Help! I Feel So Lost Without a Plan!

Help! I Feel So Lost Without a Plan!

IM Silman
Sep 21, 2009, 12:00 AM |
31 | Strategy


I do know a few things about planning-- I even teach “how to plan” to my own students sometimes. But I still come across positions fairly often, maybe one in ten games, where I feel I should have a plan, but can't come up with anything. Typically I get into time trouble in such games. Now, I believe there are games where you don’t need a long-term plan, just a series of 2-3 move operations; but I have the distinct feeling that in these games I am thinking of there was a good plan to be had.

I'm going to include the opening moves of this game, because they are kind of interesting, and might help a tiny bit in orienting yourself to the position I am interested in:

1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 d5 3.d4 c6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Qc2 Bd6 6.Nf3 Ne7 7.Bg5 f6 8.Bh4 Bf5 9.Qd2 O-O 10.Bg3 Be4 11.e3 Bxf3 12.gxf3 f5 13.Bxd6 Qxd6 14.f4

So first of all, my state of mind at this point: I was quite selbst-zufrieden, a little bit self-congratulatory about the success of my “interesting idea” of f6, Bf5-e4. I evaluated the position fairly optimistically based on these factors: I felt my position had enough space, my pieces could all find decent squares, f5 and g7 could be defended by pieces so I would not have to push g6, and I had even inflicted a slight structural weakness on white that might eventually tell.

I also thought that white had a little question to figure out with his king. If he castled queenside, I thought I might have the stronger attack when I advanced my pawns there, as the kingside seemed pretty static. If he castled kingside, maybe his pawn weaknesses there would allow me to lift my rooks via the third rank and generate some attack there too.

However, over the next few moves, the psychological initiative swung back my opponent's way, as he made several pretty quick moves, and I began to burn up time, unable to come up with any plan. He left his king in the center, so I could not go for any direct attack.

Now, often, I make a plan by picking a part of the board where I think I am stronger (or potentially stronger) than the opponent. This was not helpful here. Other times, I look at some piece of mine and ask: where would I put it ideally-- in this position I had trouble doing that for my knights.

Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on this for me!


Dear Mr. Pruess,

I think most positions call for 2-3 move operations. Of course, this comes after you decide whether the position is static or dynamic in nature, and what the various imbalances for both sides are (a trained player does all that in seconds). Then you quickly decide what move(s) fit the needs of the position and analyze them and all tactics that arise from them.

This is why, in my upcoming 4th Edition of How to Reassess Your Chess, I stress the need for every player to master the necessary (but simple) skill of recognizing imbalances over any particular thinking technique since that one thing gives you a firm handle on a position’s nature and its needs.

Having said that, there are times when a position calls for a “grand plan.” For example, in the following game (I’ll use examples from my own practice since it saves me the trouble of looking up other sources and I also know what I was thinking, which is very important in the context of this article.) I used such a plan, which enabled me to pretty much “see” the way the game would go from move 18 to 38.

D.Gliksman - Silman, Software Toolworks 1988

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+ 4.Nc3 c5 5.e3 Nc6 6.Bd3 Bxc3+

This is the Hubner Variation, a line that instantly creates a Bishop versus Knight imbalance in the hope of proving that the upcoming pawn structure (made possible by the lack of flexibility of white’s doubled pawns) will prove conducive to Knights.

As you play through the game, you’ll see just how important that Knight vs. Bishop battle was – it raged from the opening to the endgame. This in itself can be considered a rather basic plan, though others might think of it as a means of creating a long-term static plus. If the student learns to create this kind of logical plan (which conforms to the dictates of the position), then he’ll do very well for himself.

7.bxc3 d6 8.O-O e5

A major part of Black’s strategy – by closing the position he keeps the Bishops at bay.

9.Nd2 O-O

Black refuses to win a pawn by 9...cxd4 10.cxd4 exd4 11.exd4 Nxd4 since after 12.Bb2 white’s Bishops would be very strong on their wide open diagonals.

