The Art of Chess

Beginners learn how to apply certain principles, such as the opening principles, to guide the movement of pawns and pieces during the early phase of the game. These guiding principles have stood the test of time and are proven to help the beginner master specific strategic and tactical ideas. However, there is a big difference between a rule and a principle. A rule is a rule, such as having to deal with a checked King. When your King is in check you must get out of the check (unless it is checkmate) before doing anything else. A principle however is different in that it can be broken. Often beginners treat principles as rules written in stone which can lead to mechanical thinking. Mechanical thinking can lead to lost games. To break beginners of this bad habitual way of thinking, I have them approach their examination of chess in a different way.

When faced with a problem in life, we sometimes find there are multiple solutions to resolve our dilemma. How we view the problem also plays heavily into how we solve our problem. It is in the way we view our problems that I have found a method to reduce mechanical thinking. Rather than simply look at a game of chess as a series of problems to be solved using a scientific approach, I have my students look at a game of chess as a blank canvas upon which a masterpiece can be painted.

In an art form like painting, the budding artist must first learn the craft’s underlying principles, such as composition and color theory. Our novice painter learns the principles of laying out a composition and studies the effects colors have on one another. Note I use the world principle not rule. In art, there are many principles but very few rules. In chess there are a finite set of rules regarding pawn or piece movement, check and checkmate, starting positions, etc, but everything else is left to the player, including the decision to employ or not employ principles. Of course, the use of these principles goes a long way towards achieving one’s goal, winning the game, but the end result of victory in many games has been achieved by bending or breaking specific principles. The trick is to know when to use these principles and when not to.

I want my beginning students to take calculated chances and play aggressively but only after learning the game’s principles and understanding why they’re so important. Once the beginner has a good grasp of the principles, it’s time to play less mechanically and think outside the box. To think outside of the box and breakaway from purely mechanical thinking, we must look at the game in a different light, as a blank canvas upon which both players have a chance to paint a personal masterpiece. I say personal masterpiece because I have yet to meet a beginner who will create a great masterpiece as found in the games of Bobby Fischer or Gary Kasparov. However, my students have the chance to create a bit of chess art all the same.

We approach the game with a discussion of artists and what made them so successful. The end result of the discussion is that the greatest artists took chances, choosing to wade into the waters of the unknown. Of course, taking ridiculous chances during a game of chess more often than not leads to loss. So why should the beginner take such a path along their journey to chess mastery? To achieve a better balance between mechanical (in the box) and non mechanical (outside the box) thinking comes to mind. A good way to introduce this idea is through the introduction of gambits.

While gambits follow principles, they allow players to be able to try something not so mechanical in nature. In the simplest terms, a gambit is the sacrifice of a pawn early in the opening in exchange for a better position. Gambits can be either accepted, in which case the offered pawn is captured by the opposition, or declined, in which case the opposition says “no thank you” and turns down your offer. Because you don’t know whether or not your offered pawn will be accepted or declined, you’re wading into slightly unknown waters or a non-mechanical situation.

Beginners are taught three basic opening principles: Putting a pawn on a central square, developing the minor pieces early (Knights and Bishops – positioned towards the board’s center) and the castling of the King. While this makes for good opening play, employing these techniques too mechanically can have dire consequences. Take the old chess adage “Knights before Bishops.” The idea behind this adage is that it is easier to get the Knight out early because it’s the only piece that can jump over pawns and pieces. Because of this, it is easier to get a Knight into game right away. However, there are occasions when it might be better to bring a Bishop out. If the beginner treats our old adage as a rule rather than a principle, he or she will ignore a better move involving a Bishop to adhere to the principles of opening play. An artist might have learned that laying lighter colors down before darker colors makes the technical process of painting easier but knows that a more interesting effect might be acquired by doing the opposite.

Gambits help beginners who know the basic principles of opening play to expand upon those principles, adding a more attacking quality to their game. In the King’s gambit, 1.e4…e5, 2.f4, White is offering Black his or her f pawn. Of course, if Black accepts the gambit and takes the f pawn (2.exf4), White will have a two to one pawn majority on the central files (a foundation for a better position). This gambit produces a different looking opening that say 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6. The idea behind my introduction of gambits to my students is to get them to think outside of the box in a non mechanical (at least for beginners) way.

I tell my students that with each new game they play, they are given the chance to create a masterpiece of chess art. When the game starts do they want to simply create a mere illustration of a scene or do they want to create something new and exciting? Of course, being beginners, they’re not likely to produce “the game of the century.” They might create a position that leads to a loss for them. However, they’ll learn a great deal in doing so. If they create an attack that backfires, they’ll have to be equally creative in finding a solution. They’ll stop automatically assuming that all principles should be followed as the letter of the law. I had a young student who never placed a piece on the rim or edge of the board even if it meant losing that piece. I asked him why and he said his father told him to never put a piece on the board’s rim (Knights on the rim are dim). I carefully explained that while pieces were not as powerful on the board’s rim, they could certainly be there if there was a good reason. Needless to say, he started doing much better after our conversation.

So you have the ability to create art on the chessboard but you have to be willing to accept the consequences of taking a chance. It could go your way or your game could fall apart. However, you’re going to learn more if you’re will to take a chance. I’m not suggesting huge chances, just small ones such as trying a gambit or considering a Bishop move before a Knight move. Like they say, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Here’s a game to enjoy 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).