I get into these rather vanilla, or as I call them, boring positions. Not much is happening tactically, and I can't fathom what the right course of action should be strategically.

Here is an example. I am White in this position. My pieces are in what I view as "neutral" (not good, not bad) position, I think the position is about even, and I have no clue what plans to form next.

[fen "r4rk1/p2nbp1p/1qp1bpp1/3p4/3P4/2NBPN2/PPQ2PPP/R4RK1 w - - 0 1"]

Obviously there is no right answer for strategy, but maybe some more experienced players could give me some general heuristics to ponder as I plot my chess board domination. Walking through this example would help too =)


  • 2
    When I find my self in that situation, I usually go through these 3 major factors (for both sides) to start getting an idea of what's going on and, probably not come up with a detailed plan but, do find out what to do overall/next: 1) Position of Kings, are they safe? or which one is more exposed? 2) Pieces, are they active or passive? and their mobility 3) Pawn structure (overall and in center), who controls more space? who has weak pawns? Obviously many more elements exist for a full positional assessment but these 3 elements will give you a good idea of what side is better and why.
    – Only You
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 6:59
  • 2
    When the situation is so (what you call "boring") equal/balanced that we really don't know what to do, it's reasonable to do 'improvement' of your position, whether it is your pawn structure, your piece(s) position, or your king's position. Just as an example let me mention a few possibilities, centralizing piece(s), placing your pieces in more active squares (like moving a knight off the edge of the board or placing one or two rooks on the 7th rank), getting rid of pawn/square weaknesses, exchanging off your bad piece for the opponent's good one, grabbing control of open files or diagonals.
    – Only You
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 7:20

6 Answers 6


"Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do." -- Savielly Tartakower

What follow are the most salient features of the position that jump out at me, and these are the sorts of things one needs to look for when there seems to be nothing to do:

  • You have no structural weaknesses yourself.
  • Black has a weak backward pawn on the c-file that could become a very nice target.
  • Black can attack down the semi-open b-file, but that's less significant since the move b3 leaves White's pawn secure.
  • At the moment, Black's bishop pair isn't of much use due to the relatively closed nature of the position.

Having noted those things, it's safe to say that Black would love to get in the freeing move ... c5, which would allow her to exchange off her most significant weakness, while also starting to open up the position for her bishops. So a good course of action for White here is to try and prevent that move from Black, or at the least to make it as disadvantageous for her as possible.

With that in mind, a good start is 1. Na4, which leaves both the knight and the Qc2 eyeing the c5 square (and opens the way for the rooks to bear down on it as well), and doing so with tempo thanks to the attack on the Qb6. After 1. ... Qb7 2. Rac1 Rfc8 (note: it's these rooks in particular because White might want his other rook being able to go to the d-file if ... c5 -> dxc5 occurs, and Black might want her other rook to have access to the b-file), we see Black trying to support the ... c5 break and White trying to stop it.

[fen "r4rk1/p2nbp1p/1qp1bpp1/3p4/3P4/2NBPN2/PPQ2PPP/R4RK1 w - - 0 1"]

1. Na4 Qb7 2. Rac1 Rfc8 3. Qe2 a5 4. Rfd1 c5 5. dxc5 Nxc5 6. Nxc5 Bxc5

In this case, Black cannot be prevented from achieving the desired pawn break, and so White will need to switch gears and find new goals. For instance, here 3. Qe2 (threatening Ba6) ... a5 4. Rfd1 is a good idea (as mentioned before), so that we will be well-positioned after dxc5, with our rook on the newly half-opened d-file pressuring Black's isolated pawn. For instance, play might proceed 4. ... c5 5. dxc5 Nxc5 6. Nxc5 Bxc5:

[fen "r1r3k1/1q3p1p/4bpp1/p1bp4/8/3BPN2/PP2QPPP/2RR2K1 w - - 0 1"]

1. h3

Now Black's bishop pair is improved, but d4 is an inviting outpost for the white knight. If Black were to trade the dark bishop for the knight after it lands on d4, and we could recapture with a piece, then our structure and our bishop would be significantly better than Black's remaining one, and we would have good prospects for strong pressure against the isolated d-pawn. With that in mind, a good next step is 7. h3, which prevents Black playing ... Bg4 and trading off that bishop for our knight instead, and has the side benefit of creating luft for our king. Unfortunately for us, everything is basically level, as Black has ideas like playing ... d4 herself to open up her bishops and rid herself of her remaining weakness.

Anyway, I hope this gives you some idea of the kinds of thought processes that can be fruitful in "boring" positions like this one, the kinds of features that you should be thinking about when you're not calculating tactical possibilities (which you can never forget about!), and the sort of improvements that White could aim for from your initial position if Black were to fall asleep at the wheel.

