Mailbag: How To Improve Your Game

Mailbag: How To Improve Your Game

| 32 | Other member Nietsoj wrote:

“I read your recent post where you answered a question about aiming for a 2000 rating. Just as so many other amateur players, I have the same goal, and I am wondering what a realistic training program would look like in order to reach this goal. First of all, how much time would you estimate that a player in the 1400-1500 rating range would need to invest in order to reach the 2000 level? And second, how would you suggest that the time should be distributed between e.g. actual play, game analysis, opening theory, strategy, tactics and endgame study?” member AdamCormier wrote:

“With the help of How to Reassess your Chess 3rd and 4th editions I went from a class-B player to a national master. (My positional style and other opening books played a small role but without a doubt the most important books in my chess development have been yours -- which I’ve re-read several times over the course of my chess development to gain the maximum amount of knowledge and understanding).

“If I may ask you a few questions about how to improve once you are the weakest master class: my rating has bobbled between 2150-2278 CFC for quite some time now and I can’t seem to break this niche. While I’ve beaten many other NMs and several FMs and even drawn an IM, I also still manage to lose games against 1900-2000s, which extremely demoralizes me.

"If you could give me any advice, books or resources about improving to a ~2200 playing-strength player, with deep opening knowledge, moderate middlegame skills, and reasonable endgame skills that would be much appreciated as your influence has shaped my chess progress more than any other.”



To Mr. Nietsoj and Mr. AdamCormier and all the other letters I get asking these exact same questions:

These are the same kinds of questions I asked as I worked my way up the rating ladder. And, as I quickly discovered, in chess, there is no such thing as one size fits all. Many players in the 1500 range, even if they play and study for years and years, never even reach the B level (1600–1799), let alone 2000 (in other words, it’s impossible to set a timeframe on improvement; it’s difference for everyone).

As for Mr. AdamCormier, he’s a master, which means he’s living a dream that tens of millions of chess fans desperately want but will never get.

The only way I could tell you what you need to do to improve is for me to carefully study your games and listen to (or read) your comments to those games. Then and only then could I create a tailor-made curriculum for each individual student. Unfortunately, I don’t have your games and, if I did have them, I don’t have the time to look at them (I no longer give lessons).

This leaves you (and zillions of other players) with three choices:

  • Enjoy playing and forget about improving or taking the game seriously. Just have a great time.
  • Hire a chess teacher to create a personalized study program for you.
  • Create your own personalized study program by asking some serious questions about yourself and your games.

Let’s discuss the third option!


Players Under 2100

In the case of a player under 2100, there will be massive holes in all parts of your game. The lower the rating, the more massive the holes! And, since you don’t have the tools and knowledge to recognize your weaknesses, the whole improvement thing might seem hopeless. However, hard work has a habit of creating miracles. 

First off, look at as many of your games as possible and, for each game, write down: 


I don’t expect you to have a deep understanding of it, but knowing the basic ideas is critical. If you realize you don’t (based on multiple opening catastrophes, or a feeling of cluelessness during the game), then red flag it, look for a book that explains those basic ideas in your particular openings, and study it.

If you do understand all the opening basics for the systems you play, then great. You can move on to other things.


If your games show that you do, then you need to devote yourself to improving that area of your game. Get some basic books on tactics and go over them until you feel more confident about that important part of the game. I gave a list of tactical books in this article.

Another good book on tactics (which I mistakenly left out in my last article) is Susan Polgar’s Chess Tactics for Champions: A step-by-step guide to using tactics and combination the Polgar way.


It’s important to know that everything in chess is connected. Even if you have a good opening repertoire and solid tactical skills, in the vast majority of cases the game will demand positional understanding. (REMEMBER: Most tactical opportunities appear from positional superiority.) If you don’t have that firm positional base, higher-rated players will pick you apart, and lower-rated players will, from time to time, also take points from you.

To fix this, study games of famous positional players (Petrosian, Karpov, Smyslov, etc.), and find a good book on positional chess (There are tons of them. My recommendations: Mastering Positional Chess by Naroditsky -– he wrote this excellent book when he was 12 years old, How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition by Silman, and Chess Strategy for Club Players by Herman Grooten).



You’re not alone. Even chess professionals have problems with the endgame, so everyone else won’t (to some degree) have a clue. Look for endgame books that won’t freak you out (most of the time the chess student takes one look at the masses of information in a book and quickly sticks it back on the shelf). For the rating I’m addressing here, books like Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge by Averbakh, Winning Chess Endings by Seirawan, Silman’s Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner to Master, Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings by Irving Chernev, are useful for everyone. There are lots of other great endgame books, but many of them will overwhelm most players under 2100.

