How To Start Out In Chess
IM Silman answers reader questions in this column.

How To Start Out In Chess

| 72 | Other


I get many, many players (rated 800 to 1200) asking me what their style is, why do they lose when they had a better game, are their opponents cheating, how to get good fast, or simply how to get a higher rating. 

All these players think these questions are something that only they go through, but the truth is that most suffer through the same things as the othersApparently they think that there is a quick fix that I can give them. Alas, there is no such thing. You have to go through the mud just like everyone else (including me).

mud race

First off, beginners don’t have any style. Instead, the players make threats (a good thing to do at this stage), hang stuff over and over (I certainly did when I started to play chess!), and smile when they finally win a game (that smile is makes you come back for more).

I’ve written many articles about low-rated players, and everyone has the same problems. Youth is important (starting around five years old is ideal). However, what about adults?

This is what you need to do:

  1. Look at 10 to 20 (or more) chess tactics every day (quickly, so it doesn't take up much time). Start with short, easy ones and when they are too easy look for more complex ones. 
  2. Create a simple, very basic, but solid opening repertoire. Don’t just memorize, you also need to understand what that opening(s) is about. A teacher can help, or an opening book made for beginners that explains things. Don’t bother to go more than 10 moves into your openings. 
  3. Train yourself (and it’s not easy) to make sure your pieces are protected, and also look to see if your opponent’s pieces are unprotected (since you can eat them up!). This is VERY IMPORTANT since all the skills in the world won’t help you if you hang your rooks or queen or whatever.
  4. At first, attack and threats are all you’ll do. But after a while, try to spend a bit of time (just a can look deeper in the future) understanding basic positional concepts.
  5. Take a look at some basic endgames (queen and king vs. lone king, or rook and king vs. lone king, or king and pawn vs. lone king). Start with those raw basics and, once those things are easy to you, add a bit more. 

Some players will say this is too much. Others will say it’s too little. Everyone is different. But embracing (and mastering) those five recommendations will propel you to new chess vistas.


The member misterbasic writes:

“Honestly, I have played over a hundred OTB rated games (18xx USCF) and thousands of blitz and bullet games online and have yet to come upon a position where I needed to use Lucena position or Philidor position. I like everything else that Jeremy Silman says here, but for most beginners and intermediate players, I don't think lack of technical endgame knowledge like this is their main reason for lagging rating.”

JS: Fifteen years ago I might have agreed with you, but when I was lecturing in Arizona and watching a zillion (it could be two zillion) children playing in a tournament I noticed that two kids (around 10 years old) somehow had the Lucena on their board.

The game went something like this:

For those that don’t know how to win, here it is:

Now, you might say, “That’s an anomaly and it will never happen again.” However, when I was walking around the games the next day, lo and behold, two kids had the Lucena on their board (and they also didn’t know how to win it).

One could be an anomaly, but two in two days? No way! It was then that I realized that this must appear often and that everyone should master this position.


The member Kriegspiel1 writes:

“I am sure Silman is dead. This guy is an imposter.”

JS: Okay, you caught me. I actually live in an old van by the river and spend most of my time trying to pretend I’m various other people. I have a pet gator, 26 snakes, and hardly know how to play chess at all.


The member quagly writes:

“I seem to recall Mr. Silman writing that he threw out all of his old games. Nice to see that it isn’t the case as I find it instructive to see some of your personal steps in the journey.”

JS: Alas, I really did throw out all my old games (so, so, stupid). Fortunately, people through the years have given me some back. Not much (perhaps 20) but that’s a gold mine to me!

A very close friend of mine thinks that tossing away a game-score is an abomination. In fact, if he hears that a tournament chess player has died he will contact the family immediately and beg them to keep them until he can go to their house or, if it’s far away, send them by post.

The fact that I actually threw away quite a lot of my games was one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever done.


A gentleman named edikg liked a game that I posted in Steinitz Changes The Chess World.

Here’s the position that fascinated him:

However, it wasn’t 33…Bd6! that he fell in love with, it was the more dynamic 33…e4 (which actually tosses away a good chunk of Black's superiority).

Let’s take a look at his analysis:

A fun line from edikg (all those exclamation marks shows his passion), but I doubt many strong players would fall for it since the board is screaming “back-rank mate!!!”.

Anyway, this is his main question:

“Would Steinitz have even considered such a line (33…e4) during his game? Or is it something that GM’s just immediately discard as soon as they see it even without calculating to the end. It would be great to hear GM’s opinion on this.”

In general, if you have two choices, one that entails risk and the other that gives you an easy win without any risk at all, the titled player would (in a blink) go with the easy and 100 percent safe win. 

Let's look at Steinitz's moves again:


The member DoctorStrange said: 

“These type of articles are the reason I hate Silman.”

JS: Noooo!!!! Noooo!!! I’ve loved Doctor Strange since I was a child. Now I learn that Doctor Strange hates me! SAY IT AIN’T SO!!!!!

dr strange

More from IM Silman
The Downs And Ups Of GM Elmars Zemgalis (Silman's Last Article)

The Downs And Ups Of GM Elmars Zemgalis (Silman's Last Article)

How To Build Winning Chess Positions

How To Build Winning Chess Positions