The Common Problem Of Following A Pattern Without Understanding It

Last week, I wrote about the importance of learning and teaching through comparing similar but different situations. Again and again this theme pops up, and is easy to miss if one is not careful. It is easy to memorize a pattern without understanding its context and purpose, or more charitably, to have understood it once but getting it mixed up with another pattern during the heat of battle. What is the solution? Sometimes the solution is just to review concrete details. Sometimes the solution is to remember a higher-priority pattern that gives real force and justification to the pattern at hand.

Here’s an example I recently saw, involving the elementary Lucena position which is a win for the side with the Rook and Pawn versus Rook, if one understands the fundamental concept, which is “building a bridge” in order to block the opposing Rook’s checks and therefore ensure Pawn promotion.

Lucena position

The standard easy win for White is to

  1. Chase Black’s King further away from the Queening square by checking.
  2. Lift the Rook to the 4th rank in preparation to “build a bridge”.

However, White in eagerness to “remember” the key pattern, that of the Rook lift, failed to perform the first critical step, and the result was a draw by mistake! Building the bridge is pointless if it only results in Black’s King reaching the advanced Pawn and gobbling it up.

The solution to this mistake is to remember that the primary goal in this position is not to build the bridge. The real goal is to successfully Queen the Pawn, and getting Black’s King far away is the most important part of that, not the bridge building. The bridge building is not the goal, but the means to the larger goal. Without remember this, it is too easy to just vaguely remember one aspect of what the winning technique is, and use it outside of the larger context.

Franklin Chen

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County and District Correspondence Chess Championship 2013/14

Yorkshire ‘A’ are the winners with 11.5 / 16 with Warwickshire ‘A’ and Yorkshire ‘B’ joint second and third with 10 / 16. I am afraid to say that my own team, Hertfordshire ‘A’, did not do so well this year with only 6 / 16 and ended up in a quadruple tie for last place with Sussex, Essex ‘B’ and Nottinghamshire ‘A’.  I did not help matters by losing and drawing!

Our player on Board 2 is the FIDE International Master, Lorin D’Costa, who is currently in the top thirty English list of over-the-board players and here is his excellent and instructive game as Black against his Nottinghamshire opponent. I especially like the ending!

John Rhodes

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Alapin’s Folly …

It is of great comfort to us (or should be anyway) that even masters get things wrong in chess. And why shouldn’t they? After all, chess is not straight-forward, nor is it an exact science. And when that is mixed together with the human brain, (which though powerful is not infallible), mistakes will happen. However, is it very rare for a master to get things abominably wrong, as if to scorn the very game itself.

This week I would like to share one such instance with you. It is a game that I have known of for many years, and I remember analysing it for the first time in my late teens. Back then, I thought it was a super attack by White, and my appreciation of the dramatic finish was very high. Now, looking over it again, (for the first time in a couple of decades I should think … ouch …), I do not only appreciate it, but my chess taste buds tingle with excitement.

It is a testament to how my chess understanding has progressed over the years. Nowadays I do not only highly appreciate the dramatic finish of the game, but I shake my head in wonder at Black’s absolutely ludicrous play. I feel the tension as White prepares to show him the error of his ways.

The game is apparently a friendly game, between chess legend Aaron Nimzowitsch and analyst and problem composer (and no feeble player either, despite his showing in this game) Semion Alapin. You will see Alapin, playing Black, commit the most blatant chess sins. He will firstly commit his Queen in to early action — though this is not always a sin in itself, it is when coupled with neglect of development, which is his other offence. He will also grab material … for which he will pay a hard price.

Nimzowitsch, playing White, is exemplary. He develops quickly and finds optimum squares for his pieces. Move by move his advantage increases and the apprehension in the position sizzles. He gives his opponent no time to correct his errors, and pounces forcefully and precisely.

John Lee Shaw

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A Shielded Knight Micro-Pattern

A vital part of chess skill is a subconscious understanding of ‘micro-patterns’ that jump out at you whenever they arise. There are many such patterns in chess, with strong players quickly realizing things such as the position of rooks relative to passed pawns (usually they should be behind them!).

