(Blog 1) How to *UNDERSTAND* Everything in a Chess Game - General Summary

(Blog 1) How to *UNDERSTAND* Everything in a Chess Game - General Summary


*I am periodically editing this post! A lot of people have said it's pretty decent, so I will try to make it more thorough*


So, I decided to create a blog, and there's nothing better to write about in the first blog post than an article that explains (almost) *everything* about a game of chess! So I'm going to do that today -  I will explain how I understand chess.

And I'll do it in a way that even the weakest player can understand and follow along without much confusion at all.

Please give questions and comments and complaints, and especially feedback! I'm an intermediate player, so obviously I don't know chess perfectly or anything. 


So I will develop the system now! And we will see how this method of chess understanding combines everything in chess together.


The Fundamental Goal in Chess


What is the main idea of chess? It's to checkmate the opponent's King of course! But in a real game, your opponent's king is protected by his/her pieces...

No matter how hard white tries to checkmate the opponent's king, he/she is rebuffed by the army. 
So now what do we do? Of course - we have to eliminate the opponent's army! And right away, we get one of the (two) fundamental principles of this system: the importance of material. If we win material, we can either (1) attack the king directly, or (2) promote a pawn to a strong piece, and attack the king directly, or (3) win even more material with your extra force, and then do either (1) or (2)! But why is material so good? It's because more material means you can control more squares, and that will restrict your opponent's pieces from moving, and allow you to exert more pressure on those pieces/pawns - and eventually you will be able to win something extra.
Note that the fact that pawns can promote is the most vital thing to this idea - if pawns couldn't promote, there would be no way to transfer material (pawns) into checkmate, and you'd have to rely on pieces purely, which as we know, is difficult - you can't mate with K+N vs. K, for instance.
You probably think this is really obvious right now -- and it is! Let's keep going though....
At the start of a chess game, material is equal, and a good opponent won't let you win his/her pieces! So what do you do now?? Consider the following position, where it's black to move.
No matter what black does, he/she cannot avoid checkmate! Even though black's army was just as large as white's! The reason for this is because white managed to get his/her army to more ACTIVE squares, where they can reach further, and exert more control over many squares - black's pieces are stuck and cannot move to defend the king. 
In fact, this leads to the second fundamental idea: the importance of piece activity. When your pieces are more active, you have a superiority due to your pieces being more effective at controlling squares than those of your opponent's! So you can uses this advantage to (1) Get a material advantage, or (2) Attack the King directly
So to summarize - we've developed 2 principles: MATERIAL and PIECE ACTIVITY. By the way, both of these criterion are united under one MAIN principle in chess, which I'll just call ACTIVITY. Think of activity as just the number of squares you control, or something like that - notice that, if we built a tree, ACTIVITY would be at the top, and MATERIAL and PIECE ACTIVITY would be the branches. 

And this is really all there is to my understanding in chess wink.png I really believe that at the fundamental level, it's that simple.  But let's keep going anyways. 

By the way, from these ideas, we can come up with 4 STRONG principles of chess that you should follow often and always:


1. Increase your material

2. Decrease opponent's material

3. Increase your piece activity

4. Decrease your opponent's piece activity 


Notice that these aren't principles like "knights before bishops" and stuff like that - they are much stronger and general, and encompass all the other general principles.

Some examples:

*Knights before bishops - Since bishops tend to be already active on their initial square if you open up a pawn, and you want to increase your piece activity as much as possible, there are diminishing returns on moving your bishop first, USUALLY. 

So it's not always better to develop knights before bishops - it's a matter of activity. If you keep in mind the activity principle, you will know when to violate/follow the looser principle.

*Attack where you're stronger - Well, this should be obvious. It follows directly from the fact that often you will have an activity superiority on one part of the board, and your opponent the other. For example, in locked positions, we use the "4 pawn pointing rule" to determine where to attack - the reason if because our pawns have more space on that side, and they restrict the opponent's pieces, giving our pieces an advantage if we choose to invade there.

*Castle early and often - When you castle, you move 2 pieces - your king and your rook. You can activate your rook to a central file this way, and your pieces are no longer tied down to defending your king - they are now more active. Again, it's the activity you care about.

*Avoid doubled pawns - Well, beginners tend to hate doubled pawns, and this isn't even accurate a lot of the time. The reason is that doubled pawns tend to be less mobile, and can be targets - and sometimes they restrict your pieces from moving, because they themselves can't move out of the way to make room for your pieces! When none of these things are true, doubled pawns are NO PROBLEM! 

*The Sicilian Defense violates opening principles! - In the sicilian, black seems to be able to not develop nearly as actively as white, and yet the sicilian is one of the best openings for black. Well, the sicilian is actually totally sound according to the general principles we've outlined - black, instead of increasing his/her own pieces activity, chooses to use a large pawn center majority to restrict white's pieces. Restricting the opponent's activity and increasing your activity are fundamentally equal - what is better depends on tactics (a topic I'll talk about later here), and in itself doesn't make the Sicilian bad for any reason. BTW, you'll notice that all mainstream openings (and many non-mainstream ones) follow the general principles we've outlined. The ones that don't are pretty bad - think Latvian Gambit, etc. 


Have you ever heard of grandmasters "violating principles"? It's something you hear often. But what they are violating are those weaker, specific principles (knight on the rim is dim, for instance, which is not true if the knight is heading to a strong square - eg, the well known Nf3-h4-f5 attacking setup). I guarantee you that GMs ALMOST NEVER violate all 4 of the general principles I've outlined above - that's how strong these principles are, because they are based on what chess is all about: square domination and control. And when these GMs do play moves that don't follow these principles as strongly as another move, it's often an alternative move that complicates the position, or avoids/welcomes a drawish line, or something psychological. I'm not a titled player, but I've seen plenty of titled games, and this is a strict pattern.

