What is Strategy in Chess? – A Simple Overview

As you come across various chess books and talk with other chess players, you will hear certain words such as ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ being casually flung around. You may think you know what these words mean, but it is quite likely that you don’t understand the precise meaning of them, and what they are telling you about a position or game. In my glossary of chess terms, I have explained all of the jargon used in my posts, but the two aforementioned words require further explanation. The first question I am going to answer is: What is Strategy in Chess? and then: What is the difference between tactics and strategy?

The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics

A commonly held misconception is that the difference between the master and the club player is the ability to see ahead many moves. Some even go as far as to say some 20 moves ahead. While it is indeed an important part of chess, calculating concrete lengthy variations is not necessary in many positions. A more abstract approach can be taken, by evaluating certain positional elements and formulating a plan. This is called ‘strategy’. The ability to do this well comes with familiarity of master games and analysing your losses.

The term ‘tactics’ is referring to the means through which a player brings about an immediate change in the evaluation of the position. There is a vast array of tactical patterns, which can be applied to particular positions, for example the fork which often wins the ‘exchange’ (a rook for a minor piece). This winning of material can often be enough to win a game at a competetive level. Of course tactics can lead to other winning positions, such as checkmate combinations, which win on the spot, and (for example) the creation of a passed pawn, which wil lead to a win through typical means.

Here are the main features of strategy.

  1. The relative value of the pieces
  2. Pawn structure and pawn weaknesses
  3. Coordination of the pieces
  4. Opposite side castling and pawn storms
  5. Time and space

A Thematic Sacrifice – A Tactical Breakthrough

In the position below, there is a tactical motif, which allows white to obtain a winning posiiton immediately.

White to move

The move 1. Nxg5! punishes black’s weakening move. If black doesn’t take the knight, then white has proven black to be wrong, won a healthy pawn and destroyed black’s king safety. If …hxg5 The obvious move, then 2. Bxg5 and white has a horrible pin on the black knight. Black cannot move the queen, because his knight will drop. In the game, 2… Kg7 was tried. Here 3. e5 was very unpleasant for black. Play continued 3… Rg8 4. Bxf6+ Kf8 The question that arises here is: Should white take the queen?

Here we have to calculate.

5. Bxd8 Rxg2+ It seems like black has a perpetual check, by sliding the rook back and forth along the second rank. This would indeed be the case if it wasn’t for our queen on e2. 6. Kh1 Rxf2+ (other moves are inferior, for example any vertical rook move like 6… Rg3+ can be met by 7.f3 shutting out the bishop. White is simply a whole queen and some pawns up) 7. Kg1 Rxe2 (7…Rg2+ is not possible, because of 8. Qxg2) 8. Bxe2 Let’s count up the pieces. White has 2 bishops and 2 rooks. Black has a bishop, a knight and a rook.

Therefore white is a whole rook up, and will go on to win, so we can take the queen on d8. Although the thought of losing your queen on e2 can be scary, you have to step back and count up the pieces. If you yourself are winning their queen, then you should still be calculating this variation – In this case it turns out to be white’s fastest way to obatin a completely winning position.

Winning by Superior Strategy

This was a game between Nimzowitsch and von Scheve (1907). We can still learn a lot from old games, as the strategical principles are still of value today. In the position below, neither side has a knockout blow, but the strategies chosen will determine the course of the game.

Black opted for the aggressive 13… g5 which aims to generate some sort of attack on the kingside. This would be a suitable plan, if white was not able to open up the centre. There is a general maxim ‘A wing attack is doomed to fail if the centre is not closed’. This can be applied here. Let’s see how the game continued. 14. Be1 g4 Continuing with the original plan of a wing attack. 15. Ne5 Bxe5 Other options are similarly unpleasant for black.

  •  15… Nxe5 16. dxe5 (16… Bxe5 is problematic after 17. Bxe4 and black’s centre will fall apart.) Nxc3 17. Bc3 Bg7 18. cxd5 exd5 19. Qb3 White has 2 strong bishops and pressure against black’s king position.
  • 15… Nxc3 16. Bxc3 (16… dxc4 17. Bxc4 and white has permanent pressure on e6) Nxe5 17. dxe5 Bg7 Lands in the same position as above, by transposition of moves.

 16. dxe5 Ng5 17. Ne2 Qe8 18. Bc3 dxc4 19. Bxc4 e6 will be a permanent target for white now. Bd7 20. Nf4

Let’s evaluate this position. Black’s attack on the kingside has fizzled out into nothing. Black would like to have his queen involved in the attack, on a square like h4, but his queen is tied down to the passive role of defending the d7 bishop. Black’s e6 pawn is a permanent backwards pawn and a weakness that must always be defended. White has complete control of the d-file, the bishop pair aimed towards the black king, and a strong knight on f4, which plays both a defensive and offensive role. It is clear to see that white has a much better position than black does. The original position was roughly equal, therefore we can conclude that black has chosen a faulty strategical plan.