10.d5 Ne7 11.f4

White is still trying to open up lines for his Bishops. In addition, Black must take the threat of 12.f5 (gaining a crushing advantage in space) very seriously.

11…exf4 12.exf4

Again threatening 13.f5, which would activate his dark-squared Bishop and squeeze Black to death due to his lack of territory.


A tremendously important move! This simultaneously exchanges a pair of Bishops (depriving White of his Bishop pair) and stops the advance of White’s f-pawn in its tracks.


Beginning a battle for the f5-square. Less good is 13.Bxf5 Nxf5 14.Nf3 h5! preventing a g2-g4 push and ensuring that f5 will remain in Black’s hands.


And not 13...Bxd3? 14.Qxd3 g6 (14...Qd7 15.f5 is horrible for Black) 15.f5! Nxf5 16.Rxf5 gxf5 17.Qxf5 when the dormant Bishop is suddenly a major player: 17...Re8 18.Nf3 (Threatening 19.Bg5 with a crushing pin.) 18...Ne4 19.Ng5. Obviously, Black can’t lose the fight for the f5-square since that would also lose the battle of the minor pieces!


This leads to a strategically lost position. However, White would also feel no joy after 14.Nf3 g6 15.Nh4 Bxd3 16.Qxd3 Qg4 (Forcing White to further damage his Bishop by bringing another pawn to a dark square.) 17.g3 Nf5 18.Nxf5 Qxf5 19.Qxf5 gxf5 when White’s Bishop is absolutely horrible.

14…Nxe4 15.Bxe4 Rae8 16.Bd2 Bxe4 17.Qxe4 f5

Permanently blocking the position and creating a nice support point on e4 for the Black Knight and/or Rooks.

18.Qd3 Nc8

And HERE we come to the “grand plan.” After this, I had worked everything out and, incredibly, it all actually occurred!

My old note: A move with an obvious threat and a much deeper, hidden, purpose. If left alone, Black will surround White’s c4-pawn by ...Nb6 followed by ...Qa4. White can prevent this and chase the Knight back by a2-a4-a5, but that brings White’s a-pawn into striking distance of Black’s b-pawn, allowing an eventual ...b7-b6 advance which will lead to the creation of a winning passed a-pawn for Black.

The rest of the game was already clear to me, I only had to work out individual tactics –never allowing White to veer the game off the positional path I had foreseen.

19.Rfe1 Nb6

The threat of ...Qa4 is very annoying for White, so he stops it in the only way possible.

20.a4 Rxe1+ 21.Bxe1 Re8

Also possible is 21...Nxa4 22.Qd1 Nb6 23.Rxa7 Nxc4, but I didn’t see a need to give White any possible counterplay. I was much happier simply keeping his pieces contained and helpless.

22.a5 Nc8 23.Bh4 g6 24.Re1 Rxe1+ 25.Bxe1 Qe7 26.Bf2 Kf7 27.Qb1 a6

The game is now over. Black’s plan (prepared on move 18) is now simplicity itself: he will march his King over to c7 and play ...b7-b6. The passed a-pawn that results will prove decisive.

28.h3 h5 29.Qc2 Ke8 30.Qb1 Kd8 31.g4 hxg4 32.hxg4 Qf7 33.gxf5 gxf5 34.Bh4+ Kc7 35.Bg5 Qd7 36.Kg2 b6 37.Qa2 Kb7 38.axb6 Nxb6

This was more or less what I had played for from move 18 – the “grand plan” is over and it’s been extremely successful!

39.Qe2 a5 40.Kg3 a4 41.Kf2 a3 42.Qa2 Qa4 43.Bd8 Nxc4 44.Qe2 a2 45.Qe7+ Ka6 46.Qc7

Threatening perpetual check. Black’s next move prevents this.

46…Qb5, 0-1. So how did I see so far? Actually there was very little calculation. To me, the position seemed to “absorb” these ideas in a natural way and it seems all too natural for the path I created to be followed (that’s not to say that a stronger opponent wouldn’t have veered off course!).




