Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Defend With Your Life

There are plenty of puzzle books where you’re invited to find the winning move: to win material or force checkmate. But very few books present puzzles where you have to find the best defence.

Try your hand at this position. It’s Black’s move.

Go away, make yourself a cup of coffee or pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, and choose a move before reading on.

I came across this position the other day (I’ll tell you where at some point, but not for a few months). It’s, I think, an excellent defensive puzzle for intermediate standard players.

I set this up on the demo board for the upper intermediate group at Richmond Junior Club (these are young children graded round about 40-70 ECF). They set about analysing the position working mostly in small groups. One of two or them preferred to work alone.

They soon noticed that White was threatening Qxh6, not surprisingly. At this level many children get obsessed with this tactic and sometimes give up the rest of their army in order to set it up. While a few wanted to play a king move to h7 or h8, most of them wanted to move their queen. Some of them spotted that Qf6 lost the exchange to Nd7. I was very impressed that one group at first suggested 1… Qh7, and then explained to me that White could then play 2. Nd7, and if 2.. Rd8, then 3. Nf6+, exploiting the pin on the g-file to play a fork.

Interestingly, most of them failed to mention White’s other threat: Bg4, skewering the queen and rook and winning the exchange. At this level, many players make the mistake of only considering one threat, or one reason for playing a move. Trying to think about more than one thing at once proves to be difficult. This, by the way, is a point that Dan Heisman makes regularly: you should ask yourself “What are my opponent’s threats?” rather than “What is my opponent’s threat?”. Because it’s a more familiar pattern, you will tend to see the threat of Qxh6 before the threat of Bg4.

Once you realise that White has two threats you can start trying to find ways to meet them both at the same time. You might think of 1.. h5, which does meet both threats. Now White can win the h-pawn by playing a fork: 2. Rg5. There’s a stronger alternative, though, in 2. Qh6 Qh7 3. Qd6 with multiple threats: one idea is 3.. Rfd8 4. Nd7 Be6 5. Nf6+ Kh8 6. Qxd8, winning the exchange.

On the other hand, an experienced player would probably sense that 1.. h5 doesn’t look right, so would only consider it if everything else failed. Black has one simple move to meet both threats and leave him with a perfectly satisfactory position. That move, as you’ve probably realised by now, is 1.. Qe6, planning to meet 2. Bg4 with f5. After this move Black is at least equal. Eventually, my students managed to find the right answer for the right reason.

I then wound back the position by half a move. White’s last move was Rg4-g3. I asked the class if this was a mistake. Couldn’t White have played the immediate Qxh6 instead? Doesn’t that move win a pawn? A bright spark quickly provided the information that Black would reply with Qxg4, which will leave him a piece ahead. I’d guess, though, that had they been white in that position, most of them would have played Qxh6 without very much thought. Rg3, by the way, is an unusual way to create two threats. The threat Qxh6 comes about by moving the rook away from the attentions of the black queen, while it’s also a clearance move, vacating a square which the bishop wants to use. I’m not sure that there’s a technical term for this sort of double threat.

When we talk about tactics we tend to think about sacrifices and combinations. Most tactics you’ll find in books (including, at the moment, the CHESS FOR HEROES books) are exactly that. In real life, tactics is mostly about sorting out positions like this, defending accurately, not missing simple one or two movers.

Richard James

Love Thy Gambit

With the exception of sacrificing material to gain a positional advantage, it’s generally not a good idea to give away pawns and pieces, especially during the opening. However, a gambit asks you to do just that, give up material at the start of the game. The player employing a gambit will give up material within the first few moves. The material given are pawns. The majority of gambits are executed by white. While most gambits involve sacrificing one pawn, the Danish Gambit sacrifices three. Gambits can be very effective but must be played carefully. All gambits have the same goal, gaining a positional advantage. A positional advantage in the opening is the ability to develop your pieces rapidly. The player who controls the center first has the advantage. Let’s look at the King’s Gambit first. After the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. f4, we reach this position.

White offers black the f pawn. This is the gambit. Black can either except the gambit or decline it. If black captures the pawn, exf4, black gains a slight material advantage but gains doubled “f” pawns and now has only one central pawn. However, taking the pawn doesn’t mean you’ll lose the game. As for white, at some point the “d” pawn will be move to d4, giving white a classical pawn center. With a pawn on d4, white will be able to rapidly develop the minor pieces to active squares. Play continues with 2…exf4, 3. Nf3…g5, 4. d4. We reach the following position.

Black has taken the pawn with 2…exf4. It’s tempting for white to play 2. d4 instead of 2. Nf3. However, doing so would create problems for white. After 2. d4, black would play 2…Qh4+, forcing the white King to move. Trying to block the check with 3. g3, would lead to a heavy loss of material for white. The black pawn on f4 becomes dangerous when the black Queen is on h4, which is why 2.N3 is played. The f3 Knight stops the Queen from moving to h4. After 4. d4, white has a strong pawn center and can develop the minor pieces quickly. Now let’s look at the Danish Gambit, which starts with 1. e4…e5, 2. d4.

Here, white offers the d4 pawn to black. Rather than trying to defend it, which would lead to positional complications, black accepts the gambit with 2…exd4. In the Danish Gambit, white offers the “c” and “b” pawns as well. Play continues with 3. c3…dxc3, 4. Bc4…cxb2, 5. Bxb2, arriving at the following position.

