"PhishMaster's Complete Guide To Improvement": What to study, and how.
Every player has times where they "plateau", and have trouble moving on, but they usually get past it eventually if they are continuing to study. Sometimes, it is a matter of patience.
Here is a set of comprehensive answers to questions I previously gave in various chunks, that are now combined, and will include how to break 2000.
First, this outline is more for the average player, who still may be very decent, but is not likely to be become a professional.
Beginners up to 1800, it is mostly about tactics: Tactics, tactics, and more tactics. I have found that even players, who are 2100, are not as strong at tactics as they think they are. I also found that having a very strong dose of endgames, even when I got my first rating of 1036 USCF back in 1980, has stuck with me all the way through being a Master. I still love Fine's "Basic Chess Endings" (any mistakes in it as far overshadowed by the principles that it puts forth).
For tactics, I actually recommend starting with Reinfeld's "1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate", and then "1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations". I firmly believe in good groupings of themes in the beginning, rather than sites that totally randomize your study. I also firmly believe in immersion, in other words, doing a lot in a short period of time. It just sticks better as far as I am concerned.
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.
Around 1800, people start getting more clued in on positional play, and start picking up more on that. I still love Ludek Pachman's trilogy: "Complete Chess Strategy". That was the first time I started to see real plans enter into my games, and I still credit that trilogy with making me a Master. For the first time, I started to really grasp pawn play.
Also, around 1800, I also think that players need to understand HOW to play opening pawn structures instead of focusing on memorizing openings that when their opponent deviates, they are lost and on their own. For this, books like Soltis' "Pawn Structure Chess" (a really bad book if you are looking at it with a computer, but the underlying principles are very strong), and Mauricio Flores Ríos' book "Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide" is a fantastic book that expounds upon what was in the Soltis book, and does it a lot better, but also at a higher level.
Starting at 2000, assuming you have a shot at 2200 and higher, you are going to start needing specific openings, and memorization as you face stronger competition. All along, you should have been still studying more and more endgame material as you will also need that when you face "monsters".
Over 2200, you are talking about in-depth refinement of what you have learned. A lot of people buy the Dvoretsky books before they are ready, and now is the time that you are just getting started to be ready for those. They will help with small details, and a lot of it above 2200 is analyzing better and better, so not only will his books refined and expand your knowledge, they are hand-picked difficult problems that need a lot of deep analysis.
Once at 2400, if you have not already had a professional coach, you probably will need one to really gain a lot more strength. In addition, if you have a kid, who is super talented, and clearly going places, it is also probably a good idea for them to have a professional coach at a lower rating, and younger age to get the most benefit.
Here is a list of areas of study, and what to read while doing them.
- To help with basic visualization, read these books without a board, including sub-variations. If you are not sure how well you did, then put them on a board, and compare the board to your mind’s eye. In the beginning, I expect that you will have more on the board than not.
a. “Combinations, the Heart of Chess” by Irving Chernev
b. “1000 Best Short Games of Chess” by Irving Chernev (The games start short at only four moves, and gradually work up to 25 moves.)
c. After these, you will still probably need work on visualization, so pick fun combination books to do in your head, concentrating on visualizing the final position rather than finding the solution. Solutions are in the next group.
- To help with both basic visualization and tactical vision, do at least 25 problems per day, but preferably 50, spending no more than two minutes per move before looking at the answer. You will repeat these books at least twice over time. This alone, is why most players never get stronger…they drop pieces.
a. “1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate”, 21st Century Edition by Fred Reinfeld
b. “1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations”, 21st Century Edition by Fred Reinfeld
c. Continue with any of the multitude of tactics books or trainers out there doing as many as you can each day.
- Endgame. Play all of these out on a board, not in your head.
a. “100 Endgames You Must Know: Vital Lessons for Every Chess Player” by Jesus de la Villa (Try to memorize this book, especially rook endgames since they are the most common.)
b. “The 100 Endgames You Must Know Workbook: Practical Endgame Exercises for Every Chess Player” by Jesus de la Villa
c. “Basic Chess Endings” by Ruben Fine (Although there are mistakes that have been show by both humans and computers over the years, this book shows more about the plans and what you are striving for than most endgames books. Read all the sub-endgames since they reinforce the main endgames.
d. “Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual” (aka DEM. This is THE single greatest chess book ever written, in my opinion, and it is very advanced, but if you have reasonably mastered the above two books, this is the next step).
e. “Tragicomedy in the Endgame: Instructive Mistakes of the Masters” by Mark Dvoretsky (This is, in essence, the workbook for DEM, giving practical positions of the material in DEM.)
- Pawn Structures, and how to play chess, in general. A lot of chess is “what pawn break am I looking for, and how do I accomplish it?” These answer that in depth.
a. “Complete Chess Strategy” volumes 1,2 and 3 by Ludek Pachman. (This teaches about many basic plans, and what you are striving for with your pieces and pawns, especially. THIS is what made me a master.)
b. “Pawn Structure Chess” by Andy Soltis. (This extends the above to specific opening structures.)
c. “Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide” by Mauricio Flores Rios (This is an extension of “Pawn Structure Chess”, and is deeper, and covers more structures. It is outstanding especially if you have already covered “Complete Chess Strategy”.)
- Positional Chess. Play these out on a board and you will start to get a better feel for evaluating positions correctly.
a. “Positional Chess Handbook” by Israel Gelfer (The quality of the printing in this book is not very good, but the content is excellent.)
b. “Your Kingdom For My Horse” by Andy Soltis (This is all about exchanging, a little-covered, but incredibly important topic in chess. Frankly, Soltis is a LAZY writer, and when you read his books with a program running, you will find ALL KINDS of mistakes, but the prose, and general principles he is teaching are still valid, and in this case, hard to find in any other book. (There is a Russian-only book called "Encyclopedia of Exchanges" if you are capable of reading it.)
You will note that unlike the backpack of a typical 1200-player, there is not a single opening book listed here. That is because you are learning HOW to play chess, rather than memorizing lines that you get to the end of, and have no idea why you are there, or why it is good or bad. Most of your opponents, until you get to 2200, won’t know much about book, and you will both be on your own early on, so the one, who understands what you should be trying for, and who does not lose his pieces (tactics), will win the game most of the time.
In general, read the above list in order within any category, but you should have the visualization, tactics, endgame, and pawn structures categories all going at one time. As you start to really understand the structures more, then add in the last, “positional chess” category.