When people talk about improving in chess they, for some reason, always seem to focus on memorizing more opening variations or playing more games online to develop board awareness. Sure, all of these things will help you improve in their own ways, but there is much more to improving in the game than you may think. One of the most critical elements of the game (that is ironically the least focused on) by many sub-2400 chess players is the process of making a plan. They are so focused on how they can get into familiar positions that they sometimes forget about preparing themselves in case they are launched into an unfamiliar position.
I hate to burst your bubble, but at some point in 99% of your games, you will reach a position where you will have to hunker down and decide where to go from there. This is where making a plan comes into play. When you are unsure about what to do, you have to first look for what you hope to achieve. Once you do this, now your job is much simpler. All you have to do is find the moves that help you accomplish your goal. Not too difficult, but helps a lot.
To drive this all the way, I am going to show you an unfamiliar position that is extremely complicated. At first glance, the move will seem impossible to find. Let us break down this behemoth together, and see if making a plan can really make the position that much easier.
So this position probably seems very complicated for you. But let us consider a few things. First off, white is down a piece. Usually being down this kind of material demands extreme counterplay. Second, black's pieces are not very well developed/are developed on the queenside. This means that there are less pieces for him to use to guard his king. Finally, since white is already down so much material to begin with, material should not be much of white's concern. Rather, white should focus on activating his pieces to go after the enemy king. Now what kind of move would do that?
Good job! By activating your pieces, you are getting one step closer to mating the enemy king. Even though this move doesn't create a concrete threat it enables your pieces to flow, and when attacking, that is very important. Now read on, and let us see what to do next. What is black's threat? Oh yes, black is going to capture on e5, the first chance he gets, and quickly consolidate. We must play something forcing or black will slip through our fingers. Let us CALCULATE some variations, and see if we can force anything to stop black from consolidating and keep attacking the black king. There are concrete variations that justify this next move, but to keep in the spirit of making plans, I will provide them.
Excellent! You made a plan to go after the black king, and with calculated analysis you have justifiably avoided black from consolidating. However, black is going to keep up the pressure. What should we do next? Ah I see the next step to bring home the full point is to attack on the e-file, and continue putting pressure on black's king. The only problem is the knight is going to prove to be an excellent defender, after black plays d6 and solidifies its outpost. Is there anything we can do to get it to move?
Any other way to try to get the knight to move would have backfired. This move is the only move that forces the knight to move thus exposing the g6 square and e-file, and letting us keep up the pressure. Now that we moved the knight away, let us take advantage of these weaknesses. Lead the way!
Ok so now how do we finish him off? Well obviously the e-file needs to be used. But that black knight is so annoying. Any check we give on the e-file will be swiftly countered with the black knight hopping to the e3 square, shutting our entire attack down right then and there. We need the knight to move again to weaken the file once more so we can infiltrate it with our rooks.
Great Job! You have done all of the hard work to get to this point. Now, let us reap the rewards of the full point. Come on, you know what to do now!
You have done it! You have proved to yourself that you are capable of working through difficult situations by making a plan, and working towards solving it. Now you are probably asking, What did I even accomplish? Well, it wouldn't be fun if I just told you. I leave you with this last position, which is in fact a tactical puzzle. By playing with a plan you have created a tactical opportunity for yourself. If you think you have it, state your guess in the comments. If you are ready to give up, re-read this article again, and then send me a message for a hint. Without further ado, Good Luck!
Ultimately, people lose because of their heavy reliance on intuition and memorization. These things help them a lot in identifying the right move in positions they have lots of experience playing in. However, the positions that are alien to them might as well make them lose, if this is all they rely on. If you wish to improve, it is important that you understand the importance of making objective plans, and playing moves to execute these plans. After all, if you don't know what you are doing, do you even deserve to win in the first place?