Wednesday 24 April 2024

You've Got to Have a Plan

We hear that all the time, but is it really true? And what is a plan anyway?

The whole concept of plans is a mystery to many chess players, and that's probably because the word is used too loosely. Sometimes you see a sequence of calculated moves, and the author calls it a plan. Other times, someone says "My plan was to attack on the kingside". No wonder people get confused!

I find it easier to talk about goals and milestones. The goal is what you want to achieve ("my goal was to attack on the kingside"), and milestones are subgoals on the way there. Typical milestones are trading off a defending piece, and preventing counterplay on the other wing. Once your goal is set, the plan is the move sequence to get there, ticking off the milestones along the way. In other words, your goal is your strategical plan, and the moves to get there makes up your tactical plan.

How to find a plan

I common misconception is that you can make any plan you want in a given position. The truth is that it's not for you to decide, the right plan is already there in the position. Your job is to find it.

Talk to your pieces. Ask every piece and pawn about their dreams and ambitions, and how they'd like to work together. Eventually, they will reveal the plan to you. Talk to your opponent's pieces too. They might have enemy secrets to disclose.

Sometimes, there's more than one plan available. Which one to choose is a matter of your chess personality. If you're an attacking player, don't pick the consolidating plan if there's a good attack plan on the table. When you hesitate between two plans, there's often a way to postpone the decision by playing a move that fits both plans. Those moves are multi-purpose moves, but that's the subject of a future blog post.

An Example from the King's Indian

This position is the Classical King's Indian main line after the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Be2 e5 7.O-O Nc6 8.d5 Ne7.

King's Indian after 8...Ne7

 The main plans here a carved in stone - Black will attack the kingside, starting with Nh5 followed by f5, and White attacks on the queenside. The most popular choice is 9.b4, immediately declaring intentions.

If you don't like mutual all-out attacks, then the King's Indian isn't your style, and you'd do best to pick some other opening. Black must push forward on the kingside, if you attempt any other plan, you will be crushed (as long as White knows what they're doing). The same is true for White, you must advance quickly on the queenside, otherwise Black breaks through.

There are also secondary plans involving prophylactic moves to slow down your opponent's advance. The current state of the KID is that you can't completely ignore your opponent - at every move you must carefully balance attack and defence.

A third feature is the the pawn on d6 - it will become vulnerable as soon as the c-pawn moves. That's why we often see the manoeuvre Rf7 and Bf8. That Bishop move is actually one of the multi-purpose moves mentioned above, it protects d6 and at the same time vacates g7 for the Rook.


Don't make up plans from what you want to do. Instead, let the position tell you what you should do, and make plans from there!

Friday 12 April 2024

What's Your Style in Chess?

Style is a combination of your chess personality traits and your self image as a chess player. The personality is more or less determined by your genes, and will not change much over time, although you tone certain aspects, such as hold back aggressiveness in order to play more solid.

Your self image, though, is made up by yourself and your environment, and can change a lot if that's what you want. A common factor is that your self image is affected by role models, books and videos, sometimes a bit too much. If you're a fan of Bobby Fisher, you might want to play in his style. If your natural styles are similar, it's all good, buy if the differ, you'll just end up playing positions you're not comfortable with.

At ChessPersonality, you can do a simple test of your style. Based on just 20 questions, it's not exactly scientific, but it will give you a hint. Below are my results (rather similar to Bobby Fisher's, by the way). What stands out here is the 100% Intuitive and 0% Calculating. That's absolutely true - I just hate calculations, and chess intuition is my biggest strength (and also my biggest weakness).

Chess Personality

Another way to find your style is to play through games, both your own and other player's. Look for positions where you feel comfortable, and where the right moves comes naturally to you. Find out which openings produces these positions. These are the openings you should focus on.

Now look for positions you don't like. An uncomfortable position is one where you can't find any natural moves, and you don't feel good about the moves recommended by theory. These are openings you may want to dismiss for now (but you might have to study the later to become a more well-rounded chess player).

To wrap this up, here's a story from my early days. My very first chess book was Chess Openings by the German master Theo Schuster. That book did a fine job helping me to build my first repertoire, but it also caused me a great deal of problems. The biggest problem was that I, as Schuster recommended, played d5 in response to d4. Queen's Gambit is a respectable opening, but not in my style as I at long last found out. In the mean time, I got rather poor results as Black against d4.

