How can I improve my rating?

Without any exaggeration, the biggest question facing any chess player is how can I improve my rating?

In this article, we hope to examine some of the potential routes to victory and help you develop your chess smartly. Underlying all the advice here must be the following two caveats:

  1. You must be prepared to work hard
  2. You should have a genuine passion for the game

What are the silver bullets and shortest paths to success?

In short, there are few short-cuts to GM level. GMs require a well-rounded and intense education in chess. However, the following will help you get to a 2000 ELO (roughly 180-200 ECF) grade in less than 12 months.

Here goes:

  1. Know your endings
  2. Practice tactics often
  3. Study great games - really study them!
  4. Have clear strategy which constantly evolves
  5. Play the board, not the player
Whilst this will not guarantee success against the very best in the world, it will significantly help against weaker players. Let's see how - along the way, we will give some clear takeaways.

For best results, dedicate 1 hour per night or at least a consistent time to cement your knowledge.

Part 1 of 5 - Studying Endgames boosts your rating

What a cliche!
Everyone says this but I do not see the point - I can just work it out over the board!
Why is this recycled and over-heard advice top of our list?

Answer - because the single fastest way to improve as a chess player is to learn, understand and apply endgame knowledge. It will affect your rating positively.

Let's present the case:

Let's deep-dive on the case for learning endings

Scenario #1
Let's imagine you're on a car journey back home from some far-away place.

When you get within 5 miles of your house, you know the route, you can switch off and go into autopilot and get home nice and relaxed.

The next time you do that journey, you remember actually how to do the last 10 miles. Each time, you remember more and more and become more relaxed.

Scenario #2
Let's imagine you're going somewhere you've never been before - you know where you want to go but have no idea how to get there.

You reach a number of cross-roads on the way - which way is best? They may all get you there but you are consumed by anxiety - is this a dirt track? It's late and I may lose daylight soon...

Route Victory

Knowing all the routes to victory will give you buckets of confidence

Scenario 1 is playing a chess middle-game when you've studied endgames. The last part of the journey is a breeze - you know what to do. You've practiced this and you're on autopilot. The technique is clear and you are executing a well-rehearsed routine.

Scenario 2 is playing chess with no endgame knowledge. You know you want to checkmate but aside from the basics (queen and king mate a king), you've no idea what to do.

Which scenario do you want to be in?

Perhaps you're still not convinced...

A very important chess history lesson

Like the 1974 Holland Football team, one of the best ever chess players to never become world champion was David Bronstein. In his 1951 World Championship with Mikhail Botvinnik, it was three minor endgame blunders which cost him vital half-points. Like this incident from game 6:
[Round ""] [White "Bronstein, David"] [Black "Botvinnik, Mikhail"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/1p3N2/8/p7/2P1pk2/1KP5/8/8 w - - 0 56"] [EventDate "1951"] [EventType "World Championship Match"] 56. Nd8 e3 {Botvinnik rightly goes to queen the pawn} 57. Kc2?(57. Ne6+ Kf3 58. Nd4+ {and with or without this check, the white king attacks the a and b pawns and the knight will get e2}) {Bronstein wants to get his king close to the action but it's the wrong plan.} 57... Kg3! {black's king is just as close as it needs to be to the e3 pawn but instead of being on f3, where it could be hit by checks, Botvinnik coolly moves out of danger and it's 0-1}(57...Kg3 58. Ne6 {and now the "check" on d4 after} e2 {doesn't exist!} 59. Kd2 Kf2)
If a strong world champion in the making losing out from minor ending slips isn't enough to convince you let's roll through EVEN MORE reasons:
  • The same endings come up again and again, so studying these patterns is not wasted
  • One slip in an endgame can be decisive, whereas earlier in the game there is scope to recover
  • GMs, IMs and every good player will take you apart in an ending if you don't know your onions!

Key takeaway - commit real time to studying endgames and top up that knowledge regularly.

Part 2 of 5 - Practice Tactics often!

Tactics are often not a known part of all chess-players arsenal. Ironically, players such as Petrosian and Karpov who are best known as positional and strategic players were actually some of the best tacticians. Their play was so astute they had full awareness of tactics to justify their positional superiority and were not afraid to unleash a tactic or two themselves!

So why are tactics so critical?

