Hanging Piece Syndrome

One of the bigger problems every single beginner and many “improvers” face early in their chess careers is losing material due to hanging pieces. A hanging piece is one that’s not only unprotected but can be captured en prise or freely, meaning the hanging piece is captured without any loss of material to the player doing the capturing. Unlike an even exchange of material where one piece is exchanged for another piece of equal value, such as a Knight for a Bishop, capturing a hanging piece costs the attacker nothing! You capture the unprotected piece and the piece you used to capture it lives on to fight another battle.

Hanging a piece can have a devastating effect on your game. Of course, if you hang a pawn or minor piece as a beginner playing against another beginner, you may not face an immediate loss and even go on to win the game. However, if you lose your Queen because you brought her out early and left her unprotected, your ability to win will be greatly diminished. The Queen is a piece that most beginners can’t seem to live (or win a game) without (personally, I dislike the Queen).

Of course, the beginning chess player will hang pieces simply due to a lack of playing experience and board vision (the ability to closely examine the entire board/position). Therefore, the beginner shouldn’t be too hard on themselves when they hang a piece. However, they should start working on ways to avoid this problem and the best way to do this is by using training software that has program modules dealing with spotting hanging pieces. Peshka/ChessOK has a software program titled Easy Ways of Taking Pawns and Pieces. It has 5,800 problems that revolving around finding hanging pieces, categorized into groupings based on a specific piece (purchase the hard copy rather than downloading it because some players have had past problems with downloading from their site).

The goal is to find the hanging or undefended piece and capture it. While this program deals with opposition hanging pieces rather than your own hanging pieces, it gets you, the beginner, employing a technique that is critical to chess success, seeing the entire board by using Board Vision. Too often, beginners lose or hang pieces because they’re not looking at the entire board but where the immediate action is (such as the center during the opening). By not scanning the entire board, especially your opponent’s side, you’re apt to miss opposition pieces aimed at your unprotected material. Board vision takes time to develop but working with a software training program will help speed the process up.

When doing the software’s exercises, you’re forced to look at the entire board because often, the piece that’s hanging will be on one side of the board while the piece that can capture it is on the other side. Sometimes, you’ll be given a choice of two identical pieces to capture. You have to look closely because one of those pieces is protected, which means it’s not truly hanging while the other is free for the taking.

Of course, it’s another thing to avoid hanging pieces in an actual game of chess! It becomes more difficult because unlike the software’s problems, which are stagnant and set up, the arrangement your of pawns and pieces (as well as that of the opposition) will change with each move. This means you have have to constantly check the vulnerability of your material before considering making any move. You have to be patient (a lost art in our fast paced, technological world).

The idea of having to check every single pawn and piece on the board (both yours and your opponent’s) before each move seems like an absolutely daunting task to the beginner, which it is. However, with time, the beginner will do this automatically and systematically. You have to get in the habit of doing this which is the hardest hurdle to cross. To simplify this process and make it less maddening to execute, you have to follow some sort of logical, systematic order when examining your opponent’s material for threats.

Start with the pawns. Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can easily push a piece of greater value back. Look at each opposition pawn and first, make sure it’s not attacking one of your pieces. Then see how many moves it will take for any opposition pawns to reach and attack your pieces. You’ll also want to know what opposition minor pieces will have access to the board if any pawns blocking those pieces in moves forward. In other words, “if my opponent moves the c pawn forward two squares, will a piece originally blocked by that pawn be able to attack one of my pieces.”

Next look at each opposition piece and trace its line of attack across the board, noting any places (squares) where enemy pieces intersect with your pieces. Obviously, if you find one of your pieces can be captured En Prise, you better move that piece or defend it. What happens if the piece being attacked (your piece) is already defended? First, determine the value of the attacking piece and compare it to the value of your piece. If your piece is worth more that the attacking piece, get your piece out of the line of fire! If the value of both pieces is even, you have to consider how the exchange will effect your position. For example, if trading minors with your opponent leads to you having doubled pawn or your opponent being able to launch a nasty attack, you may want to avoid the exchange.

As a beginner, you have to get good at discovering any hanging pieces before your opponent does. Again, there are various software programs and apps for this type of training. The advantage to the above mentioned program is the large number of problems your have to solve. The more you put into it, the better your results. I recommend that my students do the entire program twice. While the program does deal exclusively with opposition hanging pieces, it develops your ability to examine the entire board which means you’ll notice any potentially hanging pieces belonging to you. You’d be surprised at how quickly you start to see everything on the board once you start doing the exercises. You’ll be able to spot any pieces your opponent hangs automatically after putting some effort into it (doing the program’s problems). It should be noted that you should slowly work through the problems and see if you can find a good counter move for the opposition after you make the correct move that solves the puzzle. This will heighten your learning greatly. 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).