Intermediate chess skills

Once you understand how to move the pieces, you are ready to explore the exciting and fascinating world of chess.

We will begin by discussing the three phases of the chess game, followed by endgame solutions. Next, we cover how to evaluate a game in progress, and also how to record the game’s moves. Wrapping up, we say a word about using a chess clock, and offer some pointers for maximizing your chess play.

Game Phases

The game of chess effectively takes place in three general phases:

Opening

The opening is the beginning sequence of moves for a chess game. The opening generally consists of the first 6-12 moves. Openings of certain recognized patterns are given names, such as the Ruy Lopez, the King’s Indian Attack, or Evan’s Gambit.

Learning a few openings can greatly improve your chess play. By studying an opening sequence of moves and your opponent’s possible responses to it, you reduce the possibility of being surprised, which also reduces the chance of making a mistake.

The beginning sequence of moves from White’s perspective is called an opening; the beginning sequence of moves from Black’s point of view is called a defence.

Whichever opening or defence you choose should be reflective of your playing style. Some openings are more defensive, while others are quite aggressive. It is particularly useful to learn a few openings that can be connected through transposition – in other words, you start out doing one opening and then you transpose into another.

For more on specific openings, please see our list of openings and defences.

Middlegame

The middlegame is the transition period between the planned moves of the opening or defence and the endgame. The middlegame is generally the place where the strategy – the overall plan for winning – is accomplished through tactics – maneuvers designed to seize an advantage. Generally speaking, the greater the advantage seized in the middlegame, the easier the endgame will be.

For more information on chess tactics, please see this.

Endgame

The endgame, as the name suggests, is the series of moves leading up to the conclusion of the game. By this point of the game, both players generally have fewer pieces, and as a result, have fewer options available.

The game itself can only have three conclusions: either white wins, black wins, or the game is a draw. The object of the endgame is to drive the game play to the most favorable of these conclusions.

For example, white would like to win, but if he or she does not have either the pieces or opportunities to make that happen, they will want to play for a draw, as that is more favorable than a win for black.

A program of moves used in the endgame to force a desired outcome is called an endgame solution. For example, there is an endgame solution for winning if you have two rooks and a king versus a lone king. If you use this solution in this situation, you are guaranteed to win.

A skilled player will try to drive a game towards an endgame solution by trading pieces. Once the game is effectively reduced to the situation covered by the endgame solution, performing the solution determines the outcome.

For more about endgame solutions, please see this.

Game Evaluation

It is very useful for a chess player to be able to evaluate his or her game in progress. While it is impossible to measure exactly how close you are to winning the game, there are some ways to describe having an advantage. Three different measures that can be helpful for understanding which player has the advantage are material advantage, initiative/tempo, and territory control.

Material

A player has a material advantage if he or she has more pieces than the other player. The following point values are used to describe the relative value of pieces:

  • Queen = 9 points
  • Rook = 5 points
  • Knight = 3 points
  • Bishop = 3 points*
  • Pawn = 1 point

Obviously the king has no point value because loss of the king is loss of the game! According to the point values given, we see that two rooks are slightly better than a queen, and three pawns are roughly equivalent to a bishop or a knight. Sometimes, depending on the situation, a bishop can be slightly more valuable than a knight. For that reason, many chess players give the bishop a point value of 3.5 (*).

Material point values are not thoroughly accurate, because the value of a piece is usually determined by game position. For example, the first bishop captured or lost is effectively more important than the second, because it means the loss of the bishop pair. Also, pawns increase in value towards the endgame.

Initiative and tempo

The player with the initiative is the player whose actions force his or her opponent to respond. For example, placing the opponent in check always seizes the initiative; castling usually gives the initiative away.

Generally speaking, the player with the initiative calls the shots, to some degree, and often players will sacrifice pieces in order to gain the initiative so they can drive their opponent to a particular board position or force a particular piece trade.

Tempo refers to a piece move required to get to some desired position or development. If you can get to that development or position in one less move, you “gain a tempo.” Similarly, if you wind up using more moves, you “lose tempo.”

One way to gain tempo is to put your opponent in check while developing one of your pieces. Another way to gain a tempo is to continuously attack one of your opponent’s pieces with several of your pieces, forcing them to move the same piece over and over.

Sometimes it is desirable to lose a tempo. For example, in the endgame solution of a king and a rook versus a lone king, the player with the rook will sometimes make a move which wastes a tempo – i.e. the “stutter step” – to force the lone king to move into a weakened position.

There are times during the end game when a player can make a pawn move that essentially does not change the critical board position. In this case, that player has a “spare tempo.” In other words, he or she has a move they can waste to force the other player to make a move that weakens their position.

Territory control

Actual positional advantage is always dependent upon the placement of pieces, as well as who has the tempo. However, a player can gauge his or her territory control by counting the number of squares on the opponent’s side of the board that are being attacked by his or her pieces.

For reference, white’s side of the board consists of ranks 1-4 and black’s side of the board contains ranks 5-8.

Chess Notation

Chess notation is a method of recording the sequence of moves in a game of chess. There are several styles of chess notation, but the one we will study and use is algebraic notation.

Learning chess notation has several benefits:

Access to chess knowledge

There are many wonderful books and web sites devoted to the subject of chess. However, all of them are written in chess notation. If you want to be able to learn tactical skills, or study the games of the famous chess masters, you must be able to read chess notation.

Record of games played

Taking notation of the games you play is one of the best ways to improve your chess. If you have a record of the moves of your game, you can go back later and analyze what you did and what you should have done.

Chess tournaments

Most official chess tournaments require that you take chess notation during tournament games.

One piece of advice concerning chess notation: make sure it is legible and accurate! If you can’t read it, or if it is wrong, it cannot help you.

For more information on chess notation, please see this.

Chess Clocks

In official games, such as those played in chess tournaments, players are required to use a chess clock to regulate the amount of time each player has for considering their moves.

A chess clock is basically a pair of timers set-up so that when one player presses the button to stop their clock, the opponent’s clock begins.

For more about chess clocks, time controls, and how they factor into tournament play, check this out.

Maximizing Your Gameplay

Chess is far more than moving pieces around and hoping for a lucky break. Chess involves observation (paying attention), deduction (what is my opponent trying to do?), and planning (preparing your attack or defense).

(Remember the Sherlock Holmes Principle?)

From the chess opening to the endgame, the best way to maximize the success of your gameplay is to think along these four dimensions:

Piece development

A chess piece is developed if it placed in a position that gives it good opportunities to attack or defend. Consequently, the more you develop your pieces, the more opportunities you have for taking control of the game or responding to your opponent.

The best way to develop your pieces is to avoid moving the same piece over and over.

Control of the center

The squares at the center of the board have the most opportunities to attack. Many openings and defences are designed to maximize control of the center.

Chess pieces can control the center either by occupying or by attacking.

Occupying the center has the advantage that no other piece can also occupy that square. The downside of occupation is that the occupying pieces need to be defended. Attacking the center squares can often be equally effective; however, this does not always equal control, because your opponent can also attack the same squares.

The reason for desiring control of the center squares is simple: it restricts the movement of enemy pieces.

Pawn structure

A pawn structure is the formation created by pawn movements. Pawn structure is important in all phases of the game. In the opening, it helps with control of the center and piece development. In the middlegame it helps restrict your opponent’s tactical play through positional control. In the endgame, it can dramatically affect the strategies of both players due to the threat or promise of pawn promotion.

Some pawn structures are good, others are not. Avoiding weaknesses in the pawn structure can have a major impact on the tone of the game.

For more information on pawn structures, you will want to look here.

Safety of the king

It doesn’t matter how good your plan of attack is if you leave your king vulnerable to checkmate. Before you make any move, you should consider what effect, if any, it would have on the safety of your king.

Remember, your opponent can seize control of the game by putting you in check, forcing you to respond to his attack. However, you can guard against this by keeping your king well protected.

One way to keep your king safe is to castle.

These dimensions aren’t the only considerations for increasing the power of your chess play, but a good place to begin the improvement of your chess play is along these lines.

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