The Dark Side of Bright Moves

So often, when we make a seemingly great move on the chessboard, we fail to examine that move for any potential negative aspects. Each month, I take on a new student, Pro Bono, from another country. They say you can’t keep (in life) what you don’t give back and I take this to heart. I just took on a new student (a beginner) and decided to examine one the games he lost. I teach my students that the greatest lessons in both chess and life are learned by studying our losses. The game in question looked great at the start. However, it took a sudden turn toward disaster after a series of middle game exchanges that left an even position. What went wrong? My student didn’t think about the squares left behind after making a series of moves. This is the realm of the dark side of bright (or good) moves.

I first heard about this idea (drawback chess) through a fantastic video done by American Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. Up until then, I didn’t think about the squares I left behind when making a move. Often we see a great move that gains an obvious advantage. This advantage is to us what a flame is to a moth, irresistible. Like the moth, we become blinded to the danger because we are fixated on the flame or, in the chess player’s case, the seemingly obvious advantage. We quickly make our move and smile. We’ve gotten control of the position. Then we are subject to the rude awakening that arrives when our opponent makes his or her move, turning the tables on our position.

Often, students discover the square or squares left behind when on the receiving end of an opening trap. They suddenly see the opportunity to capture an opposition piece, thinking their opponent has made a mistake. Then they discover that the piece in question was sacrificed, serving as the trap’s bait. Suddenly the tables are turned and disaster strikes. I don’t teach my students traps in the traditional sense. I know plenty of other chess teachers who teach their students traps they can use to gain the upper hand (especially in the opening). Instead, I teach my students how to discover traps and disarm them. I have nothing against traps, having used them on occasion. However, beginners have a tendency to build their games, especially the opening, around these traps rather than using sound chess principles. Often, a trap will lure a piece away from a good defensive position. Examining the squares that piece defends can serve as a strong indicator as to whether or not to make the move in question (avoiding the trap). This way of thinking applies to all moves.

Even the best moves can have a downside! To get my students into the frame of mind needed to understand this concept, we make a small list for each and every move they make. This list must be considered before moving the pawn or piece in question. I call it the plus and minus list. Each student has a pad of paper and a pencil. Eventually, they will do the following calculation in their head. However, the concept is easier for young beginners to understand if it’s written out. First we write down the move we want to make. Underneath, we draw a vertical line. On the left hand side we write “plus” and on the right hand side “minus.” The plus side represents the positive aspects of the move while the minus side represents the negative side of the move (with younger players we often write “good” and “bad”). The student then looks at the move in question and tallies up the positive and negative aspects of the move. We use a simple grading system: A good move will have at least a 3 to 1 ratio (positive to negative). A fair move will have a 2 to 1 ratio and so on. This allows students to see if their move has more advantages than disadvantages. It also forces students to really look at the position with some depth. However, this is only the start of the process.

One of the most exciting aspects of chess is the idea that a perfectly sound position can fall apart after a seemingly decent move. I see this most often in beginner’s games. A student will have a winning position one moment and have it fall to pieces the next. I always make a point during practice games to have the student whose position suddenly crumbled go back a move or two. What I find more often than not is that the move leading to the bad position gave something up that was more vital than what was gained. Let me explain:

Here’s an example of not examining the square or squares left behind: Let’s follow a chess game in which the student playing white doesn’t look at the square or squares left behind. The game starts out 1.e4…e5 2.Nf3…Nc6 3.Bc4…Nd4. White thinks “Wow, black has blundered!” Why does the student think this is a bad move? First of all, black has moved the same piece twice during the opening which we’re taught is not a good idea until we’ve moved our other pieces at least once. Black has also left the e5 pawn unprotected. Our student sees that his Knight on f3 is now under attack and decides to capture the undefended e5 pawn with 4.Nxe5. Black now reveals the true nature of 3…Nd4 by playing 4…Qg5. Now the white Knight is under attack as is the g2 pawn. If the g2 pawn is captured, white will have to forego Kingside castling and move the h1 Rook to f1. How did this happen? White didn’t look at the square or squares left behind when capturing the e5 pawn. Had the Knight remained on f3 it would have protected the g5 square, keeping the black Queen from launching such a strong attack. Of course, there are simple ways out of this position but the point is made.

This idea of examining the square or squares left behind needs to be applied to every move during every phase of the game. After students have become used to making their plus and minus list, we add another element to our list, the squares protected by the piece we’re considering moving. Before a student makes a move, I have that student list the squares the piece in question protects. The student then looks at the opposition pieces and sees if there are any that can take advantage of the square or squares left behind. While it takes some time initially, students develop their observational skills and can look at the board, mentally note the squares left behind to see if the opposition can take advantage of them and then make an informed decision about their move. Try this with your own games. It is frustrating when you make a bright move only to discover their dark side. However, if you carefully examine the squares you leave behind before making any move things may look a bit brighter! Here’s a game in which a master level player breaks some of the opening principles discussed in earlier articles. What what happens and look for squares left behind.

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).