Going Back to the Basics (3)

“Everything in life goes back to the basics”
Kron Gracie

Material balance article was posted HERE
Kings’ position article was posted HERE
Observing how all pieces are positioned is the third step anyone needs to do during their games. It is a challenging one for beginners and intermediate players in the opening and middle game just because of the sheer number of pieces to look at on both sides. My students fall in this category and need to be reminded of it time and time again. Do you do it in your games? We can start with obvious examples and continue from there:

  • Have you developed all your pieces?
  • How are the knights doing in closed positions?
  • How are the bishops doing in open or semi-open positions?
  • Are the rooks where they should be, especially if there are open or semi-open files available?
  • Where is the queen and what other pieces could work together with it?

Pieces’ positioning is a critical aspect in anyone’s game. It takes time to get better at it; some are better than others simply because they have the inner ability to sense where their pieces should go. That cannot be taught. I remember back in the 80s and early 90s I would know and admire strong players with an incredible intuition and vision in this regard. They were the most feared in tournaments because they could create things out of the blue. I would look at the same position as they did (including while playing them) and as I could not see more than the obvious (pieces developed, king castled), I was mesmerized to see them come up with plans I never saw coming. It took me a long time to work on this aspect of my game and I still have trouble with it more often than I would like. We are humans so the main flaw of those players was relying all the way on their intuition to the point where other aspects of their play (such as learning openings) would be completely ignored. That was the reason why they reached their plateau and could not advance anymore their entire life. I am sure many will agree and could name a few players in this category, players they envy and have trouble playing against in regular competitions.

Let’s see a few challenges one could face when playing and not doing very well at this aspect of the game:

What do you think about this position? Black’s last move was “Rf8-e8” and probably he was feeling good about pieces’ positioning; afterall his only “undeveloped” piece is Ra8, while white is a couple of steps behind. Well, how about a closer look?

  • The worst developed Black piece is Nc6; in a 1.d4 d5 opening setup, playing it in front of the c7-pawn eliminates any useful queen side play Black can think of. In the same time the c7-pawn is an unnecessary target Qd7 must take care of
  • Nf6 has the e4-square to go to (good prospects), but it could be chased away with ease (f2-f3 for example)
  • Bg7 has a very good defensive position; however its prospects of being involved in an attack are slim to none
  • The last move Rf8-e8 developed Rf8; however from this point on Black never tried to open up the e-file by moving e6-e5. In the case of deciding to keep the e6-pawn there, the move Rfe8 does nothing and concluding it was a waste of time is easy to make

Overall Black’s setup is very defensive, so why would anyone want to reach such a middle game position with no prospects?
Conclusion: White has a considerable upper edge in pieces’ positioning and that should have led to a winning game


The comments in the game are by White. Please replay the moves starting with 10.Bg5 … until you reach the diagram and think about pieces’ positioning during that part of it. Who do you think played better and obtained more out of it? Here are a few pointers to help with your decision; hopefully you have identified them as well:

  • The poor dark squares White bishop was well traveled during this sequence and by move 23 he was stuck behind his own d4-pawn, blocked by Nd5
  • White’s indecision where to place Bc1 allowed Black to castle and improve the position of Nb8 all the way to d5 from where it dominates the position at move 23
  • 17… Re8 is as pointless in this position as it has been in the previous one above
  • White’s idea to push c2-c4 is excellent as long as it is combined with the purpose of chasing away the excellent placed Nd5
  • 19… Qc8 is another move without an obvious reason
  • 22.c5 … is a strategic blunder since it allows Nb6 to go back to its dominant d5-square (outpost); it proves the c2-c4 idea was not combined with the purpose of chasing away Nd5 and possibly was not combined with anything at all

From move 23 on black improved his position by taking control of the b-file with white being forced to defend the badly misplaced Bb2. It did not continue with improving the position of Be7 (possible Be7-f6) and when white launched a dubious 2 pieces attack in the center (!), it resigned seeing an illusory imminent checkmate.
Conclusion: White wandered around and should have had a tough time saving a draw in a game where it should have had good chances to play for a win.

There are several sources of inspiration to learn, practice and effectively get better and pieces’ positioning such as books, online articles and apps (our app levels 3, 4 and 5 has several lessons focusing on many variations of this subject). I guess any and all could be useful and the important point to make is to be aware of it, do your best to find the source good for you and start going at it relentlessly. Mastering it could be a long journey with one certain result: you will get better as a player and the results will follow. The higher levels you will reach will be sure things, so you won’t just bounce back down to lower levels once you passed them. Hope these thoughts convinced you to pay a more serious attention to pieces’ positioning!

