Your Opponent’s Move

I’ve written about this subject before, but feel it’s so important that we must revisit it in greater detail! When I coach a group of students, I go from board to board, watching each individual game. I make notes regarding problems I see within each game such as poor development in the opening, poorly thought out exchanges in the middle-game and the bane of the beginning player, one sided plans. What’s a one sided plan, you may be wondering? An affliction that everyone who has ever learned the game of chess has suffer from. Let’s first briefly review the concept of planning:

Chess is a game in which the plans of both players clash. They clash because the immediate plan of one player is often thwarted because of a specific move made by their opponent, a move that stops that plan. Of course, the game’s constant clash of plans is what makes the game so spectacular. Most beginners think the plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King. That is the game’s goal. That goal is achieved by employing a number of immediate plans rather than a single long term plan meant to work for the entire game. It’s unrealistic for beginners or advanced players to create a single plan that takes them from the opening to the endgame because a position can drastically change from one move to the next. This means that, if you had a single long term plan, one or two moves by the opposition could destroy that plan, leaving you in the dark regarding just what to do.

Plans must be flexible, able to adjust to the ever changing position on the chessboard. Flexibility is the key to good planning in chess. Your plan should always take into account a number of possible opposition moves, not just one move. However, there’s something even worse than an inflexible plan that depends on your opponent making a single anticipated move. This dreadful mindset is one sided thinking!

What do I mean by one sided thinking. Many of us have heard beginning players state that “I’m thinking four moves ahead of my opponent right now” going into or during the middle-game. The top chess players in the world have a little trouble realistically thinking this many moves ahead, with absolute accuracy during the middle-game, because there are so many possible positions to be considered (I’m talking about a staggering number that only a computer could fathom). What is the beginner really saying then?

The beginner isn’t lying about seeing four moves ahead. They are seeing four move ahead in their mind. Unfortunately, one sided thinking is clouding their judgment and derailing their plan without them even knowing it. One sided thinking is making a move and expecting your opponent to make the move you want them to make, which allows you to make your next move in the plan followed by your opponent making another move you want them to make. You plan only works if your opponent makes the moves you want them to make. However, your opponent has his or her own plan and you can be sure that they’re going to make moves that go against your plan. After all, your opponent is also trying to win the game. The beginner’s thoughts might sound like this: “I’m going to put my Queen here and my opponent is going to move a pawn there. Next, I’ll move my Bishop here and my opponent will his Knight there and I’ll checkmate on the next move. If this sounds familiar to beginners reading this, it should because it’s The Scholar’s Mate (four move checkmate). Take a look at the example below.

We’ll look at one siding thinking first, our beginner’s thought process from the above paragraph where the opposition makes the moves our beginner wants them to make, and then see what happens when our beginner (playing white) plays against an opponent that has his or her own ideas as to what to do!

In the above example, both players start out making extremely reasonable moves, 1 e4…1e5. Both players control the board’s center with a pawn and allow both the Queens and King-side Bishops access to the board. Our one sided thinker knew that black would play 1…e5. Now, he (white) decides to do something your should never do, which is bringing your Queen out early with 2. Qh5. This move loudly announces (white might as well jump up and down screaming “Scholar’s Mate!”) that white is going to try and checkmate black in four moves! Because our beginner commanding the white pieces is employing one sided thinking, he simply knows that his opponent will play 2…d6 (wow really?). Our beginner smiles as he sees his perfect plan playing out before his eyes and plays 3. Bc4. White obviously has the ability to control his opponent’s mind, because that would be the only explanation for black’s pitiful response, 3…Nc6. White grins from ear to ear as he makes move four, 4. Qf7#. Now let’s look at what actually happens when our beginner tries to employ his one sided thinking against an opponent playing realistically.

White starts off with 1. e4 while black counters with 1…e5. Our brave beginner now brings his Queen to h6 once again, 2. Qh6. “So far, so good” thinks the beginner. “My Queen is lined up for the attack. Now all black has to do is move their d pawn and wait! This isn’t the move black is supposed to play!” Black, instead of playing 2…d6, plays 2…Nf6 and white’s hopes of a fast checkmate are crushed. White retreats the Queen to f3 (3. Qf3) in the hope that the f6 Knight will magically disappear. Black develops his Queen-side Knight with 3…Nc6. Remember, every time you have to move a piece more than once during the opening, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free game turn. Black takes advantage of this fact by developing a new piece. White, determined to somehow salvage the situation, plays 4. Bc4, thinking somehow the chess gods will look down on him with positional pity and grant him his wish! Black counters with 4…Nd4, attacking the Queen who has to move again. In this example, white faced an opponent who didn’t make the moves our beginner wanted them to make but rather made his own, well thought out moves. Beginners will never face an opponent who makes exactly the moves the beginner wants them to make. Thus, one sided thinking is a sure fire way to lose every game of chess you play.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address how to you can anticipate your opponent’s moves. Of course, you can’t anticipate every possible move your opponent makes. However, you can use a logical system to at least prepare for the opposition’s best possible responses. This is accomplished by simply trading places with your opponent, not literally of course, but in your mind. In other words, you have to look at the board from the opposition’s point of view, looking for the best response to the move you’re planning on making, as opposed to thinking about your opponent’s best response after you’ve made your move. Think first before making any move, otherwise you’ll pay a steep price.

