Problems vs Potential

Very often in chess, a positional evaluation can be a simple matter of ‘Problems vs Potential’ (or, to invent a maxim, the ’2 P’s’).

“What potential does my position have for me?” vs “What problems is my opponent posing me?”

Of course, chess is a game of two sides, so we not only have to ask this from our own perspective, but also from that of our opponent, thus:

“What potential does my opponent have?” vs “What problems am I posing / can I pose?”

Sometimes, the answers to these questions alone can be decisive — whoever makes the opponent react first often has the advantage. Of course, it is important to note that there is such a thing as ‘prophylaxis’ in chess, where one can answer a threat from the opponent with a constructive move to their own position, sometimes even a counter-threat. Games in which one is presented with lots of those are good games, and it is important to make the distinction between prophylaxis and pure reaction, where a player must take time out from their own intentions in order to deal with threats from the opponent.

One such example is the following game, between Anna Muzychuk and Yifan Hou. It was played during the recent 2014 Women’s Grand Prix, in Lopota, Georgia. As you will notice, I have not annotated the opening (which is a Sicilian Defence of course), but I advise the reader to play through the moves prior to my annotations beginning at move 13. In doing so, try to answer for yourself how White’s opening play opened the door for her opponent.

John Lee Shaw


The Transformation Problem (4)

In the following example, the key position arises after Black’s 26th move. White has an obvious advantage, with more space and weaknesses on c6 and e6. However, neither weak pawn is easy to attack effectively, and it is hard to increase the pressure by normal means.
Kramnik’s solution is the break d4-d5. This actually eliminates both of the weak black pawns, but in the resulting position, the black pawn on b5 is now hopelessly weak and incapable of being defended. Short takes the decision to sacrifice material at once, with 29…c5, but runs into a nice “little combination” in the Capablanca style, with 31.bxc5!, and eventually is ground down after stubborn resistance in the endgame.

Steve Giddins


Search for the Hero

If you were paying attention last week you’ll know that my new chess course is called Chess for Heroes.

One reason is that if you want to succeed at competitive chess you need a collection of non-cognitive skills which might be summed up as ‘mental toughness’ along with chess skills.

But there’s another meaning to the word hero as well. We might admire someone because of their skills in a particular field and describe them as our hero. We might also identify a chess hero: a player we admire and whose play we’d like to emulate.

I understand from my pupils that some people in Brazil are currently kicking a ball around a grassy field. (There are also some different people much nearer home who, I believe, are hitting a smaller ball at each other over a net.) If you ask any child with even a cursory interest in football to name some famous footballers, he will have no problem in giving you lots of names, just as I could have done at that age. But if I ask children who enjoy playing chess to name some famous chess players they usually look at me in questioning amazement, as if I was asking them to name some famous Snakes and Ladders or Noughts and Crosses players.

Of course there’s an obvious difference. Football is an excellent spectator sport. Even if you don’t play football yourself you’re aware that the guys in the blue shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at one end, while the guys in the red shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at the other end. You might get more out of watching the game if you’re well versed in the intricacies of the offside rule, but it’s really not necessary. You can understand the game and appreciate the skills (or not, in the case of England) of the players even if you’re a complete duffer at playing football. To appreciate a top level chess game, though, you need to be a pretty strong player yourself.

Even so, I think we in the chess community could do a lot more to promote the idea of chess heroes. The presentation of the game online is improving. Excellent communicators such as Lawrence Trent are providing live online commentary on major events. There was a discussion on Twitter the other day about how well most top GMs handle the press conferences after their games. Although young players might enjoy following the major tournaments and supporting their favourite players, they would probably, at lower levels, get much more from choosing Paul Morphy rather than Magnus Carlsen as a role model for how to play chess. No worries: one great thing about chess is that you can travel back in time and follow the games of chess heroes from the past whose games might be easier to understand. There are many lessons available online which will help you do this, and brilliant analysis by the likes of Andrew Martin and Daniel King will enlighten you further.

So one of the ideas of Chess for Heroes is that it will incorporate (just as Move Two! did) biographies and news about top players, along with a blog on the website with links to current events.

There’s a lot to be said for encouraging young players to make Paul Morphy their chess hero. Rapid development and accurate calculation are necessary for chess success. Here’s Paul, at the age of 10 or 11, demonstrating how to beat his dad at chess.

