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Chess strategy and tactics

One of the charms of the game of chess is the interplay between tactics and strategy. Tactics refers to "traps", "tricks" or "combinations" that achieve checkmate or material advantage within a few moves (more or less) while strategy refers to achieving long-term goals through the proper development or arrangement of the pieces on the board in the absence of any short-term opportunities.

In describing tactics and strategy, we will use the algebraic chess notation.

Table of contents

Values of the pieces

One thing that applies both strategically and tactically is material advantage. If you command more pieces, or more powerful pieces, than your opponent, you will have greater opportunity.

A knight is about as valuable as a bishop (these two are called minor pieces), but less valuable than a rook, and less still than a queen (rooks and queens are called major pieces).

Three pawns are likely to be more useful than a knight in the endgame, but in the middlegame a knight is often more powerful. Two minor pieces are stronger than a single rook. Two rooks are stronger than a queen, but not by much.

One commonly used simple scoring system is 1 point for a pawn, 3 for a knight or bishop, 5 for a rook, and 9 for a queen. Under a system like this, giving up a knight or bishop in order to win a rook ("winning the exchange") is advantageous and is worth about two pawns. This of course ignores such complications as the current position and freedom of the pieces involved, but it is a good starting point.

Tactics

Attacking and defending pieces

A piece is said to attack an opponent's piece if, in the next move, it could capture that piece. A piece is said to defend or to protect a piece of the defender's color if, in case the defended piece were taken by the opponent, the defender could recapture right away. Attacking a piece forces the opponent to respond only if the attacked piece is undefended, or if the attacking piece is of lower value than the attacked one.

Forks

A fork is a move that uses one piece to attack two of the opponent's pieces at the same time, hoping to achieve material advantage (because the opponent can only counter one of the two threats). Knights are often used for forks: they jump to a position from where they attack two pieces. A quite common situation is a white knight jumping to c7, thereby threatening both the rook at a8 and the king at e8. Such "king forks" are particularly effective, because the opponent is forced by the rules of the game to counter the threat to his king; he cannot choose to defend the other piece, and he cannot use a zwischenzug (see below) to complicate the situation. Pawns can also fork enemy pieces: by moving a pawn forward, it may attack two pieces: one diagonally to the left and one diagonally to the right. A common situation is the move Pawn d2-d4 forking a black bishop at c5 and a black knight at e5.

image:chess_fork_knight_chessbase.png image:chess_fork_pawn_chessbase.png
Kasparov vs. World Team 1999
Kasparov played 12.Nc7+
A variation of the Three Knights Opening
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Bc5 4.Nxe5 Nxe5 5.d4

A queen move also often attacks two pieces at the same time, but this is only useful if both pieces are undefended (since the queen is more valuable than the pieces it is attacking, it is usually only profitable for it to capture undefended pieces).

Pins

"The defensive power of a pinned piece is only imaginary." - Nimzovich

A pin is a move which forces one of the opponent's pieces to stay put because moving it would expose a more valuable piece behind it. As they move in a straight line, bishops, rooks, and queens can pin other pieces.

In the diagram below left, black can't move his knight without losing his queen, and he can't move his rook at all. In the diagram below right, Kramnik pins black's bishop and soon wins it with a4-a5.

image:chess_pin_bishops.png image:chess_pin_rook.png
Morphy vs. Consultation Team 1858
after Morphy's 14th move
Kramnik vs. Morozevich 2002 Rapid Play
Kramnik played 31.Rb1

Skewers

A skewer is a move which attacks two pieces in a line, similar to a pin, except that the enemy piece of greater value is in front of the enemy piece of lesser value. After the more valuable piece moves away, the lesser piece can be captured. Queens, rooks, and bishops can skewer.

image:chess_skewer_queen.png image:chess_skewer_bishop.png
Lasker vs. Bauer 1889
Lasker played 33.Qg7+
Tal vs. Botvinnik 1960
Tal played 30.Bc4

Because of possible pins and skewers, one should be extremely cautious if king and queen are located on the same vertical, horizontal or diagonal line.

Discovered attacks

A discovered attack is a move which unmasks an attack by another piece. A piece is moved away so as to unmask the attack of a friendly bishop, rook or queen on an enemy piece. If the attacked piece is the king, we speak of a discovered check. Discovered attacks are powerful, because if the moving piece manages to pose a second threat, the opponent is in trouble.

A special case of a discovered check is a double check, where both the piece being unmasked and the piece being moved attack the enemy king. A double check requires that your opponent move his/her king as the king is under attack from two directions and it is impossible to counter both at the same time in any other way.

image:chess_disc_check_rook.png image:chess_disc_check_knight.png
Torre vs. Lasker 1925
Torre played 31.Rg5+
Byrne vs. Fischer 1957
Fischer played 22...Nc3+

Zwischenzug

The German zwischenzug means "intermediate move"; it is a common tactic that occurs in almost every game: instead of countering a direct threat, which the opponent expects, a move is played which poses an even more devastating threat, often an attack against the queen or the king. The opponent has to counter that threat first, and this will ideally change the situation to his disadvantage.

When you plan your tactics, you should always watch out for a zwischenzug. Don't assume that the opponent has to counter your threats immediately. It is good practice to always check whether your opponent has a check or a move threatening your queen. Conversely, anticipate your opponent's threats and plan a surprising zwischenzug.

Sacrifices

Often it is necessary to throw the opponent's position out of balance by first sacrificing some material, to be regained with interest a couple of moves later. Pawn sacrifices in the opening are known as gambits; they are usually not intended for material short-term gain but instead to achieve a more active position.

Direct attacks against the enemy king are often started by sacrifices; a common example is a bishop sacrificing itself on h7, checking the king on g8 who has to take the bishop, after which the white queen and knight develop a fulminant attack.

Attacks against the king

image:Chess_sacrifice_bishop_h7.png
Colle vs. O'Hanlon, 1930
Colle played 12.Bxh7+

Attacks against the castled king are usually justified by some imbalance: you have more firepower on the king's side than your opponent, or the opponent weakened his king's position by moving one of the pawns in front of the king.

Many mating attacks are introduced by sacrifices: if mate is the goal, material doesn't matter anymore. The queen is almost always the most important piece in a mating attack, since she has various ways of mating a king. The most common of which is a direct "contact check" while being protected by one of her own pieces, for instance white knight g5, black king on g8 and the queen mates at h7, or white bishop at f6 or h6 and the white queen on g7 mates the black king on g8.

Don't assume that every move in a mating attack has to be a check. Often, a check just drives the king to a better position, or weakens your own setup. Try to find "quiet" moves which seal the deal.

Strategy

Opening

For beginners, it is not helpful to memorize opening moves; instead, by following a handful of principles, one can quite easily achieve a decent position for the middle game.

The most important part of the board is the center (e4, d4, e5, d5). It is essential to place pawns in the center or to control it in some other way. Another major goal of the opening is to move the king away from the dangerous center and achieve castling. Every move should contribute to these goals and one should avoid losing time by making useless moves such as h7-h6. The white knights are usually developed to c3 and f3. The queen should avoid moving too early and too far into enemy territory, because otherwise the opponent will be able to gain time by playing developing moves which at the same time threaten the queen. Once castling has been achieved, the remaining bishops and knights should be developed so that the rooks on the first row become connected and can operate more effectively. This usually ends the opening phase of the game.

For more detailed notes on the various openings, see Chess opening.

Space

All other things being equal, the side which controls more space on the board has an advantage. More space translates into more options, which can be exploited both tactically and strategically. So if all your pieces are developed and you don't see any tactical tricks or a promising long-term plan, try to find a move which will enlarge your influence, particularly in the center.

Defending pieces

In general, it is a good idea to defend your pieces, even if they are not currently attacked. This way, many tactical tricks of the opponent won't work. Conversely, if you spot undefended pieces of the opponent, you should think about exploiting the situation with a tactical combination.

Exchanging pieces

To exchange pieces means to capture a hostile piece and allowing a piece of the same value to be captured by the opponent. As a general rule of thumb, exchanging pieces eases the task of the defender who typically has less room to operate in.

If you have a material advantage, exchanging pieces is desirable, since in the endgame even a single pawn can decide the game.

When playing against stronger players, many beginners attempt to constantly exchange pieces "to simplify matters"; this is a poor strategy. Stronger players are normally much stronger in the endgame, while during a complicated middlegame even they can make mistakes.

(Note that "winning the exchange" has a special meaning as mentioned above: winning a rook for a bishop or knight.)

Knights

Knights are easily chased away with pawn moves. Therefore it is important to spot "holes" in the enemy position where a knight cannot be attacked, because the pawns have already moved past. Once such a hole is identified, a knight should be maneuvered to that location. An unchallengable knight on the fifth row is a strong asset, and a supported knight on the sixth row usually decides the game. Unless there is a good reason for it, knights shouldn't be placed at the borders (and never in the corners) of the board, because there they control far fewer squares and can often be captured.

Pawns

Pawns are most powerful if they come in groups on contiguous files. Isolated pawns, those without pawns of the same color on adjacent files, are often weak and also provide a nice spot for an enemy knight ahead of them. If your opponent has an isolated pawn, first try to block it by placing a piece ahead of it, and then attack it with rooks. The same should be done with opponent's pawns that were "left behind" (backward pawns), meaning that the pawns on the neighboring files have already advanced.

