The Joy of the Knight

In my time playing chess, I have often found that players prefer bishops over knights. This is especially so for amateur players, who often wish to maintain them at all costs. This most probably has something to do with their long-range capabilities, and the fact that they can easily change their ‘theatre’s of operation’ so-to-speak.

This does make one feel sorry for the knight, however. I often notice that youngsters especially aim to exchange these pieces off at the earliest opportunity. To exchange them for a bishop is seen as a bonus. Often, this seems to be incorporated in to their technique, and even worse, can become a habit. And perhaps it’s not surprising, after all, literature often values bishops higher than knights.

It has never made sense to me, that some authors of chess books wish to encourage those who are seeking to learn, to be so narrow-minded. In my opinion, the only thing that can be taken for granted in our game, is that nothing can be taken for granted. From the first move to the last, a game of chess is a flexible work-in-progress, and even though it is theory rich these days, each one is still full of twists and turns and contains numerous possibilities. Each individual player putting their own perspective on the positions.

Why then, should anyone claiming to be any kind of authority on the subject, seek to inhibit that? Answers on a postcard.

When evaluating pieces, a chessplayer cannot afford to be prejudiced, and should base his/her decision as to which to give up and which to retain, purely on the position — as the maxim says, ‘Play the board’. It goes without saying that one will limit, and even miss, possibilities (in both attack and defence) otherwise.

Having thought about it, I think that many inexperienced players favour bishops over knights due to a lack of understanding with regard to the piece. It is also clear that many see it as a nuisance. A knight, of course, can not switch its arena as easily as a bishop, its development can often need careful preparation and can take time.

However, for the player who is willing to keep an open mind, and give this piece a chance, there are great rewards, for a knight on the right square can be invaluable and have great influence upon a position. So, what kind of square is right for the knight?

— Central. They have the most reach there.

— Outposts/holes. Squares which can not be attacked by a pawn, meaning they are harder to dislodge. Their L-shaped hops make them ideal pieces to occupy holes. As someone once said to me: ‘People who push pawns willy-nilly …. fear the knight.’

— Because they can hop over pieces, knights excell on a crowded board on which bishops may find their potential limited.

I invite the reader to take a look at the following games, both played by former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov. In the first, (played in his 1985 World Championship Match, against Anatoly Karpov), Kasparov (playing Black) is able to establish a knight on his sixth rank. Notice how this heavily inhibits White’s development and strategy, and ultimately the game. In the second, the mere establishing of a knight to a central outpost, creates unease with his opponent, Vladimir Kramnik. There is an immediate reaction (quite horrid looking it has to be said) which results in an overwhelming attack. If you’ve ever blundered horrendously and dropped your Queen, the game may just make you feel a little better . . .

John Lee Shaw

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A Good Defence Against 1.e4: The Caro-Kann

One of my top recommendations for Black against 1.e4 is the Caro-Kann Defence. Not only is it solid, it also fosters good positional understanding by virtue of the nice variety of pawn structures and concepts it contains.

It’s no accident that the Caro-Kann has been played by many of the greatest positional players in history; Aaron Nimzowitsch, Jose Raul Capablanca, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. All these players would have been attracted by its inherent qualities and it can also help foster them.

Here’s a crushing win with the Caro-Kann by Anatoly Karpov over Nigel Short, Karpov effectively reducing his opponent to utter helplessness:

How should someone learn the Caro-Kann? I offer what I think is a good approach at my Tiger Chess site as explained in the following video:

Nigel Davies

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Excuses Excuses

They always have excuses.

The other day I was talking to the mother of one of my pupils. He’s 11 years old and has just started at a very popular and successful selective boys’ school. (Here in the UK most children change schools at this age.) Although there are a lot of strong chess players at the school they don’t play in the local secondary schools’ chess league, nor in any other competitions. Her son is disappointed so she went in to complain (as several other parents, to my knowledge have over the past few years) and was told that they couldn’t take part in these events ‘for funding reasons’. Now the school is in an affluent area so most parents would be only too happy to pay, and, if there were any children who genuinely couldn’t afford it, they’d be happy to pay extra. No: it’s just an excuse: there’s no teacher with a particular interest in chess so they can’t be bothered. There are plenty of ways round this. When he started a new teaching job years ago, my brother was told that part of his job was to transport the school fencing team to competitions, even though he knew nothing about fencing. If the will is there, things can be made to happen.

