Studying chess – physical board or database?

The way people learn and study chess has changed tremendously over the last few decades. When I first started playing chess, the only way to study a chess game collection was to buy a book and study the games with a pocket chess set. The Internet has changed all that. Now, books can be purchased online and downloaded onto your computer. With a few clicks of a mouse, you can bring up virtually any game collection and begin analyzing. So, what’s that the best way to study? Should it be using a database, a book with a pocket chess set or a combination of both?

Studying chess - physical board or database?
A typical game when loaded into Chessbase.

Use a physical board and pieces

A physical chess set is the ideal method to study chess. Just like schoolwork, a chess study session needs to take place where you will not be disturbed and where you have access to your study materials. Using a database program to learn new ideas is fine but can lead to distractions. Opening up YouTube, or reading e-mail are just a couple of examples of how someone can lose their focus when trying to dedicate time to chess study.

Using a physical set leads to a better understanding of chess. The touching and placing of pieces on squares improves your board vision which leads to better retention. This is opposed to database usage where all you need to do is click a mouse button or use the right and left arrow keys on your keyboard to rapidly cycle through moves.

Playing on a physical board slows things down. It forces you to pay attention and concentrate on what’s happening. This paves the way for understanding the ideas behind a move and why it was played.

Using databases is fine to analyze your own games though. Entering variations, turning on computer analysis and entering annotations is something I do regularly. But for study – it’s me and my pocket chess set. So, while there is nothing wrong with using ChessBase to analyze grandmaster games, stick with a physical chess set. You’ll improve your game faster and retain information for years to come.

The pocket chess set

All chess players should own a pocket chess set. It is as standard a tool for chess players as a golf club is to a golfer. There’s nothing wrong with playing over games on a full wooden board but the pocket set has a few advantages.

The first is portability. You want a chess set that you can take on the go and now having to worry about rolling up a board or carrying a bag full of chess pieces. The second is comfort. You want a pocket set you feel comfortable with. The pieces have to be easy to hold and manipulate. The last is durability. The pocket chess set should be an investment that lasts you for years. It should be magnetic so that the pieces won’t fall off the board. Additionally, you don’t want to see pieces breaking, chipping or becoming separated from their magnets.

A video on the top pocket chess sets to buy, is listed below.

My favorite pocket set: the 8″ Drueke Gift Magnetic Set

The best pocket chess set I have ever owned.

I’ve been using this set for decades. The set is small but not too small. It can be carried with a book or stored away in a bookshelf. It fits snugly in a backpack or any piece of luggage. The pieces are easy to store and access which is great for setting up positions or going over a game.

I highly recommend this set for anyone wanting mobility and a set that will last them a long time.


The best way to study chess is with a physical set.  Full-sized wooden board and Staunton pieces are fine but I suggest a small magnetic pocket set as a better choice. Finding  the right set is a  decision based on personal preference so it varies between players.  Buying a chess set is like buying a pair of shoes.  One size does not fit all but whichever set you choose, make sure you feel comfortable with it. For me it is the Drueke 8″ set