If you want to become a strong chess player, it makes sense to take a look at what strong chess players do.
In time, strong chess players develop certain playing habits. It’s these habits that make it seem effortless for them to find good moves. Studying these habits can help you become a better chess player too because they allow you to focus your attention on what actually matters!
1. They Consider Their Opponent’s Threats Before They Think About Their Own Moves
Chess players intuitively know that danger lurks around every corner. This can make you very uncomfortable during a match and can even cloud your thinking. You will not feel comfortable thinking about your own opportunities if you do not yet understand your opponent’s threats. That is why you should always think about your opponent’s threats, before you think about your own moves. It is not wise to spend your energy on planning your next move when there is an immediate threat you need to deal with first.
2. They Keep Their Objectives in Mind During Every Move
In chess, the goal is to checkmate the opponent’s king. But objectives are smaller, more manageable actions that work together to help you reach that goal. Going into battle without a carefully planned strategy is a recipe for disaster. If you want to overpower a strong enemy, you must know how you will approach the battle. This means you must know what your objectives are (control the centre, activate your pieces, etc.) and understand how they will help you achieve your goal.
Whenever you reach a moment where you feel that you do not know what to do next – that is a clear indication that you should always be thinking about your objectives. If you do not keep your objectives in mind you will waste a lot of time thinking about moves that do not serve a clear purpose.
3. They Remain Careful Until the Last Move
One mistake can undo all the progress you have made through many good moves. This is why strong chess players go out of their way to avoid making even one mistake. It is important to understand that a mistake is more than just a silly oversight. In fact, it is evidence that there is a shortcoming in your thinking process! In other words, there was something you should have thought about, but for some reason, you did not. Most of the time this shortcoming is that you did not think about your opponent’s threats or you did not consider all the consequences of your own move.
4. They Adjust Their Thinking Process to Match the Need of the Position
It’s a myth that strong chess players follow a rigid thinking process on every move. Instead, they focus their attention on the needs of the position. The two most important factors in determining the need of the position are your opponent’s threats and the stage of the game.
Strong players understand the differences between and the unique demands of the 3 stages of the game and they take this into account when they determine the needs of the position.
5. They Defend Stubbornly When Their Position Is Worse
If ever you are fortunate enough to achieve a favorable position against a strong player, it will not be easy to convert your advantage into a win. In fact, you may even become frustrated by the defensive strategies they apply in a seemingly worse position. As a result, you will quickly learn how difficult it is to overcome their stubborn defense. In fact, the player with the advantage may become impatient which could lead to them making a mistake.
6. They Take the Initiative Whenever Possible
A threatening move that forces your opponent to defend in a passive way is almost always a good idea. Yet, the power of even simple threats is often underestimated! You may ask – “what is the use of a simple threat if my opponent can easily defend against it?” The answer is that a threat forces your opponent to defend in a certain way whilst at the same time your own pieces become more active! This implies you are improving your position on your opponent’s time and this is referred to as “having the initiative”.
If you can make a threat that forces your opponent to defend in a passive way, do it – because this is how you can take control and dominate the situation!
7. They Do Not Take Any Risks Unless It Is Justifiable to Do So
Weaker players will often try to rush their plan at a time when patience would be the wiser choice. But by doing so, the weaker player will often create weaknesses in their own position, which the stronger player will then skillfully exploit.
The only times when taking risks (during a competition game) can be justified is when your position is already worse or when you really need to win the game in order to win a prize.
8. They Accumulate Small Advantages
Strong players understand that they need to improve their position one move at a time. While a weaker player hopes to win the game with a sudden tactical combination and therefore, they neglect the importance of building their advantages slowly. Of course a strong player will always be ready to pounce on a mistake made by their opponent, but they will not place all their hopes on such a moment. They understand that if they can continue to make marginally better moves than their opponent, then at some point their accumulated advantage would become enough to win the game.
The stronger player’s superior positional understanding is what helps them accumulate advantages that the weaker player cannot understand.
9. They Remain a Student at Heart
Strong chess players understand that there will always be more to learn about the game. They realise that if they become overconfident in their abilities, they will lose their hunger to learn from their own games and from the games of other players.
10. They Respect Proven Chess Principles
The 3 main chess principles are well-known: develop your piece, control the centre, and keep your king safe. However, weaker players often neglect these principles to their own detriment. The principles are there to help you find good moves – use them to your advantage. You should respect chess principles and avoid moves that are contrary to the principles unless you discover a very good reason to do so.
11. They Evaluate the Changes in the Position
Strong chess players do not restart their thinking process from scratch on every new move. Instead, they focus their attention on the tactical and strategic consequences of the most recent moves in the position. Their deep understanding of chess principles also helps them determine how the most recent moves affect their evaluation of the position.
12. They Avoid Moves That Will Help Their Opponent
Strong players will not help opponents achieve their objectives. For example, they will not initiate an exchange of pieces if the process helps you develop one of your own pieces. They will avoid creating weaknesses in their own position and will instead make you work hard before they will make any concessions. In other words, a strong player is aware of the objectives you want to achieve and they will not make it easy for you to achieve them.
13. They Do Not Calculate Everything
It is humanly impossible to calculate all the moves in every position – fatigue will eventually set in and sooner or later you will make mistakes. Strong players concentrate their energy on calculating only all the forcing moves and strategically plausible move. A forcing move is a move that makes a threat and forces your opponent to either defend against the threat or make a concession, for example to give up some pieces. Your understanding of chess principles will also help you decide whether a move is plausible or not.
14. They Focus on the Quality of Their Games and Not on the Result
It is important to keep your emotions in check when you play chess–even though you really want to win. When you constantly think about the result, you will cause your stress levels to rise. This is not good because it affects your mental clarity. It is very easy to become annoyed at yourself when you make a mistake, or overly angry at your opponent when you miss something and lose a valuable piece. These types of emotions can often negatively impact your judgment and this can make it difficult for you to keep the bigger picture in perspective. This often results in more mistakes or more missed opportunities; so, you have to be careful. You must learn to remain calm, forget about the result for a moment, and focus on the quality of your moves.
Think of yourself as your own chess psychologist and study the way you react to certain situations. This will allow you to gain valuable insight about how you think, and in turn will allow you to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.
Summary of the 14 habits of strong chess players
- They consider their opponent’s threats before they think about their own moves.
- They keep their objectives in mind during every move.
- They remain careful until the last move.
- They adjust their thinking process to match the need of the position.
- They do not calculate everything.
- They take the initiative whenever possible.
- They do not take any risks unless it is justifiable to do so.
- They accumulate small advantages.
- They remain a student at heart.
- They respect proven chess principles.
- They constantly evaluate the changes in the position.
- They avoid moves that will help their opponent.
- They defend stubbornly when their position is worse.
- They focus on the quality of their games and not on the result.
It takes time to become a strong chess player. But it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant journey. The secret is to enjoy your studying the game.
Or in the words of the legendary Bobby Fischer:
You can only get good at chess if you love the game!