How I got where I am
I'd like to make a quick post detailing what I did to achieve my current skill level, which in all honesty is nothing much to brag about, but I am looking forward to further improvements as soon as I can put more effort into chess (when there's a lull in work).
When I started chess, probably like everyone here, I got destroyed on f7 almost immediately. I was playing beginners and that's how the games go. I think I was even using a text-representation because I didn't have a graphical client at the time. This would be around 1997.
The first book I bought was 'play winning chess' by yasser seirawan. This is where I got my first 'image' of how to play chess. By 'image' I mean a set of 'rules' 'golden rules' 'principles' and ideas of what is right or wrong or a system to follow when choosing your moves.
The image in 'play winning chess' is very simplistic, maybe too simplistic, but a good one to have when you are starting out. My memory isn't perfect but I think it basically boiled down to this:
# 1 Develop quickly
#2 Avoid pawn weaknesses
His book also talked about the game from 4 perspectives, I think they were something like 'force, material, space, and time' .
That was a very good introduction to chess and it stayed with me for the rest of my games even though I quickly jumped past the target audience of that book.
So I played a lot of speed games and maybe I got somewhere around 1200 strength, not sure, and then I went to a chess camp.
At the chess camp I got beat by little kids, but in addition to that, I learned about the book 'my system' and it sounded like this awesome strategy book for serious players. So I got it...
I read through it eagerly. It was talking about stuff in much more detail and gave you a whole host of things to think about: Pawn chains, hanging pawns, isolated pawns, bishop pair, knights vs bishops, prophylaxis, knight outposts on an open file, rook maneuvering to 7th rank, etc. In fact much of the material in the book I never really quite absorbed because it was either too advanced or I didn't realize the worth of it yet.
I read this book about once a year and every time with my increased strength it was like reading something completely new and inspirational each time. I recently read about halfway through the book and already I am learning alot again.
So at this point I had a new image, I had new 'rules' about different positions. I had certain ideas about certain situations, and they probably weren't too flexible . I was afraid of things that shouldn't be feared, and wasn't very secure in positions where maneuvering and 'building up the position' were important.
Then I read 'reasses your chess' at some point and that was also interesting. I also read 'the amateurs mind', and perhaps "reassess your chess workbook". I learned alot about psychology, and that has been a very important difference in how I play now compared to how I used to play. In the past, especially when playing a strong player, I would get frightened when the opponent made a threatening move or a move that was hard to react to. Jeremy Silman talked about this psychology and said instead you should think about if you can ignore the threat or counter it with a positive move of your own.
I also listened to an interview with him and he mentioned how he told his audience when you see a threat, look at it and say 'BULLSHIT!' . This was very memorable to me =)
So I learned new things from silman, like more about bishop vs. knight and making a plan and various stuff. I didn't do very well at the excersises in reassess your chess workbook either. I'll be returning to that book the next time I put effort into chess.
Now the next major influence in my game: Joshua Waitzkin's annotated chessmaster lectures. These are so, so fricking good that I can't even begin to explain how good they are. If you've seen chess videos, if you've seen annotated ICC games, etc., they are NOTHING compared to joshua waitzkin's lectures. Joshua waitzkin's lectures are lessons that build on previous lessons, they're a huge amount of intructional material. They're guides into psychology and motivation, etc. The psychology of competition course is incredibly good and these ideas have carried directly into my life. I started learning the new terms 'maintaining the tension' 'the downward spiral' etc.
I started noticing the 'downward spiral' in my games. Before when I started losing I'd freak out and play emotionally, and end up losing. Lately, I get into bad positions all the time, I realize I'm giving up, then I think 'oh yeah, the downward spiral! I take a step back (out of the street of traffic abotu to run you over while you are not paying attention like in josh's story from chessmaster), look at the position, and start playing again. I can't count the number of times I've turned a complete loss into victory, even in slow-rated tournament games. For instance, in my last 3 tournaments, at least twice I've been down 2 pawns and had a worse position, but still played resourcefully and ended up winning. I wouldn't have been able to do that without josh's advice.
