Q: I'm a novice (weak beginner). How do I improve my game?
1. You need to become familiar with what great chess games look like. Get a book like Irving Chernev's Logical Chess, Move by Move and play through every single game. He annotates every move of 33 master games. Really good stuff; read it over and over. Doing this will also familiarize you with many general positional principles of the game. People have re-read this book after making Expert and still benefitted. Don't kid yourself by thinking you have to start with Kasparov's latest book.
2. Learn Tactics! There is simply no way you will improve your chess if you do not study tactics. Work through several books full of tactical diagrams. Solve the positions by looking at the book; do not use a board and pieces. Write down your solution with all of the main variations, in a notebook. You will be surprised at the additional ideas you see while doing this. Also, never look at the solution until you are completely convinced you fully understand the problem. For one thing, the books themselves are frequently wrong or provide incomplete solutions; for another thing, you should not get yourself in the habit of relying on the book solutions. If you solved the problem, you will know that you did. If you can't solve the problem, circle it and keep going back to it until you do. (Warning: once in a while you will actually find a problem that doesn't have a solution, but most of the time you simply haven't found it yet.)
3. You will nead a modest amount of endgame knowledge. Read (and re-read, and re-read) Silman's Essential Chess Endings Explained Move by Move and Pandolfini's Endgame Course. Don't worry if you can't master all the endings presented in these books. Just keep going back to them on a regular basis, and it will gradually become clearer to you.
4. Don't study openings! For people below expert level, the only purpose of the opening is to get you into a playable middlegame where tactics abound. Find a few openings you like, and learn a little about them. Nothing too deep. Then after you play a game, look up the opening in a book and try to see what you did right or wrong. Lots of times you won't really understand what happened in your game and the book won't be much help, but try this anyway. If you can learn the first 5-7 moves of almost any opening, you will most likely know as much as your opponent unless they are a real specialist. It is really surprising how little most players know about the openings, considering that they don't study anything else!
5. Play in tournaments regularly, at least 50 games a year. You will lose a lot at first, and losing will continue to be a painful problem throughout your playing career. Always seek opportunities to go over your games, especially your losses, with your opponent. Learn from their ideas. If you're still smarting from the loss, put your emotions aside and try to learn where you went wrong. If your opponent will not review the game with you, find another strong player to look at it with you. This practice, as much as any other, will lead to your improvement as a player.
(Thanks to Timothy Hanke for his original "how to improve ideas.")
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