Three Strategic Concepts for Beginners

One of the most difficult ideas beginners must understand in order to improve is the concept of strategy. It’s difficult because it’s not as cut and dry as other forms of principled game play. With the opening principles, we know we have a specific goal to accomplish during the first ten to fifteen moves and a relatively easy (well, at least for more seasoned players) way to meet our goal. During the opening, we know that the three key tasks we must undertake to reach our goal of a sound opening game are controlling the board’s center early on with a pawn or two, developing our minor pieces towards the center and castling. We’re even given a list of things we don’t want to do such as making too many pawn moves, moving the same piece twice during the opening (unless absolutely necessary) and bringing our Queen out early. The point here is simple; we have an easy to grasp list of what to do and what not to do. The same holds true with middle-game play; further piece activation, tactics and good exchanges of material, and endgame play (pawn promotion, mating with specific pawn and/or piece combinations). However, the idea of strategy and maintaining a strategic plan throughout the game baffles our intrepid beginner. If you’re a beginner and you find yourself a bit in the dark when it comes to strategy, fret not because this concept alluded me for a long time (due to embarrassment, I won’t tell you how old I was when it finally sunk in, but I did have gray hair at the time). Let’s see if we can’t sort this out and shine a bright light on strategy and strategic thinking. It will help your game greatly.

Three words, actually concepts, can be employed during any phase within a game of chess and those words are material, safety and freedom. While these might be commonplace words to non chess players, they become important strategic ideas or concepts to those wishing to play quality chess. I use these three ideas when I introduce beginners to strategic thinking. However, before we delve into these three key concepts, lets start by defining the word “strategy” and compare it to the definition of “tactics.”

While seasoned players know the difference between strategy and tactics, many beginners don’t understand the difference which is critical to good chess playing. Strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a major or long-term goal. In military terms, strategy is the art of planning and directing the overall operations and movements of an army’s troops. It’s the greater plan used to win the battle. Tactics, on the other hand, are the methods employed or actions used to achieve a specific goal or plan. In a military example, the strategy might be to cut off the enemy’s supply line, forcing them to retreat or starve. However, the way in which you do so, such a as carefully orchestrated attack on the supply line itself, undertaken by special forces late at night when enemy security is at its weakest, is a tactical effort. The strategic plan that meets your goal (taking out the enemy supply line) is executed through a series of tactical efforts.

Now to our three key ideas or concepts, material, safety and freedom. These are ideas to keep in mind throughout the game, meaning they should be considered during the opening, middle and endgame, thus why they’re strategic in nature. These three things help you to maintain strategic goals from start to finish.

Material is just that! When we say material, we’re talking about the pawns and pieces. To see who has the material advantage or the larger army of pawns and pieces, we should always do a pawn and piece count throughout the game. Unlike a real army who might not miss a foot soldier or two, our chess army can be greatly weakened even when we have one or two fewer pawns (foot soldiers) than our opponent.

While experienced players know the relative values of the pawns and pieces and keep a constant tally of just how much material both players have, the beginner often doesn’t understand the idea of the relative value of material. When you can can add up the value of your forces with the ease of an accountant, you’ll always know where you stand, materially speaking!

Our foot soldiers, the pawns, have a relative value of one. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have a value of three each. The Rooks have a relative value of five, while the Queen has a relative value of nine. The King’s priceless! The value of the pawns and pieces are based on their power. Therefore, the Queen is your most powerful piece and your pawn the least valuable of your material. However, it should be noted that these values are relative which means they can fluctuate depending on their relationship to the position at hand. Pawns, for example, might start off the game with a relative value of one. Yet pawns, upon reaching the opposite side of the board, can promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop. Therefore. A pawn one square away from promotion is worth far more than one on its starting square!

