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

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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).