Beginner Chess Strategies: 3 Powerful Ways to Improve Your Game


A chess pawn in the ocean against a dramatic, cloudy sky.
Table of Contents

Jumping into the Ocean of Chess Strategy

When I first started playing chess, I had a very narrow view of strategy, and no knowledge of the fundamental beginner chess strategies. In my mind, I was either attacking my opponent’s king or he was attacking mine. This strategy worked fairly well among my friends.

However, there were times when my “Attack or Defend” strategy would not quite work. The position didn’t offer either of us a clear way to attack. Eventually, I discovered that if I was very careful, I would often be able to win material via a tactical shot or more likely, left a piece en prise (undefended) for me to scoop up.

Eventually, that stopped working as well as my opposition got better and better. Eventually, I found myself on the defending side of my “Attack or Defend” method a little too often.

What I realize now that my opponents had started to explore the deep ocean of beginner chess strategies, while I was just paddling around in my little pond in my back yard. Now, as I teach beginning players as well as playing against my children as they begin to learn chess, I see that they are often swimming in the same pond in the beginning.

In this article, I want to give beginning and novice players (and perhaps some intermediate players) a glimpse of the vast ocean of chess strategy. It can be quite beautiful, but also scary for the uninitiated.

Highlighted course

Grandmaster Gambits: 1. e4 - Part 1

Why is Chess a Game of Planning and Strategy?

Chess is a difficult game. As I moved up the levels, the opponents became tougher to beat and I had to add more depth to my own game.

Planning and strategy become much more important as one becomes a stronger player.

Planning is very important. It is not easy to achieve success in chess by playing one move at a time and hoping for the best. With a plan in place, I have something more substantial to aim for in the game.

Strategies are long-term plans. They can occur during any phase of the game and they are designed to gain an advantage over the opponent.

What are Different Chess Strategies?

There are lots of different chess strategies that can be used in our games.

For example, we could use strategies which involve:

  • Gain of space
  • Greater control over an important sector of the board
  • Exchanging our bad pieces for the opponent’s good pieces
  • Compromising the opponent’s pawn structure
This video is from the Mastering Chess Strategy course by GM Johan Hellsten

What is a Good Chess Strategy?

A good strategy is one which gives us a chance of gaining the advantage over the opponent. It should be sound, achievable and not too complicated.

It is important to realise that the opponent will have plans and strategies of their own and these will often cause us to adjust our plans and, in some cases, come up with something new.

Chess Strategies versus Tactics

It is important to understand the difference between tactics and strategy. We can consider tactics to be forced sequence of moves that lead to a specific objective – usually (but not always) a gain in material.

Consider the position below (from one of my recent games against National Master Barry Davis). In this particular game, White won material by force – I could not avoid it. This is tactics.

On the other hand, beginner chess strategies involve longer-term plans and maneuvers. As we shall see in the following games, the moves in these games are not forced by an immediate threat against the opposing king or massive loss of material.

Tactics and strategy exist together. Typically, tactics serve the long-term strategy involved in a particular position. However, at times, if one side makes a big enough tactical mistake, finding it is more important than any strategic elements available in the position.

To put it another way, although beginning players often miss tactics – or fall prey to tactics – I think one reason they do so is that they don’t have a plan or a strategy in the first place. Hopefully, this article will give you a few ideas to work with.

3 Beginner Chess Strategies

With all of this in mind, let’s look at a few strategies with examples.

#1 Creating and Attacking Weaknesses

One of the fundamental strategies in chess is attacking weaknesses. Often, this comes in the form of a weak pawn. Sometimes, your opponent creates these weaknesses by advancing a pawn or recapturing after an exchange. Strong players don’t wait for their opponents…they look for opportunities to create weaknesses.

How is this done? As we will see in the following two examples, it is often done using one of your own pawns to attack the pawn formation of your opponent. Whether your opponent tries to stop this or allows the pawns to be traded, what results is usually a backward pawn or an isolated pawn – both of which are often subject to attack. One thing to remember, which we will see in both of our examples, is that sometimes defending one weakness exposes other weaknesses. When this happens, you can often shift the target of your attack to win.

The minority attack is one of the most important beginner chess strategies to learn. Although this article won’t go in-depth on the minority attack, the following game demonstrates its potential. As mentioned, White’s pressure on c6 eventually leads to targets all over the board.

