Howard Stern and the 1100-rated Opponents
When I first started coaching Howard he was little more than a beginner; his early online long time-control rating was about 900.
After 6 months he was up to 1000. Around that time, we began a lesson and Howard said,
"Dan, I think I have gone about as far as I can go. I keep playing those 1100 players and they are just too good for me. I can hardly ever beat them."
So I replied,
"Howard, we review your games, and what is happening is that you are making basic tactical mistakes and giving them lots of free material and they are seeing some. Those 1100 players are also making many tactical mistakes, but you are seeing a little bit less and getting less.
"If you would just stop giving them free material and also win the material they are offering you, you would beat them every game."
"But Dan," Howard protested, "That's easy for you to say. It's not that easy at my level."
"Howard, you are correct, of course, but that's basically what is happening."
Now fast-forward after four years of additional coaching and Howard's online rating has risen to 1700+(!).
Normally Howard pre-arranges his online games with friends (they are his regular chess friends since he played under an online handle and they did not know who he really was). But one day he got on too early - he gets up early for his radio show - and none of his friends was available. So he did what he did not usually do, and sought a random opponent. The computer paired him with an 1100 player.
Later that day we had a lesson. I began the lesson as I always do:
"Do you have any questions or anything special you would like to do today?"
Howard replied "Well, I played a game this morning, but it is not worth reviewing. I hit the button and the computer paired me with an 1100 player and he just gave me all his pieces and resigned on move 19."
Howard's comment triggered in my mind what he had said four years earlier, so I replied,
"You mean one of those same 1100 players that four years ago you told me you would never beat?"
There was silence on the phone for only a short time and then Howard, in good humor as he almost always was during lessons, retorted,
Moral of the story: When you are a low rated player, studying basic tactics, playing carefully every move, and getting rid of your giant tactical mistakes will help you more than memorizing 10 opening books or learning the Lucena and Philidor endgames. Minimizing giant mistakes is far more helpful than learning many strategic nuances. Once you can keep your pieces safe each move and can recognize when your opponent has not and can take advantage of it, then studying lots of opening theory and advanced strategy will become far more useful.