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).

Yet Another Debate

Recently, a well known Grandmaster interviewed an extremely well know Grandmaster on camera. In an effort to keep Nigel and myself out of court (people get downright uppity when it comes to potential slander), we’ll refer to the Grandmaster doing the interview as GM X and the Grandmaster being interviewed as GM Y (sorry their aliases sound like nasty food additives from Company Z). Immediately after this interview took place, a nasty verbal internet riot was started by chess players from around the world. Chess forums and chat rooms were flooded with commentary about the incident which I’ll now describe.

GM X said to GM Y, “ You seem to have had some hiccups earlier today and you didn’t have really smooth performances (overall) and this game wasn’t that smooth either. It looked a little bit unclear. What’s your feeling overall as the game transpired?” GM Y replied, “OK, what do you want me to do…What do you want from me?” GM Y seemed to fixate on his usually perfect play being called less than smooth. GM Y became defensive. At one point I thought that dueling pistols would appear on the screen. GM Y then said GM X was trying to “belittle the whole thing.” Needless to say it was all down hill from that point on, with GM Y walking away in disgust. Of course, the line was drawn within the global chess community and two armies were formed to fight this verbal war, those who support GM Y and those who support GM X. Of course, thanks to technology, scores of people linked to the internet lined up to take their turn screaming from the bully pulpit, oops, I mean social media sites. Why am I even addressing this subject? Because I have intimate knowledge of this type of situation, being in the same position as GM Y, not as a chess player but as a musician. Let me explain.

As one does if one wants to become a Grandmaster, musicians spend years and years perfecting their craft, in my case guitar playing. While I always feel as if I’m in need of constant improvement, never understanding why people think I play so well, many people feel differently. According to those who know a bit about guitar playing, I’m pretty darn good. However, I still work at it constantly. A number of years ago, we played a series of shows that were close to flawless (and I find fault in everything I do musically). Each show was better than the last. Then we did the second to last show and things didn’t go so well. By this, I mean that the general audience didn’t notice anything wrong with my playing. We received three standing ovations (well, it was a club so everyone was already standing up). People sang along. Everyone appeared to have a great time, except me. I notice mistakes that no one else seems to hear. Unfortunately, one other individual heard those mistakes and that person was about to interview me. He was a dreaded music critic from a well know music magazine. The first question he asked was “Wow, what happened tonight? Seriously, that was not your best work on the guitar.” The old adage ‘those who do, do it and those who don’t write about it” came to mind. However, at that moment, I had two choices regarding the direction I would go regarding my answer. How I answered that question would either absolutely work for me or absolutely work against me. There’s an art to answering questions when being interviewed. Do it right and people love you even more. Do it wrong and you look like a sore loser, bad sport or worse.

I understand, from firsthand knowledge, how upsetting it can be to dedicate your life to something and have your skills questioned (even remotely) due to a single bad moment within a lifetime of success. You feel like saying to the interviewer “hey, when you’re at my level, then talk to me about it. Otherwise, shut up.” However, we can never achieve total and absolute perfection in our chosen craft. By this, I mean you cannot play either a guitar or a game of chess, without hitting a wrong note or making a bad move at some point during your career. We’re only human after all. However, when artists reach the highest level of their art, we expect them to excel and break even greater boundaries. When you’re at the top of your chosen field, people either expect perfection and nothing less from you or they’re gunning for you, waiting to see you fall. I know many musicians who feel this way. There’s a great deal of pressure when you’re great at something. People have an unhealthy fascination with the flaws that come with being human. Watching the self destruction of others is the true opiate of the masses.

I feel for GM Y but I don’t think he handled himself correctly. When I faced that moment with the music critic interviewing me I chose the right path and said “you’re absolutely right. Sometimes things fall apart. However, tonight’s show makes me want to work harder so it doesn’t happen again. Thank you for your honesty.” (I still wanted to give him a swift boot to his bottom side and really didn’t feel the need to slave away any further when it came to my playing) Of course, my interviewer wanted me to have a meltdown which would have been great for his interview. I didn’t give it to him, defused a potentially ugly situation and that was that. I think GM Y should have done something similar. He had a short, bad run in an otherwise near perfect career. Yet, because he behaved the way in which he did, tongues wagged across the world wide web. Of course, people often become very mean spirited when they can hide behind the shadowy curtain of the internet. I say to those who enjoyed GM Y’s antics, “can you play a better game of chess than GM Y? Have you dedicated your entire life to this game let alone anything else, spending your youth unbelievably focused?”

Now let’s get to GM X. If you know that someone can be temperamental, why not approach the dialogue with a bit more tack? While I know the questions were designed to spice the interview up, adding a little drama and tension to it, it was comparable to using dynamite to get rid of a small stain on your sofa. GM X is an extremely nice guy who does a lot of great things for the chess community. However, interviewing people requires a great deal of finesse. If you’ve watched top notch interviewers, you’ve seen how they can get answers to extremely tough questions through well thought out and well timed questions. GM Y literally started his interview with what could be conceived as a hostile question. Tact will get you a lot further in both interviews and life. GM X should have put himself in GM Y’s shoes while he was contemplating his questions.

As for the endless sea of amateur online chess commentators (not everyone who commented on the interview, just the trolls) whose ratings are closer to their own shoe size rather than that of a titled player, you might put yourself in GM Y’s shoes as well. Honestly ask yourself if you could withstand the pressure one is under when one is considered the best at something. You might also ask yourself if you could have played a better game. Until you’ve walked a mile in GM Y’s shoes, you don’t know how it feels. For those of you that enjoyed his becoming slightly unglued, I assume you’ve never, ever had a meltdown leaving you unglued. Whose right and whose wrong? Nobody and everybody. We’re human and we make mistakes. I’m sure GM X would rephrase his questions had he known the end result. Does GM Y’s behavior really change anything? No! At the end of the day GM Y is still a better chess player than any of us mere mortals. However, he does need to learn how to handle those tough questions with tact and even humor. Had he simply said “you’re right. It’s wasn’t my finest moment and I’ll be sure to determine why this happened and learn from it,” there would be no news to cause the great unwashed wagging tongues of the chess world to go into verbal overdrive. No news is good news I say. Here’s a game to get your tongues wagging until next week! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Chess: Art Versus Science

