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Square One: The Chess Principles You Need to Start Winning

Jarell Cheong
9 min read
Square One: The Chess Principles You Need to Start Winning

Table of Contents

Chess is seen as a game of strategy. A mental battle between two genius minds. A reflection of one's thinking ability. But if you ever played it yourself, you'd know that chess has nothing to do with IQ.

There are \(10^{10^{50}}\) ways a game can play out. Each possesses its own trove of ideas, and the masters are just the players that remember the most patterns.

Magnus Carlsen is a notable world champion that exemplifies this, recalling positions from past tournaments with ease. And when Carlsen takes to the board, he harnesses the wisdom of his predecessors.

But memorizing the annals of chess is an unrealistic solution. Internalize principles instead.

Chess principles are heuristics about the game developed from human experience. If patterns are files, principles are the ZIPs that contain them. It suffices to download the ZIP.

There are three phases in a game of chess: opening, middlegame, and endgame. I'll describe each phase in detail before providing phase-specific principles. Then, I discuss general principles pertaining to tactics and strategy. And at the end, I've included a model game to make things concrete.

The next time you push wood, here's how you apply principles to formulate a plan.

The Opening

The opening starts when the game starts and it ends when most of the pieces are out of their starting squares.

Notice the vague description? The definition of what constitutes the opening is subjective because each game is different. In contrast, opening principles don't change.

Control the center. The four central squares are the high ground in chess. Dominate them, and your army will be advantaged in any battle. Forgo them, and you'll be susceptible to brutal attacks.

Aim to advance both center pawns forward, and support them with knights and bishops. Since good players will look to stop you, don't make their mission easier by moving your pieces to the edge. After all, a knight on the rim is dim.

Develop your pieces. To influence the outcome of the game, chess pieces need to be coaxed out of their initial positions. This is known as developing.

In the race to develop, every move matters, so don't move pieces twice. And for optimal pacing, develop the bishops and knights before the rooks and queen. The latter are more valuable and have to flee when threatened by the former.  

Get castled. The king is a weakness by virtue of his importance. If enemy troops trap your king in the center, that's checkmate. To avoid a swift game over, get your king out of the action by castling.

Castling places your king behind a wall of pawns, something that's impossible when you leave His Majesty in the center. Don't squander this benefit by pushing those pawns as well.

The Middlegame

The middlegame starts when the opening ends. It ends when checkmate is delivered or when most pieces are exchanged off.

You're entering the most enigmatic of the three phases. Middlegames are avenues for novel exploration — there are often many promising variations. But it's still good to have a compass.

Improve your pieces. Once your legion is developed, the natural next step is to march each soldier towards greener pastures. With every piece you enhance, you boost the probability that future attacks succeed. Entire games have been won on the back of a single monster piece.

Rooks belong on open files, and bishops crave long diagonals. The queen just wants to be where the main fight is, while knights get ten times stronger on outposts: defended squares deep in the enemy position. Make your pieces happy, and they'll do the same for you.

Start an attack. To win, it's necessary to provoke your opponent into making mistakes. Attacking is the clearest way to do this, but you need to decide on its location. Kingside or queenside?

If you go for the jugular, it's worth sacrificing pieces to remove key defenders and administer checkmate. But if you're subverting enemy expectations by invading the other side, don't give up pieces willy-nilly since the goal now is to win material.

Trade wisely. Think of your pieces as chessboard currency. The queen is worth $9, and the rook is valued at $5. Bishops and knights both cost $3, while the humble pawn only merits $1.

Each piece exchange is a transaction — it's your job to at least break even. Don't trade a knight for a pawn or your queen for a rook. But when the numbers concur, embrace the resulting material imbalance. It's fine to get three pawns for a bishop or two rooks for the queen.

The Endgame

The endgame is the final frontier. Very few pieces remain, changing the rules in unintuitive ways.

While inspiring middlegame players are praised for their creative attacks, legendary endgame players impress with their surgical-like talent at massaging a win out of nothing.

Activate the king. Forget everything I said about kings before. At this stage, the king is a strength despite his importance. With so few troops left, you'll need all the help you can get. As soon as queens are off the board, rush your king to the center.

Kings can no longer be checkmated, so why not let them in on the fun? As pieces are exchanged into oblivion, king position appreciates in value. And in many positions, where your king is placed can even be decisive.

Attack weak pawns. A subtle consequence of the endgame: pawns become sitting ducks. With the pieces guarding them starting to wear thin, it's time to target the enemy pawns instead of their monarch.

If exploited correctly, you'd only need one piece to wipe out an entire chain of pawns. The key is to attack the base: the pawn not defended by other pawns. Place your rook on the seventh/second rank, or burrow your king deep into enemy territory. Once you know your focus, the attacking moves become obvious.

Push passed pawns. You no longer have the forces to checkmate. All your problems would be solved if only you had your queen back. Somehow, this is possible.

A pawn is passed if there are no opposing pawns to prevent it from advancing all the way. And passed pawns are meant to be pushed. Escort them with the king, or place rooks behind them. Do whatever it takes to get your new queen, because once you do, checkmate becomes an afterthought.

Tactical Vision

Richard Teichmann once said that chess is 99% tactics. I agree.

Tactics are forcing sequences that result in tangible gain. Any move that checks, captures, or threatens a larger piece with a smaller one constitutes a tactic. And tactical moves should be found before all else.

