Learner Series #7

SmithyQ is an adult who improved from 1899 to 2054 in a one year period. He also has a chess improvement blog over at http://smithyq.com/.

GENERAL OVERVIEW
How old are you and how long have you been playing chess?
I learned chess at 6, got serious when I was a teenager but then quit for a decade when I couldn’t seem to improve.  Got back into it in my late 20s.
How many hours per week do you spend on chess?
When I was training more seriously: Anywhere from 30min to 2hrs a day, depending on schedule and other commitments.  Almost always tried to get something in each day.  Currently doing much less, as chess has taken a back seat to other goals.
Chess website usernames?
SmithyQ on lichess, chess.com and ChessTempo.
What’s your current skill level or rating?
Chess.com correspondence peaked at mid 2100s.  Lichess blitz/bullet ratings hover between 2000/2100 most days.

PLAYING OVERVIEW — describe where you play, time controls, how often, etc
OTB
Sadly, very little OTB experience, having grown up in a semi-rural area with little chess culture.
Online
For most of my life, online correspondence.  For the past two years, mainly lichess 3+0 and 1+0, as I’m trying to improve my speed.

STUDYING OVERVIEW — talk about what sites you use, how often you spend, tips
Game Analysis
This used to take up much more of my time.  Historically, I started with the games of the great masters: Morphy, Tarrasch, Capablanca, Alekhine, etc.  A book and a board are the best way to do this, and Reti’s “Masters of the Chessboard” is a great place to start. I then focused intensively on studying my own games, in particular reviewing losses with computer assistance.
Tactics/Openings
I’m going to group these two together.  I never learned much theory (most people can name more variations than I can), and I don’t remember ever using a dedicated tactics book.  Instead, I went through Tarrasch’s “The Game of Chess” middlegame section 3-4 times, getting constant exposure to the common motifs.  I also went through lots of miniature games.  These games are short, have one side make a clear mistake and the other side punishes it (usually in spectacular fashion).  I could thus study a lot in a short time, learning common mistakes and the appropriate way to punish.  Polgar’s “Chess:5334 Combinations, etc” was a great resource, as it contained 600 such games, all organized by theme.  Combined, this gave me a good sense of common patterns as well as general opening principles.
More recently, I have been using Chessable to learn more theory on openings I’ve always wanted to know.
Endgames
I tried and failed to study endgames several times, and the lack of study is likely why my progress eventually stalled.  My endgame skill primarily comes from having studied Capablanca’s games.  More recently, I have gone through 100 Endgames You Must Know on Chessable, but I do not feel as if it improved my play all that much.
Strategy
I’ve long been a champion of GM Smirnov’s online course “Grandmaster Positional Understanding.”  It’s expensive, but it was the missing link for me, finally pushing me over the 2000 online rating barrier.  Other noteable resources were Serawan’s “Winning Chess Strategy,” Reshevsky’s “The Art of Positional Play” and Alekhine’s “My Best Games of Chess.”  Finally, Capablanca’s games generally highlight the strategic ideas quite clearly, and I’m sure studying his games helped here as well.

OTHER USEFUL TIDBITS — Do you watch streams/videos, play variants, any unique things you do that others can learn from?
My two best periods of improvement came when a) I went through Tarrasch’s book multiple times, and later b) when I spent three months studying Smirnov’s course.  It seems that intensive study of one book/course produced good results (and conversely, spending less time studying more books did nothing for my rating).  That said, I recently spent a few months using the Woodpecker Method, which had only a nominal impact, so mileage may vary.
My periods of stagnation have often coincided with trying too hard to improve, where chess became more akin to work than a game.  If it’s not enjoyable, stop doing it.
I’m a big believer of psychology in chess (sorry Bobby!).  You can often get a sense of what an opponent wants: some like slower, calmer games, whereas others want to unleash chaos.  Turning the game into the opposite state can often force blunders; it’s amazing how many “aggressive tactical players” will weaken their position or lose time to avoid a Queen exchange, for example.  I’m also convinced a decent number of my wins against the French defence are because Black players hate playing against the Exchange variation.
Finally, develop a thinking system that you use every move.  Up until nearly 1800, I found moves almost randomly.  I just stared at the board and hoped inspiration would strike me.  Not surprisingly, this isn’t very consistent.  Having a dedicated thought-process drastically improved this issue.  Here’s my current one:
1. What is my opponent’s idea?2. Do I have any tactics?3. If not, how can I improve my position?4. Is my move safe?
Obviously there’s a big difference between asking “Do I have any tactics?” and actually being able to calculate those tactics, but it points me in the right direction.  Best of luck in your chess journey!