Author Archives: Hugh Patterson

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).

The Journey

Chess is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s simply a game to pass the time while to others it’s a way of life. Chess is a battle in which we use our brains as our weapon. I tell my students that chess is an intellectual martial art, Kung Fu of the mind. As a student of both Tai Chi and Wing Chun, I see great similarities between chess and the martial arts. In fact, chess and martial arts are the two things that make me who I am. Without them, I’m not whole and I’m not happy. Let me explain:

Western society places a high premium on winning so many people study chess to get better at it so they win more games, demonstrating to themselves that they possess the superior mind. Wrong! Our goal in life should not be one of winning but one of improving our minds and bodies to their greatest potential. How you feel during your day depends on the state of your mind and body. When we’re sick our bodies ache and we don’t feel very well. We drag through our day looking forward to sleep. If we live a life without exercise, when we do have to do something physical we feel the wrath of a sedentary life, a life spent in front of our computer. If we watch television all day and then have to use our brains to solve a problem, our brain strains under the pressure and we become tired. Our lives become dreadful and we physically and mentally shuffle from one day to the next. I was this person, having the worst physical and mental habits you could have. I was dying a slow death each and every day. I wanted nothing more than to sleep because at least while I slept I felt no pain!

I’ve written about chess having gotten me through addiction and a life threatening disease which it did by strengthening my mind to battle the mental demons that manifested themselves in both situations. So chess holds a special place for me, not because I want to be a winner but because I want to maintain a healthy mental outlook. I also suffered all my life from dyslexia, something chess was able to eliminate from my life. How did chess do this? By forcing my brain, through pattern recognition, to visualize things correctly. Chess also helps one’s memory, something that weakens with age. Because chess has helped my mind so much, I view it more in Eastern terms as a way to balance my internal life which also aids my external life. While I enjoy winning my games, I take losses with a grain of salt, as something that is part of the journey. Losses are simply a reminder that we can always improve.

Of course, there are two components to one’s being, the mental and the physical. You have to have a good balance of both if either is work. For decades, I walked with a limp using a cane. A small flight of stairs was a painful obstacle. Doctors prescribed pain medications, a dangerous drug in the hands of a recovering addict. Fortunately, I knew enough to have my wife dole them out. However, I didn’t want to be enslaved to medication, not to mention the medication took away from my mental abilities. When faced with such a dilemma, you have to be proactive. I decided to try exercise but became bored easily when at the gym. I turned to Tai Chi and it was a game changer. It was slow and difficult at first because I felt as if I was getting no benefit from it. However, one day realized I was walking around without my cane and had no idea how long I had been doing so. People started commented that my limp was gone as well. The noticeable break through for me was that my chess playing got better because my mind was clear.

Over time, I started to feel more balanced, both internally and externally (with the world around me). I started talking on challenges I never would have in the past. This led me to wanting to study Kung Fu. I knew that I still had physical limitations due to the many reconstructive surgeries on my right ankle so I talked to a number of different martial artists who suggested I try Wing Chun. I found a teacher by accident. He was filling in for his brother driving his cab and I was a passenger. He said he always wanted to play western chess. When I found out he taught Wing Chun we decided to trade lessons. I look at the set of circumstances that led to this chance encounter, not as chance, but as an opportunity that presented itself because I was being proactive in my life. I opened my mouth and engaged in conversation with this man which led to a great opportunity. If you sit at home and wait for opportunity to knock, you’re apt to wait a lifetime. Opportunity presents itself to those who seek it.

As my body’s condition improves so does that of my mind. This means that my chess improves as well. If you want to attain your maximum potential as a chess player, you have to look at the bigger picture which includes your physical state. The physical and mental go hand in hand.

I now teach my young students that chess is a way in which they can strengthen their minds. Of course, they’re kids so they have a desire to win. However, by teaching them that there are lifelong benefits to playing chess, I remove some of the Western competitive thinking from their thought process. I’ve been restructuring my teaching program to approach chess from an Eastern point of view, treating the class like a martial arts studio. Students spare with one another on the board, learning to appreciate good moves made by each other regardless of the outcome. When a good move is made by one student, his or her opponent will compliment that move. I also encourage my students to engage in physical activities and teach them the balance between body and mind.

So my fellow chess players, play to improve your mind not just to win. Anyone can win but the person who can lose and learn from that loss is the true winner. Take care of your bodies because you only have one. Trust me when I say that a little bit of physical exercise will go a long way towards making you a happier person and a better chess player. You don’t have to go crazy and take up kick boxing. Try walking. My journey has taken me from very near death to feeling pretty darn good. I do suggest avoiding the near death part because it’s not much fun but take a cue from me; good mental and physical health makes for a better life and better chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Take a healthy walk, then play through the game!

Hugh Patterson

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Getting the Most out of DVDs

As self improving chess players, we seek out educational tools to help us improve our game. Back when I first started playing, you had one choice if you wanted to get better at chess on your own, books. You’d go to the library or purchase a copy of the book you wanted, study it and apply your new found knowledge on the chess board. Back then, there were nowhere near as many chess books available as there are now and it was much easier to figure out which book would apply to your skill level. Now, we have an overwhelming number of chess books, most of which go over the heads of the average player. Then there are instructional DVDs.

DVDs are a great way to learn for those who don’t want to plod through often dryly written chess books. DVDs are visual and animated which helps with comprehension and pattern recognition. However, the DVD market is flooded with titles and it’s often difficult to determine which DVD is right for you. So, before we discuss how to get the most out of a chess DVD, we should briefly learn how to choose the correct DVD.

If you’re a beginner or improver, you’ll want to look for titles that include key words such as beginner, basic and introductory. Stay away from titles that use words such advanced or the term club player. Also avoid DVDs that concentrate on the games of a particular master because they’re often geared towards players with a solid grasp of more advanced principles. You’ll also want to consider the source. Remember, anyone can put out a chess DVD and these days it seems like everyone is. Plenty of titled players put out their own instructional DVDs but it takes a special talent to teach chess. This means that not all titled players are great or even just good teachers! Two DVD series I would recommend are the Chessbase series and the Foxy series. Both, use top notch teachers such an Andrew Martin, Nigel Davies and Daniel King, to name just a few! These titled players also teach so they know how to explain the subject matter in a manner that the viewer will understand. Now let’s look at how to get the most from your new DVD.

