Dear chess friends,
Since I started this project, I had decided to collect progressively all the articles, videos and other selected pieces of advice from books that could be valuable to improve my chess level in a minimal amount of time.
From that sad conclusion, I decided to dig a little bit deeper and decrypt hundreds of interviews of 2700+ players to see if I could extract from their comments the best methods to improve in chess.
From Carlsen to Anand, to Judit Polgar, Nakamura or Vachier-Lagrave, you will find below my compilation of the top 50 tips of 2700+ players relating to chess improvement. (I actually make an exception with Mark Dvoretsky, as he was one of the best chess coaches and author in the world, as well as an excellent player).
As seen the length of the post, I start with the first 25 tips and will post the rest next week before the main conclusion of my project! Let’s go!
50 – Viswanathan Anand on body language trick
Interviewer: One of the more fascinating things you’ve said about reading your opponents has to do with listening to their breathing. What’s that about?
VA: When you’re sitting across someone, you unconsciously tend to listen to their breathing and become attuned to it. Invariably, at that level of proximity, if your opponent holds his breath or moves, or stops moving, you tend to take notice. If this is in an innocent position, I don’t give it much thought, but, in a tense position, if my opponent suddenly holds his breath I ask myself ‘Did he make a mistake, let me have a look’. So this information is in addition to what I get on the chess board.
When I discovered this trick, I said to myself it would be the first piece of advice I would mention. I admit this won’t serve many of you often but a trick is a trick; you can have it up your sleeve and use it in times of need.
49 – Magnus Carlsen on elements of bluff in chess
Interviewer: Is always winning simply a matter of move or did you find other ways to beat your opponent?
Doing better moves is the best play. There isn’t really a substitute for that. But you can use psychological tricks like playing your opening fast. Your opponent might think you prepared at home with a computer and he is not really sure if you are bluffing or not, so yes there is an element of bluff.
Let’s continue with another classical chess trick which consists in playing quickly your opening moves! Remember here that whether you are bluffing or not, the psychological impact can definitely be valuable!
48- Magnus Carlsen on solving puzzles
Interviewer (talking about endings puzzles from the book of Muller and Lamprecht, fundamentals chess endings): If you were to take 20 random positions out of it, how many would you solve instantly, from memory?
Surprisingly, Magnus answered that he is very bad in solving exercises. He could have passed the test better a year ago but now, he is relying more on practical experience and general knowledge acquired from that kind of books and thus understand endings better.
Interviewer: Come on how can you be bad at solving puzzles?
MC: I’m not very good at it
Interviewer: Compared to what, to some of your peers or?
MC: yeah, to anyone… and then they (opponents) ask me ask him how can you beat at tournaments where you can’t solve this and I say, yeah I’m wondering the same but there we go.
So the question is, was Magnus bluffing or not? My guess is he doesn’t see the point of solving puzzles which don’t come from real games, the ones being created only for their difficulties. It is probably what we have to take away here!
47 – Viswanathan Anand and Vassily Ivanchuk on memorizing chess games by heart
Interviewer: Has the importance of remembering games from memory lessened over the years?
VA: That’s evolving. My memory used to be very good when there were less games to remember. Now, maybe it’s happening naturally – getting better at remembering only the things I need to. A non-chess example would be earlier, before mobile phones came about, I knew at least 30 phone numbers by heart – embassy, sponsors, parents, friends, etc. Now there are possibly just three that I can recall from memory. The same has happened in chess. It’s more important to remember the critical moments and what you’re supposed to play rather than every move of every game. So over time your brain switches.
Interviewer: Is it true that you have a very strong memory and that you can remember all 48 games of the Kasparov vs. Karpov match?
VI: No, no! (starts laughing). May be it’s true that I have quite a good memory, but it’s easy to understand that to remember all of Karpov and Kasparov games, full games, it’s not so useful. There is no practical reason to do that. So I remember opening ideas and some interesting moments.
I thought after the tricks and, Carlsen’s semi-bluff, that it would be better to give you more concrete advice. Here Ivanchuk and Anand tell us the truth about memorizing entire games: it overloads your memory inefficiently. I guess it is more useful to memorize your chess preparation instead and I give you all the tools here!
46 – Magnus Carlsen on avoiding bad sugar while playing
Interviewer: What diet regime do you follow?
MC: He tries to have a steady level of blood sugar while he plays, try to eat as little sugar as possible
A quick piece of food related advice from Carlsen which will help you avoid energy crashes during the game. Not a surprise but always good to remember!
45 – Viswanathan Anand on avoiding small talk before a game
Interviewer: Do you travel with your wife.
VA: Anand explains it is important to stay alone to keep the focus. Especially, he tries avoiding social contacts and other small talks that could deconcentrate him. Even a little support like “good luck” may definitely disturb him before playing.
Basically, Anand explains it is better avoid any talk before the game as it could alter your focus from the game. This seems quite hard to establish at amateur level, but you can certainly try it in tournament situations and see if it helps you.
44 – Judit Polgar on family support
Interviewer: You’re one of the best chess players in recorded history. Did you feel immense pressure with that title while you were competing?
JP: At some time there are expectations which you have to handle. I was lucky to have a family supporting me all the time. Later on it was my husband. But the pressure is something you have to get used to and deal with.
If it is probably better to avoid too much talk before a game, however counting on your friends and family afterwards is certainly one of the best ways to release the pressure.
43 – Viswanathan Anand on paying attention to your posture
By answering a question about his fitness regimen, Anand also talked the fact that he pays attention to his posture.
VA: I also find things like stretching helpful for paying attention to my posture because even when I’m sitting there during a game for long hours, I want to be comfortable.
As Anand explains, especially if you suffer from physical tensions from time to time, it is better to pay attention to your posture. I wrote a full article on the subject if you are interested.
42 – Viswanathan Anand on chess diet
Interviewer: How would you define your fitness regimen and how has the thrust on the physical aspect in chess evolved over the years?
VA: One of the biggest changes in chess is the growing importance of the physical aspect. Even during a game you’ll see players bringing some special juice, concoction, energy buzz or even a banana. At some point, maybe in three hours, suddenly you see them go and consume this stuff and return. All this focus on diet and fitness is starting to come in.
Maybe 20 years ago it was not all that important. It was just very basic. A good walk in the evening to clear your head. Then people started going to the gym, playing sports just to be able to cope. Now they’re even doing things in slightly more scientific ways, like paying attention to one’s diet among other things. As for me, I do whatever I can. For me it’s as much as about getting rid of tension where you’ve still not detached yourself from the game that’s finished.
41 – Wesley So on constantly questioning yourself
Interviewer: You beat Hikaru Nakamura in the first round of the Sinquefield Cup and now you beat him again at the London Chess Classic. Were you already beginning to feel optimistic about your chances?
WS: No, not really. In chess you can never take a single thing for granted. Any one of these guys can suddenly upset you in a major way. On this level there are no weak players and every game is perilous. A player may seem out of form and then out of the blue he will come back with a vengeance. It happens all the time. If you have a good day you are happy for a few minutes and then you have to focus on the next game where you can quickly lose whatever you gained in the last one. It’s just that way. Each game, win or lose, is a separate event that you put away once it is done and move on to the next challenge.
This has happened to all of us, believing you will succeed because you have won in the past against an opponent. So it is important to remember not to take things for granted.
40 – Viswanathan Anand and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (MVL) on evacuating the tension of the game
During the interview, Anand answers spontaneously he usually prepares his game until 11pm or so, and then relax by watching TV, playing a game (other than chess of course), something to get chess out of his mind.
MVL explains he also keeps the rest of the night to relax by playing cards with friends for instance, or watching TV-serials.
Vachier-Lagrave, M. (2017). Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, joueur d’échecs, Il faut parfois savoir faire un petit sacrifice pour prendre l’avantage. Paris, France. Fayard.
After a game full of tension and mentally exhausting, it is better not to prepare too much the same evening, as you risk compromising your sleep. Find out what helps you think about something else and do it at least 2 hours before falling asleep.
39 – Peter Svidler on building a new repertoire
Interviewer: Everything’s clear when it comes to commentary, but how does your own chess work go?
PS: My specific work on chess usually goes badly… And in general there’s almost no work being done without a computer. Yes, sharp tactical positions are interesting and pleasant to analyze “manually”, but you burn up a huge amount of time that you can save by clicking on a button. However, there are exceptions. I’ve played three Candidates Tournaments in the last four years, and for each of them I prepared a new opening repertoire. As a result, there are a huge number of structures that I didn’t previously play, and when you need to grasp where the pieces go in principle in some types of position then the computer is put to one side and you sit down with your colleague and move the pieces with your hands.
The tips 39 to 36 will help you design and develop your opening repertoire. If you ask yourself why the opening work comes so soon in the ranking, it is mostly because it can be really time-consuming and not adapted before a certain level of mastery, let’s say 2000 or so. If you are too impatient to know why, you can directly jump to the tip 13. And if you are at a level where building a complete repertoire becomes necessary, I plan to write about it soon so stay tuned. Until then, don’t forget mixing the use of the engine and the board to be sure your opening repertoire has no holes as Peter Svidler suggests.
38 – Fabiano Caruana on improving his opening repertoire
Interviewer: How do you work on your openings?
FC: Well, I’m working on finding new ideas all the time, thinking of new stuff to play and a lot of it is just general preparation, like just trying to play new stuff and some of it is specific, like looking at my opponents and trying to find something which is useful against them.
Interviewer: Chessboard or engine?
FC: Most of it is on the computer. Sometimes I use a board, especially if I’m working with someone. If I’m working with someone else we might use the board to play through a position, play a training game, or to see what feels natural, because even if you know what the best move is probably from the computer’s point of view, if you get the position over the board and your opponent makes an unexpected move you have to be able to do it on your own, so it helps to look at it from using your brain not just the engine.
You got it, to master your repertoire; you must constantly find new ideas. Time-consuming you said?
37 – Vassily Ivanchuk on finding brilliant new ideas
Interviewer: But Vassily, you get these opening ideas many times not on the chessboard, you are just walking or you are thinking. Is it true?
VI: Yes, I can walk and I can think. I can remember some position and suddenly a move will appear in my head (smiles) and I start to consider it. Firstly, I am trying to understand myself whether the move is good or bad and only then I check it with the computer, if i am not completely sure. But I don’t like to immediately use the computer, firstly I want to try to understand it myself.
Well if you are still on your way to build a big opening repertoire, then get some walk from time to time and think about it.
36 – Magnus carlsen on broadening your opening repertoire
He likes ruy lopez and Sicilian helps you learn a lot of dynamics and different type of positions. He thinks it is important to broaden the type of openings you play because not doing it slows you down.
The same opening repertoire may effectively slow you down at some point, but not before the IM level, especially if you master your lines quite well.
35 – Magnus Carlsen on getting rid of unnecessary decisions on the day of the match
I wrote an article on what Carlsen thinks about chess improvement, I remembered he said that he tended to wake up as late as he could and was trying not to think about other things than the game. By reflecting a bit more about that declaration, I think the important element here is you must get rid of unnecessary decisions and thus save your mental energy for the game. As explained in one of my articles here, the more choices you are confronted to, the more you waste your mental “credit” along the day.
To be honest, this is the only piece of advice that Magnus hasn’t directly confirmed, but I think this advice is sound as it is backed up by science. Anyway, take it or leave it, you don’t risk that much either way!
34 – Vassily Ivanchuk on adapting to time control
Interviewer: I remember the Candidates Tournament for the World Chess Championship where you lost a series of games on time.
VI: There I somehow failed to adapt. Up until move 40 there was no increment, and that posed a problem for me. As a professional I should have paid attention to that before the tournament began. However, encountering that problem even during the tournament I somehow forgot about it. Of course, from a professional point of view such explanations sound a little surprising, but during play I was so distracted by the search for the best ideas, the best moves, that the time factor – seemingly secondary, but extremely important from a sporting point of view – took a back seat for me. And as a result that cost me a few points. It follows that you should follow the clock! I want to give that advice to anyone who plays chess (smiles).
It is always better to check twice. So don’t forget to check the time control and be sure to adapt to it so that you don’t have bad surprises, like our friend Vassily!
33 – MVL on enjoying the competition
MVL says you must enjoy the competition and be boosted by it if your aim is to improve.
Vachier-Lagrave, M. (2017). Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, joueur d’échecs, Il faut parfois savoir faire un petit sacrifice pour prendre l’avantage. Paris, France. Fayard.
Well it sounds logic at first sight, but some of you may simply not like that. If you only aim at playing for fun, without making any effort to improve, that is a perfectly fine choice. The most important after all is to enjoy!
32 – Vidit Gujrathi on playing against stronger opponents
Interviewer: Do you think you showed too much respect for your opponent. Like if it was someone else you would have pressed harder?
VG: I think it was happening at a subconscious level. I didn’t realize that the position was so much better, because I didn’t look for it. Maybe, if it was someone else I would have looked harder and tried to find more resources. But I was happy to see …Bd7 and that I had no problems. But yes, you are right, if it was someone else I would have tried harder. In hindsight it was clearly a big mistake and something to work on in the future.
Forget about the opponent in front of you. He is a human being too and can have a bad day. Just play the board, not the person!
31 – Fabiano Caruana on constantly maintaining the pressure
Interviewer : In other words, the harder you work the more luck you gain?
FC: I don’t think I would call it luck, but that’s how it might seem to outsiders. For example, how Carlsen often saves bad positions or wins drawish positions because he keeps playing and trying to push and make the most of the result. From the outside it might look like luck, but it’s really more the result of hard work.
In the same vain as the previous tip but in a position of force, if there is still a slight chance to get a better result over the board, then you must maintain the pressure the best you can. It is as simple as that. Eventually, it will pay off!
30 – Magnus Carlsen on optimism
Magnus Carlsen thinks that in chess, it is better to be overoptimistic then pessimist because if you don’t trust yourself, you simply don’t take all the chances that you have.
Said differently, stay confident in your game no matter what!
29- Hikaru Nakamura on being practical
HN: The goal is to win so you need to be practical. It means you need to find the move which you think will pose the most problems to your particular opponent in that particular position, with that time left, even if it might not be the best possible move, or let’s say the most correct one. It is not a math formula where there is only one solution.
As we advance in the ranking, I thought it was time to introduce tips which require a certain level of experience before being able to fully exploit them. Being practical is a first step towards that.
28 – Viswanathan Anand on breaking the rules
Interviewer: What can players like you can learn from the current generation?
VA: We need to learn to be more open minded, less dogmatic and not be obsessed with our own view points about the game. The computer is constantly showing exceptions to every rule and you have to keep an open mind.
Another more subtle piece of advice is to break the chess principles. I know that as a beginner, you are being told so many times that there are main guidelines to follow. But the thing is, from the moment when you master these principles, you also start to understand and feel when not follow them in order to gain an advantage. But don’t get me wrong, “The first rule on breaking a rule is to know everything about the rule.” (Nuno Roque).
27 – Magnus Carlsen on feeling the critical moments
Interviewer: What makes differences between 2600 and 2700?
MC: I think it is a bit of understanding and overall more precise calculation. Sensing critical moments is also a difference.
And this is the third step which comes with experience. During the game, there will be 2 or 3 moments qualified as critical, when you need to think deeply because the difference between the best move and the second choice is huge. Not finding the right option could make you lose the advantage, or even put you in a losing position.
26 – Sergey Karjakin on fighting spirit
Interviewer: In terms of playing style, are you more a defender or an attacker?
SK: Many people say that I’m an excellent defender, that I save positions in which some would even resign. Here the secret is simply that I fight until the end. It’s not that I’m a defender, I’m simply a fighter – from every position I try to squeeze the maximum. But in general from my childhood on I’ve tried to make my style universal, so I attack and defend equally well. And in my career there have been a lot of games where apart from wonderful saves there are excellent sacrifices and winning combinations.
Following the example of Sergey and never giving up is a good way to win some half points here and there. So, unless the position is definitely hopeless, fight till the end and do your best to find moves which will be the most unpleasant for your opponent.
I hope you are already inspired at this point. And it’s not over! Let’s discover the next precious 25 tips right here!