Richard James


Endgame Thoughts

One of the most difficult phases of the game for a beginner is the end phase or endgame. There are two reasons for this. First, beginners seldom play through to a proper endgame. Most beginner’s games end in an early checkmate. The second reason for this difficultly with the endgame comes from a flawed idea beginners have about this final phase of the game. Beginners think that having fewer pieces on the board means that the game becomes easier. This is so far from the truth. The fewer pieces you have on the board, the more carefully you have to play. Endgame training should be embraced by the beginner early on. Here are some thoughts regarding endgame play that the beginner should consider.

The decisions you make in the opening and middle games affect your endgame! Beginners tend to think of pawns as disposable, after all, they are the lowest valued units and you start the game with eight of them. Pawns are key components in the endgame and having more pawns during this final phase of the game makes a huge difference. You should always look for ways to create passed pawns early on. Passed pawns, pawns that can promote because no enemy pawns block or attack squares along their route, are key. Therefore, pawns should be considered extremely valuable assets early on! Always consider the endgame when making strategic or positional decisions early in the game.

King activity in the endgame is an idea that beginners seldom consider. The King is a powerful piece in the endgame. In fact, many checkmates are simply impossible without the King’s involvement. Beginners have a tendency to leave their Kings on their starting Rank because of preconditioning. The beginner is taught early on that King safety is critical. “Castle early”, says the chess teacher, “or your King will be exposed to danger.” Beginners take this to heart and leave their Kings safely away from the action. However, when the majority of the pieces have been removed from the board, its time to bring the King into the game. The King can do some real damage to the opposition when he enters the endgame and can be a deciding factor!

The next thing to consider is time. By time, I mean taking your time during the endgame! Because beginners often think that the game will get easier when there are fewer pieces on the board, they tend to play endgames too quickly. A rule of thumb for my students is, the fewer pieces there are on the board, the slower your play should be. Beginners blunder positions and hang pieces. Early during a game, you may have a chance to recover from a bad move. As pawns and pieces leave the board, those remaining pawns and pieces take on a greater value because that’s what you have left as an army and that’s what you have left to deliver checkmate with. If you and your opponent are equal in material and you lose a minor piece, your opponent now has an advantage. Taking your time and completely examining the position not once or twice, but three times will help you maintain your forces and push forward towards mate. Take your time during the endgame!

Play for the passed pawn! While the goal of the passed pawn is promotion, this renegade pawn can create a host of problems for the opposition. The biggest problem your opponent has to deal with regarding your passed pawn is the threat of promotion. What this means is that your opponent will have to tie one of his or her pieces down to stopping that pawn from promoting. A wise chess player once said that a passed pawn belongs under lock and key. An opposition piece dealing with a passed pawn is a piece not actively committed to the rest of the game! Always be on the lookout for a potential passed pawn!

Master Rook endgames. Rook endings are the most common type of endgame. Therefore, the beginner should study Rook endgames closely. Beginners learn the most basic of checkmates, such as two Rooks against a lone King, This is a simple type of checkmate that the novice player easily masters. However, when we remove one of those two Rooks from the equation, things get a little more complex. The beginner should spend a good deal of time learning to mate with a Rook and King against alone King.

A useful area of study, one that applies to all phases of the game, is pawn structure. While good pawn structure is crucial throughout the game, it is an absolute must during the endgame. Pawn structure comes down to pawn coordination, how pawns work with one another (and the pieces) during the game. Beginners can improve their pawn structure by playing the pawn game. To play the pawn game, set up only the pawns on a chessboard. The goal is to get a pawn or pawns to the other side of the board, promote them and eliminate your opponent’s pawns. This simple game will teach you a great deal about pawn structure or the “pawn arts” as I like to call it.

Lastly, invest in a good basic book on endgame play. For the beginner, I recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s Complete Endgame Course. There are many good endgame books available but most are too complex for the beginner. Bruce’s book starts with the simplest mating combinations and works up to more complex mating attacks such as Knight, Bishop and King versus lone King. Section one covers major and minor piece endgame mates while section two deals with pawn endgames. I am currently rereading this book because it is a wealth of information. If you decide to chose another book for your endgame studies, make sure that the examples found within make sense to you. A book is no good to the beginner if it was written for advanced players.

