The Ceiling

Whether you’re a beginner or a titled player, you reach a point in your chess career in which you stop moving forward and get stuck. You go through a period of of often rapid improvement, then hit a ceiling. For some the ceiling seems to be made of steel while for others it’s made of glass which is much easier to break through. It’s the ability to break through this ceiling that allows us to advance or improve. What is it that allows some players to break through and get better while others remain stuck? It all boils down to identifying the problem or problems that hold us back and solving them.

While you’d think beginners would have a harder time breaking through the ceiling and advancing their skills further, the intermediate player often has a harder time. Beginners generally have more obvious problems and because they’re obvious, they’re easier to identify and thus solve. If you’re a beginner and have become stuck in your advancement, you problems are easy to identify. You should first try to determine in which phase of the game you’re having problems. Rather than jumping around the opening, middle and endgames in no particular order, start by looking at your opening play.

Every move you make during the opening game should adhere to a principle. Remember, your opening game goal is to set up pawns and pieces for action in the middle game. You do this by starting your battle for control of the board’s center by using a pawn or two to control a central square. Next you develop your minor pieces, Knights and Bishops, to squares that also exert control over the central squares. King safety is critical so castling is next. Then you connect your Rooks by moving the Queen up a rank. After that, you keep developing material until you have pawns and pieces on their most active squares, those that control territory (especially on your opponent’s side of the board).

Often beginners develop some pawns and pieces and consider their work in the opening done. Then they launch a premature attack, lose material and weaken their position. Don’t launch early attack unless they really turn the tide. Always examine your pawn structure. Don’t bring your Queen out early. Don’t move the same piece over and over again neglecting the development of other pieces. Don’t make to many pawn moves early on. Use these ideas as the basis for your questions as to why you’re not doing well in the opening.

In the middle game, beginners will see an opportunity to start attacking. Don’t attack unless it strengthens your position or greatly weakens your opponent’s position. Early attacks can backfire and leave you with a losing position. Count the number of attackers versus the number of defenders. You need to have more attackers than opposition defenders and, when defending, more defenders than opposition attackers. If considering a move, ask yourself what your opponent’s best response would be. Pretend you are your opponent and think about what you would do if faced with the move you’re considering. Watch your pawn structure, because when going into the end game phase, you’ll need those pawns for promotion purposes. Be patient and build up your position. Again, take these ideas and pose them to yourself as questions. If you’re not following these ideas, you’ve found your problem.

During the end game, when there is a limited amount of material on the board, bring your King into the game. Too many beginners leave their King on its starting rank and watch in horror as their opponent’s King comes alive and hunts down their pawns. The King must be activated. Use your King to safely escort your pawns to their promotion squares. Ask yourself if you’re doing this!

These basic ideas should allow the beginner to determine where they’re having problems and how to fix those problems, employing these game principles. With intermediate players, it can be a bit more difficult. Intermediate players know basic game principles and apply them correctly. So how does the intermediate player find the problems that keep them from breaking through the ceiling?

Start by going through the ideas I’ve presented for beginners. If you’re a bit surprised by this, don’t be! I’ve seen quite a few intermediate students start to neglect principled play. They think that they’ve mastered the basics and now its time to bend the principles. Unfortunately, what they consider bending the principles is actually breaking the principles which creates positional problems. Bending a principle, for example, could be placing a piece towards the edge of the board rather than towards the center because this piece is doing something useful. 3.Bb5 in the Ruy Lopez indirectly effects the center because the Bishop attacks the black Knight on c6 which is protecting the black pawn on e5. On the other side of the coin, Moving the White Knight from f3 to g5, then using it to capture the black pawn on f7, while neglecting the development of your other pieces is breaking a principle and will leave you with a bad position. Even if you have a Bishop (as white) on c4 to co-attack the black f7 pawn, you’re opponent can still develop a solid position while you throw all your eggs into one attacking basket. Start with the same questions beginners should ask when determining where they’re going wrong first.

If you’re using the principles correctly, move on to the next set of questions, starting with pawn structure. They wouldn’t be so many books on pawn structure, not to mention numerous videos, if players didn’t have problems in this area. Many intermediate players are good at basic tactics and use tactical ideas to win games. However, they often do so while neglecting pawn structure. Why is pawn structure so important? Well, if you’re facing an opponent who is equally versed in tactics, you’ll most likely make it to the end game. They player with the better pawn structure going into the end game has an advantage. If you have isolated pawns and too many pawn islands, you’ll have to deal with those issues which means a lot of defending. Meanwhile, you’ll opponent, with the better pawn structure will be able to get one of his or her pawns to its promotion square. Intermediate players should consider the moves they make and how they’ll effect the end game.

Intermediate players should also look at their positional play as opposed to their tactical play. In the average scheme of things, intermediate players first get good at tactics which allows them to win a fair number of games. However, they eventually face off against the positional player, the player who worships Petrosian, and find the life slowly being strangled out of their position. The intermediate player should aim towards positional play, employing tactics if they come up and only if they don’t weaken the position. The intermediate player should be a balanced player, being equally good at the opening, middle and end games. Being great at one phase and not so great at the other two phases doesn’t win games.

So to break through that ceiling and get better, ask questions, starting with the simplest. Often you’ll find that a simple problem may be holding you back. Be systematic in your questioning. Here’s a game in which one player breaks a few opening principles and gets hammered for it. 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).