Note from Noël: This is a guest post by a Next Level Chess reader who goes by ‘Ringofbarahir’ on several Chess platforms (Chessable/Chess.com/Lichess). He is an adult chess improver and looks back on his first year in chess. The clarity of his insights struck me and that’s why I’m very happy to share the article with you guys.
Like many people, I was drawn to chess during the coronavirus pandemic. I’m in my thirties now and was looking for a hobby that’d see me through to old age. For some reason, video games weren’t scratching the itch like they used to.
When I saw The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, I resisted for a while. I’d tried to get in to chess about 5 years ago – but my enthusiasm didn’t last very long. After being steamrolled for a few games, I logged out of chess.com and didn’t think about chess again.
During the ‘house jail’ period of the pandemic, a close friend suggested we play a few games to pass the time. He explained the very basic principles of chess and, after a bit of practice, I won my first game online. It was messy, but I didn’t care.
From then on, I’ve been hooked – but getting better hasn’t been easy.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my first year playing chess. After accepting that I’m not the next Magnus Carlsen, I came to realise that failure is actually a key part of improvement. With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far.
Lesson #1 – Get rid of distractions
I watch a lot of chess content on YouTube – mostly streamers like Chessbrah, GothamChess and Daniel Naroditsky.
Quite often they’ll be interacting with their viewers and so it seems like they aren’t always 100% focussed on their games. They can play like that because they’re really good at chess.
I’m not, so I can’t.
When I sit an occasionally reply to a message on my phone or glance at the TV, I completely forget what’s going on in the game I’m playing and usually blunder almost immediately.
In order to give yourself the best chance of winning, get rid of any distractions. Trust me, it helps.
Lesson #2 – Warm up with puzzles
We’ve all been there – you turn on your computer and jump straight into a game of blitz. If you’re anything like me, you quickly miss an obvious tactic and find yourself down a pawn. Or sometimes even a piece.
Think of any sport – football, boxing or even something completely different like ballet. Do you think people just show up and perform at their best, or do they warm up first? Once I started approaching chess the same way, I noticed a real improvement.
Lesson #3 – Play at your peak
With lots of different responsibilities – work, social life, family – it’s not always easy finding time to actually play chess. Sometimes I don’t get time to myself until well after 10pm. In this situation I’ve found it better to do a few puzzles, maybe review a bit of theory and then call it a day.
I do this because if I just jump into a game when I’m feeling tired and not properly focussed, I usually lose.
For me, the best time of the day to play is in the early afternoon. That’s when I’ve found my brain is the most ‘switched on’. I get through a lot of work in the morning, make a coffee and sit down for an hour or so to study chess.
Have you noticed a similar pattern with your own games? If so, I’d definitely suggest thinking about when you play as well as how you play!
Lesson #4 – Look for critical moments
I’m not a grandmaster and therefore I can’t give you any secret insight in how to always spot tactics… but I might have something just as useful.
What I’ve noticed from my own games is that I’m developing a sense when positions are getting tricky. Something deep in my mind tells me I have a good move. Or, more often the case, if I’ve played a series of bad moves – I now have to find a really good move to get myself out of danger.
I believe these are known as critical moments. If you’ve been practising your opening theory then you can easily fire out the first few opening moves and build up a bit of time advantage on the clock.
When you find yourself in a critical moment, spend that time looking for strong candidate moves.
You might not always find them – because chess is hard – but when you do, it could be the difference between saving a draw or even securing a win.
Lesson #5 – Stick to your training
There’s only one way to get better at chess. Practise. I know it and you know it.
It’s a common misconception to think that practise makes perfect. When it comes to chess, only Stockfish or Leela Chess Zero can achieve such dizzying heights. Practise doesn’t make perfect… but it does make improvement.
After following Noël’s guide to analysing my chess games , I quickly learned that I was terrible at spotting checkmates. Going back through some of my games was tragic. I’d missed countless mates in 1 as well as extremely common checkmating ideas that you always come across in puzzles.
So I picked up a course on checkmates and, after a few days hard work, I actually spotted an opportunity for Damiano’s mate in one of my games. I still smile now thinking about it. My training had directly resulted in a very satisfying checkmate.
In my first year of playing chess, all I really wanted to do was get better.
I found that by creating the best possible playing environment and trusting the training process I was able to improve.
There’s still a long way for me to go (I’ll settle for somewhere in the top 50 players worldwide) and a lot more lessons for me to learn.
If you’re a complete beginner like me, I’m sure there’s been many things you’ve picked up along your chess journey. I’d love it if you could share some of your best tips in the comments section below to help me and other new players improve!
Thanks for reading.
PS: Noël again: as this is the first guest post by an adult improver, please let me know via email, in the comments or on Twitter what you think of this format! This helps me provide you with the best possible content. Thanks!
PPS: If you want to read a guest article from a GM, then check out this amazing piece on 5 beginners mistakes by GM Avetik Grygorian