In the following game I’d like to point out one tiny pattern, that a White knight sitting on b3 behind a Black pawn on b4. This may not look like much at first, but the knight is a tower of strength on that square, being immune from attack along the file. Eventually it captures Black’s pawn on a5 before heading over to the kingside via c6. An Alekhine wins in crushing style.

This pattern is one of the things I discuss in the first of my monthly Tiger Chess clinics which Full Members can access here. It occurred in two of my students’ games, and from entirely different openings. This in turn shows how pattern recognition in chess goes beyond knowing that you have to do X, Y and Z in a particular opening and how strong players are able to orient themselves in lines that they’ve never played before.

Nigel Davies

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My last post have considered how most parents have little or no knowledge of what chess is all about. They want their children to ‘do’ chess because it ‘makes them smarter’ or, in my part of the world, because it will help their application to the secondary school of their choice, and will drop chess once they’ve got what they wanted out of the game. Many parents specifically tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess, they are not prepared to support their children in any way and they don’t actually like chess themselves.

Some schools and parents are suspicious of excellence in any field, but many schools in my area who pride themselves, not just on their academic excellence but also on their sporting and artistic excellence, have no interest at all in promoting chess excellence and are quite happy with a low level club which doesn’t take part in competitions and where most of the children play to a very poor standard.

It seems to me there’s a general lack of understanding of what chess is: a highly competitive and extremely demanding mental sport played in most countries of the world.

But this isn’t the image most parents and teachers have about chess. The recent sad coincidence of the deaths of two players on the last day of the Chess Olympiad led to a series of negative articles about chess and chess players. The public perception of chess players – and one that is emphasized by articles in the press – is that chess players are introverted nerds with no social skills. They are often overweight, have a poor diet, drink too much, have a disregard for personal hygiene, dress badly, carry their packed lunch in a carrier bag and – this seems to be a new one – are likely to die young.

Now there’s an element of truth in this at lower adult levels. Those who continue playing chess even though they are not very successful are often those who don’t have a family life, or those who may have difficulty getting a job. But I’m sure this is true of many other pastimes, not just chess. It’s certainly not true at the top, though. The ages of the world’s leading players range from late teens to mid forties. There are, admittedly, one or two (Ivanchuk, for example) who might be considered slightly eccentric, but by and large they come across as well adjusted and well presented: excellent role models for our children. In these days of internet coverage of all major events, where players are interviewed after the game, where there’s money to be made from broadcasting, producing DVDs and teaching, excellent communication skills are as important for chess players as knowing the latest theory in the Sicilian Najdorf.

The media still churn out articles on the ‘all chess players are loonies’ theme from time to time, complete with the usual suspects and the same unsubstantiated or exaggerated anecdotes as evidence that chess sends you mad: Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on a bus, Fischer, well, being Fischer. Nothing more recent than Fischer, mind you, and you might also share my concern about making fun of people with mental health issues.

I also can’t help thinking that it may not do the game any favours to promote chess as a game suitable for mass participation by young children. If you’re implying chess is so easy that young children have no problem mastering it to the point where they can play in competitions you’re putting it into the same category as Top Trumps. If chess really is that easy and that trivial, adults who devote their lives to it must be pretty sad, and high level competitive chess will not be attractive to potential sponsors.

The chess establishment really needs to stop the petty bickering, rivalries, jealousy and obsession with ancient disputes and promote chess for what it is. A game which, while it can be enjoyed at any age, is, at the top level, a game for young adults, both male and female, who are physically fit and emotionally strong as well as being intelligent and hard working. A game that, while it can also be a fun game for children, at the top level requires the pursuit of excellence and hours of deliberate practice, exactly the same qualities you need to excel at, say, tennis or golf, or at playing the piano. We need to get parents and schools to respect chess as a fantastic, endlessly fascinating and extremely difficult game, not just as a learning tool or a cheap after-school child-minding service.

Richard James

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When to Castle

One mistake that beginners often make is not castling their King to safety. Leaving your King exposed on a central file makes it easier for your opponent to launch a successful attack that leads to mate. This is why beginners are encouraged to castle their King to safety early in the game. However, beginners often take the idea of castling early literally and castle as soon as possible which can create problems later on. While King safety is crucial, the beginner can castle too early, ignoring further piece development and end up in a positional bind. So when should the beginner castle?

