Planning Ahead in Chess


Today I’d like to present to you an article from our guest coach IM Larry Evans. IM Evans founded Mountain Lake Chess Camp  in 1992 to help train his own son (Cory, who would go on to be a US scholastic Chess Champion). Since then the company has grown to include a weeklong overnight camp and summer day camps, which have been attended by some of the best players in the world. They also teach afterschool chess classes in over 60 schools in the San Diego area, organize local scholastic chess tournaments and offer private chess lessons for all levels. 

His article is about planning ahead in chess and let’s get started! 🙂


You can’t play a good game of chess without a plan. It’s as simple as that. Yet many chess players don’t even know how to make a plan. Their games lack direction. Unless something can be captured or requires protection, they rarely know what to do. So they ask me in response, I’ve developed a little chart to lend structure to the games of my students.
Evaluate a chess positionYou evaluate a position by thinking about five things:

1) Count the stuff: If one side has more pieces or pawns, it probably has a profound effect on the proper plans for both players.

2) King Safety: If somebody’s king is on e4 during the opening, that will be likely even more important than who has more stuff.

3) Pawn Structure: Which squares and pawns are protected (or protectable) by pawns? Positional strengths, like support points and pawn chains, are. Weaknesses, like holes and backward pawns, are not. Who’s making queens? Where are the passed pawns or candidates for future passed pawns within majorities?

4) Space: Who’s got more room to maneuver? Whose pieces are stepping on each other’s toes? Who controls the center? What pawns are further advanced (and where)? What’s the story with open and half-open files, and does anyone have an open rank for major pieces to use? Does anyone have an opposing knight on his face? Or how about a centralized queen, radiating power in all directions like the sun? Are any bishops slicing the board in half through domination of a long diagonal?

5) Time: How fast is everyone doing what they’re supposed to be doing? This one is tough, because what they’re supposed to be doing depends upon the part of the game.

The opening is easier: Who’s ahead in development? The Endgame starts off easily: Who’s making the queen faster? But then it gets complicated. Because so few pieces are left, it’s possible none will have good moves. The emphasis change, confusingly, from Who’s faster? to Who’s slower? or Who’s better at wasting time?

The Middlegame is the weirdest of all. Here the question is: Who’s accomplishing his plan faster? But we’re evaluating in order to come up with a plan, raising an interesting philosophical problem. The answer is that you look around and come back to it later. My chart is linear because straight lines work better on paper. Your thinking should not be.

The first thing an evaluation tells you is who has the better position. Although nice to know, the answer is not that important, unless you’re considering a draw or annotating the game for Chess Life.

The most important thing revealed through evaluation is the proper plan for both players to pursue. Typically, one side assumes an attacking posture while the other, correspondingly, shores up the defense. This is not always the case, however. Sometimes both sides attack in a sort of caveman slugfest. Sometimes, nobody attacks and both watch the grass grow. But I’ve got limited space here and don’t want to fill up with charts. The attack/defense scenario is certainly the most common. Besides, applying it to all positions will probably still improve your game. There’s an old saying in chess: “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.”

The first step to planning an attack is to focus it. Even Luke Skywalker couldn’t destroy the Death Star without that little hole to focus his torpedoes into. Focusing an attack is like pouring it through a funnel. You start with the full 32 squares (assuming no one has left his own half of the board). Divide it into thirds (kingside, queenside, center) and pick a sector, funnelling down to a dozen or so squares. You might want to pick an outpost square out of those; a friendly port on the front line (like English land during WWII) where your pieces can rest, relax, and have a few laughs before invading the enemy territory. Ultimately, however, you need a target square on or around your final objective.

Once an attack is focused, the next step is to break in. This actually involves a change in the pawn structure, often achieved by exchanging pawns that open ranks, files, and diagonals leading to the target. Rooks and bishops seize and build batteries along the open lines, knights hangout in local support points, the queen struts in like Darth Vader behind his stormtroopers, and everyone waits for your order to “Charge!”