Let’s say you’ve decided to learn the Caro Kann opening and have purchased Andrew Martin’s Chessbase DVD, The ABCs of the Caro Kann. Before viewing the DVD, you should study the opening a bit. While Andrew’s DVD explains the opening in detail from move one, it’s to your advantage to do some preparation before actually viewing the DVD. Why should you do this? The answer is very simple. You’ll want to do some preparatory studying so you understand the underlying mechanics of this specific opening because the more basic knowledge you have of this opening prior to watching the DVD, the more you’ll get out of viewing it. Too often, players who use DVDs for their training don’t bother to prepare themselves prior to viewing. While they can learn from the DVD, they won’t learn as much as if they did some simple preparation. Here’s what I mean.

Get a general book on openings for your chess library if you don’t already have one. If you’re a beginner, get a book like The Dummies Guide to Chess Openings because its easy to understand. Read through the section on the Caro Kann. When reading that section, look at each move playing in this opening and examine the mechanics or principles behind that move. Does each move adhere to the opening principles? Play through the example games. The author presents a game in which black wins and one in which white wins. Take notes. Yes, take notes. Have a notebook dedicated to the Caro Kann. You should write the game you’re playing through down in your notebook and comment on every move. Your commentary should explain, in your own words, why a move works, why it doesn’t, etc.

Then go online and look up the Caro Kann. Read a few beginner’s articles and watch a few videos. This sounds like a lot of work just to watch a DVD but you’ll be rewarded in the end. Take notes on the articles you read and any videos you watch. Now it’s time to watch The ABCs of the Caro Kaan!

Common sense tells us to start at the beginning of an instructional video and work our way through sequentially. You’d be surprised how many chess players will skip around in no real order when watching such a DVD, cheating themselves out of a series of strong, well thought out lessons. In the case of Andrew’s DVD, the presentation is designed to be watched sequentially and that’s how you get the most out of it. Take notes as well. The great thing about these DVDs is that you can rewind them and watch parts again, parts that you may find confusing the first time around. If you can rewind a section that you don’t understand and re-watch it, why take notes? Because when you take notes, you’re writing the concepts down in your own words which helps you retain those ideas in your head. Its also much easier to carry a notebook around (and safer) than a laptop.

Go through each individual video a few times before moving to the next video. In other words, don’t simply go from one game to the next (one video to the next). Watch Andrew’s presentation of a game two or three times, then move on to the next video. Often, ideas demonstrated in one section will form the backbone of the next section (video). After you’ve gone through the entire DVD, practice what you’ve learned in some casual games. After playing the opening yourself, go back and watch the DVD again. You’ll learn more from the DVD, having played the opening yourself.

Take your time when watching chess DVDs. You will not retain everything offered through this instructional tool in one sitting. Watch it over and over. Take your time. If you really want to get the most out of self learning using DVDs, try this approach. I use this method (I wouldn’t ask you to try something unless I did so myself) and it works. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Tournament Prep for Older Players

I met a chess player a few weeks back who was about to enter his first tournament in three weeks. He’s in his late forties and sought my advice for getting ready, both for this tournament and future tournaments. “You should consider Tai Chi or another martial art and get cracking with it!” His look of bewilderment said it all. My chess playing friend was of the opinion that chess was a completely mental effort and no physical conditioning was needed. Wrong. If you don’t believe me ask Boris Spassky who blended his chess studies with physical activities! I recommend Tai Chi to my students now because it helps immensely with stamina, concentration, focus and patience. Exercising your mind for many hours cannot be done simply by building your mental muscles because using your brain can be physically draining. We’ve all had a bad case of “brain drain” in which we’re physically exhausted after a long match. You increase your brain function physically as well as intellectually. It’s a case of Yin and Yang.

“Since, I’m not going to become a martial arts master in the three weeks left before my first tournament, what can I do?” Expecting me to say “not much, good luck,” he was taken back when I gave him some ways to increase his stamina in this short time period. Here’s what I suggested:

Change your eating habits to start. Start reducing the amount of sugar and caffeine you take in. While these might give you a boost of energy, that energy is short lived. As they say, what goes up must come down and this is true when ingesting sugar and caffeine based products. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as anything else deemed healthy. Consider the time of day when you’ll be playing to determine the appropriate food to eat. Heavy foods make you sluggish which translates to being sleepy (not good for the tournament player). Eat light and healthy. “Should I start now?” Absolutely! I told my friend that he must start now so his body can adjust to the lack of sugar and caffeine. Sugar and caffeine are treated by the body the same way drugs are which means there is a period of withdrawal. When you introduce a chemical to your body and it’s a substance your body naturally produces, your body will stop producing it. Therefore, when you stop feeding your body that substance, it takes a while for the body to start producing it again. Healthy eating and natural forms of energy acquisition make for better levels of concentration.

Next, I told my friend to regulate his sleep so he is getting the necessary amount of sleep each night. I heard people say they do their best work on little sleep. This is a ego driven myth. We need sleep and most of us don’t get enough due to life’s many surprises. Rather than just getting a good night’s sleep just prior to the tournament, I told my friend that each time he got a good night’s sleep before the tournament was like putting money in the bank of focus and concentration. The longer you put money in, the greater the amount available later on (focus and concentration) when you need to cash out! He needed eight full hours of sleep per night. I asked when the tournament started and he said 10:00 am. Since it was a local tournament less than 30 minutes from his house, I suggested going to bed at 11:00 pm and getting up at 7:30 pm. He mentioned that this added up to 8 ½ hours. I reminded him that it takes people a bit of time to actually fall asleep. Sleep isn’t sleep unless you’re actually sleeping.

Time for some exercise. I didn’t expect him to do ten three minute rounds of boxing with me (something I do three times a week in addition to my other physical activities) but I did expect him to get the blood flowing through his body, feeding a greater amount of oxygen to the brain. I suggested taking long walks every single day, rain or shine. Sitting around hunched over the chess board while studying opening theory looks impressive but you mind can wander easily when you start to get tired. Walking is a good way to get the blood flowing to your brain and isn’t as boring as sitting in a gym doing repetitive exercises (yes, martial arts requires repetitive exercises but they’re a lot more fun than a stair master). I told him to walk two miles a day, downloaded an app to measure his progress and reminded him that I would check the app. Of course, I had to say, quoting a friend, a Chinese Judge who says to young people who stand before her in court in regards to cheating on his exercise “You shame your family honor if you don’t walk the full two miles.” I suspected he was having second thoughts about asking for my advice.

