Mastering Chess: Tips to Improve Your Positional Understanding

Chess is a game of strategy, where understanding the position on the board is crucial for success.

We will explore what positional understanding is in chess, why it is important, and how you can develop and improve this skill.

Discover common mistakes to avoid and practical tips on applying positional understanding in your games.

Enhancing your positional understanding can elevate your chess skills, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced player.

Key Takeaways:

  • Positional understanding is crucial in chess and can be developed through studying master games, analyzing your own games, learning key elements of positional play, and solving puzzles.
  • Common mistakes in positional understanding include focusing too much on material, ignoring pawn structure, not considering the opponent’s plans, and overlooking piece coordination.
  • To apply positional understanding in a game, identify weaknesses in your position, create a plan to improve, utilize principles of prophylaxis, and be adaptable to changing positions.
  • What Is Positional Understanding in Chess?

    Positional understanding in chess refers to tactical blindness of overlying strategic motifs during middlegame and endgame play. The term is used by instructors and commentators to impart the importance of taking advantage of mating attacks and tactical chances to direct the game towards advantageous endgames or to accomplish forced wins.

    Players may have a different definition for positional understanding in chess and may break down the term further into the following categories.

    • Understanding the balance between weaknesses and strong points and thereby selecting strategical resources
    • Assessment of your as well as your opponent’s pawn structure and utilizing this knowledge effectively
    • Understanding the strengths and uses of all your pieces for their maximum effectiveness
    • Understanding the concepts of open and half-open files, good versus bad bishops, weak versus strong pawns
    • Having an understanding of positional play and strategy in the endgame.

    Why Is Positional Understanding Important in Chess?

    Positional understanding is important in chess because it helps provide players with a big picture perspective of the board game. It influences all areas of the game and thus better informs game tactics. Positional understanding allows players to weigh the pros and cons of their moves in light of the particular stage of a particular game, to see from where the opportunities for success may arise, and to determine the optimal plan to achieve their goals.

    How to Develop Positional Understanding in Chess?

    You develop positional understanding in chess by studying strategic and tactical elements of the game and learning from top players on principle-based strategies and nomenclature. Strategies include maintaining mobility, understanding pawn structure, opening principles, having your own signature style, and developing basic endgame techniques. The key to developing positional understandings is to always ask why your sure you understand what just happened.

    Study Chess Games of Masters

    The fastest way to improve knowledge of common themes is to study games played by chess masters. Many games involving Paul Morphy, Jos Ra l Capablanca, Garry Kasparov and others are available online in databases such as Pay special attention to moves that position pieces near important areas of the board such as the center, the enemy back rank, and pieces being near or attacking the enemy king. This can help to provide some context around how those squares and positions are used to improve games.

    Analyze Your Own Games

    Self-evaluation is possibly the most effective way to improve your understanding of chess as it involves scrutinizing past games and decisions. A great option to analyze your games is to replay them using the software ChessBase Premium. This will show you the game’s strengths and weaknesses and precisely where positional improvements can be made during the game.

    Occasionally, an analysis board, like the one provided in the Lichess application, can also act as a helper. This mobile application enables players to make a snap decision and then automatically propose a series of the best changes. Naturally, many of the described applications and programs aiming to play better chess can offer varying degrees of analysis.

    Improving your positional judgment through the assessment of your own moves relaxes many assumptions you implicitly make during your games. Making errors is seen not only as a benchmark for learning but as a valuable tool you can use in your evaluation. After the game has ended, players can do a much clearer piece-by-piece analysis of their understanding of how they played and what positions were positioned well.

    Peter Svidler, one of the Russian grandmasters, gave an excellent example of how self-analysis can be used to improve your understanding of chess in a session for the St. Louis Chess Club.

    Learn About Key Elements of Positional Play

    Understanding and practicing evaluation and planning will teach you a great deal about the position on the board in terms of your standpoint. An important milestone in further improving your positional understanding is to switch from static evaluation to dynamic understanding.

    Dynamic aspects are represented by planning for future developments in the game, identifying your own or your opponent’s advantages and disadvantages, as well as switching initiative or grabbing for it from one side to the other.

    There are specific elements of positional play that advanced chess players need to focus on. These are king safety, pawn structure, square control, outposts, open and half-open files, das triple/der vierte Zug, space, weak squares, pawn tension, piece activity, attacking and defensive play, statics and dynamics according to GM Ramachandran Ramesh.

    Practice Solving Positional Puzzles

    Positional puzzles are an excellent way to teach you to evaluate a position. These are exercises in which the student must identify strategically important points, compute the exact value of material according to contours of space, optimize the scope of their pieces, etc.

    Popular chess tactic apps to practice chess to improve positional understanding include the Follow Chess and CT-ART apps. These can be quite difficult at higher levels, making it challenging for even very strong players. Fifteen puzzles before bed is what Pawn Sacrifice author Josh Waitzkin recommends.

