The Chess Detective

Once the beginning player has learned the basics of chess, he or she faces the daunting task of finding good moves within their games. While age old principles help in the decision making process, they can only guide the novice player so far. With so many possibilities in a given position, how does the beginner make sound decisions? Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and become a chess detective.

A good detective can take a handful of clues and solve a mystery. A chess detective can look at the board, find clues and base his or her move on those clues. If the clues are carefully interpreted, a good move can be found. Is it really that easy? It all comes down to how well you process the clues. Surprisingly, young players can often come up with sound moves based on a limited number of clues. Of course, I’d be remiss in saying it was a simple process, but with a little work it becomes a lot easier than you might think. Many students find the idea seemingly impossible at first because there are so many possible moves in a single game position. They feel as if they’re being asked to examine every single possible move which is akin to being asked to count to one million, one unit at a time.

To dispel this preconceived notion, I give a simple example. We’ll start with the opening. Let’s say we’re playing white and start the game with 1.e4. Our first clue comes after our opponent moves. If he plays 1…e5, we know we’re starting with a standard e pawn opening. However, if our opponent plays 1…e6, it’s the start of the French Defense. I make a point of teaching my beginning students the first five moves of a few openings such as the Sicilian, the French Defense, the King’s Indian defense and the Caro Kann. Because they’re still learning the basics of opening principles, my intention is not to train them in the use of specific openings but to use those opposition opening moves as clues, guiding them towards good responses.. If they know the first few moves of their opponent’s opening they’ll have an idea of how to respond to them. Remember, these are young children so you’re not going to find a great deal of opening theory being applied. In the case of the French Defense, if a student knows that 1…e6 will be followed by 2…d5 and can make the appropriate response. It’s all about finding clues and solving the mystery.

Now, what happens when a student finds his or her opponent making a move in the opening they haven’t seen before? One thing good detectives do is to ask questions. Therefore, I have my students ask themselves a series of questions. Clues can often be identified by asking the right questions. While there are many questions to ask, I’ll give you one example to demonstrate how my students approach this idea. Does the pawn or piece just moved attack one of my pieces? If so, what is my best response? At this point, the student will look at his or her options before responding. Beginners should use a simple approach at first, using three ideas to determine their actions.

Should they simply capture the piece? Before considering the capture, I have my students see if capturing will weaken their position. We don’t capture unless we have a really good reason for doing so. If they have a piece on an active square that creates problems for their opponent, using that piece to capture the attacker might weaken a good position. Should they move the piece? If my students know that the piece in question (the piece they’re considering moving) creates problems for the opposition, they should explore a final question. Should they block the attack? Knowing their piece is on a great square, they should consider blocking the attack.

As detectives discover, some clues aren’t as easy to interpret as others. The same holds true in chess. What of a move that has no apparent or immediate meaning? Here, my young chess detectives have to delve a bit further into the mystery. If a move doesn’t immediately create a threat, what does it do? Here my students can apply their questioning skills. Does this seemingly innocent move allow a dangerous piece access to the board? Is that move building the foundation for a checkmate? As FBI Agent Fox Mulder (from television’s The X-Files) is fond of saying, “question everything.” After all, the truth is out there (at least on the chessboard).

The point of being a good chess detective is to explore all the possibilities. Children sometimes have trouble creating a base of concentration from which to work which is why I have them approach positional problems on the chessboard as chess detectives who work with clues. It makes a game in itself out of each opposition move rather than a daunting task. I use the opening game as an example here but these same ideas can be applied to the middle and endgames. Here’s an interesting game from Paul Morphy. Put on your detective’s hat and get to work!

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).