White’s down two pawns, leaving black ahead in material. However, black is behind in development. None of black’s minor pieces have moved, nor does black have a centralized pawn. White, on the other hand, has a pawn controlling the center and two Bishops that control central squares as well. The Bishops are also aimed at black’s King-side pawns, making the prospect of King-side castling risky for black. By giving up a few pawns, white has gained a huge lead in development and has the positional advantage. White has followed the opening principles while black has ignored them, hunting pawns instead. Our Last example is the Evan’s Gambit. The key position is reached after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Bc5, 4. b4.

Here, white offers black the b4 pawn. Time is critical during the opening. Chess players refer to time as tempo. The player that gains tempo has an advantage over the player who loses tempo. During the opening, you want to gain control of the center before your opponent does, making it a race whose winner is the first player to achieve this. One thing you don’t want to do during the opening is to move the same piece over and over again. Doing so will cause you to lose tempo. In the above position, black has to move the Bishop because it’s being attacked by a pawn. Since the Bishop has to move, costing black tempo, it captures the pawn with 4…Bxb4. Black captures the pawn as compensation for this loss of time. However, white plays 5. c3, and the black Bishop has to move once more. Play continues with. 5…Bc5, 6. O-O…Nf6, 7. d4…exd4, 8. cxd4…Be7, arriving at the following position.

White has strong central pawns, two minor pieces in play, and has castled. Black, on the other hand, has lost tempo and doesn’t have a strong presence in the center. His King hasn’t castled and black’s position needs improvement. Studying gambits will teach you a great deal about development during the opening. They also lead to exciting and sometimes dangerous games. I encourage you to try them. However, precise play is required.

It’s well worth exploring gambits as a beginner because you’ll learn a great deal about development and tempo. Gambits can lead to exciting games that keep you on your positional toes, so to speak. Of course, you don’t see gambits played at a professional level, but as a beginner or improving player, don’t let the stop you. I’m sure the opening theory snobs will have a few things to say about my love of gambits, such as “what a rotten idea, and you call your self a chess teacher.” As the old saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” It’s a good day for me when I can simply please Mrs. Patterson! See you next week.

Hugh Patterson

Educational Chess

There seems to be a general misunderstanding, at least in this country, about what ‘chess in schools’ means. Let me try to explain.

If you attend the Chess in Schools conference you’ll be informed about what they call Scholastic Chess. Last year it was suggested that Educational Chess might be a better term, as Scholastic Chess, at least in the US, means something totally different. So, for the purposes of this article, at any rate, Educational Chess it is.

Educational Chess has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as you and I know it. Instead it involves using the chessboard and pieces for non-competitive activities across the curriculum. For instance, it might involve very young children using the chessboard to learn about up and down, left and right, black and white. Slightly older children might learn songs and dances explaining the moves of each piece, which could be used both in Music and PE. Beyond that, children might spend time in maths lessons working collaboratively to solve puzzles based on subsets of chess: for instance the Eight Officer’s Puzzles. Here’s a recent report on a major project of this nature.

Now you might well think this sounds great: all children will learn how to play chess in a fun way which will also have other benefits across the curriculum.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting it as an activity for very young children, and that this will be counter-productive in terms of encouraging older children and adults to take chess seriously.

I have no very strong views one way or the other myself as to the effectiveness of this approach as I have no personal experience. There are, to the best of my knowledge, very few schools here in the UK using this sort of method.

I would, however, question whether or not there are more important skills that 21st century schools should be teaching children, and whether or not these methods are the best way to teach music, PE, maths or whatever.

Wearing my Chess Hat I can see that it’s wonderful to teach all children to play chess. But if I take off my Chess Hat and put on my Education Hat instead there are all sorts of questions I might choose to ask.

What happens in most primary schools, at least in my part of the world, is very different. There are a small number of schools who take chess seriously and see it as part of the life of the school. But in most cases the only chance children have to learn or play is an after-school club running for an hour once a week. These tend to be geared towards low-level competitive chess such as the heats of the UK Chess Challenge. Children who are getting help at home will do well at this level and make progress. Children who are not getting much help will make little progress, but will have fun and enjoy winning their fluffy mascots.

Now you might well think this sounds great: children are introduced to competitive chess at a fairly early age, and those who show talent will be able to qualify for higher level competitions and will perhaps be encouraged to join more serious chess clubs.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting competitive chess as being suitable for mass participation by young children, and that, by promoting a structure in which the vast majority of children won’t get very far, you’re actually lowering the standards of chess.

I think I’m qualified to have an opinion on this, and, if you know me or if you read my articles, you’ll be aware of my views. However, it’s where we are, and it’s clearly better than nothing.

Other countries take a different approach: one specifically designed to produce strong players. Armenia has been doing this for some time, as recently reported here by the BBC. I must say the mothers and grandmothers waiting for their children to finish their games don’t look terribly excited. Leonard Barden pointed out on the English Chess Forum that there’s little evidence that, despite the claims made in this article, there’s no evidence that Armenia are producing many – or any – exceptionally talented young players. The closest match I can find to ‘Mikhael’ has a rating of 1550 and is ranked 1165th in the world for Under 12s. Of course it’s possible there may be some strong players not taking part in FIDE rated competitions: the old Soviet methods disapproved of young children playing in rated events.