So this is a recent addition to my image, but Josh's idea of 'maintaining the tension' and 'building pressure' and all that has given me an entirely new image. Instead of kind of making random moves that accord to a principle, I think in terms of how I can build up the position, make my pieces progressively more active, tie down the opponents pieces more, etc. When I consider trades, I think in terms of who will be left with the most active piece at the end. When I consider complicated variations, trades, combinations, I think who at the end is better placed in terms of development, active pieces, etc. I make new kinds of moves I never made before, like developing my queen actively even when it does not immediately lead to something positive. I also learned that from getting beat by Rybka many times.=)
So those were the major influences on my chess strategy, Nimzowitsch, Joshua Waitzkin, Jeremy Silman, and yasser seirawan's 'play winning chess' and 'winning chess' series.
All that being said, I consider those influences like catalysts, and the real increase in playing strength came from playing thousands, yes, thousands of speed games. Maybe I could have improved faster or better if I played slow games, but lets face it, most people want to play speed games because you get more games in. So I played 5 minute games over and over again. And I got better at it.
To prepare for a tournament nowadays, I play a few slow games, say 3-4 slow games in the week before, but for at least a month before the tournament, I try to play hours worth of speed games every day. This may seem like bad advice according to some chess teachers. However if you look at my rating charts (which I don't have), my rating goes up in blitz when I play alot. So normally I will hover at around 1800 ICC 5-minute rating when I am not playing alot lately, or drift down to 1700 or 1600, but when I play for a week straight, hours a day, my rating has jumped and stayed consistent for that period up to 2100~2000. I also play better in slow chess during this time as well.
Now I may be different than other people and 'forget' how to play well quicker than others, but perhaps alot of people are similar to me. And so my advice is, play chess. Play lots of chess. That's the hard work you do to get better. Play 500 speed games, and see where you're at. Then, when you're ready to absorb new information and try it out in your games, read some nice positional manual like 'reassess your chess', or something similar. Watch all the josh waitzkin videos. Come up with your own ideas. Then play more.
I also spent quite a lot of time solving tactical puzzles and it directly helped me so many times I can't count. I seriously think that if a player didn't play chess for a month and just spent 2 hours a day with chess.com's tactics trainer or ct-art, they would improve in ability quite a lot. These basic tactics you see in the tactics problems, once you learn them, become extremely useful to you in your calculations. The problem in my opinion is that many people do not strain themselves enough. You've got to really try to solve the tactics. And when you can't solve one (say you spent 20 minutes on it) , and you look at the answer, you have to *remember* why it works. In fact, every time you ever get confused about chess whatsoever, you should try to figure out *why* it's true.
Ok, so this is my advice to someone that wants to improve fast: spend an hour a day playing, an hour a day training tactics, read reasses your chess and 'my system', 'amateurs mind' 'reasesses your chess workbook' and make sure you can do at least your level of endgames in the jeremy silman endgame book =) If you have less time, of course you can adjust your schedule accordingly.
Often people look for a magic chess solution like if they knew some secret they would instantly be better. Well, the secrets ARE out there, but they can't be generalized so easily, and you have to have experience to understand how they relate to your game. Often these people, when asked how much effort they've been putting into training, answer 'almost none'.
All that being said, many people are way more successful than me way faster, but keep in mind I quit chess many times in the last 8 years. I had a love-hate relationship to chess for years, sometimes I loved it, other times I hated it. Sometimes it felt as if there was NO WAY i could understand what was going on in a game or position. All I can say is stick with it and try to gain insight into what is going on. Use an engine or board and read the various instructional guides out there and eventually it will start making sense. It's as if you're totally blind in chess at first, then you slowly start seeing stuff, but there's a moment where it's as if you can suddenly look up into the horizon of understanding, and while you realize that you can't peer too deep into it, you are beginning to 'see' what is going on.
I gave up many times because I couldn't shake myself of a 'B' or 'A' player rut and didn't feel like I was learning anything or getting anything out of my games. So you need both - you need the experience, the games, and then you need to step back and have insight, read more perspectives.
Thank you and have a nice day =)