I caught the chess bug as a college student, twenty-one years old, and it’s become my favorite way to unwind since then, as I’m now working at VisioStack and starting a master’s in CS at Clemson University.
Like all hobbies, chess is more fun when you’re making progress. And progress as an adult is certainly more difficult, as for instance recounted in this fine story by Tom Vanderbilt. It’s not so easy to rewire your brain.
I started out as a below-average-rated player, which was humbling and rather galling. My chess-playing friends IRL beat me easily. Today, I’m still a poor player – I frequently blunder pieces and make other mistakes – yet I’m much stronger; I beat those friends and am now around the 95th percentile at chess.com. My rating progress at blitz looks like this:
(I would note that in fall of 2018, I played a great deal of 4-player chess instead of standard chess; this improved my regular game indirectly, fortunately.)
How I Study
Much of this progress was haphazard: I played lots of games, read the occasional book, learned a few openings. Earlier this year I hit a road block around 1450; the following routine is what’s helped me continue to progress.
I spend about two hours per day on chess, broken into three periods. In the first period, I drill opening theory and positional concepts. I use the spaced-repetition app Anki for this. My cards are just positions drawn from computer analysis of my own games: I put blunders and mistakes from my games here (front side of the card is the position before my move, reverse shows the correct move.) I also put many positions from the openings that I play here. I add about 25 new cards a day, which means I have 100+ cards to go over on a given day. Reviewing Anki cards takes between 30 minutes and an hour.
In the second period, I solve puzzles on Chess.com for 30 minutes to an hour. I would note that this requires a chess.com membership, as does unlimited analysis of your games. I pay $99/year for a Diamond membership; there are other, cheaper levels as well. Still, for a serious hobby, it’s pretty cheap.
In the third period, I play blitz games (usually at the 3+0 time control). I will analyze many of these games – especially ones I lose – and put anything surprising into Anki. I might play for anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Progress: Not a Straight Line
It’s fascinating to me how much chess performance can vary from day to day. Every two months or so, I’ll have an amazing chess day where my rating skyrockets by 150-200 points (and promptly returns to earth in the next few days.) More concretely: The median interval between my personal best ratings is exactly 60 days.
My rating varies by weekday. I have played over 10,000 blitz games in the last 2+ years. With the exception of a couple of multi-week breaks, I have played essentially every day. If, for each week, I find my median ELO and compare each day to that median (so, for example, that week’s median ELO is 1200, but on Wednesday is 1235, Wednesday gets a +35), and then take the median of all the deltas for each day, we get the following effect:
So on Thursday I’m about average, on Friday I’m better than average, and on other days I’m much worse. I assume this effect arises from playing fewer games on Monday and Tuesday, and so being a bit rusty, and then playing too many games on the weekend, ending with a lower rating. A win or loss is worth about 8 ELO, so on Tuesdays I lose about 9 more games than I win.
Time of day and number of games played also certainly affect rating, but I don’t have that data readily at hand. I do believe that it’s possible to determine via the extensive chess.com API (https://www.npmjs.com/package/chess-web-api), though.
I’d like to reach 2000 in 2021. My current study strategy seems to net me around 1.5 ELO/day, so this seems achievable. Of course I could hit a wall where I need to reinvent myself again; if I do, I’ll consider getting a chess coach, reading chess books, etc.
Some day, I want to become a titled player. A candidate master needs an ELO of 2200, but this is in over-the-board play, which probably corresponds to around 2300 in online blitz. I don’t have a timeline for this, but I imagine that if I do get there, it will happen with in the next five years.