Learning to Plan in Chess

One of the many difficult ideas the beginner must embrace is planning. I’ve touched on this subject in previous articles and wish to revisit this concept because without it, both the novice and skilled player are doomed to fail! Ask any beginner what their “plan” is and most will tell you that it’s to checkmate their opponent’s King. This is the game’s goal but not the way to achieve that goal. The way we achieve the mating of our opposition, our overall goal, is by having a plan. This can be extremely difficult for the beginner because they’re simply trying to stay alive on the board! The beginner is just trying to stay one good move ahead of their opponent and cannot fathom the idea of short and long term planning.

As chess teachers, we start our work with the beginner by teaching the rules of the game, simple opening principles, basic tactics and mating patterns. This is a universal starting point for all beginners. Once the novice player has grasped these concepts, you introduce planning. Many chess students have a preconceived notion that you have to be able to think seven or eight moves ahead of your opponent to win. This frustrates them because they can barely see one move into the future. If the game becomes frustrating, the novice player becomes disenchanted and will often give up. Therefore, I teach planning is simple steps, with each step building on the previous one until the beginner can look at a given position and create a basic plan.

The first step is to define planning. I start with an analogy: When you get up in the morning what steps do you take to prepare for walking out your front door? A logical plan might include getting out of bed, showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast and walking out the front door. My students agree that this sounds like what they do every single day. However, we break this down in detail. Taking a shower requires a number of smaller actions such as getting your clothing together before showing, making sure you have a clean towel, etc. Even getting dressed must be done in a specific order. You have to put your socks on before your shoes. The point is that the action of getting ready for school or work requires the execution of a number of individual plans that allow you to achieve the goal of walking out the front door of your home. Because we do this every single day, we don’t put much thought into the many individual plans that help us achieve our goal because it’s second nature. I use this analogy because it helps students become comfortable with the idea of planning.

Planning in chess comes easy to those players who employ this idea over and over. In the same way in which we can effortlessly walk out our front door after the execution of a plan that would seem extremely complex to an individual who had never done it before, good chess players can execute complex plans because planning is second nature to them. To start planting the seeds of planning in my student’s minds, we divide the game of chess into its three phases; the opening, middle and endgames. Each of these phases has a specific goal. In the opening, you move your pawns and pieces to their most active squares. In the middle game, you try to reduce your opponent’s forces while maintaining yours. In the endgame you try to checkmate your opponent’s King. By breaking the game down into phases, planning becomes a little easier.

To create an effective plan, you have to have your goal clearly defined. In the opening, we’re trying to get our pawns and pieces to their most active squares, those that garner the greatest control of the board. That is our goal and now we must create a plan that gets us there. We know that the three basic opening principles, control of the board’s center, minor piece development and castling are our opening goal. Therefore, we must create a plan to achieve our goal. Let’s look at the opening principles and creating an opening plan of action.

When the game starts, each player has a choice of twenty possible moves; sixteen pawn moves and four Knight moves. If the beginner knows that his first task is to control the center of the board, then he or she can plan accordingly and push a central pawn. The idea of central square control will guide the further development of minor pieces towards the center. Therefore, the plan should be controlling the center of the board by moving pieces toward those squares; e4, e5, d4 and d5. This plants the seeds of basic planning. I teach my students to use these principles to lay the groundwork of their plans. My students know that they should move each piece once, in the opening, before moving the same piece twice. This reinforces the idea of developing as many pieces as possible. Of course, their opponent is trying to achieve the same goal so they have to consider using their pawns and pieces to protect one another. Part of their opening plan consists of moving their pieces towards the center as a team, with the pawns and pieces working together. Just having some basic guidelines to help in the development of a plan goes a long way with the novice player. The last two parts of our opening plan are castling and connecting our Rooks. We castle after we’ve gotten our pawns and pieces to active squares or if there is an immediate danger to our King. After we’ve achieved these principled goals, we move our Queen up a rank and allow our Rooks to travel freely across their starting rank.

During the middle game, our first goal is to first get our pawns and pieces to their most active squares. This isn’t always possible during the opening because access to those squares is often blocked. However, as the pawns and pieces come out on the board, access once denied is now gained. Only after we have good piece activity do we start our final on our final middle game goal, exchanging material. A simple way to approach this goal is to have more attackers than defenders when we go after our opponent’s material or more defenders than attackers when our opponent goes after our material. The plan during this phase is to get our attackers or defenders in place before the exchanges start.

The endgame is more complex. While the goal is to checkmate our opponent’s King, we have fewer pieces on the board and have to consider King activity and pawn structure. Because this phase can be very difficult for the beginner who hasn’t played many true endgames, I break it down into two primary goals. We start with pawn structure. The beginner’s plan should be to have his or her pawns positioned in such a way that they protect one another as they head towards their promotion squares. This means that the King will have to come off of its starting rank and get into the game. The beginner’s plan consists of having their King escort their pawns towards promotion. I’ll go over the idea of King Opposition with my students during a one on one lesson.

The overall idea behind the introduction of planning is to break down the game into smaller phases which makes it easier for the often overwhelmed beginner to create solid plans. When looking at an opponent’s move, I ask my students to not only determine the best response they can make to the opposition’s move but how the opposition might respond to the move made by the student in question. Beginners don’t have to think seven moves ahead of their opponent. However if they think about how their opponent will respond to their move, they’ll often weed out potentially bad moves. This process takes a while with beginners but eventually they start seeing further into the future and getting better at chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).