Before learning when to castle, the beginner should fully know the rules of castling which are fairly simple. To castle there have to be no pieces between the King and the Rook on the side you’re castling on. Thus, on the King-side, you have to move the King-side Knight and Bishop off of their starting squares prior to castling. On the Queen-side, you have to move the Queen-side Knight, Bishop and Queen off of their starting squares. This means you have to develop two minor pieces on the King-side prior to castling or two minor pieces plus the Queen on the Queen-side prior to castling (on that side of the board). You cannot move your King prior to castling, If you do, you can’t castle at all. If you move a Rook prior to castling, you cannot castle on that side of the board. Move both Rooks prior to castling and you’re out of luck (no castling for you). You cannot castle if you’re in check. Lastly, you cannot move your King through or onto a square controlled by an opposition pawn or piece. Looking at this list of requirements, you can see why beginners often panic and castle at the first chance they get!

One important idea, often lost on the beginner, is the idea of Rook activation. I see so many of my beginning students activate their minor pieces to decent squares during the opening and middle games only to ignore their Rooks throughout the entire game. Castling allows you to do two important things. The first is getting your King to safety. The second, which is extremely important, is to activate one of your Rooks. Rooks who sit on their starting squares are inactive pieces. The player with the most active pieces usually has an easier time controlling and subsequently winning the game. Moves that allow you to do two good things at the same time are the type of moves you want to make.

While castling is crucial, timing is everything. During the opening game, both players are fighting to control the center of the board. The only way to dominate or at least equalize control of the board’s center is to carefully but rapidly deploy your pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the greatest amount of centralized board space. Therefore, before castling, beginners should ask themselves two questions.

The first question: Is my King in present or future danger? Present danger means that it’s your turn, your opponent’s pieces are in attack formation and ready to start checking your King immediately. If so, castling is a good idea. When I say future danger, I mean that an attack on your King is possible during the next one or two opposition moves. Advanced players have a bit more leeway regarding future danger and just when to castle. Future danger translates to “ within the next few moves can my opponent’s pieces attack my King, either forcing it to move, in which case my King loses the right to castle, or force me to weaken my position when I have to defend the King?” Of course, a potential immediate checkmate from the opposition within the next few moves should prompt you to castle if doing so saves the King! If the answer to this question is yes, then castle your King!

If you answered “no” to the first question, then its time to ask the second question, “are my pawns and pieces developed enough to control the board’s center more so than my opponent’s pawns and pieces? Most beginners consider castling before completing their development so the answer to this question is almost always “no.” Time to look at your development.

Many beginners learn the Italian Opening because it provides a relatively clear example of the game’s opening principles. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…Bc5, both players can castle on the King-side. This is where beginners get into trouble. They’ve been told by their chess instructors or by reading beginner’s books that you should castle early. Beginner’s take things literally, which often inspires them to castle as early as move four in the above opening move sequence. However, the opening is a fight for territorial control and the player that has it has a greater advantage. Advantages, both big and small, win games.

If your King is in no immediate danger, further development is in order. Keep developing pieces to active squares in order to shut down your opponent’s chance at staking a claim to those very same squares. In the opening, it’s all about the center. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces on one side of your King is certainly no reason to ignore the pieces on his majesty’s other side. Keep bringing those remaining minor pieces into the game. Pieces on their starting squares are not in the game. Those pieces are inactive and activity is the name of the opening game.

Then there’s the question of which side of the board to castle on. Beginners tend to castle King-side because its easier since you don’t have an additional piece to move (the Queen). However, Queen-side castling can be extremely effective. Why would you castle Queen-side? Here’s a good reason: If your opponent has aimed his or her forces at your King-side, castling there is going to put your King directly in the line of fire. Castling on the opposite side of the attack will force your opponent to redirect his or her pieces, which has a price. That price is tempo or time (wasting it). While your opponent is redirecting pieces, you can be strengthening your position or building up an attack against your opponent’s King. Don’t make your opponent’s job easier by castling into an attack or potential attack!

The next time you consider castling, ask yourself those two questions before doing so. If your do, you’ll know if you’re castling at the right time. Castling too early can make a position worse. Castling too late will send your King to an early grave. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Notice how White finds a great way to solve a potential positional problem by castling!

