Bending Principles

Beginners who want to improve their game work very hard, especially when it comes to embracing the game’s principles. To improve their opening play, beginners study and employ the opening principles. The same holds true for the middle and endgames. However, these same beginners often treat these principles as steadfast rules. There is a difference between the game’s rules and the game’s principles. The player who makes no distinction between the two can find themselves devolving as a chess player rather than evolving. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should simply ignore principles. What it does mean is that we should know the difference between a rule and a principle as well as knowing when to bend that principle.

We’ll use three opening principles as examples: Controlling the board’s center with a pawn, the development of minor pieces to active squares and castling. Each of these principles can be used to give a player an early advantage if employed during the opening phase of the game. These principles have stood the test of time. While different types of openings have come in and out vogue, their underlying principles have remained that same. These principles are the underlying mechanics that create successful opening play. However, they are principles rather than rules so they are to be used as such, at the player’s discretion.

The first thing a student should do is clearly understand the difference between a rule and a principle. Of course, as adults we understand the difference. However, it pays to go over the definitions of both words just to be clear because we can subconsciously blur the line between the two. Children often think the two words have the same meaning so we carefully define both in class. The rules of chess, because they are rules, leave no grey area, meaning they cannot be broken. Principles, on the other hand, are guidelines that have proven successful. These guidelines have been so successful that they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Once the distinction between rules and principles has been discussed, it’s time to ask a few questions based on positional scenarios.

The first positional scenario involves an attacked minor piece. Your Knight is under attack and you have a choice of following the opening principles, in this case, keeping your Knight where it is because its developed towards the center of the board or, moving it to the edge of the board where it’s safe. In moving it to the edge of the board, you’re putting a Knight on the rim (considered dim or grim) and moving the same piece twice during the opening. Save the Knight or lose it because you think opening principles must be followed to the letter. It is better to bend a principle than to lose a piece. Just because the principles tell us to aim our pieces toward the board’s center doesn’t mean that the piece can’t be effective on the board’s outer edges. Let’s look at another scenario.

Let’s say you have an opportunity during the opening to check your opponent’s King. In doing so, you force your opponent to have to block the check with a minor piece (an absolute pin), tying up that minor and keeping it from participating in the battle for control of the center. The piece you’re going to use for the check is your King-side Bishop. While you could move that Bishop to c4 which helps control the center, you would actually have a stronger position by pinning the opposition’s minor piece to his or her King. Do you stick to the principles and move the Bishop to c4 or do you bend the principles? Here’s a final scenario to consider.

Our final example is Castling. Beginners are taught to Castle their King early to protect it. Playing White, you develop your King-side Knight to f3 and your King-side Bishop to c4. Should you Castle on the next move? The opening principles tell us to Castle our King to safety early on. What happens if you’re given the choice between Castling or developing another minor piece which strengthens your position? Many beginners will simply Castle, providing their King with safety but in doing so, weaken their overall position. Again, it’s a question of whether to stick to the principles or bend them slightly.

Beginners approach chess very mechanically which is a natural evolutionary step in their study of the game. After all, you have to understand the principles, more specifically the underlying mechanics, before thinking about being a rebel and bending those principles. However, you don’t want to get stuck inside the box of purely mechanical thinking. How do you avoid being trapped in the box? Adhering to a few guidelines regarding the bending of, in this example, the opening principles is a good way to start. Using these guidelines, you’ll be able to make an informed decision. The first guideline regards the strength or weakness of your position.

During the opening, you’re fighting your opponent for dominance or control of the board’s center. Obviously, if given the choice of losing a piece or moving it away from the center, you’ll want to hang on to that piece and move it to the edge of the board if necessary. However, what about a potential check of the opposition King that weakens the opposition’s position, by moving a piece such as a Bishop to the board’s edge? In this scenario you have to weigh the benefits of a check that damages your opponent’s position with the strength or weakness of your own position. If your position is weak, you have no business checking when you should be strengthening your position. If your position is strong, does moving the Bishop to the edge of the board weaken or potentially weaken your position. If the answer is yes, then you might want to reconsider.

Castling is a problem for beginners. More than not, beginners ignore King safety and don’t Castle. Once they’ve been beaten a few dozen times because their King was stuck on a central file, they go in the opposite direction and Castle early on, often too early. By too early I mean when their King is not in immediate danger. When considering whether or not to Castle, check your opponent’s pawns and pieces, see if there is a potential threat of a strong check (one that forces you to tie up your position to answer the check) or quick checkmate. If there is no danger, look at your position and determine if your pieces can be more actively developed. Can you strengthen you position even further? If you can, you’ll want to consider doing so before Castling.

Principles can be bent but you have to full understand them before bending them. This is thinking outside of the box and that can lead to amazing chess. Always consider your position’s strengths and weaknesses before bending a principle. If your position is weak, strengthen it. If your pawns and pieces are not on active squares, develop them further. If everything is copacetic, then consider a bit of principle bending. Here’s a game by a man who knew how to bend principles to win games!

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).