One of the hottest topics you can find in a chess tournament hall is how to keep training and practicing chess while having commitments such as a full-time job (as well as a family, and more).
As a full-time employed software developer (in a very large company) on one side, and amateur chess players since 2006 on the other (with peak Elo about 2200), I want to share with you my experience about how to practice chess with a full-time job.
Practicing chess is a weird hobby. Actually I don’t think the definition of hobby fits it. It’s not the kind of activity that you want to do when you get home in the evening after a long day at the office.
Why not? Because it requires mental effort. And we are not keen to take on additional mental stress after an intense day. Typical evening-hobbies are: watching a movie, reading a book, listening to music, cooking, etc.
Practicing chess is a weird beast. It requires great effort at the beginning, and even greater effort as you progress. Especially when, after a year or so, you reach a stable point in you level and in your Elo, then it’s when you will have to double your effort to move on.
After this somewhat pessimistic introduction, are you about to log off my blog and throw your chessboard out of the window? I don’t think you are.
You are not, because chess is not just a hobby for us. It’s more like a drug. It’s something that penetrated our brain some time ago and will never leave it.
You don’t decide to quit chess. Chess decides to quit you. Maybe.
Now, after this very long rant of mine, let’s get to serious business! I am not writing this post to discourage you in your chess studies, rather the opposite! You are totally fine continuing practicing chess aside of your full-time job, and you certainly improve your level of play, as well as your Elo rating.
I have gone through these thoughts several times, and therefore want to share with you a few recommendations, or strategies if you will, that can help all of us in keeping a good chess practice routine, despite all the other daily commitments.
Here’s a TO-DO list to practice chess alongside of your full-time job:
Ready? Let’s go!
The first and perhaps foremost tip that I found very useful in my own experience is to tell myself: I want to get better at chess.
If that’s what you think too, then it will be easier to understand that other, useless, time-wasting things must be put aside. Chess comes first.
For example, I had the habit to watch a couple of episodes of a TV show before dinner time (after working day was over, but before having dinner). I don’t do it anymore.
I transformed those 45 minutes into a more productive activity, that is usually solving 3 easy chess puzzles, or reading a chess news and understanding the games reported there.
Also quickly scanning my opening repertoire while doing the above, is a useful tip to improve the memorization of “my own” openings.
This is sort of a psychological step. You must have the strength to give up on your laziness, and make the best use of your spare time.
What’s your weak/lazy point? Watching a movie before going to bed? Watch a tutorial about some chess opening instead!
Reading a book in the evening? Read a chess blog instead, and go through the games explained there!
As always, it’s the first action that takes the most effort. We, as humans, are reluctant to make changes, even when we are aware that we would change for better. Don’t say “I will start tomorrow” because tomorrow is friend with never. Don’t be lazy, take the action TODAY.
The second thing that will make you step up your chess training practice is a consequence of the first (above).
When you convince yourself to dedicate some of your spare time to work on your chess skills, then you must really do it professionally.
What do I mean? Let me give you a very simple example.
I spend 20-30 minutes almost every evening to solve simple chess puzzles. While I do that, the world around me does not exist.
I turn off every social app, turn on the silent mode in my cellphone, stop music, TV, and everything else.
I force my brain to focus as much as possible on the single thing that matters in that moment: solving the current chess puzzle. Without distractions the training is much more effective, in the same time slot, than it would be with my mind thinking about my phone.
I am not saying that you have to completely ignore the other human being living with you though! But you should really remove from your head all the distractions that bother us these days (and that come especially from the internet).
The first two recommendation I discussed where kind of psychological. Here it comes a technical advice instead.
There exist two ways to improve your chess skills that must absolutely be part of your home preparation:
The habit that we all need to take is to keep iterating the two points above daily. It doesn’t really matter if it’s for a very short time. Because repetitive tasks are more easily memorized by our brain, even just 15-20 minutes per day will make the difference in the long term.
