Activity Cards

If you’ve ever taught in primary school chess clubs you’ll be aware of the problem – or at least one of the problems.

Two kids finish a game with, say, 10 minutes to go before the end of the session. They don’t have time for another game so they start chatting or interfering with other games which are still in progress. What do you get them to do?

Sometimes I’ll have some puzzle sheets with me. As most of the children in primary school clubs play to a very low standard these will need to be simple one-movers to give them the chance to get some of them right.

I’ve recently invested in a laminator which enables me to produce laminated activity sheets which I can take from school to school. There are lots of possible activity sheets you could produce. I’ve started with checkmate skill sheets, covering the basic checkmates: two rooks, king and queen, king and rook, two bishops and bishop + knight. There are also endgame challenges: these include king and 8 pawns each along with various positions where White has to exploit a material advantage. Then, mainly for less experienced players, there are Capture the Flag games: positions without kings where you win in one of three ways: a) you get a pawn to the end safely (capturing the flag), b) you take all your opponent’s pieces or c) you stalemate your opponent. The positions I use include 8 pawns each, queen against 8 pawns, rook against 5 pawns and bishop against 3 pawns. In each of these activities the players are expected to set the position up and play them out over the board.

Some of the more simple skills here are what children should really be doing before joining a chess club. Others are vital for children wishing to play competitive chess outside their school club.

There’s much else that could be done – and will be done when I get round to it. Simple chess variants, for example losing chess or Scotch chess (White plays 1 move, Black 2 moves, White 3 moves and so on). Simple problems or endgame studies for more advanced players. Puzzles such as the Knight’s Tour and the Eight Officers Puzzle (place eight men on the board so that none of them are on the same rank, file or diagonal). Opening cards with the first few moves of a popular opening variation. Puzzle sheets with several tactics or checkmate puzzles on them (perhaps with the answers on the back).

Already, after only the first week of using these, several children have asked me if they can take one of the cards home. The answer is ‘no’, but I guess I could have non-laminated copies of some of the activities available to hand out. I’ll also, at some point, make them available for download on one of my websites.

There are other ways in which they could be developed. I’m considering putting a difficulty rating on each card (for instance the two rooks checkmate might have a difficulty rating of 1 while the bishop and knight checkmate would be 9 or 10) so that children can find activities appropriate for their level. I could possibly use the back of each card to give further information, and, in the case of some of the endgame challenges, a sample game.

As always, the trick will be to get the parents involved. If children play chess at home with family members they could be doing these activities at home as well as just playing games.

If you’d like copies of what I’ve done so far, or have any ideas about how these cards could be developed further please feel free to contact me via one of my websites or on social media.

Richard James

The Importance of the Endgame Nine

It’s well enough and good to know some basic endgame ideas and concepts. It’s even better to employ them in your games! Beginners often spend hours practicing positions they learn via instructional books and DVDs. They memorize the specific patterns involved in common endgame checkmates and feel confident going into the endgame. Then they get hit with a position in which things get a bit sticky. The mating pattern they’ve mastered suddenly turns into a positional nightmare. They get into a position where they have a pawn one square away from promotion, a Rook and their King against a Rook and King. Piece of cake, right? It might be unless you find yourself in one of those sticky situations!

We’re going to look at one of those sticky situations that tend to throw the beginner’s winning position into the ashcan of defeat. The first point to consider regarding bad positions is the simple idea that you have to slowly and carefully work your way out of them. The beginner tends to see positions in very black and white terms. By this, I mean that beginners look only for big attacks or big advantages. They don’t think in terms of building up small advantages, slowly and methodically. If there’s no big attack to launch they’re at a loss as to what to do. In the endgame, they tend to look for moves that check the opposition King or push his majesty towards the edge or corner of the board. It’s all about the big moves for the beginner. Of course, this occurs because the beginner only knows the most basic of endgame play in which moves are very forcing.

