How to Find Candidate Moves in a Chess Position

White to play. Which are the best candidate moves in this position?

One of my readers recently asked whether I have a system for generating candidate moves in a chess position.

The answer is, yes I do. I will systematically go through the steps that will help you find good candidate moves in almost any position. It’s a fairly long piece, but would be very helpful reading.

In answering this important question, I will also share a bit about an effective planning method and how it can help you find plausible candidate moves.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with a better understanding of how to find good candidate moves in a chess position.

I will present the article in 4 sections:

  1. Introduction: How to generate candidate moves in a chess position
  2. How the calculation thinking method helps you find candidate moves
  3. How the evaluation thinking method helps you find candidate moves
  4. How the planning thinking method helps you find candidate moves

1. Introduction: How to generate candidate moves in a chess position

Generating a candidate move starts with this simple but important principle:

The quality of the candidate moves you generate rely on the quality of information you’ve gathered on the position.

Logically then, the next question should be: What is the best way to get the information that will help you find suitable candidate moves?

The most comprehensive way to gather this information, is through the application of 3 important thinking methods, namely:

  1. The calculation method and
  2. the evaluation method and
  3. the planning method.

Next up, I will share how these three thinking methods can help you generate the information you need in  order to identify your candidate moves.

2. How the calculation thinking method helps you find candidate moves

If you’ve done the 10-day chess challenge, you will recall that the first step in the calculation process is to identify your opponent’s threats. I’ll include the 5 steps for your reference.

Summary of the 5-step Calculation process:

  1. Find opponent’s threats
  2. Identify tactical targets and motifs
  3. Calculate all the checks
  4. Calculate all the captures
  5. Calculate all the tempo-moves
Black is threatening axb5. Your candidate move should either deal with this threat or create an even stronger threat.

Now there is an important reason why the first step in the calculation process is to find your opponent’s threats. It is because when you discover your opponent’s threats, you will need to consider only 2 kinds of candidate moves:

  1. Candidate moves that sufficiently deal with your opponent’s threats or
  2. candidate moves that make an even stronger threat than that of your opponent.

If your opponent has any serious threats, then at this point it would be a waste of time and energy to consider any other candidate moves.

The next step in the calculation process is to consider the tactical consequences of your opponent’s last move and determine whether there are any forcing candidate moves (checks, threats and captures) whereby you can improve your position. If it is possible to improve your position by a forcing sequence of moves, then this is an ideal situation and you should probably play that move. You may spend a few moments considering options that may be even better, but in most cases it would be an ineffective use of your mental energy and time on the clock.

Once you feel that you understand the tactical resources in the position and that there are no imminent tactical opportunities or dangers, you can free your mind from fear and allow yourself to focus on candidate moves that help you improve your position.

3. How the evaluation thinking method helps you find candidate moves

Again, if you’ve done the 10-day chess challenge, you may recall the steps in the evaluation thinking method. I’ll include the 5 steps for your reference.

Summary of the 5-step Evaluation process:

  1. Compare Material
  2. Compare King-Safety
  3. Compare Piece-Development
  4. Compare Centre-Control
  5. Compare Pawn-Structures

In positions where your candidate moves are not dictated by the calculation method, the focus will shift to the evaluation thinking method and you will mostly be looking at moves that, in some way or another, helps you make progress towards achieving your objectives and/or prevent your opponent from achieving the same.

The full explanation of how the evaluation thinking method helps you find candidate moves is beyond the scope of this article. Instead I recommend you check out my free chess course. (The focus of the course is on helping you understand the primary objectives in chess and how to achieve them).

4. How the planning thinking method helps you find candidate moves

Based on the need of the position (black’s threat and white’s middle-game objectives), white should consider these candidate moves.

I recommend this 3-step planning method to identify a relevant strategy:

  1. Determine the needs of the position based on your evaluation
  2. Recall the fundamental objectives to the stage of the game you are in
  3. Identify all candidate moves that serve your objectives or prevents your opponent from achieving the same.

Note: Your intuition and experience plays an important role in your ability to choose the best candidate move, but you must always verify your thoughts by calculating the consequences.

