Anti-Trap Teaching

Traps and tricks are extremely popular with junior chess players. The young beginner starts out learning Scholar’s Mate and, as their chess skills improve, so does the complexity of their traps. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t teach a single trap until a student had been working with me for at least a year, ensuring that principled play came before tricky play. However, if I held firm to this notion, my students would fall prey to the plethora of junior players who employ tricks and traps to gain an early advantage in their games. In the world of junior chess, tricks and traps are a reality. This is why I teach my students how to defend against tricks and traps rather than use them exclusively to win games. Here’s some of what I talk about in my anti-trap lecture:

No matter how cunning or complex a trick or trap, it will never stand up to smart principled play. Good, sound play will always put the kibosh on a trick or trap. However, the key to avoiding a trap is to see it coming. If you don’t see it coming, you’re might fall for it. All traps require a set up and that set up costs the player employing it something, be it tempo or the weakening of one’s opening position. Most junior level traps occur during the opening phase which means that while you’re setting up the trap, often making moves that don’t adhere to the opening principles, your opponent is gaining further control of the board’s center (employing opening principles). If your trap fails, you may not be able to recover. Let’s look at these ideas in more detail.

Opening traps are popular with junior players because if they work, they can thrown the opposition into positional disarray, giving the trapper enough of an advantage to win early on. Since most junior’s games are won or lost early on, traps are very popular. However, traps require setting up and setting up a trap often means making moves that go against sound opening principles. Let’s say you want to employ a trap that takes two moves to set up. This means that your opponent gets to make two developmental moves that strengthens his or her control of the board’s center while you make two moves that serve only to set your trap. If your trap fails, you end up with a weak position you may not be able to recover from. Principled play will always trump tricky play. Take Scholar’s Mate, for example.

This is the most popular trick employed by young beginners. It starts with the moves 1. e4…e5. Nothing in the way of tricks or traps up to this point. This is where I start my anti-trap teaching. I ask students what move White should make next. Of course, my more astute students reply “2. Nf3.” This is the type of move you’d expect from a young beginner who employs sound opening principles. I show them the next move actually played, 2. Bc4, and ask them what important square on Black’s side of the board is under fire? The answer is f7. I mention that this square is weak because it is only defended by the Black King. It’s here that our first clue regarding White’s intentions is unveiled. I have my students note that while The Bishop’s Opening is a real, non tricky, opening, there’s something amiss and they need to pay attention to white’s next move (anti-trap teaching). Black plays 2…c6 (Black could have played other stronger moves but we’re just using this as an example). White then plays 3. Qf3. I ask my students what piece should reside on f3 at the start of the game and they answer the King-side Knight. I then ask them how many pieces attack the weak f7 square and they answer two. I ask them, if White had an extra turn, what move would do the greatest damage (such as checkmate) and they answer Qxf7#. So White can deliver checkmate on his or her next turn. How do we stop it while making a solid developing move? My students respond 3…Nf6. We go through some additional examples of Scholar’s Mate from the viewpoint of the defender and discover that Black can repel White’s mating attempt while gaining a better position.

The point here is that my students first learn how to deal with such a premature attack rather than learning the attack itself as a weapon. This does two things. First, it teaches my students how to avoid falling victim to Scholar’s Mate and second, it shows them just how faulty such a mating attempt is (since Black ends up with the better position). This helps to reinforce the idea of using principled play rather than tricks and traps to win games. It should be noted that I am a student of tricks and traps and have nothing against them. However, I don’t employ them unless an opportunity falls into my lap that allows me to execute a trap with no essential damage to my position. Again, when the trick or trap fails, the person attempting to execute the positional chicanery ends up with a weaker position. Principled play should come before all else.

Being able to sniff out a trap is the key to avoiding them. In the case of Scholar’s Mate, the placement of the Queen on f3 instead of the King-side Knight was an important clue and if you want to avoid falling victim to traps, you have to be a good chess detective. This means that every move made by the opposition is a clue that, in the hands of a skilled detective, can spell out an opponent’s intentions. We use opening principles to help decipher our opponent’s moves and the true intentions of those moves. Let’s look at another example, the Costage Trap:

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4, it appears that we have the start of The Italian Opening or perhaps The Evan’s Gambit, depending on what move Black makes next. Black plays 3…Nd4! Let’s think about one of the things we don’t want to do during the opening, moving the same piece twice. My students know that we try to introduce a new piece with each move we make during the opening. Therefore, using principled play as our guide, a blaring siren should be raging in our skulls when this move is made. Why is black breaking an opening principle? The clueless beginner will see the undefended e5 pawn and think “that’s a hanging pawn I can capture free of charge” and captures it with 4. Nxe5. Then Black springs the trap with 4…Qg5, forking the Knight on e5 and the g2 pawn. White is now in a jam, either losing the Knight on e5 or, worse yet, the pawn on g2 which would lead to White having an un-castled King. General principles tell us never to capture a pawn or piece unless it helps our position. Opening principles tell us that there’s something fishy about Black moving the Queen-side Knight twice during the opening when the Knight in Question is perfectly safe. The game’s principles help provide us clues regarding potential tricks and traps.

I teach my students how to spot and defend against potential tricks and traps rather than how to use tricks and traps to win games. There’s a huge difference in that. My students, by seeing how easily they can defend their position against traps, discover the true weakness of this kind of play. While they know the traps as well as those who try to employ those traps against them, my students know the short comings of such short cutting.

Again, I enjoy tricks and traps and highly recommend Grandmaster Nigel Davies’ Chessbase DVD series Tricks and Traps in the Opening (all three volumes). Nigel covers some very sophisticated tricks and traps that don’t require taking a chance on your position in order to set a trap. Of course, with junior players, the tricks and traps are somewhat crude but there are a few that can give the uninitiated player major headaches. Nigel covers all level and manner of these tricks and traps and, most importantly, teaches you sound ways to deal with them. So the idea here is learning from an anti-trap perspective. Knowing how to deal with tricks and traps, using sound principled play, will take you a lot farther in your chess career than relying solely on tricks and traps to win games. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I don’t think you’d want to try Scholar’s Mate on either of these two players!

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).