Chess Strategy Vs. Tactics: The Differences Explained

If you want to become a better chess player, you might be wondering whether you should devote your time to studying tactics or strategy. Years ago I had no idea that there was a difference between the two. Luckily, it’s not that complicated!

What is the difference between chess strategy and chess tactics? The difference is that a chess strategy is the long-term overall plan for your game whereas your chess tactics are the individual sets of moves that you use to achieve an objective as part of the game. Strategy is the bigger, wider view of the game while tactics are a closer, zoomed-in look at certain moves.

Some say that chess is “99% tactics” but is that true or does strategy play a much larger role than most people realize? Let’s take a look and see.

Chess strategy vs. chess tactics: What's the difference? - ChessPulse.com
Chess strategy vs. chess tactics: What’s the difference? – ChessPulse.com

What Is The Main Difference? Chess Strategy Vs Tactics

Tactics are either a move but more commonly a series of moves which result either in the acquisition of material (to a greater value than any material you sacrifice) or which result in check or even checkmate. Chess tactics are often arrived at as a result of observing your opponent play their game. This is because they are usually a response to something your opponent has done.

Strategy, on the other hand, is your overall game plan and while, mainly, your strategy is something that you will play out on the board – it can also involved things like the psychological aspects of play, “how do you want your opponent to feel as you play?”

Thus. while tactics tend to arise “in the moment” as your opponent plays. Your strategy is something that you ought to take into the game with you.

A World Champion Speaks

Max Euwe, the former World Chess Champion, said, “Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation.” That’s quite a neat summary of how they operate.

What makes strategic and tactical play confusing for many players is that though they are not the same – a good chess player should have the two working together in harmony. This means that their tactics are used to deliver strategic results in the game.

Which Is More Important?

They are not, however, equally important. A lot depends on the level of your game and, as importantly, the level of your opponent’s game. As you might expect, early on in the stages of learning chess – tactics matter more.

You probably don’t know how to bully your opponent for time, or open up the game in such a way as to force your opponent onto the defensive on the queen’s side so that you can exploit this weakness in the endgame, but there’s no good  reason that you can’t react to the opposing player’s next move.

After all, if you want the most basic chess strategy of all (and, arguably, it’s also the most complex strategy as it’s the one that chess computers use to beat the best players in the world), it’s this: your objective is to accumulate many tiny advantages in order to improve your position on each ensuing move.


What Are Chess Tactics And How Do You Improve Your Tactics?

So, as we said – a chess tactic is a move or a combination of moves which allows you to achieve something measurable on the chessboard. That could be anything such as “capture their queen” or “a position where checkmate can be forced”.

It is measurable because you can demonstrate that the objective has been fulfilled. So, for example, “leave my opponent demoralized” is not a tactical objective because you can’t testify to their mental state (even though it often feels like we can).

Thus, skill in tactics is skill in using pieces in particular positions to achieve measurable results. Once we know this – then we can’t start to look for ways to improve our tactical play.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Do a lot of chess puzzles. Chess puzzles are nothing but tactical play. Of course, you are unlikely to see the exact position in a puzzle in your own games but the better you are at solving puzzles that have defined solutions – the easier it becomes to identify real world problems on the board and then put your thinking cap on to solve those solutions.
  • Play a lot of chess. If you want to throw strategy out the window then it’s fair to say that speed chess games such as blitz and bullet chess are a great way to test lots of tactical plays in very short periods of time, though don’t spend all your time playing fast chess, it will lead to greater levels of impulsivity in your real game. Take the lessons you learn and put them into practice by playing long, measured games too.
  • Read books of tactics. Because chess is a fairly cerebral sport, nearly every chess player of note in history (and a few that weren’t even of note) has written a book or two on their favorite tactical play – curling up with the lessons learned by a master can help you shortcut the process of making your own mistakes and learn from theirs, instead.
  • Work with a coach. Chess coaches can expertly drill their students in chess tactics, they can set you problems, help you see more creative solutions, etc. and most of all they can help you learn to identify targets for your objectives so that you can start to unleash tactics on them.

What Is Chess Strategy And How Do You Get Better At It?

Strategy in chess is the plan that you use to tack the overall flow of your game. It looks forward beyond the capture of a certain piece and asks, “how will I get to the point where this game is won?”

It is very important to realize that strategy is useless if you consider it to be something fixed. You must modify your strategy with every move that your opponent plays, as they will be playing with their own strategy. (This is very much akin to “the plan changes as soon as battle commences” you just can’t rely on your opponent to do what you want them to do).

Bobby Fischer, the former Chess World Champion, noted that “tactics will flow from a superior position.” Thus, from his perspective your strategy was all about finding that improved position and once you knew what it was – you could then unleash your toolbox of tactics on it, to achieve that position.

It is harder to improve your strategy than to improve your tactics. What you can do is:

  • Work with a coach. Your coach can help you better understand yourself as a player and thus, you can start to plan your games so that they respond to your strengths and shield better against your weaknesses. They can teach you not just how to plan but also how to evaluate the plan after the game.
  • Read books. There are fewer books on chess strategy and chess philosophy, so it ought to be easier to find the one you like and that makes sense to you when compared to tactics. However, these books tend to be harder work to make sense of and it may take considerable amounts of study to deliver the results you want.

Conclusion

While many tend to dismiss chess as a purely tactical game, that’s not the case. While it can seem that way when playing against someone who is of a fairly low rank, in reality, the best chess players are serious strategists.

If you don’t have a plan to shape the overall play of your game, then you always reacting to your opponent and that means you are waiting for them to make a mistake so that you can capitalize on it. When you have a strategy, you can start to force your opponents to make mistakes and that means you can exploit the advantages you create – that’s a powerful benefit to become a better strategic player.

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