In the next example the legendary Viktor Korchnoi creates a weak pawn for his opponent. Although his opponent tries to counterattack actively, Korchnoi finds an opportunity to transform his positional advantage into a king hunt.

Remember the following about creating weaknesses:

  1. ABC-W’s (Always Be Creating Weaknesses for your opponent). Actively look for opportunities, particularly when your opponent provides a “hook” (by advancing a pawn).
  2. Remember that weaknesses often gives the owner of the weakness some compensation. For example, an isolated pawn has two open (or half-open) files next to it that the owner can take advantage of.
  3. Pawn weaknesses are important but always look for other opportunities that may arise when your opponent defends the weakness.

#2 Using Files and Diagonals

Our pieces need a path to get to where they need to go. This is rule 101 of beginner chess strategies. Often, our opening sequences will lead to specific files and diagonals being of specific importance. For example, the early …c5 thrust in the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5) will often lead to a half-open c-file upon which a lot of Black’s chances rely. Openings such as the Reti which creates a fianchetto of its king’s bishop (after initial moves Nf3, g3, and an eventual Bg2) often depend on using that long diagonal for its purposes.

As with creating weaknesses, we can wait for them to happen, or we can take the effort and forethought to create open lines for our pieces.

In our first example, the 3rd World Champion Alexander Alekhine takes control of the long diagonal a8-h1. Not only does he take control of it, but nearly every move he makes also contributes to keeping control and eventually using it to attack his opponent’s king.

In our next game, we see Hungarian grandmaster Istvan Csom create an open file using the h-pawn and then systematically and patiently put his major pieces on it. His opponent, who controls the a-file himself, is diverted away to protect other weaknesses. Csom then takes control of that file as well and using both the a-file and h-files for his major pieces, winning a beautiful game.

Here are some beginner chess strategies for creating and controlling open lines:

  1. Try to look ahead and see where a potential file and diagonal might get opened (if not open already).
  2. Get their first with your rooks (for open files) or bishops (for diagonals).
  3. Consider whether it is better to trade off your opponent’s pieces that contest the line or whether you should hold your ground and let them initiate the trades.
  4. Avoid opening lines if you think your opponent is in a better position to take advantage of it.

#3 Creating and Protecting Outposts

The final beginner chess strategy we’re going to cover today is the creation of an outpost for your knights. Although bishops can also use outposts, knights in particular need them to be effective. Why? Simply because bishops, rooks, and the queen have long-range mobility and can strike from afar.

Knights are very powerful also, as they can leap over obstacles. Their unique movement also can also catch opponents in deadly forks.

What is an outpost? An outpost is a square often (but now always) supported by a pawn that cannot be attacked by opposing pawns. The best outposts are on the 4th, 5th, and 6th ranks. Also, central outposts are often very powerful. Of course, an outpost is a good one if it is where the action is.

In our first example of beginner chess strategies, Grandmaster Judit Polgar demonstrates the creation of an outpost on d5. Her knight quickly occupies it and from that jumping off point she exchanges it to simplify into a winning endgame.

In that particular game, Polgar forced her opponent to isolate his d-pawn, which shows us that the square in front of isolated pawns are good outpost squares.

In the following example, the 3rd World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca uses a simple but powerful move, …h5, to secure the f5 square for his knight. Later in the game, Capa’s knight finds its way to an outpost on e4, remaining there for the rest of the game where it supports Black’s endgame plans.

Capablanca annotated this game in his book My Chess Career, and I’ve included his most insightful comments where noted.

As you can see from these two games, knights are very effective if they can operate from a strong outpost. Here are a few things to remember:

  1. Use pawn levers to divert or exchange opposing pawns to protect a potential outpost.
  2. Remember the technique of putting a pawn on h4/h5 (or a4/a5) to prevent opposing pawns from attacking an outpost.
  3. Outposts are only good if you can both occupy it and it is in a sector of a board where the knight can be useful.
  4. Remember that a knight doesn’t have to stay on the outpost forever. Sometimes, the outpost is just a stop along the way for the knight to attack or exchange itself advantageously (as in the Polgar game).

