Category Archives: Richard James

Queen Against Pawn

Last time we looked at a pawn ending played between two young players (about 1500-1600 strength) at Richmond Junior Chess Club. After various misadventures, during which Black miscalculated badly in a position where he had a simple win, this position was reached, with White to play.

Before we continue looking at the game, some basic endgame knowledge. Everyone needs to know the ending with queen against pawn on the 7th rank supported by the king. If the pawn’s on a centre file or knight’s file the queen wins. You force the king onto the queening square and advance your king. Against a bishop’s pawn or a rook’s pawn, though, it’s a draw unless your king’s close enough to take a hand in a checkmate. With a bishop’s pawn, the defender can move his king into the corner so that taking the pawn will result in a stalemate. Likewise, with a rook’s pawn, the king in the corner will be stalemated.

Another piece of basic knowledge is that you can stop a pawn on the 7th rank easily if you can put your queen on the promotion square. All you have to do then is approach the pawn with your king.

Bearing that in mind, let’s see what happened in the game, with White to play his 60th move.

Black has the potentially drawing c-pawn, and two others as well, but his king is on d3 rather than d2. White has several ways to bring home the full point. A nice winning move is 60. Qh3+, when Kd2 walks into 61. Qe3+ Kd1 62. Qe1#, while moving back to, say, c4 allows Qe3, controlling the queening square. White can then follow up with Qc1 and just take all the black pawns. A similar idea is 60. Qh6, again followed by Qc1. But instead the game continued:

60. Qd8+ Kc3 61. Qxf6+

In some lines White might want to keep the f-pawn on the board to prevent the stalemate defence, but after this White’s still winning.

61… Kd3 62. Qf3+ Kd2

Allowing an immediate mate, but otherwise the king will be cut off on the fourth rank.

63. Qe2+(?)

Missing the mate in 2: 63. Qe3+ Kd1 64. Qe1#. White’s still winning at the moment, though.

63…Kc1 64. Kxg2?

This is the move that throws away the win. It’s not so easy at this level, but the winning idea was 64. Qb5 (avoiding the stalemate defence) Kd1 65. Qb3 Kc1 66. Kxg2 Kd2 67. Qb2 Kd1 68. Kf2 c1Q 69. Qe2#.

64… Kb1 65. Qd3 Kc1?

Now White’s winning again. Instead, Ka1 was drawing.

66. Kf2?

It looks natural to move the king in but now Black has the chance to revert to the stalemate defence. Again, the win was to be achieved by occupying the b-file. For example: 66. Qb3 Kd2 67. Qb2 Kd1 68. Kf2 Kd2 69. Qd4+ Kc1 70. Qb4 Kd1 71. Qe1#.

66…Kb2 67. Qd2 Kb1 68. Qb4+ Kc1?

The final mistake. Black still had a draw by moving to the a-file.

69. Ke3

White had to be careful: Ke2 and Ke1 were both stalemate. There was another mate in two, though: 69. Kf1 Kd1 70. Qe1#.

69…Kd1 70. Qd2#

Once more, then, a lot to learn from this game. These endings with pawn on the 7th rank against queen are so important and essential for understanding many pawn endings. As I tell all my students, you can’t understand other endings until you understand pawn endings, you can’t understand middle games until you understand endings, and you can’t understand openings until you understand middle games.

For the record, here’s the complete game.

Richard James


Pawn Endings in Practice (2)

It’s been far too long since the first article in this series, but here’s a very instructive ending between two of Richmond Junior Club’s stronger members (both about 1500-1600 strength) on 22 March.

We start here, with White considering his 41st move. Should he trade rooks or not? First lesson: you have to calculate the pawn ending before trading the last pieces. So before you can play any ending well you have to understand pawn endings. In this case the pawn ending is won for Black, so White should avoid the trade. Although Black has a slight advantage I guess the rook ending should be drawn. We teach our pupils to move their king up into the centre of the board in the ending but here the correct plan for Black is to move his king to b4 to attack the c-pawn. This is an important position type, with the two immovable pawns on the c-file. Black can attack c4 from either b4 or b3, but Black can only defend from d3, so when he runs out of pawn moves on the other side he’ll have to capitulate.

