Waldemar, how do I study chess? People often ask me that question. And it’s a useful question of course. How does one improve his chess? How does one go about it? In this article I shall discuss some of the most common and accepted ways to improve one’s chess based on my own experiences and those of chess professionals.
The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule means that in virtually any system roughly 80% of the output is generated by 20% of the input. Or as Wikipedia puts it:
…The assumption is that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes.
Now, don’t take the numbers to literal, they are indicative even though Vilfredo Pareto – the discoverer of the rule – conducted many experiments with the results pointing in the 80/20 direction. For you it means that the bulk of what is useful to you is generated by only a small part of the effort you put in. The same applies to chess. In chess there are methods to study the game that are much more beneficiary to you than others. The trick is to find out which ones are the best and focus on them since they leverage the most progression, while reducing the others. In general one can say that studying chess actively is better than studying chess passively. What do I mean by that? What is active studying as opposed to passive studying?
Studying chess actively means:
- you create a serious study environment
- in which you find ways to really use your brain
- that are beyond your comfort zone
Examples of active chess studying are:
- Solving tactics puzzles from computer programs, magazine or book diagrams or from the board by means of visualization, so without moving the pieces, writing down the variations, checking them later with the solutions and keeping track of your progression
- Studying a difficult tactical or strategical chess position on the board by means of visualization, so without moving the pieces, writing down the variations and conclusions and checking them by now moving the pieces and comparing what you see to what your mind’s eye saw as reflected in your notes. As a variation you might use a chess clock and add a time constraint, for instance 15 minutes.
- Playing through a grandmaster game and constantly trying to visualize the given sidelines besides constantly asking questions such as: What is threatened with this move? Why does he play that? Why does he not play this? Etc.
- Doing the same as in 3) with your own games, preferably the ones you lost(!)
- For 3) and 4) making notes of your findings and filing your analysis. These activities are neuro-linguistic and help to imprint what you have learnt in the brain
The benefits of these methods are that you step out of your comfort zone, stomp your brain and improve your chess skills, which is very important. More about that later on. Important note: where relevant, make sure you choose positions and exercises that are beyond your comfort zone.
Examples of passive chess study are:
- Watching chess (technical) videos
- Just playing through (grandmaster) games while moving the pieces
- Checking games or positions with the help of engines and not forming your own opinions about them
An example of an-in-between chess study activity could be the memorization of opening variations without trying to understand the moves. Of course learning variations by heart is active, but not trying to understand them is passive. Trying to understand moves at the same time helps to memorize them also, since each move can then be associated with more information which is to the liking of the brain. Now ask yourself: How do I study chess? Do I use the active or the passive methods, or a mix of them?
Going back to the 80/20 rule you may find that you spent a considerable amount of time on passive methods. My advice would be to move away from them and focus on active ways of chess study. You will find that they bear the most fruits.
Prefer Training Over Studying
Since we are talking of studying it is also good to change your frame of mind about that. Chess improvement has to do with training rather than studying. Studying has a “bookish” ring to it and is therefore insufficiently focused on the enhancement of your chess skills. Of course knowledge is important when you want to improve your chess, but if you are really serious about getting stronger you will need better skills, since they are the game deciders in the majority of cases. How do you think a pianist stays in shape? Not by reading books on music but by practicing his scales of course. And how do you think a tennis pro prepares for a tournament? Not by reading sports columns, but by practicing his service and volley! The same applies to chess. We have to see the brain as a muscle and keep it in shape… by means of training! Studying chess actively has the benefits of training your brain and improving such skills as:
- Decision making
- Being critical
The 80/20 rule is all about focus really. Finding out what works best and doing more of that. As Seneca put it:
“It is better to have read one book, than to have a hundred on your bookshelf”.
Let’s apply this to you opening repertoire. The advice here is to focus on a narrow opening repertoire, one that you study closely and deeply (yes, in this case studying is more appropriate), and one that gives you the best chances of gathering valuable experiences, both in quality and quantity, since you keep playing it faithfully!
Not Sometimes And Long But Regular And Short
Try and train on a regular basis. Depending on your time resources, try to spent 30-60 minutes per day for instance. Of course if you can spent more, that’s even better. But the idea here is to do it regularly and not too long, because that’s the way to develop a habit. And as we all know, habits are sticky! Research has shown that if you do something daily during a period of 30 days, you will develop a habit. If you train only once per week for 4 hours or so, you will not help your brain to develop new chess habits (skills), besides your brain has short attention spans and will tire after such a long period of time.
To Round Up
Of course a lot more can be said about how to study and improve your chess. I will discuss more specific subjects such as:
- How to build an opening repertoire
- How to find and address your technical and psychological weaknesses
- How to analyze games
- How to calculate
- Which books to read
I will also address many of these subjects in my Chess Improvement Newsletter. I recommend you join and get a free copy of my whitepaper “How to Deal with Mistakes in Chess”, an interesting psychological essay on the meaning of mistakes in chess. You will find the subscription form just below the top right corner of this web page.
I am interested to hear how you are studying chess and what ideas you have about it. What works for you, what not, and why? Feel free to leave a comment on your thought, ideas or experiences!