“Well, what about the chess part of this preparation?” My reply was “stick with what you know.” At this point, he got a bit agitated “What?” I explained that he should employ the openings he felt comfortable with rather than trying out something new. If you want to play a new opening at a tournament, you need to put at least six months of serious work into that opening before testing it out in tournament play. “What if my opponent plays an opening I’m not familiar with?” In these case, let the opening principles guide you but not in a mechanical way. Always make moves to improve your position rather than going for premature attacks. If your opponent is tactical, close the position down. Always work with your pawns with an eye towards the endgame. Play both sides not just your own. Pretend to be your opponent and find his best move before he does. Then you can calculate an appropriate response.

“Sometimes my mind wanders while my opponent is thinking about their move.” That comment was worthy of a “shame your family honor” rebuttal, which he got! The time in which your opponent is thinking of possible moves is a gift to you! You should be looking at every single one of the opposition’s pawns and pieces, figuring out where they could move to to create problems for your position. When you have this free “opposition time,” you should use it wisely, examining the position carefully. If you do it right, you’re actually using your opponent’s own clock time against them. I recommend reading The Art of War to get into this way of thinking.

Get to your tournament early which means leaving early. Rushing into a tournament means you’re going into it with added stress. Tournaments can be stressful enough so don’t add to an already stressful situation. So far, my friend is taking my suggestions to heart. While he may not take of Tai Chi, the cure all for everything in my book, he’ll at least avoid some of the pitfalls many players experience when they sit down to play. All this advice is simple common sense but there seems to be a global lack of it these days. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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King Opposition

As I’ve said in previous articles about the endgame, beginners seldom know what to do when in this game phase. Of course, most beginner’s games end well before a proper endgame so I can’t fault them for lacking practical experience. However, one problem beginner’s face when they do end up in an endgame, in which Kings and pawns are the only material left on the board, is the use of their Kings. Beginners tend to leave their Kings sitting inactively on their starting ranks. King activity is absolutely a must in King and pawn endgames!

The beginner who has gained a small modicum of experience knows to defend their King in the game’s first two phases, the opening and middle-game. During the opening, the beginner castles his King to safety and develops his or her pieces actively. During the middle-game, our beginner keeps a watchful eye out for opposition attacks on their King while launching their own attacks on the enemy King. Then, if they reach the endgame, the beginner often attempts to advance pawns across the board to their promotion squares. However, they often do so without the assistance of their King. When the majority of you and your opponent’s material is off the board, you need to employ the power of the King!

When students ask me to analyze their endgame, asking who has the better chance of winning, I first look at the balance of material. If they have a superior force that can corral opposition pawns while helping to promote one of their own pawns, they’ve got the opportunity to win. If the position is equal, material-wise, I look at King activity. If their opponent’s King is active and their King is not, the opposition has better opportunities to win. Again, you have to get your King into the game if you’re going to deliver a successful checkmate!

King opposition is a key factor in endgame play! Simply put, Kings in opposition are Kings facing one another on a rank, file or diagonal with a single square separating them. You’ll want to have the opposition to gain the advantage. What do I mean by having the opposition? You have the opposition when the other King has to move. In other words, if you’re playing the white pieces in such a position and it’s black’s turn to move, you have the opposition. When the black King moves, he gives the white King the right of way so to speak. Look at the example below:

In this example, it’s black to move. The black King moves to f6. The white King now has two choices. He can move to f4, maintaining the opposition, or he can move to d5, outflanking the black King. Outflanking means getting past something by moving around its side. A key point beginners should embrace is the idea that the opposition King can never move to squares controlled by their King. This means that you’ll want to use your King to control squares you want to keep the opposition King off of. This becomes a critical idea when using your King to aid in the promotion of a pawn. Now let’s see these ideas employed in an endgame situation in which both players have their Kings and a pawn each.

It’s black to move, so white has the opposition. The black King moves to d7 (1…d7) in an effort to protect his pawn and go after the white pawn on f5. However, getting the white pawn will prove difficult. It is too soon for the white King to outflank the black King so white keeps the Kings in opposition with 2. Kd5. Black moves his King to e7 (2…Ke7) to prevent white from placing his King on e6. So far, white is dictating the play in this endgame! Only now does white outflank the black King with 3. Kc6. Timing is everything in an endgame scenario such as this. The white pawn on f5 cuts off the e6 square and, combined with the white King’s control of d6 and d7, the black King cannot get onto a good square. Note that the white King is on the same rank as the back pawn, preparing to go after that pawn. In our example, black plays 3…Ke8 which merely puts off black’s demise by a few moves.

White then plays 4. Kd6, heading toward the poor black pawn. One point that should be made about pawn and King endgames is that you should always consider your opponent’s best response to your move before you make it. When white moved his King to d6, he knew that black would play 4…Kf7, trying to protect the pawn. As a beginner, you should note that this type of endgame position relies completely on the Kings. Since the pawns are locked in place, it is up to one of the Kings to free his pawn by capturing the opposition pawn. White plays 5. Kd7 and this is the critical move, placing the King’s in opposition. Since it’s now black’s turn to move, white has the opposition and, because of the position of the Kings and pawns, black is forced away. Black plays 5…Kf8 and white will win.

The game continues with 6. Ke6. White is now next to the black pawn so black tries to hold onto it with 6…Kg7 but white has anticipated black’s move and now plays 7. Ke7. The black King cannot go to g6 because of the white pawn on f5 so he is forced away from the defense of his f6 pawn, playing 7…Kg8. White will now capture the black pawn with 8. Kxf6.

It is at this point in the position that I would tell a student playing white to slow down and think very carefully about the next few moves. Experienced players might say “oh, but this is such an easy win!” The problem is that beginners often see the end result, checkmate, and become so excited that they play quickly which leads to a blunder which leads to stalemate.

Black now plays 8…Kf8. Black is hoping to somehow block the white pawn’s advance but white should fear not because white has his King in front of the pawn. When trying to promote a pawn with the aid of your King, you want your King facing your opponent’s King, in opposition. You don’t want your King behind your pawn which leads to a draw. This means that white has to think carefully about the next move. White plays 9. Ke6, outflanking black’s King. This allows white to control two key squares, e7 and f7. Black plays 9…Ke8, trying to maintain opposition. After 10. f6, black plays 10…Kf8, desperate to stop the advancing white pawn. After 11. f7, black is lost because he has to move off of the white pawn’s promotion square (f8). Black plays 11. Kg7. Here white moves his King to e7 with 12. Ke7, which protects both the white pawn and its promotion square. With nothing better to do, black plays 12…Kh7 followed by white promoting his pawn to a Queen with 13. f8=Q. Needless to say, white will win!

