Small Advantages

My daily classes are divided into two parts. During the first part of the class, I deliver a lecture based on a historical game. The game shown will highlight key concepts such as opening principles, tactics and endgame play. I also like to talk about chess’s fascinating history since so many younger students sadly have little exposure to it. I use the Socratic method of teaching so there is a great deal of discussion about the game shown during the lecture. Rather than dryly droning on and on about a game, I ask my students questions about a given position and encourage them to ask their own questions about the game. During the second part of the class, students take their new found knowledge and test it out on the chess board. It’s a blend of theory and practice. While my students play one another, I walk around from board to board examining the various positions. One question often asked is “what do I do next?”

Of course, my students aren’t asking this question on move two or three but rather after they have followed the opening principles carefully and are getting into the middle game. This question usually arises because these beginning students are looking for big attacks or tactical fireworks that will end the game quickly in their favor! My young students have grown up in a world of video games in which battles are fought and won in the most spectacular of ways. Therefore, they often conclude that great moves in chess are those that produce spectacular results. Of course, they’re right to a certain extent. However, what they don’t take into consideration is the foundation upon which those exciting and breathtaking moves are built. They see the end of a positional journey but not the path taken to get there! What they’re not seeing is the accumulation of small advantages (quiet, developmental moves) that lead to a winning position.

Small advantages individually might not significantly turn a game around. However, when a number of these small advantages are put together, the cumulative effect can be quite devastating! The easiest way to define a small advantage is to look at a few examples, starting with piece activity.

When we first start studying chess, we are told to develop our pawns and pieces early in the opening. The beginner will start by moving a central pawn on move one (the e or d pawn). Next the minor pieces will come out onto the board. This is basic development but there’s a difference between developing a piece and developing a piece to its most active square! Of course, we want to place those minor pieces on their most active squares, those that influence or control the board’s center. However, our opponent is doing the same thing during his or her turn so we may not be able to move our minor pieces to those idea squares immediately. Many beginners make the mistake of thinking their development is complete when they’ve move their central pawns and minor pieces once, castled their King and connected their Rooks. There is always room for pawn and piece improvement. By improvement, I mean getting that pawn or piece to its most active square. Each pawn and piece that sits on its most active square is creating a small advantage. The more pawns and pieces you have on active squares, the greater the number of small advantages. The greater the number of small advantages, the greater their cumulative effect! Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are good positions! To determine the most active square for a pawn or piece requires closely examining how many squares that pawn or piece controls as well as which squares that pawn or piece controls. The greater your control of territory on the chessboard, the more difficult it is for your opponent to get his or her own pawns and pieces out on the board. Using this idea has the added bonus of making beginners less apt to simply capture pawns or pieces for the sake of capturing pawns or pieces. Remember, we only capture material if it improves our position, stops a checkmate or initiates one.

Pawn structure is another example of a small advantage. Pawns are the like the Marines in that they’re first into battle. They’re the grunts that go into the fight early and often do all the dirty work. In war, generals often treat their grunts (bottom of the barrel soldiers) as expendable. After all, there are plenty of them. However, in chess, pawns should be treated like precious gems. Sadly, many beginners assume, since they start off with eight of them, that the pawn is expendable. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Pawns can act like a bulldozer during the opening, pushing the opposition back. During the middle game, they can act as body guards for the pieces and during the endgame, they can promote! Even given the great roles that pawns play during these three phases of the game, unless they start out on the right on the right foot, they’ll get nowhere fast!

The biggest problem with pawns is their inability to move backwards. Once you move a pawn, it is permanently thrust forward and must suffer the consequences, both good and bad! Because of this inability to retreat, pawns should be supported by other pawns. During this introduction to small advantages, I start off with the two ideas of piece activity and pawn structure only. There are additional ideas regarding the garnering of small advantages, but its best to introduce these ideas one or two at a time, lest the beginner not become overwhelmed with theoretic concepts. To illustrate the idea of basic pawn structure, we focus on central pawns, pawn chains and pawns supporting pieces. Other key pawn ideas are discussed in later lessons.

Central pawns are those that aid in the control of the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5). The player who can establish a strong control of the center with a pawn or two has a large advantage. However, the opposition is going to try to contest your pawn’s central control. When this happens, we look to pawns on adjacent files to help bolster our central pawns. If White has pawns on d4 and e4 and Black suddenly attacks White’s d pawn, we can consider using the c pawn (moving it from c2 to c3) to support the d pawn. This creates a small pawn chain (b2, c3 and d4). Pawn chains are a crucial concept the beginner must employ because the use of pieces to protect pawns during the opening and middle game deprives those pieces any useful activity. Pieces are not happy when they babysit pawns early in the game.

To introduce the concept of pawn chains, I have my students play a game of chess with only pawns. The player who gets a pawn to the other side of the board can then promote that pawn into a Queen and use it to capture the opposition’s pawns, thus winning the game. Players of this game quickly learn about pawn structure and the value of a solid pawn chain.

Pawns can also support pieces, especially the minor pieces. Often, one of my students will have a Knight on a fantastic outpost such as e5. Then the opposition’s Queen targets that Knight and the student will hastily retreat it. However, if there is a pawn available to defend the Knight, why not move it to the defending square rather than lose a great outpost? If their opponent wants to trade a nine point Queen for a three point Knight (unless it’s a trap which I have my students look for) it can be a winning situation! Because pawns have the lowest material value in the game, they are wonderful bodyguards. Because of their low value, they’re also fantastic at blocking off potentially active squares the opposition might want to occupy. Pawns maybe small but they can do big things! Until next week, here’s a game played by one of the masters of positional play, Petrosian. He knows how to get his pieces to extremely active and controlling squares! For my students reading this, what was his nickname and why did they call him that? It’s worth 10 points in the homework contest!

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).