The Best Defense is a Counterattack

Often, the beginner finds himself (or herself) having to constantly defend a series of positions when playing a stronger or more aggressive opponent. Beginners are apt to be either the aggressive or passive player (defender) during their games and tend to end up on the defensive (passive) side more often than not. They (the beginner) see attacking and defending in a very black and white manner. By this, I mean that the beginner will only consider absolutely defensive moves when under attack or aggressive moves when leading an attack. Countless times, I’ve seen beginners end up with terrible middle-game positions because their opponent launches attack after attack, leaving the novice stuck, having to defend their King with awkward pawn and piece play. This comes about because the beginner panics, moving the attacked piece or only making moves that defend against the opposition’s attacking pieces, not considering the possibility of a counterattack or potential threat.

Much of my own game knowledge comes from studying the teachings of Australia’s own late great C.J.S. Purdy. Cecil Purdy had an amazing talent not only for playing the game of chess but teaching it as well. He (along with Reuben Fine and many others) were proponents of two crucial ideas, developing with a threat and the use of counterattacks as a method for switching one’s role in the game from defender to attacker. The employment of just these two concepts alone will help the beginner step out of the shadow of poor defensive play and into the bright lights of aggressive play. While the two players of a game of chess take on one of these two roles during their game (attacker or defender), it doesn’t mean that they are stuck being the attacker or defender throughout the entire game. Beginners think that once they get stuck defending they’ll remain defenders until their opponent concludes his or her attack. In reality, the tables can be turned on the attacker with a good threat or counterattack. Just because you have to defend a position doesn’t mean that you can’t make a move that suddenly puts your opponent on the defensive.

When the beginning chess player is on the receiving end of a threat, they tend to panic. The beginner gloomily stares at the position and thinks of two options. The first is to flee the scene of the crime by moving the piece being attacked. The second option is to further defend the piece under attack. While there is basically nothing wrong with either of these ideas, the beginner limits themselves in regard to options. In chess, the more options you have, the better off you are! Good players will look at an additional option, creating a bigger threat! If your opponent attacks one of your minor pieces with a pawn you might consider moving that minor piece. However, moving that minor piece might reduce the number of defenders of one of your key central squares or pieces under attack. What if you could move one of your pawns to a square where it attacks an opposition Rook? Your minor piece is worth three points while your opponent’s Rook is worth five points. From a material value viewpoint, your threat is bigger so your opponent will have to move their Rook, hopefully damaging their position in doing so. You opponent will have to deal with your threat before continuing with his or her own threat. The employment of a threat can turn the defender into the aggressor. If your opponent makes a threat, see if you can make a bigger threat. Turn the tables on the attacker. Big threats beat out smaller threats. However, don’t make threats that further undermine your own position!

Therefore, before turning tail and running off to a safer square or locking up one of your pawns or pieces in the defense of your attacked piece, look for a threat. Threats can be absolute game changers! Creating a threat limits your opponent’s choices and thus their plans. A threat can force your opponent to change their game plan costing them tempo or weakening their position. Look for a threat before considering moving the attacked piece or adding additional defenders to the position.

Both Purdy and Fine said that the best defense is a counter attack and this holds true in most cases. When a beginner launches an attack, they often do so while suffering from tunnel vision. This means that they are focused on a small section of the board, the area where the attack takes place, rather than the entire board. When launching their attack, they are considering the pawns and pieces in the immediate vicinity of the attack. I’ve seen a plethora of beginners fall victim to back rank checkmates because their field of vision doesn’t extend throughout the board. A lack of total board vision allows for strong counter attacks. Look at the entire board and ask yourself “can I launch a counterattack that poses a bigger threat because my opponent missed something (a weakness of their position) due to tunnel vision?”

Again, the beginner panics when a piece comes under fire and first thinks about fleeing the scene of the crime or, if this isn’t possible, adding defenders to the position. The problem with moving the attacked piece out of the line of fire is that in doing so, you can weaken your position. If you’re playing Black, have castled King-side and have a Knight on f6, that Knight is a crucial defender of the h7 pawn. If White has their Queen on d3 and the light squared Bishop on c2, with the b1-h7 diagonal clear of pawns and pieces, the f6 Knight is a critical defender of h7. If the Black Knight flees the f7 square, checkmate (by White) will quickly follow. What should Black do if it looks like White is starting to build up an attack against the poor beleaguered Knight? Consider a counterattack. Of course, in the above example, you’ll want to first look for ways to support the Knight.

You’ll see, especially in the games of beginners, one player focusing all his or her efforts on an early attack. Good chess players build up a position and only after their pawns and pieces have been developed to their most active squares, do they launch an attack. Beginners, on the other hand, launch into attacks at the first chance they get. Because these attacks are premature, they usually amount to not much more than a weakening of the attacker’s position. Rather than fleeing or defending against the premature attack, weakening your position in the process, look to see if a counter attack can be employed.

When the beginner launches into an attack, they leave weak spots in their own defense. After all, those pieces used for the attack have been relieved from their defensive duties to launch the attack, meaning there are less defenders on the attacker’s side of the board. This can present an opportunity. Before considering piling up defenders around your attacked piece or fleeing, look for holes your opponent’s position, noting which pawn, piece or square near the opposition’s King has been weakened as a result of your opponent’s attack. Your opponent’s pawns and pieces are lined up for an attack against your position so they may not be on the best squares to suddenly defend their side of the board when hit with a counterattack. The novice tends to throw everything into an attack which means that their defense is neglected. This is the time to launch a counterattack.

When facing an attack, don’t automatically assume that you have to move the attacked piece. The price the attacker pays for launching an attack, especially a premature attack, is often a weakness in their own position. If you don’t panic and use complete board vision (seeing the entire board), you’ll see that weakness. By employing a counterattack or threat, you can gain the upper hand in which case the hunter becomes the hunted. 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).