Optimize Your Chess Training

Question and Improve Your Chess

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

-Rudyard Kipling

Optimizing isn’t about find the “best” training method – as a best method probably doesn’t exist. Instead, it is about constant improvement – both adding what is useful and stripping away what is outdated or less relevant.

To do this, it is essential to regularly and systematically question what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why.


Choosing what to study is essential to a successful training program. In general, as you get stronger, your study materials will have to be more specific to your needs. For beginners, study materials need to be broad and more general as there is a lot to learn. Here are a couple questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you studying games and positions that occur in your opening repertoire?
  • Are you studying concepts that target areas of need – e.g. your weaknesses?
  • Are you studying at a level that is appropriate for you – not too hard and not too easy?

When and Where

When and where you study is also important. Despite anecdotes of Botvinnik training with someone puffing cigerette smoke in his face, for the most part studying in a comfortable environment is recommended. Similarly studying when you are alert is better than when you are groggy or distracted. Consider the following:

  • Do you have a specific place in your home where you study?
  • If you study on your computer, do you shut off programs like Twitter and Facebook?
  • Do you study at a time when you are relatively free from distractions – e.g. when children are asleep?


The attitude and focus you bring to your training and study is also important. The more you are focused during your training sessions, the more you will absorb and remember. Also, studying actively – where you are asking yourself questions and trying to make connections with your previous knowledge – will help you apply what you learn to your games. Finally, going into a session with clear goals and objectives will help you measure the effectiveness of your training sessions. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I know what I want to achieve in my upcoming training session?
  • Am I focused? Is my mind on other things other than my study material?
  • Am I positive about my progress and training?
  • Am I making connections between what I am learning now and the structures and concepts I have learned in the past?


Besides your own efforts, who you play and converse with about chess has an effect on your progress. Playing on average slightly stronger players seems to yield the best results. If you play players you can never beat, you will be discouraged and be unable to practice the technique of winning a won game. If you play predominantly weaker players, you will not be punished for your mistakes – and therefore not learn from them. I wrote a more detailed article about who to play on betterchesstraining.com.

Besides people you play against, who refers to the mentors and coaches you employ to assist you in your game. Like learning materials such as books and videos, different chess coaches and mentors have different value in terms of their effectiveness. It is not necessarily the quality of the coaching, but also the personality fit that is important. In general, you want someone you get along with, but also someone who can clearly disseminate the material and concepts that you need to improve. Some of the best mentors are not necessarily professional players, but stronger players who can explain concepts well. As you get stronger, you may require more specific assistance in certain areas such as opening preparation or psychology.


Perhaps the most important question you need to ask yourself is “Why?” Why do you play chess? Why do you want to get better? Here are a few implications of this question (as well as a couple more questions):

  • If chess is a recreational release from the stress of everyday life, then playing “fun” openings like various gambits and offbeat openings may be for you.
  • Do you plan on playing in open tournaments over-the-board or mainly online? What implications does this have on the training and openings you choose?
  • Is finding the “truth” of a position important to you? If so, playing mainline openings following the latest theory may be more relevant to you.


Perhaps this article uncovered more questions than it answered. You don’t have to make wholesale changes to the way you study chess. However, using these questions will help you to gradually improve your routine and practices. Question by question, answer by answer, day by day, you will see your progress as you employ the six honest serving-men: What, When, Where, How, Who, and Why.

Bryan Castro


Author: Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman and writer from Buffalo, NY. When he's not spending time with his family or working, he can be found playing chess or practicing martial arts. He combines his interests of personal development and chess on his site Better Chess Training (betterchesstraining.com).