By FM Dusan Stojic
In the previous article, I looked at the various paths young chess players may take, and the typical hurdles they must overcome, on their way of climbing through the ranks. This fortnight I’ll explore the paths to improvement for adults, as well as for the juniors that outgrow the competition I discussed in the last article.
Too Late for Baby Steps?
Before I even enter the discussion of how to improve, let me first try to briefly cast aside the persistent myth that stops some adults for taking up chess: that if you don’t learn chess at an early age (say, before 10 years of age), you don’t have a chance of becoming a master, and therefore there is no point in starting to play chess.
It is probably true that if you do a survey of the top grandmasters in the world, most of them have started chess quite early (my guess may be 7-8 years as average). However, there are many examples of late bloomers. I know a few top Australian players that first learned the rules well into their teenage years. Wilhelm Steinitz first learned the rules aged 12, and became the first World Champion when he was 50, a title he held until he was 58.
If you are well into your adulthood and are contemplating devoting yourself to chess more seriously, take heart. Cognitively, there are many advantages to being mature. While youngsters have the energy and speed of calculation on their side, you have the patience, cunning and forethought. In terms of learning new material, some concepts in chess are digested quicker by older students of the game.
In any case, just like taking up other interests (be it music, painting or reading philosophy), learning chess is worth it for its own sake, even if ultimately you don’t become a chess master. Start with smaller goals, and if you succeed with these you can afford to become more ambitious.
Where to Start
These days, learning chess independently has become arguably more accessible due to the huge amount of online material available. Rules and basic strategy can be quickly overcome with help from Professor Google. But once you know the basics, the challenge for many adults is being able to discern quality among the plethora of resources.
A decent starting spot is finding a good Youtube series, or reading up some basics for beginners. Having a friend that can teach you some basic strategy or to practice against could be invaluable.
For many adults that take up chess, their first taste of competition is against people on the many chess servers that are out there. I would recommend chess.com or chess24. These sites are perhaps the most popular, and they integrate videos, tactics trainers and other resources.
One of the benefits of playing chess online is that each server has its rating system that can give you an indication of your improvement. These rating systems are essentially variations of what’s known as the Elo rating system, which is also used by FIDE (the world chess federation) and the Australian Chess Federation.
Without going into too much detail, what all chess rating systems have in common (whether it’s FIDE, ACF, chess.com, chess24, LiChess, Internet Chess Club etc) is that they use game results to rank players on a scale. Beginners that know basic strategy and have only been playing for a few months would typically have a rating of 400-800. Players that are rated 800-1200 have a good grasp of the fundamentals and are ready to play in over-the-board tournaments. Seasoned club-level players are usually rated 1200-1600. 1600-2000 rated players can hold their own against most State-level players. Players rated more than 2000 are called Experts, and higher still are the Masters. The highest FIDE rating of all time is 2882, achieved by Magnus Carlsen, the current World Champion.
A good chess book has perhaps become the old-fashioned way to learn (compared to all the online resources and apps) and books are often neglected by today’s players. But chess literature has developed over the centuries, and the pages contain a wealth of knowledge passed onto us by the masters. The two books I recommend most often to beginners and intermediate-level players are My System by Aron Nimzowitsch (a chess classic) and How to Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman.
Reading chess books is a challenge in itself, as one has to learn to read chess notation. But this will pay off in the long run, as this will allow you to read more advanced material as you progress. The only caveat with chess books is that there is huge variation in difficulty, and if you buy an advanced book it may end up collecting dust until your game is strong enough to tackle it.
So you’ve spent a few months in quiet training, either with friends, with books or online. Now you’re wondering about clubs or tournaments you can play. Chess Association of Queensland is the governing body of chess for the state, and you can find a list of affiliated clubs on its website. Gardiner Chess organises many tournaments throughout the year.
Playing over-the-board for the first time may seem daunting, but tournament chess is an exciting thing to get into once you step past that hurdle. When you play tournaments, you do more than compete against other players: you join a community of people that share a passion.
A Rough Journey Ahead
Getting good at chess is not easy. For most people, it takes years of dedicated training and regular competition before substantial results start to show. As I explained at the beginning of the article, I do believe that you can become a chess master even if you only start playing chess in adulthood. But I also believe that regardless of how clever you may be, no one can get good at chess without hard work.
The initial progression (let’s say, up to about 1200 rating) is mostly learning the fundamentals of the game: basic checkmate patterns, the strengths and weaknesses of each pieces, basic tactics and opening principles. The next step is to play chess at competitions regularly, keep building your knowledge of the principles, and practice lots of tactics. This should get you to about 1400 in rating.
With each leap you make, it gets harder. The amount of work for each level you pass keeps increasing. But for most players, the enjoyment they receive from chess also increases, and gradually the beautiful game sucks them in.
Honing Your Skills
Players that get to about 1500-1600 are about halfway to being master players. By this stage, they would have played in competitions for several years and have had to invest a considerable amount of work along the way. At tournaments, you would be strong enough to beat most club players, but you still haven’t beaten a titled player, despite several failed attempts. So what does it takes to beat these guys?
In my experience, I find that that most club level players understand the basic principles taught in books, and are able to comprehend games by strong players. The main difference between a player that is rated 1500-1600 and 2000-2100, is the ability to apply these principles in practice.
Strong players intuitively feel the positions they should be aiming for, and spend most of their time at the board figuring out ways to get there, by calculating variations. Less experienced players need time to figure out what they should actually be doing in a certain position, and therefore overlook opportunities.
Reaching the Summit
To elevate your game from a club player to a master, you need to redouble your efforts and devote yourself to the game. This lifestyle is not for everyone, and it includes memorising variation after variation from Opening Encyclopaedias or databases, rigorously dissecting your tournament games for the smallest mistakes, and doing the equivalent of chess push-ups: the tactics puzzles. For more advanced books, at this point Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov, is a great guide to introducing discipline into your chess.
There is something like a pyramid structure to the ratings system. The average rating for the Australian Chess Federation is about 1350; About 30% of players are over 1600; 16% over 1800; 6% over 2000; and about 1% over 2400. So as you climb through the ranks, one of the problems in Australian chess is that the competition thins out, and the road ahead becomes somewhat lonely.
Convergent Paths to Mastery
Although people discover the game of chess in different ways, one of themes I tried to allude to in this article and the previous one, is that the path to chess improvement becomes narrower. Ultimately, the chess masters tend to follow similar patterns in their thought processes, and they follow the same principles that guide their moves. By and large, although chess masters start on different paths, they end up on the same road.
You may come to chess at school, a parent may teach you the game or you may learn from friends. Some kids get drilled the fundamentals by their coaches, while others may learn the tricks from playing online. But if at some point you develop a deep passion for chess and are prepared to devote yourself to the game, you will gradually understand the game the way chess masters do around the world.