Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Advice for chess beginners

This is a summary of a simple improvement plan for chess novices. It is meant for those trying to get from beginner level to the fledgling club player in about a year. It is based on my experience trying many ways to improve, when I went from 950 to about 1450 in slow games at the Internet Chess Club (ICC). As points of reference, an absolute beginner who just learned the rules would be rated about 500 at ICC, while a grandmaster would be rated over 2600.

The following suggestions are roughly in order of importance.

1. Play and do postmortems
Much like learning to sing or swim well, chess skills are built up largely from extensive practice. Hence, as a beginner, it is most crucial to simply play chess. Some people attempt to improve at chess by focusing on everything but playing: they do puzzles, read lots of books, or (worst of all) spend lots of time studying openings. As I discuss below, some of these things are important, but if you are truly a novice you need to develop some intuitions about the mechanics of the game by playing as much as possible.

Slow games (e.g., 30 minutes or more per side in a game) are the best bet if you want to develop your chess, but don't worry if you enjoy the occasional fast game too.

Unfortunately, it isn't enough to merely play. Just as there are horrible singers that have vast experience singing along with the radio, there are plenty of players rated under 1000 that have played thousands of games of chess. It is crucial, in addition to playing, that you get feedback on your performance.

How do you get feedback? By doing postmortems of your games. A postmortem is when you critically examine a game soon after you finish it. Look for good moves you made as well as blunders that you want to avoid in the future. Explain to yourself why a move was good or bad, and take a mental note of the important features of the position: that way, in similar contexts you will be more likely to remember the lesson learned (e.g., his Bishop was far from my Queen so I didn't notice it could take her).

Do postmortems for all of your games, but especially your slower games. Some folks may tell you to only go over your losses: I disagree strongly with this sentiment for reasons I spell out here and a follow-up post here.

After going over the game on your own, find someone or something better than you to go over it one more time. The chess program Fritz is a wonderful tool--it plays as well as a Grandmaster, never gets tired, and loves to show you places in your game where you could have done better (and importantly, where you played well!). Even better than Fritz is a human coach or advisor. While Fritz just shows you the moves you should have made (and then you need to figure out why), a person will be able to explain it to you, answer your questions, and generally give more usable and practical feedback.

If you are playing and analyzing two or more slow games a week, in addition to the suggestions below, that is great. It can also be helpful to perform postmortems on your faster games, as such analysis will reveal practical tactics, the best types of tactics with which to be familiar.

Summing up this first recommendation: it is absolutely crucial that you play/postmortem in addition to working on the other things I mention below.

2. Read a general overview of chess
Before getting focused on specific areas of the game, start by reading a general overview of chess. This will give you a useful bird's-eye view of the game and provide a foundation for the sometimes strange terminology used by most chess players.

My favorite beginner-level book is Wolff's Idiot's Guide to Chess. If you have pride about buying one of the books in the 'Idiot's Guide' series, swallow it. This is a great book. He describes how to play in the opening, middle, and end of the game, basic tactics (see below), strategy, and even how the pieces move. Each chapter includes many problems that are explained in the back of the book. Work on those problems, as chess is a game best learned by doing, not reading. This is a book I wish I had when I first started playing.

3. Study tactics
I define tactics as sequences of moves that lead to a gain of material or mate (there is some debate about this definition, but as a beginner you don't need to worry about it). For instance, you have doubtless overlooked a mate-in-one or left your queen open for the plucking, losing a game in ignoble fashion. This happens to everyone starting out, and such blunders are the most decisive events in all games of the novice.

When you are playing, you should be focusing almost all of your energy on not committing tactical blunders, and exploiting those of your opponent. Really, that is the key to reaching 1400 at ICC. You will read a lot about pawn structure and other chess 'strategy', but until you stop leaving pieces open for the taking and missing simple mates, this stuff will just not make a big difference.

Aside from playing and doing postmortems, how can you improve at tactics? There are lots of resources for learning the basic mating patterns, such as the wonderful little book Simple Checkmates.

There are also many resources out there for learning tactics beyond simple mates. I'd suggest developing your tactical muscle in two steps. First, read an explanation-heavy book that will familiarize you with the basic themes, a book such as Littlewood's wonderful Chess Tactics. Another nice book with less explanation that contains extremely simple tactics is Pandolfini's Beginning Chess.

