I was asked to write an article to help players of about 1200 strength with planning. I questioned myself: how do 1200s play? What is the difference between 1200 and 2200 rated players for example? Of course, masters see so many more hidden resources than 2200 players do. Masters know much more theory: opening, typical plans in middlegames and endgames. The players of 2200 ratings see better tactics... I can go on and on. The above discussion was not generated to put 1200s down, it was rather the thinking that I faced to generate some ideas of how to help 1200s improve in planning. This is all theoretical; in the academic world we have a saying that when a person presents a theoretical model, she is the only one out of all the people listening who believes in this model, while when an experimentalist present his findings, he is the only one among the listeners who does not believe in his gathered data. I am saying this because in theory I can come up with numerous factors where 1200s need to improve in planning but no one will believe me; while using an example of an analyzed game can serve better for the purpose than 1000 written words. So, here I set out to find the games of 1200 rated players, opened my MegaBase and figured that in the championships of girls and boys Under 12 there should be some players that fit my rating criteria. To my disappointment there were a bunch of 2100s and most of the others were not Fide rated. My search moved to the U10 category, where I looked at a couple of games that looked so consistent to me despite being played by unrated players, that I gave up the search in that category.
It would be incorrect for me to base a judgment about how a specific rating category is playing based on a sample of children playing in U10 Championships. This is because if a child gets to play in the European Championship U10, he or she already probably has a professional coach who teaches the child to play “correct” chess. The child plays a strategically sound game because he learns at an early age from professionals, not from hustlers in the park. These children do not remain for long in the range of 1200; with correct coaching their rating goes steeply upwards. This article should be for adults who did not have professional chess training, who learned from family members or by themselves but who want to improve. Having this chess strength has its own benefits: with the right training you can improve a lot in a short period of time.
The main advice as I stated in a previous article is to play a lot and to solve a lot of chess tactics. If you are doing this already, you are in a great shape to polish your positional skills as well. Generally, in the opening every move should aim at either development, the fight for the center, or aim at limiting the opponent’s resources. If the move does not accomplish either of these three criteria, one should discard it. In the middlegame a player must ask the question of what the opponent wants every single move. A bad plan is better than no plan. A chess friend, who happened to be a grandmaster, once asked me what was I doing in the position I had on the board, while I was showing him a game. I said that I didn’t have a plan at that moment and his reply was “if you don’t have a plan offer a draw,” my answer was “of course, my position is better and I don’t want a draw.” But the point is even a better position without a plan can be evaluated as equal. This was a shocking revelation to me; since then I have always made sure I have some plan.
What I also noticed going through games is that for players of 1200 rating strength, the game is almost never decided after one side gets a decisive advantage. Usually, the side with the advantage loses all of it after one careless move. Thus, if you are winning, do not relax, you still have to finish off your opponent. Also, do not be afraid to go into an endgame when up material-- this is something I was struck by in going through these games. Maybe it is a fear of not knowing endgames well. Instead of fearing endgames one should just know some basic positions, let's say 20 positions by heart and general ideas such as: activating the king, keeping the rook active, creating a passed pawn etc. Endgames are not that scary: I think endgames in chess are feared as much as science subjects in academia. Let's look at the first example, where both players were 1200 strength. The opening was played at an expert level by both sides. Then, something happened: black did not find the right plan, and white used the moment to generate an attack. When it looked like white was winning, he lost all of his advantage. There was not even any tactical trick involved: he just missed something probably. Thus, one should keep concentrated even when the game goes into the fourth hour, this is where physical shape kicks in. Black could have tried a queen trade and gone into a pawn up ending but instead he decided to stay in the middlegame, despite having an open king. This is where endgame knowledge comes into play. The end of the game was rather mysterious.
The black side in the next game did not know the typical piece setup in the opening, and the problems he had to solve in the middlegame accumulated and he had to give up a pawn. There is no substitute for knowing typical opening setups, especially for black. One should look over the classic games by masters such as Botvinnik, Petrosian, Fischer, and Capablanca to understand better the setups, since they were the people who developed the setups. Only after knowing ideas from classical games can one immerse oneself in the waters of modern theory. This is my advice; I learned the other way around, first looking at modern theory (which mostly didn’t make sense to me) and then going back into history. So, back to the game-- after white had an extra pawn, suddenly he didn’t know what to do. Instead of realizing the pawn by moving it forward, he doubled rooks on the b-file for no reason and lost an exchange. One cannot get away with antipositional maneuvers, even with extra material. This is totally unacceptable. Playing in the centre is almost always a good plan. Even after losing the exchange and winning another pawn, white was shuffling pieces around without a plan until black blundered a rook. A happy end for white, but if black had not lost a rook, eventually white would have needed to come up with a plan.
Let us draw some conclusions here. Be attentive to every move that the opponent makes. Never become relaxed after winning material, there still remains half of the struggle: to realize this material. Study typical opening and endgame structures. A plan should not be longer than 2-3 moves. And study classics, this would be a tremendous eye-opener of typical structures. And of course also spend a lot of time on tactics.