Flexible Plans

One of the hardest problems facing the beginner is planning. If I ask a roomful of young beginners to define the word “plan,” I get a variety of answers ranging from “I don’t know” to “I’m going to checkmate my opponent on move thirteen with my Queen and a Rook.” Then there’s the student whose only plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King! Checkmate is the game’s goal rather than a plan. Planning is greatly misunderstood by the beginner and it is a lack of planning that leads to lost games. Good planning, be it on the chessboard or in life, can be difficult but not impossible if done correctly. It’s a matter of flexibility (flexible planning) which we’ll discuss later on. Planning is a fundamental and critical part of successful chess playing. It is important to remember that you cannot play chess without a plan. Of course, you could play a game of chess without a plan but the results would disastrous.

A plan is a method of action or procedure for getting something done. Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to visit your family in another city. You don’t close your eyes, click your heels together three times and presto, you’re with your family. You have to get from point “a” (your house), to point “b” (your family’s house). If your family is three hundred Kilometers away, you’ll have to determine what form of transportation you’ll be using to get there. Are you going to take a train which means you’ll have to purchase tickets or are you driving which means purchasing petrol? In either case, you have to follow some sort of procedure, i.e., a plan. Visiting our family is the goal. How we get there depends on our plan.

Planning can be an overwhelming concept for the novice player. Beginners become easily overwhelmed when playing because so much seems to be going on, all at once. An experienced player will look at a given position on the chessboard and systematically resolve the larger problem at hand by breaking it down into smaller more manageable micro-problems. Only then, after the smaller problems have been isolated and understood, will the experienced player embark on a plan or series of smaller plans that resolves the overall or bigger issue. The beginner, on the other hand, will become frustrated because he or she doesn’t have a logical way in which to approach problem solving as well as no grasp of planning. Therefore, I devote a fair amount of classroom time to problem solving and planning.

The first step the beginner must take is to learn efficient problem solving. This starts with looking at the smaller picture rather than the big picture. Let me explain. Chess can be an extremely complex game to master as a whole. Fortunately, the game can be broken down into smaller parts, such as the opening, middle and endgame. These three phases can be further divided by applying principles or guideline to each of these three phases. During the opening game or phase, each player has three overall principles they can apply to guide them through a variety of opening problems. These three principles are getting control of the board’s center with a pawn, the development of minor pieces to active or centralized squares and castling which tucks the King away safely and activates one of the two Rooks. By breaking the game down into phases and applying well thought out principles to each phase, the beginner is able to approach problems individually rather than as one overall large problem.

When faced with a positional problem, I have my students identify the phase of the game in which the problem occurs first. Only after the game’s phase has been identified do we move on to applying a principle to the problem at hand. After identifying the problem by breaking it down into a game phase and determining which principle will apply to the issue at hand, we move on to the idea of planning. Too often, beginners become hopelessly lost because they haven’t narrowed down the realm of possible problems. They’re looking at the big picture which tells them there’s a problem rather than trying to further isolate the real issue. Many times, a student will see the effect, in this case a bad position, without identifying the underlying cause. Identify the phase of the game and applicable principle before creating a plan!

Once the problem has been isolated, it’s time to create a plan. Beginners tend to think that plans come in one of two forms. Either their plans are to vague, not really being plans at all, or they’re too rigid. If a student states that his or her plan is to checkmate the opposition’s King on move twenty two using two Bishops, their plan is too rigid! Each time your opponent makes a move, the landscape of the chessboard changes. A plan that might work for one position may be pointless if your opponent’s move drastically alters the positional landscape of the board. Plans need a certain amount of flexibility. The way to keep your plans flexible is make moves that are less specific but still effective. After 1.e4…e5, the player of the White pieces looks at the moves 2.Nf3 and Qh4. Putting a Knight on f3 is a more flexible move than bringing the Queen out to h4, The Queen is obvious part of an attack on the f7 square. Black can easily stop the Queen dead in her tracks. Putting the Knight on f3 is much more flexible in that it attacks the e5 pawn, influences d4 and keeps the Black Queen off of the g and h files. This is a more flexible more which allows for a more flexible plan. Moves that do more than one thing, such as attack more than one piece, allow for flexible plans.

Plans can quickly change in chess so be prepared! Here’s an example: Your plan is to execute a specific idea, say a Knight fork that checks the opposition’s King and attacks the King-side Rook at the same time two moves from now. A great deal can happen to a position in just two moves. This means that your plan may not be valid two moves from now because your opponent found a move you didn’t factor into your original plan. Rather than count on your opponent making the moves you want them to make, think about the best move or moves they could make. Beginners have a bad habit of only thinking about opposition moves that work for them rather than their opponent. When coming up with a plan based on a position, always try to determine the best move your opponent can make not the move you hope they’ll make. Only then can you create a realistic plan. If you identify the real problem, determine your opponent’s best response or move and keep your plans flexible, you’ll win more games. 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).