Recently, one of my friends from the Kenilworth Chess Club asked my advice on how he can improve his rating to move from about 1600 ELO into the 1800-2000 range. Here is a slightly improved and expanded version of the study plan I suggested to him....
Improving is hard, and I'm certainly no expert at it since I have not improved myself (chess rating-wise, anyway!) in 20 years. But I will say that the biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that there is chess knowledge and there is chess practice, and the two are not the same. Reading chess books gives you knowledge, but you need training and experience to improve your practical results. Knowledge is in your head to some extent, though we should admit to ourselves that most of it remains in the books we collect as reference. Those of us, like myself, who have collected chess knowledge own a lot of books and know very well where to find information, but we can't always demonstrate our knowledge over the board. Practice, meanwhile, is in your body as something you really own and can act on. Most chess writers suggest that you need both knowledge and experience to improve. But the two are not equally important to practical results, and the truth is that most of the time you spend collecting knowledge is wasted if you cannot put it into practice over the board.
Of course, I'm not the first to say this. That's what Michael de la Maza's famous Rapid Chess Improvement: A Study Plan for Adult Players (reviewed here at great length in 2005) is all about. And books such as John Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess and Alex Yermolinsky's The Road to Chess Improvement develop the theme at length. But for those who have not read these books, let me boil it down for you into a ten point plan so that you can decide if you really want to do what it takes to improve.
After all, to train well enough to improve your over the board results, you have to approach chess with a sportsman's or athlete's sensibility. I think we'd benefit more financially, romantically, and in terms of our life expectancy from committing to an intensive fitness training routine like P90X over an intensive chess routine. But if you want to get better at chess, or you have the motivation to do both fitness and chess (in which case, more power to you!), then you have to apply the same attitude to your brain as you would to getting a "beach body." It's just that most people will never see how fit your brain is...
If you choose to make the commitment, here is the ten point plan:
1) Study tactics, tactics, and more tactics. Learn the basic tactical motifs and practice combining them by doing lots of puzzles. Buy CT-ART or some other intensive tactics training program if you want to intensify your training and you are as committed as a Knight Errant. The CT-ART program helps you monitor your progress and presents material in a very usable format.
If you don't feel like investing in a commercial program, there are plenty of free tools and puzzle collections available online, including the addictive Chess Tactics Server, DejaScacchi, Chess Puzzles by GMs, and ChessBase Puzzles. Design a program of trying to solve X number of puzzles in an hour and keep track of your scores, trying always to improve your percentages and your times.
2) Do a limited amount of focused endgame training. With faster time controls, endgames are becoming more rare and endgame training is therefore becoming less vital to success below the master level. But it is important to possess some basic knowledge if you want to improve your results -- especially since any amount of study will give you a significant advantage over most players below 2000. And, again, it is not important to have a lot of books here to master the subject. Most endgame books, after all, are like grammar books, dictionaries, and other reference works: they sit on the shelf unread except when we have a specific question. If you buy one good training manual and actually read it you will get more benefit than you would from twenty books on the shelf. My best suggestion would be Bernd Rosen's Chess Endgame Training, which is ideal for class players through master who have learned some basics already but need training and practical experience to improve the knowledge they carry with them to the board.
3) Commit to a single solid repertoire as Black and one as White. Decide on an opening repertoire, map it out carefully with the help of a stronger player and some literature (or CD or DVD), and stick to it for a long time. Since you'll be sticking to it for a long time, it should be a valid repertoire. It could have a gambit or two as a sideline or alternative line (unless it is something fully legitimate like the Scotch Gambit), but you should prefer openings you can keep for a long time and not grow out of.
As you develop a repertoire, keep book-buying to a minimum. Not only will you then do more playing, but you'll also spend less time figuring out what theory says and instead learn to think for yourself. And remember: there are lots of great opening resources online for free. If I were to recommend a good opening system for a beginning to mid-range player, I might suggest one built around the isolani pawn formation with the following three books: Meeting 1.e4 by Alexander Raetsky (truly an excellent book), Meeting 1.d4 by Jacob Aagaard (not as good as Raetsky's, but a great fit), and An Attacking Repertoire for White by Sam Collins. If that is not so attractive, you could just go with Alburt, Dzindzi, and Perelsheyn's Chess Openings for White, Explained (reviewed here in August) and Chess Openings for Black, Explained. But whatever you choose, keep it simple and study it well. Don't stop with the books themselves but train yourself in these openings by doing your own analysis, playing often, and looking at lots of master games in these lines.
4) Play through lots of games. Review hundreds of master games in your lines where the good guys win until you literally have the critical ones memorized and you have absorbed the key patterns from the rest. It's almost less important that you fully understand what's going on in these games than that you internalize the strategic and tactical patterns. Don't bother so much with annotated games or research, unless that comes your way naturally. Just try to get the patterns and make them stick.
The simplest way to go through lots of games is online at any of the database sites, including NICBase (probably the best free tool for the study of opening lines), ChessBase, Chessgames.com, and ChessLab. For most students of the game below 2000 rating, the commercial databases are a waste of time. It's less important to own a good database on your computer than to use a database well to improve the knowledge that you have with you at all times.
5) Read on strategy only as it relates to your openings or problems you have in your play. If you are playing openings where you are likely to get an isolani, pick up an article or two or three or four on that theme. But don't feel you have to learn everything or master every strategic idea. Focus instead on the ones that apply immediately to the openings that you are playing or the strategic mistakes you are making in your games.
6) Decide how to make decisions and practice it. Work on your "thinking" -- your decision making process. This may be most critical of all. If you have a good decision-making process and you train with it, you will reduce your errors and improve your use of the clock dramatically. You will also be able to play with more confidence and start to improve your calculating ability -- which you can only really start to hone through practice and experience.
You can develop a rubric for guiding your thinking with a coach, with a book, or with any number of online articles. Dan Heisman has written some excellent articles on the subject in his Novice Nook column at ChessCafe, including "A Generic Thought Process," "Initial and Final Candidate Moves" and "Improving Analysis Skills." Those article alone would be sufficient for most developing players.
7) Get experience, and lots of it. Play a ton of games against computers, against people online, at tournaments, and at the club. Getting your game count up will increase your experience and will reinforce your training. If nothing else, it will also give you some games to look at closely with a coach. Remember that you have to lose 10,000 games before you can improve....
8) Find a coach or mentor. A coach will be most helpful with refining your thinking process (including intrusive thoughts), helping to choose your openings, and going over your own games so you can ask questions and start to understand "Why?" As you train, "How" is more important than "why," but eventually you'll need to know "why" also.... If you cannot afford an actual coach, try to develop mentoring relationships with stronger players. Or take advantage of free advice on forums such as Openings for Amateurs or Chess Publishing. But recognize that you get what you pay for and the best coaching does not come for free.
9) Make a time committment. You have to devote at least two hours a day on average to it with weekly to monthly sessions that are longer -- sort of like going to the gym every day to train, doing some more intensive sessions on the weekend, and then running a marathon once a month. Basically, stop watching TV almost entirely. You should play in a tournament at least once per month.
Remember: the one thing that Michael de la Maza never mentions in his book is that he was unemployed during his period of intensive training. I would guess he was also single, childless, and not a home owner. The reason why young people can improve so rapidly is because they have the time to devote to their training that most adults do not. The only advantage that an adult might have over a kid is that we can do things more consciously and deliberately than kids might. If you set aside the time, you can get it done.
10) Find a partner. Think of it like getting a gym partner and choose one with the same attitude as you'd want in a friend likely to get your butt into the gym. You want someone who is willing to commit to going to tournaments and who will challenge you to go further with a bit of friendly competition. You want someone at about your strength or better who will also make a good sparring partner.
I know that most of that advice is fairly standard and really applies to everything you want to do well -- from getting good at a sport to music to writing. And some of it boils down to "don't buy more books, just read the ones you have!"
I just hope it discourages you enough that you choose P90X instead....