3 Fundamental Chess Skills

When you hear about chess skills, you normally think about calculating variations, visualization and all that.  While these are definitely important, they aren’t the most fundamental chess skills.  To fully develop from beginner to intermediate and then to advanced, you need to master these basics first.  I’ve listed them below, going from most fundamental to more specialist as we go.

1. Board Vision

It sounds funny, but one of the hardest things to learn is how to actually see the board.  The term ‘chess blindness’ is often used for where we simply forget a piece exists.  Bishops tend to be the main culprit.

Take the following diagram.  If you look at this position, you’ll notice that the Black Queen is exposed, and Rb1 would both attack it as well as skewer the undefended Knight behind it.  Awesome.  You play Rb1, you lick your lips … and then Black eats it with his Bishop.

This still happens to me.  Very rarely in an actual game, but if I’m studying tactical puzzles on ChessTempo, I’ll occasionally zone out and completely overlook a long-range piece.  For newer players, something similar happens every 15 moves or so.  Telling these players to improve their tactics is missing the mark.  Many can see forks and pins just as well as higher rated players; they just have bigger blind spots.

How to Fix It

It’s slightly mindnumbing, but if you do the following exercise, you’ll greatly increase your board vision.  You need 1-2 hours and a collection of short games, preferably under 30 moves.  Go through each game, and for every single move, for both players, stop and ask yourself, “Where can EVERY piece move to on this turn?”

Take your time and do it seriously.  Every move, make sure you look at every piece, and look at every square it can move to.  Yes, it’s repetitive, and yes, your mind will wander, but if you can focus and do it, you’ll improve so much it’s almost magical.  It worked for me.

You also don’t need to do it all in one sitting.  Spend 20min here, 10 min there, and in a week your board vision will skyrocket.

2. What Is The Threat?

The second most fundamental skill is similar, but instead of about seeing it’s about thinking.  All advanced players know this, and most beginners have at least heard about it, but not every one does it.

It’s really simple.  Ask yourself, after every opponent move, “What is his threat?”

In the following bizaarre position, based off one of my earliest online games, Black has just played e6.  What is the threat?  If you said, “It attacks the Knight,” congratulations, you see a threat… but how is your board vision?  Do you notice anything else?

If you look beyond the obvious, you will see two interesting things.  One, White is actually up a piece.  That’s great.  Two, by moving the e-pawn, Black can now move his dark-square Bishop.  If it were Black to move right now, where would you place that Bishop?  Ah, Bb4, pinning the Queen to the King.  That is the real threat.

How to Gain This Skill

This is actually easy, though again mindnumbing.  EIther play some slower time games or analyze some short master games.  After every move, ask yourself, ‘What is the threat?’  If the opponent could move again, what would he do?  Do this for every single move, and in a few hours it will become second nature.  You’ll have a chess skill for life.

3. Memory and Pattern Recognitions

In the above section, I featured an unusual position from a game I played nearly 20 years ago.  I still remember it.  Well, not the whole game, but I remember the defining moment, how I thought the threat was to my Knight but it was actually to my Queen.  How sneaky!

Last year, I won a game with a similar tactic.  I wrote about it here, but here’s the short version.

Black to move, what do you do?  Well, I immediately recognized the Queen-King alignment, and so I pounced with e5.  White sees that he can take the pawn with three different pieces, so he thinks I blundered.  My Bishop then swings over to b4, I pin the Queen and I win the game.  Pretty darn cool.

With chess, having a good memory is so important.  It helps in so many ways, and it has unintended benefits.  If I play an Over-the-board (OTB) game, I can recall the moves with near 100% accuracy afterwards.  This impresses most people, especially non-chess players who think I must be some type of genius.

This isn’t true.  I’m nothing special, and the memory will soon fade.  The ideas, though, remain.  Masters have hundreds if not thousands of games ‘memorized’ in such a way.  They might not know every single move, but they know the main ideas, similar to how you feel after reading a book.  You likely can’t quote it verbatim, but you can explain the plot and important elements if needed.  The same is true with chess games.

How to Get Better Memory

Honestly, this mostly comes with experience.  It’s similar to reading.  The more you read, the easier it gets, allowing you to read more, which makes it easier, etc etc.  If you play chess and think hard on each move, you’ll remember some of the positions.  The more you do it, the more you’ll remember.  Then one day you’ll randomly try to replay a game you just played and be surprised you’ve got the whole thing.

That’s a pretty cool feeling.

My main suggestion is, if you study chess, try to do it with books and a real board.  Yes, this takes longer.  You need to look at the book, see the move, look at the board, make the move, then repeat.  Going through a game can take ages, especially when going through several long variations … but that’s exactly the point.  You spend longer on the position.  You see the position several times.  You are putting in time, and that will add up eventually.

If you use a computer, you can just use your arrow keys to zip through a game in 30sec, and often I don’t remember a thing afterwards.  Real boards have magic.

The Main Benefit of Memory, Board Vision and Knowing the Threat

In case it isn’t clear, you don’t want to have a good memory just so you can memorize every GM game ever and then never need to think for yourself.  No, that would be fruitless.  Rather, having a good memory gives you far better intuition.  You’ll start seeing patterns, even in completely different positions, and you’ll get a sense of what the right move should be.  From there, you can calculate to see if it works.

At a higher level, much of chess is pattern recognition.  Pawn structures have similar patterns, and you can use ideas from one game in another.  The same is true for pieces.  Different piece patterns have different names, be it battery or forked or hanging, and they can apply everywhere.  The more patterns you know, the easier it is to find any given move.

Best of all, it’s related to the above two items, board vision and “what is the threat”.  All three are connected, really.  If you ask what the threat is, you’ll see more of the board.  If you keep asking it, you’ll start seeing the same types of threats over and over.  This will become ingrained, a memory.  The more patterns you know, the faster you can recognize them.  When you recognize these patterns, you see threats faster.  It’s a virtuous cycle.

If you want to get good at chess, to rise above the masses, it really starts here.  Before tactics and calculation and basic endgames, before all of that stuff, you need to have the three fundamental chess skills: you can see the whole board, you can see the threats, and you have a growing memory bank of patterns.  Once you’ve got that, the rest will fall in place.  If you don’t got this, though, then you will never get anywhere.

I’d love to hear feedback.  Good luck on your chess journey.

2 thoughts on “3 Fundamental Chess Skills

  1. CitronJeune

    Hey SmithyQ !

    What a nice article today, it’s clear and well explained, we just have to try it. I never heard about those techniques of visualization if we can call it like that. Did you find it by yourself or did you inspired from Smirnov courses ?

    At any rate, I follow every post on chess since your come back, I have not always time to write a comment but I’m here haha.


  2. JP Post author

    It’s great hearing from you again, Pierre.

    These ideas are my own, from what I remember while I was learning and also from conversations I’ve had with beginner level players. The first two are pretty simple and self-explanatory, I feel, but I’m not sure if ‘memory’ is really a fundamental skill. I mean, it’s definitely important, and you can’t become a good player without some memory work, but I’m not sure if it’s the same level as the other two.

    I need to think about this more. My idea, though, is to question, “What makes a good chess player a good chess player?” What does he do that others don’t? And I mean, besides calculation and tactics. What skills do they have? That interests me, and if we can figure it out, it should be easier to improve. That’s my hope, at least.

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