“Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.” – Savielly Tartakower
Does the above quote ring a bell? Do you often feel lost in the chess board looking for plans or ideas when there is no concrete tactical solution?
Don’t worry - that is perfectly normal. Strategic play is, arguably, the hardest field to dominate for any beginner, simply because you have not yet developed a deep understanding of the game.
In this article, we are going to learn a few things about chess strategy, so that you can move away from the move-by-move immediate calculations and dive into deeper, long-term plans. Let’s get started!
1. Central control
As we have previously mentioned in our openings article, one of the most important ideas in chess openings is to target the central area of the board.
While there are many definitions, it will help you to know that when we say “center”, we usually refer to these four squares:
Any chess piece (except for the Rook, due to its particularity of always controlling 14 squares, regardless of where it is placed) is instantly able to maximize its potential when placed in the central squares.
For instance, a Knight in the centre (placed on d4, d5, e4 or e5) controls a total of eight squares. If you place the exact same Knight on a4 or h4, it will control only half of this amount.
This is the main reason why the center plays such an important role in terms of chess strategy: if you centralize your pieces, they will generally be stronger and much more active!
However, as you may be thinking right now, in opening principles, we start by occupying the center with our pawns, namely by playing 1.e4 or 1.d4.
Pawn presence in the center is very important in an early stage of the game in order to make way for the Bishops to be developed and activated - but it is also connected to the second strategic principle we are going to cover.
Simply put, the side whose pawns are more advanced is the side that has more space - and having more space is, most of the time, closely connected to having an advantage.
When we have more space, we control a larger area of the board, and have more squares in which we can place our pieces - while also restricting and cramping up our opponent’s position.
The most straightforward way of increasing a spatial advantage is, of course, to push the pawns forward.
However, please note that this is something that must be done carefully. If you expand your structure too much, you will be creating weak squares that your opponent can come to exploit at a given point.
Take a look at the following position.
White has a space advantage granted by the c4-d5-e4 pawn structure. As you can see, space goes hand in hand with central control, as, usually, the most advanced pawns will be on the center of the board.
This is a heavily theoretical position from the King’s Indian Defense, which means that it is perfectly possible for Black to play with less space - the idea will be to challenge White’s pawn formation with a timely f7-f5 break.
The concept of initiative is terribly hard to define - however, any experienced chess player instantly knows the meaning of a sentence such as “White has more initiative in this position” or “I tried to gain some initiative by playing that move”.
Initiative is a dynamic concept of chess, closely related to piece activity, which means that it is more often temporary than permanent.
The side that has the initiative often has the upper hand at a given point in the game thanks to certain threats on the opponent’s King that cannot be ignored - if that is the case, for instance, the opponent will have to waste time defending against those threats.
Since initiative is a dynamic concept of chess strategy, it is intimately connected with the tactical side of the game.
The player that enjoys the initiative must be accurate, timely and precise, which often means that he has to engage in calculations and concrete ideas to seize the advantage.
Nevertheless, it belongs to the scope of chess strategy because initiative in itself is a broad concept that refers to the “quality” of the pieces, and not to something concrete, as opposed to the examples we covered in our tactics article.
For instance, a positional element that can bring initiative to one of the players is the Bishop pair. Bishops complement each other perfectly, as each of them controls one of the color complexes on the board. For this reason, they’re a great team, known to cause many headaches to enemy Kings!
The above position has been extracted from the game Tarrasch - Rubinstein (1912). We are in the endgame stage, the material is even and the structure is perfectly symmetrical.
However, Black has the upper hand because he has the two Bishops (and also a centralized King). These Bishops are extremely powerful as they can attack pawns on both sides of the board, regardless of the square in which they are placed.
Now that we have covered the most dynamic aspect of chess strategy, let’s take a look at the most permanent one.
4. Pawn structure
The way that the pawns are displayed on the chessboard shapes the character of the position to a great extent.
Pawn structures are the backbone of chess strategy because they allow us to categorize the positions and create general guidelines of how it should be played.
There are a few concepts in the scope of pawn structures that are absolutely fundamental for any chess player. Let’s learn them.
Pawn islands are, basically, groups of pawns. We have an island when a group of pawns is separated from the other by the distance of, at least, one file.
