Growing Through Chess

Strategies to Improve As an Adult Student of the Game

My first memory of the game as a kid was watching the pieces slide to and fro while my dad explained the rules to me. I stare at him wide-eyed at as he hops the knight in an L-shape, springing it into action over its comrades. Needless to say, I didn’t win my first game, nor did I win any of the following ones over the months and years. Since there was no local chess club where I could expand my knowledge, I eventually grew frustrated and resentful of my never-ending losing streak. As a result, I abandoned my chess set under my bed until I finished college.

It’s been seven years since starting back up, six of them spent reaching the lower limit for “intermediate” players on chess.com. To put it in numbers, I hovered around 1000 Elo for years, until I took another long break from chess and reflected on what I even like about it.

It would be a disservice to the game to say chess is only an intellectually stimulating hobby. Its rich history spans millennia, transcending language and borders in its own unique way. The pieces pirouette across the board as my opponent and I orchestrate them to their best squares. Most importantly, chess reconnects me with my inner child so I can turn what was once a source of inner turmoil into a positive pastime.

With rekindled passion, I sat down and developed a holistic improvement strategy to get better at Rapid and Blitz. Why these time controls? Rapid’s longer time control lets me calculate in-depth, and Blitz’s short clock means I can play more games to play and analyze. I came across and downloaded Matt’s Study Plan to lay out the groundwork for my approach (you can find the study plan here, I cannot recommend it enough). It included details for how many games to play for week, when to do puzzles, and more. With help from the plan, I made more progress in these four months than during the past seven years of playing the game, increasing both Rapid and Blitz by 220 Elo each.

But there’s more to it than just following the Study Plan’s by itself, or else I could have ended the article here and called it a day. Instead, I want to expand on exactly how I approached improving beyond the plan, because I believe this approach applies to more areas in life than just chess. Maybe you want to learn an instrument, learn to cook, or pass a hefty college course. In all these cases, it simply comes down to ideation, consistency,and finding peace in chaos. To start, I’ll go over how helpful it is to visualize your goals and break them down into manageable chunks.

Ideation

How do goals influence my approach? What even are my goals? I realized that “improving at chess” is such a vague goal, so I wanted to put a number to it: 1500 Elo, an increase in my current rating by 500 points. Why 500? It seems attainable and daring enough to keep me interested.

But even with a number attached, this is still kinda vague – for one, how do I even start? Play more games? At my 50% win rate, it’s mathematically impossible to improve. A better approach would be to shift my focus from “increase my rating” to “increase my win rate.”

I broke down the numbers and figured +9 Elo/week is a good measure of improvement, meaning I’d need to win about 2 or 3 more games per week than I lose. In the end, my goals went from a vague statement to an idealized, attainable measure of progress.

Get better at chess → Raise my Elo by 500 points → Win two more games than I lose each week

Even though I don’t think ideation like this is enough to get better, I at least now have a target to aim for and devise a strategy to win more games.

Consistency

Because life is cyclical, I had to devote time to boring things like “taking care of my body,” “eating,” and “working my day job.” There were weeks where I didn’t play much and weeks where I lost rating points. Overall, I stuck with the plan, but a vast chasm still lied between where I was and “Win More Games.” To improve, I had to take the game more seriously.           

I set aside time and space to focus my full, undivided attention on chess. Games and analysis may only last for 45-90 minutes each day without distractions, if that’s possible. I have a space in my home dedicated solely to chess, and my family knows this.

To keep me on track, I turned the Study Plan into a checklist in Obsidian, and to see how far I’ve come I recorded my progress in Excel.

Unfortunately, just playing more games isn’t enough, otherwise you’ll find yourself making the same mistakes time and time again. It’s crucial to analyze every game to find missed tactics and identify ongoing weaknesses. The strongest chess players ascribe post-game analysis as a large source of their knowledge. But I think there’s a much more intimate piece of the puzzle that puts everything together, since these things don’t guarantee immediate results.

The thing is, you have to be okay with losing if you want to get better.

Finding Peace

I want to emphasize that chess is a game of pattern recognition, strategy, and stamina. Chess is not a measure of pure intelligence or character. Strong players know this. So that they don’t get overwhelmed, they don’t tie their self-worth to their chess skill. I imagine a lot of sports are like this.

Nevertheless, for a long time, the feeling of triumph from winning paled in comparison to the shame and self-doubt I felt from simply losing at chess. To improve and honor my inner child, I needed to develop a healthy relationship with chess. I’ve helped nurture this relationship to full help by reflecting on why I love chess at all. Now, I more readily accept that playing badly is half the charm. I doubt I would ever improve without this mindset, because I’ve lost more games than I can count. I’ve fallen for opening traps in tournaments, I’ve lost for asinine reasons, and I’ve blundered mate-in-one in winning positions.

This isn’t to say I still handle it perfectly. Losing still takes me back to being that helpless, frustrated kid who barely knew how the pieces moved. Tying my self-worth to winning or getting better is such an easy trap to fall into. It’s because of this that letting go of ego and finding peace is the hardest part of improving at anything.

Why Bother?

Chess introduced me to a rich culture of players from all over the world. Opponents direct their own musical scores for a quartet of offense, defense, strategy, and prophylaxis. Once a game monopolized by intellectual elites, it now exists near park benches and pubs where the lives of me and my friends intersect at the board over a pint. The beauty, the balance, the poignancy – these all bring me back to the game time and time again.

After my long hiatus and reflecting on chess at the end of last year, my love of the game helped me develop the strategies to visualize my goals, remain consistent, invest the time, and stay mindful about the outcome. As an adult student of the game, I can more easily enjoy the journey, which significantly enriched my relationship with chess. Pairing these strategies with Matt’s Intermediate Study Plan and some other ChessGoals courses has been a recipe for success that I hope stays with me for years to come.

Thank you for reading this, and happy improving.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Cliff B

    Good blog. I’d like to point out one note that I disagree with: “At my 50% win rate, it’s mathematically impossible to improve.” It depends on the rating of your opponents. If you constantly play people higher rated than you, a 50% win rate would result in a rating gain, and likely faster improvement. I would recommend playing opponents 100-200 points higher than yourself every chance you get.

    1. Zelda Mazur

      Thanks for the comment! I agree with this point, I should have made it more clear that it’s only impossible if you seldom play people above your rating level.

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