Edit: This article was unexpectedly popular, reaching #2 on Hacker News and being linked to on LifeHacker. I plan on returning to competitive chess in the next year to make my overdue march to master (USCF 2200), so I’ll post an update describing how this plan fares at the higher levels.
Magnus Carlsen’s meteoric rise to the top ranked player in the world (at age 19), the highest chess rating in history (age 22), and as of a few days ago, the title of World Chess Champion (age 22) has brought with it a renewed interest in chess. This is exciting, because Carlsen represents the first real hope of renewing chess’s mass appeal since the days of Bobby Fischer1.
In the context of discussions about Magnus Carlsen, many people mentioned that they enjoyed playing chess but quit because of the sheer time commitment it took to get “good.” It turns out there are many misconceptions about rapid chess improvement. In this post I’m going to lay out a simple but effective way to get good at chess, fast.
What does it mean to be “good” at chess?
I define “good” as the 90th percentile among the player pool you’re competing against. In competitive chess in the United States, that means a United States Chess Federation (USCF) Elo rating of about 18002. If you’re a casual player playing against your friends, my guess is that 90th percentile is around 900. Even though I was only rated 1100 when I first began playing competitively, I was already able to beat the vast majority of non-competitive players.
Results with this system
This system is based on lessons learned from my own chess improvement and from coaching others. The good news is that you can become better than the vast majority of other players with minimal but targeted effort.
I actively trained for a period of about 3.5 years using a (much, much less disciplined) version of this system, during which my rating increased from 1100 to 1950, a 135 fold increase I strength3. In one 12 month period I improved from 1198 to 1639. I improved even faster with my quick rating (games with less than 30 minutes per side), where I went from 1001 to 1740 in 15 months (75 fold increase in playing strength).
My first experience using these ideas with other players was in high school, when I began coaching the lowest ranked player in our chess club. Within a few months he had improved so rapidly that he represented the school in the state championships and won every single game in the tournament.
Given that I managed to do this despite my own inexperience and mistakes with studying chess and my own laziness, I’m convinced others can improve much more quickly if they follow this system strictly4.
Since this article is meant for both casual and competitive players, I specify minimum rating requirements when appropriate. If you’re a casual player and this is overkill for your goals, skip to the footnotes for a much simpler system5.
To improve quickly you need to play often. If you are (or aspire to be) a competitive player, play as many over-the-board (OTB) tournaments as possible. In my heyday I played 3-4 tournaments per month. Online is not enough! Use online games (15 minutes per side or slower) to practice openings or for practice if there is no tournament for a while. If you’re a casual players, play OTB chess with your friends as much as you can, and play online if nobody wants to play with you.
I did two types of tactics training. The first was “Chess Vision” and “Knight Sight” exercises, as described inthis article. They may sound stupid, but they work. I did these exercises every day for two weeks initially, and then would do them the day of a tournament and once in a while as a refresher.
My primary method of tactics training was using Chess Tactics for Beginners, which is absolutely fantastic. If you only buy one thing to help your chess game, this should be it. I did 50 puzzles per day, every day, and once I finished the entire CD I repeated the process six more times. Online tactics sites usually don’t cut it, because they aren’t structured so that you learn based off previous ideas and many don’t incorporate the pedagogical features of Chess Tactics for Beginners. Trust me, paying for CTB is worth it. If it becomes too easy for you (which won’t be a problem until you hit about 1600), use it as a refresher from time to time and get Chess Tactics for Intermediate Players.
I’ll admit, there is a bit of a leap between solving tactics puzzles and applying it to real games–obviously nobody’s going to tell you when a tactic is available, and you won’t be “primed” to find tactics the way you would be when solving a bunch of puzzles. To counteract this I created a binder of puzzles taken from tactics I missed in my games, and reviewed them from time to time.
Analysis is by far the most undervalued part of chess training. As a kid I barely analyzed my games after tournaments, because I was lazy. This was a huge mistake—your games are worth their weight in gold! Learn algebraic chess notation so you can write down your moves, and analyze your games using the method outlined in this article. Use the analysis phase to brush up on your openings and endgames and practice your strategic play. If possible, have a stronger player go over your games with you after you’ve done your own analysis.
One big mistake is to rely heavily on computers for chess analysis. Too often, players use computers as a crutch to replace their own stud of the game. Working through games on your own and trying to find the best moves and ideas is highly instructive. Computer analysis should be done only after you analyze the game on your own, so you can compare your analysis to the computer’s and unearth any mistakes you made in assessing critical positions in the game.
One of the biggest mistakes players make is to devote massive amounts of time to openings. This is because openings tend to be very concrete, and beginners think that simply memorizing an opening will give them an unassailable advantage over their opponents6.
Don’t bother spending any time studying openings outside of analyzing your games. Just make sure you know the basic opening principles. I teach my beginning students simple openings like the London Systemas white, and a kingside fianchetto system as black7. These openings are simple, solid, can be played against virtually anything.
Once you hit 1600, get a good opening book that gives you both specific moves and the ideas behind the opening. Don’t mindlessly memorize! Some good books here are Alburt’s Chess Openings for Black, Explained (I hear Chess Openings for White, Explained is pretty good but I’ve never used it), and Cox’sStarting Out: 1. d4!8.
Obviously this depends on your opening preferences. Even here openings should not be your main focus. I only consult these books when analyzing my games to see where I deviated from established opening theory
Until you hit 1400-1500, you should be picking up strategic play from analyzing your games and going over annotated games. Once you hit that level, I recommend Silman’s The Amateur’s Mind and Seirawan’sWinning Chess Strategies, and once you hit 1800, Silman’s Reassess Your Chess, Fourth Edition.
After learning the basic checkmates (King and Queen vs. King, King and Rook vs. King, etc.), Silman’s Complete Endgame Course is the only book you need. Study the appropriate section based on your rating, and only come back to it if it’s clear that you keep messing up endgames.
Go over at least one annotated game a week (and more frequently if you’re a serious competitive player). A good annotated game book is Winning Chess Brilliancies by Seirawan. I hear the Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games is pretty good too, but I can’t personally vouch for it.
Magnus Carlsen is my favorite chess player. In equal positions where many grandmasters would agree to a draw, Carlsen patiently pushes and probes, waiting until his opponent cracks and then grinding out a win. Magnus Carlsen is the world’s best player because he doesn’t give up.
When I was younger, I had an unfortunate habit of withdrawing from tournaments where I was doing badly. I made various excuses, but usually I withdrew because I had mentally given up after a few demoralizing losses. I did the same thing in chess games—after making a major mistake, I mentally gave up.
If chess is anything, it is a game of second chances. Chess, like life, rewards perseverance. I’ve turned countless losses into draws and wins because my opponents got overconfident while I dug in. I’ve also turned wins into losses because I was too intimidated by my opponent’s rating or reputation.
Chess psychology can be distilled to two simple rules:
- Don’t ever be afraid of your opponent
- Fight as hard as you can until the game is over9
Simply following these rules will add hundreds of points to your rating.
Study broader topics, like strategy or endgame, only when you feel like that topic is causing you to lose. For instance, only open a strategy book if you keep getting outplayed positionally. Otherwise, your default state should be studying tactics and analyzing your games.
The tl;dr of this training plan is: play a lot, analyze your games, and primarily study tactics. Your knowledge of openings, endgame, middlegame, etc. will come from analyzing your games and going over grandmaster games. Only study one of those specific topics if it is clear you are specifically losing because of that topic.
This is just a compiled list of all the stuff I recommended in this article, and rating recommendations for each item.
A hardcore guide to analyze your chess games (all levels)
Winning Chess Brilliancies (1000+)
Silman’s Complete Endgame Course (1000+)
The books will vary depending on your individual opening preferences
Starting Out: 1. d4! (1600+)
Chess Openings for White, Explained* (1600+)
The Amateur’s Mind (1400+)
Winning Chess Strategies (1400-1800)
Chess Vision and Knight Sight exercises from 400 Points in 400 Days Part I (all levels)
Chess Tactics for Beginners (all levels up to 1600)
* I haven’t personally used these items
1 – Fischer’s appeal was that he was a sole American fighting against the Soviet machine that had dominated chess since World War II, and is 1972 World Championship match against Russia’s Boris Spassky was imbued with Cold War symbolism. Carlsen’s appeal is his incredible talent, his youth, his normalcy (compared to Fischer’s infamous egotism and antics) and yes, even his looks.
2 – I couldn’t find recent aggregate percentile data, but the USCF provides percentile data for individual active players, so I determined rating percentiles by looking up individual player ratings. The 50thpercentile is around 800.
3 – I stopped playing serious competitive chess about four years ago (when I was 16, rated about 1950) because I got burned out. I still plan on someday making a return to competitive chess, and when I do I’ll pretty much be using this system to train and improve.
4 – I think the only reason I managed to improve reasonably quickly despite being so undisciplined about training was because I was young (my main competitive years were from age 13-16), I played a lot, and I had at least some natural aptitude.
5 – Here’s a very simplified guide for beginning players who want to improve rapidly in a month or two
Learn the basic opening principles: control the center, develop your pieces, and king safety. Googling this should yield useful articles.
Learn the basic checkmates: King + Queen vs King, King and two Rooks vs King, and King and one Rook vs King
Get Chess Tactics for Beginners and do 50 puzzles a day
Do the Chess Vision and Knight Sight exercises from 400 Points in 400 Days Part I
Play as much as you can
If possible, go over your games with a stronger player
6 – A lot of this is just to impress other players. It’s a common sight at chess tournaments to see players rattling off complicated sounding opening variations. At first these players intimidated me, but as I grew stronger I realized that these players were often the easiest to beat. Just get ‘em out of the openings and crush ‘em with tactics!
7 – This setup involves the moves Nf6, g6, d6, Bg7, and O-O, resulting in a setup as seen below. Experienced players might point out that this could lead to the King’s Indian Defense or the Pirc Defense, which turn out to be rather complicated openings. This is true, but you can play both these openings with little theoretical knowledge up to the 1600 level and still be fine.
8 – Incidentally, I don’t recommend the book’s counterpart, Starting Out: 1.e4!
9 – This doesn’t mean never, ever, resign. If you’re down a queen in an absolutely hopeless position against a strong opponent, it’s good etiquette to resign rather than needlessly drag on the game. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “If my opponent were playing Magnus Carlsen in this position, would Carlsen be able to win?” If the answer is yes, keep playing. If it is no, then resign.