The journey from USCF 700 to 1500 is a path that continues on tactic improvements, but a shift of focus on strategical ideas start to emerge.
In this post, I’ll talk about a few common themes and recommend a Strategy book in the end.
Here are three things I see on the path to 1500
Zero oh-no moments
Activate your pieces
Gain more space
Zero Oh-No Moments
When you start to play in U1000 instead of U400 sections, the oh-no mistakes will be punished swiftly. Opponent’s are stronger, and they don’t give back the gifts that your present to them.
Activate Your Pieces
In U1400 section games, losing a piece in 1-2 moves does not happen often. The result of wins and losses generally occur based on active vs. passive pieces.
White is down a pawn in the diagram above, but is very much in control of the game. Black’s bishop and rook are out of the game, and it’s only a matter of time that white’s attack will bring to fruition.
Practice asking yourself how to improve my pieces, and try to get them to active positions as much as possible in your games.
Gain More Space
The concept of Space is less clear for U800 players, but after a few games of getting squeezed, s/he could sense the pain.
The skill that players need to develop is to build more confidence. The reason many 1000 players are afraid is because they worry if they push too hard, the ‘backyard’ would become empty.
In the position above, many players would choose d3 instead of d4.
d3 looks like a safe move and keeping things solid, but d4 is what really showcases white’s development advantage.
Getting to 1500 is a longer journey, and strategic components of the game starts to get more important.
I’d recommend Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Strategies for anyone who are interested to improve their strategy understanding in chess.
It’s summer time and there are many chess tournaments all around the country. This is the time to put your work into practice.
While preparing for different tournaments, parents and students alike often ask how should they organize opening repertoire.
After some back and force debate in my own head and observing student’s results, here is my current point of view.
As with my last article on topics for different levels, I believe different ratings should focus differently on their opening preparations.
My current opinion
Casual players up to USCF U1200: Play any opening that catches your curiocity
USCF 1200 – 1700: Be more specific; Prepare a package against d4 and e4 for black, and choose your favorite 1st move for white
USCF 1700 and Above: Depending on your training regimen and work with coach to personalize best approach
Let’s dissect these in more details
Casual Players (U1200)
When starting chess, the most important opening focus is understanding the basic opening principles. The main ones are: Control the Center, Develop Pieces, and Castle Early.
When you see a brilliant game in the French, go try it out. Find ways to experiment, learn openings that bring out your curiosity to chess.
Regardless what opening you try, make sure to focus on the main principles. Avoid losing games because half of your pieces were not developed.
If your opponent does not follow opening principles, find ways to take advantage of that.
USCF 1200 – 1700
This group is when the training gets serious, and there are certain commitment to improve in chess.
I would suggest build a specific repertoire for both white and black pieces. Stick with the same openings for a while.
The idea is to learn the ins and outs of that opening, and improve your chess in general by understanding deeper concepts such as pawn structures and positional middle game concepts from the same opening.
One example repertoire:
e4 for white; Alapin against Sicilians
French for black against e4
Queen’s gambit declined against d4
USCF 1700 and Above
Now we are pushing towards Master level and beyond. More personalization will be required.
What is your goal in chess? How often do you play in tournaments? How do you train to prepare for tournaments?
These are the questions you want to answer and possibly work with a coach to dive in deeper.
As you can see, there are more strategic themes for U1500 then the lower rating groups.
Tactics is still very important for U1500 players. however, the opponents they are playing against will have just as much tactical prowess, therefore learning more strategic knowledge will be advantageous.
Let’s discuss Focus on important targets briefly here.
Many newly-1000 players would play the passive looking move Rab8, protecting the b7-pawn.
For stronger players, b7-pawn here is not important. The main focus now is to activate one or both of black’s rooks.
After scanning the board for 10 seconds or so, a stronger player would immediately see Rad8 and then Rxd2 taking control of the 2nd rank will soon take control of the game.
On the other hand, for the U500 players, even if they did play Rad8, the game may still take a few twist and turns to get to an unknown outcome
To summarize: players at each level should focus and improve on certain themes.
It’s good for newer players to see the the higher-level topics, but it’s much more important to hammer down the fundamentals.
I was trying to decide which games to analyze for this post when I got a great question from a member of our Chess^Summit audience about how to allocate study time given the availability of study materials online. The mother of a young, up-and-coming chess player sent me the following:
“In your experience, did online play help improve you OTB? If you only have maximum two hours a day to study chess, should you play two slow games online or do tactics and positional study? I have one coach who wants [my daughter] to play three games online every day and one coach that says don’t. So I am very confused.”
This question comes after her daughter broke 1900 on tactics trainer and has begun growing skeptical of her growth while playing games online as compared to over the board play. With different coaches now giving her various recommendations, its easy as a parent to get lost in the weeds of chess improvement.
Again, great question, but first congrats on your daughter breaking 1900 on Tactics Trainer! If its any indicator, I was stuck at 1700 through much of middle school, so let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope this is a sign of great things to come!
I should probably preface this article by saying that my personal study methods should not be applied universally. However, in writing this, I do hope to provide a roadmap for how players (but more specifically parents) can best find the balance that works for them by explaining how I approach my studies. And to the mother who sent me this question – don’t worry – I’ll include my specific personal recommendations for your daughter at the end of this piece. I think you’ll be surprised what I say there!
My goal with this article is to help explain to non-chess playing parents how I study and why I make those decisions. The question I received is a good one because even though it’s narrow, it opens up a discussion as to when we should study with a board or with a computer. I think to do this effectively, I should take a step back and explain why I use both the board and my computer, and then discuss why it’s important to use both. Once I’ve established that framework, I’ll proceed by answering the questions.
Studying Over the Board
Practice the way you play. My parents didn’t know much about formal chess training when I was younger, but they stuck with this mantra for much of my adolescence. By studying at the board and using a clock, it becomes easy to simulate the environment of tournament chess.
For me, there are two main reasons why I like studying on a board. First, by not studying on my computer, I’ve eliminated the constant distraction: email, Facebook messages, Twitter notifications, sports scores. For the next two hours, I don’t need to worry about the outside world. Living in a moderately sized apartment with two roommates, using a board also means forcing myself to get out of the house and study. Whether its a park, or a coffee shop, or a classroom at Pitt, putting myself in unfamiliar settings to study has its distinct advantages.
For example, I have a desk in my room where I’ll often eat snacks, read the news, catch up on emails, and play bullet chess – not exactly the most productive. This semester, I’ve noticed that when I try to do homework or study chess at this desk, and within 30 minutes I’ll find myself falling into my “normal” desk habits. The brain likes to make these kinds of associations with activities and locations. I’m not a psychology major or anything, but I remember my freshman year psychology professor discussing a study that concluded that sleep insomnia patients should avoid stressful activities in their bed in order to sleep better.
I’m not sure what scientific studies have been conducted relating productivity and associations we’ve made with various locations, but I think you’re starting to get my point. This is why I enjoy playing casual games at chess clubs, in-person lessons, and most importantly, over the board study.
Secondly, I think there are certain chess skills that need to be developed away from the computer, the most important of which is evaluation. When I’m on chess.com, or using Stockfish, I can turn my brain off with the click of the button. Suddenly because I’m choosing a move that has a +0.21 advantage compared to a +0.15 one, I feel like a genius, yet am blind to the most critical details of the position.
For some of our higher rated readers, let’s imagine we went through Aagard’s Positional Play book on a computer… You would be cheating yourself of one of learning from one of the most instructive positional books for 2000+ rated players! Setting up these positions on the board removes the temptation of knowing all together. Rather than asking about a particular line, we force ourselves to come to our own conclusions, no matter how long it takes. At least if we move pieces on our board, we still need to actually try and make good moves and understand why!
Now you’re probably thinking: hey, only use the engine after I have a solution to each problem! One thing I’ve learned while both training with others and on my own is that our brains loathe effort. I recently read an article where GM Alex Colovic wrote:
“The brain doesn’t want to work, it’s lazy. Forcing it to work is extremely uncomfortable. It tires quickly, having grown out of the habit to calculate on a daily basis.”
And I wholeheartedly agree. When solving tactics, endgame studies, or strategic exercises, its easy to find a move/idea you really like and tell yourself it’s right. You’ll look at a few candidate moves, but you won’t really challenge your idea because you think what you have is sufficient. When you check it with an engine, you got it right – someone gets a gold star!