When the beginner finds him or herself in a position in which there are no big moves they tend to try to force big moves which more often than not, leads to the loss of the very material needed to deliver mate. The key to these sticky positions is to play slowly and carefully, trying to gain that small advantage that will turn the tide.

Another point to consider here is the idea that whose turn it is often determines who comes out with the advantage. In chess, we call this Zugzwang. What this means is simple; the player who has to move is put at a disadvantage by having move. Since you can’t pass on making a move in chess, Zugzwang can be very powerful in the endgame! Again, since beginners look for big powerful moves, they don’t understand or appreciate the power of “waiting moves,” those moves that force their opponent into Zugzwang. Let’s take a look at a position that would send the beginning player into the flames of defeat, the positional ashcan, even though they’re up by a pawn and that pawn is one square away from promotion. That’s right, just a single square away from promoting into a Queen.

In the example below, our beginner (playing white) has a pawn on the seventh rank, a Rook and a King against a Rook and a King. It sounds like an easy win but take a look at the position below.

The major problem here is the black Rook on b1. The Rook keeps the white King from moving around the white pawn on a7 and allowing it to promote. The seasoned player will look at this position know exactly what to do. However, the beginner will try all sorts of crazy maneuvers with the h8 Rook, big attack thinking, and fail at all of them. I had roughly 50 beginners play through this position as white and only three of my beginning students found the correct first move. It should be noted that those three students were the students that did extra homework (yes, my chess students do homework regardless of student and parent complaints – I run a dictatorship rather than a democracy) and paid close attention to my lessons. So what is the correct first move? Believe it or not, a “in your face” challenge!

The first move has to be 1. Rb8 which says to black “either trade Rooks, in which case I’ll promote my pawn, or move your Rook.” The key point here is that white will never get King out from behind the a7 pawn unless the Black Rook is moved off of the b1 square. From black’s viewpoint, losing his or her Rook is going to leave them in a losing position, so the Rook moves with 1…Rc1. Why move the black Rook to c1? Black knows that the white King is going to make a run for the b file so he or she wants to keep the Rook close to the action. Moving the black Rook to d1 would allow a dreadful skewer by white (R. d8+). You should always consider your opponent’s best response to your move. If you’re playing the white pieces and you see that the Black Rook has decided to remain in the game rather than trading himself for the white Rook, you have to ask yourself “if I’m going to make a run for the b file with my King, what is black’s best response?”

White plays 2. Kb7, making a break for freedom. You have to play slowly and methodically during sticky endgame positions, always considering your opponent’s best response to your move. What is blacks best response on move two? To check the white King with 2…Rb1+. It’s here that beginners often fumble, returning to the King’s starting square, a8. The correct response is 3. Kc8. While this may seem counter intuitive, we’ll see that there’s a good reason for this move. That reason is that the white King is now out of his pawn’s way and is also protecting his Rook. Black checks with 3…Rc1+. White moves his King in opposition to the black King with 4. Kd8 and black counters with 4…Rh1.

This position must be handled with care because if white plays incorrectly he or she will be the one mated! If black had a free turn, the Rook on h1 would move to h8 and it would be game over. While this might look like a precarious position for white, white has a good response in 5. Rb6+! What makes this move good is that simple fact that it forces the black King off of the sixth rank, ending black’s attempt at mate. Black will move his King to a square that attacks the white Rook with 5…Kc5. What does white do with the Rook? How about serving up a nasty sacrifice that, if black accepts the seemingly free Rook, will lead to an even nastier skewer that wins the black Rook on h1. Take a close look at the next move.

Rather than moving the Rook to a safe square on the sixth rank, white plays 6. Rc6+. The beginner playing black might think the Rook is hanging without protection, free for the taking. However, if black takes the the seemingly free Rook, white promotes the a7 pawn into a Queen on a8, checks the black King (a skewer) and after the black King moves out of check, wins the Rook on h1! This is why black plays 6…Kb5.

