Since I began work on the WhyChess project I’ve received a heap of questions from chess fans, with the most common being: how do you make progress after overcoming the first relatively easy stages?
I’ve heard that so often in recent days that I decided I had to devote a separate article to it. So then, what we’re talking about, it seems, is advancing from the level of, say, 1800-1900 to 2200 and above.
Some interesting statistics: 129 thousand players in the world have a rating, but only 20 thousand of them have reached 2200, 13500 have made it to 2250 and the lucky holders of a 2300 rating and above number only 8150 people. From that it’s clear that this is precisely where an invisible barrier lies, one that far from everyone is fated to cross. After all, this is precisely the rating range at which you need to be able to raise your play to a qualitatively different level, establishing your own personal style, vision of the game and opening repertoire. At the end of the article you’ll find the extremely interesting results of a survey of grandmasters, but for now I’ll share my own impressions with you.
1. It’s probably essential to lay the foundations of the proper thinking process. That involves calculating variations, tactical vision, positional understanding and endgame technique.
As the great Bronstein once wrote, tactical vision is training, training and yet more training. It’s enough to raise the number of tactical exercises you’ve solved to a few thousand and you’ll inevitably start to notice a difference. That’s probably the easiest thing to do, and it’s indispensible to have an endless collection of combinations.
It’s not that much more difficult to ensure you have the minimum necessary level of endgame technique. Books that helped me acquire that were “Rook Endings” (Smyslov and Levenfish) and “Endgame Strategy” and “Features of the Endgame” (Shereshevsky). A lot of new material has probably appeared in this area, though I haven’t found anything better.
When it comes to calculating variations I think things get much more difficult. In any case, for me :) Of course, the main authorities here are “Think Like a Grandmaster” and “Play Like a Grandmaster” by Alexander Kotov, and the works of Mark Dvoretsky and John Nunn. Be prepared, dear readers, for the fact that here you’re really going to have to sweat, though it’ll definitely pay off. A very time-consuming stage.
And finally: building an opening repertoire. I think the main thing here is being able to understand yourself. After all, you start to form a particular style that belongs to you alone from your very first steps in chess, and it’s essential that your repertoire is ideally suited to that. My heart bleeds to watch a chess player who gets into a panic at the first hint of danger to his own king playing the Najdorf Variation or the French Defence – just because those are the favourite defences of Kasparov and Morozevich. You can find hundreds or thousands of examples of that at every open tournament. So then, at this stage a chess player must strive to create his “own” theory, suited to his style of play, world view and character. And God forbid you trust one of the examples of the endless stream of chess pulp literature, which is out of date even before it’s typeset. It’s much better to start off from your own conclusions made based on thematic games in your own database.
2. One of the most effective means of improvement is to guess the moves from the games of great players. The method is very simple: let’s say you like the style of Vishy Anand. You choose one of the games he won and try to guess all of his moves as if you were playing in his place. At first the results will be extremely depressing, but given a certain tenacity I can guarantee you wonderful results. Forgive me for being immodest, but I’ll give an example from my own experience. About a year after starting such exercises I guessed all but three of the moves from the long game Sax-Korchnoi, Lucerne 1989. It was only then that I really felt as though I was getting somewhere…
3. Practice, practice and yet more practice. Now, with the appearance of endless chess servers, it’s very simple to achieve this part of the programme. It’s enough to watch the speed at which the young wave of elite chess players is developing – Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Anish Giri, and of course Karjakin and Carlsen, to realise the fantastic effectiveness of testing out everything and anything under playing conditions. Well, and it would be absolutely great if you could find a sparring partner at about your level. Daily competition will force you to develop many times quicker – that’s been tried and tested!
4. And now, perhaps, the most important thing. Before getting down to all these time-consuming and far-from-simple exercises it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give some thought to the question: is this something I really want? I’ve got the impression that the overwhelming majority of players are deceiving themselves on this score. All the exercises I described above are far from a walk in the park, and you won’t get by with half measures.
So that’s that. I’m sure you’ll be interested to learn how my grandmaster colleagues managed to conquer the same challenge.
In order to reach any level at all you have to take chess seriously – that’s the main thing. The lazy pupil’s attitude that you’ll catch up on the class at the last minute and get a B- on your report card (and that does the job!), is a recipe for a pointless waste of your own time. You need to want to achieve that goal from the bottom of your heart!