While chess has been called both an art and a science, I can’t help but wonder if it’s losing its claim as an art. I was born into a generation who didn’t have cellphones, personal computers, tablets let alone the internet. To a typical teenager, this seems akin to having been born into the dark ages. My generation were explorers of our world which was our backyard and the surrounding neighborhood. When not in school, we were outside exploring the territory around us. Today, kids seem perfectly happy to sit with their faces glued to the screen of whatever technology they have at hand. Rather than feel the warm sands of a beach on their feet or feel the sun’s last glimmer of heat of their face as it sets over the mountains, they look at pictures of the beach and mountains instead. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and use it in my chess teaching and coaching. However, I know that should I want to experience the beach or mountains, I actually have to go there. What do any of my rantings as an old man have to do with chess, art and science? Let me tell you a cautionary tale I tell all of my students.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, the game of chess was vastly different than the form of the game we play today. While the rules and principles were the same as today, the style in which the game was played was different. It was a daring game played by those who truly wished to venture into the realm of the unexplored. My students will shrug at this last statement until the hear the rest of what I have to say. I always instruct my students to be seated before I make a statement that might drive some of them into having repeated nightmares for the rest of their lives. I loudly announce, “there once was a time in which there were no cellphones, tablets, personal computers or the internet.” Trust me when I say that at least a few kids gasp and recoil in horror.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, if you wanted to learn the game of chess you did so through a family member or friend. Chess was a right of passage in some families, with the game being proudly handed down from father to son or daughter. Once, a game solely played by nobility and the rich, it became a game played by intellectuals and Bohemians (those smart tortured guys who sat around Paris Coffee Houses trying to eek out a living as philosophers or poets. No wonder they were tortured). It eventually found its way into the average household. In those days, the game was handed down from generation to generation the way in which traditions were once passed down around ancient campfires. To learn the game of chess you had to first find someone who knew the rules. This is a very romantic notion, one that I quite fancy, finding another human being to teach you something (as opposed to living life online)!

The reason learning the game required such human interaction, something in short supply today thanks to social media, was because there were very few accessible books on the game. People traveled by horse or train, so getting to a major metropolitan city to acquire a chess book might take three or four days. Because chess was handed down from generation to generation, person to person, combined with a lack of written information about the game, there was a vast expense of unexplored positional territory. Most people played simple e pawn openings because that’s what they were taught. Think of the huge (and I mean huge) number of possible positions within a single game of chess and combine that with the fact that most people played one type of opening and you can see that there was a great deal to explore in the way of opening theory, middle-game play, etc.

Players in the mid 1800’s, which was the romantic era of the game, played in a swashbuckling style. They played gambits and wildly sacrificed material. They took chances, seeing if making a move no one else considered might lead to a new way in which to gain an advantage. These players were truly explorers, a trait lacking in many of today’s younger players. Art on the chessboard was created greatly during this period as well as into the twentieth century. In some regards, art was more was more important to the players of this period. Let’s fast forward to today’s modern young player.

Today’s serious chess player has a plethora of training tools and options thanks to technology. When I first learned the game, we relied heavily on books since that’s all that was available (guys who play guitar in punk bands cannot afford real chess lessons). Thanks to technology, younger players have training partners and coaches in the form of software programs such as Houdini and Komodo. These are extremely sophisticated chess playing programs that can give players deep analysis regarding a single move they’re considering making. Technological advances in training software have allowed the world to produce the youngest Grandmasters in history (of course, it also requires natural talent). Technology and chess! Sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? Yes and no.

Technological advances have made a near exacting science out of the game we love so much. Yes, chess playing software has removed your chance of making bad moves but at a cost. Young up and coming, soon to be titled players, rely on their chess programs to tell them the merits of a move based on analysis of the best responses to that candidate move by the opposition, in this case a program with a 3000 plus chess rating. However, when you solely depend on your software program to decide whether a move is wrong or right, might you be missing out on the chance to explore uncharted territory on the chessboard.

Obviously, you don’t want to go on a wild chess exploration while playing for a national championship. However, what’s so wrong about exploring when not playing in tournaments? Some of you would answer that these software programs have explored all there is to explore. After all, if there was something new out there, wouldn’t the computer program have found it? To that I say this: Humans, using technology, have the entire planet mapped out. We have a map for every square inch of our home planet (and other planets as well). However, why is it that we discover new species nearly every single day? Think about that for a moment. If you think of the huge number of possible positions that can be reached within a single game of chess, a number with more zeros attached to it than you can comfortably count, doesn’t it reason that there’s more territory to explore? Might not we create some amazing art on the chessboard just by doing so?

By simply sticking to what our software programs tell us to do, we’re dulling a game that once sparkled with possibility to a flat monotone hue. There has to be a middle ground. Much of the great music created throughout history was flawed by a wrong note played, a mismatched tempo or even imperfections in the equipment. Glorious mistakes from which high art was born. Again, I’m not saying you should purposely makes moves that lead to disaster. However, a little positional chaos can turn an otherwise boring game into an artistic masterpiece. Chaos drives art. Chaos forces you to look at things in a different way. Many of today’s young players only listen to their chess software’s suggestions, never wondering what would happen if they simply said “no Houdini, I’m going to try something else.” If Houdini suddenly wrote “You need to jump off a bridge now” in the analysis window, I suspect a few overzealous players might ponder this idea for a moment or two.

When we try new things, we usual fail, often many times. However, there are those individuals who keep trying and just when it seems that they wasted their time, the solution to their problem reveals itself. I blame chess software for creating a rising number of drawn games at professional levels. I constantly hear about promoters who want to bring professional chess to the masses. It’s great idea but you have to make the game exciting to people with a marginal interest in chess. Drawn game after drawn game isn’t going to do it. We need another Paul Morphy whose games were exciting because he often played dangerously. People like excitement. I would like to see some young player throw chess theory upside down. I don’t know exactly how but with so many possible positions within a single game, human’s might have missed something. Here’s one of those games that is crazy but exciting. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Three Good Moves

When we first start playing chess, we often make the first move we see, good, bad or indifferent (usually the move falls under the heading of bad when you first start you chess career). Of course, we’re still learning the basics of the game so this is a natural part of the learning process. More astute beginners might stare at the board for a few minutes, examine the position from both sides and only then making a move. Thinking they’ve spent enough time to have found a good move, they’re often shocked when that supposedly well thought out move turns out to be a bad choice. Chess is about decision making and there’s an art or skill to this process. The first step in the decision making process is taking the time to properly make a good decision.

Last week at our Yearly Academic Chess Summer Camp, I noticed that our beginner’s group was playing extremely fast as if it were a game of Blitz. I looked on in horror as hanging pieces (those that can be captured free of charge) were not only there for the taking but remained there for many moves. Had these beginners taken more time to consider their moves, they might have seen and captured those hanging pieces. However, there’s more to making good moves than simply taking your time. You have to employ a logical system that allows you to find good moves and that’s what this article examines.

While it’s true that patience is an absolutely crucial skill in chess, simply staring at the board for a long time, with your thoughts scattered about, does a player little good. You have to employ a logical system with which to examine the position at hand in order to determine the best move. This is the toughest challenge beginner’s face when learning the game. Therefore, we have to assess the position in a sequential, logical order, starting with threats.

Threats, either yours or your opponents, are the first order of business. You must identify threats. Too often, beginners will blindly consider their potential threats which blinds them to those of their opponent. Therefore, every time your opponent makes a move, look for a threat by that opposition pawn or piece. This means looking at every square that pawn or piece is attacking and determining whether or not one of your pawns or pieces is on one of those squares under attack. If one of your pawns or pieces is under attack, determine whether or not to move that pawn or piece or defend it. In assessing this idea of moving or defending, the beginner should first determine the value of the attacking piece versus the value of the piece being attacked. If a three point Knight is attacking a five point Rook, then the Rook should be moved. If the pieces are of equal value, ask yourself, can I move the attacked piece to a more active square? If you can, then your opponent may be doing you a positional favor! You never want to make moves that help your opponent and if your opponent does so, take advantage of them. Good moves serve to strengthen your position.

If the pieces are of equal value and you cannot move the attacked piece to a more active square, then defend it. Again, consider the value of potential defenders. Obviously, if you defend a piece with a pawn then your opponent may reconsider capturing it, especially if doing so does nothing to help their position. However, make sure to look at the position to see if capturing your piece will create an opening in your defenses that allows for a strong opposition attack. If so, you may have to build up your defenses around the attacked piece and potential positional opening. Don’t worry my novice chess playing friends, most beginner’s games will not have such calculated attacks, so you probably will not face this issue until later in your chess careers. However, be aware that more experienced players will sacrifice material to open up the position for an attack.

Now look for potential threats you can create. With beginner’s games, those threats often revolve around hanging pieces. Look to see if any of your opponent’s pawns or pieces are hanging. If there are no hanging pawns or pieces, see if there are any threats you can make. When you first start playing you don’t think in terms of threats. Threats come in varying degrees of severity, a potential checkmate being the strongest threat. We’ve already looked for hanging pieces so next we see if there are any threats you can make that force your opponent to respond with a move he or she doesn’t want to make. What kind of move is this? One that slows down their development or one that weakens their position. If you can further activate your pawns and pieces while threatening your opponent’s material, while weakening their position or forcing them to make moves they don’t want to make, you traveling along the correct road to mastery! Good threats include attacking a piece of greater value with a piece of lesser value, moves that check the opposition King and force him to move (prior to Castling) or moves that set up tactical plays (forks, pins, skewers, etc). Then there’s the counter threat.

If your opponent threatens one of your pieces, see if you can make a bigger threat. If you opponent attacks one of your minor pieces with a pawn, look to see if you can threaten an opposition piece of greater value with either a pawn or a piece of lesser value. You opponent will have to deal with the bigger threat, yours, which may lead to them having to make a positional concession which could give you an advantage!

Always look to further activate your pawns and pieces, especially during the early phases of the game. Before starting to play for Middle-game exchanges, develop your pawns and pieces to their most active squares, especially those that allow pieces to control more of the board. As I stated in earlier articles, the more control of the board you have (especially on your opponent’s side of the board), the greater your options. The greater your options, the fewer options your opponent has. This leads to winning games.

Once we’ve done this, we must look for at least three good moves. I tell my students that the difference between a good move and a great move is this: A good move is just that, a good move. A great move is one that wins the game (or creates an overwhelming advantage). To find that great move, you have to consider a few good candidate moves (moves we’re thinking about making). Just jumping on the first move you see might cause you to miss that great move. Therefore, you should try to think of at least three good moves. When you think of each move, make a mental note to yourself as to why that move is good. Have sound/good reasons for that move! If you can’t come up with a good reason for the move in question then it’s not a good move! Then compare the three moves and decide which of them is the best. If you do this every time you’re considering a move, you’ll win more games than you lose (eventually). Speaking of moves, here’s a game to enjoy until next week that has more than a few good moves in it. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Chess and Jazz

Because I spend the majority of my time teaching chess, I often forget that I’m a musician. I play guitar as well as other instruments. How good am I? Well, my professional guitar playing peers consider me an excellent guitarist, although I always think I need improvement. I have a fairly large fan base for the kind of music I play and have been sited by bands such as Social Distortion and Green Day as being influential regarding their own playing. I mention this because the Grammy’s, those folks that do that yearly award show, just cut a check to pay for the last of my medical expenses. A few months ago, their Board (Music Cares) met and decided (for the second time) that I was worthy of help. I qualified because I am a recording artist who has sold records. Why am I mentioning all this? Because, upon getting the news, I felt guilty about not playing and recording in a while and decided to go back to playing music professionally (as long as it doesn’t get in the way with my chess teaching which is a stipulation in my current record contract). Enter Jazz guitar.

I honestly became bored with playing rock and roll, not because I don’t like it but because it wasn’t technically challenging. I decided to do a Jazz band that focused on Jazz from 1959. I asked a fellow guitar player who the toughest Jazz guitarist to emulate was and he said Wes Montgomery. That was who I’d study. I found some charts of Montgomery’s songs and within ten minutes of starting to learn them I knew I was in over my head. That made me smile because it was the type of challenge I live for. What does this have to do with chess?

You cannot get better at anything unless you take on a challenge that is above your skill set. For example, playing stronger opponents will lead to improvement. Learning Jazz guitar leads when you’ve mainly played rock and roll is like learning a complicated opening. You sit there staring at a sequence of notes or chess moves feeling as if you have no clue as to what’s really going on. However, if you stick with it and work hard, it eventually becomes clear. You slowly master it. You only master it when you put in a great deal of time. Push your boundaries and venture outside of your comfort zone.

One of the aspects of Jazz guitar I really enjoy is the seemingly endless choice of guitar solos. Rock tends to be Blues based so lead guitar work can (but not always) be limited. On the other hand, Jazz, because of it’s broader range of rhythmic drum beats and early prolific experimentation, allows for a greater range of soloing. In chess, you want to explore the many openings and playing styles available before settling on one. In short experiment! Openings are like a specific genre of music. Some have greater complexity than others which requires working harder to master them. Some provide greater options in regards to the direction your game goes in. Some lead to open games while others lead to closed games. Which you chose depends on your personality and how much effort you want to put into theory and study. Again, challenge yourself, aim for the stars and if you fall short of your goal, you’ll still be light years ahead of where you would have been had you simply set a small overall goal. There’s nothing wrong with practical goals that can be easily reached but you should try setting tougher goals that force you to work harder than you ever have. I like openings that give me options. Of course, if you’re a beginner you want to learn the basics first. When first learning to play guitar, you start with basic chords and simple leads. That doesn’t mean you can’t dream of playing like Hendrix! However, you have to build up your playing skills before you arrive at that destination.

Music is an art and so is chess, at least it should be! I’m of the opinion that computer software and technology in general have taken some of the art out of the game. Let me give you an example of how technology has taken a lot of the art out of music:

When I was coming up in the music world, you had to learn to play your instrument if you stood a chance of getting anywhere. While I literally learned to play while standing on a stage in front of people, an opportunity only afforded me thanks to punk rock, you were expected to get better if you wanted to survive. Back then, we didn’t have guitar effects that would essentially make us sound better even if we weren’t good musicians. Today, you can purchase an inexpensive set of effects that make you sound like a technical genius. You can also use effects to make your singing voice sound pitch perfect. What’s so bad about this technology? Some of the best recordings are flawed recordings in which wrong notes and bad tones actually make the musical composition better. Art is created by those who take chances, go against the societal grain and sometimes hit the wrong, right note! With chess, so many younger players strictly adhere to what their chess engines and databases tell them to do. Play through the games of chess’s romantic era, the 1800’s, and you’ll see dangerous and daring art. The same holds true with players like Tal and Spassky, who created art on the chessboard. If Tal played guitar he would have been a Jazz innovator.