The secret really is putting yourself into your opponent’s shoes, pretending to be in charge of the opposition’s forces. Of course, to find the best and most likely opposition move, you’ll need to examine each pawn and piece. This doesn’t mean looking at them as if you were in a museum looking at a piece of art. You have to look at each pawn and piece and determine whether or not that pawn or piece can be moved to a square that disrupts your plan. During the opening phase, the opposition moves you’ll be looking for are those that gain greater control of the center. Use the opening principles to guide you. If you see that an opposition piece can gain a strong foothold in the center, ask yourself if there’s a move you can make, with a pawn for example, that will deter the opposition from making that move. Take your time and examine everything , material-wise, on the board (board vision).

During the middle-game, tactics are the name of the game for more advanced beginners and improvers. Look at the opposition’s pawns and pieces (yes pawns, because they can fork pieces) and see if there’s a tactical play to be had, such as a fork. Chances are that if you saw it and your opponent is a stronger player, he or she will have seen it as well. Can you use a pawn to keep the forking piece off of its target square? Can you use a piece of lesser value to stop a piece of greater value from making a tactical play? Look for ways to keep your opponent’s pieces away from your side of the board. This can be accomplished by further activating your pawns and pieces.

Again, think about your opponent’s best move as if it was his or her turn, before considering making your move. All you have to do is put yourself in your opponent’s place. If you insist on employing one sided thinking, you’ll be doomed to live out your days in the land of lost chess games. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week. There two players didn’t use one sided thinking when planning their moves.

Hugh Patterson

Deja Vu

One of the most underrated qualities a chess player can have is a good memory. This might be because many players want to see themselves as intellectuals and prefer to put their chess skill down to brain power rather than intense learning. Yet psychologists have discovered that chess skill is largely down to a process called chunking, where small pieces of memorized information are tied together as a whole.

As the recent World Championship match drew (ha ha!) to a close there was a good example of this. Carlsen’s winning queen sacrifice was noticed in the blink of an eye by Judit Polgar, one of the commentary team. And probably because she had seen so many tactical patterns before during her unique upbringing.

Here’s a position in which White had the same idea and it wouldn’t surprise me if Judit had seen this one before:

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 8)

Still on the subject of the Ruy Lopez, here’s a classic game by Vassily Smyslov in which he completely outplays a strong opponent. The first thing to look at in this game is 12…f5!, presenting White with a passed e-pawn but on a square where it inhibits the activity of his minor pieces. Next there’s 14…g5! and 15…c5!, which further restrict White’s minor pieces.

Black gets a really great position like this but how should he convert his advantage? Smyslov answers this question by further restricting White’s forces (26…f4) and then giving up his bishop pair to break down the defence (27…Bxf6). All in all a game which shows a wonderful understanding of chess:

Nigel Davies

The Squeeze

Every win brings us joy! Some of us are delighted by crushing our opponents with sacrifices and tactical shots, but others, like me, like to squeeze.

A squeeze is a way of exploiting a bind by gradually building up pressure on the opponent’s position. As new threats are created the opponent’s pieces are too overworked and passive to be able to cope with them all.

The key to this process is to deprive the opponent of counter play and then attack different targets which become impossible to defend simultaneously. The skill to do this can’t be achieved by just solving puzzles, instead it’s better to study the games of masters like Jose Raul Capablanca, Tigran Petrosian, Vladimir Kramnik and the current World Champion Magnus Carlsen. When you see how it’s done enough you should be able to mimic their approach.

Here are a couple of examples:

Game 1: Capablanca against Ragozin in 1935

In this game Capablanca played all over the board. First he gets space by playing 10. d5 and then slowly spreads his influence to both wings. Finally he attacks the opponent’s king whilst his own king was quite safer in the middle of the board. Really an interesting gem!

