The Three Secrets to Beginner Chess Strategy: Power, Position, and Tempo (aka time)

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This post will provide some simple rules of thumb for Chess strategy. I am aiming at the beginner, who has just learned the moves and rules of chess, but wants a few overall strategic principles so that they are not attacking blindly and without purpose.

I am no chess expert, but I read several chess guides as a kid, and one day I sat down and just put everything together. I had a flash of insight, which synthesized their advice into three strategic goals that I always watch for. Here it is. You want to gain small edges in your opponent in these three areas: Power, Position, and Tempo (aka time). Building an edge in these three factors will let you build up an overwhelming advantage and get a checkmate.

Learn to face down tougher opponents with these strategies

Power

Obviously, the more forces you have at your command the better, and the stronger the pieces you own the better. Of course you want to take your enemy’s pieces when you can, and not sacrifice your pieces unless it gets you a bigger advantage.

But what about trading? Often you see an opportunity to kill an enemy piece, but at the cost of one of your pieces. Should you? A “power scale” has been built up over the years, as a guide to the novice. The more useful a piece is, the better its ability to move and attack, the more points it gets on the power scale:

Points-Piece

1-Pawn

3-Knight

3 or 3.5-Bishop

5-Rook

8 or 9-Queen

“Infinite”-King

What this means is that, all things being equal, a bishop for a knight is a roughly fair trade. A rook is worth a bishop and two pawns. A queen is a fair trade for two rooks. A pawn should almost always be promoted to a queen when he makes it to the back row.

Explanation of the power scale:

The queen has the most power because she has the most flexible and wide-ranging movement type, allowing her to move and attack in many directions and at great distances.

The pawn is worth the least because it has the most limited move-type, and cannot move backwards.

The king is worth “infinite” points since if you lose him, you lose the game. It makes no sense to analyze a strategic trade where you lose your king. (If he were just a typical piece, the king would probably be worth about 3 points).

Some players give the bishop a slight edge in value over the knight. In the early game, the knight is great because he can jump over pieces and easily get around the board and into the fight. Even though the board is crowded up with maximum pieces at the start of the game, the knight is still close to his maximum mobility. And also, beginner players sometimes get surprised by his tricky move-type, so he’s great fun as a beginner. However, in the end-game, when most of the pieces are dead, bishops gain in power because they can move huge distances over the board. In the end game the board is clear enough that this becomes much more powerful than in the early game. Some consider two bishops extra valuable because it lets you pressure both colors with bishop-power. A few grandmaster chess players have even developed what you might call a bishop fetish.

The rook is considered more powerful than the bishop because he can reach all squares, of any color. Too bad rooks are hard to get out in the early game.

Lastly, remember: this power scale is just a guide. Other considerations (like the two below) can make a “bad” trade worthwhile. Even the queen can be sacrificed for a pawn, if in the end it gets you the checkmate.

Position

Pieces are only as good as what they can attack and defend. The rook is very powerful on an open board, because it can move huge distances and attack any square by getting into the right position. But it starts the game stuck in the corner, doing nothing but guarding the pawn in front of it. (It guards the pawn because, if someone captures the pawn, the rook can capture them in retaliation). This means that a rook is almost worthless until you “develop” it – until you get it into a position where it can do some good.

In general think of these rules of position:

  1. A piece is more valuable if it attacks at or sits in the center. The center tends to be the focus of fighting and of movement. If in doubt, spend the early game moving and developing pieces with the goal of threatening or capturing the center
  2. A piece is more valuable if it has mobility: open lanes to move and attack
  3. Watch the play of your pawns: good pawn formations are the difference between a beginner and an experienced player. Intelligently position your pawns into a well-built “structure” where they guard and support each other with their diagonal capture-move. In general, try to avoid doubled pawns, where two pawns are in the same column. This is considered weak as they cannot support each other. However, doubled pawns may be worth it if it gets you an advantage in power or some other factor
  4. Towards the end of the game, when most pieces are dead and the board is empty, remember that the pieces like bishop, rook, and queen can move very easily from one end of the board to the other. Try not to get surprised by a rook suddenly leaping from the left to the right side of the board
  5. The Finachetto is a good trick to get your bishops out when the center is clogged up: move the pawn in front of the knight up one space, and now your bishop can get out the sides

