How To Plan In Chess

One of the most valuable skills in chess is the ability to come up with a good plan.

The man who wins is the man with a plan...

What A Plan Is Made Of

Making a plan in chess is like solving a puzzle. So why do most people find it so hard to come up with a decent plan?

Imagine for a moment you are to solve a crossword puzzle. You know how to read the questions and you know the places to fill in the answers. The only things you can't come up with are the answers (the right words). Are you going to solve the puzzle? I'm sure that's not possible... unless you get to know the answers.

Even if you somehow manage to solve this one puzzle, would you be able to solve the next ? It problably consists of many different answers (words) than the ones you already know. So you'll have to find a lot of new answers.

Now, if you like solving crossword puzzles and you want to get good at it, what do you do? You buy a dictionary to be able to find your answers. And you start looking up words and remembering them. You may even ask others to help you with the words you can't find yourself.

This way you'll acquire a lot of knowledge to be used on the subject crossword puzzles. This makes solving the next puzzle a little easier.

You think you're good at solving crossword puzzles? Read the above once more and imagine you have to solve the puzzles in CHINESE (or Danish or whatever language is alien to you). Do you still think you're good at solving those puzzles?

You may be wondering, what has all of the above to do with knowing how to plan in chess? The answer is simple. Making plans in chess is only possible with (at least a certain amount of) knowledge.

The same is true for anything else you want to plan. Planning your holiday trip? You need knowledge of different places to go to, how to get there, climate, things to do once you're there, hotels, swimming pools, beaches. Without this knowledge it's not possible to plan your trip.

So the keyword is knowledge.

No knowledge = no plan.

A little knowledge = a basic plan.

More knowledge = a better plan.

Ultimate knowledge = world champion plan.

Where To Start

So if the keyword is knowledge, how will you be able to formulate a plan using your knowledge?

The first thing to do is to set a goal. It's a bit like planning your holiday trip. Once you know where you want to go, the rest of the planning will be relatively easy to do. Like finding out which means of transportation to use to get there, how much time it will take you to get to your destination, what stuff to take with you in your suitcase (or backpack) and everything else you may need to plan.

Defining Your Goals

In the game of chess the ultimate goal is to checkmate the opposite King.

Think about this for a while. If you have the opportunity to checkmate your opponent, would you seriously consider different plans, like a minority attack on the queenside? I think most people don't. They're happy to checkmate their opponent and feel good about it.

So, keep this ultimate goal firmly in mind while playing your games. Although this ultimate goal isn't easy to achieve, you'll want to be moving towards it as much as possible.

You'll have to find smaller goals though, to finally achieve your ultimate goal.

Some of the smaller goals to consider are:

  • Occupy the center with pawns.
  • Develop your pieces.
  • Castle the King.
  • Create imbalances to work with.
  • Restrict your opponents pieces.
  • Win material.
  • Get the initiative.
  • Prevent counterplay.
  • Keep your King safe.
  • Let your pieces work together.
  • Start a kingside attack.
  • Start a queenside attack.
  • Improve the position of your pieces.
  • Attack (square, piece, king).
  • Create a blockade.
  • Play with (or against) hanging pawns.
  • Play with an isolated Queen pawn.
  • Allow (or create) a passed pawn.
  • Create the most distant passed pawn.
  • Occupy more space
  • Undermine the pawn center of your opponent

This is a quite a list already, and it's far from being complete. You can go to the full list of goals and chess plans here.

Now the question is which "smaller goal" (possibly consisting of multiple steps) is the one to work on.

Start Planning

Look at the position in front of you and ask yourself the following questions.

Is there already a clearly winning plan present in this position? The plans you can think of here can be relatively simple, like winning the (theoretically won) endgame. They also can be more complex. Like middlegame positions where the winning plan is obvious, but the execution might be pretty difficult. This kind of positions are often described in books on chess strategy. These postions are the positions where "the chess board is talking to you" or where "you have to play according to the needs of the position".

