Access Denied

Sound opening and middle game moves seem to baffle the beginner to no end. Examining beginner’s positions on the chessboard for hours each day provides a challenge to me as a chess teacher. How can my students get the hang of placing their pawns and pieces on the most active squares possible? I make a point of trying out as many teaching methods as possible in an effort to see which of them embeds itself within my student’s mind. One idea I had came after watching a student playing a video game during the snack break. What can video games teach us about pawn and piece placement? As it turns out, a great deal!

Many of my students play video games whose overall goal is to control alien territory, the more territory the better (sounds familiar). Like most children, my students pick up catch phrases such as “access denied” or “access granted.” In a brief moment of mental clarity, something that seems to escape me as I get older, I decided to combine these two ideas, alien territory and denying or gaining access to that territory! I decided to turn the chessboard into an imaginary cyber landscape in which wars are won through the conquest of territory. I call our training game A.D.C. which is short for Access Denied Chess.

While I can’t change the rules of chess, I can have my students look at the game in a slightly different way. In A.D. chess, our goal is to control the greatest amount of territory possible. The standard rules of chess apply, the game being won by checkmate. However, an extra award is given for the player who controls the greatest number of squares (territory) by move fifteen. That extra award comes in the form of me referring to the player who controls the greatest number of squares by move fifteen as the “Lord (or Lady) of the Light and Dark Realms.” My students love to be referred to in this way even if it’s just for a single day! Did I mention that they get to use the term “access denied” every time they take over another square? That is the icing on the chess cake for my beginning students. I do make it very clear that this only applies to A.D. Chess and they can’t blurt out “access denied” during tournaments and while some teachers might find my methods a bit madcap (I am a self professed lunatic), my students get a better understanding of piece activity and control through this exercise. They also have a lot of fun.

One of the ways to control the greatest number of squares or territory is to count the number of squares a piece would control upon moving it to a specific location. The greater the number of squares controlled by a piece the more active it is. In A.D. Chess, territorial control is the name of the game! One example we go over are the moves for White during the Italian Opening. After 1.e4 e5, I tell my students it’s time to bring their Kingside Knight into the game. At this point, there are three choices, e2, f3 and h3. I ask my students which square allows the Knight to control the greatest number of squares, especially those in or near the board’s center. After doing a little square counting, they see that f3 is the best choice. After 2.Nf3 Nc6, I ask my students to use the square count method to determine the most active square to place their Kingside Bishop on move three. My students soon discover, after a bit of counting, that c4 allows the Bishop to control the greatest number of squares. After we place the Bishop on c4, I announce the names of each square the Bishop controls and after naming each of those squares comes a chorus of “access denied” from my students. We continue this process through the rest of the opening. Again, the idea here is to get students to think about controlling the board early on in the game.

After learning the art of square counting we look at using pieces in coordination to hold onto the territory each player controls. I remind my students that their opponent is trying to accomplish the same task and will use their pieces to gain control of the board. How do we reduce the opposition’s control of the board? We launch coordinated attacks against the opposition pieces controlling the greatest number of squares. When taking control of squares once held by the opposition, my students say “access granted!” It gets a bit trickier for the beginner when having to coordinate pieces to maintain territorial control because the beginner may have to give up some of that overall control in favor of attacking specific opposition squares. However, it provides a good lesson regarding which squares are most important to control. In the opening, the central squares are of greatest importance. While the goal of A.D. Chess is to control as much territory (squares) as possible, students quickly find out, as the Roman Empire did, that you can’t control everything if it means thinning your army out! If you try to control too much of the board, you’ll weaken your army which will lead to a collapse of your position. Therefore, at some point during the race for territory, my students have to decide which squares must be held and which must be given up. During the opening, my students find that they have to choose their battles for control carefully.

During the middle game, my student’s goal is to make sure that all of their pieces (excluding the King) are participating in the race for territorial control. This means that no piece can remain dormant on its starting square. Because we’re trying to control the greatest amount of territory, my students break the bad habit of leaving pieces, especially the Rooks, on their starting squares. Every piece must get engage in battle. One concept I introduce with A.D. Chess is the idea that the landscape on which the battle is fought is ever changing which means plans change as well. With each move, a new landscape of pawns and pieces is created. A plan that seemed acceptable two moves ago must suddenly be changed, introducing the art of planning. The first lesson on planning, keep it flexible! I’ll often have my students stop their games while we discuss the idea of “planning.”

My younger students think they’re playing a new version of chess when, in reality, they’re simply looking at the game in a different light. By approaching chess as a territorial game in which you get to shout “access denied” and “access granted,” when controlling the board’s squares, the beginner learns a bit more about the finer points of piece activity, board control and planning. I’ve gotten a few adults to try it and they’ve enjoyed it. Here’s a game with some excellent control of territory. Feel free to scream out “access denied” and “access granted” loudly while playing through it.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).