Balance and Harmony

In studying Tai Chi, I’ve learned about developing inner balance and maintaining harmony with the world around me. Studying the concepts of balance and harmony in context of an internal martial art made me realized how critical they are to chess. How often do beginners launch an attack only to have the position turned around on them, going from hunter to hunted? While the game’s goal is to checkmate your opponent’s King, requiring the player attempting the checkmate to play offensively, beginners should consider launching an attack only if their position is balanced and the attacking pieces are working harmoniously with one another. Too often, the beginner will launch an all or nothing attack against his opponent, proverbially placing all his or her eggs in one basket, leaving behind a weak position that will crumble if the attack fails. Balance and harmony apply to all facets of life, from health to chess.

Let’s look at the concept of balance first. When I think about the word “balance” I imagine a man walking a tightrope wire high above the ground, carefully keeping his body aligned so he doesn’t fall from the wire. In chess, you can think about balance as the relationship between your pawns and piece’s positions on the chessboard and that of your opponent’s pawns and pieces. In the opening, for example, both players may have developed their pawns and pieces to squares that equally control the board’s center. You could say that both players have a balanced position. If the idea of balance was thought of as an old fashion scale, like the scales of justice, both players’ positions would hang equally in relation to one another. However, if one player has better development the scale will tilt in his or her favor. A player should strive to have balance (or a tilting of the scale in their favor) before striking at their opponent’s position.

I use the idea of balance to help my students avoid launching premature attacks. Premature attacks are those in which one player attacks the opposition’s King while weakening their own position in the process. We see this happen often during the opening when a beginner will try to launch an early mating attack. A simple example of this is the Scholar’s Mate. The player commanding the White pieces trying to deliver this mate, brings his or her Kingside Bishop to c4 and Queen to h5, targeting the pawn on f7. A more seasoned player can simply develop his or her pieces carefully and leave White greatly behind in development. Being behind in development is not a balanced position. By aiming to maintain positional balance before launching attacks, the beginner increases his or her chances of being successful when attacking. Of course, there are exceptions but, the beginner needs to learn development and the concept of positional balance before looking at those exceptions.

Beginners can work on their balance skills through proper development. By proper development, I mean placing pawns and pieces on squares where they exert the greatest influence. After 1.e4…e5, White decides to move the Kingside Knight out onto the board. There are three squares the Knight can be moved to (e2, f3 and h3). However, one square is more active than the others, the square f3. This square influences the critical central squares d4 and e5. Because the Knight is attacking Black’s e5 pawn, Black needs to restore balance by defending that pawn. There are a number of ways to defend it but one stands out above the rest, developing the Queenside Knight to c6. This move defends the pawn and influences the center. Let’s say White decides to develop the Kingside Bishop on move three. Where should that Bishop go? If we want to control or influence the greatest number of squares we can with our Kingside Bishop, we’d move it to c4. Now the balance has shifted once again and Black as to restore it. Black might move his or her Kingside Bishop to c5. A game’s balance always shifts and it is up to the player whose balance has been lost to regain it through careful piece positioning. Once the beginner understands this, attacking will become more successful.

Now let’s talk about harmony. Balance and harmony go hand in hand. Applying harmony to chess, we could say that it is the relationship pawns and/or pieces share with one another. Often, in the games of beginners, we’ll see pawns and pieces scattered around the chessboard with no connection between them. Pawns are thrust out on the flank files and pieces are developed away from the center rather than towards the center. Even worse is the fact that these pawns and pieces are not supporting each other. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Nc3…d6, d4…Nf6 and 5.d5, we see that White has (so far) developed his or her pieces harmoniously. The Knight on c3, for example protects the e4 and d5 pawns. The pawn on d5 attacks the Knight on c6. However it is protected by the Knight on c3, the pawn on e4 and the Queen. White’s army is working together. This harmony can be broken as the opposition attempts to balance out the position. Like balance, harmony must be maintained and your opponent is going to do everything in his or her power to stop you from doing so.

One thing the beginner can do to maintain harmony on the board is to ask a question before making a move, “Does this move allow my pieces to work together in harmony? A harmonious move is one that supports a pawn or piece, or controls new territory safely because it is supported by a pawn or piece. This teaches beginners to coordinate their pawns and pieces which reduce the number of pieces lost because they weren’t protected. Unprotected pieces are hanging pieces and pieces lost can quickly cost you the game. Note, the above examples are extremely simplified to give a basic visual example of the ideas. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

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About Hugh Patterson

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