You should always use the ideas of King opposition and outflanking in endgame play. Always bring your King into the endgame and always take your time during this phase. Rather than give you a game to enjoy, here’s some homework: Set up five endgame positions, using Kings and pawns, with your computer or human opponent. Play through them and practice the ideas I presented above. Enjoy your homework!

Hugh Patterson

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Endgame Preparation

A student at last week’s summer chess camp asked me when he should start preparing for the endgame. He was a bit shocked when I suggested he start his endgame preparation at the start of the game, during the opening. “Isn’t a game of chess divided into three phases, with the endgame coming last?” he asked. “It certainly is,” I replied. I went on to explain that too often novice players don’t consider the endgame until they’re in it and by that time their position going into this game phase is dreadful. As you advance in your playing abilities, you’ll find that games stop ending during the middle game (or earlier) and go into a real endgame! This means you have to prepare early and the player who prepares from the start will be better off at the end of the game!

Probably the biggest endgame offense beginners make is that of pawn structure. The novice players lives in the here and now, not thinking ahead. Thinking ahead requires experience which the beginning player only gains through theory and practice. While the beginner may follow the opening principles and use central pawns to stake a claim in the board’s center, they often give up non-centralized pawns in an effort to trade material. When the endgame starts, our novice player often faces a pawn majority on one side of the board or the other. If their opponent has twice as many pawns at this point, it is likely that they’ll be able to promote one of those pawns and win the game. The first idea the beginner should embrace is to never capture material unless it improves their position!

Novice players consider pawns expendable since their relative value is the lowest of all the material and there are eight of them at the game’s start. Using simple arithmetic, the beginner sees trading a one point pawn for a three point minor piece as a good deal. In many circumstances it might be a winning exchange. However, if it weakens your position, you might reconsider such an exchange. A more experienced player might be happy to trade a minor piece for a pawn if doing so gives them a better position or substantial pawn majority going into the endgame.

We should always think about pawn majorities, having a greater number of pawns on one side of the board than our opponent has, throughout the game. At some point, minor and major pieces will be traded off leaving both players going into the endgame sometimes with only pawns and their Kings. If your opponent has three pawns on the Queen-side and you have only one, your opponent will most likely be able to promote one of those pawns into a Queen.

Be wary of isolated pawns, those who have no potential protection from their fellow pawns. Pawns are like Sparrows in that they may be small but when they work together they get things done. I watch a group of these wonderful birds in my backyard each morning and when the larger Crows show up to raid the Sparrow nests, the little Sparrows fight back as an angry mob and the Crows give up. You don’t see a lone little Sparrow going out to fight. They, like your pawns work best together. Employ pawn chains to keep you pawns safe during the opening and middle-games. Pawns can do an excellent job of protecting one another, leaving your pieces available for attacking duties.

If you have a passed pawn, send it towards its promotion square. Even if you may not be able to promote it, your opponent will have to deal with it, tying down one of his or her pieces to do so. Remember the saying “Rooks belong behind passes pawns.” If you have a Rook sitting around doing nothing on its starting rank, put it to work as a body guard for a passed pawn! Your pawns and pieces are not in the game if they’re idle. Your material must work!

Another endgame misconception beginners have is the idea that with fewer pieces on the board, a player has to do less thinking. Wrong! Just because you have fewer pieces on the board during the endgame doesn’t mean you can mentally relax, in fact, it’s just the opposite. During the endgame you have to calculate further than in the opening or middle-game. The good news is that with fewer pawns and pieces skulking around the board, calculations are a bit easier to make (but still difficult for the average player). Since you have fewer pawns and pieces going into the endgame, you cannot lose material because the smaller your army, the more disastrous the position becomes when your material is taken away. If both you and your opponent have two pawns and a King each, and suddenly you blunder away one of your pawns, your opponent now has a two to one pawn majority and that’s a winning percentage!

To think or calculate ahead in the endgame, start by considering your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Pretend you’re playing his or her side of the board. You should be doing this through the entire game. Often, you’ll see that what appeared to be a reasonable move can be easily refuted by the opposition. In doing this, you’ll see the best possible moves your opponent can make. Make a mental note of them. If you can’t find an opposition move that thwarts your candidate move, take it one step further and ask yourself If I make move “x” and my opponent responds with move “y”, what is my next move? Go through the response sequence once more. Beginners should start by trying to think through two complete game turns when calculating their endgame positions. While master level players think many, many moves ahead during the endgame, the beginner has yet to train their brains to do this. Therefore, take it slow and build up your calculation abilities.

Another bad habit beginners have when it comes to the endgame is striping their opponents of everything but the King, thinking that leading the mating attacking with an overwhelming force will easily win the game. I have seen so many junior level games end in stalemate because of this. Consider leaving your opponent with a movable piece or pawn to avoid this scenario.

Speaking of Kings, activate yours going into the endgame. While we avoid exposing our King during the opening and middle-game, he becomes a deadly fighter and defender during the endgame. Don’t let your King sit on its starting rank during the endgame. Use him to help get those pawns safely to their promotion squares! Kings must be active in the endgame!

In conclusion, you should always be thinking about the endgame, even during the opening because with fewer pawns and pieces on the board at the game’s end, every bit of material counts. Practice playing endgames with your friends by setting up a board with your Kings and a few pawns each. Then add a minor or major piece to the mix. While there are concepts and principles I didn’t mention, because you could fill a book or three with them, these basic ideas should point you in the right direction. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Unrealistic Expectations

Over the last 13 months, I’ve had the opportunity to interview people who stopped playing chess after a serious attempt on their part to study the game. The point of my interviews was to find out why they gave up on the game they once loved so much and, to see if there was anything I could do to help my students avoid such a fate. While there were a wide range of reasons sited, the overwhelming single answer was frustration because they weren’t progressing.

Of course, whenever you attempt to learn any skill, there will be bumps along the road to mastery. To succeed, you have to be able to ride over those bumps in order to arrive at your destination, in this case, playing good chess! However, the height and difficulty of those bumps in the road are more often than not, determined by the person traveling that road. We create these seemingly impassible obstacles by creating unrealistic expectations regarding our overall goal and it all boils down to becoming frustrated because we cannot meet our goal due to our approach.

One problem that creates an air of frustration is the need to learn how to do something as quickly as possible. Western society places a high premium on learning to do things quickly. Of course, I can’t fault someone for wanting to master a skill quickly. After all, if given the choice between being able to learn a skill in one month or one year, we’d all opt for the one month time line! However, chess, like music, requires a slow but steady course. You can’t buy a piano and expect to be playing like Mozart a week later. The same holds true for chess. Chess, like music, requires a careful balance of theory and practice. Like music, you can study all the theory in the world but unless you spend hours and hours actually playing, theoretical knowledge won’t get take you very far. Chess also requires practice, in the form of playing other people to hone your skills.

