Sunday, 11 March 2007

Chess Improvement Plan

I've been playing chess now, with varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm, since I was 5 years old. I love to play the game, and I could just leave it at that - chess for it's own sake - and not worry about seriously attempting to improve. But as anyone who has ever played chess can attest, the desire to improve is usually strong and compelling.

So at the age of 36 - happily married, with no kids - I think if I don't make a serious effort to improve my chess ability now, I probably never will. I have enough spare time at weekends and some week nights to fill with something more interesting than watching TV or browsing the internet.

So I'd like to pick the collective brains of any readers that find their way here and ask how best to go about this. Now, I know this is probably the most asked question in chess (or a close second to 'Which way around does the chessboard go again?!), and I can probably guess what the answers will be (after all, I've answered this question to other players before myself at the Chess Exchange forum).

But what really works? I'd like to hear any personal experiences and opinions. I recently researched some information about my local chess league with a view to perhaps rejoining (I last played when I was 16) and was somewhat taken aback to discover many names I knew from more than 20 years ago still having pretty much the same rating. Is improvement really possible for the amateur player? Am I wasting my time on a pipedream?

One thing I am not going to do is join the Knights Errant in their Michael de la Maza inspired madness of endless repetition of tactics puzzles. Sure tactics are important, very important, but there's nothing more guaranteed to ruin my love of chess than following this blinkered plan which would surely leave no time for anything else. Good luck to the noble Knights - but I won't be joining you.

I've decided to try out a study plan suggested by Michael Goeller at his excellent blog, The Kenilworthian. In short, it has ten points as follows, with my interpretation for my own plan given after each point.

1. Study tactics, tactics and more tactics.

Go through bookmarked tactics websites e.g. Chess Tactics Server, Chess Tactics Explained, DejaScacchi etc.

2. Do a limited amount of focused endgame training.

Go through Silman’s ‘Reassess your chess’ chapter on the endgame. Look for basic endings advice in Fundamental Chess Endings book by Muller & Lamprecht.

3. Commit to a single solid repertoire as Black and one as White.

With White, base the repertoire around the Sam Collins ‘An Attacking Repertoire for White’ book.

With Black against 1.e4 play the Caro-Kann using Joe Gallagher’s ‘Starting out’ book and Schiller’s ‘Complete Defence to 1.e4’ book.

With Black against 1.d4 play the QGD Tarrasch using Schiller’s ‘Complete Defence to 1.d4’

4. Play through lots of games.

Use the online chess databases to play through games in my openings where ‘my side’ won. Play through games collections:

  • The Development of Chess Style
  • The Most Instructive Games…Ever Played
  • Understanding Chess; Move by Move
  • 100 Selected Games (Botvinnik)

5. Read on strategy only as it relates to your openings or problems you have in your play.


6. Decide how to make decisions and practice it.

Use the Heismann Articles ‘A Generic thought process’, (14)’Initial and Final Candidate Moves’ (59), and ‘Improving Analysis Skills’ (45).

7. Get experience, and lots of it

Play at Rapid games to help get experience of the openings I play. Also play against Hiarcs (on my palm PDA) regularly and save games into Fritz10 database for analysis.

8. Find a coach or mentor


9. Make a time commitment.

Start off with eight hours/week. I should be able to do at least 4-5 hours on the weekend.

10. Find a chess partner.


Any feedback on my ideas will be gratefully received. I seriously want to improve and want to use my time to the best effect.


hicetnunc said...

Hi Ryan !

For background info, I'm 35 yo. French guy, and I have been playing competition chess since I'm 20. I achieved a ~2050 FIDE rating by 25 and it didn't improve much since then, but I've accumulated some chess experience by teaching, interacting with stronger players, and observing improving players in the various chess clubs I have been playing for. I have played around 400 OTB long games during these 15 years, most of them before I was 30.

So here is what I really think are the most important things to improve :

1) Competitive drive and focus : chess is a fight, and what makes the difference when you're playing someone around your strength is how much you want to win, and how focused you are during the games. It gives you steadiness in your play and results. That's the most important part. I've lost many half points simply because I was careless, or unable to focus properly...

2) Playing regimen : the more you play focused chess (not blitz, blitz is for fun), the stronger you become. My experience is 25-50 long games a year OTB is what you really need to improve steadily over a long period of time. 10 games/year is the minimum to stay fit. I reached my rating by playing +25 games/year during 5 years.

3) Get a good mentor : it's more important than reading 100 books, because you learn faster this way. The mentor will show you what is important FOR YOU, and as the information is relevant, the learning process will be way faster. The mentor doesn't need to be a professional chess teacher. Any nice player, significantly stronger than you (I suggest rating > 2000 is a minimum) will help you a lot. What you must do with this mentor is : analyze your games, look at his games (for inspiration) and analyze any specific chess position that is of interest for you . When I started chess, I found kind mentors in my chess club : people rated +2200 elo who eagerly analyzed my games with me, even if I was a mere 1500 player - it helped tremendously ! And attending their analysis sessions too ! You won't find chess explained this way in books.

