Category Archives: Children’s Chess

The Importance of Tactics Nine: Putting It All Together

Over the last eight articles, we’ve explored basic tactical ideas and have seen how important a role tactics play in the game of chess. Of course, great chess playing requires more than simply being good at tactics. Master level players will incorporate and employ tactics in their overall plan but know that tactics alone don’t solely win games. They know that many other elements contribute to whether or not they win or lose. However, tactics are often the decisive winning element in the games of beginning and intermediate players. Today we’re going to look at a single game in which one player, Boris Spassky, employs tactics impressively. First, we’ll break the game down into two key positions, isolating a two specific examples and looking at the series of moves leading up to each tactical play. Then we’ll see the entire game played out in my game of the week. By looking at some specific tactical examples within the game and then playing through the game in it’s entirety we’ll better understand when and where we should use our new found tactical tools.

We talked about the power of the pin early in this series of articles. Of course, beginners often stumble into an opportunity to employ a pin due to their opponent’s poor handling of his forces on the chessboard. However, at a master level of play, even a simple tactic such as a pin can require a great deal of positional work to set that tactic up. In our first example, we’ll look at the series of moves that led up to the first pin. Boris Spassky, commanding the White pieces (Avtonomov playing Black), demonstrates why he is such a fantastic chess player (he’s also my favorite chess player of all time so pardon my bias). Note that there are more complex and deeper reasons for some of the moves made in this game then I’ll be mentioning. However, this article is written for the beginner so we’re sticking with basic principled tactical reasoning here. Let’s jump right into the action:

Studious beginners and Grandmasters alike know that castling your King to safety is critical. An unsafe King becomes a target for your opponent’s pawns and pieces and an overwhelming number of games have been lost throughout chess’s long history (at all level of play) due to not castling the King. Therefore, Spassky castles his King with 1. O-O. However, there’s more to this move than simply sheltering your King from the opposition’s forces. Activating your King-side Rook (or Queen-side Rook when castling Queen-side) is an added bonus to castling. Beginners have a bad habit of leaving their Rooks dormant throughout the game. Rooks can play a crucial roll during all phases of the game as we shall soon see. Black responds by playing 1…a6. This move prevents Spassky from checking the Black King with his c4 Bishop which might lead to a trade of light squared Bishops (don’t give your opponent an opportunities to check your King, especially when it may lead to an exchange of pieces (such as your light squared Bishop) that include a piece you might need later on. Spassky now plays 2. Qe2. Why play such a move? We’ll find out momentarily. Black plays 2…b5, pushing the Bishop off of the c4 square. One thing you’ll want consider, whenever reasonable and possible, is to push your opponent’s pieces back, away from your King, while moving your pieces forward towards your opponent’s King. Now, the White Bishop simply move to b3 with 3. Bb3.

Master level players make a point of building up their pawn and piece’s activity, methodically moving their forces to specific squares and only then, launching their attack, whereas beginners tend to launch premature attacks which contributes to their losing games. Black plays 3…Nc6, putting pressure on both d4 and e5. Spassky responds with 4. Nc3, bringing his Queen-side Knight into the game and putting pressure on the d5 square. After Black plays 4…cxd4, it looks like Spassky has to either move his Knight on c3 or capture the attacking pawn with exd4. Absolutely not! Spassky plays the wonderful 5. Rd1 and now the d4 pawn is pinned to the Queen. This is the difference between top level players and beginners. The beginner would panic and either move the Knight or capture the pawn. However, Spassky set up a potential pin a few moves back. Remember when he castled and then moved his Queen up a rank? This combination of moves allowed the Rook to move from f1 to d1 where it now pins the Black pawn on d4 to the Black Queen on d8. A nice piece of tactical work by a great tactical artist of the chessboard! Take a look at the next example from our game:

The only different between the first example and this example is that black has moved his light squared Bishop to the long diagonal running from a8 to h1. Take a good look at this position. See if you can spot any potential future pins for White. Really take a look at the position before reading further and write down any moves that could create a pin. The first move that Spassky makes is going to capture the d4 pawn. How would you recapture it, with 1. Nxd4 or exd4? Think in terms of creating a pin! Remember, my friends who are beginners, when given the choice of capturing with a variety of pawns and pieces, we should (unless the position warrants otherwise) capture back with the unit of least value. Therefore, 1. exd4 is the correct move. It’s a better choice than 1. Nxd4 because capturing back with the pawn creates an absolute pin along the e file. Notice that, after the e pawn captures the d4 pawn, the White Queen on e2 is pinning Black’s e6 pawn to the Black King on e8. While the Black e6 pawn is dormant, it’s future use will be limited as long as it’s pinned. Absolute pins can be lethal since the pinned piece cannot be moved. Spassky, of course, plays 1. exd4.

It looks like White’s pawn on d4 is heading towards d5 which is why Black plays 1…Nb4 which does two important things. First, the Black Knight on b4 is attacking the d5 square. This adds another defender to that square (d5). Remember, as long as the Black e6 pawn is pinned, it cannot aid in the defense of d5. Second, it allows the Black Bishop on b7 to also aid in the attack on d5 now that the Black Knight has moved off of c6. Good chess players know how to make moves that don’t block in their pieces. Spassky now plays 2. d5, pushing the pawn forward. While Black would love to capture the White pawn on d5 with his e6 pawn, he can’t because that pawn is absolutely pinned to the Black King. Now we’re seeing the power of pins when employed by a highly skilled Player. Black captures back with 2…Nbxd5. Unfortunately, the black Knight on d5 is now pinned to the Black Queen on d8, thanks to the Rook on d1. White now has two pins going, both involving Black’s most important pieces, the King and Queen. One pin is bad enough, but two? Now Spassky plays 3.Bg5 and an additional pin is added to the mix, the White Bishop on g5 pinning the Black Knight on f6 to the Black Queen on d8! Any casual player would simply tip his King in resignation and go home to tend to his greatly bruised ego. However, Black makes what I consider to be an important move that the beginner should take note of! Black plays 3…Be7! Put yourself in Black’s shoes. You have to deal with three separate pins and since you can only move one piece at a time, you’re facing possibly least three move to break each of the various pins. Take a moment to note each pin before reading on. There’s an absolute pin and two relative pins. Which do you deal with first? The absolute pin comes to mind. However, what if you could stop two of the pins in a single move. Black does so by playing 3. Be7. Bravo! This simple move temporarily stops both the pin involving the Black Knight on f6 and Black Queen on d8 (being pinned by the White Bishop on g5) as well as the pin involving the Black e6 pawn and the Black King on e8 (being pinned by the White Queen on e2). The placement of the Black Bishop on e7 relieves some of the pressure Black is feeling in this position. Moves that do move than one thing are excellent moves to make! However, the Black Bishop on e7 may be feeling a bit overloaded at the moment!

Before I let you loose to play through the game in it’s entirety. We should discuss a few key points regarding tactics employed in the above examples. Notice that not much, in the way of material has been captured. Top level players know that successful attacks require that the attacker build up his position. Also, the more pieces you have in play, the greater the opportunity for tactics. In military terms, this means getting all your troops onto the battlefield, carefully positioning each member of your army where it will do the maximum amount of damage when the fighting starts and be able to exploit an opportunities! You should also note that you have to set tactics up. In the first example, Spassky castled his King to activate the Rook followed by moving his Queen up one rank so the Rook could move from f1 to d1. It’s important to note that Spassky waited until the right moment to bring his Rook over to d1. Timing is extremely important when employing tactics. You have to wait until the right moment to unleash the tactical beast. Here’s the game from start to finish. You’ll find a great example of removing the defender on move 19. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Notation

Two articles about education caught my eye recently. The first one concerned science education, and asked at what age children could be taught Scientific Method. You can read it here. Most young children enjoy science at school, particularly if it involves experiments producing bangs or smells. At one level science is about understanding how the natural world works, but in order to become a scientist rather than just learning about science you have to learn how to conduct experiments, which means understanding Scientific Method.

There’s a connection with chess here in that Scientific Method is one of many thinking skills you’ll use if you’re a proper chess player. If you’re solving a puzzle with a specific aim, such as Mate in 2, you will create a hypothesis, that a particular move is the answer, test it by checking all possible replies, and either accept or reject your hypothesis. If you reject the hypothesis you must formulate an alternative hypothesis. (Returning for a moment to the Chess Heroes project, this is explained in Checkmates for Heroes.)

It’s an interesting subject and the author of the article doesn’t claim to have an answer.

Similar discussions have taken place over the years concerning history teaching. Should you just tell children about history or should you teach them how to become a historian: how to assess primary and secondary sources. When I was at school you just learnt about history, but, looking at secondary school history books (there are lots of them in the classrooms where Richmond Junior Club meets), I see that there’s an emphasis on evaluation of sources.

Should you spend time teaching young (perhaps pre-school) children, how to become a scientist or a historian, or just about science and history. I don’t know for certain, but, given the amount of fake news and bad science available on the Internet, I rather suspect you should.

A few days earlier, the normally sedate world of classical music was thrown into turmoil by an article by Charlotte C Gill, protesting that music was taught in an over academic way, with too much emphasis on notation. “This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education.”

The pianist and blogger Ian Pace, incidentally a specialist in avant-garde music, sent off a reply which has, at the time of writing, attracted over 700 signatories. Among many other responses was a blog post from Frances Wilson, a pianist and teacher from my part of the world.

Although I’m a music lover, not a musician, there’s a lot I could say, particularly about the assumption that learning notation, or placing ‘classical’ (serious, art or whatever you want to call it) music above pop, rap, house or grime, is in some way elitist. You may well think that the elite will always exist, so promoting anti-elitist education policies will only make it harder for others to join the elite. But for now I’ll return to chess.

In chess, just as in music, we have notation, although its function is rather different. Music notation tells us what to play whereas chess notation is a way of recording what we have played. But understanding and being fluent and confident with notation also introduces us to the world of chess literature, enabling us to understand, appreciate and learn from the games that others have played. If you want to be either a ‘serious’ chess player or a ‘serious’ musician, however, notation is essential. Chess notation is much easier than music notation, so can be taught younger, although many children will find it hard or ‘boring’. Within the restricted confines of a primary school chess club you’re probably not going to have very much time to go into any detail or expect children to record their own games, but if you run an ‘elitist’ chess club, which you might prefer to describe as a ‘centre of excellence’ you most certainly will insist that all children learn to record their games.

Coming back to the discussion of the difference between being a scientist and knowing about science, or between being a historian and knowing about history, we might want to make a similar difference between being a chess player and knowing about chess.

The children who tell you they enjoy science at school probably just enjoy the experiments: they might think they’re scientists but unless they’re applying scientific principles to their work, they’re not really scientists at all.

Likewise the children who go to their school chess club once a week and enjoy playing chess might think they’re chess players, but unless they’re applying the appropriate cognitive skills rather than just playing more or less random moves, they’re not really chess players at all.

The scientists, historians and musicians are having interesting discussions about what actually makes you a scientist, historian or musician. Perhaps we, as chess players, should be having the same discussion. At one level it’s good to introduce young children to science, history, music or chess in a fun, unchallenging, inclusive way. Beyond that, we have to get the message across to schools, parents and children, that playing random moves is not really playing chess. Yes, there is a chess elite comprising serious competitive players, and everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to become a real chess player.

Richard James

The Importance of Tactics Eight: Removing the Defender

Often, a beginner will see checkmate close at hand except for one small problem, there’s an opposition pawn or piece standing between the beginner and victory. “If only that pawn or piece wasn’t on that square”, muses our intrepid beginning player. “I’d win this game if my opponent would just move that darn pawn (or piece)!” His opponent also sees it as the one member of his army stopping checkmate, so he’s not going to move that pawn or piece unless he’s forced to. What is our poor beginner to do? After all, if that opposition pawn or piece isn’t going to move then how’s he going to win?

The beginner facing this dilemma, refers back to his limited chess training and thinks “maybe I can somehow trade a piece of lesser or equal value for the piece standing in the way of my mating plan, but I’ll have to move that piece of lesser or equal value into position to do so.” Of course, following this plan means spending extra time to do so and extra time might give the opposition an opportunity to stop the attempted checkmate! While experienced players might laugh at this notion of only trading pieces of lesser or equal value to clear a path to checkmate, all the beginner has to go on, regarding the exchange of material, is what they’ve learned so far in their chess education, namely that you should always try to exchange material in a manner that is profitable for you or at least equal. In other words, trade or exchange material of lesser value for pieces of higher value or trade material of equal value for material of equal value.

The beginner, thinking in these terms is thinking mechanically which is part of the learning process. When a beginner starts playing chess, they tend to make terrible trades, such as giving up a Rook or Queen for a minor piece (with no great positional gain or compensation for their loss) because they don’t understand the relative value of the pieces. Chess teachers and coaches, such as myself, spend countless hours teaching our beginning students the value of the pieces and how to make profitable exchanges. Thus, when the beginner is faced with a position in which an opposition pawn or minor piece is standing in the way of their mating attack, they don’t consider the idea of trading a piece of greater value for one of lesser value, even if it allows checkmate to occur (remember, beginners haven’t developed their pattern recognition skills and often don’t see a potential checkmate).

We call this tactical idea removing the defender. The defender is any pawn or piece that protects a key square near it’s King. Typically, Knights on f6 for Black or f3 for White are key defenders when castling has occurred on the King-side. Take a look at the example below:

In the above example, it’s White to move. The White Queen on e4, backed up or protected by the White Bishop (the Queen’s bodyguard) on d3, would be able to deliver checkmate with Qxh7 if it were not for one huge problem, the Knight on f6 which is guarding h7 (along with the King) while also attacking the White Queen. The beginner would look at Black’s Knight of f6 and his Queen on e4 and think, “I had better move my Queen so the Knight doesn’t capture it!” Our beginner might have glanced at his Rook on f3, then at the Knight on f6, but thought “this goes against the principles of making good trades. I’d be crazy to trade a five point Rook for a Three point Knight!” This is mechanical thinking at it’s worst. Certainly, it wouldn’t be a good trade based solely on the relative value of the pieces. However, the Knight on f6 is standing in the way of White delivering checkmate (as well as attacking the White Queen). The Knight on f6 is a crucial defender of the mating square h7. Therefore, to deliver checkmate, White must remove this defender even though, from a relative piece value point of view, the trade is not advantageous for White. The more experienced player wouldn’t think twice about trading Rook for Knight since doing so removes one critical defender of h7 and subsequently allows checkmate. Remember, beginners have a limited chess knowledge base and will often consider specific game principles as rules rather than principles, which can be bent or broken at times. Let’s return to our example.

White sees that the Knight on f6 is both attacking the White Queen on e4 and defending the h7 pawn, along with the Black King (who is also defending h7). The h7 square has two defenders and two attackers. In order to deliver checkmate on h7, White need to remove one of those defenders, the Black Knight on f6. White therefore plays 1. Rxf6, leaving the Black King as the sole defender of the h7 pawn. Now there are two attackers going after this pawn (h7) and only one defender. It’s important to note that the King isn’t really in any position to defend when there are two or more attackers! Now it’s Black to move. Here, black breaks a principled idea, never capture pawns and pieces unless it helps your game. While White has bent a principle regarding the exchange of material, Black’s bending of our principled idea of never capturing pawns and pieces unless it helps your position will have dire consequences.

The beginner commanding the Black pieces in this example thinks mechanically, grabbing material to come out ahead in this exchange rather than asking the critical question, why would White trade a Rook for a Knight?” He should have visually seen the answer within the position on the chessboard, the answer being “to remove a crucial defender that allows checkmate!” Had Black deduced, by looking at the position careful rather than grabbing material, he might have played 1…g6 (a miserable move to have to make) rather than 1…Bxf6 which leads to White’s second move 2. Qxh7#.

The idea I want you to remember is this: Avoid mechanical thinking. Playing mechanically often means that you mistake game principles for rock solid rules. The numerous and sound principles that guide us towards making good moves during our games can also lead to our downfall. The best chess players in the world know when to employ sound game principles and more importantly, when to bend those principles. Principles are guidelines not rules written in stone. In the case of removing the defender of a key square, especially when doing so leads to checkmate, would you rather stick to the principles or bend them a little and win the game? I thought so! We’ll look at some further examples of removing the defender next week. However, between now and then, let’s have a look at an extremely famous game in which a Queen is traded for a Knight leading to checkmate. Paul Morphy was extremely successful at removing the defender. If there’s any beginner’s topic you’d like to see here, please feel free to email me and I’ll write an article about that topic. Enjoy this classic battle on the chessboard!

Hugh Patterson

A Very Good Chess Page

Taking a break from describing my Chess for Heroes books, I must thank my cyberfriend Paul Swaney for drawing my attention to the Perpetual Chess Podcast for 28 March, in which US chess player and teacher Ben Johnson interviews Spanish IM and teacher Michael Rahal. You’ll find the podcast here, and the whole interview is well worth hearing, but the relevant part starts about 17 minutes in.

Here’s my transcript:

“And what I like to use is a chess page – it’s very good actually – called chessKIDS academy UK. It’s a chess page which is from England. The person who developed it is Richard James, an English chess teacher who, by the way, is a very good educational chess teacher: he’s also written a book, and actually a person who’s very knowledgeable about chess in kids. Richard James: and he’s got this chess site: chesskids.[org.]uk, chessKIDS academy, and it’s very good because it’s all very graphical with very kid-like view, and there’s questions, there’s tests, it’s very good. You can have a look if you want after the interview. It’s very good material and I use that in the classes. They love it because they can try their hand at the quizzes, the tests, and there’s also [some] theory…”

I started writing chessKIDS academy back in 2000 and had more or less forgotten about it. About 10 years ago it was very popular, and was very near the top if you searched for ‘chess’ on Google, but now most users prefer commercial sites like www.chesskid.com which look much more professional than my site. Now it’s very little used, but I did receive a recent email from an English user who’d lost some of the tests. I was hoping to find someone who would be prepared to develop the site commercially, and in fact a well-known English chess personality had expressed an interest several times over the years but eventually dropped the idea. I sold the original domain (www.chesskids.com) to the chess.com/chesskid.com people a few years ago. The site now exists in two versions, although I’m no longer supporting or updating it. The original site, complete with subversive humour unsuitable for adults, is at www.chesskids.me.uk while the sanitised version is at www.chesskids.org.uk.

The whole site really needs to be rewritten to make it smartphone-friendly, but at present I’m much more interested in the Chess for Heroes project. The contents of chessKIDS academy are still for sale to anyone who is interested, or even free for non-profit use. If you’re interested please contact me.

In other news, after the publication of my blog post on Checkmates for Heroes, I received an email asking me why I was bothering as Laszlo Polgar had written a very large tactics book. I’d have been more impressed if he’d asked me why I was bothering because of the Steps Method, or because of Jeff Coakley’s books, but that wasn’t the question. Polgar’s book is impressive for the amount of material, and could well be great if your children are spending eight hours a day studying chess and you want them to become world class players. But it’s far too large, far too bulky, many of the puzzles are composed problems rather than game situations, there’s little or nothing in the way of explanation of how or why you solve the puzzles. I haven’t counted them, but I must have well over a hundred tactics and checkmate books on my shelves. Different students will learn best using different approaches, and different teachers will also prefer to teach in different ways. There was nothing on the market that taught students at this level the way I teach, so I decided to write my own books.

It was reading material like the Steps Method and, to a lesser extent, Polgar’s book, that confirmed my suspicions that my earlier courses, as outlined in Move One! and Move Two!, and on chessKIDS academy, went much too fast tactically for most students. Teaching tactics needs to be like teaching maths: you learn a specific skill, work through a few examples with explanations, then solve some in class, and do some more at home until you’re fluent, when you can move onto the next skill. So I decided to produce a new course with much more emphasis on tactics and calculation, and this is it. At present it’s in book form, but I’m open to suggestions for co-operation in future developments.

It’s good to know that Michael Rahal, an experienced chess teacher as well as an International Master, approves of my methods.

Richard James

The Importance of Tactics Seven: Double and Discovered Attacks

In chess, one player takes his or her turn moving a single or pawn or piece. The the opposition moves one pawn or piece in this cycle, turn after turn being repeated until the game ends. The only exception to this rule is castling (when the King and one Rook move at the same time). Each time it’s your turn, you have to decide which pawn or piece to move and follow through with that move since you can’t pass when it’s your turn (we’ve all been in positions where being able to pass on our turn would have helped us but the game’s rules forbid it). The secret to playing good chess is knowing just which pawn or piece to move when it’s your turn! When your opponent attacks one of your pieces, you can either move that piece to a safe square, defend that piece or exchange your piece for your opponent’s attacking piece. However, what if your opponent makes a move that suddenly leaves two of your pieces attacked? You can save one at the cost of the other. How can a single opposition move cause two of your pieces to come under fire? It’s a question I ask members of my beginner’s classes on a regular basis. The answer that my students most often give is by employing a fork. While they’re right in one regard, they’re often surprised when I tell them that there is another tactical method for attacking two pieces at once, a method that can be more devastating than a fork. It’s the double and discovered attack, and many a player has been sent down the road to ruin with this tactical idea.

We’ll look at the discovered attack first. The idea behind the discovered attack is simple. Have a look at the diagram below. Sometimes, a picture (or in this case a positional diagram) can be worth a thousand words when it comes to an explanation!

It should be noted that I use student games for many of my tactical examples because they’re the type of positions most beginners will find themselves in. While studying the tactics of Grandmasters is important, these top level players often set up tactical plays after deep and extensive calculations. Beginners don’t yet have the skill set to make deep calculations, thus I use positional examples in which the tactical play presents itself with little in the way of deep calculations on the part of the beginning tactician. In other words, poor positioning of the opposition’s pieces. In our example from a student game, the White Rook on e1 would pin the Black Queen on e7 to the Black King on e8 if it weren’t for the White Bishop on e3. It’s White’s move. White plays 1. Bd4, unleashing a discovered attack by the White Rook on the Black Queen. Black is all but forced to trade his Queen for the White Rook on e1 with 1…Qxe1. White plays 2. Rxe1+ and now Black makes a fatal mistake, blocking the check with 2…Be7. Why is this a mistake? Because White now plays 3. Bxg7 and Black’s King-side Rook will be captured.

In a discovered attack, the attacking piece is stuck behind another piece, unable to attack until the piece blocking it moves. In our example, the Bishop moved to d4 and the Black Queen was suddenly pinned to her King, attacked by the Rook. There’s another important consideration here, namely where to move the blocking piece. In our example the Bishop moved to d4 where it eyed the g7 pawn. When Black used his Bishop to block the check by White’s Rook, the White Bishop was able to capture the now unguarded g7 pawn and then go on to win the trapped Rook. The point here is to carefully consider where you’re going to move the piece that unleashes the discovered attack. You want to move that piece to a square that attacks another piece or pawn. Remember, when two pieces are under attack, often only one can be defended. In our example, our discovered attack works because the Rook was of less value than the Queen which means White won the exchange. Had it been a Rook pinning a Rook rather than a Rook pinning a Queen to the opposition King, it would have been an even exchange. However, what really made this discovered attack work was Black’s poor choice of pieces to block the Rook check on move two for White. Had Black used his Knight, the Bishop would have been able to defend g7. If you’re the victim of a discovered attack, carefully examine the squares the piece that moved (the e3 Bishop) is attacking, because in our example, the Bishop was able to do further damage. Now we’ll look at the double attack.

With a double attack, one player makes a move that allows the attack of two opposition pieces at the same time. It’s very similar to the discovered attack but with a double attack, two specific pieces are attacked at the same time and at least one of those pieces is undefended and/or the attackers are worth less than the attacked pieces. In our student example of a discovered attack, the second victim of the attack was the g7 pawn which was defended. Unfortunately, Black removed the pawn’s defender which allowed the pawn (and then Rook) to fall. In the above example, it’s White to move. White plays 1.d4. Which attacks the undefended Black Bishop on e5. The Bishop could move except there’s a discovered attack on the Black Queen by the now freed White Bishop on c1. While the Queen is defended, she is worth far more than the Bishop, so she has to move. Black plays 1…Qh5 and White wins the Black Bishop with 2. dxe5. Black tries to mate the White King with 2…Ng4, but White stops this potential checkmate with 3. h3, which attacks the Black Knight.

The differences between discovered and double attacks is not that great because often a discovered attack leads to a double attack. The point you should remember, as a beginner, is that one piece can be saved (in most cases) and one piece will be lost. The trick to executing this tactic is to, as in the case of other tactics, constantly examine, the ranks, files and diagonals on which your opponent’s material sits. This also means that you have to watch your own ranks, files and diagonals because your opponent might just use this tactic on you! Next week, we’re going to look at this topic in greater detail. I chose to give you a very simplified look at this tactical concept just to introduce you to the discovered and double attacks. There’s more to it but as they say, you have to walk before you can run. Next week we’ll learn how to calculate tactics 234 moves in advance. Just kidding! Even Magnus Carlsen couldn’t do that. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Chess Openings for Heroes

I’ve often been asked to recommend an opening book for kids, and my answer, for the past 40 years or so, has always been “I haven’t written it yet”. Now is my chance.

There are not many opening books written for players at this level, and the few that do exist tend to fall into two categories: those that give you a couple of pages on each opening and those that teach a specific opening repertoire. I don’t much care for the first type, while the second type is fine if the repertoire suits you but not if it doesn’t. I’m also very suspicious of those chess teachers who get all their pupils to play the same openings. Different strokes for different folks.

There are also two conflicting theories about what openings you should teach children. The traditional theory, popularised in the old Soviet Union, was that children should play open games, including gambits. Excelling at tactics, they argued, is the key to becoming a strong player, and the way to do this is to choose tactical openings. They believed that children should only play internally within their coaching groups until they are in their teens or are already playing to a high standard. That theory is still in use in places today: I’ve written before about my friends, whose son learnt his chess in Baku from a lady they described as an ‘old Stalinist’.

But most chess teachers in the West will appreciate that children enjoy and benefit from playing in competitions from an early age. It’s not so much fun, though, if you lose your games quickly because of tactical errors, so other teachers teach anti-tactics openings. Their pupils might play one of the ‘triangle’ systems with White (Colle/London/Torre) and meet 1. e4 with the Scandinavian or Caro-Kann. Of course they may well be spending a lot of time practising tactics at home.

My views, as usual, are somewhere between the two, although I lean more towards the idea that children should start by playing tactical openings. One danger of this is that children at this age and level will learn through memory rather than genuine understanding. So if you show them the Fried Liver Attack they’ll play Ng5 and, if allowed, Nxf7 at any opportunity because ‘you told me it was a good move’. If you show them Légal’s Mate they’ll go round moving pinned knights whether or not there’s a mate at the end.

Which is why I recommend that children start by mastering tactics (which they will be able to do by reading Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) before they do much in the way of learning actual openings as opposed to general principles. It’s also why my book is more about metatheory than theory. Learning openings is not about memorising sequences of moves, nor is it about setting traps (“My son has a tournament coming up: can you teach him some traps?”).

So, assuming that our readers understand basic tactics and know how to think ahead, we’re going to look at typical tactical ideas (queen forks, tactics on the e-file etc) which happen across a variety of openings. With this groundwork, the open games starting 1. e4 e5, will all fit into place and make sense.

When we reach the currently popular Spanish and Italian type positions where White plays c3 and d3 early on we’re at the transition point between tactics and strategy.

Before we move onto other openings we’ll look at a lot of strategic ideas: knight outposts, rooks on open files, for example, and, very specifically, pawn formations. We’ll consider what makes a good (or bad) pawn formation and explain the vital concept of the pawn break.

With this understanding, albeit at a fairly rudimentary level, in place, our students will be able to see that the moves of other openings actually make sense rather than just being a random sequence of moves. My view is that, at this stage of children’s development, they should try out lots of different openings. When they’re a bit stronger they will be able to decide which openings they like playing the most and specialise in those. One reason is that I’m very big on teaching chess culture, and a basic understanding of all major openings will help you enjoy and understand chess history.

So there you have it: Chess Openings for Heroes will be an elementary opening book quite unlike anything else on the market.

Richard James

Chess Tactics for Heroes

Last week I looked at the format of Checkmates for Heroes, the first of my series of books designed to take children, or indeed older players, who know the basics up to the point where they can compete successfully in tournaments.

This post considers the next book, Chess Tactics for Heroes.

The principle is exactly the same: start with simple concepts, gradually increasing the complexity. We start with the idea that Superior Force Wins, which underpins the whole of chess, and refer to Chess Endings for Heroes, which will explain how and why. So we should be trying to win points while making sure we don’t play moves that lose points. We explain the idea of a threat (as opposed to an attack), consider the ATD (Attacker Target Defender) idea, and look at how to avoid blunders (look at your opponent’s threats, don’t move defenders or pinned pieces).

We then explain that we can sometimes create a threat that cannot be parried and pose some puzzles in which the reader has to work out how to trap a piece: threaten it so that there’s no way out. Of course, checkmate is a special case of a threat that cannot be parried.

Usually, though, our opponents will meet our threats, but there’s something else we can do: create two threats at the same time. It’s quite likely our opponent will only be able to meet one of those threats, enabling us to carry out the other one.

We start by looking at forks: our students have to find some pawn forks (these are surprisingly common at this level), some knight forks, then some queen forks. Just as we did when teaching checkmates, we then pose some puzzles where you can use a fork to win material, but you have to work out for yourself which piece you are going to use.

The next stage is to look at the pin, a subject which is not so easy to explain. We can win material by pinning a stronger piece, very often using a rook or bishop to pin a queen to a king, or by pinning a piece that cannot be defended. But many pins are harmless, or at worst only mildly inconvenient. There are other things we can do with pins, though. We can sometimes capture a piece for free because the apparent ‘defender’ is pinned. This is a special case of capturing an unprotected piece, but much harder to see because you have to spot the pin as well. Because a pinned piece cannot move away we can often win material by attacking the pinned piece again. This again is a special case of trapping a piece. Our readers will have to solve lots of puzzles based on finding pins which win material, noticing when a pinned piece doesn’t defend, and spotting how you can threaten a pinned piece.

From there it’s natural to move onto skewers, a much simpler subject, and again solve some puzzles.

We can also create two threats at the same time using different pieces. The way we do this is by using a discovered threat. We have a line piece (queen, rook or bishop) in line with an enemy target, but one of our own pieces is in the way. If we can move that piece out of the way we create a discovered threat, which, if the enemy target is the king, will be a discovered check. If we create another threat with the piece we move out of the way we’re creating two threats at the same time. At this level discovered threats, even if they’re not double threats, are often successful because children tend to look only at the last piece that moved rather than the whole board.

We then have some puzzles based on discoveries and some revision puzzles before moving on to something a bit different, which will involve looking a bit further ahead.

Imagine you have an ATD (Attacker Target Defender) situation. You’d like to get rid of the defender. Our next section looks at ways in which you can do this. You might be able to capture the defender, possibly using a sacrifice. You might be able to threaten the defender and drive it away. If the defender is doing two defensive tasks at the same time it’s an overworked piece so you can take advantage. These ideas will be the subject of further puzzles for the student to solve.

Finally, we move onto positions where you have to look a bit further ahead. A typical example would be a position where you play a sacrifice in order to set up a fork and get back the material with interest. This sort of concept, where you have to see 2½ moves ahead, is very difficult for players much below 100 ECF (1500 ELO) strength, but the only way to make progress is to learn to think this far ahead. Understanding this idea is also vital when you come to study openings: particularly the open games which you’ll learn in Chess Openings for Heroes.

The positions from this book are all taken from the Richmond Junior Chess Club database, and played by children at this level. A quick search will reveal, for example, lots of games decided by knights forking king and queen. If you look at grandmaster games you won’t find this sort of thing: they see them coming a long way off. So this book doesn’t consider all possible tactical ideas, nor does it concentrate on the types of tactic appearing in GM games. Instead, and this is one of its USPs, it’s based on the tactical ideas which happen over and over again in games played at this level.

Richard James

The Importance of Tactics Six

In the last few articles, we looked at a tactic called the pin in which a piece of lesser value was stuck in front of a piece of greater value along a rank, file or diagonal. Should the piece of lesser value move, the piece doing the pinning, the attacker, swoops in and captures the piece of greater value. With a skewer, the piece of greater value switches places with the piece of lesser value. A typical pin might be composed of a Black Bishop on g4 pinning a White Knight on f3 to the White Queen on d1. With a skewer, we’d have the Bishop still on g4 but the White Queen would be on f3 and the White Knight on d1. Of course, this rearrangement wouldn’t work for the Black Bishop unless that Bishop was protected with, for example, a Black pawn on h5 to back the Bishop up. While there are similarities between a pin and a Skewer, there are definite differences between the two.

As with the pin, the pieces able to partake in a skewer are your long distance attackers, the Bishops, Rooks and Queen. As I’ve said before, tactics are important and can turn a game around in your favor when used wisely. I say “when used wisely” because many beginning and intermediate players depend on tactics too much. They play solely around the idea of setting up tactical positions in order to gain a material advantage. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with employing tactics, you have to be careful when setting a tactical play up. Why? Because you may have to weaken your position when making the first move or two in a tactical combination, setting the tactic up. Of course, if your opponent is oblivious your plan, you’re fine and the tactical play is successful. However, if your opponent spots the potential tactical play, you’ll end up trying to correct your positional weaknesses. Use your tactics wisely, allowing the opportunity to present itself through poor opposition moves (especially if you’re a beginner) rather trying to set up complicated positions that force tactics. As you improve, so will your ability to spot tactical opportunities and set up combinations. Remember, we first learn to walk before learning to run. Here’s an extremely simple example of a skewer:

As I mentioned earlier, a skewer takes place when a piece of higher value is pinned in front of a piece of lower value along a rank, file or diagonal. In our example, White’s Queen is stuck in front of the White Rook along the f1-a6 diagonal. The Queen is worth nine points or dollars (I use money because everyone, both young and old, can relate to the value of a dollar) and the Rook behind it on the diagonal is worth five points or dollars. Again, the set up is like a pin but the more valuable piece is in front of the piece of lesser value (the reverse is true for a pin). The piece attacking the Queen, Black’s light squared Bishop, is worth three points or dollars. It’s important at this juncture to remember that ideally, the piece attacking the skewered piece should be of lesser value than the piece stuck at the tail end of the rank, file or diagonal where this tactic takes place. However, the value of the pieces involved in a skewer can have varying values but we’ll get into that later on. In our first example, the Queen will have to move, otherwise Black will end up with an even greater material gain. When the Queen moves, 1.Qd1, Black snaps up the Rook with 1…Rxf1 followed by 2. Qxf1. Black has traded a three dollar Bishop for a five dollar Rook netting two dollars. Always consider the value of any exchange before engaging in one!

This skewer for Black was only profitable because Black’s Bishop had protection, namely the pawn on b5. If the pawn wasn’t there then White would simply capture the Bishop! This would be a problem for Black! Now let’s look at skewers in which the piece at the tail end of the skewer is of equal or lesser value that the attacking piece. In our first example, the Bishop was worth less than the Rook trapped behind the Queen. Therefore, trading itself for the Rook makes sense. However, what if a Queen is skewering a piece of greater value, such as the opposition King to a piece of lesser value such as a Rook. Take a look at the example below:

In the above student game example, White plays 1. Qh7+ which directly attacks the Black King. However, this is more than just a check because when the Black King moves, 1. Kc8, the Rook behind it on the seventh rank is then captured by the White Queen after 2. Qxa7! This greatly changes the balance of material in favor of White. While White had more material that Black going into this endgame position, the loss of Black’s Rook is a game changer! While the piece being captured (the Black Rook) was worth less than the Queen, it’s capture eliminated an opposition piece making it much easier for White to win the game. During endgame play, the loss of material is devastating since you have fewer pawns and pieces with which to deliver checkmate. Therefore, using a skewer to create a deficit in opposition material can be a winning tactical play for you.

In the above example, the skewer worked because of two factors. The first factor is that the black King was positioned two squares away from the Rook. To protect the Rook, the Black King would have to be on an adjacent square to the now captured piece, but this leads me to point two, the Bishop on f3. White’s light squared Bishop was on a square that allowed coordinated play between both White pieces. The White Bishop on f3 covered the c6, b7 and a8 squares which means the Black King had no access to those squares and couldn’t protect his Rook. Piece coordination is critical when creating or employing tactics.

When looking for potential skewers, as in the case of the pin, you want to keep an eye on any rank, file or diagonal on which there are pieces. Tactical plays can often fall into your lap when playing against opponents who don’t followed principled play. To avoid falling victim to a skewer, you should always look at any rank, file or diagonal on which you have pieces. The last example of a skewer is a common tactical theme during the endgame. To avoid such a loss you want to make sure you have, your pieces protected. During this student game, Black had an opportunity earlier in the endgame to protect his Rook but didn’t. While our last example used the White Queen to Skewer the Black King and Rook, a White Rook could have done the same job. The advantage the Queen has is her ability to cover diagonals as well. If you’re a beginner or just became an intermediate player, I’d suggest looking for potential skewers rather than trying to set them up with a series of moves. After you’ve developed better chess vision, being able to see the entire board and spot potential problems for both you and your opponent, then consider creating combinations that lead to skewers. Also, remember that tactics are a two way street which means your opponent might skewer you if you’re not keeping a watchful eye over the ranks, files and diagonals your pieces sit on. We’ll continue our examination of tactics next week but until then, here’s a game to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Checkmates for Heroes

We all know that checkmate ends the game, and yet, if you visit your local primary school chess club you’ll see that many children get more pleasure from promoting lots of pawns and getting lots of queens than from actually winning the game.

Furthermore, you’ll see that most games end with the equivalent of a two rook checkmate. It is more likely to be a rook and queen checkmate, and is sometimes a two queen checkmate.

You’ll also see a few games finishing early on with a variation of Scholar’s Mate: a quick checkmate on f7/f2.

At this level children will try to remember something they’ve been taught or seen before, but they won’t be able to work anything out for themselves. So if they don’t see a familiar checkmate on the horizon they will just play random moves, hoping that it will be checkmate.

If we want to help children become good at spotting checkmates we need to do two things. We need to get them to remember the basic patterns, and we need to teach them how to think about a position and work out for themselves whether or not a move is checkmate.

Checkmates for Heroes starts by looking at the familiar two rook checkmate, and extends the idea to look at other checkmates on the edge of the board: the almost equally familiar back rank mate along with positions where one or two possible escape squares are controlled by enemy pieces. These ideas are reinforced by several pages of puzzles on this theme.

Then we look at Scholar’s Mate (there will be more about this in Chess Openings for Heroes) and the general concept of mates with the queen next to the king, sometimes known as Support of Helper Mates. We see how the castled king can often be mated in this way on h7/h2 or g7/g2. This idea is again reinforced by some pages of puzzles.

We also look at two types of checkmate which are harder to spot. We consider the pin mate, where it looks at first as if it’s not mate, but the enemy piece that might have been able to block or capture cannot do so because it’s pinned against the king. Then we consider the discovered check, where another piece moves out of the way to open up a checkmate by a queen, rook or bishop, along with its close relation, the double mate, where two pieces check the enemy king simultaneously.

Next, readers will learn the technique for finding mates in one if you don’t immediately see something you recognise. You have to look at the board and ask a series of questions to identify whether or not the position is checkmate, but this doesn’t come naturally to most young children. To make it easy we start by giving a clue as to which piece is used to get checkmate. As the queen is the most likely piece to give checkmate we have some pages of queen checkmates. Then we do the same thing with the rook.

Once they are confident about working out whether or not a move is mate rather than just making random guesses it’s time to solve some mate in one puzzles where the piece and type of mate are not specified. This is an important skill so there will be several pages of these puzzles.

Now we move on to positions where you have to find more than one way to mate on the move. You might think that one is enough, which is true in a game, but there are two points to this. Firstly, this is a good way of learning more checkmate patterns, and secondly this sort of puzzle trains skills such as perseverance and attention to detail, which are very important if you want to become a good player. We start with positions where you are told how many mates there are, before tackling similar positions where you have to work out for yourself the number of solutions.

Once you’re really good at spotting mates in one you’re ready to learn the most important skill in chess, the ability to think ahead. You’ll then apply this to solving mates in 2 (and more) moves.

At this level, children, if they think ahead at all, will either think “I go there, then I go there, then I go there” or “I go there, then I hope you’ll go there when I’ll be able to go there”. The one single skill which will turn you into a real tournament player is the ability to think “I go there, then if you go there I’ll go there, or if you go there, I’ll go there”. This does not come naturally to most young children. If you ask them what they think their opponent will do next they tend to shrug their shoulders and wonder why you asked such a strange question. How could they possibly know what their opponent’s next move will be? Positions where your opponent has little choice (because they’re in check or because they have few pieces left) are good places to start teaching this skill. We look at how to calculate mates in two moves, and introduce the idea of the sacrifice, where we deliberately give up a piece (sometimes even a queen) because we’ve seen that we can force checkmate. Children often learn the word ‘sacrifice’ before they realise you can look ahead in this way, and think that it applies to any move that loses material, using it as a synonym for ‘blunder’.

Then children have to solve some mate in two (or more) puzzles. I haven’t yet written this part of the book. Perhaps we’ll start with puzzles with some sort of clue.

There might also – and I haven’t yet decided how to do this – be some puzzles where you have to defend against a threatened checkmate. Defensive puzzles are important: I see that Susan Polgar has recently written a book for less experienced players devoted solely to this subject.

A quick note on the source of most of the material for this book: I was originally planning to use the RJCC database but discovered that I’d get a better selection of positions just by taking random games from commercially available databases. Almost any game, no matter how simple, will offer the opportunity for good quiz questions at this level.

Richard James

The Game Gangster Style

We’re going to take a break from tactics to look at one of the many places I teach chess but will return to our tactical studies next week. Teaching chess to children is only part of my chess teaching career. I teach teenagers, adults, coach chess teams and teach chess to extremely hardened criminals, both young and old. Many of my incarcerated students are members of violent street gangs. I put my personal feeling about people who commit crimes aside when I teach the game of chess to these men. My job is not to pass moral judgment on these students but to teach them how to make better life decisions through chess. Imagine being in a room with four to six men, some of whom have committed acts of terrible violence, with the guards standing outside the classroom, close but not close enough to save my life if need be. Surprisingly, I am comfortable there because these men know I’m there for them, working pro bono as their lawyers would say. I don’t charge for my services when working in the jails. I work without pay because if I can get just one of these men to make better life decisions and not end up back in jail, I’ve succeeded and that’s reward enough! When I explain the game of chess, I do so in their terms, terms they can relate too. They don’t need another smart guy in a suit and tie using large words that they don’t understand. They need to hear it in the language of the streets, gang-speak. Here’s how I explain the game of chess:

“The streets are owned by those who take them. Gangs own the streets and the more streets you own, the more power you have. When one gang wants to increase its power they take control of streets belonging to another gang. Of course, the gang losing their hard fought for streets are not going to give them up without a fight. The gang trying to expand their territory sometimes decide to take out the other gang’s leader, their King. Chess is about taking out the other gang’s King, plain and simple. However, you have to play it smart because you only have so many soldiers in your army. Lose those soldiers and you’ve got no one to fight for you and worse yet, no one to protect you. While you might think yourself strong and tough, one man can’t hold back an army.”

When I introduce each player’s army, I do so using street hierarchy, the pecking order within the chain of command. I also introduce them to the word hierarchy, pointing out that you get a lot farther in life when you sound smart because in the end words hold more power than fists. Here’s my introduction of each player’s army:

“In the game of chess, both players start with an equal number of gang members. In other words, you start the fight with the same number of soldiers and firepower. This means you both enter the war with no real advantage.” At this point, someone will yell out “well then, how the #%$# am I going to win?” This is a great question since most of these guys win street wars by going into the fight with a superior force or firepower. It brings up an important point: All things being equal, you win by being smart, knowing where and when to fight your battles, not just jumping in with all guns blazing. We talk about a few historical battles in which the side that one was greatly outnumbered. How did they do it, my students want to know. They become engaged very quickly, often thinking they can use this information on the hard and unforgiving streets. I make a point to remind them that our goal, via chess, is to make better life decisions or life choices and it was bad decision making that landed them behind bars. Now we meet the gang:

“You are the Kingpin and with that title comes power and respect. However, being the Kingpin also means that other Kingpins are out to get you any chance they have. You’re worth more dead than alive to your enemies. This means you have to have protection for if the King falls, so does his empire. On the flip-side, you’re trying to topple your sworn enemy’s empire so your gang needs to divide it’s activities between protecting you and taking down your rival Kingpin! You life as Kingpin is one of constant offense and defense, always carefully balancing the two.”

We then meet the gang or army, starting with the Corner Boys. “The Corner Boy is a loyal soldier who dreams of being the Kingpin’s top lieutenant on day. It’s an entry level position which means he has to do all the dirty work, such as being the first into battle. In chess, we call this soldier the pawn. The pawn is first into the fight and, if he can reach the other side of the board, he is promoted. He’s no coward which is why he can only move forward. However, don’t think that just because you have eight pawns at the games start you can carelessly throw you foot soldiers, the pawns, into the meat grinder of battle. You’re going to need these troops until the bitter end. Those Kingpins who keep more Corner Boys around when the battle winds down will stand a better chance of winning. Remember, every pawn that can cross the board and reach it’s end can promote to the deadliest of assassins, the Queen. We’ll get to her later.”

We talk about a bit about war and how armies work together to win the battle. It’s important to understand that you have to use your army in a coordinated fashion.

“Next we meet the up and comers who are a few rungs up the chain of command ladder. These soldiers, the Knights and Bishops, have their own individual fighting skills and follow closely behind the Corner Boys or pawns. They don’t stand around waiting for the fight to come to them. They get into the fight early on during the opening but pick where they fight very carefully. Their power is strongest when they’re in the thick of the fight, the middle of the board. Bishops are soldiers armed with a sniper rifle, meaning they can attack and do great damage from long distances. When you can’t get a clear shot with your snipers, you bring in the Knights who, because of their ability to jump over other pieces and pawns, can drop into an attack like a special forces soldier parachutes into battle behind enemy lines. We call this special group, the minor pieces and like the army’s special forces, you have a limited number of these highly trained fighters. Use them wisely because they rule the beginning of any fight on the chessboard. Now we’ll look at the game’s big guns, the major pieces the Rooks and the Queen.”

I usually give a pop quiz regarding the pawn, Bishops and Knights as well as the chessboard itself. You’d be surprised at how well my students retain the information I’ve presented them thus far. Their strong retention might come as a surprise though. Most of these students, no matter how bad their criminal activities have been, are not stupid and when you present the game in terms of the street, they get it. I continue:

“Rooks are seasoned warriors. They’ve survived as long as they have because they know just when to come into the fight. They know better than to jump into the fight as soon as it starts. They let the youngsters, the pawns, Knights and Bishops, tear into the enemy and wear them down. The Rooks are like powerful cannons that mow down everything in a straight line. They can blast across the ranks and files of the board so standing in their way can be a deadly affair. They like to have a clear shot, especially at the enemy King so give them a clear line of sight. Remember though, you have to bring your army into battle carefully. The pawns start things off, followed by the Knights and Bishops. Once this part of your army gains control of the board’s center, then you can bring the heavy hitters into the mix. However, you don’t want to throw your Rooks directly into the fight but instead, use them for holding down lines of attack, the ranks and files.”

I introduce the Queen next. In the male dominated culture of gangs, woman are not considered to be equals. However, as I explain, “ The Queen is the deadliest of killers, combining the powers of the Bishop and Rook. She’s the toughest member of the gang. She can destroy all who walk across her path. Yet as powerful as she is, you must take care with her not because she’s a lady but because as dangerous as she is, she will be mercilessly hunted down if she enters the fight too soon. Her power is so strong that she can make a threat and the enemy will stand up and take notice. The queen is often the assassin that goes after the enemy King. However, she often only gets one chance so use her powers wisely.”

That is how I get tough guys interesting in chess. The game not only helps them with making better life decisions but I’ve seen rival gang members form friendships through the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week when we resume our tactical studies. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson