Sunday, July 7, 2019

How to Get Better at Chess - The Path from Beginner to Master and Beyond (Part 1)


In the diagram above, you're playing black and it's your turn. Take a look at the position for a bit and then come up with a plan for your next few moves. Take as much or as little time as you think you need.



My ambitious goal in this new series of posts is to outline a general path for how one could go from beginner to master. I'll draw from my own chess upbringing along with some old-school classical wisdom.

First, a couple things:
  1. It's really hard to "master" chess - I certainly don't consider myself to have mastered it, and even the best grandmasters in the world aren't anywhere close to perfect. In fact, believe it or not, even Stockfish doesn't know all the answers! (but ok, AlphaZero might)
  2. There are no shortcuts! As with anything else, improving in chess takes time, hard work and lots of practice.
Lastly but most importantly, I just want to remind you that it is absolutely possible to enjoy chess as a hobby without wanting to devote time, money and energy to improving. I learned the rules when I was around five or six years old but had no desire to get a rating or take lessons until I was twelve. Today, I have no regrets about that.


Starting out: Beginner level

So, you've recently learned the rules and basic checkmates, perhaps a couple of simple openings too. What next? How to improve from there?

In my opinion, there are numerous ways for a beginner to improve that cost little or no money and do not require a large time investment:

  • Come to your local chess center or club and play a few casual games against players who are better than you. Talk to them and ask how they come up with their moves.
  • Play in a small local tournament if you want to get a feel for what competitive chess is like. Find a friend who's higher rated than you and ask them if they could analyze your games with you - in my experience, most chess players are quite friendly and would be happy to help.
  • Set up a free account on a site like lichess.org or chess.com and do some tactics puzzles - even consistently doing just five a day will go a long way after a couple months. Be familiar with the most common tactical patterns:
    • Forks/double attacks
    • Skewers and pins
    • Back rank tactics
    • Discovered attack, discovered check, and double check
    • Decoy/Deflection
    • Overloading and removing the defender
  • Find a good tactics puzzle book or any basic strategy book - the ones that I grew up with and highly recommend are Fred Reinfeld's "1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations" and Irving Chernev's "Logical Chess Move by Move" - both are available on Amazon for under $15. Play through them with a physical board in front of you.
  • Practice some basic endgame drills against people at your local club who know them:
    • K+P vs K
    • R+P vs R
    • Q vs P, etc - I made a separate post here about this kind of knowledge

Something else I would strongly advise is to stay away from engines like Stockfish, Houdini, Fritz, Komodo etc. You don't need them right now, and unless you know how to use them properly they will do more harm than good. Later on I'll make a post about how I use engines and how they are designed to work.



Now, if I had to pick just one of my bullet points to be the most important for beginners to learn, then in a heartbeat I'd pick tactics. Why? I'll come back to the diagram I showed you at the top to illustrate:


This position was black to move, and I asked you to come up with a plan. But in reality, it was a trick question (sorry). Whatever plan you came up with, it doesn't matter, because black can actually win a whole piece by force here.

After 1. ... d5 2.exd5 exd5, white's bishop on c4 is attacked. After it moves, say 3.Bb5, then 3. ... d4 is a winning pawn fork - white loses either the bishop on e3 or the knight on c3.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that concrete tactics (especially any tactics involving an exposed king) will always be the most important factor on the chessboard and trump standard positional considerations.

For example, you could have looked at the position and said, "Black isn't castled and needs to develop his minor pieces, so my plan is 0-0 and Bd7 to complete development", or maybe you reject the idea of d6-d5 because "you shouldn't open the center when you haven't castled yet". All of that is true, but in this case it assumes secondary importance because you can win a piece.

If you quickly saw the tactic on your own, then that's good! If not, then you probably could use some tactics training, because the end goal is to be able to find those shots even when you're not actively looking for them. After you practice enough basic puzzles like that, your brain will eventually be able to automatically recognize those patterns without any effort. Experienced players like myself can instantly see things like that ...d5-d4 fork without even thinking.

If chess were a language, then tactics would be the alphabet. Strong players use the same basic tactical patterns in different combinations as a tool to help carry out their own plans and to stop their opponent's plans. The good news for beginners is that those patterns are actually really easy to learn! Just be consistent about practicing and going through puzzles until it becomes second nature.