Taking On The Other Kind Of Time Trouble

I was asked a little while ago, how one can improve their chess if they don’t have a lot of time.

To be honest, this is a tricky question to answer. If the player is seriously up against it when it comes to available time, (for example, someone working long hours or a single parent — Heaven forbid, both), then things are indeed challenging. Chess is, after all, something that requires as much study and practice time as possible, This is especially true if one wants to be a strong player.

Let’s suppose, that after my commitments, I have a mere hour available in the day for chess. (This should be relatively doable for most people I think.) How do I make it productive? How much of that hour, do I set aside for playing and how much for study? The answer is quite simple in my opinion: all of it.

Let’s take a look …

My week starts on (let’s say, for argument’s sake) Monday. I begin the week with a game of chess. If I make it 25-minutes per side, then I have a game of 50-minutes. That leaves 10-minutes spare, so I can do a few tactical problems afterwards or play a game of blitz too. That is a very good hour of chess play.

On Tuesday, I can analyse the game(s) I played the night before. It’s good to do it here, because even after 24-hours my thoughts are relatively fresh still. I allow the full hour. The reason for this is that time can tick on when analysing games. There may be complicated positions; there will be crucial points; deep analysis is likely to be needed here and there. Maybe I feel that I didn’t quite get my head around a certain position on Monday. Now is the perfect time to set it up on my board and take a look. I write things down, make notes, look things up in the database.

It is very important for my development to do this manually, without the aid of an engine. Engines are great to check things and point out errors in our thinking, but merely using a chess engine to analyse teaches very little. This is because learning requires mistakes, in order to identify the flaws in our own brain — rather, the flaws in our own thinking. To improve, that thinking needs the benefit of experience, in order to be ‘re-programmed’, and a chess engine does not provide that. It can only show the ‘what’, not the ‘how’ or ‘why’.

Wednesday can be used to focus on openings. I explore lines, work on my repertoire database, try to find ideas and plans. Maybe my games have highlighted weaknesses, and I can’t ignore those. Can they be fixed or do I need to find something else?

On Thursday I devote the time to blitz. Not only is this a great way of releasing tension, but it is a great time to give my opening work from the night before a whirl, test out some new lines and ideas, for example. The last 10-minutes can be used for going back over the games, just to look at crucial positions, any blunders (when I play blitz there tends to be quite a lot of those!), and look for things that may have been missed. In my opinion, one should not dwell too much on blitz games — though this might be why I am extremely bad at it.

Friday I can start winding down for the weekend, so I study some middlegame problems and tactics. There are some good books around for this purpose, and websites like Chessity make this kind of thing all the easier. The way I would approach this, personally, is to split the hour in to two. The first 30-minutes I would use to analyse a complex middlegame position. I set it up on the chess board and analyse as I would over-the-board (so, without moving the pieces). The only difference from an over-the-board situation, is that everything is written down, and checked over with a computer later.

The second part, I would use to do some tactics training. Sites like chess.com or Chessity are great for this and their apps mean that it can even be done on one’s phone. This is great if one spends some time on public transport, or a lot of time waiting around. Actually, it is quite addictive once that tactics rating starts going up!

Saturday I could leave open, and use it as I feel. Where do I think I need more attention? What area in the week did I feel I didn’t quite get enough time with?

Sunday is for endgame. I would work through a good book, and try to iron out mistakes that I had made in endgames previously. I religiously set up the standard mating material combinations (K+Q v K, etc.) against the computer and practice them. (I once saw a guy unable to mate with King, Bishop and knight against lone king. It was agonising. I never want to experience that in a game.)

And that is a week of work on my chess done. And covering many areas of my game.

The above is just one example of how an hour a day can be used to give one’s chess some serious attention. The emphasis is on Quality rather than Quantity. And I really believe that this can be used to good effect. “Where there’s the will there’s a way,” after all — but, as with everything, much needed ingredients are structure, commitment and discipline.

If you go down this route, I advise you to keep all your work, and your games. It will be great to look back on in a few months time and see what difference just an hour a day has made to your chess! Please let me know!

John Lee Shaw