Valer Eugen Demian

A Rapidplay Secret

My Dad and I played in the Stockport Rapidplay yesterday, I got 3.5/6 in the Major and Dad got 5.5/6 to win the Open. One of the things he has told me is that in faster time limits its really important to stay ahead on the clock, and this was probably what decided his round 5 game against Macklin:

Sam Davies

Rook Ending Tactics

I’ve reached the point in Chess Endings for Heroes where I have to consider what to include in the section on rook endings. You will recall that this book is designed to take players who know how the pieces move up to adult competitive level (about 1500 ELO).

Dan Heisman says, with a degree of incredulity, that he’s heard that some instructors teach players rated 1200 or 1300 the Philidor and Lucena positions. He himself lost a game by not knowing the Philidor position when he’d been playing tournament chess for more than 5 years and his rating was 2100. He makes the point that he reached 2100 without knowing the Philidor position, and that there are better ways to use your time than learning positions that will happen very rarely.

I see his point but don’t entirely agree. It really doesn’t take that long to learn the basics of Phil and Lucy. I also think that, given faster time limits, a basic knowledge of endings is much more important now than when Dan lost this game, which must have been getting on for half a century ago. So I’ll be including a brief description of P and L, but at this level you really don’t know anything else specific.

Sure, you’ll need some basic principles: keep your pieces active, create passed pawns, rooks belong behind passed pawns, that sort of thing. But what I really want to do is to look at rook endings played at this level, look at the recurring tactical ideas, and reinforce them through a series of puzzles.

So I’ve spent the past week or so going through all the rook endings in my Richmond Junior Club database (getting on for 17000 games).

A familiar tactic in both queen and rook endings is the skewer.

In this position Black decided to promote his pawn, which wasn’t a good idea. He had four winning moves to choose from, the nicest of which was Rf3+, when, if White captures, it’s Black, not White who will play a skewer.

It’s very easy to switch into endgame mode and forget about mates. In this position White did just that, capturing on e6. He’d have had some winning chances if he’d taken the precaution of trading on g4 first.

Another frequent mistake: the most common in all endings at this level, is concerned with trading pieces to reach a pawn ending.

In this position I was giving a simul and carelessly moved my king to b5 instead of c5. Luckily, my opponent failed to avail himself of the opportunity to trade rooks and promote his remaining pawn.

Here’s another one. As you get stronger you have to move beyond just counting points and thinking rook for rook is an equal exchange. Here, with Black to make a decision, the trade is anything but equal. The rook ending is drawn, but Black traded rooks into what was a lost pawn ending after White correctly recaptured with the king. Note that Black would be winning if White took back on f4 with the pawn.

You also have to watch out for perpetual checks. In this position White played the natural g7, giving Black an immediate draw. The nicest way to win is to promote the pawn, play Rf7+ to trade rooks and then promote again.

My final example demonstrates another very common tactical idea. If your opponent’s rook is only defended by a king you can sometimes win it by playing a check. White is two pawns up here, but only has one winning move: Rf6+. Instead he pushed the h-pawn without thinking, losing his rook after White’s obvious reply. A few moves later, though, White accidentally left his rook en prise so the result was a draw.

Richard James

What’s in a Number?

The new ECF grades came out this week which would have had a lot of UK players in the UK checking their latest number. Of what significance are they? Well they do give a fairly good indication of playing strength and you can see whether you are improving or not. A larger number of games will give a more accurate figure, a smaller number is less reliable.

My own grade came out at 247, up from 240. It was based on just 12 games so I don’t think it will be very reliable, though it does perhaps indicate that I did not completely go to seed during my long layoff from competitive chess. My son Sam stayed about the same, his standard grade going down slightly (153 from 157) and his rapid grade going up (147 from 144). I think he reached a bit of a plateau after moving up steadily from his first rapid play grade of 33 in 2012. I figure he’ll be moving up again before too long.

These long term trends, over a large number of games, are what best indicates where someone is heading. Many older players suffer a slow, long term decline, though not all. Checking players over 70 for ‘standard improvement’ shows that it is never too late to get better. It was good to see a Tiger Chess member occupying one of the top places on this metric.

Of course grades can be taken a bit too seriously and can become something of a distraction. So I would recommend not thinking about them until a list comes out, and even then take a very long term view. Things like moving house, a change of job or trouble at home can play havoc with someone’s playing strength. But these issues eventually come to an end leaving the big picture as what really matters.

Nigel Davies

Never Say Die!

Magnus Carlsen’s round 8 game from the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee was a good example of not giving up. He blundered a piece away in the opening but fought on and eventually won. Here’s an interview with him after the game.

