Adjusting Difficulty for Optimal Chess Improvement

Adjusting Difficulty for Optimal Chess Improvement

A couple of years ago I talked to a seemingly very talented player, who invested a lot of time in chess training, but stagnated for a while. The big question was: Why are they not able to improve?

At some point, we started talking about which books they worked on and I nearly fell off my chair. Rated around 2150, they worked on the exact same books as I was, rated roughly 2500. These weren’t just any books or collections of best games.


Too Hard Isn’t Helping Anyone

No, the books this talented player worked on were Calculation by GM Aagaard and Perfect Your Chess by Volokitin. Two books, I was heavily struggling to find correct solutions myself. These are absolute masterpieces, but extremely difficult and aimed at players wanting to become Grandmasters and beyond. My eyebrows gave away my first impression and they tried to defend their approach:

“I actually sometimes find the right solution. Sometimes it takes me up to two hours, but it is a great exercise”.

Now I was really bamboozled, but suddenly everything made sense. If one spends two hours on a single position, it is very likely that one spends a lot of time on chess without really improving. This is what happens when the difficulty of the material is way too high for one’s current understanding and skills for the game.

It is like going to the gym for the first time and putting on insane amounts of weight for each exercise. You might be able to get some reps done, but only by doing the exercise wrong, and thus cheating or risking injury. I thought this was blatantly obvious until I shifted my workouts from home workouts to the gym. Apparently, for many looking strong is way more important than being healthy.

The same happens in chess. It is nice for your ego if you say, “I’m working on a book aimed at GMs and sometimes get the solution right.” But you risk losing motivation, not improving at all, and getting frustrated in the process. In this article, I want to guide you to find the right difficulty for your chess training.


When Are We Improving The Most?

The question is: which difficulty level is optimal for chess improvement? For those wanting a quick answer, here it is:

You should be able to solve 60-80% of exercises correctly in less than 15 Minutes per puzzle. If you solve close to 100% correctly, you probably aren’t challenged enough. And if you need more than 15 Minutes per puzzle or get less than 60% of your puzzles correct, then you should take a step back and ease up the training a little bit.

To understand this answer, let’s come back to the basics and think about what we are actually training for.

To improve our performance in chess games.

Here is where the first distinction comes in: depending on the speed of your most important time control the speed of your training should vary.


Improving For Different Time Controls

If you mainly play Blitz chess, thinking for longer than 3 Minutes doesn’t really make sense. You won’t ever have the time to dive so deeply into positions in your games, why should you do it during training? The longer the time control in your games, the longer your thinking time in training.

As any time control is limited, you want to stay within a practically applicable time, also for classical games. A couple of years back, GM Harikrishna gave me great practical advice. He told me something along the lines of:

“You rarely spend more than 15 Minutes on a move during a game, so you should limit the thinking time for a training position to 15 Minutes”. - Grandmaster Harikrishna

That really resonated with me. At the end of the day, we train for a real game and shouldn’t spend time refining a skill we rarely use (thinking more than 15 Minutes). Additionally, any time spent beyond Minute 15 is usually used to re-check lines one already calculated. Thus, nothing much new is gained after these initial 15 Minutes. We can form a pretty simple rule by following Harikrishna’s advice:

Do not spend more time solving a position than you would think in a critical moment in the time control you train for.

I know most of us want to improve for different time controls. But we all have one main focus. If you play OTB chess, it is most likely classical chess. If you don’t, just look at your online chess profile and check what time control you play most often (if it is Bullet, it might be a good reminder to really start studying chess and playing a little less bullet ). Then, optimize your training for your most played/most important time control.

How To Find Out If Your Difficulty Is Right

Now that you understand the ideas behind the right difficulty it is time to find out if your current training is fitting your level. To do so, follow these simple steps:

  1. Take your current tactic resource.
  2. Set a time limit according to the rules you’ve learned above (~15min/puzzle for classical training, ~5min for rapid, ~1min for blitz)
  3. Depending on your time available and the time per puzzle, solve 4-20 positions.
  4. Write down the solution of every single position on a piece of paper.
  5. After solving all the positions, take a short break and then compare your solutions with the book/tactic trainer solutions.
  6. If you solved 60-80% correctly, you are most likely doing things well already. Anything below 60% means you should get a more easy resource. Anything above 80% means you should step it up a little and get something that is more challenging.

This whole process obviously only works if you put serious effort and concentration into your chess training. You should feel that the positions are challenging you, and it isn’t a given that you find the solutions. Just as when we want to build muscle, improvement comes when we train a little above our current strength.

In other words, it isn’t hard enough if you can do the training lying on your sofa with a beer in your hand! Be ready to put yourself in uncomfortable situations in training, and you will excel during the game.

But don’t be like this Swiss talent and study things that are way above your current understanding. You will inevitably get stuck and feel frustrated.

I firmly believe that

anyone can improve their chess through the right mindset and training techniques.

I’m here to guide you on your journey to chess mastery.

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