One Year along the Road

It’s now been about a year since I started my ‘Road to Grandmaster’ project, so in this post I’ll give a brief summary of the year, before looking forward to the coming year.

The year started with a disastrous performance at Paignton last September – but this was before I’d started studying properly, and at the end of the summer club closed season. Things improved thereafter, and I thought the London Classic in December might be the start of a breakthrough. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite able to sustain the level achieved there over the remainder of the season. The British Major Open in August seemed like another breakthrough, but it was immediately followed by a miserable performance at Sunningdale (which may or may not be attributable partly to tiredness from playing back-to-back tournaments).

Does this year’s up-and-down performance represent improvement? I believe it does, though not as much as I’d have liked. My new ECF grade is 162 (equivalent to 1946 FIDE), up from 152 (1866 FIDE) last year. My latest rating, and first official FIDE rating, is 1966 on the September list, which marks an improvement of exactly 100 ELO points (admittedly involving a conversion between different rating systems) on my rating last year. It also marks a starting point; a point from which my progress towards the title can be measured directly, without the need for conversions.

Given that, despite many hours of hard work, my progress is not all that could be desired, is it clear that I do not have the innate talent required to become an excellent chess player? I’m not yet prepared to accept that as the only explanation. Let’s look at a hypothetical good day’s study from earlier in this summer holiday:

9 – 10 am: Solve tactics problems from CT-Art 4.0
10 – 11 am: Work through Dvoretsky’s ‘Endgame Manual
11 am – 12 noon: Work through Silman’s ‘How to Reassess Your Chess
12 noon – 1 pm: Lunch break
1 pm – 2 pm: Solve tactics problems from CT-Art 4.0
2 pm – 4 pm: Watch an opening DVD
8 pm – 9 pm: Play a couple of 15-minute games on ICC

Next day: repeat.

Looks great, doesn’t it? I used to think so too, but I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that this doesn’t necessarily represent an optimal way to study.

I put it to you that there are two main problems with the above example. Firstly, there are too many different types of material crammed into one day. To quote Nimzowitsch: ‘The simultaneous analysis of different types of positions merely generates confusion in your thoughts…’. Any lessons learned from Dvoretsky are likely to be forgotten when we start working through Silman immediately afterwards.

Secondly, because of the length of the day (seven hours’ study) it’s very difficult to maintain a high level of intensity. Indeed, just the first hour of focused problem-solving is tiring enough to make it difficult to engage fully with the challenging material which follows (Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual). The result is that at some point you end up clock-watching, waiting for the allotted time to end, or studying half-heartedly (e.g. watching a DVD passively, without taking notes, or reading a book without subjecting the author’s opinions to your own analysis).

Having said that, I don’t think the above day’s study is a bad one by any means. The real problem is that it’s not possible to maintain all the time. During term-time, for example, a day’s study might be 15 minutes tactics, half an hour watching a DVD, 15 minutes playing a game online and half an hour reading a middlegame book. With such reduced times it’s clear that nothing profound can be learned from any element of the day’s study. One way in which the pattern can be (and has been) disrupted during the holidays is in the lead-up to a tournament, when I’ve felt the need to flit from opening to opening trying to ‘plug the holes’ in my repertoire. Again, the net result is that very little is learned about any of the openings I play.

A new way of studying

These thoughts about how best to study were triggered by my friend FM Peter Poobalasingam, who introduced me to the idea of ‘deliberate practice’. As I understand it, the basic concept is to practice one element of your chosen discipline, over and over again, until you’ve really mastered it (or at least significantly improved at it). It could be the serve, or a stretched forehand volley in tennis; a particular shot is chosen and repeated many times. In music, it could be a short phrase which is practiced with a metronome until it’s been perfected at that speed (when the metronome can be sped up or you can move on to the next phrase).

I’d now like to complete the Nimzowitsch quote which I started earlier:

“The simultaneous analysis of different types of positions merely generates confusion in your thoughts, whereas a thorough study of one type cannot fail to raise the level of your positional understanding. If you, dear reader, with maximum available intensity sit down to study positions say, with a central file against a flank storm, it would not surprise me at all if as a result you observe a clearer judgement in the field of the endgame. The process of studying one typical position has the aim not only of analyzing this typical position, but also improving your positional understanding as a whole.”

