Balance

Beginners are fond of launching early or premature attacks regardless of what it does to their position. These attacks are uncoordinated and weaken the beginner’s position which more often than not, costs them the game. After a few chess lessons, the beginner’s attack becomes more coordinated. The most popular point of attack for beginners are the f2 and f7 squares which are weak because they’re solely defended by their respective Kings at the game’s start. An attack on the f7 pawn typically involves the King-side Knight and Bishop. After, 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white breaks an opening principle and moves the Knight a second time, 4.Ng5. Because white moves first, white has an opportunity to stay one move ahead in development during the opening, except in the above example in which white forfeits his lead in tempo (time). Therefore, I introduce the idea of balance early in my student’s chess careers.

Think of balance as an old fashion seesaw, such as those found at a playground. When the seesaw is parallel with the ground, it is evenly balanced. When someone sits on one side of the seesaw, it tilts, lowering that person to the ground. If another person sites down on the opposite side of the seesaw, the person closest to the ground is raised up. When one end of the seesaw goes up, the other end goes down. It is no longer evenly balanced. How does this relate to chess?

When the game starts, before any pawn or piece is moved, the position on the board is evenly balanced. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance, tipping it (like the seesaw) in his or her favor with a move like 1.e4. This move puts a pawn in the center of the board, allows the King-side Bishop (as well as the Queen) to develop, which brings white closer to Castling. Its a powerful first move that puts the Question to black, how are you going to restore the balance? If Black plays 1…e5, the balance is restored for the moment. While black can play other moves such as 1…e6, 1…c6 or 1…c5, beginners should start with the simple 1…e5 to restore the balance.

Examining a move in terms of positional balance will help the novice player avoid weakening their position during any phase of the game. The opening exemplifies this idea. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance of the starting position. Black needs to immediately restore the balance with a counter move that garners the same positional benefits as white (1…e5) or set up a future balanced position with an opening move other than 1…e5. After 1.e4…e5, white might play 2.Nf3. White disturbs the balance again by attacking the e5 pawn and controlling the d4 square. Black might counter with 2…Nc6 which protects the e5 pawn and puts pressure on the d4 square. The point is this: Black is making moves that strive to maintain positional equality or balance.

Chess is a positional dance in which both players must be in sync with each others actions or moves. To ignore your opponent’s moves leads to disaster. An opponent’s move must be met with a counter move that strives for some semblance of positional equality. Does this mean we play for equality or balance of position only? Absolutely not! After all, checkmate wins the game which means you’ll have to launch an attack which means stepping away from the idea of maintaining equality or balance. The point here is that you don’t want to launch an attack until the time is right.

To determine when the time is right for an attack, you have to look at your position and ask a few key questions. Start with an examination of space. Do you control more space on the board than your opponent? If so, an attack might be considered. However, before committing to that attack, ask yourself a few more questions. Does launching an attack weaken your position? So many beginners will capture a piece, only to have their entire position fall apart. A strong position trumps capturing pieces unless capturing staves off a potential checkmate. Does capturing a pieces strengthen your position while weakening that of your opponent? These are the questions to ask before attacking.

An idea I pass onto my students is that their goal in the opening is to aim for a balanced position, waiting until the middle game to launch any attacks. A balanced position means an equal control of space, namely the board’s center during the opening. I make a point of mentioning this each time a student considers moving the same piece twice during the opening. By doing so, they’re giving their opponent the opportunity to develop another new piece. Moving the same piece over and over again allows your opponent to gain tempo (time) which makes it harder for you to achieve balance. How do you determine whether you have a balanced position or not? Determining the balance of a position requires some analysis.

Analyzing a position as a beginner can be extremely difficult because the beginner tends to see everything at once. Rather than focusing in on key elements, the novice player’s chess vision is blurred because they’re trying to look at every pawn and piece at the same time. To analyze a position’s level of balance, the beginner should approach the task systematically. During the opening, controlling the board’s center is the name of the game. Therefore, the beginner should count the number of squares his or her pawns and pieces control. Do the same for the opposition’s pawns and pieces. This simple act will give you an idea about the position’s balance. If you’re behind in spatial control, aim to make moves that balance that control either equally or in your favor.

Beginner’s should get in the habit of continually developing pawns and pieces to more active squares going into the middle-game. I have observed students developing correctly during the opening and stopping their development as soon as their Rooks are connected. They then started gearing up for an attack. While gearing up for the attack, their opponent continues to improve their pawn and piece activity. Ultimately the attack fails because the position’s balance was off, in favor of the player whose pieces were more actively developed.

Therefore, you should look at a position in terms of balance for both sides before considering your next move. When a position is balanced, an attack might be in order. Of course, there are times when a position is imbalanced in favor of your opponent but an attack could tilt the positional seesaw in your favor. However, beginner’s don’t have their skill set built up enough to identify such positions. Keep it simple and balanced until you become a stronger player. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Happy Thanksgiving. I’m off to our family turkey day chess tournament.

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).