Avoiding Opening Traps

A fellow coach came up to me during a tournament my student’s were playing in recently and said “Hugh, you better watch that team you’re guys are about to face. They specialize in opening traps and win a great deal of their games because of it.” My reply, “I don’t teach my students to use opening traps to win games.” My fellow coach looked at me sadly and said, “well, best of luck to you.” I smiled and walked away. What I didn’t tell him was that while I don’t teach my students to use opening traps to win games, I do teach them how to avoid traps and, when faced with opening traps, how to shut their opponent’s position down so quickly that the opposition will wish they never tried to employ their traps in the first place. Junior chess is overflowing with young players who (due to what I consider to be bad coaching) try to win their games early on, relying heavily on tricks and traps to give them the advantage. Therefore, any junior player will have to know about tricks and traps to avoid getting themselves into real trouble during the opening. Does this mean young players have to employ tricks and traps to survive? Absolutely not.

As I mentioned earlier, opening tricks and traps are a mainstay of junior chess. The level and degree of sophistication of these traps increases with the junior player’s age. Scholar’s Mate, for example, is the first opening trap young players learn. Why not, since it allows you to checkmate your opponent in four moves. I’ve seen countless tournament games won using Scholar’s Mate by the youngest members of the junior tournament circuit. The problem with this four move checkmate is that it requires your opponent to make a specific set of bad moves for it to succeed. If the person you’re playing against spots the potential attack, they can develop their pawns and pieces correctly while pushing the attacking Queen back. Below, we see the mate but also some simple developmental moves can thwart White’s mating attempt. This example brings up an important point.

Setting any opening trick or trap up requires that you make moves that go against sound opening principles. Since the opening phase of the game is a race to see who gains control of the board’s center first, making moves that don’t aim to reach that goal allow your opponent reach his or her goal before you do. Since the opening is the foundation upon which the rest of the game is built, setting up a trap early on can work against you when that trap fails. Setting traps costs time or tempo you cannot afford to lose.

I teach my students how to defend against opening tricks and traps. We approach it from a defensive viewpoint. Teaching this way does a number of important things. First of all, it teaches students to see the warning signs that a trap is being set. With Scholar’s Mate, the warning sign is that the Queen is being brought out early and is aimed towards the weakest square on the board, f7 (f2 for White). Sneakier players will often bring their light squared Bishop out to c4 which also serves as a warning sign since we usually develop our King-side Knight before our King-side Bishop. The point here is that warning signs are given that alert us to the potential trap.

The second point my method introduces is that principled play during the opening, trumps a trick or trap every time. You have to set up the trap which means doing things you shouldn’t do during the opening, such as bringing the Queen out early or moving the same pieces twice with no valid reason for doing so. A great lesson can be learned here about how important it is to not fall behind in development or time. If your opponent has to move the same piece two times while you move two different pieces once, such as two minor pieces towards the board’s center, you’re gaining time while your opponent is losing time.

Lastly, my students see just how fragile opening traps are, especially when they don’t work. Of course, this doesn’t mean my students are forbidden from ever employing a trap. However, if they employ a trap, they know the consequences that arise from doing so.

Knowing a trap is coming is the basis of a good defense because you can prepare for that trap. The Costage Trap is a simple opening trap I’ve described before in previous articles. However, we’ll look at it again because it demonstrates one of those opposition moves that should set the alarm bells ringing in your head when you see the key move.

In the above example, the first two moves for both players are standard fare as far as opening play is concerned. Both players fight for control of the center with a pawn on move one, 1. e4…e5. White plays 2. Nf3, attacking the e5 pawn and black defends with 2…Nc6. White then develops his King-side Bishop with 3. Bc4, which attacks the center and Black’s weak f7 pawn. Now Black makes a move that should warn White that something is amiss, 3…Nd4. This is where the unsuspecting beginner gets into trouble. They see a hanging pawn on e5. The opening principles tell us we should continue with development, such as castling or bringing another minor piece into the game, maybe moving the Queen-side Knight to c3. However the beginner grabs the pawn on e5 with 4. Nxe5 and now Black springs the trap. Remember, these are traps employed by young players so the traps themselves are not very sophisticated. When Black plays 4…Qg5, White is suddenly faced with losing the Knight on e5 or the g2 pawn. Many younger players will try to hang onto the Knight by taking the f7 pawn with 5. Nxf7, forking the Black Queen and King-side Rook. However, Black is playing to win so he simply takes the g2 pawn with 5…Qxg2 and White’s King-side Rook runs to f1 (6. Rf1). White’s days are numbered after Black plays 6…Qxe4+! White thinks “I’ll just block the Queen’s attack on my King by playing 7. Be2 and everything will be alright.” Wrong. Black plays 7…Nf3# and delivers a smothered mate. Castling on move four, 4. 0-0, would have solved the problem early on.

In the above example, the move 3…Nd4 was the indicator that Black was up to something. Knowing this, would have helped White in the above example. There is always a sign, in the form of a suspicious move, that tells us a trap is afoot! Here’s another example of an opening trap, called the fishing pole trap:

Moves one and two for both players are standard at junior level, 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6. White then plays 3. Bb5, signifying the start of The Ruy Lopez opening. Rather than play 3…a6, the standard response to 3. Bb5, Black plays 3…Nf6, attacking White’s e4 pawn. White castles with 4. 0-0, preparing to move the Rook to e1 to attack the Black Knight should it take the e4 pawn. So far, White is making good moves. Black plays 4…Ng4. Remember, there is always a move that tells us a trap may be afoot. However, White sees that there’s no Bishop on c5 to support the Knight’s attack on f2 (White’s weakest square at the start of the game) and continues with 5. h3, attempting to kick the Knight off of the g4 square. Black’s next move should set off a loud alarm bell in White’s head, 5…h6! Why would Black give up his Knight for a pawn? My students would immediately look up the h file and see that trading Knight for pawn would give the Black Rook an open file on which it would be aimed at the White King. White takes the bait with 6. hxg4. Black happily captures back with 6…hxg4 and White is in huge trouble. Never capture pawns and pieces unless it helps your position! White moves his Knight out of trouble with 7. Ne1 and Black plays 7…Qh4! White plays mechanically (something you should avoid) and plays 8. f3, hoping to trade pawns and create an escape square for his King. Black knows not to capture unless it helps his position and simply plays 8…g3 and now checkmate is unavoidable. White plays 9. Nc3 and Black delivers mate with 9. Qh2#.

You should know the basics of opening traps but know them from a defense viewpoint, rather than in terms of a tool you can use to win games. Experienced players will not fall for these traps and usually can turn the tables on the player employing them. Look for the the warning signs, such as unprincipled moves, and you’ll avoid falling victim. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. No cheap tricks and traps from these two players!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).