Here is an example position:

[fen ""]
[Startply "40"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. e5 Nd5 6. cxd4 Bb4+ 7. Bd2 O-O 8. a3 Ba5 9. Bc4 Nb6 10. Ba2 Bxd2+ 11. Qxd2 d5 12. h3 Bf5 13. Nc3 h6 14. O-O a6 15. Qf4 Bg6 16. Nh4 Bd3 17. Rfd1 Bh7 18. Bb1 Ne7 19. Bxh7+ Kxh7 20. Qg3 Qd7

White to play. I am clueless as to how to progress the game. I am trying to understand stuff without an engine, as this proved as the only way to improve for me.

I mostly care, in general, what are standard ways to progress such positions, given that there are no tactics? I want to play the least creative move - just what "makes sense" to play here. However, I have no idea what that is.

I have some ideas, but no continuations or ways to compare them.

Here is my thought process, I would appreciate some guidelines as to where I go wrong.

  1. f4, starting a king side attack. Drawbacks: opens my king, f5 is protected, g4 isn't possible yet.
  2. Ok, maybe unblock g5? move the queen? With tempo to d3, and then f4 g5? is it even worthwhile?
  3. So my ideas are not so great. Let's maybe disrupt black's plans. ..Nc4 looks juicy. Is it? b3 kicks the knight away, and Na5 isn't scary, just move the c3 knight to defend.
  4. Another idea for black: attack the center. c5 or f6. c5 dxc5 looks bad for black.
  5. ..f6 seems better, but then just f4 (and not to begin with, because why commit?) if takes, white gets a protected passer and black gets a temporary file, better for white.
  6. So black's ideas are also not great.
  7. Why did black play Qd7? (rated ~2000 on lichess) I have no idea.
  8. Just play Rac1 to improve the rook and wait? c6 seems to kill that idea.

I mainly care about the thought process, and where I could improve it, and less about the specific moves in this specific position. Positions "like this" are where I usually either go wrong or waste all of my time.

  • Tartakower is said to have observed that "Tactics is what you do when you have something to do; Strategics is what you do when you don't have anything to do." It seems you are asking for a tactical solution to a strategical question.
    – user30536
    May 31, 2023 at 5:33
  • 1
    One helpfull "trick" is to just think what your worst piece is. In whites case it is definitly the rook on a1, because it has not moved yet, and does nothing. So the most natural move would be rook from a1 to c1. You say that c6 kills that idea. But c6 weakens blacks position, also the main idea for the rook would probably be to bring it to c3 and use the somewhat clear 3rd rank to swing it over to the king side for an attack.
    – Cornman
    Jun 1, 2023 at 5:32

5 Answers 5


For positionnal play, don't start thinking about moves, start from the position evaluation.

There are many ways to evaluate a position, one suggestion is to look sequentially at:

  • material

  • king security

  • direct threats

  • piece activity

  • pawn structure

Here, going very fast, this is how I would think about the position:

Material is equal. wK is slightly safer than bK, because White has more space on the kingside and there is a possible check on the b1-h7 diagonal. No immediate threats. Queens and knights are well placed for both sides, with the Nh4 position quite peculiar: far from the center but it might be useful if f5 becomes available or if White develops an initiative against the bK. ...Nc4 jumps have to be checked. There are no open files for rooks, and only Black has a rapid way to create some with ...c5 or even ...f6, while While may hope for a rook-lift on the third rank or to support the majority on the kingside.

Indeed, the pawn structure with Pe5 vs Pc7 defines most of the future plans: White has a better center and space, and each side wants to be active on the side of their majority: ...c5 questions White's center, opens the c-file and creates an isolated passed pawn on d5, while f4-g4-f5 could lead to a mating attack, suffocation, or just a passed e-pawn in a distant endgame.

A premature f4 might be counter-productive: if White piece don't provide enough support, Black could organize a blocade with ...Nf5, ...g6, ...h5, or possibly ...f5 - although no bN can easily reach e6. To activate his position, White rather needs to move the queen out of the way (most probably to d3), use the g-pawn, and be ready to re-route the Nh4 - if chance happens, through f5; more probably via g2-e3. The wK might feel airy then the pawns rush forward, but it would still be reasonnably covered, say, on h2. The key question I would try to solve with calculation is: should I improve the rooks' placement beforehands ? Rd1 is a bit passive but at least it's protecting d4, but Ra1 is totally out of play. On the other hand, would Rac1 prove useful ? We have no target on the c-file. Isn't Rf1-Rad1 or Re1-Rad1 too slow ?