In the original position, the best plan to play for an equal position was 13… Qd6

  • If White continues 14. cxd4 exd4 15. Qb3 Rd8 black is equal; he will move his c6 knight (to e7) and play c6 cementing his d5 pawn.
  • If White continues 14. Ne2 Since white’s knight is not controlling the central squares any more, black can try: g5 15. Bxe4 dxe4 16. Ne5 Bxe5 17. dxe5 (A gross mistake would be 17… Qxe5?? 18. Bc3 wins the queen.) Qd3 With an approximately equal position.

The Relative Value of the Pieces


Of course the value of the different pieces depends conpletely on the posiiton they take on the chess board. For example a bad bishop, which is hemmed in by many pawns will be much less valuable than a good bishop, which is free to move across the whole board. A typical example of this situation is the French defence (opening). They say that black has a bad ‘French Bishop’ – It is always the same bishop that is bad in this opening, because of the pawn structure that defines it.

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bd7 6. Bd3 Qb6 

White’s light squared bishop is much better than black’s light squared bishop. This can be explained by considering the pawn structure. White’s pawns are on dark squares (i.e. c3, d4, e5), whereas black’s pawns are on light squares (i.e. f7, e6, d5), and this restricts the mobility of the black bishop on e7. The bishop can’t go anywhere if pawns are in the way. This brings us onto a more general rule: A bishop is a good piece if allied pawns are on the opposite colour to the squares that it travels along. In this example the bishop travels along light squares, so it would like allied pawns to be on dark squares. Since this is not the case, this bishop is a bad piece.

In the French defense, black has 2 main ways of dealing with the bad bishop:

  1. Playing an early b6 and Ba6 to trade off the light squared bishops.
  2. Bringing the bishop outside of the pawn chain via Bd7, Be8, Bh5.

In my game against Manvith Sandhi (125 ECF), I employed plan #1 and obtained an equal position out of the opening.

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Bd3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. Nf3 Be7 6. 0-0 0-0 7. Be3 b6 8. Nbd2 Ba6 9. Qe2 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 c5


In the centre of the board, the knight has control of 8 squares. On the edge it has control of only 4 squares. There is a saying: ‘knights on the rim are dim’ and more often than not this is true. From the centre, the knight has not yet commited to attacking one area of the board, and there is more flexibility. Tarrasch made the sweeping claim that ‘The best squares for the knights are the c3, c6, f3 and f6 squares’ This rule should not be taken as a definite truth, but there is a lot to be said for it. On the aforementioned squares, the knights are controlling the 4 central squares (e4, d4, e5, d5), which are of paramount importance to any opening. Another point he is making is that on the squares g3, g6, b3, b6 the knight only has control of 6 squares, and of these 6, only 1 square is in the centre. Remember that central control is an important opening principle.

In the middlegame, you want to find an outpost for your knight. An outpost is a square that cannot be controlled by enemy pawns. The idea behind this is that you can cement your knight there, and short of swapping your knight off altogether, they are not going be able to get rid of your well positioned piece. Here is an example, white has just played 10. Ne5

White has a lovely knight on e5, an outpost, because both the d and f pawns are unable to kick the knight away. The only way to get rid of the knight is by swapping it off. This knight caused black some problems here. Play continued: 10… c5 11. h4! A strong attacking move. Nfd7 (The natural 11… Nbd7 loses a pawn) 12. Ndf3 Nxe5 13. Nxe5 

Just as you get rid of one knight, the other one takes its place! Black has to make a decision now. Either allow the knight to stay where it is for a while. Taking the knight leaves white’s dark squared bishop uncontested, and leaves the f6, g7 and h6 squares as weaknesses, so I would be reluctant to play that. The game continued 13… Bf6 14. Bh6 Re8 15. h5! g5 Black must try to keep the position closed. 16. f4 trying to open it up. Nd7 17. Bb5! Pinning the knight. Bxe5 18. dxe5 g4 19. Bc6 White has a large advantage here, and went on to win.

So we saw from this example that a strong outpost for your knight can be enough to win the game. The well placed knight restricts your opponent’s pieces, and can be the basis for an attack. If your opponent has to make unfavourable exchanges, in this case losing the dark squared bishop, then you have proven that it is the right strategical plan to position your knight on such a square. I am not going to talk about rooks and queens, because they need to be treated differently, and are the content for another post.

Approximate Relative Values of the Pieces

It is not possible to assign intrinsic values of the pieces, because it depends hugely on the position of them. For example someone might make an ‘exchange sacrifice’. Trading a rook for a minor piece. This is done, because they believe that their rook is worth less than the piece it is capturing. As a rough guideline, you can use these values:

  • Queen = 9
  • Rook = 5
  • Bishop/ knight = 3
  • Pawn = 1

Of course the king is not assigned a value, because he is priceless. Lose him and you lose the game! From these values above, we can conclude that 3 pawns is usually sufficient compensation for a piece, and that a rook and a pawn is usually about equal to a bishop and knight (normally the rook is better in the endgame, but the 2 minor pieces are better in the middlegame). The 2 rooks are supposed to be stronger than the queen, but in practice I have found it is much easier to play with the queen. However, if you are down material – i.e. your opponent’s army totals more points, then you must have positional compensation if you are to be equal or better. Here is an easy way to think about it, consider an extreme situation, where you are about to checkmate your opponent. You might be a whole queen down (9 points), but you are going to win, so this is irrelevant.

Please do leave comments below, with any questions you may have 🙂

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