  • 2
    Thanks, that was immensely helpful! I guess I want to think about stuff like weaknesses, differences in minor pieces (type and quality of position) for both sides and plan accordingly, at least as a start.
    – YoungMoney
    Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 21:44
  • @YoungMoney, I'm glad I could help. You might find this post to be of interest: chess.stackexchange.com/q/1103/167
    – ETD
    Commented Sep 6, 2012 at 3:51
  • 1
    This kind of answer is what this site is useful for. Thanks ETD ! Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 23:47
  • Heads up: Black was a male. Back on topic, I agree with 1. Na4, 2. Rac8 (White's rook has no immediate use of the a-file). The point of positional play is to play for a better position, which these moves clearly do to take advantage of black's weaknesses and white's strengths. This should be the accepted (check marked) answer. Commented May 24, 2017 at 13:53
  • 1
    @ETD Oh, and lastly, 3.Qe2? is a mistake in light of 3. Nc5! keeping the position closed, allowing white time to develop his pieces on the queenside, and creating a neat outpost on d4 for the knight if Bxc5 or Nxc5. I'm sorry, but I have to drive the point home: 3. Qe2 clearly shows a worse position for white; black's bishops are active in comparison to the initial position. Commented May 24, 2017 at 13:57

I'm going to speak more to the general question and not the specific board that you provided.

In my experience this is where it is important to know yourself, what you do well and what you struggle with. Additionally it is important to know your opponent as well as possible, but if this is your first game against someone that is not always possible.

Some chess players are great attackers. These players excel in creating chaos on the board and slipping an attack under their opponents nose. This kind of player will take a trade of equal, or even lesser, value if it creates a break in their opponents defenses or if it just makes their opponent change plans.

Other players are great defenders. These players excel in maintaining a balanced board until their opponent makes a mistake, and then take full advantage of that mistake. When two players of this type face off it can indeed seem very boring. I feel that I tend to fall into this category, so I focus on opening as many attacking lanes as possible while maintaining a solid defense until I see an opening.

Of course, plenty of players don't fall into one specific category, but for the most part we all fall somewhere on this spectrum. If you don't know where you are on this spectrum then practice different styles. Play a few games aggressively and see how you do, then play a few defensively and patiently and see how you do. Try this against a variety of opponents. Eventually you will get a feel for what is comfortable for you, and where you excel. Then when you practice, be sure not to neglect what it is you struggle at so that you can continue to round out your game.


It's funny... I find this sort of position much more interesting than tactical positions. I actually have to discipline myself to limit my thinking time. Some questions I could ask:

  • Should White play against the c6-pawn or consider a plan with e4, or both?
  • If/when Black counterattacks against b2, should I move it to b3, b4, or neither? (on b3 it may invite ...Ba3, and on b4 it may invite ...a5)
  • Where to place the rooks? b1 + c1, c1 + e1, or what? And when?
  • Same for Black: a8 + c8, b8 + c8 (this would be the fairly routine way), c8 + d8 (could backfire if he doesn't get in ...c5), or c8 and e8 (with ideas of counterplay down the e-file)
  • Can Black get counterplay with f5-f4? Even if White plays g3, this may still be playable. Or how about f5 and Nf6-e4? Will a well-timed ...Bg4 ever be an issue? (causing the f3-knight to move away from d4 may be helpful)
  • Is Black just hanging on for a draw or is there any offensive plan for him? As White, is this position risk-free or do I need to be careful of overextending? (Could Black's 2 bishops be a latent danger?)
  • Can Black respond to Na4 with Qa5? Does it matter? (on a5 the queen eyes a4 and c5, but could lose time to a3 and b4)
  • Should I play h3 to deter Bg4? Does that strengthen the f5-f4 plan?
  • What are the virtues of trading queens? Should I consider that a valuable objective? (likewise for Black)
  • What are Black's goals here? (How) can I prevent them?
    • one goal might be to achieve the semi-comfortable arrangement a5, Qb8, and Rfc8. Should I prevent this by acting fast, but committing to a particular approach?
  • What are likely transformations that could happen, and how appealing are they? (various minor piece exchanges, pawn structure changes, transition to endgame...)
  • Bearing the above in mind, what are some 'typical' or 'representative' variations for me to start with? Perhaps:
      1. Na4 Qa5 2. a3;
      1. Na4 Qb7 2. Rfc1;
      1. e4;
      1. Rfd1 (to deter ...c5);
      1. h3;
      1. Rab1 (to encourage ...a5 without moving my own b-pawn);
    • etc.

I would keep iterating over these until I found something clearly best or, failing that, I make progress with the above questions. I might also rely on general policies that I have adopted over the years (for example, make multi-purpose moves; avoid unnecessary weakening moves; and so on)

I guess what I'm saying is that I think there's a lot going on here, and your difficulties knowing what to do come from the same place as your feeling that the position is boring or dry -- you just need a little more exposure to the world of strategy!

Hope this helps.

  • This is one heck of a scattered thought process. Commented May 24, 2017 at 14:22

Actually this is a pretty interesting position.

You have two "pawn islands" (Capablanca's term) to three for Black. One of them is an isolated rook pawn, two of them are "hanging" c and d pawns. Black's king side pawns are doubled. You have an open c file on your side to attack Black's backward c pawn.

