How I Went from 300 to 1500 Elo in 9 Months

How I Went from 300 to 1500 Elo in 9

In this post, guest writer Alex Crompton shares how he increased his rating from 300 to 1500 points in just 9 months, starting from complete beginner level as an adult.

Understanding that most beginner-level games come down to tactics, Crompton designed and stuck with a smart training plan to build tactical fluency  – the ability to recognize and capitalize on tactical patterns with ease – even coming late to the game as an adult. `

His tool of choice? Chessable, with some unique modifications to MoveTrainer to suit his special training regimen. It is a great example of how MoveTrainer’s settings can be modified in so many ways to fit your learning style or desired training regimen. Here’s how he did it: 

Like most people, late last year I watched the Queen’s Gambit. Like most people, I made an account for a chess website assuming I’d become the new Beth Harmon. Unfortunately, more than literally almost everyone, I sucked at chess.

Now, my ego is quite large. And quite fragile. And I’d genuinely tried. I’d fallen in love with chess, but chess didn’t love me back: it was starting to prove that I wasn’t so smart after all. Well, we can’t have that. So I decided to figure out how to get good.

After a bit of research, I started a 20-30 minute a day practice routine. In early September/October I played two over-the-board  (physical) chess tournaments. After the second tournament, my Rapid rating was 1508, about the same as my recent online ratings.

So, what’s that mean? It means I went from being in the bottom 5% to pushing the top 5% of players online in around 9 months. More importantly for you, dear reader: I now understand how adults can meaningfully improve at chess. Here’s how I did it.

What We’re Training

If you want my exact routine, skip to the next section. But, if you want to design a routine that works for you, you’ll need to understand why my routine worked.

Especially at lower levels, chess is a game of short-term patterns. Sure, you can make a plan. But, mostly, it won’t matter. It turns out trying to win a chess game on strategy alone is like trying to win a boxing match without throwing punches.

Why? Because your chess games are almost always decided by patterns called ‘tactics’ – a short sequence of moves that turns your roughly equal game into a completely unequal game. If you’ve played chess, you’ll know the feeling: you’ve blundered a tactic every time your opponents took your Queen for free. Tactics and blunders are two sides of the same coin: blunders are moves that create tactical opportunities.

And if you can’t spot tactics, you can’t win games. You can play openings like Magnus Carlsen, but play endings like Carlos Magnussen and you’re still going to lose. In the Woodpecker Method, GMs Axel Smith & Hans Tikkanen estimated what percentage of games are won or lost by tactical mistakes at different ratings:

Grandmasters: 42%

2200-2400s: 44%

2000-2200s: 63%

1800-2000s: 72%

300-500s: 100%*

*my estimate. GMs Axel and Hans didn’t review my games

Sadly this doesn’t mean GMs don’t do tactics. It means tactical skill is chess’s foundational skill, which they’ve (modestly) transcended.

But what is tactical skill? Let’s check the science.

Well, the simpler the tactic, the more likely a strong player is to consider the best move immediately. In a position with a tactical opportunity, this study found that the first move that pops into a 2500 players head is as strong as the move that a 1548 player takes 5 minutes to find. And, fascinatingly, both strong and weak players improve decision making at similar rates given more time.

So what? The stronger the player, the more automatic the recognition of tactical patterns. They don’t see individual pieces, they see chunks. Strong players recognise tactics like you recognise faces, or words, or tastes.Capablanca’s famous adage “I see only one move ahead, but always the best move” turns out to be true.

If fluency in a language is measured in accuracy, speed, and prosody, then stronger players are more tactically fluent in chess. They find better moves, right away, in more relevant positions. Which begs the question, if tactical fluency is your goal, how should you train?

To get accurate:

  • Test yourself. You’ll learn more efficiently using Active Recall than Passive Recall.

To get fast:

  • Study ‘Comprehensible Input’. You need to be capable of independently deriving the patterns you’re testing. Start from the absolute basics. Krashen explains here.
  • Test response time. We process facial expressions and complex sentences in milliseconds – why not chess positions? Remember, we’re trying to train your automatic pattern recognition and chunking, not your calculation or knowledge.

To see a pattern in more positions:

  • Learn by category. To learn the pattern of ‘mate in one with a queen’, test yourself on lots of them in series, with instructive commentary. Context and subtle differences build understanding, on top of raw memory.
  • Then test randomly. Use a collection of randomly ordered patterns to encourage your brain to spot familiar patterns in new and more complex positions. You’re trying to generalise pattern recognition when you don’t know what you’re looking for. 

To see more patterns:

  • Use Spaced Repetition. For any given test, you should repeat the same test with more and more space in between tests. This dramatically reduces study time. 

Once you’re accurate, fast, and can spot the pattern in almost any context, you’re fluent in a tactic. The more tactics you’re fluent in, the more games you’ll win.

My Routine for Tactical Fluency

If you want my exact routine, skip to the next section. But, if you want to design a routine that works for you, you’ll need to understand why my routine worked.

Before you think this is an ad – I’m not affiliated with Chessable in any way, it’s just perfect for what we need. Each tweak of the setting is explained so you can replicate this in a different system if you wish.

First, Chessable

On Chessable, you do tactics, and if you get them right it shows you the tactic again in the future (a ‘review’). You can even set time limits for answering. Chessable makes it easy to test accuracy and speed with spaced repetition. This is where we are going to spend all our time.

Second, Chessable courses

We need a course which explains and groups tactical patterns, and a course which presents them randomly. This means we learn patterns and how to apply them across contexts.

