTER can be helpful. BUT — and this is extremely important — calculation is NOT your problem. In fact, the same can be said about other people who tell me that they can’t calculate. Your problem (and the vast majority of players with online ratings of 1500 and below) is that you (and your opponents!) don’t understand chess, you blunder all over the place, you have no positional understanding, you think cheap traps are great when they are actually a detriment to your improvement, you attack anything and everything, your tactics need a lot of work, and…well…calculation won’t fix it.

Okay, that seems to be harsh. But I was exactly like that when I started out! I made random threats and crossed my fingers and hoped they would fall for my “brilliant” trick. I hung pawns and pieces right and left. In other words, I was clueless. As for positional chess…NO WAY! Real men don’t eat quiche and they certainly don’t play positional chess, do they? Fortunately I realized that losing over and over and over wasn’t any fun at all. And so (my ego smashed into bits) I decided to learn what chess was really about (I also realized that quiche was delicious).

So, what can you do? The first thing is to train yourself to see every piece that’s undefended (that means your undefended pieces AND your opponent’s). Once you start to notice all the undefended pieces, you’ll see a huge jump in strength since you won’t hang your stuff.

Please check this out this topical article

You also need to hone your basic tactical IQ, and you need to study positional ideas. Once you get all that together then calculation won’t worry you. Why do you have to do all this stuff? Because if you don’t know chess basics, you will be stuck forever in “I’m hanging everything” hell, and its sibling, “This position makes no sense” hell.

Think of it this way: You decide to speculate with stocks. You have never bought a stock before but, since you love fruit you decide that investing in the first-ever durian farm in the heart of the Bible Belt will be a great success (you don’t know what durian is, but fruit is fruit, right?). After the locals burn down the farm, you wonder what went wrong. You ponder this failure and decide that fruit is a bad decision, so you buy stock in a craze that everyone will love: dancing alligators.

Hmmm…come to think of it, the stock market tale isn’t a particularly good metaphor for your chess woes. Give me a moment to reload!

Okay, here’s a classic explanation: If you can’t walk then you can’t run. You are asking me to help you run, but you have to learn to walk first. You can pick up these skills in two easy ways:

  • Read chess books. There are more chess books than books on all other games combined. 
  • Get a chess teacher (face-to-face or online). Read this article.

Having said all of this, we’ll take a look at two of your games and let them do the talking and, hopefully, you’ll see what is really ailing your chess:

This debacle doesn’t have anything to do with calculation (though many might think it does), but it does have everything to do with experience, pattern recognition, and basic concepts. And let me remind all readers of all ratings: EVERYONE GOES THROUGH THIS KIND OF PUNISHMENT AT FIRST. Fortunately, as time (and many games) goes by, you’ll stop throwing your king to the wolves and keep it safe. Or, if your king is in some peril, you’ll know better (from experience…no calculation needed in most situations) than to eat a useless pawn while Jaws is heading in your direction. 

So what should Black have done (instead of the suicidal 17...Qxc2??)? Let’s take a look. Remember: the pain along the h2-b8 diagonal has to be addressed, and if White gets to play d4 Black will immediately feel that a five-mile long asteroid had landed on his head. Also, Black needs to develop his army...being a piece ahead isn’t so great if that piece isn’t doing anything at all!

That’s all it takes. Instead of tossing your pieces around without rhyme or reason, think what your position needs and act accordingly. Keep in mind that if your king is being attacked in the center of the board, trade queens and the attack (in many instances) will fade away. Also, always figure out what your opponent is going to do before you make your move. If you don’t, you might be walking right into an active volcano.

In our next game Black’s two pawns up and, since Black has plenty of time, he should win. In general, if you’re up material just tighten your position, don’t give anything away, and you’ll win. However, in this case both sides grabbed their respective bats and hit each other on the head over and over. Notice how the players often play with just a couple pieces rather than using their whole army. Also notice that almost every move is a threat (so much so that I’m reminded of Rock’em Sock’em Robots).

Thanks for the question. It’s actually a very important one. However, I’ll end with this thought: not everyone wants to study chess (or anything else) after a hard day’s work. For those people chess is a means of relaxation. If that’s the case, why bother trying to get better if you’re having a gas tossing pieces back and forth against other like-minded players? It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s addictive.

Whatever path you end up taking, chess will enrich your life.

dpnorman said: “So your main bits of advice are to get a coach, practice tactics, read chess books and learn from your mistakes.”

JS: First off, keep in mind that this answer/article was directed at a specific person who is in a specific rating group. However, I think that it will prove helpful to many people.

Now, to dpnorman’s comment: That stuff is important, but that’s NOT what my overall point is at all. I’m saying that calculation won’t help if you aren’t able to understand the end result. For example, you calculate several moves which leads to a positional situation, and then what? If you don’t understand what that calculated pawn structure is telling you then how can you tell if it’s worth going there? If you calculate some moves and end up with a knight vs. the enemy bishop, how can you know if the position is good or bad if you don’t understand the minor pieces secrets?

Calculation is great when you know basic concepts and patterns (tactical and positional). So the first thing you have to do is learn those things. Once you do that, the end result of your calculation might actually mean something to you. Also, in many instances calculation isn’t necessary, you just know what to do because you know a certain pattern.

I’ll repeat what I said in the article: “If you can’t walk then you can’t run. You are asking me to help you run, but you have to learn to walk first.” 

In other words, you need to pick up skills (patterns) first, then calculation can follow.

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