Chess self-improvement plan

Having ADHD and being something of a dilettante, I find it difficult to stick to any plan, and even when I’m do follow a plan, I find it difficult to focus on it. So I need a very clear and explicit plan of self-improvement; a recipe, almost.

I find my enthusiasms come in waves, but I do return to the same ones from time to time, and my current enthusiasm is once again chess. I don’t want to end up as one of those older players who never improve. The question then is how best to improve. What is the best plan for me for self-improvement? I should say as a professor of cognitive psychology I know a lot about skill acquisition and how best to learn.

There are of course a huge number of books to help you improve at chess, and many that claim to help you study by yourself. The number that actually do so though is relatively small. Most books instead turn out to be annotated games or collections of problems.

Michael de La Maza. (2002). Rapid chess improvement. London: Everyman Chess. Perhaps the most famous of the “self-improvement” books, with a practical system for improving - but really only at tactics (important as they are). The idea of distributed repeated practice is scientifically very sound, and I think there has to be a place for this kind of technique in any serious plan.

Axel Smith & Hans Tikkanen. (2018). The woodpecker method. Glasgow: Quality Chess. Really an updated version of Michael de La Maza’s classic, with the problems supplied.

Rolf Wetzell. (1994). Chess master … at any age. Davenport, IA: Thinkers Press. A neglected gem, full of practical tips, including on move selection, with an emphasis on pattern recognition. Wetzell recommends a system of building up images of critical positions where we have gone wrong (keeping them on index cards - well it is now quite an old book), looking for commonalities, and reviewing them from time to time. Again repeated, distributed practice, with an emphasis on pattern recognition, which is critical in chess.

Davorin Kuljasevic. (2021). How to study chess on your own. Alkmaar: New in Chess. One of the most famous of recent books, there’s a lot in here - perhaps too much. Like many similar books the improvement plan is rather swamped by annotated games and problems. There are nevertheless many interesting points. There is now also a Workbook available.

Dan Heisman (2001 on). Novice Nook articles in Chess Café. The best summary there is of a thinking method with a great deal of advice on how to improve. The approach is summarised in Dan Heisman’s (2010) book A guide to chess improvement. (London: Everyman Chess). However, all Dan’s books are unusually practical (and aimed at the right level for me).

I’m not criticising these or other books; simply, most of them are not what I want. Please let me know if I have missed any candidates.

Getting better at chess involves many well-documented factors.

     1.Tactics. Probably the most important. Distributed repeated practice so that the recognition of tactical themes and how to calculate variations must be at the core of any self-improvement programme, so I will do at least 20 tactical problems a day, and never turn down a chance to solve a problem. I’ve already noticed a big improvement in my ability to solve problems (e.g. in Chess magazine). I have built up a .pgn database of hundreds of problems I couldn’t solve pretty instantly. ACTION: Solve at least 20 tactics puzzles a day.

     2. Playing. Let’s not forget that! At the moment, I only play slow, no blitz, which might be a mistake. Recently I have also just averaged one game every week or two. I plan to play at least two slow games a week, and start playing some 5 5 blitz. ACTION: Play two slow games a week, and consider playing some blitz games.

     3. Calculation ability. Related to tactics, calculation ability is the skill needed to “see into the future” in chess. It’s necessary for solving tactical problems but also for simply working out a principal variation. It’s a weakness of mine and I need to build it up, but I am less sure about how to do this. ACTION: Read books on calculation in chess and work on tactical problem solving with some more difficult problems.

     4. Openings. Learning openings is usually derided by experts, but I lose games because of lack of opening knowledge. The Everyman “Move by move” series, run on their e-viewer, is particularly useful. If I know the opening of my next opponent I will research it, and in any case I will check my moves carefully afterwards, and annotate my games. I will look out in particular for tactical traps in the opening. I will build a database of key games. It is of course useless to “collect” games without doing anything with them, so I plan to play through from time to time. ACTION: Where possible, prepare openings of games likely to be played by my opponents. ACTION: Build up and review a database of critical games for my openings. ACTION: Explore the “tabiyas” of my preferred openings.

     5. Middlegame positional play. This skill comes from reading annotated games and books on the middlegame. I am particularly weak at the opening-to-middlegame transition. I’m not sure where I should start here. the Silman books? ACTION: Read books. A bit weak I know.

     6. Endgames. To be honest few of my games get this far, but it is important to know the basics. I have several books on the endgame, many of them really too advanced for me. I have yet to decide which one is best and which to start with. ACTION: Work out what the best endgame books are for my level, and study them.

     7. Knowledge of GM games by playing through them. Playing through annotated collections; again the Everyman e-viewer “Move by move” series is very useful, and the Gambit e-viewer also. There is a good new collection in the Gambit app of instructive modern games. ACTION: Play through at least one GM game a day.

