Advice on improving your game

You have assessed your talent and your ego is still intact. Three out of twenty on the multiple choice is not that bad, really... what’s next?

Parents of promising, young juniors and aspiring club players often ask how one should work on chess. While I hope the earlier chapters have not destroyed your confidence in your own ability, anybody reading this book is likely to want to make the most of their ability, whatever its level, and in this final chapter I want to offer some general tips on improving your game. They will be pitched at the audience of serious club players.

It may be best to get individual advice from a teacher rather than accepting such general advice. Each individual has his or her own weaknesses and strengths and it is particularly important to work on your weaknesses (in that your game is as weak as the weakest link in the chain). Be that as it may, you may find such general advice useful. If not, you can always copy Oscar Wilde: ‘I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never any use to oneself.’

‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you sure as hell ain’t going to get there’, is another old saying with some truth in it. Just as it is bad to drift without a plan when handling a particular game position, so it is bad to drift without some ‘strategic’ overview of how you are going to improve your game (assuming that is your objective). Why are you going to be stronger in six months time than you are now? Where will you play during that time, what work will you be doing on your game? If you do not have answers ready to questions like these, then it may help to bring the process under more conscious control.


It is important to have a plan of improvement. This plan should be balanced in several ways. Firstly there is the question of a balance between playing and studying. This balance can be very different for different people, but you should ask yourself which side of the balance point you think you are on. If you are not playing enough, play more! If all your time on chess is spent playing, try studying more. Secondly, there should be a balance between work on chess in general (picking up new ideas from external sources) and work on your own games (self-analysis of the way you are thinking). Most players improve the most when they go through an intensely self-critical stage where they analyse their own games in detail and genuinely care about every error they make. Try writing notes to your own games, complete with comments about what you saw and what you didn’t, if you do not already do so. Thirdly, within the field of general study, there should be a balance between work on the various aspects of chess. Back in the days when I was working on my game in a purposeful manner, I used to break things up something like this:


The easiest way to work on openings is directly after you have played a competitive game. See how much of it was theory; find out how to avoid any difficulties you might have got into. What would have happened if your opponent had played that annoying move which was worrying you at the board? Your next opponent might. Human memory cannot be relied upon and you will need some system for information retrieval. A computer can be used for this as well as for its analytical abilities. I recommend keeping an A4 file as well. This is far superior to an exercise book because of the added flexibility. Make clear, precise notes to help you remember the ideas you need to know.

Strong club players and above should not be without ‘E.C.O.’, and also specialist books on the openings that are central to their repertoire. Spend the money - it will save you time. Anybody wanting to compete internationally will be at a disadvantage without a computer database. Chessbase for windows is a good one.


Working on endgames need not be the drudgery many imagine it to be. The theory involves many surprisingly beautiful ideas (and studies), and once you get into it you will probably enjoy it. Endgames do not come up that often in practical play, but studying them, as pointed out earlier in the book, has several indirect benefits. Many players improve a great deal when they study the ending. I suspect that this is due to the fact that they are especially well motivated at the time (sufficiently to study endgames), rather than due to the specific technical knowledge gained. If you are serious about improving your chess, you should have no difficulty working on the endgame. The best way is to read a book. Keres’ Practical Chess Endgames (Batsford) can be recommended; it was written with care and love by a leading player and is well worth the effort even if it is a bit humourless. If you just want to have a laugh, try reading Kingpin instead.

Working on endgame studies is probably better for your tactics and calculation than actual endgame play. I recommend Endgame Magic by Beasley and Whitworth (Batsford) as a superb introduction to the joys of studies.


Your results may well be more responsive to this type of work than any other. Tactics decide games most of the time. Work on ‘White (or Black) to play and win’ combinations in papers, magazines and the like. There are books with hundreds, even thousands, of such positions. Try working systematically through such a book, doing a dozen positions every day. In a few months you will be a tactical wizard.

Working on problems and studies is another enjoyable and effective way to sharpen your tactical eye. Going over your own games with a computer should help you find tactical opportunities you are missing, and is another excellent way of improving this aspect of your game.


Playing over games is the best way of picking up patterns and improving your general play of the middlegame. Pick a (strong) player who has a style you like and go through a selection of annotated games. Studying the games of a Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer or Kasparov is bound to improve your play! You will develop a better instinct for typical moves in typical positions...Books are the traditional method, but going through games on a computer screen may also be profitable.

I suggest writing down your plans for improving your game on a piece of paper. Break it into the four categories listed above. Is there a good balance? Work especially on whatever you think might be a weakness.


Make use of all the possible methods: computers, videos, audio tapes, books. Do not forget that a good openings file based on pen and paper technology can also make a real difference to your opening play, as suggested earlier. If you find it difficult to concentrate on books, you may find that videos are easy to watch and learn from. There is much more information in a book, but the video may help get you going.

Remember thou art but human. You cannot expect to learn masses of variations, database fashion. Be effective in the way you work. Know your limitations. This sounds obvious but is not well applied. For example, tests have shown that one hour lectures are not well matched with the brain’s capacity to learn. Concentration wanes after about twenty minutes. Still, university education is based on this empirically unsound method. So much attention is placed on the subject matter, that the nature of the human learning process is forgotten. It is as though the information exists in some abstract sense and the human brain does not. Don’t make the same mistake - use methods that work for you.


