Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Aftermath

Don’t worry. Although this might start off like a post on politics, it’s actually about something else. Most things, in my experience, are not about what most people think they’re about. If it really was a post on politics, Nigel, quite rightly, wouldn’t publish it. After all, this is a chess blog.

In the aftermath of the recent General Election it’s been interesting to read articles from a variety of viewpoints on what will happen next with regard to both UK politics in general, and, more specifically, Brexit.

Adam Swersky, for example, is a local councillor in Harrow (North West London) representing the Labour Party. In his day job he leads an initiative helping people with health problems and disabilities to find employment. He wrote an interesting article proposing a Grand Coalition to solve the UK’s political and social problems.

A couple of hours later I came across an article in the Sunday Times suggesting that the election result might open the way for a soft Brexit. The article was written by the newspaper’s economics correspondent Tommy Stubbington, who had previously worked for the Wall Street Journal, and, before that, for Dow Jones Newswires.

You might by now be asking yourself what this has to do with chess. But 22 years ago, back in 1995, Tommy and Adam were sitting across the chessboard from each other in Round 4 of the Richmond Chess Initiative Championship. Tommy was the more experienced player so the game resulted in a comprehensive victory for the future Sunday Times over the future Harrow Labour Party.

Both Tommy and Adam were strong, but not outstanding, players at primary school age, both achieving grades in the 120s before giving the game up to concentrate on their academic work. If you’re bright enough to understand chess at a higher level at that age without intensive coaching there’s a fair chance (although it’s not true for everyone) that you’ll find other things to do with your life that are more lucrative, such as being a top financial journalist, more worthwhile, like helping people with health problems find work, or just more interesting than chess.

This is one of the problems with children starting competitive chess young: those who do well will be the children with a very strong general intellgence (David Didau believes there is such a thing: you may disagree) who will often choose to do other things with their lives.

Looking back at the 29 players in that 1995 tournament, there is, as far as I know, one (older than most of the players in this event and also older when starting competitive chess) still playing regularly and another, who also started relatively late, playing occasionally. I’m aware that another competitor, now a Brussels-based Eurocrat (not sure what effect Brexit will have on him) plays online to a high level. So we’re getting at most 10% of our stronger players remaining active 20 years later – and don’t forget that these were the strongest RJCC players, and the RJCC players in turn were the strongest primary school players. The followthrough from primary school to adult chess has been for 20 or 30 years at the most 1% (probably more like 0.1% now), even in an area like Richmond with a strong and active junior chess club acting as a bridge between the two worlds.

Children who start competitive chess at secondary school age, however, do not need precocious skills – and it’s those who are more likely to continue playing chess as adults. The younger children start to play competitively the more likely they are to become grandmasters, but the older children start to play competitively the more likely they are to continue playing as adults.

If you look at the pattern in other Western European countries you’ll find that, although chess is very popular with young children, just as it is here, it is also, unlike here, popular with teenagers, and, again unlike here, many young people come into competitive chess for the first time in their teens. There are several possible reasons for this, which I’ve touched on in many articles here and elsewhere over the years. Perhaps the educational and social ethos in this country, something I alluded to last week, also has something to do with it. What do you think?

Richard James

Opening Principles Part Seven: Middle-Game Preparation

When beginners learn and begin to master the opening principles they often think, after the last basic principle has been applied, that it’s time to start attacking. While attacking is the crucial factor when it comes to winning games, launching into one prematurely can and usually does, lead to a weakened position from which one can never fully recover. If you play through the games of master level players, you’ll see that they only attack when the time is right. When’s the right time? Read on and you’ll find out.

Obviously, if your opponent provides you with an opportunity to launch a successful attack early on you should consider doing so. When I play beginning students, they provide ample opportunity for me to launch into attacks that greatly alter the balance of the game in my favor. Beginner’s games tend to have a lot of weak positions that allow for early attacks. I teach my beginning students to avoid launching early early attacks, those during the opening, and instead build up their position. Of course, I teach them how to spot a potential early attack and what they can do to stop it. After all, I’d be a dreadful chess teacher if I didn’t teach defensive methods.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, when you play through the games of the masters you’ll see that they methodically build up their position, only attacking when the position warrants it? What do I mean by this? Typically, a beginner who takes the opening principles to heart will control the center with a pawn or two, develop three or four of their minor pieces (Knights and Bishops), Castle their King to safety and connect their Rooks (moving their Queen up a rank). Then they’ll start looking for possible attacks. They might spot a potential attack but that attack will depend on their opponent making a specific move or two that allows the attack to take place. This is wishful thinking chess. Our beginner, in this example, is counting on their opponent doing something specific in terms of a move. This specific move is what the beginner wants not what their opponent wants. Our beginner is seeing the position only in terms of what opposition moves work for that beginner’s plan. Their opponent is most likely going to make a move that counters our beginner’s plan which leaves the beginner in a jam!

The mistake our beginner is making is launching an attack that will only succeed if their opponent makes essentially bad moves. This is unrealistic since your opponent also wants to win the game and has plans of his or her own! When a plan solely depends on a move or two being made by the opposition and those moves aren’t made, then the attack falls apart. How do we create a position that leads to a successful attack? By increasing the number of pieces that can partake in an attack so we have greater attacking options! How do we do that?