At the same time, these ideas should be obvious to even many beginners, but if you look at their games, they violate these principles rather often, especially when they are trying to utilize something they've seen a strong player do in the wrong position. Following at least one of these ideas (and usually it will be regarding piece activity - not too often it happens that you will be able to win material, for example) with every move will eliminate a lot of bad moves from your games. 


OK - you know that you should care about material and piece activity... is that it? It may be a bit tough to apply these ideas in a real position, so here are some STRONG, yet more specific principles to help you play moves in a real game - they especially relate to piece activity. 

(1) Principle of the Least Active Piece - This means that, if you have a choice between activating two pieces, you want to activate the less active one generally - it gives you a greater increase in activity generally. 

(2) Principle of Max Activity - This means that, you should develop your pieces so they are as active as possible! Not passively.

(3) Principle of Neutralization - If one of your opponent's pieces are particularly threatening or occupies an important square, you should trade it off, or find a way to drive it away.

(4) Principle of Attack - You should play forcing moves (checks, captures, and threats).

(5) Principle of Material - You should take material if you can. 


These 5 above principle are ALL YOU NEED for your general chess principles knowledge, that you should keep in mind in a real game. When specific ideas pop up, they are all related to one of these 5 principles, and you'll identify those specific things easily. 


BY THE WAY: These are *general principles*, and they are strong ones, so they are effective very often. But that does NOT mean that you should just follow these principles blindly! I will explain more in the next section: Tactics and Calculation. 


So, as a conclusion:

*The main idea of a chess game is activity - roughly, your ability to control squares

*Activity has two main components which are interchangeable - piece activity and material. 

*Increase your quantity of these two components, and the opposite for your opponent. 

*You should follow the 5 fundamental principles as much as possible - you should not break these strong principles.


Now, let's draw a fundamental link between chess understanding and tactics/calculation


Tactics and Calculation

Now, we will link the positional understanding above with tactics and calculation, and we will see how they are related to each other. But as a quick "spoiler", I will roughly say that, with respect to tactics, "combinations are to material as positional play is to piece activity" - this analogy is not super precise, but it gets my general point across.

What is a tactic? And why do so many players separate tactics and positional play, like they're fundamentally different things? I'll try to explain my answer:

We know that we have to follow one/some of the 4 principles outlined above. But in a position, we can choose to follow any one of them, and we may have different moves that can follow them! What move should we pick...?

The answer is that the general principles fail here - now you need to consider each one of them, and compare them, to see which one leads to the best position in terms of activity and material. This comparison/consideration is often done through calculation (combined with the use of experience, but that's of course not the topic here). Now, I will define my definition of "Tactics":

Tactics: The art of choosing the move that best follows your strategy (piece activity and material).

I think most people will agree with  me! Tactics is all about choosing between multiple options. Very often, we relate tactics to material, but that's not accurate, because as we saw - material and piece activity are fluid things that can be exchanged with one another, and are both parts your fundamental strategy in chess! So tactics is the art of choosing moves by often looking at concrete variations. 

Here are some examples, where tactics are used in every single one of them - perhaps a human will use judgment, theory knowledge, etc., but an engine would see these positions and only calculate and evaluate with a set algorithm... it's actually performing the choosing with pure calculation. 

In this example, you see what I meant in the previous section where I say you shouldn't follow the principles blindly - those principles (along with your chess experience and intuition) suggest which moves you should CONSIDER - but not those that should be played on the board. Many beginners make similar mistakes - not such obvious ones like the one above, but they miss simple rebuttals to their moves.
Of course, the ART of calculating variations, having enough experience to evaluate positions, and evaluating positions are completely different topics, and are very very difficult topics!
But the bottom line is that when people say "tactics dominate", they don't mean that strategy is not important - strategy is what tactics are based on! But if you miss a tactic, it typically means you tried to follow your strategy, but there's a forced sequence that actually makes you violate your strategy (for example, you lose material, or your piece gets kicked to a bad square by force). This is what computers do to human players all the time. 
*Tactics are about the best way to achieve your strategy
*Tactics generally involve calculation - that's how you evaluate concrete positions
*General principles give you good candidate choices to calculate, but tactics is about finding which of those will give you what you want (material / piece activity) in reality. 
BTW, any intermediate player should be familiar with the concept of "forcing moves", which should be considered as candidate moves very often. Why is this? It's simply because forcing moves threaten immediately to give you a BIG strategic advantage - winning material and devastating your opponent if they are tactically sound. And if they're not tactically sound, generally you can see it immediately. This justifies the principle of ATTACK, (4). 
But now we're heading into calculation territory...
So yeah, that's pretty much what I have to say about my chess understanding -- it's all here, wrapped up in this blog post. Obviously, as I try to follow the 4 principles, and just from my instincts, when I look at a position I may think of things like "weak pawn" or "king attack", but I don't have to think about these things during every turn - I just keep in mind piece activity and material, and the positional features will show themselves.
I believe this simple system explains how a chess game is played properly.
What do you guys think about this? Am I right or wrong, and did you find it interesting?
I believe that all beginners should have some basic understanding of chess like this before they advance and try to get better - not necessarily what I have here, but they need to have some way to understand what's going on in chess, and that what's happening is generally not a coincidence.