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I very often encounter the situation that I don't know how to come up with a plan after the opening. See this position, playing as Black, black to move:

[FEN "r3r1k1/1pp1qpp1/pb1p1n1p/4p3/1P2P3/2PP2BP/1P1Q1PP1/R2N1RK1 b - - 0 17"]

From my understanding, both Black's minor pieces are better than White's. The bishop has a great open diagonal and the knight is better placed, closer to the center. What I don't know is how to continue from here. ...d5 with support from the queen, knight, rook or the c pawn seems "natural" and it's even recommended by the engine, but what for? That weakens the e pawn which is already targeted by White's bishop.

Like I said, Black's bishop seems fine, and about the knight, with the current pawn structure I don't see an obvious better place for it.

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    In addition to understanding the current position also dream about your ideal position. Then see what to do to get there. Dec 22, 2021 at 12:49

2 Answers 2

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I will try to give an approach to assessing this position. My aim is not to reach a conclusion but to illustrate a process. It is a typical error to try and assess a position by looking at where the pieces and pawns currently stand, instead of asking where they can go to. OP does somewhat acknowledge this by saying "about the knight, with the current pawn structure I don't see an obvious better place for it." Well, how about f4? We get off to an immediate start with ..Nh5, threatening to win a piece. If then Bh2, then ....g5 (the pawn structure is not permanent) the Knight is going to f4 and if it is exchanged off we retake with the g-Pawn which will give us an open file for attack that outweighs the doubled Pawns. Oh, but there is a downside to ..g5. White will play Ne3 (that Knight was not so badly placed- I feel sure it went to d1 with this in mind!) and now White too will have a well placed Knight unless Black trades off that beautiful Bishop. If he does so, then if White is afraid of doubled pawns he will recapture with the Queen, but much better would be to retake with the Pawn, kicking the knight from its outpost. So we decide to keep our Bishop. and we have the line of play ..Nh5, Bh2 g5, Ne3 Nf4, Nf5 and now where does the Queen go?? Both e6 and f6 would protect the h-pawn, but e6 has the extra merit of combining nicely with a ..g4 push.

At this point I find myself liking ..Nh5 but suddenly notice that instead of Ne3 White might try g3, which is so ugly that it does not easily come to mind, but does defeat Blacks aims. If the Black Rook had been on f8 I could keep up the momentum with ..f5 So then I start to consider playing ..Rf8 at some stage, or even playing (in the position after ..Nh5, Bh2 g4, g3 f5 as a temporary sacrifice. But after Ne3 I find myself unable to do better than to get that Pawn back with ..Bxe3. My assessment now is that both positions have been damaged, and perhaps more so for Black.

So that did not work well, but I was trying, as I said, to illustrate a process. The engine recommendation of ..d5 does not seriously weaken the e-pawn. In fact after ..d5, exd Nxd5, it is the WPd3 that starts to look vulnerable. If White protects the e-pawn with, say, Qc2 then Black can play..Rad8 followed by doubling on the d-file. The move ..d5 is probably what should be played.

I will try to outline a procedure that might be followed, beginning with these questions.

  1. Is the position stable? In particular is the Pawn structure stable? Which pieces are likely to still be on their present squares in five moves time? In ten moves time?

  2. If a piece is likely to move, do I want to exchange it off? If not, what square would I like it to be on? What useful Pawn moves do I still have?

  3. Can I effect the exchange? Can I route the piece or pawn to its preferred post? If not, can I remove the obstacles?

  4. This is harder! The same questions from the opponents viewpoint!

  5. Select "candidate moves" on the basis of these answers. Analyse the tactical consequences of each as far as you are able.

Entire books have been written on this topic. I doubt that anything I may say here can truly answer your question, but one thing I feel sure of is that you need to base your evaluation on more than the static features of the position. And although you are correct to look for negatives, like the possible weak e-pawn after ..d5, remember that unless your opponent is a complete beginner you will not not be able to give weaknesses to him without accepting some of your own. Good luck!

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    Excellent answer, my only addition being it's a now-or-never situation for d5, since White can play Ne3, c4 and Bh4 to torpedo it. You definitely don't want a Nf5 that can't be thrown out (e.g. if you are provoked to g5). The position is complicated, but equal, consequently Stockfish can't make its mind up on Nh5 or d5. Dec 22, 2021 at 16:18
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Amazing answer by Philip. But let me try an answer more specific to this position. Each side has two minor pieces that are developed and quite active. That knight on d1 is in reality quite good: It is going to e3, blocking the diagonal and eyeing d5 and f5. (I hope you don't, but I personally suffer from this subconscious false idea that a piece is better simply because it is mine!)

So, the question now becomes: how is each side going to put their heavy pieces (rooks, I mean) to work. Whoever finds the best half-open files for their rook(s) with potentially weak opponent pawns on them will take the initiative. Now it is a matter of inspection. Begin with the a-file. Can I (Black) open it? Yes, push the a-pawn. But then after exchange, not only white has liquidated their doubled pawn, it is also not clear to whom that file now belongs! So, I will give up on the a-file. Though this might be a good way toward a draw as rooks can be traded along that file. How about b.file? No. I will need many tempi for that, even if it is achievable. Notice that White is only 2 or 3 moves away from opening their own file: the f-file. So, I must be quick. c5 is interesting and I am not using an engine to see the lines, but maybe after exchanges bxc5 dxc5, the least is White can push c4 and block out our Bishop then continue with their own plan of Ne3 and f4. Philip also mentioned Rf8 and f5, but realistically that is not executable. Case of e, g and h files is pretty obvious. So, it becomes a no-brainer to play d5! It opens the d file for our rook(s) and a d3 pawn is sitting there. Moreover, if takes takes, our Knight becomes amazing on d5 where it at the same time prevents white's plan: it pressures e3 and attacks f4 squares.

So, that is how one would be lead to d5 by asking: How can I find some play for my rooks. In chess, and in life, once you ask the right question, it often more easily leads to the right answer :)

Warning: Once you find the plan, check tactical safety first and then move!

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