Know Your Enemy

Actually, your opponent! Here’s what I mean: When given the chance you should learn a bit about your opponent or potential opponent’s playing abilities. Professionals do this to a high degree. Why should you? Think of it like this: Imagine you’re going to drive in an automobile race of some sort. You’re given no details whatsoever and show up with your old 1983 Honda only to discover that it’s a Formula One race. In chess, we study our opponent’s game so we know what we’re going up against. Why should you bother as an average player? Read on!

Professionals players carefully study the games of those they’re going to play. They learn what openings their opponent’s are going to employ, type of position (open, closed, etc) favored by the opposition and so on. The professional does research. They do so in order to increase their ability to win when facing a particular opponent of equal or greater strength. We all do this outside of chess. When you’re facing a test in school, you study or prepare for it. When you drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you prepare by studying a map.

Of course, it can be a bit more difficult for beginners to prepare for a game against other beginners because of a lack of recorded games. Serious players play in rated tournaments which mean that their games are recorded. By accessing those games, one can study the playing style of a potential opponent. Since beginners often don’t record their games, it’s more difficult to assess their playing abilities. However, there are a few things you can do to get to know your opponent.

The first thing to do is to hang out at a place they play, be it a chess club or local cafe, and watch their games. Of course, you don’t want to march up and announce “I want to play you so I’m here to study your games.” However, it’s not unusual for people to stand around watching chess games, so don’t feel uncomfortable doing so. I watch potential opponents play before I sit down with them. It’s called doing your homework or due diligence.

Watching an opponent playing is only half the battle. The other half is determining the details, such as the openings they favor for both black and white. Make a mental note of the opening they employ. Then go home and study that opening. This gets you prepared from move one. Most beginning or novice players tend to keep it simple, playing openings that don’t require a lot of preparation. However, if they try to tackle more complex openings such as the Ruy Lopez or Sicilian Defense, they often leave themselves vulnerable due to their lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of these openings. This translates to potential mistakes on their part. Note their weaknesses, such as when they make an off or bad move during the opening and how the opposition responds. Every small crumb of knowledge can be put together to create an advantage.

During the middle game, watch to see if they employ sound tactics. This can be a telling sign! If the player your watching is better at tactics than you, plan on trying to keep the position closed in order to remove any potential tactical positions. The key here is to close the position. Too often, novice players who find tactical plays can only do so when the position is wide open because they tend to favor long distance pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queens. Make a mental note of what piece or pieces they favor. Every chess player has a piece of two they favor because they know how to use them well. It’s all in the details!

Endgame play is an area most novice players have limited experience with because most of their games conclude long before the endgame. I’ve seen players take down a stronger opponent in the endgame because of this. Novice players tend to concentrate on middle-game tactics. Therefore, if you get the opportunity to trade down to an endgame, provided you’ve done some endgame studies, do so.

Then there’s the psychological aspect to the opposition. Is your potential opponent a show off who takes wild chances? You’d be surprised how many novice players can succumb to their egos by taking big risks. The premature attack is a common mistake made by novice players. They launch an attack on the f7 (or f2) pawn thinking that trading a Bishop and Knight for your f pawn and Rook (after castling King-side) is good for them during the opening. Don’t be afraid to make that trade of material because you will have the minor piece majority which is crucial during the opening. If your potential opponent launches early attacks, make a mental note of the pieces used so you can look for this pattern early when you play them.

Watch for tricks and traps when observing games. Tricks and traps are the bread and butter of beginning or novice players. When you see a player executing a trick or trap, note the set up. When you get home, research it and see how to avoid it. More often than not, the player employing the trick or trap will use it repeatedly so expect it when you sit down to play them. I don’t suggest learning your own tricks and traps to use against them because good principled play trumps tricky play. However, you should know how to defend against tricks and traps.

You can learn a great deal from watching the games of others, not just top level games but the games of those players you encounter. Just because someone isn’t a titled player doesn’t mean they can’t come up with some stunning ideas that will help you. You have to keep your eyes open! I watch the games of my students not just because I’m their teacher and coach but because they sometimes come up with great stuff that I can use in my own playing. So your homework for the week is to go out and do some scouting. Go to your local chess haunt and observe someone. See what you can learn from a game or two of theirs. Do some prep work and then challenge them. You’d be surprised at how much it will help. Here’s a game 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).