So lets' try to be more concrete: 21.Qd3 Kg8 (gotta check if 21...g6 changes much) 22.g4 brings two positionnal threats: f4-f5 and Nf5. Sounds nice, but 22...Nc4 threatens a fork on b2 and forces us to slow down with 23.Rab1, and that rook will remain passive for a while. So why not start with 21.Rac1, ensuring that any ...Nc4 will be met with Rc2 from where the rook can join the kingside later ? I see two ways for Black to use that extra tempo: 21...Rac8 planning ...c5 asap, or 21...g6 intending to cross our plans with 22.Qd3 f5 (very commiting) 23.ef6 (not taking en passant exposes us to a blocade with a bN trying to reach e6, possibly faster than anything we can engineer on the g-file) 23...Rf6 when a lot as changed : Black's castle has been weakened, the e-file is open, the Nh4 will certainly aim for the outpost on e5, g6 and f2 are soft points... Meanwhile 21.Rf1 Nc4 22.b3? Nd2 is a failure, but 22.Ra2!? followed by 23.b3 could do the job, and there seem to be no tactical issue with 21.Re1.

Well, let's stop there. My candidate moves are 21.Qd3, 21.Rc1 and 21.Re1, and the lines I would want to explore further and evaluate before choosing my move are:

  • 21.Qd3 Kg8 22.g4 Nc4 23.Rab1 c5 (then maybe 24.f4, 24.Nf5, 24.Kh2, 24.Ng2)
  • 21.Qd3 g6 (I will spend time checking this only if the previous line is tempting for White)
  • 21.Rc1 Rc8 22.Qd3 Kg8 23.g4 c5 (then 24.f4 or 24.Nf5)
  • 21.Rc1 g6 22.Qd3 f5 23.ef6 Rf6 (then 24.Nf3 or 24.Re1)
  • 21.Rc1 g6 22.Qd3 f5 23.Kh2 (if the previous line is fine for Black)
  • 21.Re1 planning 22.Rad1

In blitz, I might go for a rook move because I don't have a good feeling about expending on the kingside while leaving such a passive rook on a1 or b1. But in case I'm wrong that wouldn't be the first time my intuition lets me down!


In the long-run, the ideal solution is to improve your positional intuition, such that candidate moves almost come "automatically" to you. They simply seem natural. However, right now what you can do is ask three questions (paraphrased from Aagaard's book, "Grandmaster Preparation: Positional Play"):

  1. What are the worst placed pieces (mainly for your side).
  2. What are some weaknesses (for both sides).
  3. What does my opponent want to do?

For 1), this basically comes down to which pieces are inactive, not doing much, etc. For example, in your position the a1-rook is out of play. You could argue the a2-bishop is poor too. The bishop does attack d5, put this pawn can be reinforced 'permanently' with ...Ne7-...c6. So, a goal may be to improve this rook and bishop, either by putting them in a more active location, or by exchanging them off (e.g., maybe move the knight, offer a bishop trade with Bb1). For your opponent, you could perhaps look at their pieces. For example, identify their worst placed pieces, and maybe try to keep them from being activated somehow. Or, identify which of their pieces are best-placed, and aim to push them off their posts (or trade them off).

For 2) Weaknesses can range from anything including weak squares, weak pawns, a weak king, etc. For your side, you should aim to hopefully eliminate any of your weaknesses. E.g., if you have a weak pawn, seek to exchange it off, or protect it (if you believe it requires defense). Or if you have a weak king (i.e., a king with poor shelter, such that your opponent has realistic means to attack it), aim to improve its defensive resources. E.g., if it's on an open file, consider moving it off it. Or, maybe bring more of your pieces in its vicinity. For your opponent, you should aim to capitalize on their weaknesses, and also try to prevent them from getting rid of said weaknesses. E.g., for pawn weaknesses, prevent your opponent from making these pawns non-weak, and also try to attack them if possible. Going back to the d5-pawn, I mentioned how it could be strongly reinforced with ...Ne7-...c6. So, maybe one plan might be playing b4, getting ready to play b5, which would attack a pawn on c6. If you can discourage ...c6, the d5-pawn would remain somewhat weak. You could then attack it with Nc3 (which also helps your goals of activating the a1-rook).

For 3), this is the art of prophylaxis. Ask yourself how you would play as your opponent, if it were their move and you were playing their side. Then, aim to defend against any worthy ideas that look dangerous. Going back to the ...c6 idea again, this is something I'd want to discourage as White. Also, ...f6 looks like a natural pawn break Black might try, in order to break down White's strong centre and open some lines (which would maybe improve the f8-rook). So, I'd try to prevent ...f6, or if that's not realistic, simply aim to be prepared for it. E.g., castle and put a rook on e1, so that it can capitalize on the e-file if it's opened.

