Chess strategy

Chess strategy

Chess strategy is the aspect of chess playing that is concerned with the evaluation of chess positions and the setting of goals and long-term plans for future play. While evaluating a position strategically, a player must take into account such factors as the relative value of the pieces on the board, pawn structure, king safety, position of pieces, and control of key squares and groups of squares (e.g. diagonals, open files, black or white squares). Chess strategy is distinguished from chess tactics, which is the aspect of chess playing concerned with the move-by-move setting up of threats and defenses. Some authors distinguish static strategic imbalances (e.g. having more valuable pieces or better pawn structure), which tend to persist for many moves, from dynamic imbalances (such as one player having an advantage in piece development), which are temporary [1]. This distinction affects the immediacy with which a sought-after plan should take effect. Until players reach the skill level of "master", chess tactics tend to ultimately decide the outcomes of games more often than strategy does. Many chess coaches thus emphasize the study of tactics as the most efficient way to improve one's results in serious chess play.

The most basic way to evaluate one's position is to count the total value of pieces on both sides. The point values used for this purpose are based on experience. Usually pawns are considered to be worth one point, knights and bishops three points each, rooks five points, and queens nine points. The fighting value of the king in the endgame is approximately four points. These basic values are modified by other factors such as the position of the piece (e.g. advanced pawns are usually more valuable than those on their starting squares), coordination between pieces (e.g. a bishop pair usually coordinates better than a bishop plus a knight), and the type of position (knights are generally better in closed positions with many pawns, while bishops are more powerful in open positions).

Another important factor in the evaluation of chess positions is the pawn structure or pawn skeleton. Since pawns are the most immobile and least valuable of the chess pieces, the pawn structure is relatively static and largely determines the strategic nature of the position. Weaknesses in the pawn structure, such as isolated, doubled, or backward pawns and holes, once created, are usually permanent. Care must therefore be taken to avoid them unless they are compensated by another valuable asset, such as the possibility to develop an attack.


Basic concepts of board evaluation

A material advantage applies both strategically and tactically. Generally more pieces or an aggregate of more powerful pieces means greater chances of winning. A fundamental strategic and tactical rule is to capture opponent pieces while preserving one's own.

Bishops and knights are called minor pieces. A knight is about as valuable as a bishop, but less valuable than a rook. Rooks and the queen are called major pieces. Bishops are usually considered slightly better than knights in open positions, such as toward the end of the game when many of the pieces have been captured, whereas knights have an advantage in closed positions. Having two bishops (the bishop pair) is a particularly powerful weapon, especially if the opposing player lacks one or both of their bishops.

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, and two rooks are slightly stronger than a queen.

One commonly used simple scoring system is:

Piece Value
Pawn 1
Knight 3
Rook 5
Queen 9

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. In an open position, bishops will be more valuable than knights (a bishop pair can easily be worth seven points or more in some situations); conversely, in a closed position, bishops will be less valuable than knights. Also, many pieces have a partner. By doubling up two knights, two rooks, rook and queen or bishop and queen the pieces can get stronger than the sum of the individual pieces alone. When pieces lose their partner, their values slightly decrease. The king is priceless since its capture results in the defeat of that player and brings about the end of that game. However, especially in the endgame, the king can also be a fighting piece, and is sometimes given a fighting value of four.


All other things being equal, the side which controls more space on the board has an advantage. More space means more options, which can be exploited both tactically and strategically. If all of one's pieces are developed and no tactical tricks or promising long-term plan is apparent, he or she should try to find a move which will enlarge one's influence, particularly in the center. However, in some openings, one player will accept less space for a period of time to set up a counterattack in the middlegame. This is one of the concepts behind hypermodern play.

From Evans, page 103
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
8  black rook  black king  black king  black queen  black king  black rook  black king  black king 8
7  black pawn  black bishop  black pawn  black knight  black bishop  black pawn  black pawn  black pawn 7
6  black king  black pawn  black king  black pawn  black king  black knight  black king  black king 6
5  black king  black king  black king  white pawn  black pawn  black king  black king  black king 5
4  black king  black king  white pawn  black king  white pawn  black king  black king  black king 4
3  white pawn  black king  white knight  black king  black king  black king  white pawn  black king 3
2  black king  white pawn  black king  black king  white knight  white pawn  white bishop  white pawn 2
1  white rook  black king  white bishop  white queen  black king  white rook  white king  black king 1
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
White has an advantage in space

The easiest way to gain space is to push the pawn skeleton forward. However, one must be careful not to over stretch. If the opponent succeeds in getting a protected piece behind enemy lines, this piece can become such a serious problem that a piece with a higher value might have to be exchanged for it.

