I am not new to the game of Chess. I have been (casually) playing it for over a decade, and I would like to get better at it.

I know the basic rules of the game very well, I understand basic tactics (forks, pins, skewers, zugzwang), good bishops vs. bad bishops, center advantage, etc, and I believe my core principles are pretty good.

However, I do not have any actual theory memorized, and I believe I miss out on some positions.

I would like to understand the game better and get to 1500 by the end of the year. I am willing to put in time and effort. What resources/books would you recommend?


5 Answers 5


@Arka Mukherjee, I find most players under 2100 weak tactically, so at 1200, you are certainly weaker than you understand you are. I do not say that to be mean, but just as a very logical person, who has been a reasonably strong player for over 30 years.

At your level, memorizing theory is mostly a waste of time. In 40 years of playing, I cannot tell you how many weaker players I have seen that carry around an arm full of opening books, but they never progress. You do not need to memorize openings when your opponent is not going to play them because he has not memorized them. You need to understand opening pawn structures. Chess Opening Essentials: The Complete Series (Volumes 1 - 4) is a very basic way to start this.

This is, of course, on a different level, but I recently read something about Kramnik training young prodigies, and one of them played an opening he saw a higher-rated GM play, and he imitated the play by rote, but soon went astray. He did not understand, at least on the much higher level he was at. Understanding is the key.

Beyond that, tactics are the most important thing you can do. Most chess games between weak players are decided by who drops the last piece, and these books would help you win more material, and thus, win more games.

I recommend starting with "1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate", and then "1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations" (21st Century Editions) by Reinfeld.

I recommend doing 50 per day, spending no more than two minutes per move on each problem. In pencil, write down next to the problem how easy you found it on a scale of 1-5 because you will do these books multiple times. That immersion method has worked very well for me. I took a friend, who was about 38 at the time, from 1000 to 1850 on ICC in three months following this method.

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    In addition to the books mentioned, try out chesstempo.com. It learns how good you are while you solve puzzles, and always gives you problems slightly harder than your skill. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 20:39
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft I suggest those books because I love how they are grouped. Also, if someone is a newbie, when they start with the 1001 mates book, the first chapter is "Queen Sacrifices", so you are given two big hints: Sacrifice the Q, and give mate. It is about hammering home themes, one at a time, not just jumping around like most online tactics do. For the record, I do not know if the site you recommended does that, or not. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 21:35
  • Also look for "chess tactics" apps on your phone. Do a few each day and you'll learn to subconsciously recognize opportunity patterns. Just make sure you don't limit yourself to only mate-in-N puzzles.
    – MooseBoys
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 4:56

Your first task should be to get better at tactics. It's one thing to understand what a pin is and why it works, for example, but it's quite another to be able to spot the circumstances under which it's advantageous for you to use it.

So my first advice to you would be to work out solutions to tactical puzzles found in books or software. There's a series of books from Russia Chess House called "Chess School" (vols 1a, 1b, 2, 3) which set out 500+ tactical puzzles.They start at levels good for 1200 and go on up to 2000+ by the third book. They're not the only ones, but they're the ones I usually use when I'm teaching. If you'd rather use software, the best is CT-Art, which has grown into a series, or the "Chess Tactics for ..." series. Both were originally created by Convekta (the company that makes Chess Assistant) and I've seen them for Windows desktops as well as iPhones/iPads, not sure if they're around for other devices.

But the point is not so much to use those specific tools as to start loading your brain with patterns of how the various tools in your tactical tool box can be used. Learning those patterns well will help you spot them quickly when they show up on your board, and the goal is to learn them so well it takes next to no effort at all to spot the possibility of one existing; the idea will just pop up when you see the position. It's OK to have to spend time calculating to see if the idea actually works, it's spotting the main idea of the combination almost immediately that matters. It might take a while, and the effect might surprise you. I remember spending weeks working through the chapter on pins in the Informant's Encyclopedia Of Chess Middlegames, a few positions every day. The next tournament I was astonished at how many pins were showing up in my games; I suddenly could not only see the pins, but knew which ones I could really make use of and how.

Another thing to do for tactical study is to play over games from some early chess masters, from Morphy to Andersson, to Pillsbury to Colle and Speilmann, and on through players like Alekhine, Bronstein, and Tal. The idea is not to study the games deeply, but play them over like a "chess movie" and just enjoy the fireworks. Each player will drill into you the themes they've employed, whether it's Speilmann's use of the two bishops or Morphy's exploitation of time or Rubinstein's "feel" for the right place to set his pieces before the action begins. Just watching, you'll begin to soak it up.

