How to choose a chess move

Do you remember a time before satellite navigation? If you went anywhere new, planning started the day before. You had to take out the large map book, find your destination and map a route. Inevitably a crucial junction would be printed just where the top of page 64 followed on to the bottom of page 78, and neither page would be clear on what you had to do. I would (and still do, as a backup) write down the key routes, junctions and mileages on a piece of paper and keep it close while I was driving.

Planning your next move
Planning your next move

Roads are great that way. You plan, follow the signs, read your mileage, and as long as you figure out that page 64/78 road, you’re on your way.

Unfortunately chess is not so straightforward. You can plan and learn some openings and endgame techniques, but when you sit across from your opponent, choosing the next chess move is not as simple as referring to your map. So how to you choose your next move then?

The main method I use it to have a set of questions and statements at every move. Before I get to that, a word about openings and the endgame. During the opening, I do still follow my list, but alongside that (maybe even above that) are the opening principles. Further, if you are lucky and your opponent plays a line you are very familiar with, great, there is no need to spend time thinking OTB when you did all your thinking beforehand. A similar principle applies to technical endgames (as opposed to strategic endgames). If you know the technique to convert your advantage to a win, or secure a draw, then there is no need to go through the list of questions at every move. Just follow the technique.

It is the remaining, fleshy part of the game where the list becomes useful; when you are out of familiar ground in the opening (this could be move 2 if your opponent decides to be tricky), and before you recognise an endgame that can be won (or drawn, if that is the desired outcome for your position) with technique.

So here is the list. Keep in mind that it is just a tool which should be used alongside other tools in your chess arsenal. I also expand my personal version with key lessons from my own games, to help ensure I don’t repeat mistakes.

  1. Focus on the game – forget the noise from the next room or the sniffling mouth-breather at the next board. Focus.
  2. Consider your opponent’s move:
    • Did he overlook a previous threat you made? Is it safe for you to follow through now?
    • If it was his turn now, what damage could he do (tactics, checks, captures, etc.)? Consider what are likely to be his candidate moves, and follow each through for a few moves to ensure you can counter any potential damage.
  3. Consider your next move:
    • After 2 above, look deeper into your overlooked threat. If it still looks good, keep it as a candidate move.
    • Consider all the checks you have, even if they seem to loose material initially. Remember that checks force your opponent to react – it also ‘freezes’ some of his pieces, which may make them vulnerable. Think about what the board looks like after he reacts to your check. Add moves to your candidate moves list.
    • Consider other moves that may cause damage – captures, tactics, goals to attack, pieces on diagonals or rows, overworked pieces, etc.
    • If you are still stuck, consider which of your pieces is least active and see if you can move it to a better square.
    • Go through each candidate move again to ensure your opponent does not have a response (such as a check or a mate threat) which will scupper your plan.

“When you see a good move, look for a better one”

– Emanuel Lasker

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