The Touching Responses to “On Learning Chess”

On Sunday night I jotted down a short reflection on my journey learning chess over the last two years. I made a couple graphs to fill it out and submitted it to HackerNews. The response has been overwhelming – tens of thousands of readers, and hundreds of helpful, funny, and encouraging comments, through HackerNews, Reddit, email, and other sources – so I want to respond to everyone here, and highlight a few remarks that stood out to me.

I’ll start by answering the most frequently asked questions, and then move to the highlights.


Does your blitz rating correspond to a standard FIDE rating?

The ratings don’t correspond – I don’t have a FIDE rating, and online blitz is a different game from classical OTB chess. With that said, you can compute some statistical correlations between the ratings among players who have both, and a 1750 Blitz rating (my personal best, achieved November 2020) roughly correlates to a 1665 FIDE classical rating, according to this analysis, or a 1745 USCF rating.

What is your username? I want to analyze your games.

While that’s very touching, I have deliberately withheld my username because of the privacy ramifications of connecting my real-life identity to my account.

Can you share your Anki cards?

My Anki cards would not be useful to others except as examples, because they’re based on the specific mistakes I make and off-beat openings I use. In 6 months, my current set of Anki cards will probably not even be particularly useful to me. But, just to expand on my method, my Anki cards have 4 fields – Front (a picture of the position, with me to play); Back (A picture of the position after the correct move), FEN (a unique text representation of the starting position, to help me avoid duplicates), and GameHits (to help me keep track of how often I see a card’s position in an actual game.)

How can you spend so much time on chess?

Like everyone, I make tradeoffs. Life is not a contest. I have a fairly demanding job and I’m in grad school, but I still have significant flexibility in how I spend my time. I even have other hobbies! And I do deal with burnout and stress. Chess has actually helped me with that, because I’m less tempted to stay up late solving tactics than I am to watch a show. The feeling of steady progress, and a reliable routine, can actually provide stability and calm that outweighs the time and effort one puts in.

Highlights from the Comments

This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear as an adult who is just now getting really into the game. What was your training routine like for 800-1200 ELO on

sonicfood – Reddit

I’m so happy to hear this. I actually talk about exactly what I did in an earlier post, here (in the “Chess” section.) I would note that I didn’t do a lot of tactics training then, but I believe the process would have gone much faster if I had.

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:

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.

Mesquita – WordPress

I definitely agree that most progress comes from solving tactics. Anki, though, is my silent chess coach, pushing me to analyze my games and explore the bad decisions I make. Chess is, after all, about making better choices. To those of you out there who already play slow time controls and analyze your games, Anki is probably superfluous. And thank you for the link about Michael de la Maza! His story shows us, I think, that for many of us the limiting factor is just how long we continue training. It’s hard work.

> on Friday I’m better than average,

I wonder if this is because the opponents might have been drinking.

For me at least, I know that even two beers has a noticeable effect when I do lichess puzzles.

emmelaich, HackerNews

I love this theory! Anecdotally, people do sometimes announce that they’re drinking in Friday games.

I did something very similar with an old strategy game called Age of empires II. Over the course of two years I went from a 1300 rating to 1850. I don’t play chess, so it’s hard for me to compare the scales, but I will say the highest players were rated around 2600. I think being 1850 put me around 90-95th percentile for active players– there were less than 50 players over 2300, and only a few hundred over 2000.

My only real commentary is that trying to follow a progression like this can be profoundly, profoundly frustrating. You need to really make sure you’re enjoying this hobby before you try to dedicate yourself to a trajectory like this. It can really make you feel like shit a lot of the time, as you find yourself continually repeating mistakes that other people breeze past without issue. It takes true love of the game and a great deal of patience and persistence to push through all the downspells.

Eventually I decided that I no longer wished to prioritize the game over other things. The enormous time investment was no longer a worthwhile trade-off for me, and I stopped playing almost all together. I haven’t regretted it since. There’s just so many things to do in life. I gave it thousands of hours of my time, and now the door is closed on that. Now I’m learning Ruby on rails!

aerovistae, HackerNews

You really speak to the psychology of training here. Sometimes it’s such a struggle. Some days you keep making mistakes, and everything is hard, and that feeling of “profound, profound frustration” just wells up. At those moments I try to fall back to having the clichéed “faith in the process” and grind out another puzzle. Fortunately, at so many moments, it’s fun and easy and flowing and you’ll see a beautiful tactic that wins your opponent’s queen. And you get more of those moments as you continue to grind.

Chess is pretty great.

I hope many of you are encouraged that you can improve with time and a good routine, as you have encouraged me to carry on. I particularly appreciate the kind words from much stronger players, who could easily have disregarded this result as unimportant in absolute terms. (But imagine Magnus Carlsen’s two year posts! Would we find them relatable? And so, I think, there is a use for celebrating small gains by ordinary people like me.)

I’ll end by signal-boosting some other interesting things I’ve done with chess.

I published an article in Math Horizons magazine earlier this year about a really fun puzzle that uses a chess board and chess pieces (but isn’t, strictly speaking, chess). (Spring 2020)

I really love 4-player chess and have spent a good deal of time working on a 4-player chess bot for (spring 2019).

Comments on Hacker News

2 thoughts on “The Touching Responses to “On Learning Chess”

  1. Don’t change anything in the way you train. Only if you face some difficulties should you consider doing something different.


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