Developing Precision in Chess

I am not a bomber. I’m more about precision and being target-oriented. I have to rely on all parts of my game firing if I’m going to win.

Luke Donald, Professional Golfer

Small Differences

In chess and golf, small differences in position and in movement can mean either winning or losing. There are many positions where it is hard to determine the objective difference between several very good moves. Choosing these moves may often be a matter of preference or temperament.

However, there are many positions where the 2nd best move is not nearly as good as the best move. This can occur in very sharp middlegame positions as well as in many endgame positions.

Here is a position from a recent game I played that inspired this article. Although I won the game, I only played the 2nd best move in this position. Study my analysis, and notice how lucky I was that my opponent also played the 2nd best move on his turn.

I hope you enjoyed that position. It was rewarding for me to analyze and annotate for you. Also, it is also my hope that it helped you appreciate the need for precision in chess.

Pattern Recognition

One way to improve your precision is to have a working command of many patterns – especially in the endgame. Why? Knowing various chess patterns frees your mind from having to “figure it all out” at the board – allowing you to use your mental resources to do deeper calculations.

What kind of patterns should you know? Here is just a few examples:

  • Pawn structures that occur in your opening repertoire (and what you should be doing in those positions).
  • Basic endgame concepts such as zugzwang and opposition.
  • Specific theoretical endgames such as the Lucena position.
  • Tactical motifs such a pins, forks, etc.
  • Basic checkmating patterns (such as smothered mate) and methods (such as rook and king vs. king).

Depending on how long you have played and studied chess,  you may pick these patterns up through various sources, such as books as well as analyzing your own games. However, you can also systematically seek out this knowledge. A good book in this regard is Jeremy Silman’s Complete Endgame Course for endgame knowledge. If you enjoy learning online I can recommend our own GM Nigel Davies’ Tiger Chess program for a complete curriculum of strategy and endgames to build your chess pattern recognition.

Thought Process

Another way to improve your precision is to develop your thought process. This topic is beyond the scope of this article but there are two questions you need to ask yourself for each move you make:

Question #1: What is my opponent’s best responses to my move?

This question will help you to avoid overlooking your opponent’s replies. You should examine your opponent’s potential checks, captures, and threats as responses to your candidate move. In addition, you may want to ask yourself, “What would my opponent do if it were his turn to move?” 

In my endgame position above, had I done this I might have noticed my opponent’s potential move and looked for another option – I don’t know if I would have found the best move but I would have at least looked.

Question #2: Do I have a better move in this position?

As Lasker said, “When you see a good move, look for a better one.” If you ask yourself this question during your games, you will look for alternatives. Sometimes, this will just confirm your first choice, but sometimes you will find something even better!

Things to look for include:

  • Different move orders (especially in tactical combinations)
  • Checking moves that you think are forced (both for your candidate and your opponent’s reply)
  • Alternative moves that accomplish the strategic objectives of your current candidate

Including these two questions in your thought process will improve the precision of your move selection.

Calculation Skill

As I discuss in another article about learning tactics, there are two parts to improving tactics – pattern recognition and calculation ability. We covered pattern recognition above, so let’s talk about improving calculation skill.

There are a few elements to calculation, including visualizing positions, organizing the variations, and assessing the resulting positions – just to name a few. I recommend checking out Kotov’s Think LIke a Grandmaster if you really want to dig deep into this topic, but here are a few methods for improving your calculation.

  • Checkmate problems: This is a good method to start with and I’ve used it off and on for years with great success. You can start with 2-movers, then move progress to 3-movers and 4-movers. The beauty of this method is that it really isolates the visualization and organization aspects of calculation as you don’t have to evaluate positions – it is either a checkmate or not.
  • Chess Tempo Standard problems: These are tactical problems that usually requires 3+ moves of calculation to solve – particularly with the higher rated problems. There may be other online chess servers that achieve the same purpose, but I think Chess Tempo’s higher rated problems are particularly good for developing your calculating muscles. There is only one solution to each problem, this specifically improves your precision.
  • Endgame Studies: This is probably the most difficult of the methods I will mention here as they often require some endgame theoretical knowledge to give you a clue of where to start – otherwise you are often just taking shots in the dark (which may improve your calculation ability if it doesn’t drive you crazy). However, this could also provide much pleasure as there are many beautiful endgame studies. For a more practical slant, you can check out Chess Tempo’s endgame training mode – which provide positions from actual games.


Improving your precision can be a great investment of your chess training time. The obvious methods including solving tactical problems and practicing calculation will definitely help. In addition, I also propose increasing your chess knowledge as well as improving your thought process as ways that will both improve your precision as well as every other aspect of your chess.

As always, I wish you good luck in your chess endeavours and better chess!

Bryan Castro