Rapid adult chess improvement is possible. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Not just me, but people I know personally have seen rapid adult improvement. Most people in the adult improvement blogosphere are somewhere along that same rating curve. This isn't about rapid chess improvement at 2100+, or even 1800+, although Axel Smith's progress seems to suggest you can have nice improvement at that level also. If nothing else, what I've done can take you to 1600-1800 pretty quickly. What it takes to get from there to 2100 is unknown to me at this time. That will be the subject of my year 2 update. My goal is to hit 2000 by the middle of this year. 1000 to 2000 in 18 months as an adult would be pretty remarkable. I think it's very possible.
When I started, I did nothing but try to memorize the openings Kasparov played. I read over some articles in Chess Life, but nothing more than that. Never picked up a tactics book or annotated games collection. I'm surprised I was even able to maintain a 1000 rating like that.
I stopped playing after HS, but decided I wanted to try picking up the game again. I got Lev Alburt's chess course and Seirawan's books on tactics and strategy. I played in 2 events and my rating basically went sideways. After that I stopped playing chess.
17 years later, I came back to the game and wanted to give it one last shot to see how well I could really do. With the internet and some maturity, I felt I could find a "proper" training plan instead of just picking books out at random from ads and hoping that would do the trick.
Enter spaced repetition training plan and the Knights Errant. I've never read MDLM's book. I don't believe that tactics are all you need to get to class A/expert. I'm not even sure MDLM believes that. Or maybe he really discounts all the games he played over the course of that year and all the analysis help he got playing at a large chess club in Boston with dozens of masters. At any rate, I'm not a Knights Errant or a MDLM disciple. But it was nice to see that people had tried using spaced repetitions for chess training as that had been part of my initial comeback plan.
Long story short, NM Dan Heisman is right when it comes to adult chess improvement.
- Know your basic tactics. He recommends a MDLM style program using John Bain's Chess Tactics for Students book. Keep doing repetitions until you can solve 85% of the problems in 15 seconds or less. It took me six times through to accomplish that. This helps you accomplish one of the most basic things to improve at chess: piece safety. Don't drop material and you win a lot of games. Most tactics are going to be of the 2-3 move variety.
- Regularly play slow time controls OTB. Use all of your clock. Theory without practice is a waste of time. You have to activate your knowledge. There are lots of subtle things you pick up when playing that get stored for use later.
- Analyze your games. Self-annotate and go over them with a stronger player whenever possible. The majority of what you need to improve is contained in your own games. What mistakes did you make and why? How do you overcome them? Stronger players can give lots of valuable advice.
- Read lots of annotated master games. I don't believe you need to study much strategy/openings/endgame right away. The people whipping out Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual when they are just getting started are masochistic. You get a TON of that type of training reading over master games. You see how they play the openings, plans that develop and how they try to convert their advantage in the endgame. I think Silman's Endgame book is a good way to handle it. Know how to mate with certain piece combinations and know some basic K+P endgame ideas. I learned in my first major tournament last year how overrated knowing the opening was. In half my games, I was out of my own personal book by moves 4-5. I just followed basic principles and got a playable middlegame. Then I won those middlegames.
- Get a coach. Maybe this is optional if you regularly play club games and can go over games with stronger players often. But a good coach can help you figure out the mistakes you're making and how to correct them.
- Be ruthless. Never accept a draw. If you have the advantage, convert it to a win. Don't take a draw because your opponent is stronger. Go for the throat. Don't take a draw because you're afraid of losing rating points. An equal position is a win waiting to happen if you try. Don't play scared. You'll either learn something from trying to win or losing. That will carry forward for hundreds of games. The couple of points you lose from one is irrelevant. I made one of my biggest jumps in rating after I stopped playing scared. I had been in a bit of a slump and started taking early draws because I was afraid of blundering in time pressure. Once my mentality changed and I was ready to play a game out 100 moves if necessary, I started winning against much stronger players.
- Take breaks. Don't be afraid to take a few weeks or a month off. You don't want to be sitting in a tournament hall playing games when you'd rather be doing something else. The training can be hard work and take up a lot of time. You have to be willing to invest that time, but you have to relax too.
Here's a breakdown of my 1st year training:
Tactics: 3500 unique tactical puzzles across the 7 books outlined on Empirical Rabbit's blog. I never did finish doing spaced repetitions with the Blue Coakley, although I finished the majority of the puzzles. It's an excellent book, in fact. I was a little burnt out with my training program, plus an increased workload around that time didn't help. My coach said I didn't need to do the repetitions MDLM style I did past Bain, but I do feel like it helped me. If I had to do it all over again, I'd skip Woolum's book. The variance is very high for a beginning tactician. My goal was 10,000 with an undetermined time frame. Looks like just under 3 years if I keep up that pace. Easily doable now that I'm doing the vast majority of my tactics on Chess Tempo.
Annotated games: 1,162 annotated master games. Well, 1,100 if you don't count Heisman since those are annotated amateur games. But it's a very good and unique book. It could be re-titled "Top 5 Reasons Class Players Lose Chess Games". My goal was 2,000 in 2 years so I'm definitely on track.
OTB play: I played 68 rated games last year. Including online slow games, I played 109 games. My goal is 100 games per year and I met that. I played almost zero online games during the end of last year. I still might play in T4545, but I'm in a place where it's very easy to find games of at least G/60 OTB every week.