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How to Formulate a Plan in Chess

An old chess cliche' is "planlessness is punished."

The ability to evaluate a position and to formulate a plan is one of the most worthwhile things to learn in chess. Unfortunately it is an ability that most class players lack a great deal of understanding on. The following page is a great place to start ones study on how to formulate a plan.

So just what is a plan? Let's look at a definition.

"Planning is the process by which a player utilizes the advantages and minimizes the drawbacks of his position. In order to promise success, planning is thus always based on a diagnosis of the existing characteristics of the position; it is therefore most difficult when the position is evenly balanced, and easiest when there is only one plan to satisfy the demands of the position." --Harry Golombek in Encyclopedia of Chess. Quote taken from, "How to Reassess Your Chess" by J. Silman pg. 25.

Ok so now we know what a plan is. How do we go about making one?

According to IM Jeremy Silman in his classic book, "How to Reassess Your Chess", the goal of chess is to try to create favorable imbalances in the position and plan your game around those factors.

So then, just what is an "Imbalance"?

An imbalance is any difference between the white and black positions.

Here is a list of the 7 major Imbalances in a chess position;

  1. Minor Pieces
  2. Pawn Structure
  3. Space
  4. Material
  5. Open Lines and Weak Squares
  6. Development
  7. Initiative

How to Formulate a Plan:

  1. Determine the Imbalances in the Position
  2. Figure out which side of the board has imbalances that are favorable to your position or the side where you can create them e.g. kingside, center, or queenside.
  3. Fantasize about the best squares for your pieces
  4. Select candidate moves based on these factors
  5. Calculate to make sure it works.

Remember First Find a Plan then Develop your Forces around it!

When considering your plan always remember the following:

"The 2 KEY ELEMENTS in chess are CENTRALIZATION and MOBILITY" --from the book "Planning" by GM Neil Mcdonald.

When we are looking for the best squares for our pieces in concert with our plan, based on positional imbalances, remember to place them where they influence the center and where they have the most mobility.

"A piece that controls one key central square can be more important than a piece that controls many squares on the wing. And a piece that takes place in a concerted action is far more valuable than a piece that is "beautifully placed" in isolation.--GM McDonald.

This position is taken from Silman's book "Amateur's Mind". It is an opening from a Hedgehog formation. From here the student is asked to analyze the position and to formulate a plan. It is White to Move.

I considered white to be better due to the fact that he has a central pawn on c4 and a greater command of space. White also has a lead in development, which is temporary. Blacks weakness is his backward pawn on d6 and he would certainly like to play ...d5. This cannot be done right away however as he gives me the e5 square for my knight and after cxd5 I will have too many attackers on d5 especially if I bring my rook to d1.

So what is a good plan for white then based on the noted imbalances in the position?

I noticed 2 ideas which are both discussed in Silman's book. One is to increase whites advantage in the center with an immediate 1. e4 controlling d5 and/or playing for an attack on the backward d6 pawn. The position definately demands central play as thats where whites advantages lie.

If you have an advantage you must make use of it or you will lose it! When you have a lead in development you must find the opponents weakest point and put pressure on it. So I would choose the plan beginning with 1. Rd1 intending b3 and Ba3 with clear play against the target of the backward pawn. Silman notes that white might then try Ng5 intending to trade off white squared bishops. The better developed sides attack is difficult to parry because black is not fully mobilized.

So in the above example we see how one should think during a game. First the position is analyzed noting the major imbalances, which in this case was the white advatange in space and in the center, as well as his lead in development, and the pawn weakness-backward pawn on d6. We also see the key elements of centralization and mobilization in play in pursuing that advantage.

Not all plans will be so clear but this is exactly how one should think during a game.

It will be helpful to commit the following sets of rules to memory and apply them in your games when formulating a plan.

The following Sets of Rules are from IM J. Silman's book, "The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions into Chess Mastery." These rules should be viewed as guidelines that should be considered when analyzing a positon and contemplating a plan. However every position is unique and one doesnt want to fall into rote thinking, don't play mechanically and blindly follow some set rule, but consider these rules and think creatively about the position.

