Assess Your Chess

I am occasionally asked, "What's the best way to improve my chess?". Other than practice, I warmed to Kenneth Sloan's reply to a similar query on the newsgroups:

[cool tip]

Article 9288 in
Subject: Re: Best Quick Study??
From: (Kenneth Sloan)
Date: 22 Jun 1996 15:00:58 -0500
Organization: Dept of CIS, Univ. of Al at Birmingham

Annotate your last 20 tournament games.
Kenneth Sloan

In a book by Dan Heisman called The Improving Annotator he attributes his success to self-study of this sort. If Kenneth's advice seems not enough to go on, here are some things to look for.

 I think you must look at your games as a whole bunch. It's no use playing over your best games and looking to see what else needs to be improved, you have to look more at your losses. I know some players who will screw up a score sheet when they lose to a weaker player, when what they should do is go over it move by move, however painful. Soltis' classification of errors is given below.

  You actually can get a lot of informal, qualitative evidence about your play from your opponent in a "post mortem" after a game. Don't ever use these to brag, or show how much more you saw - the idea is to learn, not play another game!

 Even better is if you can persuade your local 'expert' to have a look at a couple of games that you really didn't understand - perhaps games where you were sure you were better at some stage but lost.

  Many folk these days have a computer:
Chess-playing programmes can help particularly with looking for tactical shots that you (or your opponent) missed, and checking your ideas and suggesting alternatives. They can miss some good ideas which are just outside their "horizon", so do push them a move or two along a line if you still think it looks good.
For strategical ideas, database programmes with opening/position searches can help you find games with similar positions, to see what plans are commonly followed in positions like yours.
The free ChessBase demo is able to do both, and I use it for these purposes after every game.

 In Exeter we often use our own games as the basis for discussion in our coaching sessions - we aren't experts but a second or third opinion can be very illuminating.

Taking stock

Simon Webb, in his excellent Chess for Tigers, has some helpful suggestions for looking at collections of games, by compiling some data to look for patterns. I have extended his account slightly below. The point is, by facing the facts in this way you don't get a chance to make excuses, and you may spot something that you hadn't realised before - e.g. that you don't do very well in an opening that you always thought was right up your street.

Taking stock of your openings

Draw up a table of your games, showing firstly, the outcome of the opening (e.g. +/- or =), and secondly, the outcome of the game (1-0, 1/2 etc.).
_ Opening Game Result All
_ +- = -+ 1-0 1/2 0-1
Ruy Lopez 3 4 2 2 4 2 8
Petroff 0 1 0 0 1 0 1
Open Sicilian 2 5 3 5 3 2 10
Closed Sicilian 0 2 0 0 1 1 2
French 0 1 1 0 0 2 2
Pirc/Modern 2 1 0 3 0 0 3
Alekhin 0 1 0 0 1 0 1
TOTAL 8 14 5 9 11 7 27


  1. Ruy Lopez not too successful - maybe try something sharper?
  2. Play well in open Sicilians but must learn more theory
  3. Don't understand French - must find decent line

During middle-game

type my position: improved a lot improved a bit remained about the same got a bit worse got much worse total
Positional Open 1 2 5 2 2 12
_ Semi-Open 4 7 17 4 1 33
_ Closed 0 4 9 3 3 18
Tactical Attack on King 5 9 7 6 6 33
_ Defence of King 1 3 5 4 2 15
_ Wild tactics 3 4 2 3 1 13
Middle-game without Queens _ 0 2 7 1 0 10
Late middle-game _ 1 4 9 7 3 24

N.B. one game may feature as more than one type as it progresses


  1. Semi-Open positions and tactical positions in general seem to suit me: when there's an attack on the King or a melee I can often outplay my opponent.
  2. However, in simpler positions and positions without Queens I seem more likely to lose the plot; this is also true of closed positions.
  3. I must study the strategy of the closed positions I get into more thoroughly, and during play must not get complacent in apparently simple positions.


_ Estimated theoretical result Actual game result
_ 1-0 1/2 0-1 1-0 1/2 0-1 All
King and Pawn 1 1 0 1 1 0 2
Rook 3 1 1 3 2 0 5
Rook and minor piece 2 2 2 1 2 3 6
Knights only 1 0 0 1 0 0 1
Bishops only 0 1 0 0 0 1 1
Bishops and Knights 1 2 3 1 1 4 6
Queen 0 1 0 0 0 1 1


The basic King and Rook endings seem handled well, but endings with minor pieces (with or without Rooks) look suspect. Moreover, half the Bishop/Knight endings were probably lost before I had a chance to play - I must see these situations coming earlier.

time-trouble table:

who what happened
_ my position got worse normal result opponent's position got worse
me 3 6 2
opponent 4 2 2
both 2 5 4
N where i was in TT = 22


I play OK in time-trouble and the % of games where I get in TT is not too bad. But I am not getting any benefit from my opponent's time trouble - am I trying to rush them into making mistakes, instead of paying attention to the position?
I hope you get the idea.

statistics like these can be enhanced by consideration of grades, if you have enough games. In BCF terms, you should turn in an extra 10% of avalable points for every 10 points your grade exceeds the average of your opposition. So, scoring 4/5 against 120-grade opposition is no more than a par performance for a player of grade 150. Equally, if you are outgraded by an average of 30 points a game, but make a 40% score, this is a very good performance, as you could have fairly expected only 20%.