We continue the development of pawns and pieces. Just because you’ve controlled the center with a pawn or two, developed your minor pieces, Castling your King and connected your Rooks, doesn’t mean you’re ready for the Middle-game where attacks generally start. There’s further development to be had! Of course, you want to bring a new piece into the game during each opening move but you can, after having achieved this goal, bring those pieces to more active squares. What are active squares? Those squares that allow your pawns and pieces to control opposition squares (the squares on your opponent’s side of the board). For example, a White Knight on c3 might consider moving the d5, only if it’s safe, in order to attack more squares on the opposition’s side of the board. However, before you start considering moving pieces for a second time, take a look at your Rooks.

Beginner’s tend to neglect their Rooks. A beginner playing the White pieces might Castling King-side but leave their Rook dormant on the f1 square. While that Rook is more active than it was prior to Castling (when it was trapped on the h1 square), moving it to e1 would allow it to access the e file which is especially important if Black hasn’t Castled yet. Then there’s the other Rook, the Rook on a1 in the case of King-side Castling (by White). Once the Rooks are connected, they have the ability to work along their starting rank, acting as bodyguards for pawns you might want to push up (or down in the case of Black) the board later on. Pawns can be further developed. While beginner’s learn not to make flank pawn moves during the opening, if there’s a Black Bishop on c8, a White Knight onf3 and White Queen on d1, White might want to move the h pawn from h2 to h3, preventing a potential relative pin. However, it’s more important to develop your minor pieces first before making such a pawn move.

Sometimes we’re forced to move a minor piece to a square that is less active during the start of the opening because the opposition controls the square we initially wanted to move to. Can we develop the piece in question to a better square? If we can we should, especially before launching an attack. The more pieces you can employ in an attack, the better your attack will be. Think of it this way, if you have five attackers and you opponent has three defenders, their chances of warding off your attack are far less than if the number of attackers versus defenders was equal. Greater force (when attacking) is a key idea. However, to have a greater attacking force you first have to activate your pieces.

Slowly developing or moving your pawns and pieces to active squares gives you greater attacking options. Namely, you have more potential ways to attack. If your pieces are centrally located, controlling a large number of squares on your opponent’s side of the board, you’ll be able to launch attacks from more locations that your opponent can defend. You opponent might build up a good defense on one part of the board but, because you have centrally located pieces, you can attack elsewhere. Having options within your plan is crucial. The problem with most beginner’s plans is that they’re based on a specific move being made by their opponent. Having options also means being flexible. Thus, if your opponent makes a move you didn’t see coming, you’ll be able to address that opposition plan accordingly because you have actively developed your pieces. You can’t anticipate every move your opponent might make which means you could be attacked. However, if your pawns and pieces are actively placed, you have a much better chance of surviving.

When you look at your position and think there’s nothing there, look again! You’ll probably find a pawn or piece that can be further activated or developed. When you have greater control of the board, which only happens when your pieces are more actively positioned than your opponent’s pieces, you opponent may be forced to make a move he or she doesn’t want to make. That can lead to a better position for you and a winning game. The watchwords for the day are pawn and piece activity. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Knowledge and Skills

A few weeks ago a poster on the English Chess Forum posed a question about whether chess education should be based on skills or knowledge. I was tempted to answer but before I got round to it the discussion on that thread had moved onto something else, so I decided to write a blog post instead.

Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘skills’, doesn’t it?

When you think about chess skills you might interpret it as the ability to put knowledge into practice. For instance, I may know the basic procedure for delivering checkmate with bishop and knight against king, but not necessarily have the skill to put it into practice with my clock ticking in a quickplay finish. We’re talking here about domain-specific chess skills.

You might also think about the cognitive and executive function skills you need to play chess well: the ability to handle complex abstract logic, concentration, impulse control.

But I suspect the poster meant neither of these type of skills, but rather the skill of, if you like, thinking like a chess player. How to consider what will happen next. How to choose between alternatives. How to make decisions. How to solve problems. And this is precisely what the worldwide scholastic chess movement is aiming to do, claiming that using chess in this way will ‘make kids smarter’. Compare the knowledge of history or science with the skill of thinking like a historian or a scientist. (‘Scholastic chess’, in this sense, means using subsets of chess as a learning tool in the classroom, and has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as played in clubs and tournaments. Its proponents, however, will hope that many children will want to move onto competitive chess later, and, having learnt both the basic rules and the required thinking skills,

You’re probably aware that there’s been a continuing debate over many decades about the respective merits of ‘traditional’, knowledge based learning versus ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’, skill based learning, particularly within primary schools. My views, as they do on many subjects, occupy what I’d like to consider the sensible middle ground. Yes, I can see the merits of ‘traditional’ education where children sit in rows of desks facing the teacher, and there’s an emphasis on rote learning, facts, worksheets: after all it’s what I grew up with, and it served me well enough at least in my early years. But some children, in some subjects, will benefit from a more progressive approach where children sit round tables working in groups to develop skills and solve problems, because, after all, the traditional education I had eventually failed me. But that’s a story for another time and place.

The countries that regularly top the international league tables, though, tend to take an extreme view. Finland, for example, considered by many to have the best education system in the world, uses ‘progressive’ methods. Here’s a recent article outlining a proposed move away from a subject-based curriculum to a project-based curriculum. On the other hand, the East Asian countries which excel at maths use extremely ‘traditional’ methods.

