Moving Pawns and Pieces

If there is one issue that comes up a great deal at beginner’s tournaments, it’s the touch-move rule. In the simplest terms this rule states that if you touch a piece during a game, you have to move that piece (unless a legal move cannot be made). The exception to this rule is when you’re adjusting your pawns and pieces in which case you have to announce your intentions prior to handling them. Too many beginners have a tendency to start to pick up one piece only to see they’re about to place that piece in harm’s way or they see a better move elsewhere on the board. It’s a bad habit that can lead to serious problems for the budding junior tournament player. Like all bad habits, you have to, in the words of Deputy Barney Fife (played by American actor and comedian Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show), “you have to nip it in the bud, nip it in the bud!” You have to break this bad habit early on or face the wrath of your opponents and tournament arbiters alike.

My students are trained to question me. While some teachers prefer their students to be more passive, I prefer that my students question everything. The reason is simple. By questioning my statements, I have to give students answers that honestly explain why I’m making that statement. Knowing the “why” behind a statement gives students a real reason for following my advice. If I say “if you touch a piece you have to move that piece,” one of my students will ask why. I could just tell them that it’s a tournament rule but that sounds too much like saying “it’s that way because I said so kid.” I want my students to understand why such a rule exists. Chess improvement comes faster when you ask questions of your teacher!

One of the problems with grabbing a piece and then deciding on moving another is that you may unwittingly show your opponent a weakness in your position or theirs. You might start to move one piece, seeing a decent capture, but then decide to move another piece which will garner greater material. Guess what? Your opponent now knows that he or she has a piece that could come under fire on the following move. Do you think they’re going to leave that piece undefended? I think not. Good chess players don’t like to hand their opponent’s clues as to what they’re up to. An air of mystery can be a good thing in chess! If you’re handling your pieces, starting to make a move then taking it back, you’re actually helping your opponent to see possibilities within the position. Manhandling pieces is just bad form as well.

Grabbing a piece only to chose another for your move can make you look indecisive and I know plenty of junior tournament players who will take advantage of that. There is some debate as to when to introduce the touch rule. With children, absolutely new to chess, it is nearly impossible to get them to adhere to the touch rule. Therefore, I use the following rule for the first two months of their lessons: When moving a piece, if after you place the piece on a square and let go of that piece, you cannot change your mind and move a different piece. This first step gets children prepared for the touch move rule. During that first two months, my students will play a few games with the touch move rule in place so they start to get used to the idea. After two months, we switch over to the touch move rule.

One huge advantage to the touch move rule is that is forces novice players to really examine the position and think about their moves. This is why it is important to get children employing this rule early on. If a child is allowed to take back a move, they’ll learn and progress at a slower rate because they’re not carefully looking for the right move. The touch move rule forces us to consider our move cautiously which leads to better play (hopefully).

For the student who simply can’t keep his hands off his or her pieces, I have a special way of playing chess for them. I use the following exercise with students who are prone to breaking the touch move rule. My student and I sit down to play a game of chess. Rather than have our hands on the table, we place both our hands at our sides. Our hands are only allowed to move when it’s our turn to make a move on the chessboard. If one of our hands comes up to the table for anything other than making a pawn or piece move, the offender gets one strike. Three strikes and the game starts over again. One important point: If using this method of bad habit breaking, make it a contest rather than a punishment. I present this as a challenge. “I bet I can keep my hands off the table longer than you can during this chess game!” It usually takes one such game to stop students from breaking the no touch rule.

A final note to parents: You really will want to introduce the touch move rule as soon as possible. However, don’t do so when you’re first teaching your children the game or chess won’t be fun. The rules of the game can be difficult for kids just starting out so added a tournament rule such as this into the mix can turn the game into a chore. Introduce the rule only when your child has a basic grasp on the game. It should be used casual games at home, at all times. Going back and forth between the touch move rule and casual play where moves can be taken back will confuse matters greatly. Here’s a game to enjoy. You can be sure that both players used the touch move rule, especially considering the these two players and all that was at stake!

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).