If you're an intermediate chess player, you already know all these steps. I hope, though, that I have some ideas and encouragement that you have not heard. Everything I say on this page has been tested and it WORKS. I mean they really work. You just have to find your spot on the page. Personally, I think the tools I recommend on this page are the very best available. It's hard to imagine any tool being MORE effective than the ones I recommend, though there may be others as effective.
This page really isn't about learning the basics. If you barely know how to move chess pieces, just play. Play against other people or get chess software that's fun to play on. I like the Chessmaster series, though I've found it a pain to use sometimes. If you take the time to learn how to use it, though, it's the best. There's all sorts of computer personalities you can play against; there's lessons from chess masters; you can set up your own tournaments; it tracks your rating; etc., etc., etc.
So, if you're a rank beginner, just play.
Unfortunately, here I'm going to give you suggestions that will cost money.
Tactics means that ability to come up with a series of moves that will help you and hurt your opponents. Those brilliant series of moves that make you say "wow!" are tactics.
For beginners, you need to start with Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. It will teach you checkmate patterns and get you started on being able to come up with attack plans on your own.
For those that are intermediate, tactics will still help. At every level, it helps to get better at tactics. A great program for learning tactics is called Chess Tactics Art 3.0. I had to order mine from Europe, but it's now available on amazon.com. It has about 1200 puzzles ranging from pretty easy to so difficult that you probably won't understand the answer even after they show it to you. It's awesome and easy to use.
The art of setting your pieces up for maximum effectiveness is called strategy. For all you lower level guys (club players), learning strategy will solve a big problem. Once you've gotten through the opening, what do you do next? A lot of lower level players get their pieces out, then look at the board and think, "Well, what now?" All they know how to do is start an attack on the king, and sometimes it's almost impossible to see how to do that.
There's a lot of other things to do besides attack the king. Grandmasters only attack the king when the board calls for it. Skilled players know how to make their pieces better, coordinate their pieces, fill holes, create weaknesses, gain space, start a pawn storm, sieze the initiative, etc., etc., etc. The question is, how do you learn how to do all those things?
I recommend above all else The Amateur Mind by Jeremy Silman. There are other good books on strategy. This, among all the books I've been able to read, is the best by far. Jeremy Silman also wrote a book called Reassess Your Chess with all the same principles in it, but it's terrible compared to The Amateur Mind. The Amateur Mind will make strategy clear to you like nothing else will.
One important thing to keep in mind is that if you are lousy at tactics, your strategy will do you little good. You need to be able to calculate moves in order to put your strategies into motion. Never stop working at tactics.
Two really good books with training tips to make the best use of your practice time are Rapid Chess Improvement by Michael de la Maza and Chess Master at Any Age by Rolf Wetzell. Michael de la Maza is a rather obnoxious author in my opinion, but his book is short and to the point, and if you follow his advice it will help you. It will help you even if you don't follow it as rigorously as he recommends. That guy has greatly overestimated the importance of chess to human life. Again, though, his advice is really good, as is Rolf Wetzell's.
This could have gone anywhere on this page. Learning openings will help you win chess games. I don't know if it will necessarily make you a better chess player, but it will help you win games. If you love to memorize, you could memorize dozens of openings and variations and play the first few moves of every game like a grandmaster. That's a lot of work, however, and I've always hated it. Instead, I have learned the principles of openings, and I just fumble my way through. 90% of the time that works out okay for me, and I come out of the opening just fine. On the other hand, if you are willing to put in the memory work, you could come out of some openings with the game basically already won.
The opening book I liked is Winning Chess Openings by Yasser Seirawan. Jeremy Silman, mentioned above, is a very good chess writer, but Yasser Seirawan is even better. He has a great sense of humor, and he understands the struggles of the club level player.