Beginner chess strategies

Learning strategy is a long journey that never ends. However, the longer you stay on the path, the more enjoyment and success you will experience in chess. This article is just a beginning. Here are a few ideas on how you can continue to improve your chess strategy:

  1. Strategy starts with the opening. Keep doing your Chessable repetitions and perhaps look at some repertoires written and commented on by strong players (like IM Christof Seilecki aka ChessExplained). As you study your openings, try to understand some of its key strategic elements.
  2. Study annotated games from some of the game’s best strategic masters. I recommend the games of Capablanca, Botvinnik, and Karpov. They have written books of their own games as well as their games being featured in books of other great authors.
  3. Read manuals on strategy to learn how to assess various positional elements such as pawn structure, king safety, bishop versus knight, and others. There are many good ones both classic and modern.
  4. Experiment with different styles and strategies. Some will suit you better than others.
  5. Play openings which lead to the types of positions you prefer. For example, if you prefer endgames and understand the strategies involving pawn majorities, try the Exchange Ruy Lopez.
  6. Tailor your plans and strategies for specific opponents. A sharp junior may not feel so happy with a long, drawn out battle, for example!
  7. Watch live games featuring strong players and try to work out what their respective strategies involve.
  8. Annotate your own games, paying particular attention to your planning. Did the plans work? If not, why not? Recurring errors can be spotted and eradicated.

The philosophy behind Chess Strategy

Now, in order to successfully apply the strategies above, you need to understand chess strategy, how it works, and what makes it work.

After learning how the pieces move and the goal of the game, you are ready to go and discover the infinity of chess. And that’s exactly what happens in your first game: you get thrown into a jungle of exponential possibilities. You know what’s possible (legal) to do, but have no clue of what you should actually do. You need a guide. Enter strategic principles.

Strategic principles are a set of rules that have proven to work over the course of thousands of years’ play. They allow you to understand what matters in a position and guide your decision-making at every move. Note that strategy should not be followed blindly. They aren’t ‘rules’, but they’re the guidelines that show what usually works. Strategy allows you to evaluate the position, assess it, and create a plan.

It tells you where you are, how well or badly you are doing, and which direction you should go in.

Strategic thinking takes into account the components of the position (material, activity, pawn structure, king safety, space, time) and analyzes how they blend and create the thread of the game. Depending on the source you’ll find more or less strategic aspects (and also subdivisions like dynamic and static) but those six can be considered universal.

Let’s take a look at them:


Material is the units on the board: the pieces and pawns you play with. They have the ability to move down the board and so, make the chess game happen. Material is the most present aspect of chess because it is tangible and because we relate with it in every move.

Chess is played with pieces and pawns

We are often taught that material has a value expressed in points. A queen is worth nine points, rooks are five, bishops and knights are three, and pawns are one.

The system is helpful to understand that usually, it’s not wise to trade a rook for a pawn. This is true in most cases, but not due to a point system, but because of the rook’s superior movement range (see the section on activity, below). So for beginners, the point system is great, but it has a shortcoming: it makes us think in materialistic terms.

As it’s possible to keep count of the material balance on the board, we become worried about it. As we progress and think in more complex ways about chess, we may find trouble breaking from the mental shackles of materialism which permeates our understanding of positions where other strategic aspects outweigh material.

Think of what the chess world would have lost if this Grandmaster had not been resistant to materialism in this game.


Activity is the capacity of our pieces and pawns to do things, to move ‘more’, and to attack the opponent’s pieces with their movement. This capacity of attacking means pieces and pawns can also capture (eliminate from the board) the opponent’s material. Similarly, their movement allows them to defend each other and so, collaborate to occupy a square.

Activity is the most relevant strategic principle because it gives real value to the material. A piece that can’t move is literally a wood figure. Activity is what makes chess dynamic, allows us to create threats, grab the initiative and build an attack.

A queen is by definition more ‘active’ than say, a bishop. In this case, being active means that it has greater mobility. Whereas a bishop can move only in one color complex, a queen can jump from one to the other and combine its diagonal movement with lateral and vertical.

All pieces perform at their maximum in the center of the board

We hold the queen in high regard because it controls 27 squares from the center of the board and 21 from a corner (in an empty board that is). That’s more than any other piece at its maximum. If you do the math for all the pieces, you’ll see that their activity is coherent with their ranking in the point system.

Another thing that distinguishes activity is the different personalities of the chess pieces. They all move differently. That means they adapt differently to different scenarios.