White plays 7. Rc8, being keenly aware that black will check with 7…Rh8, which he does. No worries after 8. Kc7 and 8…Rh7+. This check proves to be pointless because white plays 9. Kb8 and the black Rook can’t check the white King. Why? Because it would take two moves to get the Rook to b6 in order to check. It will take white one move to promote the pawn! Black can do nothing to stop white from promoting the a7 pawn except for trading itself for the a7 pawn which would be a losing move.

The key to this type of position is to play with a cool head, slowly and carefully. The winning move here was challenging the black Rook with white’s own Rook, forcing it off the b file. Endgame play is first learned from book and DVD examples. We practice these endgame positions until we know them. However, we must always remember that there will be those sticky endgame positions in which a solution may require slowly working our way through the position. Keep a cool head, play for the small positional advantages and you’ll come out a winner. While it’s necessary to study endgame principles remember this, theory works best in textbooks and doesn’t always pan out in the real world where the rubber meets the road (as my favorite chemistry professor used to say). Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Amateur Versus Master: Game Nineteen

My Queen Did Not Like This Bohemian Rhapsody!

Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1970’s may recall a rock music group that was called Queen. They had a hit song called Bohemian Rhapsody. You can view a video of this song being performed by Queen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ

My opponent in this correspondence chess game, White, lives in Bohemia and I have ancestors on my father’s side of the family that were from Bohemia. According to my grandfather, the original spelling of “Serovey” is “Syrovy”. He said that is means “raw”. That is why I m calling this correspondence chess game a Bohemian Rhapsody.

White got me out of my database of chess games on his thirteenth move and I struggled after that. His Bishop that was on the diagonal that runs from c8 to h3 created several problems for me and I was never able to neutralize it.

After analyzing several different ideas at various points in this correspondence chess game, I decided that I was lost anyways so I would try some wild ideas. They may have worked if I stuck this correspondence chess game out long enough, but I resigned at the end of my 58th birthday so that I could spend my time and energy on other things.

Mike Serovey

Louis C.K.’s Chess Advice

I sucked so bad, I wanted to quit, but I’d been doing comedy for 15 years. It would be like leaving prison: how do you reintegrate into the workforce? – Louis C.K.

Louis Székely may or may not be a chessplayer, but if he were one, he’d be a good one. If Réti was correct that chess is a portrait of the intellectual struggle of mankind, the traits and habitudes that make for excellence in other fields have analogues in our Noble Game.

A recent motivational video highlighted what the editor takes to be a summary of Louis C.K.’s rules for success. I found that Louis’s brilliant observations really hit home with regards to chess. The video is pithy, entertaining, and probably not suitable for young children, though technically safe for work due to extensive bleeping.

Jacques Delaguerre

Recognise The Pattern # 31

It’s best to think twice before moving pawns that form the king’s shelter, but often people play f2-f4 (f7-f5) in order to gear up their rooks and f pawns against the opponent’s king. Unfortunately that weakens the a2-g8 (a7-g1) diagonal. So whenever your opponent plays such moves you should think about possibilities of smothered mate, a Greco mate or the mate along the h file, as usually the king hides on h8 (h1) after a check along that diagonal.

Sidney Paine Johnston against Frank James Marshall in 1899

Q: In this position Marshall has weakened the a2-g8 diagonal but on the other hand it is closed by the e6 & d5 pawns. So White played 11.cxd5 and black replied with 11…exd5 as Marshall was relying on the discovered attack after White’s Nxd5.
Was it a good idea?

It turns out to be a bad one because White’s light square bishop can use it with devastating effect. Please try to calculate this position yourself first then check what happened in the game:

12. Nxd5!

Opening up the diagonal.

12…Nxd4?

13. Bc4!!

I think black missed this intermediate move now white is ready to use this diagonal. If 13.Nxd4 then Black gets satisfactory game after 13…Bxd5

13…Nxf3+

14.gxf3!

Here Black has to surrender the piece in order to prevent himself from immediate loss.

14…Nxg3??

Now what? Can you checkmate Marshall in few moves?

15.Ne7+!!

