Into the Crystal Ball

Have you ever played someone who seems to anticipate every move you make as if they have a crystal ball that allows them a glimpse into the game’s future? It happens a great deal to beginners who sit mystified at the chessboard, wondering how their opponent had developed such an impressive skill. When they learn that their opponent can think many moves ahead, beginners start to believe that their skilled opponents are thinking ten or eleven moves ahead. This leaves the beginner, who can barely think a move ahead, feeling as if there’s no future for them as far as improvement is concerned. What it I told you that you only have to think one and a half moves ahead to improve your chess? Would you, the beginner, feel better about your journey towards improvement?

I first came across the concept of thinking one and a half moves ahead when I acquired a copy of Power Chess for Kids by Charles Hertan. In the book, students are taught to think one and a half moves ahead as their starting point. One and a half moves ahead translates to the move you make, your opponent’s best response and your follow up (move) to your opponent’s best response. I quickly incorporated this method into my teaching program and it has worked extremely well.

However, it sounds easier than it actually is to employ this method when you’re first starting your chess career. Here’s why: When you ask a beginner what their plan is, they’ll more often than not tell you that they’re going to make this move and their opponent is going to make that move which will be followed up by another move and so on. The beginner proudly states that he or she is thinking three or four moves ahead. Except there’s one big problem, the beginner is thinking of opposition moves they want their opponent to play, not the moves their opponent is actually going to play. There’s a difference here. Your opponent is simply not going to play into your hands by making the moves you want them to make. They’re going to make moves (hopefully for them) that derail your plan! After all, they want to win as well!

Therefore, if you think in these terms you’re rarely, if ever, going to win games. When you consider that first move in our one and a half move system, you need to think of a sound move from the start. For example, young players love Scholar’s Mate. In four moves they can deliver checkmate with the light squared Bishop (white) on c4 and the white Queen delivering the mate on f7 (either via f3 or h5). If the person manning the black pieces is oblivious to this fast checkmate they’ll lose in four moves. However, anyone with a bit of playing experience can easily deflect this mating attempt. Thus, playing for Scholar’s Mate is a good example of making moves in our system that are unrealistic regarding sound play.

Move two, our opponent’s response to our first move is the first thing we need to consider when plotting our own first move. When considering a candidate move, we should pretend to switch places with our opponent and see if we can come up with as a crushing response. Doing so allows us to test the validity of our potential move before committing to it. If you don’t do this, you won’t get far. It’s that simple. You have to consider the strongest response to your potential or candidate move before making it. Doing so allows you to see the position through the eyes of the opposition which can shed light on potential problems on both sides of the board. Chess is all about seeing the position at hand from both sides and solving problems. Look at every pawn and piece when considering a response to your move idea because you’re less likely to miss that killer opposition reply. It takes time to do this but you’ll develop patience which is key!

Patience is a critical factor here! Patience may be one of the hardest things a beginner has to learn. It literally takes time to develop patience and he or she who takes his or her time when playing will do best in the long run. Beginners have a tendency to play fast. If one’s opponent makes a fast move, the beginner will often respond in kind, thinking of this quick response as a way to show their opponent that “I’m just as smart as you and can play just as fast.” Wrong! Just because someone decides to drive past you on the highway at 110 miles per hour doesn’t mean you should step on the gas pedal to match their speed. Common sense says just because someone does something foolish doesn’t mean you should! Take your time when examining potential moves and responses by your opponent.

Where things get a bit tricky is when you have to come up with the response to your opponent’s move. It’s the starting point for understanding the art of the combination. Most tactical plays are based on a combination of moves. While you do sometimes fall into a situation in which a tactical play, such as a fork or skewer, comes out of nowhere because your opponent made a poor move, you usually have to set up a tactical play. Therefore, getting good at coming up with that third move, your response to your opponent’s move, is extremely important. It’s called follow through!

During the opening, your first moves might be simply to develop a pawn or piece to a good square. Let’s say you want to develop your Queen-side Knight to c3. You eye the c3 square as a great place for the Knight. Then you think of your opponent’s response which might be using his or her King-side Bishop (moving it to b4) to pin your Knight on c3 to your King on e1. Simply knowing this pin is possible goes a long way towards helping you determine whether you want to make this move. You then think to yourself, if I move my Knight to c3 and my opponent uses their King-side Bishop to pin the Knight to the King, what are my options, my best response? You examine the board and see that you can Castle out of the pin. This is the way to employ the one and a half moves ahead concept.

This thinking can be applied to the middle and endgame as well. In the middle game, it’s all about tactics for the novice player. Therefore, you need to take this approach from a tactical perspective. If I make this move, the start of the tactical combination, how can my opponent stop my tactical play. Don’t think in terms of I’ll do this and he’ll do exactly as I want. Your opponent is going to do everything humanly possible to stop your tactical idea. If, after look at all your opponent’s material, you see that he or she can’t stop the tactical play, carry on. If you see that your idea can be rebutted, come up with another one and a half move plan.

In the endgame, things become a little clearer with less material on the board. However, just because there are fewer pieces on the board doesn’t mean things get easier. Endgame calculations, unlike middle-game calculations, can be a lot deeper, meaning players are thinking a lot more than one and a half moves into the future. Beginners should still employ the one and a half move system rather than try to calculate five moves ahead. Keep it simple until you gain more calculation experience.

There’s only one way to develop your ability to calculate moves ahead and that is experience, playing a lot of chess. However, if you use the one and a half move system, you’ll get better at calculating a lot faster. The point here is that you have to have a plan of action with every move. If you have no plan, you might as well be giving your opponent free turns because that’s what the opposition will garner with every bad move made, a free opportunity for them to further develop their pieces or launch a solid attack. Patience is your best friend when playing chess. Good positions must be carefully shaped the way in which a sculptor creates art from a lump of clay or stone. Always put yourself into the opposition’s shoes when considering a response to your move and make sure you have a follow up. Do this and you’ll be playing better chess in no time! 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).