Larry Evans gives a method of evaluating space. The method (for each side) is to count the number of squares attacked or occupied on the opponent's side of the board. In this diagram from the Nimzo-Indian Defense, Black attacks four squares on White's side of the board (d4, e4, f4, and g4). White attacks seven squares on Black's side of the board (b5, c6, e6, f5, g5, and h6 – counting b5 twice) and occupies one square (d5). White has a space advantage of eight to four and Black is cramped.[2]

Control of the center

Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
8 a8 black rook b8 black knight c8 black bishop d8 black queen e8 black king f8 black bishop g8 black knight h8 black rook 8
7 a7 black pawn b7 black pawn c7 black pawn d7 black pawn e7 black pawn f7 black pawn g7 black pawn h7 black pawn 7
6 a6 black king b6 black king c6 black king d6 black king e6 black king f6 black king g6 black king h6 black king 6
5 a5 black king b5 black king c5 black king d5 cross e5 cross f5 black king g5 black king h5 black king 5
4 a4 black king b4 black king c4 black king d4 cross e4 cross f4 black king g4 black king h4 black king 4
3 a3 black king b3 black king c3 black king d3 black king e3 black king f3 black king g3 black king h3 black king 3
2 a2 white pawn b2 white pawn c2 white pawn d2 white pawn e2 white pawn f2 white pawn g2 white pawn h2 white pawn 2
1 a1 white rook b1 white knight c1 white bishop d1 white queen e1 white king f1 white bishop g1 white knight h1 white rook 1
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
Center squares are marked by "X"

The strategy consists of placing pieces so that they attack the central four squares of the board. However, a piece being placed on a central square does not necessarily mean it controls the center – e.g. a knight on a central square does not attack any central squares. Conversely, a piece does not have to be on a central square in order to control the center.

Control of the center is important because tactical battles often take place around the central squares, from where pieces can access most of the board.

Chess openings try to control the center while developing pieces. Hypermodern openings are those that control the center with pieces from afar (usually the side, such as with a Fianchetto); the older Classical (or Modern) openings control it with pawns.


The initiative belongs to the player who can make threats that cannot be ignored, such as checking the opponent's king. He thus puts his opponent in the position of having to use his turns responding to threats rather than making his own, hindering the development of his pieces.[3] The player with the initiative is generally attacking and the other player is generally defending.

Defending pieces

It is important to defend one's pieces even if they are not directly threatened. This helps stop possible future campaigns from the opponent. If a defender must be added at a later time, this may cost a tempo or even be impossible due to a fork or discovered attack. The approach of always defending one's pieces has an antecedent in the theory of Aron Nimzowitsch who referred to it as "overprotection." Similarly, if one spots undefended enemy pieces, one should immediately take advantage of those pieces' weakness.

Even a defended piece can be vulnerable. If the defending piece is also defending something else, it is called an overworked piece, and may not be able to fulfill its task. When there is more than one attacking piece, the number of defenders must also be increased, and their values taken into account. In addition to defending pieces, it is also often necessary to defend key squares, open files, and the back rank. These situations can easily occur if the pawn structure is weak.

Exchanging pieces

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

Exchanging pieces is usually desirable to a player with an existing advantage in material, since it brings the endgame closer and thereby leaves the opponent with less ability to recover ground. In the endgame even a single pawn advantage may decide the game. Exchanging also benefits the player who is being attacked, the player who controls less space, and the player with the better pawn structure.[citation needed]

When playing against stronger players, many beginners attempt to constantly exchange pieces "to simplify matters". However, stronger players are often relatively stronger in the endgame, whereas errors are more common during the more complicated middlegame.

Note that "the exchange" may also specifically mean a rook exchanged for a bishop or knight.

