Essential Chess Strategy and Tactics

illustration of chess playing tactics

Illustration: Alison Czinkota. © The Spruce, 2018 

Improve your chess by learning time-tested strategies and tactics. Learning the most common tactical motifs, the fundamentals of chess strategy, popular openings, and important endgame concepts may give you an advantage in your next game.

Common Chess Tactics

Tactics are short-term calculated sequences of moves resulting in checkmate, the win of material, or some other gain. An understanding of tactics is crucial to playing good chess. Most games, especially at the club level, are decided by tactical mistakes.

Learning the basic tactics in chess will help you in two ways. It will let you take advantage of your opponent's mistakes while avoiding your own. There are four basic tactics that every chess player should know.

  • Fool's Mate: This is the fastest way to checkmate, and it capitalizes on a few key mistakes by your opponent.
  • Forks: Knights are the best pieces for forks because they can take out two opposing pieces in one move. However, every piece on the board has a forking ability.
  • Pins: You can also pin your opponent's pieces in, using your queen, rooks, and bishops to pull of this powerful move.
  • Skewers: The opposite of a pin, a skewer is when you force a valuable piece to move, and at the same time, your rival leaves a lesser piece vulnerable to attack.

Choose Your Strategy

No chess player can calculate an entire chess game from beginning to end. Even the best computer programs running on the fastest hardware can only "see" a limited number of moves ahead. Beyond what you can calculate, you must rely on strategy to guide you in finding the best plans and moves in a given position.

Chess strategy includes a wide range of concepts, from how to value the pieces to evaluating a position. Mastering these principles will greatly improve your understanding of chess. For instance, your bishops are quite powerful and can be one of your best pieces for both defense and offense.

Your First Moves Are Important

Over the course of chess history, the first few moves of the game have been studied extensively, and a fierce debate has raged as to the correct way to start out.

Opening theory is an extensive field of study for top players, with some lines being analyzed well past the 20th move. While this much knowledge isn't necessary for most players, knowing the basics of your favorite openings can be the difference between gaining a quick advantage and falling into a known trap.

When you're ready to beef up your own personal strategy, study some of the most popular sequences:

  • Ruy Lopez: This is one of the most popular openings, and it's a great way to get full advantage of the board.
  • Sicilian Defense: This strategy relies on one move, and it opens up an entire array of possibilities.

If you want to throw off your opponent, try one of the more unusual openings. They may not see it coming, and you'll get the early advantage.

Finish Off Your Opponent

Many players think that studying endgames is a chore, but a little endgame knowledge can go a long way. Having a better understanding of the endgame than your opponent can change a lost position into a winning one.

After a while, you will learn that a number of checkmate patterns appear over and over. It's one of the interesting aspects of the game and why your ability to recognize patterns is often the key to winning.

If the game reaches an end where only your king or queen is available, you should be prepared with a checkmate strategy for this situation.