How Much Should You Play?

My thinking about how to improve at chess continues to evolve.

One of the biggest obstacles to my chess improvement is that I hate to lose. As a result, I don’t play enough games. I have decided I need to play a lot more often—not just for the valuable practice, but also to inoculate myself against the fear of losing.

Playing a lot of games might not be the right approach for everyone. For example, Botvinnik thought about sixty games per year was plenty of competitive chess. He preferred to use the bulk of his chess time analyzing and preparing for his occasional contests. Bobby Fischer, during the decade before he won the world championship in 1972, played in tournaments only sporadically. Of course, in between tournaments Fischer did play a lot of blitz chess, which Botvinnik did not favor.

Other players, such as Karpov in his prime, have preferred to play often to stay sharp. He, too, liked to play blitz chess. Another reason Karpov may have wanted to compete often in tournaments, was to establish his dominance. He had to overcome the lingering prejudice in some quarters that he was not a legitimate world champion, since he had acquired the title without playing Fischer. Over his career, Karpov has probably won more high-level tournaments than any other grandmaster in history.

Most of today’s top players seem to think they must play often—perhaps to stay current with rapidly changing openings, or perhaps for the obvious reason that they need the money! Another possibility we have not yet mentioned, hidden in plain sight, is that they may enjoy playing chess.

I said above that I have decided to play more in the future. How much have I played in the past? To establish a baseline, let’s go to the data. A glance at the USCF online database shows that since records started to be kept electronically in 1991, I have played 297 rated games. That may sound like a lot, but if you divide 297 games by 23 years, you see I have played slightly less than 13 games per year on average. Thirteen games per year is really not enough for someone who has a goal of improving, even if you have done a lot of studying (I haven’t) or like to play online (I don’t) or play a lot of blitz (I don’t do that either).

What I have mainly done over the last 23 years is get older, which probably hasn’t helped my game. I have also bought a lot of chess books, which has had one concrete result: I have had to buy more bookshelves. But since I have actually read very few of these books, the impact on my chess game has been minimal.

If you want to improve at chess, perhaps you should ask yourself this most obvious of questions: “Am I playing enough games?”

Tim Hanke