Foundational Chess Training – Three Aspects You Need To Know

Our first guest post, written by Jonathan Pettit, is about chess training. Jonathan runs a chess improvement blog at smithyq.com. Subscribe to his email list to receive notifications when he writes new posts. I always look forward to seeing his new content. – Matt

What does it mean to improve at chess?  Obviously, we want to raise our rating, but what does that mean?  To put it simply, playing better chess means playing better moves.  Your chess training, therefore, should focus on helping you find the best moves.

Notice a distinction here: it’s not just “the best moves”, but also “FINDING” those moves.  That is, anyone can turn on an engine and see the best move in a position… but if you don’t know WHY that move is the best, or how to FIND it yourself without silicon aid, then you won’t get better.  Real improvement comes when we get better and better at finding the right moves for ourselves.

For those of us without a coach, I believe there are three primary ways to train this skill.  This post will share these ways, and performing these activities will set the foundation for your long-term chess growth.

1. Reviewing Your Own Games

Before you can find better moves, it helps to know where you are having trouble.  Your own games are key for this.  Finding and fixing your mistakes paves the way for future improvement.

The process is simple.  Grab some of your games (preferably losses) and do the following:

  1. Look at the game without a computer; find areas you played the best move and where you played poor moves.  What could you do better?  Make as many notes as you can.
  2. Use a computer to double-check your analysis and find all the blunders.
  3. For every good move you missed, ask yourself, “Why didn’t I play that?”

If your time is short or you are only analyzing a blitz game, you may skip the first step.  However, you will get out of this exercise what you put in.  The more effort you put into step a), the more likely you will improve.

Anyway, the real purpose is not just to find your mistakes, but to figure out WHY you made them.  Here’s a simple example from a blitz game:

Chess Training

In this position, I played Qg5 in about half a second.  It’s thematic, starting to attack, staring at the enemy King, life is great.  My opponent looked at this position a moment and then played f5, winning a piece with an elementary fork.  Oops.

Now, I can justify this in a lot of ways.  “It’s just a blitz game.  I played too quickly.  I would have seen it in a real game.”  All of these are true, but there are all excuses.  Elo doesn’t care about my excuses.  The question remains, “Why did I overlook f4?”  And the actual reason is simple: I wasn’t thinking about my opponent’s threats at all.  I might as well have been playing against an empty board:

If you aren’t considering your opponent’s moves, it’s very difficult to see them!  You can’t see what you are not looking for.  It’s no wonder I made a mistake; it was only a matter of time.  Now, this is a pretty simple example, and it may well be a random blip.  However, if I review 10 more of my games and I see more examples like this, then I know I have a problem.  And that’s good!  Because I know what I can fix.

Just to be clear, the real value isn’t just finding your mistakes, but it’s figuring out WHY you made it.  Be brutally honest with yourself.  Here are some common reasons:

  • Ignoring opponent’s threats (like I did here);
  • Worrying / spending too much time on “phantom” threats (and getting into time trouble later);
  • Focusing on the Kingside without looking at possibilities elsewhere; or
  • Sticking to a plan regardless of your opponent’s moves.

There are many others.  If you can notice these thinking habits in your own games, then you can correct them.  You are hitting the root of the problem.  Moves that were once invisible will now shine bright.  This is why reviewing your own games, and digging deep into WHY you made the mistakes, will help you improve so quickly.  It addresses the root cause of our blunders, not just the symptom.  If you are honest with yourself, and avoid making excuses, it can really help your game.

2. Reviewing Master Games

If you want to fix your mistakes, you review your own games.  If you want to play better moves, then you need to review the games of masters.

The more the better.  Every area of your game can improve from reviewing master games.  You will see openings, middlegames, endgames; strategy and tactics; fearless attacks and peerless defence.  If you ever want to improve but don’t know what to do, study master games.  It’s that important.

There are three ways you can do this.  First, and this is especially true the less experienced you are, is to get a collection of annotated games and just go through them.  It feels almost like a story, where the narrator explains how the epic battle of White vs Black goes down.  There are many good places to start, though I’ve always enjoyed Reti’s “Masters of the Chessboard.”  Chernev’s “Logical Chess Move by Move” is another classic.  More advanced players will likely enjoy game collections from the best players, with my personal favourite being Alekhine’s “My Best Games of Chess”.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you start with.  If you are new to reviewing master games, grab virtually any game collection, sit back and enjoy.

