Some Observations Regarding Beginners

As a full time chess instructor and coach, I have the wonderful opportunity to watch my student’s blossom into better chess players. I feel extremely fortunate in that my passion for chess has transformed into a wonderful career that leaves me completely satisfied. Because chess is my passion, I work extremely hard at providing the best possible instruction I can. I’ve spent the last three years building my teaching program up. I owe my humble teaching success to instructors such as Nigel Davies, Andrew Martin, Bruce Pandolfini and Richard James. Over the past few weeks, I started creating a list of concepts that befuddle the beginning chess player, both old and young alike. I’d like to review a few of these concepts in the hopes that the reader will be able to avoid these problems early on. We’ll start with the opening game.

Most beginners are at a complete loss as to how to start a chess game properly. The best way to learn how to start a chess game is by applying the opening principles. These principles allow the beginner to make relatively sound moves at the game’s start. Here’s a list of principles you should apply to the opening game, followed by a small list of things you shouldn’t do:

1. Control the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) early on with a pawn. For absolutely beginners, a solid first move is 1.e4 which gets a foothold on the center while allowing the Kingside Bishop and Queen (see the later note on early Queen Development) access to the board.

2. Develop the minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops towards the center early on.

3. Try to move each piece once before moving a piece for twice during this phase of the game. The opening is a bit of a race to see which player gains the greatest control over the central and surrounding squares. Win this race and you stand a better chance of winning the game.

4. Castle early. Castling does two things. First, it puts the King into a zone of safety which helps to eliminate early mating attempts by the opposition. Secondly, it activates the Rook which is a key piece in both the middle and endgames.

5. Come up with three possible moves before committing to one. This helps you develop board vision and aids in the examination of your opponent’s position.

Here are a few things to avoid in the opening. These “don’ts” are extremely important to take into consideration:

1. Don’t bring the Queen out early. While many junior players do so in an attempt to execute a Scholar’s Mate. This type of fast mating attempt is easily rebuffed by a slightly more experienced player. If you look at the geometry of the board and the way in which the pieces move, you’ll see that bringing the Queen out early becomes an opportunity for your opponent to develop his or her pieces while chasing your Queen around the board. Playing for a Scholar’s Mate just isn’t good chess and it can backfire on you.

2. Don’t make too many pawn moves. Beginners love to push their pawns into the action. Their idea seems simply enough, using the unit of least value to wade out onto the battlefield to control territory. However, this often leads to the exposure of the King which is a recipe for disaster. Beginners also have a tendency to place their pawns on squares better suited for the minor pieces.

3. Keep your pieces off of the edge of the board unless there is a very good reason. Pieces have far less power on the edges of the board than they do near the center.

The middle game can be difficult for the beginner chess player. Often, a beginner will start trading material because they feel as if simply capturing the opposition’s pawns and pieces will bring them closer to victory. Here are some simple guidelines:

1. Always count attackers and defenders before considering capturing any material. If attacking, you need to have more attackers than defenders and if defending, have more defenders than attackers. With this said, you also have to consider the value of your attackers and defenders. If your attackers consist of your Queen and two Rooks and the defenders are three minor pieces, you’re going to lose valuable material in the exchange. In general, start the attack with the piece of least value. If you have a pawn, a Knight and a Rook as your attackers, take first with the pawn.

2. Always look at the entire board before considering a move. Beginners are often so concerned with the center of the board and the subsequent action there that they miss potential opposition attackers that sit on squares away from the center (out of their line of sight).

3. Come up with at least three candidate moves before considering any single move. While this was briefly covered earlier when discussing the opening, it holds true in the middle game as well.

4. After decided on a specific move, try to envision your opponent’s strongest response to that move. Look for the most forcing move your opponent can make in response to your move.

5. If your opponent plays an attacking move or a move that creates pressure on your position, see if there’s a counter attack to be played or a move that creates counter pressure on your opponent’s position.

6. If there are no obvious moves that attack or defend a position, check the activity of your pawns and pieces. Find the pawn or piece that is the least active and move it to a more active square.

7. Don’t capture to simply capture opposition material. Capture if doing so improves your position or prevents mate.

The endgame is extremely difficult for most beginners because they rarely get into a true endgame position (especially at junior level). Here are some basic endgame ideas to consider:

1. Just because you and your opponent have fewer pieces on the board doesn’t mean the game is easier to win. Just the opposite! Because you have fewer pieces on the board, you’ll have to be extremely careful with them. If both players have their Kings and two pawns each and you lose one of your pawns, your opponent now has a two to one pawn majority in his or her favor.

2. Activate the King. Endgame positions are the stage upon which the King shines brightest! You need to activate the King, bringing him into the game in order to win.

3. Guard those pawns carefully because all it takes is one pawn reaching its promotion square to have a winning game.

During all phases of the game, a player must concentrate. This means shutting out everything around you, seeing only the position on the board. Some people have trouble with this. Look at a game of chess as an opportunity to take an intellectual vacation from your day to day problems. I tell my students that they have an opportunity to shut the world and its problems out for the duration of their game. So instead of worrying about things, use chess as an opportunity to escape from reality. This thinking got me through a life threatening illness and reduced my general stress level. The only thing I see when I play chess is the board and the position at hand. Think of it as a form of meditation.

Lastly, I want to touch on time. By time, I mean taking your time. Too many beginners make rapid moves which means they’re not carefully looking at the position on the board. I recommend that the beginner use a stop watch to clock the time it takes them to make a move. When playing without a chess clock, something I recommend that beginners do for the first six months of their training, you should take your time. Beginner’s games are always lost when a player insists on making his or her moves quickly. Good chess players take their time when considering and making moves. If you take your time, you’ll enjoy the game a lot more. Speaking of games, here’s one to play through until next week.

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).