Chess Improvement Trap: Why You’re Stuck Studying the Wrong Things

Most chess improvers are stuck because they get stuck in the chess improvement trap. They do the sophisticated things and forget about the basics.

New York Times Best-Seller ​Mark Manson​ recently said:

“There are two steps to self-improvement: From bad to okay and from okay to great.”

Mark Manson

He argues that many people struggle because they try to apply “okay to great” advice when they haven’t yet mastered the fundamentals. This is absolutely true in chess as well.

I love that insight. The same applies to chess.

Most chess players should try to reduce their many big mistakes. Instead, they learn deep strategic ideas or 20 moves of useless opening theory.

The Two Groups

Let’s take the average OTB club player as okay.

The last time I checked, an average club player in Switzerland was around 1800 OTB, which would be roughly 2000 Online. For the sake of simplicity, my two groups would be 0-2000 and 2000+.)


Chess improvement in this group is rather simple (remember ​simple does not mean easy​!!!). You don’t need to find 5-move combinations. Most of your games will be decided by blunders or rather simple, big mistakes.

Here is what you need:

  • Opening Fundamentals
  • Basic Strategic Knowledge
  • Decent tactical skills
  • The ability to focus during games
  • Basic endgame Knowledge

The advice most players of that group get and follow is very different and belongs to the 2000+ group.

2000-Titled Player

Once you nailed the basics, you should dive deeper to outplay your opponents. To create chances, you need some more sophisticated strategic ideas, learn some actual opening theory, and be precise in endgames.

Here is what you work on most of the time:

  • Opening Theory (analysis + memorization)
  • Deeper strategic ideas
  • Calculation
  • Time spending habits
  • Putting pressure in positions with slight advantages (for example, in endgames)

Important: If you neglect the basics on the 2000+ level, you will be punished immediately. So you need to make sure to still practice tactics and focus well during each game!

The Problem

Most players in the 0-2000 section study things from the 2000-titled player section.

They keep blundering and missing simple tactics.

Their sophisticated opening knowledge helps them get a great position, but then they miss a simple fork and lose the game. They get stuck. And think they need more sophisticated training to solve their problem.

Funnily enough, even some players in the second group do not progress because they lack the basics or neglect them.

Top Coach GM Ramesh RB once told me all he needed to do to help an IM break through a barrier was telling him to develop the pieces.

The Solution

In life and chess, do the basics. Do them well. Don’t ever stop doing them. Focus on the 20% that make up 80% of the results.

  • Make solving tactics a daily habit. You can start with as little as five positions, but remember to solve them the right way.
  • Analyze your games and focus on the big mistakes. This avoids the repetition of basic mistakes, which is the most frustrating thing for students & coaches alike.

Sometimes it is boring. It is funnier to do the fancy stuff. But doing the basics is always worth your time and energy.

You’ll be happier. More resilient. Less frustrated. And a stronger chess player.

If you are below 1200 or 1400 Lichess, ​check out my course, Beginner Chess Mastery​. You will learn what is part of the basics you need to know and what you can leave out without feeling bad.

Keep improving,
GM Noël Studer

PS: The Podcast Episode that inspired me to write this article was ​Mark’s Interview with Ali Abdaal​. I recommend listening to the full pod, but if you just want to know what inspired me, Mark talks about Bad to Okay and Okay to Great starting at 27:20.

PPS: This article was initially sent out to my Newsletter list. If you want to get chess improvement advice for free into your inbox, join 17,000+ chess improvers by signing up for Friday Grandmaster Insights here

Whenever you’re ready, here are two ways I can help you:

  • Want to know How to train chess well? Check out Next Level Training – The Chess Training Blueprint for Adult Improvers. This course taught 600+ students the How of Chess Training. Create your high-quality chess plan and learn how to study each part of Chess, from tactics to openings & endgames. ​Click here to learn more​.
  • Check out my all-in-one Beginner Video course, Beginner Chess Mastery—Reach 1200 Online. You’ll learn all the fundamentals, from strategy to how to get the most out of your pieces, tactics, and endgames. You even get a full opening repertoire for free. ​Click here to learn more​.

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.

Related articles:

Stay Up to Date

by signing up to my e-mail newsletter

Enter your email address below to sign up for receiving all my new insights, articles, books & courses

– a very short mail, without fluff or Spam

Thousands of readers and students

have already boosted their ratings and derive greater enjoyment from the game

Each week

you will receive an update on all my new articles, books & courses A very short mail, without fluff or Spam Just a little reminder to keep improving your chess.