For example, bishops are long-range pieces that can control two sides of the board at the same time and can reach any spot of the board (within their color group) in no less than two moves. Knights are short-range pieces and can take up to 6 moves to go from one corner to the other. However, knights are not restricted by the color of the square and fare well in closed positions due to their ability to jump and switch routes, while in the same situation bishops suffer from hitting their own pawn structure.

Speaking of which…

Pawn structure

The pawn structure is the skeleton of every position and it shapes the nature of the game. It doesn’t tend to change abruptly and the activity of pieces is often determined by the pawn structure.

This is due to the nature of pawns in chess, which are rightfully separated from pieces. Pawns have a most limited movement than pieces, which makes it fair to have a larger amount of them. But in unity there is strength. As pawns are somewhat disposable, they do a fantastic job protecting each other as it’s usually not convenient to trade a piece (you have two of them) for one of the opponent’s pawns (they’ll still have as many as 7 pawns on the board).

A rook with no open files can do little, while a bishop on a good diagonal or a knight on an outpost can do much more for their army. Therefore, owing to a favorable pawn structure, a well-placed minor piece can be more valuable than the rook.

That’s why pawn chains determine the nature of the position, and why the most reliable method to transform the pawn structure is with pawn breaks.

But also, a weak pawn structure (meaning it leaves too many squares undefended) is easy to attack as its holes can be used by the opponent’s pieces. Usually, one pawn move is all that’s needed to damage a pawn structure. So, if as a result of trades you get a backward pawn (its adjacent pawns are advanced and can’t defend it), an isolated pawn (its adjacent pawns disappeared), or doubled pawns (its adjacent pawn has moved to its same file), you’re inevitably leaving a lot of weak squares around those pawns. Furthermore, the pawns themselves are weak.

But a pawn structure has the ability to influx dynamism into a position. For example, in this topical line from the Sicilian Sveshnikov, Black’s pawn structure is scattered as a result of the trade Bg5xf6 g7xf6, aimed to underline the weakness on d5, caused by the earlier advance e7-e5. Black’s f pawns are doubled so h6 and h5 are weakened, d6 is backward so the d5-knight stands marvelously.

However, this structure allows black to build an important central pawn mass, to challenge white’s presence in the center with pawn breaks on f5 and sometimes d5, and to use the g file to pressure whit’s kingside. So in this position, Black accepted a statically inferior position -as their pawn structure is not likely to get fixed- in exchange for dynamic chances -the bishop pair, active development, the outside a3-knight, and the question of where will the white king be safer.

Last but not least, the most relevant dynamic quality of pawns is not how they shape piece-play, but how they turn into pieces themselves. associated with the structure but with pawns themselves. A pawn reaching the 8th rank has the ability to promote to a piece, which is a game-breaker. This means that the farther advanced a pawn is, and especially if it’s a passed pawn (there are no enemy pawns standing in its way) the most dangerous it is.

Most games that don’t end up with checkmate, end when a pawn promotes and creates a decisive material advantage.

King safety

King safety is paramount. Checkmate ends the game, so all the ideas in a position go on hold when the King’s safety is compromised. Everything else is secondary. The main issue with king safety is the king’s limited movement. As it can move only one square each turn, it makes it hard to escape threats. So the king needs other pieces to protect it, or else it will probably be in danger. Hence, castling is advisable in the opening, to secure your king as soon as possible (and also to contribute to the development of rooks).

King safety is not only about having your king exposed. Although it isn’t usually the case, a castled king can be in the line of fire, while a king in the center of the board can be safe (as the one in the diagram below). Think of the endgame for instance. With fewer pieces to coordinate for a mating attack (still it happens from time to time) it’s safer to use the king as an active piece.

In this position from the game Nyback-Giri, Corus C 2009, Black just played Ke7-d6 blockading the dark squares and establishing a grip on e5. The position can’t be opened, so the king is safe in the center of the board. In fact, due to his superior minor piece and chances of attack in the queenside, black stands better and ended up winning. See the full game here.


Space in chess is how much room you have to accommodate your pieces, which usually depends on how advanced your pawns are in a given sector of the board.

It’s usually more comfortable to have more space, while having less space requires a more careful approach. However (as so often in chess) this strategic aspect is relative. A space advantage eases the creation of an attack but it also leaves weak squares that can prove difficult to defend during a counter-attack. Also, advanced pawns are more difficult to defend, so they become a target.

In the Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6) for example, White enjoys more space owing to their advanced pawns. However Black is happy as these advanced pawns can easily be attacked, and their advanced position leaves plenty of squares available for the Black pieces.


Time can be related to the time on a players’ clock to finish the game. But from a strategical point of view, time is the unit of measure in which moves happen. We count time on the board as ‘tempo’ (the amount of moves a knight on c3 needs to reach e4: one) and its plural is ‘tempi’.

However, the same knight on c3 is three tempi away from the neighboring square b3. A queen on a1 is one move away from f6. A pawn on a4 is 4 tempi away from queening. All pieces have different speeds. Time is the number of turns that our pieces need to get to where you want them to be. 

Time is often tied to the initiative, as a time advantage allows to create a flow of threats that puts the opponent on the back foot. With a time advantage, you can create threats before the opponent is well prepared to defend comfortably against them or to create their own. 

The contest between material and time is proverbial in chess strategy.

In this position, white gives an exchange and a pawn up 11.a3 Bxa3 12.Rxa3 Qc3 with the idea of 13.c5! leaving the black queen out of play. Notice that white has nothing concrete but his minor pieces are more active than the a8-rook in the game Aronian-Carlsen, Stavanger 2017. As the rooks need open files, the c8 bishop hasn’t a great future and the queen is misplaced on a3, it will take a few moves to fix all of that. So the plot of the game is whether white can use his lead in development before black can get his pieces into play and make his material advantage be felt. Hence, Time vs Material.

The game continued 13…b6 opening files for the rook 14.b4 Ne4?! exchanging pieces should favor the side with material advantage, but in this case, the f6-knight was black’s only well-placed (active) piece 15.Nxe4 dxe4 16.Bxe4 Rb8? 17.Bxh7+!? and white was able to use his time advantage to create an attack against the undefended black king. Notice that the line is not at all forced, but white had compensation in many variations as the black queen is a constant source of trouble and should the c6 pawn fall, the strong passer on c5 would more than compensate the exchange. In other words, Aronian sacrificed material for activity and opportunity (and psychological pressure) which he was able to exploit thanks to his time advantage. See the full game here.

The role of strategy in chess

Strategy helps you take the unsurmountable amount of chess possibilities and reduce it to a manageable cognitive load. So you don’t have to consider a2-a3 at every move, when that move has nothing to do with what is happening in the position.

Remember though, that doesn’t mean a2-a3 is not a good move. Sometimes, understanding the position will indicate to you why that move should be made. But it’s also what separates us from computers. As computers calculate every move in the board and then evaluate which one yields the best results, we use a set of thinking rules to find the few moves that make the most sense and calculate from there to try to come up with the best one. Learn more about computer chess.

Thinking in strategical terms is what differentiates chess players from people moving figures of wood down the board. It’s the key to chess mastery.

A word about tactics

Here it’s important to mention tactics. Tactics and strategy are often seen as opposites, like fire and ice.

In fact, they go together, always. If strategy tells you where to look, tactics are the flashlight that allows you to see the right path.

So the position requires a pawn break on the queenside. Thanks, strategy! But how to execute it? There are many possibilities. Black can exchange on b4 first and then on c5. Or maybe directly on c5. But also you have to take care of the opponent’s own intentions on the kingside…

Only tactics have the right answer. You need to calculate and see how to get to what’s strategically desirable, through the right tactical path.

Tactics build on strategy, so a good strategy creates the potential for winning tactics. In a way, tactics execute strategy or the short solution to a strategic weakness. So it’s better to think of them as two sides of the same coin.

Strategic principles

At this point, you’ll be familiar with the three basic principles of chess openings: control the center, develop your pieces and get your King into safety (in case you are not, here’s a reminder). Well, these are pretty much strategic principles for the whole game of chess.

The reason why is that they are extensions of key strategic concepts like activity and safety.

Think about it. In chess, you have an army under your command. To deliver checkmate, you need to attack your opponent. And to create a successful attack, you need to have control of the terrain, meaning the center of the board. From there, pieces perform at their maximum and can influence any sector of the board.

