How Long Does it Take to Learn Chess?

By National Master Evan Rabin 

What does it mean to learn chess? A third grader once told me on the first day of a semester “Just so you know, I already know chess.” I asked him “How do you win a chess game?” and he replied “capture your opponent’s king”, which was incorrect. Many beginners think they know how the rules since they know piece movement, but do not know castling, the differences between check, checkmate and stalemate, en passant, promotion, etc. Does one know chess if he just knows the rules-no. The truth is; it is impossible to fully know chess;  even the world’s elite players study for several hours a day and are constantly improving. However, I define ‘knowing chess’ as understanding the rules and basic strategy (opening principles and basic checkmate in 1 positions). It typically takes kids learning in groups 8-10 lessons, kids learning in private lessons 3-4 lessons and adults 1-2 lessons to know chess.

Chess is easy to learn but difficult to master. The more advanced you get, the less you know. When I am playing a beginner, he will often immediately capture one of my pieces, without seeing it was protected. He gets happy that he sees a potential capture and assumes it is a good idea. Likewise, I often see the scenario where a class player and titled player analyze together. The class player will quickly access a position as winning for one side. The titled player will discuss how the position is unclear.

Parents and adult improvers often ask me what is the best way to start learning chess- self practice, private lessons, group classes, camps, etc. It always depends what their goals are, what their budget is and how quickly they want either themselves or their kids to improve. Ideally, a player should have a full-stack approach to chess improvement, with all three options; however, that is not feasible for most, time wise and monetarily.

Group classes are the most economic way to learn but students will take longer to learn as instructor needs to cater to all students of varying levels. While a few students in a class may understand a subject, others may need review. When I worked at Chess in the Schools in 2011, Ron Boocock taught me how the goal of a curriculum class semester is to get 2nd and 3rd graders to go from little to no chess knowledge (mostly not knowing how the pieces move) to knowing the rules and basic strategy and more or less, being ready for tournaments. I was learn much more quickly. However, I did not realize I would have to prioritize class room management, where I also needed to make sure every single kid understood all of the concepts. David Macenulty, who was featured in Knights of the South Bronx, taught me if one student does not learn the lesson, I did not do a great job. This is why he would encourage me to occasionally call on kids that were not raising their hands.

In private lessons, kids can typically know chess in about 3-4 lessons. For most child private students, I  teach the rules in 1-2 lessons and basic opening and basic checkmate exercises (mates in 1, ladder mate, King and Queen mate) in another 1-2 lessons. Many times it is harder to teach students who have learned the game at home or with less experienced teachers, than those who are learning from scratch. I often need students to unlearn ideas such as kings be able to get captured or one loses when he makes an illegal move.

While kids can generally learn and retain openings and other advanced ideas more quickly than adults, as they get more experienced, adults can typically learn the rules and basic strategy more quickly. A few years ago, I taught a Goldman Sachs Managing Director his first private lesson. When I asked him how much chess experience he had, he said “ I am a beginner”. I told him to define “beginner” as that means different things to different people. A year before, I taught a Google executive his first lesson. While he said he was a beginner, 5 minutes into the lesson, I was teaching him fairly advanced middle game strategies. To the contrary, this Goldman Sachs executive did not know how a single piece moved. Contrarily, in one hour, I taught him all the rules, basic strategy and the famous Paul Morphy vs. Duke of Brunswick ‘Opera game’.

Thus, it takes different types of students various amounts of time to know chess; i.e, the rules and basic strategy. Of course, one knowing chess; does not mean he is anywhere close to being a master; it just means he has enough understanding to play a decent game. By the way, these suggestions toward lengths of time to learn chess are guidelines; some students will take much longer or shorter amounts of lessons to learn the game. As long as you enjoy learning, take as many lessons as you need to learn a concept, whether it is  the rules and basic strategy or an advanced opening/endgame.

14 thoughts on “How Long Does it Take to Learn Chess?”

  1. Very informative article, you point out every aspect beginner should know before getting into chess board game. I remember when I started playing chess, chess seems easy game but actually it get difficult when you get into the professional chess. Anyway I have a question that you didn’t mention about the best chess opening and why it’s important.

  2. Evan:

    I really really liked this piece Chess Pedagogy. I kind’ve was asking myself for a while..what kind of pedagogical logistics goes into having a chess club…chess camp or chess afterschool program…this made it crystal clear.

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