How to Make Positional Decisions in Chess

Chess comes down to 90% position and 10% tactics. These are two numbers I just made up.

While many grandmasters differ in which of these two buckets you should spend the most of your planning, the fact is that you can’t have tactics come about without creating a strong position.

Tactics tend to just magically appear when you have a better position.

Coincidence?

In this article I’m going to show you how to improve your position so you can have an easier game against strong opponents.

Let’s get started.

Do I have a plan

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating. If you don’t have a plan in chess, then your moves won’t make any sense as a whole.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 h6

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If you aren’t sure what to do, some players play a move like h6. It prevents a bishop from pinning your eventual knight on f6 so it seems to make sense. However, when you’re unsure what to do, the best thing you can do is develop pieces while continuing to build up pressure in the center.

If you remember the principles of chess openings, you’ll realize that a move like h6 doesn’t help develop minor pieces or control the center.

4. O-O a6 5. Ba4 b5 6. Bb3 Na5 7. Bd5

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Here white is reacting to each of black’s moves and continuing to move the light squared bishop. White should anticipate these moves before they happen.

If you find yourself reacting to your opponent’s moves rather than having them react to yours, then chances are you do not have the initiative.

The initiative means that you are controlling the game and causing the events on the board to unfold. When you have the initiative you decide when to trade pieces, double pawns, or cause some further weakness in your opponent’s camp.

Long Term Plans

There are many openings that one side or the other (generally black) takes a passive approach to the game in an attempt to open up an attack later.

An example of this would be the king’s indian (KID).

While it may seem passive, many games revolve around black eventually opening up the center and creating a really strong dark squared bishop on the a1-h8 diagonal.

This is an example of having a plan, even if it is long term.

All of black’s moves revolve around opening up the center. For this reason, moves like c5 and f5 make sense. They’re hitting at the pawns that are blocking the bishop’s range of attack.

If these attempts are thwarted, a strong player will continue to try to achieve their original plan, or adapt to another plan. Strong players don’t give up, but they recognize when it’s time to move to another plan.

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2

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The Classical Variation of the KID. Black attacks the center with e5, trying to hit the center and open up the bishop’s sight on g7.

6… e5 7. O-O Nc6 8. d5

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The Petrosian Variation. Once white has committed to d5, and forced the knight back to e7, the structure becomes semi-fixed in the middle of the board. This means the pawns are unable to be moved unless a pawn breaks them from the side.

At this time, Black will try to open the center from the f file with f5, and white will try to open the c file with c5.

Both of these pawn moves hit the base of the pawns and attempt to open the game in each player’s favor.

8… Ne7

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The pawns point towards the direction you want to move towards. Notice how white has more space on the queen side to maneuver pieces, so it makes sense to attack this way with pawn breaks.

Black doesn’t have as much space because the pawns aren’t as far advanced (they’re still on black’s side of the board) but black’s kingside attack goes towards the king, so if black can breakthrough, then it could be a mating attack.

9. Ne1 Nd7 10. f3 f5 11. Be3 f4

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Black now has a pawn on white’s side of the board, which is fighting for the space advantage.

12. Bf2

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White’s pieces are still pointing towards c5 to break open the c file so b4 makes sense to help with this.

This game transposes to which attack can work first. If white takes the queenside and black’s kingside attack doesn’t work, then white will be better. If black succeeds, it will either be checkmate or black will win material.

Do you understand your opponent’s Plan?

Often I hear newer players say things like, “oh I didn’t see that move.”

Grandmasters may not win every game, but they’re unlikely to lose a game because of a single move they didn’t see.

When a Grandmaster loses a game, it’s more about them not seeing a single move that led to a series of moves down the line. Perhaps they only calculated one portion of the variation and missed that it actually leads to a better position for their opponent.

Whenever your opponent makes a move, ask yourself questions like:

  • Why did they move there?
  • What are they trying to accomplish
  • Where are the going to move that piece on their next move if they have the chance
  • Does this impact my plan or do they not see my plan

Asking questions like these will help you understand the flow of the game. If you’re threatening to take a knight for free, and your opponent moves another piece instead, ask yourself these questions.

It’s possible your opponent missed your attack completely. It’s possible they’re creating a counter attack that will result in checkmate if you take their knight. By asking these questions, you’ll never be surprised by their next move.

While you want to stop your opponent’s plan, the best way to do so is to be flexible.

This means stopping your opponent’s plan with moves that also help your position. These types of double edged moves are often key to improving your overall position.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O a6 5. Ba4 d6 6. c3 Be7 7. Re1 Bg4 8. d3 O-O

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An example of this would be a typical knight maneuver in the Roy Lopez. If a bishop pins your knight on f3, you can attack the bishop and move it away with h3 then g4, but this would weaken your pawn structure.

Instead, you can maneuver the queenside knight in the following way: b1-d2-f1-g3. In these four moves, the knight has moved to the kingside and is now able to hit a bishop if it were to move to h5. This is just as effective as pushing g4 to attack the bishop, but you’ve attacked it in a move active way, and without weakening your pawn structure.

This brings us to weak squares.

