Giving Material Away

If there’s one chess crime beginners are guilty of, it’s giving material away! This comes about when the beginner fails to notice a pawn or piece (material) that’s under attack and, because of this, doesn’t take action in the form of moving or defending the attacked material. Not seeing the attack, the beginner leaves the pawn or piece hanging and their opponent gladly relieves our novice player of potentially useful material. While experienced chess players rarely hang pieces, beginners more often than not lose material because they fail to see the attack.

In fairness to our beginner, we should note that the novice chess player is trying to juggle a vast array of game principles, often recently learned, as they consider what to do with each move they make. While the experienced player knows exactly what principles to apply to a given position, based on the game’s phase (opening, middle or endgame), the beginner tends to consider every principle they’ve ever heard of all at once, leaving them in a state of principle based mental overload. More experienced players only consider principles that apply to the position at hand. Here’s an analogy:

An orthopedic surgeon, for example, specializes in surgical procedures related to trauma of the human limbs, meaning arms and legs. When faced with the surgical repair of a compound fracture, our surgeon would use titanium pins or screws to reattach the broken bones. Our experienced surgeon wouldn’t consider any procedure that wasn’t directly related to repairing the break, such as a face lift for example. This is the type of thinking experienced chess players employ. Their thinking is streamlined to solve the problem at hand. Beginner’s thinking is all over the place, often missing the key problem needing to be addressed.

Most game principles are specific to a particular phase of the game, such as the opening, middle and endgame. Opening principles are employed during the first ten to fifteen moves of the game while endgame principles are employed during the end of the game. Beginner’s have to learn how to identify the game’s phase and the principles that apply to that phase. I recommend to my beginning students that they keep a list of basic principles and the game phase in which those principles are applied on an index card they keep handy when playing practice games. This helps the beginner from suffering the dreaded principle overload which leaves them mentally adrift, unable to focus on the problem at hand. However, there are ideas that can take place during all phases of the game, such as tactics. Also present during all game phases is the possibility of hanging pieces if you’re not careful.

You can hang a piece at any point in the game so beginners must always be vigilant. Beginner’s tend to assume that, since chess is a difficult game, solutions to every problem will be equally difficult. The solution to the problem of hanging pieces is actually quite simple. If you’re a beginner, simply follow my instructions and try not to over-think things. By over-think, I mean the following: I recently had a beginning adult student who was hanging pieces constantly. When I told him that there was a simple way to fix this problem he said “don’t you have to think many, many moves ahead to deal with any problems that arise on the board ?” To experienced players, this statement makes little sense but, to the beginner whose been preconditioned to think that the overall complexity of the game equates to only complex solutions, the key to chess is to always think ahead like a Grandmaster. The beginner sees the Grandmaster as the all knowing all seeing guru of the sixty four squares, thinking eleven moves ahead at all times. While this idea of thinking ahead is crucial, you don’t need to think very far ahead to deal with hanging pieces. You simply have to take a good look at the board before considering a move.

Beginner’s tend to focus on the immediate area where the action is taking place, paying little attention to the rest of the board. The key here is to train yourself to see the entire board at all times. If you’re looking at the entire board, you’ll avoid hanging pieces. Of course beginners hang pieces in one of two ways. They either move a piece to a square that their opponent controls or they leaving a piece undefended. Either way, they lose material! Let’s look at remedying the problem of moving a piece to a square controlled by the opposition first.

Because beginners tend only look at the immediate area surrounding the action, such as the center of the board during the opening, their board vision is limited. They busy themselves with the material within their immediate field of view. Before considering any move, the beginner should first look at all their opponent’s pawns and pieces. Note what squares those pawns and pieces control. The beginner should then ask the single most important question when considering moving a pawn or piece to a specific square, does my opponent control that square? It’s that simple! If your opponent owns the square in question, consider another square!

Next well address leaving a pawn or piece unprotected. Prior to making any move, the beginner should first look at each of his or her pawns and pieces. When looking at each pawn and piece, compare it to the opposition’s pawns and pieces, asking the question, do any of my opponent’s pawns or pieces attack any of my pawns or pieces? If so, consider moving that pawn or piece in question or defending it. If you decide to stand your ground and defend, make sure that any of exchange of material will be advantageous for you or at least allow you to break even, such as a Knight for a Knight. Use relative value to guide your decision making process. If an opposition Bishop attacks your Queen, you’ll obviously want to retreat the Queen because that would be a terrible exchange! You’d be trading a nine point Queen for a three point Bishop. You’d be trading $9.00 for $3.00. which would make you a bit of a nitwit!

The bottom line? Look at every pawn and piece on the board before considering a move. Chess is a game in which all the pawns and pieces have a very intimate relationship with one another, be they your pieces or your opponent’s. This means you have to consider both your material and that of your opponent. Get in the habit of looking at the entire board and you’ll stop hanging pieces. 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).