Try to keep your pawns on dark squares to give your light-squared bishop as much mobility as possible to attack Black's pawn on the light squares.

Black's only advantage is a the bishop pair, but that's not much of an advantage with so many pawns on the board. Note that Black's light-squared bishop is somewhat "bad," so try to trade one of your knights for his DARK squared bishop.

One way to try to do this is to move your c3 knight to a4, chasing the Black Queen. Your followup threats are a3, b4, and Nc5. If Black exchanges knights and you recapture with the b pawn, the pawn structures make both of Black's bishops "somewhat bad."

Black can counter this threat by moving c5, offering the exchange of his c pawn for your d pawn. You gladly accept because this isolates Black's d pawn and gives your f3 knight a fine outpost on d4 (see the diagram in ETD's answer).


My first strategic thought would be to see if tactically I could get to a position with pawns on a3 and b4, rooks on c1 and d1, knights on f4 and b3. Alternative might be the B on b3 with the Knight on a4 and the other knight dropping in to d3 instead.

Like all such "schematic thinking" approaches to the game, you have to spend the time to figure out what your opponent can do to stop it. (And what those moves give you. For example, if you get the pawns to a3/b4 and knock off the dark-squared bishop early, you can consider planting a knight on a5 to further pressurize the c-pawn.)

"Who stands better?" is always the main question, but I can say I'd rather be playing White than Black in that position. For example, White can probably force a passed pawn eventually while there's no way short of a massive blunder Black ever will. I think this position could be classed as "Carlsbad," only in the real Carlsbad positions the black pawn is on e6 and not f6. Personally, I think f6 is a worse place for the pawn, so the Carlsbad strategies should be even easier and stronger.

White's quietest path to victory is to swap d and e pawns for Black's c and d pawns, at which point removing the pieces is a won endgame for White. The most important piece swap is Knight for dark-square bishop, because doing so eliminates a horde of horrible opposite-colored Bishop endgame possibilities, none of which are won.

So I'd spend my thinking time evaluating these strategic ideas, trying to see which ones I would be able to impose tactically, keeping them in mind and being willing to switch between them as opportunity dictated.

  • It's very unclear what Nf4 and Nb3 would accomplish. Commented May 24, 2017 at 14:23

There are already good answers tothis question, and the position is indeed full of food for thought. The position is very interesting because it is about to take on a clearer shape. Whoever makes the best preparation could obtain a big advantage. Not much has happened yet in this game. Certainly neither player has made a major error. In such situations it is usually a mistake to try and force matters. You just quietly get on with things. But what?

A really bad idea would be to focus all your thinking on forcing through with e4 to create a King-side attack. For one thing, you have to do a lot of work getting your pieces over there. For another, you will be wrecking your nice pawns by isolating your d-pawn. Also, he has no weaknesses over there for you to exploit. If K-side attacks are what you enjoy, why did you play this opening?

Dont try quite yet to decide the best plan, but play moves that will fit in whatever happens. The crucial question in this position is probably "what will happen on the c-file?" Is that backward pawn stuck there forever? Perhaps it is, because playing ..c5 does have some drawbacks, leaving the d-pawn isolated. So Black has a difficult choice to make. (Never do anything to make your opponents decisions easier!) Rfd1 comes into consideration. Your opponent will be reluctant to open up that Rooks file.

I don't really like Na4. It is tempting because it does attack both the Q and a weak square, but it puts the N on the rim. It does not yet threaten to move to c5, when White must retake with a P, after which his half-open file has disappeared, and even a N on the good square d4 does not achieve much. Leaving the N where it is still discourages ..c5 because of the pressure against d5. But there is not much to work with apart from the c-file, so suppose we try to prepare our play a bit, until we could put the N on c5 when we are able to retake with a piece. This needs some preparation, like N-d2-b3 (Maybe I should not play b3 because although it protects the pawn, it blocks the N trek. Arien would like to play a3 and b4, but then Black might get play with ..a5) Creating an outpost will not do much in itself, but it may prepare for pieces to penetrate in the endgame. Think of the K striding through. This is going to be a 60-move game! Blacks only counterplay seems to be a diversion on the K-side involving f6-f5-f4 after a lot of preparation. Attacks down the b-file can be parried by Qe2 and Rc2.

I have not looked at this position hard enough to know what I would play, and my choice may not be the best anyway, but I do know how I would try to think about it. White must try to exploit the c-file; it is the only asset he has gained from the opening. If you can think of a way to manoeuver your pawns and pieces, plan this so they dont get in each others way. Dont settle on a definite plan too soon. Books will tell you that a bad plan is better than no plan. Don't believe them. Play, as far as possible, moves that can contribute, even indirectly, to as many possible plans as there may be. The nature of the best plan will reveal itself in the next phase of the game, as you both jockey for position.

Good luck to you. You are taking the right steps to enjoy a deeper appreciation of the game.

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