The defender’s job is to stop all this activity. One way to do this is to consolidate his position. Once the opposition selects a focus for the attack, the defender consolidates by rushing pieces to that sector. If the defender has holes or pawn weaknesses in the area, he protects them with pieces instead. If the attacker’s about to burst through on a file or diagonal, the defender clogs the line with a pawn (or a piece) defended by another pawn. If the focus of an attack is to queen a passed pawn, he blockades the intruder with the least powerful piece possible.

Consolidate, the best defense in chess is usually to trade. Is an opponent’s rook bugging you on an open file? Slide your rook over and trade it off! Has it already penetrated to the seventh rank? Lift your rook over and trade it off! Has your opponent plunked a well-supported knight onto your half of the board? Trade it off. Even for a bishop! Sometimes even a rook! Does White have a bishop fianchettoed on b2, putting pressure across the board against your pawn on g7? Sure you can consolidate by putting a pawn on f6, but maybe it’s better to put your bishop there and trade it off!

The following example allows us to watch two of the greatest chess thinkers of all time planning out their strategies.

I can tell you exactly what both players were thinking. “Uh, I really need a plan here. What was the first step on Larry’s chart again? Oh yeah… that’s right! Evaluate the position.

1) Black’s up a pawn.

2) Although both castled positions look solid, it will soon look apparent that Black’s king is actually in a great deal of trouble. So let’s stick to our straight line for now. It’s easier to elaborate later.

3) The White support point d6 is a hole deep in Black’s position. The converse is true for d3 and b3. Black’s extra pawn is a passed pawn on a7, part of a three to one queenside pawn majority. White, in turn, has a four to three kingside majority (including a candidate on e5).

4) White’s furthest advanced pawn (the candidate, incidentally) is on the king’s side of the center.  He consequently enjoys more room in that sector, especially once his f-pawn starts rolling. Black’s furthest advanced pawn is on the queen side, but not the center. His space advantage is therefore squished into three files instead of four.

5) Opening time is even; every piece is developed. This game is between two world champions; of course every piece is developed (remember that in your next game)! Also note that Black’s rook is developed, behind his passed pawn, despite never moving. Rooks and bishops are cool that way. They work best from far away, so can be developed without being moved.

Middlegame time is another story. Stepping further from our straight line, Black’s queen and knight are a zillion moves from consolidation if White can do anything with his advantage on the kingside.

Evaluating the five things helped Botvinnik and Capablanca understand who stood better. Both were egomaniacs, so my guess is that each preferred his own chances. There’s nothing wrong with this. If they were playing anyone other than each other, both would have been right! Self-confidence might be a bigger asset to a human’s game than objectivity, one reason the whose better? aspect of evaluation isn’t necessarily important.

What is important is how White plans to attack and Black plans to defend. The roles lay out that way for several reasons. First of all, White’s down a pawn. He better start attacking or he’s going to lose. Lasker referred to extra material as a “lasting advantage”. By this he meant that Black has nothing to prove; the pawn will still be there on Move 50. So instead of trying something now, Black’s plan is to consolidate against everything White tries, until Botvinnik realizes he’s a pawn down and resigns.

There are less depressing reasons for White to attack, also. His pieces enjoy more maneuvering room on the kingside, so an attack focused on that sector has some potential. Black’s king is there, but his pieces aren’t. This suggests White’s first objective be a rapid kingside checkmate, a goal worthy of the attack. But his pawn majority in that sector, including a healthy, advanced candidate with a rook already behind it, means if the mating attack falls short he can always settle for a new queen.
target of attack
The target square of White’s mating attack is f7, because his f-pawn marches down until it breaks open the file to gain frontal access. The target squares of White’s majority attack are e7, and e8, called blockade squares in deference to Black’s defensive resources. Speaking of which, Black’s plan is to stop all this stuff and trade like crazy, especially queens! If he can get the queens off, White’s mating attack is over and Black’s pawn majority becomes at least as ominous as White’s.