When a “grand plan” is used, it usually means that:

* The stronger side has a huge advantage and the opponent is helpless to prevent it.

* The strategic elements are so clearly defined that it would take a blind man not to see the potential long-term continuation right through to the end.

When this occurs, it’s up to the defending side to notice his opponent’s intention and do everything he can to prevent it from going “according to script.”

I got to play another “grand plan” against a very strong IM. This time the plan was more general, but just as effective.

Silman – C.Lakdawala, S.CA Closed Ch. 1989

1.d4 g6 2.c4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.e4 Nc6 5.Be3 e5 6.d5 Nce7 7.c5 f5 8.cxd6 cxd6 9.Bb5+ Kf8

Usually White is delighted to exchange light-squared Bishops in KID structures. The text isn’t as bad as it looks: Black’s King is quite safe on f8 and his kingside pawn storm can become very threatening.

10.Nf3 f4 11.Bd2 h6 12.a4

And HERE I mapped out a “grand plan.” However, it was based on simple concepts – I knew the moves to support those concepts would be found as the game went on since I already deemed my position (whether it’s true or not!) strategically won.


* First I map out huge territorial gains on the queenside.

* Then I deprive my opponent of any real play on the kingside.

* Then I target d6.

* Eventually I effect a decisive penetration on the queenside – most likely on the c-file.

12…g5 13.a5 g4 14.Ng1 Nf6 15.Nge2 Ng6 16.g3

Killing my opponent’s counterattack on the kingside. Quite honestly, after playing 16.g3 I felt that the point was already mine!

16…f3 17.Nc1 h5 18.Qa4 h4 19.Rf1

Getting off the h-file and defending the potentially vulnerable pawn on f2.

19…hxg3 20.hxg3 Bh6 21.Nb3 Rb8 22.Qb4

Targeting d6.

22…Kg7 23.Bxh6+ Rxh6 24.Nd2

The knight heads for c4 where, at first glance, it will work with my Queen against Black’s d-pawn. However, there is an even more nefarious purpose to this Knight maneuver.

24…Nh8 25.Nc4 Nf7 26.Ne3

My only weakness (on f2) is solidly defended, while Black is going to have to worry about g4, f5, d6, b7, and possible intrusions along the c-file for a long time to come.

26…Qh8 27.O-O-O Rh2 28.Kb1 Qh6

Hoping to gain counterplay by sacrificing the Exchange, i.e., 29...Rxf2 30.Rxf2 Qxe3. Of course, I don’t allow this to happen.


As usual, patience is required. My plusses are not going away, so there is certainly no reason to rush.


Desperate, Black hopes to put more heat on f2 by ...Nh7-g5-h3. Unfortunately, the fact that most of his army is on the kingside allows me to stomp him on the other side of the board.


A decisive penetration into c7 is assured. The “grand plan” has worked to perfection!

30…a6 31.Qc7 Ra8 32.Bd7

By getting rid of Black’s light-squared Bishop, Black’s weaknesses on b7, f5, and g4 all fall into my hands. Also very strong was 32.Be8.

32…Bxd7 33.Qxd7 Nf6 34.Qxb7 Qh8 35.Nf5+ Kg6 36.Nh4+ Kg7 37.Nf5+ Kg6 38.Nh4+

My last few moves gained a bit of time on the clock. Now I’m ready to proceed with the mopping up process.

38…Kg7 39.Rh1

It’s ironic that Black’s final demise will occur on the very file that he coveted so highly.

39…Rxh1 40.Rxh1 Qd8 41.Nf5+ Kg6 42.Rh6+, 1-0. He didn’t need to see 42...Nxh6 43.Qg7+ Kh5 44.Qxh6 mate.




As you can see, a “grand plan” doesn’t mean you have to calculate 30 moves ahead. In fact, often such a plan is almost devoid of calculation – it’s completely made up of concept based on the correct reading of the imbalances and the plusses and minuses in each respective position.

