Just about everybody wants to improve and there’s no paucity of advice on the internet or books on the subject. So, how did grandmasters get where they are? How do you really learn to calculate variations, develop tactical vision, gain positional understanding and endgame technique to reach such heights? Here’s how some Grandmasters got their start.
GM Vladislav Tkachiev said you need to practice a few thousand tactical exercises before you start to notice a difference. In addition you have to have some endgame technique. Books that helped him were Rook Endings by Smyslov and Levenfish, Endgame Strategy and Features of the Endgame by Shereshevsky.
In learning how to calculate Think Like a Grandmaster and Play Like a Grandmaster, both by Alexander Kotov, and the works of Mark Dvoretsky and John Nunn were helpful.
Tkachiev advised that this was a very time-consuming stage and required a lot of work.
Openings? He advised that you do not trust examples from “the endless stream of chess pulp literature, which is out of date even before it’s typeset.” Instead, he advises to start off from your own conclusions based on thematic games in your own database.
Tkachiev advised (he is not the first to give this often ignored advice) that one of the most effective means of improvement is to guess the moves from the games of great players. You choose games won by your favorite player and try to guess all of the moves as if you were playing in his place. At first the results will be very depressing, but keep at it and Tkachiev says he will “guarantee you wonderful results.”
Endless practice, these days on chess servers is also essential because it enables you to test everything.
Tkachiev also advised that before you undertake all this, make sure you really want to invest the time and effort because if you don’t, you will be wasting your time.
GM Sergey Shipov also echoed this advise saying, “...you have to take chess seriously – that’s the main thing.”
Shipov’s recommendation were mostly Soviet books: First Chess Book by Panov, World’s Great Chess Players, Features of the Endgame and Endgame Strategy, all by Shereshevsky. Shipov also advised that painstaking, serious and critical analysis of your own games was essential. You can’t fool yourself into thinking you played well but made a stupid blunder, your opponent got lucky and other lame excuses. You have to be a harsh critic of you play.
Another piece of advice Shipov gives is the same advice Alex Yermolinsky wrote about, but it’s advice that is not popular with hack authors. That is, play openings which are solid and mainstream. He says, “Off-beat openings give you short-term advantages, but they slow down a player’s general development. So if you hope to achieve a serious level of play don’t be tempted by variations involving cheap tricks. Take your example from good grandmasters – those who play in a similar style. They won’t let you down.”
GM Alex Moiseenko’s favourite books were Selected Games by Nezhmetdinov, Analytical and Critical Works, in 3 volumes by Botvinnik, Alekhine’s Chess Legacy by Kotov and Questions of Modern Chess Theory by Lipnitsky.
GM Ivan Morovic read dozens of chess books of the games of the world champions starting with Morphy and Staunton and ending with Fischer and Karpov. When it came to openings, he liked to compare the openings from Bronstein’s Zurich ‘53 with modern ones and try to find new variations. Other books he liked were My System by Nimzovich, Fischer vs. Spassky: The Chess Match of the Century by Gligoric and Alekhine’s Chess Legacy by Kotov.
GM Sergei Rublevsky’s favorite books were Akiba Rubinstein by Razuvaev , Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953 by Bronstein and Montreal 1979: Tournament of Stars by Chepizhny. What he did was play through the games and try to guess the next move.
GM Evgenij Miroshnichenko engaged in analysis of the games of the outstanding masters of the past - Alekhine, Rubinstein, Botvinnik, etc. and worked on typical endgame positions. He also stated that one exercise which was very useful was guessing the moves of grandmasters in classical games.
Among his favorite books were 300 Selected Games of Alekhine by Panov, My System by Nimzovich and With the Grandmasters by Hort and Jansa.
GM Murtas Kazhgaleev read a lot of the basic literature by Botvinnik, Karpov, Kasparov as well as My System by Nimzovich. He tactical puzzles and studied endgames from books by Averbakh.
GM Joe Gallagher read 60 Memorable Games by Fischer, 50 Selected Games by Larsen and Gligoric's Selected Chess Masterpieces. He played through the games over and over. For openings, he learned the Polugaevsky variation of the Najdorf by heart and played it all the time.
*practice thousands of tactical exercises
*learn some endgame technique
*do not trust examples from books ( especially offbeat gambits, etc.)
*play openings which are solid and mainstream
*play through games and try to guess the next move
*practice on chess servers
*take chess seriously
*critical analysis of your own games
Books – many of the books noted by these GM’s are Soviet publications, but similar books are probably available in just about any language. I have several books in Russian and while I do not read or speak Russian, I find the games and notes fairly easy to follow. I also have a few books in German and can read enough of it to understand them fairly well. So, don’t let the fact that a book might be in a foreign language discourage you from purchasing it if you think it might be interesting.
Rook Endings by Smyslov and Levenfish
Endgame Strategy by Shereshevsky
Features of the Endgame by Shereshevsky
Think Like a Grandmaster and Play Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov
works of Mark Dvoretsky and John Nunn
First Chess Book by Panov
World’s Great Chess Players by Shereshevsky
Endgame Strategy by Shereshevsky
Selected Games by Nezhmetdinov
Analytical and Critical Works, in 3 volumes by Botvinnik
Alekhine’s Chess Legacy by Kotov
Questions of Modern Chess Theory by Lipnitsky
My System by Nimzovich
Fischer vs. Spassky: The Chess Match of the Century by Gligoric
Akiba Rubinstein by Razuvaev
Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953 by Bronstein
Montreal 1979: Tournament of Stars by Chepizhny
300 Selected Games of Alekhine by Panov
With the Grandmasters by Hort and Jansa
60 Memorable Games by Fischer
50 Selected Games by Larsen
Selected Chess Masterpieces by Gligoric
Edit: In a Reddit interview Magnus Carlsen said, "… as a child one single chess book, Kramnik: My Life and
Games, had "made a big impression", helping him become immersed in
chess theory before the age of nine."