Once you have studied an explanation-heavy book on basic mates and tactics, I recommend using software with lots of tactical problems to build experience and intuition. Chess Tactics for Beginners and Personal Chess Trainer (aka Chessimo) are both great programs. Do ten-or-more problems every day--you will learn faster if you spend two hours spread out over a week than if you spend two hours one day a week on tactics.

You will learn tactics fastest if, in addition to trying to figure out the problem, once you determine the solution you construct an explanation of each move in the problem. E.g., 'I moved the queen to the back rank because the enemy King is hemmed in by his pawns, so he can't escape mate.' There is a study that demonstrates that such narratives improve people's performance when a similar position is seen again.

4. Study the endgame
As you improve at tactics, more of your battles will reach the endgame. You will be playing better players and the games will no longer be decided by move 20. So it is time to learn something about how to finish the game.

Of course, if you already know the basic mates, you already have a bunch of endgame knowledge without knowing it. In addition to basic mates, it is important to learn about pawn play in the endgame (the fact that pawns can be promoted to Queens make their importance skyrocket in the endgames), and many other topics that will help you tremendously.

Luckily, Silman wrote a wonderful endgame book that will tell you all you need to know about the endgame, Silman's Complete Endgame Course. Once you master the first few chapters of this book, and have stopped missing elementary tactics in your games, you will easily reach 1400 at ICC.

5. Don't worry much about the opening
You might be tempted to memorize a bunch of specific openings. This is relatively easy to do, and is tempting because the opening occurs in every game. Unfortunately opening study just won't help you very much. You are losing your games because of tactics, not subtle opening errors. If you are losing in the opening, it is because of opening tactics that you should be able to target and remedy in your postmortems.

A few simple principles are all you need in the opening, and those can be found in Wolff's book (Step 2 above). Sure, there are interesting openings that violate the principles, but you are guaranteed to make it safely to the middlegame if you just follow the principles while keeping your eyes open for tactically-justified exceptions.

6. Develop good thinking habits
When playing, you will be tempted to make the first move that pops into your head. Don't. Relax, sit on your hands, and take your time to think through the moves, consider your opponent's replies to your moves, and how you will respond. This will be hard at first, but it is crucial. Dan Heisman has written a lot about this, such as his classic article Real Chess. Once you have read Wolff's book, you might also take a look at my extensive discussion of thought process in chess, found in PDF form here. As you might expect, it advises that on every move you should think about tactical threats before you do anything else.

7. Have fun, relax, don't try to force it
Being smarter than the average Joe is only marginally important for chess improvement. For even the smartest person, getting better at the game takes a great deal of time, energy, and commitment. You will lose a lot of games. This is very important to do, as losses are wonderful learning opportunities.

So unless you are the second coming of Bobby Fischer, you will not get better as fast as you want to. Learning chess is not like learning World History, getting better is not a matter of memorizing facts and reading books. It is a much slower process, in which we control the amount and quality of training, but the improvement tends to come at its own pace, just as a well-tended sprout will follow its own time-course as it grows into a flourishing rose bush.

So, relax, don't let yourself get too frustrated in your chess improvement efforts. You can't force yourself to improve, but you can study, and I guarantee the improvement will come. Chess is a beautiful, complex, often exhilarating game, and if you follow the simple advice given here you will come out with a greater appreciation of the game in addition to being able to crush your Uncle at Thanksgiving.

Once you approach 1500 (this should take between six months and three years, depending on how much time you put into chess study and other factors such as your age), aspects of the game such as strategy and the openings will merit a bit more attention. That is, simple tactics and endgames will decide fewer of your games. Your course of study will need to become more individualized and expanded to include things such as the study of annotated master games. At any rate, at this level I recommend finding a good coach or advisor, and generally talking to people much better than me about how to take your game to the next level. Good luck!


Thanks everyone for reading my blog: I'll be taking a break from blogging for a while. With the help of writing here, and the excellent comments, I easily surpassed my goal when I started of reaching 1200 at ICC, and I'm no longer focused on chess in a serious way. Please look at my Blog Highlights for what I consider the most helpful or interesting material on the blog from the last few years, most of it geared toward novices struggling to improve at this complicated and fun game.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i couldnt agree more with your post.
But especially with:
Opening is the least important part of the game
Analyse your own games. ALSO the ones where u lost with a stupid mistake. Look at that mistake, remember WHY u made that move, and LEARN something from it.

5/07/2008 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

anon: thanks. The other bit I put at the appropriate (previous) post.

5/07/2008 10:52:00 PM  
Blogger Robert Pearson said...

