What is the first step towards chess mastery?
Not giving away your pieces for free.
But wait, that sounds so basic! Chess is such a sophisticated game—aren’t there other strategies more important than just not giving away your pieces for free? What about openings, positional play, pawn structure?
Yes, it is true there are lots of strategies to learn in chess, but they only become helpful once you have learned to keep your pieces safe. Most games between beginners and even intermediate players are decided because one side give away pieces for free (which can flip from side to side multiple times). Eventually once side wins, not due to a nuanced strategy, rather simply because he has a larger army—it is easy to checkmate a king if you are ahead by many pieces.
When we talk about not giving away pieces for free, we can break this up into 4 levels:
Black has just moved his queen to a square where white’s knight can capture the queen for free. Black should have double checked that the square he is moving to is safe. On the flip side, white should seize this opportunity to capture black’s queen! Not taking a free piece is the counterpart mistake to giving a piece away for free.
The black knight has just moved out to threaten white’s pawn. White should either move his pawn up, or defend his pawn with one of his other pieces (for example by moving his knight up to c3 or pushing his pawn to d3).
White has just moved out his bishop to threaten black’s queen. Although black’s queen is defended by his king, it would be a poor trade for black to give away his queen for only a bishop in return. Black can save his queen by moving it away, or by blocking—for example moving his knight to f6 or bishop to e7.
White has just moved his queen to c3. Although the queen is temporarily safe on this square, black can move out his bishop to b4, pinning white’s queen down to the king, thereby winning the queen. White should have been careful not to move his queen to a square where it can be pinned. Black should likewise seize the opportunity to win white’s queen with the pin. This 4th level, watching out for tactics like forks and pins (which requires you to think at least two moves ahead), is arguably the next step beyond not giving away your pieces for free.
Not giving away pieces for free remains the foundation of chess strategy, even as you move up from beginner and intermediate towards becoming an advanced player. If you keep your pieces safe (while also capturing your opponent’s pieces that he gives to you), you will have a larger army, which in most cases is enough to win. By the way, this is actually how grandmasters typically win against other grandmasters—the only difference is that they are keeping their pieces really safe (and their opponent’s pieces really unsafe) by thinking many moves ahead!