As for the entire round, here it is with expert commentary. Coverage of the Carlsen game can be found within..

Nigel Davies

Hanging Pawns

Hanging pawns are the pawn duo on half open files, usually on c & d file. This pawn formation may arises from many openings, especially Queen’s gambit declined; Tartakower system. As they are on half open files, fundamentally they’re weak and owner of the hanging pawns has to occupy his pieces to defend them. The same time, they can become an asset and real headache for the opponent if you can manage to roll it.

How to play with it:
– You must roll it to release the energy of the pieces behind it or to create strong passed pawn.
– If you can’t roll it then try to prevent your opponent from creating strong blockade against it.
– If you can’t do any of the above then you must seek counter play along adjacent files (b & e file). sometimes even at the cost of pawn.

In the following example, we will see how David Janowski pushes his d pawn to release the energy of his dark square Bishop which ultimately proved decisive factor of the game.

How to play against it:
Creating strong blockade is the ideal strategy and to do so you must force your opponent to move one of his pawns that creates the hole, can be used to create strong blockade with your knight or the Bishop. Here is the famous game played between Fischer and Spassky during their world championship match.

Ashvin Chauhan

Going Back to the Basics (2)

“Everything in life goes back to the basics”
Kron Gracie

Last week I wrote about material balance in response to a call for help from my online student C:
“Recently I’ve been noticing that when I’m in a game, sometimes I don’t find an attack, or a really good move right away, and I start to focus on dumb, and pointless things in the game like taking a side pawn, and I forget about what is happening around me. This is mainly why I blunder and then lose. If you could give me some advice before the tournament I would appreciate it.”

The second aspect one should always keep an eye on is the kings’ position at all times. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense; capturing either king ends the game on the spot. We should all strive to keep our king out of danger, while attacking the other one whenever the opportunity arises. Beginners in general face a real challenge to follow this. The number of pieces on the board at the beginning is overwhelming and the number of possible moves is plain and simple scary. Who has time to look at the king when we know it is not useful? Another challenge comes from the rules in place for castling. I have seen countless times total confusion when club players stumbled over castling, wanted to do it and did not know how. It starts as simple as to know how many squares the king moves (it happens often to see a Queen side castle with Kb1+Rc1) and it continues quite often with castling through check or castling while in check and getting away with it (the opponent accepts it!).

I can hear you saying “I can castle. I am not a beginner anymore”. Moving on to more entertaining situations, I wonder how many times do you really watch the kings’ position? Do you do it constantly throughout the game? If you do, it is highly unlikely to be in the same shoes as C. Their position gives you most of the times enough information to figure out what to do. Of course this is not enough; you also need to find the right idea and put together the most appropriate plan to use to your advantage the kings’ position. That requires more advanced positional and tactical knowledge, as well as a lot of practice. C has offered me the perfect opportunity to expand on it based on one of his games from that tournament. Here is the position in question, the way he played it and the way he should have played it:

The good (White):

  • he realized he should attack the opposing king
  • his pieces were positioned almost perfectly (this ties into the third aspect) and beginning the attack was the right thing to do
  • eventually he clued in to bring Rf1 into the attack

The bad (White):

  • he could not make up his mind what to do with Bc4
  • trying to create a battery with 19. Qf5 and 20. Bd3 was an unfortunate waste of time
  • he got scared of a potential one move threat Rg8-g5

The ugly (White):

  • he should have realized from the beginning Qe2 and Bc4 were already in attacking positions, so the correct way to play would have been 18. Rf3 to bring another attacker
  • the fact there were semi-open files on g- and h-, an isolated h6-pawn and no piece outside Qe7 defending the king, should have pointed to the need to bring a rook into the action

Conclusion: the play was dictated exclusively by the weakened position in front of the Black king. The first needed step was to recognize it and that meant White was on the right track. It did not mean he reached the destination yet and he also had to choose the most appropriate plan to attack it. It is striking how Black could survive and save a draw when his position was completely lost at move 18. Do not allow such anomalies to happen in your games!

Valer Eugen Demian

Complications

Here’s a complicated game I played this last weekend. It also took almost 4 hours, which is one of my longest games so far.

I think I kept my position alive by finding tactical resources, though my Dad says I was lost at various points and should have advanced my queenside pawns. In any case I was happy to draw:

Sam Davies

Black Belt Chess

You will be aware that, if you’re a practitioner of martial arts, you will be able to earn different coloured belts depending on your level of skill. If you’re learning a musical instrument you’ll be able to take grade exams at various levels. I’ve spoken to children who take part in other activities such as gymnastics and drama, who have told me about similar systems. Yet there’s nothing comparable in chess. Why not?