However, before you can find that balance between theory and practice, you need to have a long hard look at your expectations and reality. By this, I mean that our expectations are often greater than the reality they’re based in. So often, I hear beginning students say “I’m going to get my rating up to 1200 in six months time, then 1800 within the next eight months.” In their minds, they’ve created a very reasonable plan. However, reality can be a cruel mistress. With the mastery of any skill, those first steps go along quite smoothly. With chess, the beginner can make great strides very quickly. This comes about because the beginner has no knowledge at the start of their chess career so each basic concept learned can be quickly applied to their game, garnering them seemingly instant results.

In my daily classes, my beginners learn the basic opening principles. When I start with these beginners. They thrust flank pawns out onto the board, put their Knights on the rim and leave their King’s exposed. After learning the three primary opening principles, they are now opening with a central pawn move, developing their minor pieces towards the board’s center and castling their Kings. This happens quickly and they are rewarded for their efforts. They start winning a few games or at least don’t lose as quickly. They pick up a few tactical ideas and endgame principles and things are moving along quickly. Then they hit their first bump in the road. They play opponents with a bit more experience and they stop winning any games at all.

This is where frustration rears its ugly head. At the start of their studies, they gained knowledge that allowed them to see their game improve quickly. I tell my students from the start that they will make that initial rating jump quickly but it slows down after that. As they develop their skills and their rating goes up, they’re facing stronger opponents who have more playing experience. What my beginners see is that their newly acquired knowledge is no longer pushing them forward. While I now teach them further piece activation and how to transition into the middle game, they are still frustrated that progress is not coming at a faster pace.

This happens because they base their expectations on their experience, which in the case of chess, is limited because their still beginners. As you develop your skills, the knowledge you must embrace and understand becomes more complex, which means that improvement will be slower. The best approach to take is that of taking things slowly and not expecting too much. Measure progress in small increments not giant leaps and bounds. Take your time for Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a Grandmaster.

One of the root cause of chess frustration for the serious beginner is setting impossible studying schedules. The overenthusiastic beginner will think “I’ll study chess for four hours a day, seven days a week to improve quickly.” Chess requires enormous concentration and concentrating for too long can drain you, causing you to simply waste that time because you’re struggling to think. While a player with years and years of experience can study for many consecutive hours, they can do so because their brain is conditioned for it. They’ve built up their mental muscles! The beginner’s mind simply cannot concentrate for longs periods of time. Start slowly, maybe thirty minutes, four days per week. Yes, employing a lighter study schedule seems like it would take forever to raise one’s skill level. However, a beginner who attempts to study for three hours straight will find that their mind will start to wander after thirty minutes. This means they would spend two and a half hours trying to keep their concentration up. Start with short periods of concentrated study and you won’t waste time!

The beginner should also consider when and where they study. Study some place quiet and study when you’re least tired. Studying while sitting in busy train station after being up all night will get you nowhere! Quality must always come over quantity. Better to spend a week of thirty minute study sessions learning a single opening principle than trying to learn them all in one long study session. Remember the fable of the Hare (rabbit) and the Tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.

The trick here is to not have unrealistic expectations regarding your progress. Be happy with slow but steady advancement and you’ll avoid frustration. Learn one idea thoroughly and then move onto the next idea. Don’t be too critical of the speed at which you learn because we all learn at different speeds. Record all your games from the start because when you get frustrated at your lack of progress, you can play through your early games and see that you really have improved. Relax, take your time and remember, slow and steady really does win the race. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Only Fool’s Rush In

Wise men say, only fool’s rush in. While Elvis Presley was singing about love rather than chess, I think chess players of all levels can take these words to heart. After all, we’ve all launched a premature attack only to have it repelled, with the big pay off being the weakening of our position. Wise chess players never rush into an attack. However, there are times when an early attack can be beneficial. The trick is to know how to identify such an opportunity.

Beginner’s have the habit of throwing individual pieces at the opposition King with no real rhyme or reason. They end up losing material while making no real threat to the opposition. With a little experience they then move on to attacking the King with pairs of pieces with similar results. Often, this idea of a two piece assault becomes popular with the novice player because they’ve had some luck with the Scholar’s Mate. The Queen and Bishop combination then become the staple of the beginner’s early attacks.

As our beginner gains further experience, they move onto attacks against the weak f7 (for black) and f2 (for white) squares, trying to disrupt the King-side of the board. While these two squares are weak during the opening, attacking them comes at a cost that the beginner fails to see. What the beginner sees is a chance at a fast attack that may weaken the opposition’s position. However, if the word’s “chance” and “may” are used when considering an attack you may not want to take a chance because good chess is not a game of chance and the word may (as in “it may work”) should not be in a chess player’s vocabulary! The validity of an attack can be judged by what it costs you to embark on such an endeavor.

Of course, attacking is key if you hope to win a game of chess but you have to consider the cost of launching the attack. For example, many beginner’s think the idea of trading two minors, a Knight and a Bishop, for a Rook and a Pawn during the opening is an equal exchange. This might occur after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nf6, 4. 0-0…Be7 5. Ng5…0-0, 6. Nxf7 Rxf7, Bxf7…Kxf7. The player of the white pieces says, “ah ha, I’ve taken one of the black pawns that shields the castled black King and I’ve got the black King-side Rook as well. This means I’ll go into the end game with an extra Rook!”

However, what the player of the white pieces missed was the price paid for winning the pawn and Rook. What’s the price? Well, going into the endgame with two Rooks and a Queen against one Rook and Queen might have some value if both players were in the actual endgame but, they’re still in the opening. The two minor pieces white traded for the black Rook and pawn were active pieces in the opening. Minor pieces are critical in the opening and tactically important in the middle-game. Black’s Rook and pawn were inactive so white traded two active pieces for an inactive Rook and pawn. Then there’s the tempo factor! White moved the Knight three times to launch the attack. This allowed black to get ahead in development. In the end, the price paid by white was much higher than the results garnered! If you look at the final position, black has a firm grasp of the board’s center while white has nothing.

The beginner should learn to evaluate the cost of any attack in terms of game principles, only considering an attack early on if the outcome of the attack is far greater than the price paid. Trading those two minor pieces for a Rook and a pawn means that black has all four minor pieces to white’s two minor pieces. With the middle-game soon to start, black has a two to one potential tactical majority which means that black will have an advantage when it comes to developing any tactical plays. Minor pieces play a much more important role in the early phases of the game than the major pieces.

