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Coaching Corner

Chess Thinker Chess Thinking...
a Practical Guide

by Peter Roza.
Chess Thinker

The Big Five

Most of us when we were introduced to chess, were not taught a good thinking method, one that would allow us to select a good move from many tempting possibilities in front of us. Our thinking developed their own paths, sometimes good, often disasterous.

These bad habits continually hold us back from playing to our true potential, often spoiling good positions with blunders resulting in disappointment and heartache.

Dan Heisman, writing in the Chesscafe website expounds on the "Big Five", the five areas of chess ability in which it is essential to play at least moderately well. Why essential? Because even if one of these areas of chess ability is not up to scratch, then this alone will impose a ceiling to your improvement. A ceiling that cannot be broken through, even with studying 200 or more books.
So what are these Big Five of chess ability?

1. Studying basic tactical methods

"Chess is 99% tactics" ...Richard Teichmann
"Until you are at least a high Class A player: Your first name is'Tactics", your middle name is 'Tactics', and your last name is 'Tactics'" ...Ken Smith

So tactics are very important, and becoming proficient in all the basic tactical methods such as forks, pins and double attacks etc is the first essential skill to acquire when improving your game.
In most positions in chess a winning tactic is not immediately available. So quiet play and strategy have their place. However even in a strategic and positional game, eventually tactical skill will be needed to exploit any positional advantage gained.

Probably the most efficient method to improve your tactical skill is to study tactical exercises from books and software such as Combinational Challenge! by Hayes or CT-ART 3 by Convecta Software.

2. Applying general principals

These are short cut positional thinking methods that apply to most positions. Examples would be getting your rook to the 7th, using your king in the endgame, exploiting the advantage of the 2 bishops, not attacking prematurely...there are hundreds of them of varying importance. One of the best ways of acquiring this skill is to go over good wordy annotated games where the ideas of the moves played are explained by a good writer. Eventually these ideas will be assimilated into your own way of playing.

Many of the principles evolved from the theories of position play first explained by Wilhelm Steinitz. Like all principles it is important to remember that they are only guidelines to finding the best move. Exceptions do occur and the good player will be able to discover why in this particular position the general principle does not apply.

The Importance of Steinitz Theory

Chess theory really began about the time of Steinitz in the late 1800's when Steinitz formed his rules of positional play. Previous to Steinitz, players would typically play gambits, looking to get open positions where they thought their superior tactical skill would overwhelm their opponents.

Steinitz himself used to play gambits, in fact he won more brilliancy prizes than any of his contempories. However at one point on analyzing his games he became convinced that these gambits and consequent sacrifices were unsound and the attacks could be beaten off with better defensive play.

Through his annotations he developed the first positional principles of play, principles which suggested how a game of chess should be laid out so that unsound play could be beaten off no matter how brilliant and ingenious the attacking play. One of his guiding principles was that of the equilibrium of chess. This stated that one should only attack when one had an advantage and not before. An unjust attack was predetermined to fail, (though sometimes resourceful play was needed to prove it inadequate) And after the attack had been repulsed the attacker's position would be compromised and he would stand worse. eg an attack by pawns in front of one's own king and without central control would result in a successful counterattack by the opponent in the centre.

Positional play became all the rage in the decades after Steinitz, with players like Capablanca, Rubinstein and later Botvinnik consistently beating off the challengers of romantic tacticians such as Janowski, Mieses and Marshall.
Did this prove that skill in strategy and positional play was superior to skill in tactical play? And how important is strategy to the intermediate player? Good tactical play was indispensable, but how about position play.

The Relative Importance of Strategy and Tactics

Acquiring tactical skill is extremely important, but there are dangers in practising tactics exclusively! For you can be afflicted with a tendency to force the issue too much.

If you spend so much time learning tactics from setup positions (such as those which say: White to play and win), then once you are in a real game you try to apply your lessons to positions that don't warrant it.

