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How to Improve at Chess (for beginners)

By Edited Jun 27, 2016 1 2

You've learned the moves and rules of the game, and played a few games with your friends and you want to get better. There are many ways to get better at chess, but starting off with the right methods can help speed up your movement. I'll be covering what to do during your games and how to train when you're not playing to get you on the right path to being the best player on your block, or at least in your house.

A big mistake I see beginning chess players make is that they try to use the same methods that advanced players or masters use to improve their chess. You have to walk before you can run. The better and more experienced you get at the game, the more specific your training and study needs will become. With this in mind, the steps given will help your overall understanding and skill in the game.

Step 1: Play a lot of games

This may seem obvious, but I've run into a lot of players who are afraid to play until they are "ready" - whatever that means. In the beginning stages, a lot will be learned just by playing (and even more so when you record and study your games).

Who should you play?

In general, play people who are better than you. Maybe not so much better that you lose every game you play, but someone who can show you where you went wrong. Of course, as you improve, you will play people that you can defeat easily, and that is fine as well, but only playing people that you can beat easily will not help you improve.

What should you focus on?

Try to have a reason behind your moves. For example, in the beginning of the game - the opening - some common objectives include:

  • Developing your pieces (getting them out so they can attack or defend)
  • Controlling the center (occupying or attacking the center with pawns and pieces)
  • Getting your king to safety (castling to move the king from the center)

In the middle game, your reasons might be a little different, including:

  • Attacking a weakness (such as an exposed king or a hanging piece)
  • Defending the king (by moving pieces to block lines to your king)
  • Driving off an attacker (with a pawn or piece of lower value)

Be patient

Don't worry if you don't know what to do in the beginning. Just notice the consequences of your moves and plans. Your mistakes will reveal many lessons and you'll learn much faster than if you hadn't made the mistake. Some of the book recommendations I give later in the article will help explain typical strategies and tactics you can apply to your games.

Step 2: Record and study your games

"The unexamined life if not worth living." - Socrates

Socrates was probably not referring to chess, but he might as well have been. Indeed, recording and studying your chess games is one of the classic and effective ways to improve. If you could eliminate one mistake you make from each game you play, you would be a formidable opponent in a very short time.

Record Your Games

If you play online, many of the chess playing servers record your games automatically in algebraic notation. If you are playing over-the-board with someone, I recommend getting a nice chess scorebook. It is always a pleasure to go back through my old scorebooks and reminiscing about old games. If you eventually want to play in sanctioned tournaments, such as with the U.S. Chess Federation in the United States, you are typically required to record your games.

Opening

At the start of the game, did your pieces feel like they were working together? Did your opponent seem to overwhelm you on any part of the board? These are the types of questions you may consider when studying the moves you made at the beginning of the game. Eventually, you will be developing an opening repertoire, where you narrow down the moves you play to get into known set-ups and strategies, but for now, try to make general observations in your play.

Surprises

Try to examine any moves where you felt you were surprised by your opponent. Did he or she make a move that you didn't consider? When this happens, look at the move you made before this move. Did you leave any weaknesses for your opponent exploit? Did you leave a piece undefended?

Discuss with your opponent

If your opponent is willing, discuss the game with them after the game has finished. This is particularly instructive if your opponent is a better player than you are. Ask him what moves could have been improved on his part or on your part. I have found many stronger players to be very helpful when they are asked for advice.

Focus on your mistakes

Many players when looking over their games will focus on their brilliant moves and their wins. However, if you truly want to get better at chess, you have to be willing to endure the temporary pain of looking at your mistakes. Try to discover why you made a particular error. Here are some common causes at the beginner level:

  • Didn't look ahead to see what opponent's move might be
  • No plan - just attacking or just defending
  • Lack of concentration (just moved without thinking)
  • Lack of knowledge (never seen a position before)

As you play many games (and of course make many errors), you may see trends which will be prescriptive. This is particularly true at higher levels, but the earlier you can catch these common errors, the more you can prevent them from becoming habits.

Hardcover Chess Scorebook - Radiant Blue
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Jun 27, 2016)
This is the specific scorebook I use. Very attractive and durable.

Step 3: Read chess books for your level

Reading chess books is one of the most beneficial things you can do as a beginning player (or any player of any rank) to improve. However, it is important to read the right books at the right time. A book written by a grandmaster covering an obscure line in a complex opening would be a waste of time.

Here is a list of the types of books you want to start with and a couple specific recommendations (to which you can find links at the bottom of the page).

  • A general book on chess. One that covers a lot of areas that is fun to read. I am happy to recommend Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan's Play Winning Chess. Yasser writes in a fun, easy-to-follow style and has a gift for explaining chess to beginning and intermediate players.
  • Books on tactics. Tactics are common patterns of attack found in chess. The study and mastery of tactics at the beginning and intermediate levels is one of the best things you can do to get better. My first book on tactics and the best one I think is Seirawan's Winning Chess Tactics. This book describes the tactics well. Once you've mastered it's contents, you can move on to books devoted to tactical puzzles. One good one I used early on was Fred Wilson's 303 Tricky Chess Tactics.
  • A general book on chess strategy. Where tactics are the short-term opportunities afforded by mistakes by your opponent, strategy is the long-term plans for your game. The best beginning book on this is International Master Jeremy Silman's The Amateur's Mind. Actually, this book is good for beginners and for more advanced players as well.
  • A general book on the opening. Over the centuries, chess players have developed specific opening lines that have been refined and improved upon by generations of players. Learning the general principles and some of the basic names of openings - e.g. Sicilian Defense, Ruy Lopez - along with the basic strategies behind them will guide you when you start to develop your own opening repertoire. Note: I caution you not to try to develop an opening repertoire too early, as you want to try many different openings and begin to develop preferences in style - e.g. attacking openings vs. solid openings. My first opening book and one I still enjoy reading is Yasser Seirawan's Winning Chess Openings. It starts with general principles and works its way through some of the most common openings in chess.

There are other areas to study as well, such as endgames, and specific opening variations, but these are best left in my opinion until you have a lot of games under your belt and know the basics of strategy and tactics.

Play Winning Chess (Everyman Chess)
Amazon Price: $26.95 $11.00 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 27, 2016)
Winning Chess Tactics (Winning Chess - Everyman Chess)
Amazon Price: $26.95 $14.47 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 27, 2016)
Simply the best instruction on the basic tactics.
The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions Into Chess Mastery
Amazon Price: $19.95 $11.00 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 27, 2016)
Winning Chess Openings (Winning Chess - Everyman Chess)
Amazon Price: $28.95 $14.97 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 27, 2016)

Next Steps

Once you've played many games, recorded and studied them, and read the books I've recommended, I believe you'll find yourself a much better player than before. At this point, you may even consider yourself an intermediate player. If you want to keep improving, I can of course recommend more of the same as I did here, although the type of work you will do at each step will be more specific to your needs and you may want to invest in some computer software as well as find a good place on the internet for more competition...but I'll have to cover the details of that in another article.

Good luck in your chess journey!

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Comments

Jun 21, 2013 7:47am
vicdillinger
Actually, your advice is very sound, particularly the part about playing--a lot--when first starting. This is a pretty good first effort, and it was also informative. A thumb's up.
Jun 21, 2013 8:20am
ActionManBryan
Thank you for your feedback! I respect your writing and your opinion.
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