How To Calculate In Chess? The Thought Process Explained

Calculation is the most important skill to hone in chess. A player who has the ability to calculate well is a very dangerous opponent.

Calculation can begin straight out of the opening as tension builds when the pawns and pieces come in contact with each other. Once there is tension on the board, then you should begin your calculation process.

There are a few steps you should take in order to calculate efficiently. These steps that I’m about to list must be done in the right order as set out in the article. With that said, let’s jump right in!

How to calculate in chess:

  1. Study the position (tactical and strategic elements)
  2. Look for your opponent’s threats (if there are none, proceed to the next step)
  3. Look for forcing moves (checks, captures, attack)
  4. If none of the forcing moves work, play a positional move that improves your position.

1. Study The Position

The first step in calculating is to study or assess the position for both sides. You need to be aware of both the strategic and tactical elements in the position. This will better help you select your candidate moves which we will discuss later.

Strategic elements of the game include:

  • Weak pawn structures: Are there any backward pawns, isolated pawns, or doubled pawns in the position?
  • The activity of your pieces: How well are your pieces developed? Is your opponent lacking in development?
  • Dark or light squared weaknesses: Are there any dark or light squared weaknesses in your opponent’s position that you could exploit?
  • Space: Which side has more space in the center and on the flanks?
  • King safety: How safe is my king? Is my opponent’s king castled or out in the open?
  • Material count: Which side has the material advantage?

Tactical elements include:

  • Loose pieces: Are there any loose pieces that are not defended by other pieces?
  • Pins: Is my bishop pinning down my opponent’s pieces or eyeing my opponent’s king?
  • Forks: Do I have a potential fork with my knight?
  • Discovered attacks: Can I move a piece out of the way to attack my opponent?

These are the most important things to look for when studying or assessing the position. Once you’ve studied the position carefully, you will have a clear understanding of the game, which will help you take the necessary actions. Proceed to the next step.

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2. Look for your opponent’s threats

So many times I see players only focus on their plans that they neglect the plans and threats of their opponent. Before you even start calculating, you should always ask yourself “What is my opponent threatening?”

Look for all the forcing moves that your opponent has. If your opponent is threatening to attack something, or capture a piece to gain the material advantage, then you should prevent that. Even if it means pausing your own plans.

You are less likely to lose games by following this approach. In fact, most games are lost because the player simply did not take the time to identify his opponent’s threats.

3. Beginning The Calculation Process (Look for forcing moves)

Now that we got the first 2 steps out of the way, it’s now time to begin your calculation process. When calculating in chess, you should always look for the most forcing move(s) in the position. Forcing moves can be divided into 3 categories:

  • Checks
  • Captures
  • Attack


Checks are the most forcing moves out of the 3 because a check threatens to capture the king on the next move. Therefore, your opponent will need to react to this threat immediately by either moving his king out of the check, blocking the check with one of his pieces, or removing the piece delivering check.

Checks are the first moves you should consider when calculating. If the check does not win material or improve your position on a whole, then you should move onto the next forcing move which are captures.


Captures are the 2nd most forcing moves because it wins material. And as we know, the player with the material advantage has a greater force and better chances of delivering checkmate to the opposing king. If your opponent has less material, then there simply won’t be enough pieces protecting the king.

Look for all the possible captures in the position. Then look for your opponent’s forcing move in response to this capture. Continue this thought process and assess the position at the end of the line.

If the capture did not yield a positive verdict, then you should discard that line and move onto the next forcing move. However, if the capture did result in gain in material with a positional advantage, then you should play that move.

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Attack in chess is a move that threatens to capture a piece on the next turn. Pawns are one of the greatest attackers because exchanging them for a minor or major piece will lead to a material advantage.

After you’ve looked at all the checks and captures in the position, and have decided that none are favorable, then you should look for attacks.

Look at your pawns on the board, and see what pieces they can potentially attack as they move forward. Look for all other captures on the board.

Calculate your opponent’s forcing move in response to the capture. Once you’ve exhausted all your forcing moves for that line, evaluate the position at the end to see whether you’ve gained or loss material. If it yields a positive verdict, then you should make the move. If it doesn’t then you should play a positional move instead. This takes us to the last stage of calculation:

4. Play Positional Move

Once you’ve exhausted all your forcing moves (checks, captures, attacks) and none of which yields a positive verdict, then you should make a positional move. This move simply improves the position of your pieces, or aim to achieve a strategic idea.

If you went through step 1 thoroughly of pointing out the strategic elements in the position, then coming up with a positional move will be a lot easier.

Positional moves can involve:

  • Improving the position of your minor and major pieces by advancing them forward to their most active and natural squares.
  • Improving the safety of your king by castling
  • Making a prophylaxis move
  • Advancing your pawns forward to gain more space and room for your pieces

I see so many mistakes where players want to attack their opponent so badly, that they play forcing moves only to end up with a worse position at the end of the line.

You shouldn’t always be on the attack in chess. Sometimes the position calls for a slow positional improving move. Here there is not much calculation involved. Your knowledge of the strategic elements of the position plays a crucial role in finding the best move.

Since this article is all about calculation, we will not go too deep in strategy. But to find out more information on the subejct, you can read one of my latest article: 10 Effective Chess Strategies To Win

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When To Stop Calculating

Remember, for every forcing move you make when calculating, you should look for your opponent’s forcing moves in response. This will cause you not to fall for any counterattacks or traps in the position.

The depth at which you calculate will end once you’ve looked at all the forcing moves in that line. If the move causes you to lose material at a positional disadvantage, then you should immediately stop calculating that line.

A lot of chess players burn a lot of unnecessary time on their clocks as they keep on calculating a line which yields a negative verdict. Once you’ve determined that the move is bad, you should discard that move forever and never go back to it.

For every line you calculate you should consider your opponent’s forcing moves in response to your move. For example, if you captured your opponent’s piece, then you should consider his forcing move which could include an attack on your king or to capture one of your pieces.

The depth of the line you calculate will depend on how many forcing moves is in that line. Once there is no more forcing moves left in the line to calculate and the smokes have cleared, you should then evaluate the position based on material, activity of the pieces, king safety, and pawn structure. If you are better at the end of the line, then you should play that candidate move.

Final Verdict

Calculating in chess takes a lot of brain power and energy. You stop calculating a line when the results yield a negative verdict.

In other words, if you’ve calculate a line but at the end you noticed that you’ve lost material, then there will be no point in further calculating. You simply move onto the next candidate move.

The process of discovering forcing moves and elimination is a common thought process of many grandmasters. However, you will need to stay focused over the board when calculating these candidate moves, especially to long depths.

As a result, we recommend that you stay in good physical condition before a match. You should include exercise in your training to get the blood circulating in the head. Also, never play a match when hungry. You should always have something to eat before a match. You can also carry a bottle of water to improve your concentration over the board.