This double check leads to checkmate

15…Kh8
16. Ng6+ hxf6
17.hxg3+

Opening up h file leads to mate on next move

17…Qh4 18.Rxh4#

Here White has sacrificed the knight in order to open up h file which is very common with this theme.

Ashvin Chauhan

An Unusual Tactic

Just as in cricket, “catches win matches”, so in chess, it is tactics which decide 90% of games, especially below super-GM level. Consequently, it is always useful to add to your stock of familiar tactical ideas. Today’s round of the Russian Team Championship threw up a highly unusual one, which I had not seen before.

Steve Giddins

Don’t Swap Off Your Good Pieces!

In a recent game, I saw a weaker player than me get a really good position. But then he decided to simplify to an endgame.

He made a positionally bad move and exchanged his good pieces for his opponents passive pieces.

In the diagram position, he could have played Ne4 , after which it is hard for his opponent to find a good move.

For example, Rad1 loses to Qxd1!

Instead, Black played Qd3 and White of course snapped up the opportunity to exchange the queens. His King position was very weak, but with no Queens on the board, Black has far fewer opportunities to attack.

The solution to last weeks’ problem is that White can draw with 1. Kd4 when Black cannot play a2 because of Bd4.

Steven Carr

Nine Eventful Moves

Here’s a question for all teachers.

When teaching, do you prefer to present your pupils with high level material, expecting them to fill in the gaps for themselves and make rapid improvement? Or do you prefer to present them with material which is at or slightly above their level, to reinforce what they already know and perhaps teach them one new skill.

Most chess teachers seem to prefer the first method, but, especially when working with younger and less experienced players, I prefer the second method. Showing lower level players a master game will, as often as not, leave them confused, giving them information which they are unable to contextualise.

Which is why I spent 30 years collecting games played at Richmond Junior Club, with the intention of producing coaching materials based on what actually happens in kids’ games.

One thing I noticed was how many games are decided by opening tactics, with the same patterns repeated over and over again. This is why I included a lot of opening tactics in my book Move Two!.

Consider this game, played the other day at Richmond Junior Club between two players of about 1000 (Elo) strength.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nf6

Black decided to try out a new opening, the Petroff Defence, but it transpired that he only knew the first two moves. In another game the same afternoon, played between two stronger (about 1500-1600 Elo) players, White tried 1. e4 c5 2. c3 but again only seemed to know the first two moves, being surprised that Black, who had seen the move before and knew what to do, replied 2… d5. He replied with the not very impressive 3. e5, when Black, instead of playing Bf5, leading to what you might consider either an advance French with the queen’s bishop outside the box or an advance Caro-Kann with an extra tempo, chose 3… e6, leading to an advance French which neither player seemed to know very much about. White seemed even more surprised when I explained that 2… d5 should be met by 3. exd5 Qxd5 4. d4.

As an aside, I consider the Petroff to be a reasonable choice for Black at this level as long as you know how to meet the tactics on the e-file. It requires a lot less knowledge of theory than 2… Nc6. The disadvantage is that it can easily lead to rather dull positions.

3. Nxe5 Nxe4

Now it’s clear that Black hadn’t made any attempt to study the Petroff. White, on the other hand, had learnt the Copycat Trap so knew what to do next. In future, Black will prefer the main line: 3… d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4.

4. Qe2

Most kids at this level know this, and when I demonstrated the game to a relatively small group (most of the club were at the UK Chess Challenge Megafinals) the following week, there were only a few who were unaware of what to do.

4… Ng5

Rather surprisingly, Black, a fairly experienced player, was still blind to what was going to happen next. One or two strong players have chosen this line, with 4… Qe7, as a surprise weapon, but as far as I can see Black’s going to be a pawn down with not a lot to show for it.

5. Nc6+

White was very well aware of what she should do next and gleefully pocketed the black queen.

5… Be7
6. Nxd8 Kxd8

White was ahead by a queen for a knight and just had to be careful. Her next move was absolutely fine.

