Strategy vs. Tactics in Chess and in Life

Given the CV universal of demanding “Strategic Thinking” for any communications, content, or storytelling position, strategy is always top of mind. Rightly so, well-planned and executed strategy shifts paradigms considerably.

However, from my experiences and those my communications peers have shared with me, it’s apparent that there can be some confusion about this terminology. Just because one uses the word “strategy,” it does not automatically make it so. For whatever reason, confusion can seep in and complicate strategy creation, development, and execution.

So how do we address it? Each in our own ways, I think. Let me share mine with you.

I’ve been a lifelong chess player. I credit my love of the game for helping me keep these terms, and their meanings, straight in my personal and professional life. Put simply, a tactic is a single move. Pawn to d4 – that’s a move, a tactic. It does not even need to be an absolute or realized move. Take capturing a piece, for example. This is a single move, but abstract in that it can happen in any game at any time. It’s still a tactic.

Alone, moves (tactics) do not seem like much. On their own, they really aren’t. They lack motivation, goals, and support. This is where we can start talking about strategy.

Strategy is the overall, abstract and real approach(es) to accomplish that goal. Back to our chess example – cornering an opponent’s king before they corner yours is the ultimate goal, but how a player gets there is what we celebrate. There is no single way to do it with fewer good strategies than bad ones.

As a simple definition, a strategy is the intentional, harmonious cohesion of one’s total tactics. It’s the ways in which a player (or a professional) will seek to solve a problem. All moves and tactics need to serve the strategy to further it along. If a move doesn’t serve the overall strategy it distracts, dilutes, and even endangers the strategy.

The opening move I mention before, d4, is part of a wider strategy I like to use in chess called the “Queen’s Gambit.” In it, the player looks to gain an advantage in controlling the center of the board. One move supports the game-winning theme of controlling the center. It is a devilishly aggressive strategy. The Queen’s Gambit constantly puts pressure on the opponent, denies center control, and opens up numerous well-supported attacks against the opponent’s king.

This is how I remind myself of the difference between strategy and tactics – and hopefully you’ve found it helpful as well. Or perhaps it inspired you to think of examples you more closely identify with, if you’re not a chess player.

Finally, let’s remember this: with literally only one objective in chess, players have spent centuries perfecting strategies. What I mean to say here is that the quality of one’s strategies will get better with time. Sometimes that means identifying bad ones. Don’t be hard on yourself when something doesn’t work out, but recognize when it’s a bad strategy by knowing when it’s not just one move.