    Another piece of knowledge was given by Magnus Carlsen in his MasterClass. For people who feel they are ready to try their luck in top down approach, they should play against someone with a significantly better rating. 15% to 20% better than the rating of the player. Weigh the advantages of their current position and future moves against the opponent’s weak spots, and position their pieces so that the opponent has limited options to exploit them. This will give them a true exercise of tense positional awareness.

    What Are the Common Mistakes in Positional Understanding?

    The most common mistakes in positional understanding occur when measuring the following chess elements:

    1. Material except cash-value structures: When underestimating the value of cash-representative pieces
    2. King safety: Assuming the king is naturally safe where it is, but instead analyzing what can be done to keep the king safe
    3. Space advantage: The side with the overall better position with more space should actively look to expand that space more or use their extra room advantage as needed
    4. Safety of one’s own forces: Trading assists in reducing material deficiencies, when active and forward play may offer more promising chances of a dynamic counterplay
    5. Pawn chains: The strong d4, e4, f4, g5 pawn chain is equivalent to N/c6, B/c4, Q/c7, R/a8, R/f8 and is just as vulnerable given its exposed links, because it is broad doesn’t mean it can protect the King-side

    Focusing Too Much on Material

    The first mistake that both beginner and intermediate players make is focusing too much on material. Every piece on the board has value, and you have to continually balance that value of the exchange with the position’s dynamics.

    Contrary to the earlier exchange between Deep Blue and Kasparov, positional play is not a war of material attrition. In addition, although more hard-nosed positional analysts contest the idea that time could be assigned a value in actual terms of material value, time management and specifically optimal piece development are possibly a key part of this overall understanding of positional play.

    If you are too material-poor, no amount of development or square control may help you. If you are too material-rich, unoptimal placements will result in your opponent holding an advantageous position and likely winning soon. So, in addition to the inevitable time spent on material calculation, a general positional approach needs to be layered in.

    Positional development is how one typically weighs the benefits and detriments of all the possible king and queenside moves in a given position. Retreating to a better spot may allow a sudden strike to be launched when least expected.

    Ignoring the Importance of Pawn Structure

    A common mistake or disadvantage for positional understanding in chess is ignoring the importance of pawn structure. Beginners often prioritize the development of the most powerful pieces such as the queen or the rooks. They push pawns whenever it seems to help, allows getting a piece into play or trades to completion pieces to make the game “easier”.

    Pawns are the most stable pieces on the chessboard and should usually be considered before moving them. They occupy a square and provide support for other pieces which is a simple Route 1 example of positional play. Strong positional sense is vital for strategic thinking, and therefore ignoring the importance of pawn structure is a big obstacle to improving positional understanding for future strategic play.

    Not Considering the Opponent’s Plans

    Many beginning chess players lack an advanced positional understanding of the game because they do not consider the opponent’s plans. This arises because they are overly focused on developing their own pieces in the opening, controlling the center, and gaining material. But as the player’s strategic ability and the opponent’s skill increase, predicting the opponent’s next move and planning his or her defense can be more important than always trying to control the game.

    The very first step in predicting what the opponent’s next step is by considering tactical threats that may dictate the next few sequences of moves. But then players need to look at the big picture by gleaning strategic information in the board position to hypothesize what the opponent wants and how they will go about it. Only then can a successful defense be put in place that gives the blocking player more space and better piece positions from which to launch an assault on the erstwhile superior counterpart.

    Certain symptoms of missing positional patterns are playing aimless moves, leaving your pieces unprotected, underestimating the strength of opponent’s pieces, and failing to cash in on opponent’s mistakes.

    Overlooking the Importance of Piece Coordination

    Chess positional understanding improves when players pay attention to piece coordination. This means ensuring that all their pieces support each other to cover important squares while being able to quickly regroup if necessary.

    Ensuring optimal piece coordination allows players to create a dominating position and to easily execute tactical maneuvers via combinations. Noticing their piece coordination and that of opponents requires an understanding of tactics and strategy that comes with regular play and constant mental practice. To improve their coordination and activate other pieces, a player should always strive to include as many as possible in a sequence. One easy piece of advice is to only play one move with the same piece and then switch to a different one, as it forces a player to look for opportunities for the other pieces.

    Optimal piece coordination is shown in the image below in the form of pawn chains and diagonally positioned bishops. White has a clear advantage here. The white-squared bishop is attacking a pawn and rook from the distance, and the black-squared bishop is well-placed in the kingside pawn structure. The three interconnected pawn strongholds are sufficient to isolate and secure a large part of the board for White. Additionally, the white knights are well-placed and are ready to hop to precedented positions, if and when required. The same is not true for Black’s far rook on b8, far bishop, or knights due to lack of space to maneuver. The kingside potential to attack is made blunt by the pawn block (the semi-open H-file notwithstanding). White clearly has an upper hand in the piece coordination.