Stop hanging pieces. Leaving your pieces hanging is the dumbest way to lose. Every member of your army is valuable — even if you go one pawn down, your opponent has a winning position come the endgame.

But not giving away "free pieces" is easier said than done. Humans make mistakes, and even the best players have blundered their queen on occasion. The antidote is practice: train your awareness for possible captures. Soon enough, you'll be the one gobbling up loose pieces instead.

Use forks and pins. When your opponents stop leaving pieces "en prise," employ tactical motifs to induce further material loss. A fork exploits their inability to protect against two threats at once, while a pin abuses a piece that's unable to legally move.

So if you hit both enemy royals with your knight, your opponent has to turn tail with the king and let you win the queen. Or if you menace an enemy knight that's pinned to the king, the noble steed can't run away. These opportunities are abundant. Don't let them go to waste.

Look ahead. Most newbies hope that their opponents will make mistakes. A better approach is rigorous calculation. When you analyze the best responses for both sides multiple moves deep, you predict the future.

Think during your opponent's time. Find possible moves you would make in their position and plan your responses to each one. Always assume that if you can find a good move, they can too. Because if you have an adequate counter to the best moves, you'll be unstoppable.

Strategic Insight

On conventional warfare, Sun Tzu remarked that "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." This applies to wars over the board as well.

Strategy is the aspect of chess concerned with long-term plans. Although tactics define the outcome of the game, strategy allows these shots to happen in the first place. It pays off to familiarize yourself with the basics.

Follow the pawns. Pawns are the weakest units in chess. But this fact is the genesis of their superpower: pieces have to play by their rules. No piece wants to give itself up for a pawn, so pawn structures are hard to change. Pieces dictate the combat, but pawns describe the battlefield.

Observing pawn formations can tell you a lot about the direction the game is headed. A chain pointed to the enemy king signals the possibility of a kingside attack. Doubled pawns create open lines for your rooks and queen. Figure out the pros and cons of your structure to come up with solid continuations.

Gain space. When you acquire breathing room, pieces are granted better squares. And when you restrict enemy territory, their forces can't coordinate with harmony. Such is the imbalance of space.

Play with the intent to suffocate. Push pawns to chase away intruding pieces. Ensnare knights at the edge of the board using bishops. Corner the queen with a combination of rooks and pawns. In a desperate attempt to break free, your opponent will make questionable decisions. That's when you pounce.

Be prophylactic. Prophylaxis means preventing your opponent from executing their plans. Doing so has the added benefit of annoying the emotional human foe sitting across the board.

Of course, your own plans take priority. But if you can make moves that sabotage the opposition at the same time, why not? Are they trying to castle? Or are they trying to occupy juicy squares? Throw a spanner in their scheme before they do the same to yours.

Concepts in Action

Classics are games played by the masters of old. Within them, you find evidence for the principles peppered throughout. And be it Morphy in the 17th century or Fischer in the 20th, learning vintage chess exposes you to techniques in their simplest form.

As you approach the interactive chessboard below, it helps to go through the game more than once. First, sit back, press play, and enjoy. Then, use the arrow keys to navigate at a slower pace as you hypothesize about the intention behind each move. Get familiar before you get thinking.

I give you Capablanca vs. Tartakower.

In my analysis, I hope to draw your attention to the following prominent themes.

Exchange for freedom. By move nine, White holds more space with a central pawn phalanx on d4 and c4. In response, Black plays his knight to e4, inviting piece trades on e7 and c3. When the mist clears, fewer pieces remain, so fewer pieces are cramped.

Seek pawn breaks. After White's thirteenth move, Black plays Nc6, aiming for the pawn break e5. If this is allowed, Black's rooks would spring to life on the e-file. Thus, White is forced to shift his queen to h3 and thrust with f4, clamping down on e5.

Defend actively. When White penetrates with Rh7 on move thirty, Black needs to tread with caution. The pawn on c7 is under pressure, and White expects to advance his kingside majority. But rather than turtling, Black counterpunches by hitting White's queenside pawns.

Find two weaknesses. At the forty-fifth turn, Black is able to halt the promotion of White's passed pawn on g7 without too much trouble. But after the White king darts to the queenside, gobbling up the d5 pawn in the process, another passed pawn is created. Black's king can't stop both.

This game contains many more instructive lessons. I leave them for you to discover.

How to Improve

Principles aren't the be-all and end-all of chess. But for the rules to be broken, they must first be understood. What comes next is consistent drills to make them routine.

Chess improvement isn't complicated. One training cycle I know to work goes as follows:

  1. Play a ten minute game on Lichess.
  2. Win, lose, or draw, analyze the game with an engine.
  3. List one specific aspect that needs to be improved.
  4. Play the next game, keeping this one aspect in mind.
  5. Rinse and repeat.

With this process, you accumulate small one percent progress each time you put your skills to the test. Your tactical sense will sharpen. Your operations will be rooted in firm strategical foundations. You'll develop an intuition for the correct move that lets you "play by hand."

And even if you're not quite up for the task of overthrowing the world champion just yet, chess is one of the best creative sandboxes there is. You won't win every game, but you'll get the rare chance to strangle like a boa constrictor or raid like a barbarian, all within the confines of 64 squares.

The clock is ticking. It's your move.

Jarell Cheong

I'm Jarell, a student at Harvard University. I write about mathematics, focusing, in particular, on probability and games.