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How to Improve at Chess – Part 3

Chess middlegames are important, there’s no doubt about it. The middlegame is chess’ main battleground; it’s the phase where you can overcome a bad opening choice through tactical prowess and a razor-sharp sense for when and how to attack, or exploit an opening advantage to put your opponent on the ropes. That’s why we study tactics (see Tip #2).

But what happens when there are no tactical possibilities in the position? What happens when the central pawns are locked, most of the pieces are still on the board, obvious lines of attack are absent, and everything seems quiet? What do we do then?

That’s why we study chess strategy. Someone once flippantly said that “tactics is what you do when there’s something to do; strategy is what you do when there’s nothing to do”. Strange as it may sound, that’s not a half-bad definition. Tactics concerns itself primarily with short-term gains: two, three, four-move combinations which win material or force checkmate. Strategy is primarily the art of long-term planning. Strategy can be something as simple as knowing why Rooks belong on open files or why Bishops are best on long diagonals, or why a “Knight on the rim is grim”. It might be something a tad more advanced, such as knowing why Knights are better than Bishops in closed positions, or understanding the weakness of a backward pawn. Or it might even be something as (seemingly) esoteric as knowing why the c5-square is important in middlegames which arise from many d-pawn openings such as the Queen’s Gambit.

Understanding concepts such as these will help you to formulate a long-term plan in a chess game. Sure, you can play without a plan; you might just hack around aimlessly, or simply make  moves in response to whatever your opponent plays. You might even stumble blindly into a win once in a while.

But, more often than not, you’ll lose. That’s why Tip #3 is important:

3. Study positional chess

To become at least competent at this game (that’s even before you get anywhere near “proficient”), you’ll need to understand at least the rudiments of positional play. Speaking from my own experience, I didn’t improve enough to even call myself “bad” until I’d spent a little time studying positional chess — and the more I studied it, the better I became. Ultimately I went from “bad” to “competent”, and it really didn’t take that much time. I attribute that rapid improvement to my study of positional chess themes.

Wilhelm Steinitz (first officially recognized World Chess Champion) was the Great Lawgiver of Positional Chess; back in the late 1800’s he laid down The Word when it comes to positional play. Later, in the early twentieth century, chessplayers like Aron Nimzovitch further refined Steinitz’ ideas and added their own. Still later, in the mid-1900’s, fellows like Ludek Pachman wrote books which essentially became positional chess “bibles”. (Here again, from my own experience, reading the one-volume abridgement of Pachman was a truly revelatory experience for me.)

The tradition continues today with numerous strategic chess works appearing in electronic format. The information is out there, it’s readily available, and there’s absolutely no excuse for you to ignore today’s tip:

3. Study positional chess

I fully realize that the idea of “reading” is fast becoming passé in this highly video-driven age. However, being as you’re reading this blog, I trust that the idea of the written word is not an alien concept to you. With that in mind, please allow me to strongly recommend a text-driven (as opposed to video lecture) electronic chess product to you, namely ChessBase’s Basic Principles of Chess Strategy. This three CD set is text-driven (you open a game and play through it, reading the annotations in the accompanying gamescore window beside the on-screen chessboard) and has an enormous amount of information packed into the three disks. For those readers familiar with Pachman’s three volume Modern Chess Strategy, the three CD set Basic Principles of Chess Strategy is the closest thing I’ve seen to an electronic version of Pachman.

But regardless of what form you choose for your positional chess instruction, it’s crucial for you to gain at least a basic understanding of chess strategy and positional chess. Learning these principles will help you immeasurably in devising long-term plans in your chess games and in “knowing what to do when there’s nothing to do”.

(In addition to Basic Principles of Chess Strategy, ChessCentral offers a wide range of books, software, and DVDs on the chess middlegame)

Have fun! — Steve

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3 Responses

  1. I love Pachman’s ‘Modern Chess Strategy’ book (I have the abridged single volume edition). Clear and lucid with great examples.

  2. this is the most lucid discussion of the middle game and positional chess i have ever read even though [or is it ‘because’ ?] it is remarkably brief. Working on it / them to the point of competence and then upward to -> proficiency may be as good as it gets for most of us. but that’s way better than drifting to and fro on the misty flats [which is probably the situation of the vast majority of those who play ‘at’ chess.]

  3. Thank you for sharing valuable information. Nice post. I enjoyed reading this post. The whole blog is very nice found some good stuff and good information here Thanks..Also visit my page chess training .

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