GMs get asked this question all the time. We give idealized answers, offering the paths to improvement we wish we had followed ourselves. It’s a lie. But I’ve decided that it’s an interesting lie. Here is mine:
1) Study your own games with a notebook and pen, no computer. Get a nice wooden set. Write everything down, the variations, what you missed, your valuations, your prejudices, your principles of play.
2) Study your own games with a notebook and pen, no computer. Get a nice wooden set. Write everything down, the variations, what you missed, your valuations, your prejudices, your principles of play. I know, I repeated myself.
3) Do tactical puzzles. Easy ones, like the Polgar mate-in-twos, but also hard ones, and thousands of endgame studies.
4) Study with friends. Learn to see the game from their perspective.
5) Go over classic games.
6) Teach others.
7) Get fit. Don’t eat crap. Chess, like life, is going to feel like a throwdown – no matter what metaphysical sugar people like J. Kraai sometimes coat it with. The game will push you to your limits. Be ready for it.
Having a coach can help, especially if your chess feels like it has already visited every crevice and hillock of a very well-travelled plateau. But let me stress, before I talk about the office of a coach: the above seven exercises should be the foundation of your chess.
You have already suffered over the board. Bring this suffering to your coach, even if it is incautiously tossed into garbage bags that you don’t want to look at anymore, and cannot bear to smell. Your coach cannot bear your burden for you, she can only unpack it and stick your nose in it.
Lessons are not going to make you happier. A traditional therapist, I think, will also not make you happier. They are simply going to point out stuff that you don’t notice, and give you the skills to see it on your own. Insight will make you a better player. And the quality of whatever meditation you think you are conducting when you play chess will improve.
You are playing chess because you sense something spiritual in it. You have tasted it, but are not really certain what it is. You keep coming back to the game to find it.
I offer some speculation as to what we are trying to find here, but you will have to answer this question for yourself. And that answer will say something about your chess.