Just Because You Can…

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you actually should! Standing on the side of a busy road, you wouldn’t simply run out into traffic blindfolded and hoping for the best. Sure, you could do it but the results would be disastrous! The beginner often takes this same approach to chess, doing something even though the game’s sound and solid principles suggest doing otherwise. Take the capturing of material.

Beginners love to capture material for a plethora of reasons. Of course, the more experienced player will approach the acquisition of opposition pawns and pieces cautiously, weighing the pros and cons of capturing before doing so! On the other hand, the beginner has some preconceived notions as to why capturing every pawn and piece makes sense, ignoring that old chess adage “don’t capture material unless it helps your position!” We’ll start this exploration into the potential disadvantages of madly capturing material with every chance you get by looking at the beginner’s mindset.

The novice player is taught, by chess teaching characters such as myself, that a material advantage can be decisive. After all, if you’re up a Queen up (having both your own Queen in play and your opponent’s Queen in pocket, so to speak), you’ve eliminated a very dangerous piece from your opponent’s arsenal. There’s no enemy Queen to swoop in and deliver a fast checkmate. Having four minor pieces in play going into the middle-game while your opponent only has two minor pieces sounds promising as well. Therefore, the beginner translates this idea of having a material advantage as free reign to capture opposition pawns and pieces at every opportunity. In theory, this sounds vaguely correct. However, there’s a huge practical void between theory and reality, namely position (in chess). Often, an experienced player will trade a piece of greater value for a piece of lesser value, or perhaps simply sacrifice a piece, in order to get a better position. If a Knight stands in the way of delivering a solid mating attack and you can trade a Rook (a piece of greater value than the Knight) for that Knight, then you should, says the experienced player. On the other hand, the beginner will simply look at this trade as a good one because her or she comes out ahead in the exchange (rather than in terms of clearing a line or removing a defender – real sound reasoning).

Therefore, the beginner should approach capturing and/or exchanging material by looking at the situation in terms of position. Of course, examining a position carefully and fully understanding the potential ramifications of the capture or exchange of material and how it changes that position, comes with experience on the board and careful study off the board. In short, it’s a lot of trial and error effort on the part of the beginner!

It’s always a question of “will this capture or exchange help me or will it work against me, weakening my pawn and piece structure (my position)?” We’ll start with the even trade. By even trade, I mean just that, a Knight for a Knight, a Knight for a Bishop or a pawn for a pawn, etc. From a material viewpoint, the beginner will think “three points for three points, this is a dead even trade.” It may very well be, solely in terms of relative value, but it depends on the position at hand. Let’s look at a simple example, an exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez:

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bb5…a6, 4. Bxc6…dxc6, the beginner might think “I’ve just traded a three point Bishop for a three point Knight, so it’s an even trade.” Considering only material value, excluding positional aspects, this is true. However, you must consider the position that results from the exchange to truly judge the real value of the trade. Before the trade of Bishop for Knight, the Knight on c6 defended the pawn on e5. With this exchange of minor pieces, there is no longer any protection for the Black e5 pawn and Black now has doubled pawns on the c file. The beginner, playing the White pieces, might make note of this and think the exchange to be absolutely in his or her favor. However, beginners don’t always see the entire positional picture. This means they might not consider the increase in Black’s control of territory because the Bishop on c8 and the Queen on d8 both have more room to move and thus greater access/control of the board (mobility). Black has also maintained the Bishop pair. Therefore, it might have been better not to have exchanged minor pieces on move four but instead, moving the Bishop to a4 (the mainline).

Then there’s the “I can trade a piece of lower value for a piece of much greater value and win” school of thought. Take a look at the example below:

Here, we see a typical beginner’s opening trap that leads to a fast checkmate. It starts off with 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…d6. Black’s first problem arises from the idea that he or she can use a pawn to protect an already protected pawn (e5 has been protected by a minor piece, the Knight on c6). Better to develop more minor pieces who can control more space than a pawn! After White plays 4. Nc3, Black plays 4…Bg4, pinning the Knight on f3 to the Queen on d1. As we shall see, even such a powerful pin can lead to a dreadful positional demise. White plays 5. Nxe5, leaving the White Queen exposed to capture.

Now the beginner’s one sided, non positional thinking rears it’s ugly head. The beginner thinks “wow, I can capture the all powerful Queen and be far ahead in material which should lead to an easy win. All the beginner can see is the exposed Queen, not seeing the position for what it truly is, a fast checkmate for White! Black plays 5…Bxd1 and White puts the screws to Black’s now hopelessly weakened position with 6. Bxf7+, forcing the Black King off of it’s starting square (two attackers to Black’s one defender, the King, spells trouble with a capital “T”). Of course, Black now cannot castle the King to safety, but the worst is yet to come. Since the White Bishop is protected by the Knight on e5, the Black King cannot capture the attack piece and is forced to move to e7 with 6…Ke7 (the d7 square is covered by the e5 Knight). White hammers the final coffin nail in with 7. Nd5#.

The lesson in the above example is simple: Just because you can capture, in this case the Queen, doesn’t mean you should. Yes, you captured the powerful Queen but you lost the game! The Queen is an intoxicating piece to the beginner and its seemingly easy capture is often the basis for many a fast victory.

To remedy this problem, the beginner should always look at the entire board before considering the capture of opposition material. You should look at every pawn and piece belonging to your opponent and determine what squares those pawns and pieces are attacking. If you decide to capture an opposition pawn or piece, ask yourself if it weakens or strengthens your position. The weakening of a position is often difficult for the beginner to determine.

A position is weakened, for example, if you decide to capture an opposition pawn with a pawn only to have them capture it back with a minor piece that, after the capture, controls more space on the board. Sure, you just got a pawn for a pawn but your opponent got a pawn and greater control of the board. Greater spacial control, especially in the opening, leads to a stronger position. Lesser control means a weaker position. Always consider whether or not your opponent gets a better deal, from a positional viewpoint. In our Ruy Lopez example, two minor pieces were traded off but Black gained more spacial control due to the opening up of space for the c8 Bishop and d8 Queen.

You should always think in terms of how your opponent can improve their position through any capture or exchange of material before committing to any capture or exchange. Look at the position from your opponent’s side of the board before considering your side of the board. Good players will trade valuable material for less valuable material in an effort to open lines up (pathways to checkmate) and win the game, not because it’s fun to capture pawns and pieces! Just because a Queen appears to be free to capture doesn’t mean there’s not a steep price to be paid. It’s about position, not how material your have. Just because you can capture doesn’t mean you should. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. This games finds one player down a lot of material but he still manages to win, proving the point!

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).