Hugh Patterson

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San Pedro Escapes the Four Knights of the Apocalypse!

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the original meaning of apocalypse is an uncovering, translated literally from Greek as a disclosure of knowledge, i.e., a lifting of the veil or revelation, although this sense did not enter English until the 14th century. In religious contexts it is usually a disclosure of something hidden. Christians changed the meaning to ‘end of the world’ because the Apocalypse of John is about the end of the world.

In this case, what was revealed is that my opponent does not know how to play the Four Knights variation of the Sicilian Defense and is weak in middle games. However, he avoided the blunders that would have allowed me to win this game. I settled for a draw against an inexperienced player while I was up two pawns. On move number 34 I was inspired to look at an idea, but I got impatient and I rejected it before I realized that it actually wins. I was preparing to move out of my apartment over Labor Day Weekend and I wanted to end this game before I moved out and took a time out from my remaining games. If I had been more patient I would have found the winning ideas. Mr. Generoso was generous in giving me those two pawns and he may have thought that it was the end of the world while he was struggling to draw down material. ;-)

I took that lazy man’s shortcut and played the way I had played in two previous chess games. The first time that I had an endgame with my Rook on the queening square and my opponent’s Rook behind my passed pawn was at the State of Florida Chess Championship of 1986. If I remember correctly, my opponent was a 1200 rated player. He blundered by moving his King to the third rank and that allowed me to move my rook off the queening square with check and then queen the passed pawn. The second time I had this kind of endgame I played more than 60 moves before I realized that I could not force a win and that my opponent was not going to blunder. After this game I am going to endeavor to avoid having my Rook in front of a passed pawn again!

This game was my second draw and Pedro’s only draw so far. What is even more embarrassing for me is that Pedro has three losses so far in this section. At the time that I am writing this I have four draws and no wins or losses in this section. I need to win at least one of my two remaining games in order to get second place in this section.

Mike Serovey

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Learning Through Comparing Similar But Different Situations

The temptation is very great, for both a learner and a teacher, to try to go fast through a lot of material, when learning a subject such as chess, because there is so much that is known. This is not a problem specific to chess: in fact, it is a problem for students of cooking, running, law, computer science, medicine, you name it. We all feel the burden of the accumulated knowledge of all of human history. Educators everywhere face the challenge of somehow distilling more and more knowledge, wisdom, and practical technique into less and less time. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut for deep learning. Just flipping through a chess book or even working through a set of exercises is no guarantee that when you sit down across the chess board, you will remember or know how to apply what you learned.

In my attempts to improve my own lifelong learning as well as my teaching, I have found that comparing similar but different situations is a technique that can be very useful in making learning more efficient, and even more interesting. Instead of trying to focus too much on “this is how to do things”, it is better to have worked through several similar ideas that do or don’t work, and know why. It is like in martial arts where you must learn how to fall, in addition to how to strike.

Fundamental endgames are a great place to notice both patterns and differences between them. Little things can make a big difference in endgames. It is a great mental exercise to understand fundamental endgames and learn to appreciate the importance of detail, and the unexpected beauty of peculiar features of chess positions. For example, consider the following Rook and Pawn endgame position, White to move. Can White win or is it a draw?

One way to win

The answer is that it is a win for White. The key insight is that in order to Queen the a7-Pawn, White must reach a position in which

  • Black cannot check White’s King forever.
  • White has time to move the Rook with check in order to free up the a8 square for Queening without losing the a7-Pawn (if Black’s Rook is on the a-file always threatening to take it).

The tricky part of winning is finding out how to deal with all possibilities and obstacles while keeping in mind the key insight.

One way to win is to move the King all the way to the left, perpetually uncovering Black’s King and therefore threatening to check it. This forces Black’s King to move in the “shadow” of White’s King; if the King does not move but the Rook checks instead, then White can simply bring the King near the Rook eventually and stop all checks and then be in position to check Black’s King and Queen the a7-Pawn.

Once Black’s King is pushed all the way to b1, and White’s King at b3 prevents a Black Rook check, White has the tactical trick of moving the Rook to the right and simultaneously threatening Queening and checkmate on the first rank!