Tempo (aka time)

Chess goes back-and-forth one turn at a time, and each turn is just a single move of a single piece. So you and your opponent both have equal resources of “time.” However, if you can use this resource better than your opponent, you can gain an edge. This aspect of the game, paying attention to use of time, is called tempo.

Try to get an edge in tempo by observing these guidelines:

  1. Try to perform moves that do multiple things at once – advance several goals simultaneously. For example, in the early game perhaps you can move out a knight or bishop such that you “develop the piece” (get it out from the back row and into the fight) while it also threatens an exposed enemy piece. That’s great! You have moved your own piece into a good position, which is a valuable use of your turn. Meanwhile, your opponent must spend their next turn protecting their piece. Maybe you forced them to hide it somewhere in a poor position. Maybe you’ve disrupted their plan for that turn. In any case, you gain the momentum in the match. Each time your opponent must waste time scurrying for cover, you gain in tempo
  2. Similarly, if the opponent forces you to react to an attack, try to react in a way that advances long term interests. (For example, maybe guarding a piece under attack by developing a second piece, instead of running away the first piece)
  3. Don’t bring your queen out too early. Because she is so valuable, you won't be willing to trade her, so it is easy for your opponent to use tempo rule #1 on your queen. You’ll have to keep her in an embarrassing retreat from harassment by your opponent’s pawns, knights, and bishops
  4. Castling is great because it develops your rook while also getting your king into protected hiding in the corner. In general, it’s preferred to castle on the “kings-side” (towards the rook closer to the king) as this better protects your king
  5. You might be tempted to develop your rook by moving the pawn in front of the rook out two spaces, moving the rook up behind it, and then sideways to get out. But this is a very lengthy, awkward, and vulnerable series of moves. Normally it’s better to keep the rook moving around the back, protecting vulnerable pawns and pieces, and letting him out when an opening in your pawn-line appears
  6. The fork tactic is great because you threaten two pieces in one turn. Your opponent won’t have time to deal with both threats and you can get one piece
  7. The discovered attack is also great because you threaten an enemy piece, you make an attack they must respond to. While you also move your piece where you want to
  8. Attacking the enemy king and causing a Check can be powerful, because the enemy must respond to your attack and protect their king. This magnifies the power of any tempo tactics you use

Openings

Lastly, you might learn a few openings that you can use. There is no need to learn an entire  encyclopedia of openings unless you want to become an expert, and even then, some would argue that you should hold off memorizing openings until you get the fundamentals down.

Anyway, at least know what to do the first turn when you play White: typical openings are to move the king’s pawn or queen’s pawn up one or two spaces, or to move one of the two knights forward and towards the center. These are solid first moves because they attack the center and develop your pieces. (Moving the pawns lets a bishop and possibly queen get out).

As you play the opening, if in doubt, keep the three principles of this post in mind.

Watch the stalemate

The beginning player, who has clearly come to dominate the board in power, should watch out for stalemates. It sucks to take a draw on a game you’ve clearly won.

Don’t Resign While you Learn

It is good manners to resign (give up) a hopeless game, to spare each other the time of playing out an obviously lost game. However, most chess teachers suggest that the beginner play all games to the end, to maximize the learning experience.

Summary

Hope this helps! To boil it down to a quick mantra:

  1. Use the power chart and preserve your most mobile pieces, like rooks and queens
  2. If in doubt, position your pieces to attack or occupy the center
  3. Try to gain in tempo by making moves that serve multiple goals or that force your opponent to waste time
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