A critical component of success in chess is not just a solid understanding and awareness of tempo, but the capability to influence and control it. Strong players seem to have an innate ability to make one seemingly brilliant move and turn the tide of the battle, much to their opponents despair. These players understand controlling the tempo of the match and making the opponent play the game on someone else’s terms will allow them to take the victory more often than not. Once you can recognize tempo as an almost tangible force in the game and better yet impact it, you will certainly see a noticeable improvement in your match results and be able to better command the game.
A tempo (plural tempi) can be in essence defined as a turn, but in the tug of war that is chess, having the tempo can mean gaining a preferable result on your turn, forcing your opponent to respond and thus giving you control and more options to sway the course of the match. Alekhine, Carlsen, and many other well known and studied attacking players exemplify this by making moves that force their opponent to reconsider their plans and fight with their backs against the ropes. These players are said to have gained the initiative, limiting their opponents options, exerting their will on the flow of the match, and forcing their opponents to play the game differently. While this may sound complicated or the culmination of tedious study of theory, it is really quite simple and can be accomplished by following a few simple rules:
Rule 1: Move with Purpose – Simply put, one must make every move count in order to dictate the flow of the game. If you are focused solely on attacking your opponent, they will evade and counter. Hollow attacks that can be countered or easily dodged offer no advantage and can ultimately be your downfall. Players who break the rule of bringing their Queen out too early are a great example of this principle in action. They may make some idle threats in the center or offer a weak check or two, but the tempo can be stolen very easily. This would give the defending player an opportunity to develop while their opponent evades to try and save their Queen. This leads to rule 2…
Rule 2: Develop Your Minor Pieces Early – While pawns are an important part of the game and gaining a favorable pawn structure creates a solid foundation to move around later in the match, the minor pieces are going to defend and attack at the same time when in the right place. Being ahead in development not only offers an advantage to tempo, but allows you to assure your King is protected by being able to castle sooner and allowing you to pressure your opponent efficiently and faster than they can pressure you. You will have more weapons at your disposal sooner, certainly an advantage in the battlefield .
Rule 3: Do Not Move the Same Piece Twice – Unless it is to gain a very good advantage or out of absolute necessity, do not move the same piece twice. If you were to move your e file pawn twice in a row for instance, you are allowing your opponent two turns to your one. My coach often says “put your pieces on their best squares and they will do the rest.” He is absolutely right and often I find if I can get the pieces where they are most effective and make smart, simple moves around them, I can gain and maintain the initiative much more effectively and often.
Rule 4: Checks Don’t Matter – This is a habit that took me a long time to break and still requires significant help from my coach to stay away from. Unless the check forces your opponent to follow a plan you have set up or creates a pin or fork, the check is not necessarily an indicator of your advantage. Caution must also be made as a check with a strong piece can create many countering opportunities for your opponent and can ultimately cause you to lose tempo or a piece. While a check may gain a psychological advantage of showing your opponent that you are clever or have keen situational awareness, this is fruitless and meaningless without a plan.
Rule 5: Look at The Situation From Both Sides of The Board – It happens to us all, tunnel vision. We focus so much on what we want to happen on the board that we may overlook the reality of what lies before us. When making a move, consider what move you would make if you were playing on the other side. Often when we focus solely on what plan we’ve created, we overlook opportunities we hand our opponents or better moves we could have and should have played.
Understanding tempo is simple, but harnessing its power and consistently possessing it, particularly amongst strong opponents, takes time and awareness. Like many other parts of the game, analysis after a match yields great results and “aha” moments. A positive habit I have picked up lately has been to say “tempo, tempo, tempo” before I make a move or when I am feeling pressured. I visualize the tempo of a game, I look at it like a level one might use when hanging a picture. Will this move send the bubble too far to one side, creating an imbalance? Once you can feel the tempo of a match and make these 5 rules of tempo part of your standard behavior, you will find you have much more control of your matches and have designed a stronger foundation to build a winning plan from.