In the end (pun intended) it comes down to practice. Find another player of equal skill and play endgames. Set up the chessboard with the King, a Rook and a few pawns for both players and have at it. This will help both of you improve your endgame play. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Chess Blindness: Part Three

There have been a few articles on this blog about the causes and effects of chess blindness. This is my third article on chess blindness that was not caused by time pressure. The game was the second time that I played Daniel Herman and it was also my second loss to Daniel. This time, there were no distractions of any kind. I just spaced out and blundered away a Rook!

Because this was the very first time that I played Black against Daniel I played the Modern Defense and then transposed into the Benko Gambit. Originally, I was going to play the Dutch Defense and then I changed my mind for some unknown reason.

Because of the unusual move order I was unsure of the best moves to play during the opening. It seemed to me that Daniel was too. I made some minor opening errors, but no outright blunders until move number 21 when I made a totally unsound sacrifice of my Rook. I did not even consider that White could just play 22. Rxa4!! winning my Rook for a pawn!

I usually try to castle by move number 10, but in this game I could not castle until move number 13. At that point I had equality. After that I played the typical maneuvers that start Black’s queenside attack. On move number 20 I missed a move that would have given me a clear advantage. On the next move I flat out blundered and then resigned. This game is another example of what happens when I fail to consider all of my opponent’s possible replies before I play a move!

Mike Serovey


My 6th Tournament Game: An Error That Reveals An Attempt To Learn

Continuing my series on my first chess tournament, which I played in 1980, I cover my round 6 game, which ended up being the third draw in 6 rounds. There is a pattern here to note: at this USCF 1500-1600 level of play, games very easily end in draws, because of missed opportunities in the middlegame, inappropriate simplification into an endgame, and then inaccurate endgame play leading to a final simplification after which no progress can be made by either side. We already saw this in my round 3 game.

Summary of the game

Having scored 3 out of 5 points so far in the tournament, I got to play someone rated around 1600. I was White.


To my surprise, as Black he played an opening continuation in the Philidor Defense known to be bad. Unfortunately, because I saw the resemblance between the position and the famous 1858 game by Paul Morphy against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard, at move 7 I swung my Queen over to b3 just as Morphy had done, even though because Black’s 6th move was different, this move was harmless. Playing by analogy rather than by calculation is sometimes reasonable, but in this case it was thoughtless.

The result was that Black forced a Queen trade immediately. This combined with the symmetrical Pawn structure meant that in the absence of gross errors, the likely result of the game was a draw. (Recall that in my round 2 game, in a Petroff where the Queens also got traded quickly, my game should have been a draw, but I accidentally won anyway.)

An error that reveals an attempt to learn

In the middlegame, I made a curious and admittedly ugly and poor positional and tactical error of advancing my f-Pawn with 13 f4, to try to undermine Black’s e-Pawn and attack on the King side. This resulted in my isolating my own e-Pawn and then losing it. The resulting simplified position, nevertheless, was easily drawable.

What I want to talk about is the nature of this error. It’s a pretty bad error, but I think it illustrates that sometimes, when progressing in chess, it is common to make an error that nevertheless has clear motivations behind it. Here, I made this error because

  • I wanted to unbalance a dead symmetrical position in order to play for a win, showing an active fighting spirit I had not always shown earlier in the tournament.
  • I had been reluctant to make Pawn breaks in earlier games, but was warming up to the idea that Pawn breaks were important.

In other words, even though the plan was completely misguided, it showed that I was now willing to take risks to unbalance a position. I think an important stage in developing as a chess player is that of trying a different way of thinking, even if it is actually not carried out well. That is better than simply being stuck in a rut, in which case there is no way to improve. Currently, as an instructor and coach, I look for ways in which someone is stuck in a rut, a plateau, and encourage doing something different even if it initially backfires.


I would call the position after move 18 and endgame: a lot of simplification, White a Pawn down, two Rooks and Bishop vs. two Rooks and Knight.

It turned out that neither player knew how to optimize using either the Bishop or the Knight imbalance in the endgame, so the endgame was a typical trading of errors until all the Pawns came off the board and all that was left was a Bishop vs. Knight, so a draw was agreed.

The complete annotated game

Franklin Chen


Deception in Chess

A common fallacy is that chess, by virtue of having all the pieces in view, does not contain deception. But this fails to consider the fact that each and every position from a chess game is interpreted by two human minds, each with their own idiosyncrasies. So when you play against someone you often get a sense of their beliefs and preferences, which may or may not be objective.