Specific pieces


An example of visualizing pawn structures
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
8 a8 black rook b8 __ c8 black bishop d8 __ e8 black rook f8 __ g8 black king h8 __ 8
7 a7 black pawn b7 black pawn c7 __ d7 black knight e7 __ f7 black pawn g7 black bishop h7 black pawn 7
6 a6 __ b6 __ c6 black pawn d6 white rook e6 __ f6 black knight g6 black pawn h6 __ 6
5 a5 __ b5 __ c5 __ d5 __ e5 black pawn f5 __ g5 __ h5 __ 5
4 a4 __ b4 __ c4 white pawn d4 __ e4 white pawn f4 __ g4 __ h4 __ 4
3 a3 __ b3 __ c3 white knight d3 __ e3 white bishop f3 white knight g3 __ h3 white pawn 3
2 a2 white pawn b2 white pawn c2 __ d2 __ e2 __ f2 white pawn g2 white pawn h2 __ 2
1 a1 __ b1 __ c1 white king d1 __ e1 __ f1 white bishop g1 __ h1 white rook 1
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
After 12. ... Re8 at Tarrasch – Euwe, 1922[4]……
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
8 a8 __ b8 __ c8 __ d8 __ e8 __ f8 __ g8 __ h8 __ 8
7 a7 black pawn b7 black pawn c7 __ d7 __ e7 __ f7 black pawn g7 __ h7 black pawn 7
6 a6 __ b6 __ c6 black pawn d6 __ e6 __ f6 __ g6 black pawn h6 __ 6
5 a5 __ b5 __ c5 __ d5 __ e5 black pawn f5 __ g5 __ h5 __ 5
4 a4 __ b4 __ c4 white pawn d4 __ e4 white pawn f4 __ g4 __ h4 __ 4
3 a3 __ b3 __ c3 __ d3 __ e3 __ f3 __ g3 __ h3 white pawn 3
2 a2 white pawn b2 white pawn c2 __ d2 __ e2 __ f2 white pawn g2 white pawn h2 __ 2
1 a1 __ b1 __ c1 __ d1 __ e1 __ f1 __ g1 __ h1 __ 1
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
…and its pawn skeleton ("The Rauzer formation")

In the endgame, passed pawns, those which cannot be hindered by enemy pawns from promotion, are strong, especially if they are advanced or protected by another pawn. A passed pawn on the sixth row is roughly as strong as a knight or bishop and will often decide the game. (Also see isolated pawn, doubled pawns, backward pawn, connected pawns).


Since knights can easily be chased away with pawn moves, it is often advantageous for knights to be placed in "holes" in the enemy position (an outpost), squares where they cannot be attacked by a pawn. Such a knight on the fifth rank is a strong asset, and one on the sixth rank may exercise as much power as a rook. A knight at the edge or corner of the board controls fewer squares than one on the board's interior, thus the saying "A Knight on the rim is dim!".

A king and a knight or king and two knights is not sufficient material to force checkmate an opposing lone king (see Two knights endgame.)


A bishop always stays on squares of the color it started on, so once one of them is gone, the squares of the other colour become more difficult to control. When this happens, pawns moved to squares of the other colour do not block the bishop, and enemy pawns directly facing them are stuck on the vulnerable colour.

A fianchettoed bishop at, e.g., g2 after pawn g2-g3, can provide a strong defence for the castled king on g1 and often exert pressure on the long diagonal h1-a8. After a fianchetto, giving up the bishop can weaken the holes in the pawn chain; doing so in front of the castled king may thus impact its safety.

In general, a bishop is of roughly equal value to a knight. In certain circumstances, one can be more powerful than the other. If the game is "closed" with lots of interlocked pawn formations, the knight tends to be stronger, because it can hop over the pawns while they block the bishop. A bishop is also weak if it is restricted by his own pawns, especially if they are blocked and on the bishop's colour. Once a bishop is lost, the remaining bishop is considered weaker since the opponent can now plan his moves to play a white or black colour game.

In an open game with action on both sides of the board, the bishop tends to 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 player with a bishop usually has better winning chances than a player with a knight.

A king and a bishop is not sufficient material to checkmate an opposing lone king.


Rooks have more scope of movement on Half-open files (ones which do not contain pawns of one's own colour). Rooks on the seventh rank can be very powerful as they attack pawns which can only be defended by other pieces, and they can restrict the enemy king to its back rank. A pair of rooks on the player's seventh rank is often a sign of a winning position.

