The Sixty Four Squares Chess Improvement Formula

How do you improve your chess?

Sixty Four Squares believes chess improvement comes with following a ‘sustainable’ training system that focuses on the development of your chess knowledge and the application of that knowledge in your games.

What is a sustainable training system?

Chess improvement takes time. Whatever the content of your training plan, the key to chess improvement is consistency. Sticking with training over the long term is critical. A common obstacle for some players is to create too onerous a training plan, only to burn out and cease training altogether.

A sustainable training system is one that starts small, is tailored to your specific needs, and is integrated into your daily routine such that it becomes a habit. Your training system should become as natural to you as having a morning cup of coffee.

What do habits have to do with chess training?

James Clear, in his New York Times Bestseller Atomic Habits,1 describes habits as “the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”

Improvement may not be obvious in the short term. Clear explains that progress does not simply increase in proportion with the time you put in. You may put in a lot of time and effort in training without seeing improvement. Improvement may only be visible when you cross some unseen threshold, like, as Clear analogizes, ice melting at 32 degrees, but not before despite increasing the heat.

To stick with training long enough to see meaningful improvement, Clear advises to focus on your “system” for improvement, or the process that leads to results, as opposed to the results themselves. By making your “system” a habit, you harness the power of habits to bring about significant transformation.2 3

What is effective chess training?

While your training system should become a habit, your actual training should not. Effective chess training is a process of consciously internalizing information and techniques so that they can be applied without thinking.4 Learning is active until the information has been thoroughly learned. Then you move on to more complex material.

For example, a beginner must consciously focus on how each piece moves. Once that becomes internalized, the beginner no longer has to think about how the pieces move. Their mind is now free to focus on a more complicated skill, such as ensuring their pieces are defended and not blundering them away.

This training process is referred to as deliberate practice.5 Deliberate practice means engaging in goal-directed activities at an appropriate level of difficulty over long periods of time. These activities are highly structured and are designed to improve performance by eliminating weaknesses through optimizing opportunities for error correction. The activities should be monitored so that regular and detailed feedback can be provided.6

The primary obstacle to chess improvement is not innate ability. It’s sustaining deliberate practice over the long term. Research suggests a solution. Studies have shown that tracking training can help to sustain training over time and lead to improvement. For example, the benefits of tracking physical activity with an app or device have been shown to be long lasting.7 Further, mobile apps or trackers have been found to contribute to positive health habits, such as significantly increasing physical activity and weight loss.8

Our App will help you to both make your training system a habit and your training deliberate. As you solve puzzles from our Critical Positions trainer, you will get a continuous assessment of your chess skills and see which skills need improvement.

With this, you can create a training system tailored to your specific needs. We provide template plans by skill level to start you off. You can then track your training and performance, and earn achievement badges for your efforts. Over the course of time, sustained training habits will lead to dramatic playing improvement.

The Science Behind the Formula

Why focus on developing chess knowledge?

Research has demonstrated that the most efficient means to increase chess playing strength is by focusing on increasing chess knowledge.9 In fact, it is more efficient to build chess knowledge than it is to try to increase the number of moves you can look ahead10 because the ability to foresee moves as well as “chess intuition” (the feeling that you know a move is good without being able to explain why) are side effects of a well-developed knowledge-base.11

Of course, chess knowledge alone is not enough. Playing strength comes through the application of that knowledge in your games. The experience gained through the cycle of learning and playing is critical to chess improvement.

What is Chess Knowledge?

Chase and Simon proposed an influential theory of chess knowledge, referred to as “chunking” theory,12 later refined by Gobet and Simon, among others, as “template” theory.13 These researchers proposed that the fundamental unit of chess knowledge can be described as a “chunk,” a small arrangement or pattern of pieces stored in long-term memory that is perceptually treated as a whole.14 Chunks are a way of describing the way chess patterns are stored in your memory.

Chunks develop into templates, which are themselves chunks and consist of stable information with slots for information that is variable.15 For example, a template may consist of a particular pawn structure with a slot consisting of whether a bishop or a knight occupies a certain square relevant to the structure. Just like chunks, templates provide useful information for decision-making, such as plausible moves and standard plans.

Gobet and Simon explain that chunks and templates can be recalled instantly because they are stored in long-term memory.16 This feature explains how chess players are able to come up with plans and find strong moves very quickly without consciously considering all possible moves available.17

It also explains chess intuition. Specifically, Gobet and Jansen state that intuition is composed of chunks and templates stored in long-term memory that are associated with emotions (the gut feeling of whether a move is good), but not specific conscious thought.18 Some have estimated that chess masters have learned between 10,000 and 100,000 chunks (by comparison, approximately 50,000 words comprise an average college student’s vocabulary), and that grandmasters may have as many as 300,000 stored in long-term memory.19

Chunks and templates do not exist as isolated knowledge units. As chess players become more skillful, chunks, templates, and procedures become better organized or indexed and cross-referenced with one another in the course of a learning process that occurs at both the conscious and subconscious level. This knowledge-base enables chess masters to use strategies adaptively and flexibly. With simple problems or high time pressure, masters may rely more on intuition. With complex problems and enough time to think, they will use a combination of intuition and deliberation.20

A chess master’s knowledge-base, therefore, can be characterized as a large set of chunks, templates, and procedures that have been richly indexed and cross-referenced, providing the master with an apparent seamless ability to play better than less skilled players. There is no short-cut to chess mastery. It has been estimated that it may take 10 years or between 3,000 and 23,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a chess master.21

  1. Clear, J. (2018), Atomic Habits. Penguin.
  2. Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. The British journal of general practice: the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 62(605), 664–666.
  3. McLachlan, S. (2021). The Science of Habit: What does it take to stick with something long term? You just have to rewire your brain. Healthline.
  4. Wood, W. (2019), Good Habits Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. McMillan.
  5. Gobet, F. (2019). The Psychology of Chess. Routledge.
  6. Gobet, F. (2016). Understanding Expertise. A Multi-Disciplinary Approach. Macmillan Education & Palgrave.
  7. Ferguson T., Olds T., et al (2022), Effectiveness of wearable activity trackers to increase physical activity and improve health: a systematic review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The Lancet Digital Health, Volume 4, Issue 8, E615-E626, August 2022.
  8. Laranjo, L., Ding D., Heleno B, et al (2021), Do smartphone applications and activity trackers increase physical activity in adults? Systematic review, meta-analysis and metaregression. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2021; 55:422-432.
  1. Gobet, F., & Charness, N. (2006). Chess and Games. Cambridge.
  2. See note 6.
  3. Gobet, F., & Jansen P. (2005). Training in Chess: A Scientific Approach. In Redman T. Education and Chess.
  4. Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973a). Perception in Chess. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55-81.
  5. Gobet, F., & Simon, H. A. (1996a). Templates in Chess Memory: A Mechanism for Recalling Several Boards. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 1-40.
  6. See note 5.
  7. See note 5.
  8. See note 13.
  9. See note 5.
  10. See note 11.
  11. See note 6.
  12. See note 5.
  13. See note 5.