How do Beginners get Better at Chess?

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Have you been working on improving your own chess skills for a while? Or maybe your child has simply become fascinated with the game of chess and for this reason you have made the decision to spend some time studying the fundamentals of chess training. How do beginners get better at chess? It Could it be that there really is a proven approach for beginners to improve quickly at chess?

Yes, any beginner at any age can get better at chess. As I always say, chess is like learning a language, and it requires passion, dedication, and discipline. Early on, you should spend more time on the middlegame, endgame, and opening in this consistent order. Also, it must be done in such a way that these three stages are connected to each other. This article will discuss different strategies and approaches to getting better at chess.

Study chess using the classic way with a chessboard and a chess book

What are the Principles of Chess?

The most important part of the chessboard is the center. Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan uses two terms to explain the center: “the sweet center,” which consists of e4, e5, d4 and d5; and “the big center,” which consists of the squares surrounding by the sweet center squares from c3 to c6 and f3 to f6. Chess pieces can control more squares when they are nearer to the middle of the board. In contrast, when pieces are on the edge of the board, they can be less effective, and consequently will control less squares from the edge of the board. From the center, pieces can move easily from one flank to another and have more influence in the game.

Wilhelm Steinitz, the World Chess Champion, has advised that chess players should prioritize at least the development of one of the knights before a bishop. A knight toward the center in squares such as f3, c3, c6, or f6 attacks and defends eight 8 squares; conversely, knights in squares such as a3, h3, a6, or h6 attack and defend only 4 squares. Ideally try to develop the minor pieces toward the center squares in this way, so they will attack and defend as many squares as possible. Therefore, playing in the center is the strategy all chess masters go for it.

When a beginner player faces an unfamiliar opening, and this player does not know anything about opening theories, the correct approach is to follow the opening principles as listed below:

1.      Control of the central squares by placing a pawn on one of the sweet central squares (e4, e5, d4, d5)

2.      Piece development, minor pieces must be developed first (knights and bishops)

3.      King safety can be achieved by making a special move made for the king: castling. If you are going to castle on the kingside, then move the king two squares in the direction of the rook and then jump the rook over the king and place the rook on the square right adjacent to the king.

There are two main reasons for castling; the main reason is to protect the king, and the secondary reason is to develop the rook.  If you are still a beginner, instead of memorizing openings, learn the basic principles of openings that I mentioned earlier. As you make progress and improve at your chess skills, your coach can guide you and together prepare an opening repertoire that suits your chess playing style.

Picture of a white king resigned.

Puzzles Practice

The first step in improving chess is undoubtedly solving tactics. The more chess players understand tactical ideas and patterns, the more the quality of one’s game will increase. My advice is to do between 15 to 30 minutes of daily practice. Once the chess player solves thousands of puzzles, then pattern recognition or motifs gradually become a second nature to a chess player. Common tactical motifs are:

1.      Pin

2.      Forks (Double- Attacks)

3.      Back-rank checkmate

4.      Discovery check

5.      Skewer

6.      Removing the guard or defender

7.      In-between move (also known as zwischenzug or intermezzo).

Even chess masters practice their chess skills consistently, for instance, Nazi Paikidze 2018 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion in which she states that one of her recipes for tournament preparation is “to do a lot of tactics/puzzles as many as 100 a day.”

Picture of Nazi Paikidze

I recommend all the volumes of Chess Camp to the youngest players. These book series do not include explanations of chess positions, they are specific to solving tactics and have an interesting selection of tactics for beginners and intermediate level. I recommend solving them in order, except for volume 3, you can skip 3 after finishing all volumes and then go back for 3. The good news is that they all come with answers for each position. Don’t spend more than five minutes in on one puzzle at the time, you can also learn by going over the position by reading the answer.

Chess Camp Volume 1 – absolute Beginner Level

Chess Camp Volume 2 – Beginner Level

Chess Camp Volume 3 – Beginner/Intermediate Level

Chess Camp volume 4 – Intermediate Level

Chess Camp Volume 5 – Intermediate Level

Suki “reading” the Chess Camp Series

I also really like the only chess book written by 11th World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer: Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, it’s a great and light chess book for beginners. Most of the tactical positions illustrated in this book will be covered in chess lessons. Also, some of my 6-year-old students were able to read and finish this book with ease. Try to solve these puzzles by theme and then repeating them until understand the idea behind of each tactic. Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess—Beginner/Intermediate Level

Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess—Beginner/Intermediate Level

For more advanced players, rating range 1500-1800 rating– 1001 Deadly Checkmates is a great method to be followed; it also teaches to study tactics by theme, and it promotes repetition.

