A Chess Improvement Guide Based On Your Rating

I saw a quora article the other day with this title: “I’m rated around 1300-1500 in chess, how do I improve fast without having to learn a lot of theory?

I understand that some of these questions have a  sarcastic tone to them, but some are genuine. The common theme I see with questions like this are “how do I improve my rating from X to Y. 

We all have goals in chess and for some, we want to reach a number. That’s why I’ve styled this article based on ideas to improve to the next level, broken down by ELO rating. 

All of these ideas build on each other, but I’ve formed each section with new ideas to add as you reach certain levels. I also made a cheat sheet in the form of a chart to help visualize everything in one place. 

That being said, don’t think about your rating as an end all be all number.

Let’s get started. 

What to Focus On for Chess Improvement under 1,000 ELO

Short answer: Tactics and Risky Play

No one at this ELO will be able to see every move.  I’ve seen people say checkmate out loud and the opponent has just accepted it.  Players are still learning the rules at this stage and you should get exposure to all kinds of positions and get them ingrained in your head.

Things to think about

Are my pieces under attack

Try to reduce obvious blunders at this stage of your play. You will make a lot of them and that’s okay, but the goal is to reduce obvious ones. 

An obvious blunder is dropping your queen for free. Leaving a bishop hanging. Forgetting about your rook that’s under attack. 

If you stop to think “are my pieces under attack” before each move, you will be less likely to lose a piece and be behind. 

You want to strive for an equal game at all times at this stage. 

How do the pieces move

You should understand how all the pieces move. When can a pawn move forward two squares vs one. How do pawns attack. Can I see all the available moves my knight can move to. 

Understanding these chess basics will help you to look at the bigger picture. It’s similar to playing blackjack. You can’t count cards unless you know basic strategy by heart. 

What are the rules of chess

Make sure you don’t have to consult a tournament director mid game and deviate your thought process. You shouldn’t be surprised when your opponent captures your pawn en passant. You also don’t want to forget how to castle queen side in the middle of a game. 

Playing online, the system will show you what moves are available, but playing over the board is a separate story entirely. 

    • En passant
    • Castling
    • 50 move rule

Play like Tal and make unsound sacrifices

Mikhael Tal is best known for being a great tactics player. Looking at his games, you can see he tried a little bit of everything. Even if it was unsound, he found his opponents would crumble under the pressure. 

If you used an engine on some of his games, you’d see he was behind. But that’s the beauty of playing a human, they make tons of mistakes. 

This is definitely true below 1000 ELO. You shouldn’t look for the best move. You should instead try everything you can. This will help you to think and see more patterns over time. 

I’ve played 2400s on lichess who gave up a rook in the first 10 moves. I’ve found it’s still hard to defeat a player because they know how to think and recover from a blunder. 

Your opponent can get cocky if they’re ahead and it’s important to never give up because that will make you a stronger player. 

    • Sacrifice sacrifice sacrifice
      • Give up every piece you can
      • Try the fried liver.  It’s unproven, but you can learn a lot about attacking chess this way
    • Avoid caring if you lose.  You’re just learning at this stage

What to Focus On for Chess Improvement between 1,000 and 1,300 ELO

Short answer: Tactics and Learn One Opening

Focus on improving 1 opening as white and 1 opening as black

Get really good at this opening, but don’t worry about tons of side lines.  Your goal should be to know the ideas of these openings.  

Think about each move. 

I want to quote a Quora article on this one as all of this makes perfect sense for each move.  This is of course in an over the board scenario.

WRITE DOWN OPPONENT MOVE

ASK WHY DID HE DO THAT?

IS HE ATTACKING OR THREATENING SOMETHING?

DID HE LEAVE SOMETHING UNPROTECTED?

CHOOSE AT LEAST 2 POSSIBLE MOVES

ANY FORCING MOVES? (CHECK, CAPTURE, MAJOR THREAT)

AM I LEAVING ANYTHING UNPROTECTED?

DO I HAVE ANY FORKS / PINS / DISCOVERED ATTACKS?

FIND THE BEST MOVE

MAKE MOVE

WRITE DOWN YOUR MOVE

HIT CLOCK

Start exploring games by masters

Agadmator is a great example of a run through of why certain moves were played by higher players.  He has gone through many classical games and modern games and his analysis can go further than a player between 1300-1600 ELO.

You may pick up some ideas just by passively watching YouTube rather than looking at the game yourself.  Just be aware that watching videos and not internalizing them won’t do any good.  

Be able to identify openings

This is not 100% needed to know all the openings, but knowing in theory what opening you are in can help a lot.  It will help you to realize what types of moves and ideas you should be going after.