One thing I do with my beginning students is to have them keep a pencil and paper handy while playing practice games so they can create a list of pros and cons for any attack they’re planning. They write down their attacking goals and benefits in one column and the negative aspects in another. For an attack to warrant any merit, the benefits must greatly outnumber the costs incurred by launching such an attack. To be considered on their list are piece activity, central board control, King safety, tempo, potential tactics, etc.

One point, that is important for the chess teacher to keep in mind, is the thinking that leads the beginner to rush into early attacks. We become good at teaching only when we understand the point of view of our students. To simply think that a student doesn’t know any better doesn’t help the teacher to fully understand why a problem is occurring. Therefore, I ask my students a lot of questions to determine why they, in this case, launch an attack like the one shown above. As I mentioned earlier, students think that the removal of a major piece, the Rook, and one of the three pawns protecting the King gives them an advantage. It could be considered an advantage, again, if this took place towards the endgame. They also consider the idea of relative material value being absolute. To the beginner, six points of material for six points of material is an equal trade. Younger beginners don’t always understand the word ‘relative.’ To them, a Knight and Bishop are equal in value to a Rook and a pawn, period. Therefore, I explain to them that the term relative means that the value can change depending on positional aspects, such as open versus closed game, or depending on the actual phase of the game. Always ask students to explain the reasoning behind their actions on the chessboard. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to explain your reasoning in a way that makes sense to them.

Anyone who has taught junior level chess has seen the Fried Liver Attack, which is the next attacking phase most youngsters employ as they mature as players. The Fried Liver Attack, which occurs after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nf6, 4. Ng5…d5, 6. exd5…Nxd5, 7. Nxf7…Kxf7, 8. Qf3+, can prove disastrous for black if he or she doesn’t know what they’re doing. The person playing the black pieces is often a less experienced player (at junior level) which means the person playing white can deliver a crushing blow. Of course, the person employing this attack will eventually face an opponent who knows what he or she is doing!

Now, if we look at this series of moves, remembering that this is a junior level attack, we might consider this assault to be a bit more sound because the price paid in terms of game principles isn’t as steep as the previous example. White did moved the Knight three times to take down the f7 pawn and did stop the black King from castling. Of course, white should have developed a new piece with each move. However, white does have the black King in a bit of a positional pickle. Moreover, white has options to continue building up the attack. While I wouldn’t embark on this attack, it provides junior players with an opportunity to hone their attacking skills. There are numerous ways to continue the Fried Liver from this position and you can look them up. The point I want to make is that this attack has a bit more bite to it because the cost of employing it is less than the price paid in our first example.

If you wish to launch an early attack, add up the cost in terms of principled play and see if that cost outweighs the benefits. Losing the game is a price you don’t want to have to pay. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Walter Browne

As a musician, I’m sadly aware of the short lives many of us lead due to the rather precarious lifestyle many of us have led. When I traded in my guitar for the chessboard, I somehow felt as if my chess playing and teaching cohorts would have a longer shelf life. Sadly, I was reminded last week that this isn’t always true. The passing of Grandmaster Walter Browne on June 24th hit me hard. The six time U.S. Chess Champion served as an inspiration to both myself and my students. Fortunately, his games live on and provide insightful lessons in improvement for chess players of all levels.

I knew his name from books and chess magazines but didn’t start using his games in my chess classes until I watched an Andrew Martin DVD that featured a game between Browne and Miguel Quinteros. The game, shown below, has Browne playing the white pieces. What stands out about this game is the elegant simplicity that Browne employs against Quinteros. While Quinteros breaks some key opening principles, Browne correctly applies those opening principles to develop a superior position early on.

What makes this game such a valuable teaching tool is its clarity regarding the use of game principles. One of the challenges of teaching chess is presenting your students with games that clearly demonstrate the concepts you’re trying to teach. A game in which principles are applied in too subtle or abstract a way can go over the heads of beginners. However, this game clearly shows correct use of the opening principles.

Browne starts with the simple 1. e4, gaining a foothold in the center while allowing his King-side Bishop and Queen access to the board. Quinteros plays 1…c5, the Sicilian Defense. Browne plays 2. Nf3, a move that develops an important minor piece towards the center of the board. Nothing fancy, just the application of the opening principles. Quinteros bolsters his c pawn with 2…d6.

Move three, 3. Bb5+ brings up a few important ideas for the beginner. This first of which is the quality of this check. If the black c pawn had still been on its starting square (c7), this check would have been silly since the black c pawn could simply block the check, forcing the Bishop to retreat at a cost of tempo. However, the c pawn cannot do this so black is forced to use either the Queen-side Knight or Bishop to block this check. Quinteros uses his Bishop, 3…Bd7, to block and the Bishops are traded off with 4. Bxd7…Qxd7. It’s important for the beginner to understand that this is a fairly even trade because both players are trading Bishops that control the same color squares so neither player will have a Bishop advantage (such as trading a Knight for a Bishop, leaving one player with the Bishop pair). Browne plays 5.c4 next and this can be difficult for the beginner to understand. I believe the idea here is to gain control of the d5 square as a possible outpost for the Queen-side Knight later on. This move follows the basic principle of controlling the center.

Quinteros now makes a fundamental mistake by bringing his Queen out early with 5…Qg4. However, this kind of move strikes fear into the heart of the beginning player! The beginner sees that the black Queen is forking both the pawn at e4 and the pawn at g2. If the pawn on e4 is captured, the white King is in check which could lead to an early trade of Queens. On the other hand, if the pawn on g2 is captured, then the h1 Rook will have to move and white will not be able to castle. No problem for Browne, he simply castles and allows the black Queen to pick off the e4 pawn. This brings up a critical point for beginners, don’t capture material unless it helps your position. Beginners love to capture material and don’t realize that doing so for the sole sake of capturing often does more harm than good. After white plays 6. 0-0, black grabs the pawn with 6…Qxe4. At this point, I ask my students to come up with a few possible moves for white before we continue the game. 7. Re1 and 7. d3 are often suggested.

It’s a good idea to ask students for move suggestions to get an idea of their understanding of the opening principles. Both the suggested moves show that students are understanding the folly of early Queen deployment in that they push the black Queen back. When then see the actual game move, 7. d4, they’re not sure what to make of it. This move opens things up for the white pieces. Browne isn’t afraid of giving up another pawn in exchange for attacking possibilities!

