When to Follow General Principles and When to Ignore Them

“It is the aim of the modern school, not to treat every position according to one general law, but according to the principle inherent in the position”

-Richard Reti

When we start learning chess, we are often given general principles or “rules of thumb” to follow. Here are an example of some general principles we may have learned along the way:

  • In the opening, we should control the center, develop our pieces, and castle fairly early.
  • Don’t move a piece more than once in the first ten moves.
  • In the endgame, your rook should be behind passed pawns, both yours and your opponents.
  • A knight on the rim is dim.
  • When ahead in material, trade pieces but not pawns.
  • When behind in material, trade pawns but not pieces.

You get the idea.

These are very useful in our decision making process because they give us a short-cut and help to speed up decisions. They also give us a means to make evaluations within our positions. All-in-all, it is good to learn these.

However, there are times and situations where general principles should be ignored or at least verified through concrete analysis and calculation. Especially as we get stronger as players, it is important to discern when we should follow specific general principles and when it is correct to deviate.

How do we know when we should do this? Admittedly, I think most of it comes from experience and study. However, here are a few ideas that you can consider during and after your games.

  • When the position offers several viable moves with outcomes resulting in similar evaluations – e.g. one path is not clearly better than another – then following general principles can often provide us with a path to follow.
  • The more critical a position is – the more uneven the evaluations between the best moves and less-good moves – then the more one should rely on concrete analysis.
  • When you have a clear plan that can be backed up by concrete variations that leads to a clear advantage, it is often safe to ignore general principles.
  • After your games, evaluate your decisions. Did you make decisions based on general principles that didn’t apply to that specific situation? Analyze whether your conception of the position was incorrect – e.g. you used the wrong principles to evaluate – or whether you miscalculated – e.g. the principles were correct, but you made an error in calculating the resulting position.
  • Did you make decisions based on concrete variations that would have been better evaluated based on general principles? For example, quiet positions that may require deeper understanding of the positional elements but not necessarily the calculation of forced moves (since there aren’t many).
  • In your opening repertoire, do you select openings that have clear plans and can be played successfully based on general understanding and principles? Or do you play openings that require a lot of memorization and specific moves that don’t necessarily follow general principles? Understanding this is very important to selecting and studying your openings.

To illustrate these points, I’d like to share a game that I think balances the following and use of general principles as well as the selective (and timely) ignoring of such principles.

In the game below, Capablanca aggressively strikes out against his opponent, weakening his own pawn structure while his king remains in the center. However, as we see in the game, it is all part of a grand plan. His opponent, Aron Nimzowitsch, allows an opposite color bishop endgame that general principles lead him to believe he could hold, but Capablanca’s grasp of the specific nature of the position leads him to victory.

In closing, please understand that I believe general principles are very useful and essential. However, we must understand the “when” and “why” of their use and be willing to go against them when the specifics of the position call for it.

Enjoy the game!

Bryan Castro

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About Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman and writer from Buffalo, NY. When he's not spending time with his family or working, he can be found playing chess or practicing martial arts. He combines his interests of personal development and chess on his site Better Chess Training (betterchesstraining.com).