I’ll also quote a reader, Chris Falter, who said the following in response to my ‘Summer of Chess’ post:

“You asked a question about what you should be studying, but I think the more important question is *how* you should be studying. I myself am just now figuring out (at the age of 50!) how important it is to actively engage with difficult material in order to improve. When I look at how I gained piano mastery decades ago, that was definitely the key. I would take on a piece that’s a little beyond my ability, work through it phrase by phrase, repeatedly, until I got it under my belt.”

This post is getting lengthy, so rather than analysing those quotations I’ll jump straight to my proposed new method of study.

• Do away with the weekly study time targets, and stop clock-watching and recording all my study to the nearest 5 minutes.
• Instead, have daily achievement aims, such as ‘Analyse game x.’
• Work until I feel I’ve learned something, or until I can no longer work at a high intensity, not until a set time.

The way I see this working in the next few weeks is in analysing my latest FIDE-rated games deeply. I intend to analyse them in batches by opening, in order to facilitate the drawing of conclusions about general problems I might have in certain types of position. For example, I might choose to start with my French Defence games, in which case I will analyse the first of these until I think I’ve done a good job of it and really learned something (which might take a day, or might take longer, but I plan not to be too concerned about that). Then I’ll move onto the next, and perhaps draw breath at the end of the French games to note connections and shared conclusions, before starting to look at my games in a different opening.

Finally, a word about how long I intend to keep trying to become a Grandmaster, and when I might call it a day. I intend to keep going for the following year (my final year of university), and then probably have a gap year in which I make a special effort. If at the end of that time I’ve not made significant progress then I will be forced to accept that it’s not a realistic aim, but I hope to have enjoyed the journey in any case.

This post has only really covered the ‘how to study’ bit of my proposed new method; a post with some new ideas about what to study will follow.

As always, I value your comments.

39 thoughts on “One Year along the Road

  1. Hey Will,

    I’ve eagerly been reading your blog since I found out about it browsing the chessbase website. And so far I must say: Congratulations on keeping it up! You have methodically studies chess intensely for a year now and progress is showing.

    I refuse to believe that chess mastery can only be achieved if you have a “natural” talent or are “born” with a super high intelligence. Instead, I believe that deliberate practice is the way to achieve something. To quote Josh Waitzkin: “Growth comes at the point of resistance”. If you practice something that you could already do in your sleep, you won’t improve. However, if you stretch your problems “just beyond your current reach”, you will improve. Just as Chris stated above.

    I am a lousy chess player — and I will probably remain lousy, but that’s because I can’t put (much) time and effort into it; instead, I focus on Software Engineering and on my family. And yes: Growth in these areas is visible.

    Always stretch beyond your current limits. The harder you strive, the more likely you will succeed; don’t lose your faith, though. Even if your “elo rating” isn’t significantly higher in three years: If you still have _fun_ playing chess and if it pleases you to learn more chess: Go for it! You WILL succeed.


  2. Hi Will

    Good Luck on your quest i am also trying to improve my game currently 2180 and have managed to go up in the last few years . I think the advice Peter has given you is sound i.e try not to work on too much at one time. Maybe work on one opening or an endgame topic eg Bishop vs Knight endings and really delve into it. With your opening study pay attention to the pawn structures and then focus on learning how to play those eg what pieces to exchange , what ideas and plans work and what dont. Also sometimes you can try too hard at the board to win and force issues when they dont require it and this can lead to a run of poor results where you chase the rating points rather than just play the position . It is not easy to improve but instead of going all out to win maybe try not to lose. In my experience a loss or two is what dents your rating for an event and can lead to over compensating. I speak from my own experience here and my best progress was when i focused less on results. Also the KID needs serious work and white players will come prepared. You will really need to know your stuff here as in some lines the theory is enormous.
    I am happy to talk more in due course but just wanted to wish you the very best of luck on your journey


    1. Hi Mark. Thanks for your suggestions. I’m not sure that going all out to win is a bad thing for improvement, though I agree that it often leads to losses and so lost rating points. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between playing on to the bitter end, trying to find opportunities to win, which must surely be good for improvement even if it leads to the occasional loss through tiredness, and recklessly overplaying the position (which I could be accused of in my game against Burke in Sunningdale at least). Will

  3. Hey,

    Been following your blog for a bit now. I think too intensive study makes it more like homework. Instead why not just keep on doing small things — like tactics practice, reading master games and watching videos throughout the week…

    this is what I’m doing (my fide rating is just 1605 after 2 tournaments), my ICC rating is slightly better at around 1680 — fallen from 1875 a month back…but I guess I would say i’m a 1700 player (based on FICS ratings for a few years)

    1. Hi. I think I have to do pretty intensive study, given my ambitions, but I agree with you (as I said in my post) that it’s certainly possible to overdo it.

  4. Congrats! Keeping the hard work for a year is quite an accomplishment. Your progress is not bad at all and I liked the idea of analyzing the games according the opening, kind of reminded me a book by Gligoric where the games are allocated by openings. I guess it´s a good idea.
    I have an advise for you: study Jacob Aagaard´s books. His books are very instructive and entertaining.

  5. Hi Will,
    I’m an Italian student and chess “player” (in fact, I’m at the point you were a year ago – I’m starting a serious study of chess). I found your blog looking for hints about study program, and I followed it for some weeks.
    I think your big mistake was exactly this: you tried to do too much. I’m not a great chess player, but in all my life I strove for perfection in all my activities and I found out that you can’t work your way to a goal if you don’t plan carefully what to do and, after that, you work in little chunks, not giving them a taste and pass by, but eating them alive.
    Usually, I start trying, looking around the material, I dive into the subject and enter in the right state of mind. Did it with chess and here what I found (of course, this are the insights of a newbie!):
    – Too many things does’t give you anything: if you study at the same time endgame, strategy, and stuff, you can’t really own them, because as everything you must dive into something to master it. I understand you are a student: do you feel good about studying for two different exams at the same time?
    – Chess has to be interiorized: principles must be brought to the reflex level of memory (as, i.e., the principles of languages are), and that’s is the only way to use them proficiently.
    – Positions must be committed to memory through repetition: this may be wrong, but I think that to learn some kind of positions (as foundamental endgames) helps build the famous “pattern recognizing” so dear to chess instructors. Personally, learning some position helped me in playing the relative endgames, so I’m gonna stick with it.

    So this is how I’m gonna go: I made a little study plan, divided into subjects and rating, as “until you get this rating, you have to do this stuff, and work through it until you master it”. This way, I can prevent me going ahead of myself.

    These are my two cents. I feel you, since I am terribly ambitious in everything, and I know what does it mean to aim to the top. I aim to GM myself. 😉

    Keep on, bro!

    PS: As I said, I’m Italian, and English is not my first language. I *think* I can write pretty decently, but sorry in advance for terrible, burn-in-hell-before-you-write-in-english-again mistakes. 😉

    1. Hi Neal. You didn’t make any ‘burn-in-hell-before-you-write-in-English-again mistakes’. 🙂 I agree with a lot of your thoughts, and the best of luck in your own study.

  6. Hi Will,

    These doubts about the right trainings methods are pretty normal, I usually get hit by them every 6 months. Here is a link I found some time ago, it’s about learning and memorization.

    Unfortunately in chess it’s not that simple. On the one hand you must know concrete things (technical endgame positions, common middlegame plans), on the other you have to acquire skills that enable you to find your way in any position – this would be like learning to play the piano.

    You are working with a trainer, right? He/she should be able to identify what’s best for you right now. Broaden your chess knowledge (learning) or perfecting your skills.

  7. Hi Will,
    Thanks for a great blog. I really enjoy reading about your chess, thoughts, training etc.

    Some years ago I started having an online coach and went from 1200 to 1600 rating within a few years. My coach told me I got talent for more and expect to see me climb 400 points more! I started my own study program which included Silman and tons of other books, more coaching and then I suffered from “too much information”. I ended having a terrible tournament, trying to play some mix of all these books and blundered pieces like a newbie!

    My point is that I agree what you and Mark Josse wrote. Try to specialize on some topics. An idea could be that you took a chapter from Soltis’ “Pawn Structure Chess” with the structure associated to your opening(s). Also find the chess GM that suits your style the most and work through his/her games where the pawn structure appear.
    I personally find 3 hours of deep study of a Kramnik game more useful than 20 pages of Reassess Your Chess. I think Silman’s book should only be optional reading, when your focus is too low for “specialization” study! You are to ambitious to just read Silman!

    I hope my topic made sense! Keep up studying and I hope that you will continue posting your weekly report.

    1. Hi Thomas. Thanks for your thoughts, and yes, they made sense. 🙂 Glad you like the blog, and hopefully I’ll continue the weekly reports asap.

  8. Hey Will,
    Glad to see that you’re still hanging in there and have improved some in one year. I think you are on the right track in that you have to spend some time analyzing your own games! Tactics are fine, endgames are good, excellent opening play helps, but you still need to be able to find where you are strong in your own games and where you are weak. Also, try to find the types of openings and middlegames that suit your personality the best. LOVE YOUR BLOG! Good luck!

  9. Hi Will, following your blog. The book Talent is Overated ( found in any bookstore ) is all about deliberate practice and how to make it work for you. Might be worth a look on your down time. Also a big push in one aspect of your game for an extended period of time ( a week or two per area) might make it easier to digest and master one aspect of your play ( such as middle game play, or one partucular opening you intend to really master. Read up the theory, go over some key games covering that subject etc.. Simply a thought. Jason

  10. Deliberate practice is indeed an important term and way to study, but i think it’s not necessarily the same as practicing one particular subskill only. For me deliberate practice means focused technical work, often repetitious, often to the point that it’s not fun anymore, with a very clear goal and a high amount of concentration. Then, there are these studies i’m sure you’ve heard of that 10,000 hours are enough to achieve mastery in any given skill [b]by deliberate practice[/b], that’s the important part, it’s well-defined psychologically. There is evidence for example that Mozart had this amount of practice already as a young child, explaining his prodigy. So i wouldn’t neglect the quantity of practice completely, though you’re probably right that it’s better to focus on one or two matters at a time rather than 5 and not pay attention to the clock too much. On the other hand, i think something like tactics training can always accompany other types of practice. Just my 2 cents here.
    Other than that, i find your practicing and progress quite inspiring already, and i think you’re on a good way. Best of luck to you!

    1. Hi Simon. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you about the nature of deliberate practice, and have been struggling slightly with how to apply it to chess – I think it’s much more obvious in the case of learning a musical instrument or most sports.

  11. Hey will,I am Rony from India and my recent fide rating is 1865.Hey,i also want to be a chess master,but you have to work very hard pal.
    I think you should follow “”.Recently there published a new article…..”A hardcore chess guide” and I think you should follow that article if you have not done it yet!!
    From now on I shall follow your blog in which we can exchange our knowledge,and I shall tell u some very useful resource………ok,good luck till then!!

    1. Hi Rony,

      Thanks for pointing that article out – it’s good, and there are a couple of other interesting articles on the website of the guy who wrote it.


  12. I teach chess to children and adults for a living and I can tell you from experience as a player and as a coach that studying too many things in one day is extremely detrimental. The main reason for this is that the longer you study, the less you’ll remember.

    Everyone knows the whole saying of “your brain is like a muscle.” This is really true, and the law of diminishing returns applies to it as well (just like a muscle). When you work out, you get a lot from your first set, less from your second, and just a little bit from your third (assuming your using the correct set of weight and reps). The reason why bodybuilders don’t go past 3 sets? They get too little from it, or they know they have hit the tipping point and are actually LOSING muscle from having to take longer to heal up/rest up etc. The brain is the same way. Too much studying and you won’t get much from your studying or you lose stuff.

    It seems like your studying roughly 6 hours a day, with 1 hour of play time. With your schedule above, by the time you get to the opening stage, your not going to remember anything (or very little) about the opening, or your going to forget stuff from earlier. Also, until you hit FM or higher, that would be a terrible ratio of study to play.

    A beginning player should study AT MOST 20% of his time and play 80% of his time. FM or higher should study 80% of their time and play 20% of their time. There is a famous chess instructor who said this during a lecture, I’m forgetting who at the moment. So for you, who is above the “average” rating, which would give a 50% study-50% play routine. Let’s say 60% study, 40% play.

    I’d also say knock down your study time to 6 hours. 7 hours is beastly for most people and more than that is harsh. Even Kasparov didn’t study that much:

    When asked “How many hours a day do you study chess?” to which answered:
    Kasparov: At the training camp, I spend up to 6 hours regularly. On a
    daily basis, I still try to spend 1-2 hours a day.

    When you study in any given day, you should focus on ONE aspect of the game in particular. For example:

    Tactics day: Ct-Art, Tactics books, heavy analysis of highly tactical games by the likes of Tal, Kasparov, Alekhine, Morphy, etc.

    Positional day: Reassess Your Chess by Silman (only the most recent edition, prior editions had many errors in the thinking process which Silman admitted to) Guessing the moves of games from Zurich 1953 by Bronstein, My System by Nimzovitsch, etc.

    Endgame day: Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, Silman’s Endgame Course (very good surprisingly), playing through endgames of Capablanca, Rubinstein, Lasker.

    Opening Day: Building your Repertoire, looking through 2500+ games of a specific opening, etc.

