The Beginner’s Tale – First Steps To Chess Improvement

Hello guys and gals, chess brothers and sisters in arms. My name is Nikola, and I never thought that I’ll be writing one of these blog thingies. So, why did I decide to do it? Was it just pure, unadulterated vanity? Perhaps a little bit, but truth to be told, I had a bigger agenda on my mind. Let me set the stage for you.

I tend to read forum posts from time to time, and very frequently I see the following question (or its approximation): “I am just starting to play chess, could you give me tips to get better?” Well, I did answer this exact question a few times myself, so I would like to write a bit about it, in order to help some fresh unfortunate soul that happens to ensnare itself in this feral insanity that is chess… and to shamelessly promote my story in the process… of course.

First of all, just a few words about my chess journey so far. If you are not interested, just skip a paragraph or two. I learned to play chess when I was in elementary school. I played my first games with my grandfather and father, but I was never serious about it. When I was around 15, I stopped playing. Since then, about 20 years have passed. I have one other significant hobby in my life, which is long distance running. I finished a few half marathons and Belgrade (which is a capital of Serbia and the place where I am from by the way) marathon in 2018.

Last year I was able to successfully tear my calf muscle, so I haven’t been running for a few months. Enter 2020. and COVID-19 lockdown. I kind of needed another hobby. Towards the end of February, I opened the account on I chose starting rating of 800 (although my realistic strength was probably around 1000 at the time) and started playing live rapid 1 hour per side games. After 7-8 months, in October, I was able to hit my maximum (so far) rating of 1501.

I will now share everything I did to improve from total beginner to a proud patzer that I am today. Take these points into account:

1. Playing longer time control games is great  

In the beginning, I’ve played 1-2 games a day, 1 hour per side. Nowadays, I play 1 game every 2 days, which is certainly enough. If you want to improve, you don’t just want to be playing games, as there are other things you need to do to get better. If you don’t have the time, don’t play every day, or play 30 minute per side games. Don’t play blitz and bullet if you want to improve. That is probably fun to do, but it is just “blunderfest extraordinaire” for beginner level. 

By the way, try not to resign a game when you find yourself in a losing position. You will learn more that way. Feel free to read more about playing out losing positions and swindling your opponent. As a contrast, I am presenting you the article about defending the advantage and converting it into a win. There you will find another reason to play longer games.

Play 1 hour per side games

2. Analyzing your games will make you stronger

You will need one tool or the other in order to do this. I use PGN chessbook which is free to use. Just Google it and download it. After you’ve played the game, download its pgn file and open it in PGN chessbook.

How can you analyze your games? Well, the short answer is this. The better you get, the more things you’ll notice in the analysis. You should go through your games without an engine first, because you’ll learn more that way. Ask yourself what did you do during the game and why. Make notes on important moves and mistakes. Try out some variations that haven’t been played in the game and write them down. 

To be honest, I am trying to present myself as a goody two shoes here, but I mostly analyze with an engine straight away. The reason is that I have a lot of time during my long games to think about positions that appear on the board, and I mostly analyze right after the game is done. Therefore, I remember the game very well. To be on a safe side, go through your finished games without an engine first, especially if you don’t play 1 hour per side games, and you don’t analyze your games right after playing them.  Engine is great to see if you’ve missed any tactical shot in the game.

Try out your own ideas for moves you or your opponent could have played but didn’t, and see what the engine thinks about those ideas. In short, play with the tool, and you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

More info on this topic is here.

3. Solving tactical puzzles is a must

Many games on lower levels will be decided with a straight up blunder, or because someone will allow a basic tactical shot. Try to practice tactical puzzles every day. You do not need, and you certainly shouldn’t overdo it. I used to do this for an hour a day, but now I am solving around 5 puzzles daily, 10 at the most. There are many options for tactical training. I mostly use Chess Tempo site for this, along with puzzles from time to time. While solving puzzles, look for checks, captures and forcing moves first. The trick is to really think hard to solve a puzzle, never guess the solution.

4. Memorizing opening lines as a beginner would be a mistake

This is a waste of time. Why? Your opponents will not play the best moves and the main lines, as they simply don’t know them on that level. I certainly don’t know them at my level… I know the first couple of moves of the openings I play, but after that point, I am on my own. 

What to do instead?

Follow the opening principles:

– Move your minor pieces from the back rank on active squares (if possible, try not to move them twice).
– Do not waste time moving your pawns aimlessly in the opening (d and e pawns should be moved, along with c pawn from time to time). This is doing 2 things. You are controlling central squares of the board and helping out your pieces, mainly bishops, develop. Do not touch your f pawn in the opening before you start getting a bit better.
– Castle early, thus protecting your king and connecting your rooks at the same time.
– Move your queen from the back rank, but don’t do it too early.

Important note: Bear in mind that opening principles are there to help you out when you don’t possess some concrete knowledge about certain openings. As you gain experience, you will be able to determine when it is fine to break the principles from time to time.

After you play the game, feel free to consult some opening explorer (along with your game analysis) to see if there were some mistakes you could improve on in the future, but don’t overdo it. As I’ve said, openings are not that important on this level.

You can find more info about openings in this article.

5. Study the endgame

Don’t be afraid of the endgame. Activate your pieces, including your king when it is safe to do so, and try to score a win in a slightly better position or defend a draw in a slightly worse position. Learn basic checkmates like a king and 2 rooks versus a lone king, a king and a queen versus a lone king, as well as a king and a rook versus a lone king. Later on, you may learn how to checkmate with a king and 2 bishops and much later with a king, a bishop and a knight.

Apart from that, learn some fundamental positions like Lucena position, Philidor position, and some basic maneuvers like the opposition and the triangulation. If you have a membership on, you can practice those things and more here (some drills are actually free) and more recently here. If not, you can find relevant instructional videos on YouTube.

More detailed article on how to approach the endgame can be found here.

Study the endgame

6. Watching educational YouTube content is golden

There are truly great chess channels out there. Watching these videos will help you to get stronger in every chess aspect. These are my recommendations:

ChessNetwork – Beginner to chess master playlist (you should watch some of these videos multiple times)

John Bartholomew – Climbing the rating ladder playlist, Chess fundamentals playlist, standard games playlist (check this one out after you go through the first 2, as here you can see the thought process of an extremely strong international master). The last playlist is making a lot of difference for me. These 3 playlists are pure gold, but over the board analysis of his own games is also really enjoyable in my opinion.  There are more great videos on this channel. Be sure to check it out.

Hanging pawns – Chess middlegame ideas playlist is amazing. Apart from that, he has endgame playlist which is important for your endgame skills. Along with this, he has opening playlists (those are for later, as I said opening lines are not that important for beginner or weaker intermediate players). After a while you should check some of these videos out, as it will not hurt to get some superficial knowledge about certain opening lines. I’ve started doing this recently, but I am aware that opening lines are not that important on my level.

Daniel Naroditsky (be sure to check his speedrun playlists), ChessCoach AndrasChessDojo and Saint Louis Chess Club have really nice channels as well. I am sure there are much more out there, but all of these are probably more than you can chew, and will occupy your attention for months to come.

In the end, let me wish you a great time on your chess journey. Myself, I am having a blast so far. There are always ups and downs, but chin up my fellow chess friends, as every defeat is just another lesson that will make you stronger in the long run.

Till another time,