Improving at Chess

Improving at Chess

Jul 2, 2017, 10:10 PM |

Improving at chess.  It's such a simple and desired state and yet I've heard so many different perspectives.  On the one hand, I've heard that improving at chess is easy as ever until you reach about 1800 if you just put the work in, and on the other, I've seen evidence of people sporting their same 1600 ratings for years or even decades.  


I'm a newer player.  I dabbled with chess in college, never seriously or anything, and then put the game down for years.  Then, about two years ago I discovered chess for real.  I started on Chess With Friends.  Joined 3 months later and attended my first USCF rated tournament 3 months after that.  In November 2015 when that occurred I was probably around 1100.  In my first year in USCF I managed to climb to 1400 and now it's about six months after that, and I managed to break 1600 just a few weeks ago (although I'm probably still a 1500 player if I had to guess).


I have assumed this whole time that if I simply play and study, I will improve!  It's a simple concept really, and I do believe that beginners have a great advantage.  There is simply so much to learn!  The more you learn; the better you will play.  And with little to no pattern recognition, even just playing games should result in improvement as well.  Simple things like pawn forks and knight forks, things like a fanchietto'd bishop eyeing that rook on the a8 square.  As you come across them more those patterns burn into your brain.


My personal improvement has been steady.  Here's where I'm at:


Highest ratings achieved:


  6 months ago 3 months ago TODAY
USCF 1484 1580 1610 (+30)
Rapid 1486 1510 1556 (+46)
Tactics 1449 1457 1715 (+258)
Blitz 1254 1261 1340 (+79)
Bullet  1082 1082 1131 (+49)


So okay, six months is not a long time period, but this is what I like to look at because like anyone I'm pretty impatient.  I want results and I want them now!   In reality, I think it might be okay to not show any concrete results in just six months, or even a year, however.  And ratings come and go, they eb and flow.. they rise and you feel like a super star!! ...aaaaand then they crash and you feel like a complete failure.  




..but you shouldn't.   I mean, in my experience in other things outside of chess, almost never do results just steadily go up and up and you reach your goal.  There are mistakes along the way.  There are failures.  My god are there are  There are distractions.  There are wrong turns.  There are lucky streaks.  There are unlucky streaks.  Sometimes life happens and pulls you away even.  And when you are in the middle of all that mess how exactly are you supposed to really know where you are?  


Honestly, I had to put "highest rating to date" in the table above.  Why?  Because my USCF rating took a huge dive just this past weekend!  I attended my first big tournament, the Columbus Open, and it featured the famous slow time control I had been hearing about.  As someone who is constantly in time pressure in 30 minute games, I was CERTAIN the slow time control meant I would play awesome and just thrive and probably shoot up another 100 rating points!  No problem!  


Instead, I took the biggest dive in my chess career so far, I'm pretty sure.  That 1610 I reached now looks like the top of mountain since my rating fell back under 1460, which is even lower than I was exactly a year ago today.  




And losing hurts.  Of course it does.  I am a human.  I have emotions (sometimes too many..hehe)  And I must tell you, I was feeling pretty disgusted with myself and with chess after crashing and burning like that.  What was worse?  I didn't even lose to just any players.  I got absolutely crushed by an unrated player, followed by a 4 hour game where I blundered in the end game to lose against a 1360 player and to top it all off I lost my 3rd game to a 1320 rated player who just wouldn't seem to make any mistakes.  After those wonderful experiences I even withdrew from the tournament, feeling humiliated and defeated, skipping my last game so I could go home and lick my open wounds.  


In a state of complete insecurity I played this awful game convincing my insecurities that I really am terrible!  I've heard this referred to as the "death spiral".  Once you are on a losing streak, with your confidence decimated, well.. let's just say one good blunder deserves another!  



In the big scheme of all that though, does it really matter?  The answer is YES.  It's a huge YES, but not in the "I suck I should just quit" way, but more in the "that was a valuable learning experience and will help guide me to improve my game moving forward" sort of way.   


I mean, that's just it isn't it?  If you want to get better at anything, you have to be willing to lose.  you have to be willing to fail.  And you have to be willing to lose and fail quite a bit!  So I'll share with you what I learned which is the following:  



1.)  If you want to do well in a particular format or time control, then you need experience in that format or time control.  Simple, right!  But so true.  If I ever want to do well in the bigger events; I must play in them.  And that means forcing myself to enter even if I don't feel "ready" in the hopes to learn things and gain experience for future events.

2.)  Slow chess or "classical" chess requires deeper thinking, a clean thought process, mental checklists, and experience doing all of these!  My thoughts were racing even with all the time on the clock.  I was calculating long variations and looking hard for plans and tactics, but it all was so... disorganized.  Now I'm going to focus on creating simple checklists to help me avoid making simple blunders and to see more within the positions.

3.)  And this one was painful.  I believe playing too much blitz chess has been hurting my game.  I have been told it would, by a number of people.  I don't know if I didn't believe them or didn't care, but I kept playing blitz.  (I'm such a rebel.. rawr..haha)  I kept telling myself the blitz was beneficial.  I was motivated to play blitz and get decent at it after several G30 games where I had a winning position and got in time pressure and lost, or had an end game where I knew what to do, but just couldn't do it fast enough... Too many losses from time pressure drove me to the 5 minute games and even some 1 minute games.  Gotta get faster I thought!  That's the secret to getting to 1500!  And truthfully, it was.  I stopped losing those games (well, but at what cost?


Well turns out the cost is that blitz is addictive and fun!  So even after I didn't necessarily need to improve my speed anymore, I kept playing.. I mean, why not?  Well, that slow tournament taught me that I've fallen into the habit of playing lazy, shallow chess.  You can see it some of my moves (I reviewed the games a couple times now).  And you can see my lack of a coherent organized thought process and desire to move a little bit impulsively created some little blunders too (and one big one) that ended up costing me the games.  


4.)  Last, but most important is... dedication.  You aren't going to improve by doing nothing.. so yes, put the work in!  And put the right work in.  I have seen my games improve rather steadily over time, but not without effort.  I play or study chess every day.  I make it a point to attend USCF rated tourneys 3-4 times a month and also attend the local chess club down the street.  I work with my chess coach and I also strive to be more involved in the local chess community.  After all, if you make friends with chess players guess what you'll be doing more of.  happy.png  


So it's clear to me now that I lost to 1300 players because I played like a 1200 player.  And that doesn't sound like improvement to me.  lol



But I digress... 


So in the end, I'm really glad I went to that event and I'm glad I got my butt kicked too.  You can't be afraid to suffer in chess, that's for sure. There's lots of suffering to be had and you need to welcome it with open arms.  It's sad that sometimes people can tell you things; they can guide you and instruct you to do the correct things to improve, but in the end it usually takes personal experience to really drive it home.  


In summary though, I do think improvement, at least for lower rated players (under 1800) will come if you just put the work in.  But it has to be the right kind of work.  Tactics are good.  Standard games are good; but you must analyze and learn from them!  Working with a chess coach is a great idea too.  You don't know what you don't know in chess, but a coach will know what you don't know and will find those holes in your chess basics and give you books to fill the gaps.  happy.png  Opening principles over theory (another weakness for me; I love to memorize lines)  And yeah, maybe save blitz for later.  Having developed some bad habits I'll have to work now in order to undo them is pretty annoying, so save yourself the trouble.  I'm sure others have some excellent advice on the topic.  I'm no expert!  But I can share what has worked for me up until this point at least.  And hopefully I'll have more to share in another six months.  With me luck!!  and I'll wish you luck as well.  happy.png 


Best of luck in your chess improvement!