    Rotate accordingly. Also make sure to include REST DAYS where you don’t do any chess at all. It is very important to walk away sometimes. Josh Waitzkin, when he was a child, would go on a fishing trip with his dad every summer where he wasn’t allowed to touch chess. Interesting enough, he’d usually come back stronger! I talked to Josh Waitzkin many years back and he said that the breaks from chess were almost as vital as all the studying he did.

    And don’t forget, your health is just as important. Staying physically active and fit can help you stay focused longer and actually help your chess studies. One hour of my personal training plan is one hour of physical exercise.

    Foods with Omega-3s help a lot with studying as well. Just look up “Omega 3 brain benefits” to find multiple studies on it.

    I hope this helps. I know I wrote a lot, but if you have any questions, just let me know.

    1. Hello. Sorry, I thought I’d replied to this a while ago, but it seems I didn’t. Thanks for your thoughts – lots of useful advice in there.


  13. hi will
    i am from Iran (and know english a little,sorry for mistakes)and really interested at your blog, i am 25 now and my elo is 2344. my rating was 2045 two years ago .
    dont worry about your progress rate (in fact my elo was 2037 three years ago!!! )
    3 years ago i decided to be a GM and bagan serious work on chess but at first year apparently i achieved nothing- in fact i achieved a lot but my elo did not increase. but in past two years my rating incredibly (at least for myself) increased.

    some suggestions:
    A) 1- playing blindfold games, 2- studing chess books without using board,

    B) Studing all books of Dvoretsky ( about two years ago GM Ibrahimov told me)

    C) DO NOT use opening DVDs or repetoire books,they are not complete,and are designed based on the author’s interests. Just search at MEGA, using Engines and make your repetoire yourself. this method really helped me .

    good luck dude

  14. I would de-emphasize the CT-Art training and instead practice tactics by analyzing highly complex positions from grandmaster games. Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual is great for this purpose. The Dvoretsky endgame book study will pay off and I am also a fan of Silman’s books. I returned to chess after a ten year hiatus and the thing that got me back into the groove was playing a lot of tournament games with a slow time control. Even so I went into a terrible slump this past year. One of my friends gave me a gift of two lessons from his coach, GM Viktor Gavrikov. Within two or three weeks I managed to beat an IM with a crazy series of tactics involving a knight and queen sacrifice which at the heart was similar to a position that Viktor had shown me in the first or second lesson. The IM didn’t have to lose as my aim had been to force perpetual check but the point is I had never beaten an IM before (though I had at least one draw that I can recall). Anyway, I have continued with the lessons which have been very instructive.

    When we do tactical or positional exercises at the chess club out of Volotkin’s “Perfect Your Chess” etc. it seems that I am instinctively drawn to the correct move even when it seems counterintuitive to my old ways of thinking, based on what Viktor has taught me.

    Consider some GM instruction to help you along. Also analytical sessions with players who are your equals or better chesswise are also very helpful.

    Good luck in your quest!


    1. Hi Vlad,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Some useful suggestions there. I have had some GM instruction, but only via text online, and am trying to get a face-to-face coach instead.


  15. Dear Will

    There are many good comments and pieces of advice. I think you should think about a few things I did not see you are focused.
    1) PLAY many serious games (up to 15-20 monthly); OTB play is absolutely necessary, but playing chess servers (sites) will be good too.
    2) ANALYSE your games with your own brain and after that with a strong engine
    3) WRITE DOWN all the mistakes you have found
    4) MAKE CONCLUSIONS about things (mistakes) that should be improved (fixed)
    5) THINK and LEARN how to avoid these mistakes next time
    6) ALWAYS PRACTICE against stronger players (optimally 150-300 points above your level/rating)
    7) IN EVERY (serious) GAME give yourself to the fullest (play in optimal conditions and make sure you are focused and motivated – you have to learn how to win and after defeats you have to understand what was the cause of it)
    8) At your rating try to PLAY (practice) games 35-40% and LEARN (and analyse) rest of the time (55-60%).
    9) Do not practice more than 5 hours daily – when you break this barrier your brain will be overloading no later than in one month – this way you will not learn as fast and effective as you can. Remeber about sport and physical activites.
    10) Have an additional hobby: when you have a rest you should relax and in your spare (free) time – do what you like most (but not chess!)
    11) Set up “little steps” (goals). When you are 1800 set up your goal as to get to 1900. When you are 1900, than take your next “mini-goal” a bit higher (at 2000). That way you will faster experience successes and you will see how fast you are obtaining next steps (goals).

    Enjoy that process of improvement and have a good time! Good luck!

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