Yes, we have both national and international rating systems. We have titles for strong players: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and so on. But there’s an enormous gap between social players and serious competitive players. I believe such a scheme would provide encouragement for more people, adults as well as children, to take chess seriously. It wouldn’t be very stressful because you’d only take the test when you were ready to do so: in fact it would be a lot less stressful than playing, and would ensure that no one took part in competitions before they were ready.

Here in the UK we have two competing national systems, but not many people, to the best of my knowledge, take either of them. I’ve encountered parents, though, whose children have passed with merit or distinction but are still not sure of the castling rules. It’s not surprising they’re deluded as to how well their children play chess. Such schemes need to be serious and rigorous – and there has to be a significant reason and a significant reward for following them.

I’ve seen other local schemes as well but haven’t been impressed. If you’re devising an examination you have to be clear exactly what you want to test and ensure that you’re not actually testing something different. If you can pass the exam by memorising the course book, your exam is testing memory rather than knowledge or skill. If you expect examinees to write an essay you’re, to a certain extent, testing English and essay writing skills, which may cause problems for students with dyslexia, or those whose first language is not English, as well as favouring older rather than younger children.

My view is that the most significant indicator and predictor of chess skills is the ability to solve tactical/calculation puzzles, and that the puzzles should be a mixture: not all of the ‘sac sac mate’ type. At the lowest level the puzzles will just test chessboard vision, but higher levels will expect students to look further and further ahead and solve more complicated positions. The test should be serious and rigorous, using pencil and paper rather than screen, with exam conditions enforced. You’d provide sample papers with answers and perhaps also a screen-based version for practice, to ensure that students are fully prepared and ready to take the test.

There are other aspects of chess, though, which are best tested one to one, rather than through a written test. So I’d include, if it was logistically possible, a short viva voce session. At the lowest level this might include checking that the students are familiar with the en passant rule, that they can checkmate with a king and queen against a king, and so on. At higher levels you might want to test opening understanding in this way, by getting them to play and explain the first few moves of the Queen’s Gambit, the Sicilian Najdorf or whatever, as well as ensuring they can win more difficult endings.

In my view we need to get away from purely competitive chess and encourage skills development, with players only taking part in competitions when they have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Within a club like Richmond Juniors we can do this to a certain extent, but it’s not easy within school chess clubs. The nature of chess requires that skills children learn within a chess club are reinforced at home, but if parents just see the school chess club as a childminding service which might also ‘make kids smarter’ they won’t remember very much of what we teach them.

How can we change the perception of how junior chess should be run so that we improve standards and ensure that more children continue their interest in chess beyond primary school? That is the million dollar question, and I think perhaps setting up a scheme such as this might help. It has to be compulsory rather than optional, though, at least if you want to take part in competitions. You might want to open it to players of all ages and perhaps encourage parents to join in.

If you’re interested in setting up something along these lines, either nationally or internationally, please let me know.

Richard James

The Value of the Pawns and Pieces

I’m currently writing a chess book for beginners and thought I’d give you a sample from that book regarding the value of the pawns and pieces. This article is based on discussions I’ve had with my students over the years regarding this topic and is based on those conversations. Knowing how much the individual members of your army are worth helps you make good decisions regarding the exchange of material as well as the order in which to bring your forces into play.

To denote the importance of the pawns and pieces in terms of power, we assign a relative value to them. We use the term relative rather than absolute because the term absolute indicates that the value is unchanging. The term relative tells us that this value is approximate and might change slightly depending on circumstances within the game. We’ll explore that later on. For now, let’s concentrate on the initial relative value of the pawns and pieces. Again, we’ll discuss possible value changes later on. We’ll start with the pawn.

The pawn has a relative value of one. I teach students to think of the relative value of the pawns and pieces in terms of money. Since most of us, both young and old alike, can better understand valuation when we think in terms of money, making the pawns and pieces worth a dollar amount makes understanding their value much easier. This monetary understanding also makes it easier to determine whether or not to trade or exchange material (pawns and pieces). Using our money analogy, the pawn is worth $1.00. Beginners tend to think of the pawn as somewhat worthless since they have the lowest relative value and each player starts the game with eight of them. While the pawn does have the lowest relative value when compared to the pieces (we don’t refer to pawns as pieces but as pawns) it has the ability to promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop when it reaches its promotion square on the other side of the board. This means its value will change upon promotion, increasing from $1.00. Because pawns are worth less than the Knight, Bishop, Rook and Queen, they can prevent these pieces from occupying squares the pawn controls. Remember, just because the pawn has the lowest relative value doesn’t mean it has less value in terms of what it can do. The reason the pawn has a low relative value has to do with its slow or limited movement and its limited control of squares on the board (it can only attack or control the adjacent diagonal squares in front of it. Now let’s look at the minor pieces.

