Chess is a Team Sport

Once the rules of the game have been mastered, it’s time for the beginner to play their first real game of chess. This is a critical moment because it can mark the start of a potentially frustrating period of time for the beginner due to a lack of playing experience and piece coordination! This becomes glaringly obvious when the beginner plays against a more experienced opponent who knows the importance of pawn and piece coordination. When teaching chess classes within the school system, you have a very short period of time to accomplish a long list of tasks that might normally be spread out over the course of a year of weekly lessons (50-52 individual classes). This can difficult to accomplish since you cannot spend too much time on a single topic (One Academic Chess session typically consist of 8 to 12 individual classes and 2 to 3 sessions during the school year).

After mastery of the rules, I get my students to start playing immediately so they become proficient at making legal moves with their pawns and pieces. We then move on to check and checkmate, castling, pawn promotion and capturing en passant. We assign pawns and pieces relative values. My students learn to count attackers versus defenders when considering an exchange of material. After reaching this point, we move on to the three primary opening principles, controlling the board’s center, minor piece development and castling (when to castle and the benefits of Rook activation). I have my students play games with one another while I walk around from board to board taking notes to chart student progress. In my last article, I discussed the problems with bringing the Queen out too early in the game. Today I’m going to address another problem beginners have, moving the same piece over and over again.

When I talk about developing minor pieces during the opening, I carefully point out that we need to get those minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) onto active squares as soon as possible (preferably before our opponent). Active squares are those that control the center, disrupt squares on the opponent’s side of the board or directly attack an enemy piece. The more active a piece, the more territory it influences or controls. I remind my students that they should develop as many of their minor pieces as possible. “Tell your pieces there is to be no sleeping on the back rank during the game, especially those minor pieces.” I say this at least once a week to my beginning students which ultimately leads to a classroom discussion on teamwork.

I start our discussion on teamwork by asking my students if they’ve ever watched a football game in which a single player marches onto the field to take on the opposing team while his teammates sit on the sidelines wrapped in blankets, sipping hot chocolate and watching the action? A resounding “no” can be heard echoing throughout the classroom. Teams win their games by working together rather than individually. Chess is a team sport in which the pawns and pieces work together to achieve the game’s overall goal, the mating of the opposition’s King. However, beginners don’t realize this when they first start playing which can create the type of frustration that might cause them to lose interest in chess. One of the problems I see in the games of beginners is what I call the “lone piece syndrome.”

This problem comes about when a beginner thinks that they can move a lone piece out onto the board and use that individual piece to chase down and capture their opponent’s pieces. To experienced players, the idea makes no sense at all. To a young beginner, it seems like a capital idea! When I ask students why they think this is a good idea I get a variety of responses including “it’s much easier when I only have to keep an eye on one piece. Besides, if I lose that piece I can always bring another into the fight!” At this point, you have to demonstrate the superiority of teamwork versus the lone piece. Teamwork comes into play during all phases of the game, from opening to ending so it’s a good idea to introduce the concept from the start. This is the time to mention that students should move each piece only once during the opening (there are exceptions to this but it’s best to hold off on demonstrating these exceptions until your students have gotten better at development in the opening).

The piece that always seems to catch a bad case of lone piece syndrome is the King-side Knight. A reasonable first few moves will be played and suddenly the student playing white starts moving the Knight on f3 around on the King-side (although any other piece can suffer from the syndrome as well). Often, a beginner will remember seeing a Knight fork on f7 (forking the Queen and King-side Rook). However, that beginner will only think about the power of the fork (fast attacks on f7 are popular at junior level but can lead to bad chess habits) and not the reason the fork works. The student forgets that the example initially given of this fork had the light squared Bishop on c4 protecting the Knight on f7. Thus, after moving their Knight to g5 and then f7 (often the Knight on g5 is subject to attack by the Queen but is missed by the beginner playing black), the black King will capture the attack Knight. While the black King loses his right to castle, he is often ahead in development and has removed a useful white piece (the Knight). This example is over simplified but it serves to point out the overall problem with moving the same piece over and over again.

Tempo is then introduced. The goal for my students during the opening is to get as many of their pieces developed to active squares quickly. Gaining control of the board’s center is a race run between the two players. When running a race, you don’t want to waste time. It makes more sense to move each piece once to an active square, thus controlling more of the board, than to concentrate on moving a single piece around the board in the hopes of capturing a piece or two. Tempo will be added to the vocabulary list at this point and will be mentioned in all example games in the future.

The best way to demonstrate successful teamwork in chess is by providing good example games. I make a point, when walking my students through an example game, of pointing out a few important ideas: Strong players develop the majority of their pieces, not just one or two. Those pieces are developed (we use this word rather than the word “move”) to squares that offer the maximum activity for that piece. Attacks are held back until development is complete. Most importantly, pawns and pieces work together, protecting one another. You don’t see wide spreading cases of lone piece syndrome in master level games!

When the lecture ends and the chess games begin, we set a goal for the day’s games. That goal is move each piece once during the opening (unless the piece is going to be captured) and to protect each piece with another piece or pawn. Of course, a great deal more could be added to this but with young beginning players you have to avoid the point of mental over-saturation. The journey of learning good chess habits requires taking a hundred small steps rather than one or two large steps. On a side note, I’ve heard some of my students quietly chanting “LPS, LPS, LPS” when their opponent tries to move a lone piece around the board. Just the thought of this chant has stopped more than one of my students from partaking in such blundering play. Here’s an example of teamwork in chess (Commentary is kept to a minimum):

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).