When analyzing a lost game to try and find where we went wrong, we generally find a single move that starts the downward spiral that led to our loss. We study this position and determine a solution to our problem or, in this case, a better move than we made. In diagnostic medicine, you’d call this a differential diagnosis (DDX). In chess, we call this improving our game. I study medical microbiology as a hobby because I love puzzles. Because I love puzzles, I also love chess. In the classroom yesterday, I came across a curious chess puzzle of sorts. Two games with two nearly identical positions, both potentially disastrous for each player controlling the white pieces. Both players in these dreadful positions were of equal strength, advanced beginners. However, the outcomes of the two games were completely different. I decided to investigate in an effort to see how this could happen. In the end, it turned out that one player took a better approach to getting out of trouble than the other.
We all get into trouble both in life and on the chessboard. How that trouble affects our life or our game depends on how we deal with it. Chess is never a trouble free game. Your opponent’s job is to challenge your plans and create trouble that is aimed in your direction. You do the same to your opponent. That is what makes the game so interesting. It’s a clash of plans and counter plans.
Our two students were both playing white. Their opponents, who are best friends, decided to both use the same opening trap against our two students. Both players of the white pieces reached the position below. Of course, an experienced player would never find themselves in this position. However, we’re looking at the games of children. We’ll start by looking at the initial problem facing the students playing the white pieces.
Black’s third move, 3…Nd4, seems a bit off in that it leaves the e5 pawn undefended. Black has also moved the same piece twice during the opening. Both the students playing white decided to capture the undefended e5 pawn, falling for black’s trap, 4…Qg5, which forks the white Knight on e5 and the g2 pawn. Both students facing this black Queen fork were faced with the consequences of making a bad move. For beginners, this type of position can throw them into a state of panic. When beginners panic problems grow in stature.
Our two students playing the white pieces now had to decide on what they should do. There are two problems facing them. The first is the loss of their Knight on e5 and the second, the loss of the pawn on g2. If you were simply going by the relative value of pawns and pieces, you might consider saving the Knight since its worth three points while the pawn is worth one. However, that would be a mistake based on mechanical thinking. While the pawn on g2 is worth less than the Knight, relatively speaking, it’s actually worth more. The reason it is worth more is because it’s loss would led to white losing the right to Castle on the King-side. If white allows black’s Queen to take the g2 pawn, white will have to move the Rook on h1 to f1. One of the students playing the white pieces came to this conclusion while the other did not.
The student who drew the conclusion that the g2 pawn needed protection didn’t panic, using a simple method for getting out trouble: Identify the real problem. He had to consider two options, save the Knight or save the pawn. He decided that castling outweighed the loss of a minor piece (the real or bigger problem). While there were other options, he made a rather informed decision for a child. Now came the question, how do I save my g2 pawn? I’ve noticed that many of my young students will come up with some complex methods for dealing with the simplest of problems. One thing I teach my students is to start with the simplest solutions and work outward toward more complex ones if simplicity doesn’t work. He came up with two possible solutions that were simple. The first was to castle and the second was to move the pawn to g3. After consideration, he decided to castle. I asked how he came to his decision of castling and he told me that he had planned on castling and by doing so, he was able to do two things in one move; protect the pawn and keep the King safe (we call these bonus moves because they come with added bonuses). He got his King to safety and protected the g2 pawn.
The other student playing the white pieces (in the second game) wasn’t as fortunate. His answer was to meet a tactic with a tactic and moved his Knight to f7. His reasoning was to attack the black Queen and King-side Rook simultaneously, winning material. His thinking was to meet an attack with an attack. In the post mortem, we went through his thought process and discovered that he panicked and chose the first move he saw. His counterpart was more methodical in his approach. The student who played 5.Nxf7 went on to quickly lose the game while his counterpart who castled went on to win. Of course, there are alternative moves that could have been made but I wanted to keep this simple to make a point.
In chess, when you’re in trouble you should take ten slow breaths to level yourself off. Only then should you start to consider solutions to the problem at hand. It might take you a few seconds to make a bad move but don’t expect to find a way out in the same amount of time. Take your time when getting out of trouble. Look at the simplest solution first. It’s a lot easier to work through a simple solution than it is a complex one. While the player who castled did lose his Knight, he kept a positive attitude and played with more caution so he didn’t lose any additional pieces. Don’t capture material because you can. Capture because it improves your position. I asked both players why they captured the pawn on e5. They told me that it was hanging with no protection. I suspect they won’t make that mistake again. You look both ways before crossing the street. Do the same when you play chess and you’ll play a better game. If you get into trouble, stop and slowly work your way out of it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.