Players Over 2100

Players at this level will have a more realistic view of what their weaknesses are. But even these guys find themselves scratching their head and wondering how to improve their game. Once again, an ideal study plan is best created by a strong chess coach. However, since this can easily be expensive, most chess hopefuls over 2100 will have to do it on their own. (When I gave lessons, I always demanded your first-born child, 2/3 of your soul, and a minimum of $5,000 a month. Sadly, after being given so many first-born children, I’m broke! –- For my confused readers, you should look me up with my real name: Rumpelstiltsilman).

As with the under-2100 crowd, you need to be brutally honest about your chess shortcomings, and the best way to do that is to let your games do the talking. For example, you might think you handle the minor pieces really well, but your games beg to differ. If you put your ego in a drawer and listen to your games, you could well see one minor piece after another sitting in poor positions or, even worse, taking a nap and refusing to participate in whatever strategy you had planned.

Calculation is quite another matter. Some have the magic, and some don’t. If you don’t, then fine-tune your openings to suit your personal strengths. The same thing goes for all your weaknesses and strengths -– create an opening repertoire that complements your skills.

Regarding Mr. AdamCormier, he claims “deep opening knowledge.” That’s great if it’s true –- he clearly believes he has deep opening knowledge, but does he? Deep opening knowledge is more than knowing tons of analysis and variations. Does he also know everything about the pawn structures that rule his openings and the typical tactics that appear in his various opening choices? Is he familiar with the middlegames and even the endgames that typically appear when a certain opening is used? 

Another question (for everyone of all ratings): “Are your openings right for you?” You might love an opening and even know a lot about it, but sometimes it just doesn’t fit into your skill set.


Mr. AdamCormier: The most telling thing you wrote is this: “While I’ve beaten many other NMs and several FMs and even drawn an IM, I also still manage to lose games against 1900-2000s, which extremely demoralizes me.”

You said your rating “bobbles between 2150-2278.” Let me make you feel better about your losses to the 1900–2000 level opponents: a player in your range will occasionally lose to 1900 players. You also beat fellow masters and occasionally drag down FMs. And all of that equals your rating spread. You are just where you should be. There’s no reason to be demoralized. In fact, you’ve accomplished far more in chess than 99 percent of the chess players on earth will ever accomplish. So, get rid of the long face. Be proud of what you’ve obtained!

Of course, I still haven’t fully addressed how you can make the leap to 2300 or 2400. From what you’ve said, you need to improve your middlegame and endgame skills. Very few players know the ins and outs of endgames, so polishing your endgame technique (not just memorizing endgame positions but understanding true endgame philosophy) will vastly improve your results.

If you want to make a serious (and perhaps prolonged) effort to step into the rarified air that 2400+ players float about in, you might consider the very advanced (but excellent) books of Mark Dvoretsky. Here are a few that are well worth studying:

  • Secrets of Chess Training: School of Future Chess Champions 1 by Mark Dvoretsky and Artur Yusupov
  • Secrets of Opening Preparation: School of Future Chess Champions 2 by Mark Dvoretsky and Artur Yusupov
  • Secrets of Endgame Technique: School of Future Chess Champions 3 by Mark Dvoretsky and Artur Yusupov
  • Secrets of Positional Play: School of Future Chess Champions 4 by Mark Dvoretsky and Artur Yusupov
  • Secrets of Creative Thinking: School of Future Chess Champions 5 by Mark Dvoretsky and Artur Yusupov

I’m really sorry that I can’t pinpoint your problems and help you over that very annoying plateau. However, you’ve already achieved a lot, and now the only way to push higher is to embrace the words that nobody wants to hear: Hard work! Lots and lots of hard work. 

Knowing Your Opening’s Tactical Basics 

Here’s an example of knowing the tactics/strategy in your opening repertoire (in this scenario, Black is a fan of the King’s Indian Defense):

White dreams of castling long (after Qd2) followed by h2-h4, ripping into Black’s kingside. Scary stuff. While doing this, Black might attack the g4-pawn with ...Nf6, but then h2-h3 solidifies g4, with h2-h4 following once White’s fully ready for the kingside assault.

The King’s Indian is an extremely dynamic opening, and KID aficionados are well acquainted with its soul. Thus, though trying to get the d7-knight to f4 (via ...Rf7, ...Nf8-g6-f4) deserves consideration (White will try and waylay that plan with 1...Rf7 2.Qd2 Nf8 3.h4 and, though Black has ways to counter this, the true KID player would prefer something a bit more dynamic), the initial KID brain would focus on ...b7-b5 (now or later) and/or ...Rf4, sacrificing the Exchange.

