How to Become a Better Chess Player in Memphis
by USCF Chess Coach and Tournament Director, Rafi Chowdhury
While playing chess is considered an excellent pastime, not just anyone can try their hands at this royal game and come out as the winner. It takes an open and strategic mind to trump your opponent at this battle of wits. So, I have decided to share with you some general guidelines which, if followed, are guaranteed to improve your playing strength considerably. You can expect to step up your game both literally and figuratively. Perhaps, you will even be able to beat your dad at chess by the end of this article (by the way, check out “How to Beat your Dad at Chess,”… it’s an actual book and a great read for beginners!).
Step 1 – Practice & Play
As the old adage goes, “practice makes perfect,” and this is especially true if you are an aspiring player who wants to become a competitive chess player. I would recommend playing over-the-board tournaments as often as possible (preferably 3-4 times a month). For example, when I, Rafi Chowdhury, got into chess, I used to play tournaments almost every weekend at the Memphis Chess Club and other local venues. I often played at the Noble Mind Chess Club and Shelby County Chess Club in Memphis also. No matter how you look at it, I was always playing chess ever since I learned this game. If I could not find humans to play chess against, I played against computers. In fact, I first played chess against computers for the first couple of years before I even discovered that there are local chess clubs in Memphis. But the main point I am trying to make here is that you need lots and lots of practice if you want to become a better chess player. As the famous author, Malcom Gladwell, wrote in his famous book, “Outliers,” you need 10,000 hours of practice before you can become a master at anything. The same holds true for chess. As a matter of fact, Gladwell actually uses chess grandmasters as examples to give support to his theory.
Playing online chess can also help if you are not able to find human, over-the-board opponents to play against. But, in my opinion, online chess is not as fun as over-the-board-chess. Facing your opponent across from a board has an uncanny feeling to it that online chess simply can never replicate. But, if no other choice exists, hop online on chess servers such as ICC or Free Internet Chess Server, or chess.com and play a few casual games or even join an online tournament! Online games sometimes fall short of being educational but are, nonetheless, a great way to brush up on your openings. If you cannot make it to tournaments on a regular basis or there are not many chess tournaments in your area, then I would suggest going to your local chess club where you can catch a few semi-serious games of chess while enjoying a friendly atmosphere and socialize with fellow practitioners.
Step 2 – Tactics Training & Puzzles
Tactical puzzles are chess positions and compositions which are structured so that you can learn from ideas and positions which are instructive. Puzzles often also include pedagogical characteristics which help with our pattern-recognition abilities and ability to use chunking to store chess positions in our brain. Chess Tactics for Beginners, for example, is an ideal book for tactics training. Doing about 50 puzzles a day will definitely help guide you in the right direction toward chess mastery. If the Chess Tactics for Beginners book becomes too easy for you (which it will if you are doing 50 puzzles a day!), you should consider moving onto Chess Tactics for Advanced Players. There is obviously a huge difference between sitting at home and doing chess puzzles vs. going to an actual tournament and applying these skills over the board in an actual game, but this is why chess is both science and a sport at the same time. It has a 2-part nature: knowledge and application. You just cannot achieve chess expertise without a little bit of both.
Step 3 – Game Analysis
This is really one of the most important aspects of learning to become a better chess player. Nothing can teach you more than to go through your own games and find the areas where you are constantly making mistakes. You need to make a conscious effort to catch these mistakes each and every time and then begin to pay attention to exactly where you went wrong and why you went wrong. Is it because you miss the Knight-fork every time? Do you always move the pawns in front of your castled King position, in the process weakening your castled King structure? Are you just weak positionally? Identifying and learning from your own games is worth gold in value if you do it on a regular basis. You can also study the games of the masters to see why masters are so good. What is it that they are doing that you are not? This is also a great way to learn new openings and understand certain deeper themes and concepts in chess. Game analysis is one of the most important aspects of chess mastery, yet it is often one of the most ignored also. Take advantage of your game analysis sessions to polish up on your openings, middlegame, and endgame concepts. However, in order to be able to analyze your games, you also need to learn Algebraic notation. Chess notation is used to write down your games so that you can later go back and play through your games again. Learning notation is very easy and definitely a very worthwhile piece of knowledge to have. If you want to play competitive chess, you pretty much have to learn how to notate your games since most tournaments require the notation of all games in the tournament. Another good idea is to get a coach or stronger player to analyze your games with you. He or she can use expert knowledge of the game to point out any mistakes you are consistently making in your games and teach you the proper way to handle such errors in future games.
