GM Joel on Plateaus Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
November 12, 2007
 Dear Joel,
    My name is Ryan Ackerman. I'm 15 years old. After one year of playing rated games I had achieved a rating of high 1500s, which was very pleasing since I quickly became obsessed and dedicated all the time I could to school and chess.
It is now six months later and my rating has not improved.  I've also been drawing a lot of games recently. Furthermore, I cannot get myself to really sit down and read the chess books I know I need to read. Which all sort of had a domino effect to what I consider probably the most important key to success in chess: I am no longer nearly as confident in my play. I still love the game, but am getting frustrated with myself. In short, I'm not getting better, I'm drawing a lot, I can't study, and I have no confidence in my moves anymore; what do I do?


You seem to have a good handle on what your problem is, even if you don't know what to do about it.  Your struggles have brought about a crisis in confidence, which prevents you from playing your best.  Fortunately, in my work as a chess teacher I have learned a lot about therapy.

First you have to step back and consider the big picture.  You made it to almost 1600 in one year of tournament play, which is a pretty special achievement.  Unfortunately, your early success persuaded you that chess progress is rapid and consistent.  Not true I'm afraid.  It is perfectly natural to hit bumps in the road.  Most players get stuck at a certain level for a while before they can continue their ascent.  I spent half a year at 1600; then I zoomed to 2000 in half a year…and took two years to get out of the expert class.  Your first plateau has only lasted six months, which is not really that long.  In fact, it's perfectly predictable.  Your initial progress was so swift that you need some time to learn more strategies and develop the weapons that will move you along into class B and class A.

Once you realize that your stagnation is temporary and nothing to fear, you can take some of that pressure of yourself.  The fact that you moved so fast in one year strongly indicates that you are far from exhausting your potential for improvement.  I'm sure that in your first year of tournaments chess was a lot of fun.  You need to recapture that feeling.  Play for the enjoyment.  Read books because the content is fascinating, not because it is good for you (have a little dessert with your vegetables).  As you relax and learn to love chess again, your results will start to improve.

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