July 20, 2020

Chess Study: Workman’s Tools


When the guys in the picture above first learned chess, there weren’t that many tools for the job. In fact, books might have been the only significant self-study resource. The cool thing about learning chess in 2020 is that there are many different online study tools. Perhaps too many to choose from. So in this post I’ll be giving you a briefing and my personal recommendations.

Tactics training

There are three main platforms which people use for this category — Chess.com, Lichess and ChessTempo. From these three, despite the crappy-looking interface, most serious players swear by ChessTempo’s range of features. The website has both timed and non-timed tactical puzzles at different levels of difficulty, all taken from master games and tagged by their themes and rating level. Lichess and Chess.com on the other hand both seem to lack one half of the magical formula, with Chess.com being focused on timed tactics, while Lichess only has non-timed ones. Chess.com has the larger feature set of the two, but it’s also hidden behind their membership paywall, while ChessTempo seems to have the best of both worlds.

So the verdict for this section is fairly clear — ChessTempo is free and currently the best option.

Opening preparation

For studying openings, the most promising tool seems to be Chessable. It’s an online implementation of the spaced repetition learning approach and is in my experience the handiest way of memorising long opening variations and the ideas behind them. Some people have criticisms of the tool, but in my opinion those are mostly solved through correct usage. There are several anti-patterns which must be avoided:

  • Mindless Memorisation
    Chessable users may be tempted to record long book lines in their personal repertoires without any explanation behind the moves and then using the spaced repetition feature to mindlessly memorise them.

  • Excessive Variation Depth
    When buying pre-made courses especially, new players may get stuck into learning and memorising very long lines of theory which never occur in their games, while the shorter and more common traps and deviations are ignored.

In an attempt to solve both problems, I will make a recommendation about how you should be using Chessable. In my opinion, one should create two custom courses — a White Repertoire and a Black Repertoire. These can initially start off as simple reminders of your usual responses to each of the opponent’s first few moves. As you advance in your study of opening theory you should slowly expand this repertoire to include interesting lines and responses from your games, videos or books, but each move should always include a detailed explanation and never be there just for rote memorisation. This doesn’t preclude you from purchasing courses from the Chessable store, but I suggest only using those to initially learn the lines and then moving them over manually to your own custom repertoire courses, as this will allow you to add more explanation of the moves when needed or reduce the length of some lines where necessary.

My approach also has the great side-benefit of using Chessable in such a way that the free membership is completely sufficient. Cheapskates rejoice!

Endgame practice

With endgames being the section I personally most struggle with, there seems to be a frustrating lack of free endgame drills tools. ChessTempo’s endgame training works in the same way as their tactics, but is inexplicably restricted to 2 puzzles per day. Although accompanied by great explanations, Chess.com only has a limited set of endgame drills with no rating system. Lichess has a similar deal going on as Chess.com, except fewer puzzles. Aside from biting the bullet and getting a ChessTempo membership, manually setting up a random engame from a book into Lichess’ board editor and playing against Stockfish might be the second best option.

Recommendation: Start with Lichess’ or Chess.com’s (if you have the membership) endgame practice puzzles to get the basic mating patterns down. Perhaps use this neat open-source tool to practice a bunch of endgame tablebase positions. Somewhere during this process pick up a book on more advanced endgame ideas such as Silman’s Complete Endgame Course (my personal favourite) and proceed either drilling random endgames using ChessTempo’s endgame problems or by manually grabbing them from books / websites and playing against Stockfish on Lichess.

Actually playing the game

This one comes down much more to personal preference than the other categories. Lichess and Chess.com are the big two, but alternatives such as Chess24 and ICC exist. Lichess is completely free to use and also open-source, which is a big plus for me as a software engineer. On the other hand, Chess.com’s premium membership does give you access to a few extra cool features such as their library of videos. I personally like the cleaner interface of Lichess and have had a better experience with the userbase. Chess.com has a larger US-centric userbase, which in my personal experience includes a few extra toxic assholes. Perhaps it’s my luck, but playing in club-organised classical tournaments on Lichess I’ve never had to deal with the same negativity I face pretty often in a Chess.com game chat.

Recommendation: Try both. Lichess is free and Chess.com has a free trial. Popularity is pretty up in the air, for example — Magnus Carlsen often plays on Lichess, while Hikaru Nakamura has a Chess.com sponsorship. I personally prefer Lichess’ interface and social features.

*One thing to note is the rating difference between the two platforms. There is a different algorithm and starting rating used for both websites, so your rating will tend to be around 200-400 points higher on Lichess. For a detailed analysis of how both compare against eachother and FIDE, check out this study.

Extra Stuff

If you’ve ever explored chess openings, you will have come across 365chess’ openings explorer. It’s a handy tool which can give you the stats to a limited depth, but worth pointing out that Lichess’ free opening explorer has the same exact dataset with no such restrictions.

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