Analyze your Chess Games - Why and How

by Vjekoslav Nemec and ICS admin on May 31, 2018

One of the most common questions asked by chess players of all levels from beginner to grandmaster is: "How can I improve my chess?", and one of the most common answers to that question is: "Analyze your own games!"

Alas, this answer is often rather confusing as it leads to a number of follow-up questions, such as:

  • Why should I analyze my own games?
  • How should I analyze my own games?
  • We live in the 21st century and computers have been invented. Instead of racking my brain, couldn't I just use the chess engine instead?

In the course of this article, we will shed light on these (and other similar) issues.

analyzing a chess game

WHY TO ANALYZE YOUR OWN GAMES?

In the late 1960s, Mikhail Botvinnik was asked to take a look at a talented Yugoslavian youngster, Ljubomir 'Ljubo' Ljubojević. They met, and Ljubo began showing him something over the board.
"Do you analyze your own games?", asked Botvinnik in his typical manner.
"What for?" , Ljubo asked in genuine surprise.
"Here I realized nothing worthwhile would come of him", the sixth World Champion concluded.
(Source: Garry Kasparov: "On My Great Predecessors", Part Two, p. 187)

Although Botvinnik was famous for his rigorous and scientific approach, he was definitely not the only one to emphasize the importance of analyzing your own games. His most famous pupil and arguably the greatest chess player ever, Garry Kasparov, said:

"By strictly observing Botvinnik’s rule regarding the thorough analysis of one’s own games, with the years I have come to realize that this provides the foundation for the continuous development of chess mastery"

Numerous other chess grandmasters share the opinion of these two great players. For instance, in a recent interview, reigning European and Croatian Champion, Ivan Šarić, stated that analysis of your own games is the most important method of chess training for players of all levels.

Also, renowned chess authors such as grandmasters Alex Yermolinsky, Jacoob Aagard, Rafael Leitao, and Jesse Krai have all mentioned analysis of your own games as an essential tool of  chess improvement.
(Alex Yermolinsky: "The Road To Chess Improvement",
Jacoob Aagard: "Excelling At Positional Chess",
Rafael Leitao: "How To Improve Your Chess: The 10 Mistakes That Hinder You From Evolving Your Game")

Last, but not least, famous grandmaster Artur Yusupov, a former member of the world top ten and a pupil of the world's arguably most famous coach, Mark Dvoretsky, has written the following about the analysis of your own games:

"...it is quite possible that my own development as a chessplayer has been successful precisely because I have devoted a great deal of time to the analysis of my own games. I consider the analysis of one's own games is the main method by which a chessplayer can improve and I am convinced that it is impossible for a player to improve without having a critical understanding of his own games […] Our own games are nearer to us than any others. We played them and we solved problems which were put in our way. In the analysis, it is possible to examine and to define more precisely the assessments by which we were guided during the course of the game, and we can establish where we went wrong, where we played inaccurately. Sometimes our opponent punishes us for the mistakes we make, but often they remain unnoticed and may only be brought to light by analysis.“
(Source: Mark Dvoretsky, Artur Yusupov, "Training For The Tournament Player", p. 46)

There are numerous ways in which we benefit from the analysis of our own chess games. Among other things, it allows us to:

  • Recheck our calculations and the quality of our tactical skills;
  • Check the quality of our evaluation of the position;
  • Examine the quality of the plan chosen during the game;
  • Search for new possibilities and moves that didn't cross our mind during the actual game;
  • Determine the critical point of the game;
  • Determine the reasons behind your mistakes;
  • Analyze the opening in greater detail.

Analysis of our own games is also an excellent way of learning because it is universal – we study all phases of the chess game – the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame, both strategy and tactics.
There is no doubt that through analysis of our own games, we increase our general chess understanding and overall, become better players.

 

HOW TO ANALYZE YOUR OWN GAMES?

In his book "The Twilight of The Idols", Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that:
"He who has a why to live can bear almost any how"
(Source: "Twilight of the Idols", Maxims & Arrows, #12)

Now that we know WHY we should analyze our own games, we are ready to examine HOW to do it.

However, before getting to the concrete step-by-step guide of analyzing your own games, let us talk about one aspect of chess improvement that is often overlooked – patience.
It would be naive to expect a gigantic leap forward in your chess playing strength after the analysis of just a couple of your own games. Chess improvement is a meticulous and a long-term task. Often, you will be able to reap the fruits of your labor only in the distant future. Expecting a very quick increase in your rating might lead to disappointment and lack of motivation. We think it is important to emphasize the role of patience and grit when talking about all aspects of work on chess, including the analysis of your own games.

We can now proceed to the How To Analyze Your Chess Games guide.
The following general guidelines are useful for players of all levels. Naturally, depending on the player strength, the depth of the certain steps will vary. For instance, an amateur player might want to learn the first 5-6 moves of the opening and the ideas associated with them, whereas a chess professional will delve into the first 15-20 moves.
Nevertheless, the basic principles remain the same.
The steps of the How To Analyze Your Own Games guide are:

Write down all the moves/lines/variations you considered during the game

Whether it is using the good old pen-and-paper method or entering your moves in a program like Chessbase, it is essential to document everything important that went through your head during the game.

If you thought for 5 minutes to a certain variation, write that down, your evaluation during the game and why you chose other line instead.
Some such lines might happen to prove better than your move in the game.

