Planning in Chess

Planning in Chess

| 22 | Middlegame

Dear GM Panchanathan,

I am expert level chess player trying to attain master level. Do you have a studying/training program you would suggest? I think one of my weakness is finding the "correct" plan in a position. Can you suggest how would one "fix" this weakness? Can you recommend any books that can help one to improve understand about planning? My understanding is that planning is way different than calculating tactics.  

Thanks. Simiso Ondasaka


Dear Simiso Ondasaka,

Chess and planning are like James Bond and a suit. You would never see a Bond movie without him in a suit, similarly you will never talk about chess without talking about planning! In my personal opinion you are probably facing the biggest stumbling block that one could come across in trying to improve their chess skills.

I have always felt that chess is not a difficult game to learn. You learn the basic rules, then learn the concept of keeping your material and then of course you learn to go after your opponents' material using different tactical patterns. After learning these ideas, it takes some time for your mind to have the discipline to implement them consistently, but once you achieve this, you should at the least have a rating around 1500 (if you have these skills and you still you do not have this rating, then may be the problem is consistency) or may be even more. This is true because most of the games around this level or below are decided by tactical errors which simply loses material. So, with your basic knowledge of tactics and converting material advantage (if you remember from last week, “Simplify!”) you should be able to score consistent wins at a lower level.

Let us say you reach a point where you know how to develop your pieces to the right squares, you are sharp enough to spot a tactical mistake if your opponent makes one and you are technically sound enough to convert a material advantage into a whole point. Will this be enough for you to become a strong chess player? The answer is definitely a NO. The above-mentioned skill set will help you win against players who make tactical mistakes, but what if your opponent has the same skill set as you? Then most of the times, there would be a bunch of meaningless trades and the game would eventually end in a draw. This is where positional thinking and planning play a very big role.

I mentioned earlier that the planning phase would be your biggest stumbling block since it is where a player really understands chess! So you were right in believing that planning is very different from tactical calculation, apples and oranges I would say!

Knowledge plays a very important role in shaping your game plan. You cannot achieve your goal if you do not know what it is. The ultimate goal in chess is of course to win, but that is like saying you want to become a millionaire. You need to know the million steps in-between to actually become that millionaire. Similarly, in chess you would have several in-between positions that you would have as your target before it can eventually lead you to a win. How do you determine these in-between target positions? This is where your knowledge base is going to help you immensely. The more you know, the easier it is for you to set these small targets. If you set your targets wrong, well, you know what would happen. So, what do we do to go about acquiring this knowledge? There are two main ways to increase your knowledge base, namely experience and training. Every loss teaches you a wrong plan, something you should not try the next time. And every time you train by studying a strong player's game, you understand a little bit about how you should approach a position.

To emphasize my point. I am going to share a position that occurred in a recent tournament game and take you through my thought process and explain the ideas that helped me win the game.



This position happened in a game against a budding Indian youngster Stany. Actually, the kid was on the verge of making a Grandmaster norm, but thanks to me, he could not achieve it in this particular tournament. Don't blame me! I am trying to make the GM club an exclusive one.

Anyways, this is an opening position barely 10 moves into the game. I started considering various options here and let me start with some target positions that I had in my mind to begin with. The fact that black's dark squared bishop is locked out on b4 made me believe that I can decide to trade this bishop if I chose to. Hence most of my target positions are already filled with the possibility of a bishop pair.



A very good position for white. The d7 pawn is a permanent weakness and there is no response to the white bishop on b2! A possible king side attack with a pawn storm or just tripling and piling up on the 'd' pawn. It all should be simple and easy from here.



The hanging pawn formation is very much favorable for white since the two bishops are too much of a force for black to handle. With both the rooks about to join in the attack on the center, the hanging pawns are just too vulnerable.



The weak 'c' pawn and the bishop pair make it really favorable for white.



Lastly, this position is slightly better for white. A nice bind on the d6 pawn, but black is defending quite well. Even though black is lacking space there seems to be no clear weakness in his camp. Unlike the first position, more pieces have been traded here. No bishop pair for white and black can guard g7 easily with Ne8.



This one probably would be a target position for my opponent. I would not want to reach this since the absence of the 'd' pawn has sucked out any possible advantage for white. The long diagonal for the bishop is only a temporary fixture and black can close it out with f6 and e5 in the future.

If you notice, all my target positions have some simple ideas in common. I want to make sure I retain my bishop pair for as long as possible and also keep the long a1-h8 diagonal open for my dark squared bishop. I also intend to keep my pawn structure intact, but try to ruin my opponents pawn formation as much as I can. This is even a possible thought here since my opponent is dying to get rid of his 'd' pawn to simplify and neutralize my advantage. These target positions helped me plan some ideas and my calculation helped me execute those ideas. Now that we have seen what was going through my head, here is the whole game.



Black was not doing that badly up until late in the game. He could have defended better, but in practical play such constant pressure can be difficult to handle.

The key to forming the right plan is to understand pawn structures. I would strongly encourage you to learn them thoroughly. Minute pawn advances, simple structural transformations and breakthroughs, all lead to drastic changes in the chemistry of a position. Pawns tend to weaken or strengthen a square, they tend to become targets or create extra space and they do much more in every game than what meets our eye.

As far as the suggestion for a book goes, I have personally benefited a great deal from Dvoretsky's middle game books. Positional Play, Secrets of Chess Training and several more. Pawn Structure Chess by Andrew Soltis is also a highly recommended one in this topic. The more recent Winning Chess Middlegames by Ian Sokolov is also a good choice.

More often than not I have seen an amateur trying to execute a plan for which he either lacks the resources or lacks the skill. If you hate biology in high school and your goal in life is to become a doctor, I would say good luck with that! This happens very often in chess and unfortunately it is very subtle to notice.

The more you study, the more you try some ideas and lose, the more patterns you will understand. This mainly will help you come up with better strategies and ideas.

More from GM thamizhan
Deterring Scholastic Chess Cheating

Deterring Scholastic Chess Cheating

How to Improve your Calculation

How to Improve your Calculation