Lack of Improvement in Chess

Today, I’m going to discuss some issues you might face when you’re playing chess long term.

Chess Ceilings

Chess authors often talk about “chess ceilings”, where each chess player has their own peak standard of play and can never improve above that level. I agree with English Grandmaster John Nunn, when he says in Secrets of Practical Chess: “It is my belief that most players never get anywhere near their natural ceiling, and that considerable improvement is possible with appropriate education, training and practice.”

This quote helps encourage players who feel like they can no longer improve. Of course, his statement implies that such a ceiling does indeed exist. Personally, I am sceptical that it even exists; there are too many factors that could affect your rating. For example, a player could suddenly come up with a monster tournament performance and improve 100+ points, or a player could even move to another state/country where ratings are more inflated and hence gain significant rating points. Even without these ‘unusual factors’, I still believe that a chess player may improve with regular tournament play, a strict training program and the continual studying of one’s games, particularly losses. I outline such a strategy in my free Improve Your Chess ebook. A combination of persistence and passion is very hard to match.

When a chess player is no longer improving

Often times, players may find periods of play when they seem to be not improving. It is my opinion that it is not good enough to quit chess simply because your rating has been flailing around 1500 for a few years. A person would never reach their full potential in anything if they always quit when the ‘going gets tough’.

Players should keep working on their play constantly, so that they have a competitive edge over their opponents and maximise their chances of scoring well. The the truth is, as Grandmaster Anthony Kosten put it: “Winning is fun and losing is not!”


Losing in Chess

There is a myth in chess that losing is a negative result. Sure, winning improves your rating, but losing, if tackled with the right attitude, improves your chess. And the same strategy can be applied in almost any other area in life – failure is simply a step on the way to success. Of course, losing when you have not tried your best is simply ridiculous and is not a good idea. However, losing after you have provided your best resistance is really a disguised blessing.

If you do lose a horrible game, don’t just shelve the scoresheet away! Analysing your losses thoroughly (much more important than studying your wins) is a great tool to improve your chess. As International Master Joshua Waitzkin once said, “Winning feels good. Winning feels really, really good, but losing is what makes us better. It’s very important for you, as a player, to take yourself on when you lose, [and] to study the games that you lose…”

I recommend entering your game into Fritz or ChessBase as soon as it is practical to do so after a tournament game (although players who get worked up about a loss or a draw against a lower-rated player should spend some time cooling down). Not only should you enter the game and check the critical position(s), but you should enter all the variations you calculated, so that you can use Fritz to check for errors in your calculation. A grandmaster once pointed out that a player would be surprised how quickly their tactical ability advances when they meticulously annotate their games. To see a deeper discussion of the analysis of one’s games, see my “How to Analyse Chess Games” article.

Sometimes annotating your games can be a bit strenuous. You could motivate yourself by saying that once you become a great player, you will publish a “My Best Games” book! Although, a more practical way to make it less gruelling is to simply share your games with friends or to post and discuss them on a chess community forum.

Further Suggestions

There are some books that are focussed on tackling lack of improvement in chess. Among these areSecrets of Practical Chess by GM John Nunn, The Survival Guide to Competitive Chess by GM John Emms and How to Reassess Your Chess by IM Jeremy Silman. (I think a 4th addition of Silman’s award-winning book has just come out or is about to come out.) I haven’t read the last book, but I have read another book by this author and I can say that Silman is a very high quality author that explains concepts in a very easy-to-understand manner.

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