Of course, you don’t want to play chess haphazardly, but you do want to experiment a bit. Try new things out, take a chance or two. You might find you like the outcome and even if you don’t, you can at least say you tried. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a student say “well, Houdini says I should make this move,” I’d be writing this article from my villa somewhere on an island I owned!

Jazz, or any music as long as it inspires you, is good to have playing in the background when you play chess. I know some people need silence to play but I find that music can push me further on the chessboard. I have a play list of songs, mostly Jazz from 1959, that inspires me, pushes me one step further in my playing. Well, there you have it, a little music and a little chess. Often, you can find the answers you seek regarding one endeavor in another seemingly unrelated subject. Of course, music and chess are very much related since a few brilliant chess players have also bee professional musicians. I know many musicians who play a lot of chess when on tour. They may be rock and roll animals when on stage but become quiet studious players when they sit down at the chessboard. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. This guy could really rock the piano, classically speaking!

Hugh Patterson

Opening Principles Part Seven: Middle-Game Preparation

When beginners learn and begin to master the opening principles they often think, after the last basic principle has been applied, that it’s time to start attacking. While attacking is the crucial factor when it comes to winning games, launching into one prematurely can and usually does, lead to a weakened position from which one can never fully recover. If you play through the games of master level players, you’ll see that they only attack when the time is right. When’s the right time? Read on and you’ll find out.

Obviously, if your opponent provides you with an opportunity to launch a successful attack early on you should consider doing so. When I play beginning students, they provide ample opportunity for me to launch into attacks that greatly alter the balance of the game in my favor. Beginner’s games tend to have a lot of weak positions that allow for early attacks. I teach my beginning students to avoid launching early early attacks, those during the opening, and instead build up their position. Of course, I teach them how to spot a potential early attack and what they can do to stop it. After all, I’d be a dreadful chess teacher if I didn’t teach defensive methods.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, when you play through the games of the masters you’ll see that they methodically build up their position, only attacking when the position warrants it? What do I mean by this? Typically, a beginner who takes the opening principles to heart will control the center with a pawn or two, develop three or four of their minor pieces (Knights and Bishops), Castle their King to safety and connect their Rooks (moving their Queen up a rank). Then they’ll start looking for possible attacks. They might spot a potential attack but that attack will depend on their opponent making a specific move or two that allows the attack to take place. This is wishful thinking chess. Our beginner, in this example, is counting on their opponent doing something specific in terms of a move. This specific move is what the beginner wants not what their opponent wants. Our beginner is seeing the position only in terms of what opposition moves work for that beginner’s plan. Their opponent is most likely going to make a move that counters our beginner’s plan which leaves the beginner in a jam!

The mistake our beginner is making is launching an attack that will only succeed if their opponent makes essentially bad moves. This is unrealistic since your opponent also wants to win the game and has plans of his or her own! When a plan solely depends on a move or two being made by the opposition and those moves aren’t made, then the attack falls apart. How do we create a position that leads to a successful attack? By increasing the number of pieces that can partake in an attack so we have greater attacking options! How do we do that?

We continue the development of pawns and pieces. Just because you’ve controlled the center with a pawn or two, developed your minor pieces, Castling your King and connected your Rooks, doesn’t mean you’re ready for the Middle-game where attacks generally start. There’s further development to be had! Of course, you want to bring a new piece into the game during each opening move but you can, after having achieved this goal, bring those pieces to more active squares. What are active squares? Those squares that allow your pawns and pieces to control opposition squares (the squares on your opponent’s side of the board). For example, a White Knight on c3 might consider moving the d5, only if it’s safe, in order to attack more squares on the opposition’s side of the board. However, before you start considering moving pieces for a second time, take a look at your Rooks.

Beginner’s tend to neglect their Rooks. A beginner playing the White pieces might Castling King-side but leave their Rook dormant on the f1 square. While that Rook is more active than it was prior to Castling (when it was trapped on the h1 square), moving it to e1 would allow it to access the e file which is especially important if Black hasn’t Castled yet. Then there’s the other Rook, the Rook on a1 in the case of King-side Castling (by White). Once the Rooks are connected, they have the ability to work along their starting rank, acting as bodyguards for pawns you might want to push up (or down in the case of Black) the board later on. Pawns can be further developed. While beginner’s learn not to make flank pawn moves during the opening, if there’s a Black Bishop on c8, a White Knight onf3 and White Queen on d1, White might want to move the h pawn from h2 to h3, preventing a potential relative pin. However, it’s more important to develop your minor pieces first before making such a pawn move.

Sometimes we’re forced to move a minor piece to a square that is less active during the start of the opening because the opposition controls the square we initially wanted to move to. Can we develop the piece in question to a better square? If we can we should, especially before launching an attack. The more pieces you can employ in an attack, the better your attack will be. Think of it this way, if you have five attackers and you opponent has three defenders, their chances of warding off your attack are far less than if the number of attackers versus defenders was equal. Greater force (when attacking) is a key idea. However, to have a greater attacking force you first have to activate your pieces.

Slowly developing or moving your pawns and pieces to active squares gives you greater attacking options. Namely, you have more potential ways to attack. If your pieces are centrally located, controlling a large number of squares on your opponent’s side of the board, you’ll be able to launch attacks from more locations that your opponent can defend. You opponent might build up a good defense on one part of the board but, because you have centrally located pieces, you can attack elsewhere. Having options within your plan is crucial. The problem with most beginner’s plans is that they’re based on a specific move being made by their opponent. Having options also means being flexible. Thus, if your opponent makes a move you didn’t see coming, you’ll be able to address that opposition plan accordingly because you have actively developed your pieces. You can’t anticipate every move your opponent might make which means you could be attacked. However, if your pawns and pieces are actively placed, you have a much better chance of surviving.

When you look at your position and think there’s nothing there, look again! You’ll probably find a pawn or piece that can be further activated or developed. When you have greater control of the board, which only happens when your pieces are more actively positioned than your opponent’s pieces, you opponent may be forced to make a move he or she doesn’t want to make. That can lead to a better position for you and a winning game. The watchwords for the day are pawn and piece activity. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Opening Principles Part Six: Managing Principles

We’ve looked at what to during the opening and what not to do during the opening. To review, what we should do is control the board’s center from the start with a pawn, develop our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) to active squares (those that control the center) and Castle our King to safety. What we shouldn’t do is make too many pawn moves, move the same piece more than once (unless necessary) and bring out our Queen early. These opening principles have been around for a long, long time and have been proven to work. They’re simple enough to learn and their logic is somewhat self explanatory. However, applying these principles accurately during the opening, the first ten to fifteen moves (typically, although some opening variations are longer), can be difficult for the beginner. Applying the opening principles requires knowing when to make a specific principled move. It’s all about exact timing. Take Castling for example.