Weak Squares

Think about your initial pawn structure. When you move any pawn, the squares next to that pawn are weak.

The move e4 creates a weakness on both d4 and f4. Since a pawn cannot move backwards, this is a permanent weakness. Pawns always create weak squares next to the square they move to.

Other pieces create weak squares, but those weaknesses can be fixed at a later point by moving again

1. e4

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1… e5

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Black has created the same weaknesses on the other side of the board by playing e5.

2. b3

The squares next to pawns after they move are always weakened because the pawn was supporting those squares before it moved

2… c6

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3. h4

3… a5

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We start to see a lot more weaknesses throughout the position. Notice how the square b5 is not weakened by the move a5. This is because another pawn is supporting b5 at the moment.

4. f3

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That’s why a move like f3 helps white to make up for the weakness that was created on g4. If h4 and f4 were played, then the g4 square would be a dream for a knight, because a pawn cannot push it away anymore.

Pawns work best when working together to reduce the amount of weak squares.

Which of my Pieces are Weak or Unprotected

Try this out. Point out all of the pieces that are unprotected on the board.

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It’s often helpful to think about all of the pieces that are unprotected because they can often become a target, if not captured outright .

A strong opening is one where all of your pieces protect each other. Pawns protect bishops, rooks stay behind pawns, etc.

When you start moving your pieces away from your other pieces, say to the 5th rank in your opponent’s territory, you leave your pieces open for attack. They are often harder to protect on the other side of the board than in your own camp.

1. h4

Here are all the pieces that were undefended in that screenshot.

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By keeping all of your pieces coordinated, you vastly reduce the pieces that are potentially “hanging.”

In fact, pieces like rooks should always protect each other when they can. If you have two rooks in the middle game protecting each other, and you’d like to double them up to create a battery on a target, you should always keep in mind that when the rooks prepare to double, they both become vulnerable for a turn.

Make sure that when you do something like this, you’re either protecting your rooks as they transitition to their new position, or nothing can attack them in the in between move.

Improving your Pieces

The best piece of advice I can give for improving your positional understanding is to improve your pieces.

Think about two questions on every move you can:

  • Which is my worst placed piece
  • How can I improve it

In every position, there are pieces that can be improved, but it’s a matter of finding out how.

Knights can be moved to outposts. Bishops can control better diagonals. Queens can be more active. Rooks can occupy open or semi-open files.

(If there isn’t a better diagonal or more activity for your piece, then you may already have the advantage you need)

If you can identify how to improve a piece, then you are always going to improve your position.

It’s important to make sure your pieces are coordinated. Often, when you are trying to gain material, you sacrifice your piece composition.

In fact, one question chess players always ask is what to do when you’re winning. Sometimes players will say they were winning a game, and they don’t know what happened, they just started losing.

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This is common, and the answer to this often comes with piece coordination.

In this scenario of a blitz game I played, white has reached a material advantage of a bishop. However, the pieces are scattered around. In a situation like this, it’s important to improve your pieces and not begin giving away material. Black is threatening to take the pawn on e2 and gain more activity as compensation for the piece. I found the easiest way to stop this was to improve a piece.

Often when you’re coordinating your pieces, it’s best to move pieces and not pawns.

26. Nd4 a4 27. Rc1

Activating the rook with tempo.

27… Ba6 28. e3

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Now the pieces are working together more than they were. The knight is on an outpost and the bishop is defended.

28… Nd5 29. Bg2

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29… Nxc7 30. Rxc7

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Now the bishop is back on the strong diagonal that it had moved from earlier in the game. White’s pieces are now coordinated. Since it is always a better idea to trade pieces when you’re up and not when you’re down, black most likely won’t want to take the bishop on c7. If he does, then white’s advantage continues to improve.

Backwards pawns

Since pawns can only move forward, they should move forward strategically.

You should always be thinking about your pawn chains that you are creating. e3, d4, c5 can be a strong pawn chain, but you should always note that the most backwards pawn is e3, and it can be come a target.

1. e3 d6

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2. d4 b5 3. c4 d5 4. c5

4… a5 5. f4

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If you ever move the f2 pawn, the e3 pawn can never be defended by a pawn where it stands.

In order to fix this weakness, you would need to push your e pawn and “fix the backwards pawn.” However, pushing the pawn directly to e4 now leaves a weakness on d4 since the pawns are not next to each other. You would then need to push d5 to remove this weakness, but it would create a backwards pawn now on e4.

Trying to remove this pawn weakness is difficult because the d4 square is controlled by an opponent’s pawn. Pushing d4 now allows black to just capture the pawn.

The reason all of this matters is that it becomes a permanent fixture in your pawn structure. Since pawn structures decide the pace of the game, your opponent should try to plan their attack on the most backwards pawn.

By eliminating this pawn, your opponent could then break through into your position and vastly improve the movement of their pieces.

5… h5 6. e4 dxe4

Your Turn

I hope you’ve gotten something out of this article.

To me, your position is everything and opens opportunities for tactics. It’s much harder to pull off tactics if you have a bad position and none of your pieces are working together.

If you thought of a new idea because of this article, let me know in the comments below.