Primary schools also have excuses.

They can’t run chess clubs because they have enough clubs already. They can’t have children sitting opposite their opponents because it would take too long to move the tables round. They can’t make homework compulsory because a few parents might not like it, but if it’s optional no one will do it. They can’t provide a teacher to keep order and deal with administration while the chess tutor is doing chess things because they’re all too busy. They can’t give their chess tutor contact details for parents because it would breach safeguarding rules. They can’t allow children to use chess sets outside the chess club because it would need supervision and nobody can be bothered to supervise them. They won’t enter team tournaments because there isn’t a teacher prepared to supervise them, or because the children might score less than 50% and as a result suffer permanent damage to their self-esteem. They won’t enter online tournaments because they’re too busy to look at the website and register their school. They won’t let children play in individual tournaments, or even in representative county competitions because they clash with school football matches and children selected for their school football team are not allowed to pull out. They won’t play matches against other schools because the logistics are too difficult. School A says to School B: “We’d love to play a chess match against you if you come to our school on Monday”. School B replies: “We can’t possibly come on Monday because we have Gym Club on Mondays. You’ll have to come to our school on Tuesday instead”. But School A can’t possibly do Tuesdays because they have Running Club on Tuesdays. And never the twain shall meet. Now I appreciate as much as anyone that teachers do a fantastic job, are very busy, very hard-working and very stressed, but it seems to me that they just don’t respect chess the same way that they respect football or music.

There are several preparatory schools (fee-paying) in this area that value academic excellence: they are proud of the number of pupils who gain scholarships to leading selective secondary schools whose names are listed on honours boards. They also value sporting excellence: photographs of their football, cricket and rugby teams line the walls. They value artistic excellence as well: their concerts and drama productions are of a high standard and pupils who excel in these spheres are rightly valued within the school community. While some of these schools also run successful chess clubs, others have clubs where the standard of play is very low, where children do not take part in competitions, where the school offers no support to the chess tutors, where the game is not valued within the school community.

So why is it that many schools do not afford chess the respect it deserves? Why do they not value it in the same way that they value other extra-curricular activities?

My next post will consider one possible reason.

Richard James

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Getting Ready for the Chess Club

Parents want their children to get the most out of their educational experience, be it learning about science, music or chess. Many parents have no problem investing in educational DVDs or books to aid in their child’s education or employing a tutor. However, when it comes to chess, many parents send their children to chess classes or clubs with no knowledge of the game’s rules. This can be a problem if the rest of the class already knows how to play. The child who doesn’t know the rules can feel awkward and can easily lose interest in the game. Therefore, parents who want their children to get the most out of their chess class or club should do a little preparation, namely teaching their children the basic rules of the game. Doing so will go a long way to ensuring that a child have a positive experience with chess.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that measures success on how quickly a job can be done, leaving quality of workmanship out of the equation. For example, someone wanting to learn a musical instrument is more likely drawn to a learning program that offers fast results. However, you can only get better at playing a musical instrument through hard work and practice. The same holds true for chess. This doesn’t mean that your child has to spend hours every day slaving away over the chessboard. It does mean that you cannot expect instant results upon enrolling your child in a chess class or club. You have to be patient. Here are some suggestions that will help children entering chess class for the first time:

Before enrolling them in a class, teach your child how the pieces move. This will help them immensely. In my classes, we spend the first half of the class learning about a specific concept or idea and spend the second half of the class playing chess to test out our newly acquired knowledge. Since most of my classes are a mix of skill levels, the lessons will be geared towards students who at least know how the pieces move. Teaching your child how the pieces move will help them tenfold during their lessons.