Subconsciously you believe that every position has a hidden winning combination, and furiously you look for it. If it is not there (as is usually the case), you try to force one, causing a lost game. In at least 9 out of 10 positions a tactical solution is not possible, so you are going to have to think of something else.

And this is where positional play and planning come in. Morphy's dominance was often attributed to brilliant combinative skill, and without doubt he was brilliant. But it was because his games were based on sound positional principles (particularly the advantage of a better development) that he outshone his adversaries. Morphy was perhaps the first real positional player but because of his combinative brilliance this aspect of his play has often been obscured.

Lasker was generous in his praise for Steinitz and his principles. Even to the point of dogmatism, which was surprising given Lasker�s pragmatic nature. From his 'Manual' he advised: "Therefore... in the beginning of the game ignore the search for violent combinations, abstain from violent moves, aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination - and then with all the power of will and intellect, because then the combination must exist, however deeply hidden."

Purdy took Lasker to task on this "utterly mad advice". Combinations he said can come about from any position, superior or inferior, and one should look for them at every move. He said chess had a dual soul, the logical practical side of strategy and positional play, and the beautiful romantic side of combinations and surprise.

His advice as always was immensely practical: "The question that matters to you in actual play is simply, �What is my best move?', and if you can decide without being sure who has the theoretical advantage, so much the better".

As always the truth of the matter is somewhere in the middle. Lightning does not come out of a clear sky� before the storm bursts there are dark clouds everywhere to be seen. And so in chess, combinations do not usually happen in a random fashion, they arise naturally out of a superior position, where positional plusses have been slowly built up.

But tactics can arise from any position and often because a player is careless in checking whether his move allows an opponent a tactical opportunity in reply.

3. Using good time management

Time pressure affects most of us at some stage, and some players are in time pressure nearly every game. What causes us to use too much time and is there a cure?

Nunn gives some excellent advice on avoiding time pressure in his book "Secrets of Practical Chess". He says you should almost never have to spend more than 20 minutes on a move, no matter how complicated the position. If you do it is usually because of indecision or inability to find a satisfactory continuation. After 20 minutes thought if you still can't decide between 2 alternatives then use your instinct to choose one (or even flip a coin if you have to). Any further thought may be counterproductive and at best would only improve your decision by fine shades. And you may regret the lost time later on when you have little time and the position is complicated.

One of the common causes of time pressure is an inefficient calculating technique. Kotov addressed this in his classic book "Think like a Grandmaster", where he explained his "tree of analysis" approach.

As useful as the book was, both Tisdall and Nunn pointed out some problems with using Kotov's calculating technique. Especially in regard to Kotov's advice to select all the candidate moves first, and then go through calculating each branch one by one till the end. Tisdall's advice was to intuitively choose the candidate that first appeals to you and analyze this move to its end, before choosing all other candidates. Nunn's advice was to do a "quick scan of possible candidates", looking briefly at all major lines to see if any can be quickly resolved. Then with any luck this will settle the analysis. Or if it looks like the position needs a lot of time to come to a decision, then this itself is useful information. You may decide to play a safe but still good move to save the time required for the analysis.

Of course the other extreme with time management is using too little of your time. This is usually caused by playing "hope chess" where you don't consider all your opponents forcing moves each move i.e. you still haven't learned what it is you should be thinking about.

4. Piece activity

Kasparov has stated that in the final analysis what chess is all about is piece activity. Novices often rush into an attack with their rooks (and knights) still on their original squares. Nimzovitch said that a badly placed piece (like a knight on the rim) spreads gloom throughout the chessboard.

Of course in the opening we rush to get our knights and bishops quickly developed so we don't fall behind, but in a closed position it is especially important to find the best square for each piece even if it takes some time to manoeuvre it there. The best players always seem to find good squares for their pieces...remember chess is a fight between two armies, so make sure each soldier plays his part and fights to his maximum.

