Questioning Moves

Beginners tend to move the first pawn or piece that crosses their line of sight, paying little attention to their opponent’s position. Of course, this generally leads to disaster with the problem becoming worse as the game progresses. Simply showing demonstration games and highlighting the moves that adhere to sound chess principles isn’t enough to break this bad beginner’s habit. While we learn a great deal from these demonstration games there is a huge difference between positions found in a master level game and the game of a young beginner. Beginners are overwhelmed by the number of possible moves they can make in a given position and often become discouraged, choosing to push a pawn or piece anywhere. The beginner’s mind has to be taught to find good moves logically. The beginner’s journey towards logical thinking can begin with a single simple question. What does the move I’m about to make do for me?

A good move is a move that has purpose. Whether it’s an aggressive attack or a quiet, in between move, there has to be a sound reason for making that move. Of course, you cannot simply say to a room full of beginners “just find the best move and you’ll be alright.” You have to provide them with a series of guidelines that help them choose the correct move. These guidelines form the foundation of good decision making. I start the process by breaking a chess game down into its three phases, the opening, middle and endgames.

In each of the three phases of a chess game, you have a specific goal to achieve. In the opening, it’s all about controlling the board’s center by getting your pieces to the most active squares possible and making sure your King is safe. This means that finding good moves are going to be based on central control, piece development and King safety. In the middle game, you’re going to reduce your opponent’s material while trying to maintain your own material. Tactics abound during this phase of the game so you want to look for moves that either successfully attack your opponent’s pieces or set up tactical strikes a few moves later. In the end game, you’re trying to checkmate your opponent’s King. Therefore, your pawns and pieces have to work together very carefully (including the King). Often pawn promotion is the key to victory. Therefore, good moves in the endgame are those that allow your pawns and pieces to work together towards the goal of pawn promotion. While this is a simplified explanation, it offers the beginner a starting point to get them thinking in the right direction.

The moves made during each of the three phases need to address the goals of each phase. In the opening for example, an absolute beginner can give themselves a headache when trying to determine which pawn to move on their first turn. However, if they know the primary opening principle of controlling the center quickly with a pawn, they know that they should move either the d or e pawn to a central (d4, d5, e4 and e5) square. On the second move they should consider developing a minor piece, either Knight or Bishop. This minor piece should be positioned so that it influences the central squares. On move two, the beginner might ask themselves, how can I further control the board’s center with a minor piece and which minor piece should I use? On move three, new questions need to be asked before moving any pawns or pieces.

As more pieces come into the game, there’s a greater chance of material loss due to placing a piece on an unsafe square. Therefore, more questions should be asked. Before considering moving a piece, look at all your opponent’s pawns and pieces and ask yourself what squares those pawns and pieces control. Start with the opposition pawns and pieces that are actively in the game. By “actively” I mean pawns and pieces that are controlling any squares on the board. This allows you see where you don’t want to move a piece. Next, look at the opposition pieces still sitting on their starting squares. Think about where they might move on their next turn. Ask the question, can I move a pawn or piece to a square that prevents my opponent from developing his or her own material? Pieces also must work closely together during the opening much in the way a sports team works together. Ask yourself, if I move this piece to that square, is that piece working with my other pieces? Around move four, I ask my students to come up with at least three candidate moves before committing to a single move. School children generally think in terms of right or wrong answers due to their school work. However, in chess there are different ways to get from “a” to “b” and each of those ways has its own merits. This means there can be more than one correct solution to a problem. By coming up with three move ideas, students see more of the board position, possibly catching an opposition threat before it comes into fruition. They also have to think moves through rather than just moving a pawn or piece and hoping for the best.

The middle game is often tricky for young players because they tend to look only for big attacks. I am often called to one of my student’s boards where that student will announce that there are no good moves to be made. I will ask that student to ask themselves a question, are all my pieces on active squares? If the answer is no, they have to answer another question, can I move an inactive piece to a more active square? Once the pieces are fully activated, my students will ask tactical questions such as, are any of my opponent’s pieces lined up in a way that allows a fork, pin or skewer? By breaking down the decision making process into intellectually digestible smaller questions, young beginners can start to benefit from good decision making and logical thinking.

In the end game, the questions are very straight forward. Are my pieces working as a team? If a student has a Rook and King against a lone King, this question helps avoid silly back and forth checks by a lone Rook. The King and Rook have to work together as a team in order to mate the opposing King. If it is a pawn and King against a lone King, the King must help the pawn get safely to the promotion square.

By answering a few questions prior to moving a pawn or a piece, beginners can avoid many blunders and learn to focus on their immediate goals. I start beginners asking themselves these questions as soon as they can move the pieces correctly around the board. I also encourage them to come up with their own questions and reward the best of these questions with a prize. By teaching children to question things, whether it’s a move on the chess board or something from the news, you encourage free thinking which helps broaden their viewpoint of things. Here’s a game to practice your question asking. After each move, ask yourself what does that move do for each player’s position?

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).