You should teach piece movement in a specific order, starting with the pawns. Have them learn how the pawns move, forward, and how they capture, diagonally. Of course, you’ll want to make sure they understand that a pawn can move one or two squares forward on their first move but only a square at a time after that initial move. Have them play with only pawns (the pawn game) on the board until they have mastered pawn movement. Don’t worry about pawn promotion yet. This concept should be taught after the child understands how the pieces move. Then move onto the Rook which moves up and down the board (along the files) and left and right (along the ranks). Rooks capture in the same way they move, a point that must be made to the young student. Have them play Rook against pawns, with you, the parent, moving the pawns and your child moving the Rook. The goal for the child is to capture as many pawns as possible without having their Rook captured by a pawn. Next move on to the Bishops. Here, you have to emphasize that each Bishop is only allowed to travel diagonally on squares of the same color the Bishop started out on. The dark squared Bishop can only travel along dark squares while the light squared Bishop can only travel along light squares. Bishops capture the same way they move. Play a game of pawns against both Bishops with your child trying to capture enemy pawns with the two Bishops while avoiding the loss of those Bishops to the pawns. Tackle the Queen next, reinforcing the idea that the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop. The Queen also captures the same way as she moves. Play pawns against Queen, with the Queen trying to capture the enemy pawns while avoiding capture herself. At this point, you can introduce the idea of pawn promotion. Play the pawn game again. However, if a pawn makes it all the way across the board, it turns into a Queen. Mention that the pawn can also promote into a Rook, Knight or Bishop.

Next, teach the movement of the King, which is the same as the Queen, except the King can only move a single square at a time. Kings capture the same way in which they move. Reinforce the difference between the King and the Queen. Also start talking about how crucial it is to protect the King at all times. Play a game of pawns against the King. Don’t introduce check and checkmate yet. However, do introduce the idea that if the King is attacked, he must stop the attack by either capturing the attacking piece or moving. Reinforce the idea that the King cannot be captured! Wait until piece movement has been master before introducing additional game rules.

Only after the child can confidently and legally move the above mentioned pieces should you move onto the Knight. The Knight moves in an “L” shape which is unique. The other pieces move in a linear fashion, in straight lines along the board’s ranks, files and diagonals. The Knight, on the other hand, moves two squares in one direction and then one square either to the left or right. In short, the “L” that the Knight makes when moving is three squares tall and two squares wide. Knights capture the same way they move. Play a game of Knight against pawns.

The longer a period of time you spend with your children, teaching them how the pieces move, the better their playing experience will be. Children should learn how to move one piece at a time, only moving on to the next piece after they have master the piece in question. Don’t set a time limit on these mini lessons. Let your child take as much time as they need to master each piece. Only after they fully understand how each piece moves should you consider having them playing with all the pieces at once. Otherwise, the child will become confused, mixing up the movement of one piece with another. You don’t have to put a great deal of time into these lessons. In fact, with younger children, you might want to start with fifteen minutes per day. Again, don’t move to the next piece until your child masters the piece being worked with. It might take them nine months to master piece movement but they’ll do much better in their chess class or club knowing how the pawns and pieces move. Always have them use the piece they’re learning about against pawns, as in the pawn game, because simply moving a piece around an empty board can be boring. Also try, playing pieces against pieces. So instead of playing a pair of Bishops against enemy pawns, play a pair of Bishops against a pair of Bishops. The longer you spend on piece movement, the better the end results will be in the long run. As parents, your commitment to your child’s chess education determines what your child gets out of chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These gentlemen know how to move their pieces!

Hugh Patterson

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How To Learn An Opening

Openings are the bane of many club players’ lives, a source of never ending confusion and frustration. Which openings should they play and how should they play them? In desperation another book or DVD is bought only for it to be discarded after a few days. Having worked with hundreds of club players I know the issues well and where the misunderstandings come from.

The first problem is that openings need to have a STRATEGIC CONTEXT, which is something that most of the GM and IM authors take for granted. If you don’t understand the strategic themes behind an opening there are no hooks on which to hang the individual moves, so learning it becomes well nigh impossible.

The second problem is that the openings chosen, or the variations within them, are usually way too complicated. This is not the fault of club players or even authors who seem to relish giving critical and highly theoretical lines. The issue is in KNOWING THE RIGHT LEARNING PROGRESSION; as with everything, you need to start simple. Complex material can have its place but it should come later.

The third problem is that most people seem to want to be told what to do rather than figure it out for themselves, and this is not the way to be an expert in something. So we need to cultivate an attitude of being innovators rather than followers, which in turn can have a great impact on the sources we choose to study from.