The scholastic chess movement, it seems to me, is much more suited to ‘progressive’ than ‘traditional’ education. It ties in very much with the idea of children working together to solve a problem and aims to promote the skills of a chess player, as opposed to chess playing skills. On the other hand, worksheet based courses, such as the Steps Method, or the methods used in the former Soviet Union, focus mainly on domain-specific chess skills. There are many other courses, such as my old chessKIDS academy course, which are specifically knowledge based.

The education blogger David Didau is very much in favour of traditional education. Although I don’t agree with everything he writes, his posts are always entertaining and thought-provoking. Here he’s discussing ways of reframing the debate between the two methods. You might think he’s actually presenting three different false dichotomies, but it will certainly make you think. Here he visits the controversial Michaela School in North West London, which favours fairly extreme traditional teaching methods. Didau is no fan of educational fads and has in the past been critical of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats, Brain Gym and VAK (Verbal Auditory Kinaesthetic) teaching. He’s never written about chess in the classroom, and, while I wouldn’t want to put words into his mouth, I rather suspect he’d be sceptical.

My view is this: either type of teaching can be successful, but it’s much easier to teach effectively using traditional, rather than progressive methods. To be successful, though, a school has to decide what it’s doing and stick with it, not being swayed by the latest fads, not reacting to parents knocking on your door telling you should do this or that, and trying not to be affected by the ever changing diktats of different education ministers.

Furthermore, there’s a general misunderstanding of the nature of child-centred teaching. There’s been for several decades now, both here in the UK and perhaps also in the US, a rather vague ‘niceness’ about much of primary school education, an obsession with ‘fun’ rather than serious, rigorous work. Many people feel that, unless you make a subject ‘fun’ and ‘relevant’ you won’t get children interested. It seems that parents no longer ask their children “What did you learn in school today?” but “Did you have fun in school today?”. And it was probably wishy-washy liberal baby boomers like me who were responsible for this. Which is why, when I suggest to parents of children in school chess clubs, that they should do some serious work on chess at home, they reply that they don’t want to do that because it wouldn’t be ‘fun’. But we all know that primary school age children who receive proactive parental support can do very well, but those who lack that support will make little progress and soon give up. It seems to me that one reason why we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in junior chess is the mistaken ethos supported by both teachers and parents, that education for young children should be ‘fun’.

To return to the original question, chess is, like maths, by its nature a knowledge-based discipline. Most non-players are unaware of the amount of knowledge, accumulated over centuries, that exists, and fail to understand that a player with some of that knowledge will almost always beat an equally talented player who is making it up as he or she goes along. You might want to use chess to teach both non-chess skills and chess-related cognitive skills, although that will depend on your educational philosophy. Children will only do well at chess if, as well as those two skill types, they are putting a serious effort into acquiring domain-specific chess skills.

Richard James

Opening Principles Part Six: Managing Principles

We’ve looked at what to during the opening and what not to do during the opening. To review, what we should do is control the board’s center from the start with a pawn, develop our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) to active squares (those that control the center) and Castle our King to safety. What we shouldn’t do is make too many pawn moves, move the same piece more than once (unless necessary) and bring out our Queen early. These opening principles have been around for a long, long time and have been proven to work. They’re simple enough to learn and their logic is somewhat self explanatory. However, applying these principles accurately during the opening, the first ten to fifteen moves (typically, although some opening variations are longer), can be difficult for the beginner. Applying the opening principles requires knowing when to make a specific principled move. It’s all about exact timing. Take Castling for example.

We know that many beginner’s games are lost due to the novice player not Castling his or her King to safety. Having a safe King means that you can get on with the business of attacking your opponent’s King. Beginner’s are taught that they need to get their King Castled as soon as possible. As a chess teacher and coach, I tell my beginning students this, but I do so to get them into the habit of Castling early in their chess careers. As they improve, I then teach them to hold off on Castling, if their King is safe, so they can further develop their pawns and pieces during the opening. Knowing an opening principle, such as Castling your King to safety, is important, but knowing just when to Castle is even more important. During the opening phase of the game, gaining control of the board, especially the central squares, is the most important task. If given the choice between Castling when your King is safe or furthering the development of your pawns and pieces, development should be your choice.

Another important decision to make during the opening is which minor pieces to develop (move) first. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have the same relative value, three points each. We know the opening principles tell us to bring our minor pieces out during the opening. However, which minor pieces should we develop first? The beginning player we consider both equal in terms of development. However, if given the choice between developing a Knight or a Bishop, you may want to consider the Knight. Why? Knights have the ability to jump over pawns and pieces, be they your own or your opponent’s. This means that you don’t have to move a pawn prior to bringing a Knight into the game. After 1. e4…e5, developing the King-side Knight to f3 (2. Nf3) is most often played because it allows the Knight to develop actively with tempo. Tempo is time in chess terms and a Knight on f3 attacks Black’s e5 pawn, forcing Black to defend that pawn. While you could move the King-side Bishop to c4, which would attack a central square as well as Black’s weak f7 pawn, the Knight move to f3 is more forcing, in that it causes Black to react by defending the e5 pawn. Therefore, you should consider the order in which you develop pieces during the opening.

Another consideration is cooperation between your pawns and pieces. Good chess player’s pawns and pieces work together. They support one another rather than acting independently of one another. If you have a White pawn on e4 and Black moves a Knight to f6 to attack it, how do you defend it? This brings up the idea of not blocking in your pawns and pieces. If you have your King-side Bishop on it’s starting square (f1) and you defend the e4 pawn by moving the d pawn to d3, you’re blocking in the Bishop. This means that Bishop doesn’t have immediate access to key squares that help to control the center. A better move (for beginners) would be developing the Queen-side Knight from b1 to c3. From it’s c3 perch, the Knight not only defends the e4 pawn but it puts pressure on the d5 square. Remember, you want to control central squares on your opponent’s side of the board. Beginner’s sometimes defend the e4 pawn by playing their King-side Bishop to d3 which blocks in the d2 pawn as well as the Bishop on c1. Always consider moves that don’t block your pieces in.

Play for piece activation during the opening rather than fast attacks. The problem with fast attacks in the hands of the novice player is that they more often than not fall apart which leads to a losing game. When developing your pawns and pieces during the opening, always try to get them on their most active squares. A typical opening for the beginner is the Italian Opening, which starts off 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4. These first three moves for White adhere to the opening principles. If Black plays 3. Nf6, you have a few choices as what to do as White on move four. You could Castle (4. 0-0). I mentioned that you should put off Castling if your King is safe, which the White King is at this point. However, Castling activates your King-side Rook which can than be moved to e1 should the f6 Knight capture the e4 pawn. Black would have to react to this move in a defensive manner. You could also consider 4. Nc3 developing your Queen-side Knight which defends the e4 pawn and puts pressure on d5. If Black played 3…Bc5 you could play c3 preparing for d4 on a subsequent move, ignoring the potential attack on e4, if Black plays 4…Nf6, and preparing to attack Black’s center. Remember if the f6 Knight takes on the e4 pawn, you can always move the Rook to e1. These moves have logical reasons behind them. They’re following the opening principles but also are part of a plan. While the opening principles provide a plan that covers the length of the opening, your opponent is going to do everything possible to disrupt your plan.

This means you have to be flexible with your opening moves (and opening plan). Make moves that do more than one thing when possible. In our above example, when the Black Knight moved to f6 and White countered by moving his Queen-side Knight to c3, the move did two things. It defended the attacked White pawn and put pressure on d5. This is why pieces are stronger when centrally located. The more squares a piece controls, the greater your options. If you have more options than your opponent, you’ll have a better game. The greater a piece’s options, the greater it’s ability to be flexible if your plans suddenly change do to an unexpected opposition move. Plans change during a chess game and when your opponent makes a move that changes your plan, you have to be able to adjust and take a new course of action.

Rook activation is very important. Just because your Rooks usually become active later in the game, doesn’t mean they can’t be useful early on. Beginner’s often activate one Rook via Casting but leave the other Rook sitting in the corner on it’s starting square. Connect your Rooks by moving the Queen up one Rank which allows both Rooks to move along their starting rank. However, to connect your Rooks, you must activate your minor pieces first so they don’t restrict their (Rooks) movement. Rooks are excellent bodyguards that can guard pawns you want to move across the board later in the game.

In closing, it comes down to activity, coordination and knowing who to bring into the opening and when to bring them into the game. I suggest playing through some openings and, after each move, asking yourself why that move was made and what opening principle does it adhere to. Studying games is a sure fire way to improve your game. Also don’t play mechanically. For example, we don’t like to move a piece twice during the opening, instead bringing a new piece into the game with each move. However, if you’re about to lose a Knight and the choice is treating this principle as a hard rule and losing the Knight or bending the principle and moving the Knight out of danger, move the Knight. Principles are not rules of the game but good ideas. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Opening Principles Part Five

So far, we’ve learned about developing a central pawn (or two) at the start of the game, developing our minor pieces and Castling. I was going write the next article in this series about combining these three principles, using the Italian Opening as an example. However, I think we should discuss a few things you don’t want to do before moving on to walking through a typical beginner’s opening (also played by the greats), the Italian Opening. The article examples of what not to do are mistakes typically made by beginners. Rather than simply criticize things you shouldn’t do, we’ll look at these mistakes from the beginner’s point of view in an effort to understand why they’re made. When you examine both points of view, you often walk away with a better understanding of the issue at hand. If you’ve made or make these mistakes, this article should help to explain why they don’t work. We’ll start out by discussing the moving of pawns during the opening, specifically what you shouldn’t do in regards to pawns.

We know that we have to move at least a few pawns during the opening in order to get our pieces into the game. Ideally, White would like to be able to safely move the e and d pawns to e4 and d4, while Black would like to move the e and d pawns to e5 and d5. These moves give each player an opportunity to quickly develop their Bishops. Unfortunately, we seldom get the chance to create a classical two pawn center because our opponent also wants to control the board’s center and will make every effort to crush your opening plan. The ruining of plans in chess is what makes the game exciting!

Pawns are great for controlling the center because of their low relative value. The pieces, which are worth substantially more will normally not move to a square controlled by a pawn because that pawn would capture it. Thus controlling key squares with pawns seems like a reasonable opening goal. Beginner’s will take this idea too literally and move pawn after pawn, neglecting the minor pieces, while the experienced player will move a minimum number of pawns, favoring the development of their minor pieces who can control far greater territory on the board. I completely understand the beginner’s point of view. Use your pawns to control the board because the pieces, both major and minor, will keep away from those squares controlled by one’s pawns. However, pawns can only control one or two squares whereas pieces have far greater control. Moving too many pawns , especially those closest to your King, can leave an opening that can pave the way for an opposition mating attack. Did I mention that the more pawns you have in play, the more pieces get tied down to their defense? Then there’s pawn structure. Most beginners haven’t mastered the art of proper pawn structure which means their pawns are often in a state of disarray. Pawn moves are absolutely committal since pawns can only move forward. They can’t run away (move backwards) when the going gets tough. It’s best to keep your initial pawn moves to a minimum and get your minor pieces into play early on.

Don’t move the same piece twice during the opening unless you have to. If you’re rushing to an appointment, you go from point A to point B as quickly as possibly. This means you’re not going to take a side trip to point R then over to point Y. If you want to move the King-side Bishop to c4, do it directly. Don’t move it to e2 and then on the following move, to c4.

Beginner’s have a tendency to gang up on the f7 pawn for Black and the f2 pawn for White. Again, I understand the beginner’s mindset. Gang up on their f7 pawn (for example) with a Bishop on c4 and a Knight on g5 and you can either check the Black King, costing it the right to Castle, or fork Black’s Rook and Queen, winning material. The beginner walks away with an advantage (so they think). There’s only one problem. The Knight, in the case of the fork, has to move three times to get to f7. While the Bishop in the case of the check, has to move twice. Meanwhile, Black gets a chance to bring a new piece into the game with each move. This means that Black can get ahead in development. Development is the name of the game when it comes to the opening. Bring a new piece into the action with each move.

Then there’s the desperado piece. To my beginning friends, I understand your thinking: Bring one piece into the game and see how many pieces you can subsequently capture with it. Then bring out another piece all by it’s lonesome self and repeat the process. It sounds reasonable to the beginner but your opponent will be busy developing his or her pieces, gaining control of the board’s center while avoiding your lone piece. You’ll end up checkmated in no time! The more force you bring into the game, the easier it is for you to launch a meaningful attack. Pawns and pieces work best when they work together. Again, bring a new piece into the game (towards the center) with each move during the opening.

Then there’s the Queen. Everyone who plays chess has been intoxicated by the Queen’s power. Beginner’s look at the Queen as a nuclear weapon that can be brought out, aimed at the enemy, fired across the center of the board and detonated at some point. Unfortunately, the Queen doesn’t work like a bomb. In chess, when you bring the Queen out early, she gets chased around the board as the opposition develops his or her pieces. Sometimes she gets trapped and you lose her. I know she’s powerful, combining the moving ability of the Rook and Bishop. However, chess is more like old fashioned warfare in which you gradually introduce more powerful weapons as the battle continues. Yes, it’s tempting to try and end the game quickly but it’s simply too dangerous to bring her into the game early. Do yourself a favor, save her later on.

Lastly, don’t make passive moves. Some beginners make passive moves employing the logic that their opponent will have to bring the battle to them. They plant their pawns and pieces on their side of the board, often piling up around their King hoping their wall of pieces will protect his majesty. Unfortunately, experienced players will know just how to break down your safe walls and take out your King. They’ll go as far as sacrificing material to rip your safety net apart. If you make moves that control central squares your opponent needs to us in order to attack, the opposition’s attacking chances will be greatly reduced. Make moves during the opening that control the center.

Try not to do the above mentioned things and your game will improve. There’s nothing wrong with being defensive but you have to know when to be offensive. Players who know the perfect balance of both win games. Next week, we’ll put it all together. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy (I suspect one of these players never brought his Queen out early again)!

Hugh Patterson

Chess Endings for Heroes

I’m currently writing a series of books for children (or adults) who have learnt the moves and would like to reach a good enough standard to play adult competitive chess successfully.

Chess Endings for Heroes will give readers the knowledge and skills they require to reach this level.

You’ll certainly need to be quick and efficient at mating with king and queen against king, and with king and rook against king. Learning how to mate with two bishops and with bishop and knight is not yet necessary as they are much less common but will be covered in brief more for the sake of completion than anything else. At this level, many students will also find the bishop and knight checkmate difficult to grasp. If you want to get beyond this level, though, you will need to know it. The world is very different now from when I was learning chess more than half a century ago, when most league games and some tournament games would be adjudicated at move 30. These days, if you’re at all serious about playing at a high level, you need to know endings like bishop and knight against king, and rook and bishop against rook (and I write this having just been directed to a game in which a 2015 rated player spent more than 75 moves making less than no progress with bishop and knight against king, despite having started with the opposing king on the edge of the board).

Beyond this, what you need to know more than anything else at this level is pawn endings. When you start to learn chess one of the first things you learn is the value of the pieces. We teach about favourable, equal and unfavourable exchanges, so children understandably tend to think, for example, that whenever you trade rooks it’s an equal exchange – 5 points for 5 points. But of course, we, as experienced players, know that very few exchanges genuinely are equal. The point count is very much like stabilisers when you’re learning to ride a bike or water wings when you’re learning to swim: very useful for beginners but once you’re fluent it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

At this level, one of the most frequent mistakes is to convert a probable draw into a loss by trading your last piece into a lost pawn ending. As pawn endings are, by and large, the easiest to win, if you’re a pawn down you should do your best to avoid trading your other pieces. If you’re ahead on material trade pieces but not pawns, if you’re behind on material trade pawns but not pieces.

