The most frequently asked question I get (apart from 'when is the next round?' or 'do you have any toilet paper?') is 'how can I improve my game?'. The answer is no mystery; it is the same tried and tested method that worked for World Champions Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer, and it will work for you. See below.
However, if you can't get to tournaments or join a local club then here is another idea. Firstly, it's always good to have some feedback on your games from stronger players. However, getting coaching can be expensive, and a bit hit and miss. Some coaches are very good... some are not. I faced the same problem myself; I had been a 180-190 player, but was very rusty and in need of practice games. I tried playing blitz on the internet, but that made things worse!
I found a solution that suited me, and after a few weeks my playing strength quickly felt like it was returning to the level it was a few years ago... I wanted to play games with another member of the club, who needed some coaching and yet I hardly ever attended the club. So we both signed up for gameknot.com and letsplaychess.com and started playing email games there - not blitz, and not postal chess, but something better; You can make comments on the games as you go, which is quite useful, and not just for insulting the opponent! Soon I realised I could play serious games with my clubmates and people I met over the board using those sites, my play improved; I started studying and playing more ambitious openings and I got to practice more endgames. Believe me, I needed that!
So, if you want to play a few games of email chess with me (or with any other player) you can do so via websites like gameknot.com (I am 'adamraoof') and letsplaychess.com ('greenman') for free!
How do I improve my chess?
Seriously, the best way to improve is to combine playing slow games in tournaments with study. Join your local chess club and play games on the clock against better players. Study involves reading chess books appropriate for your level of play, and then applying what you learn in serious games. Computer programs and letsplaychess.com are useful for practice games, but nothing has the serious emotional commitment necessary to get the best out of you than a tournament game. Write your games down using a scoresheet or scorebook and then record them on ChessBase (see below) and analyse the crucial positions. Always play stronger opposition if you can get the chance - you will learn more from those games even if you lose; get your opponent to go through the game with you afterwards (called a 'post-mortem'!) and explain their thoughts.
How do I get a English Chess Federation grade?
The simple answer is; play in graded events. These could be weekend tournaments, county matches, leagues or club championships. There is a separate column in the grading list for rapidplay games (those in which players only get around 30 minutes each for the whole game). If you want to know how the grading system works, look at The English Chess Federation's website. The ECF now publishes a list several times a year, in January and July, with regular online updates so you can check what tournaments have been submitted for grading. Until your grade appears on that list you are technically an ungraded player.
What chess software do I need to buy?
You don't need to buy any software, because everything you need is freely available on the internet. As a minimum, you need a chess database to store your games and an analysis module to help you examine those games for errors. Luckily, Chessbase comes in a free, cut-down version of the world's best chess database, which is still good enough for 90% of all your needs - and it comes with a strong chess analysis module for free!
What is the Swiss System?
If you have a hundred players in a tournament, how do you find a winner in just six rounds? An all-play-all would be impractical. The answer is the Swiss System.For a short history, see this link. Basically, in round one, participating players are ranked in order of grading, numbered, and the top half of the 'draw' is paired against the bottom half of the 'draw'. So in a twenty player event, Number 1 would play Number 11, Number 2 play Number 12, and so on. You get one point for a win, half a point for a draw, nothing for losing. Then in round two all the players with one point are ranked in order of grading, and the top half is paired against the bottom half. Ditto players on half and zero. Repeat for rounds three to five. In round six, ideally, you should find that there are just two players left on five points from five games, and they will have to play each other for the first place.
What is the two minute rule?
At Golders Green I have to make these decisions all the time. In rapid chess, if you have less than two minutes on your clock for the rest of the game and you believe that it is impossible for your opponent to win except on time, or if you make a horrendous blunder, you should offer your opponent a draw.
If they refuse, you can play on (the draw offer no longer counts, and you may even win) or you may stop the clocks and claim a draw under the 'two minute rule'. You cannot withdraw this draw claim. If the arbiter thinks you are making a pointless claim, he may award your opponent extra time. If the position is a dead draw they may rule it drawn immediately. Otherwise, the arbiter will observe the game - most often arbiters ask the players to play on until someone's flag falls.
The arbiter can then rule the game drawn, or award a win on time. The point to make is that you should ONLY claim if you think it is not possible for your opponent to win by normal means (in which case you have to prove it) or that they are not trying to win by normal means.
There are several articles on the Chess Cafe website in a section called 'Arbiter's Notebook' - and there is a mention of the two-minute rule on pp2-3 of the following.
Where do I find information about chess tournaments?
Golders Green Rapidplay dates are here. The best place to find information about tournaments in the UK is The English Chess Federation's calendar of events. For international tournaments, look at FIDE's calendar.
How do I offer my opponent a draw?
After making your move and before starting your opponent's clock. You shouldn't talk to your opponent except to offer a draw in the correct manner, and offering them a draw during their thinking time is a bad idea. Your opponent can then accept the draw at any time before replying to your move. They can refuse the draw offer verbally or by replying to your move.
Where can I find a chess club where I live?
The English Chess Federation compiles a list of clubs which should prove useful; but typing '[place] chess club' into Google usually does just as well!
What does [insert chess term here] mean?
membership: if you have a grade, and a grading code like this - 117650L - it does not mean that you are a member of the English Chess Federation! It means you have an ECF grade and can enjoy the benefits of the ECF grading database. We would like everyone who plays to support chess in England by joining the ECF, and from September 2012 it will be universally expected by all graded events.
bye: if you ask for a 'bye' in a tournament, it is normally because you want to arrive later than the start time, or because you need to go home early, or just because you need a break! You normally get half a point in lieu of the game. However, if you are getting a bye because you are on zero points and in a swiss tournament with an odd number of participants, you usually get a full point because you didn't get a game with someone in your section. The organiser would normally find someone for you to play a graded game with if possible.
rapidplay OR quickplay: Either a. each player must have a minimum of 15 minutes and a maximum of 60 minutes for all of his moves. This includes both the initial time control and any subsequent time controls or quickplay finish. OR b. when Fischer (time added per move, only used with digital chess clocks) mode is used then, using the assumption that the duration of the game is 60 moves, each player must have a minimum of 15 minutes and a maximum of 60 minutes. Anything else is Standard Play.
swiss: see above
knockout: a tournament where, if you lose, you exit the competition immediately. Like Wimbledon. In chess, there aren't so many knockout events except at Grandmaster level.
senior: as defined by the ECF, a senior is a player over 60, born before 1 September 19XX.
junior: as defined by the ECF, a junior is a player UNDER 18, born after 31/08/XX.