We know that many beginner’s games are lost due to the novice player not Castling his or her King to safety. Having a safe King means that you can get on with the business of attacking your opponent’s King. Beginner’s are taught that they need to get their King Castled as soon as possible. As a chess teacher and coach, I tell my beginning students this, but I do so to get them into the habit of Castling early in their chess careers. As they improve, I then teach them to hold off on Castling, if their King is safe, so they can further develop their pawns and pieces during the opening. Knowing an opening principle, such as Castling your King to safety, is important, but knowing just when to Castle is even more important. During the opening phase of the game, gaining control of the board, especially the central squares, is the most important task. If given the choice between Castling when your King is safe or furthering the development of your pawns and pieces, development should be your choice.

Another important decision to make during the opening is which minor pieces to develop (move) first. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have the same relative value, three points each. We know the opening principles tell us to bring our minor pieces out during the opening. However, which minor pieces should we develop first? The beginning player we consider both equal in terms of development. However, if given the choice between developing a Knight or a Bishop, you may want to consider the Knight. Why? Knights have the ability to jump over pawns and pieces, be they your own or your opponent’s. This means that you don’t have to move a pawn prior to bringing a Knight into the game. After 1. e4…e5, developing the King-side Knight to f3 (2. Nf3) is most often played because it allows the Knight to develop actively with tempo. Tempo is time in chess terms and a Knight on f3 attacks Black’s e5 pawn, forcing Black to defend that pawn. While you could move the King-side Bishop to c4, which would attack a central square as well as Black’s weak f7 pawn, the Knight move to f3 is more forcing, in that it causes Black to react by defending the e5 pawn. Therefore, you should consider the order in which you develop pieces during the opening.

Another consideration is cooperation between your pawns and pieces. Good chess player’s pawns and pieces work together. They support one another rather than acting independently of one another. If you have a White pawn on e4 and Black moves a Knight to f6 to attack it, how do you defend it? This brings up the idea of not blocking in your pawns and pieces. If you have your King-side Bishop on it’s starting square (f1) and you defend the e4 pawn by moving the d pawn to d3, you’re blocking in the Bishop. This means that Bishop doesn’t have immediate access to key squares that help to control the center. A better move (for beginners) would be developing the Queen-side Knight from b1 to c3. From it’s c3 perch, the Knight not only defends the e4 pawn but it puts pressure on the d5 square. Remember, you want to control central squares on your opponent’s side of the board. Beginner’s sometimes defend the e4 pawn by playing their King-side Bishop to d3 which blocks in the d2 pawn as well as the Bishop on c1. Always consider moves that don’t block your pieces in.

Play for piece activation during the opening rather than fast attacks. The problem with fast attacks in the hands of the novice player is that they more often than not fall apart which leads to a losing game. When developing your pawns and pieces during the opening, always try to get them on their most active squares. A typical opening for the beginner is the Italian Opening, which starts off 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4. These first three moves for White adhere to the opening principles. If Black plays 3. Nf6, you have a few choices as what to do as White on move four. You could Castle (4. 0-0). I mentioned that you should put off Castling if your King is safe, which the White King is at this point. However, Castling activates your King-side Rook which can than be moved to e1 should the f6 Knight capture the e4 pawn. Black would have to react to this move in a defensive manner. You could also consider 4. Nc3 developing your Queen-side Knight which defends the e4 pawn and puts pressure on d5. If Black played 3…Bc5 you could play c3 preparing for d4 on a subsequent move, ignoring the potential attack on e4, if Black plays 4…Nf6, and preparing to attack Black’s center. Remember if the f6 Knight takes on the e4 pawn, you can always move the Rook to e1. These moves have logical reasons behind them. They’re following the opening principles but also are part of a plan. While the opening principles provide a plan that covers the length of the opening, your opponent is going to do everything possible to disrupt your plan.

This means you have to be flexible with your opening moves (and opening plan). Make moves that do more than one thing when possible. In our above example, when the Black Knight moved to f6 and White countered by moving his Queen-side Knight to c3, the move did two things. It defended the attacked White pawn and put pressure on d5. This is why pieces are stronger when centrally located. The more squares a piece controls, the greater your options. If you have more options than your opponent, you’ll have a better game. The greater a piece’s options, the greater it’s ability to be flexible if your plans suddenly change do to an unexpected opposition move. Plans change during a chess game and when your opponent makes a move that changes your plan, you have to be able to adjust and take a new course of action.

Rook activation is very important. Just because your Rooks usually become active later in the game, doesn’t mean they can’t be useful early on. Beginner’s often activate one Rook via Casting but leave the other Rook sitting in the corner on it’s starting square. Connect your Rooks by moving the Queen up one Rank which allows both Rooks to move along their starting rank. However, to connect your Rooks, you must activate your minor pieces first so they don’t restrict their (Rooks) movement. Rooks are excellent bodyguards that can guard pawns you want to move across the board later in the game.

In closing, it comes down to activity, coordination and knowing who to bring into the opening and when to bring them into the game. I suggest playing through some openings and, after each move, asking yourself why that move was made and what opening principle does it adhere to. Studying games is a sure fire way to improve your game. Also don’t play mechanically. For example, we don’t like to move a piece twice during the opening, instead bringing a new piece into the game with each move. However, if you’re about to lose a Knight and the choice is treating this principle as a hard rule and losing the Knight or bending the principle and moving the Knight out of danger, move the Knight. Principles are not rules of the game but good ideas. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Opening Principles Part Five

So far, we’ve learned about developing a central pawn (or two) at the start of the game, developing our minor pieces and Castling. I was going write the next article in this series about combining these three principles, using the Italian Opening as an example. However, I think we should discuss a few things you don’t want to do before moving on to walking through a typical beginner’s opening (also played by the greats), the Italian Opening. The article examples of what not to do are mistakes typically made by beginners. Rather than simply criticize things you shouldn’t do, we’ll look at these mistakes from the beginner’s point of view in an effort to understand why they’re made. When you examine both points of view, you often walk away with a better understanding of the issue at hand. If you’ve made or make these mistakes, this article should help to explain why they don’t work. We’ll start out by discussing the moving of pawns during the opening, specifically what you shouldn’t do in regards to pawns.

We know that we have to move at least a few pawns during the opening in order to get our pieces into the game. Ideally, White would like to be able to safely move the e and d pawns to e4 and d4, while Black would like to move the e and d pawns to e5 and d5. These moves give each player an opportunity to quickly develop their Bishops. Unfortunately, we seldom get the chance to create a classical two pawn center because our opponent also wants to control the board’s center and will make every effort to crush your opening plan. The ruining of plans in chess is what makes the game exciting!