5. Having a good thought process

Chess is such an unforgiving game that one mistake can turn an overwhelming position into a dead loss. In tennis, a loss of a point is usually not critical, while even in cricket, where a mistake can cost you your wicket you still get credit for all the runs you have scored up to then.

Not so in chess...a big fat zero on the scoretable is all you will have to show for the brilliant play before your blunder.
So having a reliable thinking method to maximise your results is critically important in chess.

Purdy's Thinking System

Cecil Purdy was one of the pioneers in developing a good thinking system at every move. Later on Kotov with "Think Like a Grandmaster", Silman with "How to Reassess your Chess", and Heisman with his "Novice Nook" articles in the Chesscafe website contributed their own thought provoking ideas. Tisdall and Nunn have also written interesting stuff but Purdy's articles in "Chess World" and later distilled into his book "The search for Chess perfection" still stand up well as excellent practical advice on thinking methods. The gist of his system to be carried out each move was:

1. Do I have an obvious move(s) to consider?

      You or your opponent may be threatening mate or loss of the queen so there may be only one or two moves to consider. In this way you can save time by ignoring the rest of the system. If you find a move that seems good, don't play it immediately, look for a better one. Often a win can be made easier by finding the quickest way to finish your opponent off. This avoids future mistakes due to the strong resistance the opponent puts up later on.

2. What is my opponent threatening?

      It is vitally important to be aware of your opponents threats, and to a lesser extent what he is intending by his last move.

Purdy makes the comment that in some cases you may not be sure whether a threat is real or not i.e. whether his next intended move, if carried out would be effective or not. The position may be complex and because of time constraints it may not be practical to work out whether the threat is real or not.

In fact it may not even be necessary. For your first reaction to a threat, real or not, is to find a way to ignore it. You have a move before your opponent moves next and your move may contain a bigger threat than his i.e. Your threat can trump his threat.

3. Complete your positional assessment of the position

      In most cases an immediate tactical solution is not possible and so you must decide on your next move based on a positional assessment of the position. A lot of this assessment can be done in the opponent's thinking time, to be updated after he makes his last move. Purdy breaks down the positional assessment into 5 parts:

     a) Material      Who's ahead in material. If numerically its even notice differences such as whether one side has the 2 bishops, are there bishops of opposite colours, are there pawn majorities.

     b) King safety     Notice if any of the kings are exposed or lack flight squares.

     c) Weaknesses and strengths     Notice weak pawns, weak squares, space advantage, badly placed pieces.

     d) Development     Who's ahead in development and how open is the position. If the position is closed, a development advantage will not matter much but in most open positions the value of a tempo is about a third of a centre pawn, and about half a flank pawn.

     e) Where could either side break through?     This applies particularly in closed positions, eg after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 White's breakthrough point is f5, while Black's are on c5 and f6.

4. Have I a good combination?

     The ability to see combinational patterns can be developed by going through exercises where the various motifs of pins, forks, double attacks etc are displayed. Eventually you can reach a point where you see basic patterns with only a mere glance at the position. This is the prime chess skill to be learned, regularly practised and improved. To help with pattern recognition Purdy considers looking for combinational motifs such as geometrical, nets and jump moves (imagining a mate if a piece wasn't in the way).

5. If there is no combination, what is my best plan?

     Purdy considers simple plans best such as finding your least active piece and looking for a way to activate it. Beyond this he considers doing one or more of 4 aims based on your assessment in 3. above.

     a. Exploit his weaknesses.
     b. Establish my strengths.
     c. Eliminate my weaknesses.
     d. Reduce his strengths.

Usually only one of these aims is practicable at a time with experience indicating which one is most suitable.

6. Select the move(s) most suitable to your plan in 5. above

     Firmly visualize the position with the move played. Does it allow a combination for your opponent? This last sanity check is essential to avoid silly blunders. Particularly if you have been analysing some way into the future, your mind might miss something which is right in front of your nose. For a time you will need to force yourself to do this until it becomes habit.

