Calculation For Beginners

Calculation is one of the most difficult concepts the beginner must learn in order to play winning chess. Calculation in chess means thinking ahead in terms of moves, not just yours but those of your opponent. I’ve had a student say, after studying with me for only a few months, that he can calculate three or four moves in advance in any given position. While you might say “hey, this Patterson fellow must be a great chess teacher if his students can do that in such a short period of time,” but sadly you’d be wrong. What the student was actually saying is that they are calculating their three or four next moves but not those of their opponent! That’s a big problem since their opponent will most likely make a single move that derails the student’s plans. Real chess calculation requires anticipating the best possible move your opponent can make and going forward from there. Calculation only works if you think about both sides of the board.

Beginners don’t think about their opponent’s potential moves when calculating their own. They look at the position and see a possible attack that garners them material or checkmate. They think “all I have to do is move this piece here, that piece there, followed by another piece to another square” and they win material or the game. They become blind to their opponent’s position, only seeing their own pawns and pieces. While experienced players consider this absurd, we have to keep in mind that you make a lot of mistakes when you first start out (I certainly have done this). The more experienced player calculates by considering the opposition’s placement of pawns and pieces and the best response their opponent can make in response to the experienced players move.

So the beginner should start their journey towards making sound calculations by looking at their opponent’s position. I have my students look at every opposition pawn and piece before considering any move. The question they must ask themselves is what is the best move each opposition pawn and piece can make? While this takes time, it serves to force the beginner to look at their opponent’s material and not just their own. This is when the beginner will suddenly notice that, for example, one of their pieces could be captured because it is unguarded. They’ll also might discover that the square they’re planning on attacking as part of their plan, has more defenders than the beginner has attackers. Just looking at a position in this manner can soundly point out any flaw in our beginner’s plan or prevent the loss of hanging pieces.

I have an exercise in which, after each student makes their move, they switch sides, make their moves and switch sides again. So the student playing the white pieces makes a move, as does the student playing black, and then they switch sides with the person previously playing white, now playing the black pieces for a single move. They students go back and forth, switching sides with each move. This really forces students to see both sides of the board and helps develop the idea of finding their opponent’s best move.

Finding your opponent’s best move before making a move of your own goes a long way towards developing good calculation techniques. After all, your move is only good if it factors in your opponent’s best repsonse. In fact, you shouldn’t consider any move until you consider what you would do, your opponent’s best move, if you were on the other side of the board.

So what should you consider as a good or great opposition move? First off, it goes without saying that any move that derails your immediate plans counts! However, as I pointed out in my last article, great moves are those that simply do their job, so there are many choices. For now we’ll concentrate on two types of opposition moves the beginner should look for, the move that derails their immediate plan and the move that leaves the attacker suddenly as the defender. Let’s start with the derailing move.

Beginners tend to think that their opponent doesn’t see their great attack, leading them to think that their plan will go unchallenged. When you have two beginners with the same skill set playing one another, you’ll actually have a case in which the player being attacked often doesn’t see it coming. However, if the beginner is playing a stronger opponent, the attack is seen and the great winning plan falls apart quickly. Many great attacks can be derailed with the simplest of moves which is why you have to consider each and every pawn and piece belonging to the opposition. This is the basis of sound chess calculations. Obviously, if you’re planning an attack on a specific square, you count attacker versus defenders. Let’s say you have three attackers to the opposition’s two defenders. Since you always want to have more attackers than defenders, or the reverse if you’re the defender, you then want to play through the exchange in your head. After the exchange, have you gained more material or lost more material? Just doing this simple calculation has forced you to think ahead, another basis for sound chess calculations. If you come out down the exchange (losing material), you’re attack should be reconsidered unless it delivers checkmate.

Let’s say you do the calculation and you’ll come out ahead. Before starting your attack, and this is really important and goes back to the idea of examining you opponent’s position, look for that one move that derailed your plans. You might have created a plan to win your opponent’s Queen and you start the attack. All goes well and then your opponent makes a move that skewers one of your major attacking pieces to your King and guess what? You lose that piece and your attack falls apart. Why did this happen? It happened because you didn’t look closely enough at your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Your opponent, on the other hand, looked closely at your position and found a way out, a weakness. You cannot create sound calculations unless you factor in the opposition’s possible responses.

My next example happens all the time, especially in the case of back rank mates. With a back rank mate, a King is typically castled on the King-side with three pawns on front of it on either the second rank for white or the seventh rank for black. There may be one Rook left to guard the King’s rank. An opposition Rook or Queen will be looming on an open file. Our beginner will see what they think is an opportunity for a big attack and move their defending Rook off of the King’s rank. Our intrepid beginner launches his or her attack and thinks that things are going smoothly until that looming opposition Rook or Queen swoops down to the King’s rank and checkmates our beginner. Many great beginner’s attacks are also snuffed out with a well timed delivery of a check to the attacker’s King that seemed to come out of nowhere. In reality, the check or back rank mate was always there. Unfortunately, the beginner missed it because they were suffering from tunnel vision, seeing only their pawns and pieces, not those of their opponent.

The foundation of successful calculations always starts with taking the time to determine what you would do if you were playing the other side of the board.

You won’t be able to calculate a large number of moves into the future when your first start playing, so you should start off by trying to calculate two moves at a time, your move and your opponent’s best response. Don’t try to calculate any further until you’ve learned to determine your opponent’s best response to your single move. You won’t always get it right but this will improve with time. Doing just this will teach you how to see the entire board and create a foundation for the next step in your journey towards good calculations, thinking one and a half moves ahead.

Thinking one and a half moves ahead means considering your next move, your opponent’s best response to that move and finally, your response to the initial opposition’s response. Here, we again follow the guidelines of looking at the opposition pawns and pieces, assessing any potential threats and, if the position warrants it, making that move. However, once you’ve determined your opponent’s best response you have to have a follow up move. If you don’t, the move you’ve carefully considered won’t have the desired effect. If you make move “a” and your opponent makes move “b” then you should have a move “c” that deals with move “b.” With my students, I spend a great deal of time working on our one and a half move technique. Once this is somewhat mastered, remember we’re talking about beginners here so complete mastery comes much later in their chess careers, we move onto four move calculations and so forth.

The idea here is to build up your calculation techniques one move at a time. If you carefully examine your opponent’s position and try to determine their best response, you’ll be well on your way towards developing real calculation skills. If you have trouble at first, don’t become stressed because, like all skills in chess (and in life), it takes time and practice. Take your time! Here’s a game by a couple of gentlemen who know quite a bit about calculation. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).