This is where the possibility for deception arises, by preying on the beliefs of your opponent and presenting them with the opportunity to deceive themselves. Some players who have been very good at this, including the legendary World Champion, Emanuel Lasker.

In the following game he is quite happy to let Janowsky obtain the bishop pair (a preference of his) knowing that his opponent would then be optimistic about his chances. Too optimistic in fact, and Black’s position gradually deteriorated:

Nigel Davies


The Transformation Problem (3)

This week’s example of positional transformations sees Akiba Rubinstein in action. In the diagram, position, White has more space and the better pawn centre. However, how can he best make use of this?

Rubinstein’s solution is to give up the space and pawn centre, in return for a passed d-pawn, plus an open position, where White has two bishops. The break 13.d5! achieves this. The aggressive follow-up 16.g4!, targetting the weak square at f7, forces further concessions from Black, and by move 20, the latter is forced to surrender the exchange, after which Rubinstein’s technique mops up.

Steve Giddins


Tough by Nature

“What does not kill me”, said Nietzsche, “makes me stronger”.

How we react to bad experiences is an important part of our personality.

Of course we all want to protect children from high-level bad experiences, but the issue I have with many parents and schools is that they are over-zealous in protecting children from low-level bad experiences rather than teaching children how to deal with them. This makes it hard for children to develop qualities such as resilience and independence.

There is an increasing understanding that non-cognitive skills such as these are more important than cognitive skills in predicting future success. I referred in an earlier post to a new book by the aptly named Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, which includes a chapter about the famous IS318 school in New York.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be saying “Chess makes you smarter” but instead “Chess makes you tougher”. It’s important that schools promote competitive activities in order to develop mental toughness. While many children will enjoy competing on the football field or the tennis court, there will be others who will prefer more cerebral competition. Both within and outside school, we do a lot more to promote competitive physical activities than we do to promote competitive mental activities. Twenty years or so ago, many primary schools were opposed to any sort of competition because children might do badly and that would make them unhappy. When I asked one school, which promoted chess strongly and taught all its pupils to play, why they were only entering one team in our schools tournament they told me they couldn’t possibly enter any more teams because they might score less than 50%. Most schools, fortunately, have moved away from this, but there’s still much more they can do.

If you’re playing competitive chess you will have many good experiences. But you’ll also have bad experiences: games where you play badly, blundering in a winning position, poor tournament performances, events where your opponents all seem to play well against you, opponents who are distracting, unsporting or otherwise difficult. Developing the mental toughness and resilience to cope with this is part of growing up. If you play a bad game you can say “I’m no good at chess” and give up. Or you can work out why you lost and try to improve. Perhaps you didn’t know enough about the opening. Perhaps you miscalculated the tactics or didn’t find the right plan in the middle game. Maybe you need to improve your knowledge of rook and pawn endings. Losing a game of chess might kill your king but it doesn’t kill you. If you learn from your mistakes and improve your play as a result then it makes you both a stronger player and a stronger person. If you decide you’re no good at chess, lose confidence and play badly for the rest of the tournament then it makes you weaker. Of course, if you love chess but find it hard to cope emotionally with tournaments you can always do what I did and become involved with other aspects of the game instead, but this is not a decision for young children.

Up to a point, we can, and do, teach this sort of mindset within school and junior chess clubs. We tell children not to give up if they’re behind but to keep fighting. We encourage them not to be disheartened if they’re facing an opponent they think is stronger than them, and not to be over-confident if they have a winning position or are playing a weaker opponent.

But developing mental toughness goes beyond that, beyond their approach to an individual game into how they view chess as a whole.. Young children who lose their games will decide chess isn’t for them and give up. Older learners, who may have greater emotional maturity, and will be old enough to teach themselves, will work out what they need to do to improve.

If we encourage children to start young they may benefit more in terms of cognitive development, but starting children older may well be more beneficial in terms of developing non-cognitive skills.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes. There are several reasons for this, but one reason is that the course, in between the chess content, will teach children the advanced cognitive skills they need to become good players, along with the non-cognitive skills they need to be successful competitors. This means developing mental toughness: the quality of a hero.

