"What's the best way to improve at chess?" We've all asked ourselves that question a thousand times. If it were any other subject besides chess, we'd probably already know the answer: follow the path to wisdom in that field that has been blazed by others. For some reason though, the vast majority of us approach studying and improving in chess in the most haphazard and inefficient manner possible, trying everything except the tried and true methods that more experienced players advise, and the methods that are applied in almost every other field of knowledge.
With chess, most of us skip around. For example, we start studying a particular part of the game and then jump to something else. Or we read the first three chapters of a book, and then start a different book. We also study material that's far too advanced for us at that time. For example, we spend months studying an advanced opening monograph when we haven't mastered basic opening theory. Or we read My System when we haven't studied basic positional play first. Or we read The Art of the Attack when we haven't studied basic tactics first.
The end result is that our understanding of the game is completely fragmented. We know a thousand things, but we can't put them all together into a cohesive whole. Because of this, we never advance very far. No wonder most of us never rise above the Intermediate classes. We are a screwed up bunch of people! :-)
This is NOT how we learn most other things. In school, we have to read Fun With Dick And Jane before we tackle War And Peace. Before we learn to build an entire house, we have to learn to saw boards, drive nails, and so on. Before we get to play Carnegie Hall, we have to learn chords, scales and “Chopsticks” first. In fact, it's hard to imagine any skill or field of knowledge that we could master without learning the basics first and following some type of structured learning regimen.
If you go to the spring training camp of a Major League baseball team, you can learn a lot about how to master chess. These guys have been playing baseball almost every single day of their lives for 20 or 30 years. They're the best in the world, the GMs of their sport! You don't often see them playing actual baseball games during spring training, though. Instead, there they are, the masters of their sport, breaking the game down into its individual components and going through the same drills that the little leaguers are doing: They stand at the plate and face dozens of curve balls until they master hitting them. They shag fly balls for hours until they can do it perfectly. They field grounders by the hundreds until they can do so error-free. They practice base running, throwing, catching, etc., over and over until they can do it in their sleep. THEN they begin to put all those skills together and actually play entire games. Why should chess be any different?
Emanuel Lasker, World Champion for 27 years, firmly believed that anyone with normal intelligence and talent could reach master level in only a few years if they studied properly. If you've been playing and studying for more than 5 years and aren't a Master, then you're not studying properly. It took me a long time to learn this. I essentially wasted 15 years studying chess the wrong way, with very little to show for it, other than watching my rating gradually drop from 2000 to under 1600. I was convinced, for some inexplicable reason, that I knew more about how to improve than all the masters.
You live and learn, and some lessons you have to learn the hard way, apparently. The bottom line is that after trying it my way for 15 years and not only not improving, but going backwards, I've finally come to believe firmly that most of the advice I'd read from strong players on how to improve was correct all along. I hope the rest of you can learn from my mistakes!
As we’ve seen, the worst mistake we make in studying chess is that our methods of study are fragmented. We study a little of this and a little of that, and the end result is that we never master any of it. How many chess books do you have that you've read a few chapters of, then moved on to another book, without finishing the first? How many openings have you studied for a month or so, then gotten frustrated with them and moved on to another? Have you thoroughly learned any opening, or do you know the first few moves of 30 or 40 openings, but aren't really knowledgeable in any of them? For most of us, the answer is the latter.
The second mistake we make is in studying the wrong things, or at least material that's inappropriate to our level. You've got to have a good understanding of the basics before you move on to more advanced concepts. It's a poor use of study time to try to work your way through an advanced monograph on the Najdorf if you haven't learned the basic theory of opening play first, or to try to read the Dvoretsky / Yusupov books if you haven't learned basic tactics, strategy, and endings first. There's a reason you take General Chemistry 101 before you take Physical Chemistry 417! The same thing applies in chess. Learning the basics first gives you a framework around which you can integrate all your future chess knowledge.
The third mistake that most amateur players make is devoting the majority of their study time to openings. There's a term for players who do this: they're called "Perpetual Novices." They know tons of opening lines but don't have a clue WHY the lines are considered good, or how to conduct the middlegame or endgame, and they are tactically sloppy.
The plan which I'm suggesting may not be right for everyone, but it works for the majority of us. The basic outline of my plan is this: Master basic tactics, then basic endings, then study basic positional play and strategy, then learn basic opening principles, and finally bring it all together by playing over a collection of games with light notes or study a book like Chernev's Logical Chess Explained Move By Move. Then you'll be ready to learn a basic opening repertoire. Learn it and play it for at least a year, until you know it as well as anyone. Don't jump around and switch from opening to opening. Next, repeat the process, only with more advanced books, then repeat this process again using even more advanced books, and keep on until you reach the 2000 rating level. All the while, keep a book of tactical problems at hand and spend some time on them EVERY day. By the time you get to the 2000 level, you'll know what specific areas you need to work on from there on out.
Now let’s look at the plan in detail from the beginning:
What I'd recommend first is that you get a good book of chess problems and spend some time every single day, no matter what, solving a few of them. Polgar's 5334 Chess Problems or Combination Challenge by Hays & Hall are both great. This will build up your tactical skills, teach you how the pieces work together, and keep your vision of the board sharp. For most players, start with the Polgar book. Advanced players can skip straight to Combination Challenge, but only if ALL the material in the Polgar book is easy for you and has already been mastered.
In addition to that, study the following books in the order given below. There are plenty of other books that are good and maybe someone can recommend better ones, but this selection should work just fine for most of us.