Good books abound. I recommend starting with the Soviet tried-and-tested ones. I, like many others, studied from the classic hits: “First Chess Book” by Panov, the “World’s Great Chess Players” black series (I read them voraciously – I couldn’t tear myself away), “Features of the Endgame” and “Endgame Strategy” by Shereshevsky.
Add to that a painstaking, serious and critical analysis of your own games. You shouldn’t cherish illusions, thinking you played well but made a stupid blunder, your opponent simply got lucky, and so on. The people who make progress are those who are their own harshest critics.
It would be desirable to play openings which are solid and mainstream. Off-beat openings give you short-term advantages, but they slow down a player’s general development. So if you hope to achieve a serious level of play don’t be tempted by variations involving cheap tricks. Take your example from good grandmasters – those who play in a similar style. They won’t let you down.
Books: “Selected Games” (Nezhmetdinov), “Analytical and Critical Works”, 3 volumes (Botvinnik), “Alekhine’s Chess Legacy” (Kotov) – although even back then I didn’t like the 5-step plans in Alekhine’s games, “Questions of Modern Chess Theory” (Lipnitsky).
It seems to me that in order to make progress you need to love chess, and it would be desirable to actually spend time in person with a stronger chess player and analyse your games. It helped me when I was studying chess books if I tried to find mistakes, and when I found them it felt like a small victory.
Perhaps there are some “methods”, but I can say that right from the very beginning I was a real chess fanatic. I remember reading dozens of chess books from the ages of 9 to 12, mainly analysing the games of the world champions starting with Morphy and Staunton and ending with Fischer and Karpov. I really liked to compare the openings taken from Bronstein’s “Zurich 53” with modern ones, finding new variations to use in my games.
Books: “My System” (Nimzowitsch), “Fischer vs. Spassky: The Chess Match of the Century” (Gligoric), “Alekhine’s Chess Legacy” (Kotov).
The greatest contribution to my development was made by lessons in Panchenko’s school. Each day we’d have two lectures on a selected topic (bishop endings, calculating variations, the opening and so on), plus practical classes aimed at properly assimilating the material – all in all, about five hours a day. Panchenko’s school ran two to three sessions a year with about 20 people taking part. There wasn’t a single one of them who failed to reach the level of 2350.
Books: “Akiba Rubinstein” (Razuvaev and Murakhvery), “Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953” (Bronstein), “Montreal 1979: Tournament of Stars” (Chepizhny). I really liked to play through the games from those books on the board, getting into the spirit of the tournament myself. I think that was what really helped me.
Chess has changed a lot now with the appearance of computer programs, so I’m not sure if my own experience is still relevant… As far as I recall, it was precisely at that level that we engaged in a really serious (or so it seemed to me at the time) analysis of the games of the outstanding masters of the past - Alekhine, Rubinstein, Botvinnik and so on. We also solved studies and played out typical endgame positions. One exercise which struck me as very useful was guessing the moves of grandmasters in classical games.
For me books that were emblematic of that period were: “300 Selected Games of Alekhine” with his own notes (Panov), the notorious “My System” (Nimzowitsch), “With the Grandmasters” (Hort and Yansa). Well, and of course you need to play and analyse with opponents who are of a superior class to yourself (that’s a commonplace, of course, but it’s something helpful for everyone).
1. I read a lot of the basic literature: “My System”, Botvinnik, Karpov, Kasparov.
So that’s how I reached the level of 2200-2300.
I started playing chess around the time of the Fischer-Spassky match (age about 8 or 9) when a teacher started a chess club in our school. I basically taught myself with books from the local library: some general basic books followed by 60 Memorable Games by Fischer, 50 Selected Games by Larsen and Gligoric's Selected Chess Masterpieces. I would just play through the games again and again. At age 11 I joined an adult club and finally had some contact with some decent players. By now I was one of the best for my age in the country though a long way behind prodigies such as Short and Hodgson. I progressed steadily improving a bit every year - nothing dramatic. I never had a teacher and just looked at chess with friends, but I could be fairly obsessive. For example, when I was 14 I won a copy of ECO B and searched through it for a line that didn't give White a slight edge. Finally I found it right at the back - the Polugaevsky variation of the Najdorf. So I just learnt it all by heart and started playing it. Those were the days. Now I can't even remember my games from yesterday!
How to make progress in chess