In middlegames and endgames with a passed pawn, Tarrasch's rule states that rooks, both friend and foe of the pawn, are usually strongest behind the pawn rather than in front of it.

A king and a rook is sufficient material to checkmate an opposing lone king, although it's a little harder than checkmating with king and queen; thus the rook's distinction as a major piece above the knight and bishop.


Queens are the most powerful pieces. They have great mobility and can make many threats at once. For these reasons, checkmate attacks involving the queen are easier to achieve than those without a queen. It is generally wise to wait to develop the queen until after the knights and bishops have been developed to prevent the queen from being attacked by minor pieces and losing tempo.


During the middle game, the king is often best protected in a corner behind his pawns. If the rooks and queen leave the first rank, however, an enemy rook can checkmate the king by invading the first rank. Moving one of the pawns in front of the king (making a luft) can allow it an escape square, but may weaken the king's position.

The king can become a strong piece in the endgame. With reduced material, a quick checkmate is not an immediate concern anymore, and moving the king towards the centre of the board gives it more opportunities to make threats and actively influence play.

Considerations for a successful long term deployment

Strategy and tactics

Chess strategy consists of setting and achieving long-term goals during the game — for example, where to place different pieces — while tactics concentrate on immediate maneuver. These two parts of chess thinking cannot be completely separated, because strategic goals are mostly achieved by the means of tactics, while the tactical opportunities are based on the previous strategy of play.

Because of different strategic and tactical patterns, a game of chess is usually divided into three distinct phases: Opening, usually the first 10 to 25 moves, when players develop their armies and set up the stage for the coming battle; middlegame, the developed phase of the game; and endgame, when most of the pieces are gone and kings start to take an active part in the struggle.


A chess opening is the group of initial moves of a game (the "opening moves"). Recognized sequences of opening moves are referred to as openings and have been given names such as the Ruy Lopez or Sicilian Defence. They are catalogued in reference works such as the Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings. It is recommended for anyone but the chessmasters that when left with a choice to either invent a new variation or follow a standard opening, choose the latter.[citation needed]

There are dozens of different openings, varying widely in character from quiet positional play (e.g. the Réti Opening) to very aggressive (e.g. the Latvian Gambit). In some opening lines, the exact sequence considered best for both sides has been worked out to 30–35 moves or more.[5] Professional players spend years studying openings, and continue doing so throughout their careers, as opening theory continues to evolve.

The fundamental strategic aims of most openings are similar:[6]

  • Development: To place (develop) the pieces (particularly bishops and knights) on useful squares where they will have an impact on the game.
  • Control of the centre: Control of the central squares allows pieces to be moved to any part of the board relatively easily, and can also have a cramping effect on the opponent.
  • King safety: Correct timing of castling can enhance this.
  • Pawn structure: Players strive to avoid the creation of pawn weaknesses such as isolated, doubled or backward pawns, and pawn islands.

During the opening, some pieces have a recognised optimum square they try to reach. Hence, an optimum deployment could be to push the king and queen pawn two steps followed by moving the knights so they protect the centre pawns and give additional control of the centre. One can then deploy the bishops, protected by the knights, to pin the opponent's knights and pawns. The optimum opening is ended with a castling, moving the king to safety and deploying for a strong back-rank and a rook along the centre file.

Apart from these fundamentals, other strategic plans or tactical sequences may be employed in the opening.

Most players and theoreticians consider that White, by virtue of the first move, begins the game with a small advantage. Black usually strives to neutralize White's advantage and achieve equality, or to develop dynamic counterplay in an unbalanced position.


The middlegame is the part of the game when most pieces have been developed. Because the opening theory has ended, players have to assess the position, to form plans based on the features of the positions, and at the same time to take into account the tactical possibilities in the position.[7]

Typical plans or strategic themes — for example the minority attack, that is the attack of queenside pawns against an opponent who has more pawns on the queenside — are often appropriate just for some pawn structures, resulting from a specific group of openings. The study of openings should therefore be connected with the preparation of plans typical for resulting middlegames.

Middlegame is also the phase in which most combinations occur. Middlegame combinations are often connected with the attack against the opponent's king; some typical patterns have their own names, for example the Boden's Mate or the Lasker—Bauer combination.

