Every Position is a Puzzle

One of a beginner’s goals should be to eventually see a few moves ahead, trying to determine their opponent’s best response to the move the beginner is about to make. However, before the beginner can achieve this goal they have to master the basics of positional analysis. Too often, the beginner becomes overwhelmed when looking at a position because they’re trying to take in too much at once. What I mean by this is that the beginner is trying to determine the relationship that each pawn and piece on the board has to one another with no specific method to do so. Then they start thinking about what those pawns and pieces might do later on in the game, rather than at that moment, and their thought process starts to shut down. Rather than view a position in this manner, the beginner should start their analysis by viewing the position as a single move puzzle in which the solution is finding the best move.

The first step is considering a given position as a snapshot or photograph. This photograph captures a single moment in time. The beginner should not worry about the past or future, only the present (just during this training phase). While the beginner will only improve if they eventually learn to see a few moves ahead, they have to have a starting point that doesn’t overwhelm them from the start! Within this context, the beginner has to make a single change to the position (the snapshot). That change is coming up with the best move. Of course, the beginner will not make the same “best move” as Magnus Carlsen, but with practice, they’ll be able to make a better move than they’ve made prior to using this method. The position is a puzzle with a single solution. After the beginner makes his or her best move, their opponent moves and a new puzzle is created. It’s a way to break down some of the complexity into easier to digest positional bits.

The first step is looking at your opponent’s move. Of course, experienced players will think that this is extremely obvious. However, I’ve seen countless beginners ignore their opponent’s moves because they’re too busy focusing on their own pieces and unrealistic plans. You cannot formulate a realistic plan unless you take into account your opponent’s plan. Of course, your opponent won’t simply tell you their plan so you have to look at their moves to find some clues regarding their intentions (plan).

The first step then is to examine your opponent’s move and ask yourself some questions. Rather than ask yourself broad based questions, such as what does my opponent’s move do, ask specific questions. Be methodical, starting with the simplest question, does the pawn or piece my opponent just moved attack anything? To answer this question follow the pawn or piece’s path towards your side of the board. A Rook, for example, travels along the ranks and files so that’s where you should be looking. Note any of your pieces that are under attack. Compare the value of the attacking pawn or piece in relationship to the pawn or piece being attacked. If your opponent moves a Bishop to a position on the board that attacks one of your Rooks, you have a piece of lesser relative value attacking a piece of greater relative value. This means you should need at address the problem immediately. There are three potential ways in which to deal with the attack, the ABCDs. “A” stands for avoid. Can you move the piece being attacked? “B” stands for blocking. Can you block the attack? “C” stands for capture. Can you capture the attacking piece? Lastly, “D” stands for defend. For beginners, a good rule of thumb is to defend only if the piece being attacked is equal to or worth less than the attacking piece, or if defending helps your position. Sometimes you have the choice of using all four. If this is the case, the beginner should choose the solution that weakens his or her position the least. If capturing the attacking piece requires using a pawn or piece that is the primary protector of another piece or pieces, you should consider another solution such as blocking the attack, moving the attacked piece or defending it. However, before you make a move, you need to take a closer look at the opposition’s pieces and I mean all of them!

Examine your opponent’s side of the board to see if the pawn or piece they just moved unleashes a discovered attack against one of your own pawns or pieces. Beginners have a habit of focusing on the opposition piece just moved, not looking closely at the other side of the board. They deal with this immediate threat only to lose a piece when their opponent moves. This will reduce the loss of material and start the beginner on the road to thinking a few moves ahead. Also do a spot check of all your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Just because those pawns and pieces are sitting idly on their starting squares doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly attack when moved.

Always be on the lookout for ways to increase your pawn and piece activity. Good chess players get their pawns and pieces to their most active squares before launching an attack. The beginner, when looking at a position should ask themselves if their pawns and pieces are actively participating in the game. A Rook sitting on its starting square well into the middle game is doing nothing as if it were not in the game at all. Active squares are those squares which control specific squares such as the four central squares during the opening. Develop your pawns and pieces to squares that give you greater control of the board. Greater control makes it difficult for your opponent to launch attacks. So ask yourself if your pawns and pieces are actively developed. Pawn and piece activity should be improved throughout the game.

There comes a point in the game when you have to either launch an attack or defend a position. Beginners often lose their focus because they’re looking at everything at once. Ask yourself a single question before attacking or defending. If attacking, ask yourself if you have a greater number of attackers than your opponent has defenders. Look at the pawn or piece you’re attacking and count the number of attackers you have. Then count the number of defenders your opponent has. You need to have a great number of attackers than opposition defenders. When defending, reverse this process. If you plan on attacking, a general rule of thumb is to use pawns or pieces of lesser value to start the attack. If you use your Queen to capture a pawn and your opponent then captures your Queen with a Knight, you’re losing the exchange. Use the relative value system of the pawns and pieces as a guide.

If you view a position as one move puzzle to be solved, you’ll be able work through the position with more clarity. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll have to graduate to thinking a few moves ahead in order to improve, but you have to have a starting point to get there. Concentrate on the immediate to start, using simple questions to deal with your opponent’s move. When looking at your own pawns and pieces view them in relationship to your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Beginner’s often formulate a rough plan based on what they want their opponent to do, as opposed to what their opponent actually does. Remember, your opponent is playing to win so they’re going to do everything they can to crush your plan. As a beginner, keep it simple. Ask questions that are specific rather than broad based. When in doubt, stick to basic principles. In time you’ll be able to look at a position in greater detail but that takes time and practice. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).