How to Get Past a Plateau

I’ve been closing in on 2700 blitz on chess.com, but every time I get close I lose a few games and drop back down. It’s almost like some invisible forcefield blocks me from reaching my goal. I decided to ask how others have gotten past a plateau.

Before getting to the advice, a few observations: First, plateaus are the norm, not the exception. For most people, once you get past an initial stage of low-hanging fruit and rapid progress, visible improvement is sporadic and hard-earned.

"To learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau." - George Leonard

Second, a plateau is often an illusion. Not the rating stagnation - that is what it is. The illusion is that nothing’s changing. If you’re actively working on your chess, most likely many things are changing, just not yet your rating. In particular, there is often a lag between gaining knowledge and being able to effectively incorporate it into your game. In some sense, you’re getting better and worse at the same time, creating an illusion of stasis.

Seek out players at the level you want to get to

It’s obvious that higher rated players must be doing something different, but it’s hard to really understand what that means without experiencing it firsthand. On the Perpetual Chess podcast, Vladimir Kramnik said one of the turning points of his career was simply observing the post-mortems at Linares 1993. He got a sense of how world-class players analyzed a position that would have been impossible to glean from books alone.

“It was so fruitful and incredibly interesting to see how they assessed the situation” - Vladimir Kramnik

Similarly, Todd Bryant was stuck in the 2000s for six years. The turning point was when he started hanging out with a friend rated 2300. “We studied, analyzed, went to tournaments together all the time. I hit 2200 and he hit 2400.”

In addition to studying with stronger players, it’s essential to play against stronger players. Even after you have the chess skills you need to level up, it might take a certain amount of experience to learn how to overcome the increased resistance you’ll encounter against stronger players or build up the needed confidence.

Kamil Plichta described two plateaus where he couldn’t beat a player above a certain rating threshold (first 2100, then 2500). In his case it was a matter of developing the confidence to use the chess skills he already had.

Make your training more purposeful

I often find myself advocating for making chess more playful. However, if you find yourself on a plateau, it’s probably a sign that you’ve gone about as far as you can without a plan. After being around 1800 for 15 years, Dan Schmidt propelled himself over 2000 by instilling more structure and purpose into his training plan. In particular he emphasized spaced repetition as a helpful technique.

GM Noël Studer has a great guide for making a chess training plan and Chessable can manage your spaced repetition schedule for you.

Belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” - Henry Ford

This quote may be trite, but it has a point. The stories in the thread show that while improvement may be difficult, it’s possible.

Finally, a few reasons for optimism. First, a breakthrough often comes unexpectedly after a period of no apparent change. Perhaps hidden changes suddenly add up in a way that leads to visible results. Second, when you do finally break through a milestone, you often shoot way past it.