10 Steps To Improve Your Chess

I thought I’d do something a little different in this post. Obviously, as a contributor here, I do quite a lot of thinking on how best to improve one’s chess. The problem is, that there is not one piece of advice that will be of great benefit on its own. The game is just not that easy, if it was, everyone would be a Grandmaster.

It will very much depend on the player concerned as to how he or she can improve their game. However, I think, generally, the list below would be a good place to start for most …

Analyse your games.
It’s important to know where you are going wrong and what your weaknesses are. This is the way to find out. There is no hard and fast formula, it takes a great deal of time and effort, and a lot of blunt honesty with yourself. However, it is worth every bit of it. Think of it as using the benefit of hindsight, in order to improve your foresight for future games.

Learn Opening Systems and setups before lines.
When it comes to the opening, the most common approach is often to sit down with a book and play through lines, trying to commit each one to memory. This often backfires, the human brain works best by association, especially the older we get. Therefore, before you get in to the meaty stuff of variations, it is much wiser to first become familiar with opening. First, general opening principles, like: control the centre, “bishops and knights out like lights”, castling early, not wasting time with prophylactic pawn moves, and so forth.

Then one is well equipped for learning a specific opening.

A good way to do this is to play through master games featuring the opening in question. This will highlight themes, and concepts, and one will already be noticing common move orders. Critical positions will also be indicated and recent games will highlight trends and novelties. At the end of this initial piece of research, the player will better understand the opening’s general principles, and know which lines to focus attention on. This is a much more productive way of learning an opening, in my opinion, than just trying to commit lines to memory.

• Learn endgames with the same dedication as openings.
I am not sure of exact figures but the endgame features in a good percentage of chess games. Therefore, it does puzzle me somewhat, that it is largely under-rated. Especially when compared to the opening. There are tons of books on the opening, but very few on the endgame — very few good ones anyway. So, where does one start with the endgame? I would recommend picking up a good book, and benefitting from experience. 101 Chess Endgame Tips by Steve Giddins is a good place to start. The games of masters are also very useful here.

• Learn pawn centres and their nuances.
Fixed, mobile, open, fluid, closed. A player who knows the differences (some subtle) between one from another, will enhance their middlegame (well, especially middlegame) understanding. The player who also knows the differences in strategy, technique, piece capabilities/limitations, has a very fine string to their bow.

• Don’t favour pieces.
When we learn chess, we are told (by a teacher or author) what the value of the pieces are. We are also told that bishops are slightly better than knights. I would not dream of trying to argue with the general intentions behind these pointers, but that is what they are, pointers. They are used to help the beginner learn the game and to appreciate the value of the various bits.

The downside of this approach is that it can also be limiting, and close a player’s mind. I see it so often that a novice will endeavour to get the bishop pair, by hook or by crook, having been told that it is advantageous. This kind of thing, though well meant, very often backfires. I once saw a player so focussed on obtaining the bishop pair, that he failed to notice the board closing up. In the end, he ended up with two bad bishops and a position constantly probed and influenced by his opponent’s knights.

• Learn how to think.
In a game of chess, one just thinks, right? Plain and simple. What should we play? What are the candidate moves? Let’s look at a few variations in each. It’s actually not quite that simple. The way one approaches the analysis of a position, will depend very much on the position. A tactical position will demand more precise calculation of as many valid variations as possible, whereas a quiet, positional situation wont and will be mainly general piece placement considerations. Once a player grasps the different thought processes that are applied to different types of position, his or her game can come on leaps and bounds. Alexander Kotov, teaches this in enlightening fashion in his books Think Like A Grandmaster and Play Like A Grandmaster.

• Play Correspondence (or turn-based) Chess.
Most players will play chess over-the-board and across from another person. The next most popular method will be live chess online I think. However, correspondence chess should not be over-looked. Correspondence chess (called ‘turn-based’ chess by some) is great for allowing deep analysis of chess positions, for which the player has a greater amount of time than normal. It can also be useful if you are still learning your openings, as the use of databases are legal.

• Adopt a GM.
Sounds like a TV appeal, I know, but choosing a Grandmaster (especially a very good one) to follow closely can help one’s chess remarkably. If he or she plays your openings all the better, but this is not essential. Your choice should be fairly similar in playing style, however. By analysing their games, and observing closely how they deal with certain situations, one can learn a lot, and take positive influences in to their own play.

• Exercise.
This is a rather strange piece of advice at first sight, but an active body breeds an active mind. It has been shown that exercise helps the brain to function better. Most of the top chess players are pretty active, swimming and walking being very popular activities — can’t be coincidence … ?

• Practice, practice, practice!
I suppose ‘play! Play! Play!’ would be more appropriate? Chess takes little time to learn, but a good time to become proficient at. A deep understanding of our beautiful game will take many hundreds of hours and just as many experiences. Ultimately, few are able to call themselves ‘masters’. If you take to chess with the main goal of becoming a Grandmaster, you are very likely to be in for a disappointment. However, if you take it up because it is a beautiful, fascinating game, one which you enjoy and wish to learn more and more, then you are at the start of a very rewarding love affair.

And, like all love affairs, it will fill your heart with joy one moment and have you wanting to walk away forever the next, so all the very best of luck!

John Lee Shaw