How to Improve at Chess
I lost my first 30 or so games of chess. When I first took up the game in a serious way nearly 15 years ago, I labored under the impression that winning was a simple matter of knowing how the pieces of my chess set moved and being smarter than my opponent. As a result, I was routinely trounced until I finally discovered the best tools, methods, and principles to improve my chess game. I’ll share a few with you here, with the hope that this article is a gateway for chess lovers to have more fun (and win more games).
1. Learn Principles
My first chess teacher said this: chess has very few hard and fast rules, but lots of principles. Learning the rules is necessary to play, but learning the principles is necessary to win.
Here are a few basic principles that will help you improve your chess game right off the bat.
- Try to control the center of the board early in play; it will give you an advantage as the game progresses.
- Develop powerful pieces like bishops and knights early — don’t spend a lot of your early moves fiddling with pawns if you can help it.
- Embrace the economy of movement. Don’t make a move if you will have to undo it on your next turn, and don’t make moves that don’t have a purpose. It allows your opponent to better position herself with zero consequences.
- If you are ahead in pieces, don’t feel shy about making equal trades. The fewer pieces on the board, the more your piece advantage will come into play.
Want some more? Seek out chess books that focus on principles like this over rote memorization of openings. There’s a time and a place for that, but as a beginning-to-intermediate player, learning principles will increase your skill much faster than memorizing openings.
2. Study Endgame Tactics
Beginners tend to focus on game openings, and for good reason. There are only so many ways a game can open, whereas games can finish in an almost infinite variety of configurations. Over the years, chess masters and chess writers have given different openings names, associated strategies, defenses against said openings, and on and on. It makes for a fascinating study (and eventually, you’ll want to have a few openings in your chess toolkit). Still, to improve their chess game, beginner-to-intermediate players can get more use out of studying end-game configurations.
There’s a lot to learn by studying how two kings, two pawns, a knight, and a bishop all interact on the board. How quickly, mathematically speaking, can you get a pawn down to the enemy side to advance to a queen? How can you protect it with only a king? How can you checkmate when all you have at your disposal is a king and a knight? These are all crucial questions that you need to know the answer to if you want to improve your chess game. Throwing away advantage in the endgame through clumsy, ineffectual moves is an extremely common way for intermediate players to lose.
3. Play People at Your Level (or slightly better)
Remember how I said I lost the first thirty games of chess I ever played? There’s a difference between instructive losses and losses that demoralize you. The distinction often arises in the caliber of your opponent. A player who is several orders of magnitude better than you will often beat you so quickly that you don’t have time to experiment with tactics, learn endgame configurations, or draw lessons from your mistakes. These types of losses can often be disheartening.
On the other hand, playing an opponent who is only slightly better than you might still result in a loss, but it will be a loss that allows you to improve upon your chess skills. In this type of setup, the game will be close enough that you can draw lessons from your opponent’s victory and still enjoy your time playing.
This is where a free Chess.com membership comes in. After playing a few games on Chess.com, you’ll be ranked by an algorithm. At that point, you can choose to have random games assigned to you that match your skill level within a certain range.
4. Play Often to Really Improve Your Chess Game
This last tip is probably the most obvious. In order to improve your chess game, you have to play! Reading chess books, solving chess puzzles, and watching The Queen’s Gambit is all well and good, but there’s no substitute for sitting down and playing the game. This is where a travel chess set (as well as the Chess.com app on your phone) comes in real handy. The more you play, the better you’ll get!
And remember, chess isn’t just about winning. I play because I love the elegance of the game — the way 32 pieces on 64 squares can result in an infinite variety of positions and problems. Want to get better at chess? Learn to love it — and the rest will follow.
For more Chess-related intel, tips, and products, check out our guides: