Your path to chess improvement might include tactics training, endgame study, adoption of a solid opening repertoire, study of master games in the lines you play, reading on strategy, regular coaching sessions, etc., but does it involve playing enough quality chess?
An area that players seeking improvement easily forget is that just spending many hours playing opponents that are better than them, where the focus is on quality not pushing wood quickly, is a key method of learning. It is all too easy for players to fall into the cosy routine of playing only opponents of a similar standard or weaker. If you really want to take a step up, you have to challenge yourself and seek out some tougher opponents.
If you get into the habit of expecting high quality moves to come back at you, you will improve your own move selection – because you will have to just to stay in the game. As one World Champion said:
“When you see a good move, look for a better one”. – Emanuel Lasker
How true that is – and a mentality of working hard at the board will be cultivated if you know that your opponent is fully capable of punishing mistakes.
The lessons learned in your own games are more real and unforgettable than anything you might learn away from the board. Nothing focuses the mind more than experiencing a painful defeat. And you just can’t recreate the intensity of playing an actual game in training exercises. Making time for playing more games with quality opposition has to be at the top of any improver’s to-do-list!
At tournaments, that might mean playing in the section above the one you usually play in. In team matches it might mean asking your captain if you can play on a higher board (as long as it doesn’t breach any rules). It might mean considering events you wouldn’t normally play in, because it’s keeping company with strong players, not playing weaker players, that improves your chess.
If you find it difficult finding enough opportunities to play stronger opponents over-the-board you may wish to consider correspondence chess on a server like FICGS. You will soon get used to strong moves coming back at you.
Once you’ve played some games, careful analysis of them will reveal what you missed – and what your opponents missed – and where you could have improved. You can do this most productively with a chess coach or with a stronger player that can spare you some time. A chess engine might help with tactics, but it won’t tell you why one strategic plan is better than another.
If you seek challenging opposition and analyse your games properly – and nothing else – you’ll be doing more than most people.