Suki “thinking about ” chess books.

How to Evaluate a Chess position?

The right time to evaluate a chess position is when a trade of piece occurs, even if it is a pawn trade. The important factors to consider when evaluating a chess position is to make a comparison between the two sides and then find out who is better position. How to Reassess Your Chess: Chess Mastery Through Chess Imbalances, Chess master Jeremy Silman explains how to evaluate a chess position in simple terms.

1.      King safety

2.      Material Balance

3.      Central Control

4.      Pieces activities (Development of pieces)

5.      Pawn Structure

6.      Space

7.      Initiative

Remember, each factor must be a comparison between white and black sides. For example, for king safety, you must identify which side has a better king safety. Regarding the material, identify which player has a material advantage.

Chess players must constantly evaluate and re-evaluate their positions on the board and adjust to new situations all the time. According to World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen, you should aim to evaluate well and calculate short variations. The ability to adapt to new situations separates the best players from the second-best players.

I always like to tell a story about one of my students, Zach, who was leading a youth chess tournament with 6 wins and only needed one more win the championship, but at a certain point during his final game, his opponent offered him an exchange of queens, which he declined because he thought he was one rook down, and it didn’t take long for his exposed king to be checkmate by his opponent’s queen.

As is customary, we conducted a postmortem analysis of the games and discovered that the moment he rejected the exchange of queens, he was the one with an extra rook and not otherwise. What went wrong for Zach? He never assessed his chess position to determine who had the advantage. If he had done the evaluation, he would have realized that the exchange of queens was favourable to him. With the exchange of queens, Zach would set himself up for a winning endgame with an extra major piece.

Thinking Technique during a Chess Game

A chess game is played by two players, so two brains fight each other for a win. If a chess player plays a game of chess thinking only of his plan and disregards the opponent’s plan, that player will lose the game accordingly. A chess player must play a game following his plan but consider the opponent’s plan.

Step 1: As soon as your opponent makes a move, ask yourself: What is my opponent’s plan? If it is an attacking or tactical position, look for: 

1.      Checks

2.      Checkmate threats

3.      Captures

4.      Any threats

Step 2: If your opponent has an immediate threat, then in response, you consider two or three candidate moves. For each candidate move, try to anticipate your opponent’s best answer, and then make sure you have an answer for each of your opponent’s answers. A common mistake is to play a move you have not included in the set of candidate moves. Choose the best candidate move among all your options.

Step 3: If it is a quiet position, then look for ways to: 

1.      Develop your pieces or make your pieces “better”

2.      Make sure your plan can be used in response to threats to your opponents.

3.      Anticipate your opponent’s plan.

Step 4: If you do not have a real plan, then it is time to organize your ideas into a plan. Remember, a plan is a set of interconnected actions that are comprise 2 to 3 moves.

Step 5: If you have a key position or a positional advantage and you need to find the best candidate moves, look AGAIN for:

1.      Checks

2.      Checkmates Threats

3.      Captures

4.      Any Threats

Playing Lives and Online Chess Games

There are several mobile apps, chess sites, and live tournaments available to practice chess formally or informally. To make steady and rapid improvement in chess, chess players must play chess weekly in both live and online environments.

In the online environment, play chess matches with time control of at least 15 minutes of play and in live tournaments, play chess tournaments that have a minimum of 25 minutes of time control. In live tournaments, quads are great tournaments to play against players at the same rating level.

Once a chess player reaches a rating above ELO 1400, I recommend playing a few games with longer time control than countless games with very short time control – Ideally, 55 minutes time control per game. World Chess Champion, Vladimir Kramnik, has quoted “Playing rapid chess, one can lose the habit of concentrating for several hours in serious chess. That is why, if a player has big aims, he should limit his rapid play in favor of serious chess.”  Also, try challenging yourself and play some tournaments where your opponent is stronger than you. When facing stronger players, then you have the challenge to overcome, and that will help your level rise.

Analyzing Your Chess Games

Chess coaches and parents should remind their players to record their games for further analysis. If a player has no previous experience on how to record a chess game, the player should ask the coach to teach him/her some technique about recording. If the player is too young or a novice chess player, then it is recommended trying to record at least between 10 and 20 moves. If the player makes a mistake in the notation, just skip a line, and continue the notation in the next line of the scoresheet. If a player complains about how difficult it is to keep track of the chess notation, he must be reminded about the necessity for further analysis of the game by the chess coach.

