Chess Openings for Heroes

I’ve often been asked to recommend an opening book for kids, and my answer, for the past 40 years or so, has always been “I haven’t written it yet”. Now is my chance.

There are not many opening books written for players at this level, and the few that do exist tend to fall into two categories: those that give you a couple of pages on each opening and those that teach a specific opening repertoire. I don’t much care for the first type, while the second type is fine if the repertoire suits you but not if it doesn’t. I’m also very suspicious of those chess teachers who get all their pupils to play the same openings. Different strokes for different folks.

There are also two conflicting theories about what openings you should teach children. The traditional theory, popularised in the old Soviet Union, was that children should play open games, including gambits. Excelling at tactics, they argued, is the key to becoming a strong player, and the way to do this is to choose tactical openings. They believed that children should only play internally within their coaching groups until they are in their teens or are already playing to a high standard. That theory is still in use in places today: I’ve written before about my friends, whose son learnt his chess in Baku from a lady they described as an ‘old Stalinist’.

But most chess teachers in the West will appreciate that children enjoy and benefit from playing in competitions from an early age. It’s not so much fun, though, if you lose your games quickly because of tactical errors, so other teachers teach anti-tactics openings. Their pupils might play one of the ‘triangle’ systems with White (Colle/London/Torre) and meet 1. e4 with the Scandinavian or Caro-Kann. Of course they may well be spending a lot of time practising tactics at home.

My views, as usual, are somewhere between the two, although I lean more towards the idea that children should start by playing tactical openings. One danger of this is that children at this age and level will learn through memory rather than genuine understanding. So if you show them the Fried Liver Attack they’ll play Ng5 and, if allowed, Nxf7 at any opportunity because ‘you told me it was a good move’. If you show them Légal’s Mate they’ll go round moving pinned knights whether or not there’s a mate at the end.

Which is why I recommend that children start by mastering tactics (which they will be able to do by reading Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) before they do much in the way of learning actual openings as opposed to general principles. It’s also why my book is more about metatheory than theory. Learning openings is not about memorising sequences of moves, nor is it about setting traps (“My son has a tournament coming up: can you teach him some traps?”).

So, assuming that our readers understand basic tactics and know how to think ahead, we’re going to look at typical tactical ideas (queen forks, tactics on the e-file etc) which happen across a variety of openings. With this groundwork, the open games starting 1. e4 e5, will all fit into place and make sense.

When we reach the currently popular Spanish and Italian type positions where White plays c3 and d3 early on we’re at the transition point between tactics and strategy.

Before we move onto other openings we’ll look at a lot of strategic ideas: knight outposts, rooks on open files, for example, and, very specifically, pawn formations. We’ll consider what makes a good (or bad) pawn formation and explain the vital concept of the pawn break.

With this understanding, albeit at a fairly rudimentary level, in place, our students will be able to see that the moves of other openings actually make sense rather than just being a random sequence of moves. My view is that, at this stage of children’s development, they should try out lots of different openings. When they’re a bit stronger they will be able to decide which openings they like playing the most and specialise in those. One reason is that I’m very big on teaching chess culture, and a basic understanding of all major openings will help you enjoy and understand chess history.

So there you have it: Chess Openings for Heroes will be an elementary opening book quite unlike anything else on the market.

Richard James

Staying Active on Defense

Chess is a game of give and take. If you take the initiative, sometimes you have to give a pawn or some other positional concession. If you take material, often you have to give your opponent counterplay. If you take a square with a pawn, you give your opponent the square next to the pawn. I think you get the idea.

So the question is whether what you take is more valuable than what you give to get it. When you find yourself on the defense, if you haven’t blundered, then your opponent has given you something. The key is for you to stay active and find out what that something is.

In the video here, Paul Keres gives his opponent an attack. In return, his opponent gives him a target (the d4 pawn) and the exchange. That’s enough for Keres.

Enjoy this game with my commentary.

Bryan Castro

Carlsen Vs So?

I don’t know about everyone else, but this is the match that I’d really like to see. I think that Wesley So needs to develop a bit more before he’ll be able to beat Magnus Carlsen, but he’s improving all the time.

Here’s a preview of the kind of thing we might expect with Carlsen coming out on top. At least on this occasion:

Nigel Davies

Techniques to Calculate Better, Part 3: Comparison

In my previous articles in this series I have shown how orderly and logical thinking is fundamental to improving chess calculation. Good moves aren’t found by “magic” nor whispered mysteriously into the brains of the best players in the world. These moves are the result of a logical sequence of reasoning, which might be accomplished naturally by the most talented players in the world. For the rest of us mortals there are techniques to achieve this.