Another important strategical question in the middlegame is whether and how to reduce material and transform into an endgame (i.e. simplify). For example, minor material advantages can generally be transformed into victory only in an endgame, and therefore the stronger side must choose an appropriate way to achieve an ending. Not every reduction of material is good for this purpose; for example, if one side keeps a light-squared bishop and the opponent has a dark-squared one, the transformation into a bishops and pawns ending is usually advantageous for the weaker side only, because an endgame with bishops on opposite colours is likely to be a draw, even with an advantage of one or two pawns.


Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
8 a8 __ b8 __ c8 black king d8 __ e8 __ f8 __ g8 __ h8 __ 8
7 a7 __ b7 __ c7 white pawn d7 __ e7 __ f7 __ g7 __ h7 __ 7
6 a6 __ b6 __ c6 __ d6 white king e6 __ f6 __ g6 __ h6 __ 6
5 a5 __ b5 __ c5 __ d5 __ e5 __ f5 __ g5 __ h5 __ 5
4 a4 __ b4 __ c4 __ d4 __ e4 __ f4 __ g4 __ h4 __ 4
3 a3 __ b3 __ c3 __ d3 __ e3 __ f3 __ g3 __ h3 __ 3
2 a2 __ b2 __ c2 __ d2 __ e2 __ f2 __ g2 __ h2 __ 2
1 a1 __ b1 __ c1 __ d1 __ e1 __ f1 __ g1 __ h1 __ 1
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
An example of zugzwang: The side which is to make a move is in a disadvantage.

The endgame (or end game or ending) is the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board. There are three main strategic differences between earlier stages of the game and endgame:[8]

  • During the endgame, pawns become more important; endgames often revolve around attempting to promote a pawn by advancing it to the eighth rank.
  • The king, which has to be protected in the middlegame owing to the threat of checkmate, becomes a strong piece in the endgame and it is often brought to the centre of the board where it can protect its own pawns, attack the pawns of opposite colour, and hinder movement of the opponent's king.
  • Zugzwang, a disadvantage because the player has to make a move, is often a factor in endgames and rarely in other stages of the game. For example, in the diagram on the right, Black on move must go 1...Kb7 and allow white to queen after 2.Kd7, while White on move must allow a draw either after 1.Kc6 stalemate or losing the last pawn by going anywhere else.

Endgames can be classified according to the type of pieces that remain on board. Basic checkmates are positions in which one side has only a king and the other side has one or two pieces and can checkmate the opposing king, with the pieces working together with their king. For example, king and pawn endgames involve only kings and pawns on one or both sides and the task of the stronger side is to promote one of the pawns. Other more complicated endings are classified according to the pieces on board other than kings, e.g. "rook and pawn versus rook endgame".


  • "Strategy requires thought; tactics require observation." - Max Euwe
  • "When you see a good move, wait - look for a better one." - Emanuel Lasker

See also


  1. ^ Silman, "How to Reassess Your Chess"
  2. ^ Evans, New Ideas in Chess, pp. 103-4
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Tarrasch vs Euwe on".  (Java needed)
  5. ^ Collins, Sam (2005). Understanding the Chess Openings. Gambit Publications. ISBN 1-904600-28-X. 
  6. ^ Tarrasch, Siegbert (1987). The Game of Chess. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-25447-X. 
  7. ^ Harding (2003), p. 32–151
  8. ^ Harding (2003), p. 187ff
  • Evans, Larry (1958). New Ideas in Chess. Pitman (1984 Dover edition). ISBN 0-486-28305-4. 
  • Silman, Jeremy (1993). How to Reassess your Chess (3rd Edition). Siles Press. ISBN 1-890085-00-6. 
  • Josh Waitzkin (2002). Chessmaster 8000 Classroom

Further reading

  • James Eade (2001). Chess for Dummies. Gambit.  A comprehensive guide for beginners.
  • John Nunn (2001). Understanding Chess Move by Move. Gambit.  An International Grandmaster explains the thinking behind every single move of many world-class games.
  • Silman, Jeremy (1998). The Complete Book of Chess Strategy. Silman-James Press. ISBN 978-1-890085-01-8. 
  • Jeremy Silman (1999). The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions into Chess Mastery. Siles Press.  A chess teacher analyzes and corrects the thinking of advanced beginners.
  • Yasser Seirawan (2005). Winning Chess Strategies. Everyman Chess. ISBN 1-85744-385-3. 

External links

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