But in doing this, you’ve really only tested your intuition at a surface level. Great, but in a tournament game, is your thought process going to be the same? Of course not, this is how blunders happen! You know this, so you start calculating, but you haven’t calculated with this kind of intensity that often at home. You’ll take longer, maybe play a few good moves, but ultimately get in time trouble and find a way to blunder later on because of it. Practice the way you play.
Things like deep calculation, endgame studies, positional exercises – these all take time and need to happen without a computer to be fully understood. Don’t worry about cramming a certain number of exercises into a certain time period. Speed comes if you build the muscle, so just focus on accuracy.
Studying on my Computer
Let’s not get too caught up in the romanticism of studying chess over-the-board. Sure, being able to physically move the pieces and go through the motions of being in a tournament are beneficial, but sometimes its just inconvenient.
If you’re studying openings, its becoming impossible to analyze a position without the assistance of an engine. Nearly everyone who actively studies chess has a “grandmaster repertoire” these days (I find this debatable, but this seems to be the trend), so you absolutely have to know the best moves in your repertoire. With a computer, I can search all of the games played in a position with one click, which I can’t exactly do with a book. As you can imagine, this is extremely helpful!
Beyond all of this, there are tons of instructional mediums online now with deep analysis available: online videos, broadcasts, tactics trainers. I remember after taking an extensive break from chess in middle school, I was overwhelmed by the amount of new online material when I returned… and that was in 2011.
So from a research perspective, I think a computer is mandatory. It’s hard for me to quantify how much time someone should study on the computer based on skill level due to my own limitations as a 2100 rated chess player, but I imagine if we were to construct a representative function, it would be hyperbolic. While a novice player doesn’t need a computer to learn the Four Knights opening, a 1900 rated player would benefit from one to learn how to play against the Marshall Gambit.
As the mother mentioned in her question, the computer also offers the potential to play games online. Being from Richmond, Virginia, online games were at one point of extreme importance to me. For much of the time since I’ve crossed 1800, I’ve been one of the roughly five strongest players from my hometown, which when discussing opportunities for growth over the board is really bad. Conversely, despite now being over 2100 and in Pittsburgh, I’m not even sure if I’m in the top 15 of Pittsburghers – more opportunities for high quality games, and less of a need to find games online.
I know quite a few people who love playing games online, but there are a couple elements of it that I’m skeptical of. First, I have less patience than in a real game. I can’t get up and look at other games like I might in a tournament, so I have to spend extra energy staying focused and not checking my emails. Because of this, I start wanting to play faster games, and sooner or later, I’m trying to bring my bullet rating back over 2200…
Ignoring all the emails and texts I’ll get during a game, I can’t take my opponent super seriously. Why? I can’t see them – I don’t get the same cues I might get in a real game. Are they playing the game with the same intensity? To further this point, I also feel like players behave differently online than they do in tournament games. Maybe they won’t resign after making an obscene blunder, or maybe you’ll feel more willing to take greater risks without the needed calculation. Lastly, you never have time for the most important parts of the game. And isn’t the endgame the most complex anyways?
So I’ve decided that my online games shouldn’t exceed 15 minutes a side, with the sole purpose of reviewing or trying out openings. Even when I try this, I hardly count it as studying, because I feel the effort I bring to an online game is hardly my best. Just compare my online ratings to my USCF rating, and you’ll recognize one is significantly lower.
Building a Balance
Okay, that was a pretty hefty summary on my thoughts on using a board or computer. But then there’s actual practice. As a college student, I feel like during the semester, my studies are limited to my desktop, but during breaks I have more time to use a board and analyze. Not optimal, but my study habits for now will have to do.
Chess is fun, and its important to study what you find most interesting. But you also can’t afford to neglect parts of your game if you hope to improve, and sometimes you have to do things you don’t like as much.
In my case with online games, when I was preparing for the 2016 US Junior Open, much of my practice at home was through playing online games and analyzing them deeply. Sure, sometimes it felt like pulling teeth, but I knew it was my only option in Richmond to get quality games. It wasn’t a pure substitute for over-the-board games, but at least it was something!