Quinteros plays 7…cxd4 and my beginning students expect the Knight on f3 to capture back. However, Browne now plays 8. Re1 gaining time on the black Queen while putting the Rook on an active square. Of course the Queen has to move, 8…Qc6 and only now does Browne take the pawn on d4 with 9. Nxd4. Why capture now? Because doing so allows the Knight to attack the black Queen while positioning itself on a strong square! Guess who is on the move again? Quinteros plays 9…Qxc4 grabbing another pawn while ignoring sound opening development. This game exemplifies the power of development! White’s pieces are coming out in force while black is forced to shuffle the Queen around sadly. Again, grabbing material isn’t a good idea. Browne plays 10. Na3, attacking the Queen yet again.

This last move brings up a point regarding opening principles. We first learn that pieces should be developed towards the center of the board during the opening. However, there are times when moving a piece to the edge of the board can override the principle of central development. This is an example of that. The Knight on a3 attacks the Queen, forcing it to move once again. The black Queen grovels up to c8 (10…Qc8) and now the party really starts for white!

Browne plays 11. Bf4, centralizing his remaining Bishop. I tell my students to keep an eye on the e7 pawn because it is pinning to the King due to the Rook on e1. Black plays 11…Qd7. I hope the poor black Queen has been wearing comfortable running shoes during her jog around the board! Move twelve, 12. Nab5, puts a second attacker on the d6 pawn. Black plays 12…e5. My beginning students think, wow black is forking the white Knight and Bishop. I remind them that the e pawn is still pinned to the black King so the fork’s a bust. Next, Browne makes a move that beginner’s find curious.

Beginners are taught to make fair trades, a minor piece for a minor piece, or trades that garner them material such as a pawn for a minor piece. However, the game’s next move, 13. Bxe5 surprises the novice player. The point here, is that when you’re ahead in development, you can trade down to build up an attack (and set a nasty trap). Quinteros captures back with 13…dxe5 and POW, Browne plays 14. Rxe5+! I suspect Quinteros was really feeling the heat at this point. Rather than being able to actively develop his minor pieces, Quinteros has to use one of them to block the check, 14…Be7. Now comes the trap!

Browne plays 15. Rd5. I stop the game and ask my students if this is a free piece for black. They quickly look at the position and concur that it is. Wrong answer! If black takes the Rook with the Queen, white has the crushing Nc7+, forking King, Queen and Rook (on a8). You have to think ahead in chess! Fortunately, Quinteros saw this and played, 15…Qc8. However, even avoiding the trap, black’s game is utterly lost in this position.

Browne, who was know to get into time trouble on occasion might have done so here only because he had so many great moves to choose from at this point. This is what comes from good development and applying the principles. He chose, 16. Nf5, threatening the e7 Bishop. Quinteros decided to tuck his King away with 16…Kf8. Browne takes the Bishop with 17. Ne7 and black captures back with the King, 17…Kxe7. After 18. Re5+, Quinteros throws in the towel as they say! Please note that Quinteros was a wonderful Grandmaster and I mean no offense in my commentary here, but not employing sound game principles can leave you in a bad way.

A very instructive game for beginners as well as an entertaining one. I can only imagine Walter Browne, with that trademark look on his face, glaring at the black pieces during this game. Browne is probably my favorite American player and will always be a staple of my teaching program. Wherever you are Walter, I hope all your poker hands are Royal Flushes! Thank you for all you’ve given us!

Hugh Patterson

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The King’s Gambit

There was a time, not so long ago, when chess was played in a daring and romantic way. During the 19th Century, Gambits were King and swashbuckling sacrifices were the order of the day! One opening, the King’s Gambit, was commonly played and led to some of the most exciting chess games of this period. I teach it to my students because many good lessons can be found within this opening. So let’s travel back in time, to a world in which chess players didn’t depend on computers to aid them in their positional decision making. This was a era when a game of chess was truly a battle of two minds, a form of mental Kung Fu if you will!

For those of you who are new to the game, let me start by defining a gambit. When employing a gambit, one player (usually white) will offer a pawn (or even two) during the opening in exchange for a positional advantage. This means that the player giving up the pawn will not get material back. Instead, our Gambiteer (as gambit players are called) will gain an advantage in position, such as the ability to get all of his or her minor pieces into the game quickly due to a lack of pawns blocking in those pieces. An advantage in position during the game’s opening gives the player with the advantage greater opportunities such as the ability to launch a strong attack or gain greater control of the board. More opportunities for one player means fewer opportunities for the other player. Greater opportunities lead to winning games!

The King’s Gambit starts with the moves 1. e4…e5 followed by 2. f4. White’s second move is the gambit. Why would White simply offer up the f pawn, one of the three pawns that form a wall in front of the King when castling short (King-side Castling)? Well, if black plays 2…exf4, then white has two pawns on central files, the d and e file, while black has only has one pawn on a central file, the d pawn. White therefore has a two to one pawn majority in the center. This would give white an advantage when it comes to controlling the center during the opening. However, if white plays 3. d4, Black would provide a nasty response in the form of 3…Qh4+, a check that has some weight to it because of the black pawn on f4! This consequence of an early d pawn push helps to teach students to build up a position slowly and carefully!

Beginners who are taught to gain control of the board’s center quickly during the opening, often prematurely push the white d pawn to d4, thinking that two pawns on central squares are better than one pawn on a central square. Combine this with the discovered attack by the c1 Bishop on the black pawn on f4 and you can see why the novice player might opt for this often disastrous move. The correct move for beginners is 3.Nf3. Moving the Knight to f3 stops the black Queen from checking on h4, keeps her from loitering on g5 and puts pressure on d4 and e5. Once the white Knight is placed on f3, the Black pawn on f4 is locked in place and a later pawn push can be made, d2-d4. The immediate lesson here is that you have to build up a position carefully, considering your opponent’s best response. Black has been known to play 3…g5, using the g pawn to protect the f4 pawn. Already, black’s King-side pawn structure is messy. Here, further development by white is in order, such as 4.Bc4. Black might counter with 4…g4, attacking the Knight on f3. At this point, I’ll ask my students to suggest two possible moves. One move that is suggested more often than not is 5.Ne5 which moves the Knight out of danger and allows it to attack the black g4 pawn. It seems reasonable, the Knight going from being attacked by a pawn to attacking that very same pawn. When I suggest castling, many students will cry out in horror that I’m about to give up my well placed Knight! The problem with 5.Ne5 is 5…Qh4+, which checks the white King. Let’s not forget that the black Queen has a few useful pawns to aid her in this attack! Beginners have the bad habit of not considering what their opponent’s best response is to the move they’re about to make. This example of black’s Queen check on h4 (after 5.Ne5) helps reinforce the idea of considering how your opponent might respond to your potential move. To help teach this idea regarding your opponent’s best response, only after they understand the basic moves of the King’s Gambit, I have them switch sides back and forth during this opening. So, after move two for black, 2…exf4, the student playing the white pieces trades places with the student playing the black pieces. They continue to do so throughout the next ten moves.

