Three Key Ways to Improve at Chess (part 2 – “Planning”)

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In my past article “Three Key Ways to Improve at Chess (part 1)” I listed the three key methods of improvement that all chess players striving to get better should focus on:

  1. Take in as much information about chess as possible (Learning)
  2. Have a plan of action in every position in your games (Planning)
  3. Practice, practice, practice tactics (Tactics)

The original article dealt with part 1 of that list and this article will deal with part 2:

“Have a plan of action in every position in your games” (Planning)

This is a key method of improvement because it is vital that we always have a plan and goal in mind when we are playing chess. Many of my students at came to me with no knowledge behind the moves that they made on the board or they didn’t understand why certain moves they played were good/bad. I always ask them “What was your plan behind this move?” I focus on this important aspect of chess because without a plan, we are just moving pieces around on a board. A plan is the cohesive glue that puts everything together. Without this glue, all the pieces of our position would be unconnected. Benjamin Franklin put it best when he said that “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail”.

phpHpraTy.jpegBenjamin Franklin | Image Wikipedia

Now you may be thinking: “Duh, that’s obvious. Of course I have a plan when I’m playing chess: My plan is to checkmate my opponent’s king and win the game!” And you are correct; that is the ultimate goal in chess. But in order to achieve that end goal, we must first accomplish smaller goals.

But how do we know what some smaller goals in chess are? Well, this is where the first method of improvement comes into play again. If we have been learning as much information about chess as possible and have increased our knowledge of the game, then we will know more available plans. We will have seen more patterns and positions that help us to be aware of more available options in our games. These smaller goals are the building blocks in our game. If we are able to accomplish the smaller goals, then we will be even closer to accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning the game.

A real world example: If we are a commander in an army and want to come up with a plan to defeat our opponent, then we want to know as much information as possible about them, our surroundings, available weapons, etc. We also want to study previous army commanders and the plans they used in their battles. If we didn’t know anything about our opponent, nothing about the environment we would be fighting in, and had very little knowledge about the weapons we were going to be using, we would be in a bad position. If we had never studied previous commanders and their battle strategies, this would hurt us as well. This is magnified even more if our opponent has this knowledge that we are lacking. It comes down to this:

  • No knowledge = no plan
  • Some knowledge = basic plan
  • More knowledge = improved plan
  • Optimum knowledge = best plan

Now, once we have some level of knowledge, it is important that we use this knowledge effectively. From our previous studying of chess (you have been doing some studying/learning since reading part 1 of this article series, haven’t you?), we now have a better knowledge of chess patterns and have seen more plans carried out in games. Here is a list showing some examples of short-term plans that we can carry out in our own games (note: this is not a complete list of all possible short-term plans in chess; there are many more options for plans than the ones listed here)

  • Control the center with pawns
  • Take over an open file with your rook/queen
  • Develop your pieces
  • Limit the mobility of your opponent’s pieces
  • Block your opponent’s passed pawn
  • Get the initiative
  • Get rid of our opponent’s active pieces
  • Prevent counterplay
  • Defend your king
  • Start a kingside/queenside attack
  • Put our pieces on their best squares
  • Get our knight to a great outpost
  • Open diagonals for our bishops
  • Trade pieces when we have limited space
  • Prevent trades when we have more space
  • Trade queens when we are up material
  • Attack the opponent’s weak pawns
  • Create imbalances to work with etc.

Once we know some options for plans to use in our games, now the question is: “Which smaller goal is the one to work on?” This will all depend on the position. You will need to analyze your position, consider the differences on each side and pick a plan that makes use of your advantages while minimizing your disadvantages at the same time. Let’s look at some examples and find the best plan in each position:

In this position, we notice that black is trying to generate an attack on the kingside using his bishop on d6 (hitting h2), his centralized knight on e4 and moving his rook to g6/h6 (this follows the “get the initiative” + “start a kingside attack” plans from the list above). White wants to prevent this plan if possible (“prevent counterplay” + “defend your king”). We also notice that comparing the other minor pieces on the board, we have a bad bishop on b2 (bad bishop = bishop blocked by your own central pawns), while black has a bad bishop on b7. The difference here though is that we have the ability to trade off our bad bishop on b2 for black’s good bishop on d6 (good bishop = bishop not blocked by your own central pawns) with the move Ba3! (“get rid of your opponent’s active pieces”). This move Ba3 also goes along with the plan mentioned before of slowing down black’s attack because his bishop on d6 was helping with that. Once we trade our b2 bishop for black’s d6 bishop then we would have something new to work with in the position (“create imbalances to work with”) and would have to now create a new plan using the new features of the position

Now what are some new plans that white can work on? Well, we see that black’s rook is placed actively on the open c-file (“take over an open file with your rook/queen”). White would want to challenge this rook for control of the c-file by playing Rc1. White would do this so that he could try take advantage of the open c-file as well (“get rid of our opponent’s active pieces” +“take over an open file with your rook/queen”)

After this sequence of moves, white now feels that the doubled d-pawns are almost the same as one pawn in the endgame (relating to their ability to push forward; they both do not have the option of moving forward at the same time). So white looks at the position as kind of being up material because of the doubled pawns. White is not technically up material though, but he may view it that way. He may decide to play Qc2! here offering a queen trade (“trade queens when we are up material” + “take over an open file with your rook/queen” + “get rid of our opponent’s active pieces”). Later this may be followed up with Nf4 + Qb3 attacking the weak pawn on d5 which can’t be guarded by any other pawns (“attack the opponent’s weak pawns”). Eventually white may be able to control the center with his own pawns by doing f3 followed by e4 at some point (“control the center with pawns”)

Notice how white was able to use his short-term plans to take control of a position that looked like it may have favored black originally? That’s the power of planning in chess.

Having a plan of action in every position in your games is a very important method of chess improvment that all chess players striving to get better should focus on. If we are able to make use of short-term plans to improve our games positions then we will get even closer to the long-term goal of checkmating the opponent’s king and winning the game. Next article will focus on the third method of improvement in chess: “Practice, practice, practice tactics”.

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