Pawns are great for controlling the center because of their low relative value. The pieces, which are worth substantially more will normally not move to a square controlled by a pawn because that pawn would capture it. Thus controlling key squares with pawns seems like a reasonable opening goal. Beginner’s will take this idea too literally and move pawn after pawn, neglecting the minor pieces, while the experienced player will move a minimum number of pawns, favoring the development of their minor pieces who can control far greater territory on the board. I completely understand the beginner’s point of view. Use your pawns to control the board because the pieces, both major and minor, will keep away from those squares controlled by one’s pawns. However, pawns can only control one or two squares whereas pieces have far greater control. Moving too many pawns , especially those closest to your King, can leave an opening that can pave the way for an opposition mating attack. Did I mention that the more pawns you have in play, the more pieces get tied down to their defense? Then there’s pawn structure. Most beginners haven’t mastered the art of proper pawn structure which means their pawns are often in a state of disarray. Pawn moves are absolutely committal since pawns can only move forward. They can’t run away (move backwards) when the going gets tough. It’s best to keep your initial pawn moves to a minimum and get your minor pieces into play early on.

Don’t move the same piece twice during the opening unless you have to. If you’re rushing to an appointment, you go from point A to point B as quickly as possibly. This means you’re not going to take a side trip to point R then over to point Y. If you want to move the King-side Bishop to c4, do it directly. Don’t move it to e2 and then on the following move, to c4.

Beginner’s have a tendency to gang up on the f7 pawn for Black and the f2 pawn for White. Again, I understand the beginner’s mindset. Gang up on their f7 pawn (for example) with a Bishop on c4 and a Knight on g5 and you can either check the Black King, costing it the right to Castle, or fork Black’s Rook and Queen, winning material. The beginner walks away with an advantage (so they think). There’s only one problem. The Knight, in the case of the fork, has to move three times to get to f7. While the Bishop in the case of the check, has to move twice. Meanwhile, Black gets a chance to bring a new piece into the game with each move. This means that Black can get ahead in development. Development is the name of the game when it comes to the opening. Bring a new piece into the action with each move.

Then there’s the desperado piece. To my beginning friends, I understand your thinking: Bring one piece into the game and see how many pieces you can subsequently capture with it. Then bring out another piece all by it’s lonesome self and repeat the process. It sounds reasonable to the beginner but your opponent will be busy developing his or her pieces, gaining control of the board’s center while avoiding your lone piece. You’ll end up checkmated in no time! The more force you bring into the game, the easier it is for you to launch a meaningful attack. Pawns and pieces work best when they work together. Again, bring a new piece into the game (towards the center) with each move during the opening.

Then there’s the Queen. Everyone who plays chess has been intoxicated by the Queen’s power. Beginner’s look at the Queen as a nuclear weapon that can be brought out, aimed at the enemy, fired across the center of the board and detonated at some point. Unfortunately, the Queen doesn’t work like a bomb. In chess, when you bring the Queen out early, she gets chased around the board as the opposition develops his or her pieces. Sometimes she gets trapped and you lose her. I know she’s powerful, combining the moving ability of the Rook and Bishop. However, chess is more like old fashioned warfare in which you gradually introduce more powerful weapons as the battle continues. Yes, it’s tempting to try and end the game quickly but it’s simply too dangerous to bring her into the game early. Do yourself a favor, save her later on.

Lastly, don’t make passive moves. Some beginners make passive moves employing the logic that their opponent will have to bring the battle to them. They plant their pawns and pieces on their side of the board, often piling up around their King hoping their wall of pieces will protect his majesty. Unfortunately, experienced players will know just how to break down your safe walls and take out your King. They’ll go as far as sacrificing material to rip your safety net apart. If you make moves that control central squares your opponent needs to us in order to attack, the opposition’s attacking chances will be greatly reduced. Make moves during the opening that control the center.

Try not to do the above mentioned things and your game will improve. There’s nothing wrong with being defensive but you have to know when to be offensive. Players who know the perfect balance of both win games. Next week, we’ll put it all together. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy (I suspect one of these players never brought his Queen out early again)!

Hugh Patterson

Opening Principles Part Four: Castling

A safe King is a happy King and this is nowhere more apparent than in the game of chess. If your King is constantly being attacked, you have to defend him which means you’re unable to attack you opponent. Attackers win games while defenders are left holding down the fort! Beginner’s games are most often lost because the novice player doesn’t make his King safe. The way you make your King safe is by Castling. Castling is crucial but when to Castle is extremely important as well. Timing is everything in chess.

Castling is very simple. However, there are some important rules to Castling that we’ll go over first. Castling is the only time you get to move two pieces at the same time. You can Castle either King-side (towards the right for White or towards the left for Black) or Queen-side (towards the left for White or towards the right for Black). When Castling King-side, the King moves from the e file to the g file, remaining on it’s starting rank, while the Rook moves from the h file to the f file. When Castling Queen-side, the King moves from the e file to the c file, while the Rook moves from the a file to the d file, both pieces remaining on their starting ranks. You move the King first and then the Rook (not the other way around) Now for the rules:

The King and Rook, on the side you’re Castling on cannot move prior to Castling. If you move the King prior to Castling, you give up the right to Castle on either side. If you move one Rook prior to Castling, you give up the right to Castle on the side of the board the Rook moved on. If you move both Rooks before Castling then you give up the right to Castle, period. This is why it is crucial not to move either of these two pieces until after Castling.

You can’t Castle until the pieces between the King and Rook have moved off of their starting Squares. Remember, only the Knight can jump over pawns and pieces. All the other pieces can only move when there is space for them to do so. This is why it is important to move a central pawn towards the center early on. Playing 1. e4 allows the King-side Bishop room to get out onto the board which facilitates Castling sooner. On the King-side, you have to move the Knight and Bishop prior to Castling and on the Queen-side, you have to move the Knight, Bishop and Queen. Many people Castle King-side because you have one less piece to move.

This next one is important: You can never Castle through or into check. This makes perfect sense since protecting the King is the name of the game! Thus, if an opposition pawn or piece attacks a square the King either moves through and will end up on after Castling, you cannot Castle until that pawn or piece is dealt with.

Castling does two things. It provides a safe haven for your King and it gets one of the Rooks that would otherwise be stuck in the corner into the game. There’s something you need to consider when Castling and that’s pawn structure. Ideally you don’t want to move the pawns that will be in front of your King before you Castle because they create a wall in front of his majesty. For example, when Castling King-side, you want to keep pawns on the f2, g2 and h2 (f7, g7 and h7 for Black) squares because they can work together to stop potential attacks. If you move them prior to Castling, you’ll leave openings that opposition pieces can exploit. You’ll also want to keep a Knight on f3 for White or f6 for Black because the Knight can work with the King to protect the h pawn as well as keep the opposition Queen off the g and h files. When Castling, don’t Castle if doing so lines your King up with a swarm of opposition pieces. If the opposition has amassed a large force on your King-side, consider Castling Queen-side. Never Castle into a potential attack.