However, that said, I've never enjoyed studying openings, so there may be better books out there. One method I've used when I'm weak on an opening is to play a computer chess program at full strength just through the opening. I play it over and over just through the first 10 moves or so, until I'm surviving the opening. That's a memorization technique of sorts, too, but it's a lot more fun than simply studying the opening.
Learning end games techniques is tedious, too, but it brings immediate results. There are some basic principles (such as: in the end game, rooks go behind the pawn, kings go in front of the pawn; also, you have got to understand the idea of "gaining the opposition") that it is very helpful to know. There are some mating techniques you ought to get used to, and you need to know how to queen pawns and how to use bishops and knights in the end game.
Again, the book I used most is Winning Chess Endings by Yasser Seirawan. If you're going to have to slog through an end game book, you might as well do it with him, because his sense of humor will keep it interesting. Also, ChessMaster, which I mentioned above, probably has relatively thorough instruction in end games somewhere in the program, as well as basic opening instructions.
I really like the simple Gromit 1.2. Gromit 1.2 was freeware. I still have it. Its higher levels are not freeware anymore. I hope you can find it on the internet somewhere. What I like is it pops up instantly when you open it. It moves pretty quickly even when playing at an expert level, and it's easy to use. The more advanced programs take some time to load up, and you have to navigate through menus and screens. Gromit 1.2 is basic, simple, and very fast.
In the end, though, my favorite chess program was ChessMaster. I had the 4000, 7000, and 9000 series. I've also had two versions of Fritz and I had Rebel. ChessMaster is way better, in my opinion. It has a lot of neat functions, many teaching sections, and I really like all the personalities it sets up for you to play against. They're even customizable. My 9000 CD's are so scratched up I can't fix them, so I'm going to have to buy it again, but it's awesome, and I recommend it.
Chess puzzles are fun, so I've always wanted to do them. Puzzles are about the best way to train in tactics, but I'd really never understood strategy until a few years ago. I was introduced to strategy by Winning Chess Strategies by Yasser Seirawan, and suddenly I realized that there were lots of options once the opening was done. Before, I used to finish the opening, connect my rooks, and then think, "Well, what do I do now?." Suddenly, there were lots of things to do to improve my pieces, my pawn structure, or set up pieces for an offensive.
Shortly after learning this, I played a game with a one-dollar combat chess program I'd found. I got through the opening and realized there was a "hole" on the computers 3rd rank just crying out for a knight. I started prepping to get my knight there, and I found out that computers know about posting knights in a hole. The computer abandoned everything else it was doing and focused all its forces on keeping my knight out of d6 (right in the heart of its territory). The whole game centered around that knight. I was never able to get it to d6, but in the process of keeping my knight out of there, the computer weakened the protection around its king, allowing me to come sweeping in on the a-file for one of the best checkmates I ever pulled off. It was so fun that I was sold on strategy.
Within the next few weeks, I had read The Amateur Mind, and my strategy was much improved. I went to a chess tournament in Atlanta. On Saturday night, in my 3rd game, I was put against a guy that I was told was better than the category he was rated in. I was pumped about strategy, so I just focused on the setup of my pieces, building a formidable pawn structure and gaining space until I was clearly winning despite no material advantage at all. Then, I blundered. It was a small blunder, but it cost me one of my center pawns, a real foundation stone in my fortress. It was then that I realized how much focusing on strategy had helped. Despite the blunder, I was still okay. At the right moment, I traded everything off and went into the end game two pawns up. I won $140 at that tournament for finishing in a tie for first. It was great.
In the end, I found that my rating had improved a good 200 points in just a few months. At another tournament, I surprised a master level player, won the exchange and got his back to the wall. It was a 30-minute game, though, and in time rush, I gave the exchange back and ended up losing. It was terribly disappointing.
The advice on this page works. Rolf Wetzell and Michael de la Maza, authors mentioned above, improved their ratings hundreds of points to master and expert levels, respectively, using some of the ideas I give on this page. I hope that it's been short enough to be readable and to the point, but long enough to be helpful.