Chess players are generally quite mean with money. Be prepared to invest in your future as a player! If a book is useful, get it if you can. If you are actually going to read it, then the money should not be a consideration unless you are on the poverty line. A 200 page book costing £15 will take at least 20 hours to read (I do not believe it is possible to read chess material properly more quickly than this). That is less than a pound an hour! Computers are a more serious investment. Think about how much time you spend on chess, how important it is to you. If you are serious about improving your game, it is likely to be worthwhile. The computer will also prove useful in other ways, if it is not a specialist chess computer.You may well win back your investments in prize-money. Besides, spending the money will give you an extra motivation - you will have to justify it! Given that good form depends on motivation, this is not to be sniffed at.


‘Study the masters, not their pupils’ (Abel).

A number of classic books can be whole-heartedly recommended:

Lasker’s Manual of Chess, by Emanuel Lasker (Dover); an interesting read on many levels, which will give all readers a deeper understanding of chess.

Think Like a Grandmaster, by Alexander Kotov (Batsford); a well written instructional book which will convey a number of insights. In my view, you should be at least 1600 strength to benefit fully from it.

My System, by Aron Nimzovich (Bell); Nimzovich’s well crafted book explains his chess philosophy (some of it rather idiosyncratic) elegantly. In my view, you should be at least 1800 strength to benefit fully from it.

My 60 Memorable Games, by Bobby Fischer (Faber); a really outstanding collection of annotated games. Suitable for all players. The same can be said of works by Alekhine, Reti, Capablanca, Nunn and Kasparov.

Simple Chess, by Michael Stean (Faber); a clearly written instructional book which will help players think more clearly about a range of positions. Suitable for all players below 2300 strength.

Secrets Of Chess Tactics, Secrets Of Chess Training, Positional Play, Technique for the Tournament Player, by Mark Dvoretsky and, in some cases, Artur Yusupov too (Batsford); an excellent series of training books very suitable for all players rated above 2000. Heavy, but solid and accurate material with a number of Russian insights thrown in.

The Informator series is a good source for up-to-date theory and is suitable for players above 1800. Concentrate on games in your specialist openings and annotations by the likes of Kasparov, Shirov and Ivanchuk if, like most people, you cannot cope with the whole thing.

Openings books vary enormously in quality. Nunn, Gallagher, Burgess, Chandler and Wells can all be relied upon for their conscientiousness as authors. Others too no doubt, I cannot claim to have read that many. Some people seem to enjoy actually reading openings books, but if you want to treat them primarily as reference works - fair enough. You should get the books covering the openings you play, whatever your level but especially if you are above 2000 strength. Weaker players may choose to make do with something like BCO2 by Keene and Kasparov (Batsford), but one day they will want/need more detail.

I tend to recommend the Comprehensive Chess Course by Pelts and Alburt (available through Batsford) to young juniors and beginners. It is an excellently put-together course. Chris Ward’s Opening Play - the Batsford book, that is, rather than the moves he makes - can be recommended to players below 1600 wanting a general guide to opening principles. Some of the move he makes can also be recommended. Naturally, I also endorse my own book, Secrets of Spectacular Chess, (co-authored with David Friedgood - again published by Batsford) to as many people as I can. Other people seem to like it too...

Over the years hundreds of people have asked me what books they should buy. The above is offered in the spirit of helpful advice rather than in the spirit of advertising. My apologies to the authors of many a good tome not represented.


Is it worth paying for one to one chess tuition? It can be, though you might wish to consider the following points:

1) Having somebody go through detailed technical stuff with you can be inefficient and expensive. Some things are easier learned from books. I was reading a politics newsgroup on the internet recently (uk.politics.misc) and a certain Sam Saunders (talking about general education rather than chess) expressed it very succinctly: ‘The influence of teachers has nearly all been indirect, and in the best instances they have been, not "deliverers of knowledge", but "managers of the learning process".’ Quite so. General guidance, looking over your games and the like, can be very useful. It can help identify problems and stylistic weaknesses, thus saving time. Things which can be done on your own should be done on your own. If you are not motivated to work on your own, seeing a teacher probably wont help.

2) It is important not to become dependent on your teacher. It is essential to be able to think for yourself in chess, to analyse independently and form your own opinions. There is a danger of developing a lazy mentality if the teacher always explains everything and makes things too easy. A good teacher will be aware of this danger, and will not spoon-feed the pupil.

3) Pick your teacher carefully. Other things being equal, the stronger the player, the better. However, other things are not always equal. Look for a teacher with a sound teaching technique, by which I mean somebody who has the patience and motivation to care about the way you think. If you are making a persistent mistake, the teacher should work backwards until the source of the error is located, correct it, and then work outwards again. A good teacher should give you both negative and positive feedback as well as, especially in chess, telling you how he or she perceives the position. ‘Perception training’ can be a very effective method of teaching chess. A good teacher should also ask you plenty of questions.

Naturally, a good teacher has to be totally perfect...

To finish with another Oscar Wilde quote, ‘None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.’ Methinks he means draughts of the windy type rather than checkers. No self-declared genius would prefer draughts to chess, surely?

Extract from Genius in Chess (J. Levitt, 128 pages, Batsford, 1997, £12.99 ISBN 0 7134 8049 1)
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