Have you ever watched a chess match and felt completely bewildered at what the players were doing? How do they decide which pieces to move? How are they keeping track of everything? Are they really playing with strategy? Or are they just moving pieces around on a board?

Below, we’ve broken down chess into a few easy components you can use to improve your game.

The basics of chess

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You probably know the basics of chess already, but let’s start with a quick refresher. The goal of chess is simple: Use your pieces to trap your opponent’s king. When the king is in the attack path of an existing piece, it’s known as a check. To escape, the king has to make a legal move to a safe square. If no safe moves exist, it’s known as a checkmate, and the game is over.  

Easy enough to understand, though quite a bit more complicated to put into practice. Chess is believed to be over 1,500 years old, and in that time, experts have come up with one or two strategies that tend to work better than others. Let’s discuss a few of these tactics.

Basic chess strategy

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First, the most important thing you can do to improve your game is practice! Try to play a game every day, if possible. Experience is the best teacher, and if you’re new, you’ll learn a ton just from playing matches more often. Of course, to really improve, you’ll need to get specific with how you practice.

Start with the opening

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Everything in chess starts with the opening, so naturally, it’s a great place to start your training.

In general, start by bringing out your weaker pieces early (also known as “developing” your pieces). This means developing your pawns and knights before moving your higher-value pieces, like your rooks or queen.

Avoid moving pieces multiple times during the first 5-10 turns. In general, you’re better off developing more pieces than fewer in the interest of building attack opportunities. And definitely avoid repeats, such as moving a knight forward and then changing your mind and moving it back.

Castle your king as early as possible. This simple move involves switching the placement of your rook and king (under certain conditions). This is a great move for both offense and defense.

Build toward the center. The center of the board is the most active territory, so you’ll want to apply pressure there before your opponent does.

Work on tactical vision

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A key aspect of getting better at chess is developing what the pros call “tactical vision.” This means being able to look at the board and quickly identify opportunities for piece development, attack, defense and danger.

It’s a broad concept that comes with experience, so beginners should start by looking for these elements one at a time.

Keep pieces safe

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For example, it’s good practice to avoid leaving any piece “en prise” (in take). Also known as “hanging” the piece, this rule simply means don’t leave your pieces in positions where they can be taken without retribution. It sounds incredibly basic, but this is a key area where beginners struggle.

Those new to the game tend to hang pieces on nearly every turn, particularly in the later game stages where attack possibilities get more complicated. As such, a big part of beginner strategy is learning how to recognize these threats before the damage is done. When you get good at this, you’ll improve beyond the level of casual players.

Recognize common patterns

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If you want to keep your pieces safe, you need to recognize common attack patterns. There are whole textbooks devoted to this topic alone, so here, we’ll focus just on the most common patterns you’re likely to see:

Fork: When one piece threatens two pieces simultaneously, often forcing the opponent to save one and sacrifice another.

Knight Fork: A regular fork performed by a knight. These are especially tricky to spot thanks to the way the knight “jumps” across the board.

Pin: When a piece can’t move from its position without exposing another, more valuable piece to danger. Pinned pieces are easy to attack, since they have limited retreat options.

Skewer: It’s the pin in reverse. Two pieces will be lined up vertically, with a high-value piece protecting a low-value piece. In this case, your opponent will generally elect to save his/her important soldier, leaving the weaker one open to capture.

Improving through training

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The only way to get better at chess is to start recognizing these patterns in games and leveraging them to your advantage. Keep this in mind as you practice.

For best results, set aside a certain amount of time each day to play a practice game, review strategies and analyze patterns. Your goal isn’t to win—it’s to review each phase of the board for these patterns and get familiar with seeing them in practice.

Over time, you’ll find that you start to notice these opportunities automatically without much effort. That’s how you improve.

And as this skill develops, you’ll be able to build on these patterns to recognize more complex sets of moves that let you play you one, two or even three moves ahead of your opponent.

That’s how you win.