Game 2: Petrosian against Fischer in 1959

In this game Petrosian first breaks Black’s queenside starting with 17. c6. Fischer tries for counter play on the kingside but there was never really much hope. The rest is a matter of Petrosian’s python technique.

Ashvin Chauhan

Queen Sacrifices

“In chess, a queen sacrifice is a move giving up a queen in return for tactical or positional compensation.”

The queen is the most powerful piece, so it is understandable players of all levels think really hard before sacrificing it. I remember one of my OTB games from the junior years where I could have exchanged it for 3 pieces (2 bishops and a knight) and end up in a very good position. I got scared at the idea of parting with my queen, chose a different continuation where my queen would be saved and lost. My students follow this simple rule of thumb: “Sacrifice your queen if you can checkmate your opponent”. This gives them the opportunity to look for such checkmates and slowly become more comfortable with the idea of sacrificing their queen.

Playing better pushes a player higher and higher on the chess pyramid. On the way to the top one faces better players in games where the difference between winning and losing becomes smaller and smaller. It is normal queen sacrifices are much rarer at GM level and once they happen those games become instant gems. There are many games with spectacular queen sacrifices in the Worldwide database, some well known and others long forgotten. It depends what each one of us likes and how much time we have to look for the golden needle in the haystack. A top 3 games of all time involving queen sacrifices must include the famous Byrne vs Fischer game played when Fischer was only 13 years old:

Coming closer to the point of this article, I have found the following lesser known yet spectacular queen sacrifice in a game between 2 top GMs of that time. The complete game can be enjoyed and downloaded from here:

Finally the point of my article. Magnus Carlsen has retained the World Chess Champion title after beating Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in the rapid games tie-breaker. That followed a totally disappointing game 12 of classical chess where Magnus with White just swapped pieces any chance he got and Karjakin followed, content to keep the match tied at 6. It was a rather sad and normal end to the classical chess part of the match given the overall play. Luckily the 4 rapid games forced players to change their approach and this clearly made the difference. Karjakin simply could not keep up. The last rapid game ended with a queen sacrifice by Magnus:

Magnus’s queen sacrifice provided a nice ending to a rather dull match. I have a feeling the chess World is exaggerating a bit with their accolades. The reason is the overall situation when it happened. Carlsen was leading 2-1 before the game; also the position before the final combination is clearly won by Magnus. Karjakin had no chance and he knew it. Another reason might be the dull match up to the rapid games. The World was desperate to see better chess and normally queen sacrifices tend to impress a lot. For the regular player it is good to remember this sacrifice ending the match and keep in mind my rule of thumb mentioned at the beginning. If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian

Consolidating a won game

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White wins most cleanly with 1. Nc2!. The idea is that Rxa2 is met by 2. Qd8+ Qxd8 3. Rxd8+ Kg7 4. Na3

In this week’s problem, White has to find the cleanest method of establishing a won game.

At present, he has two pieces for a Rook, but his Knight is pinned and the Black Rook is active on the seventh rank.

How should White consolidate?

Steven Carr

Mikhail Osipov

At the end of Richmond Junior Club last Saturday I was analysing a game with one of our members. He’s typical of many of the children we see. He knows how to play a good game and wins most of his games at school but lacks the concentration and impulse control needed to avoid blundering every few moves so struggles at higher levels. His father and younger brother arrived to pick him up and settled down to watch the analysis. The young boy sat next to him and started taking some of the pieces off the board, much too his brother’s annoyance. I asked how old he was, and was told that he was three, nearly four. Well, I guess that’s what you’d expect from a three-year-old. I’m not sure that most kids of that age should be allowed anywhere near chess clubs. While they might be able to learn the names of the pieces and how to set the board up, by and large they’d be better off jumping puddles or making mud pies.

So what, then, should we make of three-year-old Mikhail Osipov, who recently appeared on a Russian TV talent show solving chess puzzles and playing against none other than Anatoly Karpov? Some of my Facebook friends considered putting such a young child on television to be bordering on child abuse (‘an obscenity’, according to one prominent chess blogger). Others, by contrast, could hardly contain their excitement at the sight of an amazing new prodigy and future world champion, seemingly having no reservations at all.

My view, as you might guess if you read last week’s column, is somewhere in between the two extremes. Should three-year-olds play chess at all? By and large, no, but I know parents who have successfully taught their three-year-olds to play. The vast majority, though, will, like the young boy I met the other day, be far too young even to master Noughts and Crosses. Should parents expose young children to this sort of publicity? It’s not something I’d do myself if I had children, but then I wouldn’t expose myself to that sort of publicity either. Yes, some child prodigies are spoiled brats with unpleasantly pushy parents, but others, probably the majority in the case of chess, are genuinely talented children whose parents are making sacrifices to help them succeed. As a chess teacher it’s not my business to be judgemental, at least in public, about how parents bring up their children as long as it doesn’t cross the line into child abuse. I have in the past refused to teach children who are clearly being pushed by their parents into doing something they don’t want to do and are not enjoying the lessons.