Now you might well think that this sounds great: what could be more admirable than producing a generation of ‘chess whizz kids’? Your country will have lots of grandmasters, win lots of Olympic medals and encourage more young players to take up chess.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re taking up two lessons a week which could be better used for something else. My understanding is that one of the chess lessons replaced a PE lesson, which would have been great for me, but not necessarily for everyone. You might also ask what happens to the young children who show promise but fail to make the grade.

Another country taking a similar approach is Turkey. I recently saw some photos of a Turkish junior tournament posted on Facebook. I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking bunch of young people.

So, there you go. If you want to talk about ‘chess in schools’ it’s a good idea to be aware of what sort of ‘chess in schools’ you’re talking about.

Richard James

Are You Good at Chess?

This happens to me regularly. I’m on a bus working on tactics puzzles on my phone or I’m in the bookstore browsing a book on endgames, and some stranger will see me and ask: “So…are you good at chess?”

I never know how to answer that question. First, I’m not sure what the person is asking. Do they wonder whether I can beat them, or most people like them, at chess? Or do they wonder whether I can beat top players at chess? Second, I just started playing chess about two years ago, and after three tournaments my provisional rating with the Chess Federation of Canada is 1115. In my experience that’s good enough to beat most casual players most of the time, but it’s still low enough that I’m a below-average club player. To casual players I seem very good, but to tournament players, I look like a complete beginner.

Some will want to dismiss the question “Who is good at chess?” as meaningless or a matter of perspective to which the only possible answer is, “It depends whom you ask.” But I think the question is an important one, and that when it comes up (as it often does on various Internet forums), we should try to give as clear and as justifiable a response as possible, for two reasons.

The first reason is that every beginner wonders whether he is good at chess. We like to be good at the things we work hard at. We stick with those things, while we drop other activities for which we believe we have no talent. Believing that we are good at chess, or that we might one day be good at chess, is an important motivator for us beginners. It would be nice for us to know where the bar lies. Currently in the chess world the only clear benchmarks are the various chess titles obtained by a tiny fraction of all chess players: Expert, Master, Grandmaster, etc. Surely these are all categories that lie far beyond the humbler title “good at chess,” which ought to describe more than the top 2% of players. The absence of consensus in the chess community over what counts as “good”–or is it the snobbish unwillingness to concede that the term might mean anything less than “Master”?–is a motivational stumbling block.

The second reason is that public chess organizations, whether in schools or clubs, need a goal, something they can promise to the students they teach. That goal should not be to produce future Masters—no public program can promise to achieve something that depends on so many factors outside of its control. Yet, once again, in the absence of clear benchmarks below the chess titles, what else can a chess program aim at? In my opinion, the obvious baseline goal of every chess program should be to produce good chess players. So we need consensus over a definition of “good at chess” and the more specific we can be the better, both for individual students and for organizations.  How can we define this term in a way that avoids the problem of perspective?

Here’s my method: The definition of “good at chess” should strike a balance between two competing intuitions. On the one hand, you are good at chess if you can beat the majority of chess players in the world. This intuition will lead to a low bar for “good at chess,” probably somewhere around 1000 in FIDE’s rating system. On the other hand, you are not yet good at chess until you are taken seriously by the game’s Experts. This intuition will require the bar to be higher. What is the Goldilocks rating that captures both intuitions—not too high to be unattainable by most serious players, but not too low to be laughable by the standards of the game’s Experts?

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s say that if your rating is just high enough for us to expect you to beat chess Experts some percentage of the time, then you should be considered “good at chess.” After all, if you can be expected to take a percentage—any percentage, even just 1%—of your games against an Expert, then surely this is a good reason for the Expert to take you seriously. And surely the rest of us should count you as a good chess player.

If you share my intuition that being just good enough to expect to win 1% of the time against a chess Expert is a reasonable criterion for being “good at chess”, then who is good at chess? Well, first we need to know who, exactly, the chess Experts are. In most federations “Expert” is an informal term whose official version is “Candidate Master.” In FIDE, the lowest rating bar for this title is set at 2000. So if we take 2000 to be the lower limit for chess Experts, then who can expect to win 1% of their games against a 2000 player? The answer can be easily calculated using the ratings tables available on FIDE’s website: a person whose rating is 620-735 points below their opponent can expect to win 1% of their games against that opponent.  So…

Here’s the answer you’ve all been waiting for. Who is good at chess? By my reasoning it’s anyone whose FIDE rating is at least in the range of 1265-1380.

This range is both low enough to capture the first intuition and high enough to capture the second. Somebody who is rated above 1265 will crush casual chess players. Such a player won’t exactly strike fear into the 2000 Expert, but he will make the Expert work, and can even expect to win a rare game against him. I cannot imagine any other sport, art, or discipline in which giving the Experts a run for their money wouldn’t be enough to count as “good”!

Now, I’m not suggesting that FIDE institute a new title, “Good at Chess”, for 1265+ players.  We don’t need new official titles, just new ways of presenting the game and its culture to the broader chess-playing public.  On a practical level, I’m recommending a way to talk about the qualitative meanings of ratings and to set minimal goals for chess programs.

I can hear the objections pouring in, and the debate over who is good at chess will inevitably go on. But to conclude, here is the perspective of International Master Jeremy Silman on players whose ratings lie in precisely the range I’ve argued as constituting “good at chess”:

“I remember going to my first tournament at age twelve. It was all quite magical, and as I watched other players’ games in the under 1600 section I recall being amazed at their skills—skills which were far beyond anything I could fully understand at that time. Indeed, my view of 1200-1399 players as being demigods is not that far out of line…If he plays in tournaments, he holds his own against many experienced players. If he competes against non-tournament playing friends, he most likely dominates them” (Jeremy Silman, Complete Endgame Course, Part Three).

If an International Master thinks 1200+ players can be called “demigods,” then I would say it’s safe for the rest of us to call 1265+ players “good”!

Michael Hickson

Connect Your Rooks

Rooks are the second most powerful attacker in your army, yet beginners tend to neglect them as if they didn’t exist! Too often, the novice player will leave their Rooks sitting in the corners on their starting squares. A piece on its starting square has little value until it enters the game. A trapped Rook has no value until it gains it’s freedom. We want to activate our Rooks and doing so means getting them out of the corners. We have to get our Rooks into the game. However, getting into the game doesn’t mean that Rooks should be thrust onto the board during the opening. Remember, minor pieces before major pieces. It means that both Rooks should have the freedom to patrol their starting ranks in order to offer protection to pawns and pieces during the opening as well as controlling any open files or half open files, especially the “e” and “d” files.

The idea of coordination between the pawns and pieces is a concept beginners should embrace. While pawns and pieces should be coordinated throughout the entire game, it’s extremely important during the opening phase. Pawns and pieces working together make it much more difficult for your opponent to gain centralized control or build up attacks that subsequently weaken your position. We know that one of the reasons for castling our King is to get one of the Rooks into the game. It’s a mistake to think that the Rook that was just released from the corner thanks to castling is now active. A Rook on f1, after castling King-side, isn’t doing anything during the opening but helping the King guard the f2 pawn. This Rook is almost active. Then there’s the white Rook on a1. He’s usually trapped as well because our astute beginner knows the dangers of bringing your Queen out early and avoid moving her even one rank up. While both of white’s Rooks are close to being active, they haven’t reached their full opening potential. How do they reach that full potential?

We know that castling gets one Rook out of the corner. However, there’s a second Rook that needs greater access to his starting rank. We know to develop our minor pieces, which gives the Rook access to those squares vacated by the Knights and Bishops. However, there’s the Queen to deal with. The Queen is on her starting square at the beginning of the opening. She stands between one Rook and the other (after castling). To provide freedom for the trapped Rook, we have to move the Queen. Wait a minute, didn’t I say moving the Queen was a bad idea during the opening in previous articles? Actually, I said bringing the Queen our early (towards the center of the board) was a bad idea. Moving the Queen up one rank, either from the first to second rank for white or from the eighth to seventh rank for black, is called for. You’re not bringing your Queen out early, only providing additional mobility for both Rooks. This is called connecting the Rooks and generally serves as the final step of your opening. Take a look at the diagram below.

Whose Rooks have greater mobility or freedom of movement? Knowing what you now do about the power Rooks have when they have an open rank to operate on, the answer should be clear. White’s minor pieces have developed and are no longer occupying their starting squares. White has castled King-side, freeing the trapped h1 Rook and moved the Queen up a rank to d2 which frees the a1 Rook. The white Rooks can now go back and forth along the first rank and lend support where needed. In addition to supporting pawns and pieces throughout the game, Rooks have another important job during the opening.

Take a look at black’s position. Both of black’s Rooks are trapped. Black’s King-side Rook can get into the game when black castles on that side of the board. However, the Queen-side Rook on a8 is going to have to wait until, the Knight, Bishop and Queen move in order to become active. This brings us back to white’s Rooks. If it’s white to move, either the a1 or f1 Rook can move to e1 and check the black King. Since you cannot castle to get out of check, black will have to block the check by moving the c8 Bishop to e6, pinning the Bishop to the King. Rooks have great power of open or half open files.

An open file is one that has no pawns or pieces on it. When a Rook controls an open file, enemy pawns and pieces have to be very careful to avoid moving onto unprotected squares along that file. If they do, the Rook would be able to capture them. A half open file is one that is partially open. Take a look at the diagram below.

Here, the white Rook on e1 controls the open “e” file while the black Rook on b8 controls the half open “b” file. Because white’s Rook controls the “e” file, black cannot move his Rook to e8, otherwise, white’s Rook would capture it and checkmate the black King. Had Black been able to control the “e” file first, white’s Rook would not be able to move to e1 for the same reason. This is why it’s extremely important to gain control of open files before your opponent does. Let’s look at the black Rook. The black Rook is controlling the half open “b” file. The Rook is also attacking the undefended b3 pawn. Should black’s Rook capture this pawn? Absolutely not! If black plays Rxb2, then white plays Re8# (checkmate). Again, always try to take control of open files. Rooks serve many purposes throughout the entire game, especially the endgame. For now, get your Rooks out of the corners and connect them for better opening play. No game to enjoy this week because next week there will be a really long one!

Hugh Patterson

First Things First

The other week I was talking to a boy at Richmond Junior Club. He’s an older boy, in his first year at a highly regarded selective secondary school, but is fairly new to chess and has only recently moved up from the Novices Group.

I’d just looked through a game in which he’d lost most of his pieces and resigned in about a dozen moves. I then played a game with him, helping him a bit. He made a lot of highly intelligent and knowledgeable comments about positional chess, but the idea that you should be very careful not to lose your pieces and check that your intended move is safe before playing it seemed new to him.

The following week I was playing a boy who was new to the club. He was beating everyone at his primary school club and, quite rightly, wanted something more challenging. We played a game and eventually reached a position where I (with black) had an extra pawn, a big pawn centre and two bishops pointing at his castled king against two knights. He told me that he wasn’t going to move his knight from g3 because it would allow a two bishop sacrifice. There was one problem with this: we’d exchanged queens so there was no way I’d be able to mate him after giving up both my bishops.

How often do double bishop sacrifices occur, anyway? Round about once in 20,000 games, at a rough guess. As Dan Heisman would say, studying this won’t give you a lot of bang for your bucks. It’s important to know about the idea, but more because it’s part of chess culture than because it’s of very much practical use.

I spoke to the same boy again the following week. I explained that sacrifices happen very rarely in real life. When I told him this I could see his face fall a million miles. In 1542 games on my personal database I can recall winning only one game by a (very obvious) queen sacrifice and one game by a Greek Gift sacrifice (which was so strong it caused immediate resignation). I can’t, off the top of my head, recall losing any games in this way. He told me he’d won a game with the two bishop sacrifice himself, which I don’t believe. It was more likely a two bishop blunder. Children who only watch videos about sacrifices often think that ‘sacrifice’ is just another word for losing a piece, and, if they accidentally leave their queen en prise they’ll describe it as a sacrifice.

Another boy who was watching quoted something from a video about Mikhail Tal throwing all his pieces away. Well, yes, sometimes, but only in a small proportion of his games. But a) he was a risk taker by nature b) he had enough experience to know whether or not he had practical or theoretical compensation for the lost material and c) he was a genius. A third boy then, inevitably, mentioned the Fishing Pole Trap. To be fair we were looking at the Exchange Lopez variation with 5… Bg4 6. h3 h5 at the time, and they all got the idea that, while the Fishing Pole was just a trap, this was a much better way of using the same idea.

I see this over and over again: kids who have watched videos about, or perhaps been taught about relatively advanced (and sometimes relatively unimportant) concepts before they’ve grasped the fundamental point of chess: that (other things being equal) SUPERIOR FORCE (usually) WINS.

If you continually watch videos about sacrificial attacks without knowing how to win with an extra pawn, let alone with an extra piece, you’ll end up very confused about chess. Kids will often tell me that pawns don’t matter, or even that it doesn’t matter if you lose a bishop or a knight because you can’t get checkmate with just a minor piece against a king. They have neither the experience or the cognitive maturity to prioritise or contextualise the information they’ve learnt. In books and videos, of course, sacrifices always win, which is why we show them, but in real life we probably reject about three quarters of the sacrifices we consider because they seem to be unsound.

Likewise I frequently meet children who have watched videos about openings which are either not very good or too advanced for them. (“My dad’s got this brilliant new opening. It wins every time. It’s called the Latvian Gambit!”) This is one of the problems with internet chess instruction. Firstly, there’s a lot of bad information out there. Secondly, even if you’re using a reputable website you might get confused if you watch videos explaining difficult topics before you’ve mastered simple topics.

My belief is that chess tuition, especially for younger children, should be structured in a logical way. You learn a simple topic, master it through practice, and only then move onto the next topic. Of course there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be working on different topics relating to different aspects of the game in parallel. Of course we want to demonstrate brilliant sacrifices from time to time (and you’ll find lots of them in Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) but the concept of the sacrifice needs to be explained correctly and put into context. We also need to teach them how to win endings when they’re a pawn ahead. We also need to teach them how to put pieces onto good squares to make tactics more likely. You’ll recall Spielmann said something to the effect that he understood Alekhine’s sacrifices well enough, but not how he reached positions where he could play them.

I quoted Dan Heisman a couple of weeks ago. I’ll do so again, in case you missed it.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

This is one reason why I’d like to see a proper structured national or international chess course which ensures that students learn these important basics before moving on to harder topics.

Richard James

Always Fight for the Center

The three most important tasks we must accomplish during the opening are developing a central pawn, activating our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) centrally and castling. We know not to make too many pawn moves, move the same piece twice nor bring our Queen out early (all during the opening). The astute beginner who embraces these principles will immediately start playing better chess. However, there’s more work to do during the opening including fighting for the center of the board. “Always fight for the center” should be our mantra all the way into the middle-game. The player who controls the center first, exercising greater control of its immediate and surrounding squares will have greater options going forward. However, what happens when both players have equal central control? When both players share in control of the center, the player who fights for greater control comes out ahead. Take a look at the diagram below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Bc5, 4. c3…Nf6, we reach the position above. Black’s Knight on f6 is threatening the white e4 pawn. Do we defend it with 5. d3 or do we attack black’s center with 5. d4? During the opening, we want to develop our pawns and pieces towards the center of the board but we also want to further attack the center, especially if doing so prevents our opponent from gaining a stronger position. Although black is making a threat against the e4 pawn, the position is still relatively balanced. The threat to the e4 pawn by black’s f6 Knight can be problematic for black if white decides to castle on move five (5. O-O). Should black then play 5…Nxe4, white can play 6. Re1 and the Knight must retreat. To capture the pawn on e4 and retreat would mean that black moved the Knight three times, something principled play tells us not to do during the opening!

The problem with 5. d3 is that it’s a passive move. Since white is a turn ahead of black due to making the first move, the player commanding the white army should always aim for more aggressive moves, provided those moves follow the opening principles. Don’t play defensively unless you absolutely have to! Therefore, 5. d4 attacks the center, stopping black from gaining further control. After 5. d4…exd4, 6. O-O…O-O, white is slightly better. After 7. cxd4…Be7, white is definitely better. Why? Because white fought for the center rather than playing defensively.

Of course, there will be times when you have to make defensive moves. After all, your opponent might make a move you weren’t prepared for. However, if you have the opportunity to do so, always fight for the center. Let’s look at the position after move seven.

White has established a classical pawn center with pawns on d4 and e4. What’s so great about these two pawns? Since pawns have the lowest relative value, either of the two white pawns can move one square forward and chase either black Knight off of it’s optimal opening square (c6 or f6). This is a good example of how principles are bent (not broken). Principled play tells us we shouldn’t move the same piece (or pawn) multiple times during the opening. However, bending this principle would force one of black’s Knights off of an active square, causing a weakening of black’s central control.

White’s b1 Knight can still develop to c3, while the c1 Bishop has mobility along the c1-h6 diagonal. Black’s Queen-side counterpart, the c8 Bishop is completely blocked in. Black’s position is somewhat weak while white’s is strong. This came about by white fighting for the center. How did white know that 5. d4 would work? Let me introduce you to a concept called board vision.

Board Vision

Board vision is the ability to see all the pawns and pieces, both yours and your opponents, on the chessboard. Seeing all the pawns and pieces means first looking at each of your opponent’s pawns and pieces and determining if there are any threats being made against your pawns and pieces. Then look at your pawns and pieces and see if you can make any threats against your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Only after you’ve exercised good board vision, can you then think about possible moves. Beginners tend to look only where the action is. During the opening, they’ll only look at the pawns and pieces closest to the center squares. They miss a potential attacker outside their immediate line of site. Experienced players examine the entire board before considering any moves.

With 5. d4, white challenged black’s control of the center but only after examining the entire board. After carefully looking at the pawns and pieces belonging to both players, white was able to create an attack and subsequent series of moves that allowed the position to favor white. Even though the majority of the pawns and pieces for both sides were still on their starting squares, white still double checked to make sure it was safe to execute his plan. Always fight for the center during the opening.

Piece Activity

Just because you’ve followed the big three opening principles and acquired a good centralized position, doesn’t mean you can’t further develop or activate your pawns and pieces. Always remember that the person your playing has a plan of their own. That plan can sometimes force you to develop a minor piece to a square that isn’t active. When a piece is active, it’s on a square that allows it to have more control of specific squares, such as the board’s central squares. Before claiming you’re finished with your opening, look at your pieces as see if they can move to more active squares. The principle regarding not moving the same piece multiple times during the opening can be bent (not broken) to increase a piece’s activity during the opening. However, you should only do so after you’ve initially developed your other pieces. The same holds true for pawns. After you’ve completed your opening development, you can consider making a few additional pawn moves if they serve a purpose. Often, a player will move the white h2 pawn to h3 to stop the black c8 Bishop from moving to g4 and pinning the white Knight on f3 to the white Queen (d1). Non centralized pawns can also be used to keep your opponent’s pieces off of key squares on your side of the board. The key here is control the center with a pawn or two and only later in the opening make additional pawn moves. As for the Queen, she should only move one square forward in order to connect our Rooks. Fear not, this isn’t bringing your Queen out early! Make sure that your Rooks have the freedom to move back and forth along their starting rank. Rooks trapped in the corners of the board are not in the game. While you don’t want to bring a Rook out onto the board during the opening, they can certainly help to control central squares by being posted on the e and d files. They can also support pawns being pushed towards the enemy. Play for control by fighting for the center. Better to be an attacker than a defender and fighting for the center makes you the aggressor. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Why the Center?

When I teach my students the opening principles, we talk a great deal about the center of the board because that’s the name of the game when it comes to the opening. My more astute students pay close attention, making mental notes regarding the center of the board. Yet rarely does one of them ask “why the center?” The majority of chess students will simply accept the statement “you must control the center of the board during the opening” as a hard fast rule, a law not to be broken unless you want to lose your game quickly. While I can appreciate the idea of simply taking in such a statement without argument, a great deal more can be learned when you question such a statement. I am overjoyed when a student raises his or her hand and asks me why the center of the board is so crucial to good opening play. Asking questions is a fantastic way to improve one’s knowledge but sadly few students ask questions, even when encouraging them to do so.

Beginner’s too often confuse the game’s principles with the game’s rules, thinking a principle to be another rule of the game. Therefore, I make a point, long before teaching any principles to explain the difference between the two. Rules cannot be broken in chess. However, principles are merely guidelines (albeit great guidelines) that provide us with a way to make informed or sound decisions when considering moves. The principles have been around for centuries and have stood the test of time. They’ve survived this test of time because they work. Of course, students will first ignore the opening principles, trying it their way instead. When they’ve suffered one too many agonizing defeats, they’ll try it the principled way and suddenly see positive results.

To hone in on why opening principles are so important, you have to realize just how important the opening is. For you beginners, the opening comprises roughly the first 12 to 16 moves made in a chess game. Some openings are shorter while some are longer. The opening allows you to build a foundation for the rest of your game. When building a house, if the foundation is weak that house will eventually collapse. The same holds true in chess. If your foundation, the opening, is poorly constructed, your game will collapse.

There are three phases to a chess game, the opening, middle and endgames. The opening sets you up for the middle-game and the middle-game sets you up for the endgame. Therefore, your middle-game is only as good as your opening and your endgame is only as good as your middle-game. They all depend on one another. However, you might not see a middle or endgame if your opening is weak. One question beginners will ask is “I never make it to the middle or endgame because I get checkmated early. What am I doing wrong?” The answer? Not playing a proper opening!

To play properly during the opening, you have to use the opening principles to guide the moves you make. You cannot waste time (tempo) because the goal of the opening is control the center of the board before your opponent does. Remembering that your opponent is trying to achieve the same goals as you during the opening means that every move you make must be principled and not waste time. Wasted moves, such as moving the same piece twice during the opening or bringing your Queen out early allows your opponent to continue their principled moves which furthers their control of the board’s center. When you waste moves you might as well be giving your opponent a free turn.

Before I can even start teaching the opening principles, I have to solidify the importance of the board’s center in the minds of my students. Unless you know why the center of the board is so critical during the opening, you’ll not fully appreciate the importance of the opening principles and might ignore them, opted for wasted moves instead. With that said, let’s look at why the center of the board is so important.

The center of the board is comprised of four squares, e4, e5, d4 and d5. During the opening, both players fight to control these four squares and the squares immediately surrounding them. Why control the center and not one side of the board or the other? Two reasons. First, pieces have greater power or control of squares elsewhere on the board when those pieces are centrally located. A Knight in the center of the board (d4, d5, e4 or e5) controls eight squares while a Knight on the edge of the board (a4 or h4, for example) controls only four squares (a half Knight) and finally, a Knight on a corner square (a1, a8, h1 or h8) controls only two squares (a quarter Knight). The opening is all about having greater control of the board’s center than your opponent. Therefore centrally positioned pieces have greater control and greater options due to controlling more squares.

The second reason for centralized control? the enemy King is on a central file and if you want to get to him, it’s a lot faster to attack through the center than the flanks or sides of the board. Remember, the first person to checkmate their opponent’s King wins the game. Therefore, you want to get to the opposition King as quickly as possible. However, this doesn’t mean you should attack the opposition King the first chance you get. Attacks are built up, often slowly. What I mean by “quickly” is that you should choose the most direct approach when attacking. Why make two moves to get to a square you can reach in one move? This brings me to another important point, time or tempo.

The opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The player who makes good opening moves that follow the opening principles will be the winner. The player who wastes time making moves that do nothing to control the board’s center will fall hopelessly behind. In chess terms, we call time tempo and every time you make an unprincipled move that does nothing to help you achieve your goal, control of the board’s center, you lose tempo. Unprincipled moves are wasted moves and every time you make one of these unprincipled moves, you might as well be giving your opponent a free move. Wasted moves waste time and wasting time losses games.

Since the opening comes down to who can control the center first, with greater force, we can see that using the opening principles to guide our moves doesn’t waste time. The player that wastes time or tempo falls behind the player who doesn’t. We now know the reasons for the center of the board being so important, so employing the opening principles should make more sense. Our job during the opening is to control the center of the board with a pawn (or two), develop our minor pieces (Knights and Bishop) to squares that allow them to control the center, castle our King to safety, connect our Rooks and last, continue to improve the activity of our pawns and pieces in order to go into the middle-game with a strong position.

I mentioned that principles are not rules at the beginning of this article. This means they don’t have to be adhered to. There are time when you may have to make a move that goes against these principles because you have no choice. The principles suggest we don’t move the same piece twice during the opening but what if a black pawn suddenly moves to b4 when you have a Knight on c3. Do you leave the Knight there because you don’t want to move the same piece twice during the opening? No! You move the Knight rather than lose it. Leaving the Knight to be captured would be treating principles as rules and they’re not. In fact, great chess players sometimes bend the opening principles if they have a really good reason. However, they don’t break those principles completely, they only bend them slightly. For now though, as a beginner, don’t bend the opening principles until you’ve fully mastered them. Speaking of opening principles, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Rook Ending Tactics

I’ve reached the point in Chess Endings for Heroes where I have to consider what to include in the section on rook endings. You will recall that this book is designed to take players who know how the pieces move up to adult competitive level (about 1500 ELO).

Dan Heisman says, with a degree of incredulity, that he’s heard that some instructors teach players rated 1200 or 1300 the Philidor and Lucena positions. He himself lost a game by not knowing the Philidor position when he’d been playing tournament chess for more than 5 years and his rating was 2100. He makes the point that he reached 2100 without knowing the Philidor position, and that there are better ways to use your time than learning positions that will happen very rarely.

I see his point but don’t entirely agree. It really doesn’t take that long to learn the basics of Phil and Lucy. I also think that, given faster time limits, a basic knowledge of endings is much more important now than when Dan lost this game, which must have been getting on for half a century ago. So I’ll be including a brief description of P and L, but at this level you really don’t know anything else specific.

Sure, you’ll need some basic principles: keep your pieces active, create passed pawns, rooks belong behind passed pawns, that sort of thing. But what I really want to do is to look at rook endings played at this level, look at the recurring tactical ideas, and reinforce them through a series of puzzles.

So I’ve spent the past week or so going through all the rook endings in my Richmond Junior Club database (getting on for 17000 games).

A familiar tactic in both queen and rook endings is the skewer.

In this position Black decided to promote his pawn, which wasn’t a good idea. He had four winning moves to choose from, the nicest of which was Rf3+, when, if White captures, it’s Black, not White who will play a skewer.

It’s very easy to switch into endgame mode and forget about mates. In this position White did just that, capturing on e6. He’d have had some winning chances if he’d taken the precaution of trading on g4 first.

Another frequent mistake: the most common in all endings at this level, is concerned with trading pieces to reach a pawn ending.

In this position I was giving a simul and carelessly moved my king to b5 instead of c5. Luckily, my opponent failed to avail himself of the opportunity to trade rooks and promote his remaining pawn.

Here’s another one. As you get stronger you have to move beyond just counting points and thinking rook for rook is an equal exchange. Here, with Black to make a decision, the trade is anything but equal. The rook ending is drawn, but Black traded rooks into what was a lost pawn ending after White correctly recaptured with the king. Note that Black would be winning if White took back on f4 with the pawn.

You also have to watch out for perpetual checks. In this position White played the natural g7, giving Black an immediate draw. The nicest way to win is to promote the pawn, play Rf7+ to trade rooks and then promote again.

My final example demonstrates another very common tactical idea. If your opponent’s rook is only defended by a king you can sometimes win it by playing a check. White is two pawns up here, but only has one winning move: Rf6+. Instead he pushed the h-pawn without thinking, losing his rook after White’s obvious reply. A few moves later, though, White accidentally left his rook en prise so the result was a draw.

Richard James

Black Belt Chess

You will be aware that, if you’re a practitioner of martial arts, you will be able to earn different coloured belts depending on your level of skill. If you’re learning a musical instrument you’ll be able to take grade exams at various levels. I’ve spoken to children who take part in other activities such as gymnastics and drama, who have told me about similar systems. Yet there’s nothing comparable in chess. Why not?

Yes, we have both national and international rating systems. We have titles for strong players: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and so on. But there’s an enormous gap between social players and serious competitive players. I believe such a scheme would provide encouragement for more people, adults as well as children, to take chess seriously. It wouldn’t be very stressful because you’d only take the test when you were ready to do so: in fact it would be a lot less stressful than playing, and would ensure that no one took part in competitions before they were ready.

Here in the UK we have two competing national systems, but not many people, to the best of my knowledge, take either of them. I’ve encountered parents, though, whose children have passed with merit or distinction but are still not sure of the castling rules. It’s not surprising they’re deluded as to how well their children play chess. Such schemes need to be serious and rigorous – and there has to be a significant reason and a significant reward for following them.

I’ve seen other local schemes as well but haven’t been impressed. If you’re devising an examination you have to be clear exactly what you want to test and ensure that you’re not actually testing something different. If you can pass the exam by memorising the course book, your exam is testing memory rather than knowledge or skill. If you expect examinees to write an essay you’re, to a certain extent, testing English and essay writing skills, which may cause problems for students with dyslexia, or those whose first language is not English, as well as favouring older rather than younger children.

My view is that the most significant indicator and predictor of chess skills is the ability to solve tactical/calculation puzzles, and that the puzzles should be a mixture: not all of the ‘sac sac mate’ type. At the lowest level the puzzles will just test chessboard vision, but higher levels will expect students to look further and further ahead and solve more complicated positions. The test should be serious and rigorous, using pencil and paper rather than screen, with exam conditions enforced. You’d provide sample papers with answers and perhaps also a screen-based version for practice, to ensure that students are fully prepared and ready to take the test.

There are other aspects of chess, though, which are best tested one to one, rather than through a written test. So I’d include, if it was logistically possible, a short viva voce session. At the lowest level this might include checking that the students are familiar with the en passant rule, that they can checkmate with a king and queen against a king, and so on. At higher levels you might want to test opening understanding in this way, by getting them to play and explain the first few moves of the Queen’s Gambit, the Sicilian Najdorf or whatever, as well as ensuring they can win more difficult endings.

In my view we need to get away from purely competitive chess and encourage skills development, with players only taking part in competitions when they have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Within a club like Richmond Juniors we can do this to a certain extent, but it’s not easy within school chess clubs. The nature of chess requires that skills children learn within a chess club are reinforced at home, but if parents just see the school chess club as a childminding service which might also ‘make kids smarter’ they won’t remember very much of what we teach them.

How can we change the perception of how junior chess should be run so that we improve standards and ensure that more children continue their interest in chess beyond primary school? That is the million dollar question, and I think perhaps setting up a scheme such as this might help. It has to be compulsory rather than optional, though, at least if you want to take part in competitions. You might want to open it to players of all ages and perhaps encourage parents to join in.

If you’re interested in setting up something along these lines, either nationally or internationally, please let me know.

Richard James