You can compare pawns and pieces you’ve captured to those captured by your opponent and know where you stand, materially speaking. You can also add up the value of the pawns and pieces still on the board, both yours and those of your opponent. The bottom line, however, is that you should always know where you stand regarding material because this greatly effects the strategic decisions you make from one move to the next. I say this because strategic thinking and planning can change from move to move depending on what your opponent does. Your strategic thinking or planning should always be flexible because the game can change from one move to the next, meaning plans often have to change and change quickly.

Being able to put a value on the material on and off the board allows you know where you stand in regards to your planning. If you’re down a lot of material, you don’t want to sacrifice your Queen (unless of course it leads to checkmate). Remember though, just because you have more material than your opponent doesn’t mean you’re winning. You have to deliver checkmate to win the game! Having less material means you have to wisely use what you have left in the game. Knowing where you stand from a material viewpoint allows you to employ a smarter strategy, such as not throwing everything you have left at the opponent’s King but trying to use tactics to even the balance of material left in the game! When planning an attack, add up the values of the pawns and pieces being exchanged. The value of the material you capture should be greater than that of your opponent.

Now for safety. Safety really comes down to the position of both your pieces and those of your opponent! The most important piece regarding safety is the King! With your pawns and pieces, not including the King, you might lose some material but the game will continue (at least for a while). However, if you follow a few guidelines, you won’t lose pawns and pieces as easily. Since an attack from which the King cannot escape, checkmate, ends the game immediately, King safety is a crucial task from the game’s start to its finish. Kings who are left in the open are doomed to be checkmated. Therefore, castling is part of our overall game strategy, more specifically when and where to castle. The reason castling is such a fantastic idea is because our King is surrounded by pawns and pieces that keep the opposition from getting within striking distance (when done right).

With some openings, such as The Italian Opening, white has the opportunity to castle on move four. However, should white castle or continue building up forces in or around the board’s center? If the King is safe, castling can be delayed. You just don’t want to delay it until it’s too late. To know whether or not you’re reaching that point, you need to examine the opposition’s pawns and pieces and see if they’re making any threats. Doing this throughout the game has the added bonus of allowing you to see if any of your pawns and pieces are being attacked. All you have to do to determine your material’s safety, is to simply look at each opposition pawn and piece and see if it’s attacking anything of yours either immediately or in another move or two.

If you suddenly realize, after looking at your position, that there’s a great deal of material bearing down on a valuable piece such as the Queen, or worse yet, the King, you need to change your plans (your strategy) and fight off the assault. Of course, if, after every opposition move, you’re looking at each of your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see what threats they’re making, you’ll avoid being in this situation! This situation, being suddenly assaulted, is why you have to have a flexible strategy. A seemingly winning position can change violently against you in a matter of a few moves. Therefore, keep your strategy flexible. Beginners too often have rigid plans base on what they want their opponent to do, not what the opponent actually is doing which is employing their own plans.

Lastly let’s touch upon the concept of Freedom. If you had to spend twenty four hours in either a small box in which you could barely move or a large room with a comfortable couch and lots of room to move, which would you chose? The bigger space. You’re pieces feel the same way. They want and need room to move. There’s a term we use in chess to describe a pawn or piece’s room to move and that term is mobility!

In chess, freedom is mobility and pieces with no mobility might as well not be in the game! For a piece to be active, the key ingredient when it comes to attacking, it must be able to move to an active square and this requires mobility. Beginners tend to move pawns and pieces to awkward squares. By awkward squares, I mean squares, upon which moving a pawn or piece to, block in other pawns and pieces. This creates a traffic jam and, like real life traffic jams on the motorway or freeway, it takes time to extricate yourself from the problem. Time, especially at the start of the game, can work against you in the most vicious of ways. After all, the player who gains control of the board first can not only launch great attacks but keep their opponent from launching any attacks of their own. When considering a move, always check to see of moving a pawn or piece to your target square will hamper the efforts of your other pawns or pieces. Mobile pieces are happy pieces.

So keep these three ideas in mind when creating your game plans and you’ll be playing better chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Boris is a brilliant strategic planner!

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).