Only Fool’s Rush In

Wise men say, only fool’s rush in. While Elvis Presley was singing about love rather than chess, I think chess players of all levels can take these words to heart. After all, we’ve all launched a premature attack only to have it repelled, with the big pay off being the weakening of our position. Wise chess players never rush into an attack. However, there are times when an early attack can be beneficial. The trick is to know how to identify such an opportunity.

Beginner’s have the habit of throwing individual pieces at the opposition King with no real rhyme or reason. They end up losing material while making no real threat to the opposition. With a little experience they then move on to attacking the King with pairs of pieces with similar results. Often, this idea of a two piece assault becomes popular with the novice player because they’ve had some luck with the Scholar’s Mate. The Queen and Bishop combination then become the staple of the beginner’s early attacks.

As our beginner gains further experience, they move onto attacks against the weak f7 (for black) and f2 (for white) squares, trying to disrupt the King-side of the board. While these two squares are weak during the opening, attacking them comes at a cost that the beginner fails to see. What the beginner sees is a chance at a fast attack that may weaken the opposition’s position. However, if the word’s “chance” and “may” are used when considering an attack you may not want to take a chance because good chess is not a game of chance and the word may (as in “it may work”) should not be in a chess player’s vocabulary! The validity of an attack can be judged by what it costs you to embark on such an endeavor.

Of course, attacking is key if you hope to win a game of chess but you have to consider the cost of launching the attack. For example, many beginner’s think the idea of trading two minors, a Knight and a Bishop, for a Rook and a Pawn during the opening is an equal exchange. This might occur after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nf6, 4. 0-0…Be7 5. Ng5…0-0, 6. Nxf7 Rxf7, Bxf7…Kxf7. The player of the white pieces says, “ah ha, I’ve taken one of the black pawns that shields the castled black King and I’ve got the black King-side Rook as well. This means I’ll go into the end game with an extra Rook!”

However, what the player of the white pieces missed was the price paid for winning the pawn and Rook. What’s the price? Well, going into the endgame with two Rooks and a Queen against one Rook and Queen might have some value if both players were in the actual endgame but, they’re still in the opening. The two minor pieces white traded for the black Rook and pawn were active pieces in the opening. Minor pieces are critical in the opening and tactically important in the middle-game. Black’s Rook and pawn were inactive so white traded two active pieces for an inactive Rook and pawn. Then there’s the tempo factor! White moved the Knight three times to launch the attack. This allowed black to get ahead in development. In the end, the price paid by white was much higher than the results garnered! If you look at the final position, black has a firm grasp of the board’s center while white has nothing.

The beginner should learn to evaluate the cost of any attack in terms of game principles, only considering an attack early on if the outcome of the attack is far greater than the price paid. Trading those two minor pieces for a Rook and a pawn means that black has all four minor pieces to white’s two minor pieces. With the middle-game soon to start, black has a two to one potential tactical majority which means that black will have an advantage when it comes to developing any tactical plays. Minor pieces play a much more important role in the early phases of the game than the major pieces.

One thing I do with my beginning students is to have them keep a pencil and paper handy while playing practice games so they can create a list of pros and cons for any attack they’re planning. They write down their attacking goals and benefits in one column and the negative aspects in another. For an attack to warrant any merit, the benefits must greatly outnumber the costs incurred by launching such an attack. To be considered on their list are piece activity, central board control, King safety, tempo, potential tactics, etc.

One point, that is important for the chess teacher to keep in mind, is the thinking that leads the beginner to rush into early attacks. We become good at teaching only when we understand the point of view of our students. To simply think that a student doesn’t know any better doesn’t help the teacher to fully understand why a problem is occurring. Therefore, I ask my students a lot of questions to determine why they, in this case, launch an attack like the one shown above. As I mentioned earlier, students think that the removal of a major piece, the Rook, and one of the three pawns protecting the King gives them an advantage. It could be considered an advantage, again, if this took place towards the endgame. They also consider the idea of relative material value being absolute. To the beginner, six points of material for six points of material is an equal trade. Younger beginners don’t always understand the word ‘relative.’ To them, a Knight and Bishop are equal in value to a Rook and a pawn, period. Therefore, I explain to them that the term relative means that the value can change depending on positional aspects, such as open versus closed game, or depending on the actual phase of the game. Always ask students to explain the reasoning behind their actions on the chessboard. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to explain your reasoning in a way that makes sense to them.

Anyone who has taught junior level chess has seen the Fried Liver Attack, which is the next attacking phase most youngsters employ as they mature as players. The Fried Liver Attack, which occurs after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nf6, 4. Ng5…d5, 6. exd5…Nxd5, 7. Nxf7…Kxf7, 8. Qf3+, can prove disastrous for black if he or she doesn’t know what they’re doing. The person playing the black pieces is often a less experienced player (at junior level) which means the person playing white can deliver a crushing blow. Of course, the person employing this attack will eventually face an opponent who knows what he or she is doing!

Now, if we look at this series of moves, remembering that this is a junior level attack, we might consider this assault to be a bit more sound because the price paid in terms of game principles isn’t as steep as the previous example. White did moved the Knight three times to take down the f7 pawn and did stop the black King from castling. Of course, white should have developed a new piece with each move. However, white does have the black King in a bit of a positional pickle. Moreover, white has options to continue building up the attack. While I wouldn’t embark on this attack, it provides junior players with an opportunity to hone their attacking skills. There are numerous ways to continue the Fried Liver from this position and you can look them up. The point I want to make is that this attack has a bit more bite to it because the cost of employing it is less than the price paid in our first example.

If you wish to launch an early attack, add up the cost in terms of principled play and see if that cost outweighs the benefits. Losing the game is a price you don’t want to have to pay. 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).