So we start with king and pawn endings. First, you’ll need to know the result of any position with king and pawn against king. You’ll then need to know the how to win simple positions with an extra pawn: create a passed pawn and, if you can’t promote it, rush your king over to capture some pawns on the other side of the board. With pawns on only one side of the board you’ll need to be a lot more subtle, and have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the opposition.

We then look at other common ideas in pawn endings: the outside passed pawn, the concept of the spare move, the sacrificial breakthrough to create a passed pawn, calculating races where both players are aiming to promote their passed pawns and so on. The lessons are reinforced by quizzes based on games from the RJCC database.

Looking at pawn races leads us onto the important ending of queen against pawn on the seventh rank, which you’ll need to know at this point. This in turn brings us to queen endings: all you need to know at this point is a few basic principles.

At higher levels rook endings are the most important type of endgame. At this level, you’ll need to know the Lucena and Philidor positions along with a few basic principles, such as keeping your pieces active and placing rooks behind passed pawns. You’ll probably also need to know a bit about rook versus pawn.

Positions where you’re a minor piece ahead in the ending can prove tricky at this level. You can’t just trade off all the pawns and mate so you have to win some enemy pawns first. One technique is to target pawns that can’t be defended by friendly pawns (backward or isolated) and attack them with both your minor piece and your king. Another technique is to play for Zugzwang and force the enemy king back so that your king can infiltrate. We’ll also look at bishops against knights, and discuss good and bad bishops. The ending of bishop and wrong rook’s pawn against king is essential knowledge.

And that, really, is all you need to know to reach say 100 ECF or 1500 Elo. Chess Endings for Heroes, coming, with any luck, sometime fairly soon.

Richard James

Opening Principles Part Four: Castling

A safe King is a happy King and this is nowhere more apparent than in the game of chess. If your King is constantly being attacked, you have to defend him which means you’re unable to attack you opponent. Attackers win games while defenders are left holding down the fort! Beginner’s games are most often lost because the novice player doesn’t make his King safe. The way you make your King safe is by Castling. Castling is crucial but when to Castle is extremely important as well. Timing is everything in chess.

Castling is very simple. However, there are some important rules to Castling that we’ll go over first. Castling is the only time you get to move two pieces at the same time. You can Castle either King-side (towards the right for White or towards the left for Black) or Queen-side (towards the left for White or towards the right for Black). When Castling King-side, the King moves from the e file to the g file, remaining on it’s starting rank, while the Rook moves from the h file to the f file. When Castling Queen-side, the King moves from the e file to the c file, while the Rook moves from the a file to the d file, both pieces remaining on their starting ranks. You move the King first and then the Rook (not the other way around) Now for the rules:

The King and Rook, on the side you’re Castling on cannot move prior to Castling. If you move the King prior to Castling, you give up the right to Castle on either side. If you move one Rook prior to Castling, you give up the right to Castle on the side of the board the Rook moved on. If you move both Rooks before Castling then you give up the right to Castle, period. This is why it is crucial not to move either of these two pieces until after Castling.

You can’t Castle until the pieces between the King and Rook have moved off of their starting Squares. Remember, only the Knight can jump over pawns and pieces. All the other pieces can only move when there is space for them to do so. This is why it is important to move a central pawn towards the center early on. Playing 1. e4 allows the King-side Bishop room to get out onto the board which facilitates Castling sooner. On the King-side, you have to move the Knight and Bishop prior to Castling and on the Queen-side, you have to move the Knight, Bishop and Queen. Many people Castle King-side because you have one less piece to move.

This next one is important: You can never Castle through or into check. This makes perfect sense since protecting the King is the name of the game! Thus, if an opposition pawn or piece attacks a square the King either moves through and will end up on after Castling, you cannot Castle until that pawn or piece is dealt with.

Castling does two things. It provides a safe haven for your King and it gets one of the Rooks that would otherwise be stuck in the corner into the game. There’s something you need to consider when Castling and that’s pawn structure. Ideally you don’t want to move the pawns that will be in front of your King before you Castle because they create a wall in front of his majesty. For example, when Castling King-side, you want to keep pawns on the f2, g2 and h2 (f7, g7 and h7 for Black) squares because they can work together to stop potential attacks. If you move them prior to Castling, you’ll leave openings that opposition pieces can exploit. You’ll also want to keep a Knight on f3 for White or f6 for Black because the Knight can work with the King to protect the h pawn as well as keep the opposition Queen off the g and h files. When Castling, don’t Castle if doing so lines your King up with a swarm of opposition pieces. If the opposition has amassed a large force on your King-side, consider Castling Queen-side. Never Castle into a potential attack.

When to Castle: The history of chess is littered with the corpses of games lost due to not castling. Beginner’s are taught to Castle early on, yet in many master level games we see Castling occurring much later. Why is this? Because the master level player knows when to Castle. During the opening phase of the game, both players are developing their pawns and pieces to active squares, building up their control of the center and preparing for future attacks. It comes down to King safety. If your King is safe you can put Castling off in favor of active development. However, you need to take a good hard look at the opposition’s pieces, especially those nearest to your King. Are they able to deliver a successful attack? If there are two attacking pieces, do you have enough defenders. If the King hasn’t yet Castled and he’s a defender, you’ll lose your right to Castle should the King have to get into the action. This would be a time to Castle, perhaps on the other side of the attack or on the side of the attack, only if you have enough defenders. You want to have one more defender than your opponent has attackers. Remember, if you actively develop all your pieces right away (but carefully), you’ll have the option to Castle on either side of the board! Better to have the ability to Castle sooner than later which is why we try to bring a new piece into the game with each move during the opening. Note that you can move your Queen up one square or rank and it doesn’t count as bringing your Queen out early. Bringing your Queen out early can be deadly for the player who dares to exploit her power early on (during the opening).

You should always Castle if you want a safe King. If your King is safe, you have one less thing to worry about. You can get on with the business of building up an attack. If your opponent’s King is not Castled, you have a target. Beginners should avoid sacrificing pieces in order to force the opposition King to capture that piece before Castling, giving up the right to Castle. Many beginners playing White will exchange their c4 Bishop for the f7 pawn in order to bring the Black King out onto the board (after Kxf7). Sacrificing pieces is a skill that take time to develop because it is usually part of a combination of moves and beginners are not ready to think that far ahead. Build up your attacks rather than squander valuable pieces. Next week we’ll combine opening development with Castling. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!

Hugh Patterson

How Good is Your Endgame?

Many readers will be familiar with the popular magazine feature, known in various places as How Good is Your Chess? and Solitaire Chess, in which the reader is invited to predict the next move in a master game, and is awarded points for selecting good moves.

Some time ago I showed you a couple of lessons based on shorter and lower level games suitable for use at intermediate level (up to about 100 ECF/1500 Elo).

As part of the Chess for Heroes project, which I’ll come back to in more detail, quite possibly next week if nothing else interesting happens in my life in the meantime, I decided to produce a few lessons using king and pawn endings, with the games taken from the Richmond Junior Chess Club database.

Here’s the first one, which was tested successfully at RJCC the other day.

Set this position up on your board. At various points in the game you will be asked to select a move for either White or Black. Sometimes you will have three moves to choose from, and sometimes you will have a free choice. In this position it’s Black’s move.

If you find a winning move you’ll score up to 10 points. If you find a drawing move you’ll score up to 5 points. If you find a losing move or an illegal move you’ll score no points.

Choose a move for Black:
a) Kc6 b) Kd6 c) g5

10 points for Kd6 – head to the king side to attack White’s weak pawns
5 points for Kc6 – the wrong direction for the king
0 points for g5 – loses to an en passant capture

1… Kc6

Choose a move for White:
a) a4 b) f4 c) Kg3

5 points for Kg3 – get your king into play
0 points for a4 or f4 – creating targets for the black king

2. f4 Kd5
3. Kg3 g5 (Ke4 was one of many winning moves)

Choose a move for White (free choice)

10 points for hxg6 – a winning en passant capture
5 points for fxg5 or Kf3 – both these moves should draw
0 points for anything else

4. fxg5 fxg5
5. f4 gxf4+
6. Kxf4 Ke6

Choose a move for White:
a) a3 b) Ke4 c) Kg4

5 points for Ke4 – taking the opposition (a4 and b4 also draw)
0 points for a3 or Kg4 – both of these moves should lose

7. Kg4

Choose a move for Black:
a) b5 b) Kd5 c) Ke5

10 points for Ke5 – Black will be able to approach the white pawns
5 points for b5 – this should lead to a draw
0 point for Kd5 – this will lose after Kf5

7… b5

Choose a move for White:
a) a3 b) b4 c) Kf4

5 points for Kf4 – the only move to draw by keeping the black king from advancing too far
0 points for a3 and b4 – both these moves should lose
8. a3 a5 (Black had the same choice as on the last move. Again Ke5 was winning.)
9. b3 (Again, White had the same choice as on the last move. Kf4 was still a draw, as was b4.)

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for a4, b4 or Ke5 – all these moves should win
5 points for Kf6 – this move should lead to a draw
0 points for any other move

9… b4
10. axb4 axb4
11. Kf4

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Kf6 – Black wins by taking the opposition
5 points for Kd5 – this leads to a race in which both players promote
0 points for other moves – White will win the h-pawn

11… Kf6
12. Kg4 Ke5
13. Kf3

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Kf5 – taking the opposition
5 points for all other moves

13… Kd4

Choose a move for White (free choice)

5 points for Kf4 – leading to a drawn position with black queen against white pawn on h7
0 points for anything else

14. Ke2 Kc3
15. Kd1 Kxb3
16. Kc1

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Ka2 – the quickest way to win
8 points for Ka3 or Kc3 – these moves are less efficient
5 points for Ka4 or Kc4 – both these moves lead to a draw

16… Ka3

Bonus question 1: what would you do if White played Kb1 here?
a) Ka4 b) Kb3 c) b3

10 points for Kb3 – winning by taking the opposition
5 points for Ka4 or b3 – both these moves lead to a draw

17. Kc2 b3+

Bonus question 2: what would you do if White played Kb1 here?
a) Ka4 b) Kb4 c) b2

10 points for b2 – winning as White has to play Kc2
5 points for Ka4 or Kb4 – both these moves draw as long as White plays correctly

18. Kc1

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Ka2 – forcing promotion
5 points for other moves – all of which are only drawn

18… b2+
19. Kb1 and the game was eventually drawn

At the end of the exercise you’re assigned a Chess Hero rating:

95-120: Chess Superhero

70-94: Chess Hero

45-69: Trainee Hero

Below 45: Future Hero

If you teach chess at this level, please feel free to use this yourself. I may well decide to change the marking scheme in future, perhaps awarding 5 or 0 points rather than 10 or 5 in questions where there are only winning and drawing options: I’m still thinking about this.

Richard James

A Strategic Opening for Beginners: The Ruy Lopez Exchange

Rather than memorizing opening moves and copying what top players are playing nowadays, it’s really great for beginners to play simple strategic chess openings. In the Ruy Lopez Exchange (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6) White exchanges his bishop against Black’s knight on c6 and then plays d2-d4, exchanging the d4 and e5 pawns.

That creates pawn islands where White has a pawn majority on king side ( 4 vs. 3). On the other side, Black’s pawn majority won’t easily be able to create passed pawn, at least not without the aid of pieces. White’s strategy is very simple yet can be decisive. All you need to do is trade off pieces and reach to the king and pawn endgame where White is technically a pawn up and winning is relatively easy.

Here is the game for you to study, for more games on similar structure you can visit chessgames.com

Lasker – Tarrasch World Championship Match in 1908

Ashvin Chauhan

Opening Principles Part Three: Working Together

In the first two articles in this series, we talked about pawns and minor pieces, specifically, what to do with them at the start of the game. The opening, the first ten to fifteen moves, is the foundation you build the rest of your game upon. Build that foundation right and you’ll set yourself up for a good middle-game, meaning you’ll be able to launch successful attacks which leads to a winning game. Build it wrong and you’ll more than likely be punished and lose the game. We know we should initially control the center with a pawn or two and then bring our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) out to active squares, those that also add to central square control. However, there’s another key idea we must embrace and that’s coordinating our pawns and minor pieces.

Our pawns and pieces must work together the way in which a successful sports team works together. This means coordination between all members of the team. One team member can’t win a game by himself and if everyone on the team is working against one another, chaos ensues (as well as a big loss). Coordination is a skill beginners must develop if they wish to improve and win games. While our first two opening principles, controlling the board’s center with a pawn or two and developing the minor pieces towards the center, seem easy enough to comprehend, there’s a bit more to it. Again, pawns and pieces must work together.

We know that control of the board’s center is your primary goal during the opening. Step one is moving a pawn or two to control one of those central squares (an opposition central square). Step two is bringing out the minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops to add additional support to your centralized pawns as well as further centralized control. Now what?

Let’s start by looking at the Italian Opening (for White), an opening that all beginners should consider learning first. I suggest this as a first opening because the opening principles are clearing seen and learned when playing it. We’ll look at the first three moves. White starts with 1. e4 which opens up diagonals for both the Queen and the King-side Bishop. Just because it opens a pathway for the Queen to enter the game doesn’t mean you should bring her out right away. You have better pieces to bring into the game. When Black plays 1…e5, White follows with 2. Nf3 and Black defends the e5 pawn with 2…Nc6. White’s third move, 3. Bc4, puts the Bishop on a diagonal that cuts through the center and attacks the weak f7 pawn (weak because it’s only defended by the Black King). There are other squares upon which the Bishop can move to such as e2, d3 or b5 ( Bb5 being the Ruy Lopez opening which is a bit advanced for the absolute beginner). Moving the Bishop to e2 is rather passive and Blacks in the Queen. Moving the Bishop to d3 blocks in the d2 pawn and prevents the dark squared Bishop on c1 from coming out along the c1-h6 diagonal. You should never make moves during the opening that block in your pawns and pieces (within reason). Moving the Bishop to c4 seems to be the best choice here (for the beginner) and is the move that defines this opening. Let’s say that Black plays 3…Nf6. Now what do we do?

Principled play tells us that we should continue with the development of our pawns and minor pieces. When in doubt as to what to do, consider a move that adheres to the opening principles regarding the development of your pawns and pieces.

You should always try to find three potential moves before simply committing to one move. As the old chess adage goes, when you find a good move, look for a better one! We could make the move 4. d3 which allows the d pawn to protect the e4 pawn. While this appears to make sense since the pawns value is one while the Knight’s is three (meaning Black won’t trade Knight for pawn), try to think of a better move. How about 4. Nc3? The reason 4. Nc3 is better than the pawn push to d3 (remember, this article is for beginners first learning opening principles) is that the Knight on c3 is defending the attacked pawn and also attacking the d5 square. We want to control as much of the center as possible before our opponent does. When your opponent makes a move, look to see if any of your pawns or pieces are being attacked. It a pawn or piece is attacked and it has no defender, add one! The other move to consider would be 4. 0-0, Castling on the King-side (we’ll get into Castling next week). Castling is important but if your King is not under attack, hold off and continue development. Black play 4, Be7, Now What?

Now we can consider 5. d3. This move bolsters the e4 pawn and gives the Bishop on c1 a diagonal to patrol. Notice that the Bishop on c4 is outside of White’s pawn chain. Had White played 3. d3, our King-side Bishop would have been trapped. This is what I mean by piece coordination and not blocking in your pawns and pieces! The few moves shown above are to serve as a starting point for understanding opening principles and piece coordination.. Of course, there are many ways in which both White and Black can play but beginners should start by just simply getting their pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the center of the board. As you get better, you’ll play more advanced openings and their variation. For now remember, you have to learn to walk before you can run. Next week we’ll look at Castling. It’s simple to learn but there’s more to it than you think. Here’s a game to enjoy until then.

Hugh Patterson