How to learn chess strategy

If you ever stumble into a chess bookshop, you will see that most of the books are about openings. People’s interest in openings is no coincidence, as all the games begin with that phase, and by studying openings, you have a good chance of getting a strong start. You can be immediately rewarded.

If you walk further into the bookshop, you will see books about tactics - thousands of puzzles where you either mate your opponent or gain a material advantage. It’s likely that similar tactics will pop up in your games, and again you will quickly see the results of your work.

If you haven’t already spent all your money on books about openings and tactics, you will probably reach the section about the endgame. In the final phase of the game, there are typically two things you want to achieve; giving mate or getting a new queen. Knowing how to do this will help you a lot, so once again we are talking about targeted practice.

It sounds like you have collected all you need, right? I’m sure the owner of the bookshop is very excited when he sees you approaching with a pile of books. But wait a minute! How do you learn about the phase where most people struggle?

Let’s talk strategy!

Do you know how to make a good plan or how to sense the pace of the game? And what about the moments when you have to make a correct exchange or prevent your opponent idea? Not to mention identifying critical positions, transformations to endgames, positional sacrifices, handling the pair of bishops, exploiting your opponents’ weaknesses and maneuvering? It’s almost an endless list, and all these complex topics occur in all different shapes.

While the opening starts from the same positions, you are on your own in the middlegame; no beginning you have studied, no mate in sight or possibility to gain material. No, you are the one who has to figure out what’s in front of you.

How do you learn all this?

To learn the strategy, you have to understand how strong players think. The traditional way to do this is to pick up a book with informative commentaries and slowly play through it on a chessboard. I have always been a fan of magazines and books with a pedagogical point of view. However, times have changed, and now there are many ways to improve your strategical skills. Here are a few tips:

Analyze the game with your opponent - If you play a game against someone, it’s always useful to know what he or she was thinking. Perhaps you prevented something that your opponent didn’t intend to play, or the two of you might have a completely different understanding of the position.

Use an engine – Try to find out where you made a mistake, and spend some time to figure out what you should have done instead. I’m not talking about the moment where you blundered a piece – I mean the phase where you struggled and didn’t know what to do.

Watch live games with commentary – We are spoiled with excellent broadcasts with high-quality explanations. There is a lot to learn from listening to strong players explain what’s going on. Hey, there's a World Championship going on right now!

Books and Videos – It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the material. Look up books with excellent reviews. I prefer instructive text before long and complicated variations.

Play through historical games – Brilliant games have been played over the years, and there is a lot to learn. One way to do this is to look for online game collections, and you will quickly find brilliant games. So you want to learn about opposite colored bishops in the middlegame? A simple online search will provide you with lots of material.

The Magnus Trainer – In this app, you can find plenty of games from Magnus, all of them with insightful explanations. I am sure you will expand your strategical knowledge: last time I checked the World Champion is pretty good at chess strategy.

Play chess – You can study all night long, but don’t forget that you need practice. The best way to train chess is probably to play chess.

Everyone makes tactical mistakes once in a while. Even Magnus has blundered mate in one move, and there's almost nothing you can do to prevent unfortunate moments like these. However, strategical blunders are more important to pay attention to. These mistakes say something about your chess understanding, and identifying them will be a massive step to chess improvement.

Up for practicing more chess strategy? Download our free Magnus Trainer app and train with the World Champ!

By Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen
Photo by David Llada