10 Rules of Minor Pieces

  1. Both Bishops and Knights are worth 3 points each
  2. Bishops are best in open positions where pawns dont block their diagnols.
  3. Bishops are stronger in endgames due to its long range abilities.
  4. The term "Bad Bishop" means that your Bishop is situated on the same color as your center pawns.
  5. A Bishops weakness is its "one color" weakness, that is why the Bishop-pair is highly valued negating this weakness.
  6. Knights excel in closed positions with locked pawns.
  7. Knights usually stand better in the center of the board.
  8. Knights need outpost squares or "support points" to be effective. They are the strongest on the 5th and 6th rank, if entrenched on the 6th rank it can be nearly equal to a rook.
  9. Knights are superior to Bishops in endgames where all of the pawns are on one side of the board since the long range power of the bishop has no meaning and the knight can go to squares of either color.
  10. The way to beat Knights is to deprive them of any advanced support points, if this is accomplished they are inferior to Bishops.

Here is an example of using the Rule of Minor Piece Imbalances form Silman's book. White can make the black knight a useless piece and allow his bishop-pair to domintate the ending using Rule 10.

White to Move. Hort played 1. g5! taking away f6 from the black knight. 1...Bc8 2. g4! Now both blacks king and bishop are deprived of h5 and f5. Black was reduced to utter passivity and white controlled the board and eventually won.

Rules of the Center

  1. A full pawn center gives its owner territory and control of key central squares.
  2. Once you own a full pawn center strive to make it indestructible. If you achieve this your center will crimp your opponent for the rest of the game.
  3. Don't advance the center too early, every pawn move leaves weak squares in its wake. Only advance when it gives you a tactical advantage!
  4. If your opponent has a full pawn center you must strive to attack and undermine it.
  5. If center pawns get traded then it creates open files for rooks.
  6. IF the center becomes locked then play switches to the wings.
  7. With a closed center , you know which side to play on by noting the direction that your pawns point. The pawns point to the area where you have more space, and that is the side you want to control.
  8. A wide open center allows you to attack with pieces. A closed center generally means that you must attack with pawns (this enables you to grab space and open files for your rooks.)

Here is a classic example of how to make use of the powerful center as given in "Planning" by GM McDonald. White pieces are all efficiently developed and he has a strong pawn center. Using Center Rule number 3 white understands that he must put his center to use at the right moment. If he fails to do so he will lose his advantage as black will play moves like ...Ng6, ...Qb6, ...Rad8 completing his development and achieving a possible defensive position.

In the above position with White to Move, Rubinstein played 1. d5! taking tactical advantage of his center to create a passed pawn! The central advance should be clear as the white rook on d1 is opposite the black queen on d8, and the abscence of blacks light-squared bishop (imbalance) means that whites light-squared bishop on c4 increaces in power by the opening of lines (note that the white queen on f3 bears down on f7). Also we see the player with the 2 bishops will benefit by the opening of lines (see Minor Piece Rules number 2 and 4).

The game continued 13...exd5 14. exd5, Qb6 (if 15...cxd5 then 15. Nxd5, Nxd5 16. Bxd5 (threatening Bxf7+) 16...Qb6 17. Bxb7 wins a pawn for white.) 15. d6 and white has converted his strong center into another advantage- a passed pawn.

3 Rules of Space

  1. When you have more space it is usually a good idea to avoid exchanges.
  2. If you have less space an exchange or two will give you more room to manuever.
  3. A spatial advantage is permanent, a long term advantage. You don't have to be in a hurry to utilize it. Take your time.

White to Move. If one evaluates this position properly it is easy to see that white has a space advantage. Using Space Rule number 1 we want to avoid the exchange of knights that is currently possible.

What would you play? If you chose 1. hxg5 your advantage will be neutralized as after ...hxg5 black will be able to challenge the h-file and trade off rooks, and the h-file is the only entry point into the enemy position based on the closed nature of the center.

What to do? See space Rule number 3. Take your time. Firstly using rule 1 we play 1. Nc3 to avoid the exchange and prepare the knight to hop into the hole on d5 clearly the best square for this knight that he can get to. See Minor Piece Rules number 6,7, and 8.

Then the simple and effective plan is to USE YOUR SPACE ADVANTAGE on the h-file. Black has only 2 squares he can use on that file. White triples on the h-file and black cannot challenge the h-file, then he opens the h-file after taking his time and preparing his battery there first.

Reti played 1. Nc3!, Rh8 2. Rh3! -using his space advantage on the side of the board he has to play on. 2...Rbg8 3. Rbh1, Qd8 4. Nd5! (threatening Kg3, hxg5 and Rh7+) 4...gxh4 5. Rxh4, Kf7 6. Kf2, Qf8 7. Rxh6, Rxh6 8. Rxh6, Qg7 9. Qa5! and black resigned as white threatens 10. Qc7+ and mate following.

IM Silman discusses the positives and negatives of weak pawns but doesn't lay out a set of guidelines for them as he does for our previous Imbalances. Here I have laid out such a set of rules based on his discussion of them from his book, "Amateur's Mind."