The last (and shortest) chapter of the book was Indian Openings. It started with Playing these openings requires a great deal of experience, so I will just summarise them briefly. As I didn't see myself as a very experienced player, I ended my reading there.

Years later, I was just about to play my very first tournament when this weakness struck me. My white openings were okay, as were my defences against e4, but I had nothing to show against d4. When I brought this up with one of the top players at the club, he said "Play the King's Indian. That will fit your style perfectly." That was shocking, as I didn't now what "style" was, and Schuster already told me that Indian openings were for experts only.

But, being desperate, I went to the chess store to pick a couple of books on the KID. With little more than a week to the tournament, I started reading. Much to my surprise, I felt right at home. I could understand the plans, and the moves came very natural to me. As Lex said in Jurassic Park - "I know this!" Why didn't anyone tell me this before?

The tournament went well, two King's Indians scored me one win (against a stronger opponent) and one draw.

The King's Indian is since then a stable corner stone in my repertoire. Other openings have come and gone, but this one is for keeps.


Don't play against your style. It's easy to be impressed by brilliances in books and videos, but they may not be for you. Don't be fooled by book titles like Winning with the French. If the French doesn't suit your style, you might end up with Losing with the French.

Thursday 4 April 2024

A Sense of Urgency

Sometimes when you spot a move that seems to get you out of trouble (or initiate a strong attack), you may feel an urge to play that move immediately. That false sense of urgency is probably the most common cause of mistakes in chess, so let's have a closer look.

The sense of urgency is entirely based on fear. Apart from the usual fear of losing the game or making a fool of yourself, there are deeper fears at play here.

In general, when you have a bad position, you don't want to know just how bad it is. You don't want to accept defeat until in stares you in the eye, and therefore you immediately play the first move you see that holds some kind of promise. That's why bad positions often crumbles to pieces much quicker than they need to. Some players are very good at rescuing bad positions - when you think they're completely lost, they launch a counter attack, or when they have two pieces hanging, they hang a third only to complicate things. What they are doing here is exploiting a particular fear in their opponents. When you think you're winning, your worst fear is to screw it up, even a draw would be a terrible defeat.

The normal reaction to a frightening or stressful situation is the fight or flight response. That's an automatic psychological reaction that temporarily disables the logical thinking. It may serve you well when you meet a lion on the savanna, but a chess board is a different environment with zero risk of physical injury. So, what you have to do is to take a deep breath, sit on your hands, and wait for the fight or flight response to fade away. That's not what my opponent did in the position below.

A sence of urgency

Black is clearly winning here, mate will soon follow after Qa8. I knew that I had a lost position, so defence was not an option. I decided to play gx5, a very unexpected (and also very bad) move, and let my opponent work out the consequences. Black was stunned by the threat to their Rook, and immediately played 1...Rh6 to get out of the line of fire, but 2. Rg1+ won the Queen and the game.


Never give in to the fight or flight response. The worst thing that can happen is that you lose the game. If you have a bad position, see it as a training session. There's always a chance to save the game, and if you don't, you have at least learned something!

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Are You Afraid of Ghosts?

No? Maybe you should be. Ghosts can cause a great deal of harm, even if they only exist inside your own mind. In chess, ghosts can be a piece, a move, or a sequence of moves. They are ghosts because they aren't real, but you perceive them a real, and also quite scary. Here are two examples:

 This is from an earlier post, Double Delusion. The ghost here is the move Bd6+. It's not real (the Bishop is pinned), Still, the ghost lured Black into playing Rc7, believing that the Rook couldn't be captured because of the Bishop fork on d6. However, the Bishop is still pinned, so the Rook can safely be captured, winning the game. Instead, having reality obscured by the same ghost, White moved his Rook into safety with Rd5, and soon lost the game.

 This one is from a game of my own, played the day after the Double Delusion was published, and appeared in the A Strange Coincidence post. This time, it's the Knight on d5 that will become a ghost, but not until it's captured. This will happen soon if it doesn't leave it's post, being under attack from both Queen and Rook.

The reason that the Knight looks so fearful is the potential fork on e7. This becomes a real threat if the Queen moves away from the e-file, but at the moment, she has nowhere to go. So, White played Re1. Is Black doomed now, since Qxd5 fails to Ne7+, forking King, Queen and Rook? A closer look reveals that the Knight becomes a ghost after Qxd5, and can no longer interact with the real world. Qxd5, and White resigned.


