Winning 752 points in 6 months. What sounds like a ridiculous marketing pitch is the real success story of my student Tatjana. She managed to raise her chess.com rapid rating from 269 to 1021 points in only half a year.
In this article, I want to go through three key factors in this success story. Hopefully, some of you can emulate her success.
Key Factor #1: Basics, Basics, Basics
Sometimes I think I sound like a rotten CD recorder. Repeating the same boring things over and over again. But the thing is.. these things work!
One of the main difficulties with improving your chess nowadays is that you have too many things to choose from. It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the chess advice, videos & courses out there.
My task as a Coach is mostly to remind the student of what really makes a difference. That might not be as flashy & cool as learning a new opening every day, but it works so much better in the end.
So what were these basics for Tatjana?
1) Don’t hang pieces
In the beginning, one should work on their board vision. We did this by asking one simple question after an opponent’s move:
“Which pieces are now attacked?”
Whenever we went through a game played by her, I asked this question. The key here is that I should not say: here you blundered the Queen. This is easy for me to spot, but I should teach her to see it herself. When she got a little more experienced she started solving some puzzles on Lichess. I really like the filter for ‘hanging pieces’.
Keeping it simple at the beginning avoids overwhelming yourself.
2) Opening Principles
Many beginners want to immediately learn a ton of opening theory. What is much more important is to learn the opening principles. Especially in games of players below rating 1000, you will see mostly off-beat moves and some cheap trick openings. Once you know the opening principles, it is easier to respond to these strange-looking moves.
Some questions that came up:
- How do I respond to early Queen moves?
- What am I doing if they only move their pawns forward?
- Where should I castle?
If you want to know more about opening principles, then check out my article on them.
3) Work On Basic Tactics
I repeat this a lot, but tactics are the most important thing in chess. Especially if you are rated below 2000. So it is only logical that we worked on that much more than any endgames or strategy.
Why should a student pay me $200/hour if they can get this course with a monthly membership starting from $49? The main aim of having a Coach is to avoid the pitfalls, analyze the games and get a training program that fits your needs! 90% of the chess work of my students happens when they work by themselves on a training plan we drafted together.
A big factor in the training plan was basic tactics. Once she started to spot those in the games, her rating went up massively.
Key Factor #2: Plateaus are Normal!
As you can see in her rating graph, Tatjana had some down periods in those 6 months! It is not a straight line at all. And that is totally normal. When you learn new things you usually need time to process them and put them into practice.
We know this from other sports: A Ski driver works on their body and technique BEFORE the season starts. If everything goes well, they then show their improvements in the races from October to March.
But the real work happens from April-October.
The same applies to other sports where most of the training happens in a different period than the results are showing. Sometimes we forget about this in Chess. We learn how the pin works and want to apply it immediately in the next game. Luckily, things aren’t that easy. Otherwise, everyone would be a Grandmaster (and I would be without a job…).
If you want to improve you need to prepare yourself for stagnation periods. Don’t immediately lose hope when things are not going perfectly well. Otherwise, you put in all the work and never see the improvements just because you gave up too early. There were times when Tatjana wasn’t believing in her goal of reaching a 1000 rating anymore. I tried to help her focus on the process, keep doing the right things, and told her results will come.
What is funny is that most of the progress came at unexpected times.
For about a month she did not work much on Chess because of other commitments. After this, she came back and won 250 points!
During her time off she internalized some of the new things and the pressure went away. Playing just for fun, she rarely hung pieces, used some of the tactical themes, and won a lot of games (and points!). Results usually come when you expect them the least! If you keep doing the right things consistently, you will reap the benefits of your work. Do NOT get discouraged just because you stagnate for 1-2 months.
If you want to dive deeper into what I call the Effort → Pain → Improvement cycle, you can read my article on it.
Key Factor #3: Play for Fun & Improvement, Not Rating
The third factor ties in nicely with the acceptance of plateaus. It is tempting to play for rating once you are close to reaching a certain milestone. But that’s usually when disaster strikes.
“I’m so close to my new high, just one more game and then I stop” is something I and many of my students know all too well. As I highlighted in my article on tilt, this is usually the start of a 10-game marathon without good focus and with horrible results.
The opposite can actually also happen: once you reach a new high point you fear playing games because you could “mess up” your precious rating. Both problems stem from an exaggerated focus on short-term results. Once you zoom out a little, you start to realize that the rating today is pretty insignificant! What matters is how much you learn.
Not convinced yet?
Think back to the 18th of April 2022. What was your rating on that day and how did you feel about it? No clue? See, once you progress on your chess journey, the rating on certain days does not matter at all. It is easy to understand this in hindsight. The challenge is to do it in real-time.
For Tatjana, this worked sometimes better and sometimes worse. The question that usually does the trick is:
Why do I want to keep playing?
If your answer has anything to do with results, it is probably time to stop. Refresh yourself, go take a walk, and re-focus on what matters: the quality of your moves and how much you enjoy & learn in the process.
As mentioned above, the rating gains usually come when you don’t expect them. Getting back after her month without chess Tatjana did not have any expectations. She just wanted to have fun and play some games. And soon later she had 250 points more and an all-time high!
Since then it is a little tougher to focus on the process once more and stagnation has set in. But I’m sure with the right mindset and work ethic, Tatjana will once more crash through her plateau and keep improving her Chess.