Take a look at the following position: Black has 3 pawn islands, while White has only 2.
Usually, the fewer pawn islands you have, the better. Pawns work well as groups, as they can protect each other and solidify the position.
This brings us to another important pawn structure concept.
An isolated pawn belongs to a pawn island with only one member. This means that it is alone on the chessboard, and that no other pawn can come to protect it if needed.
On the above diagram, Black’s pawn on d5 is isolated, because it is separated from all other pawns by at least one file.
Isolated pawns are commonly seen as weaknesses, and, especially in the endgame stage, they may become extremely vulnerable. However, they mainly constitute an imbalance in the structure.
When there are many pieces on the board, the player who has the isolated pawn may use the adjacent open files for the Rooks and generate some initiative.
Hanging pawns are closely connected to the concept of isolated pawns. Pawns are said to be hanging when they are separated from the rest of the structure, again, by at least one file.
Please note that if one of the pawns disappears, we will find ourselves in an isolated pawn position, which is why these two concepts go hand in hand. In fact, one of the most effective ways to play against this pawn structure is to force one of the pawns to advance or take a piece or pawn, so that an isolated pawn is created.
Just like isolated pawns, hanging pawns are seen as weaknesses that can be exploited, especially in the endgame, but, with correct play, they may also bring initiative in the middlegame stage.
Backward pawns are not alone in the chessboard as there other pawns in the adjacent files may exist.
However, the particularity of this structure is that those pawns have advanced and left the backward pawn behind.
In the above diagram, the pawn on e3 is backwards as the pawns on the d-file and the f-file have advanced and left it behind.
These pawns are extremely weak, not only because they cannot be defended, but also because the square in front of them (in this case, the e4 square) is left extremely vulnerable. For this reason, the way to exploit this weakness is to attack the backward pawn, and also to place a piece - ideally a Knight - on this debile square.
A situation of doubled pawns occurs on the board when two pawns are placed on the same file. This happens after something gets taken in front of a pawn, and the opponent replies by taking back with one of the adjacent pawns.
For instance, in the diagram you have just looked at, White has doubled pawns on c2 and c3. This happened because Black took a piece on c3 and White took back with the d-pawn, which moved from d2 to c3.
Doubled pawns are a weakness in itself as they cannot defend each other. As happens with isolated, hanging and backward pawns, they are easier to attack in the endgame stage, since there won’t be many pieces to defend them.
5. Piece maneuvering
Last, but not least, chess strategy is also related to the way we move our pieces. When we make long-term plans, we take many factors into account, some of which we have just covered: space, central control, pawn structures…
However, one important aspect of any chess plan is the future of our pieces.
If one of our pieces is badly placed (such as a Knight on the rim - as we have seen, it can cover only four squares from there) we should try to find a plan to improve it (such as bringing that same Knight to the center, from where it will cover the double amount of squares).
Maneuvering is something difficult for most beginners to understand, as it surely involves a lot of chess knowledge.
However, above all, it involves asking the right questions: what is the piece I want to improve? Where do I want to place it? How can I maneuver it to that square? Can I do it right now, or are there other important and more urgent aspects I should be aware of in this position?
To demonstrate this, take a look at the next diagram.
This position has been extracted from the game Mattison - Nimzowitsch (1929).
If you take a careful look at the position, you will realize that all of Black’s and White’s pieces are fully developed, with one exception: the Knight on b8.
Nimzowitsch, playing Black, had to ask himself all of the questions we have mentioned above. Once he did, the answer appeared crystal clear to him.
It’s just a matter of following the next moves (click here if you struggle to read this notation):
15. Rfd1 Na5
16. Qb5 Qxb5
17. cxb5 Nc4!
Now the Knight is perfectly placed, and Black has a great advantage.
On c4, the Knight blocks the backward pawn on c3, attacks the Bishop, is close to the center, and cannot be kicked out by any of Black’s pawns.
Note how quickly this happened: after envisioning that he wanted the Knight to be on c4, it only took Nimzowitsch a couple of moves to come up with a plan to place it there.
Now that you have all the strategic ingredients, it’s time to try to incorporate these concepts in your games - and we wish you the best of luck in doing so!
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