If you have memorized all sorts of KID lines but ...Rf4 isn’t one of the first things to occur to you, then you don’t know the KID. And if you see the move but are afraid to play it, you might know the opening but it’s not for you since this kind of Exchange sacrifice should send shivers of delight down your spine, and not shivers of terror and doubt. 

Returning to our diagram, I would be delighted to play 1...Rf4 (and I’m not a KID player!). Here’s a taste of what might occur (I want you to get a feel for the possibilities. It’s certainly not a serious analysis!):

1...Rf4! 2.Bxf4? exf4 and Black’s better! The previously blocked g7-bishop is now a monster zipping up and down on the h8-a1 highway. The e5-square will make a lovely home for Black’s knight. The f3-pawn is a monster in its own right. And White’s king has no place to run to since ...b7-b5, ripping open the queenside, is always in the air.

1...Rf4! 2.h4 (2.h3 is more solid, though after 2...Nf8 [Heading for g6. 2...Rb8!? prepping an eventual ...b5 is also possible.] 3.Bxf4 exf4 and Black has plenty of compensation.) 2...b5 (In for a penny, in for a pound!) 3.hxg5 hxg5 4.cxb5 (4.Qc2 might be better) 4...axb5 5.Bxb5 Nf6 6.Bxf4 exf4 7.Be2 Rb8 and though Black’s an Exchange and a pawn behind, his pieces are extremely active (...Rxb2 and ...Rb4 hitting e4 are threats, g4 needs defending, White’s king has no safe place to run to, Black’s dark-squared bishop rules the h8-a1 diagonal, and the e5-square can easily turn into a home for Black’s knight.). One line: 8.e5 (Giving up a pawn but opening up the b1-h7 diagonal to Black’s king.) 8...dxe5 9.Qc2 e4 (One of many options) 10.Nxe4?? (10.d6! leads to wild complications.) 10...Rxb2! 11.Qxb2 Nxe4 (White’s lost.) 12.Qc2 Bc3+! 13.Kf1 Qxd5 and White won’t survive the onslaught.

I don’t expect players in the 1700-and-down levels to know that kind of thing (or have the courage to do it –- after all, you are giving up a rook for a minor piece!), but you do need to have a rudimentary understanding of the systems you play.


Knowing Your Opening’s Positional Basics

Here’s a typical error that many lower-rated players make:

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 and now White’s best moves are 4.c4 (The Panov-Botvinnik Attack. It puts immediate pressure on d5) and 4.Bd3 (placing the bishop on a very active diagonal and retaining the option of c2-c3). However, I’ve seen countless players toss their knight out to c3: 4.Nc3, which is actually a poor move. When I see this move played, the c3-knight, sporting a sad face, speaks to me: “White doesn’t know the opening. He has nothing prepared. And he thinks developing is all you need to do. Why am I on this square?”

What’s wrong with this seemingly logical move? Well, it’s not logical at all. Yes, it’s developed, but where is it going? How is it going to work with the rest of its pieces? If you look at a database, you’ll see an overwhelming amount of low ratings (mostly players from 1000 to 1600). And if you look at the percentages, if White scores 40 percent (which is horrible) he’s doing great!

Let’s look at two positions with the knight on c3.


Position One

This position is an illustration of teamwork. White’s c-pawn is working with the c3-knight to put pressure on d5.


Position Two

This position shows a lone wolf –- the one-piece attack against d5 won’t worry Black, and we really have to answer the knight’s question: “Why am I on this square?”

Well, since it’s not doing real damage to d5, how about e4? No, that would hang the knight. How about a4? Why in the world would White want to put the knight on a4? Is Nb5 a threat? Nope, Black can kick it back with ...a6. Okay, how about e2? Yeah, White’s knight went to c3 so it could move to its dream square on e2. NOT!

Let’s look at something similar.

Due to the blockage of the c2-pawn after 1.d4 d5 2.Nc3, the vast majority of games go 1.d4 d5 2.c4. The position after 2.Nc3 Nf6 leaves one wondering how White’s rooks will enter the game (no files in sight). That worry is instantly tossed away after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 since a White rook will eventually make its way to c1 when a well-timed cxd5 will open up the c-file. So, 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 (like the Panov-Botvinnik Attack) allows for the opening of the c-file while also placing serious pressure against d5. Placing the knight on c3 (sans c2-c4) doesn’t make sense. 

This is basic stuff, but lower-rated players need to understand it (and things like it) or they won’t truly grok the openings they play. And, as we saw in our KID example, the basics keep rising in complexity as your rating goes up.

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