1. Determine the needs of the position based on your evaluation

The evaluation thinking method is the process whereby you compare the amount of progress each player made towards important objectives and then conclude which side has the advantage, if any. The information you gather from this process will point you to a strategy that best serve the need of the position.

The candidate moves you then select will to a large extent reflect how you evaluate the position – which will differ from person to person based on their knowledge, personal preferences and understanding of the position.

2. Understand the fundamental objectives to the stage of the game you are in

It would be great if white can get his knight on c3 to the weak b6-square. However, he must first deal with the threat against his bishop and he needs to remove the defender of the b6-square (the knight on d7)

Every move you make must be guided by your objectives. Moves that are based on vague idea isn’t good enough – you should be clear on what you are trying to achieve. If you don’t keep your objectives in mind you will waste a lot of time thinking about moves that don’t serve a clear purpose. To this end, I will share the main objectives you need to consider. Considering these objectives will be valuable in helping you choose your candidate moves.

The fundamental objectives at each stage of the game

Here’s a summary of the most important objectives in each stage of the game:

Fundamental objectives in the Opening Stage

  • Develop your pieces to useful squares, as quickly as possible.
  • Get your king safe (usually by castling early-on in the game).
  • Prepare a safe square for the queen. (Besides the king – she is the piece most vulnerable to threats from enemy pieces.)
  • Connect the rooks. (Rooks are stronger when connected.)
  • Start the fight for control over central squares.

Fundamental objectives in the Middle-game Stage

  • Continue to optimize the roles of all your pieces.
  • Plan a coordinated attack in the area of the board where your pieces can be effective.
  • Prophylaxis: Prevent your opponent from executing their best ideas. (This also means you must find what they are!)
  • Neutralize the roles of your opponent’s best pieces.
  • Try to trade your pieces that don’t serve useful roles.

Fundamental objectives in the Endgame Stage

  • Maximize the activity of each remaining piece, including the king.
  • Avoid exchanging pawns that have potential to be promoted.
  • Capture weak enemy pawns or force your opponent to defend them.
  • Play on both sides of the board if you have an advantage.
  • Use passed pawns to promote or to force enemy pieces into passive defense.

More important ideas to keep in mind while generating candidate moves

  • Whenever possible, use tempo-moves to improve your position.
  • At all times, be aware of the threats and tactics that exist in the position.
  • Use tactical combinations, not only to win material but also to achieve positional objectives.
  • Absorb all the new information (consequences) presented by your opponent’s last move before thinking about your own.
  • Strive to always make moves that serve a useful purpose and gives your opponent problems to solve.

3. Identify the candidate moves that serve your objectives and/or prevents your opponent from achieving the same

White calculated that after 1.Nxd7 Nxd7 2.Bxd7+ Qxd7 3.Na4! the knight will get to b6.

This is where it all comes together. The information you’ve gathered up to this point will point towards the candidate moves you need to consider. A useful idea is to consider each pawn and each piece for a moment and think about how that piece or pawn could possible contribute towards achieving your imminent objectives.

A final note on how the calculation, evaluation and planning thinking methods can help you generate good candidate moves

It is important to understand that the thinking methods I discussed in this article, serve as a guideline to your thinking process. They do not function in isolation either. (Chess is not that simple that it can be reduced to an overly simplified thinking algorithm). Also, you will often find that going through the calculation process will provide you with new information that you should consider in the evaluation and planning process. Similarly going through the evaluation process will reveal aspects of the position that you may want to further investigate through calculation. You may very well find that you can sometimes use tactical ideas to achieve strategic objectives. (To this end, you may find my collection of 40 positional tactics interesting.)

Even though this article may appear to represent a very long thinking process, that is not actually the whole picture. Keep in mind that you will not perform these thinking methods on every single move. Instead, you will thinking longer in critical positions and then simply keep track of the changes as they happen. Furthermore, as you become a more skilled player, you will go over these steps fairly quickly.

If you have more questions on generating candidate moves in chess or want to add your thoughts to this article, please leave your comment below. Thanks!

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