8 Shortcuts To Chess Improvement

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The road to chess improvement is normally a long and difficult struggle which requires a lot of hard work and commitment. According to accepted wisdom you should:

  • practice as much as possible by playing lots of games, especially at slow time controls
  • analyse your own games (and others) preferably with a stronger player, or with a pc
  • solve as many tactics problems as you can every day
  • take lessons from a good coach, or use an effective teaching tool like Chess Mentor

Stuff that for a game of soldiers, eh? Even if you are doing all of the above, surely there must be some shortcuts to improving your game? A few nuggets of advice, or ways of thinking about chess and approaching the game? You bet your sweet bippy there are!

1. Play Each Game Like Your Life Depends On It
Psychology plays a huge part chess, as it does in any competitive game. If you’re not giving your full attention and effort to every game you play, why are you bothering at all?

Antonius Block plays chess against Death for his the Seventh Seal


Don’t use a casual attitude as a ready-made excuse for losing. “I wasn't really playing properly, I was just messing about” is a patzers excuse!  When Jo-Wilfried Tsonga went two sets down against Roger Federer at Wimbledon this year, he didn't give up and use that as an excuse, he knuckled down and played his best to come back to win!

Don’t be afraid of giving 100% every time and knowing that sometimes you will lose anyway. Have pride in every game you play and every move you make!

2. Play Real Chess, Not Hope Chess
The popular chess teacher Dan Heismann describes Hope Chess as being the mindset of players who make a move without properly considering what their opponent can do in response. Instead, they just hope that either their opponent will fall in with their plans (if they have any!), or hope that they will be able to meet whatever threats he makes.

Here’s the original simple example Heisman gave to illustrate his point:


Make sure that for every move you make you think at least three ply (half-moves) deep. So when you make a move you must have figured out what you think is your opponent’s best reply, and what you will do if he plays that.  That’s the minimum requirement to play Real Chess, and you have to do it for every move you play or you might as well be tossing a coin.

3. Use All Your Time In Every Game
Chess is a game which rewards deep thought and long analysis, so why on earth handicap yourself by only using a fraction of your time?  Experienced players will aim to use all their available thinking time in every game, whatever time control is being used.

Time should also be used wisely for each individual move.  If your move is forced, or you have just a few options of apparently similar strength then it makes sense to play quickly. However, if the position is rich with tactical possibilities, or you are about to make a big decision, then slow down and give it some real thought.  There are no take-backs in chess, or in life!

If you find you keep missing killer moves from your opponent, then before you make a move look for all the checks, captures and threats that he has available in response. That should cover most of the moves that could get you into trouble!

4. Think Like Sherlock!
Imagine this common scenario: your opponent makes a move you don’t expect and you’re not sure why he played it.

Do you:

a) shrug your shoulders, ignore the move and play what you were going to play anyway
b) light your pipe, settle back for a few moments and figure out what your enemy is up to...

As Sherlock Holmes himself said, “Excellence at chess is one mark of a scheming mind”.

Figure out your opponent’s schemes and put a stop to them!

5. Loose Pieces Drop Off!
A “Loose” piece is a piece that is either undefended, or not adequately defended. Make sure you check whether any of your opponent’s pieces are loose and can be taken, or whether any of your pieces are vulnerable.

Most players quickly learn to spot if a piece is en prise (can be taken), but even experienced players can miss a little tactic which means a loose piece drops off!



6. Dream A Little Dream...
A lot of faulty chess thinking is caused by what is technically known as a “Quiescence” error. You disregard a strong move because you think it's impossible, or that the tactics in the position are over. Sometimes a move can seem impossible, but it pays to dream and wonder what if I played it anyway?  Another example from Heisman...



7. Know How To Play Against Rabbits And Heffalumps
In Simon Webb’s classic chess book Chess For Tigers he describes much weaker players as Rabbits, and much stronger players as Heffalumps.  It is important to know the right strategies for playing both these types of opponents.

If you are playing a rabbit, you need to keep things simple and solid and look to punish any mistakes that the rabbit makes. Wait, and pounce when the time is right!


If you are playing a Heffalump you should lead them into swamps full of murky complications and hope they fall in first before you do!


This is sound practical advice and good psychology. Whatever you do, don’t try to show off tactically when playing rabbits, and don’t play safety first against Heffalumps!

8. "When You See A Good Move, Look For A Better One!"
The great world champion Emanuel Lasker is credited with this quote, and there’s a fundamental truth to it.  When you are deciding on a move to play, you are not just trying to find a good move, you are trying to find the best one.

The 2nd World Chess Champion, Emanuel Lasker


So another useful check before you make a move is to repeat this chess mantra...

Is it safe?

Is it any good?

Is another move better?

Do you have any more quick tips for improvement? Please add yours in the comments.