    How to Apply Positional Understanding in a Game?

    Apply positional understanding in a game by:

    1. Counting material, including pieces and pawns. All material is counted as one point except the queen (9 points) and pawns (1 point).
    2. Calculating the number of mobile pawns with no opponents. Your mobile passed pawns. Secure passed pawns are those to which the opponent’s king has no diagonal, vertical, or horizontal access.
    3. Investigating king triangulation.
    4. Searching for cooperation between pieces, particularly a rook and another powerful piece.

    Identify Weaknesses in Your Position

    Identifying weaknesses in your position is the foundation of positional understanding in chess. Weaknesses often denote poorly placed pieces (labored knights, blocked bishops), backward or isolated pawns, vulnerabilities in pawn chains, and/or open lines that may result in delivering tactics for an opponent. Notice that weaknesses in the opponent’s position may make relatively unspectacular strategic advantages in your position more valuable, and thus have a tendency to tip the balance of power quickly.

    Create a Plan to Improve Your Position

    While there is nothing wrong with getting better at tactics, you should be sure to engage specifically with improving your position in longer strategic exercises. Knowing theoretical end-games and practicing winning them is one good way to work on it, as end-game knowledge is about playing out the effects that all earlier moves have on the current board. For example, if you need to know about so-called Keypawn Endings where one side has an advanced pawn while the other does not, you must connect that knowledge to the wider strategic knowledge of how to anchor or break away from weak points in the middlegame. The next game is an excellent example of the alternative plans you must have ready when you face a similar position in a future game.

    Consider the Principles of Prophylaxis

    Prophylaxis in the context of positional chess means anticipating your opponent’s plans and taking preventative measures against them. This can mean reinforcing a piece that is next to an opponent’s piece it may engage with or relocating a piece that could be hindered by other pieces. Noting the influence any piece or pawn has over any square and pieces on the board is another element of prophylaxis. The legendary Tigran Petrosian was known for his application of this conceptual approach. Re-evaluate these elements at the end of each opponent move and adjust your own future moves accordingly to reinforce or counterbalance as necessary. Prophylactic thinking is a helpful approach in all areas of life as well as in chess.

    Be Flexible and Adapt to Changing Positions

    Once a player considers different plans and goals in critical positions, he ought to prepare for the understanding that plans may require changing depending on the opponent’s responses. Adrienne C. Van Berlo, author of the book entitled Chess Master states that as a teenager, Garry Kasparov saw the world chess champion Anatoly Karpov up close. Karpov’s play, he found, was based on ‘concrete strategic concepts,’ making it clear, despite not seeing them, that his opponent’s plans were based on tight ideas.


    To improve one’s positional understanding in chess, it is necessary to make every effort to comprehensively assimilate the overarching principles and numerous sub-principles that guide the thinking and decision-making process of a chess player. This must be accompanied by a daily investment of time in doing activities like solving chess puzzles, analyzing Master games, and playing extensively.

    Improving positional understanding is an ongoing process, and it is best reinforced by having pointed discussions with stronger players and coaches on one’s strengths and weaknesses. All of the above approaches combined will help to create a safe, varied, and healthy environment that translates to a higher ELO rating in chess.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is positional understanding in chess and why is it important?

    Positional understanding in chess refers to the ability to analyze and evaluate the current position of the pieces on the board and make strategic decisions based on that assessment. It is important because it allows players to make informed and long-term decisions in the game, rather than just reacting to immediate threats.

    How can I improve my positional understanding in chess?

    There are several ways to improve your positional understanding in chess, including studying classical games, analyzing your own games, practicing tactical puzzles, and reading books or articles on positional play. Additionally, playing against stronger opponents can also help to improve your understanding of different positions in the game.

    What are some key principles to keep in mind for improving positional understanding in chess?

    Some key principles to keep in mind for improving positional understanding in chess include controlling the center, developing pieces to active squares, maintaining a strong pawn structure, controlling key squares, and keeping an eye on potential weaknesses in your opponent’s position.

    How can studying classical games help to improve my positional understanding in chess?

    Studying classical games, particularly those played by top players, can give you a better understanding of how to approach different positions and make strategic decisions. By analyzing the thought process and moves of top players, you can improve your own positional understanding and decision-making in similar situations.

    What role does tactical play play in improving positional understanding in chess?

    Tactical play is an important part of chess, but it should not be the sole focus when trying to improve your positional understanding. While tactics are crucial in winning games, having a strong grasp of positional play can help to create opportunities for tactical maneuvers and give you an advantage over your opponent.

    How long does it take to improve positional understanding in chess?

    Improving positional understanding in chess is an ongoing process and can take a significant amount of time and practice. It ultimately depends on the individual’s dedication and study habits. However, consistent practice and study of positional play can lead to noticeable improvements in a player’s understanding and performance over time.

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