As I said earlier, “grand plans” are rare, and usually one simply plays moves (Pruess’ 2 to 3 move operations) that suit the particular position (again, based on the specific imbalances and on the position’s dynamic or static needs). Here’s a case of a dynamic, tactical situation:

Judit Polgar - Silman, New York 1988

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bc4 Qb6 7.Nb3 e6 8.Be3 Qc7 9.f4 Be7 10.Qe2 O-O 11.O-O-O a6

No deep plans here! It’s all about tactics and me getting her on the queenside while she gets me on the kingside! The “script” is clear, and the winner is the one who sticks to it with the most imagination and tactical acumen.

12.g4 b5 13.Bd3 Nb4 14.g5 Nxd3+ 15.Rxd3 Nd7 16.Bd4 Re8 17.Qh5 Bb7 18.Rh3 Nf8 19.f5 e5 20.Be3 b4 21.g6 fxg6 22.fxg6 hxg6 23.Qh8+ Kf7 24.Rf1+ Ke6 25.Nd5 Bxd5 26.Qg8+ Kd7 27.Qxd5 Qc6 28.Rf7 Ne6, 1/2-1/2. I could have played on, but the little girl (Judit was only 2 or 3 years old at this time) had attacked me with such ferocity that I was happy to have the whole thing over and done.




And here’s another example of a “2 to 3 move operations” plan – this time we’ll look at a game that’s completely positional:

Silman - C.Lakdawalla, Los Angeles 1987

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Be2 O-O 6.Bg5 h6 7.Be3 e5 8.d5 Nbd7 9.Qd2 Nc5 10.f3 a5 11.Bd1 c6 12.Nge2 cxd5 13.cxd5 b6 14.O-O h5

And now, after some typical KID moves that I’ve used a million times before, a plan needs to be created. As is so often the case, no calculation is necessary at this time (though you do calculate before playing every move to ensure that your artistic designs hold up to the cold truth of tactics).

PLAN: Grab the b5-square with two hands, then chase away his best piece (the c5-Knight) by b4 (prep like b3, a3, and only then b4 might be necessary), then penetrate down the open c-file. Due to white’s obvious advantage in space on the queenside, this should prove decisive.

15.Nb5 Ne8 16.Nec3 a4 17.Bc2 Ba6 18.b4 (black’s strategically lost) 18…axb3 19.axb3 Nc7 20.Nxc7 Qxc7 21.Rfc1 Rfc8 22.b4 Ne6 (Realizing that he would be toast after 22…Nd7 23.Ba4, he gives this a try, hoping that tactics might confuse his opponent. However, this merely speeds up the end. Now we leave planning behind and enter a world of pure, though simple, calculation!) 23.dxe6 Qxc3 24.Qxc3 Rxc3 25.Bd2 Rcc8 26.exf7+ Kf8 27.Bb3 Bb7 28.Rxa8, 1-0.



Now (finally!) it’s time to address Tangborn – Pruess: 1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 d5 3.d4 c6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Qc2 Bd6 6.Nf3 Ne7 7.Bg5 f6 8.Bh4 Bf5 9.Qd2 O-O 10.Bg3 Be4 11.e3 Bxf3 12.gxf3 f5 13.Bxd6 (13.Be5 Bxe5 14.dxe5 f4 15.exf4 entranced me … I’m a sucker for odd pawn formations!) 13…Qxd6 14.f4



Though many positions call for a quick set of moves, this isn’t one of them! The basic details are easy to map out:

* Black only has two pawn breaks: …c6-c5 (a dynamic move that makes d4 and d5 very weak … however, it’s his main break and is thus very important!) and …g7-g5 (which won’t be happening any time soon, but remains a very real possibility down the line a bit!). Black can also preface …c5 with …b6 so that a capture on c5 would allow …bxc5.

* Pawn advances for Black are …a7-a5-a4-a3 and/or the advance of the b-pawn. But …b7-b5 leaves c5 and c6 weak – this might not matter, or it might have profound long-term static ramifications.

