These are some strategies I’ve learnt that have helped me play better Chess; and may prove valuable to anyone looking to up their game.
Castle as Early as Possible
Castling early allows the King to be moved to safety before the position becomes complicated. Also, it helps to give you an idea of how to marshall your pieces on either side of the board.
Obviously there are other reasons to delay castling, such as when you have to decide if to castle on the Queen side vs. the King side based on how your opponent develops his pieces early on during the opening. But as a rule of thumb, the farther you are away from castling the more dangerous it is for your King to remain in the center of the board.
Learn Opening Theory, not Openings
Usually learning all the opening lines and variations is something reserved for Master-level players that need to effectively compete against similarly well-studied opponents in championship games or high-level tournaments.
It’s much better to instead grasp opening concepts like center control, developing your pieces, castling, defending squares that are being attacked, gaining tempo, etc.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn a few battle-tested and strong openings, but keeping your opening repertoire simple and instead focusing on getting advantages leading into the middlegame is a worthwhile pursuit if you play Chess for enjoyment and not in professional competition.
Don’t Move the Same Opening Pieces Twice
This is a commonly repeated sentiment, but it’s important to ensure you develop your pieces early in the opening in an individual manner, and therefore lay claim to the kinds of positional advantages that can lead to a strong middlegame.
One way to shoot yourself in the foot is to move a piece in the opening, and after your opponent replies with a challenge, they gain tempo by forcing you to move the same piece again. A bad idea as well is to develop an opening piece (such as a Pawn or Knight) and immediately move the piece again in your next turn.
This shouldn’t be confused with “re-positioning” a piece, but often times moving a piece twice within the first 3-5 moves will hinder your development, and is a sign that you didn’t follow good opening theory to begin with.
Tempo is Everything
Chess moves are turn-based, and a great way to increase the strength of your game is to focus on moves that challenge your opponent’s pieces in such a way that they have to retreat; while you in turn gain a move (a turn, or “tempo”). Your opponent then “loses” tempo and is set back in both their immediate response and in-game strategy.
Gaining tempo allows for strong positional advantages that can be incrementally built up to open lines, initiate a tactical manoeuvre, or harmonize your forces.
Rooks by their nature are meant to work in pairs. Rooks are usually connected by castling on either side, or by doubling Rooks on a single file. Either way, connecting your rooks are doubled means you don’t have to worry about individually defending them and also harmonizes their influence on the ranks and files that they dually occupy.
Sacrifice for Positional Gain
Two of my favorite Grand Masters are Anatoly Karpov and Mikhail Tal. Karpov is known for his positional mastery that pushes opponents into a corner and crushes them, while Tal is known for performing feats of magic on the board that often involve a sacrifice to gain an unstoppable upper hand.
Sacrifices are done in order to gain tempo, increase positional strength, open attacking lines, or force your opponent into a Zugzwang (a disadvantage by of having to make a forced move). In my opinion sacrificing should be done for the most part when the resulting advantage is that of a positional gain.
Mind the Center
Controlling the center has always been a recurring theme in Chess. It’s important to exert center control both in the opening and also keep an eye on the central squares during the middlegame.
Often times it’s advantageous to centralize either the Queen so that she can have influence on the highest possible number of squares. Also, centralizing Knights enables them to move towards either quadrant of the board when and where they are needed.
Exchange for the Endgame
If the middlegame is leading to a decidedly closed position then it’s probably wise to exchange Bishops, all things being equal. If it’s a more open game, then exchanging your Knights and keeping your Bishops is usually better.
Based on the type of endgame scenario that’s likely to occur, Bishops exert more pressure and have more influence in more open endgames, while Knights are better suited to control the lesser number of squares found in a more closed type of endgame.
Don’t Over-Extend the Queen
Being the most powerful piece, the Queen is formidable both by herself and when working in combination with other pieces.
It’s important not to develop the Queen too early without a tactical reason to do so, worse yet moving her around at the expense of the development of your other pieces, or trying to use her influence on too many squares without proper support and defense.
It can quickly lead to a shift in the position that favors the opponent; where the Queen is trapped and captured, or her movements nullified altogether.
Harmonize your Pieces
All the pieces on the board are able to work together. They should be viewed as complimentary and used to both attack and defend in a combinatorial manner.
Properly harmonized, pieces can move quickly to exert control on either side of the board, lead multi-pronged attacks that can put pressure on weaknesses in the opponents position and deliver unavoidable Checkmates.
Co-ordinate with Color
It’s a good idea to attack squares and diagonals of either color, based on your position, open lines, and of course which Bishop will be most effective against the position of the enemy King.
Your opponent will also be cognizant of this fact and try to exchange your “strong” Bishop, so it’s important to not let that Bishop be captured if it will have a marked difference in controlling the majority of squares the colors of which your opponents pieces and Pawns occupy.
Pay It Forward
Siegbert Tarrasch once noted “We must make sure that Chess will not be like a dead language, very interesting, but for a very small group.” If you play Chess and are able to teach someone else to play, please do. Because it then means that the benefits of this blog post would have effectively reached twice the number of people who’ve read it.