Attacking and Defending Calculations 101

Beginners have a propensity for making bad trades on the chessboard and defending material that is all but lost. Of course, as they gain experience, they hopefully learn the art of the trade and know when to give up material and move on. This often takes a large number of losses and too many losses with little in the way of wins can discourage the beginner from playing chess. Therefore, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the beginning chess player that will help you improve your attacking and defending skills, keeping you from giving up on this fantastic game!

View your pawns and pieces in terms of money! This seems like a silly idea but there’s some merit to it. Teaching and coaching youngsters as well as adults, I’ve found that nothing sells the idea of material value like good old fashion money! Your pawns are worth a dollar each, Knights and Bishops three dollars each, Rooks five dollars each, the Queen nine dollars and the King, we’ll he’s priceless. When it comes to losing or gaining money, everyone pays attention (not to mention it helps small children develop their arithmetical skills). The question I first pose when discussing monetary trades on the chessboard is do you want to make money or lose money? I have yet to have someone say they want to lose money!

When beginners first start playing, they often trade pieces of higher value for pieces of lower value with no positional compensation. It’s one thing when an experienced player trades a Rook for a minor piece, such as a Knight, to clear a path for a mating attack (losing two dollars from a material viewpoint). It’s quite another thing when a beginner makes the same seemingly lopsided trade with nothing to show for it but a weakening of force. Therefore, the beginner should only make trades that garner them a good financial return, at least until the fully understand the idea of positional advantages! The beginner should only exchange pieces if the exchange is even or if they earn greater dollar amount when the material in question comes off the board! Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as not exchanging material if it weakens your position. However, beginners first have to learn how to make favorable trades! Here’s an example of an monetary trade that seems even but really isn’t, to make a point about exceptions:

On move six, White starts a quick series of exchanges garnering them Black’s Rook and f7 pawn. The pawn and Rook are worth six dollars total. Black garners White’s Knight and light squared Bishop for a total of six dollars. Is the trade even? Absolutely not. Both players are in the opening phase of the game. During the opening phase minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, are more important than the Rooks and pawns. Therefore, even though the trade was even from a dollar and cents viewpoint, White has two minor pieces to Black’s four. Don’t trade minors for majors during the opening unless your profit margin spells checkmate! Don’t assume a trade is fair until you consider the position.

When launching an attack on your opponent’s material, do some basic arithmetic first to determine whether or not you’ll be the profiteer. When attacking or defending, consider using pieces of lesser value first. Don’t trade a Queen for a pawn. If you’re attacking (or defending) with a pawn, Bishop and your Queen, start the trade off with the pawn followed by the Bishop, then the Queen, but only if the value of the pieces your capturing are worth more than your collective material, in this case a pawn, Bishop and Queen. If you’re attacking a minor piece that is solely defended by pawns, trading your Queen for a pawn will bankrupt your game! The same holds true with defending.

Then there are those seemingly free or hanging pieces. There’s an old adage that states nothing in life is free. This thought can be applied to chess as well. Of course, when beginners play beginners, hanging pieces abound. However, if you, the beginner, are playing an experienced player, you might want to take a closer look at that seemingly free piece. Good players don’t give material away. They may offer you material but they get something in return, usually a winning game. Look at all of your opponent’s material and follow the direction that material aimed in. You might just notice that they’re aimed at your King and checkmate is looming on the horizon! Play for profit but don’t get greedy!

Then there’s defending! Beginners who employ my monetary ideas will more often than not think the concept translates to “I need to defend the attacked piece at all costs and turn a profit.” Wrong! Defending a lost piece can be akin to inflating kid’s balloons in an effort to keep your boat from sinking. You can keep inflating those balloons and tie them to the boat but eventually it’s going to sink. Sometimes you just have to jump into the water and let the boat go down! A lost piece is one that cannot be sanely defended. Here’s what I mean:

Mobility is the key to winning chess. Mobility is the freedom your pieces have to move around the board and do useful things, such as attacking and and delivering mate. Let’s say you have a well positioned Knight and it suddenly comes under attack. You defend and your opponent attacks again. You defend and your opponent attacks once more. There will come a point where, if you continue to defend, all your pieces will be completely tied up in the defense of that Knight. This means those pieces have lost mobility. How do you avoid ending up in this type of position? Consider this idea: Every time you add another defender to an attacked piece, you’re depriving that defender of mobility. If a large majority of your pieces are tied up with defensive duties, your ability to attack will be greatly diminished. Try to keep defenders to two or three pawns and pieces. In fact, pawns are great defenders since, in the case of our Knight, your opponent won’t want to trade a piece for a pawn. If your opponent has four attackers to your two defenders, you may have to surrender the attacked piece.

The key step after you grasp the raw economics of trades or exchanges is to count attackers and defenders. To experienced players, this idea is second nature but to beginners it’s a cosmic mystery! If your attacking, you want to have more attackers than the opposition has defenders. If you’re defending, you’ll want to have more defenders than opposition attackers. However, don’t throw everything into attack and defense because piece mobility wins games. Also know where to defend. If you have a pawn on b4 at the start of the game (and you shouldn’t be moving flank pawns early in the game) and your opponent attacks it, you might want to let it go. During the opening, the action takes place in the center of the board and that is the crucial region for attacking and defending. Of course, if not defending that flank pawn will lead to you getting checkmated, defend away!

Timing is everything! Like the financial markets, knowing when to make a play is critical. Beginners launch premature attacks that either cost them material or the game. Attacks should be built up using multiple pawns and pieces in tandem. Solo or desperado attacks sound great but usually end in tears (those of the person moving the solo piece). Pieces must work together when attacking and defending. Interestingly, while there needs to be a limit on the number of pieces involved in defensive duties, you can go somewhat hog wild when it comes to attacking as long as you don’t leave your King subject to mate (many a back rank mate has been pulled off this way). However, your pieces need to work together when attacking. Having five pieces attacking your opponent’s position does no good if the pieces aren’t defending one another. Piece coordination is absolutely important. If you want to attack a key square on the board, use a combination of pieces that protect one another. Attack from a distance! Use long range pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and the Queen. They can attack key squares on your opponent’s side of the board from the safety of your side of the board. You’re a lot less likely to lose material if it’s far away from your opponent’s forces.

Well, there you have some ides to employ when considering attacking and defending. Do the math, don’t try and save the sinking ship and strike when the time is right. 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).