* White’s breaks are: b2-b4-b5 (minority attack, which I don’t see happening in this exact position) and f2-f3 followed by e3-e4, which leads to all sorts of potentially catastrophic pawn weaknesses. Of course, f2-f3 without e3-e4 is also important since, though it weakens e3, it also deprives the enemy Knights of e4 and g4.

* Other factors: White has the half open g-file and can try and make his potentially weak h-pawn into a dynamic asset by h2-h4-h5-h6.

* One other key question is: where to put the white King?

ALL of this zips through my mind quickly as a result of training and retained patterns from millions of games/structures. But in this case, it doesn’t give me a clear answer! It seems simple, but it’s actually a very tough position, and (in a real game situation) I would sit there and stare for ages, balancing all these considerations and trying to form a logical continuation/plan.

Again: If you aren’t armed with these elementary details, then it’s impossible to play the position with any intelligence!

If I was sitting at the board actually playing this position, other ideas would – in haphazard fashion – flit through my aged and rapidly decomposing brain:

* If Black goes for queenside pawns on a4 and b5, then a2-a3 followed by Nc3-a2-b4 hits c6 and d5 and prepares Nd3 with control over c5 and e5. This isn’t necessarily bad for Black, but it’s something he has to take into consideration.

* If Black plays …a5 and …b5, I can respond with a2-a4 …b4 Ne2 hoping to bring my Knight to d3 or b3 and Rooks to the c-file so I can play whack-a-mole against c6 while also pressuring a5 and c5.

* If White pushes his h-pawn down the board, Black will let it go to h6 (playing …h6 himself leaves a hole on g6 that White might be able to utilize, it also makes defending f5 harder since …g7-g6 is no longer “on”) and then close up the g-file with …g6 – the pawn on h6 might really bother black’s King later in the game, but also closes off the g-file and, in endgames, might become weak (or it might fix h7 and turn into a tower of strength!).

* Black will likely try to push his a-pawn all the way down to a3.

* If black’s pawns get to a4 and b5 (with my pawn on a3), he will likely swing a Knight to c4.

* Black might wish to leave his b-pawn on b7, when there aren’t any serious weaknesses in black’s camp (the e5-square and placing a bit of pressure against f5 by Bd3 and Nc3-e2-g3 stand out). In that case, it will be hard for White to find an active plan. On the other hand, Black can only get active if he loosens his own position up.

* If Black does leave his b-pawn on b7, White has to be wary about the following scenario: (one with white’s pawn on h6) Black plays …Nf6 and …Ne4. White trades, Black takes back with …fxe4 and then swings his remaining Knight to f5. If White chops that Knight by Bg4xf5, Black will recapture with his Rook, perhaps double on the f-file, play …Kh8, and then smash through with …g6-g5. This series of moves, more than any other, strikes me (from white’s point of view) as disturbing. This might compel me to take measures to avoid it by playing f2-f3, stopping the whole …Ne4 thing from ever happening.

Again, I didn’t do any actual calculation – instead I explored various pawn and piece configurations in an effort to deem what ones were most dangerous for both sides. It seems that Black has a slightly easier time leading the dance, though I consider things to be more or less equal.

Anything could happen in this game! Here’s a hypothetical series of moves: Black would most likely play 14…Nd7 when I (as White) would temporize a bit and push my h-pawn (since it’s something I know I need to do): 15.h4 a5 16.h5 Nf6 17.f3 (Perhaps not necessary since the …Ne4 plan, with an eye to a later …g5 push, isn’t effective if white’s pawn hasn’t gone to h6. On the other hand, I don’t like Black dictating things, so I might go with 17.f3 since it dominates his Knights) 17…a4 18.Bd3 when I would follow up with Rc1, Kf2 and … it’s just a game that offers mutual chances.



Mr. Pruess, you are an extremely strong player, so I don’t know if this actually answered your question or failed completely to address your concerns. However, I hope it will prove to be useful (or, if too advanced, at least interesting) for the site’s many readers.

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