Flexible Options

Beginners tend to play chess without a real plan which leads to disaster. The novice player often thrusts pawns and pieces out onto the board, hoping for the best while more experienced players make moves that build up to something. That something is the culmination of their overall plan which hopefully leads to checkmate. While checkmate is the game’s goal, how you get there requires planning. A solid plan paves the road that leads to a winning game. A plan is a series of steps, or moves in the case of chess, that help you achieve your goal (checkmate). It takes a series of smaller plans to achieve the overall plan, checkmating the opposition’s King. The plan you employ varies depending on the phase of the game.

A good introduction to planning can be found in the three basic opening principles; controlling the board’s center with a pawn (in most cases), developing the minor pieces to active squares and castling (King safety and Rook activation). These three principles allow the beginner to formulate an opening plan and reach his or her goals based on that plan. While there are additional principles to consider, I tend to start my beginning students out with these three principles because they’re fairly straight forward. We’ll use the opening phase of the game to introduce the concept of planning because it is easier for the beginner to see how these three basic principles lay the foundation of good planning.

I start off my class lecture on planning by asking my students how they get from home to school each day. Students often tell me that they walk to a designated bus stop at a designated time, get on the bus which then takes them on a specific route to school. I point out that this is their daily overall plan for getting to school. However, there are steps (smaller plans) required to achieve this overall plan! The student has to get to the bus stop in a timely manner which requires waking up at a specific time, getting dressed, etc. The bus driver also has to wake up at a specific time as well as making sure the bus is fueled, etc. To achieve the greater goal of going from home to school requires a series of smaller plans that are all intertwined with one another. Once my students understand the concept of planning, it’s time to apply this new found knowledge to the chessboard.

With the most basic understanding of planning at their finger tips, beginners start to look at chess in a different light. They now see that the goal of winning their games requires planning during each of the game’s phases. The enlightened student now makes concrete plans for each and every move. It is at this point that many beginners start to create unrealistic plans, such as absolute control of the board’s center during the opening. While this is the goal of the opening phase of the game, we have to remember that our opponent is trying to do the same thing, controlling the board’s center! This means that both players’ plans are going to clash which is what makes chess so interesting. It also brings up an important pair of planning concepts, being flexible and maintaining options.

We know that our opponent is trying to achieve the same goal in the opening, central square control. If you move a pawn to a square that controls the center your opponent is likely to do the same. This means that your opponent is going to contest your control of the center with each and every move. What happens if you make three of four pawn and minor piece moves to control a specific square only to have your opponent make a series of moves that allows them to dominate that square before you do? This is where beginners get into trouble with their planning. Because they’ve spent so many moves trying to control the square in question, they often keep trying to control a square that has been lost to the opposition simply because they’ve put their plan into action and want to see it through. This is where flexibility comes into play.

What do I mean by flexibility? Let’s look at pawn moves to help define this term. Pawns can only move forward, which means that once the pawn has been moved out onto the board there’s no turning back. If you move a pawn, that pawn is committed to the square it’s on. Pawns can only capture diagonally, so they’re easily stopped dead in their tracks by other pawns and pieces (blockading). They have their advantages but have less flexibility of movement than the pieces do.

The pieces, because they can move in multiple directions, don’t have the same limitations as the pawns. This can be thought of as greater flexibility. What this means to our planning is that we can move a piece to a square that defends or attacks our target square as well as controlling other key squares. Take the position reached after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6. Let’s look at the Knight on f3. This Knight attacks the e5 pawn. However, more importantly, it contests the Black Pawn’s (e5) control of d4 as well as covering the g5 and h4 squares from a Black Queen attack on the King-side. The Knight on f3 is on a flexible square. This gives White greater options or flexibility.

I mentioned earlier that your opponent is also fighting for control of the board’s center during the opening. Using our opening principles to guide us is no guarantee that we’ll control the center completely or before our opponent does. After 1.e4…e6, 2.d4…d5 (The French Defense), white decides to play 3.Nd2 (The Tarrasch Variation). This could be considered an example of a flexible move. The Knight on d2 protects the e4 pawn. Students will ask me, why not move the Knight to c3 instead? The answer has to do with flexibility. By moving the Knight to d2, white can move his c pawn which would be blocked by the Knight if it was on c3. It’s a matter of flexibility.

Planning must be flexible as well. The game will change as the position changes. A King-side attack, which seemed correct three or four moves ago, may suddenly be pointless due to a change in position. Your plan should be flexible, able to change when the position changes. If your original plan was to attack on the King-side and your opponent managed to build up a stronger defense on that side of the board, you may have to attack on the Queen-side. If all your pieces were poised on the King-side, you’d have to swing them over towards the Queen-side. However, the player with knowledge of flexible planning might have stationed his key attacking pieces on squares that have quick access to the both sides of the board. Using an empty board, place a white Bishop on e2 and on e3. These two Bishops control diagonals on both the King-side and Queen-side. If the action shifts to one side or the other, either Bishop can get into the action quickly. If the Bishops were posted on the squares on one side or the other, it would be slower going to reach the action on the opposite side of the board.

Having options allows a player to deal any positional crisis that might arise. Having options can lead to a winning advantage. Therefore, when developing pieces during any phase of the game, ask yourself this; is there a square for my piece that allows me greater flexibility and more options? 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).