Now let’s pick the game up in progress to observe both plans in action:

1. Qf2!

This brings White’s best attacking piece into the theater of operation and even onto the critical file. But why now? Capa was threatening 1…Nbc5!, either forcing White to trade queens (his worst nightmare!), or providing Black time to consolidate the knight into d3, closer to the action and, at the very least, where it can trade for White’s bishop. Two lessons here: First  if White was strong enough to see Black’s threat but didn’t have a plan, he’d have known to move his queen but wouldn’t have known where. Even good players can’t play a good game of chess without a plan. Second (and most important) having a plan doesn’t make the game easier, it makes it harder. You can’t put the game on auto pilot just because you have a plan. What makes Botvinnik is that his moves are still brilliant. They’re just brilliant within the framework of his plan.

Consolidating f5 against invasion by the White’s knight. Since f7 and e8 are both target squares, a White knight on d6 would help the queen mate and the e-pawn queen. Botvinnik’s knight needed f5 to get there from g3.

2.f4 f5

A textbook moment for both plans: White played to break open the f-file with 3. f5; Black consolidated the file by putting his own pawn there first.

3. exf6 e.p.

A crossroads for White between his mating attack and majority attack. Capa lifted his f-pawn from the path if White’s candidate, offering White a protected, passed pawn to keep the f-fd closed and avoid getting mated. The “now or never” aspect of en passant forced Botvinnik into an immediate choice between his passer and re-opening the file. He correctly decided that Black could consolidate against his majority attack by blockading the e-pawn with… Nd7-f8-e6. Two considerations helped: Black’s knight is the perfect blockader and White’s bishop is useless in that particular battle.


Even this course allows Capablanca to consolidate the kingside by bringing his knight into battle. While bishops and rooks support from far away (like big guns on battleships), knights get right into the front line (like the infantry). That’s how focussing an attack tells both sides where to put their pieces.

4.f5 Rxe1

White breaks, Black trades. If Botvinnik’s going to insist on opening the f-file, Capablanca’s going to make sure there are no rooks exploiting it.

5. Rxe1 Re8 6. Re6!

So Botvinnik uses his outpost square to get something out of the trade.


This breaking open of the f-file seems suicidal, but Black’s attacked knight can’t move because it’s skewered to his g-pawn, and 6… Nh5 falls to 7. fxg6 Rxe6 8. Qf7 + (Queen to the target square!) 8…. Kh8 9. Qf8 mate. Meanwhile, consolidating the knight with 6.   Kf7 lets White break open the f-file with a cute combination: 7. Rxf6+! Kxf6 8. fxg6+ Kxg6 9. Qf5+ Kg7 (9…Kh6 allows 10. Qf6 mate) 10. Nh5+ Kh6, but now that White’s knight is sitting on h5, it’s no longer controlling that square. So after 11. g4, the move 11…. Qc6 consolidates against the mate, but releases the bishop (12. Ba3!) for a nee mating attack on f8!

7. fxe6 Kg7

Having traded off White’s attacking rook, Black can finally get away with this consolidating king move. But by now Capablanca realized that he no longer stood better. The break caused by the battle over the outpost square gave Botvinnik both his attacks back, both greatly accelerated. White’s new passed e-pawn is not only a rank further than the one surrendered five moves ago, but also the e-7 blockade square is accessible to his bishop. Meanwhile, back at the mating attack, the f7-target is now a support point for White.

8. Qf4 Qe8 9. Qe5 Qe7

Capa consolidates against the majority attack by blockading the passer. But Black’s queen is the only piece that can get back fast enough, and she’s lousy blockader. Botvinnik exploits this glitch by breaking through with one of the most famous combinations in chess.

10. Ba3!! Qxa3 11. Nh5+! gxh5 12. Qg5+ Kf8 13. Qxf6+ Kg8 14. e7!

Queening on e8 and mating on f8, the attacks come in simultaneously, Capablanca resigned after a few spite checks.

In closing, note how this game plays like a story. The storyline was the plan. The plot outline was the chart. Next time you play a game, see if it plays like a story also.

Did you like this article? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂 Also, you can find more details about IM Larry Evan’s overnight camp here.

how to analyze chess games


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