7. d4 Re8

A black rook has appeared menacingly on the e-file, glaring at White’s royal couple. Alarm bells are ringing. Red lights are flashing. What should White do? Most of the audience the following week suggested 8. Be3, which looks extremely sensible to me, blocking the e-file and giving White time to get her king into safety by castling. 8. Nc3, intending to meet a discovered check with Be3, is also excellent. White saw that her queen was in danger and moved it out of the way, oblivious to the fact that the king was now exposed to a fatal double check.

8. Qd3 Bb4+

This time it was Black who knew exactly what to do, recognising the pattern of the familiar ‘Morphy’ rook and bishop mate.

9. Kd1 Re1#

And sadly, White was still a queen up, but a king down. All that in just nine moves.

Here’s what you might learn from this game:

  • If you want to try out a new opening you need to do more than learn the first two moves.
  • If your opponent plays the Petroff, play 3. Nxe5 and hope they fall for the Copycat Trap.
  • If you want to play the Petroff with Black remember to play 3. Nxe5 d6 followed by Nxe4 if the knight retreats (and be ready to play Qe7 in reply to Qe2).
  • Learn about how to place your line pieces (queen, rooks, bishops) in line with more valuable enemy pieces, understanding that if your piece is in the way you can play a discovered attack/check, while if your opponent’s piece is in the way it will be pinned.
  • Learn to understand and recognise (and see coming a long way off) discovered checks.
  • Learn about the idea of using discovered checks to win material (and being aware that the piece making the discovery will be, as long as it’s not next door to the enemy king, be immune from capture).
  • Learn about double checks – “the atom bomb of the chessboard” – and understand that a double check has to be met by a king move.
  • Learn the rook and bishop mating pattern – look at it in different contexts, for example Morphy v Aristocratic Allies.
  • Look at every check you could play – and look at every check your opponent could play in reply to your intended move.

Nine important lessons in just nine eventful moves. Cheap at half the price. And also just the sort of game I’d use for a very low level ‘How Good is Your Chess’ lesson.

Richard James

The Importance Of The Endgame Eight

Do you know when we start our preparation for the endgame? It’s a question I asked my students, both beginners and advanced alike last week. I received a plethora of answers but not one student gave me the answer I was looking for. To their shock, I told them that endgame preparation starts with move one! It may sound absurd, but think about it this way: What we have left on the board going into the endgame is a direct result of our actions during the opening and middle-game.

The opening is truly the foundation for the rest of your game. We position our pawns and pieces on squares that maximize our control of the board, specifically the center. We increase the activity of our material so we can start employing tactics and sound exchanges during the middle-game. Our goal is to enter the endgame with either more material or better placed material than our opponent. Having more material means just that, having a Queen, Rook and King versus a Rook and King. Better placed material means having a well positioned pawn majority and active King versus an equal number of poorly placed pawns and an inactive King.

Beginners have a tendency to not think about the endgame early on, rather playing for fast checkmates via big all or nothing attacks. If they can’t win employing the all or nothing brute force method, they end up with randomly placed pawns and pieces scattered about the board when the endgame arrives. If they’re playing an opponent with greater experience, that opponent will be able to use coordinated material to deliver mate or promote a pawn which will lead to mate. Therefore, we should consider the endgame from the start of the opening! Often in the endgames of the improving player, it’s all about the pawn.

Pawns really are the soul of chess! In the opening they initially control the board’s center. During the middle-game they can defend against opposition attacks. Because they are worth far less than the pieces in terms of relative value, pawns are a great deterrent when it comes to the opposition moving pieces to your side of the board. However, thinking solely in these terms can leave you in a terrible position going into the endgame. You always have to think about pawn structure, which I’ve discussed in earlier articles, every time you move a pawn. More specifically, you have to think about maintaining some pawns for use in the endgame, namely pawns that can work with one another by employing a sound pawn structure. By this (in the most basic of terms), I mean pawns that have fellow pawns on adjacent files to support them. In my chess classes, we start every game with the endgame in mind.