We’ll start with the Knight. The Knight has a relative value of three ($3.00). Because the Knight can move a bit further and control a greater number of squares than the pawn, its value is greater. Knights are the only piece that have the ability to jump over other pieces (and pawns). If the chessboard has a lot of pawns and pieces in play or off of their starting squares, pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queen will have trouble moving around. However, the Knight, due to its ability to jump over pawns and pieces, will have greater freedom of movement and is worth slightly more than $3.00 in such a situation. Now let’s look at the other minor piece, the Bishop.

The Bishop also has a relative value of three ($3.00). However, unlike the Knight, the Bishop is a long distance attacker. Therefore, when the board has few pieces in play or open diagonals (devoid of pawns and pieces), the Bishop has a slightly higher relative value than the Knight. Why do the Knight and Bishop share the same value, after all they have very different ways of moving? While the Knight has the ability to jump over other pieces, it’s range is short. Because of the way in which it moves (an “L” shape), getting to an adjacent square can take a number moves. While the Bishop can control great distances along the diagonals, it is tied down to a specific color square, which is why you have two of them. Both minor pieces have limits to their power and this is reflected in their relative value. Now to the major pieces, the Rook and Queen, starting with the Rook.

The Rook has a relative value of five or $5.00. Like the Bishop, the Rook is a long distance attacker, able to control a greater number of squares than the minor pieces or pawns. The Bishop is also a long distance attacker so why is it worth less than the Rook? Bishops are tied down to a single color square for movement. Thus, the Bishop that starts on a light square can only move along and control light squares while the Bishop that starts on a dark square can only move along and control dark squares. A light squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces sitting on dark squares. On the flip-side, a dark squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces positioned on light squares. The Rook, because he can freely move along the ranks and files, controls both light and dark squares. This is why he’s worth more that the Bishop.

The Queen has a relative value of nine or $9.00. Why so much? Because she can move like both the Bishop and Rook, giving her the ability to control or attack more squares than any other piece. She moves along the ranks, files or diagonals. This ability to travel along the ranks, files or diagonals makes her extremely powerful. She can control a large number of squares from a single location (square). You should respect this great power and not bring her into the game too early. If you do, she’ll become a target for enemy pieces of lesser value. What about the King? If he’s the most valuable piece in the game, he must be worth a great deal.

The King is priceless because if the King becomes trapped (remember you cannot capture the King is chess) the game ends in checkmate and the player whose King is trapped loses. I do give my students a dollar value for the King to emphasize his importance and that dollar figure is $197,635! This drives home the point that the King is worth a great deal! The reason we can’t really assign a realistic value to the King is because we have to protect him for the majority of the game, so early on he has no attacking value. If the King tries to engage in battle early on, he’ll end up being trapped by enemy pawns and pieces and the game will end in checkmate. However, once the majority of the pawns and pieces are off the board, the endgame (more on that later on in this book), the King can be an extremely valuable attacker and defender. However, always remember that the King needs to stay safe for the majority of the game.

There are two things to take away from this concept of relative value. The first has to do with capturing pawns and pieces. Playing chess requires you to capture your opponents pawns and pieces. You don’t have to capture them all but the more opposition pieces you capture, the harder it is for your opponent to attack your King. However, there’s more to capturing than simply trading one piece for another and this is due to their relative value. You want to make profitable exchanges of material. For example, if you traded your $9.00 Queen for a $3.00 Knight, would you profit from the exchange? Absolutely not! You’d be trading your most powerful major piece for a minor piece. Always try to exchange material if it’s profitable or the trade is even as in the case of trading a Knight for a Knight or a Knight for a Bishop (both having a relative value of three). While there are times when making seemingly bad trades works to your advantage because they lead to checkmate, stick to profitable or even trades for now.

The second thing to take away from this relative value system is that it provides an order in which to bring your forces into the battle. You start with the material (pawns and pieces) of lowest value being developed first followed by material of greater value. Thus, the order in which material enters that game is; pawns followed by the minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) followed by the Rooks and then the Queen. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this order but for now use this system when deciding on who to bring into the fight and when.

Well, there you have it, a brief introduction to the relative value system used in chess. Make sure you know it and always use it as guide when considering an exchange or trade of material as well as creating an order for bringing pawns and pieces into the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson