The Most Important Factor Of Chess Improvement

You spend a lot of time on chess but do not really see improvement? I have been there as well. This means you should improve the quality of your training. Let me show you how!

There is a common misconception when it comes to chess improvement. Whenever one talks about his training, one usually just talks about the number of hours spent on chess.

But the equation quantity = output lacks a key element.

The full equation should be: quantity x quality = output.

I have used the “quantity first” approach for a long time. After an accident in 2017, my ability to focus has been hit, and I had to switch my thought process.

As the quantity was pretty limited, I had my full focus on the quality of each and every training session. In this article, I will share with you what I learned about quality.

In a Nutshell:

  • Feel good about doing less
  • Start small
  • Consider only real training
  • Get rid of distractions
  • Use the right difficulty in training
  • Track the quality of your training

My Early Professional Days

But first, let me go back to my early professional days. When I started my professional career in 2015, I always used the number of hours trained as proof of my professional state.

After all, I had only finished high school and had no other degree. I had to convince my parents that I am really serious about this. So, I tried to use every free minute to work on chess. Taking a break seemed like a sign of weakness.

Even when I talked to the media I proudly stated that “I train at least 40 hours a week, just as any other job”. In fact, I probably spent around 60 hours a week doing chess-related things.

One of my first training plans started at 7.35 AM and finished at 6 PM. Every day. No rest.

One of my earliest training plans of 07.03.2016. Written in German, but you should understand the point 🙂

I would usually still feel bad to take a full 4 hours off from 6 PM – 10 PM.

So, I had the great idea to study some classics one hour before going to bed. I heard that reading before going to bed is good, so I felt very smart doing that.

Whoever already read Kasparov’s series of my great predecessors knows that it is not a really good material to switch your head off… All these long lines make the book actually very hard to read!

This is what I called “time optimization” back then. Today, I call it stupidity.

The Vicious Cycle Of Quantity Only Approach

Obviously, I started to run out of energy rather quickly. The quality of my training got worse every day.

I somehow felt this, but instead of taking a rest, I just increased the quantity.

After all, I got less done in the training time. So, in order to get more done, I simply had to put even more effort into it.

I started to feel bad in the few hours of free time. I felt as if I would waste any minute not working on chess.

Looking back, it was rather obvious I would end up totally exhausted.

But I am not the only one falling into this trap of the more = better approach.

In today’s society, you get a pad on your back for working overtime. You can even use your overtime to boast at parties. Most people will think that “you are a really hard worker” and respect you for it.

At least that is how it is in Switzerland.

On the other side, taking breaks is seen as a sign of weakness.

But as Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less, says nicely:

Burnout is not a badge of honor!

Greg McKeown

If you put in a lot of input and do not get the wished-for output, you should start to think about the quality of your input!

Just increasing the amount of time you put in, something will not automatically increase the output!

In order to achieve greatness, one needs to put in a lot of effort. But the effort only pays off if the quality is great!

Why Quality Has To Come First

I really liked the explanation Indian Coach GM Ramesh gave me in a Quality Chess Academy training camp some years ago.

He compared chess training with a workout. If you only lift 500 grams, you will not increase your muscles regardless of the time investment!

Only one repetition with heavyweights will also not do the job. What matters is to find a good balance between quantity & quality.

But it is incredibly important that you start with quality before you start to think about quantity!

If you have a broken system, just adding more steps will not solve the problem. First, you need to make sure to find the mistake, then solve it, and only then start adding more steps.

Before you increase the quantity, you need to make sure the quality is right!

Learning It The Hard Way

It was not until my accident in 2017, that I really started to understand the importance of quality. After hitting my head and suffering whiplash, my ability to focus was seriously impaired.

As a matter of fact, while writing this article I still have to take regular breaks because the tensions behind my neck give me a hard time focusing.

From one day to another my quantity-first approach was no option anymore.

So, instead of the question “how can I do more?” I started to ask myself “how can I train most effectively?”.

I hope you will not need an accident or illness to understand that the quantity-only approach does not work.

The less time you have at your disposal, the more important the quality gets. You cannot over-compensate with more hours for lack of quality.

I do believe that my accident was a blessing in a way. Because I had these serious constraints, I am able to connect much better with the average amateur. I know what it means to have very little time.

What follows are some strategies that helped me improve the quality of my training and thus the output. I am a work in progress, so this list is not definitive.

But, I am sure you will find one or more things that will help you as well.

Start Improving the Quality of Your Chess Training

1) Feel Good With Doing Less

This sounds easy but was one of the hardest things for me. I am a type-A personality, deeply driven to achieve something great. For people like me, doing less can actually be a hard thing!

As said earlier, in our society you get rewarded for working overtime.

But, if you want to improve the quality, you must first switch your mindset. Better quality will mean that you will need to train less than others and will achieve similar or better results!

While this sounds great, I always had the instinct to do more. “If I am already improving with 3 hours/day, what would happen with 6?”. If you think the answer is 2x the improvement, then go back and read the article again.

It is important to understand the law of diminishing returns.

It is a fancy way of saying: at some point adding more time will not increase the output the same way it did before.

The first ten minutes of training have a bigger return than minutes 200-210.

Even more so, there is a point where adding more time actually decreases your returns.

This is because you will fall into the vicious cycle of the quantity-only approach.

In order to feel good about doing less, you need to identify less with the amount of time you spend on your chess training.

Saying publicly you study 3 hours per day will give you social recognition. So, you start to identify with that number. In order to increase your quality, you need to lose out on that public recognition.

It simply does not have the same social effect if you “only” study for 1 hour. But this one hour might well bring you better results!

If you are really serious about chess improvement and want to invest a lot of time, don’t worry. I am not saying you are not allowed to study for 3 hours/day. You can increase your quantity overtime again.

But only when the quality is right! So one step at a time :-).

2) Start Small

Now that you feel good about doing less, you need to use that to start small. Starting small helps you to improve the quality of your training. The goal is that every single session is great.

Not OK, not fine. GREAT.

Sure, you have some bad days. But on these days your chess is not on point, but the intensity is still there. If you manage to fully focus on a bad day, this is a sign your quality is really good.

You can now start to think about increasing the quantity. SLOWLY.

So start with some amount that you will be able to invest regularly with full focus. You will see that already 30 Minutes with great focus/day can make a huge difference!

Then be very strict with yourself as to what you count as training.

3) Only Count Real Training

As I already wrote in the 3 Easy Steps To Your Chess Training Plan, Checking out some chess tweets or watching twitch should not count as training! This is free time!

Thinking about chess is not immediately chess training!

I highly doubt that FIFA Men’s Player 2020 Robert Lewandowski is counting on watching Barca – Real as his training.

It is only training if you actively use your own head and try to improve.

If you want to watch the big guys play AND simultaneously train, you need to do the following:

  • Switch off the Engine (no bar allowed as well!)
  • Think along with every move
  • Write down your thoughts
  • Compare them to what is played / what the Engine says

On the other hand, eating popcorn, lying on your Couch, and seeing the Engine bar go wild is NOT training. It is very enjoyable and you should do it if you like it, but do NEVER count this as training.

The same goes for playing Blitz/Rapid Chess Online. Playing chess by itself does not make it training yet.

If you listen to music, have 10 other tabs open, and do not fully focus, it is not training.

Again, if you like to spend your free time that way, then do it. But do not count it as training. Nor should you expect to improve like that!

You can play chess online as training. But then make sure to read No More Tilt: 5 Ways To Prevent Tilt In Online Chess and How To Improve By Playing Online Blitz: Analyse Every Single Game.

In those articles, I explain what it takes to use Blitzing as a training resource rather than free time.

4) Get Rid Of Distractions

Now that you have the mindset right, we can go to the more actionable steps. The first one is getting rid of distractions.

In his phenomenal book Atomic Habits, James Clear explains what it takes to create good habits and let go of bad ones.

A key concept is to make bad habits harder, and good habits easier.

This means that you should think about your distractions and make each and every one of them as hard as possible!

On the other side, make good habits easier. This will increase the likelihood of a good quality training session.

Let me attack the three most common distractions here.

Mobile Phone

Even with the risk of sounding like a CD on repeat: put your phone away during training. It is the easiest distraction. And the most frequent one.

You fail to solve the puzzle and your phone buzzes with a notification. In a matter of seconds, you are miles away from real focus and spend dozens of minutes browsing social media.

Why do I know that this is happening to you? Because it happens to me. All the time. That is why I try to keep my phone out of the distance whenever I want to focus.

Fun fact: it just happened to me again while writing this article. I had a small writer’s block and did not know how to continue. 10 Minutes later I realize I am just browsing social media and losing time.

As I said, work in progress…

– Computer / Internet

The risk of distraction is the reason why I still like to do some training on a real chessboard. If you are on the Computer, you are only one click away from so many distractions.

Again, as soon as something does not go 100% smoothly, it is hard to refrain from “just checking XYZ for a second” before getting back.

These seconds usually become minutes and the quality of the training is destroyed.

Sitting with your book by a chessboard makes it way harder to get distracted.

Even if a puzzle is hard, you do not have many other options than sitting with it and thinking.

Obviously, this does not work with opening analysis anymore. In that case, you can simply switch off the internet while you analyze. Or at least remove the internet browser from your taskbar.

Again, it is all about making the distraction as hard as possible!

If you first have to switch the internet back on, then close your analysis window and actively double-click the web browser, it is much less likely you do so.

