How to get better at chess after you learn the rules

This is intended for beginner chess players who know the rules of chess but don’t really have a great sense of how to progress from there - in other words, people generally below 1000 Elo on Lichess,, or any other major ratings systems.

Practically speaking, at this level, all games are won in only one of three ways:

  1. You mate your opponent in the middlegame
  2. You mate your opponent with King+Rook vs King in the endgame
  3. You mate your opponent with King+Queen vs King in the endgame, likely after having promoted a pawn

Obviously games of chess can end in many other ways. In low Elo games, however, these are by far the most common ways to win a game.

Note that winning lots of material (e.g., being up a Rook) doesn’t itself win you the game. Instead, being up a Rook means you can either trade down into a winning endgame, or threaten mate against your opponent’s depleted forces.

So the most straightforward path to improving your chess is as follows:

  1. Learn how to win the main three “winning endgames”: how to mate with King+Queen vs King and King+Rook vs King, and how to promote with King+Pawn vs King
    • Mastering this means you can now convert nearly any game with a material advantage into one of the known winning endgames
  2. Pick a few openings to learn, so you don’t instantly lose out of the opening
    • As White, play e4 and then learn an opening for both of Black’s most common responses, e5 and c5. (You can do the same with d4 and learn responses to d5 and Nf6, but since you will encounter more e4 players as Black, it’s more helpful to learn e4 openings yourself.)
    • As Black, you need to know one response to e4 and one response to d4.
    • If you run into an opening you don’t recognize, follow basic principles (control the center, don’t move pieces twice, castle) and you will be fine.
    • The goal isn’t to win - it’s just to not lose. It’s OK to pick aggressive openings, but trying to win every game through the opening severely limits you as a player - you very quickly stop encountering players who fall for opening traps.
  3. Spend the rest of your time working on tactics
    • Once you don’t instantly lose out of the opening, and once you can win winning endgames, the next logical step is to be able to turn your games into winning endgames.
    • This is accomplished by either winning lots of material in middlegame, or just directly mating your opponent - both of which can be trained through drilling tactics and calculation.

In short, your gameplan every game will be as follows:

  • In the opening, don’t lose
  • In the middlegame, mate your opponent or win a big material advantage
  • In the endgame, trade your big material advantage into one of the three winning endgames, then mate.

This approach can take you very far - it’s probably not until 1700+ where you start needing to learn more complex endgames and more abstract middlegame concepts like positional play. And even then, a solid foundation of tactics and calculation ability is the single most important skill in improving at chess.