Secondly, you have to actually get your units into action. So it’s not only about developing, but doing it efficiently. That means, towards the center.

Third, the king. Castling gets your king into safety because the central files are prone to get opened, since the fight for the center often results in exchanges, and a king in the center can be hit by both sides. But castling is also a developing move because it connects your rooks and prepares them to move to a central file so they can help their army.

If you follow those principles (and don’t blunder material) you should make it to the middlegame. There, things become more complex. It’s no longer good enough to simply follow a set of guidelines. With all the pieces actively playing and action going on in several sectors of the board, it’s impossible to reduce good play to a formula.

And that’s the beauty in chess. Here is where you can showcase your personality and express it through chess, making your ideas come to life and finding unique solutions to the problems you’re faced with.

Having said that, following strategic principles (not rules!) will help you make the right decisions when confronted with a big question. So, here are some important strategic tips for beginners:

Coordinate your pieces to attack a weak point

Or more simply, coordinate your pieces.

Again, in union there is strength. The chessboard can sometimes seem chaotic with many things happening at the same time, but in chess nothing is casual. Coordination is such a basic principle that even a queen, the most powerful piece on the board, can’t checkmate a lone king without help. In the king + queen vs king endgame, the coordination of K+Q is essential to deliver mate.

The same principle applies in every other situation. No attack succeeds with the presence of only one piece. So, coordinate your pieces! Queens and bishops coordinate on diagonals; rooks and knights coordinate excellently to attack a naked king; and queen and knight are one of the deadliest piece combos (they contain the movement of all pieces!), especially in the endgame.

Coordination can also be seen as harmony between pieces. All pieces should cooperate towards the same goal, whether it’s attacking the king or a weak pawn.

The Fegatello attack, also known as the Fried Liver Attack

In this well-known position from the Two Knights defense White’s pieces are coordinating against the f7 point (although it may not be so evident yet). The coordination allows the hit 6.Nxf7! Kxf7 7.Qf3+ also attacking the d5-Knight 7…Ke6 8.Nc3! putting more pressure on d5. 8…Nce7 9.d4! opening the position so the rooks can join the attack after White castles. White is winning as any engine will tell you.

In this case, there was a nice geometry between the weak spots on f7 and d5. Interestingly, this is also an example of activity triumphing over material (Black’s extra knight can’t help the defense as all their pieces are still on their starting squares), and king safety.

Another important aspect of coordination is having your pieces protect each other. Loose pieces drop off, as Grandmaster John Nunn says. An unprotected piece can decide the outcome of a game due to a simple tactic. This is more evident in endgames though, but better safe than sorry.

Exchange smartly

What matters is never what leaves the board, but what stays on it. Here are some more guidelines to exchanging with purpose!

Avoid exchanging your active pieces. They are doing good work. A powerful rook terrorizing pawns in the seventh rank is not worth trading for that defensive rock that has barely seen the light of day. Keep it on! Unless it’s absolutely necessary or convenient, trading would only be making your opponent’s life easier.

Avoid exchanging pieces when you are attacking. You can’t mate if you haven’t got any pieces left. With every trade, your firepower diminishes. So unless you are eliminating an important defender, exchanging pieces during an attack is not advisable. Similarly, exchanging pawns in the sector you’re attacking is almost always desirable as it opens lines for your piece’s influence. This point is an extension of the previous one, as attacking usually comes from a position of activity.

Avoid exchanging pieces when you have more space. The simple logic here is that your opponent will have less space and eight pieces have a tougher time cohabitating, whereas six might be easier to accommodate.

Avoid exchanging pieces when you are material down. This logic is also simple enough: it’s easier to win a 2 vs 1 fight, than 14 vs 13. If you lose a bishop, you still have six pieces to try to create something. But exchanging pieces will only increase the effect of your opponent’s extra bishop.

Think very well about trades that transform the pawn structure (both pieces and pawn trades). Transformations to the pawn structure can’t be reversed, so what was important before may not be quite as telling in the new pawn structure. You should never go into a trade that will transform the pawn structure without first having a good think about how it will affect the position. 

For all the previous, the opposite is true if you’re on the other side of the board. You should happily exchange pieces when the opponent is active, you are being attacked, or have less space. 

