Almost Checkmate

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a chess player say, “I almost checkmated my opponent,” I’d be writing this from a beach house in Hawaii rather than while sitting in a ratty armchair with a pit bull chewing on my left shoe. I once heard a young player at a junior chess tournament say “I should get a point because I almost checkmated that guy.” Nice try kid but being close doesn’t cut it (even the arbiter laughed). Watching the students play at tournaments, I am amazed at how many checkmates are simply missed. I’ll stand there looking at an obvious mate and mentally recoil in horror when the player who can deliver the winning blow fails to do so. Why do so many mates get missed by beginners, especially those that are fairly obvious?

With beginners, the primary problem seems to be time. By “time” I mean not taking enough of it to really examine the position at hand. Beginners have trouble launching coordinated attacks early in their chess careers. They launch desperado attacks with a lone piece and lose that piece, only to try again. As they improve, they learn to use multiple pieces that cover one another when attacking. Then something funny happens. Rather than slowing down before launching the big attack, they make moves as if they had only thirty seconds left on their chess clocks. This is one of the reasons why they miss potential checkmates. They play too fast at critical moments.

They also grab material like a starved animal goes after food. Rather than looking for mate, they see a Rook and decide capturing it will make is easier to eventually win the game. After all, the more material they have to use against the opposition, the easier it will be to win. There’s a lot of skewed thinking in beginner’s chess. Of course, we can’t blame the beginner because it takes experience to get past this way of thinking and that comes from playing chess and having one’s skewed ideas put to the test. When the beginner’s idea fails, he or she tries another more grounded approach.

In learning mating patterns, the positioning of key pieces to deliver checkmate, beginners start with the classic stair step method in which a pair of Rooks push the opposition King to the edge of the board. This is followed by a King and Queen against lone King checkmate. While it is important to teach these two methods to the beginner, it can create problems. Our novice player tends to (at first) think this to be the only if not easiest way to win the game. This leads them to miss mating opportunities with minor pieces and even the pawn.

Because of the above mentioned problem, I show more games that use minor pieces (and even the pawn) for delivering checkmate. Of course, I teach the basic checkmates described above but we focus more on getting a player’s entire army involved in winning the game. Of course, there’s more to it than simply aiming your forces in the direction of the enemy King and hoping for the best.

First and foremost, you need to plan your attack carefully. Too many beginners launch early attacks, such as the build up to the scholar’s mate. When you launch an attack early, your opponent can easily defend the position around his or her King because their pieces are still close by. It’s a lot hard to defend the King when the majority of one’s pieces are elsewhere on the board. Timing is everything when planning an attack.

Before committing pieces to an attack early on, develop your forces towards the center of the board following the opening principles. At the start of the game, both Kings are on central files which means that pieces have a better shot at attacking the non-castled King. When the opposing King does castle, your centrally located pieces will be able to attack King-side or Queen-side with greater ease because they’re centrally positioned. You’d have greater difficulty attacking the enemy King who castled King-side if your pieces were all Queen-side. Another excellent reason for central play early in the game. Let’s say you get to the middle-game and see an opportunity to launch an attack. There’s some space around the enemy King that he can use as an escape route. Do you just launch a major assault regardless? Not yet!

One point I cannot stress enough is using your pieces to cut off escape routes that can be used by the opposition King. Too often, the beginner starts a mating attack only to see the opposition King scurry off via an escape square. You might say, the more open squares around the enemy King there are, the greater the opportunity to attack. However, this works both ways. More open or empty squares around the King you’re going after can mean more ways for that King to get out of a mating attack. This is where your long distance attackers, the Bishops, Rooks and Queen, come into play. Rooks on open files (especially if the open file provides the enemy King a potential escape square) can stop the King from escaping. The same holds true with Bishops on diagonals. The Queen often spearheads the attack but she can also be used to cut off a running King.

Note every square the opposition King can move to before launching your mating attack. Then look at your pieces and decide which of those pieces can cover the greatest number of flight or escape squares. Aim for a single piece covering squares rather than two or three pieces covering the same squares. Of course, this only works if you have numerous pieces to use in your attack, another reason why you can’t simply send one piece in to do the job (with the exception of a smothered mate, which doesn’t happen much in beginner’s chess). Once you’ve assigned pieces the task of covering any escape squares, find two or three pieces that can go in and deliver mate.

This is where piece coordination is critical. I teach the hunter and bodyguard method in which you have the hunter, the piece delivering the checkmate and its bodyguard, the piece that protects the hunter. Remember, you have to have more attackers than defenders for the mate to work. If possible have a third piece in reserve should your calculations go wrong (which happens a lot with beginners)! Pieces must work together, one protecting the other to successfully deliver mate.

As I mentioned at the beginning of these article, you have to take your time and really look at the position carefully, especially the placement of your opponent’s pieces. Too often, the beginner suffers from tunnel vision, seeing only the opposition King and a possible checkmate. They fail to notice an enemy piece that can capture one of the attacking pieces. Look at every pawn and piece belonging to your opponent and trace their line of attack to your own pieces and the square you’re targeting for the checkmate. Only when it is safe should you consider delivering the winning blow. You must take your time when considering a move to deliver mate.

Always look at a position, no matter where in the game, and ask yourself, is there a possible checkmate here? I have a software program that tells me how many times I missed checkmate during a game and you’d be surprised at how many chances I miss!

Then there’s the lowly pawn. A well placed pawn against an opposition King who is trapped by your pieces can deliver the final death null. Consider all material as weapons that can deliver checkmate. So, take your time, centralize material before launching your attack, used coordinated force and paired attackers. Look at your opponent’s pieces before going in for mate and stop, reexamine the position, taking your time, and only then win the game. Speaking of games, here’s one 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).