There are certain openings you can “steer” your opponent into at a certain point.  For example, playing 1. e4 nc6 can turn into a regular Italian game, but it is by black’s choice.  If black instead plays e5 right away, then white can turn the opening into other things. The move Nc6 is less committal than pushing a pawn, which is a concrete move.

I’ve had some English openings turn into a King’s Indian Defense, which is a game I prefer to play.

Review games with a coach and play people stronger than you

If you’re fortunate to have a chess coach or a friend who wants to help, then take full advantage of this.  Ask them to help analyze what went wrong in your tournament game. This is crucial and it helps you to internalize ideas more concretely than if you analyzed yourself.

Ask for post mortems from your opponents in every tournament to see what you did wrong.  Most players will be happy to analyze with you if you ask nicely and aren’t a jerk during the game.  Always keep an open mind and even if you lose, remember you can always learn and improve next time.

What to Focus On for Chess Improvement under 1,600 and 1,900 ELO

Short answer: Tactics, Position, and End Game Study

Begin exploring other openings

Play as much blitz as possible, but do it the right way.  Playing blitz just to play blitz is fun, but don’t just play a lot of games and expect to learn from them.  Learn from your openings and see where you went wrong tactically with an engine.

I’ve done this to see what the most played moves are in openings.  Once I see what the most played moves are, I look at what games were played in this line at the highest levels.  That way, I can see the ideas they were going for.

Chess openings are all about ideas.  There are tons of openings that you can divert which way you want to go.  I think playing white in the Najdorf is a perfect example of this. You can either continue with g4 or Bd3.

najdorf g4 vs bd3

I remember discussing this position with my friend who is 2200 USCF in a tournament game I played.  I opted for g4 because I remember it was the most played move. His answer was “well yes that’s one idea, but you could also play Bd3 and there are different ideas you’re playing for.”

To me, this was groundbreaking.  The mere move order can dictate the plans you “should be going for.”  I have found a lot of lower rated players mix up their plans. The board dictates they should be pushing a pawn on the queen side, but they shift to the king side.  It’s a tough idea to think about, but when you master the idea of sticking to your plan, you will begin to find your games flow really well.

Learn positional ideas

There are some common positional ideas you should be working on at this rating level.  To take is a mistake is a key idea to start to remember. 

Keep as many pieces as possible on the board to increase your odds of finding tactical maneuvers.  If you trade all of your pieces down to a rook endgame, the chances of a draw increase exponentially.

Sure, either side could make a game ending blunder at this stage of the game, but you’ll find that at the higher levels of a tournament hall that many games will have both players with less than 20 minutes on their clock and just about every piece still on the board.

Sure you want to keep enough time to win an endgame, but these players understand how important it is to gain a positional edge and they spend as much time as possible trying to exploit a positional advantage.  

Check out my midgame article on positions you’ll want to work on.  This includes ideas like learn the theory of weak squares and trying to exploit them.

What helped me move past 1800 the most was learning about pawn structures.  Each pawn structure dictates a plan, and knowing what opening you’re in can help you see the best candidate moves.  This is how I won the world open as I studied Chess Structures by Mauricio Flores almost exclusively in the months leading up to the tournament.

You should also start focus on endgame studies

    • Primarily rook endgames
    • Learn about drawn endgames like the bishop vs wrong color corner
    • Learn which pawns knights hate
    • Figure out how to position your pawns
    • Knowing when to enter an endgame

Above 1,900 ELO

Short Answer: Tactics, Openings, Positional Play and Endgame Study

I read a thread on Quora that compares how 1400s think vs 1900s.  Most of the answer was sarcasm, but the ideas were not far off.  1400s can over emphasize some aspects, like learning tons of openings, but 1900s can go deeper in a lot of ways.

1400 player: Hey look, engine suggests this was a huge mistake. Instead of initiating a sacrificial checkmating combination in 17 moves, he decided to win an exchange. What a patzer!

1900 player: Now that was a pragmatic decision. Yes, the engine points out a faster way to win, but no human would ever play it.

I particularly like this segment as it explains how Grandmasters think as well. An engine may say a particular move is “best,” but if it makes your game harder to play, then it’s not the best for a human.  Magnus Carlsen once gave up a pawn in an opening and said that his game was just much easier to play without the pawn. He didn’t even think about the material.

Work on strengthening openings and getting better at lines

A lot of stronger players will start to get into opening prep a lot more at higher levels.  This is because anyone above 1900 should 

Mix up your openings.  I once played a tournament where my opponent watched me play blitz before the game and went and looked up a few lines before our match, all without me knowing.  I ran right into his traps because I played too predictably.

This is how higher players think and prep against you.  Always mix up what you play and keep your opponents guessing.

Continue improving tactics

Tactics never