Keeping it Simple

One mistake I see often in beginner’s games is the resolution of simple problems using overly complicated solutions. Many beginners view chess as an extremely complicated game which creates a preconceived notion regarding problem solving. The beginner thinks that if the game is complicated then solutions to positional problems must therefore be equally complicated. This way of thinking can cause a beginner to overlook a simple solution in favor of a complex solution. When approaching a positional problem, we should always look for the simplest solution first.

I addressed the idea of simple solutions in an earlier article but wish to delve into this idea a bit further. Beginners always have problems when one of their pawns or pieces comes under attack. This occurs because most novice players have not yet mastered the art of piece coordination. Like a sports team, pawns and pieces must work together. If you play through a master level game, you’ll see that throughout the game, the pawns and pieces support one another. With beginners, pawns and pieces are not well coordinated so they’re subject to attacks. Therefore, while teaching the art of coordination I also teach the ABCs of defense.

Most young beginners play as aggressively as they can. Because they don’t have a great deal of experience gained from playing a lot of chess and studying the game, their aggressive play can lead to weak positions in which pieces come under attack. Younger players love to attack. However, when the tables are turned they have a hard time dealing with defense. This is where the ABCs come into play. “A” stands for Avoid (move the pawn or piece out of danger), “B” stands for Block (blocking the attack) and “C” stands for Capture (capturing the attacking pawn or piece). The ABCs become the basis for decision making when we’re under attack.

A simple rule of thumb for beginners regarding avoiding an attack is as follows: If a piece of greater value in being attacked by a piece lesser value and the attack can’t be blocked nor the attacker captured, avoid the attack by moving the piece in question. If the piece is of equal value to the attacker’s piece and that piece is defended, you could consider an exchange. However, do not consider an exchange if doing so weakens your position. When moving your piece out of harm’s way, do a quick check to make sure the square you’re moving to isn’t controlled by your opponent (a common problem in beginner’s chess). Don’t decide to avoid an attack by moving the piece under attack until you’ve examined blocking and capturing first.

Blocking an attack means that we place a pawn or piece between the attacker and the defender. If you decide to block an attack, make sure that the piece blocking the attack is defended by one of your pawns or pieces. Otherwise, you’ll be giving your opponent a free piece and then be stuck with the same problem. Also consider the value of the piece you’re using to block the attack. If you’re attacked by a Bishop and you block with your Queen, you’re going to lose the Queen. After all, your opponent would be able to capture a piece of far greater value. Always try to block with a piece of lesser value. What happens if you have the choice of blocking with one of two pieces of equal value, a Knight or a Bishop? Decide which of the two pieces will aid you more in the current position. In an open game, a Bishop might be more valuable than a Knight while in a closed game, the Knight is more important.

Our last option is capturing. This is where beginners often have trouble. A general rule of thumb is to use a piece of least value to capture the attacking piece. Often, capturing the attacking piece will lead to a recapture by the opposition. When playing a more experience player, the piece doing the attacking will be defended because stronger chess players know how to coordinate their pieces when launching attacks. Therefore, if the attacking piece is a Bishop which is protected by a pawn, you’ll want to capture the attacking piece with a piece of equal or lesser value. Let’s say that your opponent’s Bishop is attacking one of your Rooks. You have a choice of capturing the attack with a Knight (3 points) or the Queen (9 points). Knowing that the piece you capture with is going to be recaptured, it would make no sense to give up your Queen when you could capture back with the Knight. The Bishop and Knight are of equal value so the exchange of pieces would be equal.

As the beginner improves their playing, we then have to look at other factors to consider when seeking out simple solutions. Tempo is an additional factor to consider. Tempo is time. In chess you can lose tempo or gain tempo. In the opening, for example, both players race to complete their development first. If one player wastes a turn by making a pointless move, they lose tempo. You can think of a loss of tempo as a loss of a game turn. Therefore, it’s your job not to waste time. When faced with a position problem in which there are two solutions of equal strength, choose the solution that takes the shortest amount of time to achieve. This idea of keeping it simple can be applied to every aspect of the game.

There’s a Zen concept that states “Less is More” and this applies to life as well as chess. When you’re first starting out, try to keep it simple. After all, you have to learn how to walk before you can run. The same holds true in chess. Some of the greatest chess players, including one of chess heroes, Boris Spassky, played in a simple manner. Of course, his simple solutions often lead to complex problems for his opponent! Here’s a game that exemplifies my hero’s simple approach to chess.

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).