Rocking the Rooks

If there is one piece that is neglected by beginners, it’s the Rook! On countless occasions, I’ve watched my beginning students let their powerful Rooks sit idly on their starting squares as if this powerful piece was worthless. The Rook is a long distance and powerful attacker capable of both mating the opposition King in the endgame and working as a defender of advancing pawns and pieces early on. The Rook is one of the most versatile and powerful pieces period. However, to fully harness the Rook’s power, you have to bring it into the game. Some beginners activate one of the Rooks when they castle but often ignore the other Rook. Other beginners, knowing not to bring their Queen out early, will try to bring their Rook out prematurely only to lose it (or tempo because they have to move it out of harm’s way). In this week’s article, we’ll look at when to bring the Rook into the game.

The Rook is often left sitting idly on its starting square because many chess teachers first introduce the Rook during lessons about basic checkmates. Beginners often then assume that the Rook is an endgame piece. Here’s one of the first introductions the beginner gets regarding the Rook and checkmate:

One of the first mating patterns I teach is the rook roller or stair step method of mate. In this method, the Rook pair forces the opposition King back one rank or file at a time. In the highly simplified example below, White moves the Rook from h1 to h4. The Rook on h4 now controls the entire forth Rank which means the King cannot cross that Rank. After the Black King moves to c5, The Rook on a1 moves to a5. Since the King can’t move to the forth Rank and cannot remain on the fifth Rank, it is forced back to the sixth Rank. After the Black King moves to d6, White’s Rook on h4 moves to h6. Again the Black King is forced to the seventh Rank. This process of using the two Rooks in tandem is repeated until the Black King is mated. This lesson leads students to look at the Rook as an endgame weapon used for mating purposes. Add to that, additional lessons on mating with a King and Rook against a lone King and it’s no wonder beginners don’t fully understand the power of the Rook! When I ask some of my newer students why they didn’t activate their Rooks earlier on, they tell me that they were waiting for the board to clear so they could employ the Rook Roller. Therefore, I teach my students that the Rook is a piece that can play a crucial role in all phases of the game!

I start my additional lessons on the Rook when we examine castling. When I teach castling to my beginners, I emphasize King safety. I show a game in which one player failed to castle which led to their being mated. However, I also emphasize the idea that castling allows a player to bring his Rook closer to one of the central files. I reiterate that pieces trapped on their starting squares have no immediate value. In chess, good piece activation (moving that piece to a square that controls crucial territory of the board) is critical. The more pieces you have in play, on active squares, the harder it is for your opponent to get his own pieces to active squares. Beginners are taught that minor piece activation is a key factor in successful openings. My students are also taught the perils of bringing the Queen out early. These ideas can lead beginners to ignore their Rooks. Therefore, we have a day in class in which we work with our Rooks, specifically putting them to work early on.

We start with the idea of harnessing the power of the Rook. Because I work with young beginners, my lessons have to be very obvious. Therefore we look at positional environments that Rooks like best, controlling open files and guarding passed pawns. We’ll start with open files. Rooks operate along the board’s ranks and files. A Rook placed anywhere on an empty board controls 14 squares which constitutes a lot of territory. Because it’s a long distance attacker, it can control squares deep within the opposition’s side of the board from the safety of its own side of the board. During the beginning of the game, after my students have gained control of the board’s center with a pawn, developed their minor pieces to active squares and have castled, I introduce an additional opening principle, connecting your Rooks. Usually, after the minor pieces have been developed, the only thing standing between the two Rooks is the Queen. Therefore, our fourth opening principle (once the three basic principles have been employed) is to move the Queen up one rank. This allows the two Rooks to be able to move back and forth along their starting rank. This means that those Rooks are able to back up any pawn or piece that need protection.

One move I recommend is moving the Rook from f1 (after castling) to e1. My students will often ask why they should make such a move early on if there are still pieces blocking the e file. The answer is simple! Eventually, those pieces will be traded or exchanged off, leaving the e file semi open or completely open. The player that has a Rook stationed on the e file early on will gain an advantage. An open file is one with no pawns or pieces on it. Rooks that control open files force the opposition into thinking twice about putting any pawns or pieces on those files for fear of losing them. A half open file is one that is partially occupied with pawns. Again, eventually the file will open up and the player that controls it has an advantage. By considering this idea, the beginner is less likely to leave his or her Rooks on their starting squares.

There’s an old chess adage “Rooks belong behind passed pawns” which is so true. After my students have gotten used to the idea of activating their Rooks early on in the game, we look at another strong role of the Rook, guarding passed pawns. A passed pawn is one that has no opposing pawns on adjacent files to stop its progress towards promotion. However, there still may be opposition pieces looming on the board that could capture this type of pawn. Fret not small pawn, the Rook can protect you during your march to the promotion square and even cost the opposition valuable material in the effort to stop your promotion. Therefore, if you have a passed pawn and you want to ensure its promotion or the loss of opposition material, move a Rook to the file the pawn is on and you’ll have a body guard to ensure a favorable outcome. I have my students do a series of exercises regarding Rooks and passed pawns so they get in the habit of activating their Rooks.

I could write another twenty pages about the Rook and its role in all phases of the game, but this should give you a few basic ideas regarding how to handle your Rooks. Here’s a game to play through. Notice the use of the Rooks by both players. Pay close attention and you’ll see that the Rooks don’t sit on their starting squares doing nothing. Enjoy!

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).