Wonderful last (for now) post. Thanks so very much for all your contributions and for making it interesting and fun!

5/08/2008 01:09:00 AM  
Blogger transformation said...


5/08/2008 02:35:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Wahrheit: thanks, dude. I'll still be lurking and commenting on people's blogs, especially people trash talking my homies.

DK: lol. OK, you got me. (But see number 1, I do mention it--no way I could resist!).

5/08/2008 03:13:00 AM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

Rest in piece

5/08/2008 03:37:00 AM  
Blogger Schereschevsky said...

Beautiful post. I'm also on the 1400-1500 standard time at ICC, adult that learnt the game 3 years ago at age of 35, father with 2 kids/babies. I agree 100% with your suggestions.
Thanks for tons of information investigation and effort you did here on your blog. Come back soon !


5/08/2008 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very thoughtful and balanced post! I am certainly guilty of missing 1. If I only coulod find more time...

Anyhow, I still cannot believe that you will stop writing posts! Your contributions to the chess blogoshpere will surely be missed. Although, not so fast! I see you already couldn't resist to write another one on the circles debate... ;-)

5/08/2008 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger likesforests said...

Good advice. Regarding the opening, I think a 1200 should know basic principles, a 1600 should have a repertoire and know its themes, a 2000 should know the mainlines and sidelines, and a 2400 should be up-to-date with the latest theory.

5/08/2008 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tempo: Thanks. I won't stop commenting, just posting. I'll keep tabs on you all.

Schereschevsky: thanks for the nice note. Good to know you are on a similar plane: congrats on doing that while still having kids :)

Scirius: Thanks a lot. I'll be poking in to comment.

Yes, that choad gobbler dragged me back in against my will. I don't like seeing perfectly nice and innocent people slandered. Perhaps my achilles heel.

Likeforests: A helpful breakdown, and it is nice to know you find that suggestion about openings agreeable.

5/08/2008 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post! I am new to the blogging world and chess world, so I am always on the lookout for advice and information to help with both.

I played in my first tournament last night (a quad), and lost all three games. But it was so much fun and I learned a ton by going over last night when I got home. I even tried my hand and annotating them for my own purposes and my teacher!

I have a come no one mentions Shredder Classic as a chess program? I purchased it two days ago and am already ten times happier with it then I was with Fritz. Shredder is SO much easier to use and a lot less buggy. I am just curious why no one talks about it. I purchased the program off of the Shredder website, so it is not the one that is basically a cousin to Fritz.

5/08/2008 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tommyg: good point, I have heard great things about Shredder. It is more a matter of which program I am most familiar with, but any program that gives a list of moves, in order of quality, is enough for the final stage of the postmortem analysis.

Congrats on finishing your first tournament. They are tense, fun, interesting places.

5/08/2008 06:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So it ends (for now). At least it when out with a very entertaining flurry. Not only this complete post, but a spirited dust-up over de la Maza!

At least you aren't going to completely disappear, so see you (sorta) around the blogosphere!

5/08/2008 06:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Like everyone else I agree with your comments about the opening (although, like most people on here I have a hard time doing what is good for me). Are opening principles enough? I think so. Although I normally attack the sicilian with the Smith-Morra (which I love), but after hearing of Nigel Davies recommendation of 2. Na3 about a week ago I have tried it out 3 times (1. e4 c5 2. Na3) against higher rated players and crushed them each time. We are both out of book at move two and that suits me just fine.

5/08/2008 07:56:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

LEP: thanks, man-- I'll kick around the comment sections of people's blogs.

wayward: I saw that recommendation. It may be just crazy enough to work. :)

5/08/2008 10:14:00 PM  
Blogger Masky said...

I would even add one more.
I´ve been playing corresp chess on a few websites, and today, after some strange revelation i quit most of the tournaments and games i was playing.
Correspondence chess is very misleading. How I reached 1900+ on some websites and on OTB or Blitz chess I suck ass bigtime is a big mistery. I now realize my analysing skills without an extra board SUCK. I got so used to play with an analysing board that playing without it feels like walking on the street without trousers.
If all the time i invested on those websites I studied tactics or played real games and analyse them afterwards I would now be a much better player

5/08/2008 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger chess addict said...

hi, check out this blog

5/09/2008 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Blue Devil Knight,

I know you are sort of taking a break but I posted a position on my blog that I need some help with. In the actual game I made a HUGE blunder. I was wondering if you saw anything I could possibly have done. I am going to analyze with Shredder but I also like hearing human ideas.



