Development Points

The opening of a chess game is a race for the control of space. It is a battle in which both players are fighting for the same territory on the board. It is a contest to see who can dominate the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) first. Experienced players know that the winner of this race gains the better position early on and that better position can determine the game’s outcome in favor of the player who has it! The opening is also one phase of the game that befuddles the beginner to no end.

Beginners are introduced to the opening principles which serve as a guide for early (opening) pawn and piece placement. These principles serve as a blueprint that allows the beginner to construct a logical plan of action during the opening. The novice player, once having mastered these principles, knows the value of controlling the center. The beginner who knows the basic opening principles know to start their control of the board’s center with a pawn push, to develop their minor pieces to active square and to castle their king to safety. However, the beginner often loses sight of their opening goals early on by making moves that waste time or, as they say in the language of chess, tempo. Pretty soon, their more experienced opponent who stays on track with the opening principles, gains a lead in development and controls more critical central squares. Again, greater control of the board’s center can lead to a winning game for the player who has it. Where does our beginner go wrong in the opening?

The answer is bad opening habits. These bad opening habits include moving the same piece multiple times during the opening, launching lone piece attacks or bring the Queen out early. There is also the problem of poorly placed pawns and pieces. Bad chess habits are hard to break, especially when there are more than one of them and they’re concentrated in a specific area such as the opening. To curb these problems, I have my students use a developmental point system to keep track of their opening progress. This system is easy to learn and helps to reduce and then eliminate these bad opening habits.

With my students, keeping track of development points becomes a game in itself. The rules of the game are simple. You earn one development point for each pawn and piece developed. However, those pawns and pieces must be moved or developed to active squares to earn the point. Active squares are those that control squares at the board’s center or squares directly around the four central squares. This means that a Knight moved from g1 to h3, rather than to f3, doesn’t earn a point if moving the Knight safely to f3 is possible. For example, after 1.e4…e5, White would logically move the Kingside Knight to f3 rather than h3 because being posted on f3 allows the Knight greater control of the center. A Knight moved to f3 would earn one development point whereas a Knight moved to h3 would garner zero development points. Of course, there are times when you might have to move this Knight to a square like h3, which is acceptable but it will not earn you that point. Reasons for such a move include avoiding the loss of the Knight, avoiding being checkmated and delivering checkmate. However, you can’t earn points for such a move. The reason I don’t award a point for any Knight move that doesn’t control the board’s center or surrounding squares is because I want my beginning students to focus on finding the most active squares during the opening. Beginners new to development points often think that moving the same piece twice during the opening will garner them additional points. Unfortunately, this is not the case (with an exception described later on).

Beginners have the bad habit of moving the same piece twice very early on during the opening. Beginners become fixated on the f7 and f2 squares because they learn (from their chess teachers) that that those squares are weak, being defended only by the King. This means that a double attack from a Bishop on c4 and a Knight on g5 can win a pawn, fork the Queen and Rook (with a Knight on either f2 or f7) or force the King to move which denies him the right to castle (with a Bishop on f2 or f7, supported by the Knight). It takes three moves to get a Knight from its starting square to f7 or f2. Beginners have a tendency to lose material when this type of attack fails or fall far behind in development when their opponent rebuffs the attack with sound development. The reason I don’t award points for moving the same piece twice is to discourage early, often shoddy attacks and encourage constant development. It is far better for the beginner to learn how to get his or her pieces developed to active squares than to launch premature attacks that leave them lagging behind in the development race. Each new pawn and piece developed creates greater control of the board.

I mentioned bringing out the Queen early as a problem. While the master player might position a Queen closer to the action without completely exposing her to an onslaught of attacks, the beginner will move the Queen dangerously close to their opponent’s material, eventually losing her early on. This is why I deduct points for early Queen development. A Queen brought out early will cost you three to five points!

Castling earns a player one point as does moving the Queen a rank forward to connect the Rooks. Points are also awarded for increasing a piece’s activity later in the opening. To make a clear distinction between moving a piece twice during the opening and increasing a piece’s activity, I use the following guidelines: After you have one or two pawns on central squares, one or two pawns supporting those central pawns, three of your minor pieces developed, a castled King and connected Rooks, you can then (and only then) start moving previously moved pieces to more active squares.

My students keep a pencil and paper by their side and keep track of the development points. Because they’re trying to beat their opponent’s point score, they start to become less concerned with capturing pieces for the sake of capturing pieces and more concerned with developing a strong position. I encourage everyone to try this. It’s very interesting and fun to see two beginners trying to out-develop one another. Of course, there has to be an end to this development game and the end comes when the first capture is made ( I know there are plenty of captures made early on in solid openings but this is an exercise for beginners). When that first piece is removed from the board, the points are tallied up and a development point winner is declared. I have contests with a prize awarded for the student who earns the greatest number of points. Using it in my teaching program has immensely helped many students improve their chess habits. Of course, there are plenty of excellent openings in which capturing takes place early on. However, it’s important to teach the novice player to build up a good position during the opening rather than have them capture pieces because they can. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Using what you’ve learned, keep a running tab of points earned by both players to see who wins the developmental race.

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).