Kids can benefit during and after a chess tournament by having a chess coach analyze their games between rounds. Chess coaches will pinpoint the major mistakes made at different stages during the chess game, teaching strategic concepts and tactical failures (blunders) which are very common at this level. This type of coaching is very popular and practiced in many powerful chess nations such as Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, and others.

According to world chess champion, Jose Raul Capablanca (1921 – 1927), “You may learn much more from a game you lose than from a game you win. You will have to lose hundreds of games before becoming a good player.”

To improve and acquire a deeper understanding of the game, chess players must fix any mistakes made in their past chess games. Chess coaches are essential for guidance during this colossal task and will save a tremendous amount of time towards their overall improvement. More advanced chess players with at least 1400 ratings should adopt this method of self-analysis, as a chess coach, I urge all my pupils to review their games on their own in an effort to identify and remedy any errors they may have made before discussing their games with other chess coaches.

Study the Endgame Theory

After creating a routine of solving puzzles, it is also very important to study the endgame theory. There are several elementary endgame positions that beginner chess player should know by heart: checkmate with the king + two rooks versus king alone, king + queen versus king alone, king + one rook versus king alone, king + two bishops versus king alone.

Also, intermediate players need to know the Lucena position also known as the bridge (rook+pawn vs rook), the Philidor position (rook+pawn vs rook), DT—Distant (side) checks position (rook + pawn vs rook), the Kling and Horwitz Defence (rook+pawn vs rook), the Vancura Defence (rook + pawn vs rook), the Centurini Position (bishop + pawn vs bishop – same coloured bishops), Tarrasch’s position (bishop + 2 pawns vs bishop – opposite colored bishops), the Philidor position (queen vs rook), the Philidor position (rook+bishop vs rook), and the Cochrane defence (rook+bishop vs rook).

 Learning to play without the queen is crucial for personal improvement in chess. As a rule, beginner chess players tend to be very attached to their queens, and at times refuse to trade queens in key situations that would increase their chances of winning.  If chess players learn to make correct decisions to trade queens and go straight from the opening to the endgame, the players would easily outplay their opponents accordingly. Learning to play without the queen will improve your positional and strategical understanding as well as your technical abilities.

Learn Typical Opening Setups

Chess beginners, when studying modern opening theory, do so by memorizing opening lines and variants, and this approach has a tiny retention percentage of the material studied. Undoubtedly, organizing a sophisticated opening repertoire drains one’s study time. An opening repertoire is a long-term project; therefore, it will evolve as the chess player experiences different openings and increases his knowledge and skill.

Chess players need to develop their understanding of the game, layer by layer; first mastering simpler plans and concepts and then moving to more complex ones. The approach recommended by the best world chess coaches would be for the student to examine classic chess master’s games such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Bobby Fischer, and Jose Raul Capablanca to better understand typical opening setups since it was those past masters who developed them.

To learn typical opening setups, first, one should study the classic games of the masters, preferably the games with analysis, learning the key ideas and typical opening setups behind these classic games, and then delve into the waters of modern theory, especially for the black pieces. Try to connect your openings with the middle-game and choose openings that might lead to better or more successful middle-game.

Practice Blitz Chess

There are several arguments against playing blitz; most chess coaches do not recommend blitz games because they are afraid that kids might not be mature enough to switch their mindsets from blitz chess game into slow chess games or vice versa. Also, it can promote superficial strategies, not thinking thoroughly the moves to be made. As a result, a young chess player will develop bad habits of playing fast moves regardless of their time in the chess clock and this chess player will end up making a lot of mistakes during a game for not taking their time to think each move in advance.

However, there are some chess coaches who argue the opposite, that playing blitz may help young learners to develop their speed in deciding before their clock runs out of time. GM Maxim Dlugy, a former World Junior Chess Champion, states that one of the roles of blitz is to retain kids’ interest in chess and serves as a good motivator to keep them playing chess – perhaps their whole life. He also asserts that blitz games make chess players more efficient thinkers and faster decision-makers.

I will offer some highlights regarding the benefits of playing blitz chess games; blitz games are recommended developing the kids’ recognition of positional ideas and tactics. Also, blitz is utilized as a tool to familiarize oneself with an opening. The player can treat blitz as a way of revising own opening repertoire. If a player has temporarily retired from chess, blitz could be utilized as an excellent tool to diagnose his/her game and eventually regain his/her chess strength. Since nowadays time controls are getting shorter and tie-breaks more popular, it is a good idea to be prepared for a possible tie-break for a championship. Therefore, everyone should be ready for a possible blitz match.

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