4) Analyze your games : first with your opponent, then by yourself, then with mentor, then, and only then, with Fritz & co. : the analysis doesn't need to be complete, it needs to be instructive...better learn 1 good lesson then seeing that 23.a4 improves your position by 0,23 pts. You can always come back to this game 1 year later : you'll be surprised... I analyzed thoroughly 4 of my games when I was ~22 and, believe it or not, my rating jumped 200 pts. the next year :-)

5) If you want to practice, play semi-rapid chess (not blitz) and check the opening theory right after each game - this way you learn theory bit by bit, without suffering too much (and may find that your moves, even if not "theory", may be quite good after all...), and variations will stick in your mind...

6) Don't fear your opponent's rating when playing : if it's higher than yours, then, by all means, play the pieces, be as OBJECTIVE as possible, and stir up trouble on the chessboard...As soon as I stopped thinking +2000 players were chess gods, I started attacking them on the board and beating them :-) and crossed the 2000-barrier

7) Read what you find interesting in chess books (some are very good !), but my rule of thumb is if your book studying time exceeds one half of your combined playing/analyzing time (ie. 1/3 of your total chess time), you're going to become a chess scholar, but may not improve your rating as much as you want...Most strong players don't read many chess books. They pick what they need as a given time and set positions on the board to analyze.

8) Have you chess brain work at least 10 minutes every day : meaning solving a competition, or thinking about a specific position. It doesn't need to be 1 hr. but a little chess every day prevents rust...

All of this has worked for me, and the advice is in descending order of importance : if you can't do #1, I think #4, #7 or #8 are pretty useless...

Good luck !

Paris, France,

Ah, and one last note : I find playing against the computer pretty useless, if only because it develops a defensive-how long will I survive- style of play, which I find harmful against human people.

Ryan Emmett said...

Hi Laurent. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply with so much advice! I really appreciate it.

It's interesting that you suggest competitive drive and focus as the most important thing. I recall hearing that Botvinnik never played blitz because he felt it wasn't serious enough.

I guess competitiveness is a characteristic of great exponents of any sport!

In order to gain experience of long time control chess, do you think that I should re-join a chess club?

What would you class as semi-rapid chess in your 5th point? At what point does a time control become too quick to be useful?

In view of your 8th point and your final comment at the end of your post, should I stop playing chess games against Hiarcs on my PDA when I'm commuting to and from work and instead solve chess puzzles?

Thanks again for some great advice!

hicetnunc said...

Yes, joining a chess club would definitely help, as it would increase your energy level, help you find competition and mentoring, so it's a big yes-yes :-)

Semi-rapid chess starts at 15min sudden death, up to 1hr for the game. I think 20' or 25' are best for training games, with a few secs. increment if possible

As for playing against the computer while commuting, well, why not, provided you play like in a real game (ie. no take-back so that - remember advice#1 !), and you can tune the computer so that its strength is not higher than your level + 200 pts or something like that. If it's not possible, then solving tactical puzzles may be more helpful.

Anyway, I wish you the best of luck with your improvement plan !

Edwin 'dutchdefence' Meyer said...

Wow, that guy really too time out to give you advice. How friendly :-)

Anyway, i've been given the advice to join a club as well many times, and that it will help your game. I still have to join one though :-)

Ryan Emmett said...

Thanks again Laurent. I will resolve to join a chess club as soon as possible.

The Hiarcs engine on my Palm can be 'dumbed down' to my level. As you say, the problem is taking the games seriously, when by their nature they tend to be casual. I think I'll get around that by publishing my games on this blog for the world to see - warts and all.

Speaking of which, I'll be posting the latest installment of my current chess game soon!

Ryan Emmett said...

Hi Edwin!

It's good to see that you weren't on hiatus too long!

ejh said...

I wouldn't use a book by Eric Schiller to put my cup of coffee on.

Ryan Emmett said...

Eric Schiller seems to get a lot of stick and I understand why. Some of his books are poorly put together and lacking in quality content.

But I think the two books I mentioned in my post (complete defense to d4/e4 ) are pretty good.

ejh said...

I should say I think Laurent's advice is very good. But I want to sound a note of caution: I think that by the time one gets to one's late thirties it's very difficult to learn anything new in chess, in the sense of adding things to your play, becoming more tactically aware and so on. It's most unlikely that one's basic chess can improve substantially.

It may, however, be possible that one can take things out. It may be possible to identify certain deficiencies in one's play and learn to recognise when they are about to occur in a game. For instance, I had a tendency to throw games away by starting to attack wildly, ruining my posaition, whenever I thought my position was better: in the last couple of years, instead of panicking like that, I've learned to play every position as if I were no better than equal unless and until the tactics show me otherwise. In this way I've rather more often allowed my opponents to throw it away than done it myself.

I think in a way that it's analogous to the process in life whereby we recognises, after a certain age, what we are like and we accept that we're not going to change: but to some extent, having recognised that, we are able to manage it and work round it.

Oh and having a settled opening repertoire is an absolute must.

ejh said...

Incidentally what's your present strength? I can't find you here.

Ryan Emmett said...

Thanks ejh for your comments. I'm sure I've read something before about the idea of improving one's play by subtracting negatives rather than adding positives. Thanks for reminding me of this important idea!