15 Rules of Pawn Structure Defects

  1. A weak pawn is only weak if it can be attacked.
  2. Weak pawns must be restrained and/or blockaded before they can be effectively attacked.
  3. The weak square in front of a backward pawn is often a greater problem than the pawn itself.
  4. A backward pawn acts a guard to a more advanced pawn that can be used to block enemy pieces and control important squares. A backward pawn is not bad if the square in front of it is well defended.
  5. Play to win a weak square by trading off its defenders.
  6. Doubled pawns reduce their flexibility. It is most often the forward doubled pawn that is the weakest.
  7. Creation of doubled pawns lead to open files for rooks and increased square control.
  8. An isolated pawn is most vulnerable on a half open file.
  9. The creation of a isolated pawn may bestow upon its possessor the use of a newly created half open file.
  10. An isolated d-pawn gives its owner plenty of space for his pieces, and open files for his rooks. The player who possesses this pawn must seek dynamic play with his pieces.
  11. The traditional 'c' and 'd' hanging pawns control many important central squares, offer an advantage in space and offer play on the half open 'b' and 'e' files.
  12. Hanging pawns are weak if the other side is able to circumvent any dynamic tactical advance of the pawn duo, since the pawns would then be immobile and he would then be able to train all his power on them as targets.
  13. A protected pass pawn is not always an advantage if the square in front of it can be controlled for a very long time (blockaded).
  14. A passed pawn is very strong if its owner has play elsewhere, it is then good insurance in an endgame.
  15. A passed pawn is also strong if the squares in front of it are cleared for its advance.

In the above position who stands better and why? Try to figure out what blacks best plan should be then click on the diagram to see how one GM handled the position as black.

Principles of Development

A lead in development is defined as having more pieces into active play than your opponent. A lead in development is a dynamic rather than a static advantage as eventually your opponent will catch up if you do not seize the intiative.

  1. A lead in development means you must find some sort of aggressive act. Quiet play puts no pressure on the opponent and allows him to get his forces out.
  2. A lead in development means the most in open positions. If you have more pieces out than your opponent and the position is wide open (or even semi-open) don't hesitate to attack.
  3. If the enemy king is still in the center and you have a lead in development, consider these factors an invitation to rip the opponent's head off.
  4. A closed position often nullifies a lead in development because the blocked files stop you from making any real penetration into the enemy position.

It is white's move in the above position. Many a master would play the greedy 8. Qxb7 which allows black a possible exchange of Queens. Many computers want to play 8. Bxf7+, Qxf7 9. Qxb7 Bc5 10. Qxa8, 0-0 and black has a huge lead in development and a strong counter-attack. White has a much simpler and better possibility. What is it? Click on the diagram above to find out.

The following example shows how to seize the initiative when one possess a lead in development.

In the above game taken from "Attack with Julian Hodgson Vol. 1 Section: The Lead in Development" white has advantages in the center, and a lead in development. How does he take advantage of those dynamic factors? Simple. He opens lines. White played 16. e5! and after 16...dxe5 17. dxe5 Ne6 18. Ne4 had a strong attack. In the game Jackson took the second pawn (black had little choice) with 18...Bxe5 19. Nxe6, Bxe6 (19...Qxe6 20. Bc4! wins) 20. Bc4, Qc7 21. Nd6!!, Bxd6 22. Rxe6+ with a crushing attack.

Anticipating the Opponents Plans

One serious problem most class players have as compared to strong experts and masters is the lack of considering their opponents plans when formulating their own plans.

The following test position was used in "Amateur's Mind" by Silman.

You are white in this position with white to move. Try to determine the imbalances in the position and formulate a plan, and remember to consider your opponent's plan or you will lose any hope of the intiative! Write down your thoughts then click on the diagram to see how a famous GM handled the white pieces.


When formulating a plan one must consider the differences in the position. One should then formulate a plan based on the favorable imbalances in the position. Determine the side of the board you should play on and then formulate your plan around these considerations.

Here a couple of final test positions from "Amateur's Mind", a book I highly recommend for the aspiring club player as it helps you identify the weaknesses in your game and how to improve your strategic thinking:

In the diagram above write down the imbalances in the above position. It is black to play. Ask yourself what is blacks best move, and what should be his plan. To see both what I wrote and what IM Silman said click HERE.

In the final test diagram (below) Black appears to have an excellent position. Is this true? It's white to move. What should he do?

Write down the imbalances while analyzing the position and come up with a plan for white in this position. After you have finished click HERE to find out whites best idea.