Learning

7 Tips to Improve Chess Calculation

7 Tips to Improve Chess Calculation

Have you ever wondered how to work on improving your chess calculation skills, despite your busy life? A full-time job, family and tons of other commitments leave very few hours to chess training. And calculating chess variations is hard!

We are on the same boat. I kind of stopped playing and studying chess years ago, when I started working as software developer. But then, talking with a few friends who are FMs I realized that improving at chess is possible even with a different full time job.

Calculation is the most sought skill in chess. In this article I will share with you a few tips that you can use to improve your chess calculation skills, without taking time away from your family and your job.

At the end of the article you will know how to use your spare time towards improving your chess calculation ability. A few simple tips will do the trick, and save you from being lazy!

1: Solve 3 simple puzzles daily

Solve 3 simple puzzles daily

The power of simple calculation is totally underestimated, in my opinion! We often think that we need to calculate complex variations at great depth in order to improve. Well, I say it’s not the case.

If you plan on a constant, daily, practice, then solving simple chess puzzles will be like a gym for your brain. A slow but steady improvement.

The real motivation is that calculation must become a natural activity for your brain. It’s like lifting a couple of pounds (1-2 Kg) every day: after a while you don’t feel the effort anymore.

The same with chess calculation: to improve it, it must become something normal for your brain. To achieve this, you can just solve 3 simple chess puzzle per day.

By “simple puzzle” I mean something that requires just 1-2 minutes of calculation, depending on your strength. In order to have every day new puzzles adapted to your level, you can use a chess software. I use LiChess because it’s extremely simple. Here is how:

  1. Download the LiChess mobile app. It’s free and available for both Android and iPhone. It’s also ads-free, and I don’t have any affiliation with it 🙂
  2. Open the Main Menu by clicking on the icon located at the top-left corner. Or just swipe over the screen from left to right to open the same Menu.
  3. In the Menu, find the Learn section and click on Training.
  4. The first puzzle will open up immediately, and after you solve it the next one will be automatically loaded.

If you use it from the laptop then simply in the Menu in the top bar click on Learn -> Puzzles.

If you have registered an account (that’s also totally free), then you will have a personal score based on how many puzzles you solve, and their difficulty. The app will keep on finding puzzles that adapt to your current score.

This is a fantastic way to train calculation of simple chess variations. Simple, 2-3 moves, lines are the variations that need to be calculated most of the time during a real game, which is why I am stressing this point so much.

Keep solving 3 simple puzzles per day, maybe while you go to work, or in the coffee break. It will be a great usage of some spare time and will lead to improving your chess calculation skills in a few months!

2: Solve one difficult puzzle per week

Solve one difficult puzzle per week

Calculating very complex and long variation has also some importance in the training process. However, it does not have to be a daily activity.

My recommendation to you is to solve one more complex chess puzzle per week. Complex puzzles will require longer effort, and of course a different level of chess calculation ability.

So, how to practice with one complex chess puzzle per week? My suggestion is rather simple: Choose a book that contains exercises and just pick up one every week. Unlike the simple exercises of Tip #1, that I solve daily even while going to the office, I reserve either Saturday or Sunday for the single complex puzzle of the week.

There are a lot of resources online about difficult chess puzzles, both in books format and websites. I wrote a very detailed post about this, explaining what are my favorite books to train chess calculation and that you might want to check out at this point.

Consider that solving a complex puzzle will take more time. I think you will need at the least 30 minutes and at most 1 hour. It’s all active training for the brain so it’s all good!

My routine consists of picking up one puzzle on Saturday morning, spending maximum 15 minutes calculating variations, and then 5-10 minutes comparing my calculations with the solutions, trying to understand what I miss and why.

There are a few points that I want to underline and advice.

  • When you stop calculating a variation, because you think you’ve arrived at the logical end of it, wait a few seconds more. You have to make conclusions about each chess positions. This is actually what happens during a real game. So go ahead and before starting calculating a different variation make a clear conclusion about what you just calculated.
  • At every move, start your calculation by listing in your mind all the candidates moves. Often, chess puzzles are made to trick you (the same that your opponent tries in a real game), so there can be hidden resources. You must be able to see all candidate moves even when you are deep down in a variation.

