Adult Improver or Adult Enjoyer?

Ben Johnson
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Ben Johnson: the face of the voice of adult improvement (courtesy of the subject)

Adult improver. This phrase was largely unknown until the past few years. The first time I heard it was on Ben Johnson’s “Perpetual Chess” podcast. It’s since become rather ubiquitous. You hear it on podcasts, read it on Twitter in discussions amongst the #ChessPunks, and it comes up in casual conversations at the chess club.



Indeed, over the past half-decade, Ben Johnson has chronicled over three dozen interviews with adults of all ages and skill levels. While the inspiring point he has made is that we all can become adult improvers, there is a less alluring phrase that I believe should be getting attention as well: adult enjoyer.

The definition of an adult improver seems straightforward: an adult working to improve at chess. The definition of adult enjoyer seems a bit more amorphous. Is this someone who enjoys playing chess? Watching chess? Studying chess? All of those? Turns out that it depends on the person.


thanksgiving open
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Was the 2022 Thanksgiving Open for adult improvers or enjoyers? Ask them after the game (courtesy SLCC)


There are some players I see every week at the chess club for their weekly US Chess rated game. They never seem to study, or even analyze their own games. They don’t seem to care about such things. They enjoy playing for its own sake, and for them that’s enough.

Other players I know love to study chess. They don’t really care about their rating, they just love the process of studying and learning. They’re not results-oriented, rather choosing just to embrace the journey of learning while not worrying about any practical application.

Still others I know choose to watch high level chess tournaments and don’t play much serious chess any longer. Certainly, they aren’t spending their time studying. For them, watching chess is a reminder of a time when they were competing and working to improve.


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Some adult enjoyers prefer watching top level chess to working on their own game (courtesy SLCC)


My own journey has taught me that it’s possible to move from the world of improver to that of enjoyer and back again. Along the way I’ve learned that there is no limit to the number of times that a person can switch between the two camps.

Currently I’m in the enjoyer phase. Right now, for various reasons — some family, some career, and some personal — I find myself not having the time to be truly obsessed with chess like an improver must be to maximize the chance for improvement. Caissa is a demanding mistress, and it’s hard to improve past a certain point without near total commitment. Some may argue with me here, but in my life, these are just the facts as I have observed them.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not still taking many of the same steps that I do when I’m on the improvement path. I still take occasional lessons from my coach, GM Elshan Moradiabadi. I still solve puzzles each day and enjoy playing through annotated games as time allows. It just means that when I do those things, I am not as concerned with any particular outcome related to the effort I put in.

One interesting side effect that has resulted from this switch in perspective is that I have been maintaining my level with relative ease. I started 2022 rated 1714, and I’m leaving it rated 1787. This is still well below my peak rating, so nothing about this increase is something that I consider to be improvement. Nevertheless, as I have joked several times with Elshan, somehow not obsessing about my results has helped me play rather consistently.


human chess
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Some adult enjoyers prefer unorthodox approaches to over-the-board play (courtesy SLCC)


In 40 rated games in 2022, my record stands at 18 wins, 14 draws, and eight losses. The lowest rated player I lost to was 1761. It’s not that I didn’t care about my results, but rather that they weren’t the be-all and end-all of my focus. When I played, I played to win. I worked just as hard at the board as an enjoyer as I ever did as an improver. It’s what I did, or rather didn’t do, between games that defined me as one rather than the other.


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The author's ratings graph may tell the story of improvement, but less-so the enjoyment.


I didn’t spend hours each week working on openings or working through positions. I didn’t play through dozens of annotated games each month. Sure, at times I did some of those things, but not consistently. Instead, when I was looking at chess, it was more of an activity I was doing for the love of the game instead of work that I was doing to get better.

Are my days as an adult improver finished? I don’t know for sure, but I tend to think not. After all, I won’t always have the same level of work and business commitments that I do now. There will come a time in which I will have the ability to play more than I do now. The realist in my understands that I’ll be 50 in a little less than six months, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that improvement will be impossible. Will I ever become an IM or GM? Certainly not. But those weren’t goals for me anyhow. Can I become a national master? I still think that this is possible, but that it will involve a lot of sacrifice.

This is something that I think gets lost in the shuffle of improvement discussion. Can an adult improve? This discussion has answers that run the gamut. Most seem to think that either it simply can’t be done or that it unquestionably can be done, but few seem to discuss what sacrifices it takes to try in the first place. To me that’s the only real question. Can I improve? Perhaps. Would I have to give up quality time with my family or time to pursue other business or personal interests? Definitely yes.