Try not to be intimidated by ghosts. Put them in the spotlight, stare them in the eye, and they will vanish into thin air. It's not the ghosts that are dangerous, it's our fear of them that causes all the damage.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

A Strange Coincidence

 The day after I wrote about Double Delusion, it appeared in one of my own games. That might seem like a strange coincidence, but these things happen a lot more often than we think.

N.N. - Me (Open Tournament, 2024)

The Knight on d5 had been a nuisance for a long while. There's a fork on e7, at the moment covered by the Queen. I decided to chase the Night away with 1...Rf5 to free the Queen for other tasks. (That's actually not the best move. 1...Bd4! 2.Nc3 Bxc3 3.bxc3 h4! wins, but that was clearly above my level).

Now, the delusion. 2.Re1?? Black thought that Qxd5 wasn't possible because of Ne7+, forking King, Queen and Rook. Very beautiful, except for the Knight is now off the board, and may no longer participate. Nc7 would have saved the Knight.

My immediate impulse was Qxd5 winning the Knight, but then I saw the fork. Shock and terror! Then I remembered the game Ebralidze - Ragozin I wrote about the day before, and managed to calm down a bit. I forced my to visualise the position after Qxd5 (not too hard to do, being just one move ahead) and realised that there is no longer a fork since the Knight is gone. 

2. Qxd5 and White resigned.


Face your fears! Whenever you're overcome with the "I can't do that" feeling, try to think "I want to do that". Most delusions can be cleared by visualising the position after the move you want to play. It worked for me in this game, and it would have worked in Ebralidze - Ragozin too.

Monday 18 March 2024

Double Delusion

Can both players make the same mistake at the same time? Yes they can. It happens to grandmasters, and it will happen to you too.

This example is from a classic game, first published in Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov, and later in How to Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman (both books are excellent study material for the aspiring club player). Black to move.

 Ebralidze - Ragozin (Tbilisi 1937)

 In this age, Stockfish tells us that this is a draw. Ragozin, however, was clearly troubled by the fact that his Rook and his pawn on a7 are under attack, and his Bishop is pinned. He came up with 1...Rc7, thinking that Rook cannot be captured as 2.Rxc7 Bd6+ wins back the Rook with a winning endgame. The problem is, however, that the Bishop is still pinned, and cannot move. So, White can just take the Rook and win the game.

Alas, Ebralidze had fallen victim to the same delusion, thinking that his Rook, now under threat, must move. 2.Rd5 Bf6 and Black soon won the game.


Lasker said "when you see a good move, look for a better one". That's a good advice, but there's more to it than that. Before looking for a better move, make sure that the good move you've seen really is good. Does it allow a quick mate? Does it hang something? That second look might clear your head of delusions.

Sunday 10 March 2024

Missing the Obvious

This unfortunate mishap comes in different flavours. There might be a piece to be captures, or you've left a piece undefended, or there something devastating one move ahead, all of which you failed to see. This is often referred to as chess blindness, but I find that term misleading. It has nothing to do with poor vision, and blindness seem to imply that there's nothing to do about it. Of course there is! What's happening here is that your mind lures you to focus on something else (using blindfolds as a primary tool). If you allow that, bad things will inevitably happen.

This example starts out as a case of lack of knowledge

N.N. - Me (Open Tournament, 2022)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5. d4 The Mackenzie Variation. It's an old line, not considered very promising for White. The mail line goes 5...exd4 6.O-O Ne7 with an equal game, but I didn't know that. 5.Nxe4 6.Qe2 This looks strong, but Black has good survival chances in the complications following 6.b5. Instead, I decided to retreat the Knight, completely missing the capture on e5. 

6...Nf6  7.dxe5

Though equal in material, Black is now completely lost. The best move now is 7...Ng8, admitting that the Knight has wasted four moves on absolutely nothing. Instead:

7...Nd5 8.Bb3 Nf4

Finally an active move, hitting both the Queen and g2. However, the capture Bxf4 puts the misfortunate Knight to rest.

That was two times missing the obvious in the course of just eight moves, all because I didn't know the Ruy Lopez well enough. Even if you're unfamiliar with the somewhat obscure Mackenzie Variation, you should be able to play 5...4xd4 on basic principles alone.


There are two lessons to be learned here:

When you go into a Big Think, don't play the move you come up with immediately. Sit back, take a deep breath, and take a fresh look at the position. Are there any obvious captures or threats that you have overlooked?

Also, don't play openings you don't know. There's a choice here - learn them properly, or avoid them altogether.