What Chess Move to Play When You Don’t Know What to Play?

Chess is a very complex game. Playing high quality moves is a very difficult task to achieve and the ability to pick the best moves is art, which requires many hours to master. Have you ever find yourself in a position, while playing a game of chess, when it seems like you don’t know at all what move should you make on the board. You think, well should I make this move or that move and you feel lost in the position and totally don’t know what to play? If you do you should feel happy for two reasons. First of all, you’re not alone, many novice players don’t know what to play (yes this article aims mostly novice chess players, since when Masters don’t know what move to make it a completely different story, but even they can learn something here). The second reason you should feel happy, because you were fortunate enough to stumble upon this article which will solve the issue (hopefully).

Now I will cover the most common “what ifs” regarding the positions in which many people struggle to find a move to play. I will also try to give hints and pointer to overcome this obstacle.

So, what if you don’t know what to play in a general position? How should you proceed in order to find a move? We need to be clear that it’s almost always possible to play some move, however aim of most chess players is to play good or the best move possible. In order to play a good move, first you need to understand what’s going on the board at the moment. The technique that connects the understanding of what’s going on the chess board with the decision of what move to play is called position analysis. If you are not quite sure what I’m talking about, I recommend reading how to analyze a chess game.

What if… you don’t know what to play in a positional and quiet game? How do you pick the right move? In any position you should have a plan. Having a plan is like having a map that guides you through the obstacles of the positional sea. Having a good plan is like having a GPS. Having a not-so-perfect plan is better than having none at all. So, first you should look at the position, analyze it and come up with some ideas to develop. Basically in positional games the pawn structure is locked and the pieces don’t interact much. Good, universal plan is to place bishops at the diagonals pointed to the opponents’ king, place rooks on semi-open files (or the files which you are going to open later), place knights at the center of the board, closer to the opponents’ king , keep your own king safe and finally place the queen so that when the position gets opened it can start quick actions.

Hint to consider: if you don’t know what to play in a position, improve position of your pieces as stated above. When placement of your pieces is good you’re ready to open up the game and start to dominate the game. Once you get more experienced with the game of chess you will learn to do both things (improve position of pieces and open the game) simultaneously.

What if you are losing a game and don’t know what move to play? This is a completely different scenario from the previous example. When you are under attack you need to worry about 2 things. The first thing is obviously not getting mated, since if you do the game is over. The second thing is not to lose too much material, since we all know that not getting mated but playing a rook down is not fun. How do you do it? That’s an easy question to ask but not an easy one to answer. Basically the plan in these positions is quite simple: not get mated, defend your material and look for counter-attack possibilities. If you see an unclear continuation you should play it rather than clear losing one. If you want to learn how to survive under extreme pressure, I recommend reading how to play chess in a lost position.

What if… you don’t know what move to play in the endgame? I need to remember endgame is the final stage of the game and every mistake here can be fatal. Due to the low number of pieces on the board value of each pawn goes up and number of possible variations decreases. The main idea for being a successful endgame player is to calculate variations as deep as possible and don’t let the opponent’s King penetrate your position. The main plan of any endgame is to promote a pawn and to prevent promotion of opponent’s pawn. Don’t treat endgame as a slow positional game. Even though they may look somewhat similar, but they are very different. In the positional middle game each tempi’s cost is pretty low. You can spend more moves improving you knight’s position in the middle game. However, you cannot afford making pointless moves in the Kings and Pawns endgames. You will simply lose.

Hint to consider: Keep the position under control, prevent your opponent’s pawns from promoting and try to promote your own. Keep your opponent’s king away from your pawns and try to penetrate his pawn structure with you own King. Calculate twice to avoid silly blunders.

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Updated 04.07.2023


Hello Vasilis, this is a good advice. Improving position of the worst piece is a useful technique, as well as doing prophylactic moves.
I 'll add Adersen 's suggestion to these, "when you don 't know what to play, improve the position of your worst piece..Nice site btw, i read you for some time..and.. i 'll keep in touch
Davinder Singh:
Good... :)
Hope it helped your game :)
Now I see much better how to play. I got a plan! Thanks a lot!