Lots of beginners ask what books or software they should buy, who they should take lessons from, or what other commercial materials might help their game. The truth is, nothing replaces cold, hard, studying, and there are infinite ways to study for no money.
Game databases. Want to know how to play your openings correctly? Download a pgn base of masters who play the openings, and go through the games meticulously. Find out what they do, and compare that to what you do. There are a ton of free databases online that feature GM games, opening principles, and famous matches. That’s the cream of the crop, there.
Download free software. Programs like Arena, ChessBase Light, Winboard, and SCID all allow you to study games with a very powerful engines, input your own games, create pgn bases and more. There’s no need to invest in Rybka or Fritz or anything else until you become a strong club player and even then, it really isn’t a hard rule. Free engines have been playing at the 2500 level or above for years and years; you really don’t need a 3300 rated engine to tell you that you made a beginner’s blunder. Trust me on that.
Analyze your own games. This one is a biggie. Without knowing what you, specifically, are doing wrong, there is little chance of improvement. We all start out by emulating our favorite masters but until we find our own groove, we are going to suffer many embarrassing losses. That’s just the way it is.
Play long games. I say this over and over, and I stand firm that it’s the best way to improve. Blitz and bullet are fun, but they simply cannot replace sitting for ten minutes analyzing all sorts of variations and plans in your head. Improving at long chess improves your quick chess, not the other way around. It hurts more to lose a game you’ve invested two hours in, believe me; it makes you want to improve. If the losses don’t hurt, then the wins don’t mean much, either. Right?
Isolate a complicated position and analyze the hell out of it. This is a lot of fun with a buddy in real life, but of course it can be done alone or online, as well. Play out every single variation you can come up with, and eventually you will completely understand the position and all its nuances. Then, you can move onto another position and do the same. Before you know it, your board vision and tactical eye will increase on its own through these exercises.
Finally, study tactics. There are myriad places online in which to do this, and paperback books which will greatly aid in this area can be purchased extremely cheaply. I recommend any of Fred Reinfeld’s books, as they can be taken anywhere and studied whenever you get a few free moments. While they are not technically “free”, they pay for themselves in short order, and so I’m including them in the category.
Putting in the work and the time on your own will improve your game much more thoroughly than simply purchasing materials and passively going through them. It’s easy to fall into the “Well, if I buy the chess stuff it has to be better than the free materials,” state of mind, but it simply isn’t true, not at the beginner to intermediate level. Just as studying the works of great painters can give you ideas, reading though other people’s chess materials and recommendations is more of a guide; in the end, it’s you who has to create your own chess self.