Chess is a sport with a lot of art and some science. From the scientific point of view, logical thinking is analytical (divides reasoning into parts), rational (follows rules) and sequential (linear, goes step by step). In this context, the comparison is one of the most powerful resources to reach conclusions, in science and in chess.

Making comparisons is a particularly important technique to help understand chess. We use it either consciously or unconsciously in all three phases of the game, and it’s especially important for understanding the openings. In another article I will talk more about this, however the question I want to answer now is this: How does comparison help me to calculate better?

There are intricate and complex positions in which two moves seem similar and only a correct process of comparison allows us to reach the correct conclusion. Here is an example of this:

As we can see in this example, when we need to decide between two or more moves that look similar and we find ourselves confused, we can calculate further and then try to make a comparison between the different resulting positions. When you get to the end of a variation a good question to ask is: Where do I prefer this piece? Once you find the answer you should return to the starting position and then apply the move. I believe that with this method you will be able to solve the following more complex exercise:

Readers who have followed this series of articles are likely to ask why I have one again chosen a pawn endgame? First, I would like to explain that they are all my own creations, and it is not just an accident that many of the positions I choose as examples are pawn endgames. Actually the endgames have a stigma of being boring but, in truth, endgames are full of calculation. One piece of evidence that indicates this is that GM Shirov once said that he liked to play games to the ending because then he could show one of his greatest strength; calculation. Now returning to the position in the diagram we can see that Black has something similar to an “outside passed pawn” and after the elimination of the pawns of the kingside Black arrive first into the queenside to take the White pawns. For his part White aspires to achieve a draw and for this he only has two serious candidates. He needs to look at either 1.a3 or 1.a4 since 1.f6 + loses valuable time and White is totally lost (again I encourage you to check this blindly). Meanwhile 1. Kg4 is the same.

Exercise: Using the comparison method find the move that achieves a draw.

In short, the comparison method is used when we have to make a decision in the present that will get us to the same final position with a small difference depending on which move we choose. Then we directly put ourselves in the final position and we ask: What do I prefer in this position? It may seem like an insignificant detail when we’re analyzing, but chess is full of details. As the great Sherlock Holmes would say: “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are by far the most important”. Isn’t that so, my dear Watson?

Andres Guerrero

Howard Staunton

With Article 50 being triggered today I thought that a Howard Staunton game might be appropriate.

Staunton was the only player produced by the UK who was the best in the World in his day and designed the chess set that has become the World standard. Staunton sets were original produced by John Jacques in London under the trading name the House of Staunton. Though as this is now in the hands of the Americans we could probably do with some new concern creating chess sets from English oak, perhaps harvested from Sherwood forest. The exports will be useful.

Here meanwhile is Staunton putting away a Frenchman in a Queen’s Gambit Declined. A sterling performance by the Shakespearian scholar:

Nigel Davies

ChessEssentials, Level 2

‘We raise Champions!”

A past review can be accessed here ChessEssentials, level 1
App link at the iTunes store ChessEssentials
Level 2 (reference ratings 400-800) costs $0.99 and it is an important piece of a proper foundation for any chess lover. It contains 22 lessons, 22 puzzle sets and 22 tests. They are listed in a well thought order covering the following aspects of the game:
Opening
Lessons 1-2 focus on the f7-weak spot called “Achille’s heel” and all basic checkmates in the opening connected to this weakness. Please have a look at one sample:


Basic tactics
– Lessons 3-4 cover the importance of attacks and defences: every time there’s an exchange possible, we need to count the attacks and defences, as well as the value of pieces involved in it. Lesson 3 looks at the options you need to consider when pieces in general are under attack, while lesson 4 presents the options available when the king is under attack. Please have a look at one sample:

– Lessons 5-11 go over the most important tactical weapons players should use during their games. Anyone will make big steps forward just by learning and practicing these tactics. There is the pin and here bishops pinning knights happen as early in the game as the first few moves. I remember a retired lady (avid chess enthusiast) from my junior years; she would come regularly at the club and play many games with anyone. She could not stand the opposing knights and was very afraid of them because of the unexpected forks they could deliver. Her strategy was very simple: trade them knights as early as possible! After a while you could have success playing her just by avoiding to trade your knights. Yes, sometimes the strategy you need to win games is as simple as this one!
– Lesson 5 covers forks
– Lesson 6 covers double attacks
– Lesson 7 covers pins
– Lesson 8 covers skewers
– Lesson 9 covers discovered attacks
– Lesson 10 covers discovered checks
– Lesson 11 covers double checks
Please have a look at one sample:

Opening
– Lessons 12-16 return to this important area of the game for any beginner; now armed with all those tactical weapons, it should be easier to navigate the first moves of the game while looking to develop, castle, occupy the center, etc. In case the opponents do not do it, the student can take advantage of it. Here I have proposed 3 basic openings for study with the Four Knights being one of the most played at this level. Learning any opening should start with learning tricks specific in each case. You can win many a game just by knowing tricks. Amateurs you encounter in any park or club in the World are well versed in all sort of opening tricks. The majority of them have learned those from own painful experience (tricks played on them), so it would save you grief to learn them ahead of time.
– Lesson 12 covers how to play the opening
– Lesson 13 covers how not to play the opening
– Lesson 14 covers the Four Knights Opening
– Lesson 15 covers the Bishop’s Opening
– Lesson 16 covers the Philidor Defence
Please have a look at one sample:

Endgame
– Lessons 17-20 jump all the way to the endgame. It is hard to reach your destination when you don’t know where you are going. This is the next step forward from level 1 and it shows how the queen/ rook has to fight against the lone remaining pawn ready to promote. It does happen in beginners games; have seen it often how the player having the queen would check endlessly the opposing king because of not knowing how to stop the pawn. The basic pawn endgames cover the important concept of the opposition in the most basic endgame of king + pawn versus king, followed by how to play in king + pawn versus king + pawn with the pawns blocked. Some might argue they are complicated and it is too early to learn these endgames; in my opinion the students must challenge themselves from early on and having to deal with only 3 to 4 pieces helps. Last but not least grasping the concept of the opposition brings a sentiment of excitement which can drive the student forward to study more. It gives great pleasure and a higher level of self esteem to be able to know when a pawn could promote or not. This moves anyone to a higher level of expertise, clearly above the masses called “woodpushers” who just move pieces around.
– Lesson 17 covers the basic endgame King+Queen versus King+pawn
– Lesson 18 covers the basic endgame King+Rook versus King+pawn
– Lesson 19 covers basic pawn endgames – the opposition
– Lesson 20 covers basic pawn endgames – blocked pawns
Please have a look at one sample:

Mates
– Lessons 21-22 continue what was started in level 1, reminding the student of the real object of the game. It moves gradually from checkmates in 1 to simple checkmates in 2. One can never do enough of these and focusing on the opposing king (as well as protecting yours from similar disasters) it is needed at all times. Later on you will see that an attack against the king will be more efficient than an attack against a piece or position not including the king. The reason is very simple: capturing the king ends the game. I remember the Romanian junior national chess final from 1979 where a completely unknown player at the time (MF Witezslav Lowy) rose through the ranks of the 9 rounds tournament to almost win the title; his greatest asset was his knack to attack the opposing king in all his games. He finished tied for first, surprising everyone and leaving a great impression on me as you can tell.
– Lesson 21 covers mates in 1
– Lesson 22 covers mates in 2
Please have a look at one sample:

Conclusion: level 2 helps the student establish a solid foundation. Using this knowledge could help them get noticed and be considered as promising players. Last but not least I will mention again that it helps the most by providing a plan for studying chess and all has to be tried over and over again in as many games as possible. Hope you find this presentation interesting and the app worth giving it a try!

Valer Eugen Demian

Carlsen the Grinder!

One of the players I most admire is Magnus Carlsen. He likes to grind people down in the endgame from what often look like drawn positions.

Here’s a good example from youtube in which he beats Sergei Karjakin from what looks like a drawn position:

Sam Davies

Chess Tactics for Heroes

Last week I looked at the format of Checkmates for Heroes, the first of my series of books designed to take children, or indeed older players, who know the basics up to the point where they can compete successfully in tournaments.

This post considers the next book, Chess Tactics for Heroes.

The principle is exactly the same: start with simple concepts, gradually increasing the complexity. We start with the idea that Superior Force Wins, which underpins the whole of chess, and refer to Chess Endings for Heroes, which will explain how and why. So we should be trying to win points while making sure we don’t play moves that lose points. We explain the idea of a threat (as opposed to an attack), consider the ATD (Attacker Target Defender) idea, and look at how to avoid blunders (look at your opponent’s threats, don’t move defenders or pinned pieces).

We then explain that we can sometimes create a threat that cannot be parried and pose some puzzles in which the reader has to work out how to trap a piece: threaten it so that there’s no way out. Of course, checkmate is a special case of a threat that cannot be parried.

