How to Become a Chess Expert

In 1995, International Master Eric Tangborn wrote a book called “A Road to the Expert Title.”  The aim of the book was to focus on just what is necessary to become an expert (Candidate Master).  Here is his advice.

Find an opening repertoire which fits your style in which you have great confidence.  It should be a simple, easy opening that does not require a lot of memorization (Tangborn recommends the King’s Indian Attack for White and the King’s Indian Defense as Black if your opponent plays 1.d4 and Sicialian Accelerated Dragon if 1.e4 is played).    He advises the way to learn any opening is by studying complete games and learning strategies and tactics of typical positions.  Ideally, you want to study games played by masters, International Masters, and Grandmasters.

Strive for these four elements in the opening: 1) get control of the center; 2) strive for the quickest and most active development; 3) castle early; 4) get an advantageous pawn structure.

You need to have a good positional judgment.  You need to have a strong feel for where to put your pieces and how to take advantage of structural weaknesses.

You must be very sharp tactically.  Practice finding combinations in chess games.  Buy a book on combinations and try to solve a few positions.

Study well-annotated games played by masters.

Practice analyzing positions alone or with friends.

Pick out candidate moves that seem to be good moves in a particular position.  When analyzing complicated chess variations in your head, try to examine each branch of candidate moves once and only once.  Wandering to and fro will just lose time and cause confusion. 

Pick out positions that are well analyzed from a chess book, close the book, and write down your own analysis.  After a fixed amount of time, compare your analysis with the analysis in the book.

Play competitively on a regular basis.  Annotate your games and try to learn from your mistakes.

Develop your knights towards the center of the board and put your bishops on long diagonals.  Do not block them by your own pawns.  The bishops are stronger when used in pairs.

The king should be castled as soon as possible and tucked away in safety in the middlegame.  Only activate the king in the endgame. 

In order to tell if your attack is going to succeed, count the number of attackers and the number of defenders.  If there are more attackers than defenders, the attack will usually succeed.

Before commencing with a plan, you must be able to evaluate a position.  You have to ask yourself are you ahead, behind, or even in material?  Are your pawns well placed?  How much freedom of action do your pieces have?  Is your king safe or exposed to attack?  What is the threat?  Is there a favorable exchange of pieces?  Are there any holes in your position or your opponent’s position? 

The most important rule is that your pieces need to be active and coordinated.

As a player who has been up and down the expert scale (2000 to 2199 and back down again), I have found that the most important thing to make expert and keep expert is to play often.  A tournament once a year is not enough to stay expert strength.  You need to play in 5 or 6 tournaments a year to stay sharp.  I vary my openings so that my opponents cannot prepare against me so much.  I avoid opening that my opponents are familiar with if I know the history of my opponent.  I try to manage the clock better, but as you get older, that is harder to do.  I am often in time trouble in my 60s when I did not have that problem when I was younger.   Most of my wins against other experts and masters have come from tactical shots that I saw and my opponent missed.  Playing positional or for an even endgame has not been my best way to stay expert strength.  As White, I play less common openings such as 1.b3 or 1.g3.  As Black, I play the Sicilian with offbeat 3rd or 4th moves for Black, or the Nimzo-Indian when I see 1.d4.   If I have nothing to lose, I play gambits; otherwise I try to play solid moves and avoid exchanges.  I play a lot of blitz chess online to experiment with certain openings.   When I am preparing for a tournament, about a month before the event, I study the latest games that feature the opening ideas I want to play.  I usually have two openings in mind as White, and two openings for Black for every possible White move.