When to Castle: The history of chess is littered with the corpses of games lost due to not castling. Beginner’s are taught to Castle early on, yet in many master level games we see Castling occurring much later. Why is this? Because the master level player knows when to Castle. During the opening phase of the game, both players are developing their pawns and pieces to active squares, building up their control of the center and preparing for future attacks. It comes down to King safety. If your King is safe you can put Castling off in favor of active development. However, you need to take a good hard look at the opposition’s pieces, especially those nearest to your King. Are they able to deliver a successful attack? If there are two attacking pieces, do you have enough defenders. If the King hasn’t yet Castled and he’s a defender, you’ll lose your right to Castle should the King have to get into the action. This would be a time to Castle, perhaps on the other side of the attack or on the side of the attack, only if you have enough defenders. You want to have one more defender than your opponent has attackers. Remember, if you actively develop all your pieces right away (but carefully), you’ll have the option to Castle on either side of the board! Better to have the ability to Castle sooner than later which is why we try to bring a new piece into the game with each move during the opening. Note that you can move your Queen up one square or rank and it doesn’t count as bringing your Queen out early. Bringing your Queen out early can be deadly for the player who dares to exploit her power early on (during the opening).

You should always Castle if you want a safe King. If your King is safe, you have one less thing to worry about. You can get on with the business of building up an attack. If your opponent’s King is not Castled, you have a target. Beginners should avoid sacrificing pieces in order to force the opposition King to capture that piece before Castling, giving up the right to Castle. Many beginners playing White will exchange their c4 Bishop for the f7 pawn in order to bring the Black King out onto the board (after Kxf7). Sacrificing pieces is a skill that take time to develop because it is usually part of a combination of moves and beginners are not ready to think that far ahead. Build up your attacks rather than squander valuable pieces. Next week we’ll combine opening development with Castling. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!

Hugh Patterson

Opening Principles Part Three: Working Together

In the first two articles in this series, we talked about pawns and minor pieces, specifically, what to do with them at the start of the game. The opening, the first ten to fifteen moves, is the foundation you build the rest of your game upon. Build that foundation right and you’ll set yourself up for a good middle-game, meaning you’ll be able to launch successful attacks which leads to a winning game. Build it wrong and you’ll more than likely be punished and lose the game. We know we should initially control the center with a pawn or two and then bring our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) out to active squares, those that also add to central square control. However, there’s another key idea we must embrace and that’s coordinating our pawns and minor pieces.

Our pawns and pieces must work together the way in which a successful sports team works together. This means coordination between all members of the team. One team member can’t win a game by himself and if everyone on the team is working against one another, chaos ensues (as well as a big loss). Coordination is a skill beginners must develop if they wish to improve and win games. While our first two opening principles, controlling the board’s center with a pawn or two and developing the minor pieces towards the center, seem easy enough to comprehend, there’s a bit more to it. Again, pawns and pieces must work together.

We know that control of the board’s center is your primary goal during the opening. Step one is moving a pawn or two to control one of those central squares (an opposition central square). Step two is bringing out the minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops to add additional support to your centralized pawns as well as further centralized control. Now what?

Let’s start by looking at the Italian Opening (for White), an opening that all beginners should consider learning first. I suggest this as a first opening because the opening principles are clearing seen and learned when playing it. We’ll look at the first three moves. White starts with 1. e4 which opens up diagonals for both the Queen and the King-side Bishop. Just because it opens a pathway for the Queen to enter the game doesn’t mean you should bring her out right away. You have better pieces to bring into the game. When Black plays 1…e5, White follows with 2. Nf3 and Black defends the e5 pawn with 2…Nc6. White’s third move, 3. Bc4, puts the Bishop on a diagonal that cuts through the center and attacks the weak f7 pawn (weak because it’s only defended by the Black King). There are other squares upon which the Bishop can move to such as e2, d3 or b5 ( Bb5 being the Ruy Lopez opening which is a bit advanced for the absolute beginner). Moving the Bishop to e2 is rather passive and Blacks in the Queen. Moving the Bishop to d3 blocks in the d2 pawn and prevents the dark squared Bishop on c1 from coming out along the c1-h6 diagonal. You should never make moves during the opening that block in your pawns and pieces (within reason). Moving the Bishop to c4 seems to be the best choice here (for the beginner) and is the move that defines this opening. Let’s say that Black plays 3…Nf6. Now what do we do?

Principled play tells us that we should continue with the development of our pawns and minor pieces. When in doubt as to what to do, consider a move that adheres to the opening principles regarding the development of your pawns and pieces.

You should always try to find three potential moves before simply committing to one move. As the old chess adage goes, when you find a good move, look for a better one! We could make the move 4. d3 which allows the d pawn to protect the e4 pawn. While this appears to make sense since the pawns value is one while the Knight’s is three (meaning Black won’t trade Knight for pawn), try to think of a better move. How about 4. Nc3? The reason 4. Nc3 is better than the pawn push to d3 (remember, this article is for beginners first learning opening principles) is that the Knight on c3 is defending the attacked pawn and also attacking the d5 square. We want to control as much of the center as possible before our opponent does. When your opponent makes a move, look to see if any of your pawns or pieces are being attacked. It a pawn or piece is attacked and it has no defender, add one! The other move to consider would be 4. 0-0, Castling on the King-side (we’ll get into Castling next week). Castling is important but if your King is not under attack, hold off and continue development. Black play 4, Be7, Now What?

Now we can consider 5. d3. This move bolsters the e4 pawn and gives the Bishop on c1 a diagonal to patrol. Notice that the Bishop on c4 is outside of White’s pawn chain. Had White played 3. d3, our King-side Bishop would have been trapped. This is what I mean by piece coordination and not blocking in your pawns and pieces! The few moves shown above are to serve as a starting point for understanding opening principles and piece coordination.. Of course, there are many ways in which both White and Black can play but beginners should start by just simply getting their pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the center of the board. As you get better, you’ll play more advanced openings and their variation. For now remember, you have to learn to walk before you can run. Next week we’ll look at Castling. It’s simple to learn but there’s more to it than you think. Here’s a game to enjoy until then.

Hugh Patterson

Opening Principles: Part Two

Last week, we discussed the importance of controlling the center of the board with a pawn move or two, giving the greatest consideration to 1. e4. As I mentioned. We don’t want to make too many pawn moves during the opening, opting instead to introduce our minor pieces quickly. For any beginners reading this, the minor pieces are the Knights and Bishops while the major pieces are the Rooks and Queen, Both types of minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have a relative value of three points each. We use the word “relative” because the value of these two very different pieces can fluctuate based on the position at hand (on the chessboard). If the board is wide open, meaning there are plenty of free squares void of pawns and pieces, Bishops can control a great deal of territory, being able to attack long distances across the board. If the board is clogged with pawns and pieces, our Bishops are limited in their mobility so the Knight, who can jump over pawns and pieces rules the roost. Thus, When the board is littered with pawns and pieces (belonging to both players), the Bishop has limited abilities so the Knight has greater relative value. Bishops rule open positions or games while Knights lord over closed positions or games.