It is best to do this step immediately after the game. Otherwise, you might quickly forget ideas.

Try to identify the key moments of the game

The skill to identify the key moments of the game is of first importance. In these positions, you usually decide about your next plan of play, your TO DO list for the next series of moves, what your opponent wants and how you can avoid that with minimum effort. And more...

Key moments of the game are, for example, when the pawn structure changes, your opponent starts an attack, a critical weakness appears, and so on.
When you analyze your game, you should evaluate if you identified correctly all the key moments of your game.

Explain the reason of your essential moves (your plan)

A couple of examples:
• "I played Nb3 here because my opponent had a weak square on c5, where I intended to put my knight next. This will create a force superiority on the queenside."
• "I played e4-e5 to close the center with the idea of a following attack on the kingside. The  TO DO list of the attack was: 1. play h4 to get control over g5, 2. play Ba2-b1 to create queen + bishop battery, 3. play Re1-e3 to bring the rook in attack on g3" etc.

The majority of beginners, but not only beginners, play "aimlessly" and often choose bad plans. Finding the right plan of play is one of the most difficult aspects of the chess mastery but without a good understanding of the chess strategy it is "like shooting in the dark a bow and arrow and hitting a bull's eye".

In our chess course, Grandmaster Package, we thoroughly teach chess strategy, how to evaluate any position and formulate good chess plans. The course goes for one year but you learn a ton from the very first month.

Apart from trying to objectively evaluate the quality of your play, these steps of game analysis give you a second chance to try finding the right plans and new possibilities afterwards. This allows you to improve your positional understanding and strategical vision.

Analyze your chess game with the help of computer

computer analysis

Computer chess engines have made the analysis of our own chess games much easier. Whereas in the past it was almost impossible for a beginner to delve into all the nuances of a certain position, nowadays it is just a couple of clicks away. Engines are really helpful in determining the strongest moves and detecting your own tactical blunders. You can recheck you calculation and see whether you have committed oversights when calculating lines.

However, there are certain caveats involved. You see, although the engine does show you the evaluation of the move, it is up to you to interpret it. The engines don't explain the ideas and plans, especially faulty ones, and can, therefore, have a detrimental effect on your chess understanding and creativity.
Not to mention there are positions that even engines don't understand.

If you ever kibitzed chess online, you have surely noticed a number of commentators thrashing top chess players solely because the computer engine on the website pointed out a certain move was not optimal. Yet, at the same time, they do NOT UNDERSTAND why that move was bad.
There are beginners (but also some more experienced players) who use the engines in the similar fashion even when analyzing their own games. They typically go over their game with the engine, read the engine evaluations and usually claim they were somewhere between "better" and "winning" during the entire game.

This is a big mistake because it doesn't help you improve your chess understanding. You simply switch off your logical chess thinking and let the engine think for you. To figure out all the WHY-es of the position is of crucial importance. When you analyze with the engine you should always try to understand why certain move works and not, or why the engine evaluates a certain position in a certain manner. You should ask yourself what is the principle, the positional reason behind that move.

Therefore, a word of caution is required. We definitely don't think you should avoid using the engines altogether. But we just think it would really pay off if you went over your game in some depth at least once beforehand.
This way, you check the accuracy of both your game and also of your game's analysis.

One more tip when you analyze with the computer: engines only calculate the scores and don't take the psychological human factor into consideration at all. Sometimes, especially in complicate positions, a safer and clearer continuation is to be preferred than the top recommendation of the computer.

Analyze the Opening  and Subsequent Middlegame Play

• Analyze the opening in great detail. Compare your game with the theory. Analyze whether you felt comfortable in a certain line and see what you could have done differently.
• Check the games of the strong players to see what they did in similar positions (tools such as Chessbase and/or game databases make all searches relatively easy). Try to identify the positional patterns in the position and check the validity of your plans and the accuracy of your evaluation.
• Examine new possibilities and strategical ideas. You may even play training games starting from a certain position with a suitable partner.
• Ideally, you'd like to do everything mentioned above using your own brain and moving the pieces on the board by yourself. Alas, this step can often be rather time consuming. For instance, a legend says that grandmaster Robert Hübner used to analyze a single game for two weeks. Non-professional chess players are rarely able to devote huge amounts of time to work on chess in general, let alone to the analysis of the single game.
What is there to do? Well, as usual, technological advances come to the rescue in form of chess computer engines and databases.
Which brings me to the following point.

Identify the reasons behind your mistakes

After analyzing your game in great detail, you are hopefully able to detect the mistakes and identify the reasons behind them. This makes the task of eliminating them in the future much easier.

In our extra course "Practical Chess" (available only to those who subscribed first to the GM Package), we analyze games between players of different levels starting from club player level, up to top grandmasters. We focus a lot on the reason behind the typical mistakes at every level.

 

Draw the conclusions and move on to the next game

At the end, draw the most important conclusions of your game analysis.

At this point, you have hopefully learnt something, gained insight about your play, and hopefully corrected your play.
You should store your analysis and move on to the next game!

If you love chess, any means to really improve your game should be a pleasure too. Analyzing your chess game correctly is guaranteed a great opportunity for discovering where you went wrong in practice. To check how good you know the opening, how good you identify the key moments of the game, how good you evaluate the positions and how strong are your plans of play. It is not a very easy task to do but it is a sure way to improve YOUR game...