As you get more experienced, you will want to review games by yourself.  There are two ways to do this.  First, there’s the “Game in 3min” approach.  The goal is to look through as many games as you can, spending only a few minutes on each one.  You are not necessarily thinking hard about the moves, but rather just observing the flow of the game.  One game won’t do too much, but if you review 50+ games in this matter, the common ideas, patterns and motifs will start jumping out, and soon you will start predicting moves “naturally.”

This can be an effective way to learn a new opening.  If you want to improve at the Slav defence, say, reviewing 50+ master games is a sure-fire way to do that.  I prefer using ChessTempo for this.  On that link, you can enter the first few moves in the explorer, and then see many games at a click of a button.

The second way to review games is “Guess the Move” format.  Rather than going through the games quickly, you take your time and try to, as the name suggests, guess the moves of the winner.  Treat this like a real game, where you are playing against a master.  Calculate hard.  Think deeply.  Got your move?  Okay, see if it matches the game.  If yes, great!  If not, figure out why the move was played, just like we mentioned in section 1 above.

I generally start guessing the move around move 10, because the opening is more or less over and opening choice matters less.  I end up in the early middlegame, I cover up the notation window (or use a piece of paper if using a book), and I begin predicting moves.

The “Guess the Move” approach takes a lot longer to do, and it teaches different things.  Seeing many games quickly helps your pattern recognition and general intuition; guessing the move improves your calculation and strategic faculties.  Both are essential tools for your chess improvement.

See also: How To Analyze Master Games

3. Tactics

The final piece of the puzzle is … well … puzzles.  As mentioned, our goal with chess training is to find better moves.  Tactical puzzles are perfect because they generally have one correct move.  Training these will help us find not just good moves, but the best move, period.

Further, at the amateur level, tactics decide virtually every game.  A small improvement here can lead to a sizable performance boost, and that always feels good.

Similar to reviewing master games, there are two ways to train tactics.  First is to train many easy, one- or two-move puzzles.  These should not be hard; in fact, they should be easy, requiring almost no calculation.  The goal is to improve our pattern recognition, so that we can pounce on these simple tactics in our own games (and not fall victim to them, like I did above!).

If you have a membership at chess.com or chesstempo.com, you can search for problems with very low ratings and train those.  I use a warm-up set on ChessTempo that only has problems between 800-1300 rating, which I can typically solve in just a few seconds.  If you need a free solution, you can consider BlitzTactics.com, though I find the “easy” puzzles here are not as easy … but you can’t beat free.

The second way to train tactics is basically the exact opposite: solve hard problems.  These should not be obvious; if you can get them in a few seconds, find harder ones.  Whereas easy problems train our pattern recognition, these problems will train our calculation.  You can use almost any chess site to improve here, and most tactics books fit the desired difficulty.  I prefer ChessTempo, because the problems tend to be harder and there is almost always only one correct move, though you can’t go wrong with any of the options.

Even here, though, we want to make sure we aren’t just solving puzzles, but we are doing our best to FIND the best move.  Did you get the puzzle wrong?  Why?  What were you looking at instead?  What did you miss?  Dig in deep.  Did you get the puzzle right?  Good!  But did you do it in the right way?  Sometimes I spend 5min looking at different moves, and only then does the solution jump out at me.  Why?  What was hidden?  Why couldn’t I see it earlier?

It’s very easy to just click “Next Puzzle” and get drawn into the flow, but that misses a golden opportunity to improve.  By asking these sorts of questions, you will clarify your thinking process, and it will help make those hard-to-find or invisible moves become that much easier to see.  And that really is the whole goal.

See also: How To Solve Any Chess Tactics Puzzle

Conclusion

There is a whole lot more to chess improvement, of course.  If it were easy, everyone would be a master.  That said, these three factors (reviewing your own games, reviewing master games, solving tactics) serve as the pillars of your chess training.  It is never a mistake to do any of these.  If you build a solid foundation here, you will find learning all other topics that much easier, and your game will almost surely improve.

As a final reminder, the focus isn’t just on the right moves, but on FINDING the right moves.  If you figure out why you couldn’t see a move, or why you couldn’t see it quickly, that will improve your game by leaps and bounds.  I won’t claim it is easy, but it is effective.  Best of luck in your chess journey!

Thanks Jonathan for the post on chess training! Remember to check out Jonathan’s blog over at smithyq.com.