Hanging Pieces

Beginners tend to have an easier time improving their basic opening and endgame skills than they do improving their middle-game skills. The opening principles are easier to define and apply compared to middle-game principles. Basic endgame principles are likewise easier to learn and employ compared to middle-game principles. What is it about the middle-game that causes the beginner so much trouble? To answer this question, let’s first define the middle-game.

During the opening, you gain a foothold in the center by rapid piece development. You and your opponent are racing to see who gets the greatest control of the center and thus an early positional advantage first. Once your pieces are on their most active squares, you enter the middle-game. The middle-game is where the fighting starts! This is the phase of a chess game in which often violent attacks and cunning defenses take place. This is the realm of tactics. It is also the realm of the dreaded hanging pieces.

The big problem beginners face when entering the middle-game is that their calculation skills are minimal. When I say calculation skills, I’m not talking about seeing six or seven moves ahead. I’m talking about seeing one and a half moves ahead. This translates to your move, your opponent’s best response to that move and your subsequent response to your opponent’s move. Beginners tend to think only about the moves they can make and not about their opponent’s response. Subsequently, beginners hang or lose a healthy, or should I say unhealthy, number of pawns and pieces by thinking this way.

Beginners also miss opportunities to capture their opponent’s hanging pieces, pieces that are unprotected and free for the taking. A few years back, I was watching some of my beginning students at their first tournament and was astonished at one game in which both players had multiple hanging pieces that remained on the board for many turns. It was because of this that I started to employ various training methods to help students avoid this problem.

One method I use with my students is to have them do positional exercises, using software training programs, to improve their ability to spot hanging pieces (both their own and those of their opponent). One training module specifically deals with capturing pieces, many of which are hanging. However, that specific module offers no advice, only five thousand plus positions in which a piece can be captured. This series of positional problems comes from real life middle-game positions played by players of varying ratings. While the beginner can develop their skills working through the numerous problems, they won’t get the maximum amount of solid training in this specific area without some additional concepts being introduced to them.

Because we live in a fast paced world that puts a high premium on getting the job done quickly, students will try to blaze through the five thousand plus problems as fast as possible. While some improvement is guaranteed by simply doing the problems, the serious student will not achieve the greatest improvement without putting deeper thought into each problem.

Simply capturing the correct piece isn’t enough. While it may be enough for the training program you’re using, you have to look at the bigger picture. That “bigger picture” comes in the form of questions you must ask after making that correct move, namely, how does this capture change the position. Of course, I don’t expect the beginner to analyze the position like a professional player. However, there are a few key questions a beginner can ask that will help them understand positional play a bit more and spot potentially hung opposition pawns and pieces.

The first question I have students ask themselves after capturing the correct piece has to do with the capturing piece’s relationship to the pawns and pieces around it. After the capture, does that piece now protect pawns and pieces that weren’t previously protected? This is a crucial consideration because if the answer is yes (which it generally is with these types of training programs), then the capture has not weakened the position. Instead, it has improved it. Remember, you don’t want to capture simply to capture. You want to capture if it strengthens your position. I have my students note each pawn and piece that is now protected as a result of the capture. This idea of asking questions helps to slow down the student’s solving of each problem and forces them to look more carefully at the position. This, in turn, develops greater board vision (seeing the entire board and the subsequent pawns and pieces on it).

The obvious second question to ask is, does this weaken my position at all. Even in the games of masters, positional weaknesses can and will occur. With beginners, it is best to keep the list of potential weaknesses short, having them look for immediate weaknesses such as doubled pawns, bad Bishops, exposed Kings and, of course, hanging pieces. Spotting potential long term weaknesses is best left for later, when the beginner has gained some playing experience.

Where these questions really help is when you get into the more advanced sections of the software program. Often, you’ll be given a choice of two similar pieces to capture, two knights for example. Capturing one Knight will lead to an exchange of material that is beneficial to the opposition. Capturing the other Knight will garner you that Knight at no cost of your own material, not to mention a better position. Asking questions when capturing material leads to good decision making.

Training software can be an excellent tool for players wishing to improve on their own. However, you don’t want to blaze through the individual problems without taking the time to carefully look at the position. Often, it is easy to spot the correct piece to capture. However, unless you carefully examine the position after the capture, looking for positional strengths and weaknesses, you won’t get as much out of your training. Take your time. If a capture doesn’t make sense from a positional viewpoint, examine the position further before moving on to the next problem. 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).