Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Legal Aid

I’m sure you all know about Legal’s Mate (or, if you prefer, Legall or Legalle, with or without an acute accent). It’s named after François Antoine de Legall de Kermeur (1702–92), a French chess player who taught Philidor and was probably, until he lost a match to his pupil in 1755, the strongest player in the world. Sadly, the games of that match are not extant: all we have of his play is the one game with the mate that bears his name.

Here’s an example from the RJCC database: Ray Cannon giving a simul back in 1987.

Black resigned, seeing that 8.. Ke7 9. Nd5 was checkmate. He would have been better advised to capture with the pawn rather than the knight on move 6.

There are, as you would imagine, many games on my database where one player unwittingly moves the pinned knight, losing the queen. Beginners will see the attack on the knight, decide they don’t want to lose it (even though it’s defended twice) and move it away. Alternatively, as in the next game, a more experienced but impatient player will get excited about the idea of creating a threat and forget to ask himself the Magic Question.

Of course, this is a really important topic that we need to teach to young children.

Firstly, they have to understand the pin, recognise the typical position type and be aware that if they move the knight their opponent will be able to capture their queen.

Then they need to learn that sometimes, but not very often, they will be able to move the pinned knight with impunity because they, like Sire de Legall or Ray Cannon, will have a mate at the other end of the board. Apart from its practical merit, it’s always good to show children queen sacrifices. There’s a section on Legal’s Mate in Move Two!.

But there are two possible problems that can arise. The first one happens when they find the mate they’d planned was illusory. One of my earliest coaching experiences was a game at RJCC where, after we’d given the class a lesson on Legal’s Mate, one player did just this. It might possibly have been this game:

If this was the game I’m thinking of, Black played Ng4 fully aware that White could take the queen but hoping that he had a mate in reply.

Another thing that can go wrong is that the mate’s there but the sacrificer hasn’t considered what happens if his opponent doesn’t take the queen.

Here’s the start of another RJCC game from the same period:

The mate’s there OK if Black takes the queen on move 6, but he unsportingly captured the knight instead when White had nothing for the piece.

Failing to check for this sort of thing is not recommended, but in another RJCC game nearly 20 years later Black got away with his indiscretion:

A little bit of thought would have persuaded White to play 12. Nxe4, leaving him a piece ahead. So there you have it. Teach your pupils about Legal’s Mate: it’s an important part of their chess education. Don’t forget to provide some Legal aid as well. Teach them to ensure that the mate is actually there if their opponent snaps at the bait, and to check what happens if their opponent doesn’t take the queen. Perhaps a worksheet could be produced where the students have to tell you whether or not the unpinning sacrifice works.

Richard James

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Flexible Plans

One of the hardest problems facing the beginner is planning. If I ask a roomful of young beginners to define the word “plan,” I get a variety of answers ranging from “I don’t know” to “I’m going to checkmate my opponent on move thirteen with my Queen and a Rook.” Then there’s the student whose only plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King! Checkmate is the game’s goal rather than a plan. Planning is greatly misunderstood by the beginner and it is a lack of planning that leads to lost games. Good planning, be it on the chessboard or in life, can be difficult but not impossible if done correctly. It’s a matter of flexibility (flexible planning) which we’ll discuss later on. Planning is a fundamental and critical part of successful chess playing. It is important to remember that you cannot play chess without a plan. Of course, you could play a game of chess without a plan but the results would disastrous.

A plan is a method of action or procedure for getting something done. Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to visit your family in another city. You don’t close your eyes, click your heels together three times and presto, you’re with your family. You have to get from point “a” (your house), to point “b” (your family’s house). If your family is three hundred Kilometers away, you’ll have to determine what form of transportation you’ll be using to get there. Are you going to take a train which means you’ll have to purchase tickets or are you driving which means purchasing petrol? In either case, you have to follow some sort of procedure, i.e., a plan. Visiting our family is the goal. How we get there depends on our plan.

Planning can be an overwhelming concept for the novice player. Beginners become easily overwhelmed when playing because so much seems to be going on, all at once. An experienced player will look at a given position on the chessboard and systematically resolve the larger problem at hand by breaking it down into smaller more manageable micro-problems. Only then, after the smaller problems have been isolated and understood, will the experienced player embark on a plan or series of smaller plans that resolves the overall or bigger issue. The beginner, on the other hand, will become frustrated because he or she doesn’t have a logical way in which to approach problem solving as well as no grasp of planning. Therefore, I devote a fair amount of classroom time to problem solving and planning.

The first step the beginner must take is to learn efficient problem solving. This starts with looking at the smaller picture rather than the big picture. Let me explain. Chess can be an extremely complex game to master as a whole. Fortunately, the game can be broken down into smaller parts, such as the opening, middle and endgame. These three phases can be further divided by applying principles or guideline to each of these three phases. During the opening game or phase, each player has three overall principles they can apply to guide them through a variety of opening problems. These three principles are getting control of the board’s center with a pawn, the development of minor pieces to active or centralized squares and castling which tucks the King away safely and activates one of the two Rooks. By breaking the game down into phases and applying well thought out principles to each phase, the beginner is able to approach problems individually rather than as one overall large problem.

When faced with a positional problem, I have my students identify the phase of the game in which the problem occurs first. Only after the game’s phase has been identified do we move on to applying a principle to the problem at hand. After identifying the problem by breaking it down into a game phase and determining which principle will apply to the issue at hand, we move on to the idea of planning. Too often, beginners become hopelessly lost because they haven’t narrowed down the realm of possible problems. They’re looking at the big picture which tells them there’s a problem rather than trying to further isolate the real issue. Many times, a student will see the effect, in this case a bad position, without identifying the underlying cause. Identify the phase of the game and applicable principle before creating a plan!

Once the problem has been isolated, it’s time to create a plan. Beginners tend to think that plans come in one of two forms. Either their plans are to vague, not really being plans at all, or they’re too rigid. If a student states that his or her plan is to checkmate the opposition’s King on move twenty two using two Bishops, their plan is too rigid! Each time your opponent makes a move, the landscape of the chessboard changes. A plan that might work for one position may be pointless if your opponent’s move drastically alters the positional landscape of the board. Plans need a certain amount of flexibility. The way to keep your plans flexible is make moves that are less specific but still effective. After 1.e4…e5, the player of the White pieces looks at the moves 2.Nf3 and Qh4. Putting a Knight on f3 is a more flexible move than bringing the Queen out to h4, The Queen is obvious part of an attack on the f7 square. Black can easily stop the Queen dead in her tracks. Putting the Knight on f3 is much more flexible in that it attacks the e5 pawn, influences d4 and keeps the Black Queen off of the g and h files. This is a more flexible more which allows for a more flexible plan. Moves that do more than one thing, such as attack more than one piece, allow for flexible plans.

Plans can quickly change in chess so be prepared! Here’s an example: Your plan is to execute a specific idea, say a Knight fork that checks the opposition’s King and attacks the King-side Rook at the same time two moves from now. A great deal can happen to a position in just two moves. This means that your plan may not be valid two moves from now because your opponent found a move you didn’t factor into your original plan. Rather than count on your opponent making the moves you want them to make, think about the best move or moves they could make. Beginners have a bad habit of only thinking about opposition moves that work for them rather than their opponent. When coming up with a plan based on a position, always try to determine the best move your opponent can make not the move you hope they’ll make. Only then can you create a realistic plan. If you identify the real problem, determine your opponent’s best response or move and keep your plans flexible, you’ll win more games. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Where to Place Your Pieces?

Recently I have observed that a few of my young students get confused when they face an opening other than 1. e4 e5 and it is not wise to teach them particular opening when you have just introduced opening principles. So I’ve come to the conclusion that when we teach opening principles we should focus the rapid development in detail in order to overcome this issue.

What points to be considered while we talk about rapid development? Well I mainly focus on those below:
1) Piece activity
2) Its mobility
3) Targets

Here I would like to mention that I just want to give them what they can digest. All the points are interrelated so I show them the two positions below on different boards and ask the following questions:

i) What is the total number of squares that piece is eyeing on after its development?

ii) How many squares are controlled in the opponent’s half?

iii) Is that piece targeting anything?

They will automatically understand that a bishop on c4 is much better than on e2.

Another point I want to emphasis when I talk about mobility is retreating as I have observed that their pieces get trapped because there is no retreating squares. Again I show them below two examples on different boards.

Here I talk about the different boards, the logic being that if they see two boards together they can save that data as a picture in their subconscious minds which is easy to recall. It is like comparing two similar looking images and finding the differences. No matter how difficult the topic is to grasp it can be presented in a way that can be understood.

Ashvin Chauhan

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When We Were Kings (3)

I left you last week answering a phone call in my London office in early 1986.

The call was from my friend Mike Fox. Mike and I had started Richmond Junior Club in 1975, but a few years later his job in advertising took him to Birmingham. One of his clients there was an internationally famous manufacturer of luxury cars. Along with a colleague, Steve Smith, Mike devised an advertising campaign based on Rolls Royce trivia. The client was impressed with the campaign and suggested that it could be expanded into book form. Rolls Royce: The Complete Works was published by Faber & Faber, becoming a best-seller. The publishers asked Mike for another book, on any subject he chose. He decided to write a book about chess trivia and asked me to be the co-author.

I was excited by the prospect of becoming a published author but, with a full-time job along with RJCC I needed to make time. So I decided to leave my job. I could earn as much money working freelance three days a week as I could working five days a week for a salary. The spare time would enable me to work with Mike on the book (which was to become The Complete Chess Addict) and develop Richmond Junior Club into what I wanted it to be.

These days teachers talk a lot about differentiation, and that was what I wanted to do. Our morning group was to be for children of primary school age, where they would learn to play with clocks and record their moves when they were ready to do so. In the afternoon group children would be more serious. Once a month we would run quad tournaments, where children would be placed in groups of 4 according to playing strength and play three 30-minute games during the 3 hour session, recording their moves.

Meanwhile, we got lucky again. During the late 70s and early 80s London Central YMCA ran a very strong junior chess group which attracted many of the best young players from London and the South East. By this time it was in decline and one of the chess teachers there, Ray Cannon, came along to Richmond with his young son Richard. Ray, like me, was pretty serious about junior chess and soon became an integral part of the afternoon group.

At about the same time a local primary school, Sheen Mount, appointed a new Headteacher, Jane Lawrence, who was very keen on chess. Jane was not herself a very strong player, but was more than good enough to be an inspirational teacher of beginners. She taught the whole school to play chess, was highly competitive, and children who wanted to do so could play at school every day. Because they had so many opportunities to play during the week, only a few Sheen Mount children joined RJCC, but those who did, including future IMs Richard Bates and Tom Hinks-Edwards, became strong players.

The following year a family from Aberdeen with two chess-playing sons moved into my road. The younger boy’s name was Jonathan Rowson. The cast for our second big generation was taking shape.

Towards the end of 1989 I received another momentous phone call: “Hello. I think my son might be quite good at chess.” The son in question was Luke McShane, younger than our other strong players but an honorary member of that cohort. Meanwhile, one of our first members, Gavin Wall, had joined the team working with our younger players on Saturday mornings. We had an efficient and coherent structure in place which allowed a second strong generation to flourish.

Here are a couple of games from that period.

From a match between Richmond Junior Club and Sheen Mount School. Richard Bates reminded me of this game on Facebook recently. He recalled missing the winning 40. Rd6+.

From a few years later. Here, the young Luke McShane outplays his opponent, a great-nephew of the Yugoslavian GM Petar Trifunovic, but suffers a brainstorm on move 53. Black in his turn heads in the wrong direction in the king and pawn ending, throwing away the draw ten moves later. I’ve said it before, and will no doubt do so again, but so many games at this level are decided by mistakes directly or indirectly connected with king and pawn endings.

Richard James

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Future Masters

Future masters have to start somewhere and most in England learn their skills on the weekend tournament circuit, in junior events and adult events. It used to be the case that it would take many years, even for the most talented, to become masters, but now things seem to have speeded up with access to databases and coaching.  It is remarkable how quickly juniors can improve now. One kid from nearby went from a beginner to the top player in the county for his age category in just 3 years. I guess he will have his first master title in another 3 years, such is the trajectory of his progression.

I recently had a look through some of my games in the 1990s, the decade when I first started playing chess. In 1996, I played in the World Amateur Championship in Hastings. I played a future IM, Thomas Rendle. He was only about 10 at the time, graded perhaps around 1500 elo, while I was about 1700 elo – although the ratings are a bit irrelevant as we were both heading for ratings hundreds of points higher. While I was a bit more experienced, he had the confidence of youth. He was in the habit of wearing bow-ties, as I recall. I thought he was a bit reminiscent of Walter, the arch enemy of Dennis and Gnasher. Anyway, he played the French Defence, which he still does today, although he’s no longer wearing the bow-ties!

In the game below he played well until he saw an opportunity to win two minor pieces for a rook, missing that his king would get into trouble.

Although I won this encounter, ten years later he become an IM while I hit a wall and stopped making significant progress. I like to think that the reason why I didn’t progress to master level was that I only came to chess as an adult, and annoying things like having to earn a living got in the way. While there is probably a little bit of that involved, it is probably more because I didn’t want to improve as much as he did and didn’t prioritise it enough. What are you prepared to sacrifice to improve? If you’re not giving 100% to chess, forget becoming a master. And watch out for the kids – some of them may be future masters!

Angus James

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When We Were Kings (2)

Two weeks ago I left you at the 1983 Richmond Junior Club Under 14 Championship, where a host of potential or actual future GMs and IMs vied for their club championship.

It soon became clear, though, that this generation was something of a flash in the pan. We were at the end of the English Chess Explosion and also at the end of the generation who had been influenced by Mike Fox’s charismatic personality. If you get a group of strong players together two things happen. Firstly, they learn from each other and become even stronger, and secondly you develop a good reputation and other strong players will be attracted to join you. Our next cohort was, by comparison, small in number and weak in playing strength. I wanted to ensure that we’d return to our previous level of excellence and continue to produce strong players in future. The obvious thing to do was to talk to the most successful chess teacher in the country, who, as it happened, was in our area, so we started working together with Mike Basman. Mike’s approach was to get all children to notate their games even if they were young beginners, so we ran some training events in which our members were joined by some of his pupils.

As a result of this I have quite a lot of games in my database played by very weak players. Pieces were left en prise every few moves and many games ended with a quick checkmate on f7 or f2. Children had been taught attacking ideas but not how to look at the board, how to defend or how to think ahead. While I’m still not convinced that it’s a good idea to encourage children to score their games too soon, 30 years on, these are useful to me as a supply of games played by beginners. (I guess it’s an interesting question whether or not beginners play the same way now as they did 30 years ago. Grandmasters certainly don’t, and I think there are differences at lower levels partly due to the easy online availability of coaching materials. I might, or might not, return to this later.)

After a couple of years I decided that, while Mike Basman’s success as a coach was not in question, it wasn’t the right approach for me. I was developing ideas about what I wanted to do, but it would involve a lot of work and time which was not compatible with regular employment.

One day in early 1986 I was sitting in the office at work contemplating my future when the phone rang. My job writing computer programs to analyse market research data was reasonably enjoyable and reasonably well paid but I’d been doing the same thing (albeit with different technology) since 1972 and didn’t want to continue for the next 30 years. The only way out was to move into management, but I was told, quite rightly, that I was a techie and not management material.

“Hello Richard”, said the voice at the other end of the phone. “This call could change your life.”

In the next exciting episode you’ll find out what happened next.

Richard James

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Retaining Focus is Child’s Play

Being able to completely immerse yourself in chess, either during games or when studying, is clearly going to benefit your chess development.

It is well known that some children can suffer from attention deficit disorder or something similar, but actually children can be much better than adults at focusing on one thing. This might be partly why they are so good at learning and absorbing information quickly when they find something that interests them.

Anyone with children, or who teaches children, will know that they can become so engrossed in something that they are able to completely zone out whatever is not the focus of their attention – such as parents and teachers on occasion! If something interests them it is effortless for them to completely focus on it. They don’t need lessons in how to concentrate, find something that interests them and they will be the ones giving the lessons to parents and teachers in how to concentrate.

This ability to focus, and zone out everything else, is known as ‘inattentional blindness‘ and everyone needs this to some degree. It is linked to brain development and hence children, especially younger children, are going to be much less aware of surroundings. I’m speculating, but I wonder if dedicated junior chess players are benefiting from this ability to focus so well. The main thing is that children are naturally interested in chess, not pushed into doing it by well-meaning parents. Not all children are interested in the same things. It would be great if every child could have the opportunity to learn chess and decide for themselves if they wish to pursue it further. Anyone with a child who loves chess is not going to have a problem getting them to focus on it, quite the reverse, it is their school homework that might be the problem!

Angus James

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Poetic Justice

I’ll return to the history of Richmond Junior Club later, possibly next week, but first I’d like to show you a recent RJCC game played between two of my private pupils.

The game started with the French Defence. Black, the older of the two boys, favours this opening. He doesn’t yet know a lot about it, though, as he’s still too young to study chess on his own.

So: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 (unusual in junior chess where the Exchange and Advance Variations are the usual choices) 3.. Nf6 4. Bd3 (a reasonable developing move, but not played often at higher levels, where Bg5 and e5 are preferred. Now c5 is the most popular reply, but instead Black immediately blunders)

4.. Bd6, and White spotted the opportunity to win a piece, playing 5. e5. This tactical idea, a pawn fork in the centre of the board, happens over and over again in games played by children. There are scores of examples in my Richmond Junior Club database. You’ll rarely come across this in books, though, because at higher levels players see it coming and avoid it. If Black had remembered to ask himself the Magic Question (“If I do that what will he do next?”) he might have chosen something else.

Black decided he ought to gain some compensation for the piece by getting his pieces out quickly, so the game continued 5.. Nc6 6. exd6 Qxd6.

At this level, children tend to think “How can I create a threat?” rather than “How can I put a piece on a better square?”. The next day I was playing Black in a training game against another of my private pupils, younger and less experienced than these two boys. I played the French Defence myself (I usually play 1.. e5 at this level but sometimes mix things a bit) and the game started 1. e4 e6 2. d4 (It took him some time to find this move) 2.. d5 3. exd5 exd5. Now he saw that he could threaten my queen by playing Bg5, reached out his hand, noticed that it wasn’t safe, and instead played the first move he saw that controlled g5: h4. At lower levels children play this sort of move for this reason all the time. I persuaded him that if he wanted to prepare Bg5 he’d be better off developing a piece with Nf3.

Returning to the game in question, then, White decided he’d like to play Bf4 to threaten the black queen, so chose to prepare it with the truly horrible 7. g3. A much more sensible approach to the position would have been simple development with Nf3 and O-O.

Black replied with 7.. e5, opening the centre against the white king, and White, his plan thwarted, looked for another way to threaten the black queen and found 8. Nb5. Black replied 8.. Qe7, defending c7 and eyeing the white king. It’s not so easy for White now as it’s going to be hard to get his king into safety. He played 9. Ne2, blocking the e-file and hoping to castle, but this move had a tactical disadvantage. Again, asking the Magic Question would have led him to an alternative solution.

Black could now regain his piece with 9.. e4, trapping the bishop on d3, another basic recurring tactical idea at this level, but he didn’t notice this and preferred to continue his development with 9.. Bg4. White traded pawns: 10. dxe5 Nxe5, reaching a position where Black has a Big Threat.

White has a few ways to stay in the game here, but instead he failed to ask himself the Magic Question and just developed a piece: 11. Be3, allowing Black to carry out his threat: 11.. Nf3+ 12. Kf1 Bh3# with a pretty checkmate. Poetic justice that Black’s knight and bishop occupied the squares that were weakened by g3, and a salutary lesson for White about how pawn moves can create weaknesses.

Here’s the complete game.

The game I usually use when teaching about pawn forks in the opening is this:

This is a trick worth knowing. Black developed his bishops on c5 and e6 and a knight on c6, giving White the chance to win a piece neatly with 7. d4, followed by d5. He missed his chance but still won a piece the following move when Black fell for another recurring tactic, the queen fork on a4. If 9. Bxb4, 10. Qa4+ wins.

Richard James

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When We Were Kings (1)

I’m currently working my way though my database of nearly 17000 games played at Richmond Junior Chess Club between 1977 and 2006 to produce low level tactics puzzles based mostly on encounters between young children. I’ll tell you more about this project when it’s further advanced, but looking at the games enables me to think again about the history of RJCC.

Our first ‘big generation’ came through in the early 1980s. The club had been formed in 1975 by Mike Fox and myself, but Mike’s job took him to Birmingham in 1979, leaving me on my own, but with a lot of support from parents. However, it was Mike’s enthusiasm and charisma, along with our being in the right place at the right time, which produced this crop of strong players.

Our 1983 Under 14 Championship had 18 players. Two of them, Aaron Summerscale and Demetrios Agnos (who was later known as Dimitri or Dimitrios Anagnostopolous when he and his family returned to Greece) became Grandmasters. Two more, Gavin Wall and Ali Mortazavi, became International Masters. Chris Briscoe is a 2200+ strength player with an IM norm to his name. Mark Josse is also a 2200 strength player, and plays alongside Chris at Surbiton Chess Club. Bertie Barlow is a strong club player, whom I saw recently for the first time in many years. Others: James Cavendish, Ben Beake, Michael Ross, Harry Dixon, Philip Hughes were strong teenage players with at least IM potential who chose to do other things with their lives. Players such as Rajeev Thacker and Leslie Faizi were not far behind. Their contemporaries at RJCC who didn’t enter this event included the likes of Nick von Schlippe and Michael Arundale.

Gavin, Aaron and Chris are all now professional chess coaches working in schools and teaching private pupils in the West/South West London area. Mark Josse was a valuable member of the RJCC coaching team last season. But, in spite of all their talents as both players and teachers the standard of junior chess in this area, and in the country in general, is dramatically lower now than it was then. We were lucky to be at the end of the post-Fischer boom and in the middle of the English Chess Explosion, but there must have been something else happening. I remember at about this time seeing a list of the top US juniors in Chess Life and working out that, at the top level, Richmond Junior Club was stronger than the whole of the USA.

How did we get such a strong group of players together? What was happening then which isn’t happening now?

Did we have a team of great coaches? No – we did very little coaching and there was not very much in the way of private tuition available. I seem to recall visiting the Mortazavi residence on one occasion but that was all. They played serious chess and learnt both from themselves and from each other. If you get a group of talented players together things just happen. The social element of the club was also very important. Of course back in those days there was no online chess and not much in the way of computer games to distract them. There was also far less academic pressure than there is now. One factor which I think was important was that, by and large, children started playing competitively slightly older than they do now. Gavin Wall, a player with extraordinary natural talent, was the exception, having been a former London Under 8 Champion. But, at the age of 12 or 13, chess was still something relatively new and exciting for them. For some, the excitement waned, but at least half of them are still excited by chess more than 30 years on.

Gavin won the event with a 100% score. In this game he defeats a future GM.

Richard James

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Exploiting Weaknesses

Beginning players tend to look at their progress during a game in terms of making aggressive attacking moves that lead to checkmate. Beginners, especially younger ones, love to attack and capture pawns and pieces. In this context, the beginner has a rather one sided or simplistic view of the game. For these players, attacking is the name of the game. My young students often end up on the losing side of a game because, in their efforts to attack, they weaken their position which allows their opponent to take advantage of this weakness and win the game. Of course, a strong position and moves that attack your opponent are instrumental in winning your game, but there is another concept that needs to employed, the exploitation of weakness. In life, the exploitation of weakness would be considered a dastardly thing to do. In chess, however, exploiting weaknesses leads to winning games. Unfortunately, most beginners haven’t matured enough, skill-wise, to consider this idea early in their chess careers. I used to wait until my students had reached a specific level before introducing the concept of exploiting an oppositional weakness. However, as an experiment, I decided to try introducing the concept of exploiting weaknesses earlier in my student’s training.

When I teach chess, and only after my students understand the game’s rules, we move on to simultaneously learning opening principles, basic tactics and how to attack. Beginners can easily become overwhelmed when faced with too much theory so I tend to teach ideas and principles using smaller steps. While teaching three ideas simultaneously might not seem like taking smaller learning steps, all three go hand in hand and each complements the other. In fact, each of the three above mentioned concepts helps to reinforce the other two!

