Chess Strategy: Ten Top Tips from National Master Dan Heisman

This month, we have a list of great Chess tips by National Master Dan Heisman. Dan is a full-time instructor and author of several Chess books. Be sure to drop by his web site for Chess theory, info on live tournaments and more at

1. SAFETY– Keep all your pieces safe—and consider taking opponent’s pieces that are not safe! For piece values, bishops and knights as worth about 3 1/4 pawns, rooks 5, a queen about 9.5. Having two bishops when your opponent does not is called “the Bishop Pair” and is worth about an extra 1/2 pawn. Winning a rook for a bishop or knight is called winning “The Exchange” and is worth almost half a piece (bishop or knight).

2. ACTIVITY – Make sure all your pieces are doing something all the time!  For example, move every piece once before you move any piece twice in the opening (as a goal). Often the best strategy in a position with no tactics is to find a piece that is doing little and find a way for it to do more.

3. TAKE YOUR TIME– If world championship players always take several minutes to find a good move, what makes you think that you can find a better one faster? Look at it this way: NOTHING is preventing weaker players from playing like stronger players, so take your time to look at as many possibilities as you can. A good goal is to pace yourself to use almost all of your time every game. When you are thinking, say to yourself, “If I do X, what are all the moves he is likely to do in return, and can I meet every one of those threats in the next move?” If not, then you have to find yourself another move, and this takes time!

4. You are trying to find the BEST move, so when you see a good move, look for a better one. If you don’t look, you can’t see! If you play fast, you probably won’t be considering all your reasonable moves.

5. The way to keep your pieces safe and to win your opponent’s pieces is through tactics. Tactics are the most important part of a chess game – every good player knows basic tactics. The most basic tactic is counting—that is, making sure each piece is adequately guarded enough times by other pieces. Studying the other tactics: Pins, forks, checkmates, skewers, removal of the guard, queening combinations, double threats, discovered checks, etc. can be done first through a book like Bain’s Tactics for Students and then Reinfeld’s 1,001 Sacrifices and Combinations. If you like doing the puzzles in those books, you will probably do all of them and become a good player. By the way, the player who gets the most pieces out first usually finds himself on the good side of the tactics! Also, AVOID loose (unguarded) pieces, weak back rank, pinned pieces, overworked pieces, inadequately guarded, pieces, etc.

6. When considering which move to make, consider first your checks, captures, and threats. Similarly, when seeing what your opponent can do to you, look for his checks, captures, and threats first. Your opponent is just as important as you are. Pay just as much attention to what he is doing as to what you are doing. After your opponent makes a move, ask yourself “Why did he do that?” and “What can he do to me now that he couldn’t do to me before?” And check to see if that piece or any other opponent’s piece is not safe.

7. When you are winning, think defense first!! That does not mean play passively, but it does mean that trading pieces is probably good; make sure your king is safe; don’t create unnecessary complications, keep pieces on guarded squares, and put yourself in your opponent’s shoes: what would you do if you were him?

8. Three things you should try to do in the opening:

  • Get ALL your pieces into play every game.
  • Get some control of the center.
  • Castle your king into safety (the most important move in most openings).

9. Other opening guidelines: Move knights before bishops, e.g., move out the knight on the side where you want to castle, then the bishop, then castle, then move your other knight, your other bishop, move the queen up a little and then move both rooks into play. Don’t start an attack until ALL your pieces are ready. Don’t move up your queen too far where your opponent’s knights and bishops can attack it and win tempos. The player who makes the best (and the fastest) use of his rooks usually wins the opening!

10. Some good endgame tips are: 1) The king is a strong piece – worth about 4+ in fighting value; make sure you use it. 2) Rooks belong behind passed pawns. 3) Passed pawns usually should be pushed.

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