"Hope" or "Real" Chess

What is "hope" chess? Dan Heisman coined this phrase to help explain a common ailment.

Hope chess is not setting a trap and hoping your opponent falls in. It is when you don't consider the danger of your opponent's last move and follow your own plans willy-nilly. If your opponent happens to have a killer move in reply its curtains.

So instead of playing "hope chess" you should instead play "real chess". So what's "real chess"? Real chess means you know you can counter effectively every forcing move your opponent has in reply to your intended move. Specifically this means every check, every capture and every threat he has.
So if I make my intended move, then I must at least consider all checks, captures and threats that my opponent has in reply to this move, and that I can adequately answer every one of them. If I do this every move then I can be considered to be playing real chess. Just about every player below 1600 plays hope chess rather than real chess and it is probably the most important barrier you can break through to reach the higher levels of chess.

Books, software & internet site recommendations

Everybody learns in a different way. Some love reading books, others love using the computer. Still others learn by analysing and discussing different possibilities. If a book feels right for you it probably is.

Books on the thinking process

C.J.S. Purdy. His Life, His Games, and His Writings - J. Hammond & R. Jamieson. Has many of Purdy's excellent articles taken from "Australian Chess review" and "Chess World".
How to Reassess your Chess - Jeremy Silman. Mainly about assessing a position using his theory about "imbalances".
Think Like a Grandmaster - Kotov. Teaches a method to improve calculation. Kotov however doesn't talk about how to select candidate moves.
Improve Your Chess Now - Tisdall. Improves on Kotov's "tree of analysis" with much original thought. An excellent book.
Secrets of Practical Chess - Nunn. A collection of practical tips on thinking methods written in Nunn's excellent style.
The Seven Deadly Sins - Rowson. Almost won "Book of the Year" a few years ago. Talks about the psychological traits that induce errors in a quirky way. Very enjoyable.
Everyone's 2nd Chess Book - Dan Heisman. Fairly elementary but covers practical material not found in other books. See also his "Novice Nook" articles in

Tactics books and CD's


Winning Chess Tactics
- Seirawan & Silman. A good first book with explanations to all the basic motifs.
Chess Tactics for Beginners - Convecta (software). Fairly easy tactics for the novice who prefers to use computers. This is easier than CT-ART 3.
Chess Tactics for Students - John Bain. Great practice at single motif tactical puzzles. Highly recommended.
Chess Tactics Handbook - Al Woolum. An alternative to John Bain's book.
The Art of Checkmate - Renaud and Kan. Fantastic discussion of the key mating patterns with illustrative games.


CT-ART 3 - Convecta (software). Fantastic software practice. Very highly recommended.
Combinational Challenge! - Hays and Hall. A good follow up to Chess Tactics for Students. Similar to Reinfeld's 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations but better.

Annotated games books with explanations to every move

Logical Chess Move by Move
- Chernev. The best first book on games and a good introduction to basic positional ideas. Recommended.
The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played - Chernev. More advanced than Logical Chess...with great explanations of positional themes and strategy.
Chess Master vs Chess Amateur - Euwe and Meiden. Shows the typical mistakes made by amateurs and how a master takes advantage of them.
50 Essential Chess Lessons - Giddens. A fairly new arrival that's been receiving rave reviews.
Understanding Chess Move by Move - Nunn. Won book of the year a few years ago. More advanced and uses modern games to illustrate themes.

Annotated game collections

Morphy's Best Games
- Seargant. Morphy's games are a good illustration of how to play open games utilizing pawn sacrifices and the initiative.
Marshall's Best games - Marshall. Marshall was a tactical genius and his games give plenty of practice in tactics.
Alekhine's Best Games - Alekhine (2 volumes). Alekhine was one of the best annotators and his games are a treasure trove of attacking gems.
Botvinnik's One Hundred Selected Games - Botvinnik. Great explanations on more complex positional themes and strategy.
My 60 Memorable Games - Fischer. Fischer was good at all parts of the game and his games collection is a classic.
Zurich 1953 - Bronstein. Some claim Bronstein's book on the Zurich 1953 Candidates was the best book ever written. Plenty of deep positional explanations.

