Attack or Defend

There are two roles each player assumes during a single game of chess, that of attacker and that of defender. Both players switch between these roles as the game progresses. When one player attacks, the other defends against that attack. With beginners, you often see one player attacking wildly, without a real plan, in an attempt to either win material or produce a fast checkmate. The end result is usually a loss of material for the attacker and a dreadful position as well. Then there’s the beginner who decides to simply build up a defense and ward off the opposition’s attacks for the entire game, playing passively which gets you nowhere. Knowing when to attack or defend is crucial if you want to win games. Also key to success is having the proper amount of force (pawns and pieces) when attacking or defending. The first question we have to address is when to attack and when to defend? To experienced players, the answer to this question is simple. However, to the beginner, the answer isn’t always clear.

The opening principles tell us that we should gain control of the board’s center as early as possible, not letting our opponent gain control first. Therefore we need to be aggressive from the game’s start (attack the board’s center). If you have the White pawns and pieces, you get to make the first move which means you have the chance to gain control of the board’s center from the start. Attack the central squares! Beginners tend to think of attacking in terms of attacking opposition pawns and pieces, in other words physical material. Thus, they think that moving a piece to a square upon which it controls other squares on the opposition’s side of the board isn’t really attacking anything since there’s no physical pieces on those squares. The beginner will move pieces to squares on which they can attack opposition material, even if it weakens their position or causes them to move that piece multiple times to get to the specific square. Remember, when you attack an empty square you are controlling that square, keeping enemy pawns and pieces off of that square which falls into the category of attacking. Just because a square is empty doesn’t mean it has no value. Every square you control is one less square available to your opponent! Therefore, try to control as many squares on your opponent’s side of the board as possible because doing so makes it difficult for the opposition to launch their own attack.

The more force you use when attacking the greater the probability of your attack being successful. You never see a sporting event where a single player takes on an entire opposition team. Teams are made up of multiple players who work together, not individually. Your pawns and pieces should work like a team, meaning they should be coordinated. When attacking do so with multiple pieces who are working with one another (protecting one another and providing multiple attackers) while also attacking a single target (piece or square) multiple times. I see many beginner games in which one player actually attacks with a plethora of attacking pieces but those pieces are not coordinated to they end up being lost within a few moves. Successful attacks involve pieces (and of course pawns) working carefully together. Yes, there are attacks that lead to checkmate involving a single piece, such as a back rank mate or smothered mate (involving a lone Knight), but there are always previous, smaller attacks that open up the necessary lines to deliver checkmate. Coordinated pieces that target specific squares lead to successful attacks.

Speaking of targeted squares, it’s easier to launch a successful attack when you hone in on a weakness in your opponent’s position. Beginners will often launch a multi-piece attack on a specific square but that square will be heavily defended so a loss of material usually ensues rather than a profitable attack. When choosing a target square, look for one that is first, weak due to a lack of defenders and second, one that will open up a further line of attack against the opposition King. With this said, sometimes your opponent will be able to pile up defenders to ward off your attackers. While the rule of thumb is to have at least one more attacker than your opponent has defenders (or one more defender than attackers, when defending), you’ll eventually have to decide whether committing all that material to a single attack is worth it. Does doing so weaken your position elsewhere on the board? If the answer is yes, don’t commit unless you know that you’ll be able to either come out of any exchanges up material or be able to deliver checkmate in the very near future.

If your opponent is attacking then you’ll have to play the role of the defender. The reason it’s better to be the attacker is that defenders get stuck defending and are unable to attack the enemy position until they successfully ward off the current attack. The attacker has the initiative! Too often, beginners will defend a pawn with everything they have only to discover that their opponent can add one final attacker, leaving you unable to successfully defend, in this case, a pawn. You’ve committed a large portion of your forces to the defense of a pawn which means those defending pieces are tied down, leaving you open to attacks elsewhere on the board. Sometimes you have to bit the bullet and simply give up the pawn!

Beginners too often don’t know where an attack is coming from until it’s too late. Before making a move, you should look at any opposition piece that is active, on the board, and note what squares that piece controls and what pieces of yours it attacks. Are there more than one attacker on any of your pieces or key squares? Key squares are those that can open a line that allows an attack on your King. If one of your pieces is under attack, move that piece to a safe square. If a key square is targeted, defend it. During the game, you should always look for weaknesses in your position. When you find one, defend it. If you defend potential weaknesses in your position early on, you deprive your opponent the opportunity to launch an attack on those potentially weak squares.

When attacking, you want to attack squares on your opponent’s side of the board. The reason 1. e4 is better than 1. e3, from an attacking viewpoint, is because the pawn on e4 attacks two squares on Black’s side of the board (d5 and f5). Putting a pawn on e3 does attack a center square but it’s one of your squares which is more of a defensive move. If you deprive your opponent access to his or her own squares, they’re going to have great difficulties launching any attacks. Conversely, you do want to cover squares on your side of the board against opposition attacks. 2. Nf3 does just that because it not only attacks the center of the board, it also keeps the Black Queen off of the h4 and g5 squares, which in an opening such as the King’s Gambit is extremely important.

Attack when the opportunity presents itself. If you see a weakness in your opponent’s position, exploit it. Your opponent will have to become the defender and won’t be able to launch any immediate attacks. Also try to create attacks by targeting weak squares. When creating attacks, you start moving your material towards your target square, only launching the attack once you have sufficient material to do so. Of course, your opponent will probably see the pieces heading his or her way and will try to defend that position. However, if your pieces are coordinated and you have a greater number of attacks than defenders, then you should be successful. Just make sure you have a few defenders left near your King to protect his majesty.

Be the attacker and things will happen. Be the defender and you’ll spend the game warding off attacks and coming no closer to checkmating your opponent than you were on move one. Be aggressive but not foolish. Look for weakness on your opponent’s position while defending your own potential weaknesses. Examine every opposition piece near your side of the board and take your time when considering moves. Do this and you’ll play a better game of chess or at least spend less time defending and more time attacking. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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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).