So what do we know about Misha Osipov? Can he actually play chess or is the whole thing just a fraud or a publicity stunt? No doubt he has an exceptional memory: he had probably memorised the answers to the puzzles and it’s possible the game against Karpov was at least partly staged. Apparently he holds the ‘2nd junior Russian grade’ in chess. I have a rough idea about what ‘2nd grade’ means but perhaps someone could enlighten me about what junior Russian grades are? Are they based on playing or just answering questions and solving puzzles? We’re told he enjoys playing chess online, but who knows whether or not he’s getting any help? He doesn’t seem to have an official rating, although there are several other three-year-olds on the Russian rating list, something I do find extremely disturbing. Even if a very small number of three-year-olds are ready to play a complete game of chess, I’d very much doubt whether they’re ready to take part in competitions.

I’m sorry if you feel I’m being rather indecisive on this, but I think it really depends on context. If you ask me whether Qh4 is a good move for Black that also depends on context. After 1. f3 e5 2. g4 it’s undoubtedly a good move, but after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 it’s certainly not a good move. These things depend a lot on things like family dynamics, parental aims and cultural ethos. So, although I find it rather concerning in many ways I’d rather wait and see before commenting further. If I hear any significant future developments concerning young Mikhail I’ll keep you in touch.

I’d like to leave you with one last thought. I’ve just invested in a copy of Mozart 225, a collection of 200 CDs including every surviving note of music written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with many of his most important compositions in two contrasting recordings, along with two sumptuously produced hardback books and various other collectible items. If you lose pushy parents and child prodigies you lose Mozart as well as Capablanca. Of course you might also save the lives of, to take just one example, Lena Zavaroni. It’s not an easy ethical question: I guess the only answer, if there is one, is for parents to listen to their children and teachers to listen to their pupils.

Richard James

Hanging Piece Syndrome

One of the bigger problems every single beginner and many “improvers” face early in their chess careers is losing material due to hanging pieces. A hanging piece is one that’s not only unprotected but can be captured en prise or freely, meaning the hanging piece is captured without any loss of material to the player doing the capturing. Unlike an even exchange of material where one piece is exchanged for another piece of equal value, such as a Knight for a Bishop, capturing a hanging piece costs the attacker nothing! You capture the unprotected piece and the piece you used to capture it lives on to fight another battle.

Hanging a piece can have a devastating effect on your game. Of course, if you hang a pawn or minor piece as a beginner playing against another beginner, you may not face an immediate loss and even go on to win the game. However, if you lose your Queen because you brought her out early and left her unprotected, your ability to win will be greatly diminished. The Queen is a piece that most beginners can’t seem to live (or win a game) without (personally, I dislike the Queen).

Of course, the beginning chess player will hang pieces simply due to a lack of playing experience and board vision (the ability to closely examine the entire board/position). Therefore, the beginner shouldn’t be too hard on themselves when they hang a piece. However, they should start working on ways to avoid this problem and the best way to do this is by using training software that has program modules dealing with spotting hanging pieces. Peshka/ChessOK has a software program titled Easy Ways of Taking Pawns and Pieces. It has 5,800 problems that revolving around finding hanging pieces, categorized into groupings based on a specific piece (purchase the hard copy rather than downloading it because some players have had past problems with downloading from their site).

The goal is to find the hanging or undefended piece and capture it. While this program deals with opposition hanging pieces rather than your own hanging pieces, it gets you, the beginner, employing a technique that is critical to chess success, seeing the entire board by using Board Vision. Too often, beginners lose or hang pieces because they’re not looking at the entire board but where the immediate action is (such as the center during the opening). By not scanning the entire board, especially your opponent’s side, you’re apt to miss opposition pieces aimed at your unprotected material. Board vision takes time to develop but working with a software training program will help speed the process up.

When doing the software’s exercises, you’re forced to look at the entire board because often, the piece that’s hanging will be on one side of the board while the piece that can capture it is on the other side. Sometimes, you’ll be given a choice of two identical pieces to capture. You have to look closely because one of those pieces is protected, which means it’s not truly hanging while the other is free for the taking.