Books on Openings

Ideas Behind the Chess Openings
- Fine. The book is a bit dated but cannot be beaten for general opening advice such as which files, diagonals and key squares are important in a particular opening, typical pawn breaks etc.
How to Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire - Steve Giddens. Good practical advice on how a novice/intermediate player can choose an opening repertoire.
Nunn's Chess Openings - John Nunn. A reference book to add knowledge to the openings you play.

Books on Endings

Guide to Good Chess
- Purdy. A good book of general advice but particularly about the endgame.
Chess Endings - Essential Knowledge - Averbach. Averbach is one of the best writers on the endgame.
A Guide to Chess Endings - Euwe and Hooper. Great explanations of commonly played endings. Quite extensive.
Endgame Manual - Dvoretsky. Dvoretsky is considered the king of trainers and his selection of material is spot on. The manual comes in book or CD form.
Fundamental Chess Endings - Mueller and Lamprecht. Fairly comprehensive with excellent explanations. Covers nearly every ending. More advanced but highly recommended.


Modern Chess Strategy
- Pachman. A good all round explanation of common strategic themes...weak pawns, open files etc.
The Amateur's Mind - Silman. Silman is one of the best authors when discussing what to do when there's no combinations around. The book shows the typical positional mistakes that amateurs make and compares the importance of various stratecgic themes.
The Middle Game - Euwe and Kramer (2 volumes). A classic, exploring both static and dynamic themes in the middle game.
My System - Nimzovich. A positional icon discussing positional themes including pawn chains, isolated pawns (iolani), the centre, overprotection, prophylactis. The terminology is not to everyone's taste but to many people it's their bible.
Pawn Power in Chess - Kmoch. Has great explanations of the different pawn formations, their strong and weak points. Like Nimzovich the terminology is not to everyone's taste but the meat is there.
The Art of Attack - Vukovic. Another classic of attacking patterns such as the greek gift sacrifice on h7.
How to Reassess Your Chess - Silman. Silman's ground breaking book which explores the positional assessment of a position using his idea of imbalances.
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy - Watson. Won book of the year recently. Very advanced discussing how modern players have advanced positional concepts after Nimzovich.

Useful chess internet sites
Great for news in the chess world. Has a shop from which you can purchase chessbase products which I have found to be excellent. Unfortunately the strength of the euro has made their products less competitive lately.
Probably the best site for instructional articles. In particular top US coach Dan Heismann has a monthly column called "Novice Nook" which offers fantastic advice for novice/intermediate players. See all his previous articles in the Archives. Good book reviews. &
Excellent sites to play online, play in tournaments and watch Grandmasters play.
Probably the best site for instructional articles. In particular top US coach Dan Heismann has a monthly column called "Novice Nook" which offers fantastic advice for novice/intermediate players. See all his previous articles in the Archives. Good book reviews.
Jeremy Silman is the author of excellent strategy books and his site has many resources there. An excellent book review section.
Top US coach Dan Heisman's homepage which is a great source of instruction.
Coaching page of the Exeter Chess Club with lots of useful resources.
The Australian Chess Federation site has news about Australian chess.
Also a link to the Western Australian Chess Site
Site of the Correspondence Chess League of Australia.
A good site for buying items especially software. Prices are probably the cheapest around.
These are 3 Eastern State sites where you can buy books and software though I have found the markups in all 3 make them less affordable than overseas sites. Locally Fred Maris (Chess Supplies of WA) also has a range of chess books that can be purchased at
This is probably the best value site to buy chess books from, especially with the recent devaluation of the US dollar. They have just about everything and are very efficient. Recently USA postage rates have risen markedly but the value is still there.