40 ways to improve at chess, if you're a beginner

In 2019 I started playing blitz chess on chess.com. After my first hundred games, I had an ELO rating of about 650, which put me in the 2nd percentile among players on chess.com. In case you think I just got mixed up on the definition of ‘percentile’, no: I was better than 2% of players, and worse than 98% of players.

Eleven months later I peaked with a rating of 1258, around the 78th percentile.

1258 is a low rating among serious chess players. If I were to enter a tournament, I would probably lose most of my matches. However, compared to where I started, it’s a massive improvement. After sharing many of my learnings in this Twitter thread, I decided to organize all my tips into this blog post. You can skip ahead to the sections that interest you using the links below:

Strategy

1. Control and occupy the center. You can go to more places from the center than you can from the edges.

2. In your first 10 moves or so, try not to move the same piece twice.

3. Start by developing your minor pieces (your knights and bishops), but don’t send them too far afield. A good position to aim for might look like this:

4. Castle early. Ideally before your tenth move, but in general the sooner the better. This has two advantages: it stows your king away safely in the corner, and it connects your rooks.

5. Connect your rooks: create a straight open line between them. This allows them to protect each other; if one gets captured, the other can recapture to make up the loss.

6. Don’t double up your pawns. This prevents them from protecting each other, and means that the one behind can’t advance until the one ahead does.

7. Don’t leave your pieces undefended. Let’s look back at the position from tip #3. White has two pieces that are undefended, i.e. if black were to capture them, white couldn’t recapture on those square. Can you spot them?

8. Always look for check. If it’s available, it is almost always your best move, for the simple reason that it drastically limits your opponent’s options.

9. Bishops are worth slightly more than knights. So try to avoid trading your bishops for your opponent’s knights, and look for opportunities to trade your knights for your opponent’s bishops.

10. When you’re winning, initiate trades. A small advantage in the mid-game will become a large advantage on the endgame. When you’re losing, avoid trades. You want to keep the board as complex as possible for your opponent to avoid letting their advantage compound.

11. If you can plant a minor piece in your opponent’s territory such that it’s defended by one of your pawns and can’t be threatened by any of their pawns, it can be a tremendous thorn in their side.

12. When the two players have castled on opposite sides, the game becomes a race to get as many pieces as possible close to the other player’s king. I don’t know why it works like this, but it does. Don’t lose the race!

13. In general, try to advance your C pawn before advancing your queenside knight. In the position below, black is going to have a hard time advancing their C pawn, which will block in their queen and generally stifle their development.

14. It often seems to work well to push your H pawn so as to disrupt your opponent’s king’s pawn fortress.

15. Coordinate your knights so that they can protect each other. (This is similar to tip #5, i.e. connect your rooks.)

16. The more pawns are on light squares, the more valuable the dark-square bishops. (Because they can still move around the board.) Conversely, the more pawns are on dark squares, the more valuable the light-square bishops. The dark-square bishops are much more valuable here:

Tactics

17. If your opponent exposes their queen in the opening, trade queens with them to prevent them from castling. (It took me SO LONG to understand why people kept doing that to me.)

18. Two pawns on the sixth rank is worth at least a rook. In the position below, white is going to dominate.

19. Look for forks. A fork is a move that attacks two pieces simultaneously. In the position below, white’s knight attacks black’s bishop and rook at the same time.

20. Look for pins. A pin is a move that traps a valuable piece behind a less valuable one. In the position below, black’s G pawn is “pinned”. It can’t advance or capture the queen because white’s bishop is x-raying black’s king.

21. Look for skewers. A skewer is a move that forces a valuable piece to move out of the way, allowing the capture of a less valuable piece. In the position below, black has skewered white’s king, allowing black to capture white’s queen.

22. In a queen-only checkmate, back your opponent’s king into a corner by successively moving your queen so that it is a knight’s-move away from their king. Then bring your king over to support your queen in the checkmate.

23. In a two-rook checkmate, roll their king across the board one rank or file at a time.

The inner game of chess

24. Use your opponent’s time for strategizing; use your own time for tactics.

25. Don’t try to psych your opponent out by playing really fast. It might work, but only on weak players, and either way you’ll lose an opportunity to learn.

26. Don’t get too hung up on your Elo rating. Play chess (the game), not Elo (the meta-game).

27. If you’re on a losing streak, take a break. Don’t play rage-chess. I don’t always follow this advice myself…

28. If someone tries to taunt you or insult you in the chat, do your best to ignore it and just play your game. Should go without saying, but don’t taunt others.

29. Unless you’re Magnus Carlsen, don’t take any of this too seriously. (Easier said than done! My favourite chess quote: “Every chess player should have a hobby.”)

30. Don’t copy your opponent’s moves. If someone does this to you, don’t get psyched out; after all, it means your opponent is letting you do their thinking for them. Just look for your opportunity.

Accelerating your learning

31. Only play timed games. Untimed chess is a boring war of attrition that slows your learning.

32. When playing blitz, choose a time control with an increment. I like 3 minutes with a 2-second increment per turn. This allows your games to play right through to checkmate rather than causing you to randomly flail so you don’t run out of time.

33. Don’t bother studying openings until you can consistently avoid blundering. This will probably take several months of consistent practice.

34. When you do start learning some openings, learn a few unusual ones. Almost everyone rated less than 1200 or so just plays e4 as white and e5 as a response. You can throw a lot of people off just by playing d4 openings as white and Sicilian as black.

35. Go to a chess meetup! You’ll get to play with people who are much better than the people you get matched with online. You’ll get crushed at first, but if you ask them for advice they’ll give you tons.

36. If you’ve hit a plateau, learn some new openings. Your rating will probably drop at first, but at least you’ll be thinking rather than just following the same old scripts.

37. Just because you’re losing a game doesn’t mean you can’t play better or worse. Set a goal for yourself to survive another five moves. If you succeed, try to survive another five. Etc.

38. Decide how good is good enough. I’ve plateaued at a blitz rating of about 1200, and at this point I know that I won’t get any better without serious study. If you want to get really good, be prepared to pay the price.

39. Chessable is spaced repetition software for chess. Use it to learn new openings and tactics.

40. Watch John Bartholomew’s videos. He’s the best chess teacher out there, and most of what I’ve learned I learned from him.


If you found this valuable, I would love to hear from you. Say hello on Twitter, or subscribe here: