Sports & Games

Chess 101: What Is Chess Strategy? The Difference Between Chess Strategy and Chess Tactics and 5 Tips for Developing Your Own Successful Chess Strategy

Written by MasterClass

May 30, 2019 • 5 min read

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Developing a successful chess strategy requires time, effort, and patience. There’s only one downside: chess has no universal strategy. Tactics abound, with opportunities and pitfalls for both players. Part of learning the game of chess is also discovering and playing to your own strengths while learning to recognize your weaknesses.

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What Is the Difference Between Chess Strategy and Chess Tactics?

In a chess game, it’s important to distinguish between strategy and tactics.

  • Chess strategy is about ideas you’ll develop over the course of the game, such as protecting your king or developing a particular pawn structure.
  • Chess tactics, by contrast, are short sequences of moves that should result in some tangible gain, like capturing an opponent’s piece or moving your own into a more favorable position.

To grow as a chess player, you’ll need to become familiar with the most common tactics of the game while also learning what strategies suit your strengths.

Chess Strategy: Knowing the Value of Your Material

Before you start thinking about chess moves, tactics and strategy, you need to understand the value of your pieces (also called your “material”). Each piece is assigned a numerical value, based on its perceived strength in terms of pawns (i.e., a knight is worth roughly three pawns, while a rook is worth five).

  • Pawn: 1 point (or pawn)
  • Knight: 3 points
  • Bishop: 3 points
  • Rook: 5 points
  • Queen: 9 points

Knowing the value of your material so you can help you evaluate whether it’s worth trading one piece for another. Generally speaking, the player with more high-value material available in a game will have the advantage.

That said, it’s not enough to know the numerical value of your pieces; you have to know how to deploy them effectively on the board. “Developing” your high-value material is a key part of chess opening strategy. Sometimes, it may even be worth sacrificing some minor pieces in order to develop a more valuable piece.

Chess Strategy: The Basics of Chess Openings

There are literally thousands of opening combinations in chess, but there is only one major factor that should inform how you choose your openings: make moves that you’re comfortable making.

  • A good opening allows you to develop material, protect your king, and begin positioning yourself to take advantage of your opponent’s mistakes.
  • Some openings are direct, immediately attacking the center of the board while aggressively developing material, while others are more subtle, advancing along the sides of the board and taking many turns to develop.
  • The study of chess openings has been a major part of the game for hundreds of years, with countless books devoted to analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of various openings. (Over the course of his career, Russian chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov assembled a personal database of more than 20,000 openings and variations.)
  • The most popular openings (like the Ruy Lopez or the Sicilian Defense) also contain dozens or hundreds of variations, depending on how your opponent responds. To improve your game, you’ll want to study the advantages and pitfalls associated with your preferred openings.

Chess Strategy: Controlling the Center

To understand why the center of the board is so important, you have to start with the knight.

  • A knight situated in one of the four squares at the center of a chessboard has eight possible moves, while a knight in the corner of the board only has two. When players develop their pieces, they advance them closer to the center of the board, where they can exert pressure on a greater number of squares.
  • There are many different ways to approach the center of the board. When the center of the board is left relatively free of pawns, it’s said to be open. Open chess typically favors queens and bishops, which can take advantage of the wide open diagonal lanes.
  • Alternatively, some players prefer to methodically advance carefully planned pawn structures that lock up the center of the board. These closed positions tend to favor knights over bishops, as knights can hop over ranks of tightly locked pawns.
  • Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. When you’re just starting out, though, it’s good to practice open chess, as the additional room to move gives you more opportunities to practice and discover tactics.

Chess Strategy: The Basics of Endgames

It’s hard to define the endgame in chess, but in general, it’s when there are only a few pieces left on the board.

  • In this phase, even small differences in material can translate into major advantages. This is also the phase of the game when the king can become an important attacking piece, and players will often try to promote their surviving pawns into queens.
  • It may seem counterintuitive at first, but many teachers, including Garry Kasparov, recommend that new players start by studying endgame positions rather than memorizing books of openings. Why? Because studying the endgame gives players a keen sense of the advantages and shortcomings of various pieces.

5 Tips for Developing Your Own Successful Chess Strategy

Developing a strong and successful strategy is the key to being a dominant chess player. Keep these tips in mind when determining what works best for you.

  1. Study tactical positions to develop a sense for patterns. Solving tactical puzzles and studying common tactics is an important part of developing your game, and great chess players sharpen their skills on practice positions the way musicians practice scales. Repetition is key. As Gary Kasparov one said: “You cannot develop intuitive pattern recognition just by studying a few key examples. You need practice and repetition. Solving dozens, even hundreds, of tactical positions is an effective way to build up your memory bank of tactical themes and patterns.”
  2. Start with gambits. While aggressive, swashbuckling styles of play have largely fallen out of favor. According to Kasparov, it’s still important for new players to study this style of play.
  3. Analyze your own games. Looking at your own mistakes can be difficult, but it’s the best way to identify ways to improve your game. Even if you win a game, you almost certainly made mistakes along the way.
  4. Learn to exploit your opponents’ weaknesses. Chess is an intensely psychological game, and a key part of chess strategy is finding ways to force your opponent into uncomfortable situations where they are more likely to make a mistake. At the same time, you need to develop the mental toughness to stay focused even when your opponent is trying to make you uncomfortable.
  5. Make sure your trades are worth it. Learning to make trades is critical to both removing your opponent’s material from the board while also advancing and developing your own pieces. That said, you need to make sure they’re part of a broader strategy.

Learn more chess-playing techniques in Garry Kasparov’s MasterClass.