Can you get good at chess just by playing a lot of games?
July 26, 2014 6:24 AM   Subscribe

If I just keep playing games online over and over, whether I win or lose, will I inevitably improve my game, or is it necessary that I do some outside study?

Throughout my life, I've tried to get better at chess multiple times only to be discouraged by the amount I keep losing to beginner-intermediate players. I've studied some basic opening theory (control the center, protect the king, develop pieces), and I know about all the tactics (forks, pins, etc.), but when I play on and run an analysis afterwards, the computer tells me that almost every move I make is a mistake (even when I win). I also often find myself in a situation where I have no idea what move I should be making and don't feel like there are any clearly good options.

I've tried studying some chess strategy, but I often feel like it's beyond my understanding, and I haven't found that I can translate it into better play anyway. It's painful to lose so often, but if I just keep playing a bunch of games, will I eventually get better and is there a limit to how far you can go without studying?
posted by PlasticSupernova to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Try playing against in-person opponents who can show you what they're doing/thinking as you're playing. I think you're trying too hard to figure it all out without being able to view the strategy in real-time.
posted by xingcat at 6:26 AM on July 26, 2014

This interesting article seems relevant to your question.
posted by alex1965 at 8:03 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

The answer depends on your definition of "good".

I think it's perfectly reasonable to expect to get to around 1800 or so from just playing, and knowing the basics (you didn't mention anything about endgames, but knowing basic endgame concepts such as opposition is extremely helpful -- especially at lower levels when your opponent may not know them).

2000 is probably possible without structured study for someone who is moderately talented.

2200 probably not possible without study for someone who isn't exceptionally talented.

The most important thing that I would advise is making a concerted effort to put all you can into selecting your moves -- determine the candidate moves, analyze the variations, and then select the move and double check. With online play, the amount of effort that we put into each game has gotten lower. The thing about chess, like many other things in life, you get results based on what you put into it. If you lazily make moves, while switching to youtube or something on your opponent's time, you will not get much value out of the game.

Analysis of your own games is the best method of improvement, but I certainly would not do it with the computer. It's better to just go over it yourself. If you want to use a computer, download something that is actually strong. I recommend Stockfish (free). I have heard that the analysis over-recommends and also often makes poor recommendations in the first few moves of the game.

But, regardless of which computer you use, the way to use a computer to analyze is: analyze and annotate the game yourself, and then use the computer to check your analysis.
posted by robokevin at 8:13 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

when I play on and run an analysis afterwards, the computer tells me that almost every move I make is a mistake

Have you ever heard of Dan Heisman's concept of playing "real chess"? By this he means, before you make a move, you have -every time - checked that, after the move, you can safely meet all of the opponents' checks, captures, and threats. The first two of those can be enumerated easily enough, but recognizing all the threats is more difficult.

If you did nothing but play games, while really bearing down and trying to apply a disciplined thought process like Heisman's, I think you would improve.

I also often find myself in a situation where I have no idea what move I should be making and don't feel like there are any clearly good options.

You and everyone else. Play in quiet positions, or what to do when there seems to be nothing to do, is probably the weakest part of my game. If I really have absolutely no idea what plan is right or what move to make, I resort to stuff like trying to identify my worst-placed or most inactive piece, and improve its position.

Probably there is no way to get better at planning and positional chess without studying.
posted by thelonius at 10:48 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

+1 for Dan Heisman's Real Chess, and anything else by Dan Heisman.
posted by robokevin at 10:54 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you just play a lot of games without any other kind of study, you'll plateau pretty quick (well before 1800 for most people, I'd say).

The one thing that helped my chess game most was regularly doing tactics puzzles. Knowing about tactics isn't the same as being able to recognize and capitalize on a tactical opportunity in a real game (or, even better, create one in advance). Two good sites for this: Shredder (daily problems at varying difficulty levels), Chess Tempo (a large database of problems that get harder as you improve).

Also, a lot of chess strategy basically resolves into tactics once you know what questions to ask. Some questions to ask yourself in quiet positions: which of my pieces aren't doing much, where would they be ideally placed, and how can I get them there? Do I have a pawn structure advantage in one part of the board, and if so how can I take advantage of it? Which of my and my opponent's minor pieces (knights and bishops) are better or worse given the current pawn structure, and can I trade one of my worse ones for one of their better ones?

Finally, choose one or two openings for white and for black and try to play nothing but those for a while, until you really know their ins and outs. This will not only help you win games against people who don't know those openings, but more importantly will give you a practical feel for how to generally approach opening play.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 11:30 AM on July 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I understand the appeal of "Real Chess", and I can look for all the possible checks and captures, but as you say, thelonius, finding all the possible threats is more difficult. If I can't figure out what move I should make for myself, how am I supposed to decide what move my opponent would make?
posted by PlasticSupernova at 3:52 PM on July 26, 2014

PlasticSupernova, one technique that I have found to be helpful is something I got from using the "Enter Null Move" feature in Fritz when I was analyzing positions. This lets you enter a "pass" for one side, and have the computer calculate, in effect, what it could do if it could make two moves in a row.

So, to find the opponent's threats, I like to ask myself what he could do if he could make a second move, as if I had passed on my turn. If you make a move which misses a threat that you needed to defend against, this is kind of what happens anyway, although the position that his threat lands in is a little different.

I should add that another very useful chess concept is: when you see that the opponent has a threat, you should first see if you can make a bigger threat and ignore his, and, only if there is no good active response, look for a defensive move.
posted by thelonius at 6:05 PM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

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