The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics in Chess

In chess, tactics and strategy often go hand-in-hand, but there is a distinct difference between the two.

What Is the Difference Between Chess Strategy and Tactics?

Chess tactics are mostly known as a forceful combination of moves–whereby you win material or give checkmate. Such decisive tactics usually become possible as a consequence of an oversight (blunder) by either of the players.

Chess strategy, on the other hand, refers to the long-term objectives you want to achieve. In other words, strategy requires planning but tactics require calculation. A former world chess champion, Max Euwe, said it beautifully:

The Difference Between Chess Strategy and Tactics. "Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation." - Max Euwe

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But even though tactics and strategy aren’t the same thing, they work in unison in that tactics are often used to achieve strategic objectives.

Against beginner chess players it’s sufficient to stick to principles. You may argue that the plan you choose depends on the position in to some extent that is true. However, the most effective strategy for the vast majority of positions is always the same – aim to accumulate small advantages by improving your position slowly but surely, step by step.

In the majority of cases, your strategy is simply a short combination of moves that improves your position in some way.

Chess players often put a lot of pressure on themselves to try find a “winning” move in every position. Most of the time such a move doesn’t exist. In most positions you are simply looking for a way to improve your position and/or prevent your opponent from improving theirs.  Of course in every position you should check the tactics first of all and then simply try to find a move that makes some progress.

A good plan is better than wasting too much time trying to find the best plan.

Chess Tactics (Usually Short-term Objectives)

A chess tactic is a move (or a forced combination of moves) whereby you achieve a tangible objective. In other words, the goal of tactics is to forcefully advance your own position while simultaneously reducing the number of options your opponent has. Your tactical skills then refer to your knowledge of tactical motifs and your ability to create and exploit targets in your opponent’s position.

Chess Strategy (Usually Long-term Objectives)

So what is the plan? How can I make my position better? Strategy is about formulating a plan that best serve the need of the position. The plan you choose will to a large extent reflect your understanding of the position. Without an understanding of chess strategy you cannot expect to consistently find good moves.

Important observation on the difference between strategy and tactics: Even though tactics are mostly known as ways to win material or give checkmate, it’s important to realize that tactics are often used to help you achieve strategic objectives. Strategy is the long-term goal you hope to achieve by way of successfully deploying tactics against your opponent.

Bobby Fischer said it well:

Tactics flow from a superior position.

If you don’t know how to reach superior positions–you won’t get the opportunity to demonstrate your tactical powers! That is why it’s important to develop your planning skills.

But even though tactics and strategy aren’t the same thing, they work in unison in that tactics are often used to achieve strategic objectives.

It is also important to note that you can never completely separate strategy from tactics or vice versa. Although the two concepts have separate definitions, even a player who claims no strategy and instead just plays tactics still will have an overarching strategy to those tactics, even if it is subconscious. Likewise, there is no way in chess to enact a strategy without relying on tactics to make that strategy happen. Even simply reacting to your opponent and opting for a positional style of play is, in fact, a strategy.

Many chess players (especially new ones) subscribe to the theory that chess is 99% tactics. And while this may be true in terms of the raw moves which are made, you do not simply stumble upon the correct position in which to deploy all those tactics you so painstakingly memorized. Instead, you rely upon strategy to help you set those tactics up and steer your opponent in the direction you want them to go so that you can employ your tactics.