Of course, it’s another thing to avoid hanging pieces in an actual game of chess! It becomes more difficult because unlike the software’s problems, which are stagnant and set up, the arrangement your of pawns and pieces (as well as that of the opposition) will change with each move. This means you have have to constantly check the vulnerability of your material before considering making any move. You have to be patient (a lost art in our fast paced, technological world).

The idea of having to check every single pawn and piece on the board (both yours and your opponent’s) before each move seems like an absolutely daunting task to the beginner, which it is. However, with time, the beginner will do this automatically and systematically. You have to get in the habit of doing this which is the hardest hurdle to cross. To simplify this process and make it less maddening to execute, you have to follow some sort of logical, systematic order when examining your opponent’s material for threats.

Start with the pawns. Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can easily push a piece of greater value back. Look at each opposition pawn and first, make sure it’s not attacking one of your pieces. Then see how many moves it will take for any opposition pawns to reach and attack your pieces. You’ll also want to know what opposition minor pieces will have access to the board if any pawns blocking those pieces in moves forward. In other words, “if my opponent moves the c pawn forward two squares, will a piece originally blocked by that pawn be able to attack one of my pieces.”

Next look at each opposition piece and trace its line of attack across the board, noting any places (squares) where enemy pieces intersect with your pieces. Obviously, if you find one of your pieces can be captured En Prise, you better move that piece or defend it. What happens if the piece being attacked (your piece) is already defended? First, determine the value of the attacking piece and compare it to the value of your piece. If your piece is worth more that the attacking piece, get your piece out of the line of fire! If the value of both pieces is even, you have to consider how the exchange will effect your position. For example, if trading minors with your opponent leads to you having doubled pawn or your opponent being able to launch a nasty attack, you may want to avoid the exchange.

As a beginner, you have to get good at discovering any hanging pieces before your opponent does. Again, there are various software programs and apps for this type of training. The advantage to the above mentioned program is the large number of problems your have to solve. The more you put into it, the better your results. I recommend that my students do the entire program twice. While the program does deal exclusively with opposition hanging pieces, it develops your ability to examine the entire board which means you’ll notice any potentially hanging pieces belonging to you. You’d be surprised at how quickly you start to see everything on the board once you start doing the exercises. You’ll be able to spot any pieces your opponent hangs automatically after putting some effort into it (doing the program’s problems). It should be noted that you should slowly work through the problems and see if you can find a good counter move for the opposition after you make the correct move that solves the puzzle. This will heighten your learning greatly. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Comeback Trail, Part 3

In my previous article I looked at some broad categories of openings and why it makes sense to select some over others. This time I’ll look at another useful concept for those wanting to come back to the game, a chess version of the Zulu Principle.

The Zulu Principle was first espoused by the British financier and chess sponsor, Jim Slater. After seeing how his wife had acquired an exceptional knowledge of Zulus after reading a Reader’s Digest article on them, he started to apply the same concept to investing. By specializing in particular investments he could know more than almost everyone else about them.

This idea can be applied to chess openings. If you specialize in particular lines that nobody else really bothers with you can become a leading authority on them with relatively little effort. So instead of playing something like the popular Breyer Variation of the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 O-O 8.c3 d6 9.h3 and now 9…Nb8) why not consider something that nobody else touches? I’ve played 9…Be6 in a few games with pretty decent results and 9…Nd7 is another good move.

Black can also deviate much earlier on, for example with 5…d6 or 4…d6. Very few players pay much attention to these moves because they occur so infrequently, and this in turn gives someone who bucks the trend a Zulu Principle edge in knowledge.

Of course this is not what most players do, they just have to play the most fashionable lines. But with these being so topical there will be far more people who know them and know what to do, not to mention the fact that there’s far more to learn in fashionable lines.

So I think it makes sense to go slightly off the beaten track, but here I’d also like to issue a word of caution. Any openings that one chooses to play should follow sound principles and not just be different for the sake of it. This is partly because well principled openings will cultivate a player’s strategic understanding, especially if clear strategic themes are present. Those which lead to chaotic positions do not have this benefit.

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 7)

Moving further back in time here’s a really ancient Ruy Lopez with Wilhelm Steinitz playing Black. Steinitz is generally regarded as being the founder of modern positional play as he codified many positional ideas and techniques that had previously been less formally stated and existed only as rules of thumb of the best players. This clarification enabled Steinitz to stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries and he was World Chess Champion for some 28 years.

In this game Steinitz provides us with a model example of how to use the bishop pair by taking space and depriving his opponent’s minor pieces of useful squares (for example 19…c5). When his pieces are clearly stronger than Black’s he is able to exchange off into a much simpler endgame:

Nigel Davies