Richard James


Learning an Opening

Beginners often make the mistake of memorizing an opening before they have a solid grasp of its underlying mechanics. The problem with memorizing an opening, as opposed to learning the mechanics underlying the opening (the opening principles), is that you’ll run into serious trouble the moment your opponent makes a move not included in your memorization. Memorizing an opening is not the same as learning an opening. Before learning a specific opening, you must have a solid grasp of its underlying principles. All openings, from the Hippopotamus to the Nimzo Indian, share a common bond. That common bond is the underlying mechanics or principles that make the opening work. Once the beginner has learned the underlying principles (controlling the center with a pawn, active piece development and castling), it’s time to learn a specific opening.

Choosing a specific opening depends on the type of player you are. If you’re aggressive you might chose a more aggressive opening while the more reserved player might chose a more defensive opening. Once you determine what opening fits your general style of play, it’s time to sit down and learn that opening. Beginners should stick to openings that are flexible and simple to learn such as the opening I mention below, the Italian opening. Here’s how I teach an opening to my students.

I teach chess concepts in units of three. For example, when learning the opening principles, we focus on the three critical ideas of putting a pawn on a central square, developing our minor pieces to active squares and castling. I tell my students to always look for three possible moves before committing to one. Of course the game of chess is divided into three phases which was the primary reason for teaching concepts in units of three. I use this number in teaching openings as well.

The first opening I teach the beginning student is the Italian opening. Out of all the openings, this opening allows a beginner to see the opening principles in action very clearly. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white has a pawn in the center, two minor pieces on active squares and is ready to castle King-side. An additional benefit to learning this opening is that it lays the groundwork for learning the Evan’s Gambit and the Fried Liver Attack. However, the key point to learning this opening is the clarity it provides regarding basic opening principles.

We approach learning the opening’s moves in groups of three, starting from move one. Each move is carefully examined to determine which opening principle is being applied. Using the Italian opening, let’s look at the first three moves, starting with move one. White plays 1.e4. When learning an opening, examine every move carefully, even the first move! I tell my students that placing a pawn on e4 has multiple benefits First off; it gains a foothold in the center of the board. However, it also allows the King-side Bishop and Queen to have access to the board. Then we discuss the type of game an e pawn opening can lead to (open game). We then define open and closed games, which leads to a discussion of Bishops and Knights. Next we look at move two, 2.Nf3. This move attacks the pawn on e5. However, there’s more to this move than simply attacking a pawn. The Knight on f3 also contests the black pawn’s control of d4. The Knight also attacks the g5 and h4 squares which helps protect white from a black Queen raid on those files. The point here is to really discuss and examine each move in great detail which helps reinforce the understanding of the move’s underlying principles.

Move three, 3.Bc4, brings up a couple of interesting points. The first is the weakness of the f7 square (f2 for white). This square is weak because, at the game’s start, it is only defended by the King. This makes it a natural target. The second point I bring up with my students is the idea of moving pieces to their most active squares. If we look at how many squares the Bishop controls on c4, we see that the number is ten. The Bishop is extremely active on c4. I solidify this example by looking at the Bishop when placed on d3 where is not only has less activity but blocks in the d pawn and Queen-side Bishop. This leads to a brief discussion about not making opening moves that block in other pawns and/or pieces.

After going over the first three moves of our opening, I quiz my students. Before moving on to the next three moves, each student must understand the underlying principles of each of the previous moves. Once I’m satisfied that everyone has a good grasp on the mechanics behind each of those moves we move on to the next three moves of the opening. Of course, the further you delve into the opening, the more complex it becomes due to numerous variations. Because I’m working with young beginners, I stick to the mainline.

After those first three moves we move onto the next three moves. Before starting into the next grouping of three moves (moves seven, eight and nine), I review the opening from move one. This helps etch the opening’s moves and underlying mechanics into a student’s memory. By frequently going back to move one and playing through the sequence of moves learned up to that point, students get a better idea of how each move helps build up a stronger position. Yes, they’re committing the opening to memory which is memorizing. However, they’re working through the mechanics as they go along which makes the difference.

It really comes down to looking at each move in an opening analytically, using the opening principles to define the underlying mechanics of that move. When studying the moves within an opening, don’t move on from one move to the next until you completely understand the underlying mechanics up to that point. Remember, memorizing an opening and understanding it are two different things. Here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson