How to Improve at Positional Chess

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

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Positional chess is one of the hardest things to improve and typically takes years of experience to get excellent intuition or "feel" for the position. 

But studying strategy and positional chess is crucial to becoming a well-rounded player. Someone who devotes all of their studies to tactics will see a lack of strategical skill. And studying just strategy may lead to a lack of calculation ability. The same goes for analyzing only openings instead of endgames. 

Though, studying positional chess is different from studying other areas of the game. For example, getting better at tactics is easy—you simply solve puzzles and train calculation. Getting better at openings is simple—you just study the main lines or master games associated with the opening. 

Analyzing positional chess isn't so clear. Though there are several ways to improve in this area of the game, it takes time to understand positions and strategy and also build decent intuition. 

Although tactical ability plays a big role in differentiating chess players—especially at lower rating levels—positional know-how plays a crucial role separating players as well. For example, the difference in skill between a 1400 rated player and a 1600 rated player can be difference in calculation ability whereas the difference between an 1800 player and a 2000 rated player will most likely be with positional knowledge.  

*Looking for a way to boost positional knowledge past this blog? It's free. Click here.*

But players of all skill levels can benefit from extra positional advice, so I have laid out a few tips to excel in this area.

1. Study openings

It may seem counterintuitive to study openings with the purpose of improving positional chess. Analyzing openings, especially the ones you play can drastically improve your positional understanding. The reason for this is because if you know your opening well enough, you already know the important ideas and concepts. 

And these ideas won't go away. They will be used later in the middlegame. For example, opening books usually stop their analysis of lines in the middlegame. Then, they give important concepts to remember based on the opening and pawn structure.

King's Indian Defense, usually leading to opposite side attacks

So, if you know your openings inside and out, you already have a decent grip on the ensuing middlegame and on positional chess in general.

2. Understand the pawn structure

Pawn structure plays a huge role in understanding the strategic ideas of a position. In some games, you can simply look at the pawn structure and know instantly what the ideas of both sides are. After that, it is a matter of implementing those ideas, which is easier said than done. 

A general rule of thumb is wherever the pawn structure points, is where you play. Of course, there are many intricacies of every pawn structure, and again, it would be beneficial to understand your opening and corresponding pawn structure. 

If you can learn to "read" these structures, you won't need to spend a large amount of time finding a decent plan. By knowing the common ideas of typical pawn structures, playing chess will be much easier. 

In addition, start taking into account ideas such as pawn majority, pawn chains, and types of pawn centers. It will greatly increase your skill!

In fact, there is an entire book devoted to this called Pawn Structure Chess by Andrew Soltis. 

3. Understand prophylaxis

Prophylaxis has to do with preventing your opponent from carrying out some plan, idea, or move. The only way to do this is to think for your opponent. In chess, you can't just think about your goals, you also must do the same for your opponent. This is called prophylactic thinking and is quite important. 

Sometimes, the key to a position isn't about carrying out your ideas, but stopping your opponents. There are many cases of this in chess, but the easiest one to explain is the movement of a wing pawn two squares up. For example, there are many lines in the Sicilian where White opts for a move such as a2-a4 with the simple idea to prevent Black from playing ...b7-b5.

Furthermore, if you can stop your opponents play altogether, then you are automatically playing for 2 results. If your opponent has no hope of counterplay, the game lies solely in your hands.

All annotations by Jacob Aagaard in Grandmaster Preparation: Positional Play

4. Identify weaknesses

This is also an essential part of positional chess. Ask yourself the questions, What are my weaknesses? What are my opponents weaknesses? 

Once you find your opponents weaknesses, you must find good ways to pile up pressure. Though, it may not be enough to play against one weakness; you may have to find a second, following the principle of 2 weaknesses.

If your opponent has no weaknesses, then you must create some! This is why common ideas such as the minority attack exist—to create weaknesses in your enemy's camp. 

In addition, if your own position has weaknesses you can either try to defend it, turn it into a strength, or get rid of it all together by making a sacrifice and hoping for compensation. In any case, you must be on the lookout for weaknesses in your position and your opponents position. Also, take into account every move you make as each move will almost always weaken some other part of the board.

All annotations by Jacob Aagaard in Grandmaster Preparation: Positional Play

5. Study master games

This may be the best way to study positional chess. Master games, especially annotated ones, can be extremely helpful in discovering typical opening, middlegame, and pawn structure ideas. Learning how to play properly from those better than you is quite advantageous and easy nowadays thanks to the millions of games you can access in just a few clicks. 

*Master games won't be the only resource you will need. Find more here.*

By studying annotated master games again and again, you will subconsciously begin to memorize certain patterns and plans. Over time, these patterns will accumulate in your mind and you will have your own personal database of patterns stored in your brain. These memorized patterns become the basis of your intuition.  And having good intuition is an exceedingly useful thing to have. Intuition is the reason why good players are good. They know what the correct move or plan is before any real thinking. 

Another great way to study master games is to move for them. Before seeing what move was played, think for yourself and decide a move you would play if it were your own game. Then, check with the master, and see the real move. With the annotations, you will know what the correct move was and why. And the "why" is important to understanding. 

All annotations by Victor Mikhalevski

In conclusion, understanding positional chess is hard, and takes time to grasp. I hope the information provided in this post gave you some insight onto what you need to do to succeed in positional chess but know that it will take time to craft.  

*Get a full positional chess resource guide and list here.* Patience is key. 

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