When you’re done with calculation, you must evaluate how well you did. Use both the book’s solutions (if provided) and a chess engine. Be careful if you are solving a endgame puzzle (like in Tip #6 below): every now and then chess engines don’t work well on those unless you give them a lot of time to think.

Play with the engine all variations that you calculated in your head, in order to see them on the board and to check with the engine what nuances you missed, or what blunders you would have made.

This final part is extremely important, because it makes you aware of your own errors. Understanding one’s own errors is the best way to improve!

3: Play one blindfold game per day

Play one blindfold game per day

I am sure that both you and I spend more time than we think playing blitz online. I think I spend at the least 1530 minutes every day, without even realizing it.

This whole post, about how to improve chess calculation skill, is actually a list of tips to make a better usage of your time.

However, I don’t want to take the fun away from you! This is why I am not going to tell you to stop playing blitz online. But I want to see you making a slight change in your routine.

Among all games that you play online, maybe on your phone, I want you to play one blindfold game.

If your first reaction is “How can I do that”, then just know it’s very easy. For example, using LiChess is really a matter of clicks.

If you are using the website, after Logging in click on your username (top-right) and then on Preferences. Scroll down the page and you will see the last option is Blindfold chess (invisible pieces). Simply activate (or deactivate) it to play blindfold. Let me repeat that:

  1. Log in to LiChess.
  2. Click on your username (top-right).
  3. Click on Preferences.
  4. Scroll down in your profile page. The option Blindfold chess is at the bottom.
  5. Activate it.

At the moment, I don’t think there’s the same option on the mobile app, so you will have to use the online website for it.

Just to be clear: the blindfold game that you will play daily should be with the same time control as the others you play for fun. For example, I always play 5′ blitz games, with no increment, and I use this time control also for my daily blindfold game.

The idea behind playing blindfold is to improve your visualization of the board. In fact, one key component of calculating long variations in a chess game is the ability to clearly “see” the board in your mind. Playing blindfold, on a daily basis, will improve this feature. Slowly but surely.

4: Follow one top chess player

Follow one top chess player

You are going to love this tip, Tip #4. It’s based on the observation that we all spend a lot of time in checking out games played in top tournaments.

What you should do is to elect your favorite chess players among the Elite players. It does not have to necessarily be in the top-10, actually any GM with Elo greater than 2650 works fine, in my opinion.

Once you’ve picked up one, you must have the clear objective to study his games more carefully than you do with the other players.

The reason is that when we read news or reports about tournaments and the games played therein, we often just glance at the moves, or maybe we quickly replicate the game on a chessboard online. This is a big waste of time and opportunity.

Since you’re there, checking out the games, you better invest a bit more time (for instance 15-20 minutes) to go deeper in the analysis of one game. You can do it with any game, but if you have a favorite player that you are following over time, then you will also be able to understand how his (her) style evolves, why he chooses a certain opening, and more.

For example, I recently elected Mamedjarov as my favorite player. He’s been world #3 for quite some time now.

Every time I see he plays in a tournament, instead of spending all my free time reading the news and watching the photos, I download the PGN of his game and study it more in detail.

In this moment I recommend you focus on the calculation aspect only. So for example when I study Mamedjarov’s games, I don’t spend time exploring the opening or related databases. While going through the game, every time I see that the position has a “complex look” then I start calculating variations and I try to guess Mamedjarov next move.

5: Read chess games without the board

Read chess games without the board

This tips is a follow-up to the previous one.

Once more, I want you to focus on the amount of time that you spend reading chess news. For example, on ChessBase, Chess24 or Chess.com, YouTube Channels and whatnot.

I find that making a clever usage of this time is a great boost to the overall chess training. Therefore I have a very simple tip for you.

Basically all chess news articles contains games. Some of them are also analyzed and, most importantly, they are always shown on a chessboard that you can navigate with the arrows in your keyboard.

