How I Got Good at Chess

How did I get good at chess?  On hand, the answer is obvious: I took it seriously, I studied hard, I put in many hours and now I’m pretty good, rated over 2000 in online chess.  That’s true and all, but it’s also missing something.  I was stuck at 1800 for years and years … and yet many people never get above 1500 elo, let alone 1800.

The question, then, shouldn’t be how I got over my 1800 elo hump, but rather, how did I get to 1800 in the first place?

Image result for chess rating distribution graph

1800 puts you above 70% of chess players, which is pretty good when you think about it.

When I think back to my early chess development, I can identify a few key things I did that seemed to boost my skill higher than average.  I’ll share those here now.

1. Long, Serious Games

Perhaps the single most important thing that ever happened was the most accidental.  I did not learn chess through blitz.  My grandfather, the man who taught me how to play, moved incredibly slowly.  I assumed that’s just how you played: you think for a long time, you triple-check everything, and only then do you make a move.

Also, when your opponent makes a move, look as stoic and unimpressed as possible.  I knew I was finally getting good when I saw, if only briefly, flashes of surprise across my grandfather’s face.

Anyway, when you watch most kids play chess, especially those brand new to the game, they will look at their pieces, pick out one and then move it.  The whole process takes seconds.  My grandfather, through his air of gravity and importance, prevented this.  I thus had to think, and in thinking I spent more time on each move, and I improved far quicker.  A single game might last 30min, which, for a six-year-old, is an eternity.

The benefits can be seen when I started playing against kids my own age, around 8-9 years old.  They still thought less than 10 sec on any given move, and I won the vast majority of my games against them.  They never really thought about the position, whereas for me, that was already a habit.

Similarly, I was drawn to online correspondence chess, not blitz.  This happened almost by default.  At the time, I lived in an area with terrible Internet coverage, and I’d lose my connection if I tried blitz.  Correspondence chess had no such restriction.  I could spend as much time as I wanted on any given more, to really understand it, and I was able to continually improve.

The reason I was better than my friends and other kids, then, was this: I spent more time on chess, both in general and on each individual move.

2. Only Two Books to Study

The second reason for my general improvement was again accidental.  At the local library, there were only a small handful of chess books.  Over time the collection grew, but when I started there were two: Siegbert Tarrasch’s The Game of Chess and John Walker’s Winning in the Opening, two fantastic books.

As these were my only study tools, I read them countless times.  I practically memorized Tarrasch’s tome, and it’s still my favourite chess book.  I could flick to any page and learn something, and the game annotations were pure magic.  Walker’s book also taught me common opening principles and traps, what to do and what to avoid in the first 15 moves, and it too proved invaluable.

Contrast this to most people who have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips.  They will read one book, or maybe only half a book, and then immediately go onto something different.  Rather than repeating the lessons, of really absorbing the material, they just bounce around.  They learn things, but they never really apply them in their games.  It’s because, I’m sure, they spend too much time on too many things, rather than focusing on one book, reading it seven times if necessary.

It’s interesting, because over the years I’ve accumulated a large number of chess books, but none have improved my play very much, if at all.  I fell into this same trap, of mistaking quantity of material with quality of studying.  It’s no coincidence that my greatest improvement over the last few years occurred when I focused on one chess course diligently for three months.

As Bruce Lee said, the man who practices one kick a thousand times is a much stronger fighter than one who practices a thousand different kicks once.

3. Literally Hundreds of Games

Finally, I simply put in the time.  From 2000 to 2003, my database has just over 800 Internet correspondence games in it.  That’s 200 games a year, each with a long time control, with me thinking hard on every single move (or, well, most of them at least).  On games I lost, I tried my hardest to find out why, to pinpoint the cause of failure.

In 2000, I was about 1300 elo, give or take.  At some point between 2002-2003, I was firmly 1800.    I put the time in.  Nearly a thousand games.  Actually, if you count the games I played at the chess club or with my grandfather, it probably comes close to 1,000.  That doesn’t even include the hours spent reading books and studying master games.

In short, I got an incredible amount of practical experience, and more importantly, I strove to learn from every loss.  I might have improved more, but I didn’t study my wins very much.  I was worried that the computer would point out mistakes and imperfections, tarnishing my victories.  A silly thought, but that was young me.

Compare This to The Average Player

My experience is different than most players.  Most people don’t play long games when they first learn chess.  Some people have never played a long game.  There’s a large portion of chess players who only play online blitz.  Yes, they play hundreds of games, but they can’t think deeply on every move, and few if any games are analyzed afterwards.  They play, play, play but never study.  They never have a chance to improve.

And then the paradox: when they do study, they have too much variety.  They leap from one tutorial to the next, dipping their toes in each but never really diving deep into the material in any real way.  This is why they improve slowly, if at all.

In short, spend a lot of time playing long games, and spend quality time on a few select chess tutorials, and you’ll get better faster.  Maybe not revolutionary nor unexpected, but there it is.

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