The Common Problem Of Following A Pattern Without Understanding It

Last week, I wrote about the importance of learning and teaching through comparing similar but different situations. Again and again this theme pops up, and is easy to miss if one is not careful. It is easy to memorize a pattern without understanding its context and purpose, or more charitably, to have understood it once but getting it mixed up with another pattern during the heat of battle. What is the solution? Sometimes the solution is just to review concrete details. Sometimes the solution is to remember a higher-priority pattern that gives real force and justification to the pattern at hand.

Here’s an example I recently saw, involving the elementary Lucena position which is a win for the side with the Rook and Pawn versus Rook, if one understands the fundamental concept, which is “building a bridge” in order to block the opposing Rook’s checks and therefore ensure Pawn promotion.

Lucena position

The standard easy win for White is to

  1. Chase Black’s King further away from the Queening square by checking.
  2. Lift the Rook to the 4th rank in preparation to “build a bridge”.

However, White in eagerness to “remember” the key pattern, that of the Rook lift, failed to perform the first critical step, and the result was a draw by mistake! Building the bridge is pointless if it only results in Black’s King reaching the advanced Pawn and gobbling it up.

The solution to this mistake is to remember that the primary goal in this position is not to build the bridge. The real goal is to successfully Queen the Pawn, and getting Black’s King far away is the most important part of that, not the bridge building. The bridge building is not the goal, but the means to the larger goal. Without remember this, it is too easy to just vaguely remember one aspect of what the winning technique is, and use it outside of the larger context.

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.