Tactics, a bit like critical moves in endgames, can be decisive in a chess struggle.

Let's look at a brilliant example:

[Event "Varna ol (Men) fin-A"] [Site "Varna BUL"] [Date "1962.10.06"] [EventDate "?"] [Round "9"] [Result "1-0"] [White "Tal, Mikhail"] [Black "Hecht, Hans-Joachim"] [ECO "E12"] [WhiteElo "?"] [BlackElo "?"] [PlyCount "97"] 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.Bg5 Bb7 6.e3 h6 7.Bh4 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 d6 9.Nd2 e5 10.f3 Qe7 11.e4 Nbd7 12.Bd3 Nf8 13.c5 dxc5 14.dxe5 Qxe5 15.Qa4+ c6 16.O-O Ng6 17.Nc4 Qe6 18.e5 b5 19.exf6 bxa4 20.fxg7 Rg8 21.Bf5 Nxh4 22.Bxe6 Ba6 23.Nd6+ Ke7 24.Bc4 Rxg7 25.g3 Kxd6 26.Bxa6 Nf5 27.Rab1 f6 28.Rfd1+ Ke7 29.Re1+ Kd6 30.Kf2 c4 31.g4 Ne7 32.Rb7 Rag8 33.Bxc4 Nd5 34.Bxd5 cxd5 35.Rb4 Rc8 36.Rxa4 Rxc3 37.Ra6+ Kc5 38.Rxf6 h5 39.h3 hxg4 40.hxg4 Rh7 41.g5 Rh5 42.Rf5 Rc2+ 43.Kg3 Kc4 44.Ree5 d4 45.g6 Rh1 46.Rc5+ Kd3 47.Rxc2 Kxc2 48.Kf4 Rg1 49.Rg5 1-0
It is fair to say Tal's career was littered with examples of complex tactical battles. Tactics not only can be decisive, they add significant complexity to open positions (and some closed ones too).

There are two main reasons you need to get your tactical knowledge up to speed -

  1. If your opponent finds a tactic and you don't see it, it can easily cost you a game
  2. If you miss tactics, you can miss full points that are staring at you!
Key takeaway - regularly study tactics - they are invaluable!

Part 3 of 5 - Study Great Games!

Like all great prodigies of a skill, you will have heroes. The reason we idolise great players is because they can teach us so much and are great role models to us. We have annotated many classic games.

What should I do when I analyse a classic game?

To get the most from a classic game, there are some great exercises to really extract the most knowledge:
  • Guess the move - go through the game and before reading the move, have an educated guess at what the move was - when it's something different really deep-dive into why!
  • Study each move and understand why this move has succeeded and don't be afraid to challenge it - if it's sub-optimal, explore what else the opponent could have done to survive the onslaught!
  • Take three clear takeaways from the game - for example 1. Study Rook and pawn endings, 2. Develop pieces quickly in the opening 3. don't write off strange moves - eliminate them objectively.
Key takeaway - Study from the best and stand on the shoulders of giants.

Part 4 of 5 - Have a strategy and keep it fresh!

What is a strategy?

A strategy is a long-term set of aims in order to gain victory. Chess strategy can range from "utilising pieces better" (vague but not a bad strategy at all - "invite everyone to the party") to "go for the isolated pawn".

In reality, your gameplan will consist of several small strategies whose priority will regularly shift.

For example, in Anand v Lautier 1997 , Anand's strategies may have included:

  • Get minor pieces out quickly
  • Take space on kingside
  • Take advantage of lonely bishop on g2
  • Allow concessions in the centre of the board to exploit black's lack of development
  • Undermine the weak f7 point

Why should I change it during a game?

The position after the opening will be drastically different to part way through the middlegame - in fact, after every move. Each piece being moved, taken, retreated or pushed forward will change the whole nature of the board and you need to be able to adapt to that.

The very best players will happily commit time to analyse variation after variation and then never need to play them.

Key takeaway - have a plan and be adaptable!

Part 5 of 5 - Play the board not the player

This is sometimes rubbished but it is better to learn to be an all-round player who can deal with anything than play mind-games with your opponent. It may work in the short term but what happens when you play someone new - you've no idea what to expect! Key takeaway - don't believe in psychology; believe in good moves! (RJF)

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