How Much Should You Play?

The correct answer will vary from person to person, depending on your particular learning style and non-chess factors.

For example, if you are married or in a relationship or have young children, it may not be easy for you to get away to play chess, especially on weekends. Three players I have known personally—two of them masters—were divorced by their wives, who didn’t approve of them playing chess on the weekends. (One of these players played chess almost every weekend, which most partners would probably find excessive.) As a dramatic cautionary tale, consider the example of the famous French artist and chess master, Marcel Duchamp, mentioned in a previous post here. On his honeymoon he spent so much time at his chessboard, ignoring his bride, that one day he returned to their room to find all his chess pieces glued to their squares, and his wife gone for good. Or perhaps I should say, for better or for worse.

Assuming the choice is yours, you will have to find the level of playing activity that suits you best. Mikhail Botvinnik thought 50 serious games per year was about the right amount for most people. I think this number is too low for many people, though it may have been right for Botvinnik: he earned his Ph.D. and had a career of sorts as an engineer, turning his full attention back to the chess world temporarily when it was time for him to play a world title match. In addition to being a great player, Botvinnik was also a great chess researcher, who developed or refined entire opening systems for his own use; much of his chess activity consisted of home preparation for his relatively limited playing schedule. You might almost say that Botvinnik’s relatively rare public appearances in competition were the tip of the iceberg of his chess activity.

If you haven’t been playing a lot of games, maybe it’s best to build up gradually and not overdo it. A friend of mine, a strong USCF Class A player who certainly could have become an Expert or National Master if he had made it a priority, is (like Botvinnik) an engineer with a Ph.D. His chess activity in recent decades has mostly been limited to occasional games at our local weeknight club. One year we took him to the U.S. Amateur Team East, a huge event held every February in Parsippany, New Jersey, over the three-day Presidents Day weekend. Six long tournament games in three days proved too much for him. By the afternoon of the second day he was lying face-down on his bed in the motel room, his face in a pillow, moaning pathetically, “No more chess!” Obviously none of us wants to get to this point—didn’t we originally start playing chess because it was fun?—so it is important that you find a sustainable level of competitive play that allows you plenty of study time with, I hope, enough time left over for a well-rounded life beyond chess.

I will add one rule of thumb that I have heard: you should not play more games than you have time to analyze later. The point being, that you are not going to get the full benefit from each game—you will not squeeze all the juice from it—unless you go over it carefully afterward: first with your opponent if possible, assuming you both have time to talk and neither of you is too enraged or depressed by the result to stick around; then at home with a book or two and Fritz or some other chessplaying software program that can blunder-check all the moves for tactical errors and missed opportunities.

Tim Hanke