So to answer one of the original questions, if given two hours a day to study chess, I wouldn’t stick to one activity each session. First off, I just want to say, I would do anything for two hours a day of chess now… luckily I only have to wait two more weeks until I’m free for the summer!
But more seriously, given how young your daughter is, developing her ability to calculate and assess positions of extreme importance. If I had to rank tiers of training for U2000 players it could look something like this:
3rd Tier: Mechanics – Reviewing opening lines, playing practice games
4th Tier: Preparedness – Cardio, Physical fitness, Psychological training
I’ve deliberately made these tiers vague because I think there can be a lot of overlap between them. That being said, based on my experience, if I were your daughter and only had two hours a day, I’d want to maximize my ability to calculate and develop a strong intuition. These are the kinds of qualities that I think are most important when trying to become an expert level player. Note how the study recommendations for both calculation and intuition have a limited use of engines, if any at all.
Playing online games are helpful in developing these skills as well, but they are less direct. In my opinion, I think there’s only so much you can get out of a game without the help of an engine or a stronger player analyzing it with you. Reviewing games on your own is an important part of growing as a chess player – but, chances are you’ll find better moves based on the knowledge you already have (you can’t see what you don’t know). Rather than using your entire time every day playing games, its much more important to build that foundation by increasing your overall knowledge of chess doing other activities.
Be Your Own Doctor
Finally, to answer the question fully of the mother who’s had to read this article in its entirety while anxiously waiting for a solution. Your daughter has three coaches right now. The two coaches who formally teach her, and herself.
When it comes to training, I think your daughter is her best coach – that’s not to say that she doesn’t need formal chess instruction, but she knows how she likes to study best. That’s not to say that her coaches aren’t giving quality recommendations, its just that your daughter is becoming increasingly aware that there are several ways to reach the same goal. Her coaches should respect her preferences, and suggest alternative training methods to accommodate for them.
If she doesn’t think playing online games is what she needs, then she’s probably right. She’ll definitely need a way to practice what she’s learned (more tournament games, in-person practice matches), but based on what you’ve told me, it really is starting to seem like your daughter has begun to develop a self-awareness that some players take years to recognize when studying (not to mention these skills are great for school too).
I guess as a parent this can be a difficult time to give the best recommendations to your daughter, but don’t worry – this is the fun part! Once your daughter learns how to study independently, she’ll be well on her way on her journey upwards!
Have a burning question you want to ask our team? Feel free to send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll give you our best answers!
I mean do you even know me? Of course I’ve been thinking about chess this whole time! But with less than a month until this semester finally finishes, the difference is that I’m thinking about chess again – like for real …what?
This semester has been hectic at best for me: changing majors, managing the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, becoming a chess.com streamer, and on top of that, the usual class course-load. Tied down with all of the commitments, I had to put my goal of earning the National Master on hold, and in doing so, I have only managed to play one tournament game since the Cardinal Open (I’ll get to this later). So while I’ve thought about chess in some capacity every day, I haven’t dedicated as time to my own chess as much as I would have liked.
Admittedly, with less than four weeks until the end of the semester, I’m thinking about playing tournament chess again, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve started running regularly, eating healthier, and gotten back to regularly solving tactics. This alone won’t get me back to my best form, but it’s a manageable start – especially since I still have finals to study for. Speaking of tactics, I found a nice tactical shot at the end of my most recent chess.com stream:
Had some fun games tonight on my @chesscom stream! Ended on a high when I put together this winning combination with 32. Rxh6! Kxh6 33. Bxg5+! 💪
What am I working towards? I’m planning on competing in the Chicago Open, and despite my eligible rating, I’m bypassing my chances of scoring big in the U2300 section to swim with sharks in the Open. In all seriousness, I’m going to be a massive underdog in nearly all of my games, but I want a chance to see how much I’ve improved since I last tried something like this at the 2016 World Open.
For those of you who’ve been Chess^Summit readers for a while, you may recall how the 2016 World Open was not exactly pleasant to me. In the aftermath of my 1/7 score, my coach GM Eugene Perelshteyn had a field day finding weaknesses in my play, and while enduring six consecutive losses is an ego-bashing no chess player should be on the receiving end of, I learned a lot from the experience, and it parlayed into my later success in Europe.
