How to Get to the Next Level?

Jun 7, 2015, 2:40 AM |

Students of mine, who are approaching a rating of 2000, asked me recently, "What do I need to do to get to the next level?"

Below is an expanded version of my compiled responses.  I and everyone who reads this blog would much appreciate relevant thoughts from others who have thought about this, experienced this transition in their own play skill, and/or been taught this.

Regarding how to "get to the next level", there's several approaches that will get you there gradually, in my experience.  None are too fast, but with dedication all have been proven effective.  Those approaches can be combined with each other for multiplied effect:

1) Play with people who are already there (or beyond), and focus on getting the most out of the experience, i.e., pay close attention, think thoroughly and play slowly, analyze during and after the game, derive conclusions and implement them in your own future games to see the results.
You'll notice how over time your effort and the challenge of strong(er) opposition starts pulling you upward to where you didn't think you could really attain.

2) Notice what players at or beyond that next level do and why they do it in their games (e.g., by going through existing analyses and attempting to put yourself in their shoes), and understand what it is that's stopping you from doing similarly yet.
Often, I've noticed (for me personally and in my students also) that it's about artificial boundaries that need to (gradually) come down. For example, beginners tend to be either too shy or too brave, so they burn very quickly; intermediate players become more introspective and follow rules, but often follow those rules too closely, without entertaining the possibility of sometimes breaking some rules (e.g., "don't move the same piece twice in an opening") in favor of others; advanced players tend to understand more finely the dynamics of a situation, and often correctly trade-off one thing for another (e.g., a file control for a pawn, a powerful knight for a rook, a pawn for the initiative, a piece for a strong attack, etc.).
For the longest time, I've personally noticed having inhibitions (for lack of a better word) around doing positional exchange sacrifices, especially when there's not an immediate obvious compensation. This has started to loosen, for me, with experience and with watching stronger players who do it often and skillfully.

3) Know and follow established middlegame patterns for your commonly played set of openings.
Most players below 2000 don't know what those strategic ideas and patterns are, so they resort to improvising, but it's well known that picking a superior strategic plan determines more or less the course of the entire game, and that happens often in the first 5 moves after the opening theory ends. There's almost always room for improvement in this, even for GMs.
For some ideas about how to put together a stratic plan based on a given position you've reached, check out my relevant blog post on the topic: "Strategical Planning and Position Assessment"

4) Know your weaknesses (or ask others, if you don't) and put some regular effort on minimizing them, and turning them into strengths gradually.
This may mean more endgame studies, extra tactical training, expanded opening repertoire, etc. -- it's personal and it changes over time, so stay up-to-date on where you are and where your most pressing needs for improvement are.

5) Play, as much as you can, with players at or above your level.
This is the value of choosing the right environment, to allow the seed of your talents to flourish in the fertile soil of good collaborators (sparring partners, coaches, etc.).
An example of this is playing -- by actively participating in discussions for -- vote chess games in one of the strong teams on this site.  It only takes 2-3 strong and willing collaborators, and good team organization (incl. willingness to work together for the common good) for good experiences to develop in that area.  I personally play vote chess, in addition to individual coaching, for 2-3 good teams, and I've noticed amazing results, not merely in the outcome of the games but also in the individual and group learning, as well as in the team spirit that is building up as a result.

6) Play, as much as you can, games/positions where you are deliberately placed outside of your comfort zone. 
That way, you'll make the most progress in the least amount of time.  Granted, it won't come without effort, but any improvement takes dedication and effort, so that must be given, if you're serious about improving your skills. 

7) Once you have identified what you're working on improving in your skills, make it a regular activity to do all of the above. Do so even at the expense of other tempting opportunities.  Play fewer games outside of your chosen, most beneficial framework, but devote more time/attention to the fewer games you have within that framework.  That can include, e.g.: 

(a) playing games with coaches where you and the coach agree to drive toward positions with the express intent to dive deeper into areas needing improvement in your play;
(b) going through studies (from books, videos, etc.) where the content is explicitly aligned with your established long-term goals -- and doing so at your own pace of comfort, not in any rush (since the point is to learn solidly, not to check off an item from your list);
(c) playing (almost exclusively) in tournaments where the chosen opening or the strength of your opponents implies more opportunities for you to get training in what matters to you;
(d) discussing on a regular basis -- e.g., bi-weekly or monthly, depending on the rate of completion of items from your wish list -- with people at your level or above (e.g., possibly coaches) about your experiences, findings, questions, etc.

8) Celebrate successes (even small ones) along the way!
And help your friends celebrate theirs, too.

Good luck in all of this!