Activity and Vulnerability

Beginners of all ages tend to have two very big positional problems when they’re honing their chess skills, piece activity and piece vulnerability. These two problems, if not addressed, will lead to loss after loss until the beginner simply gives up on this fantastic game. However, if the beginner puts some effort into both the understanding and application of activity and vulnerability, they’ll play a much better game. The earlier the beginner embraces these ideas, the better off they’ll be. Let’s take a look at activity first.

An important question players of all levels should ask themselves when looking at their position is “what are my pieces actually doing?” Pieces are active only if they’re doing something useful. If your pieces are sitting on their starting squares, they’re inactive. However, simply moving a piece randomly out onto the board doesn’t guarantee activity. So what defines piece activity?

A piece is active if it has mobility. Mobility is the ability of a piece to move to a number of different squares. The greater the number of squares, the greater the mobility. Greater mobility leads to greater control of the board. The beginner should always strive to develop their pieces to more active squares. Mobility gives a player greater options regarding the formation of plans. Greater planning options means more flexibility which is crucial since plans change during a game. Having flexibility due to mobility allows you to adjust your plans to fit the ever changing positional landscape on the board.

The ability to attack one or more of the oppositions pieces also adds to a piece’s activity. If you’re attacking one or more of your opponent’s pieces they’ll have to tie down some of their own forces to aid the attacked piece or pieces. This means that those opposition pieces involved in the defense of the attacked pieces lose their activity. Pieces tied down to defending a position cannot participate in an attack. Even if the attacked piece can move out of danger, it still costs time to do so which can detract from one’s development.

Control of territory is another consideration when discussing piece activity. Greater mobility leads to greater control. While controlling squares on your half of the board is important (you don’t want your opponent’s pieces to have an easy time occupying your half of the sixty four squares), it isn’t as important as controlling squares on your opponent’s side of the board. Take away key squares on your opponent’s side of the board and they’ll have a difficult time launching an attack let alone developing their pieces.

Piece coordination and cooperation is also tantamount to good active play. Pieces must work together. Beginners tend to launch lone pieces out on the board in an effort to attack the opposition only to lose that piece because it had no support. Chess is a team sport which means that pawns and pieces must work together. Pieces that work together are far less likely to become targets for your opponent. Now let’s look at vulnerability.

In the broadest sense, a vulnerability can be thought of as a disadvantage for you and an advantage for your opponent. Its a place, in this case the chessboard, in which a series of actions has led to you to being exposed to danger. You could be about to lose material or facing a mating attack. You are vulnerable. Your opponent has the immediate upper hand in the positional situation. Don’t make yourself vulnerable. Giving material away (hanging pieces) is an example of becoming vulnerable because in giving your material away, you’re giving your opponent an advantage (while you maintain the disadvantage).

Beginners tend to hang pieces (place them on squares that allow their opponent to capture said piece freely) early in their chess careers. While employing the concepts mentioned above will help reduce this problem, there are some additional things the beginner can do to make their pieces less vulnerable to capture.

We are taught to look both ways before crossing the street. The same should hold true when moving a piece out onto the board. You wouldn’t just run out onto a busy street hoping you don’t get hit by a car, yet many beginners blindly thrust a piece out onto the board without much though. If you want to move a piece to a particular square, follow the rank, file and diagonals radiating out from that square to see if any opposition pawns or pieces control or attack it. Just doing this one simple thing can eliminate hanging pieces greatly.

Sending major pieces out onto the board early makes you vulnerable to attack. If you bring your Queen out early, you’re opponent will more than likely attack it. As your opponent’s pieces attack your Queen, they’re developing which gives your opponent an advantage. Because you’re having to move the Queen out of the line of fire, you’re losing tempo, a disadvantage. Common sense can greatly help improve your game and common sense tells us to bring out pieces of lesser value at the game’s start.

Beginners also tend to become vulnerable because of a one sided view of the game’s ebb and flow. By this, I mean that the beginner is more concerned with their moves and plans that those of their opponent’s. A student whose game I was watching once told me that he had thought the position through four moves into the future. This is a difficult task for many seasoned players let alone a young beginner. I watched in horror as my student’s position was crushed in three moves. He did think four moves into the future of the position, but those four moves depended on his opponent making the moves my student wanted him to make (which all favored my student’s position). Therefore, before making a move, ask yourself what your opponent’s best response to that move would be. Pretend to play your opponent’s side of the board when making decisions regarding your position! Often, you’ll find that a seemly reasonable move, even one that adheres to sound chess principles, can lead to problems. Problems are a measure of vulnerability.

Creating active positions and avoiding vulnerability really comes down to looking carefully before moving a piece anywhere on the board. It also comes down to putting these ideas into practice. I have my students keep checklists written out on index cards that they consult before making a move. Eventually, they don’t need to refer to their checklists, having committed the information to memory. However, at the start of their training with me I have them use the checklist because it forces them to think carefully before moving a piece. Speaking of pieces, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).