Spending a lot of time on opening theory at this point is wasteful, but thinking about it a little won't hurt and can help you. The most important thing to remember about the opening is that your main task in it is to reach a playable middlegame, one where your tactical study will pay off. Feel free to experiment with many different openings; just don't go into a deep dive into any of them. When your opponent plays a line you haven't seen, take a few minutes and look it up after the game; don't waste precious skill development time preparing for moves you never see over the board. You have other things to work on. Your prime goal in opening study is to avoid traps (something tactical knowledge will help with) and keep from losing the game in the opening; so long as you're still playing at the end of the opening phase, you're passing the test.

At this point also spend some time on basic endgames, especially pawn endings. Learn the techniques of winning pawn endgames so well that when your tactis win you an extra pawn, you can confidently know you'll win even if all the rest of the pieces disappear. That's quite useful, because if your tactics have won you the exchange, for example, the simplest and easiest way to win is to give back the exchange to win a pawn, and win with the pawn.

If you're looking for a "time budget" I'd say 50% tactics, 30% endgames, and 20% openings for a study plan, and you could easily profit by adding time to tactical study at this point at the expense of opening study. It doesn't matter who comes out of the opening with a better position, after all, if you can outplay them tactically at that point and win the endgame. And as your tactical ability improves, you could take some of the time you used to spend on tactics and spend it on endgames. Only when you've mastered those should you start spending more time on openings.

Look at it this way, any non-fatal mistakes you make in the opening can be fixed in the middlegame, and non-fatal mistakes there can be fixed in the endgame, you can count on this being true so long as you can play those phases better than your opponent. Extensive opening theory knowledge becomes more useful as your opponents get better; at levels below 1800-2000, it's not very necessary. And if you keep experimenting with new openings, by the time you get to the point where you need to spend time in theory, you'll have a better feel for the middlegame positions you like to play, and are good at, so you'll have a better idea of which openings you'll want to study.


at 1200 I strongly believe You are wrong about all your core assumptions about your understandings; or if you really have those strategic/positional understandings you must start to do tactics - at least 1h of puzzle solving per day will make best improvement for 1200 player anyway.

and forget about spending time on theory until you are at least 1800, preferably 2000+ - I personally know multiple GM's who never in their life specifically studied opening theory but their top ELO was 2600+. I also never did and my top ELO was 2400 over the board and 2600 in correspondence chess. Understanding the base principles of game will make you choosing good move in opening in 90+% of time. There are cases when deep tactical analysis overthrow base concepts, you can get caught by variant to get worse position or miss bigger advantage but that can still happen even if you study openings hard - not that big loss here.


1200 on what scale? Elo USCF some inflated online site??

You do not need theory at all. What you need is useful tactics training. And you need endgames. That will help you more than theory. Do one theme at a time and repeat ten-15 times that day. Come back in a couple of days and repeat it. When you know it cold then wait several weeks and try again. Come back regularly but let the time between reviews get longer as your ability to do them easily requires. The goal is to spot the patterns in your games without thinking.

After that focus on pawn structure and ONE opening system as white and one with black.


At the 1200 level, you will find that most games are won or lost tactically. In fact that's true even up to much higher levels. Accordingly, working on tactics should serve to improve your game and raise your rating. There are numerous sources online (ChessTempo, Chess.com, Spark Chess, etc.) that provide interactive tactical problems to do that. Playing regularly should also help improve your "sight" of the board to spot tactical possibilities or thwart opposing ones. It has been pointed out that such possibilities generally arise from a positional advantage, so you should adhere to the standard recommendations for same to reach such positions - quick development of your pieces and early castling, controlling the center, controlling open files, commanding outposts, etc., all of which you indicate you are aware. Recording and analyzing your games is also recommended, preferably with the help of stronger players, as well as playing over well-annotated Master games, say from game collections of the greats. A little end game study wouldn't hurt either since a "won" game is often drawn or even lost there. It may sound like work, and it is, but nothing comes easily in life, or chess, unless you're a rare prodigy like Capablanca or Morphy. As far as books on tactics are concerned, as an octogenarian I'm more familiar with the older ones such as Fred Reinfeld's "1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations" and "1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate", and Laszlo Polgar's "5334 Problems, Combinations and Games", but tactics never go out of style, and they'll work as well as current books. Jeremy Silman's books on "How to Re-assess Your Chess" should help with theory. Reaching 1500 should be a reasonable goal for you, although not necessarily by the end of the year. Why set a time limit? Just play regularly, take your losses in stride as learning experiences and enjoy the game, and improvement should come in time in the normal course of events.

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