Advice to Improve Your Game

Updated 7/30/2004

Somewhere on the board, surrounded by inaccuracies, weak moves, and blunders, the best move is waiting.

At the risk of overstating my expertise, I'm going to offer some advice on how to improve your game. My credentials are that I am an Expert who has taught some group chess classes at the adult level.

1. Chess is calculation
You must calculate and calculate accurately. Better players simply see further. If you are to improve, you must learn how to see further. Calculation ability is partially pattern recognition, but mostly it is the ability to move pieces around in your head without losing track of them. So how do you improve calculation? The three main ways I can think of are playing blitz chess, solving chess diagram exercises, and attempting to develop blindfold ability.

Although many believe that blitz chess encourages superficial and lazy thinking, I believe that blitz forced me to learn how to calculate faster. Consequently in slow time controls, I can now move through variations faster and more easily. Seeing the pieces move and capture fast seemed to train my mind to see exchanges in their entirety and long-range plans.

Chess exercises such as are found in Fred Reinfeld's 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations and to a lesser extent his 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate strengthen pattern recognition. Other sources of diagram exercises include Bruce Pandolfini's Chessercizes, More Chessercizes: Checkmate! and Chess Target Practice; Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess; and Larry Evans' "What's the Best Move" column in back issues of Chess Life.

While I'm not advocating playing actual games blindfolded, being able to move pieces around without even looking at the board is a natural extension of calculating deep variations when the future position is very different from the board in front of you. Reading chess books trying to follow the variations in your head without losing track of piece locations is one way to improve this. One book that explores developing the mind's eye is Mark Buckley's Practical Chess Analysis. Recently, I read Rolf Wetzell's Chess Master At Any Age. He advocates practice reconstructing positions from games 3-5 moves at a time, up to 12 moves to construct the opening sequence. From a blank board, draw or set up the pieces where you think they ended up after the last few moves without retracing the move sequence. Then check your position against a board that was constructed by the actual move sequence. Time yourself and give one minute penalties for wrongly placed pieces.

2. Analyze your games.
There's no better way to figure out what you're doing wrong than to analyze your own games. Write down your analysis in a notebook, or if you're handy with a computer, download the free ChessBase Light utility. Try to get a stronger player to analyze your game with you. If you can't find help, try to use a chess computer where you can see what moves it's thinking of. ChessBase has a Fritz plugin that can show you its best lines of play from the current position. I would say that using Fritz to analyze has made me somewhat lazy in honing my analysis skills. Analyzing your games should help you figure out where your weaknesses are. A recent study published in Nature indicated that chess is indeed a science and a better player is partly better because he can more accurately see that his beautiful hypothesis is ruined by ugly facts of the position. Look up the opening and figure out who deviated and if any traps were overlooked. Try to classify your mistakes from game to game in a manner that will direct you to study specific areas of chess. If you think you can learn through self-flagellation, Chess Master At Any Age recommends that you construct chess diagrammed flashcards of your mistakes or any other thing that is hard for you to grasp in chess and revisit them often. Rehearse ways of exploiting advantages until they become part of your technique.

3. Try to develop a method of thinking.
I have noticed lately that I will think about various lines of play until a fresh one pops into my head and I suddenly make my move without analyzing the consequences. Luckily this method hasn't produced too many blunders, but it is disturbing how chaotic this process is. After reading several books, I've come up with the following method that I'm going to try to apply to my games. Ten steps as easy as A through J:

  • Assess your opponent's threat.
  • Budget your time.
  • Complete your development.
  • Determine M.P.A.C.K. (material, pawn structure, activity of pieces, center control, king safety) and detect combinations.
  • Evaluate who stands better and play to win or draw.
  • Formulate a plan, and find its candidate moves.
  • Go down the variation tree at least considering ALL first-ply opponent replies.
  • Hone in on calculating the Principle Variation, the resulting quiescent position, and its evaluation.
  • Inhibit inferior plans and blunders.
  • Just move it.

MPACK is borrowed from the Great Pawn Hunter.

  • Material: Count the pawns. IM Larry Kaufman has used computers to refine the values of the pieces: Pawns(1), Knights(3.25), Bishops(3.25), Bishop Pair(0.5), Rooks(5), Queen(9.75). His research validates an advantage of the bishop pair and suggests that compensation for the exchange is easier than you might think.
  • Pawn structures: Are there any holes, isolated pawns, or backward pawns in both pawn structures. Where? Can any levers or piece maneuvers be used to force isolated pawns, backward pawns, or holes in both pawn structures? Where?
  • Activity of the pieces. Do my rooks have full open files? Do my opponent's? Do my bishops have full open diagonals? Do my opponent's? Do my knights have potential outposts? Do my opponent's?
  • Central control. Do I own the center squares or does my opponent? Can I use a lever or piece maneuver to exert more pressure in the center.
  • King safety. Is my king safe? Is my opponent's king safe?

