Analyzing Games

Those who teach and coach chess know the importance of analyzing games with their students as part of the learning process. Chess teachers and coaches often use master level games to present important ideas to their students. By playing though these games, students learn the finer points of chess. Key concepts such as tactics can be explained by setting up a simple tactical position on the board. However, these tactical problems often don’t explain how the position was arrived at. To show how a tactical position arises, it’s best to use an actual game (rather than a set up position). Because students can learn so much from game analysis, I teach them basic analysis early on.

Many beginners feel that they are too inexperienced to do any worthwhile game analysis. However, this simply isn’t true. When I say beginner, I’m speaking of students who know the game’s rules and a few basic guiding principles. Of course, the beginning analyst isn’t going to understand the reason behind every single move, but they can use specific guiding principles to give them a clearer picture of why the majority of the game’s moves were made. As they improve their own play and get better at analysis, students will start to understand the reasons for moves that previously made little sense. The trick to beginning analysis is to look at the three phases of the game (opening, middle and endgame), keeping the goal of each phase in mind. With each move, the student asks questions specific to the phase of the game they’re playing through. Here’s a way for beginners to start game analysis right away:

We start with the opening phase of the game. During the opening, there are three primary goals a player must achieve. Those are control of the center, minor piece development and castling. Let’s say the first move in a game is 1.e4…c5. The beginner, knowing the opening principles, would say that White has firmly placed a pawn on a central square (e4, e5, d4 and d5). This move also allows the King-side Bishop access to the board which helps to speed up castling. The beginner could conclude that White’s first move was good. What about 1…c5? Beginners are taught to open with an e pawn. Therefore, they might conclude that Black is making a bad move since they moved the c pawn rather than the e pawn. We have to remember that the beginner might not know that c5 is the start of the Sicilian Opening. However, if they examine the square that the c5 pawn controls (d4), they’ll see that this move has merit. White plays 2.Nf3. Our beginning analyst, again knowing the basic opening principles, sees that the King-side Knight has been developed to an active square that brings White one step closer to castling. If Black plays 2…d6, our junior analyst will have give some thought to the move, since most beginning students expect minor piece development. However, if the beginner examines the position, he or she will see that this move does a few good things. This second move defends the c5 pawn and lets the Queen-side Bishop have access to the board. The trick here is to keep it simple. When first analyzing a game, look for the use of basic principles. Keep it simple.

The middle game becomes a bit trickier because of the transition from the opening to the middle game. The middle game is arrived at after the players have gained a foothold in the center, minor pieces are developed, the King is castled and the Rooks are connected. Beginners expect the middle game to be where immediate fireworks take place. By fireworks, I mean tactical fights and fast material exchanges. However, there are subtle moves that can throw the beginner off. During the middle game, beginning analysts should examine non tactical moves and ask a single question: Does this move improve a pawn or piece’s position making it more active? Good chess players move their pawns and pieces to move active squares before considering attacks. The beginning analysts should look at a non aggressive move and see if it increases a pawn or piece’s power (activity) before dismissing it as a move they don’t understand.

When a tactical move is made, such as a Fork or Pin, the beginner should play that move through, enjoying the tactical mayhem and then immediately go back three of four moves. The reason for this is to see how the tactical position arose. I recommend playing through this three or four move sequence a few times. This procedure will show the beginner how that great tactical play came about. The same holds true for exchanges of material. Beginners are often on the losing end of an exchange (being down the exchange) because they don’t have enough attackers. Our junior analyst should go back three or four moves at the end of an exchange of material and observe the buildup attackers and defenders. They’ll see that good chess players don’t launch attacks unless they have the superior force!

The Endgame is difficult for beginners because they seldom reach Endgame positions or if they do they have no idea how to win. The beginning analyst should look at the endgame position and do a count of pawns. Pawns are extremely valuable in the Endgame and the player with a pawn majority (in most cases) has a winning edge. Pawn structure is crucial as well. The junior analyst should count pawn islands, look for backwards pawns, isolated pawns and the powerful passed pawn (see previous articles). King activity is also critical. If the position on the board is equal material-wise, say two pawns for both players (in addition to their Kings), the junior analyst needs to look at the positions of both Kings. In the endgame, the King becomes a powerful attacker and defender, being a critical component to winning. The more active King, the King that is off of its starting rank, has a better chance of escorting his pawns to their promotion squares.

Analyzing games further imbeds the principles discussed in my lectures into the minds of my students. It also prepares them for the analysis of their own games. While this gives the reader a generalized starting point, there is a great deal more to cover when discussing game analysis. However, it’s best to not overwhelm the beginner. Here’s a really old game that I jokingly tell my students I witnessed (since some of them seem to think I’m really old). Enjoy!

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).