Learning how to properly attack starts with a review of relative piece and pawn value followed by counting attackers and defenders. Generally, you want to start an attack with the units of least value. Therefore, if you have a pawn, a Knight and a Queen, you’ll want to start the attack with the pawn, the unit of least value, then the Knight and finally the Queen (there are exceptions to this idea). Before launching your attack, count up the relative value of the defending pieces and compare it to the relative value of the attacking pieces. If you’re the attacker and your material value is 17, you may not want to start exchanging pieces if the defender’s total material value is 7 points (unless the result is checkmate or you’re avoiding being checkmated). Beginners should also compare the number of attackers to defenders. If you have three attacking pieces and your opponent has five defending pieces, you’re not going to do well with your attack. Again, there are always exceptions to these principles but I work with beginners so I have to keep it simple and make sure they understand the principles before they break them. Beginners need to expand their tactical and strategic horizons!

The point here is that beginners tend to see things in a very black and white way. Beginners see the game of chess two dimensionally when they start off while the experienced player sees the game three dimensionally. This third dimension constitutes the grey areas such as exploiting an opponent’s positional weaknesses. To an experienced player, exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses is a norm rather than an exception. However, beginners tend to see things in terms of straight forward attacking or defending because they’re just taking their first swim in the ocean of strategic thinking, so they’re only ankle deep in the water rather freely swimming!

Chess teaching is a double edged sword. What I mean by this is that you have to teach the underlying mechanics of the game which leads to a very mechanical way of thinking. However, and here’s where the double edged sword rears its ugly blade, mechanical thinking leads to loss when facing an opponent who thinks outside the box (outside of the realm of mechanical thinking). Mechanical thinking is necessary if the beginner ever hopes to really improve. After all, you have to learn the game’s underlying principles. Once you have learned those principles and understand them, you can start thinking about breaking them. Pablo Picasso, for example, was known for his brilliant abstract art. However, he could paint realistic works of art (at the age of fourteen) without effort. He learned the principle of painting first and then went on to break those principles!

As usual, I’ve digressed from the topic at hand! When beginners attack, they do so based on a combination of the positioning of their pawns and pieces, with a minimal amount of attention given to their opponent’s pawn and piece positioning other than counting attackers and defenders. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, the beginner is not necessarily creating the best circumstances for his or her attack. This is where the examination of an opponent’s positional weaknesses comes into play. An example I use to demonstrate this idea of positional weakness is the square or squares left behind after a piece moves.

I learned about this idea watching an instructional video by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When we or our opponent moves a pawn or piece, they often create a weakened position. The pawn or piece they just moved is no longer defending the squares it previously defended. This means a weakness has been created. This means that even an apparently strong move can leave behind a dangerous weakness. I tell my students that every move, no matter how good, has a potentially negative aspect to it. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…d6 and 4.d3…Nd4, White has to make a decision regarding his Knight on f3. Does White trade off Knights, take the pawn on e5 or move the Queen-side Knight to d2 (there are other choices but I’m trying to keep it simple)? Two of these moves, trading Knights or taking the pawn of e5 leave White with a weakness. That weakness is that the Knight previously on f3 isn’t there anymore to guard the g5 and h4 squares. The person playing Black in the above example is counting on White moving the Knight off of the f3 square which allows easier access to White’s King-side. Black sees a potential weakness and tries to exploit it.

The idea here is that you should look at your moves and your opponent’s moves for weaknesses in the form of the squares that pawns or pieces no longer defend after they move. This helps improve your game because you have to carefully consider each move in terms of weakening your position rather that strengthening it. The beginner starts to see, with a little practice, that an aggressive move may do more harm than good. I have my students write down potential weaknesses (squares left behind) for each of their moves and their opponent’s moves. In doing so, they tend to build up their attacks in a slower manner, avoiding weakening their position in exchange for a fast attack. By examining your opponent’s move, specifically the squares left behind or left undefended, you’ll start to discover weaknesses that you can exploit. You’ll also weaken your position less! Remember, every move has a potential negative side to it. Consider potential weaknesses before committing to a move and your game will improve. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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