As nobody seems to be addressing these issues I recently put up three lessons at my Tiger Chess site which explain the process, How to Learn an Opening, Opening Training Software and Doing Your Own Research. You need to be have Full or Video Membership, and logged on to access them, but I believe they these insights will save people a huge amount of time and frustration.

Nigel Davies

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Basic Endgames Teach How To Tie Together Mathematics And Logic

In the game of chess, each lowly Pawn has the potential to promote to a powerful Queen by advancing all the way to the 8th rank. Also, there’s a remarkable rule that if one side cannot make any legal moves, the game is actually a draw, rather than a loss for the paralyzed side. These two facts create the phase of a chess game called the endgame, where a player has the opportunity to out-think and out-trick the opponent.

Logic

Chess has a well-deserved reputation for being a game of logic. Indeed, fundamentally the game really is a matter of logic, in the sense that everything is about managing the fact that everything boils down to “if I do this, then she can do that, but then I can do this other thing”, and therefore a decision tree of immense breadth and depth. Nowhere is this more true than in the endgame, where being one move ahead of the other side may mean the difference between a win and a draw: and in fact, being one move ahead does not always win, but sometimes even loses (in situations called Zugzwang where getting somewhere first means the other side can make a waiting move and then pounce).

For example, a basic endgame position everyone must learn is the following King and Pawn versus Pawn position. Black to move, there is only one move that draws; the other two moves lose.

This is a perfect position to use to teach children how to think logically, even if they don’t otherwise play chess. They don’t even need to know how to checkmate with a Queen against King. You can just teach them how the King and Pawn work, and set the goal for White as being to get the Pawn to the 8th rank without its being captured. In fact, I think chess would be much more useful in teaching logic if play was arranged starting from simplified positions in endgames, skipping the much more complex phases of the opening and middlegame.

Meta-reasoning

Once a chess player begins applying logical reasoning, an observant player will observe that she is reusing certain patterns in reasoning again and again. This is where reasoning about reasoning, or meta-reasoning, comes in. The concept of “taking the opposition” in chess is one of the simplest examples. In the position above, Black draws by arranging it so that if White’s King advances, Black’s King is in position to “take the opposition” and prevent further progress. So the principle of opposition is not a part of the game of chess, but part of how we can reasoning about the game of chess. A chess player could in theory just apply the “rule” of opposition to play chess well, but without actually understanding why it works, would be missing a huge part of what chess is about: discovering patterns, proving facts about them (this is the “meta-reasoning”), and applying the patterns as building blocks.

Mathematics

This leads to the topic of mathematics in chess. I take the point of view that certain ways of effectively making decisions in chess amount to doing mathematics, going beyond just logic: arithmetic, algebra, geometry. There are many connections to be made here that, when made explicit, can greatly aid in transferring skills out of chess itself.

For today, I’ll just mention a connection with arithmetic and geometry. In the position below, White to move can win, but only by very precise play. The aim is to prevent Black from taking the opposition, and then for White to take the opposition and reduce the problem to the previously mentioned position. The concept of reducing to a previously proved fact is fundamental to logical reasoning, of course. So where does the mathematics come in?

First of all, it must be understood that there is a race between the two Kings to get to one of the critical squares in front of White’s Pawn that will determine whether White can win: White must get the King to d6, e6, or f6. So there may be some kind of counting implicit in whatever logical reasoning is used.

From a geometrical point of view, what is important to understand is that because Kings have to move either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, “distance” on the chess board is not the same as the “bird’s eye view” visual spatial distance: chess operates on a more abstract geometrical space where, for example, all things being equal, diagonal moves can get a King somewhere much faster than just horizontal or vertical moves.

Arithmetic comes in to tie in this geometric insight with the logic-based goal-setting and reduction: the simple way to determine whether this position is a win for White is to count how many moves it takes to reach a desired square, and to count whether Black can stop this. Arithmetic is basically a meta-reasoning shortcut for otherwise engaging in low-level “if this, then that” logical reasoning. Here, we see that White can, in 3 moves, reach d5 unimpeded, because in 2 moves, Black can at most reach f6. Then we tie up the reasoning with one bit of logic/geometry: after White’s King is on d5 and Black’s King on f6, Black’s King must go to e7 to prevent White from getting to d6. But then this allows White to get to e5, taking the opposition and winning the game.

I believe that this endgame position is very instructive for showing how to apply multiple levels and styles of logical and mathematical understanding to be able to guarantee a desired result. Any student who can master (as tested by playing out as either side to the optimal result) and be able to explain the evaluation of each position in which the Pawn is on e4 and the other Kings are on any other squares on the board will have demonstrated a real understanding of logical reasoning.

Franklin Chen

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Every Position Offers Something

Black to Move

I got this position as a Black in a recent tournament against a 2085 rated player (peak rating 2300). Here white has managed to fix the a5, c7 and c6 pawns (weaknesses should not be mobile – an important concept). Personally I don’t like to play with this kind of positions but it was a tournament and I did what every chess player should do, which is to fight (How to Defend Difficult Positions by Paul Keres, is a nice chapter from The Art of the Middle Game which was recommended to me by Nigel).

At first glance it looks as if Black will lose in the long run but on the other hand Black has some dynamic chances. He is well developed and in a position to seize the open d-file by powering his rooks onto it. Another thing is that in the current position it is only a Bishop that can exploit my weaknesses so the plan is very simple; swap off the Bishops and penetrate with rook/rooks to the 7th rank. At the end I managed to draw the game.

Lessons:
1. Don’t give up: This is most important thing when you are defending a difficult position. Don’t surrender before a fight. Put up as much resistance as you can.
2. Chess positions in general always have good and bad sides: Here I had weaknesses but also an open file.
3. Target the piece which can exploit your weaknesses. Here it is the bishop.
4. Find/create weaknesses in your opponent’s camp too.

To support my arguments here is one more example. It is taken from The Art Of The Middle Game chapter on how to defend difficult positions and is a nice illustration by Paul Keres of defence where you are desperately cramped.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Look and Look and Look …

During a post-mortem game between two strong Grandmasters, there came a point in the game when one of their team, (who was kibitzing), said: “This is a position where you look and you look and you look”.

That statement made a big impression on me, and I have tried to apply it within my own chess play. Honestly, it’s not always a good thing, I am a natural analyst, and try to absorb positions as deeply as I can and examine many options. This can, and has, already led me to time problems. So, something which will encourage me to look even deeper can be quite a dangerous thing.

However, sometimes, there comes a point in certain games, where a chess player just feels instinctively that there is something there. That there must be something there, we are better, our pieces are co-ordinated, our opponent is on the back foot, vulnerable, exposed. I believe that this is that time, where we look and look and look. Of course, positional experience helps us find those quiet subtelties in order to zugzwang, just as thematical knowledge helps us to spot knock-out blows. However, sometimes we just have to find that move.

Infact, as Steinitz said, we have a responsibility, an obligation, to find that move. Otherwise, our moment to strike may (probably will) be lost.

At such times, it is our duty to examine as many possibilities as we can. These possibilities must be relevant and in context however. For example, if the action is going on on the Kingside and our build up is there, the probable result of looking at a Queenside pawn thrust will be wasted time. And time should always be used wisely in chess, so we invest it only towards the relevant in our position, and we try to examine its every nook and cranny, even the seemingly implausibe.

This open-mindedness, coupled with technique, experience, understanding, is what creates brilliances — possibly even immortals. As illustration, I’d like to present the following game, played by Russian master Stefan Levitsky and the well-known American great, Frank Marshall.

White tries to dictate play and force things right from the start, and seems to want to avoid positional tension. This is often a sign of a weaker player, or a player who feels intimidated. Their ‘bull at a gate’ approach tends to result in their opponent obtaining the advantage (often a large advantage) rather effortlessly. This is what happens in this game.

Marshall, with the Black pieces, takes his opponent’s play in his stride. Notice how he reacts calmly, with good developing moves, rather than trying to play bold refutations. This is how strong players tend to react to over-ambitious play.

The climax of the game comes in spectacular style, with Black playing a move that at first glance seems preposturous, suicidal even. However, it is without doubt one of the greatest chess moves ever played — and most likely one of the most satisfying.

