How to Choose a Chess Move

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.

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.

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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 the 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 that 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 lose 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) that will scupper your plan.

The best tip of all on how to choose a chess move:

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

– Emanuel Lasker

10 thoughts on “How to Choose a Chess Move

  • 9th April 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Your check-list is fine. However, with time, you want to replace it with a pure intuition*/calculation process, with the occasional guideline thrown in if you’re stuck.

    It’s important to see how good your intuition is in various situations, and to try to absorb patterns where it’s not so good.

    *moves that just pop up in your mind when you see a position, without applying conscious filters

    • 9th April 2015 at 7:08 pm

      I guess that can only come with time and experience. Hopefully I get there. Thanks for the advice.

  • 3rd May 2015 at 6:58 am

    This list is fine. I use a program and I’ve been practicing against Level 9 opponents. I can beat Level 5 almost every time without too much thought so I figured jumping up to Level 9 would be a faster way to get better.

    Here is my point. At Level 9 I can almost never win unless I sacrifice something to advance my plans. So this list seems to have a flaw. The same flaw the computer has. It is based heavily on material advantage. Or maybe I am missing something.

    I can only beat Level 9 when I focus on winning squares in the opponents row directly in front of the King, the pawn row. I think that focusing on winning squares is just as important as saving pieces.

    • 13th November 2016 at 1:21 pm

      @Nash, it seems you’re missing one thing here and that is point 4 in section 3:
      making sure your pieces STAND better than before.

      Ultimately one could say that whole game of chess is based on material advantage – pushing last pawn for promotion is the best example.

      Once you stop making evident blunders, what leads to material gain is your positional understanding. But I won’t make an overstatement by claiming that material gain IS needed and once achieved (by tactics) one of the players (I mean GM’s) usually resigns.

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