  • thank you for your answer! Please notice you talked about a bishop, but I am referring to mostly the end position, which, for some reason, is not automatically shown in the quoted game. Your answer is quite generic, but I would appreciate understanding 1. which position you are referring to, and mostly 2. referring to the end position (after move 20)
    – Gulzar
    May 31, 2023 at 7:55
  • @Gulzar Oh yeah, I meant the position after 12...Bf5. For the end position, most of my points would probably revolve around the a1-rook being out of play, and trying to find a way to attack Black's vulnerable king (e.g., aiming to play f4, and arrange a pawn push to f5 soon after). Maybe also improving the c3-knight, since after ...c6, its attack against the d5-pawn is kind of pointless. May 31, 2023 at 8:58

There is a method you can use as a starting point: compare the following properties of your and your opponent's position (in this order):

  1. King safety: check the fields around your king and count the influences on each of them. If you find "neutral" or "enemy"-squares (ones where opponent's influences and yours balance out or your opponent even has the upper hand) your king is in grave danger!
  2. material balance: count the pieces (in pawn units, Q=9, R=5, B=3 but 2B=7, N=3, in endgame K~4-5)
  3. center influence: like with king safety count, your and opponent's influences for the fields e4, e5, d4 and d5.
  4. extended center: Do the same for the fields adjacent to the center: c4, c3, d3, e3, f3, f4, f5, f6, e6, d6, c6, c5
  5. piece mobility: For each piece count the number of squares it can go to (not only squares it should go to! Even if it won't move there it might be valuable to be able to take something moving there.) Build pairs of pieces with your opponents pieces, like i.e.: "my one rook is better than his one rook, but his other rook is better than my other rook, so that cancels out".
  6. space: Do you have your fair share of the board, more or even less?
  7. special: if the position has something special, like an imminent threat, blocked pieces which can't get out, etc..

At last sum it up: advantages and disadvantages can (but do not necessarily) cancel each other out.

You might come up with something like: my opponent has advantage in material (he owns 1 pawn unit more), but my pieces have more mobility (I have 3 better posted/more mobile pieces). You need to do something dynamic to make use of your better mobility. This might not result in mating him, but you might eventually get your pawn back.

Addendum: analyzing the example position, as requested per comment:

  1. King safety: whites position is unblemished, the square g7 is neutral -> Advantage white
  2. Material: equal
  3. Center: white owns d4 and e5, black owns d5 and e4
  4. extended center: white owns c5, black owns c4, f6 is neutral, all the other squares are in the respective players possession.
  5. piece mobility: wQ:9, bQ:11, wR1:3, bR1:5, wr2:6, bR2:6, wN1:3, bN1:3, wN2:7, bN2:5
  6. space: white has a small advantage (e5).

The position is about equal. White has a small space advantage and a better king position, offset by a very small advantage in mobility of the black pieces. White should reinforce his position by activating his pieces, especially the rooks (that means: maximize the number of squares they influence).

A plausible plan could be Rd-f1 (or Rd1-d2/d3, Ra1-f1), f2-f4 and attacking the black king/striving for spatial advantage).

  • 1
    alright, how do you apply what you just said to the position above (or to any position) and come up with the next move [without brute-forcing all variations]? it it easy to answer each point, but I don't see how a move follows from this
    – Gulzar
    May 31, 2023 at 13:10
  • @Gulzar: fair question, i'll add it to my answer.
    – bakunin
    May 31, 2023 at 13:13

You've got kingside pawn majority and you're up a pawn. The opponent has two weakly protected squares adjacent to the king (f7 and g7). The initiative is definitely in your hands. Launch an attack on the king by advancing your pawns and getting rooks on f and g files behind them. I would start with a Queen check from d3 and then push the f-pawn. The check is to prevent blockade on f5.


To be (very) simple :

  1. What is the threat of your last opponent's move ?
  2. If no threat : is there any tactic for you (mating or capturing) ?
  3. If you do not find any tactic, develop and activate your pieces
  4. and then : it is time to think about strategy

during each step, look at check-capture-threat (as much for your moves as for your opponent's). You'll have to choose between your two or three best candidate moves. Once you have selected your best candidate move, check that all is well by repeating the previous phases specifically for this selected move.

  • This did not reference the given position at all. Clearly, here we are in 4., which you didn't expand on
    – Gulzar
    Jun 7, 2023 at 8:15
  • When a man is hungry, it's better to teach him to fish than to give him a fish (Confucius)
    – Sholmes49
    Jun 8, 2023 at 9:29
  • Right. Please give the fishing rod then, as this answer is more like telling a man "there are fish in the ocean, good luck".
    – Gulzar
    Jun 12, 2023 at 11:35

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