 For ELO, I think a superiority of 400 points should yield a harvest of an extra 25% of points viz. 75%.

Error analysis

Without mistakes, there can be no brilliancies, said Lasker. Actually, without mistakes there wouldn't be any decisive games at all. What mistakes do you make? Vladimir Zak described "typical mistakes by young players":
  • Hasty moves, and, inconsequence, blunders
  • Learning openings without understanding the ideas
  • Reliance on general principles, without a concrete plan
  • Underestimating the opponent's combinative chances
  • Disparity between aggressive and defensive ability
  • Miscalculating variations and combinations
  • Inadequate knowledge of basic endgames
  • Implementing the wrong strategic plan
  • The problem of the clock in practical play
Andrew Soltis has classified mistakes in a more detailed way, as follows below: do you make some of these more than others? [I have collected a whole bunch of errors in the Canon.]
  • Tactical errors
    • allowing mate
    • removal of defender
    • double attack in defence
    • faulty tactics
    • weakening castled King's position
    • overlooking checks
    • overestimating checks
    • overlooking back rank threats
    • ditto, long diagonals
  • Mishandling Pieces
    • development
    • offside piece
    • unccordinated pieces
    • faulty exchanges
    • queen exchange
    • temporary invasion
    • castling into it
    • wrong Rook
  • Analysis
    • faulty assumptions
    • oversights
    • missing bottom line
    • faulty sequence
    • overlooking quiet moves
    • missing desperado
    • stopping analysis one move short
  • Positional errors
    • bad Bishops
    • creating holes
    • backward Pawns
    • opening lines
    • King's-side advance
    • permitting Pawn advances
  • Strategic errors
    • neglect of centre
    • wrong side
    • onesided
    • unjustified attack
    • failed restraint
    • reduce tension
    • counterplay
    • poor timing
    • passivity
    • giving winning plan
  • Attitude
    • trying for too much
    • changing fortunes
    • letting down
    • believing opponent
    • peer pressure
    • vacillation
    • monomania
    • dogmatism
    • draw-mindedness
    • frustration
  • Practical mistakes
    • hallucination
    • long moves on a big board
    • pretty moves
    • getting fancy
    • overfinessing
    • Lasker's law
    • missed opportunities
    • bad moves in bad positions
    • desperation and surrender
    • greed
    • negative sacrifice

Point Count Chess

In assessing your games a checklist of points from Horowitz' Point Count Chess might be useful
  1. Plus Points
    1. Control of the centre
    2. Pawn on fourth rank vs. Pawn on third
    3. Mobile pawn wing
    4. Strong outpost station
    5. Superior development
    6. Greater space
    7. Bishop-pair
    8. Half-open file
    9. Control of useful open file
    10. Rook(s) on the seventh rank
    11. Passed Pawn
    12. Outside Passed Pawn
    13. Protected Passed Pawn
    14. Advanced Pawn
    15. Qualitative Pawn majority
    16. Advanced chain
    17. Advanced salient
    18. Better King position
    19. Offside Pawn majority
  2. Minus Points
    • Weak Pawns
      1. Backward Pawn
      2. Doubled pawn
      3. Isolated Pawn
      4. Hanging Pawns
      5. Hanging phalanx
      6. Crippled majority wing
    • Weak Squares
      1. "Weak square complex"
      2. Holes
      3. Compromised King's-side
      4. King held in the centre
      5. Cramped position
      6. Bad Bishop
By adding and subtracting points they say you can assess who has the advantage. They also say that five points is a win!

  This whole scheme is impossible to remember and obviously formulaic. The value of the book is really to introduce you to the ideas and how to exploit each sort of advantage.

  A more practical way of doing the same thing is to compare pairs of pieces: compare my King and my opponent's King, then my Queen and my opponent's Queen, etc., thereby assessing who stands better.

  Another nice suggestion (which I associate with Chernev) is to add up the legal moves available to the pieces on each side. You can also add up the territory you control: the squares behind your Pawns.

  Another sequence to go through:
to know what plan to follow, look carefully

 To           Tactics: before anything else, see if the game can be decided
                right now!
 Know         King position: mostly in terms of safety, but also near centre
                for endgame
 What         Weaknesses: weak pawns and weak squares (variety as above)
 Plan to      Piece position: centralised or offside, bad Bishop etc.
 Follow,      Forcing moves: tempo, initiative, possibility of breakthrough
 Look         Lines: files, diagonals, ranks; control, or can you open one?
 Carefully    Centre and space
Now, I can remember that a whole lot better than all the point count stuff!

Chess Quotes

"A lot of the difference between an IM and GM is a seriousness to the game. The GM is willing to go through all this. He's willing to put up with anything. This shows his dedication. One other thing is the GMs superiority in tactics. For example Christiansen can find tactics in any position. If you're a GM you should be able to overpower the IM tactically. The GM will often blow out the IM in this area. "
— Nick de FIRMIAN, in How To Get Better at Chess : Chess Masters on Their Art by GM Larry Evans, IM Jeremy B Silman and Betty Roberts

EDITORIAL NOTE: This of course contradicts David Norwood's view. While David's opinion is based on research, I think Nick's is the correct one. I have a wonderful proof of this theorem, but unfortunately this page is too small to hold it. - Dr.Dave.