I mentioned last week that my next article would be about stalemate. However, I had an experience this week that changed my plans. Once a month, Academic Chess has a Friday night chess camp. During the camp, the students are presented with two lectures and lots of time to take what they’ve just learned and apply it to their games. With the hall full of eager young chess players, I walked from board to board examining various positions, commenting on each game. Many of the students were beginners and the majority of them asked the same question as I looked at their games, “what can I do, I don’t have any good moves?”
Upon hearing any beginner’s question, I make it a point of putting myself in their shoes. I was once new to chess and had the same questions and concerns. Students should be encouraged to ask questions and those questions should always be treated with respect and taken seriously (regardless of the student’s age). I teach my students to question everything and to expect a real answer rather than a pointless answer (“because I said so kid”).
All of the students asking “what can I do, I don’t have any good moves” had similar positions on their boards. They all had at least one pawn on a central square, two minor pieces developed and a castled King. Many of the positions had pawns and minor pieces in a position to start exchanges (with an even number of attackers and defenders). Prior to answering my student’s questions, I asked one of my own. “What is it that makes a move good?” I asked this question because I wanted to get to the root of my student’s initial question (and problem). I got some interesting answers that explained a great deal.
The majority of my beginning students defined a good move as one that allows them to capture opposition pieces. The next most popular answer was “a good move is one that checks or mates the opposition King. Then the answer “moves that lead to tactics (such as forks, pins and skewers).” Not one student suggested a quiet move. By definition, quiet moves are moves that are not a capture, check or immediate threat to the opposition. This includes subtle developmental moves or moves that improve a piece’s position (placing it on a more active square).
Most children have a very black and white viewpoint of things in general. If I say “I’ll be with you in a minute,” my students will expect me to be at their boards within sixty seconds. If I’m not they’ll say something. This same viewpoint extends to their chess. Many of my beginners think a good move has to be earth shattering and obvious. A good move, in the minds of many beginners is one that produces immediate results. A move that doesn’t garner an obvious or immediate result gets categorized as a not so good a move. I think this is why we see a lot of bad decisions made by young beginners during their games. They think that all moves have to be aggressive and produce immediate results. Where do they get this idea? Thinking about many of the games I use in beginner’s lectures, I realized that many of them were from chess’s romantic era, the realm of gambits, sacrifices and Paul Morphy. I’m a huge fan of Paul Morphy and use many of his games for my lectures because they clearly illustrate the art of attack in chess. While beginners are dazzled by his aggressive attacks, it sets a dangerous president; the beginner will think that good chess moves revolve around producing obvious and immediate results (attacking chess). Put all of this together and you’ll see that I have to take some responsibility for my student’s actions on the chessboard.
Therefore, on Monday, I set some new goals for my students. The first involves development. Students will now have to develop at least three if not all four minor pieces in their opening (unless it leads to material loss). The Queen will have to be moved up (or down for black) a rank so the Rooks can be connected. Rooks are the most neglected piece in the beginner’s chess army, with one often sitting out the game on its starting square. Rooks can be used to support advancing pawns and pieces by being positioned behind the pawn or piece in need of protection. Another goal: If you and your opponent castle on the Kingside, start pushing your Queenside pawns up (or down for black) the board towards the opposition. If you or your opponent castles Queenside, roll the Kingside pawns toward the opposition. Make all your pawns and pieces work for you! Now let’s look at improving piece position.
Beginners often think that having pieces off of their starting squares means those pieces are developed. Because both sides are fighting for control of the board’s center during the opening, one player may not be able to move his or her pieces to their optimal (most active) squares. A student may say to me, “I’ve gotten all my minor pieces off their starting squares, my King is castled and my Rooks are connected. I can’t see any good moves.” I have the student look at their minor pieces and see if each of them is on an active square. If not, their job is to find a more active square. Eventually, their pieces get moved to better positions.
I created a checklist for my students that helped reinforce the concept of quiet moves. Before asking “what can I do, I don’t have any good moves,” students will ask themselves the following:
1. Are all your minor pieces developed?
2. Are your Rooks connected?
3. Are your pawns actively working their way up the board?
4. Are your pieces on active squares?
Of course, there is more to be added to this list but its best not to overwhelm the beginner. Here’s a game to ponder. Play through it and notice that the player that loses has more pieces sitting on their starting squares than the player who wins.