Let’s see whether our gladiators were up to the challenge.

41. Rxb7+? (Now Black’s winning.) Kxb7
42. Kf1 Kb6
43. Ke2 Kc6? (Now it’s probably a draw. Ka5 followed by Kb4 is winning for Black.)
44. f4? (The computer gives 44. Ke4 as leading to a queen ending where White has a slight advantage.) f5? (Kb6, followed by Ka5 and Kb4 is winning again for Black.)
45. Kf3? (White can draw by moving onto the d-file. Now Black is winning again.) Kb6? (Good plan but poor timing. Black should have played h5, and then Kb6 etc.)
46. Ke3? (White can draw here by playing g4, when both players will promote.) Ka5 (Finally Black is on the winning track.)
47. Kd2 Kb4
48. Kd3 Kb3
49. g4 (Desperation) fxg4
50. g3 h5 (The last few moves have been fine for Black.)
51. f5 h4?? (All he had to do to win was play Kb4 when White is zugged. Interestingly, when I demonstrated this ending at the club the following week quite a few of the class made the same mistake. I guess they were already familiar with the idea of sacrificing to obtain a passed pawn but failed to calculate the resulting position. Now White is winning.)
52. f6? (Now it’s a draw. Instead, White can win by just capturing the pawn. His king can stop the g-pawn by entering the queening square, and then he can play f6, sacrificing to create an unstoppable passed pawn.) gxf6? (Black errs in turn. He could have draw by playing hxg3, when both players queen. Black will have an extra pawn but White has a perpetual check on the other side.)
53. gxh4 g3
54. Ke3 Kxc4
55. h5 (White has one pawn against three, but he’s going to promote first.) g2
56. Kf2 Kd3
57. h6 c4
58. h7 c3
59. h8Q c2

The last few moves have all been self-explanatory. When the pawn ending was reached, Black was winning. After a series of mistakes on both sides he found the winning plan, but then miscalculated badly. Now we reach an ending with queen against three pawns, two of which are on the seventh rank. White should win from here, but did he actually manage to do so? Don’t miss next week’s exciting episode.

Meanwhile, what lessons can be learnt from this ending so far?

1. You have to calculate the pawn ending before trading or proposing a trade of your last piece.
2. Being able to activate your king first is often decisive in pawn endings, but the centre is not always the best place. In this game Black’s winning plan (at least it should have been winning) involved marching the king down the a-file.
3. Learn the position type with two fixed pawns on the same file. If you can activate your king first you can attack the pawn from two squares, but it can only be defended from one square. Then all you have to do is run your opponent out of pawn moves and he’ll be zugged.
4. Sometimes you can win by sacrificing to obtain a passed pawn.
5. Positions with passed pawns on both sides need to be calculated accurately. You can’t just guess but really have to work it out. There may not be much point in sacrificing to get a passed pawn if your opponent’s king can move into the queening square.
6. Sometimes pawn endings can become queen endings. You have to be really good at queen endings as well as pawn endings.

Richard James


Queen Traps

The other day one of my pupils showed me a recent tournament game in which he had the black pieces.

I can’t remember the exact move order, but it started something like this.

White opened with the queen’s pawn but neither player really demonstrated much understanding of the subtleties of the opening. At move seven Black decided to attack the white queen. At this level children tend to play threats in the hope that their opponent won’t notice rather than trying to put pieces on better squares. But this time White was sufficiently alert to move his queen and decided to throw in a check on b5. Qd2 instead would have been fine. Black might, I suppose, have replied with c6 but instead he found, possibly without realising why, the correct move Bc6. Suddenly, White’s queen is trapped in broad daylight, in the middle of the board. Black eventually went on to win the game with his extra queen.

Last week I demonstrated this to a group of children at Richmond Junior Club, and asked them what lessons they could learn from the game. They were all eager to tell me the lesson that you have to look ahead before playing your move, which of course is perfectly correct. There were two other lessons I wanted them to tell me about as well, but I had difficulty getting the replies I was looking for.

I was hoping they’d tell me that it’s often dangerous to bring your queen out too soon, one reason being that she might get trapped. I’m sure most of them have been told this many times, but they weren’t able to relate this piece of advice to the game in question. The second thing I hoped they’d tell me was that you should beware of playing random checks. Probably not all of them are aware of this. They’ve been taught to look for every check, capture and threat so not playing random checks seemed like strange advice to some of them. What we mean, of course, is that you should look at every check – it might be checkmate, lead to checkmate, be a fork or whatever, not that you should always play a check should you have one available.

This reminded me of a very short game I first saw in Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess many years ago.

In this game White started with 1.e3. Children often play this, illogically, because they’re scared of Scholar’s Mate. Then he went for a queen attack on move 2, but as his e-pawn had only advanced one square Black correctly took over the centre. On move 4 White played his queen to what seemed to be a random safe square, but it wasn’t safe at all. Again, the white queen was trapped in the middle of the board, in record time.

In both these games, White learnt the hard way about the dangers of bringing your queen out too soon.

Richard James


Steps Revisited (3)

Revisiting the Steps Method has encouraged me to think again about the best way to teach tactics. Assuming, of course, that our students have developed excellent chessboard vision and understand the basic principle that (other things being equal) Superior Force Wins.

Steps is very thorough at outlining every possible tactical idea to win material and providing excellent puzzles to reinforce each concept before the students move onto the next idea.

But there’s not so much, at least in the main part of the course, about the actual thinking process. I teach my pupils to look at every check, capture and threat by telling them to use a CCTV to look at the chessboard. The first C stands for Checks, the second C for Captures and the T for Threats. Checks, Captures, Threats and Violent moves, or, if you prefer, for those of you who correct children who ‘kill’ their opponent’s pieces, looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory.

I think it was Purdy back in the 1930s who introduced the concept of looking for Checks, Captures and Threats. “Examine moves that smite!”, he said. “A good eye for smites is far more important than a knowledge of strategical principles.”

In the 1970s, Kotov’s book Think Like a Grandmaster was hugely influential. Kotov advised his readers to identify ‘candidate moves’ and form a tree of variations, taking each forcing move in turn and trying to analyse each sequence of checks, captures and threats until quiescence is reached, then assessing the resulting position. As time went on, though, Kotov’s work was criticised by other writers who claimed that this was not really how chess players thought.

Well, perhaps it was how Kotov thought. I certainly found it helpful for improving my play when I first read it 40 years ago, although I usually forget to look at all checks, captures and threats in my own games! My method of teaching tactics uses a similar approach at a much lower level. The Steps Method takes what I think is a slightly different approach, emphasising the different tactical ideas rather than the thought processes you might use. In a sense it’s the same principle as “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”. By using CCTV you can in theory solve any tactical position.

Perhaps, at least for some players, learning the thought processes will be more efficient. If you learn, say, Philidor’s Legacy you can remember it and use it yourself, but it won’t help you with any other position. If, on the other hand, you learn to analyse all sequences of checks, captures and threats, you will, in theory, be able to solve very many positions.

There’s a third method, as well, which might be used: intuition. You might well think of someone like Tal in this context. An intuitive player will play a move because it looks right, or even just because it looks interesting, without precise calculation.

Ideally, we need to use a combination of methods when teaching tactics. We need to teach the specific thinking skills – analysing all checks, captures and threats for both players. We need to teach visualisation skills to enable students to look ahead and calculate accurately. (As it happens, the Steps people are developing a new series of workbooks designed to develop this skill.) We need to teach the basic tactical ideas: forks, pins, discovered attacks, deflections and so on, which the Steps course does outstandingly well. We also need to encourage our students to develop intuition, creativity and fantasy, partly by encouraging them to play open games where tactical opportunities will abound: something that is encouraged within the Steps course.

Richard James


Steps Revisited (2)

Continuing my thoughts about the very different chess education philosophy represented by the Dutch Steps method, let’s consider an extract from the Step 4 Manual for Chess Trainers. This would be for children aged about 12-13 who have been studying chess seriously for three years.

This section discusses when children should move into adult chess. I’m paraphrasing a bit (and I hope I’m not misunderstanding) because the translation isn’t very good.

Bear in mind also that the course is most often used within a chess club. Dutch chess clubs (and European chess clubs generally) operate more like football, rugby or cricket clubs here in the UK, with an adult section and a junior section.

“The drawback with training in small groups is that it is impossible to organise a good competition. It’s boring to play the same opponents over and over again. In many clubs this is solved by letting the students play with the adults. The problem of moving children to the adult section is essentially the same as that of allowing children to go to bed late, or of forcing them to adapt socially to their seniors (consider 11-13 year olds). The children’s chess development will stagnate because they will subconsciously adapt their playing style to that of adults. Their sharp attacking games give way to careful play, so that they will not lose too quickly.”

The authors go on to suggest that it might be good to allow young people of 15 or older to play against adults, but for 12 year olds or younger it’s not a good idea.

This seemed when I first read it, and still seems now, pretty startling. At Richmond we used to run rapidplay tournaments every two months precisely to encourage those players who were good enough to compete against adults. We also ran teams in the local (adult) chess league for the same purpose. Our experience was very much that children gained enormous benefit from playing against adults as long as they were good enough players and had sufficient emotional maturity. It was good for them to meet opponents with a wider variety of styles and a wider range of openings than they’d encounter in junior tournaments. And of course many of the adults were scared of playing children: they had little to gain and much to lose when sitting opposite a small child. We’d encourage children to play tactically and to unleash their favourite gambits against their unsuspecting adult opponents. Putting children in a position where they had to learn to adapt socially to adults also had its advantages, although it could on occasion backfire when children breached the etiquette of adult chess.

It’s also interesting to note at what point simple endgames are taught. Basic king and pawn v king endings are only encountered in Step 3, and basic rook endings such as the Lucena and Philidor positions in Step 5, by which point the students will be strong tactical players.

So the principle of the course seems to be a small group of children developing tactical skills in a cocoon, not mixing with the outside world or playing against adults, learning no opening theory and only dealing with basic endings. I’d be interested to know to what extent the system really does work like this in real life. During the nearly 30 years it’s been in operation, though, the Dutch have produced an impressive number of strong young players, and the course is still being developed with more material being added to each step. So, however strange it may seem to us, its success cannot be doubted.

Certainly, the tactical material is highly impressive: well thought out, logically structured and extremely thorough, although I suspect there are different approaches to tactics that might be considered.

Here in the UK, though, and no doubt also in the United States, we take a more practical approach, teaching children openings and perhaps endings early on in order to prepare them for tournaments.

My view is that, as with most things, the best approach is somewhere in the middle. Regular readers will be aware of my view that in this country we put children into competitions too soon at the expense of skills development. Although I can’t see many teachers in the UK adopting anything resembling the Steps method it doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot from the way it emphasises and develops tactical ability.

Richard James


Steps Revisited (1)

I’ve recently been revisiting the Dutch Steps method, written by Cor van Wijgerden and the late Rob Brunia. The whole philosophy behind the course is very different from what we are used to here in the UK and no doubt also in the United States. Neither better nor worse, just different.

The course was developed in 1987 for children from age 9 upwards, and comprises six steps, each of which would typically take a year to complete. The course material is dominated by tactics. The first step is concerned with the ability to see what’s on the board in front of you, the second and third volumes involve two-move tactics and the later volumes deeper tactics. There are preliminary ‘Stepping Stones’ books for children aged between 6 and 9 to complete before they start on the main course.

The teachers’ manual for Step 2 includes the following game played between two children at the beginning of the second step. So they’d be 10 years old and would have been playing for a year.

Yes, a lot of tactical oversights as you’d expect from children who haven’t been playing long, but what is noticeable is the lack of knowledge of opening principles. It’s interesting to note that opening principles are not covered at all until almost half way through Step 2, when pupils are taught the three golden rules: put a pawn in the centre, develop your knights and bishops and castle your king into safety.

We, on the other hand, tend to teach the three golden rules more or less straight away, so this will seem very strange to many of us. We’ll probably also show them Scholar’s Mate, explain how to stop it, and perhaps the first few moves of one or two openings, probably starting 1. e4 e5. We also, of course, usually start children at 6 or 7, rather than at 9, the age at which children should be starting Step 1.

You’ll see that Josina and Danielle, playing a lot of pawn moves and not developing their minor pieces or making their kings safe, reached a highly tactical position. My typical beginners’ games, on the other hand, will probably be Spanish Four Knights and Giuoco Pianissimo type games where the minor pieces are developed, the king is castled – and they reach a stodgy position where they find it hard to think of what to do next.

It may be very different from the way we approach teaching children about openings, but given the large number of strong young players produced in the Netherlands over the past couple of decades, it’s hard to argue with success.

Perhaps we need to consider taking a middle course. I’ll take another look at our two very different chess philosophies next week, but meanwhile do tell me about your experiences and about how and when you think we should teach openings to beginners.

Richard James


Thou Shalt Not Kill

A very simple question for you today. If your pupils talks about ‘killing’ rather than capturing or taking a piece, should you correct them?

I recall at least one book which says you should, ‘for obvious reasons’.

When I’m teaching a class I’ll use ‘capture’ or ‘take’ rather than ‘kill’, and will usually continue to do so, even if my pupils use other words. A few months ago, though, I was in a primary school classroom with a (female) class teacher who was using ‘kill’ all the time. If I’m teaching a private pupil I’ll start by using ‘capture’ or ‘take’ but if my pupil uses ‘kill’ I’ll probably join in. This is to some extent connected with last week’s post about the two types of teacher. When I’m doing one to one teaching I’ll try to get inside the mind of my student, in a sense almost to ‘become’ him. A colleague who saw me doing some one to one teaching a year or so ago commented that I was like a child, which is exactly what I try to be. So if the child sees a capture as ‘killing’ an enemy piece then I’m happy with that as well. Children are well aware of the difference between reality and fantasy, even if adults think they’re not. It always seems to me that adults spend a lot of time inventing problems that children don’t really have, while sometimes neglecting children’s very real (to them) problems.

I did once have a problem in this sort of area though. I was supervising a class doing a verbal reasoning paper. There was a code question which led to the answer ‘divorce’. This upset one boy whose parents were going through a particularly difficult divorce at the time. So it’s probably a good idea to be aware of individual circumstances.

There also seem to be interesting cultural differences. In my experience, children whose families originate from the Indian sub-continent, girls as well as boys, tend to say ‘kill’. French children, on the other hand, often say ‘eat’. I have no idea why – is ‘manger’ used in French?

Don’t forget that chess is a symbolic representation of a battle. If you’re fighting a real battle you might, according to circumstances, either capture or kill your enemy. You wouldn’t ‘take’ them, whatever that might mean, and you certainly wouldn’t eat them. If you capture your enemy they might escape, or you might, if feeling merciful, decide to release them. If you kill them, though, they’re out of the battle for good. The same is true of chess. The only way a piece can reappear is via pawn promotion, but, as we’re allowed more than one queen, it is very specifically a conversion of one piece to another rather than a lost piece coming back into the game.

So, in principle, I have, except in specific circumstances, no problem with ‘kill’, and I’ve never met a child who has a problem with the word either. As I’m aware that some adults do have a problem, I’m careful about when I use it. If a child leads I will follow. In a group environment I’d probably continue to use other words, but I wouldn’t correct any child who said ‘kill’ for ‘capture’. And, just in case you’re interested, I’m a lifelong pacifist.

Richard James


Two Types of Teacher

The other day I was reading an interview with the pianist Stephen Hough in which he was asked about his relationship with Vlado Perlemuter. (If you’re interested, the March 2014 BBC Music Magazine’s cover mount CD features Perlemuter playing Ravel and Fauré, and the album notes include the interview with Hough.) This got me thinking about two types of teacher.

Perlemuter, according to Hough, was very kind and encouraging, and he loved receiving advice from him. But, he added, “His approach was always ‘this is it’… In one sense it’s invaluable hearing him say ‘The composer says this’. But the reverse issue is that there isn’t just the one way to play …”

Hough compares Perlemuter, whom he played for at a few masterclasses in the late 70s, with another of his teachers, Gordon Green. “…Gordon … would never demonstrate anything because everything was about the student’s own personality being developed.”

Two different types of teacher, then.

Vlado Perlemuter had an international reputation as one of the 20th century’s finest interpreters of Chopin, Fauré and Ravel, whom he knew well. What an opportunity it must have been for a young pianist to spend time with him learning first hand how he played. But, because of Perlemuter’s insistence that his way was the only way, Hough decided not to study with him permanently.

Gordon Green, on the other hand, wasn’t a famous international soloist or recording artist, but if you spend any time reading English pianists’ interviews and biographies his name will crop up over and over again as an influential teacher who encouraged his students to develop their own personalities. I’m sure some star virtuosi also have Green’s teaching ability, but, as it’s a totally different skill, there’s no reason why they should all possess it.

If you’re an ambitious young pianist you’ll benefit from both approaches: regular lessons from someone like Gordon Green and occasional masterclasses with top soloists like Vlado Perlemuter. A less experienced pianist, though, will probably only need the regular lessons with a gifted teacher. Although she might enjoy a session with an international star, any advice might only leave her confused. Listening to the star’s CDs or attending concerts along with her teacher might be more useful.

If you’re an ambitious young chess player, you’ll probably also benefit in different ways from both types of teacher: a regular coach who encourages you to develop your own style enhanced by occasional sessions with a top grandmaster who will show you how he plays. Chess teaching, though, is rather different from piano teaching. By its nature, piano teaching usually happens one to one. Chess tuition, on the other hand, usually happens in groups, although many learners also have one to one lessons. Group lessons, by their nature, tend not to be personalised. Looking at how Kasparov or Carlsen plays might be confusing. Looking at how Morphy or Greco played would be more useful, but can still confuse beginners.

So, if you’re a chess teacher doing one to one tuition, which type of teacher are you? Do you show your students how you play, or how grandmasters play, and tell them, or at least imply, that’s how they should play as well? Or do you build on your students’ prior knowledge and encourage them to develop their own personalities and styles?

If you’re looking for a chess teacher, either for yourself or for your children, ask yourself which type of teacher you’re looking for and, if you have someone in mind, ask questions to find out his approach.

Richard James


The Why Game

If you know any Annoying Small Children, or if you were once an Annoying Small Child yourself, you’ll be familiar with the Why Game.

You know how it works. Annoying Small Child asks you a question. You answer, then they ask “Why?”. Every time you give an answer they ask “Why?” again. When I was a boy the game stopped when the adult gave the ASC a clip round the ear and told him to stop being cheeky, but this is no longer considered acceptable so the game continues.

When a child comes up to me at a chess club or tournament and says “I won”, “I drew” or “I lost” I will usually ask them why. If they lost the game they’ll usually reply “because he checkmated me”, whereupon I ask “Why?” again. They tend to think I’m playing the Why Game with them, but there’s actually a serious purpose behind my questioning. They’ll eventually tell me that checkmate was the reason for their loss, but if they hadn’t made a mistake and allowed the mate they might have won. Further investigation will reveal that they were probably several pieces down at the time. They may have made a mistake and allowed a quick mate, but it would only have delayed the inevitable defeat. What I really want them to say is that they made a mistake and lost a piece, after which their opponent only had to be careful to win the game. We, as experienced players and mature thinkers, understand that if we’re a piece up it’s easier for us to set up tactics, win even more pieces and get checkmate because we have more pieces to attack with and our opponent has fewer pieces to defend with. But young children often don’t think this way. They don’t appreciate my second, or rather, third, TLA of the day: SFW (other things being equal, Superior Force usually Wins). On the other hand, when I asked a younger but stronger player why he drew a game, he explained to me that he was a pawn up in the ending and thought maybe he could have won it. This is exactly the sort of answer I want.

The same thing happens when I’m playing or analysing a game with a pupil. Before I started asking “Why?” I assumed that if they left a piece en prise it was because they didn’t look (either a fundamental misunderstanding of chess or a failure of impulse control) or because they looked but didn’t see (a failure of chessboard vision, or, in non-chess terminology, eye-brain coordination). The other day two boys at Richmond Junior Club were eager to play white against me. In both games they left pieces en prise. When I asked why they told me they knew and weren’t worried about it because they were busy pursuing their attack on the other side of the board.

This is the problem with showing brilliant games and sacrifices to less experienced players. Of course we want to encourage them to be both aggressive and creative in their play, to appreciate the beauty of great games, to learn to think ahead and much else. But if they see these ideas before they’ve fully appreciated the SFW principle they may well get confused about the whole idea of chess. They need to learn to follow the basic principles of chess before learning when to break them. They need to learn to walk before they can run.

Another problem is that children at this level are not very good at defending. Witness this recent game by one of the boys I played that day. Our hero, needless to say, was Black.

It’s very true, as this game demonstrates, that you can lose most of your pieces and still get checkmate, but once you get into the habit of thinking that losing pieces doesn’t matter it’s hard to get out of it.

In his song Teach Your Children, Graham Nash advised parents: “Don’t you ever ask them why”. I prefer to parse this as a question for chess teachers: “Don’t you ever ask them why?”.

Richard James


King and Pawn

Here’s an extract from a game between two of Richmond Junior Chess Club’s less experienced members. Black, the older and stronger of the two boys, has a rook, knight and pawn against his opponent’s lone king, as well as the advantage of the move. It should be easy to win, shouldn’t it?

Mr Silicon Knowall announces mate in 4 here, starting with the rather improbable 46.. Rd4 47. Ke8 Nd8, but your first thought might be just to push f5 as the white king is behind the pawn. Black did indeed push his pawn, but only one square. (It’s interesting how often less experienced players forget that pawns can still move two squares on their first move when they reach the ending.) Still winning easily, of course, but no need to lose the knight unless your pawn’s going straight through. It looks like Black failed to ask himself the vital question “If I do that, what will he do next?” before making his move.

Anyway, White took the knight and Black continued his plan of advancing the pawn: 47. Kxe6 f5 48. Ke5 Re4+ 49. Kd5. But now came 49.. f4, repeating the same mistake from three moves ago and this time losing his important rook and ending up in a drawn KP v K ending. Most children soon learn to check that they’re moving a piece to a safe square, but what they find a lot harder is to see when they’re leaving another piece unsafe, for example, as here, by moving a defender. A minimal position such as this provides a graphic illustration of the problem. Black understandably wants to promote his pawn, but again fails to ask himself “If I do that, what will he do next?”.

So, 50. Kxe4 Kg5, reaching the next diagram.

A critical position with White to move which every serious player needs to know and understand. Most beginners’ manuals start off their coverage of KP v K with the rule of the square, but this sort of position is far more important. You’ll almost always find in practice that the kings start off close to the pawn, as here. Let’s see whether our two novices knew what to do.

The next two moves were natural and fine: 51. Kf3 Kf5 52. Ke2 (here any move to the second rank draws, but one rank down and only Kf1 would draw, which is why I teach children always to retreat to the same file as the enemy pawn) 52.. Ke4 Now White has to play Kf2 to draw, but if you don’t know this and you lack the skills to work it out it’s natural, I suppose, to play 53. Kf1 instead, which is what happened.

Now Black has two winning moves. Everyone should know that the position after 53.. Kf3 is won with either player to move. It might be harder to remember that the position after 53.. Ke3 is also won regardless of the move. But Black, again naturally if you don’t know the position, played 53.. f3 instead. It may be counter-intuitive but you have to remember to get your king in front of the pawn. Now White has one way to draw: 54. Kf2! Kf4 55. Kf1! Not knowing this, he played 54. Kg1 instead and after 54.. Ke3 55. Kh1 f2 Black managed to promote his pawn and eventually win the game. (White’s 55th move is strange but here it doesn’t make any difference. Inexperienced players often move their king away from the pawn in these endings and if you ask them why they’ll tell you that if they keep near the pawn they might get checked.)

Two important lessons for all novices (and all who teach novices) from this. Always ask yourself the question “If I do that, what will my opponent do next?” to avoid losing pieces by moving or blocking defenders. And make sure you know the basic KP v K endings, backwards, forwards and inside out, blindfold and with your hands tied behind your back.

Richard James