The most important chess concept you've never heard of

Black to move. What would you do in this position?

There’s a cliche in the chess world that adults are good at positional understanding, but bad at tactics. But when I look at the games of adult improvers, I often find the opposite: they’re proficient enough at tactics, but struggle to find productive moves when no tactics are available. I think this is partly the result of chess improvement becoming more structured: there are straightforward and widely available resources for improving at tactics, but the methods for getting better at positional play are less clear.

One way to put it would be that positional chess is what to do, and tactics are how to do it. A lot of players have trained to become good at the how, but in many positions, have no idea what they’re trying to do.

In my experience, getting better at this is less about developing the skill to concoct grand plans, and more about learning a lot of little patterns. It’s the difference between choosing a page out of the playbook vs. writing the playbook during the game. I think we lack a word for this kind of positional knowledge.

In the position above, Black’s best move is Be8! The light-squared bishop, which wasn’t doing anything on d7, will pop out to h5 and force White to play the severely weakening pawn advance g4. If you’ve seen this pattern before, you probably spotted the move instantly, but if you haven’t, it could be very hard to figure out.

When I posted this chart on Twitter, two of the most popular suggestions were “intuition” and “instinct”. While these are certainly reasonable, to me they suggest an ability that is generalized and unlearnable — you either have it or you don’t. In contrast, the kind of positional knowledge I am talking about is highly specific and entirely possible to learn.

Another popular suggestion was “pattern recognition”. This is closer to what I had in mind, but clashes with the same term as applied to tactics. You could adjust it to “positional pattern recognition” but that’s kind of a mouthful.

But as a few people pointed out, there’s already a chess word for exactly what I was talking about: priyome. It’s a Russian word that has various translations including “reception”, “acceptance”, or “gimmick”. Within the context of chess, it means a typical pattern or technique. While this word appears frequently in Soviet chess literature, it never caught on in English-language sources. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of it (or if I had, I forgot).

In “100 Chess Master Trade Secrets”, GM Andy Soltis says that the Soviet trainer Alexey Suetin urged all his students to collect key positions in a notebook. This is essentially the technique I would recommend. Whenever you see an important position, save it as a flashcard. What counts as important? Positions where you made a mistake are obvious, but it could be any position or idea that seems important or worth remembering.

Today, we have a lot of ways to replicate notecard systems digitally. For most players, it will make more sense to use a digital system, especially if you play most of your games online. There are various tools that can work:

  1. Anki. This is a free digital flashcard system. It’s popular with medical students as a way to remember a lot of information. Dan Bock gave a great presentation in The Chess Gym on how he uses Anki to save and review key positions. Upsides of this platform are that the cards are easy to create and it automatically quizzes you on a spaced repetition schedule. The downside is that it’s not a chess-specific program, so you won’t be able to make moves on an interactive board.
  2. Lichess studies. You can save positions to a Lichess study set to Interactive Mode and train them as puzzles. The advantage of this is that you can make the moves on a chessboard. The downsides are that you’ll have to manage review scheduling manually, and Lichess studies are limited to 64 chapters.
  3. Chessable. You can create a custom Chessable course with your own positions. This combines some of the upsides of Lichess and Anki, in that you can make the moves on a chessboard, and it handles the spaced repetition schedule for you. The downside is that the process of creating and updating your own course on Chessable is pretty clunky, so there will be more friction when it comes to adding new positions.
  4. Chessbase. Chessbase has a feature where you can save a position as training. You can then train all the positions from a database. There’s also a nice feature that lets you print out all your training positions. Similar to Lichess, this will let you make the moves on a chessboard, but won’t manage spaced repetition for you. I definitely wouldn’t buy Chessbase for this feature alone, but if you already do most of your training in Chessbase, this is a relatively easy way to start saving positions.

Any of these tools could work, but I would say Anki is probably the easiest to set up. Here’s an example of a card in my Anki deck:

Regardless of which tool you use, I would highly recommend giving this method a try. If I had to pick one training technique that is the most undervalued in the chess community, this would be near the top of the list.

If you liked this check out my newsletter where I write weekly posts about chess, learning, and data:

Want to simplify your chess training? Check out The Chess Gym, my online chess learning community, where we focus on the most impactful techniques for leveling up your game.

And if you're interested in 1:1 coaching, send me a message at