I would guess that the lower the level of ability, the more important it is to 'take things out', like blunders, misconceptions and faulty thinking processes.

I don't feature on the Welsh Chess Union player list because I haven't played OTB since I was in my teens (I'm 36 now!). I think my highest rating was 1715, my best win against a 2100+ player and I estimate my rating now as around 1600-1700 although I'm bound to be rusty after all these years...

I guess that joining a club again would be very beneficial.

ejh said...

Yes it would.

I was going to write a book for people like you (people coming back to chess who haven't played since they were kids) but I couldn't get a publisher to be interested in it.

Annoys me.

Anyway, throw away the Schiller and get Gallacher's Starting Out book on the Caro-Kann.

Ryan Emmett said...

ejh - I think it's a great idea for a book. Shame no publishers can see that.

I've already got Gallagher's book on the Caro - I mentioned it in my post, and I agree - it is very good.

Goran said...

"In view of your 8th point and your final comment at the end of your post, should I stop playing chess games against Hiarcs on my PDA when I'm commuting to and from work and instead solve chess puzzles?"

I think chess studies would be much better than playing program. On the same line with Laurent's advices, I would suggest "Rowson's method": setting random position from strong players’ game and giving yourself 15-20 minutes to find the plan and suggest a move (just as if you are playing). Then, compare it to how the actual game continued.

Btw, have you read "Chess for Zebras"? I believe it would be useful.

Good luck!

Chess Strategy

Tom Chivers said...

There is a lot of good and interesting advice here.

Personally though, I think the main thing to do is to play serious, competitive, over the board chess. Play tournaments where money is at stake, and league games for a team where it counts. Nothing else in chess is comparable to that intensity - providing you take it seriously, you get a really good measure of yourself at chess. Then you can end up facing your chess problems yourself, and self-administering advice.

Ryan Emmett said...

Thanks Goran for your comments. I think that after i finish my current game on my PDA I will put it aside for a while and go back to solving the puzzles in '1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations' when I'm commuting. I've finished the book once, so I'll start at the beginning and do it again!

When I have time at home, I'll find a random GM game and stop it once the middlegame has arrived and try to work out what I would do. Then I'll compare to the game continuation and see how I did. Is it a good idea to write your thoughts down when you are doing this?

I nearly bought 'Chess for Zebras' a few months ago after reading a glowing review at ChessVille:

I think I like the sound of it so I'll take the plunge and order it soon!

Ryan Emmett said...

Thanks Tom for your comments. I think in my heart I know that joining a chess club again would be beneficial but after so many years away from the board (and with Fritz and available at any time for a game) it's difficult to make the move.

To me, it's a bit like exercise - I know it's good for me, but I have to motivate myself to do it!

Anonymous said...

How do you transfer games from Palm to Fritz ?

Ryan Emmett said...

There is a feature on the Hiarcs Palm program that lets you export games in PGN format to a memo.

After you perform a hotsynch with your PC you can then open the memo and copy the PGN text into Fritz and voila!

The full explanation is at the faq at the Hiarcs site at the link below.

Grandpatzer said...

I think my blog's "Most Useful Posts" and links to Heisman's -articles may help, but here's what I think is most important.

-Read Heisman's entire archive at In particular, the articles about "Hope" chess vs. "Real" chess. Reading through the articles, think back to the games you've played and what mistakes you've been most prone to. Odds are, if it's not simple tactics it's simply not playing what Heisman calls "real chess" on every single move of the game. This is most likely the weakest link of the chain, and it's what I need to work the most on. Unfortunately, you can't just pick up a book and pretend you're working on this most aspect of your game like you can pick up a book on tactics, strategy, endgames, or openings. You have to re-wire your brain to think consistently.

Apart from that, find a local club and play long, rated games. If you feel a certain aspect of your game is weak such as positional understanding or endgames, go ahead and address it...but tactics and thought process are the greatest contributors to your chess strength (and weakness).

-Finally: it's not all about improvement. If studying positional chess, endgames, old master games, recent "Super GM" games or whatever brings you joy, knock yourself out. But if your #1 goal is improvement, you have to take care of the biggest weaknesses first, and that could be as unglamorous (and hard to address) as playing "real chess" a la Heisman.

Ryan Emmett said...

Hi Grandpatzer, thanks for the useful advice.

I've read many of Heismann's posts including those about 'Real' chess and I'm sure if I took the advice to heart and actually used it, then it would help me improve.

In reality of course, changing your thinking pattern is very difficult and that's partly why I'm writing my 'stream of chess consciousness' entries on this blog - to try to tease out what specific misconceptions I may have.

I've recommended Heismann's articles to others at the Chess Exchange forum and I'm sure you're right about playing 'real' chess. I guess it's time I started practising what I preach - or as your blog is subtitled 'Do as I say, not as I do'!!!

Roger Coathup said...

Hi Ryan,

to let you know I've posted the list of 'must-have' chess books that I'd recommend to any player keen to improve.

Best regards, Roger

thechessghost said...


Nice advice here, btw, is that Laurent is Laurent Fressinet?