The plan I try to stick myself to is to solve 3 simple chess puzzles daily, and analyze one complete game weekly in real depth.
The puzzles are really simple, and I usually solve them in 5 minutes or so. But once again, my objective is to bring my brain to the point where calculating easy variations is not a effort anymore. It must become a second nature.
Regarding the game that I pick up in each week, it’s usually a game of my favorite chess player, Mamedjarov. I really try to go into the details, comparing his opening choices with my repertoire, then trying to guess his moves in the middle game, and so on.
Studying a chess games is actually a heavy task. But you must get it right from the start, because the effort you do now will add a lot of knowledge to your background skills for very long time.
It’s recommended to use chess engines, as well as chess database, and of course your opening repertoire. I wrote a post with a step by step guide to analyze a chess game that you may want to check out!
If you got used to study chess all alone, you would be surprised by the boost in productivity that you can get by having a sparring partner!
I want to share you my experience on this. When I started playing chess in 2006 I used to play, analyze positions and discuss opinions with a person about my same age and same level: both of us were unrated player, approaching the chessboard for the first time.
We didn’t really do anything special other then selecting 3-4 tournaments to play, playing and talking about chess pretty much daily. After one year we were both around 2100 Elo.
Then we had to stop since we both decided to go to college. I ended up with a PhD in software engineering, and he’s a lawyer. My Elo increased by just about 100 points since then. Still not too bad, but definitely not the same speed of growth!
Working with someone gives you additional motivation and pleasure. Of course, this is not just about chess: practicing with someone increases your performances by a large margin, with respect to lonely studies, pretty much in every field I know.
I was really lucky to meet, somewhat accidentally, the person I mentioned above. Not only we studied chess for 1-2 years and had a lot of fun, but we still are very good friends.
Cultivate a passion with a friend is an invaluable experience. If I compare my starting year (2006) with today, I can’t help but saying that today finding a chess sparring partner seems a lot easier.
You can use your favorite website for instance, or a whole lot of social networks to find someone to shares your passion with.
I really encourage you to look for a chess sparring partner, to pursue your objective to practice chess despite having a full-time job in a funnier way!
You can win this game!
One of the steepest mountains to climb when you are not a professional chess player is the belief that everybody is better than you.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I happen to play a FM or IM in a tournament, I really see the difference among times I start with a pessimistic mindset, and times when I feel more confident. And I did score a few wins and draws against 2350+ players over the years (not too bad, considering that I played a relatively low number of tournaments in my life).
Long story short, when you sit at the chessboard you don’t have to feel inferior to anyone! After all, we all start the game with the same pieces, and good moves are there, below your eyes. You just need to find them!
How to fight the lack of self-confidence with a serious chess training? For me the answer is easy: believe in what you are doing.
If you practice and study seriously, constantly and with method, you will become aware that you are well prepared for the game. So when you arrive at the chessboard and the game is about to start, there is no real reason why you should be less prepared than your opponent.
One more very useful tip is: do things you know. We all like to get creative and play somewhat strange, original chess positions. Well, don’t.
Stay with your feet on the grounds you are familiar with, and during a game you will enjoy the pleasant feeling to “know what you’re doing”! There will be time at home to try (and study) new things.
Practicing chess at home is nice and cozy. However, all birds must get out of the nests, eventually.
With a busy work/family life, we really must select carefully what chess tournaments we want to play in. With a full-time employment you will probably have time for 1, at most 2, long tournaments for which you will need to take days off, and maybe 2-3 weekends tournaments, if you can find some close to where you leave.
In case it’s not clear, let me remark the huge advantages of playing a chess tournament.
You will be totally absorbed into the chess atmosphere. You will have the chance to look at and listen to stronger players analyzing their game right after they are finished. This is the most important moment, when all variations that they calculated during the game are pronounced loudly.
