On Learning Chess as an Adult – From 650 to 1750 in Two Years

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.

Goals

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.

Comments on Hacker News | Reddit | My response

25 thoughts on “On Learning Chess as an Adult – From 650 to 1750 in Two Years

  1. Hey, Jacob!
    Great story! I’m also making my chess rating as an adult and I would be glad if you could share your anki cards.
    Thanks in advance!
    Alex

    PS
    feel free to add me at chess.com @alexriabtsev

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      1. Jacob, I’d love help on setting up a routine. I’ve played sine I was little (off/on) but always just for fun and because I loved the strategy. Turning 50, I’d love to get serious and document my progress but I don’t know anything about scores, setting up practice (other than playing), titles and goals. Thanks for any help.

        Mick

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  2. > 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.

    Does this correspond to full moon by any chance?

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    1. The days I skyrocket in ratings are usually when I drink more coffee. If the next day I dont drink then my playing gets unstable.

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  3. Hi, I would really encourage you to spend more time doing tactical problems and not spend as much with strategy concepts and openings. You can get to 2000 with minimal opening and strategy study, and you will get there faster. Until you have mastered tactics, you should have a basic understanding of opening concepts and strategy, no more than that. Have a look at Michael de la Maza’s book, or better yet, just read this article about it, it will save you some money: https://www.chess.com/article/view/the-michael-de-la-maza-story

    P.S. I’m a chess teacher and I’ve switched to this approach a long time ago, based on research and results
    P.S.2 There are some very good software for tactical training, I use the ones from Convekta, but there are others. Maybe check out Dan Heisman’s articles, I haven’t been up to date on him for a while but it was pretty solid advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great log Jacob!
    Fascinated to see how your trends and observations overarchingly match up with what I’ve been through in my journey to 1650! Would be interesting to sync up to find out how take it further.
    Cheers!
    rathnraj(also on chess.com)

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  5. Nicely done self-analysis. It’s helpful for people to see these types of performance graphs, which show plateaus and improvement over time. They are also good at illustrating how there isn’t really a linear progression, although you can calculate the equivalent line over time, with regular downs as well as ups.

    Tournament or “classical” chess is a different beast than blitz, especially regarding the types of middlegame decisions to make and actually having to play out endgames. Usually strong players are strong in all time control categories, but ones with formal training typically learn (as children) by using rapid-level time controls (15 10, 25 5, etc.) then go to blitz and classical ones.

    It would be interesting to hear about how you plan to approach the different thinking process required for rapid and longer time controls, as well as hear about your experience once you start playing those more regularly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello,

    Thanks for your inspirational post.
    I imagine you may be well served to eventually consider a longer time format.
    Blitz certainly will get you a vast amount of playing experience but you may be short-changing yourself on “thinking experience”.
    Now that I’ve imparted that little nugget of wisdom, here is my story which is not without some similarity to yours:
    At 58, I’m much older than you but also started to play again recently, almost two years ago.
    This was after a 20-year hiatus, the last in a series of my on-again, off-again relationship with the game.
    Never a serious student of the game, I returned to it at 56 years of age intent up improving my understanding of the game.
    I had many false starts over the past two years but just recently reached 1600 in “daily” on Chess.com, which puts me in the 90th percentile of users of that format.
    It should be noted that I don’t use the format to deeply ponder the positions or explore opening theory as is generally the case with “serious correspondence”: I just use the format for its convenience as well as because it helped me tame my impulse to play impulsively.
    I can state unequivocally that the watershed moment for me was when I adopted a new study regimen which largely consisted of drilling randomly generated low-level tactics on a daily basis. This is complemented by analyzing each of my games, if only for avoidable mistakes and blunders. I also scan relevant master games for ideas, plans and tactical motifs: strictly “big picture” stuff associated to my small opening repertoire which I stick to religiously.

    My ambition is more modest than yours and is just to get to a point where I play good, solid chess.
    A cherry on top would be to get to a point where I can begin to have a truer appreciation for the beauty that lies within many master games.

    Regards,

    PixelatedParcel
    (Online chess handle)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello ! Congratulations on your chess journey and progress. I wish you all the best for OTB, but this is different from blitz, so if you aspire for a high OTB rating, it’s better start as early as possible (or as early as COVID allows) to get familiar with longer time-controls.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This advice is from one of the great players and coaches in the world. And also.. this comment was unsolicited, which lends even more credit. :). Thanks Salty.

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  8. Only learn old Russian way first endgame, very important!! just change everything on board and you r in endgame and you can easy win or draw!!! don’t go against very good prepared opening theories people just study endgame all the time!!

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  9. Great reading. Can you share your Anki setup ? Do you use an Addon to display chess boards ? I didn’t find any FEN visualizer that seems to work with the current version of Anki.

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