     8. Analyse and annotate my games after playing. Kuljasevic is good on the importance of the play-learn feedback loop. I need particularly to be clear about why I lost (if I did), or didn’t win, and what I would do differently next time. I need to review these annotated games from time to time. ACTION: Annotate my games thoroughly.

     9. Listing reasons why I lose, and the mistakes I make, and looking for themes. For example, I often can’t see how the board changes in the future after my move, particularly missing that the opponent will now be able to check. ACTION: Review my games periodically with a view to drawing out commonalities of things I’ve done wrong.

     10. Having a move plan for every move. This means playing "real chess", as Dan Heisman calls it: forcing a MSM (move selection method) on myself and playing it every move. That is every move. The number of games I have lost by playing well except for one move. I need to have a PV (principal variation) for every move. I have always been struck by the idea that my opponent’s move should never be a surprise. I need to ask: why did my opponent do that? after every move. And ask: what are ALL the things that move changes? I need to check all checks, captures, and threats for me and my opponent on every move. I need to employ a blunder check. A late note: Having the right thinking process before each move is perhaps the single most important thing a player cna do - as long as they actually follow that process! ACTION: I have a thought process - the problem is working out how to make sure i implement it every move.

     11. Conquering chess stress. I get surprisingly stressed and anxious before a game and while playing. It is worse for team games because I don’t want to let the side down. I don’t yet have an answer to this problem. And of course a little bit of tension is good. We psychologists talk about the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which says that there is an inverted-U shape relationship between arousal and performance. There is a sweet spot for each of us where our playing is best given a particular level of stress and arousal. The hard bit is hitting that individual sweet spot. I have also noticed that it is important to be settled well before each game starts, with soft music on, and Beau the poodle settled. ACTION: not sure other than try to remember I should try my best and other than that it’s only a game, and also to be comfortable and ready to begin at least a couple of minutes before the game is scheduled to start.

     12. Time management. I never get into real time trouble, so when I lose, or don’t play perfectly, I must be playing too fast. ACTION: Somehow slow down even more.

     13. Not taking draws. I perhaps tend to offer and accept draws a bit too easily - but not much. When I’m tired, or when I’m doing better than expected in an important game. ACTION: be even more wary of when I offer and accept draws. (Actually on reviewing I offer draws extremely rarely.)

I’ve been following a less explicit version of this regime for the last month, and my rating has gone up from 1680 to 1760.

The main obstacle to following this plan is likely to be lack of time. How much time to dedicate to chess each day? At least half an hour on improvement seems reasonable. I have other things I need and want to do. Life is short. It is unrealistic for me to do all of this plan every day, so I am aiming for tactics practice every day (1), followed by one to three of the rest, in sequence, in rotation.

I am sceptical whether I would benefit from chess lessons just now. I know my biggest problem: myself. I can play very well for 99% of the game but then rush one move, neglecting to check for checks, captures, and threats, and then everything is thrown away. I know I need to slow down a bit and check on every move, but sometimes I just get carried away with it.

I repeat that prone to enthusiasms, and it is possible - likely perhaps - that in a while it will fade, although for chess it has always returned.

I am also often struck by how chess is a microcosm of life. I find the weaknesses in my play (a tendency to rush, being distractible, making careless mistakes, being something of a dilettante in my practice, and being a bit lazy) simply reflect the way I am in “real life”. Psychology is important in chess.

Here is a link to a recent loss of mine. Well done to my opponent, who played very well, but the game illustrates many of my failings.

May 2023 update. I've been following my plan, "sort of" at least, for about two months now. I know there is more to life than ratings, but it is a measure of progress, and my Lichess standard rating has gone up from 1696 to 1764. I think what has most made a difference is the regular practice at solving real game tactical puzzles. My bigest problem is still the tendency to forget to apply my thought process every move. I do it most of the time, but it only takes one occasion to lose a game and lose the benefits of all that hard work. Slow down. Easier said than done.

End of June update. My main difficulty is one of sticking to any sort of plan, or getting any sort of "homework" done. I am just so distractible (a feature of ADHD). So I haven't been following my plan at all. Much easier to tidy up a database than actually do some puzzles or play through an annotated game. Anyway, a poor month, with my rating slipping down to 1732.

July. I realise I have a particular problem with (a) finding the best move when there are no tactics - what are the best squares for my pieces? It's all very well to say "improve your worse piece" - but how? (b) tactically and calculation wise I have a problem with "quiescence"; I can't spot it very well, particularly seeing it when it isn't there, so I stop calculating too early.

Putting a lot of work in, on 30 July I reach my highest ever Lichess rating, 1797.

August. I at last break the 1800 barrier. I know we shouldn't put too much store by ratings, but it was an aim, and I feel good. Tactics, tactics, tactics ... endgames and openings ... and tactics.