How To Study Chess

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:

  • Visualization
  • Position-sleuthing
  • Position-breakdown
  • Planning
  • Calculation
  • Decision making
  • Being critical

Focus

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
  • Etc.

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!

Enjoy improving!

Waldemar,
optimizing

8 Comments

  1. SonofPearl August 16, 2008

    Great article, Waldemar. The distinction between studying and training is interesting – I’ve heard similar comments before – but I’m not sure what the best way would be to ‘train’ chess skills.

    What is the chess equivalent of a tennis player practising serve after serve?

  2. Waldemar August 16, 2008

    Hi SonofPearl,

    Thanks for the comment!
    About the equivalent: I suppose it is difficult to find a good equivalent, because that also depends on the fact if someone is trying to return the ball. If no one is, then it looks like training a certain kind of tactic such as “Find the Skewer!”, but if someone is, then it more resembles practizing your openings. You can do that by playing some blitz games online trying out a (new) opening and then analyzing the results.
    Would you agree?

  3. SonofPearl August 16, 2008

    I guess that it’s possible to take any analogy too far, but that sounds reasonable to me! I think that I tend to be a bit ‘bookish’ because I’m quite academic and enjoy reading, but find it difficult to translate knowledge into usable skills during a game.

    I suppose I need to play more games in a real competitive environment and ‘study’ less.

  4. Waldemar August 16, 2008

    Hi SonofPearl,

    Which reminds me, have you taken up playing at a local chess club?

    Greetings,
    Waldemar

  5. SonofPearl August 17, 2008

    Alas, no. I’m finding it difficult to take that step after so long away from the OTB game. I think if I am going to improve significantly I will probably need to bit the bullet and join up eventually.

  6. Jose Hernandez July 5, 2009

    Well I now understand why after years of chess why I only get disillusions!!!
    I was so focused in study and pleasure, 99% in it and only 1% in training
    But actually I am moving forward Training and hoping is not to late for me (50 years old)
    By the way have you noticed how seductive are the opposite “the easy way” “winning with..” “The Hippo” “win in 20 moves or lest” etc “ in short. find some cheap trick and you win ever
    My plan is this. 2 hours at day. In the morning .30 of tactical puzzles + .30 endgames puzzles. In the Night, one game related with my repertoire. in solitaire mode 1 hour. Of course. out of my comfort zone!!!
    and stick with only 3 openings

    Good chess for everyone

  7. Leonard January 15, 2010

    Hello.
    I just wanted to post what I do and see if it helps anyone else.

    I’m 15. My rating is not too high, but I’m not worried about that. I am trying to learn more rather than win. I only practice 1 train/study 1 hour a day because there are many other things I do.

    I divide that hour into 4 stages.

    13 Minutes= Tactics
    For tactics I am studying “Winning Chess” by Irving Chernev and Fred Reifield. I study it in this fashion:

    1. I recreate the position on the board shown in the diagram.
    2. I follow along what Chernev says and try to understand the concept.
    3. I memorize the position of all the pieces.
    4. I take all pieces of the board off.
    5. I visualize all the pieces where they should be.
    6. I recreate the position from memory
    7. I state the concept without the book.

    Note: As I recreate the position from memory I say out loud what piece and what square I’m putting it on. Since “Winning Chess” was written using descriptive notation I use descriptive notation instead of algebraic.
    Also before I begin each new session I review what concept and position I memorized last time.

    13 Minutes= Endgame Study
    I found out that studying the endgame is very important so I am focusing on this more than on openings. I use Jeremy Silman’s “Complete Endgame Course”.

    1. I set the pieces shown in diagram on the board.
    2. I try to understand the concept he says while moving my pieces.
    3. After I have studied it I try to recreate a different position that could hold the same principles.

    12 Minutes= Actual games
    I study actual games. For this right now I am using the illustrative games in the back of “Winning Chess”, but I have used others in the past.

    1. I try to understand why the person would move his piece, and If I can’t I just go on.
    That is pretty much all I do with the games.

    Note: Trying to understand why he moved the piece involves trying to find the underlying concept.

    12 Minutes= Blindfold training/visualization
    During this time I take all the pieces away and merely “visualize”.

    1. I just started this: I concentrate on memorizing specific groups of squares. I memorized a1, a2, b1, b2. Then I try to picture that group in my mind. The next week I pictured the other corner: g1, g2, h1, h2. Right now I can picture only those groups without a board.

    2. I picture (with a board) the different pieces moving. I picture some of the moves the d pawn could make (not all of the moves). Then I picture the moves that the king could make, until I have done that with one of each piece (one pawn, one knight…). I plan to begin picturing 2 pieces at the same time and then progressively move upward.

    3. I re-read the tactics book and try to picture the board and pieces in my mind.

    Generally: I play chess with my dad once in a while. We take turns deciding who gets which pieces. Every other week we switch pieces (one week he will play black all the days in that week, next week he will have to play white). This has to do with the above in that:

    1. If it is my turn to play white all my studies around white:

    a. In tactics the diagrams I do will be from white’s point of view.
    b. In endgame they will be the winning pieces on the board.
    c. In games they will be on the bottom.
    d. In visualization all the pieces are visualized as white, and they are visualized in the bottom.

    2. If it is my turn to play black my studies center around black.

    a. Most diagrams (all diagrams I have seen) seem to have white on the bottom. So I “invert” the pieces. I try to recreate the equivalent of the position from black’s point of view. This means that the pieces will change squares, the king will probably be on the opposite side, etc.
    b. So in tactics: I recreate position from black’s point of view.
    c. In endgame the winning pieces are black and the squares have to be the “equivalent” of where the white pieces were.
    c. In games black plays the bottom.
    d. In visualization the pieces visualized are black, and he takes the bottom of the board.

    Also I play one correspondence chess game at a time (usually with 3 days move limit). I take some time each day to ask myself what is the correct move and on the final day I make my move.

    I used to play live chess but then I decided I should probably spend my time more profitably this way (especially after some of the blunders I made). I think I will now limit myself to one live chess game of 1 hour every week.

    That is all. If in anyway you see I could progress or learn differently please tell me. If it helped you. Awesome. If not. Patience huh?

  8. Tom August 30, 2011

    If you want to know how to go about studying chess, then check out Andrew Soltis’s latest and best book “Studying Chess Made Easy”. It is the first book I have seen that tells you what really works, and what does not. What is more it is good to see (yet another) grandmaster acknowledging the tremendous damage that the tosh peddled in Kotov’s famous “Think Like a Grandmaster” did to the development of many aspiring players.

    It does not really make studying “easy” [that is an idle boast for the sake of a snappy title] but it does make it effective.

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