So I’ve got to start somewhere to get ready for Chicago, and last week I built up the nerve to play my first tournament game in months without any prior preparation – and by preparation, I mean any studying. I’ve got some tournaments planned in early May, but I really didn’t want to wait anymore and guaranteed White against another 2100-rated player was just too good to pass up.
Wanting to sidestep any my opponent’s preparation, I chose 1 e4 for just my fifth time (in a standard game) since the 2017 Reykjavik Open, and it was clear I had succeeded once we reached the conclusion of the opening with 11. Qf3 – the Scotch Four Knights:
While I failed to win, I built a reasonable advantage before squandering it after time control. Even with a few mistakes, I was more or less fine with my game – honestly, I was just happy to be at the board again. I’ll need to improve if I want to perform well in May, but knowing that I can play an opening I’ve never played before and do reasonably well is a good sign.
And with a somewhat amicable result, my preparation for the Chicago Open had begun. With just two months to go, I have a lot to do – but I’m mentally ready to make a comeback to tournament play.
As you know, lately I’ve been drowning in school work since the conclusion of the Cardinal Open. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about chess – in fact, today I wanted to share the most informal chess lesson I’ve ever received. Consider this:
In my bouts of procrastination, my roommate and fellow Chess^Summit columnist, Beilin, noticed that in a week my bullet rating had atrophied by over 100 points. After watching me play, Beilin commented that I flagged a lot in winning positions, simply because I got too excited when I had less than 10 seconds left in a game. Hmm… time to make adjustments.
Then this happened:
In the course of one evening, I regained 100 rating points. It’s amazing what objectivity can do for your chess. By simply ignoring how I felt about the position until the end of the game, I saved precious seconds on my clock and won a lot more. Is this a meaningful lesson for chess in longterm time controls?
Ok, first a disclaimer – bullet is not a replacement for proper chess training. So the takeaway from this article should not be to play more bullet, but rather to realize that the psychological factors in both may not be so different. From there we can start the discussion of this article.
This general ‘nervousness’ I had in bullet is similar to the feeling that haunts us in tournament games because we let it affect our objectivity. We’ve already talked about managing time, so today I want to talk about how our emotions can get in the way of our objectivity in winning positions.
Let’s start with an example from a recent tournament game I shared:
Here I have a decisive advantage – the knight on h6 is trapped, and if I can consolidate quickly, White will not have enough compensation for the piece. However, the game isn’t over and I should have lost after 41…Qa8? 42. Nd3 Qb8 because White had the decisive blow 43. Nxf4! +- Bxf4 44. Rd6+ Ne6 45. Qxf4+ with mate coming soon. Luckily my opponent erred with 43. Nxe5? and after some complications, I managed to win the game.
Honestly, I played 41…Qa8? quickly, without realizing the true dangers in the position. I remember feeling optimistic, and confident in my ability to pull the upset. But my level of excitement should have been punished – in adapting the mindset like the game was over, I stopped playing for one move. And in chess, we know how much of an impact one mistake can make…
Correct would have been 41…Qc2, but after some analysis, I decided here that I needed to have really spent some time here. The act of regrouping isn’t easy here, and I haven’t won until I’ve done so – material alone won’t cut it.
After thinking about this game, I realized I’ve actually made this mistake a few times before. Take this position from my most recent Pittsburgh Chess League match-up:
Out of a Berlin sideline, I’ve played really well to get this position. I’ve kept the bishop pair, and White is relatively passive in this position. All Black needs to do is keep pressure on the queenside while holding off the kingside expansion.
Already thinking I couldn’t lose this position, I played 36…Ra8? expecting to play …gxf4 at the right moment and bring my rook to the g-file. But just like the last example, confidence like this leads to blindness. I missed 37. g4! and White was no longer worse. In fact, the dramatic switch in initiative proved too much for me to recover from, and I lost ten moves later.
The more I looked through some of my previous games, the more I realized this is actually a really common weakness for both me and my opponents. Take this dramatic example from a game I played in the Czech Republic last year:
White is a lot better after a terrible opening display on my end, and my continuation here was one out of inertia than a belief I could salvage a draw. But my 2100 rated opponent showed how simple it is to lose a game with 27. g4?? Nf3+, and now I’m completely winning. Sure this is a horrendous blunder, but goes to show that once we let our guard down, our brain also tells us to stop looking at counterplay.
