Arjun Attam

A year of improving at chess

29 Apr 2021

I had a short introduction to chess as a child. I understood the rules, but I gave away my pieces easily and lost the few, and only, games I played. Chess was labeled too hard in my head, and I did not seek help. Fast forward to two decades later, when the Internet helped me take another look at the game and get better at it.

When the lockdown started last year, I was looking for a distraction and picked up chess. Over the last year, I’ve played a thousand games on and Lichess, and it has been an amazing year of continuous learning. In this process, I also discovered some principles and tools for hobby-oriented learning that worked for me.

First, the Internet gave me anonymity. Being a chess newbie that gives away pieces easily was my version of the dog on the Internet. Anonymity became a powerful tool to dissociate my losses from my identity. Blunders became acceptable because no one knows I made them. Anonymity enabled me to focus on making progress and keeping at it.

Second, the Internet gave me great teachers on YouTube. John Bartholomew’s series on chess fundamentals is the perfect instruction material for someone who knows the rules, but does not know the skills. Sagar Shah is another incredible instructor. Both Bartholomew and Shah gave me simple heuristics to apply when I got stuck (for example, balance number of attackers to defenders or think through checks → captures → threats, in that order). After teaching me to cook, YouTube also taught me chess.

Third, the Internet gave me software to analyze my chess games and learn through them. Chess engines (like Stockfish) can evaluate possible positions and score every move you make. This enables you to find bad moves or play through alternate scenarios, which is an incredibly powerful way to learn. Software gave me instant feedback on how I played and this is how I improved.

Lastly, and the most important, the Internet connected me to hundreds of thousands of chess players. It takes me only a few seconds to start a game with a similar rated player who is also looking for a 20 minute game. This creates a high motivation environment where every game is right on the edge of my capabilities: not too hard and not too easy (also called the Goldilocks Rule.)

Chess kept me sane during the lockdown, especially during the seven months of living alone. My chess rating became a clear objective goal that I could apply rigour to. While I got better at it, chess also helped me realize the value of paying attention without distractions. If I glance through my Twitter while waiting for my opponent’s move, chances are I will lose the game. Sometimes paying attention is the only difference between winning and losing.