5/13/2008 12:07:00 AM  
Blogger Chessaholic said...

Au revoir BDK, hope to see you around in the comments sections!

5/13/2008 01:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Blue Devil,

I know I keep pestering you, even though you are semi-retired, but do you think I should get the the Personal Chess Trainer(Chessimo), even after I have bought and am happy with Shredder. Are the tactical and endgame exercises worth the price or should I stick to puzzle books. You gave Chessimo such a great review and it does look like a great program...


(I will try to not bug you anymore and let you enjoy your sabbatical)

5/16/2008 07:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am not ten years old, you do not need to talk to me as if I am. I was just asking a question. Part of finding one's path is gaining information from other people who have ventured down similar roads. Isn't that what this whole blog thing is about?? Sharing information?

BDK can choose to answer or not, and that is HIS prerogative. And I will be grateful if he does and completely at peace and comfortable if he doesn't.

Are YOU comfortable with that transformation?

Tom G

5/16/2008 09:44:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tommyg: Not a problem at all. As I said, I'm still gonna lurk and comment at blogs.

Shredder is very good, but serves a different purpose than tactical software (Shredder is a great playing partner, perhaps useful as a database [?], and most of all for me is great to polish off a postmortem after you have gone through it on your own personal postmortem).

If the goal is to work on tactical problems, I think Chessimo is a great program for most levels of players. CTB is great for the lower-rated player, and if it is too easy for you you could try CT-Art, the gold standard for tougher problems (you might check level three problems in CTB--if you get more than 90 percent correct your first time through on that level then CTB is too easy for you).

We compared and contrasted the format of Chessimo and CT-ART a while back here.

5/17/2008 01:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey BDK!

Thanks for the info! I am going to download trial versions of both CT-ART and Chessimo and give them the ol' trial run. I will see which one fits for me, but I think it would be good to have some sort of tactical training software along with Shredder.

Thanks again for the help and have a great weekend!


ps. I finally won a game on ICC!!

5/17/2008 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tommyg: congrats--the players there are really good compared with other places I tried online (though I never tried 'Playchess' which is also supposed to be very good).

Good luck with the chess!

5/17/2008 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tommyg: incidentally, level 3 (out of 5) CTB is about level 10 (easiest level) CT-Art, maybe a tiny bit harder, so if the level 10 CT-Art are really easy for you, then perhaps try CTA or Chessimo. If they are too hard, then CTB or Chessimo.

I tend to think it is a good idea for tactical problems to work on things that, on average, are the simplest types of things you still miss in real games. So, for instance, if you consistently miss simple forks, working on 10 move combinations would be a big mistake in your tactical training. If you miss mate in one in games, your problem set should include some mate in one. CTB and Chessimo both have lots of mate in 1.

5/17/2008 03:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey BDK!

No need to answer or reply! I just wanted to thank you again for all your help.

I downloaded trial versions of PCT and CT-ART and I ended up purchasing PCT (Chessimo). The interface drew me in a little quicker and seemed geared more to my sensibilities AND the first problems were not too hard but at the same time I did miss a few. After a few days with it now I am pretty happy with it.

Thanks again,


5/20/2008 02:09:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Let us know how it goes Tommyg.

5/30/2008 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

and like a true PBS style: time for the fundraiser... check out my shirts... ready for the summer, full line of old timey chess. Wear them at chess tournaments and at the club because no one else will understand.

6/12/2008 09:11:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

How about them celtics! Nice way to put LA in its place!

6/18/2008 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...


That was a freaking awesome finish to their season!

"Anything is possible!!!"

6/19/2008 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go Celtics! Although in real life I am a sixers fan!! I was born in philly. But anyone who beats the Lakers, and beats them but good, is aces in my book!!


6/20/2008 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger normajean said...

I notice a lot of you philospohers play chess. Have you played Reppert or Vallicella yet? And what's your score?

6/23/2008 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Robert Pearson said...

I'm 1 of 2 against Vallicella at ICC (a couple of years ago). Would love to play Reppert, but sorry, no Sicilian!

6/23/2008 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I've never played them. Reppert seems like a really cool guy, would be fun to play and hang out with. comment.

6/24/2008 01:43:00 PM  
Blogger Omkar Kalbag said...

Your post (experience) has helped a chess novice like me a lot. Past 8 months I practiced chess without any direction, which this post has given me. Thanks a lot.

1/06/2013 10:22:00 AM  

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