Two pawns of the same color on the same file are called doubled pawns; they are weak, especially so if they are also isolated, because they cannot protect each other and because they hinder each other's advancement. Three pawns in one file are called tripled pawns; they are even worse.

In the endgame, passed pawns, those which cannot be hindered by enemy pawns from promotion, are strong, especially if they are advanced. A passed pawn on the sixth row is roughly as strong as a knight or bishop and will often decide the game.

Bishops

A bishop always stays on squares of the color it started on. This is not a big concern if you still have both bishops, but once one of them is gone, you should keep in mind that you now have a hard time attacking or defending squares of the wrong color. If you have only one bishop left, you typically want to move your pawns to squares of the other color so that they don't block the bishop and so that the enemy pawns are stuck on the right color and can be attacked.

If you don't see a good square for development of a bishop, you can consider a fianchetto: pawn g2-g3 and bishop f1-g2. This forms a strong defense for the castled king on g1 and the bishop can often exert pressure on the long diagonal h1-a8. After a fianchetto, you should not give up the bishop too easily, because then the holes around the king can easily prove fatal.

To decide whether in a given position a knight or a bishop is more powerful, several aspects have to be taken into account: if the game is "closed" with lots of interlocked pawn formations, the knight will be stronger, because it can hop over the pawns while the bishop is blocked by them. A bishop is also weak if it is permanently blocked by his own pawns, which are arrested on the wrong color. In an open game with action on both sides of the board, the bishop will be stronger because of its long range. This is especially true in the endgame, if passed pawns race on opposite sides of the board, the bishop will usually win over the knight here.

An endgame in which the parties have bishops that live on different colors is almost always drawn, even if one side is two pawns ahead.

Rooks

Rooks are most powerful on half-open files -- files which don't contain pawns of your own color. They are also useful on open files without any pawns in order to penetrate into enemy territory, most likely to the seventh row, where they can attack pawns sideways and lock in the enemy king.

In the endgame, if there is a passed pawn which is a candidate for promotion, the rocks, both friend and foe of the pawn, belong behind the pawn rather than in front of it.

King

During the middle game, the king mostly stays in a corner behind his pawns. Moving these pawns should be avoided because that weakens the king's position. However, as the rooks leave the first row, there is a danger of an enemy rook invading the first row and mating the king, so sometimes it is necessary to move one of the pawns in front of the king to counter these mate threats.

In the endgame, the king becomes a strong piece. With reduced material, mate is not an immediate concern anymore, and the king should be moved towards the center of the board.

The Endgame

Once most pieces have been exchanged off the board, it becomes impossible to mount direct attacks on the king. In this situation, the focus of the game switches to attempting to bring a pawn to the eighth rank and promote it, usually to a queen, while preventing one's opponent from doing so. The promoted queen, provided it is not immediately captured by the opponent, is enough to ensure a win.

If only one pawn is left (and maybe one other piece on either side), then both players should attempt to direct their kings in front of the pawn in order to gain influence, keep the other king away and ensure (or prevent) the pawn's promotion.

In endgames that involve only kings and pawns, the concept of opposition is important: by moving to a square which is horizontally, vertically or diagonally two squares away from the enemy king, one "gains" the opposition. This is an advantage, because it forces the enemy king to give way.

image:chess_endgame_king_before_pawn.png
The move Kd5 gains the opposition and wins
the game. All other moves result in a draw.

Sometimes, all pawns will be eliminated from the board and one player will be left with a king and some combinations of rooks, knights and bishops against a lone king. These give rise to the elementary end games:

  • King and queen vs. king

  • King and rook vs. king

  • King and two bishops vs. king

  • King, bishop and knight vs. king

The first two are relatively easy to learn and very commonly arise in games. Many beginners, notably children, fail to win games simply because they have never learned these procedures. The other two require more skill, but arise much less frequently. A king and one minor piece is never enough to force a win and thus the game will be a draw. A king with two knights against a king is also insufficient to force a win; however, since this inability is partly a result of poor timing inherent in the knight's awkward moves there are circumstances where a win can be forced if the opponent also has a pawn.

Further reading

  • John Nunn: Understanding Chess move by move, Gambit 2001. A top player explains the thinking behind every single move of several master class games.

  • Jeremy Silman: The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions into Chess Mastery, Siles Press 1999. A chess teacher analyzes and corrects the thinking of advanced beginners.

  • James Eade: Chess for Dummies. As comprehensive as one can get for beginners, this book in the familiar yellow format has the added advantage of being generally available in bookstores that know nothing about chess.


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