John Lee Shaw

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Rare Footage of Alekhine

Here’s some rare footage of Alexander Alekhine. Needless to say modern research contradicts two of Alekhine’s main claims and has shown that the main factor in mastery in hard work and that memory is actually very important! Of course it is better to be thought of as a genius!

Nigel Davies

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General Ignorance

The same thing happens every year. I meet a new intake of Year 3s (7 year olds) at a primary school chess club. There are one or two who know nothing at all about chess: some parents sign little Johnny (or, less often, little Jenny) up for the chess club so that they can learn the moves. I’ll talk more about them another time. There may be one or two who come from a chess playing family and have some genuine knowledge about chess. But in the middle are the children who tell me they know how to play chess, or sometimes, that they’re really good at chess, but in fact know very little.

So I pick up one of the chunky pieces that starts in the corner. “Who can tell me what this piece is called”, I ask. A forest of hands goes up. I ask a child who seems particularly keen to answer. I know what’s coming next. “It’s a CASTLE”, he tells me. I explain that, while some people call it a castle it’s real name is a rook, so that’s what we call it here. (I’ve also seen strong players who know perfectly well what it’s called teach their children it’s a castle. No idea why.) His face falls. His implicit belief that everything his dad tells him is correct has been shattered. I might as well have told him that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

Then I get them to play some games. After a few minutes another child raises his hand. “I’ve won the game”, he tells me excitedly. “I’ve taken his king.” I try to break the bad news to him as gently as possible (not easy when there are several other children round the room waiting to ask me questions). He hasn’t actually won the game at all, and in fact he’s not allowed to capture his opponent’s king. But his dad told him you win by taking the other guy’s king so they don’t understand.

None of this would matter too much if parents were prepared to get up to speed on learning about chess so that they could provide more useful help for their children. In this school I don’t have contact details for parents and very rarely get a chance to speak to them at all. In another school a couple of years ago, though, I had email addresses for parents so I contacted them explaining the rules of check and checkmate so that they could help their children play legal moves. Did I receive any replies thanking me for going to the trouble of telling them how they could help their children? What do you think? Instead I got replies telling me they didn’t want to know, they didn’t have time to help their children, and they themselves hated chess anyway.

One of the major problems for chess teachers here in the UK is that chess is not part of our national culture. Many people know, or think they know, how the pieces move, but they have no idea how to play properly. They use incorrect names for the pieces, they don’t know how to set the board up correctly, they don’t understand check, checkmate and stalemate, they are confused about pawn promotion, castling, and, in the unlikely event that they’ve heard of it, the en passant rule. They’ve never opened a chess book in their lives, never read a newspaper chess column, never watched a chess DVD, never visited a chess website, couldn’t give you the name of any famous chess players with the possible exception of that American guy who played the Russian guy, and they consider him to have been a nutter. Their father probably taught them the moves when they were young, he in turn was taught by his father and so on, like a Generation Game of Chinese Whispers, with less being understood each time round. They have no idea about the complexity of the game, the history, the heritage, the literature. No wonder they consider chess a simple game suitable for young children to play once a week at school without any parental support.

In the BBC TV quiz Only Connect, two teams of three compete to make connections between seemingly random things. The competitors on this programme are amongst the best in the country at problem solving, general knowledge, logic and creativity so you’d expect them to be reasonably well informed about chess, and indeed a few chess players have appeared on the show. In a recent episode one team was asked to find the next item in a sequence starting a1:R, b1:N, c1:B. They thought it might have something to do with cards and guessed that the answer was d1:Y. Their opponents were then given the chance of a bonus point by answering the question themselves. They correctly realised that it was to do with chess, but couldn’t remember which way round the big guys went, so went for d1:K as their answer.

General ignorance indeed. If we want to help young children become proficient players we have to start by educating the parents. But where do we start? My book Chess for Kids is selling very well: parents want to be able to buy a book to give to their kids so that they can teach themselves (not understanding that chess is far too hard for 7-year-olds to teach themselves). But no one is buying The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids because they have neither the time nor the inclination to help their kids. So far, at any rate, there is no interest at all in Chess for Heroes for the same reason. Unless we can break through this barrier chess as a serious adult game in this country will gradually fade away.

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