What I have my beginners do it to keep pawn moves to a minimum during the opening. The pawns that should be moved are only those that can control central squares. A beginner might think this means he or she could move the c, d, e and f pawns since each controls a central square. However, before taking on such a position with four pawns remember this, the more pawns you have lined up on the fourth (for white) or fifth (for black) ranks, the harder they’ll be to defend. You’ll have to use pieces to defend them and that limits the piece’s activity or scope. Two pawns should be your maximum in most opening positions. Always think about the endgame with each and every move you make. I teach my students to always connect their pawns which creates pawn chains. Pawn chains help keep your pawns protected and intact for the endgame. Lastly, I have my students always compare pawn majorities on the King-side and Queen-side.

Going into the middle-game, if you have a three to two pawn majority, you having three pawns and your opponent having two, on the Queen-side for example, try to maintain this majority. This can be a huge advantage in the endgame. If you have a passed pawn, one with no opposition pawns on adjacent files, and a Rook doing nothing to contribute to the game, put that rook behind the passed pawn. Always think about a potential endgame situation!

During the middle-game, beginners look for quick tactical strikes that involve pieces. Try punching holes in the opposition’s pawn structure instead, playing with the endgame in mind. If you cripple your opponent’s pawn structure, they’ll have a harder time in the endgame due to scattered and unsupported pawns.

When we castle, we generally have a neat row of pawns in front of our King. Beginners tend not to think of these pawns as valuable targets because they’re protected by the King (in the case of King-side castling). Removing one of those pawns (especially the g and h pawns) leaves the King exposed. Look for ways to break through that wall of pawns exposing the opposition King to attack!

Speaking of the King. Get your King into the endgame and waste no time doing it! Leaving your King dormant for just a move or two during the start of the endgame while your opponent activates his King immediately can lead to disaster. The King is often the best Sheppard for herding pawns to their promotion square. During the opening and middle-game, your King needs to be guarded, but this shouldn’t stop you from looking at your pawn structure as well as your opponent’s pawn structure and envisioning where you’d want your King to be. Always think towards the endgame.

During the middle-game, I have my students look at the board and ask themselves what remaining material will work best in the endgame. If they have a Rook, two Bishops and a Knight, they’ll consider which pieces would deliver mate with the least complications. In this case, the Rook and two Bishops would be the easiest for my students to use so they need to keep those pieces safe. Of course, you always want to try to hang on to most of your material but you have to engage in exchanges when playing chess if you hope to get anywhere. Therefore, use the piece least valuable to your endgame plans for the exchange. On the flip-side, I have students look at the opposition’s material and ask, which of opposition’s material would work best for their opponents to deliver mate. Those pieces then become their targets. Remember, in chess there are always two plans, yours and those of your opponent!

I highly recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s Endgame Course as critical reading for the endgame beginner. I use it as the core of my endgame training for beginners. The examples are clear and concise and the book covers all those “problem” endgame positions that crop up. Too often, the beginner with a bit of endgame knowledge will be derailed because he or she faces one of those “problem” positions. Bruce’s excellent text will keep you from getting caught in an awkward positional situation. I’ll be covering s few seemingly complicated Rook and pawn endgame positions in my next and last series of endgame articles. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Amateur Versus Master: Game Eighteen

Although I have been able to draw masters in both Over the Board (OTB) chess and correspondence chess (CC), this correspondence chess game is the very first time that I have been able to draw an International Master (IM) in any variation of chess! I chose a rather boring (solid) chess opening and used both my databases and my chess engines to avoid any outright blunders. That combination worked in this correspondence chess game.

Although I was not sure of where the opening was going when this correspondence chess game started, we ended up transposing into the Vienna Game. This is the very first time that I have played either side of that chess opening.

After 15 moves I, Black, had the better pawn structure against someone who was rated 310 points above me. I was willing to accept the draw, but I was playing for a win because of that better pawn structure. However, I failed to find a way to capitalize on that slight positional advantage. When White offered the draw I accepted.

Mike Serovey