Also, it’s when your brain will be down to serious work, in order to win / not loose each game you play. There’s no better practice than playing on the field. Of course, the limitations given by your full-time job forbid you to play many more tournaments, hence why you must choose them carefully.
So, what kind of tournaments should amateur chess players like us play?
It’s important to select tournaments where you have high chances to play many rounds with players of your same strength.
So for example, I do NOT suggest to play in big Open tournaments. They provide a really nice environment, and very strong players compete there, but, because of the Swiss pairing system, you might end up playing every round either with someone much stronger, or with someone much weaker than you.
The best is to select tournaments where the whole field of players is divided into 2 or 3 distinct tournaments, based on the Elo. Typical ranges are: from unrated to 1800, from 1800 to 2100, and 2100+.
In this way, with a 9 rounds tournament, you are very likely to play many games against a similar opposition. This allows you to test your actual capabilities over all stages of the game, from the opening till the endgame.
Some time ago I wrote an article for those of you who want to combine a nice holidays in Europe with a chess tournament. I described therein my favorite chess tournaments in Europe. Check it out if you have plans of that kind!
This is a tip I especially care about it, because it has had a big positive impact in my play too.
For a few years in the past I used to experiment a lot at the board while playing a chess game. I simply kept preparing the game in 1-2 hours before it started and then played whatever opening I wanted to play on that day.
This was really stupid of me. I basically spent years just playing random systems, whereas I could have chosen 1-2 openings and play them over and over, with the nice result to become very familiar with that type of position.
Being familiar with some kind of position has very big benefits in practical terms, because it allows you to select your move faster, and to quickly understand what are the right squares for your pieces. This is invaluable knowledge to have during the game, and that your are NOT likely to deduce on your own without home preparation.
So after a while I told myself: it’s time to build a real opening repertoire. I wrote a detailed list of opening and variations that I would play both on the White and the Black sides, and studied them one after the other.
With lots of other things to do, and my 9 to 5 office routine, it was not easy. It took several months, but I stayed strong and eventually completed the list. Now each of those variations is a file in my opening repertoire.
The difference is huge. I feel like I know what to play in most of positions. Of course it didn’t allow me to become World Chess Champion 🙂 but I did gain 50-60 Elo points recently, and they definitely are the result of my better opening knowledge.
Being expert in many openings also means being familiar with lots of middle game strategies and positions. This is incredibly useful in a tournament game.
I strongly recommend you to start building your chess opening repertoire today. It must become part of your chess training, and I am sure you can fit it into your daily schedule.
The last piece of advice I want to give you is potentially a game changer. I didn’t want to write it at the top of this article, because it can be expensive, and if you don’t want to spend money to practice chess then I totally understand.
In fact, I have never worked with a chess coach. And I regret it. Looking at the improvements that friends of mines have made, all of them with a job and family, I really think I should have considered this option more seriously.
A chess coach is particularly useful because (s)he makes sure you follow the training plan (that you agreed together), and because keeps chasing you, proposing to you new ways to learn.
Again, this can be an expensive option, but a very useful one. if you think you might consider it, then you can also check out my article on how much does a chess coach cost. Just to be clear, I do NOT have affiliations with any chess coach!
Practicing and studying chess while having commitments such as a full-time job (unrelated to chess) is tough. However, in this article I shared with you many insights and suggestions about what you can do to continue practicing and improving your chess skills.
I want to conclude with a couple more references.
How to improve chess calculation? Calculation is the single skill that will let you win many games (and loose as many). You can work on this skill by solving puzzles and learning patterns from GM games and with a careful planning of your training. I shared many more details in a few previous posts and also wrote a 7-tips guide on how to improve chess calculation.
What software should I use to practice chess? You will definitely need a combo of chess engine and chess database. My favorite choice nowadays is using LiChess.com, that provides a lot of features, including engine analysis and GM database. GrandMasters have slightly different preferences, and I explained which ones in my article what software do chess grandmaster use?
As always… have fun!!