Thinking Ahead

     Chess is known as a game where you have to think ahead.

     But how? What does that look like? Here are some fundamental principles:

1. Think ahead for both you and your opponent.

     In positions like the one above, I have often heard from beginners playing white, “I see how I can win black’s queen!” “How?” I ask. “I can move out my dark bishop 4 squares to g5, then capture black’s queen on d8.” “But if you move your bishop to g5, what will black play?” I ask… “Don’t forget that you cannot make 2 moves in a row… if you move your bishop there, black will capture your bishop with his queen and you will actually lose a piece!”

     Thinking ahead is not just considering what you want to do. Your opponent also gets to make moves and what he does matters just as much! This brings us to the second principle of thinking ahead:

2. Expect your opponent to always play the best move (and plan accordingly).

     People often ask, “How can you think ahead if you do not know where your opponent is going to move?” The answer is simple: I make each move assuming my opponent is going to play the best move in response. To consider this, it can be helpful to switch perspectives in your head and ask yourself, “If I were my opponent, what would I do?”

     If we are contemplating move A that looks promising, but realize our opponent can gain the upper hand by playing his best move in response, we now know not to make move A. We can apply this logic to the position above. Moving the white bishop to g5 to attack black’s queen looks like a good move only if black is oblivious to our threat. However, we should assume that black will play the best move in response (taking our bishop for free!) leaving us at a big disadvantage. Therefore, we should discard that bishop move and consider other options.

     When grandmasters play each other, they are using this same thought process multiplied by thinking many moves ahead: “If I go here, your best move is to go there, then my best move is to go here, then your best move is to go there…” After evaluating an outcome several moves down the line, they work backwards to determine their best move in the current position.

     If you are learning chess, do not worry about thinking many moves ahead. Start by learning to carefully think 1 move ahead, then eventually 2 moves ahead… Practicing this thought process over and over again will transform the way you play chess—and think in general!