And the last one: If you are down material, you don’t want to trade pieces, since that diminishes your firepower. Instead, try to play active and create problems for your opponent. And if you are in the endgame, aim to exchange pawns. Pawns are the main winning asset in the endgame, so with every pawn trade, your salvation margin grows bigger.

Don’t move pawns unnecessarily

This is the easiest strategic mistake to make. Even Grandmasters do it! You’ll see, pawns are special units in chess. Their range is the most limited, that’s why they’re generally considered the least valuable. However, they outnumber pieces, which makes them somewhat spareable. So, a pawn for bishop trade is bad, because one side will remain with seven pawns, while no other piece can replace the bishop’s action in a color complex.

So, when pawns are together on the board they make that part of the board less accessible to the opponent. That’s because, while they are compact, they are difficult to attack. But, crucially, when a pawn moves, it cannot move back. That means the squares that pawn defended are now defenseless (by that pawn) forever. So you should consider very carefully your pawn moves.

A weak square can be used to infiltrate the opponent’s position and establish an outpost (a dominant square from which a piece can’t be expelled). So think well before moving a pawn.

Short – Timman, Tilburg 1991

In this famous example, f6 is an outpost for the white queen. Black weakened his kingside too much and now he’s missing his dark-square bishop.  Therefore, Short was able to play the beautiful 32.Kg3! Rce8 33.Kf4!! Bc8 34.Kg5! and Timman resigned in view of 34…Bxd7 35.Kh6 or 34…Kh7 35.Qxg6+ Kh8 36.Qh6+ Kg8 37.Kf6 with mate on g7 in both cases. See the full game here.

Improve your worst piece

There will always be a piece that is not actively contributing to the fight. Either it got stuck on an area of the board where it doesn’t help its army, or the circumstances of the board work against its prospects.

You should always be conscious of such pieces and try to bring them back to the game.

Karpov – Spassky, Candidates match 1974

In this example, White’s knight on c3 looks OK, but it’s actually not doing anything at all on that square, as the pawn structure avoids its activation. So Karpov played 24.Nb1! with the idea of retaking on d2 with the knight, and looking for greener lands via f3 or b3-c5. See the full game here.

Sometimes, rerouting your bad piece is just not possible. In those cases, you should try to exchange it. Think of Black’s bad bishop in the French defense, which is often traded via a6.

Don’t get greedy

It’s easy to go out of your way for a pawn but, is it really worth it?

Make no mistake, being a pawn up is a significant advantage in chess, all other things being equal. But never go blindly through the numbers. It’s easier to play a positional advantage, than a material advantage with compensation. Remember that

Activity is the real deal

Material helps us guide ourselves as it’s the only constant in the chessboard. However, what really matters is activity. Activity is the value of your material, in this position an entire army can’t do anything while a single pawn wins the game.

This is one of the most difficult concepts to handle in chess. Since it’s not tangible, it’s not as intuitive as material.

Once you understand that activity triumphs material, the game of chess grows to larger dimensions, and what’s possible is expanded. Consider the Morphy game below.

Always create threats

It’s better to act than to react. When you put your opponents under pressure you force them to find concrete answers to the problems you pose. An opponent under pressure burns time and has more chances to make a mistake. So you should always try to attack, attacking is the way of winning at chess. As an old adage says, ‘threat is stronger than its execution.

Take the famous Opera game by Paul Morphy for instance. Almost all of his moves created a threat, even developing moves!

Final words about master’s chess strategy

All the above is true in 99% of chess positions. However, nowadays it is easy to go online and see the best players in the world happily breaking all of these rules. The reason for this is that the opposite is not true 99% of the time. Take this position where all the rules are broken after the moves:

1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nb4 6.Bc4 Nd3+ 7.Ke2 Nf4+ 8.Kf1 Nd3 9.Qe2 Nxc1 10.Rxc1

The truth is that there is an important strategic battle going on here, with White betting on their superior development to compensate for their misplaced king. Black however expects to use his bishop pair in the future and has a better pawn structure. This is the kind of strategic struggle that occupies the world elite these days. Here you can see how two world top Grandmasters treat this position.

But before getting into all of this, you need to master strategy the classical way. Here are some resources you might find useful.

I hope this article was helpful to you and that these beginner chess strategies will help you win more games. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends. Chessable is here to aid you on your path to chess improvement. Until next time, I wish you the best of luck in that journey.

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