The mark of a good teacher, be it in chess or economics, is their ability to take a complex concept or idea and explain it in a manner that makes sense to the student. Too often, a teacher will simply recite an explanation from a textbook, word for word, and call it a day. That’s not teaching. Good teaching is taking a complex subject and simplifying it, often using an analogy that students can relate to. I have a new high school student who was having trouble grasping some game principles, namely the idea of bringing pawns and pieces into the opening in a specific order. By order, I mean that we first control the center with a pawn or two, then introduce our minor pieces and so on. He asked me why follow that specific order if you could start controlling the board’s center by moving a Knight towards it on your first move? His reasoning was sound, in that a Knight moved to c3 or f3 (c6 or f6 for Black) controls two center squares as opposed to a pawn move which controls only one center square, the central squares being d4, d5, e4 and e5. I tried a couple of explanations but he still thought moving the Knight first made more sense. Of course, you can start the game by moving one of your Knights toward the center. However, when first learning the game, you should learn to start the game with a pawn move for a number of reasons.

One thing I do when working with a student for the first time is to find out what their interested in other than chess. Why do this? Because I can often develop analogies based on the student’s interests and provide them with explanations of key concepts that make sense because the analogies relate to something the student already understands. It turns out that my student is a budding military history buff which made my job that much easier. Here’s why:

Chess is many things, including a game of war. In fact, it’s really an excellent example of classical warfare and that’s the analogy I used. From the military formations employed by Roman soldiers in ancient times to the battles of the American Civil War, the theory of classical warfare is alive and well on the chessboard. In fact, the guerrilla warfare style of fighting seen in Vietnam and then in the Middle East can be found on the chessboard in the form of tricks, traps and tactics. Being a Buddhist, you might ask why I’d choose such a violent analogy. The answer is simple. I use analogies that best suit my students (within reason). While I abhor violence, I am a bit of a student of military history myself (specifically, the American Civil War) which is probably why I consider myself a “bad” Buddhist (or militant pacifist)! So let’s look at my student’s question regarding pawn and piece development in the opening from the vantage point of classical warfare.

Prior to the advent of truly mechanized warfare (tanks, planes, etc), fighting battles was mainly done by individual soldiers. During the American Civil War, for example, the majority of the fighting was done by large formations of troops (troop meaning a single soldier and troops meaning multiple soldiers). These troops fell into formations or lines of men with their rifles loaded and ready to fire. Fire upon what? Advancing enemy troops. Eventually, members of the opposing army would make it through the field of fire and hand to hand combat would ensue. During the battle of Gettysburg, tens of thousands of men were engaged in savage hand to hand combat in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. When I was describing this battle, which I had studied in great detail, I could see my student caught up in my retelling of this horrible historical event. From a teaching point, I had my student where I wanted him; using his imagination to take him to the front lines, smelling the acrid stench of gun powder, hearing the screams of wounded men and the deafening sound of hundreds of cannons as the sky turned dark because of the smoke of the many fires that burned across the battlefield. It was at this point that I stopped my story and uttered a single word, Pawns.”

“Pawns?” He replied. Yes, Pawns. All those men wearing either the colors of the blue or gray in the American Civil War were the battle’s pawns. Pawns are the game’s foot soldiers, like the Roman Legionnaires or American Grunts of World War Two. In any army, the overwhelming majority of its members are foot soldiers who individually are of little value but, when united together in large numbers, become a decisive force that can change a battle’s outcome. In classical warfare, it’s the foot soldier who goes out onto the field of battle first. In chess, pawns are your foot soldiers and, while they may be of the lowest relative value when considering them on an individual basis, they can work together and push back the enemy.

In classical warfare, generals would use their foot soldiers in an attempt to weaken the opposition’s army before bringing in more sophisticated weaponry such as archers or cavalry, in the case of the American Civil War. The point I made to my student was that you needed to weaken the enemy first and then bring in heavier weaponry. I emphasized the fact that the Knight in chess was the equivalent to the cavalry in classical warfare and that you simply wouldn’t send in the cavalry against a huge formation of foot soldiers until you weakened those foot soldiers with your own foot soldiers. The same holds true in chess. If you sent your Knights onto the field of battle (the chessboard) they could easily be driven back by Pawns. Why? Because a Pawn has a relative value of 1 point while the Knight’s worth 3 points. No one is going to trade a Knight for a Pawn (unless it leads to a huge positional advantage)! My student was starting to see the merits of employing Pawns first, then the minor pieces. We looked at another reason foot soldiers had to be the first into battle, namely because the rest of the army stood behind them!

In many classical battle formations, which were highly organized, you had an overwhelming majority of foot soldiers in the front, followed by archers, then cavalry and lastly any special weaponry. While the archers could shoot over the heads of the foot soldiers in front of them (and did to reduce enemy numbers), the rest of the army couldn’t get onto the battlefield until the foot soldiers had moved. I pointed out to my student that, with the exception of the Knight, the rest of his forces were trapped until some of his foot soldiers (Pawns) took to the field (the board). My analogy was really starting to sink in. My student is a highly intelligent young man but we have to remember that a “one size fits all” approach to teaching doesn’t work because no single explanation will work for every single individual. Analogies, analogies, analogies!

We looked at the other pieces in terms of our analogy and decided that Bishops were more like archers in a way because they could control important squares on the board from a great distance. However, unlike the archer who can shoot arrows over the heads of the foot soldiers, Bishops needed the Pawns to move out of the way in order to engage in the battle. Rooks became cannons in our analogy, more powerful than the Bishops (archers) because they’re not limited to squares of one color (as the Bishops are). The Queen was either a Gatling Gun (an early large, rapid fire machine gun) or a Weapon of Mass Destruction. I preferred Weapon of Mass Destruction, only to be used carefully and at the right time. Losing the Queen is on par with losing your biggest, baddest weapon while the enemy maintains theirs. As for the King? In Vietnam, the Vietcong would often have snipers try to shoot at American commanders, with the idea of removing the leader which would leave the troops unable to function (cutting off the head of the snake).

By using analogies you can reinforce key ideas and concepts, putting them into terms you understand. I highly recommend, when learning a new chess idea or concept, that you put it into terms you can understand. If you’re a lawyer, create a legal analogy. If you’re a carpenter, put it in terms of a construction project. If teaching chess, discover your students interests to help create meaningful analogies. Use analogies to guide you and you’ll really understand the subject matter you’re trying to master. 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).