– Other People

What can be only a short and easy question for somebody else, might bring you out of focus. Re-focusing takes a lot of time and that is why you should avoid interruptions.

Try to train in a silent room on your own. Advise your loved ones that you need this time and you should not be interrupted. Also not for silly questions like “when do you want to eat?”.

As a matter of fact, this is one of the main reasons I moved out some years ago. As I was at home all the time, my family felt it was no problem to “shortly ask me something” or give me small tasks throughout the day.

Getting into a flow state or simply a good focus is so much harder with constant interruptions!

Be clear and solve all the questions before you go into your chess study. If something has to be resolved during your study time, you did not prepare well enough.

I know this might sound harsh for Dads & Moms out there. But I believe that you should find 30 Minutes a day when you do not get disturbed.

Again: 30 Minutes with full focus are better than 3 hours with constant interruptions!

Quality first, quantity second!

Here is a recap of the most common distractions and how you can avoid them:

  • Phone –> Put it in another room and on mute.
  • Computer/Internet –> Train on a board with a physical book if possible. When using the Computer, make it as hard as possible to get distracted. Remove the Browser from the taskbar, and switch off the internet if possible.
  • Other people –> Study in a silent room by yourself. Let your loved ones know you should not be distracted during your study.

5) Take Breaks

Taking breaks is essential to keep the quality high. If done right, Chess training is really hard. Your mind will tire soon and you will need to recover.

As we can also take breaks during the game (whenever our opponent thinks) it is smart to do the same in training. You might occasionally want to do an extra-tiring long training, but that should be the exception.

I like the technique suggested by World-renowned Brain Coach Jim Kwik.

It’s crucial to take breaks when you study. Your attention and retention diminish after 25 – 30 minutes. The Pomodoro Technique asks you to work for 25 – 30 minutes, then take a 2 – 5 minute break to stretch, breathe, and hydrate.

Jim Kwik

Put an alarm in place and make sure you really take the time to stand up, hydrate, and stretch. You will feel like a newborn baby after the break.

6) Make Sure The Difficulty Of Training Is Right

This might not ring a bell immediately, but let me explain it to you.

If you are training with too easy exercises, you will soon get bored. If you are training with too-hard exercises, you will soon be discouraged.

Both boredom and discouragement can lead to easier distraction and are in themselves not really what you are looking for.

So, it is essential to find the right level for study, especially when it comes to reading books and solving exercises.

A good rule of thumb for solving tactics is the following:

You should be able to solve around 60-70% of the exercises in less than 15 Minutes.

This falls in line with a rule I have with my Sport Psychologist: Achieving 2 / 3 Goals is optimal. If I achieve all of them, my goals are not high enough. Achieving none means I am not working right or am just not realistic.

If you are able to solve all the exercises, then they are too easy!
But if you fail to solve most of them, they are too hard.

Also, consider that there are different stages of not solving an exercise.

If you are way off, not even close to the solution, you will actually not learn that much from it.

This is like watching Top Level Chess if you are just starting out. It is simply too far away to understand.

Where improvement really clicks in is when you need to be fully trained and focused, but still can’t see 100% of it. That means there was maybe one hidden idea down the line you did not see, but you understood the general concept.

Occasionally you can also be totally wrong, but not too often. With the rule of thumb in the back of your head, you will develop a great feeling of what is good for you.

7) Track The Quality Of Your Training

The last step to increase the quality of your training is to track it!

I am a big fan of writing plans and tracking each training. If you did not set up your own plan, then do it now!

Now that you have your plan ready, you will simply take 2 Minutes after each training to write down a few words.

  • What did you learn?
  • How was your focus?
  • What could you improve?

Keep it simple. As discussed above, good habits should be very simple. So buy yourself a physical planner and make it your chess diary.

I prefer physical books whenever possible. The act of writing with a pen makes you already remember better whatever it is you write down.

After every training session, answer these 3 key questions.

Now you can go through your answers once a week. You will start spotting some themes. Some things come up over and over again.

Improve on one thing at a time, and the quality of your training will massively improve. And so hopefully also your results in the future.

Additional Resources To Improve The Quality

As you might understand, I am obsessed with quality now. In case you want to go down that rabbit hole as well, I have listed some resources for you to check out.

Chess Resources To Improve The Quality:

Non-Chess Resources To Improve The Quality:

and there are so many more… But these are some of my favorites. Remember to apply quality first also to your reading.

It does not matter how many books you read. But rather how much you take out of reading them!

Have fun exploring!

Now it is your turn to improve the quality of your training. Do you have some quality hacks I did not write about yet? Let me know in the comments below!


P.S.: If you liked this article it is very likely you will enjoy my Newsletter as well. Click HERE to sign up and get a FREE guide for your training as well.

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