This isn’t just an amateur/expert-level phenomenon either, as we’ve seen it creep up in the games of professionals too. I can think of no better than Nakamura’s outing against Carlsen in the 2014 Zurich Chess Challenge. Going into this game, Nakamura had never beaten Magnus, with an unusually poor record of 0-8 (excluding draws), but after 33. Rxh2, that all seemed to be going away as Hikaru had a completely crushing attack:
Magnus was forced into 33…Qg6 34. Nf5 Re8, and after some thought, Hikaru repeated the position with 35. Qg4 (threatening Rh2-h6, trapping the queen) Qb6 36. Qh3 Qg6. And now Nakamura needed to find the win:
Trying to block out the emotions, Nakamura pushed through with 37. d6?, missing a critical detail. After Magnus’ 37…Nxd6 38. Nxd6 Rd8!,Nakamura realized that his first rank wasn’t defended, leaving his king open to attack. Hikaru tried to bail out with 39. Nc4, but it was already too late. After 39…Qxe4, Hikaru couldn’t adjust to the new position and played 40. Qh5?, going on to lose the game.
It’s not hard to put yourself in Hikaru’s shoes. So close to winning against his rival for the first time, Hikaru relaxed for one moment and botched a two move calculation. As it turns out, d5-d6 is the correct idea, but a 37. Rh1 or a 37. Ka2 needed to be inserted first to reduce the power of Black’s counterplay. 37. Qf1 is also completely winning.
So now we see how dangerous it is to think “I’m going to win” during a game. Just like how I learned in bullet this week, push that feeling to the end of the game and remain calm until the desired result is secured. While this mentality in bullet is to prevent your opponent from having counterplay on the clock, thinking like this will limit your opponent’s counterplay on the board.
As chess gets popular in the United States, the opportunity to participate in chess camps or school programs also have increased.
Parents and coaches can us the information from this post to encourage students to actively learn in chess.
Chess programs can be grouped by age or, more commonly, chess levels. Here are three common chess levels:
1. True beginner: learning the rules for the first time 2. Play-at-home level: knows the rules; ready to learn basic tactics and strategies 3. Tournament-play level: competed in tournaments; has been working on chess study; wants to increase chess rating.
Regardless of a student’s chess level, the following five points should be the focus to get the most out of a chess chess program.
•Asking Questions • Playing Games • Trying New Ideas • Teaching Others • Making Friends
Schools are moving toward more instruction and less interaction. Chess programs should not follow this pattern. Instead, questions during a lecture will bring ideas both for the students and the instructor.
It helps to encourage students to answer instructor’s questions without being afraid of being wrong. Questions can be general ones, like questions about chess world champions, chess history, etc. Or they can be knowledge-based, such as how to checkmate with two bishops.
Like many other activities, chess is a numbers game. Grandmasters generally play many more games than a beginner. Chess programs is an opportunity to play multiple games in a day.
A beginner should learn to not be afraid to play against stronger players. This is the chance to train and ask questions. At the same time, playing against less-experienced players is a chance for your child to teach what they know.
Either way, they can use the camp to increase their chess experiences.
Trying new ideas
In my lessons, I ask students to try out ideas at home (online), then learn from these experiences and apply them in tournaments.
Camp or school clubs are the best time to test ideas. If they want to learn a new opening, they can try it during these programs. Then they can ask questions about it.
Not only is this a low-stake environment (results don’t matter as much as in tournaments), but they can also immediately ask for feedback.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
Encourage a child to teach what they know. We live in an era where knowledge has become more of a commodity, and information can be easily found on the internet.
Not only are they helping others to learn new ideas, they’ll also clarify their own thoughts in the idea. For example, once they have learned how to checkmate with two bishops, showing others the process will only help them to understand it better.
Making new friends
This may be the most important of all. Going to chess camp or club will give a child the opportunity to make new friends with other chess players.
After all, chess is a game that shows off the competitive spirit on the board, and friendships off the board.
When a child interacts with other kids and works with them to solve problems, it will help them work during the camp, and more importantly, form a friendship for their chess careers to come.
Whether your kids are just picking up the game or are ready for tournament play, I hope this post will help you and them to gain the most from any chess programs.