Everyone's Second Chess Book (Heisman)
Winning Chess Tactics (Seirawan) or Play Chess Combinations & Sacrifices (Levy)
Pandolfini's Endgame Course (Pandolfini)
Winning Chess Openings (Seirawan)
Best Lessons of a Chess Coach (Weeramantry & Eusebi)
The Game of Chess (Tarrasch) or Lasker's Manual of Chess (Lasker)
New Ideas In Chess (Evans)
Logical Chess Move By Move (Chernev)
Don't worry if a lot of this material is already familiar to you. The repetition and review will do you good and will make sure you don't have any gaps in your fundamental knowledge. Now you'll be ready to move on to material that will take you to advanced intermediate.
Comprehensive Chess Course vol. II (Alburt & Pelts)
Chess Tactics For The Tournament Player (Alburt & Palatnik)
The King In Jeopardy (Alburt & Palatnik)
Chess Strategy For The Tournament Player (Alburt & Palatnik)
Just The Facts (Alburt & Krogius)
Chess Training Pocket Book (Alburt)
How To Reassess Your Chess (Silman)
The Amateur's Mind (Silman)
The World's Great Chess Games (Fine)
Teach Yourself Better Chess (Hartston)
You should have a good over-all understanding of the game by this point and be ready to climb to the Class A / Expert level. The following books should take you there.
The Chess Of Bobby Fischer (Burger)
The Art of Attack (Vukovic)
The Art of Sacrifice (Spielmann)
Modern Chess Strategy (Pachman)
The Art Of The Middle Game (Keres & Kotov)
The Art of Defense in Chess (Soltis)
Endgame Strategy (Shereshevsky)
The Most Instructive Games Of Chess Ever Played (Chernev)
I'm sure I've left out a lot of good books, but you have limited study time and can't read every good chess book ever written, so I've tried to give you the ones that I know are excellent and will take you to the 2000+ level in a reasonable amount of time.
After this, you'll be ready for My System, Think Like A Grandmaster, Alekhine's My Greatest Games of Chess, The Dvoretsky / Yusopov series, etc., but you'll know which ones you need by then. I'd also recommend that you play over as many games as you can of Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tal, Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov, but I'd particularly recommend that you study Fischer's games, since they'll expose you to all the different styles of play and fill you with ideas.
This is also the time to start playing solitaire chess. Select a good collection of games, take the side of the winner, and try to determine what the next move is. Aside from studying tactics, this is the most important thing you can do to improve. Solitaire chess will do wonders for your play and really teach you how to analyze and how to create and follow a plan. Don't worry if you're horrible at it at first, you'll get better. Playing solitaire and studying master level games will "pull it all together" for you and greatly increase your understanding.
I haven't forgotten openings! For now, just find a basic opening you like as white and a defense to 1.e4, 1.d4 and a setup against the flank openings. Play these lines over and over and stick with them for at least a year and don't jump around from one opening to another. DO NOT spend any more of your study time than absolutely necessary to learn the basics of these lines. The time you put into studying the books above will pay off a LOT better and faster than opening study will. After you've finished the second series of books above, read Gabor Kallai's Basic Chess Openings & More Basic Chess Openings to learn the fundamentals of all the openings and the typical middlegame plans of each.
The important thing is to choose a repertoire and STICK WITH IT! Expect to lose a lot at first, but eventually the wins will begin to pile up as you become more experienced with playing your openings. Later, you can begin to learn new openings and defenses and add them to your repertoire. The only way to ever become a good opening player is to find an opening and defensive system, learn them thoroughly, and then play them for at least a year. It doesn't even matter which ones you choose, as long as you're comfortable with them. William Lombardy once said "All openings are sound below master level." Very true!
Do you want to get good in a hurry? Devote at least 50% of your study to tactics!!! NOTHING will improve your play any faster! I've played roughly 10,000 games of chess in my life, and I can honestly say that of all those games, in only one of them did my opponent and I not make some type of tactical mistake. That's probably typical of all amateur games. If you're a tactical monster, you can rest assured that your opponent will give you an opportunity to take advantage of him tactically in at least 99.9% of your games. If you're not studying tactics religiously, you're throwing away wins! If you don't believe this, run any amateur game through your computer and take a look at all the tactical opportunities it finds that were missed in the game. Teichmann didn't lie when he said that chess was 99% tactics. Not only is this the most important part of chess, it's also the most fun and the easiest to learn and master. Keep a book of problems handy and spend some time EVERY day solving them. Openings, endings, strategy and solitaire chess should each account for about 12 to 15% of your study time. The rest should be devoted to tactics! The late Ken Smith of Chess Digest said: "Until you are at least a high class A player, your first name is Tactics, your middle name is Tactics, and your last name is Tactics."
The overall idea for the best way to improve is simple. First of all, stop bouncing around from one subject to another! This is hard to do (believe me, I know - I've wasted hundreds of hours this way and ended up learning practically nothing), but jumping around from subject to subject & book to book leaves you with a very fragmented understanding of the game. It's like knowing a thousand words but not being able to put them together to form complete sentences! STUDY ONE BASIC BOOK ALL THE WAY THROUGH on tactics, then strategy, then the endgame, then openings, and finally, play through an entire collection of games to bring it all together for you. Then do it again, moving on to more advanced books, and repeat this process until you reach the Expert or Master level. This will give you a solid, thorough understanding of the game and help you avoid having major gaps in your chess knowledge. Once you've mastered the basics and your understanding of the game grows, reinforce your knowledge and expand on it by studying master games and playing solitaire chess. Make sure to focus heavily on tactics and spend some time every day honing your tactical skill. Finally, don't forget to play slow games to gain experience putting your knowledge to work and reinforcing what you know!
Again, the plan which I'm suggesting may not be right for everyone, but it works for the majority of us. Learn from my mistakes! Try my plan for at least a year, even when you have your doubts. Push through the plateaus and the frustration which you are bound to hit, and see if your results don’t improve dramatically by next year. Best of luck!