This brings us to another key point of the lesson, giving up material in exchange for a strong attack. To the beginner, it appears as if castling King-side loses the Knight on f3 because they’re not looking ahead. They see a minor piece about to be captured by a lowly pawn. Beginners tend only to see only a single move ahead. By this, I mean that they see the g4 pawn attacking the Knight and, if the Knight doesn’t move, it will be captured. They’re not seeing that if (after white castles) the black pawn on g4 takes the Knight (5…gxf3), the white Queen can capture that pawn and suddenly, the Bishop on c4, the Rook on f1 and the Queen on f3 are all aimed at Black’s weak f7 square. Of course, there is still a black pawn on f4 standing in the way of checkmate but that little pawn is undefended! This is a very clear example of giving up material in exchange for attacking chances. White has a strong potential attack with only a pawn standing in the way of checkmate.

Of course, in the above example, it’s black to move, so the black Queen can move to f6 to stop the potential checkmate. However, black is on the defensive and has to play carefully to avoid checkmate. There are a few moves that black can make to stop white’s mating attempt, so I’ll ask my students to find them.

I have young students who interpret my enthusiasm for this swashbuckling opening as a guaranteed way to win the game as white. This means that they think playing black against the King’s Gambit means a painful loss. We have to remember that these are very young players who are new to the game and see things in a very black and white manner (pun intended). To cure them of this way of thinking, the first full King’s Gambit game I show is one in which Boris Spassky, as black, pummels his opponent who plays the gambit against him. I show them this game, which I’ve posted below, to warn them of the dangers of thinking a specific opening is a sure thing. It helps to demonstrate the folly of not using sound principles, such as building up a position before launching an attack. It also goes to show that employing a gambit doesn’t guarantee success. Of course, playing a gambit against the likes of Boris Spassky, a tactical genius, may not be the brightest of ideas. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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True Freedom

Novice chess players often consider a piece to have complete freedom if it has some mobility. Mobility is a piece’s ability to move to or control an optimal number of squares. Obviously, a piece does have some form of freedom if it can control a large number of squares from its position on the board. The piece is free to move to those squares if need be. However, this freedom is only partial if the piece in question is tied down to the defense of another piece (or pawn). True freedom means not being tied down to a defensive role but rather, being able to move around without weakening the position.

To determine how much true freedom a piece has, we have to ask ourselves two questions. First, how many squares does that piece control? The greater the number, the more freedom it has. We examine this freedom in terms of mobility. A Bishop that can move to ten squares has greater mobility than a Bishop that can only move to two squares. The next question, a critical one that beginners often fail to ask, is whether or not the piece in question is defending another piece or pawn? If a piece has to play a defensive role, it isn’t truly free because moving it might allow the opposition to capture the previously defended piece. This could lead to a weakened position and eventually a lost game.

The Bishop that controls ten squares has far less freedom if it’s tied down defending another piece that is helping to maintain a position’s strength. If our Bishop moves, the defended piece might no longer be defended which means it can be captured. If it’s captured the position might be severely weakened to the point of no return. On the other hand, our Bishop that has far less mobility (two squares) can freely move to either of those squares without incurring a weakness on the position. Eventually, it can become more active. This is where pawns come into play so to speak!

One of the reasons pawns make great defenders for our pieces is because they have the lowest relative value so most players won’t trade a minor piece for a pawn unless doing so strengthens their position. By strengthening the position, I mean that the player trading down (minor piece for pawn) will either open up the position for an attack or deliver checkmate. Using pawns for defense duties allows your pieces true freedom since they’re not tied down to the defense of their fellow pieces. True freedom means having the ability to move around with no strings attached.

Of course, we have to assign some of our pieces defensive duties. You can’t get through a game of chess without a bit of defensive play. Even the most aggressive players find themselves in positions that require defensive measures. However, we need to carefully consider how we set up our defenses. This is where good pawn play comes into the mix. My students will often ask me why one player in a game made, what looks like to the beginner, a random pawn move. In actuality, that seemingly strange looking pawn move is made to defend a specific square from opposition occupation. The pawn defends a specific square so a piece doesn’t have to. Defending a square with pawn will make your opponent think twice before trading down. Again, employing the pawn as a defender leaves your pieces truly free. Mobility is unhampered!

We should always think of our pieces in terms of being passive and active. Passive pieces have little mobility, are tied down to defensive duties or both. Active pieces have unbridled mobility, free of any defensive duties. As we play through the opening, middle and endgame, we should always consider these two ideas when contemplating a move.

Gaining true freedom for our pieces is a strategic goal. When I teach strategic ideas, I teach them as long term goals, goals that we achieve over time. Beginners often think that once they get a piece to an active square, one that gives that piece decent mobility, the piece’s position cannot be improved upon. They fail to continue that piece’s development. A piece’s ability to increase in activity or mobility can always be improved upon. Just because you move your four minor pieces to active squares during the opening doesn’t mean they’re on their most active squares. From move to move, the game’s position changes and with those positional changes come opportunities to further increase a piece’s activity. However, if you suddenly have to employ that piece in the defense of another, you’re decreasing it’s activity.

If you have to suddenly use an active piece for the defense of another piece, see if you can move a pawn to take over that piece’s guard duties. Pieces that are truly free can become fierce attackers when the opportunity arises. As I mentioned earlier, positions change from one move to the next. A seemingly strong position can quickly fall apart. The player with the more mobile pieces and well placed pawns has a much greater chance of equalizing the suddenly weakened position than the player whose pieces are tied down to defensive duties. Strategy means always thinking ahead. Strategic thinking means playing your opening to set up your middle game and playing your middle game with an eye towards the endgame.

When you consider a move that gives a piece freedom, ask yourself if that piece is truly free or is it actually tied down. Pieces that are truly free have unhampered mobility which allows them to go on the offensive (attacking the opposition) rather than the defensive, babysitting fellow pieces. Make moves that develop pieces actively or increase mobility and always look to increase activity with subsequent moves. Strong activity and true freedom are created over time, not instantly. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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