Usually, though, our opponents will meet our threats, but there’s something else we can do: create two threats at the same time. It’s quite likely our opponent will only be able to meet one of those threats, enabling us to carry out the other one.

We start by looking at forks: our students have to find some pawn forks (these are surprisingly common at this level), some knight forks, then some queen forks. Just as we did when teaching checkmates, we then pose some puzzles where you can use a fork to win material, but you have to work out for yourself which piece you are going to use.

The next stage is to look at the pin, a subject which is not so easy to explain. We can win material by pinning a stronger piece, very often using a rook or bishop to pin a queen to a king, or by pinning a piece that cannot be defended. But many pins are harmless, or at worst only mildly inconvenient. There are other things we can do with pins, though. We can sometimes capture a piece for free because the apparent ‘defender’ is pinned. This is a special case of capturing an unprotected piece, but much harder to see because you have to spot the pin as well. Because a pinned piece cannot move away we can often win material by attacking the pinned piece again. This again is a special case of trapping a piece. Our readers will have to solve lots of puzzles based on finding pins which win material, noticing when a pinned piece doesn’t defend, and spotting how you can threaten a pinned piece.

From there it’s natural to move onto skewers, a much simpler subject, and again solve some puzzles.

We can also create two threats at the same time using different pieces. The way we do this is by using a discovered threat. We have a line piece (queen, rook or bishop) in line with an enemy target, but one of our own pieces is in the way. If we can move that piece out of the way we create a discovered threat, which, if the enemy target is the king, will be a discovered check. If we create another threat with the piece we move out of the way we’re creating two threats at the same time. At this level discovered threats, even if they’re not double threats, are often successful because children tend to look only at the last piece that moved rather than the whole board.

We then have some puzzles based on discoveries and some revision puzzles before moving on to something a bit different, which will involve looking a bit further ahead.

Imagine you have an ATD (Attacker Target Defender) situation. You’d like to get rid of the defender. Our next section looks at ways in which you can do this. You might be able to capture the defender, possibly using a sacrifice. You might be able to threaten the defender and drive it away. If the defender is doing two defensive tasks at the same time it’s an overworked piece so you can take advantage. These ideas will be the subject of further puzzles for the student to solve.

Finally, we move onto positions where you have to look a bit further ahead. A typical example would be a position where you play a sacrifice in order to set up a fork and get back the material with interest. This sort of concept, where you have to see 2½ moves ahead, is very difficult for players much below 100 ECF (1500 ELO) strength, but the only way to make progress is to learn to think this far ahead. Understanding this idea is also vital when you come to study openings: particularly the open games which you’ll learn in Chess Openings for Heroes.

The positions from this book are all taken from the Richmond Junior Chess Club database, and played by children at this level. A quick search will reveal, for example, lots of games decided by knights forking king and queen. If you look at grandmaster games you won’t find this sort of thing: they see them coming a long way off. So this book doesn’t consider all possible tactical ideas, nor does it concentrate on the types of tactic appearing in GM games. Instead, and this is one of its USPs, it’s based on the tactical ideas which happen over and over again in games played at this level.

Richard James

The Importance of Tactics Six

In the last few articles, we looked at a tactic called the pin in which a piece of lesser value was stuck in front of a piece of greater value along a rank, file or diagonal. Should the piece of lesser value move, the piece doing the pinning, the attacker, swoops in and captures the piece of greater value. With a skewer, the piece of greater value switches places with the piece of lesser value. A typical pin might be composed of a Black Bishop on g4 pinning a White Knight on f3 to the White Queen on d1. With a skewer, we’d have the Bishop still on g4 but the White Queen would be on f3 and the White Knight on d1. Of course, this rearrangement wouldn’t work for the Black Bishop unless that Bishop was protected with, for example, a Black pawn on h5 to back the Bishop up. While there are similarities between a pin and a Skewer, there are definite differences between the two.

As with the pin, the pieces able to partake in a skewer are your long distance attackers, the Bishops, Rooks and Queen. As I’ve said before, tactics are important and can turn a game around in your favor when used wisely. I say “when used wisely” because many beginning and intermediate players depend on tactics too much. They play solely around the idea of setting up tactical positions in order to gain a material advantage. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with employing tactics, you have to be careful when setting a tactical play up. Why? Because you may have to weaken your position when making the first move or two in a tactical combination, setting the tactic up. Of course, if your opponent is oblivious your plan, you’re fine and the tactical play is successful. However, if your opponent spots the potential tactical play, you’ll end up trying to correct your positional weaknesses. Use your tactics wisely, allowing the opportunity to present itself through poor opposition moves (especially if you’re a beginner) rather trying to set up complicated positions that force tactics. As you improve, so will your ability to spot tactical opportunities and set up combinations. Remember, we first learn to walk before learning to run. Here’s an extremely simple example of a skewer:

