With The Queen’s Gambit still taking up space in people’s minds, chess is having a major moment. It’s incredibly popular on Twitch and is even occasionally the most-viewed game. If you’ve recently gotten into this centuries-old pastime, there are some great ways to use your smartphone to get up to speed. You might not become a grandmaster overnight, but with a little work you’ll be able to checkmate your mates.
Learn in a structured way
Most people know the basics of how to play chess: Knights move in an “L”, castling is the thing where a rook and a king switch around, and en passant is the pawn rule everyone forgets. The problem, then, isn’t learning how to make a move, but figuring out how to make the right ones—and there are many to choose from in most situations.
Learn Chess with Dr. Wolf, available on iOS and Android, is a Chess.com app that takes a structured approach to teaching you the game. You can play for free, but coaching will cost a little cash ($5 a month after a three-game trial). As you go, the friendly face of the computer, Dr. Wolf, will explain what he’s trying to accomplish with each move. If you make a mistake, he’ll explain why you’re wrong and give you the option to take it back or play on at a disadvantage. Getting this kind of real-time feedback forces you to consider your mistakes immediately.
After a game, Dr. Wolf will walk you through any mistakes you made and suggest better moves you could have taken. Your great collection of mistakes are all saved as personal puzzles in the “Training” section, where you can revisit them at any time. Here, Dr. Wolf uses spaced repetition to help you learn from your errors—the more often you get a puzzle correct, the less frequently you’ll see it.
The digital Dr. Wolf is no replacement for a real-life meat-coach, but if you’re just starting to take chess more seriously, he can go a long way toward justifying the subscription.
Chess.com (with an iOS and Android app) also has a huge library of lessons that you can use to structure your training. They cover everything from openings and endgames to forking and mating strategies. Since they’re delivered as video lessons and tactical puzzles, it can be a little harder to put new skills into practice immediately than with Dr. Wolf, but they’re still worth exploring—especially as you explore advanced theories. Subscriptions start at $5 per month.
Drill openings to start things off right
Thousands of books have been written about the opening moves of chess games. It’s an incredibly deeply studied field—which means not knowing your London Systems from your Sicilian Defences can come back to haunt you. All else being equal, the player who has a better grasp of opening theory is likely to win, as they’ll start from a more advantageous position.
Openings, though, are something you kind of just have to memorize. Chess.com, Dr. Wolf, or any of those thousands of books can help you with the theory of individual openings but in a game, it’s up to you to remember what comes after 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6.
The best way to memorize anything is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but you can’t go wrong using flashcards to review the openings you want to learn whenever you have free time. And while you could use handwritten flashcards, your smartphone is much more convenient.
There are lots of different flashcard apps. AnkiMobile on iOS ($25) and AnkiDroid on Android (free) are the official mobile version of Anki, a popular open-source and widely supported flashcard program that uses spaced repetition to help you remember things. There’s also AnkiApp, which isn’t official but is free on the iPhone.
When it comes to the virtual flashcards themselves, you can either make your own—perhaps with a dedicated chess flashcard builder—or find a set that someone has already made, like this breakdown of 74 chess openings.
Play puzzles whenever you can
Puzzles are one of the best ways to build pattern recognition, explains Sam Copeland, a national master and vice president of content at Chess.com, “and chess is very much about pattern recognition.”
While you might not have time to play a full game of chess or watch a video lesson, solving chess puzzles is something you can do anywhere at any time—as long as you have your smartphone at hand. Copeland naturally recommends the puzzles in the Chess.com and Dr. Wolf apps, but there are other options that don’t require a subscription to access the best features.
For example, Chess Tactics Pro (available on iOS and Android) has 300 free puzzles as well as free daily puzzles. You can buy 10 sets of additional puzzles for $2 each, or you can pay $10 for the full library of more than 2,000.
Copeland has no hard and fast rules for how many puzzles you should do each day. “Every puzzle you solve is going to pay off,” he says, so whenever you have the opportunity, grab your smartphone and work on your tactics.
Review your old games
If you play chess online, one way to get better is to review your old games and look for mistakes.
Whether you use Chess.com, Lichess, or another app, you should be able to look through your old games, move by move, and analyze the decisions you made. Most apps also enable you to use computer analysis to see how things likely would have played out if you’d done things differently.
Get a real coach
As good as smartphone apps and artificial intelligence have become, they’re still no replacement for an actual coach. “Every single player is different,” explains Copeland, and “a coach is able to do things in a personal way that AI can’t fully replicate.”
Where your smartphone helps out, however, is how you can access coaches. Getting lessons from a grandmaster in a major city could cost upwards of $200 per hour, but apps like Zoom and Skype grant you access to great coaches anywhere in the world. “And people shouldn’t think they need a grandmaster,” stresses Copeland. A lower-rated player can be just as good a coach, and more able to relate to your current abilities. You can find lists of coaches on Chess.com and Lichess.org, or if you like the play style of someone you’ve seen on Twitch or YouTube, they may offer their services as well.