Principles of good chess

Good chess play is built on solid principles that form the foundation of making good chess decisions. Here are some of the principles upon which we build our chess play:

The Principle of Practice

“What you do in practice is what you do in the game.”

You can always tell in a tournament game which player has studied and which one hasn’t; which player takes chess seriously and which one doesn’t; and which player wants to get better and which one is satisfied with where they are.

The player who practices playing the best chess they can will actually play the best chess they can in the tournament game because they have experience playing the best chess they can! The ones that goof off in practice will not be able to play good chess in a tournament game because all they have practiced is goofing off.

The Principle of Character

Chess play is always reflective of your character.”

Your character governs your patterns of behavior. An aggressive person plays aggressive chess. A sloppy person plays sloppy chess. A person who prizes safety will play safe chess. A person who is clever will play clever chess.

Sometimes you may be able to act contrary to your character, but ordinarily, your reflex will be to act according to your character.

Reading your opponent’s character helps you plan your strategy on the chess board.

Some things can override your character:

Lack of emotional control can have a negative impact on your chess play that eclipses your character. If you become overwhelmed by emotions, such as being startled, angry, upset, or pessimistic, your chess play will suffer.

Poor physical condition can also negatively affect your chess play in a way that overpowers your character. If you have too much sugar, not enough sleep, a headache, etc., all of these can make you act out of character.

Training and discipline are intentional, focused ways of improving your character. If you practice doing something positive that is ordinarily outside of your typical behavior, you can bring improvement to your chess play.

A plan can disguise your character. For example, if you are typically a careful and defensive chess player, but you decide to learn an aggressive attack opening, your opponent will have difficulty guessing your plans.

The Principle of Causality

Nothing happens unless something makes it happen…so what does that say about my opponent’s last move?”

Your opponent’s pieces do not move themselves: your opponent causes them to move.

Your opponent’s moves are caused by the interaction of several things:

  • …their character
  • …their plan (or lack of a plan)
  • …their emotional and physical condition
  • …their experience
  • …their opinion of you

By looking at a person’s moves on the chess board, you can gain insight into what they are thinking, and possibly uncover information that will help you guess what they will do next.

The Sherlock Holmes Principle

Our three greatest weapons are observation, deduction, and preparation.”

Perhaps Holmes’ greatest ability is his power of observation. Observation just means “paying attention.” There are no secrets in chess. There are no chance elements, no cards hidden up sleeves. Everything is before you, nothing is hidden. However, observation is an active skill — it requires purposeful searching.

Holmes’ powers of deduction are truly legendary. Deduction is “seeing the unseen from what is seen.” You can deduce your opponent’s mindset from the moves that they make, and by the moves they do not make. From their moves you can gain insight into their plan and their character, which is instrumental in predicting what they may do next.

Possibly the only thing that could rival Holmes’ powers of observation and deduction is his preparation. Preparation is what you do before you get to the chess board. It includes several factors:

  • Physical preparation includes getting plenty of sleep, good nutrition and water intake, and taking care not to get sick
  • Emotional preparation means that you have emotional control — you don’t let pride, fear, or hard feelings affect your chess play — and you have a positive outlook, i.e. you purposefully avoid negativity.
  • Mental preparation for chess equals confidence. Confidence comes from solid study, frequent practice, and disciplined playing habits. Perhaps the most important aspect of disciplined chess play is the ability to ignore distractions and maintain focus.

The Principle of Choice

The first rule of decision-making is this: you cannot control a person’s choices, but you can control their options.”

You cannot enter your opponent’s mind and force him or her to move according to your plan. However, you can affect how many and the attractiveness of their alternatives.

On the chess board, I can influence my opponents options by…

  • …taking away their pieces
  • …moving their targets (my pieces)
  • …changing the landscape (pawn formation)
  • …affecting the consequences of their choices — either by making a choice too expensive, or by sending them an invitation to do something else (decoy)

The Data Reduction Principle

You don’t have to know every possible outcome; you only have to know how your opponent will most likely choose to respond.”

When you start a chess game, there are more than a billion different ways the game can go. As each player makes their moves, the “tree” of move sequences gets “pruned.”

Despite the pruning, there are often a multitude of possible move sequences…some of them favorable, others less so. However, you can make use of what you have observed about your opponent to deduce what possibilities he or she would prefer and which ones they would reject. This is a tremendous help to you in your planning.

If you have some idea of their plan, you can prune the possibilities that do not fit that plan.

In the absence of a plan, a player will react according to their character… so if you have some insight about that, you can often guess how they will respond to unexpected situations.

The Principle of Control

Make your opponent play the game they don’t want to play.”

Chess players, like most people, like to have control. They like to know what’s going to happen next, and they like to be the one who decides what happens next.

When a person has control, they tend to avoid mistakes. The opposite is also true: when a person loses control, they are more likely to make mistakes.

On the chess board, we use this principle to undermine the plan of our opponent. If our opponent likes to play fast and aggressive, we slow the game down and play defensively. If our opponent wants to build up defenses, we quickly aim to take them down. If they favor their queen or their knights, we work to take or trade for those pieces, because those pieces are the seat of their control. We make them play the game they don’t want to play.

Patience, observation, and study will not only help you avoid situations in which you do not have control, but also enable you to seize control at the right opportunity.

The Principle of Entropy

“Disorder is the enemy of control.”

If both players are completely even, chess is a draw. The key is to introduce some sort of imbalance that will increase the likelihood that your opponent will make a mistake. When they do, you pounce on their mistake and turn it into an advantage.

There are several ways to create an imbalance on the chess board: putting your opponent in check; forcing a piece trade; or even threatening key squares. Sometimes using an unorthodox approach can also generate disorder and create the space in which to grab an advantage.

The Best Principle

“You can never do better than your best.”

The Principle of Regret

“Nothing is heavier than regret.”

These two principles go hand in hand. If you always make it a point to do your best, then you know that you will get the best possible outcome. If you do your best and lose, then you know it was impossible to win, because it isn’t possible for a person to do better than their best.

In that case, you learn from the loss and use what you learn to get ready for the next chance to win. However, if you do not try your best and you lose, you will never know if it were actually possible to win, because you didn’t try your best. Instead of the peace of knowing that you tried your best, you will have the regret of not knowing if you could have done better.

And if you don’t try your best and happen to win, you simply are practicing doing less than your best, and that’s something you don’t want to practice!

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