Changing the problem

Unfortunately, teaching this way to win, although instructive in its own right, can cause a failure to generalize. This is a special case kind of winning plan. To prove this, move the pair of Kings up one rank:

Here, if White blindly follows the plan of trying to box Black’s King down, then it becomes clear at the end of the King march that the original tactical idea no longer works: there is no back rank mate.

I believe that it is extremely instructive to allow the student to try a generalization that fails, to solidify the understanding of what is going on, rather than treat endgame knowledge as a mechanical memorization of particular move sequences. Then after trying out some possibilities, we can finally reveal a key idea: White has another tactical trick, based on reaching a position in which White can still move the Rook away and allow Black to capture the a7-Pawn, but in return, White can perform a discovered check that wins the Rook. So White’s King should, at the first opportunity, start a diagonal march straight to the a7-Pawn.

By presenting first the back rank trick, and then the discovered check trick, we allow the student the opportunity to learn a more general lesson than if the back rank trick had not been mastered first: that the goal is to be able to move the Rook with an appropriate tactic in mind, not just checkmate or a discovered check.

A variation that still obeys the pattern

It’s always useful to show how a pattern can in fact be applied to a slightly different position, without substantial change. Move the Kings up more: the discovered check still works.

A variation that does not work

And, of course, it is necessary to show a variation of the initial position in which White cannot win, otherwise the student might get the wrong idea and again fall into mechanical memorization habits.

Here, the Kings are so far forward that Black has boxed in White’s King so that it has no shelter and is far away from Black’s Rook, so Black can keep on checking White for a draw. Note that a careless student might try to mechanically apply the discovered check tactic with Rc8 only to find that after losing the Pawn on a7, there is no win of the Rook, because Black’s King is close enough to protect it! Again, allowing the student to fall into this trap is important, to prevent complacency and really nail down the nature of the discovered check tactic, which requires a nice combination of

  • White’s King being close enough to the a7-Pawn to get there in two moves, including one “free” discovered check move if necessary.
  • Black’s King being far enough away from the a7-Pawn not to be able to cover the a7 square in one move.

Conclusion

Even elementary endgames provide quite a rich amount of material for setting up ways for a student to discover the reasons for what works and what doesn’t work in a line of reasoning and a general plan.

Franklin Chen

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Evident Advantages In King And Pawns Endgame

Like mating patterns and attacking patterns, there are patterns in that endgame which can help you to formulate simple but effective strategies.

1. Material Advantage: A material advantage is an obvious winning advantage in the endgame; a person who has a material advantage can win easily, though one should always investigate the resulting positions in relation to key squares & rule of square.

2. Virtual material advantage: How one should obtain a virtual material advantage? In my view there are two ways to do it.

i) Doubling the opponent’s pawns: Here is an example.


Now following the same example, if Black has a pawn on d7 instead of e6 then the game is equal.

ii) Pawn crippling: Through pawn crippling you can prevent the march of two enemy pawns with yours, which secures you a virtual material advantage. For example:

With White to move he can move his pawn to e4, thereby stopping the advance of Black’s e- and f- file pawns. While with Black to move he should play here f5 in order to save the day.

3. A piece is out of action: If you can force the enemy king to leave the main battle area it can secure the win. For example:

This is win for White with either side to move.

4. Far advanced rook pawns on both wings with opposition: This can be possible because the one who promote the queen first can prevent the enemy pawn to promote into queen by controlling the queening square. Here is an example.

5. Passed pawns: I have noticed that in practice a distance passed pawn is more advantageous than a regular one. However, it becomes much more critical when you are fighting with two scattered pawns against protected passed pawns or connected mobile pawns. So the question arises as to which passed pawn/pawns is/are better? Here I have divided them into the following categories.

i) Usually the protected passed pawn is better than the scattered one, though you can find some exceptions too. For example here White can’t win because the Black king can manage two tasks. (1. It is in the square of white’s passed pawn and 2. It is able to protect his own pawn without any risk):

ii) Scattered passed pawns against two connected mobile pawns: This is more crucial and securing a win depends on king and pawns positions.

a) Usually two scattered distant passed pawns are stronger than the two connected mobile pawns. For example

b) Two connected mobile pawns are better if they are far advanced, along with the king. For example

Ashvin Chauhan

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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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