Before You Make That Move

You would never drive your car blindly into oncoming traffic because the results would be disastrous, right? Yet, how many of you have blindly made a move on the chessboard without putting much thought into that move because you became frustrated regarding exactly what to do? I’ve been guilty of doing this from time to time in the past. However, because I teach and coach chess full time, I tend to make fewer of these thoughtless moves due to long term training on my part. However, the novice player can easily become frustrated and throw caution to wind, making a move without thinking it through. This occurs because the novice or beginning player hasn’t yet developed an ordered mental check list for determining what move to make in response to the opposition’s last move. Players with greater experience have a large number of game principles not only committed to memory but in a sequential order that makes accessing the right principle for the given situation a very easy task.

When you first seriously study chess, you’re hit with a plethora of useful information in the form of books, DVDs and software. Sometimes, far too much information. In actuality, it’s not that it’s too much information, it’s just too much information at once. The beginner picks up a book or watches a DVD that gives them a great deal of knowledge on opening, middle or endgame theory. A number of principled ideas are presented with actual game examples. The beginner works through the examples carefully, learns the concepts presented and then sits down to play a game employing his or her new found knowledge. Suddenly, they’re hit with bits and pieces of the various principles just learned, all at once, rather than the single principle they need for the situation at hand. Confusion ensues and the beginner loses the game in question. Where this situation really rears its ugly head is when the beginner is faced with a position (similar but not exactly the same) that wasn’t in the book or DVD, which happens more often than not! Beginners tend to think that a position they’ve studied in a book is exactly how that position will appear in their games. It almost never is! This means the beginner may be faced with a position they’ve encountered in their book or DVD studies but doesn’t see it for what it is because the pawns and pieces are slightly different in arrangement than in the example they studied. To the beginner, the position seems foreign.

We’ll address this problem first because it’s key to everything else being discussed! Book and DVD examples come from real games. In a book about endgame play, the beginner might be studying Pawn, Bishop and King endgames. They’ve learned (book/DVD studies) how to promote their Pawn with the King and Bishop being on very specific squares (those found in the book/DVD examples). However, in their real life game, the King and Bishop they need to help promote their Pawn with are on squares not identically positioned as in the initial (book/DVD) example, maybe both King and Bishop are on the other side of the board and the pawn is on a different file. The beginner looks at his or her position and has a very slight recollection of what to do, based on the initial example. However, in the book or DVD example, the King and Bishop were much, much closer to their target squares. The beginner might automatically disregard any thoughts regarding the key concept they need to employ because the position isn’t exactly like the one found in the book or DVD, or they cannot see the pathway (in moves) that will get them to that exact position. Therefore, our intrepid beginner tries to think about another example from the book or DVD. The key point to take away from this is: A key idea or concept found in instructional material, such as a book or DVD, doesn’t rely on an exact position arising but rather on a similar position. Of course, coming to this conclusion does you no good if you can’t pull the idea from you memory palace (Hannibal Lecter’s name for his mentally stored thoughts) in an orderly manner.

Here’s what I mean regarding “orderly manner:” We all collect bits and pieces of information throughout our lives, some of it useful, some of it trivial. If you sat down one day and made a list of everything you knew, you’d be surprised at just how jumbled and eclectic the list was, seemingly out of order with mismatched topics bleeding into one another. It would be a confusing pile of information that would be extremely difficult to make heads or tails of, especially if you needed one specific piece of that information in a hurry (such as when faced with a chess clock counting down the seconds)!

Therefore, you have to employ a system for organizing that vast treasure trove of information into an ordered mental file cabinet or mental database. This is the seemingly daunting task faced by the novice chess player, organizing all those principles you’ve studied in the numerous chess books you’ve read and DVDs you’ve watched. The information you’ve gathered has to be accessible instantly. Of course, for experienced players, this information is extremely well organized within their memory and and can be thrown into their thought process at a moment’s notice. For the beginner, this is, again, a daunting task. Fear not though, because you can achieve this ability relatively quickly and it starts with a few pencils and a small stack of index cards. It’s that easy!

Acquire a stack of index cards and a few well sharpened pencils. I recommend pencils over pens because you can erase something written in pencil and you’re apt to do a fair amount of erasing when you first start this process!

You’ll start with three index cards, one for the opening, one for the middle-game and one for the endgame. Don’t worry about the remaining stack of blank index cards. Those will become filled with notes later on. It’s important that the beginner slowly build up their knowledge base one index card at a time. On your “opening” index card, you’re going to list the opening principles: Controlling the center of the board with a pawn, development of your minor pieces towards the center and castling. Then, you’re going to write down things you shouldn’t do on the back of the card, such as not making too many pawn moves, not bringing your Queen out early, not moving the same piece twice during the opening, etc. While there are more things you can have on your index cards regarding opening theory, as a beginner, you don’t want to have too much information yet, just the bare basics. When you’ve committed the above list of principles to memory and can recognize when to use them easily, only then should you make the list bigger.

For your middle-game index card write down piece activity to start. Too often, beginners launch premature attacks before fully developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. Next, write down attackers versus defenders, having more attackers than opposition defenders when attacking and more defenders when defending against opposition attacks. Also jot down the value of the pawns and pieces so you can determine whether an exchange of material is advantageous. Lastly write down the word “tactics” and the question “are there any potential tactical plays to be made.

For your endgame index card, write down “Kings before Pawns” so you know the King has to be in front of the Pawn you’re trying to promote in a King and Pawn versus King endgame. Another item to add is “watch and stop the passed Pawn” and “can my King reach the opposition’s Pawn before it promotes. Also write in bold letters “King opposition is key to pawn promotion when only Kings and Pawns are present.” On the back of the card, you might note a few methods of checkmate, such as two Rooks versus lone King and Queen and King versus lone King, etc.

Add the information you gather from your books and DVDs onto index card, but do so slowly. Make sure to put the key concepts in your own words. Simply copying a definition verbatim (exactly as it’s written) doesn’t mean you really understand it. By putting the definition in your own words, you’re insuring your complete understanding of the concept.

Just having a few key principles for each phase of the game written on index cards will help you recall crucial information quickly with little confusion and before long you won’t need the cards to guide you because the information will be committed to memory. Memory is a muscle to be developed over time. Of course, you can’t use these cards during tournament games and you’ll have to ask opponents, when playing casually, if they mind your index cards before you refer to them while playing. Of course, when playing a chess software program, you opponent has no say in the matter. As time passes and your knowledge base increases, you’ll have more and more information written down. However, much of it you’ll have committed to memory already so the task will not seem so daunting. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).