Board 1 at ALTO

11 things I did to take my USCF rating from 1547 to 1976

I’ve had some ups and down in the year since my first blog post, where I wrote about what was working for my chess improvement, but on net I’ve gained another 100 points. Here are some things I’ve been doing that got my USCF rating from 1547 two and a half years ago, to 1976 today.

(from May 2023: my first post about chess improvement)

1. Play a lot of serious, classical chess

I played 56 over-the-board tournament games (counting only classical time controls) in 2022, and 68 in 2023. I have 27 so far in 2024. I have also played a good number of online slow games, mostly in the Lichess4545 league.

When I decided to dedicate myself to chess improvement, the first thing I did wasn’t buying books or memorizing openings. It was looking at my calendar and finding opportunities to play some serious games.

Has it helped? Yes. In fact, several of the items below would be impossible without it. Every successful chess improver has this in common: we all play a lot. The cave strategy - hiding yourself away and reading every chess book you can get your hands on, planning to emerge at a tournament months later and triumph - does not work. When you’re in the cave, you’re not finding out what’s actually costing you games, and you don’t know what to focus your training on.

USCF rating graph

2. Play online blitz

5 3 is my favorite time control. It’s slow enough that I don’t hang too many pieces, and can do some calculating a few times a game, but fast enough that I can get a good number of games in.

Has it helped? Yes, for two reasons. First, my skill in classical games suffered when I quit blitz for a month in 2022. I was missing really basic things, like what each piece was attacking. It seems blitz was giving my brain light exercise in board vision, and that exercise was keeping my subconscious in shape to notice instantly when a knight was attacking a bishop. Bad things happened in my classical games when my subconscious mind stopped doing this for me.

Second, these slow blitz games are the #1 source of content for my Anki flash cards (see below). I get the same kinds of positions in classical that I do in blitz, and the volume of games that blitz allows is great at generating large numbers of these positions.

3. Fix my time trouble problem

One thing that was costing me games (and which chess books rarely focus on) was time trouble. I often moved too slowly early in the game, which left me with less time than I needed later.

Me, in time trouble. The clock shows 42 minutes on my opponent’s clock and 24 seconds on mine. I would go on to lose this game. Photo by Charlotte Chess Center at the 2022 ALTO tournament.

It was easy to make major progress in this area, because of where I was starting from: no intentional time management strategy whatsoever. At the start of each game I now calculate a targeted average time per move (usually the time control divided by 40), and then write the clock time next to every move. This is not to refer to after the game is over, but to refer to during the game - after each move, I can see how many minutes the move took, giving me instant feedback on whether I’m hitting my target.

Has it helped? Definitely. Now I know with 30 minutes on my clock that I need to speed up a little, which is much better than not realizing until I have one minute that I need to speed up a lot. I firmly believe that if you have trouble with either moving too fast or moving too slow, you should fix that before you work on any other area of chess improvement, because time trouble sabotages everything else you’re working on.

4. Get out of my openings comfort zone

I used to play quiet positional openings, because I figured I was better at positional play than in sharp tactical positions. But I’ve realized that all humans are bad at sharp tactical positions, including my opponents. I switched from 1.d4 to 1.e4. I learned the open Sicilian, and other aggressive lines. I stopped being afraid of isolated queen pawn structures, and added the Panov Attack to my repertoire. As black I played the Najdorf, and then later switched to something even crazier: 1...e5.

Has it helped? It’s impossible to say what effect these changes had on my results. But they have helped me enjoy chess more, both as a player, and, when super GMs play the same openings I do, as a spectator.

5. Build a flash card library in Anki

I’ve written about this before and I’ll write more about it again soon. As of this writing I have 1,874 flash cards in my Anki decks. Most of them are positions from my games, both online and OTB. Spaced repetition ensures I remember all of them. When postgame engine analysis says I played a position wrong, that position becomes a flash card, and a small part of my vast misunderstanding of chess gets corrected.

Has it helped? I can’t imagine calling myself a chess improver without this, or something like it. When you learn something, what happens by default is you forget it. Working intentionally to prevent the forgetting is essential.