As I mentioned earlier, a skewer takes place when a piece of higher value is pinned in front of a piece of lower value along a rank, file or diagonal. In our example, White’s Queen is stuck in front of the White Rook along the f1-a6 diagonal. The Queen is worth nine points or dollars (I use money because everyone, both young and old, can relate to the value of a dollar) and the Rook behind it on the diagonal is worth five points or dollars. Again, the set up is like a pin but the more valuable piece is in front of the piece of lesser value (the reverse is true for a pin). The piece attacking the Queen, Black’s light squared Bishop, is worth three points or dollars. It’s important at this juncture to remember that ideally, the piece attacking the skewered piece should be of lesser value than the piece stuck at the tail end of the rank, file or diagonal where this tactic takes place. However, the value of the pieces involved in a skewer can have varying values but we’ll get into that later on. In our first example, the Queen will have to move, otherwise Black will end up with an even greater material gain. When the Queen moves, 1.Qd1, Black snaps up the Rook with 1…Rxf1 followed by 2. Qxf1. Black has traded a three dollar Bishop for a five dollar Rook netting two dollars. Always consider the value of any exchange before engaging in one!

This skewer for Black was only profitable because Black’s Bishop had protection, namely the pawn on b5. If the pawn wasn’t there then White would simply capture the Bishop! This would be a problem for Black! Now let’s look at skewers in which the piece at the tail end of the skewer is of equal or lesser value that the attacking piece. In our first example, the Bishop was worth less than the Rook trapped behind the Queen. Therefore, trading itself for the Rook makes sense. However, what if a Queen is skewering a piece of greater value, such as the opposition King to a piece of lesser value such as a Rook. Take a look at the example below:

In the above student game example, White plays 1. Qh7+ which directly attacks the Black King. However, this is more than just a check because when the Black King moves, 1. Kc8, the Rook behind it on the seventh rank is then captured by the White Queen after 2. Qxa7! This greatly changes the balance of material in favor of White. While White had more material that Black going into this endgame position, the loss of Black’s Rook is a game changer! While the piece being captured (the Black Rook) was worth less than the Queen, it’s capture eliminated an opposition piece making it much easier for White to win the game. During endgame play, the loss of material is devastating since you have fewer pawns and pieces with which to deliver checkmate. Therefore, using a skewer to create a deficit in opposition material can be a winning tactical play for you.

In the above example, the skewer worked because of two factors. The first factor is that the black King was positioned two squares away from the Rook. To protect the Rook, the Black King would have to be on an adjacent square to the now captured piece, but this leads me to point two, the Bishop on f3. White’s light squared Bishop was on a square that allowed coordinated play between both White pieces. The White Bishop on f3 covered the c6, b7 and a8 squares which means the Black King had no access to those squares and couldn’t protect his Rook. Piece coordination is critical when creating or employing tactics.

When looking for potential skewers, as in the case of the pin, you want to keep an eye on any rank, file or diagonal on which there are pieces. Tactical plays can often fall into your lap when playing against opponents who don’t followed principled play. To avoid falling victim to a skewer, you should always look at any rank, file or diagonal on which you have pieces. The last example of a skewer is a common tactical theme during the endgame. To avoid such a loss you want to make sure you have, your pieces protected. During this student game, Black had an opportunity earlier in the endgame to protect his Rook but didn’t. While our last example used the White Queen to Skewer the Black King and Rook, a White Rook could have done the same job. The advantage the Queen has is her ability to cover diagonals as well. If you’re a beginner or just became an intermediate player, I’d suggest looking for potential skewers rather than trying to set them up with a series of moves. After you’ve developed better chess vision, being able to see the entire board and spot potential problems for both you and your opponent, then consider creating combinations that lead to skewers. Also, remember that tactics are a two way street which means your opponent might skewer you if you’re not keeping a watchful eye over the ranks, files and diagonals your pieces sit on. We’ll continue our examination of tactics next week but until then, here’s a game to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

More On Chess Benefits

Despite the doubters I thought it time we had another post on the benefits of chess. I feel a massive debt of gratitude to the game because sure the game helped me a lot as a youngster. Meanwhile my chess project with Sam has coincided with leaps and bounds in both his confidence and how he’s doing at school.

Here’s a neurologist on the benefits of the game:

Nigel Davies