Exploiting Weaknesses

Beginning players tend to look at their progress during a game in terms of making aggressive attacking moves that lead to checkmate. Beginners, especially younger ones, love to attack and capture pawns and pieces. In this context, the beginner has a rather one sided or simplistic view of the game. For these players, attacking is the name of the game. My young students often end up on the losing side of a game because, in their efforts to attack, they weaken their position which allows their opponent to take advantage of this weakness and win the game. Of course, a strong position and moves that attack your opponent are instrumental in winning your game, but there is another concept that needs to employed, the exploitation of weakness. In life, the exploitation of weakness would be considered a dastardly thing to do. In chess, however, exploiting weaknesses leads to winning games. Unfortunately, most beginners haven’t matured enough, skill-wise, to consider this idea early in their chess careers. I used to wait until my students had reached a specific level before introducing the concept of exploiting an oppositional weakness. However, as an experiment, I decided to try introducing the concept of exploiting weaknesses earlier in my student’s training.

When I teach chess, and only after my students understand the game’s rules, we move on to simultaneously learning opening principles, basic tactics and how to attack. Beginners can easily become overwhelmed when faced with too much theory so I tend to teach ideas and principles using smaller steps. While teaching three ideas simultaneously might not seem like taking smaller learning steps, all three go hand in hand and each complements the other. In fact, each of the three above mentioned concepts helps to reinforce the other two!

Learning how to properly attack starts with a review of relative piece and pawn value followed by counting attackers and defenders. Generally, you want to start an attack with the units of least value. Therefore, if you have a pawn, a Knight and a Queen, you’ll want to start the attack with the pawn, the unit of least value, then the Knight and finally the Queen (there are exceptions to this idea). Before launching your attack, count up the relative value of the defending pieces and compare it to the relative value of the attacking pieces. If you’re the attacker and your material value is 17, you may not want to start exchanging pieces if the defender’s total material value is 7 points (unless the result is checkmate or you’re avoiding being checkmated). Beginners should also compare the number of attackers to defenders. If you have three attacking pieces and your opponent has five defending pieces, you’re not going to do well with your attack. Again, there are always exceptions to these principles but I work with beginners so I have to keep it simple and make sure they understand the principles before they break them. Beginners need to expand their tactical and strategic horizons!

The point here is that beginners tend to see things in a very black and white way. Beginners see the game of chess two dimensionally when they start off while the experienced player sees the game three dimensionally. This third dimension constitutes the grey areas such as exploiting an opponent’s positional weaknesses. To an experienced player, exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses is a norm rather than an exception. However, beginners tend to see things in terms of straight forward attacking or defending because they’re just taking their first swim in the ocean of strategic thinking, so they’re only ankle deep in the water rather freely swimming!

Chess teaching is a double edged sword. What I mean by this is that you have to teach the underlying mechanics of the game which leads to a very mechanical way of thinking. However, and here’s where the double edged sword rears its ugly blade, mechanical thinking leads to loss when facing an opponent who thinks outside the box (outside of the realm of mechanical thinking). Mechanical thinking is necessary if the beginner ever hopes to really improve. After all, you have to learn the game’s underlying principles. Once you have learned those principles and understand them, you can start thinking about breaking them. Pablo Picasso, for example, was known for his brilliant abstract art. However, he could paint realistic works of art (at the age of fourteen) without effort. He learned the principle of painting first and then went on to break those principles!

As usual, I’ve digressed from the topic at hand! When beginners attack, they do so based on a combination of the positioning of their pawns and pieces, with a minimal amount of attention given to their opponent’s pawn and piece positioning other than counting attackers and defenders. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, the beginner is not necessarily creating the best circumstances for his or her attack. This is where the examination of an opponent’s positional weaknesses comes into play. An example I use to demonstrate this idea of positional weakness is the square or squares left behind after a piece moves.

I learned about this idea watching an instructional video by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When we or our opponent moves a pawn or piece, they often create a weakened position. The pawn or piece they just moved is no longer defending the squares it previously defended. This means a weakness has been created. This means that even an apparently strong move can leave behind a dangerous weakness. I tell my students that every move, no matter how good, has a potentially negative aspect to it. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…d6 and 4.d3…Nd4, White has to make a decision regarding his Knight on f3. Does White trade off Knights, take the pawn on e5 or move the Queen-side Knight to d2 (there are other choices but I’m trying to keep it simple)? Two of these moves, trading Knights or taking the pawn of e5 leave White with a weakness. That weakness is that the Knight previously on f3 isn’t there anymore to guard the g5 and h4 squares. The person playing Black in the above example is counting on White moving the Knight off of the f3 square which allows easier access to White’s King-side. Black sees a potential weakness and tries to exploit it.

The idea here is that you should look at your moves and your opponent’s moves for weaknesses in the form of the squares that pawns or pieces no longer defend after they move. This helps improve your game because you have to carefully consider each move in terms of weakening your position rather that strengthening it. The beginner starts to see, with a little practice, that an aggressive move may do more harm than good. I have my students write down potential weaknesses (squares left behind) for each of their moves and their opponent’s moves. In doing so, they tend to build up their attacks in a slower manner, avoiding weakening their position in exchange for a fast attack. By examining your opponent’s move, specifically the squares left behind or left undefended, you’ll start to discover weaknesses that you can exploit. You’ll also weaken your position less! Remember, every move has a potential negative side to it. Consider potential weaknesses before committing to a move and your game will improve. Speaking of games, here’s one 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).