6. Practice tactics and calculation

I have not been very organized about this, but I have done a lot of online puzzles. I know that my calculating ability is likely to become a more common limiting factor as I try to improve further, so it’s my goal to get more organized about it. I did recently complete Fundamental Chess Calculation Skills by Can Kabadayi. It’s all three-ply puzzles. If you think that’s too simple for the 1900 level, then allow me to politely disagree and show you what really decides games at the 1900 level.

Has it helped? I hope so, but it’s pretty hard to draw a straight line from this practice to results. There aren’t really positions in my games that I can point to and say that I calculated them correctly now but definitely would’ve done it wrong two years ago.

7. Memorize over 2,500 moves of opening theory

I started this project as a time saver - play the opening faster and I’d have more time on my clock for the rest of the game - but it grew to this size because I discovered I actually enjoy it quite a bit.

I had my repertoire in the King’s Cross app for a while, but I recently moved to Chessbook, for one very important feature: spaced repetition. (I’m starting to think that if you’re trying to learn anything, and you’re not using spaced repetition, you’re doing it wrong). It takes me about 10 minutes a day to do the scheduled reviews.

Has it helped? In most games, it doesn’t make a big difference. But it definitely has helped me. The game where I beat the highest-rated opponent I’ve ever beaten (2128) started as a Dubov Gambit where I had the first 15 moves memorized. That got me a sizeable advantage, and my opponent never recovered. (My annotation of this game was published in the May 2024 issue of Chess Life).

I wrote more about this here: Why I memorize openings

8. Have a mental checklist on every move

Your subconscious does a lot for you in a chess game. If you play a lot of games, you can collect some data on what it’s not doing, and correct those things consciously. Whenever I lost a game to something obvious, I determined what question I could have asked before making the mistake, that would have prevented it. That yielded this list:

  1. Does my opponent’s move unblock any of their other pieces?
  2. Does my move unprotect anything?
  3. How can the piece I’m moving be attacked on its new square?

“You can see the scars,” my friend John said when I told him this list. It takes 10 or 15 seconds, but I try to do it on every move in a slow game.

Has it helped? It has definitely prevented some blunders. I kind of hate that it’s working, because it is a little unpleasant. But it is working. One essential thing is that it’s quick. “Identify all the checks, captures and threats” is a much more complicated question that I would not find practical to answer on every move.

For more on this topic, I recommend Nick Vasquez’s recent post.

9. Passively and casually consume a lot of chess content

I read a lot of chess tweets. I subscribe to a lot of chess Substacks. I listen to a lot of chess podcasts. I watch a lot of chess videos. I watched the Grand Swiss, the Candidates, and Tata Steel.

Has it helped? Probably not a ton, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that listening to Robert Hess explain moves made by super GMs has seeped into my brain a little and had a positive effect on my game.

10. Exercise

I used to run marathons, and while I haven’t run one since getting back into serious chess in 2022, I do still run three or four times a week for 30 to 40 minutes. Exercise is good for you in lots of ways, of course.

Has it helped? I know some people who say things like “when I exercise in the morning, I can tell my thinking is sharper all day long.” I’ve never felt such a clear effect, so I defer to science, and regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory and thinking skills, science says. Exercise even helps to improve neuroplasticity, which is something those fast-improving kids, with their young brains, naturally have a lot more of than we adults do.

11. Meet people

I saved the best for last. There’s a reason Ben Johnson designated community as one of the four pillars of chess improvement. Chess is not my job, and lasting motivation to spend time improving at a board game is not something I take for granted. The biggest factor in giving me that motivation now is the excitement of spending time with other members of the community at chess events. Getting so deep into this game is much better when there are other people doing it with you.

Has it helped? When I was in my 20s, I returned to the chess world after playing in high school and quitting for college. I bought books. I went to tournaments. I analyzed my games. This was 20 years ago, but I still remember the hotel ballroms and church basements where the tournaments were held. What I don’t remember is any people. And that’s because I wasn’t intentional about making friends and joining the community. When I got tired after six months, there wasn’t anyone texting me to ask if they’d see me at the next tournament. And then there was no next tournament for me, for a very long time.

So yes, I would say that doing it differently this time has helped. Chess tournaments are about chess, but they’re also about people.