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How to Improve at Chess — Part 1

Chess improvement is a slippery slope. For beginners (and many club players), becoming a better chessplayer involves a double learning curve — improvement involves developing actual chess skills, but at the same time one must learn how to improve. In other words, you have to figure out what you need to know/do to get better at chess before you actually start the process of getting better at chess.

So will this series of columns in and of themselves make you a better chessplayer? In a word, no. You and your hard work will make you a better player. But this series of blog posts will get you over one of the two learning curves — they’ll tell you what you need to do in order to improve your skills. It’s a subtle but important distinction, one which will become more clear as this series progresses.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with a piece of advice which is easy to follow:

1. If you want to improve at chess, play as much chess as you can.

Whenever I mention this step, I get immediate arguments. “But I lose all the time? How can all these losses help me? I want to start winning games, not losing more of them!” And so on.

The importance of this tip is very practical: every time you play a game of chess you gain experience, even if it’s just on a subconscious level. This stored experience makes it easier to relate to the chess materials you’re studying. As an example, you can study pure King and pawn endings all day long but that study will mean a whole lot more if you can somehow relate it, connect it, to a game you’ve previously played. I recall a game I once played in which I went into an endgame up a whole Rook but still managed to lose the game due to my inexperience; later, when I was studying pure Rook and pawn endings that loss resonated with me and helped me understand the endgames I was studying on a much deeper level.

There’s also no excuse for not playing chess whenever you want a game. Anyone who owns a computer can play a game against a computer software opponent anytime he or she wishes; if one also has an Internet connection, one can find a game against a human player around the clock, any time of the day or night.

Speaking from my own experience, I’d have become a much better chessplayer if I’d had these opportunities to play back in the 1960’s and 1970’s when I was young. When I was a teenager (during the years when Bobby Fischer was world champion), I could find a lot of people who wanted a game, but it was still nothing like the opportunities afforded by the “online chess boom” of the present day. Chess computers in those days cost hundreds of dollars and played pretty abysmal chess anyway — a tabletop machine that played 1100-1200 Elo required an investment of about $500. Even when Atari offered an affordable chess cartridge for its 2600 video game, the playing strength was still awful.

These days you can buy a software chess program for $50 or less that can play at grandmaster level — but the good news is that the program’s strength is usually scalable, meaning that you can adjust the strength so that you’re not getting your head torn off by the program game after game. In fact, the programs produced by ChessBase (Fritz, Rybka, Shredder, Hiarcs) contain an adaptable mode in which the software tries to match its strength to yours so that you win 20% to 25% of the time. Best of all, there’s no reason to not play against a computer — it doesn’t laugh at you when you lose and it never complains when you want to take back a move to make a different one — there’s no “ego” involved on either side when playing against a computer chess program.

So there’s no longer an excuse to not play chess, and I will therefore repeat our first chess improvement tip for emphasis:

1. If you want to improve at chess, play as much chess as you can.

The experience you gain will be invaluable not only in better understanding the chess instructional materials you’re studying, but in knowing what to study in the first place. We’ll talk more about this later.

To be continued…

(And since we’re on the subject, ChessCentral offers all of the major chessplaying programs for your PC [and even some for the Mac]. Please take a moment and have a look at ChessCentral’s selection.)

Have fun! — Steve

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