The Knight and Bishop are like night and day in that both are key parts of a complete cycle. Night follows day and day follows night, both tied together in an endless cycle. However, night and day each has unique qualities or attributes that distinguishes one from the other. In chess, both the Knight and Bishop are considered minor pieces and are closed tied to one another when it comes to the opening, middle and endgames. However, the way in which each moves is absolutely different, one being designed for close combat fighting while the other more like a long distance sniper. Knowing which one to use for a specific positional situation is crucial to one’s chess success. Before we discuss this last idea we first, as beginners, need to know how to employ both pieces during the opening phase of the game, the first ten to fifteen moves. Remember, the opening builds the foundation for the rest of your game. Fail during the opening and it’s not likely that you’ll even get into a proper middle-game!

There’s an old chess adage that states “Knights before Bishops” and while it’s not a rock hard rule, there are good reasons for developing (moving) your Knights before your Bishop. In the first article in this series, I mentioned that we have to move some of our pawns out onto the board in order to give our pieces mobility. Getting your Bishops into the game requires moving at least two pawns, otherwise, our powerful Bishops will be stuck on their starting squares, inactive, and you don’t want to leave pieces inactive. The Knights, on the other hand, have the ability to jump over pawns and pieces, be they yours or your opponent’s pawns or pieces. This means they have immediate access to the board. The Knight’s ability to jump over any material (pawns and pieces) in their way makes them an extremely valuable weapon, especially when the board is clogged with pawns and pieces. You should note that their ability to jump means you cannot block an attack by a Knight. This is valuable because it reduces the way in which you deal with an attack by one. When attacked, you often have the choice of moving the attacked piece, blocking the attack or capturing the attacker. That’s potentially three choices. I say potentially because you don’t often have the choice of all three methods of dealing with an attacker. Removing one of those methods, blocking an attack, can thus severely limit your choices!

Another consideration regarding the power of the Knight is the way in which it moves. All the pieces move in a linear manner, straight lines along the ranks, files and diagonals. The Knight moves in an “L” shape which makes it slightly more difficult for the novice player to follow. Therefore, beginners and even more experienced players sometimes miss a Knight’s attack because of its peculiar movement. However, you should always keep in mind that this “L” shaped movement can make it slow going when it comes to the Knight attacking a square directly next to it. Now let’s talk about where the Knight should go during the opening.

We know from the first article in this series that we want to control the board’s center (especially those central squares on our opponent’s side of the board) during the opening. Once we employ a pawn or two (don’t make too many pawn moves at the game’s start), it’s time to bring in the minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops. The key point to remember about Knights is that they can enter the game without moving a pawn. In the last article, I suggested that beginners commanding the White pieces start off with 1. e4 (1…e5 for Black). Now, as White, we want to bring a minor piece into the game and no other piece is better suited (for the beginner) that the King-side Knight. The Knight has a choice of three squares, e2, f3 and h3. While 2. Ne2 (the Alapin Opening) does adhere to the opening principles by controlling one of the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5), it blocks in the White Queen and White’s light squared or King-side Bishop. Don’t block in your pieces when possible because doing so means you’ll have to unblock them which comes at a cost of tempo or time and time is of the essence during the opening phase of the game. Playing 2. Nh3 is an absolute stinker of a second move. Not only does it not control the center but a Knight on the rim or edge of the board controls half as many squares as it would when placed on a more centralized square. This leaves 2. Nf3 which is developing with tempo. Tempo? In chess tempo means time and Black will have to expend the extra time to defend the Black pawn on e5 that the Knight on f3 is now attacking! Moving the Knight to f3 also has some bonuses. Not only does it attack the Black pawn on e5 but it also controls the d4 square as well as the g5 and h4 squares. What’s so important about g5 and h4? Those are two Squares Black’s Queen might take up residency on in an effort to launch an early King-side attack. It also adds a defender to the h2 pawn and brings White a move closer to castling on the King-side. In short, 2. Nf3 does many things at once and if every move you made during a game did more than one thing, you’d be winning more games than you lost!

Black’s best response, at least for beginners is 2…Nc6. This move protects the e5 pawn as well as putting pressure on the d4 square. Remember, when you’re commanding the Black pieces, you’re a move behind so you should aim to equalize the position, keeping things balanced rather than trying to launch a premature attack.

After developing you’re first Knight, you may want to consider either developing your remaining Knight with a move like 3. Nc3 (for White) or 3…Nf6 (for Black). Developing both Knights allows you to control all four of the central squares. Place Knights on c3, f3 (for White), c6 and f6 (for Black) and note the squares they control. Remember, Knights can jump over pawns and pieces so they can control the center very quickly, without having to move any pawns. The opening phase of the game is a race to see who gains control of the center first. The player that does gain control of the center first will usually have the advantage because the opposition doesn’t have much in the way of counter play since you control key squares they need to place their pawns and pieces on. Centralized control is the name of the game when it comes to the opening.

Now let’s look at those deadly sharp shooting snipers, the Bishops. The Knight, because of his ability to jump over any pawn or piece on the board, is an expert in close combat. However, when the board is wide open (plenty of empty squares ), the Bishop is King, so to speak! The Bishop, unlike the Knight who has to get up close and personal with his target, can attack an opposition piece from the comfort of his own starting square. However, bringing your Bishops into the game requires moving the e and d pawns (or b and g pawns), so their immediate entry onto the board is hampered until some pawns are moved.

The best places for the Bishops (at least for the beginner) are c4 and f4 for White and c5 and f5 for Black. A Bishop moved from f1 to c4 as it’s first move into the game, controls more squares than anywhere else it’s moved to along that diagonal. Remember, the more of the board you control the less of the board your opponent controls. From the c4 square it cuts through the board’s center squares and aims itself at the weak f7 pawn. For Black, the c5 squares has the same effect. Sometimes, you don’t have the option of placing a Bishop on the c or f files because there may be opposition pawns controlling those squares. Beginners are often tempted to use their Bishops to pin opposition Knights to either the King or Queen. While it seems like a good idea, the pin can easily be broken or the Bishop pushed away by pawns. On occasion, a player will ignore the pin and let you capture their Queen. When you do, they deliver a nasty attack that leads to mate. Therefore, when looking for a Bishop move (other than c4 or c5), I suggest making a non committal move, such as placing a Bishop on the e or d files (for White, e2 or d2 and for Black e6, e7 or d7) where it can move to either side of the board quickly if needed for an attack. Good chess players build up their position and the activity of their pieces before launching attacks.

Next week, we’re going to put our pawns and minor pieces together in an opening and see how they work together, as well as discussing castling. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy until then!

Hugh Patterson