Strategic Thinking

There are two concepts that all chess players must understand from the start; strategy and tactics. Beginners often confuse the two. Simply put, when we employ a strategy in chess, we are examining a game position in general terms and working out a plan to deal with the overall problem at hand (From a strategic problem comes a tactical solution). A tactic is the actual method we employ to bring our plan into fruition. So a strategy can be though of as our plan of action while a tactic is the actual plan in action. Strategic thinking looks at the “big picture.” Once you see the “big picture,” its time to roll up your sleeves and get down to business, resolving the strategic problem with a fist full of tactics. Einstein was a strategic thinker, calculating the variables of a problem, while Clint Eastwood portraying Dirty Harry would be a tactician, blasting away at the problem!

Tactics, such as forks, pins and skewers, are easier to learn because because they employ pattern recognition. Tactics are visual in nature. The chess student uses pattern recognition and is taught to look for specific piece/board patterns such as an opponent placing his or her Queen in front of their King on an open rank, file or diagonal. The opposition’s Queen can then become pinned to her King should our budding tactician notice this great tactical opportunity. You can think of the difference between tactics and strategy as the difference between linear and non linear mathematics. In linear mathematics, one plus one will always equal two. In non linear mathematics, one plus the one doesn’t always equal two. Strategy requires a more abstract, big picture view of the situation at hand, in this case a chess game!

To help students differentiate between tactics and strategy, we’ll consider tactical thinking first: If you’re looking at your own pawns and pieces, determining which are protected and which are not, you’re thinking tactically. Tactical thinking tends to require immediate action, such as having to protect an unprotected pawn or piece. If you’re looking for checks ,mates, forks, pins or skewers, you’re thinking tactically. Again, if you see a great tactical play, you’re going to take action immediately. If you’re trying to calculate the end result of an exchange, you’re thinking tactically. Tactical thinking means taking action (not simply thinking about it). On the other side of the coin, if you’re counting material to determine who has an advantage, you’re thinking strategically. If you’re examining a position to see whose material is more actively placed, you’re thinking strategically. If you’re contemplating attacking versus defending, you guessed it, you’re thinking strategically. Action will not be immediate as is the case with tactical thinking.

There are three simple concepts that will help you understand strategic thinking or strategy, and those are material, safety and freedom. It should be noted that these three concepts or ideas are part of the “bigger picture” or positional overview. Think of the difference between strategic and tactical thinking as viewing a painting in a museum. With strategic thinking, you’re taking in the entire painting, examining it as a whole (seeing everything at once), whereas with tactical thinking, you’re examining the painting on a more detailed level, such as brush strokes or color relationships. Tactical thinking requires that you hone in on a specific issue and resolve it through an action. Strategic thinking requires that you identify the overall problems before any action is taken. We’ll start our look at strategic thinking with an examination of material.

When we talk about material, we talking about both player’s pawns and pieces. If we want to know which player has more material, we simply count each side’s captured pawns and pieces. Of course, the pawns and pieces have been assigned a relative numeric value based of the pawn or piece’s power. The pawn, who is limited in power, is on the bottom rung of the value ladder and is worth one point. The Queen, the strongest piece in either side’s army is on the top rung of our ladder and is worth nine points (Knights and Bishops are worth approximately three points, while Rooks are worth five points).

Being able to compare the relative strength of both side’s pawns and pieces allows a player to assess a position from a strategic viewpoint. If you know you’re down a substantial amount of material, you’ll plan accordingly, avoiding the execution of any attacks that might cost you what little material you have left. If you’re ahead in material, you might be apt to launch a more aggressive attack.

Safety is another important consideration. When I say safety, I’m speaking of your King’s safety. Castling is a critical factor in any game. Most beginners who don’t castle their king to safety end up losing their games. So how does castling your King to safety and the concept of strategy fit together? Here’s how:

To castle your King, you have to move two minor pieces on the King-side or two minor pieces and your Queen on the Queen-side. You also cannot have moved your King or the Rook (on the side you intend to castle on) prior to castling. You can’t move into or through check with your King when castling. In short, you have to meet specific conditions in order to castle. Your opponent knows this and will do his or her best to thwart your chance to castle. This means you have to be on the lookout for possible attacks, checks, etc. Therefore, if you plan on castling, you have to exercise strategic thinking from the start! Following the opening principles, we know that we place a pawn in the center of the board (1.e4…e5). Moving the e pawn to e4 allows White to bring the King-side Bishop into the game. White might follow up with 2.Nf3 then 3.Bc4. These two moves put White’s King-side minor pieces on active squares and allows White to castle on move four. This is big picture thinking: White knows he or she needs to castle so a strategy is put into place to castle. Your plan to castle is strategic in nature.

The concept of Freedom is really the concept of piece activity. Beginners often have a hard time with developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. When I teach my students to develop their pawns and pieces, they often think that a pawn or piece is finished in its development after a single move. However, pieces can be further developed to more active squares. An actively developed piece finds itself on a square that controls a large number of other squares on the board, especially squares on the opponent’s side of the board. Therefore, you should always look to see if you can further develop a piece to an even more active square. Piece activity is strategic in nature rather than tactical because you’re looking at the piece in question and comparing it to the other pieces on the board. You’re looking at the big picture.

The intention of this article is to get you, the reader, to see the difference between strategies and tactics in its most basic form. I think of strategy as the job of army generals who sit behind their desks and look at the big picture while the grunts or soldiers have to put those plans into action, using tactics or simply put physical fighting. Speaking of fights, here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).