To get in touch with some chess coaches in Memphis, send me an email through the Contact Info page of this site. Some chess players make the mistake of using only chess engines to analyze their games. While chess engines are obviously helpful and can help tremendously with opening preparations and tactics, they are not often the most reliable resource when it comes to understanding themes and concepts in chess. There are some sophisticated programs in the market, such as Fritz, which try to take a stab at explaining chess themes and concepts. However, even the best programs and software still are no match for human consultation. So, don’t heavily rely on your computer for the analysis of your games. Use your own head too! You can first analyze the game by yourself and only then, use the computer to see what you missed in your own analysis. This way, you learn to not just rely on the computer to spit out moves to you which you may or may not always understand. Computers simply crunch numbers and may give you the best move in any given position, but if you do not understand why it is the best move, I guarantee you will not be able to find those moves in your own games. Remember tactics are slave to strategy…always. So, focus on understanding the strategy and concepts behind every move. If you are not prepared to explain why you played a particular move, you should not play that move at all.
Step 4 – Learn Opening Theory
You need to familiarize yourself with the most common opening ideas and principles. Some openings are very technical and are many moves deep and have lots of variations. So, it does not help much to just sit there and memorize every opening. Instead, focus on understanding the ideas behind the openings. Try to get a firm grasp of why certain types of moves work in the opening and why others do not. Understanding the ‘Why’ will help you to figure out the ‘How’ and the ‘What.’ When you get to a rating of about 1600, you should then consider memorizing the most common lines and variations of the openings you play. I memorize at least 15 moves of the most common variations of the openings I play. It s a good way to not fall for common opening traps. I usually play the same openings repeatedly, so over the years, I have come to learn most of the traps and zaps which are common in the openings I play. If you are not familiar with the openings of your choice, I would suggest you get a good book on the particular opening you want to focus on and spend some time understanding the basics of that opening and then move onto another one. For example, some common opening principles include moving your Knights before your Bishops, controlling the center with your pawns and pieces, castling towards the Kingside as quickly as possible, developing your pieces toward the center of the board as quickly as possible, not moving your Queen out too early, etc.
Step 5 – Develop Your Own Style & Preferences
Seriously, do it! You want your playing style to be original and stylish. As you play more chess, you will soon realize there are certain positions you tend to favor more than others, or certain openings which you are more comfortable playing. If you find such a style, go ahead and adapt to it. But, do not make the mistake of always adhering to that style. It is a very good idea to often divert from your original style and try out something new. This will help you get a deeper understanding of chess and positions which can happen in any chess game. But, still, we love players who have a creative and original style. Figure out what your style in chess is and brand yourself with that style. It will give you lots of self-confidence, which is essential if you are looking to become a better chess player in Memphis. I would recommend picking up a few books which have master games and look at their styles. See how they play original chess. Once you get to about 1400-1500, you will inevitably have some style to your game. Then, go out and show off your style over the board to your chess friends and opponents. Take note of any advice given to you on your style by advanced players. Write these down and try to incorporate them into your future games. To get even better at this “style” thing, refine your thought process and always look for ways to implement new and original ideas over the board. Novelty is what makes chess an art.
Step 6 – Master the Endgame
After initially learning the basic checkmates, which include King and Rook vs. King, and King+Queen vs. King, you need to focus on more advanced mating patterns. For more advanced players, I would recommend Jeremy Silman’s Complete Endgame Course. This book will have all the materials you need to know to make you into an endgame specialist! Focus on the areas of the book where you think you are lacking and understand the concepts thoroughly. It is never a good idea to rush through endgame studies. It takes a long time to master endgames, but once you do, you will always have the fundamental knowledge.
Step 7 – Study 1 Annotated Game Per Week (at least)
If you are a more serious player looking to improve more quickly, you should study about 5 games each week. There are many books out there which solely focus on master game analysis. You can even buy software such as ChessBase which has thousands of annotated games in its database. But, this is a very important habit to get into and practice on a regular basis if you want to dominate the Memphis Chess scene.
So, I have given you some basic understanding of the things you need to do if you want to become a better chess player in Memphis. Our city does not exactly have the best chess scene in the world, but there are most certainly a lot of good players here and so competition is fierce. If you want to become the best of the beast chess player in Memphis, focus should be given on consistent and guided training in chess (preferably with a coach if you can afford one). You have to treat it just like any other sport. If you want to become the best basketball player in Memphis, you would obviously want to practice and hit the gym as much as you can. Same thing for chess. Go out there and talk with other chess players. There is a lot to learn from just talking to other players about the strategies they take to improve their chess game. Also, remember, patience is key. You cannot expect to get into chess today and think you will become a Grandmaster tomorrow. In fact, the amount of work and specialized knowledge it takes to become a Grandmaster is so complex, it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to explain to you. I don’t even know all of it since I am not a Grandmaster myself! But, start small and dream big. Even if you cannot become a Grandmaster, you can definitely at least get to a USCF National Master level in chess if you stay at it long enough. The reason most people cannot get to an Expert or Master strength is because they either give up playing competitive chess or they just don’t train properly. If you have more questions about chess or how to become a better chess player in Memphis, be sure to reach out to me via the Contact Info page. I have more than 7 years of chess coaching experience and recently launched a company which teaches a chess leadership-based program to students in various schools around the city of Memphis. I would be happy to help you in your chess journey toward mastery. Just don’t forget to reach out to me! And, now you know exactly how to become a better chess player in Memphis!
Good luck, Rookie Chess Players!