Chess is the art of decision-making without “complete information.” With every move, we strive to find the best solution for the problem at hand. The problem-solving process is comprised of two parts: evaluation and calculation. We seek to find candidate moves according to each position’s characteristics and features. To find these characteristics and criteria, we need to do two things:
First, we must evaluate the positions by considering every significant and minor comparison ( e.g., minor piece vs. minor piece, pawn structure, king safety, or other comparisons). Afterward, we must consider the interactions among these comparisons to produce meaningful candidate moves. Furthermore, we must evaluate which dynamic plans have a more substantial effect in the long run.
Once the abovementioned processes are done, the calculation phase begins. Finally, we narrow down the plausible moves by calculating through different variations tailoring our visualization and tactical abilities to decide which move to make.
To choose the right plan/move, many players suffer from “overestimation” or “underestimation” when evaluating a position. To solve this issue, several GMs and chess gurus offered different methods to help players improve their understanding.
I developed my method based on my work with my coach GM Sarhan Guliev who helped me go from 2250 to 2500 Elo level quickly. I call my practice “The nine imbalances.” I chose nine criteria as the key factors to define a position’s characteristics and use them to evaluate each situation. The nine criteria are as follows:
- King Safety
- Space and Center
- Bishop Pair
- Pawn Structure, Weak Square, Outposts
- Piece Activity
- Control of Essential Files, Diagonals, Ranks
- Minor Piece Comparison (good Bishop vs. bad Knight, good Knight vs. bad Bishop, good Bishop vs bad Bishop)
The first four are dynamic measures, more applicable to opening and early middlegames, and they could vary by time and tempo of the game, while the following five are more critical for the middlegame and endgame. Here, I provide a brief explanation of each of these nine imbalances:
- King Safety: This is a critical aspect of your game. You want to checkmate your opponent while avoiding being attacked. If your king is weak, then you will always be on your toes. Furthermore, having a weak king limits your ability to create meaningful plans of your own, and to take constructive risks at key moments during a game.
- Material: It may seem trivial, but keeping track of the material balance and its relationship to other imbalances, such as development, is one of the most significant challenges for players looking to improve at chess. Understanding this is essential in knowing when to invite or avoid imbalanced material.
- Development: With modern chess engines, it is apparent how critical it is to develop pieces early on and be ready for the middle game. Correctly placing a piece in the early stages of the game can set up for a good game in the long run.
- Space and Center: Space is essential in chess, and it is usually gained by controlling the center early on in the game. Acquiring a good share of space and center in the opening can lead to a better game.
- Bishop Pair: This is a case where sometimes 2+2 is more than 4. While an individual bishop is powerful on its own, the bishop pair is long range and covers every square on the chess board. The bishop pair works hand-in-hand and can exert significant pressure on the opponent. Hence, the bishop pair can become a great asset when attacking against the enemy king or during queenless middlegames.
- Pawn Structure, Weak Square, Outposts: Your pawn structure refers to the chain of pawns and their proximity. A healthy pawn structure with few holes between the pawns (where your opponent can place a piece, most often a knight), along with an easy-to-defend pawn base, makes it easier for your pieces to move around the board vs. a structure with many double pawns or isolated pawns. Your pieces become passive when they are forced to defend weak pawns, and this can often mean a lost game.
- Piece Activity: We should remember that our pieces should be active in harmony and work together. Thus, we sometimes lose control of a game by playing too aggressively or passively. Thinking of your piece development stage is crucial in understanding whether your piece activity is optimal.
- Control of Essential Files, Diagonals, Ranks: Understanding where the real action occurs is very delicate. At times, I have seen players placing their rooks on open files or bishops on open diagonals where those pieces had very little to do with where the actual action was taking place. Understanding a position’s needs is essential to make the best moves – at the right place and at the right time.
- Minor Piece Comparison: Minor pieces are slower moving and harder to place on a good square, because they are easier to attack than the rooks and queens. You can gain an excellent long-term advantage if one of your minor pieces is better than the matching piece belonging to your opponent.