Well, have you ever thought about watching these games without moving the pieces on the chessboard?

If it sounds senseless to you, then think again about my Tip #3. Using your “brain-eye” is an exceptional workout for your chess calculation skills. If you can do it constantly, possibly daily, then your brain will improve its calculation ability, exactly like you would train a muscle at the gym.

So, every time you read an article with some news from tournaments around the world, and there’s a few selected games, instead of lazily pressing the right arrow till the end of the game, play move after move in your head.

You must try your best to keep the overall chessboard picture in your head as clear as possible. Of course, you will miss a lot of details, especially the first times you follow this training tip.

To make the most out of things I missed, I then replay the game once more, this time moving the pieces. I do this really really slow, trying to remember what was in my head instead, when I was going through the game without the board.

Notice that this very simple tip does not make reading the news much longer. It should take 5 minutes instead of 2. And I think you will be happy about how you spent those 3 minutes!

6: Solve one endgame puzzle during breakfast

Solve one endgame puzzle during breakfast

I love taking longer time for breakfast on the weekend days! I don’t have job commitments on Saturday, nor on Sunday, so I choose one of this two days to combine a nice breakfast and a chess puzzle!

Unlike Tip #2, here I am explicitly telling you that you have to solve a endgame puzzle. The fewer pieces on the board, the better.

Endgame puzzles are notoriously great to train pure calculation. The reason is that when there’s a lot of space on the chessboard, it becomes somewhat more difficult to explore all possibilities.

In addition, in endgames you are often obliged to calculate variations till the very end of the game. This is very beneficial to your calculation skills, because the lines are much deeper.

What I do is usually to take a break after my coffee to work on the puzzle. It does not have to be a very long break, because anyway in a real game you’re not going to have 30 minutes to spend on a single move in a endgame.

So I usually give myself ten minutes. I pause my breakfast and start calculating as many variations as I can, but also as precise as I can. At the end of the 10 minutes I declare my move and then check the solution.

At this point I explore the solution as deeply as I can, maybe for other 5-10 minutes. I often use my phone to reproduce the board on the LiChess mobile app. When there’s a variation that is not very clear in the solution, I simply activate the chess engine and check that my calculations make sense.

And then, the weekend can start!

7: Analyze one game per week

Analyze one game per week

My final tip is also the less “realistic”, if you will. More than a tip, it’s a challenge for you.

Are you up to the challenge? Analyzing a game is no simple task, and I don’t claim it’s something you can easily do in your free time. I think a good analysis of a game can take even 2-3 hours.

I don’t have that much of free time in a single day. So, what I do is to split the analysis over multiple days. I dedicate a variable amount of time to each “piece of analysis”. Sometime is half a hour, sometime just five minutes, in which case I usually simply compare my repertoire with the opening played in the game.

My overall objective is to have one full game analyzed per week. I put great effort into this, and I go really deep in the opening, trying to constantly improve my own repertoire. And when I analyze the middle-game, I spend a lot of time trying to calculate variation on my own, even before looking at what moves have been actually played.

Studying a chess games in depth is not a simple thing. One should make a clever usage of chess engine, databases and also one’s own opening repertoire. I wrote a very detailed post about this topic that I suggest you to check out.

It may sounds odd to you, but if you manage to analyze 50 games in a year (that’s less than 1 per week), you have already increased your chess knowledge more than most players.

And if you are serious about improving your calculation skills, and spend time calculating even when analyzing a game, then you probably calculate dozens of variations for each of these games. That’s a great amount of practice cashed in!

Conclusions

Have you ever wanted to plan a serious chess calculation training, even if you have a full time job and not much spare time?

In this post I gave you 7 tips that I use myself to practice chess calculations. They are based on a simple but effective idea: practice requires time and effort, there’s no magic formula other than training every day.

You can train for a very small slot of time every day, one that fits your daily routine. I gave you suggestions on different things that you can do to fill your time with some good chess practice. Let me know if you try them out!

Have fun!!