The answer you come up with, will be based on your personal knowledge. For instance, some people may not find a clear "mate in two" (or mate in any number of moves) because they don't know the mating pattern, while others find it instantly.

If you find a winning plan, adopt this plan. Execute this plan properly and you'll win the game.

More often than not though, you won't find this kind of plan. You're listening to the chess board the best you can, but you're not hearing anything.

If you can't come up with a winning plan, you'll want to answer the next question.

Which of the goals and plans that you know of are present in this position? We're not talking about winning plans here. Just the awareness of possibilities is important. You'll have to take the possible plans of your opponent into account as well. What he might want to do... This gives you the opportunity to choose different directions. Prevent your opponents possibilities or start working towards a new goal of your own. Or maybe both at the same time...

I believe the stronger you get (the more knowledge you have) the more possibilities you'll discover in any given position.

Nevertheless you might find yourself staring at a position and not finding any plans.

Then you go over to the next question.

Which of the goals and plans that you know of are possible in the near future if you work towards them? This is already a little speculative. There is no clear plan yet and there may never be. Yet you may want to look for as many possibilities as you can find. You can then choose to play the most promising path. Here you'll be working towards this goal you envision, while your opponent may very well be able to prevent it.

Now you've identified the possible goals and plans, which one will you choose to implement? How do you choose between all of the available options? Here your preferences play a big role. What kind of positions do you like to play? Do you like strategic play? Or do you prefer more tactical positions? Are you happy sacrificing a pawn for the initiative? Do you prefer knights over bishops? Will you be happy defending a long time, looking for the counterattack? Or do you prefer attacking, hoping your opponent can't create a counterattack? This kind of questions may give you direction. As there were no obvious winning plans, you might as well steer the game into a favourable direction. This already starts with your first move. If you like strategic play, you're likely to play 1.d4. Whereas the more tactically minded may prefer 1.e4.

At each moment during the game where no clearly winning plan is present, these considerations will help you move forward.

Some other questions you may want to consider are:

Which of the available goals/ plans is easiest for you to achieve /play? If all plans are equal, choose the plan which gives you positions that are easy for you to play.

What happens if you don't succeed in reaching your goal? If your goal would be to set up a mating attack, you might have to sacrifice some material. As you don't have a clearly winning sequence, what happens if you don't manage to mate your opponent? Will you be able to draw by repetition? Or will you be lost because of your material deficit?

The same goes for winning material. If you win some material, what happens to your position in the meantime? I've managed to win some games this way. My opponents, in clearly better positions, often go for the material gains. This may leave them in a lost position because their pieces aren't working together anymore.

I would advice you to choose plans with no downside first. Plans with managable downside are second best.

Which move will you play to bring this goal one step closer while improving (or not weakening) your position? If there's only one good move, you won't have this problem. But what if there are several moves that contribute to your plan?

Choose the move that gives your opponent the most chances to make mistakes. If there's only one sequence of moves clearly the right one, your opponent will be likely to find it. But if play gets complicated (a lot of choices are available), people tend to make mistakes.

So choose the move where your opponent is most likely to make mistakes (as long as it's good for you ofcourse).

You'll Need To Know As Many Plans As Possible

If you've read the previous part of this page, you may not be surprised that I don't believe in "creating new plans" while playing chess.

I think it's more like "applying a familiar plan". This plan you already know of is applied to the current position.

This may have a huge impact on your study efforts. You may want to know as many plans as possible. If you know many plans, you're always ready to come up with a plan in any kind of position.

Better An Incorrect Plan Than No Plan At All

Have you ever been playing without a plan? Without a plan, you play move by move, without knowing what to do or what to strive for. You start moving pawns and pieces. You attack a piece now and then. You defended against some threats. And in the end you lose...

From now an, I advise you to come up with an overall plan in every position you play.

For instance: if you decide to go for a queenside attack, this may not be the perfect plan in a given position, but it will be better than no plan at all. You may then start to organize your pieces to accomodate this plan. You'll have a clear sense of direction and you'll know exactly what to do. And, if somewhere down the line you discover a better plan, you can always adopt this new and better plan.


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