In the two previous posts we discussed the war principles and tried to establish a distinction between principles and rules on our way to make a warfare-chess connection.

A better understanding of the connection may help us grasp a stronger hold on the meaning and application of strategy. Generally speaking, strategy is underrated in chess (and elsewhere). As a result, there are just a handful of decent chess books on strategy written to date. But tons of books and mouths full of words about tactics, like “chess is 99% tactics.” [1]

A mere Tactician in you can’t pretend to be a great Warrior. The ability to deal with ever changing conditions of war (on the chessboard) demands much more than your tactical skills. During your battles you need to negotiate not only the urgent (tactical), but also the emergent (strategic) which is not yet obvious but may be coming up. Therefore, all your battles should first be fought in your mind. And it is in your mind that you win them, not by slashing of your shiny sword. Strategy, the art of the General, reigns supreme – tactics is just building blocks of strategy.

War principles guide strategic thinking. They are important as they represent distilled experience of centuries and generations of military leaders of making strategy and conducting war. These fundamental principles are inherently part of strategic thought and key to your effectiveness in any competitive activity, including chess.

Let’s see how 2,500 years of the war principles since SunTzu stack up to just more than a hundred years, ever since Steinitz, of our attempts to put down a definition of fundamental chess principles. How is this task relevant to real chess issues? Well, chess has all the elements of war, and war principles are truly chess principles too. Besides, as we saw in the previous post:

  1. experts’s knowledge revolves around major principles, and
  2. experts’ decision-making is dependent on and “constructed” from these strategic principles.

In this post we are going to list some of the principles and rules (or maxims) of chess as they can be found in books and online. I Googled “chess principles” and picked three first-page results of authoritative chess minds in the US: Susan Polgar, Dan Heisman and Lev Alburt.

While going over it, keep the following in mind:

As a Strategist, you need to look beyond now. Therefore, the major strategic principles should help you articulate a clear and positive future state toward which you can direct your efforts. While in the domain of strategy, with things still emerging, you can still make choices, you still have options, you have multiple routes toward achieving your objectives. But you may not have a concrete tangible solution yet. The one is derived from principles and it is at the moment when you make a decision, when you cut off the knot with your sword (verb decide comes from Latin decidere, literally, to cut off). Now you are a Tactician. You are in a bloody battle, in the middle of the fire all around you. Your moves have become more or less forced. No more have you that luxury of the Strategist to calmly consider how to best conduct your war further. The point is, the aim of strategy is to prepare yourself for the coming crisis when swords will clash, on your own terms, otherwise you are out of control, you are just reacting to the opponent and may only pray for survival.

Again, any line below that help you as a Strategist should be recognized as a principle (else, it is not really helpful at all; also, note, there is a glaring inconsistency in how terms principle and rule are used).

Middlegame, chess art by Samuel Bak

Chess and other wars are fought by applying the same universal principles (art by Samuel Bak)

Susan Polgar’s Power Principles of Chess

Susan Polgar is the first female Chess Grand Master and one of the strongest female players in history. As posted on her blog, here are some of the basic chess rules Susan [2] recommends that every novice player must know:

  • Control the center
  • Develop your pieces as soon as possible
  • Castle as soon as possible
  • Keep your pieces protected
  • Have lots of fun. Win with grace. Lose with dignity

Besides the five valuable principles above, there are others that you should try to remember. Keep the following principles in mind as you play:

  • Every move should have a purpose
  • What is the idea behind your opponent’s move?
  • Always think before you move
  • Learn to make plans. Planning is one of the most important elements of the game of chess
  • Analyze your games and learn from your mistakes
  • Pace yourself wisely (this one is about time management, –mr)

Dan Heisman’s Chess Guidelines/Principles

Heisman [3] gives the following chess rules/principles definitions on his site (they seem to be in reverse of our definition last time which really doesn’t matter as long as we keep in mind the true nature of the two categories):

“The difference between a guideline (or principle or rule of thumb or heuristic) and a rule is that a rule works (or is required) all the time (or has a few, definable exceptions), while a guideline is just a helpful hint that does not have the force of a rule – some guidelines work almost all the time – others to varying degrees of frequency. Principles help you figure out what to play when you don’t know what to do.”

Then Heisman gives the most important aspects to concentrate upon to start playing good chess (‘The Big 5’). They are as follows:

  • Safety – Chess safety = tactics; especially important are counting and basic motifs
  • Piece activity – Use all your pieces all the time
  • Thinking process – What are all the things my opponent’s move accomplishes?
  • Time management – Pace yourself to use almost all your time every game
  • General guidelines/principles – Learning them, and then learning how and when to apply them

Lev Alburt’s Rules of Thumb

A book description on the Amazon says “Chess Rules of Thumb gives you the winning principles of chess in clear, short statements. Three-time US Champion Lev Alburt and World Chess Hall of Fame Curator Al Lawrence have put together three centuries of insights from the masters.” And then,

“Save hours of head-scratching and uncertainty in your own games and understand why the masters make the moves they do (italics mine):

  • The worst square for a White knight is b2
  • With rook vs. two knights, exchanging queens is worth a pawn
  • Never capture the b2 pawn with the queen (as far as I can remember, Fischer did it in his Spassky Championship match in Reykjavik, –mr)
  • Rooks united on the seventh are blind pigs
  • The winner is the one who commits the next-to-last mistake”

 * * *

Do you think Alburt’s “the worst square for a White knight is b2,” or similar, is a valuable insight from the masters that may really help you understand why they make the moves they do? Can it really help your head-scratching and uncertainty in your own games? Can it really help you become a better chess player?

The chess principles may.


1. There are thousands of instances in chess literature like this, for example, just yesterday I came across, “Tactics, tactics, tactics. These are the building blocks of chess, and while strategic planning might seem the more sophisticated approach to the game, without tactics all the best laid plans fall apart,” Albert Silver’s book review on the Chessbase site on GM Lubomir Ftacnik’s 1000x Checkmate.

These praises of tactics have been repeated ever since Richard the Fifth Teichmann pronounced it a hundred years ago, “chess is 99% tactics.”

2. Susan Polgar is a Hungarian-American chess player. Judit Polgar, her sister, is the best female chess player ever. In many ways, together with the third sister Sofia, they are a tribute to their upbringing: chess for eight hours a day, no friends, no toys, and a father determined for them to succeed (see a piece in The Telegraph). Laszlo Polgar, a trained psychologist, had made a deep study of the childhood origins of genius and his point is genius was not born, but made (he wrote a book about it entitled Bring Up Genius!).

So it is very interesting for us to see what a genius in our chess domain is to say about the major principles. Naturally, Susan must breathe these principles. But as every expertise claims to be instinctive and automatic, the articulation of the principles may sometimes be a little bit rough to get out.

3. Dan Heisman is a USCF National Master, renowned chess educator and author. He authors the award-winning Novice Nook column, aimed at improving adults, for the popular Chess Cafe Web site. He has also written eight books on chess.

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