Jeremy Silman's How to Reassess Your Chess recommends the method of analyzing imbalances as the first steps of the thinking method. Lately, I'm greatly impressed with the insight and wisdom displayed in the teachings of National Master/FIDE Master Dan Heisman who writes the Novice Nook column in Chess Cafe. follow these links to NM Dan Heisman's website and an index to his articles. Incidentally Mr. Heisman's recommendation for a generic thinking method is quite comprehensive and is explained in this document.

4. The middlegame is what you should study.
I have to admit that I don't practice what I preach here, but I have read some of the classics. I would say that Aron Nimzowitsch's My System had a tremendous impact on my understanding of the middlegame. I have yet to read his Chess Praxis, but I've heard good things about it. A fun middlegame book to read is Vladimir Vukovic's The Art of Attack in Chess which basically teaches you how to prepare and execute a swashbuckling kingside attack. Peter Romanovsky's twin classics Chess: Middlegame Combinations and Chess: Middlegame Planning come highly recommended, but I haven't read them yet. Another old classic is Hans Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess which concentrates on how pawns, "the soul of chess", coordinate with each other and with pieces. You can't go wrong learning from Jeremy Silman's books How to Reassess Your Chess and The Amateur's Mind.

A very time-consuming method of trying to improve is using master games for solitaire chess. Basically, pick a side and move through the moves one at a time, trying to see all relevant variations and accurately guess the next move. Chess Life's Solitaire Chess column, I.A. Horowitz's Solitaire Chess, and Alex Dunne's How to Be a Class A Player and How to Become a Candidate Master are good resources here. Almost any collection of master games can be used for solitaire chess. One expert who suddenly jumped into master strength claimed this had been his only study method.

5. Endings are underrated
Capablanca's endgame technique allowed him to play circles around his contemporaries. You should understand King and Pawn endgames almost completely, including the concepts of opposition and zugzwang. You should also understand Rook and Pawn endgames and the Lucena position. Opposite Bishops and Bishop versus Knight are still on my to learn list so maybe it hasn't hurt me much so far. There is some overlap, so maybe you shouldn't buy all of them, but I can recommend one of the following books: How to Play Chess Endings by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky, Practical Chess Endings by Paul Keres (not Irving Chernev's title), Just the Facts! by Lev Alburt and Nikolay Krogius, and any of Mikhail Shereshevsky's endgame books.

6. Openings are overrated
I, like most of you, have spent and still spend far too much time studying openings. I cannot remember too many of my games that were won outright in an opening trap that I had prepared. If your opponent makes a weak move, you must use your own resources to figure out how to take advantage. Choose openings that fit your style. When in doubt, strive for harmonious piece development, solid pawn structure, center control, and king safety. Know the middlegame ideas behind your opening, namely where to attack and how to go about doing it with which key pieces. Reuben Fine's The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings is an oft-recommended classic. If you have a lot of money, you can buy a lot of openings repertoire books without much improvement in your game, but at least you'll gain some confidence about the first dozen moves or so.

Here's the list of the books mentioned in order:

  • 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations by Fred Reinfeld
  • 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate by Fred Reinfeld
  • Chessercizes by Bruce Pandolfini
  • More Chessercizes: Checkmate! by Bruce Pandolfini
  • Chess Target Practice by Bruce Pandolfini
  • Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess by Bobby Fischer
  • Chess Life
  • Practical Chess Analysis by Mark Buckley
  • Chess Master At Any Age by Rolf Wetzell
  • My System by Aron Nimzowitsch
  • Chess Praxis by Aron Nimzowitsch
  • The Art of Attack in Chess by Vladimir Vukovic
  • Chess: Middlegame Combinations by Peter Romanovsky
  • Chess: Middlegame Planning by Peter Romanovsky
  • Pawn Power in Chess by Hans Kmoch
  • How to Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman
  • The Amateur's Mind by Jeremy Silman
  • Solitaire Chess by I.A. Horowitz
  • How to Be a Class A Player by Alex Dunne
  • How to Become a Candidate Master by Alex Dunne
  • How to Play Chess Endings by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky
  • Practical Chess Endings by Paul Keres
  • Just the Facts! by Lev Alburt and Nikolay Krogius
  • Endgame Strategy by Mikhail Shereshevsky
  • Mastering the Endgame, Vols I&II by Mikhail Shereshevsky and Leonid Slutsky
  • The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings by Reuben Fine