For categorized patterns and explanations, I have found GM Susan Polgar’s Learn Chess The Right Way series to be incredible, but there are probably others. I am on Book 4 right now, but I especially loved Book 3 on defensive tactics.

For random tactics, I found Tactics Time to be good. It is basic stuff, jumbled up, which is what we need.

Readers have recommended Common Chess Patterns for beginner / intermediate, and Improve Your Chess Tactics for intermediate / advanced players. Both contain categorised patterns and random tactics and are very well reviewed.

Third, Chessable settings

I recommend studying tactics with some specific settings. These settings force us to solve many problems we can understand slowly, fast.

You’ll need a Pro account, but it’s great value. You’ll only need to change these once.

Once you’ve got a course, set your course settings to:

Study: Key Moves. This means we don’t get tested on long unforced ends of variations.

Review: Whole Variation. This means we always get tested on each tactic from start to finish, rather than each individual move separately. Ideally we play through the whole variation in our head before making our first move.

Reps: 1. This means if/when we get shown the answer to a tactic, we only get shown it once. We wan’t to find the answer rather than drill it.

Depth: Full Depth. This means we don’t stop the tactic if it is more than N number of moves long. We want to study tactics start to finish.

Soft fail: Retry on alternative good move. This means we don’t fail a tactic because there’s multiple ways to mate and we pick the ‘wrong’ one.

Time: 8 seconds. This means we can only get a tactic correct if we answer within 8 seconds. This is important – we don’t just want to get the answer right, we want to get it right almost instantly. I’ve messed around with different numbers here and it seems like 8 hits the sweet spot of ‘I have time to see the position’, ‘I have some time to visualise the tactic from my first intuited move to the end’, and ‘if my first intuited move is wrong I don’t have time to think of another’. The right number here is unclear, but 8 seconds isn’t unreasonably quick.

Tactics: Solve problem. This means we don’t want to be shown the answer to a tactic in advance, we have to solve it (or fail it) first.

Schedule:

Level 1: 1 day 16 hours

Level 2: 4 days 16 hours

Level 3: 10 days 16 hours

Level 4: 24 days 16 hours

Level 5: 56 days 16 hours

Level 6: 128 days 16 hours

Level 7: 296 days 16 hours

Level 8: 681 days 16 hours

This is a much more aggressive schedule than Chessable’s default, both beginning with a larger interval and increasing the space between each correct review by ~2.1.x. This is actually conservative based on my experience withAnki, which uses an even higher default interval growth multiplier of 2.5. There are two major benefits to aggressive spacing, based on the idea that yourfluency is cumulative:

  • In the short term it encourages understanding, rather than (just) rote memorisation.It’s better to have longer intervals even if you fail more. We’re not trying to optimise for the probability of getting any specific puzzle correct, we’re trying to optimise for cumulative absorption of the pattern.
  • In the long term it reduces workload per tactic which increases the amount of tactics you can maintain. If you average 12 seconds a tactic (time slack given failures) at Level 6, you can maintain 12800 tactics in just 20 minutes a day! Maintaining these 498 checkmates now takes me 3-4 reviews a day or about 45 seconds, with an average interval of 142 days per tactic.
  • NB. 16 hour thing is because Chessable doesn’t make everything due by ‘day’, and so we basically do it manually by assuming you’ll review at a similar time each day and scheduling each tactic to be due before then (eg a tactic due in 1 day 16 hours is in practice due in 2 days). Without this managing how many reviews you have per day becomes impossible.

Finally, look for the ‘MoveTrainer’ Settings (a little gear icon when studying on the web and in the app’s Settings on mobile):. Then change these settings:

Time up action: stop timer. This means when the 8 second timer runs out, even if you get the right answer you will still have failed the tactic… but, you will have unlimited time to find this right answer. This is important: if after 8 seconds you are just shown the solution, your brain will not have to understand the tactic and you may not be training Comprehensible Input.

Enable retry: on. This means that if you answer incorrectly, you will get another attempt to find the right answer. This is also important. While we are training our automatic pattern recognition, we want to force our brain to understand the tactic in cases where our intuition fails.

Max retries for a mistake: 1. If we generate a wrong answer, we want to force ourselves to properly solve the tactic and find the correct answer, rather than to allow ourselves to just try multiple incorrect answers until one passes.

Retry action: stop timer. As above, we want unlimited time to find the right answer if previously gave an incorrect answer, to aid understanding.

Time up action for retry: stop timer. As above. understanding.

Highlight legal moves: off. This means when you click or grab a piece, the moves it can legally make will be highlighted on the board. This is a crutch you won’t have OTB so turn it off.

Fourth, get started and keep going

Set aside some amount of time you can afford every day, and then split it across studying tactics by category and then randomly.

For me, I set a 10 minute timer, and then review the Polgar categorised tactics courses, from easy to hard. If I finish my reviews within the 10 minutes, I learn more categorised tactics. After 10 minutes, I finish the problem I’m on.

Then, I set a 10 minute timer, and then review randomly ordered tactics from Tactics Time. If I finish my reviews within the 10 minutes, I learn more random tactics. After 9 minutes, I finish the problem I’m on.

That’s it.

It takes around 20-30 minutes a day, depending on how I scale up or down the time. One last thing: Spaced Repetition punishes inconsistency because reviews clump up. Spend less time on Chessable than you can spare each day, in case you miss a day. If you have extra study time one day, don’t spend it on Chessable unless you can afford more review time in the coming days. Both under- and over-studying create review backlogs, which are horrible to clear.

Once I’m finished with the Polgar series and Tactics Time, I’m planning to apply this method to more advanced courses, like Basic Endgames, The Checkmate Patterns Manual, The Woodpecker Method, and more. 

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